The Gassy Gnoll slept in today, so he apologizes in advance for his tardiness. He didn’t want to leave folks hanging, so he offered his slot to me to fill. Nice gnoll, ain’t he?
As I debated getting a haircut recently I pondered the use of the ubiquitous barber in campaign worlds. Barbers have been relegated to the role of simple hairdressers these days, though the social aspect is still a major emphasis. A good haircut includes the pleasantries of common conversation and many deals are probably still brokered in small barber shops.
But it used to be so much more… Surgeons. Dentists. A good barber could fix you up in many different ways. Going back to ancient times, these were jacks of many trades that were sometimes paid more than those practitioners of a single discipline.
About the only reference I’ve seen on the web is by Alric @ RPG Athenaeum… And he shows the downside of primitive medical practices. “A common cure [for toothaches] involved burning a candle very close to the tooth; the heat would theoretically drive the worms though to cause the ache to leave the tooth and jump into a cup of water held below the patient’s mouth. When that treatment failed, the tooth was extracted with pliers, without anesthetic.” Ouch. I don’t like going to the dentist, but the old way seems worse.
Even so, they were sought out after their knowledge of practical medicine as opposed to some of the more superstitious approaches folks would try. Leeching. Amputations. Hernia repairs. Gallstones. Selling of basic medicines. (Alchemy anyone?) It’s an important role that would feel right at home in most fantasy campaigns I’ve run.
So why not use the barber as an alternative to the typical church healer or herbalist? Each approach has its merits, but if one fails you might have better luck going to the next. Though it may be nothing more than a quick skill check, that may be the difference between bleeding out or surviving to fight another day. Or if you’re not in need of a healer, a barber shop is still a great way to hear local gossip and potentially find the next adventure…
In modern or futuristic campaigns (or even fantasy), why not use today’s version of the barber shop as a place of finding business? Someone looking for work might find influential people sharing conversation and be able to leverage themselves into a job.
Now if you’re going for a historical flair, I’d caution you against staying in the typical misogynistic vein that many societies encouraged. Though that may have been what actually happened, in our enlightened day and age we can change the rules. In my opinion, fantasy or medieval worlds in our games should be inclusive, not exclusive – unless that’s the world you wish to portray (to the exclusion of some potentially great players).
So how might you use a barber in your campaign? I tend to focus on fantasy worlds, so here are some suggestions in that vein:
- The Barber as Confidante – A good barber can be viewed as someone to share secrets with or get advice about difficult situations. What happens when a barber is wronged and begins selling secrets?
- The Barber as Murderer (as in Sweeney Todd) – Imagine a well-respected member of society taking advantage of a position of trust and killing his (or her) clients?
- The Barber as Coordinator – Barbers hear things. They know who’s looking for work and who has a job to fill. Why not use that network to the PC’s advantage?
Interested in some resources on medieval barbers? Check these out:
- Medieval Barbers- Taking care of more than just haircuts (The Ancient Standard)
- Medieval Barber (Medieval Travel)
- Barber-surgeons (Science Museum)
- Medieval Jobs – The Barber (tronatales.com)
- Medieval Sourcebook: Apprenticeship Agreements: To a Barber, 1248 (Fordham University)