Chew On This: Food Culture in Games

MandarificHey! Who’s hungry?!Oh, well, before we get to that part, allow me to introduce myself! I’m Manda, sometimes known as Mandarific, and I’ve been a gamer for quite awhile. I started with chat and forum RP years ago and have moved on to tabletop over the past few years, and love every minute of it. I love it so much that I also run a blog called Charisma Bonus, where I talk about gaming type things with other female writers, and a forum called Roleplay Hub for all sorts of folks to get together and talk about games and gaming. I just really love games!

You know what I love just as much as games, though? Food.

Food is interesting and weird. Remember that question I asked a few minutes ago, wondering who’s hungry? There’s a good chance that you’re hungry right now, or you were earlier, or that you’re probably going to eat at some point today. You might chow down on a bag of Doritos alone in front of your computer, or you might go out to a swanky restaurant for steak and lobster. Moreover, all sorts of things happen to us because of food: food can cause sickness and health, and meals can make or break families, jobs, and relationships. Food is at the very core of our society and how we function!

So why do we forget about food at the gaming table?

No, no, not the pizza and the chips and the Mountain Dew, the real food. The gruel served up at the local tavern, the rations we insist on picking up at the start of every character creation even though we’re probably going to run out or abandon the idea by the time the second session rolls around. We forget about the rations, the bootlegging, the farms, and every step in between. Sure, it makes an appearance sometimes, but by and large food and food culture are conspicuously absent from the gaming table. I hope to change that.

In this series, I plan to dig into some fun and interesting ways we can work in food culture at the gaming table. No matter what the genre or edition, food culture can serve as a tasty backdrop for entire campaigns, small twists to keep things interesting, and fill gaps in your game that you didn’t even know were there. Oh, and I guess we might talk a little about what to serve up at the gaming table too from time to time. You know, if you’re into that.

To get us started today, I just have one question: when was the last time food or food culture played an important role in your game? Moreover, do you keep track of your rations in the dungeon, or do you conveniently forget about them? Let’s talk about food in your games in the comments below, and I’ll be back soon to kick the conversation up a notch!

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: A Deity’s Gotta Eat

Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.
Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.

Eating. We do it every day. I just ate some ice cream while I did some research and started writing this article. I had a nice salad for lunch while I worked on some RPG stuff. I made a nice lunch of rice, spinach and leftover bulgogi for my daughter to take to school so she could have the energy to run around. Regardless of your relationship with food, food is the fuel we as humans partake of to give us the energy to get things done. Whether that’s sit in front of a computer and type out as many words as you can, as fast as you can, or work in field from sunup to sundown, tending to plants and animals, mowing, picking, planting or something in between those two, doing stuff takes energy and we get that energy from the food we eat.

What if the stuff you did was keep the sun from falling from the sky? Watched over all merchants? Sew seeds of discord among humans? Preside over every childbirth in the land? Know everything, see everything? Reign in all these people and keep them in their domains? It would probably take a hell of a lot more than a bowl of cereal and some coffee in the morning to get that done. Deities perform the kind of tasks only deities do, residing over the natural order, inspiring, protecting, making war, rewarding and punishing on epic scales man can try to approach…but will probably fail at. It’s only natural they partake of some divine sustenance.

Some deities partake of special substances, reserved only for them to maintain their divine power. Ambrosia and nectar are the first that comes to my mind, food of the Greek pantheon. Amrita is the Hindu equivalent, a substance consumed by their deities in order to maintain their immortality. Thetis rubbed ambrosia over her infant son, Achilles’ body in an effort to make him immortal. Psyche was given ambrosia to make her immortal once Aphrodite has put her through the ringer. In China, peaches are a sign of longevity, immortality, their ultimate form being the Peaches of Immortality, a tree that takes thousands of years to flower and fruit.

In addition to the foods deities take and make for themselves, there are also the foods and substances given to them by humans, in the form of dedications, sacrifices and oblations. Cultures across the globe require certain items, certain types of animals or plants to be offered at certain times. Some deities have a taste for cigars or bananas. Some prefer speckled goats and fresh barley. Some want the first fruits of your field. Others prefer the blood of humans. The bigger the request, the bigger the sacrifice. The powers that be can be persuaded or even aided in their endeavors by the offerings of humans. No energy put in and the results can be catastrophic.

