I don't remember what I was specifically responding to when I wrote the basis for this. Whatever it was, it got me to thinking about the general lot in life of the vast majority of people in a D&D world - the lower classes, serfs and peasants. This is only vaguely based upon actual prospects for a medieval peasant. It seemed a good place to start but D&D campaign worlds always seem to resemble something like modern life much more than medieval times.
With so much activity revolving around the PC's, the view of life in a D&D society tends to be distorted by players because of the PC's perspectives. PC's begin the game already richer than the great majority. They have money to burn and it's only because their quite specialized equipment is so costly that they seem to the players to be so relatively poor. They then quickly begin to accumulate wealth. Amazing levels of wealth. In 3E for example, an EL 1 encounter has a treasure value of 300 gp. By the time the PC's reach 2nd level (which is VERY fast in 3E; you can do it in a single, short, easy adventure) their standard equipment value is 900gp. To an average NPC commoner who earns only a few gold per month, that's several years' wages that a PC has earned in just 14 encounters.
But that's chicken feed. Players know that more is coming and until they have several levels under their belts and start laying their hands on magic weapons (as opposed to mere master-works) they tend to feel that their characters are somewhat "poor". They judge by what their characters in previous campaigns have accumulated - not by what the normal, lower-class NPC's can afford. But then players don't really know what a low-life NPC CAN afford. They have no motivation to look into it. For that reason maybe everybody could use a reminder of what life is probably like for a 1st level Commoner; a day in the life of a nobody NPC in a D&D world; a brief note differentiating between the world that the characters move through and the world that the great bulk of the population live in. The lot of a lowly NPC has improved in 3E where in previous editions it wasn't much above a subsistence level. This was actually originally written with 2E prices in mind but was updated to incorporate some 3E "demographics".
I figure it goes something like this:
Boggs is a common laborer and makes 1sp a day (3gp a month) working for an innkeeper. That's just about the lowest paying job that the D&D rules bother to list. Although the 3E rules don't specify, in previous editions hireling pay did not include the cost of food and shelter. With a days' poor meals costing 1sp I think it's safe to assume that is no longer the case - wages assume that the worker is given food, shelter, and any necessary equipment.
Working in an inn is fairly exotic compared to what most laborers might see and actually much less physically demanding work. Most laborers spend their days hauling heavy loads or doing back-breaking tasks. Biggs simply has chores and he has opportunity to see and interact superficially with people who are travelling - and that means they're rich. Rich compared to Boggs at least. They'd be able to pass along news and stories of far-off places like a town that's a mere two-day horse ride away.
Boggs has likely never been more than a day's walk from town. He was one of many children born to a poor farmer about that distance outside the walls. With other, older siblings taking care of the farm work he was encouraged to earn his own way in town when he was old enough. In fact, his father would have apprenticed him to a craftsman or temple if he hadn't set out on his own.
D&D worlds are typically fairly well integrated, so elves, dwarves and other races don't seem exotic at all to Boggs, merely uncommon. And even though the great bulk of people he sees and knows are lower-class there are plenty of PC-classed people around town as well as NPC-classed individuals like various craftsmen. Certainly the people passing through the inn aren't likely to be Commoners. He's undoubtedly seen and knows enough about magic and the dangers of the monsters in the wilderness to not freak out or stand dumbstruck when he sees one or the other. To a certain degree the exotic is commonplace in a D&D world so he's likely to be fairly well-grounded and reasonably knowledgeable about the world and what powerful people are capable of.
To earn his pay he does grunt work - simple manual labor. He mucks out the stables although a stablehand cares for the horses of travelers. He chops wood, stokes fires, fetches the meat for the meals from the market or a nearby farm, hauls the beer and wine casks up from the cellar, does repairs, and generally takes care of anything that the innkeeper or his other employees would consider physically strenuous or simply unpleasant (emptying chamber pots?).
He sleeps in the kitchen with some of the other employees at the inn (a stable boy and a few maids) because space on the common room floor is reserved for paying patrons and the innkeeper is kind enough to let them keep a fire burning in the kitchen hearth on cold nights. The innkeeper is married and has only one daughter who works for a dressmaker elsewhere in town. Many businesses are family-operated when practical. The stable boy and maids are members of the same family. The mother, one of the maids, lost her husband in a war a number of years ago when he joined the militia and then abandoned the farm to put herself and children to work for the innkeeper.
Boggs gets up prior to the crack of dawn to start and stoke fires, help in whatever way to prepare morning meals for guests, and get the inn ready for the day. He and the rest of the staff eat sometime after the guests - generally getting leftovers and/or the cheapest people-food lying about. He chops enough wood to last the rest of the day and into the next morning, does various chores like sweeping and runs errands for the innkeeper and possibly the guests.
