OSR: Firewood and Forestry

Why is your D&D town surrounded by trees?

If the town is small enough, local consumption of wood is less than the forest's replacement rate. If the town is larger, you need to have an excuse. Back of the envelope calculations: people who burn wood for heat use about 2.5 kg per person per day. For the sake of this discussion, let's say the average per-capita consumption is 1 cubic meter per year. All the papers I've found seem to think that's an acceptable value.
This seems way too small, but hear me out.

With an average household size of six, the boxes form an impressive stack. That's just firewood. Add fencing, roofing, flooring, crafts, and extra firewood for charcoal and the forge, and the stack of boxes gets bigger.

So if you have a large town, and it's an old town, there had better be a good reason to have a dark and ancient undisturbed forest less than an hour's walk away. People love cutting down trees and turning them into fire and timber.

1. The King's Forest. There's a fence or a stone marker or a natural boundary, such as a river. Everything on the near side is picked down to the turf. Everything on the far side is the King's Forest. It doesn't mean it's all trees, but it does mean you'll hang if you take wood from it, hunt game in it, or try to live in it. Local farmers might also be banned from using fences or enclosing their land. What a lovely source of tension.

2. Druids. They hate you. They hate your cities, your language, your tools, your dogs, and your culture. They want to slice you open. The forest is their forest. You might be able to steal some deadfall, or even a tree or two, but everyone knows that if you go in and lose sight of the plains or the road, you're dead. They'll find your head on a borderpost.

3. Resettlement. The town is old, but it's much smaller than it used to be, and the forest has grown back. War and plague killed seven in ten families. Or maybe it's a new colony, freshly hacked into the dark forest.

4. Monsters. People don't like living next to big scary things that will kill them. Crocodiles can be monitored. Tigers can be hunted or driven to the wild places of the earth. Hippos can be avoided. A lot of large dangerous animals didn't make it to the iron age. We probably hunted them to death and felt damn good about it. If there's a monster in the nearby woods, there's got to be a very good reason the locals haven't burned it to the ground, called in the army, or fled. Maybe it's a helpful patron. Maybe it's dangerous, but only in a very specific area.

5. Religion. The forest is holy. Even the poor and desperate would rather freeze than break the rules and collect deadfall.

6. Lively. The forest grows back very, very quickly. You need to salt the earth to clear a space for a house. You need to cut down the trees every summer, or every season, or you'll lose your fields and your roads. Maybe it's natural. Maybe it's magic. Maybe someone from the village made a badly worded deal with an elf a few centuries ago.

EDIT: This article is well worth reading if you think there are forests untouched by human action. We've mucked with quite a lot of the world. Paradigm shifts may ensue. Hold onto your hat.


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  2. Nice post! As a forester myself I like to think about these things. You should check out information on the Black Forest in Germany, it's considered the birth place of forestry and is a good example of how forests would have been managed/maintained in the early modern period. The Basque people off Spain also had some very developed forest practices, as did the Japanese.

    1. Thanks! A lot of the "managed" forests, like the Japanese forests and to a certain extent the Black Forests, are re-growth over logged ancient stands, which is sad but not unexpected. A lot of what we call "undisturbed" forests aren't anything of the sort, even the really, really isolated ones. http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/trees-that-miss-the-mammoths/

      That article is a gold mine of RPG ideas.

  3. It could be really awful firewood that takes forever to dry and basically falls apart when it is. There's a couple of trees in New Zealand known as "bucket of water trees" for similar reasons. Alternative the smoke from the wood could be poisonous , as in Oleander

    1. Both of these are excellent ideas. Poison woods seem fun, especially if you're new to the area. Fleeing from your own toxic campfire seems like a very OSR thing to do.

    2. You can have fun flipping it around too. Think of all the American settlers who were convinced tomatoes were poisonous because they resembled the deadly nightshade plant of their homelands.