If the divine is a part of your game, what do the members of your pantheon feed upon? What type of fuel does it take for them to keep things moving and how do humans participate in this great feeding of the divine? Are they the maitre ds? Or…on the menu?

For GMs

  • Who are the various deities at play in the world? What do they preside over? Does this affect the types of sacrifices they accept and prefer?
  • Is there a food or substance that is consumed only by the deities? Why do they alone eat it? What types of powers does it grant them? What is it like?
  • How often must sacrifices be made to deities? How are these sacrifices sent forth? Offered on altars? Burned? Submerged in water? Do the people offering them get to/have to partake of the items offered?
  • Who makes the sacrifices? Who deems the sacrifices good or not?
  • What types of things make the best sacrifices? What is forbidden to be sacrificed and why?
  • Are the foods of the deities naturally occurring or must they be prepared in a certain way?
  • What would befall any mortal who partakes of food for the divine?

Plot Hooks

  • An ancient manuscript is found by the PCs, containing a recipe which if brewed and offered in a certain location will awaken an older pantheon of deities. While some think the recipe is just nonsense, others think there is more to it. Some believe it’s a sure ticket to a new age, with new rules and a new divine order. Some see it as blasphemy, something which should be forgotten. Others see it as allegory while still others think it’s a code hinting at a real elixir of immortality for humans. The PCs must decide what to do with this recipe. What do they think it is? What deities will it unleash upon the land? Are the ingredients hard to find? Who thinks what about the possibilities it contains? Can the recipe be destroyed? Who hid it in the first place and why?
  • When a plant whose fruit is reserved only for the deities is discovered to have medicinal properties that can save lives in another region, the locals are angered when ambassadors come demanding the fruit for the good of their people; according to the tradition of where the trees are from, if the fruit is eaten by mortals, it will bring destruction to the land. How do the ambassadors enter the land? How was the fruit discovered to have been such beneficial medicine? Who is protecting these trees? What is the nature of the illness the fruit supposedly cures? Which deity is the fruit for specifically?
  • When a group of woodcutters’ family members all fall terribly ill, no reason behind the mysterious illness can be found: until they are questioned by the PCs. Years ago they came upon a strange copse of trees that exuded a sweet, fragrant substance when felled. Finding the sap to be delicious, they ate it and continued their work, leaving the trees to return to later for the sticky sap. However, further events proved the woodcutters impervious to injury or illness, stronger than before and aging slowly. The only thing they have in common is the sap. They urge the PCs to find the copse of trees and acquire some sap for their families before it is too late for their loved ones, unable to go as they fear leaving their sides. What do the PCs find at the copse? What is the sap? Is the copse connected to the illnesses of the woodcutters’ families? Do the PCs partake of the sap themselves?
  • When a powerful individual finds out flower buds have started to form on a tree whose fruit will grant immortality, the PCs are send on the arduous task of retrieving it. The fruit only forms once every 100 generations and lasts for one day, with many supernatural obstacles in their way. The PCs however are indebted in some way where saying no is not an option. What is the fruit? What can they expect to encounter on their journey? Do other people know of the fruit’s forthcoming? Why are they compelled to perform such a task and how can their employer ensure they won’t mess it up and be sure they don’t steal it for themselves?
  • When an invading force takes hold of the region, they forbid certain types of sacrifices, deeming them barbaric. When natural disasters take hold of the land, the indigenous people insist it is because of the lack of sacrifices and the invaders must decide what to do. What are the sacrifices being withheld? How different is the religion of the native people from the invaders? Are the sacrifices being done in secret? Is there a link between the change in sacrifices and the natural disasters? What do the people think will happen if the sacrifices do not resume?

For PCs

  • Are you a religious person? Do you follow a particular deity?
  • What sacrifices do they require and what do they promise in return if they are offered?
  • What is most precious to you? Would you sacrifice it if you thought it would help yourself? Your loved ones? A friend? A stranger?
  • If someone offered you the ‘food of the divine,’ would you eat it?

What say you? Can you whet the appetites of the divine?

Bite Sized Interview with Tiffany Simmons

We’ve all been there. We sit down to game, character sheets lined up, miniature strategically placed, and ready to spend the next several hours immersed in adventure!

And then someone gets the munchies.

