Agriculture and Fantasy Roleplaying

There are many aspects of fantasy world building that I have explored over the last forty years.

One of the ones I see done badly time and again in books, films, and games, is Agriculture.

That does not sound very heroic you might think, but if you don’t get the foundations right, then it makes it harder for players to become immersed in your world.

I frequently see or read about magnificent cities, described down to the last detail, but when you look at the maps, as soon as you ride out of their gates there is nothing, just a road, until you reach the next town or village.

A city of ten, twenty or fifty thousand inhabitants needs a huge amount of food, timber, fuel, and other organic materials to thrive.

In the modern world, with intensive agricultural practices, it takes roughly half an acre to feed one adult for one year. In medieval times we are talking about one and a half to two acres. Allow for a little magic or good land, and we could reasonably say one acre will produce enough vegetables, fruit and meat like chickens, rabbits, or swine, to feed one adult for one year.

So, your city of ten thousand needs at least ten thousand acres of good arable land under a mixed farming system, which is roughly sixteen square miles. However, many fantasy cities are not built in places that are as productive and medieval England or France. You may have to double this for cities in colder or hotter climes.

You also need other meat animals such as lamb, beef and game which take a lot more land, so add another sixteen square miles.

Farm animals also produce leather, wool, bone, horn, eggs, and dairy products, all of which are very important to the medieval economy.

Something we have not yet looked at is the importance of wine and beer to a medieval city. These days we drink these for pleasure. Back then weak wine, mead and beer were often produced to create a source of clean liquids to drink. Well and river water was often not ‘fresh’ and could be full of parasites. Fermentation removed most of these.

Grain and vines take up a lot of land, so let’s say another ten square miles for a constant supply. Mead comes from honey, but every farmer will have hives.

So, we are up to about forty-two square miles under agriculture to supply a city of ten thousand, but we have forgotten somebody… Oh yes, the agricultural workers themselves.

Farming in medieval times was incredibly labour intensive, indeed over two thirds of the population worked the land. Thus, our city of ten thousand is going to need another twenty-thousand people supplying it. This has just trebled the land requirement to about one hundred and twenty square miles. All of which must be within one or two day’s travel to the city to deliver fresh produce.

If all the land around a city can be devoted to farming (i.e., pesky geography does not get in the way), we are talking a radius of about seven miles around our city of ten thousand souls must be worked.

Allowing for a little geography this city is probably surrounded by farms out to at least ten miles from its gates.


This is needed for building, tools, transport, crafts, and fuel, so let’s say five square miles per year. This includes cut timber and coppicing. On a thirty-year growth cycle, we are talking woods to the sum of one hundred and fifty square miles.

Timber though, does not go off, so it can be hauled in from further afield.

Everything I have described above is based on a small city just producing food and drink for itself. What if it wants to export products to other regions? We are talking about crafted items as well as converted materials such as leather, wool, and timber.

Ever wondered why medieval cities are often thirty to forty miles apart? This is your answer.

So how does this affect roleplaying games?

  1. The wealthier the city, the more likely there is going to be gold to hire adventurers.
  2. Threats to a city’s agricultural base are more important to its rulers than almost anything else. Famine is a constant worry and can lead to violent regime change. So, monsters that are preying on farmers is a real concern.
  3. It defines what the adventurers will see as they approach a city, and much of the activity they will witness within it.
  4. Wars are fought for access to such resources.
  5. Cities and towns are founded and survive in a landscape developed to support them. That fabled city of fifty thousand souls, high in the mountains, better have some pretty impressive magic to support it, or an incredibly well-developed trading system.
  6. Transport. In medieval times most roads were a seasonal thing. Hauling heavy wagons across muddy tracks in winter is a nightmare. Most successful medieval cities were founded on navigable rivers. This allowed for good local transport as well as an import/export route.
  7. Granaries. Without some system of mass food storage, no city will last the winter. So, these exist and are as well guarded as the Baron’s treasury


The main difference between dark ages and medieval cultures was commerce. Now, there had always been trade right back into prehistory. This was mostly in small amounts of materials and goods that you could load onto mules or boats. So, we are talking valuable or rare items.

