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Garm the Berserker wanders into the lonely homestead of Greenroot Farm. The mayor of the nearby Stonybrook Village directed Garm here, implying that Old Borgi would have some work for him. "Really, no wood to chop?" Garm rests his axe on the ground, the blade nearly half as tall as the old farmer. "Not today, but if you can bring me 20 redfruit, I'll pay you with 10 coppers." Garm slung his greataxe over his shoulder, "I accept this task. I will return victorious!" An wizened smile crossed the old farmer's face as the adventurer departed. "There's always someone willing to do the dirty work," he chuckled to himself.


So imagine a classic RPG world where the above scenario is typical. Farming communities have a small population, with a great number of adventurers passing through on a daily basis. Often the farmers have a few assistants/children to help them, but the majority of the work is done by the adventurers seeking quick coin and the mysterious "XP". In this world, an adventurer can expect to find some amount of work to do in each village. That is, there is no uncertainty of employment when travelling to a new place. I want to make this as realistic as possible. Rather than the residents just happening to need certain favors whenever someone passes through, I want them to expect to have hapless adventurers to order around on a daily basis and base their income on this labor.
Questions:

Could an agricultural workforce be made up almost entirely of day laborers?

What would the impact be on permanent residents of agricultural communities (both landowners and other workers)?

Would food be less or more expensive with this type of labor readily available?

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    $\begingroup$ Consider that to a very large degree, agriculture (as opposed to tending to animals) requires little day-to-day care. Agriculture is work intensive for short periods, and has an up front investment of work, but is relatively hands-off for the rest of the year while the crops grow. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 20 '16 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ What would motivate adventurers to earn little money and XP by picking oranges, over earning a lot of money and XP by dungeon-crawling? $\endgroup$ – Pedro Apr 21 '16 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Someone traveling around looking to perform unskilled labor for a pittance isn't an "adventurer"; he's a hobo or tramp. You'd have to be an extremely unsuccessful adventurer to make that sort of thing worth your while. And in the scenario given, are those 20 redfruit actually worth a farmer paying someone 10 coppers to gather them? If so, then it's certainly worthwhile for the farmer to employ a hired hand to do that every day, or at least seasonally. // We do have migrant workers in our society who perform seasonal harvesting. Nobody calls them "adventurers". $\endgroup$ – Lensman Apr 21 '16 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Kjörling: Obviously you've never worked on a farm. In the spring, you plow, harrow, and plant. In the summer, you irrigate and weed. In the fall, you harvest and do more plowing. In the winter, you're less busy, but you still do a lot of needed maintenance on the equipment that you've been neglecting all year because you've been too busy. // P.S. -- Tending to animals is agriculture. $\endgroup$ – Lensman Apr 21 '16 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ Everything is an adventure if you're imaginative =) $\endgroup$ – Kys Apr 21 '16 at 13:36
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There are major costs in this system some are listed below but first, we must ask:

Why is everyone moving around?????

Answer?

Really big monsters.

There are really large, powerful monsters that slowly move around and change the size of their hunting zones.

People continually flee hunting zones and move into newly vacated ones as monsters move on or are defeated. Many adventures are refugees moving and looking for a place to settle or hunting the next monster. NPCs are former travelers or adventures who have found somewhere to settle or earned their land by killing the monster that plagued it.

Costs of most workers being migrants.

Coordination is a problem.

Some adventures are low level like Tim 'the Puny' a 1st level bard. Tim and those like him are happy to pick cabbages for a few coppers/xp. But Throg 'the Load', a 23rd level barbarian with the strength of 100 men, wants 10,000 gp because that is how much he could make killing dragons with his bare hands, which he loves doing.

So we need to have situations that require massive skill and have massive rewards along with low difficulty ones with low reward. This makes coordination harder because the adventurer has to know both that there will be jobs in the next town and that they will be suited for him. Even if there are openings in the area for a dragon wrestler, Tim won't be able to work.

Some jobs require specific skills. If you want someone to craft a magic staff, neither Tim nor Throg can help. You need a wizard or enchanter like Hera 'the Enchanting'.

Training is a problem.

