Starting Characters: Freedom of Movement

Alex Greene's picture

What is the best way to create adventurers, given that the average character seems to be stuck in a role written for them by the feudal society they grew up in?

As runaways, they would be hunted down by the local Sheriff and brought back in disgrace to spend a week in a pillory before being sent back to the fields to work for the vassal as their property, in effect.

What are the best ways to break that chain and give the characters the freedom to explore the world, and get into trouble of course?

Balesir's picture

I think it depends heavily on what sort of game you want to run. Here are a few I have used or seriously considered:

- The PCs are siblings; roll once per player for a family background and pick one to go with for all PCs.

- The PCs are all in some particular guild, grouping or 'profession'; roll for origins, rerolling those that really don't fit the chosen theme. This might vary from "any serfs reroll" for a game of knights/soldiers, to 'anyone posh rerolls" for a game of Lia-Kavair, to "any origin is fine with good Aur" for a game of Shék-Pvâr.

- The game is about PCs from specific strata of society; create an origin table from the global origin tables including only those specific origins of interest.

- The game is about a totally random group that just happen to get together; roll origin for everyone randomly and use session 0 to figure out how they came to meet up and be free...

McBard's picture

Although you don't explicitly refer to unfree characters in your OP, Alex, you do mention "runaways", which brings to mind the age-old question of how to incorporate unfree (serf) characters into a campaign. The section Unfree Characters on page Pregame 2 of HMgPlayer seems to imply several options:

1) The classic running away solution (spending a year and day in a freetown seems to set a serf free - see the sidebar on the same page). This has always struck me as THE campaign rather than a pre-game detail! Anyway, your campaign would begin with the unfree character incognito in the settlement, which would bring about the hunt by the Sheriff etc throughout the game, as you mention.

2) Another option: since an unfree tenant is a "valuable commodity" to the lord (as Pregame 2 puts it), perhaps the lord would willingly send an unfree character on some sort of mission or charge them with accompanying other free characters. That is, the serf is granted permission to leave as part of a group of other (free) PC characters from the manor. This would rely on the serf in question not being needed for labour, as mentioned.

3) Another intriguing option implied by the Pregame 2 paragraph: apparently the serf could "legally obtain permission from the lord" to leave. Perhaps the PC's parents are well-respected serfs and so the lord grants their (PC) offspring permission to leave. This would seem to be temporary but perhaps not (depending on the reason).

4) The paragraph also mentions the unfree character's family "buying him [or her] freedom". This solution probably depends on the PC's Estrangement with the parents – it might happen if Popular but would more likely require Favoured status.

5) The small GM example in the same section implies that an unfree peasant could "join the militia for a few years". I had never thought of this happening -- but it's a version of Solution 2, above.

In summary, if you're like me, I've always stereotyped Solution 1 as the only option for unfree characters -- I guess I had never carefully read the section on Pregame 2, but there seem to be quite a few viable options for how to get serfs into trouble in the outside world.

Durandal_1707's picture

The previous comments provide some insight; the Pregame section is a little brief as to offer much in the way of feasibility as to how a unfree character wouldn't get caught, then again, considering the amount of wilderness altogether, in theory, a competent character able to subsist on trappings and forage, would be able to outlast pursuers to the point where the mesne lord would see it more economical to halt the pursuit, as hiring the extra help to catch the fugitive could get expensive; at least in "Hârnonomics".

Factually, speaking, though, the manorial system as described and the population figures don't make much sense in HârnMaster. It is written that unfree labour is a valuable and scarce resource and a lord will go through much lengths to reacquire their serfs. The thing is, historically, when there were labour shortages, that was when the serfs had the most power to bargain. Before the Black Death in Europe, the tyranny of many Feudal Lords and Absolutism was at its peak. Serf rights (and they did have them) were at a low point, because the population of Europe had reached a tipping point during the Warm Period where there was much growth and development, so there was the advantage clearly in the lord's favour. He could kill/maim a serf to set an example of fear and not see a significant loss in crop output because there were so many serfs already on the manor; in short, there was a labour surplus. The lord didn't need the serf as much as the serf needed the lord for protection from brigands, hostile military forces, and so on; such was the entire basis for the Feudal and Manorial system in the first place; people volunteered to be serfs (beyond those who were agricultural slaves in the Roman/post-Roman period set out in the Diocletian reforms) to get the protection of a trained, armed military figure and his retinue in return for the serf farming the land and providing sustenance for the lord and the lord's retinue (and compensating for his expenses).