During the early empires in the middle east, and around the Mediterranean, there was the development of commerce and an entire commercial class – the merchants. People who produced nothing of value themselves but who were able to buy, move and sell across a wide common area.

In the Middle Ages this really came of age. For example, in London you could buy Chinese silk, Indian spices and gems, Damascene steel, Venetian glass, furs from the high Arctic and Russia, French and Italian wine, African gems and hardwoods, Arabian spices, and amber from the Baltic. Venetian merchants travelled the Silk Road, Portuguese and English sailors were exploring the coasts of Africa and India.

Italian and Jewish bankers were funding all this activity and providing the credit that made the civilised world turn. The fate of Princes often depended not on silver coin, but the credit they could get from the likes of the Medici’s.

So, when you are building your fantasy world, consider where the trade routes and hubs are. Who is producing what and how far is it going? Even mundane products could be the lifeblood of a country’s economy. For example, in the 13th century, England’s wealth depended mostly on its wool exports. The money it raised paid for two hundred years of war between the English and French crowns, and a few crusades besides.


I have no problem with heroic fantasy that glosses over much of this, and in a game, it is just background. However, it doesn’t take much work to flesh this out and help you build your setting.

As hinted above it can also be used to build adventures around. For example:

  1. It is the deep mid-winter, and something is slaying the Granary guards and making off with sacks of grain. The Baron/Mercantile Council/Temple of Pelor hire the party to find out what is happening, who is responsible and deal with them before the population begins to panic.
  2. The Druids who usually come down from their grove in the spring to bless the planting are late. What has happened to them? Messengers sent to find out have not returned.
  3. A band of brigands/bugbears/whatever is preying on the caravans that take the Town’s main export to the coast.
  4. A magical blight is attacking the vineyards. Who is causing this and why?

These sorts of adventures improve the characters’ reputation in their campaigning area. They become heroes to the people and considered useful allies to the rich and powerful. Far more so than just dragging another dead troll into the marketplace, or tomb-robbing.

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As those of you who follow my Dead Simple Facebook page* are aware, I have been working on a 2d10 based RPG called ARES. This is a hard science fiction game in the the T-Gov Setting.
It is the 23rd century. Every corner of the Solar System is being terraformed and settled. Mars and the Asteroid Belt are independent of Earth. The Terran Government (T-Gov) rules Earth and its colonies around Jupiter and Saturn. It is the only authority that can match the power of the Corporations.
ARES squads are created and covertly funded by T-Gov to carry out exploration, reconnaissance, espionage, sabotage, subversion, extraction, and assassination missions.
They are plausibly deniable contractors who can be cast aside or eliminated if it becomes politically necessary to do so. Precarious work for people on the ragged bloody edge.
The setting is based on a mash-up of The Expanse, Blade Runner, Alien and many more darf SF shows.
I have begun playtesting the rules now with my local group and I shall report their progress here and on my FB page. To whet your appetite below in the intro to the first campaign.

