This is another worldbuilding guide. We’re going to talk about what looks like from the outside the most boring subject in world-building: food.
Food is exciting! People eat. Even the Gods eat. Maybe, like elves, they less than humans. Or, like Vampires, they live on humans. Or they eat more than humans.
We don’t think much about food, food production, calories, and eating when we create worlds. However, for intelligent creatures who eat, ensuring a constant stream of meals is a motivating factor in everything from inventing new technologies to state formation.
This article treats food and food production, as underlying core mechanics in world-building. We can ask ourselves interesting questions:
- What do the local people eat?
- Where do they get their food?
- How does food get to where the people are?
- How is food grown and harvested?
- What happens when the population grows and consumes all the food?
- How many non-food-makers can society support?
- How does the availability of food impact conflict and war?
- How does the availability of food help organize the state?
Food production is an incredibly dense subject. A copy of “History of Food” on my shelf is 1000 pages long. Consider this blog post a very light introduction to the subject, and we’re assuming our “standard person template” is human.
The easiest way to teach concepts is in using an example. We’re going to explore a standard, low-level (1st-3rd) D&D adventure through this lens:
The village of Redwick needs adventurers immediately. Goblins moved into the nearby hills. They’ve eaten the livestock and started on the local fields. 50gp reward for the removal of these goblins!
Food and Calories
Imagine a peasant.
Suppose a peasant works his or her fields for 10 hours a day, every day. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that peasant requires 2500 calories/day with the heavy labor. That comes to about 912K calories/year. There are 1538 calories in a modern lb of whole-grain wheat flour. Assuming all things equal, a peasant must produce 600lbs of wheat flour to feed only himself per year — if the peasant only lives on bread.
Wheat produces (today) about 6.4 million calories/acre with all modern equipment, gear, technology, genetic modifications, and soil amendments. Let’s assume that peasants have access to 12th-century technology (horseshoes, the iron plow, irrigation, basic crop rotation, etc.) to lift yields. We’ll also assume a peaceful peasant produces 1/5th (20%) of a modern yield. With a horse, acre supports 3/4ths of a peasant. A family of four peasants must work about 3 acres to eat bread reliably without fear of starvation in good, non-drought weather.
Lots of things going on here: technology levels, food consumption, calorie intake, and the rest. Consider this the floor for world-building: the lowest requirements for a farmer in a fantasy world.
A peasant cannot subsist on only wheat. Wheat lacks the proteins and amino acids the human body needs. So, a peasant adds a much more calorie-dense source of food: meat.
Meat is a trade-off. Cows, sheep, and goats are worth more alive than digesting in a human’s belly. They produce valuable goods (wool, cheese, butter). They do work. Eating a cow now may mean starving next week. And cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants: they eat grass. They don’t compete with human sources of food.
Since the cows are inedible, peasants keep chickens. Chickens are highly useful sources of protein: produce eggs, reproduce fast, eat grain. They’re small and economical.
Pigs, though, are the best of the best. Pigs are the best source of meat per food consumed of any domesticated animal (20lbs meat/100lbs food consumed). And they have a job! Pigs are scavengers! Garbage cans of the domesticated animal world.
Except, pigs eat human food. They compete with humans in the food chain when pigs don’t have access to the delicious truffles of a forest or a swamp. No forest, no swamp, no pigs. So — pigs are cheap when pigs can feed themselves. Pigs are expensive where they cannot.
We’ve Established: At a base level, with manual labor and ancient-to-medieval technology, organized people can feed themselves from the land if they have agriculture and animal husbandry. The peasant needs a combination of plant food product and protein to fulfill his or her calorie requirements. The peasant subsists on chickens, eggs, wheat, and whatever vegetables they grow in their local gardens. With plenty of land, good weather, a water supply, and no population pressures, they eat well, and they can feed non-food producers.
The goblins moved caves under Nordbury Hills south of Redwick Village several months ago. It’s a warband of four dozen individual goblins. A hunter-gatherer goblin is half human-sized. We can assume ~50 goblins eat about the equivalent of 25 humans. They’ve added 25 human-sized calorie requirements to the local ecology overnight.
This is not good.
Producers vs. Non-Food Producers
We’ve thought about growing the food. What about eating food?
There are two classes of eaters: food producers and non-food producers.
Peasants working the land are food producers. Everyone else is a non-food producer.
To support non-food producers, peasants must produce enough food to feed themselves plus additional mouths. Scribes, priests, nobles, military, artisans, local townies, the guy who runs the Inn — these are all non-food producing specialists who survive on the success of food producers.
