Monday, April 4, 2011

Chocolate in History and Chocolate in an RPG setting

Thanks to the USDA for the cocoa nut photo!

Chocolate. Personally, it gives me a headache. But boy do some folks really, really love this stuff. Calvin and Hobbes especially. It's an amazingly super powerful commodity that has had a massive impact on history and culture, yet most people don't give it a second thought, unless they've just heard that Hershey has tried to claim that chocolate is a health food based on their corporate laboratories discovering that there are anti-oxidants in chocolate. Yeah and smoking keeps mosquitos away, too. Not.

You might want to check out the Which Food Has More Fairy Dust article at Forbes if you're still wondering what's wrong with an industry doing its own research into the health impacts of its products.

Some Sweet Chocolate History Links
There are a ton of links for Chocolate in History. These should be enough to get you started. It's a fascinating subject and one that hasn't gotten beaten to death like the high price of oil or which polearm best compliments your armor without making your chausses look fat. Like salt, paper, spices and coffee, amongst other such high-use commodities, chocolate is a big, big part of contemporary society and it fairly exploded into prominence as a resource worth importing, hoarding, trading in, or fighting over fairly early on. When chocolate was first introduced in Europe they served it as a hot drink in golden cups. It changed history. Fortunes were made or lost, and a lot of things were influenced by chocolate in ways that we're still sorting out and unraveling. It was a big deal. It should be when it gets discovered by any medieval-esque society in an RPG or work of fiction as well.

Considering Chocolate in a Fantasy Medieval Society
Most Fantasy RPGs like OD&D onwards predominently feature a setting that is loosely based on Europe in the 1400s to early 1600s. Some go earlier, some go a bit later, most mix it up vigorously and see what shakes out. Many of these games feature a good bit of exploration, either delving deeper into strange and often cyclopean megadungeons, scavenging ruined archaeological sites or forgotten graveyards (tombs, crypts, sepulchres, etc.), investigating various huge ruined piles or even hacking through the dense woods, jungles or dismal swamps to find New Lands to loot, new adventures to inflict on the local populace.

There are rules and supplements for ships, caravans, zeppelins and riding beasts. There are tons of rules and guidelines for wandering lost in a wilderness, nifty tools for mapping out said wilderness with diabolical glee (A, B, C & D just for a few examples), how to stock it with fell beasts and horrid monstrosities, and on and on. But what happens when a bunch of unwashed arsonists and half-starved plunderers come across something like Chocolate for the first time?

Most people think that gunpowder is a real game changer. Take a good look at chocolate sometime. It is arguably an even bigger and more disruptive thing to bring into the game than gunpowder or giving orcs a few crates of slightly used and refurbished laser carbines. What happens when the Greyhawk-esque pseudo-conquistadors discover the Olmec-esque Olman society and encounter chocolate for the first time? What happens when they decide to bring it back to their own pseudo-European societies? In the classic TSR module C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan which is being thoroughly analyzed and revitalized via The Cold Text Files series over at Lord of the Green Dragons, the pillaging ne'er-do-well player characters uncover a heavily overgrown ruined city of a mesoamerican culture, the Olmans. Tamoachan turns out to be the Northernmost outpost of this ancient, once-mighty empire. It's a very good bet that the Olman have chocolate. Maybe Scottsz will look into this aspect of things in a later post in the series? There really ought to be an index page for this incredible series. Ahem. In any case, back to Chocolate.

Chocolate isn't just for the poxy scallawags traipsing about with rune-inscribed ahlspiesses and demonically forged zweihanders or enchanted arquebuses and vampire-killer surplus gatling crossbows. It's a very hip and happening part of here and now. The role of chocolate in politics is even more interesting and fraught with plot hooks, twists and weirdness than the role of chocolate in history. Here. Go look for yourself and make up your own mind.

