Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Bathing and Personal Hygiene

Even macaques like baths! What about the fighter? Image by Yosemite

Are you a night shower person or do you wash up in the morning? What’s the perfect temperature? Does a lack of water pressure cause you to scream to Kord for vengeance?

Bathing for many people is part of a daily routine. It’s a time to cleanse the body and zone out to the sound of rushing water for those of us who shower (don’t front). Baths can be used for cleaning, relaxation, medicine or ritual cleansing. And the list of accompanying products is daunting. Soap, body wash, scrubs. Sponges, those poofy mesh things, loofahs, washcloths. Razors with an infinite amount of blades. Lotions, aftershaves, shampoos, deodorants, powders. Cleaning and grooming is a huge industry, taking up shelf spaces larger than some studio apartments. And there’s always some new product, assuring you it will fizz, bubble or explode cleanliness upon your epidermis, visiting cruel doom upon germs and dead skin cells.

Cleanliness is important to all living things since filth and dirt traps and attracts bugs, germs and can affect retention of heat. The Ancient Egyptians living under the golden gaze of their sun god bathed regularly, usually in the Nile river and shaved, plucked and removed the hair from their bodies so as to avoid lice. In addition, scented oils were used to perfume the body and stave off the damage the hot sun could inflict upon skin. Ancient Greece and Rome encouraged regular bathing and with great scientific strides were able to create aqueducts, extensive plumbing systems and built public bath houses so that everyone could be clean. Private baths were for the rich who could afford the servants and slaves required to haul clean water in and carry used water out. For many people throughout the ages bathing meant a visit to the local river, which was also the local waterhole, laundromat and sewage dump. Did I mention waterborn diseases were a common cause of death?

Public bathhouses all over the world are a place where everyone is on the same level. All are naked, no telling signs of rank, class or profession adorning people for the most part. In many public bath houses the individuals are required to scrub in order to cleanse the skin and rinse before they step into the communal bath. Everyone is trying to get clean and relax, talking, enjoying the warm water and time spent away from work. In Japan they call this ‘naked communion,’ as the state of being naked allows strangers to let down other barriers.

While some baths are built as in the case of bathhouses and tubs, others occur naturally in the form of waterfalls (Nature’s shower!) or hot springs. Thermal activity close the earth’s surface heats the water and in many cases imbues the water with minerals which may (or may not) have therapeutic qualities. These kinds of springs are therefore prescribed by physicians to their patients for ailments ranging from issues of the skin, sexual dysfunction, problems with the joints and more.

There are also ritual baths based on faith practices. Baptism as performed by some Protestant sects are a form of ritual bath, symbolising death and rebirth. In Judaism the mikveh is used for different ritual cleanings, with the stipulation that the whole body be immersed in the water. Islam has its own set of hygienic laws that encourage the cleaning of teeth, regular hand washing and the trimming of hair and nails. Bathing is one of the five Nitya Karmas to be performed by Hindus, and failure to perform these karmas leads to skin. The Japanese bath tradition and culture is derived from Buddhism which came from India via China, used initially by the Buddhist monks and the sick. Ritual cleansing could be required after touching a dead body, after childbirth, in order to prove one’s inclusion in the faith, before prayers, after engaging in sex, the cleansing required before one can engage in faith-based activities or enter certain sacred locations (seriously, religious cleansing is super interesting and worth researching all by itself).

Keeping clean isn’t just washing up with water. Hair can harbor lice or other parasites and knots and snarls look unsightly. Hair also doesn’t just grow on the head. Nails can become black crescents of dirt and if you’re eating with your hands, what are you really putting in your mouth? Dry skin is uncomfortable and painful and is more likely to tear and snag on objects. Various smells once they reach a certain ripeness can be difficult to be around (especially if you’re the one stuck sharing the tent with Paladin of the Deity of Don’t Need A Bath) or can just give away your location to beasts and men alike. And don’t forget to clean your teeth. You don’t have to be some kind of alchemist to realize cleaning your teeth in some fashion (wiping with a cloth, chewing certain leaves, etc) helps oral hygiene, preventing terrible mouth problems that are painful and hard to travel with. Try talking to someone above your station when you smell like a skunk made sweet love to a garbage can and see how hard that Diplomacy Check is.

The bathhouse as a staple of many communities might serve more than just a location to bathe. Anywhere people congregate is a place ideas can be shared and when the bathhouse is brought in by an immigrant culture, a place to get back to one’s roots, to get clean the way they do back home. Russian immmigrants brought the banya with them, Turkish people the hamam. And of course, the bathhouse as a place where all are naked and can’t be armed is a perfect meeting place for rivals. Some bathhouses in Japan don’t allow anyone with tattoos to use the sento since tattoos are usually worn by the yakuza, Japanese gangsters. Bathhouses were also seen as places where people could wantonly intermingle with people they were attracted to. Many did not have separate facilities for various sexes and during various time periods and regions bathhouses were associated with prostitution, outlawed and allowed back into use.

Something as simple as bathing is a HUGE topic and yet as an everyday ritual is overlooked. How about your PCs? Do they need to clean up their acts?