Every non-food producer is a burden on the producers. They are an additional mouth peasants must feed through the product of their labor. Except for the military, non-food producers eat say, a standard 2000 calories/day. They cost about 750K calories a year. The village must produce ~450lbs of wheat — or equivalent calories in meat, eggs, milk, butter, oil, orchard-grown fruits, vegetables, and cheese — for each non-food producer it supports.
The feudalism pyramid works on food.
If the peasants want a priest, a local wizard, a blacksmith, or a cash-producing local industry, it must also produce enough calories/year to support these non-food producers. The higher the yield, the more specialists the community supports. The more specialists, the more goods and services.
Nobility is extremely expensive. Nobles pay their way by trading something of global community value: redistribution of global resources across their demesne. Those resources could be religious, trade, food, or military goods. The nobles also pay for the establishment of towns and cities. Nobles then encourage towns and villages to flourish because trade in a finished good makes much more money than trade in sacks of flour.
Peasants cannot redistribute wheat themselves. They are local and land-bound. Nobles are more global. They extract taxes from the peasants (in the form of food), sell it, and use money to pay for the non-food producers the nobles find valuable.
If there’s no food, nobles will extract from peasants anyway to pay for non-food producers. In a noble’s mind, non-food producers are more valuable to noble aims.
In good times, feudalism works. In bad times, peasants live on the bottom of the pyramid and subsist on the edge of malnourishment and death.
Adventurers are non-food producers. They’re an expensive luxury on a society that invests heavily in producing food, and they take their prize in gold and magic items. When society needs adventurers, peasants starve. When peasants starve, society needs adventurers.
We’ve established: Peasants must exceed their yields in product to feed those who don’t farm. The number of specialists a society supports comfortably is equal to the overage in calories from the food producers. Lower the yields, fewer specialists society can maintain. This fact is as true in an Early Medieval society as it is in, say, a Post-Apocalyptic one.
_The people of Redwick village are almost food producers: peasants living a peaceful peasant lifestyle. They also have a village priest, a village headman, and a village blacksmith. They have a local inn for visitors at the crossroads. The village supports a handful of crafts: tanning, weaving, and shoemaking.
Above the village rules a Baron and his three soldiers who “protect” the town, collect taxes, and enforce the King’s laws.
_The local peasants must produce enough calories in agriculture and protein for themselves + about 20 non-food producers. But wait: they also pay taxes in wheat-form up to the Baron. No one has coin money. Peasants pay their taxes in grain.
The peasants also pay taxes regardless of the harvest’s bounties. In a bad year, peasants don’t eat. The local pyramid is the Baron, the Baron’s men, the local non-food producers, and finally, the peasants.
The Baron give the taxes to the Baron’s boss, the Duke. The Duke takes enough from all aggregated villages to pay for himself, his household, invest heavily in his holdings, including cities, towns, colleges, monasteries, and other developments, and pay the King. The peasants must produce enough for themselves + many.
Population Density and Ecology
As the population rises, the village needs more calories to sustain itself. The more calories, the more land, and animals. The more land cultivated for food, the more humans cut down and rearrange the ecology to fit their needs. Humans dam rivers. They divert water for irrigation. They cut down forests, drain swamps, and turn grazing land into plowed land. This activity causes erosion, long term soil damage, and drainage issues. It depopulates the land of wild animals, causes overfishing, etc.
Once humans — or anything eating food — over-populates, they put pressure on the amount of land available to cultivate for calories. Once people run out of land, they starve. Once they die, populations either shrink to fit the size of the ecological niche (as in most populations worldwide until ~13th century) or the population overgrows and overruns niches.
Without population stability, the end result is massive ecological damage. If the population is stable and land use is stable, humans hold the damage to a minimum. If another group moves into the niche, or the population undergoes an explosion, people will exert ecological pressure on the system.
Ecological damage means people do not eat.
For example, slash and burn will produce fruitful harvests for a short period. Over a long period of time, as the plants grow back slower and slower, the harvests get smaller. Eventually, the land is ruined and produces no harvest.
Another example. Ancient Sumerians dammed up the Tigris to irrigate their fields of wheat. Except, the Tigris’s water contains silt. Salt doesn’t bother the plants but, over time, salt sank into the water table. The land was destroyed. Ur was abandoned. The entire Sumerian Empire collapsed. Today, the land around Ur is still uninhabitable.
We’ve established: In good times, the population grows. A growing population means cultivating more land aggressively. Cultivating too much land leads to ecological damage. Ecological damage leads to lower yields.
The four dozen goblins moved in and directly competed with the peasants. They stripped the local forests for the edible game. Then they were hungry and went after the readiest source of protein around — the cows.
