Of the many different aspects of a roleplaying campaign that contribute to its “success”, or the overall enjoyment of the players, one which I have often found makes a huge difference is the richness of the setting. Now, I have talked before of trying to breathe life into the opponents through detailing their culture. But it is also important to detail the culture and society in which the players exist.
It’s funny that, in so many cases, GM’s rely on fantasy tropes and expect the players to know the basic way everything is situated, perhaps making a change here or there to give it something unique. But often these changes are without subtlety and break the player’s immersion. May I counsel against doing anything hugely weird like “The world is run by Dragons!” or “Wizards everywhere! Magic runs everything!” There is room for subtlety.
But where are we to go for ideas for subtle but memorable details in our games? May I suggest GM’s look through the vast unplumbed depths of history? And I’m not just suggesting reading about warfare and political intrigue, fun though that might be.
In my wanderings among the deepest corners of the internets, just for one example, I have come across this lovely set of videos. It is about a bunch of people who have come together to do some “experimental archaeology” – in fact, they are attempting to build a castle. From scratch. Using the techniques of the original castle builders. Watching them gives a real feel for the time period and the little details which marked industry and daily life at the time.
With a little creativity one could easily transpose these details into your medieval style game, or use it as a spark to creativity. Consider, for example, a number of workers gathering sand for the building of the castle are scared away from the riverbank by something dark and unpleasant spotted in the water. Or perhaps the treadmill at the top of the wall is sabotaged, leading to the deaths of a couple of workers and the destruction of some vital supplies. Perhaps the PC’s could be tasked with finding out who did it. Perhaps you could go an even more subtle route and have your PC’s be in charge of the construction. Roleplay could focus around keeping the disparate characters motivated, healthy and happy and working together despite a number of challenges to the status quo. Up the challenge level a bit by rumours of war in the offing, the Lord for whom the castle is being built getting anxious and demanding construction be sped up. Perhaps a cathedral is being built nearby and your master masons are being poached to work on that project instead.
These are only the beginning of the possibilities. And it’s only one form of medieval industry that has sparked all of these ideas. A little searching into other historical industries might prove fruitful for a raft of other setting details and story ideas.