Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Food and Faith

The importance of food to humans can't be understated. True, man does not live by bread alone, in fact there are two things vastly more important: air and water. But assuming we have those two things, food comes in at #3, depending on whether or not one views sleep/rest as a "consumable."

And yet we tend to undervalue it in the Dungeon & Dragons game. "Mark off a day's rations," is about the extent of our interaction with food, unless we're talking about some sort of magical trick/trap found in the dungeon. It's just not as interesting to our game as, say, which spells the wizard has available, or the damage output-to-hit point ratio of our front-line fighters. There aren't even rules relating to starvation or malnutrition through the first half dozen iterations of the game; the closest B/X gets is this note in the Cook/Marsh expert set (page X51):

Characters who run out of food may face a variety of circumstances that must be handled by the DM. Possible effects of hunger might include the need for more rest, slower movement rates, minuses "to hit," and gradual loss of hit points.

[Aaron Allston's 1991 Rules Cyclopedia is the first place I find any hard rules on starvation, and it simply incorporates these four suggestions (need for rest, slow move, attack penalty, HP loss) into a single system...and a ridiculous one at that (a first level character who goes a single day without food and water will probably die, suffering 1d10 damage). But at least Allston was trying!]

Food and issues around food scarcity were driving factors in the European conquest of Latin America; truth be told, it is still the driving issue of these slave nations (you can't really call them developing nations when no real "development" is being done and when they are purposefully kept in a state that allows for exploitation of people and resources). You can't eat gold, after all.

Everyone reading this probably understands that the regions I'm talking about had large concentrations of people...many, many times the number of people living in the regions now known as Canada and the United States. These Central and South American (and Caribbean) lands could sustain this multitude of people precisely because it was so abundant with food supply, and the civilizations that existed had developed societies designed to make the best use of that food supply. True, there was some cannibalism among certain indigenous groups, but this appears to have been more of a ritual nature than a source of sustenance: the land already supplied the nutrition needed to grow people.

Our history books tell the story of how the indigenous Americans were mainly wiped out by diseases to which they had no immunity, germ warfare spread by plague-ridden "Old Worlders" either by accident or purposefully (the anecdotal "disease-ridden blanket" is actually from North American sources). But the human body is remarkably resilient, when in good health. Our immune systems work exceptionally well to fight off infectious diseases when we keep ourselves rested, fit, and fed with nutritious foods. Many of the issues Europe had with its own "black plague" incidents came from the poor living conditions of the people at the time.

Nearly all the European action during the first fifteen years following Columbus's discovery of a "New World" took place in the Caribbean; the first real city founded on the continent wasn't established till 1510 (a fort was built in 1509, but was abandoned after eight months). By that time, there were nearly a dozen settlements in the Caribbean, the vast majority of them being in Hispaniola.  The first recorded small pox epidemic hit Hispaniola in 1518-1519 and killed 90% of the the indigenous people remaining. However, by 1508 (ten years prior) they'd already been reduced in number from a pre-Columbian estimate of 600,000 down to 60,000.

[Bartolome de las Casas writing at the time after living in Hispaniola for decades, puts the pre-Columbian population even higher, stating more than 3,000,000 of the native Taino people were killed between 1494 and 1508. Modern scholars feels his figures are an exaggeration, however, despite the fact that more than 20 million people combined currently inhabit the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two nations that comprise the island once known as "Hispaniola"]

What changed with Columbus's arrival that caused such a steep decline? Half a million bullets? No, the Spanish weren't interested in killing the native population, whom they had enslaved to work the gold mines of Hispaniola (Pueblo Viejo is still the largest gold mine in the Americas and the 2nd largest gold mine in the world); the first African slaves began to arrive in 1503 precisely because of the declining population and high infant mortality rates among the indigenous people led to a smaller workforce for the mines. No, it was starvation and lack of nutrition (exacerbated by overwork in harsh conditions).

The food that sustained the peoples of the Americas...the beans, corn, squash, and small game...were not the foods to which the Spaniards were accustomed: bread, olives (and olive oil), meat (domesticated), and wine. Not only did they want the familiar foods of their homeland, they had an aversion to eating the native produce. Part of this was due to a philosophy of "right food" based on class and status; not only was it a mark of prestige in Spain to eat better (i.e. expensive) food, especially meats, but eating the food of the indigenous risked becoming like the indigenous: ignorant, heathen savages. When Columbus returned in 1494, he brought Spanish livestock with him...cows, pigs, goats, and sheep...which, devoid of natural predators, multiplied and devoured the native habitat, Planting of Spanish crops (including cash crops like sugar) helped displace the native flora as well.

