The rogues in D&D play a very important role, but often that role is from a very meta point of view. The guilds don’t really seem to feature that much in games and the soft underbelly of cities is not always prominent. With that in mind here are some ideas about how to add a little more life into the darker areas of your D&D cities. I am using Elizabethan times as the basis and this is by no means the only way that you can do this. This is just some of my thoughts on the topic. There are many ways a GM can go about it. Also keep in mind this is for RPG’s and not your history exam.
Historically big cities were substantially smaller than their counterparts today. They lacked infrastructure but also like cities today had to deal with growth. Construction is quite common but almost completely absent from RPG cities. London was huge by the standards of the day. It beat any in Europe and dwarfed others in Britain like Bristol. When there are large cities there is nearly always a reason for it. Other than that, lots of people live there. With London it had the Thames River which connected to the Channel and the seats of power.
One way to make your fantasy cities more alive is to consider what has made them grow, why are people coming to it. With the Thames it was a route to the sea, travel along its course and a big one was trade. The merchants, the type of merchants and how they interact with the city will give it some of its characteristics. It's also an idea to pick a couple of unique good and bad things. The famous London Frost Fairs which were held on the frozen river are a brilliant and unique place for characters to be. The real ones did not happen anywhere near as often as popular legend however. As a bad trait London did not have a lot of sanitation and the horrendous stench is legendary. This affects health, drinking water, and a general view of how the city would be seen.
Now it's also good to mix things up within the races too. While it is certainly easy to make all Elf cities smell of botanical gardens and Elvish maidens like the fields after a storm, but the contrast of making all human cities smell of mud and sewage can be a little extreme. Better to mix it up. Some human cities certainly would be in dire need of sanitation. Others though, especially ones with a lot of artists would probably have their own form of beauty.
London was a walled city for quite a while. Some common areas are named after the gate's location. Aldgate, Aldergate, Bishopgate, Cripplegate. These gates would be closed at nightfall. There were prisons within the city, not merely simple town watch cells. These were Ludgate and Newgate prisons. As well as a hospital if one can call it that. The Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem. Its history was long but it would become a place to treat the insane. Over time its name would also change and it would be referred to as Bedlam. If you have ever heard the phrase it's Bedlam here meaning the place is crazy. The Hospital is its origin.
Another thing to consider is how civilized your city is. This is two fold. A: How civilized is it and B How civilized do its citizens consider it to be. This can create some interesting nuances to the game. As an example London bridge used to have the heads of traitors on display. Slowly rotting on poles. The citizens did not consider themselves uncivilized even with such a practice being commonplace.
Even with London Bridge being accessible there was still a large amount of water taxis. Passage could be bought quite cheaply and the question all GM’s should ask is how they want to handle currency. D&D has very much focused on gold as the currency of choice, but there are benefits to moving the scale from Gold to Silver to Copper. For most common folk they wouldn’t work in Gold. For poor folk Copper would be the norm. If you want to mix your games up a little, taking a look at currency can be a good way to do it.
London did not have many true streets. It had a lot more alleyways and these were often a muddy mess when it rained. These were also the dumping grounds for human waste. Much of this was ignored until The Great Plague forced change upon the populace.
The markets were a huge mix of sights and sounds and it’s something
Most games don’t really do. To start with, the sellers would often be hawking their wares. From medicine to book sellers their cries filled the air. Blacksmiths at work and the constant clang of hammer on metal and the chimney sweeps plying their trade. Fire was a very real danger in these old cities. But there was also a large entertainment quality to the whole thing. Musicians and puppeteers were popular. London’s markets were a thing to be experienced.
Guilds are a great way of adding extra flavour to your games. I think it is also important to break those “know it all players” from the molds that they lock themselves in. For a game all about imagination, there are some who are amazingly rigid and inflexible. That there are no underworld guilds other than THE Thieves Guild and it has to be the Zhentarim. There can most certainly be lots of Underworld guilds. They might not all get along or may vie for power. They can be slightly or drastically different from city to city. This can be based on cultural bias. Be creative with the guilds.
London had a large criminal populace and the law enforcement of their day was not as diligent nor were they as organized as those of today. One of the most famous is a man called Laurence Pickering. He would hold gatherings at his house. Would be targets, money making plans and law enforcement activities would be discussed. They also had their own safe houses to hide when needed. The risk reward of their activities is hard to ascertain. How well does the average cut purse do? Were all their efforts just to survive with a little to spare? The risks on the other hand were high. Punishments were severe. Whipping, torture, branding were common place for those caught.
