Farming in the Savage Frontier

As people who have been to this site more than once or twice surely would have noticed, I have a huge fascination with the Forgotten Realms sourcebook The Savage Frontier from 1988. I still believe to this day that this is possibly the best single fantasy campaign setting book that has ever been made. It does not look like much at only 64 pages with very little illustrations, but this thing is densely packed like nobody’s business. It’s not a huge amount of content, but it is content that is almost all immediately useful for GMs for creating adventures and bringing the world to life. And every year that I pick it up again, it only keeps impressing me more.

My approach to The Savage Frontier is to always take it at its word. Any detailed that is mentioned in the book is assumed to be true. If there is anything about the setting as it is presented in a way that seems contradictory or implausible, I assume that the information is merely incomplete rather than wrong. Unless it seems absolutely necessary to make the setting feel believable, I always only add new details to resolve such conflicts instead of removing or changing anything that is in the text.

What do they eat?

When examining a fictional world for how believable and consistent it is, it’s always a good first step to ask “What do they eat?”

All large scale conflicts are deep down caused by economical issues. Someone wants or needs something that is not accessible and is willing to start a fight for it. And warfare is all about managing the resources that you have access to and disrupting the access of your enemy. Strategy is always about managing resources much more than fighting battles. Believable large scale conflicts always have underlying economic circumstances. If these circumstances are plausible, then you can have your actors make decisions that are consistent and believable. Those decisions might be bad or stupid, but they have to make sense in the minds of the people who make them. If the economic circumstances of the setting make no sense, then many of the decisions will be nonsensical as well. And the most fundamental level of all economy is food production. Most other aspects of the economy ultimately serve to improve and secure the supply of food for the population, and in a society with medieval levels of technology, food production takes up the vast majority of all labor output. If the food economy of your setting makes no sense, then the rest of the economy will make no sense either, and therefore all the major political and social conflicts as well. Food production is something that every setting has to get right to create a world and stories that are halfway believable.

So how does The Savage Frontier look in that regard? It’s a pretty large region the size of central Europe, full of great mountain ranges and vast forests, and with very long distances between most major settlements. And it’s a very cold place. This is a region in which growing crops will have a fairly low productivity, but the large scale import of food deep into the wilderness is also quite impractical. Being located in the most remote corner of the continent, there really isn’t any outside trade coming through the region. Adbar, Sundabar, Mirabar, and Ironmaster are major suppliers of metals for the southern lands, but only Ironmaster can be supplied by the sea. Hauling all the food to feed the 100,000 city dwellers in the Interior for a thousand miles up the river through the wilderness just doesn’t seem very plausible and what would Silverymoon and Everlund even have to trade for all of that? As I see it, almost all of the food in the Savage Frontier has to be produced locally.

So “What do they eat?” becomes “What do they produce?” I think the best comparison we have for the agriculture that would be possible in the Savage Frontier is the medieval Baltic region. Southern Sweden, the Baltic States, and the westernmost regions of Russia. In the 13th and 14th century, which is the time period that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set gives as a reference, the region was actually home to numerous largely independent oligarchic merchant cities, which is very much like the social structure that dominates the northern Forgotten Realms. Novgorod and Moscow had populations of about 30,000 people, which is roughly the scale of Silverymoon, Sundabar, and Mirabar. (And dwarfs Neverwinter and Luskan.) So it is looking pretty promising that this can be made to work as a very plausible and consistent setting.

The main crop in Northern Europe has always been wheat, which should grow fairly well in the Savage Frontier as well. Barley as well, with Russia and Canada being among the top producers worldwide. The coast of the Sea of Swords at Neverwinter and Waterdeep and the lower Delymbiyr valley would all be great areas for growing grains.

An alternative food source that has been used widely in more harsher regions like Scotland, Iceland, and Norway is raising cattle and sheep. The Dessarin valley between Waterdeep and the Evermoors consists of a vast prairie, which is ideal for grazing.

A third source for food would be fishing. Ironmaster, Luskan, Neverwinter, and Waterdeep are all directly on the coast of a cold sub-arctic sea, which are typically very abundant fishing grounds.