The Not So Sweet Side of Chocolate:
or Damning With Faint Praise
or We Prefer to Stand Back and Trust the Local Government
"The Ghanese have the best standards in the region. That's not to say they're as good as we want them to be, but they're certainly not as bad as the Cocircte d'Ivoire," Scharffenberger says. "From what we know about the government, we're pretty satisfied they aren't allowing horrible things to happen."
from Politics of Chocolate, Justin Burton of the Eastbay Express

Politics of Chocolate Links
As with the links to the History of Chocolate, these are just the tip of the iceberg and you'll find a lot more heated words, vigorous discussion, retractions, rebuttals and all sorts of agendas--even more than in a typical online forum--when you start to look into the Politics of Chocolate.
WebMD offers you a slide show of chocolate...just to end things on an appropriately bitter- sweet note.


  1. Thanks for the shoutout.

    The presence of cocoa would make a great lead-in to a meso-quest... Somehow a sample of this forbidden treat is brought to the attention of a local merchant who hires some adventurers to find the source...

  2. Chocolate leads to all sorts of skullduggery & Strangeness. It could easily be a vital component in at least one major method of becoming a lich or it could play a role in placating spirits/deities as an offering. having to rescue some mesmerized virgin from being drowned in a pool of chocolate as a bizarre form of human sacrifice might stir things up a bit. It's also very likely to be a major treasure, or component of a lot of treasures within a locale like Tamoachan.

    Keep up the great work with the Cold Text Files series. Looking forward to more Ancient Astronaut pseudoscience!

  3. Excellent post, a lot to think about here.

  4. Hmmmm...I keep trying to comment here, but the blogopshere seems to hate me and it doesn't seem to work. ;) Once more (with feeling):

    "Best C post I read." :)

  5. A lot to think about, obviously. What about corn? Tomatoes? Other "New World" items that were introduced to the Old World? What about spices?

    And then there's the icky factor--germs and diseases that one population has resistance to, but the other population doesn't? What if the PCs are afraid of Orcs not because of their violence, but because Orcs carry a disease which the PCs races have no immunity to?

    Germs, Guns, & Steel by Jared M. Diamond might make for a fantastic sourcebook.

  6. Thanks guys.

    @Matthew: You are right on the money on both counts--the new resources brought back from the New World were disruptive to those already in-place, such as how potatoes replaced turnips or rutabegas in some regions...which paved the way for the famine when the one strain of tater succumbed to disease.

    Plague-bearing orcs is a lovely notion--we've often used goblinoids as plague-bearers, especially the little goblins with their pet rats...

    Massive depopulation via plague leads to many ruins, looting, and a post-apocalyptic feel that's good for medieval/faux-renaissance fantasy as much as it is for zombies--or throw them all in at once...

    That book is on our library list. Great call!

  7. Very well said. I don't know if the power is in the cacao or if it's more historically contingent: blue Chinese porcelain is another game-changer in its way, while European clockworks somehow weren't, at least in China.

    It's a huge problem for supposedly ultra-rich and varied fantasy settings like my own beloved Flash Gordon/Mongo: I want every island to have its own special flavour, but you immediately create an unstable world when those flavours escape their islands, or a jaded palate in the metropole, that's tired of endless novelty. Kinda like I imagine treasure being received in he D&D implied by the rulebooks - another crown? Put it with the rest. And the plus 1 swords. You have to have a world without some kinds of variety, in order to be able to make its introduction an event.

    Two more books for your library list: Rutten's Blue ships and Woodruff Smith's Consumption and the Making of Respectability.

    (I'm here via Hill Cantons via Trollsmyth - cool stuff!)

  8. @Richard: Welcome! Chinese porcelain is actually one of the things/resources I was considering writing about as it is not very well covered in terms of applications/implications for fantasy rpgs, or even in fiction, really. You're right, it was another disruptive discovery, while European clockworks just didn't catch-on very well in China. If they had...that might have led to some fun stuff. Perhaps in Tsan Yian they were early adopters of clockworks...hmmm...

    Mongo is great. The Flash Gordon world of Mongo is far better.

    Your point is understandable, and it does happen, but really what you might consider is that simply accumulating inert resources, i.e. coins in a box, crowns in a pile, swords in a stack, and not applying or making use of those resources is what devalues them more than any perceived over-abundance. Too much loot coming in means a whole lot of things that need to be paid for, repaired, replaced protected and guarded, and recovered...thieves are nothing compared to local temples and politicians.

    Thanks for the book links, both sound interesting. Much appreciated.

    You got here by way of two very well written blogs, glad you could make it.


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