Friday, 4 October 2019

Booze as Treasure

Alcohol is important. 13,000 years ago people were using it to honour their dead (and presumably also to get pissed). More recently, it has had great commercial significance. I was reminded of this by the news that the US is putting a 25% import duty on whisky among other things produced in the EU in retaliation for subsidies given to Airbus. Apparently over £1 billion worth of whisky was exported from Scotland to the US last year. Next year we can presume it will be less. But it matters.

It mattered even more during the Middle Ages in Europe, when practically everybody drank only alcoholic drinks, and alcohol was the only way to ensure an unspoiled supply of hydration for sailors on long voyages. It was also in itself a powerful motivator to engage in trade and exploration overseas. Later, it became a luxury: I was going to say that Poet Laureates of England were originally paid with a butt of sherry or "sack" (I heard that this was worth in the region of £25,000 in today's money) but apparently they still are - 720 bottles' worth.

Alcohol has throughout our history been a safe way to hydrate oneself, a social glue, a religiously sacred substance (think of the Eucharist; think of the Incas drinking chicha at festivals to honour their gods), and a valuable commodity. We humans also just really like it.

Yet it does not generally appear in D&D treasure tables. Is this the result of a vestigal suspicion of alcohol in certain sections of the American midwestern culture that served as the crucible for the game? Is it because D&D has to appeal to "kids"? Is it just because "my character gets drunk" is one of the most annoying things that a player can do at the table and must be stamped out with extreme prejudice?

The logistics of transportation are what interest me the most. A butt of "sack" would weigh something like 500 kg. Smaller barrels like hogsheads are about 250 kg. They may be worth moving if they are going to be worth, say, £25,000 gold pieces. But the extraction of a 500 kg barrel from a dungeon is an adventure in itself.

But that's not to mention the other possibilities. What do the contents of a mighty wizard's wine cellar look like? What rarities are found within? More to the point: what do elves drink? What about orcs?

(Further reading: https://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-oenophile-campaign.html)


16 comments:

  1. It's a good point - and part of a broader one: a lot of treasure should be neither cash nor immediately useful. And it should be awkward to make off with, whether it's a life-size jade statue plundered from a shrine, a gilded sarcophagus or a crate of elf wine in oh-so-delicate bottles.

    I ran a Tunnels and Trolls game a few months back using the booze types here (https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2019/04/neutral-ground-dungeon-pub-mos-eisley.html).

    Much awkwardness ensued, along with a little flooding, after a PC troll went heavy on the Seal Breaker ...

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    1. The other ones are pottery and textiles.

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    2. Yes: anything fragile or breakable is great, because you can end up with a sort of Phyrric victory for the players: "You got the tapestries out of the castle, but after that fight with the fire-imps, all but one of them are irredeemably charred ...".

      There's a tremendous narrative impact in having the PCs get untold riches in their grasp but then ending up with only a fraction of them intact. And of course, if they do manage to preserve the pottery/textiles/500-year elfin vintage through a succession of perils, then they deserve the rewards they get.

      A slight variant on this that I had some fun with last year was "fairy gold". The PCs performed some service for some Jacks-in-the Green (https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2018/05/have-you-seen-jack-in-green.html), only to find that the ancient coins with which they were rewarded had turned to mud and twigs a few days later. By that point, of course, they'd already spent them, which meant that vengeful merchants had put a price on their heads ...

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  2. All sorts of common goods should be present as treasure... art and artifacts to religious relics (not expressly magical). Given how high status wine could be in Europe, it would certainly make sense for it, or spirits distilled from it to be treasure.

    And it is not just "vestigial" or "Midwestern" to dislike alcohol in the US. Per capita consumption in the US is very low compared to other places, 2016 WHO data puts the US at 125th in world wide consumption per capita. The US has several religious groups or sects that ban or restrict the use of alcohol by members. (not withstanding that the Lord blessed and drank wine, many churches use grape juice)

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    1. Yeah, although that's not just in the US. I was brought up going to a baptist church and we used to use Ribena for communion. (There was almost a perverse anti-catholicism in that, I think - I can remember once doing communion with orange juice because "there is no transubstantiation, it is just symbolic and could be anything".)

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  3. Interesting. I’ve always littered my adventure locations with liquor.

    The last session we had, there was a beer shortage which led the players on to discover an enemy army and then go on a voyage to import their own. Viz https://treasurehuntershq.blogspot.com/2019/09/actual-play-report-fallen-empire.html?m=1

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  4. Three things important to remember about the US in this context, two more generally. a) Water supplies with low historical population densities meant low loading of human compatible pathogens. The water available when colonists were forming the early communities meant that people could actually live off it. b) The combination of movement of individuals and mixtures of cultures meant that oral history was very nearly entirely reset. Americans retain in oral history American history, but other stuff is basically gone. So American cultural influences are/were heavily based on stuff proven to function in America, with much less outside inertial influence. c) Mixing of cultures meant that many mechanisms functional in original cultures were not in the new one. This meant a combination of 'lowest common factor' and new mechanisms. In particular, regulation of violence and regulation of drinking were both not exactly the same as originally. There were some very violent hard drinking cultures. Other mixed cultures were seen as more appropriate for settled areas. Some of the areas that now have mores described as /Midwestern/ had relatively recently had that frontier culture to settled culture transition. But why don't you see that in $BigCoastalCity? Later waves of immigration that were closer to a tribal movement carried more of the original mores with them. See South Boston for an extreme case. You have enclaves that couldn't function as well in the wider mixed culture, and city specific mixed cultures that have strongly diverged from the historical mixed cultures.

    And that's without going into some of the more recent history of alcohol in America, which explains more differences of mores, but also involves controversial topics.

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    1. Prohibition is a fascinating concept - whenever I think about it the more astonishing it is. They actually tried to do that - crazy.

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  5. For alcohol keeping bacteria out it's easy to overstate that. A lot of people watered their wine and if you do that the alcohol doesn't have much time to kill off ths bugs. Also you generally don't want bacteria in the beer water (brewing liquor) before you brew it so you're going to kill it with heat that'd kill the bugs in tea the same way.

    For D&D my monkey wine is still remembered. Had communal hive moneys that'd vomit up fruit in pits and let it ferment and the players looted that after smoking the monkeys out with marijuana looted for the men of the forest (hairy freaks clothed only in their long beards).

    Having bulky treasure makes for fun logistics but bulky fragile treasure is even better. So yay for butts of wine.

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  6. Treasure-wise, alcohol is fantastic but don't forget the other types of drugs as well. Opium, tobacco, mushrooms, exotic setting-specific narcotics-- transporting them out of the dungeon usually isn't much of a challenge, but that's where the paraphernalia comes in. Ostentatious pipes 6 feet long, awkward/fragile hookah setups trimmed with gold and velvet, etc.

    RE alcohol culture: There's still weird, remnant traces of prudishness about alcohol in the U.S. but one thing I'll defend is the drinking age. It sucks when you're 18 but once you're in your 20s you look around the bar and think, "Hey, there's no teenagers in here... This is kinda nice!"

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  7. I would think it mostly had to do with carrying. It's one thing to say treasure doesn't always have to be in the form of a bag of gold or a handful of gems. It's another to say it's in the form of 50 barrels of wine in a cellar that will need to be transported by a party that likely isn't prepared to transport such a load.

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  8. "ordinary" alcohol can become a lot more interesting/practical yet problematic as treasure if you aren't a bunch of footpads, but a bunch of *pirates* - ie you have a ship and crew. Stealing 10 tons of rum is very doable!

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