Homeless in Fantasy RPGs

VagabondsMy wife is a veterinarian who helps out with a local organization called Street Petz in Colorado Springs, CO. She and her volunteers go out once a week to help out the homeless population downtown and their pets by providing food, vaccines, and whatever supplies they can. She also gives blankets, water, socks, some food, and whatever she can to the homeless themselves. I’ve met a few of them and many are kind folks just trying to get by. They are people and deserve our help if it’s within our power to provide it.

But it’s left me wondering about the many homeless populations that must exist in fantasy RPGs and why we don’t usually see them appear in our campaigns and adventures.

Take a common scenario we see again and again. Bandits. Marauders. Barbarians. Swoop into a village, take what they want, and set fire to the rest. If you’re lucky enough to survive, you’re likely hurt, your family is dead or missing, and your home is destroyed. Or take the Robin Hood scenario. Good men, women, and families taxed to the brink of starvation and death flee for their lives as their homes, livestock, and more are possessed in lieu of payment. Again, the strong take what they want from the weak and leave them to fend for themselves. What happens to these people? Where do they go?

If you’re in an urban environment, imagine the devastation from a simple fire burning out of control through a group of houses. Just like today, those people may lose loved ones, but more than likely they lose their property and homes, with nowhere to turn for help. Again, I’m wondering where these folks go. Does anybody help them? Do they get justice or help in any form?

So let’s take a look at a few possible angles from which to tackle this question.

First, if it’s a wilderness setting, there’s always the camping alternative. Imagine a hidden camp area where folks gather, share resources, and work together to survive. Would these people be fearful of outsiders? You bet. Whether you represent the law or not, they’re going to be reluctant to let anyone in to take advantage of whatever they have left. Even if all they have left is a shred of dignity, they’re going to hold onto that and likely fight for it to the bitter end.

I could see an adventure where the PCs are asked to investigate some bandit activity and come across a burned out village. They might track the survivors down to one of these camps and ask some questions to determine who the bandits were or where they came from. Then they could track the bandits down and remove the threat so the villagers could return and try to rebuild their lives if they chose to do so.

Or your PCs may simply run across some displaced individuals along the road. Where did they come from? Can the PCs help? Where are they going?

Second, maybe we’re dealing with a rural setting. Farms and ranches. Sometimes a kind family will take in those affected by tragedy and help them out for a time. They may even be integrated into their daily lives, helping out with chores and jobs, or building new lives with their benefactors. Like in the camp situation, bonds will be formed and they will become protective of one another if things are going well. Or if they aren’t, they’re likely to turn out the troublemakers quickly.

Imagine an investigation into a series of deaths in the vicinity that all started when a family farm was decimated by wild creatures. The PCs may have to talk to many local farms or ranches in the area to figure out where any survivors went and then see if one of them perhaps caused the initial incident and the following murders. I can see resistance to the idea that “one of their own” would do such a thing…

Third, let’s look at an urban setting like a town or city. Larger civilized population centers typically have one or more spots where homeless tend to congregate. Unless the local police force is really draconian about their policies, homeless may group near bridges, drainage areas, parks, or even on church grounds. A homeless population may form a community in the wilderness beside a town or city. And again, most will try to keep to themselves and avoid trouble if at all possible.

An adventure idea here may revolve around an arsonist destroying homes in town and forcing people onto the streets. Can the PCs determine where the survivors are? Will the survivors give them any clues they may have? And can they stop the madness before more people become homeless?

Though all of these ideas are fairly dark and gritty, each offers some interesting ways to work ethical and moral dilemmas into a campaign world. Will a local government help or hinder an investigation? What are the laws like? How corrupt are any local officials? Plus, you have plenty of room to make the homeless in your worlds a part of the tapestry, with plenty of colorful characters with dark pasts and potential links to other adventures…

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!

One thought on “Homeless in Fantasy RPGs

  1. You’re forgetting the feudal aspect of the setting. They show up as refugees on their lord’s doorstep, because that’s the bargain– they provide taxes and fealty, he provides security and shelter in the case of these situations you mention.

    In some cases, the people were even considered a resource, part of the lord’s property in an abstract way. At the very least, he cannot collect taxes from dead people, and so it’s in his best interest to get them set back up.

    Homeless, in the beggar’d, street people sense, would only exist in larger urban environments, and then only in those places where central authority had broken down, because if you’re living on the street, unable to pay taxes or have a place to live, you’re going to end up as a slave or a conscript in the military, or dead.

    The sort of homeless we have now are an aspect of the veneer of civilization we’ve created. For the last 4900 years, more or less, the people in the situations you’ve described would be made into forced labor by those with more power.

    -Ben.

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