Famine, rations and trade modifiers

I find myself running a game where an ongoing famine is a feature of the setting.  I started back at the point of "hear tell food's running short around these parts" for the players, but things are going to get worse before they get better even worse still after that.

And I'm having a hard time picturing what that looks like in game mechanics.  So far I'm just playing inside the price range for rations - we started on the low end and I'm raising those up as time goes on.  But that's entirely ad hoc, and I'd like to give some thought to how to really model it.

I can see one approach is to go ahead and apply the market price adjustment out of the trade goods section to retail prices for rations and meals.  So a percentage adjustment to the equipment list prices.  I don't think that's out of bounds; I imagine it's just not normally worth tracking a 10% fluctuation in the price of swords, but makes more sense here.  So go ahead and generate that percentage?  Is there any difference between wholesale and retail I'm missing if I use the same numbers as for arbitrage?

And then I don't have a feel for what kind of modifiers to apply for a famine.  I see that the 1d3-1d3 roll plus environmental adjustments gets you a number in +/- 1 to 4 range, and the market roll of 4d4 plus mods gives a theoretical range of about 10% to 200% of market price.  (Presumably the outliers are rare.)  So far so good...  But what's the demand modifier for food in a famine?  Or what's the normal range for demand modifiers, and is there any outer bound intended?

Or from the other end, how high did prices go in historical famines compared to normal?  I can just work back from the desired result if I know what it is.  Some cursory googling gets me some instances of food price increases in the 100% to 200% range in modern Africa, but I'm not sure that's typical of pre-modern economies.  I can picture it going higher still, but I don't know.

And separately, they've already tried selling boar meat; this hit as we were wrapping up a session, and I just assigned a price ad hoc rather than stopping to look up arbitrage.  But given what I've already told them, and that food prices are going higher still after this, I can reasonably expect they may want to convert between loads of trade goods and butchered animals and days of rations.  If they want to convert an ox into rations, or poach elephants to turn into meat comma preserved and sell in town, or buy a trade load of grain and a trade load of preserved meat at the port city and throw it into a wagon as party rations, what's the conversion rate there?

I see from googling that the weights for cows and pigs under livestock look very much like the dressed weight after butchering rather than the live weight of modern animals.  That's handy.  If I decline to drill down into the weight of barrels and moisture loss from drying, I can assume that 1.5 cows or 6-7 pigs yield 10 barrels/one load of meat.  But there's no particular weight specified for rations or for meals, so here I have to start speculating.

I can guess that maybe 1 pound of meat equals either a meal or a day's rations, but I can't tell which.  Not that I have personally ever sat down to a meal of one pound of hamburger, but split three ways and filled out with grains and vegetables I can imagine using that as a round number for one meal.  Or for a day's rations?  So this may belong in Ask the Autarchs, but I'll leave it here with the rest of the post.

The existing demand modifiers tend to make food scarce as a settlement ages.  You could try shifting all foodstuffs one age category up.

Another option is for your demand fluctuations, instead of re-rolling from scratch, record the previous demand modifier and take the greater of that and the new roll.  This can give you a naturalistic way for demand to grow.  If you wanted to be forgiving you could say that rolling the lowest possible roll (all 1s on 4d4 iirc) shifts demand back one.

Joshua the Stylite recorded food prices in Edessa from 495-505, a period before and during a famine.

Before the famine, 30 modii of wheat could be gotten for a solidus (this was an Italic modius, of 16 sextarii, or about 8.7 liters). For most of the famine, the price was 4 modii per solidus, although after the (slightly better) harvests of 501, 502, and 505, it improved to 5, 12, and 6 modii per solidus respectively.

A solidus was 1000 denarii. So, the price varied from 33 denarii per modius before the famine to 250 denarii during the famine (with a brief period of around 300 denarii per modius in February of 501).

Regarding rations, cost, and weight, I provided some analysis in The Sinister Stone of Sakkara:

A typical daily ration for the fort’s soldiers is 2lbs grain (1.7cp), 8oz smoked pork (2.1cp), 1.5oz lentils (0.1cp), 1.5oz olive oil (2cp), 1.5oz salt (0.8cp), and 1oz cheese (0.4cp), costing 7.1cp and weighing 2lbs 13½oz total. A week of food thus costs (7.1cp x 7 days) 50cp or 0.5gp. In Domains at War, soldiers cost 0.5gp per week each to supply.

A Roman soldier on this diet is getting about 3,500 calories per day, with 2,000 of those calories coming from bread.

A typical peasant family is estimated to have needed 11,000 calories per day, with 9,000 calories from bread. Very roughly, a peasant family's food costs about the same as what a soldier costs.  


  Ounces Grams Calories
Grain 30 850 1950
Roasted Meat 8 225 880
Vegetables 1.5 45 170
Cheese 1 27 90
Olive oil 1.4 40 350
Salt 1.4 40 0
  Wine 160 190


Thanks all.

@Jard:  I'll probably do both.  My main problem was visualizing whether a famine called for a +1 or a +10 or what, but climbing upward is perfectly gameable.

@The Dark:  Perfect!  I was thinking those modern numbers felt low for a survival type situation.  I doubt I'll go straight there but now I have a range.

@Alex:  Thanks.  I even have Sinister Stone, but only consulted core.  For some reason I got hung up on the idea I needed to know what the game rule conversion was, but I will just use real world numbers with ACKS numbers.  Time to read up on dried meat, calories, and gout, because I don't foresee these guys slicing the next boar they come across into 8 ounce daily portions plus rye bread.

The economics of ACKS are rooted in real-world factors so you should be able to work from such data and have a playable outcome. The match-up will not be perfect, but it will certainly be good enough for the game. And sometimes it works out very well indeed!

I sometimes entertain myself by randomly comparing ACKS mechanical predictions to real-world economic data to see how close they come. So far the biggest mismatch is in the price of ale! (ACKS ale is much more expensive than historical ale.)


Blasphemy!  Ale should be cheap and plentiful, even in times of famine!

Perhaps the ale price discrepancy could be explained away by different quality assumptions?

Obviously, the presence of dwarves in the world has led to both a much greater demand for ale and a much greater quality floor (because if you can’t sell your ale to dwarves, you can’t sell your ale, and dwarves won’t drink terrible ale).

These factors combined increase the price of ale significantly, accounting for the discrepancy.

Dwarves won't buy your ale at all.  They'll buy your barley and make their own.  Every dwarven family makes their own ale at home, and it puts 90% of human offerings to shame.  The only problem is that they can never grow enough grain atop their mountains.  That's why there's a -2 demand modifier for ale, but a +2 to grain/vegetables.

The great dwarven brewmasters make great casks of Undermountain Lager, which human civilizations haven't even learned to do yet (unless your game is set in a late-Renaissance level of technology).

You are absolutely correct about the dwarves at home, but dwarves traveling have learned that they must accept the inferior offerings of humans.

Low level adventure: Due to the purity of its ingredients, and the time, care, and mastery that go into its creation, Undermountain Lager is a prime magical reagent. The Wizard has asked your party to secure several wagonloads. 

Also, if on your way back, you could pick up a dozen Hams of Pari, that would be great too. The Wizard is pretty sure they're potentially magical too, but doesn't care, he is going to eat them.