So, first of all, this is my first post in English in a long time, and English is not my first language, so I’ll start by telling every English-speaker out there that I’m really sorry for what I’m about to do to their language. Please note that most of my blog is (and will be) in Italian, only the post tagged as
english will be in English.
Now, I’ve spent quite some time cooking since the lockdown begin and have been thinking about a post on trail/dungeon rations in a long while, but never got to it. Since the question have been asked on the OSR Discord server, I’ve decided to start working on this post in a language that might allow me to share it back where the discussion began.
Aside from my own experience cooking (and camping) I’ve used a couple of sources for reference and inspiration:
- This beautiful post on trail rations which has been around since 2017 and makes my mouth water every time
- What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, by Krista D. Ball. While it’s mostly aimed at writers, it also contains useful tips for roleplayers
- A lot of Wikipedia articles. I will link them when they are most relevant.
- Nutrition Science and Food Standards for Military Operations, from NATO.
- The beautiful Townsends Youtube channel (warning: do not open on an empty stomach!); while it focuses on 18th century cooking, there are a couple of videos on camp cooking, soldier cooking and so on. I will link the relevant videos in the different sections.
Now, this is not going to be a very long foreword, but I think it’s better to come out clean: my knowledge of the culinary art is geographically limited. While I’ve got a good knowledge of Italian food and a bit more than average knowledge of European and Mediterranean food, most of the other traditions are stranger to me. I’ve obviously eaten in other restaurants but I’m not naive enough to assume that those restaurants weren’t serving watered-down versions of the original recipes, more fitting with the tastes of their patrons (if you don’t believe me, just do what I call “the doner test”: everytime you travel to a different nations, eat a doner).
So, if you think this work could be improved by adding some references to other cultures’ tradition (which is probably true, since I’m taking in account just a small part of this world), feel free to write your own addition (I’d be pleased if you linked this post back, but whatever).
In no way, whatsoever, you should base your real life diet on this post. Fuck, even military MRE, which are far better thought than anything I’ve written below, are not supposed to be eaten for more than 30 days in a row, doing more than a couple of snacks based on this post is most likely to play hell with your bowels and your blood values
I will try to evaluate how much a single serving of this is going to weigth, basically describing how much you must carry to get enough calories for a day of adventuring. I’ve no idea about how much calories you actually need for crawling around in a dungeon, but I’ll just trust that the NATO dietary experts knew what they were doing when they assumed that in combat operations soldiers require about 4900 kcal per day (to put this in to perspective, an average man doing an office job requires about 2300-2500 kcal/day - so yes, your heroes are going to eat a lot). If you want to see how a modern-day combat ration looks like, take a look to the MRE rations.
In order to make the bookkeeping at least a little bit easier, I’ve decided to split rations into portions of roughly 1000 kcals each, so every 5 portions you get a full-day ration. Portions should be consumed during rests, but there are a bunch of the following foods which might be eaten while walking. While diving straight for the most weight-effective ration would help your character stay fed without wasting too much backpack space, differentiating between portions will probably give you more flexibility (and better bargaining power with monsters).
As many RPG translators have done before me, I’ve decided to assume that a pound is 500g, instead of 453.592. This will make calculations a bit easier and the whole post more readable, but, my dear uncivilized readers, keep in mind that I’m adding a 10% tax on your characters’ carrying capacity. You might consider it a tax on sticking to a nonsensical measurement system.
While dungeons are death traps in so many different ways, not enough people take into account the two horrible twins that dwelve in all of them: thirst and starvation. They probably claimed the life of more adventurers than goblins. First of all, inside a dungeon, you cannot forage. Maybe some mushrooms and such still grow but are really sure that making a soup of something that has been eating undead overlords of evil is really a good idea? Exactly. Same as for water: even if you manage to find water, you have no guarantee that it will be safe to drink. Sure, you have seen that goblin drink from the stream and it’s still alive enough to try to stab you but goblins are also known for spiking their drinks with rat poison…
Generally speaking, if the dungeon is filled by something with common dietary needs, you might find their food and water stashes. Always remember to check them before eating and drinking: nobody knows what those kobolds can digest. So, when planning your expedition to a dungeon, the safest assumption to make is that you won’t find anything edible or drinkable once you crossed the door. You have to bring with you enough food and water to survive.
Another thing that you should consider, is that in a closed space filled with monsters which might or might have you as their main course, cooking can be extremely dangerous. You should be able to eat whatever you brought with you with little to no fire. Also, cooking anything might consume your precious water reserve (on the other hand, boiling water will allow you to make it safe to drink even if you found it in the dungeon).
So, what’s a good dungeon ration composed of?