Laurence Pickering’s organization though has all the hallmarks of a fantasy guild and it is worth emulating. The problem with the Zhentarium in many D&D games is they are very much in the open as are the Rogues themselves. I think this creates some real problems that for the most part people overlook. I prefer to use the faction as the public face and keep it on the legal side of things. Whereas the real guilds hide in the shadows. Yet the safe houses, meetings, planning, organizing thefts, different members and groups working together are excellent things to add to darker guilds.
Another area to consider for cities is the church. In London St Pauls Cathedral was very important and a true architectural wonder. It has gone through several changes throughout its life. And It did not always have its famous dome. It played an important part in the life of London and the church wielded considerable power. The rich would have their sermons within its wall and the poor in the churchyard. It was also a place where important news would be reported on. It was at St Pauls that word came that the Spanish invasion fleet had been defeated. Business would often be conducted there and sellers would always be close as it was a popular and required destination. There are also periods where gallows were setup on its grounds. While Tyburn is the most famous of the hanging grounds there would often be temporary ones. On the law day there could be up to 30 people hanged for various crimes.
From a fantasy viewpoint the church has always been relegated to a distant position. Which is somewhat amusing considering in many fantasy settings there is no doubt that the gods exist. Classes like Cleric and Paladin rely on their deities for their magic. The healing the Clerics provide, the protection from the undead. Would give them a very solid position in which to flex their political muscles. In the city does one deity have a stronger foothold over the others? Does it have a church or a cathedral? If it does have more power how is that power manifested? For good or ill? Does that influence extend to outlying regions? How the church is interpreted in the city will have big ramifications.
All cities should be complex. More than the surface complexities of economics and who rules it. But rather the choices that have to be made to make it function. If the law can’t fully control it, what do they do? Have they made a deal with the devil? How does church and state see each other? Do they work together or oppose one another? How do the poor fit into the grand picture as there isn’t a city where the poor have not shaped the city's direction in one way or another. And in all of the mix the Underworld and their guilds watch and wait for the right time to profit.
Location location location. In D&D a great many cities in games are treated as one location. In reality they tend to be several very different districts all within one overall geographical location. Often these districts form along economic lines rich and poor or ethnic lines. China town as an example.
Elves are not the best example as they tend to be portrayed the same across the board where their cities are concerned. But human and Dwarven cities could certainly be broken up into rich and poor districts. These districts have their own feel to them. In Elizabethan times, one of the most important businesses that flourished was the brothel.
In London’s case the red light district was over the river. Close enough to be reached but a little out of sight. There was a great deal of hypocrisy involved with the policing and handling of the issue. There was a lot of money to be made. This sometimes led to public condemnation yet private support. Though even elements of the church were divided on how to deal with the issue. As were various rulers. Another problem was the Police for the day did not technically have jurisdiction in Southwark (suth-eck)though they did conduct raids from time to time.
Bard’s are considered an excellent profession in most fantasy games. The reality was not always the case. The excellent Shakespeare in love sums it as “The Master of the Revels despises us all for vagrants and peddlers of bombast. But my father, James Burbage, had the first license to make a company of players from Her Majesty, and he drew from poets the literature of the age. We must show them that we are men of parts. Will Shakespeare has a play. I have a theatre. The Curtain is yours.” This can add a very interesting element to a game. How does the populace see Bards and what they do? Does the Church or ruling body of the city see them differently? And how do the Bards themselves react to how they are perceived. Now the views of the day were not entirely baseless. The now famous Globe Theater was located in Southwark (suth-eck), today this area is Bankside. To further muddy the issue Philip Henslow also owned a brothel. One of his rivals The Curtain Theater which featured in the movie Shakespeare in Love was thought by some to be little more than a waiting room for the nights continued entertainment.
They were closed for a short period of time by Henry the 8th, at least officially. They would have still existed but for that period they were deemed illegal. This was removed after he died and Edward 6th became king. He was a very young king. He died at age 15 but in his short reign he proved to be a dangerous individual.