After the Black Death, surviving mesne lords now found that they hardly had a labour pool to draw from after it was over with (not to mention the endemic warfare of the Hundred Years War, and Chevauchée raids had devastated many manors, or otherwise produced a lot of debt all round), and if they wanted to have food on their table while meeting their obligations they had to make to their tenants, by custom and law, they had to actually make concessions to their serfs. This meant manumission to Freehold status, or to let the serf go completely, if that was their wish, for a payment (given the aforementioned, the coin in hand was very much desired to pay off a liege lord, or some moneylender, or whomever, or simply to get by and provide for oneself and consolidate one's lands as catastrophic famines began to strike as well, as land became less productive, so enclosure became more and more common, anyway, eventually leading to serfdom becoming forcibly obsolete with forced evictions), or bigger grants of land or privileges and so on. So, it isn't so radical to have an unfree individual negotiate freedom in lean times if there was a shortage of labour, contrary to what the source material actually implies; a lord would be more amenable, in fact, to hearing such a proposition than denying such and forcing a desperate scenario of running away from the manor.

Still, I think this belies a certain point that cheapens the difficulty of rolling up an unfree character that needs and should be faced and played through, rather than glossed over, and is part of the magic of HârnMaster, rather than the burden. There is actually so much that can be explored and can be done and staged to happen solely on an individual manor in the way of "adventure" as we traditionally know it, and dramatics, as well as slice of life, mystery, romance, action, comedy, and every other such genre out there, that I think it's a mistake to overlook the possibilities as a GM of simply saying: "We're going to being sticking close to the manor for awhile, actually...". Not everything has to be the grand quest for the MacGuffin, which is what makes HârnMaster so great. One Spring in 720 TR, the players, all more or less Serfs on a manor in [Insert HârnWorld location here] wake up, and that's when they find out...[Insert event here - using the words: "...that's when the murders began..." is always a fantastic jumping off point sure to get things moving at pace]. A wolf could be dragging people off to their deaths; a lunatic could be...the lord could be some sick deviant murdering his own people...some cult could be stealing off sacrifices. Here is actually where some ordinary serfs, bound to work the land, but staying within the general confines of the village could, through exemplary efforts around the manor, actually earn manumission, by showing heroic deeds in action by solving a certain problem and ending a crisis perhaps with their peers, free or unfree as it may be.

Alex Greene's picture

My signature character, Oshynn of Llysgaled, begins play at the tender age of twelve, virtually a child, in Shiran. By the time she is seventeen, she has relocated to Coranan, where she investigates a string of murders.
She has made an enemy in Telen, not that they will ever be able to do much to harm her - when she next turns up in Telen, she will be going home as an adult, and a full fledged grey mage.
Even as a developing adult, she is already a Fyvrian Shek-Pvar, and the kvikir know well enough to leave her alone.
I guess she makes her own freedom.

blackshoe's picture

Hm. How did the kvikir come by that knowledge?

Alex Greene's picture

Usually by looking at her scary dead-eyed stare, and the uncanny way kids and injured household pets get well when nobody is looking.

blackshoe's picture

Joining the militia, in the context of Hârnmaster, doesn't mean "go off and play soldier for a couple of years". The militia basically takes young men from the local manor and trains them (probably the Beadle, who is iirc usually a Yeoman, would do this) to help defend the manor. The militia might be called up by the king in the event of war, because there's no standing army (or not much of one) in those days. But most of the time, militia training and participation is in addition to one's normal job, e.g., being a serf, working the land.

This concept was an integral part of life in the United States until 1913, when the Federal Government nationalized the militia into the National Guard, asserting more control over, in particular, training, and making the "militia" part of the standing army we aren't, according to the Constitution, supposed to have. But that, I suppose, is a discussion for another place and time.

Alex Greene's picture

There are also barbarian tribes in Harn. Young adventurers can come from those tribes, which are not generally tied to the laws of the nations next door.

And there is Tharda (and Rethem), which practices the disgusting habit of slavery. It's rampant across Venarive - the slavery article in the Byria module makes for disturbing reading.