Pemmican is basically the mother of every protein bar ever conceived and the wet dream of doomsday preppers all over the world. It’s a mixture of animal fat, ground, dry beef (or whatever meat) and, if you want, berries and dried food. It played a key role in the sunstenance of the indigenous people of North America for centuries, basically saved every European expedition from starvation, was employed by the Italian general Nobile in his arctic expedition in 1928 and the U.S.A. send huge quantities of it to Italy after WWII, to keep off starvation. The most common recipe originated in Canada (the word “pemmican” itself comes from the Cree language, another name, wasnà comes from the Lakota language), while in the current U.S.A, the Lakota and Dakota nations used to make it without meat, mixing toasted cornmeal, animal fat, fruit and sugar.
There have been occurrences of people eating pemmican over a decade old, but I don’t think it can last that much inside the backpack of an adventurer.
A portion of pemmican weights about 200g (0.4 pounds), so a full ration will be about 1kg (2 pounds).
The Townsends Youtube channel has six episodes (collected in a handy playlist on pemmican), I haven’t watched all of it, but if you are curious you can learn there how to cook it in your home or how your characters might cook it before leaving for the adventure.
Goetta is a kind of poor-man’s sausage, imported in America from Germany. It’s original purpose was to stretch out a portion of meat (pork, in this case) over more than one meal, by “diluting” it with ground cereals and adding some spices for flavour. Contrary to Pemmican, you have to cook it and it doesn’t last that long, but it probably tastes better (and you can just add some bread to it).
In this case, you have to stop and cook the goetta to eat (but you could cook it all in the morning and eat it cold during the day).
A portion of goetta weights about 300g (0.6 pounds), so a full ration will be about 1.5kg (3 pounds).
Ciccioli or, as my grandfather called them grepiuli (singular la grepiula, plural li grepiuli), are the fat leftovers of the pork, pressed and then fried in more fat. In my personal opinion, they are the best tasting food in this world. While I advise against substaining only on those (because they fat content is probably going to stop your heart far before any goblin could), they are a good way to quickly boost your character’s calories intake. They also are a great addition to other rations, if anything else because they improve the taste. In fact, this is how they are traditionally eaten, if you aren’t a glutton like me.
A portion of ciccioli weights about 200g (0.4 pounds), so a full ration is about 1kg (2 pounds).
The best way to eat them in a dungeon is probably to have them baked inside something else, like cakes or focaccia, or to use them to boost the calories intake of another meal. A single portion of focaccia with ciccioli (or, as my grandfather would say, gnocco coi grepiuli) weights about 260g (0.5 pounds).
A staple of traveling and military food since Roman times, hardtack lasts long and is a good place on which put anything you can think of (like the cappon magro, if you really have that much time to spend cooking in a dungeon). It’s also pretty easy to acquire, since it’s highly probable that any village near the wildlands would bake it in some form for the hunters and rangers.
A portion of hardtack weight about 240g (0.5 pounds), so a full ration will be about 1.2kg (2.5 pounds).
Here is a Townsends’ video on hardtack.
Dry, aged cheese can last for a long while and provide the characters with a lot of calories. Plus, it is perfect to eat in combination with other things. There are many kind of cheese, with different nutritional properties, basically everywhere in the world (with some exceptions: our French cousins seem genetically unable to produce real cheese and are stuck with that funny parody - maybe it’s related to their inability to produce good wine?). I’ve decided to model the cheese after Parmigiano Reggiano, both because I like it and it’s exactly the kind of cheese I would want to bring with me when going on a long travel.
A portion of cheese weights about 250g (0.5 pounds), so a full ration (if you ever think somebody could eat it) will be 1.5kg (2.5 pounds).
You have probably tasted beef jerky before. In fact, basically all the world has its own tradition of drying meat with some small changes (penmican itself qualifies as dried meat). The fundamental idea is always the same: you remove as much fat as possible from the meat, cure it with some kind of spices and salt and then dry or smoke it. The taste might change, but most of the time the basic idea is the same. While you can keep the stats as basically the same, you can use the following ideas to add more flavor to your world.
A portion of dried meat weights about 240g (0.5 pounds), so a full ration will be about 1.2kg (2.5 pounds).
This are tipical northern-italian dried meats (but are often used as ham). While the preparation is the same, bresaola is made with bigger cuts than slinzega, which results in the latter having a stronger taste than the first. They should, at least, be sliced before eating.
Borts is a mongolian version of dried meat, which is often cut in small pieces or ground into a powder after being dried. If you consider volume in your packing rules, consider ground borts to occupy 1/3 of the volume of a similar ration. While ground borts is impractical to eat as itself, it can be added to water in order to produce a soup.
‘nduja sounds like an orcish curse and, when prepared correctly, tastes like one. It’s basically made by taking the poorest cuts of the pork, grinding them and then adding enough peppers and spices to turn everything red and make it last on its own without needing additional preservatives. As you can guess, it’s spicy. Good ‘nduja, when heated, should make eyes water at a couple of rooms of distance. It’s obviously good for seasoning and can be weaponized. Half a pound of ‘nduja (250g) is going to season enough meals to make everybody sick of it. Eating a whole portion should require a saving throw to avoid the dire consequences of eating far too much spicy food.