These three sources of food cover the food supply situation in the western parts of the Savage Frontier very well. While Mirabar is located in a more inhospitable location, it is still fairly close to the sea and one of the most important mining cities in the world, so a heavy reliance on food imports would not be much of a stretch there.

Feeding the Interior

But this still leaves out the Interior region in the Northeast. This would be the area with the harshest winter and the shortest summers, with the least areas of open grasslands. While the Rauvin is a fairly major river that might provide decent amounts of fish, the catches would have to be split among Silverymoon, Everlund, and Sundabar, which I just don’t see as a reliable main food source. So having my big fancy map of the Savage Frontier and with a little bit of research and calculations, I crunched some numbers to see how much agricultural land would actually be needed to feed these three cities and Citadel Adbar as well.

Together the four cities have a population of 90,000 people. As a rule of thumb, it takes roughly 9-10 people working in the fields to produce enough surplus to feed each additional person living in a city. So we can estimate a total population of humans and dwarves in the region of 1 million. Available numbers on how much land was required to feed one person in the middle age cover a fairly wide range, but they all seem to cluster around 3 acres per person. Which in turn comes out to somewhere in the range of 125 people per square mile, or roughly 4000 people per 6-mile hex of worked fields. Of course, even in densely populated and worked areas, not all of the land is actually fields for growing crops. So in practice I think we have to look at more like 2000 to 3000 people that can be supported by each 6-mile hex of grassland.

Based on those assumptions, I made this following map.

Click to embiggen.

This map shows the amount of grassland that all the major settlements in the Savage Frontier would need to completely sustain themselves by growing crops. It assumes that the hexes in the south and west can feed about 3000 people, while those towards the north and west feed more like 2000 people each. As we can see, it would be possible to feed the entire human and dwarven population by only growing crops, though in the Northeast things are getting pretty cramped.

The coastal cities could decrease their need for farmland by fishing, though I really don’t have any information on how much fish could replace grain.

The great prairie of the Dessarin valley is described in the text as having a lot of cattle and sheep herding going on. A great thing about grazers is that they have feet, and as such can transport themselves from the pastures all the way to their customers where they will be slaughtered. So even though Yartar and Triboar are fairly small and remote towns, each year could see massive cattle drives to Mirabar, Neverwinter, Nesme, Everlund, and Waterdeep, where the meat can further decrease the need for grain. Some of the herds could even be driven up to Silverymoon.

Further into the Interior, Sundabar sits right in the middle of a huge valley between the Rauvin and Nether Mountains. Since the Rauvin river is flowing down through the Nether Mountains, the valley would have to be more of a highland plateau. Which I just don’t see as being able to support the kind of crops production we see in Western Europe. They really would have to support themselves with additional cattle herding in the valley and perhaps sheep herding in the lower hills of the Nether Mountains to the south of the city. Things look very similar with the valley outside the gates of Citadel Adbar in the uppermost right corner of the map.

Feeding the Orcs

While the space necessary to feed these cities is there, Adbar, Sundabar, and to some degree Everlund are finding themselves in quite precarious locations, though. The valley outside Adbar is wedged between the Ice Mountains and the Rauvin Mountains, which are both orc territory. I’ve come up with the theory that the orcs mostly support themselves through hunting and organize long hunting expeditions to restock their stores after the winter and prepare for the next one. Both the dwarven valley and the Sundabar valley would be the primary hunting grounds for the orcs in the Northeast. The plain between the Cold Wood and the Moonwood as well, though that area is being claimed by the Uthgardt of the Black Lion and Red Tiger tribes for the very same purpose. This makes the Interior the main area of the Orc conflicts. The orcs need these three valleys to feed their own population and are on all sides fenced in by the dwarves, the Uthgardt, and Sundabar. With only so much prey available, it makes sense for the orcs to try driving out the other groups from the area. And if in the process they can rustle some cattle and help themselves to sacks of grain, they are absolutely going to do that. With the food situation this precarious, the other groups aren’t just going to leave the land for the orcs, and so it’s understandable that this is regularly turning into a genocidal war.