Sexually transmitted diseases were considered divine in nature and a punishment for those of low moral fibre who conducted themselves in lechery. In game terms this one is hard to use. A GM can certainly make Clerics of certain deities not treat a character. Others would have a care of compassion regardless of how someone contracted the disease or what profession they did. Either way it's a very delicate thing to bring into a game as it is very easy to become comical which I feel is a bad way to handle it. A GM’s group would need to be very comfortable with each other as well. But one big question if not the biggest question is why use it? There has to be a solid reason and one that brings something important to the game by its inclusion. If the why can’t be answered, then I would leave it out in any meaningful way.
It took till 1550 for Southwark (suth-eck) to become officially part of London. The area councillors had to pay quite a sizable sum to do so. From a gaming perspective there is a great deal of grey area to play with here. The city and bards, the various churches and their relationship and the view of brothels. And are any of the wards not part of the city? If not, why? And how does the populace feel about it?
The brothels were a very real part of Elizabethan culture. They generated a staggering amount of money all told, though not always to the prostitutes themselves. The patrons were across all classes, and the brothels ultimately survived the pox and all attempts to close them down.
In a game sense brothels can be a front for the guilds. A cover; albeit a profitable one for their other illegal operations. They can be a place of information gathering and political maneuvering as one tries to frame an opponent in blackmail.
Yet it is essential to not make light of these places. If it is a group where all the players are familiar with one another then a GM or player can do almost any story. RPG’s are an amazing storytelling device that can cover the full range of emotions. If it is a convention or store game of random people a GM should use common sense on what is appropriate. Still having said all that I feel it is vital that a GM and players treat these situations with a level of sensitivity. The punishments for the prostitutes could be harsh. Public humiliation in the form of being paraded in wooden carts through the street was common. If the individual was deemed to be not responding to the punishment, as in being caught again they could be tied behind the cart where many would fall and be dragged. Women would often have their heads shaved and whipping was not uncommon. These were real people who suffered, and suffered in an environment of incredible hypocrisy as the punishers could very well also be patrons.
Life was much more difficult for the Elizabethans. Today’s food, medicine and overall prosperity were undreamed of to the people of old. Our cities are immense in comparison and work and staying alive was even less of a guarantee. There was little in the way of free time and it would be the Church on Sunday’s which would prove to be time of meeting. The biggest form of entertainment back then was the fair. Today these are little more than a few travelling rides, games and food vendors and often with a poor reputation, not always fairly given. But these fairs that appear now and again in mall car parking lots can trace their lineage back hundreds of years to when they were the pinnacle of entertainment.
Some of these were quite elaborate and included a varied form of vendors and entertainment. They were not popular with the authorities though as they felt it brought crime. Which it certainly did at times. Vagrancy was a crime and the forging of papers among other items was also something the authorities were concerned followed in the Fairs footsteps, which it did. There were few social safeguards like there are today. If people didn’t have lodgings or work they would find themselves very much at the mercy of the law and society. It seldom ended well in such cases.
The Fair’s brought with them a lot of money into the region and the St Bartholomew’s monks profited well from taking a fee from the traders. In the beginning the grounds and the church were used and it was far more focused on the selling of goods. It was more a large market but as the years progressed it became more what we think of when we consider Fair’s. By that time the church itself would not be used by any of the vendors.
There was an unusual legal structure as well. There was a court known as the Court of Pie-Powder. The court sat only during the time of the fair and only had jurisdiction over the fair. Overall the charges were most often commercial in nature. If the crime was serious enough, escaping from the Fair would only put the individual in the jurisdiction of the regular law officers. Men not known for being very sympathetic.
One of the more common trades at Fair’s was that of the Horse Market and it was every bit the forerunner of the used car salesman involving all sorts of tricks to try and make a bad horse appear better than it was.
In the RPG setting the Fair’s are not often used. Markets are commonplace but not Fair’s. Adding one can add a different take on a familiar element. They are nomadic by nature so the arrival of a Fair can add some excitement to the locals. There is the market component and it is a good opportunity to add some items that might not regularly appear in the region. Mixed with that are buskers, and small plays, musicians, fortune tellers and tumblers. A criminal element can be added. Cut purses and swindlers, money lenders and the guilds. A lot can be done in and around the Fair.
