Everyone approaches a fictional world with different questions. In my case and with my professional background, some things I like to know in order to suspend disbelief are:
- Where do people’s calories come from mostly?
- Who owns these resources?
- Who taxes the production?
My role-playing group and I are currently playing Swords of the Serpentine, which is a fine sword & sorcery RPG set in the trading metropolis of Eversink, a fantasy Venice. The game’s designers evidently do not share my humdrum economic concerns sketched above. In the following I’ll summarise what the core book has to say on these points and offer some suggestions of my own.
Where do people’s calories come from mostly?
Eversink is on a cluster of islands in the Serpentine river delta. River valleys in temperate climate are fertile.
“Under normal market conditions, Eversink brings food from the few remaining farms upriver or imports food from its neighbors. Eversink’s biggest imports are grains: wheat, soybeans, and sorghum … also imports beef, mutton, and chickens … Cattle are kept on farms upriver and butchered in the slaughterhouses of Sag Harbor” (p. 236). “Rice is grown at the edges of the swamps, although most of that is eaten by commoners instead of finding its way to market” (p. 236). “Eversink’s survival depends on … food and supplies arriving daily” (p. 308).
“Private and community vegetable gardens are common … uninhabited roofs are ripe for small vegetable plots. Eversink’s citizens grow everything from pole beans to various root vegetables to herbs” (p. 236). “… you’re likely to come across small hidden (and well-defended) vegetable gardens grown on other people’s roofs by those who need the food most” (p. 231).
The mention of “few remaining farms” is enigmatic. It probably refers to the collapse of the Serpentine Empire one thousand years ago, but it seems odd that any farm-wasting process that started then would not have run its course long ago. Maybe only the lowest part of the river valley is still farmed. There are “forest-folk upriver” who deliver timber to Eversink (p. 308), and the map shows forest cover along the Middle and Upper Serpentine.
The river itself is in good ecological shape: “There are plenty of fish in the bay, and like salmon, fish may swim upriver to spawn. … There’s a particular type of sea eel that breeds and is born in the freshwater pools of the Serpentine River” (p. 237). But the river is not where the best fishing is: “Seafood from the Bay of Coins is the core staple of the Eversink diet” (p. 235).
Summing up, Eversink is self-supporting in fish, that is, in protein and fat. The city also has a local farming base up the river valley, but its carbohydrate productivity is insufficient and the city has to import grain.
Who owns this resource?
The fishing appears uncontrolled. But who owns “the few remaining farms upriver”? I have found no hint whatsoever in the core book.
The nearest part of the mainland described in the core book is the feudal kingdom of Capria. Indeed, the local language in Eversink is a dialect of Caprian (p. 235). Capria has “vast farmlands” (p. 312), where “Most of the population are land-holding free peasant farmers”, yet “Capria’s powerful but thinly populated noble class are [also] rich in land” (p. 313). “The most popular local gods improve weather, farming, and fertility” (p. 313).
For most sword & sorcery adventures, it will of course matter little if the farmland along the Lower Serpentine is owned by the farmers themselves, by local landlords living on manors near their tenants, or by absentee landlords in Eversink.
Who taxes the production?
In other words, to what state(s) does the river valley belong? To begin with, the farms that partly support Eversink are apparently under the city’s rule, meaning that the lower / lowest part of the valley is part of the city state. But the behaviour of neighbouring Capria suggests that the middle reaches of the river are not.
The kingdom does not reach all the way to the banks of the Serpentine (p. 229, 312). Yet “The Caprians want to retake the Destroyed Plateau on their northern border. They send a stream of heavily armored platoons [across the Middle Serpentine] into the wastes to recover destroyed cities” (p. 313). And “The Destroyed Plateau is a vast and empty blight on the continent. Nothing grows in the soil except lichen and some twisted shrubs” (p. 327). It is not clear what hinders Capria or Eversink from annexing the apparently stateless Middle Serpentine territory, nor why Capria keeps sending troops across the valley and into the infertile zone. Nothing in the core book suggests that these constant troop movements cause any friction with Eversink — or with the forest-folk.
Summing up, any commoner owners of farmland on the Lower Serpentine probably pay taxes to Eversink itself, and the territory is apparently part of the city state. But if the city’s ancient nobility owns a lot of the land, I would expect them to be exempt from taxes by analogy to European history.
Update 22 November: Kevin Kulp explains on Facebook, “I think that centuries ago, when nobles were at the height of their power, a lot of jungle upriver was cleared for huge plantations. As the mercanti surged and more food was imported, nobles became poorer, but no one wanted to SELL their land. So a lot of nobles still have decaying plantations and farms upriver, forgotten, overgrown, and overrun by squatters or hostile creatures. (ie, adventure fodder)”
Update 5 December: “Popular sport varies by social class … The nobility prefer fencing, riding, and hunting upriver…” (p. 234) “With little interest in anything but high society, rumor, and politics, this wastrel typically spends their day hunting, eating, courting…” (p. 167) “Those swamps don’t contractually belong to the city … seem surprisingly hostile to ‘Sinkish residents who venture into their depths for smuggling, hunting, or exploration.” (p. 280)