A single cow is more valuable than the life of a peasant. The cows pull plows, gives milk, makes more cows, and provides protein. Losing a cow is anger making.
Worse, the peasants live on the edge of a knife to fulfill their own food and tax responsibilities. The loss of a few cows and a field is devastating to their yearly tax bills. The peasants — and the Baron — are frantic to stop the goblins from eating their crops.
Conflict and War
When two groups move into the same ecological niche in the same proximity, the second group impacts the population of the first. Once impacted, people’s ability to produce food decreases. Then, people cannot pay their taxes.
This is a quick way to a hot conflict. If no one can persuade the impacting group to leave the ecological niche, then everyone is going to fight over it. Tax collectors are going to get their due. Rent extractors will pay for adventurers.
Conflicts over ecological niches are constant throughout history. You enter my niche, my friends and I are going to kill you for it. You compete with my land and my food, and we’re going to kill you and your family. Don’t move here.
No man’s zones are common in pre-industrial societies of all sorts. Even if the land in the no man’s zone is habitable and farmable, entering the zone means death. The fallow land between one society and another helped mitigate conflict.
Here’s an example:
Your people are living on a bad, unfarmable finger of land. They’re starving and need food. You decide the hell with it and gamble. Maybe you’ll win, or maybe you’ll die.
You arm everyone. You send your warbands to annex land from your neighbors. You get lucky. You’re stronger. You slaughter your neighbors. You enslave survivors to work your brand new farms. You produce extra non-food producers who can raid the next land over.
Rinse, repeat. You build yourself a small kingdom. Then you, too, can be a non-food tax collecting extractor as you force all your people back to lands — now with bonus slave labor! Until you run into a Kingdom pulling the same trick.
What are the goblin’s motivations?
We’ve established: People moving into each other’s lands and consuming resources raises the chances of violent conflict.
The peasants fight back against the goblins, but they’re not permitted by King’s Law to own weapons. After several deaths and the yearly taxes at risk, the Baron makes the economic calculation to rid himself of these goblins. He sends in his soldiers and loses one to the hill-infesting menace. After this, the Baron appeals to the Duke.
Only the Duke has resources to pay non-food producing and expensive adventurers. Paying in money instead of food is a fabulous show of largesse. Typically, the Duke would ignore this goblin menace, but the Baron lost a man. Military men are expensive to train. The Duke ponies up.
Later on, during the adventure, the adventurers learn that the goblins were infesting the hills because they, too, were pushed out of their ecological niche. Something nasty has moved in and eaten all their food. The goblins couldn’t kill it, whatever it is.
No where to hunt or grow == fleeing to this village == eating the cows. The adventurers can kill these goblins today, but if the root cause isn’t lanced, more goblins will arrive tomorrow. Unless the adventurers hunt the goblins to extinction, always an option at a handful of XP a pop.
Is this adventure worth 50gp? And the goodwill of the powerful Duke?
Magic, Technology and Escape from Subsistence Farming
There are three escape hatches from subsistence farming. You can combine them in a world-building exercise to explain why people live in cities, hang out, and do cool things:
- A massive die-off that decimates populations and resets equilibriums. (See: the Black Death)
In the 14th century, the Black Death was an effective solution to an overpopulated Europe. However, the Black Death led to a full century of political and economic instability. Working a massive “dying off” it into the background of a world could mark a turning point for any civilization. Huge ecological niches + upgraded farm capacity + freed capacity == movement forward.
Technology is a way out, but technology requires the freed up capacity of non-food producing specialists to research, create, and mass produce. Non-food producing specialists need either highly extractive taxes to support them or a leap forward in technology to increase yields. At first, few non-producers can spend time on research. Should some invent something that increases yields or reduces dependencies on humans, non-food producers can spend more time researching. So it goes. The trick is to raise the number of calories produced/acre while decreasing the number of people required to farm those calories and making even more non-producing specialists.
Magic’s limits are the realm of imagination. Someone can magic up food. Get a wizard, and no one needs to farm except the poor dude doing the magicking-up. The whole town is free to do non-food-producing things. Everyone can specialize or research without worrying about their next meal. The single omnipotent, all-powerful wizard solution feels fragile: dependent on humans or singular specialized devices and difficult to mass-produce.
The trick is to establish magic that works like technology. Magic that doesn’t require a caster to maintain, or magic that works autonomously. Magic that is distributable, easy for anyone to use, and reproducible.
We’ve established: Worlds can escape the producer/non-producer trap with technology or suitable magic that works like technology. The more we crank up the automation, to fewer people need to grow calories, and more people can do more things.