When looking at Magic in this case things will get a little murky. In the Elizabethan age magic was largely considered good magic if it was ritualistic and done by the church. Exorcism, healing, blessing and so on. This was changed by the Church of England which saw things very differently. On the other side was bad magic which was everything else. Now it gets a bit murky here because in high fantasy settings magic is very real. Its a base part of the world. It's a basic part of daily life. Most people don’t have the use or understanding of magic. But they are very aware of magic both from Mages and the Divine. The gods are real, their power manifested not by faith but in very real and tangible ways through their Paladins, clergy and Clerics. Sometimes though rare as the gods are often doing godly things they have appeared before people. Sometimes when the occasion is one of great need but sometimes at their festivals. There is no doubt that they exist. So this creates a different setting baseline than it does in the real world.
Seers, Wise Women, conjurors, Sorcerers, Shamen and witches are all commonplace. In the 1500’s they would be charged with Witchcraft. Even then there was a distinction between light and dark magic. White magic was thought of as beneficial and Black as corrupting. There are instances though where some of these individuals seemed to exist within society and were not persecuted and occasionally were sought after by the authorities for help. It could have been the differences between the official stance to the day to day realities. Many of the “cunning men” or Wise Women as they were commonly known was their use of charms. It was these charms. These would cover every facet that you could think of. Healing animals and people, potions, especially of the love variety. Though I think that alcohol became the love potion of choice. Its effects though are short lived and come most often with regret. Where this gets interesting is where these individuals con artists who knew they had no actual power. Did they actually believe they did? Doctors of the day were a very mixed bag of talent and many beliefs were not beneficial. Did these local charmers by luck or understanding through the use of herbs were able to actually bring about some positive medical help or were they one of the first adaptors of the Placebo.
One of the saddest things with the Witch hunts is that they targeted the vulnerable. The women were not powerful individuals, they were poor, no family, vagrants. They may have picked up other strays like themselves in the form of a cat, mouse or weasel. Their life would not have been easy and years like that could well have made them appear and sound odd to those that encountered them. These all played into the popular idea of a witch with her familiar. By 1736 when Witchcraft was finally deemed not to be a crime there had been around 500 cases examined. More than 200 hundred were convicted and 109 were hanged. As terrible as this was it pailed when compared to Europe where in just 15 years 900 were burned at the stake at Lorraine (loren). The charges were easier to bring in the more remote villages and records may not have been kept so true numbers are always something of a debate.
Torture was not popular in England as a means to gain a confession, though the often mocked water method was. This idea was so devoid of logic that it is difficult to believe that even in the 1600’s that it was even considered let alone used. To test if the individual was a Witch they would be cast into the river. If they floated the only possible reason is they are a Witch. If they drowned then lucky for them they are innocent. There was money to be made as a Witch however and there is no shortage of known frauds who made coins in the profession. Considering the dangers of the Witch Finder General and the penalties that came with being charged with being a Witch meant that either the reward was worth the risk or they were not thinking this through clearly.
From a RPG side this sort of thing is more difficult. If two groups worship the same deity and disagree and move towards violence if it is a good deity they may just appear and put a stop to it. Many of the base things that had these poor women burned at the stake or hung, are in D&D an accepted and commonplace occurrence. There could be pockets of areas or some individuals in power who see magic and mages as evil. They might be deranged and think that they are saving them by killing them. Sometimes great stories can come from terrible events. But know why you're doing it and don’t just include something terrible for the sake of it. As always if the subject is going to be a horrific one or difficult emotional one then I strongly suggest not doing it with a random group. For a group you know well just talk with them. As a GM you do not have to give away your plot but you can sound them out on the idea of the adventure. Sometimes players just need a little forewarning for a difficult scene so it's not suddenly thrust upon them. I have never had a group say no to any story idea I have put forward. But it is always important and fair to discuss difficult situations with them beforehand to get the ok to proceed with that particular adventure.
From around 1650 to 1750 Astrology was quite popular. This is something we don’t see often in RPG’s and the conflicts that sometimes surround it. The church opposed Astrology. This was for a host of reasons. The church and Astrologers might be having different interpretations of the same events. As it was popular and people were wanting good news they went where they might be more likely to get it. This was lowering the power of the church and that wasn’t something that they were content with. Astrology was also divination and that raised the question: was it magic?