Room 101

You are all sitting in the reception area of a small downtown Attorney’s office in the eastern arm of Greater Phoenix, not far from the President Trump III Spaceport. The office has a temporary sign on the door saying, ‘Burke & Hare – Attorneys-at-Law’.
The receptionist is an older model Android that looks about to short out and go on a murderous rampage and has an attitude to match. She greeted each of you with a tinny “You here for the job hun? Then sit and wait.”
Each of you had received a digimail inviting you for an interview for the same ‘job’ as an ‘off-world courier’ and were promised a 200¥ signing bonus. [¥ is the symbol I use for T-creds]
You each have your own reasons for being here, not least of which is the opportunity to get off Earth, but none of you seem ready to share them with a dangerous bunch of psychos in a prefab office.
After a couple of hours during which one applicant was sent away for being “…too damned late…” and another, a well-armed street ronin called ‘Derrick’, stomped out saying that “he had better shit to do”.
Eventually, a light flashes in front of the receptionist and she tells you to go through. One of you asks if you must check your weapons and she says “No, you may need them”.
The inner office is quite large with a couple of desks, a meeting table, retro-plastiwood panelling, antique LCD lighting, a worn carpet, a smell like burnt hair and no windows. Most of you notice that there is no electronic equipment in the office at all, not even a wall socket and one or two of you realise you just stepped into a jamming field.
At the head of the meeting table stands a slim, middle-aged man, in a suit that has seen better days, but well coiffured hair. He seems unarmed.
“Hi folks, I am Carter Burke, please take a seat” he says motioning to the table.
“Thanks for waiting, I was held up interviewing the second batch of applicants. None of them was suitable, but I have a much better feeling about you.” He smiles his best used grav-car salesman’s smile then sits down and waits for you to do the same.
He lifts a battered purple naugahyde briefcase onto the table, opens it, and takes out actual paper printouts held in a series of folders. He glances in each folder and then smiles at one of you as if checking he has the right people.
“Yes, I have a much better feeling about you” he says.
“OK, let’s drop the veil, I am not offering an off-world courier job, that was my little hook to reel you in. We’ve had our eyes on each of you for a while and feel we can offer you something more suited to your skills and nature. If this worries you, then you can leave now and collect your 200¥ from Freda in reception. Any takers? No? Good”.
He then passes each of you a folder with your name, handwritten, on the front. Inside are records of nearly every deed and misdeed you have been involved in since you left elementary school. Many of the details are redacted but the accuracy of what is there is pretty good.
Burke sits back in his chair and lets you read the folders, lighting and inhaling a nustick while you do so.
“Now, don’t be angry folks, this is just us doing our due diligence. We like to know who we are working with.
He takes a pen out of his jacket pocket and clicks the top. The folders immediately turn to dust, causing one or two of you to have coughing fits.
“As you might have worked out I am not an Attorney… I am Major Burke of T-Gov intelligence and we would like to offer you the chance to qualify as an ARES team”. As he says this the colour of his suit changes to T-Gov green and his rank insignia appear on his cuffs.
To you ARES is a myth, a name conjured by T-Gov propaganda to frighten Martian children and traitors. ARES is believed to stand for Armed Recovery, Espionage and Sabotage teams are shadows
“If any of you want to back out now, then I will require a short term mindwipe, and if you’re thinking of trying to bolt out past Frida, I feel it only fair to warn you that she is a Mark VI Kick-Murder Android. One of the Tyrrell corporation’s best. So… we cool?”.
He looks around and appears satisfied with your verbal or non-verbal responses.
“You are now thinking ‘what is in it for me?” he says. Some of you lean forward or nod.
“Well, we gave up on appealing to people’s patriotism decades ago. Life is just too complex and messy these days for such concepts. Instead, we have embraced the corporate model and now rely on enlightened self-interest.”
“Simply put, if do well in a couple of short ‘qualifying’ missions, we shall clear you records completely and give you your own ship, free and clear. After that we will ask you to take on a few missions a year for us – for which you shall be paid, but whatever else you do is your own business.”
One of you lifts your hand and asks what happens if you fail these ‘qualifying’ missions. Burke laughs, lights up a another nustick and replies.
“Well, you’ll probably be dead, so we shall send your remains to your next of kin”.
He then passes around a simple contract to each of you and asks that instead of signing you simply spit on an absorbent square at the bottom.
Frida comes in at that point, with a trolley of refreshments, collects in the forms, hands each of you a certified Credstick with 200¥ on it, and gives you all a chilling smile before leaving.
“She really needs to have that smile adjusted” says Burke shaking his head. He then puts a small cube on the table which brings up a holodisplay of a building….
“First mission, the bloody Russians…”

“Three months ago, a former ARES team split up, and sold their ship to an unknown criminal syndicate. Last week we managed to catch up with the ARES team pilot and, under a little persuasion, managed to find out to whom he sold the vessel, Little Vladimir, a low-level New York mobster.
“It seems Little Vladimir has ambitions to become a smuggler, but his men have been struggling to break our encryption on the navigation control systems. Their clumsy attempts have allowed us to track the vessel to an abandoned warehouse close to the Princess Ivanka Trump spaceport in New Jersey.
“Your first mission as a team is to recover your ship, deliver it to Tranquillity City on the Moon and, if possible, bring us Little Vladimir too.
“Frida shall issue you with the appropriate landing permits.”