A single wizard with the right weather spells could conceivably raise the density of the calories produced/acre and free up peasants to specialize into non-food manufacturing roles. Specialization will both increase the quality of life and bring a much more valuable trade good into the village. This creates a dependency on calories on the wizard.
The problem with wizards, though, is that spell-casting is still human labor. Either the peasants must pay the wizard enormous sacks of cash, imprison the wizard, strap him to a pole, and force him to cast his weather spells daily forever in some hellish torment, or the wizard must automate himself out of the picture.
Escape is through machines: reliable magical contraptions that vastly increase the calories produced per single laborer. This frees people up to specialize. The most fabulous magic item an adventurer can find in a dragon’s horde is an orb the conjures constant beautiful summer rainstorms on-demand or casts Mass Mage Hand. Or, a single, magical, fully autonomous combine harvester.
In the end, the adventures kill the goblins in the hills. They return to the Duke and receive their 50gp reward. Then, they are off to the next adventure. Eventually, either that strain of goblins starves completely, or other adventurers come along and hunt them to extinction.
Then, whatever nastiness pushed the goblins out of their ecological niche appears, and it’s hungry. It decides the villagers of Redwick are an acceptable source of protein. 100gp reward?
Why use all this stuff?
As we’ll see in the Wandering City example, not even highly magic-advanced or technologically-advanced societies escape the need to eat. Food governs how a society organizes itself. Societies are fragile, and disruptions bring about adventure, mayhem, or even the end.
It’s not necessary to build food production and calorie consumption into a world (although some RPGs like Blades in the Dark make it pretty explicit), but understanding food helps to understand some deeper motivations of people, trade and the state.
An Example: Wandering Cities:
Let’s answer these same questions for a more abstract example. Here’s the slug from the previous post on the Wandering Cities:
RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air. A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander. Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.
From a geographical disposition, the Cities exist on floating discs. The discos are about 10 miles wide in diameter. Technologically, the world feels like the first two decades of the 20th century. The world has ubiquitous magic (pervasive ubiquity.)
Let’s make these presumptions about the world:
With a low population, ten miles in diameter is enough to feed the entire population of a small, rural, floating town built around the local wizard shop. The disc has plenty of farming and grazing land. It gets plenty of rain and sun. With magic combines and high-yield feed, humans can subsist on the discs for decades if not centuries.
Over time, these settlements blossomed from tiny villages into metropolises. Towns grew and multiplied. They transformed into cities. For economic reasons, living on the discs offered more opportunity than living on the ground (TBD — placeholder as to why here).
With the growth of populations comes building. Over time, buildings encroach on the farming and pasture land. Today, the grazing pastures are gone. The sweeping farms disappeared. Real estate on the discs is worth vastly more than real estate on the ground.
On the discs, hardly anything grows that isn’t a weed or carefully manicured city-trees. People keep neither chickens nor cows. No one cultivates vast tracts of cloud corn. Except for private vegetable and community gardens, food must come either from farming-dedicated floating discos or from the ground.
As we’re thinking only in the context of food, let’s add some random color to this magic world:
- Magic-assisted mass farming and harvesting. Perhaps a kind of golem-like magic/robotic harvesters.
- Since the vibe is early 20th century we lean into the Grapes of Wrath. Barns full of broken robot junk. Farmers in weatherbeaten overalls fixing the combine golem with a wrench and sweat. Shotguns.
- Assume people in the floating cities eat typical Midwestern human food.
- Cities must get their food from the ground or client discs, as city real estate consumed all land.
- Airlift moves food from the ground to the sky on regularly scheduled shipments.
- The cities have massive food warehouses and food distribution centers to shift food from delivery to hungry mouths.
- The cities have a centralized market and distribution network to smaller markets in various city locales.
- The city is reliant on their system of food delivery never breaking down because if it does, people will starve.
- Cities could go to war over possession of the land on the ground or distribution networks in the sky.
- Are the airlifts planes? Blimps? Balloons?
We’ve now established:
- High population density in the city.
- Residential neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods.
- A societal split between disc-people and ground-people.
- Competition for on-land resources between multiple cities.
- City is 100% dependent on their ground-based possessions.
We haven’t established:
- Castes between the ground and the air;
- Why people live on discs;
- The magic that propels the discs and the machines;
- What mode of transport lifts food into the sky.
If we wanted to, we could start coloring in the lines. We could say that the cities all have their possessions and they fight each other over the best land. We already know the magic to keep cities aloft are from rare resources. We could add in blimps and balloons as the “trucks of the sky.” And make the warehouse districts the “bad” neighborhoods.
Everything in this world is a little fragile — and purposefully so. If everything worked perfectly all the time, there’d be no need for adventurers.