Another long posting. I wrote this for Fletnern, but since it is unlikely that that book will ever be published, I wanted to post it here. To me it is important, because writing this made me want to write Grain Into Gold.
It is important to both forget the peasants and to not forget them. In this discussion, the peasant are those people who provide for their families by farming or some other nature oriented occupation and their families. Some might be gatherers, hunters, woodsmen, shepherds, or pig farmers. The occupations are numerous and often run together. The common thread is that they are poor and live in the places between the cities.
Because this is a world of high adventure and high fantasy, it is important to forget the peasants. Too much time would be spent in the tedious bookkeeping of trying to track how many peasants there were, if they were getting enough to eat, what their general morale was, etc. Other than waving to them while passing them on the road, adventurers will hardly ever interact with these people.
It is important not to forget them, because there are a lot of them. They might not be worth robbing, but when a petty lord is forced to defend his castle against a horde of skeletons and zombies, he is going to go out into his lands and form the peasants into a militia. When a drought ruins the crops in a region, the peasants are going to be looking for food. When scouts are attempting to sneak across the countryside unseen, the peasants are going to be in the woods, going about their everyday lives.
Like other people, peasants do not care about those things that do not affect them directly. If the lord’s brother usurps his throne, the peasants will find it interesting, but it will not spur them to action. If a plague wipes out half the population of the capital, same level of disinterest. If a dragon burns the next village to ashes before being slain by the local wizard warrior, the peasants will only care if it opens up some better farmland.
Raising taxes will get a rise out of the peasants, possibly even causing a revolt. Food shortages will encourage them to act. While these might seem obvious, not all reactions would be. Most peasants would not rise up against their lord(s) even if the lord(s) were unjust. Small amounts of pillaging his own people would be allowed. Peasants are remarkable in their ability to thank their gods for deliverance from their own rulers. As long as the self-sufficient peasants can continue to provide for their families, they have the ability to forget what happened to their neighbors, or worse yet, rationalize how their neighbors deserved it.
Almost all races have peasants. It would be a rare culture indeed that did not have some forgotten people living their meager lives. They will find a way to survive and do so, without contact with the nobility or warmongers. They fill the empty spaces, even when those empty spaces seem uninhabitable.
The end result is that peasants are important as plot devices and as barriers to the free travel from one place to another. Certainly they cannot stand up to adventurers or any other trained military force, but they are often in the way. Game masters should feel free to ignore them, unless and until they are actually pushed into action, though that should take quite a bit of effort.