The idea of Astrology though was very old by the 16th century. The problem was that it was popular with all walks of life. From the labourers to the nobility there were enough supporters of it to make it somewhat mainstream. Banning it then would have been difficult. In RPG terms not all games have defined the night sky. In which case the GM would have to make a lot of stuff up and that maybe more hassle than it is worth.If they are willing to fudge it or an imaginative Seer player could find some fun and uniqueness at the table by incorporating the stars in their Divinations.
The War of the RRose was one of the bloodiest in English history. When it finally came to an end Henry the VII made a concerted effort to stop noble armies. This he reasonably managed to do. The one massive downside was that there were now a lot of unemployed soldiers who also didn’t have a barracks. While not all of them turned to banditry there was certainly an increase in violent incidents.
There was also the closure of the Monasteries which put the workers there out of a job. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a complicated affair that took buildings and land from the Roman Catholic Church as England split from the faith. This was done over a handful of years under order from Henry VIII with the aid of Thomas Cromwell who would go on to lose his head for high treason. Though he never did stand trial for the charge.
Many of these individuals found their way to plying the highways. Though in this era the term highway is loose at best. Travel was not the easiest thing to accomplish and that was before the threat of highwaymen. There were few properly paved roads even within London, for the rest there were only 4 actual roads which were built by...yep the Romans. Most roads were mere tracks carved by the traffic that travelled them. There was an initiative where parishes would become responsible for their area of road and a surveyor of highways would be selected to see the work done. In reality there was a lot of corruption. The Highwayman rarely killed those they robbed if they gave no trouble. While it could be a somewhat lucrative endeavour and some had informers at the Beerhouses watching for good marks. But for all that the penalty would be death if they were caught so it was not a business that one could expect to stay in for long.
From a RPG perspective the taverns can be a somewhat under utilized establishment. They certainly feature heavily in nearly every fantasy game. We tend to treat them more as a modern bar. There certainly is the meeting, social and drinking aspect to it. There is more to it than that though. It can be a place of gossip and local news and information. It can be a place for bandit informers to be looking for possible targets. The views of the region would be important in the Taverns. How do the PC’s look compared to the locals? Do they stand out, are there unusual races in the party? Does that affect how they are viewed or business conducted? For many goal orientated parties the tavern is something to do for 5 min to get a job and be on their way. But if you are a RP group then consider adding some more depth to the Tavern and you may find that they spend a while there. Which keeps the players entertained and the GM has some time to prepare the next bit.
There was not exactly a police force as we are accustomed to. In the outlying regions they were often small or singular in nature and considered a bit of a joke. In London they were rough, difficult and corrupt. If one did harm to you or your property there was little that could be done. You could bring a charge against someone and more than likely would have to pay. There are recorded instances of the person meant to be arrested paying the authorities to walk away. If you didn’t have the money then you were at the mercy of every rogue who wanted to exploit or harm you.
There were fourteen prisons and there was very little oversight. The Prison Sgt’s were cruel and corrupt for the most part and time in a London prison was not about rehabilitation. Where a prisoner ended up had little to do with the crime or the sentence but was rather related to how much money he had available for his lodging. The movie Plunkett and Mclean shows this. Everything had a cost. There was no regular money from the government to cover food and supplies. If the prisoners could not pay they would find themselves in the lowest place of prison accommodation. Food would be poor and irregular and there are cases of prisoners dying in winter as they were not given blankets. Illness was common and sanitation non-existent. Abuse and corruption were the order of the day and there was little that could be done as there was no regulation board to hold the goals accountable. They were a business unto themselves.
There was surprising charity in the day. People would give coins to the prisoners to buy food, or give them food or clothing. In an era that was dramatically cold, grim and oppressive when compared to today the idea that people could see within themselves and in that to give to those they deemed less fortunate is an interesting state of the human condition.
Prisons tended to be places of holding and prisoners could find themselves there for unspecified periods of time. Newgate prison was the dreaded one as it was Newgate that was the home for people who were charged. That was usually a kind of death row before being hanged. Though that was not the only form of execution.
Standard detention in RPG’s is probably fine. A GM could certainly include some corruption, but the prison standards of the Elizabethan period were one of total oppression, inhumane and horror. There are certainly stories to be told there but the GM must be very sure why they are taking that direction and depending upon the severity certainly speak to the players beforehand.
So I have reached the end of my tankard. I hope you have enjoyed our time together but I must bid you farewell.