But for the Spaniards, having their own food was more than a matter of comfort; it was a matter of faith. What is Catholicism without the Body (bread) and Blood (wine) of Christ? The acceptable and preferred foods of the Spanish had been ingrained through both their faith and the propaganda of times: the end of the 800 year Reconquista in 1491, the Alhambra Decree (issued in 1492, four months before Columbus's first voyage) required the expulsion or conversion of all Jews from Spain, and the Spanish Inquisition (formed in 1478 and largely used to suss out Moores and Jews) all contributed to the mindset of a "unified Catholic nation." And Catholics, unlike Moores and Jews, eat pork. Pork and pork products (like lard, used as a replacement for olive oil in the Americas) was a strong symbol of the conqueror's faith, a sign that they belonged in this new land which the Church had insisted be converted to Catholicism.

[mmm...originally was going to devote a big section to the Reconquista and why it wasn't really all that much about religion at all...but I'm already running long; will need to change the title of the post]

So yummy to nosh!
The religious conversion of the Americas went, more or less, according to plan...lip service to a spiritual philosophy and showing up to ritual services once a week isn't a big deal when the alternative is death at the hands of a gun-toting conquistador. Food conversion is a much bigger deal: people have to eat to survive. And hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people need a lot of calories to maintain health and fitness, especially under extreme working conditions (like as a slave laborer in a Spanish gold mine). The decimation of their native food supply, their restriction from eating the food supply of the upper class "lords," the enforced harsh working conditions, all combined to turn a "physically tall, well-proportioned people of kind and noble bearing" into downtrodden, malnourished people easily extinguished by the introduction of foreign viruses.


Alexis has done a lot of work on food in a D&D campaign: the gist is that characters require two or four pounds of food per day depending on whether or not a person is "resting" or "laboring" (characters that actually engage in fights require a lot more) with penalties (and eventual starvation) resulting from failure to eat the required amount. This is very reminiscent of the rules for food in the post-apocalyptic game Twilight 2000, in which a character must consume three kilograms of food per day, modified by the type of food being consumed ("civilized food" counts for 1.5x its weight, MREs count for double). Alexis's rules are a bit more generous, but his penalties (including checks for contracting maladies) hit rather hard. I'm not sure about his starvation rules; I'm not taking the time to run the math on his system. T2000 simply has individuals starve to death "after about a month of no food or several months of half-rations." Very abstract, with accumulating fatigue levels reducing ability scores prior to actual death.

AD&D, like B/X and OD&D, has two entries for "rations" on its equipment list: iron and standard, both of which provide seven days worth of food to a single individual. Unlike those latter editions, AD&D defines the weight of these two different foodstuffs as being 7.5 pounds (iron) or 20 pounds (standard). Doing the math (and assuming no increase to weight for "bulk") this works out to about a pound of food (iron) or close to three pounds of food (standard) per human per day. I'll also note that 3rd edition only provides weight for trail rations (defined as "jerky, dried fruits, hard tack, and nuts") at a rate of one pound per person per day (less for "small" characters, despite hobbits' notorious appetites); this appears to be the 3E equivalent of iron rations.

But just what are "iron rations?" Hard to say as I can't find an origin for the term. Australians in WWI used an "iron ration" (field ration) designed to be eaten in case of emergency (i.e. because supply lines were unavailable) and consisted of a bit more than two pounds of food including both dried meat (jerky) and hard tack. WWII Germany issued three types of ration: the march ration, iron ration, and iron-half ration, of which the "iron" is more of a "half ration" (and weighs 1.5 pounds without packaging). The United States military's "C-ration" (a term in use from 1958-1980 and a plausible source of inspiration for an RPG designed by war-gamers of the period) had a packaged weight of 2.6 pounds. None of these were designed to be consumed for long periods of time, and all were supposed to be supplemented by fresh food or prepared food whenever possible.

I suppose in a magical world (i.e. your typical D&D setting), one can simply say the magic-infused foodstuffs provide double or triple the caloric value of our real world...but is such "cheating" necessary in a world where a 5th level cleric can conjure nourishing, life-sustaining sustenance out of thin air? It does seem that the figures provided in all published editions of Dungeons & Dragons are grossly under-representative of the actual amounts of food necessary to sustain (human) life...but without a system in place to track the very real problems of over-exertion and malnutrition, why should it bother your average Dungeon Master? It's why purify food and water is so under-utilized in your average campaign.

