Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Theodore the Soldier

By Orthodox Christian reckoning, today is the first Saturday of Lent. The Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar to figure out when Pascha (Easter) is, unlike the Western churches which use the Gregorian calendar. Thus, Pascha and Western Easter can fall at radically different times (there have been years when my Protestant friends are celebrating Easter and I am just beginning Lent). This year, the two calculations are off by one week.

On the first Saturday of Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates a miracle of St. Theodore the Soldier, a martyr from the third century. Some fifty years after his death, the emperor Julian the Apostate (A.D. 361-363 — a former Christian who tried to reinstate paganism as the state religion) wanted to create an uproar among the Christians. Therefore, he had the city-commander of Constantinople sprinkle all the food in the various markets of the city with blood offered to idols during the first week of Lent.

St. Theodore appeared to the Bishop Eudoxius and informed him of the Emperor’s plan. He then ordered the bishop to inform all Christians that no one should buy any food from the markets, but rather eat boiled wheat with honey (a dish called kolyva). As such, Orthodox all over the world make kolyva today in remembrance.

Whether it is kolyva, fasting, big feasts or the bread and wine that becomes the Body and the Blood, food plays a very large role within the rhythm of the Orthodox Christian life. Thus, even though it can be a bit fiddly, I can’t help but think about how food affects my RPG worlds through culture, trade and even politics.

In my Lost Colonies campaign, through character action, there are two food items that Headwaters will be known for — camel cheese and stirge (of all things). The former is due to the cheese factory Pawnshee financed, coupled with the party bringing a female camel and giving it to the father of Dn. Goram and Hamlen. The stirge will become a local delicacy once Fidgewik the Toadman (now “Gnome”) finds a decent supply of stirge meat.

Both of these imply a culture surrounding these foods. Stirge can’t really be domesticated (can they?) therefore whatever supply must be hunted. As camels become numerous in order to deal with the demand for camel milk, how much will they displace cows and horses? Personally I find these thought experiments fascinating and they make my campaign world come alive — because of food.

For another example, I used random tables from the Ready Ref Sheets from Judges Guild to determine some normal flower and fauna for various regions of my version of Averoigne. One tree that kept coming up again and again is the sassafras. Thus (in contrast with the regions around it), the most common alcoholic drink in Averoigne is root beer. Due to the preponderance of sassafras trees, it is something that the common folk can easily make themselves and can be sources of local pride. Drinks like wheat beer and wine are understood to be either drinks of the aristocracy or of foreigners. Want to reveal yourself as an outsider? Order a glass of wine at the local tavern.

It doesn’t seem to matter much and it is fiddly, but thinking about food and its cultural, political and economic impact on a campaign world can really bring a world alive in a way that ignoring food or treating it abstractly cannot.


  1. Yes, the more detail the better - types of stone, ambient plants, what kinds of birds you see. I find few resources out there to assist with this kind of detail-setting (ready ref sheets being an early exception), but it really helps set the scene.

  2. Things like food and plant life give texture to a game world that makes it seem more believable, something we can suspend disbelief about for a few hours. So, this digression about food is something I sympathize with. :)

    "Stirge can’t really be domesticated (can they?)..."

    Why not? It's your fantasy world. They're blood-drinkers drawn to warm bodies as I recall, so some way would be needed to provide them with a food source, which presents several problems. (It's not as if you can "put them out to pasture" to graze...)

    A quick and cruel expedient, perfect for morally neutral characters, would be to capture humanoids, binding the so they couldn't fight back, and tossing them in the "stirge pen." An evil warlord might even be capturing humans and demihumans to feed his stirge flock and sate his desire for "foie gras of stirge."

    Actually this sounds like a seed for a fun adventure. :)

  3. Several years ago there was a documentary television series ("What We Eat" hosted by Burt Wolf, about ways in which food has influenced or driven the course of human history. Each episode dealt with a single food or type of cuisine, such as sugar or chili peppers or African foods in America. It was really fascinating, and your article reminds me of the overlooked details that could not only add color to a campaign, but alter the course of events.

    1. Yes, I am very familiar with the series (fascinating stuff). In fact, the episode on corn is one that I reference far more often than one might otherwise expect...

  4. I'd be very interesting to read your thoughts on St. Michael Archangel if you ever get around to them Father.

    1. I will endeavor to get to the Archangel sooner than later then...