*Dead Simple on Facebook:

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For all our Italian players!

Yes, you are reading that right. Our friend Luigi has completed a translation of the rules and supplements, and put them altogether into an 80 page, A5, PDF booklet!!

You can find it at the very bottom of the Rules Downloads page, so feel free to download it and pass it onto your friends.

If anyone would like to translate these free rules into any other languages contact me here or through the Dead Simple Facebook page:

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Medieval/Fantasy houses on the cheap – part 2

So, I have begun to paint the new houses.

First a simple base coat of watered down white acrylic. I let that dry for 24 hours. I use artists acrylics for most of my painting. They are hard wearing, adhere to most surfaces well and, most importantly are cheap.

Then I began painting the plaster on the outside of the walls. A mix of Yellow Ochre and white produces a nice creamy plaster finish. I always leave such combinations only half-mixed, so then I can make lighter and darker variations on the fly. This is a medieval house so no need for consistency here. This is the first coat but it takes well. I will be doing some weathering later.

Following that I paint the beams. For this I use watered down Raw Umber. Most woods used in this sort of building have been allowed to age and harden, so more obvious browns are unlikely, as it a fresh pine look. The ‘distressing’ I did on the beams during their constructions shows up nicely as the dark paint fills in the cracks and leaves natural highlights on the surface.

Finally I do the stone plinths. A simple dark grey wash works well here. I shall highlight it properly one this coat dries.

Next I’ll be giving the inside walls a base and first coat, and once that is done I can move onto some detailing.

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Medieval/ Fantasy Houses on the cheap

Recently I have been experimenting with unfamiliar materials to build houses from.
In the past I have mostly used mounting card and 5mm foam board for this. They are sturdy, especially when based, and have served me well.

However, recently I bought a stack of dense grey foam in A3 sheets. The reason for this is that with my previous materials I had to spend a lot of time adding extra materials to do the detailing I wanted. Online I had watched other terrain crafters using this grey foam sheet and noted that they put the detail directly onto the sheet.

Below is the first full house I have built using this new (to me anyway) material. All the detailing you can see on the foam was done with an old (ink gone dry) ball point pen, and rubber end of a pencil. I took inspiration from photos of old wood framed houses, so it will look moderately realistic.

All the cut details, such as the door and window holes, and the drain were done with a chisel tipped scalpel. Then I have added 3D printed windows and door.

Inside I have also added more detailing showing the wood frame and plaster. This needs less work as most people will not see it.

The house design includes showing the wood framed house sitting on a stone plinth. This is because I am using a sheet of grey foam as the ground floor inside. I have detailed that with a flagstone roller (Green Stuff World).

One of the advantages of using both this grey foam and standard foam board is that you can improve the strength of the joint between walls and floors with cocktail sticks or cut match sticks, as well as the adhesive.

I intend to add an upper floor, probably made from coffee stirrers, which shall lift out for access to the ground floor, and a set of stairs.

Externally there will be a lift off roof, fully tiled with card.

I shall paint each wall individually, inside and out, before assembly, this makes it easier to reach those fiddly corners. The windows and doors will also be painted separately before being fitted.

Finally, the whole assembly shall be adhered to a mounting board base to give it extra strength
As I progress I shall post updates and photos on the blog

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Creating a new campaign world together – the Dead Simple way

So you want to begin a new campaign, in a new world? Here is how to get started the Dead Simple way with almost no preparation whatsoever. It is not half as scary as it sounds, nor is there any need to create massive maps, populate them with nations, cities and peoples, design complex pantheons and long-winded histories.

One of the delights of running a campaign from scratch is that you can adapt and create the world around the players, based upon their characters’ actions and the players’ comments and perceptions.