He catches a little extra sleep during the day if he can duck into out of the way places like a warm pantry or the stables. If things are slow at the inn he may be able to dally a bit on the way to or from the farm or market where the inn gets its supply of eggs, chickens, hogs, etc. He exchanges a few pleasantries with friends or acquaintances on the street, catches a bard practicing a tune or maybe a spellcaster doing entertaining illusions for coppers. He supplements his diet by grabbing cheap meals somewhere or splurging a days pay for a wheel of cheese.
A few times a week he might be given an afternoon or evening off especially if business is slow. Then he could visit his favorite tavern and down a mug or two of ale, then jawbone, sing & misbehave with the other patrons. Otherwise, he's back at the inn doing gruntwork and he crashes in the kitchen early in the evening, after most of the noise of the common room has quieted but before the patrons there would turn in. He could gamble a few coppers now and again, maybe save a few silver or a gold piece a month. If it costs more than a gold piece it's almost certainly beyond his monthly budget. If he were to save every copper he earned then after 6 months he could buy a pony. To outfit himself as a fighter with reasonable armor and a sword would probably take a couple of years of hard saving if he couldn't find some other means to supplement his income. Whatever fun and frivolity he gets is probably only because it's free. Simply buying himself warm, durable clothing would be a significant expense (a peasant outfit is only 1sp but a winter outfit is 8gp and any outfit with shoes is 1gp or more), which suggests he's more likely to get hand-me-downs or rely on the innkeepers daughter to sew him some simple, sturdy clothes from time to time.
In a world where there are many gods and some of them may even walk the Earth there are probably very few people who aren't worshippers or one or more deities. Depending on the religions of the specific campaign Boggs might attend worship services or pay appropriate homages to a range of deities. Although PC adventurers might pay what seems like princely sums to Boggs in order to obtain healing spells or keep themselves in the good graces of various temples, Boggs himself has little more than the odd copper or two to toss into the poorbox. In fact, he himself likely benefits from whatever public works a temple might undertake with those tithes. If an adventurer were to come along and drop an insignificant (to even a fairly low-level PC) few hundred gold in tithes either the temple is getting rich or economics in the area for the poor is being significantly altered.
His is not an utterly bleak existence since he's not hovering on starvation or being worked to death, but it's pretty much the bottom of the rung short of begging. Boggs probably spends much of his pay on additional/better food and drink (at 4cp for a mug of ale he can afford a pint or two a day if he has nothing better to spend money on). He's probably somewhat better nourished than most simple laborers. But, if you're earning just a little more, like 2 gp or 3gp more a month, your prospects for a reasonably comfortable life brighten considerably. You can get more (& much better!) meals outside work, pay for entertainments and comforts, buy yourself better clothes, and you might even afford cheap personal housing somewhere. I suppose that all the above does constitute jumping through a lot of hoops for a mere gp or two a month. But then he's a nobody living on the margins in a medieval fantasy society and even so he can change his conditions considerably with relatively little additional money.
Of course, all of this assumes the application of 3rd Edition suggestions regarding demographics, prices, and a pseudo-medieval campaign setting. The DM only has to say so to improve or deteriorate the economic outlook of the great unwashed, or even the PC's. There are no hard rules enforcing the economic model I've painted above. It's simply inferred from DMG wages for hirelings and PH prices for food and goods. The supposed dictates of 3E demographics are not dictates at all. The demographic hierarchy presented in the DMG is there for use by the DM ONLY as a means of spur-of-the-moment generation of information for cities and towns when the DM needs it. It was never intended that it should be taken as the total economic model that all communities should CONFORM to.
D&D worlds seem to assume a very "enlightened" economic model. There alwyas seems to be a distinct middle-class of tradesmen, craftsmen and common merchants. Worlds seem to have many large cities and few thorps and hamlets. This is not exactly feudal Europe. Even kings seem to be less autocratic and more benevolent, the power of autocracy commonly tempered by a Magna Carta-like constitution or body of law, strong nobility, guilds, or even a republican senate, and of course free-market capitalism is rampant. Commoners are not assumed to be indentured peasants or dispossessed serfs but farmers who work their own land without an overbearing overseer or landlord of some kind squeezing them for every copper. Citizens are actually treated as if they have rights!
Cities seem to have strong, well-organized police forces and thorough, HIGHLY modern legal systems and traditions (this despite the presence of one or more thieves guilds and or an assassin guild in any decent sized metropolis) though many punishments are still medieval, even Draconian. There seems to always be a large, standing, professional military that is merely supplemented by a voluntary militia instead of depending primarily on draftees and press gangs to fill ranks when needed. This all is about as far from actual medieval as you can get, and is much closer to renaissance or even Victorian era social and economic models. But the physical trappings are almost always medieval.
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