Game is paused, debate ensues on what food to get, dietary needs and cravings discussed, money is pooled, and, eventually, food happens. But it’s messy and the classic character sheet drips are inevitable. Sometimes it’s not the most healthy or tasty. Maybe someone’s culinary tastes are not satisfied (aka the picky eater). Maybe plates and forks and napkins and take out containers take over the table and dice are shoved to the wayside. Regardless, valuable gaming time is lost and, while stomachs are placated it’s a less than stellar meal.

Enter the +5 Food of Eating! A cook book designed for gamers by gamers. This Kickstarter, headed by the delightful Tiffany Simmons, has been featured on websites such as io9, GeekOSystem, and Gaming As Women. I had the great pleasure in chatting with Tiff via Google+ Hangout On Air for the interview so you can view it yourself! It’s only 20 minutes long so you could even watch during your lunch break (and think about the recipes you could be eating straight out of the book!).


+5 Food of Eating Interview with Tiffany Simmons


We discuss how she got started on this Kickstarter, what kind of recipes it will have, who can use it, and other delightful tidbits. No one has to be a good chef, or even a gamer, to get something out of this book! So far it has exploded past it’s starting goal of $3,500 and is well on it’s way to the latest stretch goal of $10,500! Over 500 backers have decided this book worthy of publication, what about you? Be sure to visit the Google+ page and learn how to become a backer. Hurry! Less than a week is left!






Adding extra sensations to your game

Used under Creative Commons license, from Wikipedia user Emmbean

There’s an important rule in GMing: show, don’t tell.

Now, when you put a setting together, you of course tell the players various things, but once the game is in full swing, it’s obviously much more important to involve the players in as many ways as possible.
So, here’s a few fun things I’ve been toying with, and that are talked about sometimes by various designers (John Wick springs to mind from Blood and Honor).

Pulling your players in by giving them extra stimuli for their fun makes them more involved, more eager to learn more about the setting, and usually means we all get to try something new.

Adding in aged maps as props is easily done, and a very effective tool, as are using miniatures for action scenes so everyone can easily see the actions.
Outside of action, advice begins to falter, but we can always take good cues from print fiction.
I’m told George R. R. Martin makes a big show writing about the food in his books. A confession: I haven’t read them (yet!), so I can’t really talk too much on that other than what I understand. But then why not have a feast happen in your game, and really celebrate it. Describe it in lurid detail. Pigeon and partridge pie, persimmon and bearberry jam, roast swan. Or even roast owlbear, Elderwitch wine and triceratops egg omelettes. Or spoo. Mention sizzlings and dripping and guzzling and bubbling and steaming. Vivid and effective.
My favourite example of this neat description comes from Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series. Two characters are sat around during a rare moment of downtime between magical blasts of madness. They are drinking vodka, eating pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut. A simple little meal, but the way the food is described as crisp and fresh and complimenting the vodka made my mouth water when I first read it and now.
Sometimes, that effect is paramount to really motivating players.

The next step of course is the real sensations.
If you have a friend with armour and swords, see if you can get them involved in your game (if they aren’t already). Failing that, go stand in their back yard with your group and get everyone to hold a sword at arms length. Or go to an archery range if there’s a beginners event. Or a renaissance faire (I assume, we don’t have those where I’m from).
Burn incense in temple scenes, or when the players are soon to encounter a dark ritual, or when they have to resurrect a friend. Or attend their funeral. Make a big deal of it.
Add food to the gaming table. Avoid pizza as the group source of sustenance, and make a choice between setting or situation. In a setting like Wolfgang Baur’s Free City of Zobeck, maybe you’d favour goulash or borscht. In a game based on Arabian Nights, sugared dates and baklava. A samurai adventure gives the players sushi and wasabi and sake.
Now consider the situational changes to foodstuffs. The group has to hike through the mountains with only basic rations? Dried fruits, bread, cheeses and cured meats. The group finds itself in a despicable hive of scum and villainy? Break out the blue food colouring. The Elves/Dwarves/Goblins have a delicacy that few humans have ever tasted? Pineberries, or bacon chocolate, or sweet and sour mushrooms, or pitta breads filled with jerked goat. There’s a deli around the corner from me that sells olives stuffed with gherkins, and the taste and texture are suitably odd you could drop them in any setting easily as ‘something out of the ordinary’.

Immersion breeds exploration and involvement. So why not immerse your players with every sense at their disposal?

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