You start with a table in the corner of a tavern and work your way out from there as the players’ characters explore their environs, go on adventures, and then weave a tale around them.

so, let the players ask questions about the Tavern; What is it called? Who runs it? Is it busy? What is the name of the Best Bitter? Take quick and dirty notes of your answers.

As they leave the Tavern you describe the street outside, that street leads to another and a village or town is born. Don’t name the street or the settlement it unless they ask. If they do then take notes.

They want to visit a smith to get kit, a stable to buy or hire horses, and grocer to get provisions, then off to the main gate to begin their adventure. If they ask the names of the people they meet, then tell them. Get used to doing names and physical descriptions on the fly but make a note of them as you go.

One trick I learned long ago about making up NPC names is to imagine what sort of territory you want the players to explore, then pick a similar region in the real world and use the common names from that area as your base stock. You can still throw in the odd strange name as these might be foreigners or immigrants. Common people tend to have simple names and no surnames. They are often known by their profession or have nicknames. The more wealthy the NPC the more complex their name and they might have a surname or house name.

If one of the players wants to write up their adventures, then encourage them to do so and if their memory of the smith is different to yours, then change yours. This encourages their engagement in the game, and reinforces the fact that your world is drawn from their perceptions of it.

So, they have reached the gate. Hopefully, their mysterious patron in the tavern will have given them some directions. For example: take the south road for half a day until you see some gallows, then turn left into the woods. Follow the path through the woods until you reach the ruined tower on the hill. Maps are rare and precious things, and only one in a thousand might have ever seen one. Medieval people were used to giving and receiving simple directions.

Give them some basic descriptions of the land they travel through, but do not descend into purple prose, you do not need to compete with Tolkien. If they ask for a bit more then add to it. There is little need to plan this in advance, just draw upon your own experiences. Consider that most people measured distances in the time it took to cover them, and the difficulty of the terrain they must cross. It’s half a day by horse or one day on foot sir. Take notes.

Throw in a couple of challenges along the way. Make at least one a physical challenge such as the bridge is down and the stream is a raging torrent, how do you cross? The other could be an opportunity for roleplay or combat. The elves who live in the woods want a good reason to let you pass through their territory, or a band of brigands do not want anyone else to get to the ruined tower before them.

So, each of the elements above are expanding the environment. There is; a road, where does it go?;  a stream and a broken bridge; who are these elves?; are the brigands well known and have prices on their heads? Take notes.

By the end of the first session, you will have notes on the tavern, the village or town, some of its inhabitants, the road south, and some of the people out there. The players will have led the exploration of all this and helped you create the first chapter of your campaign. You will have a record of everything they know about your world.

Many players like to write a little background for their characters. I always encourage this but advise them to keep it short and simple. In the past I have experimented with asking them to answer six or seven questions, each one with a single sentence. These can be brilliant for expanding your world.

For example: whom do you worship? Tell them they can name the deity themselves and must describe what the deity covers. Weave these little details into your new world, and later try to put a few into their adventures.

Remember that you are creating a story with them, not an entire world… yet.

The Notes

Once the session is over sort your notes. I know some GMs who write each thing on a Post-it Note, which they stick to the back of their GM’s Shield, then only afterwards commit it to paper. Others who use lever arch files divided into sections or index cards (which is what I used to do).

The important thing is to begin to create a level of consistency in your new world.

Personally, I use Microsoft One Note, which is like a digital lever arch file, with one page for each location and sub-pages for specific buildings/settings, NPCs, interactions with players etc.

Stuff the players know I put in one colour text and stuff they don’t yet I put in another.

For example: They have met the Town Smith.

What they know is: they asked his name and I called him ‘Charlie’. They bought a list of stuff, and it cost a little more than that in the rules.

What they don’t know is: that he has sold them sub-standard gear for twice what it is actually worth. This may later come apparent if they decide to use an iron spike to hold a rope for climbing and it snaps under the fighter’s weight. Cue an angry discussion with the smith when they get back.

One Note is great as it puts all this information on my laptop that I use to GM from. I do have a hankering to return to index cards though.