What this map does not show is that further north beyond the Ice Mountains and the Spine of the World lies an arctic ocean. Just as many orcs as are coming south from the mountains to hunt deer, bison, and boar and steal cattle and sheep, would also be going north to hunt seals and whales. With this additional food source, we have at least some kind of plausible explanation for how the orcs in the area can survive without being able to destroy Adbar and Sundabar.

The other major orc populations have things a lot easier. The orcs of the Spine of the World have the mountains and surrounding lowlands pretty much for themselves, except for Mirabar and the Black Raven tribe in the westernmost ranges. A similar situation is found in the Grey Peaks in the southeast and inside the High Forest. In these areas the orcs are the only ones to do any large scale hunting and are not in direct conflict with any settlements, though they still might go raiding if an opportunity presents itself or they are feeling bold. But it would not have the genocidal character as in the Interior.

The last major orc population is found in the Evermoors, where they are in a permanent three way battle with the Elk tribe and the trolls. When prey becomes sparse, orc clans might try to raid villages outside of Nesme, Yartar, Everlund, and Silverymoon, but that would probably be the exception rather than the rule, and consists mostly of individual attacks with no greater organization rather than major campaigns by a great orc horde.

What have we learned from it?

I really am always having a lot of fun going over this map and poking it with a stick to find things that could be puzzling and implausible and trying to work out how what I’m seeing and reading could realistically be true. There is always so much more to discover here, and often it’s things that I think would make for very interesting and compelling adventure hooks.

The first thing I am taking from this analysis is that the largest cities all need to be surrounded by fairly densely populated farmland for a few dozen miles. Adventuring companies traveling on the roads would reach the outskirts of each city states two or three days before they get an actual sight of their walls, and also coming across sizable towns where they can find accommodations for the night instead of sleeping outside around a campfire.

In many places, these outskirts would also be under regular threat of cattle raids by orc or Uthgardt, or even other neighboring villages. I see this being a huge issue everywhere within 50 miles around the Evermoors and in the Sundabar valley.

Also, not engaging in the growing of crops, conflict involving the Uthgardt and the orcs would primarily be about hunting grounds. Hunting societies need huge amounts of territory to have a population of prey that can sustain them reliably every year. While there is plenty of open range with bisons in the Surbrin valley, things are much more cramped in the Interior where they are in direct competition with the need for farmland by the large cities.

The Dessarin valley is a giant cattle and sheep pasture. All the towns in the valley would have an economy based pretty much entirely on herding. And once per year, all the roads going out of Triboar would be completely swarmed with giant herds of cattle and sheep. This could be a really funny detail to work into the game if the party is traveling through the valley at a certain time of the year.

The Delymbiyr valley is a total backwater even by the standards of the Savage Frontier. Assuming that Loudwater, Llork, and Secomber are the largest settlements in the area, this is probably the least populated stretch anywhere in the North. While farming there would be possible, I would assume more remote homesteads than more densely concentrated medieval farming villages. There’s probably some herding going on there as well to sell beef to Waterdeep.

And there should be orc whalers. Which I think is cool.

2 thoughts on “Farming in the Savage Frontier”

  1. Great article! I love your analysis.
    “Where does the food come from” is a powerful technique. David Maurer’s “Modern Transformation” uses that to determine the traits of a society and culture.

    One type is called an “ARISTOCRAT TRIBAL SOCIETY”. Unlike the Aristocrat peasant society the people are not compelled to give food taxes to the aristocrats. Most of the men carry weapons most of the time. Most of these people lived in mountains, deserts, and difficult hill country where it was just not possible to produce a reliable food surplus. They were tough, well armed, and sometimes envious of the wealth that was produced by their more prosperous neighbors. It used to be common for many of them to raid their neighbors for food, women, and moveable wealth. It was a very macho form of society that admired physical toughness and ability with weapons.

    When I looked at that description I suddenly realized this was Star Trek’s Klingon Empire.

  2. Amazing post! So, the 6-mile hexes that support the cities would have between 2000 and 3000 people distributed in small hamlets, correct? I wonder what would be a feasible distance between hamlets and their distribution in sub-hexes, like the 2 mile hex division you’ll be using for the Vales.

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