Yet another batch of thoughts, facts and figures I need to take into account as I build this thing.


  1. Of interest, when Russian missionaries went to Alaska and translated the Gospel into the local languages, they translated the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily Fish." because not only was that the basic sustenance of the locals, but growing wheat in those climates was near impossible...

  2. Fascinating re: Pueblo Viejo mine; although it seems as if it's only been in operation since 1975? I suppose modern prospecting found the good stuff.

    As far as food goes, there is certainly a status element between sustenance and luxury. I have to admit, I only really worry about the scale there when the Party is invited to eat with others, and generally in town. I do make them pre-plan food weight when traveling, but they haven't gone so far off the beaten path to not be able to sustain a reasonable occasional pheasant hunt or the like.

    The reason that D&D doesn't traditionally particularly worry about food, of course, is that it's a game about hitting things with swords, not a calorie simulator.

    1. Pueblo Viejo appears to have been working since 1975. However, the Spaniards began prospecting the Cibao region of Hispaniola in 1494, mostly (I gather) through placer mining; this was played out after 1514 and sugar became the new "white gold" of the island.

  3. JB, I don't know how useful this is to you, but this recent book I listened to, Lieutenant Hornblower by C.S. Forrester, happens in large part on the north coast of Hispaniola:


    In fact, the book mentions "Scotman's Bay," and when I went looking for further details on wikipedia, I found the page QUOTED Forrester's Work:

    ""This was Scotchman's Bay - the Bahia de Escocesa, as the Spanish charts had it. To the westward lay a shelving beach; the big rollers here broke far out and ran in creamy white up to the water's edge with diminishing force, but to the eastward the shore line rose in a line of tree-covered hills standing bluffy with their feet in blue water; the rollers burst against them in sheets of spray that climbed far up the cliffs before falling back in a smother of white. for thirty miles those hills ran beside the sea, almost due east and west; they constituted the Samana peninsula, terminating in Samana Point. According to the charts the peninsula was no more than ten miles wide, behind them, round Samana Point, lay Samana Bay, opening into the Mona Passage and a most convenient anchorage for privateers and small ships of war which could lie there, under the protection of the fort of the Samana peninsula, ready to slip out and harass the West Indian convoys making use of the Mona Passage"

    I know it's all 3 centuries after the time period you speak of, but it wouldn't hurt if you took the time to read the book; Hispaniola starts to figure prominently after about 2 hours and some minutes, and continues to be central thereafter until about six hours in. So, lots of fun material.

    Regarding my foodish cruelty, I had in mind many detailed descriptions of explorers starving to death in Arctic Canada as a framework.

    1. First off, I love Age of Sail fiction. I know of Hornblower but haven’t read the books (I can barely find time for my “research reading” these days). You tantalize me, sir!

      That being said, I really want to steer clear of (what I call) Pirate Age fiction. I would imagine Hispaniola figures prominently in the book because Hispaniola figures prominently in international politics, economics, and crossings during that time period. There’s a reason there were pirates in the Caribbean, and not just because of the potential plunder in Spanish ore, cash crops, and slaves. Ships HAD to use the West Indies as stopping off points in transatlantic travel, so the ship traffic was there...but nautical adventures aren’t the type I want to tell with the D&D system. I have a variety of nautical RPGs on my shelf for that.

      Fact is, I want the PCs to be exploring the continental interior more than island life. I want Dwellers of the Forbidden City not Pirates of the Caribbean (though that *was* my favorite ride at Disney Land when I was a child).

      Your food cruelty is awful, but it’s pretty close to reality...if anything it errs on the side of generous (IMO). Which is fine...the tropics are probably filled with more nasty diseases (and disease carrying insects) than Canada ever was. ; )

    2. Rest assured, the passage is Spanish vs. British war, and not pirate fiction. If I do stumble across something reassuring about continental fiction, I'll be sure to send it your way.

  4. Just found out recently that pemmican was sometimes called iron rations

    Pemmican: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4e4wpjna1vxXNa7kCTF3i2LzFE9uKPPU

    And yeah it generally wasn't eaten by itself, they would put in stews and stuff and forage for local vegetables and roots an berries and such.

  5. Based on recent backpacking experience, foods that have their water content contained in them (e.g. apples, MREs) are much less calories dense than dried or dehydrated foods. That always stuck me as the difference between iron and standard rations.