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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Concerns of ancient commoners

While too much anachronism takes away from a game, in small amounts it can add a splash of flavor and aid in suspension of disbelief. It's easy to think about basic survival needs as being the most important to an ancient commoner, but if we assume they had food, water, and shelter, what would be next on the list? What does the commoner NPC have concern over?

Maslow's hierarchy tells us that after physiological needs, next comes safety, then love (or belonging), then esteem, and finally self-actualization.

That's great but it doesn't help a lot in practical gaming exercise.

So instead of 20th century psychology, let's look at more direct sources - religious texts. Religions are designed to appeal to the basic needs of contemporary commoners, so by looking at what they cover, we can infer quite a bit.

Let's look long ago - around 35 centuries in the past - at the Book of the Dead.

See? This exactly proves my point!
Here's an excerpt from chapter 125.
n smAir.i wnDwt n ir.i iwyt m st mAat
n rx.i iwtt n ir.i bw Dw
n ir.i tp ra nb bAkw m Hrw irt.n.i
OK, hmm.  Let's try a translation instead.
I have not impoverished the divine herd (people);
I have committed no crime in place of What is Right;
I have not known (explored) nothingness; I have not done any evil
I have not made a daily start in labours over what I did (previously);
Sort of a generic start, but already declaring that the rest of the section will illustrate what is not evil.
I have not orphaned the orphan of his goods;
I have not done the abomination of the gods;
I have not slighted a servant to his master;
More standard fare across most religions - not insulting the gods, etc.  Now we get to the pertinent part:
I have not caused affliction; I have not caused hunger; I have not caused grief;
I have not killed;
I have not harmed the offering-cattle; I have not caused pain for anyone;
I have not reduced the offerings in the temples;
I have not harmed the offering-loaves of the gods;
I have not taken the festival-loaves of the blessed dead;
I have not penetrated the penetrater of a penetrater;
I have not masturbated;
I have not reduced the measuring-vessel, I have not reduced the measuring cord;
I have not encroached on the fields; I have not added to the pan of the scales;
I have not tampered with the plumb bob of the scales;
I have not taken milk from the mouths of babes;
I have not concealed herds from their pastures;
I have not snared birds in the thickets of the gods;
I have not caught fish in their pools;
I have not held back water in its time;
I have not dammed a dam at rapid waters;
I have not put out the fire in its moment;
There we go. Despite the awkward wording, we can see a lot about protecting what little they do have.  Not altering the measuring vessel or cord or scales clearly indicates a fear of being cheated in barter or by merchants. Taking life, milk, herds, birds, fish, water, and whatever the "penetrater of a penetrater" is (are we talking adultery?) all represent the commoner's constant fear of not having basic physiological needs.

So, in terms of Maslow, religion for the ancient commoner is about Safety.  This is why they are so protective of their religion, shrines, and offerings - if they lose their safety, then their base physiological needs are in danger.  Arguing with a commoner about religion is nearly pointless because of the perceived risk.

So how do we use this in a game?

Perhaps an adventure that starts with a benign commoner's request - like suspicion that a merchant has modified his scales to cheat folks of gold - could lead to the discovery that the merchant is actually funding an evil cult with the excess gold. Classic adventuring spiced up a bit with believable NPC behavior. So, not only can justice be served against the merchant, but an evil cult can be squashed at the same time!

The key, in my opinion, is that using things like this is kind of like putting salt on food. A little goes a long way, but when it isn't there it feels like something is missing.


  1. No masturbation hey? Well there's all the fun sucked out of life. :-)

    I'm currently toying with the idea of removing the cleric class (and it's sub-classes) from my next campaign, which will no doubt disturb my players greatly. I've been inspired by Delta of Delta's D&D Hotspot. In his Primary House Rules post he lists 14 reasons why doing so makes sense.

    After reading your post Mr. Blue, I'm beginning to think that removing the cleric will actually allow the DM to bring back to the game the mystery of religion. Superstitions, taboos, religious observances - all that wonderful campaign flavour - would be easier to introduce without having to justify it to a player running a cleric character. Lot's of adventure seeds that can hook in the whole party and not just a single class.

    Hmm, food for thought.

    1. I was thinking about starting a pool on how long it would take until someone brought up that particular line of the excerpt, but you beat me to it :). +1 for use of the word "sucking" in the same context which is surprisingly absent in the original text.

      I understand the desire to mix things up by getting rid of the cleric. I love the mythological element of a campaign pantheon and the D&D cleric doesn't always impart the most fun flavor (although specialist priests in 2e were an interesting approach that I enjoyed for quite some time). My question is, should the correct answer be its complete elimination, or an evolution of the class concept from the base level? I smell a new blog post in the making :)

      If you try out Delta's approach in a campaign, let me know how it works for your group.

  2. Well someone was bound to make the reference, so I must've been the right man for the job. :-)

    One solution to reducing the impact on players of removing the cleric is to make them feel they can still run their spellcaster as a cleric. They'll be using the magic-user mechanic for learning and casting spells, but they'll be finding them in religious texts, ancient temples, etc. Let them have religious experiences, send them on "holy" quests based on clues in ancient writings, or the decrees of influential "clerical" NPCs. I can actually see this creating more opportunities in the game than those that are lost.

    I think if a player wants to be a cleric bad enough, they'll put more effort into roleplaying their character as one, despite the lack of an actual cleric class. Or that's my theory anyway. :-)

    And yes, I'll certainly let you know how it goes if and when I can reclaim the DM crown in my gaming group.


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