For GMs
-What are the bathing practices typical for this region? How often do people bathe?
-Are the reasons purely hygienic or are there religious reasons as well?
-Are there any immigrant groups that have different bathing requirements or practices? How has/does this influence mainstream bathing culture?
-Where do people take baths? Are there bathhouses or do people bathe in the local river?
-If there are bathhouses, what kinds of services/baths do they provide? Hot baths? Warm baths? Saunas? Cold baths? Massages?
-Is bathing communal? How do people view nudity in the context of the bath?
-How big are the communal baths? Are they limited to one sex or mixed sex?
-Who runs the bathhouse? Are they run by the government? A church? An organization? Are they businesses?
-Are there holidays that require bathing? A day of the week set aside for bathing?
-Do any of the faiths of the region have ritual cleansing? What are the requirements and what would constitute a reason to be cleansed? Is there a ‘shortcut’ if a follower wishes to cleanse themselves but is far from a bathhouse/appropriate water to perform rites?
-How is the water heated? Who brings the water? Who heats it? Who watches the belongings of those taking part in the baths?
-Do all classes bathe in the same place or do the rich have private bathing quarters?
-What is done with the waste water? Is it allowed to run into fields to water crops? Into the streets? Collected somewhere? Diverted to a river?
-What kinds of industries flourish in a culture that bathes? Towels? Robes? Soap? Ointments? Lotions? Oils?
-What are the basic grooming rituals of the public? Do they shave? What kind of body hair is socially acceptable? Who does the shaving? Barbers? Servants?
-Are there hot springs? Do people see these as having medicinal purpose? Are there any legends behind the hot springs?

Plot Hooks
-When the local hot spring suddenly drains (or cools down), the people are frightened. The PCs are sent to investigate the causes. Why did the hot spring drain? Was it through natural means? Magical? Is it a sign of something else happening underground? Can the PCs reverse it or has the water stopped for good?
-When an epidemic breaks out in the town the officials find the illness is being caused by something in the local river, something from upstream. The PCs are charged with going upstream to find the source of the illness in the hopes that finding the cause will lead to a better understanding of a possible cure. What do they find upstream? Are other villages and town along the waterway also affected? Do they travel by land or by boat?
-An important politician and his servant are found dead in his room, apparently getting ready to bathe. While the soap is used there isn’t any water to be found in the room and there hasn’t been enough time for the water to evaporate, nor are there any wet spots to be found in the room. Who killed the politician and the servant? What happened to the water? And is the murder an isolated event or the first of many bath related slayings?
-The local bathhouse is neutral territory for many of the gangs and the PCs all happen to work there. During a monthly colloquium two of the mob bosses are found dead in the sauna. The PCs must try to convince the various gang members to stay in the bathhouse and figure out the culprit and cause before an all out gang war erupts on the city streets.
-A local water shortage/drought has most of the population on edge and a group of people start to blame a religious group that is known to partake in many types of cleansing a day. The small church claims they are not wasting the water, using it as sparingly as their religious law allows. How much water are both sides actually using? Are there any peculiar causes for the drought? Where is the church getting their water from?
-The PCs partake in a relaxing bath only to finish and realize all their gear has been stolen. Who stole it? What do they wear in the meantime? What exactly was stolen? Is it the first time this has happened or have a string of ‘bathhouse robberies’ happened?
-When the biggest church wants to close down half the bathhouses in the city on the grounds they are dens for fornication, another church offers to open more bathhouses to fill in the gap, since their deity is one of cleanliness. The local prostitutes ask the PCs to look into the matter, angry to have their stomping grounds taken away by the church. What is at stake? Who has the money to build new bathhouses to replace the old ones? Are their ulterior motives for the shutdown or is the church really just concerned with sexual purity?

For PCs
-How clean of a person are you? How often do you bathe? Change your clothes?
-Do you have a daily ritual of cleaning? Do your personal/religious beliefs dictate your personal hygiene?
-Do you wash your hands after or before every meal?
-Do you cleanse your body in the morning or the night? How do you feel about people who clean at the opposite time of day as you?
-Do you use any special items to get clean? Oils, soaps? Items to trim/round your nails? Combs, brushes?
-How do you feel about leaving all your gear behind while you go in for a bath?
-How do you feel about being naked? About seeing others naked?
-Do you think you have a particular smell? Is there someone who if you smelled them you would know who it was?
-Can you shave yourself or do you have someone else do it for you? What do you use to shave? A razor? A pumice stone? A knife?
-Do you prefer a hot or cold shower? A sauna? A dip in the river? Are any of these (or other practices) barbaric/superfluous to you? What would you consider ‘too clean’ or ‘too dirty’?
-Are you fine with cleaning in public or would you prefer to bathe alone?

What say you? Ready to get your PCs in some hot water (I know, puns. I have them)?

5 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Bathing and Personal Hygiene

Add yours

  1. Add into this that PC’s often go into slimy places like dungeons and sewers. The average fight will have the melee characters covered in blood and other bodily fluids. keeping clean on an adventure will be difficult.

    Is magic available for cleaning? If so, how is it considered? Some sects might like this because it removes the need for nakedness. Others might have issues “wasting” magic on something so simple. Perhaps the wealthy only bathe with magically purified or created water.


    1. Horrible infections are quick to set in when water is not clean and wounds are not treated properly. Plus washing up will reveal where your blood ends and the blood of your enemies begins.

      Yeah, depending on the setting and the characters magical cleaning might be the way to go, especially if the local watering hole is sketchy. Naturally occurring water harbors parasites and bathhouses and hot springs can be incubators for all kinds of gross bugs. Nudity has gone in and out of acceptance throughout history, so it really depends on the beliefs of the people and the culture surrounding it at the time, with nudity being fine in the context of bathing for a majority of time. The dominant religion/culture might be fine with it while a small subset frowns upon it, or vice versa. In some hot climates clothes are a status symbol, with only the rich wearing (the most) clothes since they can afford them, don’t work enough to soil them and can pay people to keep them clean.

      Cleaning is important! I’ve seen some people use prestidigitation to get clean after a battle, with GM approval. I’ve had characters visit the local bathhouse after getting back to civilization, just a quick mention before getting back on track. It can be as simple or complicated as needs be. 🙂


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