The cacciatorino (literally “small hunter”) is a small Italian salami which used to be carried by hunters as their food during hunts. Sizes can vary, from chains of bite-sized salami to bigger ones which require to be cut before eating, but the basic idea is always the same: a very concentrated food with high nutritional value. Traditionally, you would eat some of this with bread (but you can use hardtack).
A portion of cacciatorino weights about 240g (0.5 pounds), so a full ration will be about 1.2kg (2.5 pounds).
Most of the characters (at least the ones planning to be alive for more than two days) bring some kind of water reserve in a dungeon, but water doesn’t last forever and, more important, any source of water found in the dungon must be threated someway in order to make sure it’s drinkable.
Boiling water kills a lot of nasty things that might reside in the water, but it consumes fuel and time. While soup is great to eat during a rest, herbal infusions can be prepared before leaving and drunk across the day.
Adding some alcoholic beverages to water will make it spoil slower and thus give your characters more time to find a fresh water source. In addition to this, it might not kill off ancient curses, but it kills its fair share of bacteria, and improves the taste, so you’ll be at least a little less unhappy while you die of Lich Cholera. The most common beverage for this category is grog, which the english prepared with 4 parts of water for each part of rum (plus lemon juice, spices and so on). If you feel like you haven’t wasted enough time on YouTube for today, here you can see a Townsends’ video on grog.
Obviously, drinking too much grog will get you drunk. That’s not a smart idea inside a dungeon!
The ancient Romans used to mix water, vinegar and perhaps honey and spices, to get a drink which is refreshing, cannot get you drunk and lasts a bit longer than water, the posca. I didn’t have the courage to taste it, so I will just reference a couple of historical accounts about how shitty it seems to be:
- It was considered a great gesture of comradeship for an officer to drink posca like his soldiers. It was something most officers and emperors avoided, to the point the we have ancient historians taking note of the few times when it happened. It’s better to be hated by your own men than to drink posca.
- When in John, 19, 28-30 Jesus said he was thirsty, a Roman soldier, out of kindness, decided to share with him his only drink: some posca. While the soldier was just sharing what he had, theologians had spent centuries convinced this was done out of spite because who would want to drink that thing before dying?
If you want to add some fun to potion-making, many ancient doctors used posca as a basis for their healing potions.
Drinking too much posca will probably make you wish you drunk that suspicious water and contracted Mummy’s Intestinal Rot instead.
Wine is another of those things that get you drunk, which isn’t good, but there are some wines, like Lambrusco which were meant to be drunk by working people.
Now, if you manage to get your hands on a nice bottle of Lambrusco di Sorbara, keep it cool and drink it as it is (or, even, use it to make a nice bevr’in vin) you might wonder “how is it possible that this thing will not make me drunk?”. Thank the vagaries of Italian law for that. I won’t rant on details I don’t remember about that, but original Lambrusco is a lot less alcoholic that anything you can find, in fact, it’s not alcoholic enough to be legally sold as wine (but still too alcoholic to be sold as soft drink - so the producers decided to make it stronger enough to make the cut as wine, since there was no other way for them to sell it). The original gradation is about 1-2%, so it will take some time to get drunk on it.
If you got it here, there is something you might already have sensed: food and drink are a very difficult part of the life in the dungeon. I don’t think there are nice and useful suggestions about how to make the PCs’ lives difficult while dealing with this, but there are some tips that might be useful for dungeon planning.
Most living things need to eat and drink in some fashion. Some monsters are defined by what they eat, like Vampires or Mind Flayers, but you can get a lot of information and plot hooks by considering what any kind of monster eats. Answering the following questions will probably help you design plot hooks and rooms in the dungeon:
- What do they eat?
- Can they preserve it? How long?
- How do they get their food? How often?
Maybe the monsters eat something the PCs could eat too, maybe not (do the PCs know or have a way to learn before eating?), but anyway, if the PCs manage to steal, destroy or poison the monsters’ food stash, they’ll get a lot of leverage on them (or maybe the monsters will be more aggressive, or just move out in search of greener pastures).
Since Delicious in Dungeon / Danjon Meshi came out, a lot of people played with the idea of cooking various monsters. The manga’s wiki collected a list of dishes, if you need some inspiration, but there are, in fact, a ton of posts on the internet about it. This doesn’t even try to be a comprehensive list, but it should be a starting point:
- Obviously, there is an high-quality post from Skerples. I wonder why I bother trying to find other sources anymore…
- One-page cooking rules for D&D 5, but they are simple enough you could try porting them anywhere.
- 100 meals made from moster parts, either to spice up a tavern or suggest some ideas to the players