The Power of Images

One of the things that I like to do when I have downtime is to peruse image sites like Instagram and Pinterest. You would be amazed at the tens of thousands of images suitable for use in Fantasy roleplaying games.

There are beautiful pictures of; characters and NPCs of every gender, class and race; settings such as towns, dungeons, and wilderness areas; every well-known monster and as many new and unique ones too, and; mounts, vehicles, equipment, magic items etc.

Every image that I think is useful I snip, give it an appropriate name, and store in a series of themed folders. If the artist’s name is available, I add that to the image name as I believe in attribution. For some of the artists I really like I try to fund them through their Patreon pages. Before you wonder how much that costs, I spend about $10 per month on half a dozen artists work.

Then, during the game, I can conjure up these images to give the players a view of what I am describing.

With our retreat to VTTs during these trying times, many of us have come to value the many location and battle maps we can import to our desktops. We have become used to creating tokens for characters, NPCs, monsters, and items. This art repository I have created acts as my library for these.

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Dead Simple 8th Edition Character Sheet

The excellent Ian Caldwell has produced an excellent character sheet for the 8th edition of Dead Simple.

You can find it in the Rules Downloads page.

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The Waltzin’ Dead

Every Zombie RPG & boardgame I have come across features the zombies as brainless monsters. There to be slain in their droves.

Seldom does anyone think about the Zombies themselves. They were people once and many still have a few memories and ambitions, though their capabilities are somewhat diminished.

The Waltzin’ Dead is a 2D6 system roleplaying game in which and your friends awake as zombies in small mid-western town in the good ol’ US of A. The two page rules give you pretty much everything you need to create unique zombie characters and send them off in search of a substantial meal…

You can find the rules at the bottom of the Downloads page.

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Lamplight RPG – 2nd Edition

Thanks to the eagle-eyes and proof-reading abilities of my friends I have revised the 1st edition.

You can find the second edition at the bottom of the Rules Downloads page.

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Lamplight – Random map generator

A friend of mine called Tim asked if I had considered a random generator to create maps for the mines and for solo-play. One quick flash of inspiration later and I’d knocked up a one page generator – which you can now find in the Rules Downloads.

However, I had not tested it as I did not have the time. So this morning, with a few minutes to spare I used it to create a small map for a section of the mines – voila!

Random Mines map for Lamplight

I took some graph paper, a pencil, a couple of pens and 2d6. The generator produced all the detail you see above in about five minutes. Not bad eh?

The thing to understand when you use random tables like this is that it cannot cover everything. Thus you have to apply a little of your own creativity, e.g.:

  • I chose which direction the tunnels came out of the caverns (erroneously called ‘chambers’ on the map), and how many.
  • I added cart rails to a couple of tunnels to connect caverns that had randomly generated cart rails.
  • I made a little key for the symbols I invented.
  • If I rolled one cavern straight after another I put a small connecting tunnel between them (i.e. from cavern 2 to cavern 3).

Then I ran the Encounter table across each cavern, and produced what you see above.

  • Cavern 1: 3 Brigands scavenging for equipment and maybe Orichalcum. They probably don’t want a fight if outnumbered. You can choose to roll Hostility on that or make your own mind up.
  • Cavern 2: Nothing.
  • Cavern 3: A Slith. These have spells so I rolled three times on the Spell table in Lamplight 3 – Foul Sorcery & Thaumaturgy. I got Counter-magic twice so I re-rolled the second one.
  • Cavern 4: A Man’o’War – could be a tough fight for a new party, so I ignored the die roll saying there should be 3 of them, and just put 1 in there.
  • Cavern 5: 2 lost miners, who probably engineered the roof fall to keep the Man’o’War at bay.

I think that this map would probably cover an evening’s play. Then it’s breaking through the roof-fall, saving the miners and into the caverns beyond!

Note: If there does not seem to be enough loot, just hide some for the players to search for.

So, there you go. Try it out and if you have a fun session please tell me about it, or send a like to your blog or wherever you write it up.

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