Migrant workers are most useful in fields (pardon the pun), where little training is needed. The farmer spends 5 minutes teaching Tim how to pick a cabbage and then Tim works for 5 days and leaves. Where this doesn't work is fields that require training. Even though Throg is strong enough to be a blacksmith, it will take 3 years to train him, and by then Throg has moved on. Even if Throg tries to find and train with a blacksmith in every town it will still take much longer for Throg to train than if he had stayed put. This would create a strong incentive for a traditional apprenticeship- stay in one place to learn the basics, then move abroad once you have the skill.

Equipment is a problem.

Some jobs require specialized equipment.

Midas 'the Golden' is a 48th level alchemist with the ability to transform lead into gold, but he needs a complex and large laboratory to do it. If he has to travel around then he either needs dozens of wagons or he can't make gold anymore.

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  • $\begingroup$ Pardon the pun = Pun intended (and now acknowledged). $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 21 '16 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ Tim and Thog's expected wage differences is a good point and is an expression of Opportunity Cost, but presumably there's no high level monsters around for Thog to kill just now. The paragraph about picking crops requiring little training isn't true. A lot of US states found this out the hard way when they decided to crack down on illegal migrant farm workers. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Apr 21 '16 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern Forgive me if I'm wrong but I was under the impression that you could learn how to pick crops in an hour or two maybe a week at the extreme. Where becoming a smith or a engineer requires years of formal training. And in general there are some jobs that require less training and some a great deal. If you have another suggestion for a low training job example I could incorporate it. $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear May 2 '16 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ @sdrawkcabdear That's the usual impression, and that impression is wrong. Any idiot can swing a hammer, but it doesn't make them a carpenter. Any idiot can yank an apple off a tree, but can you do it fast? Can you choose which are ripe? Can you do it without damaging the nearby unripe ones? Can you avoid knocking any on the ground? Can you get all of them, even the ones at the tippy top? Here's an article about the skill involved in picking crops. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 2 '16 at 19:31
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Could an agricultural workforce be made up almost entirely of day laborers?

Yes. As an analog, look at the US agricultural system. While not "almost entirely", it makes heavy use of migrant labor, people moving from region to region following various harvests and plantings which need a lot of labor for a brief time.

USDA Migration patterns of hired crop farmwrkers

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

This is an average for US agriculture as a whole, and only for hired workers (vs the owners and full-time employees). Certain very labor intensive crops will require more hired workers than the average. And a fantasy setting won't have the mechanization that the modern world does and thus will need more labor.

Good enough to show it's feasible.

What would the impact be on permanent residents of agricultural communities (both landowners and other workers)?

It's great for the landowners! They get a lot of cheap labor, right when they need it at harvest or planting time, and then once the work is done they can be paid off and disposed of. They don't have to care for those laborers for the rest of the season.

The local (stationary) agricultural workers will be harmed. The influx of a supply of migrant labor will drive wages down. Not only during harvest and planting, but it will have a knock-on effect. The landowners will say "why hire you at $X/hour when I can get four adventurers for that?" So long as there are always a few adventurers hanging around town, short on coin, the threat of hiring them is enough to drive wages down. It doesn't matter whether there's actually enough labor to make good on the threat.

Cheap labor also devalues skilled labor and mechanization. Why train and hire and expensive skilled worker when you can get four unskilled adventurers? They each do half the work, but you can hire four times as many for the same money! Why invest in machinery to do the work when you can hire cheap adventurers?

This would also be used to break up any unions... I guess in a fantasy setting guilds. Don't want to deal with the guild rules or prices? Hire a bunch of adventurers. If guild workers can't get work, and if the guild doesn't have leverage over the employers to make them use guild workers, guild workers will defect and start working for lower pay and worse conditions.

Then there's the issue of having all these migrant workers with little connection to the local community. Once the work is done and they're paid off they're suddenly flush with cash and out of work. This is both a boon for the locals, since they can sell them things, and a bane, since a bunch of bored, young adventurers from out of town might get drunk and rowdy.

Would food be less or more expensive with this type of labor readily available?

Cheap labor drives down production cost. How much so depends on how labor intensive the particular food is.

In an environment with many farms competing with each other, this would drive down the price of food. In a non-competitive environment with a few farms colluding they'd keep prices high and pocket the extra money as profit. The latter is very likely in a medieval setting with no government oversight and no global food transportation. Nobody is going to break up a monopoly and there's no cheap fruit from Argentina to compete.

But at the same time, there would be less money in the local community to buy the food. Instead of local farms paying local workers and keeping that money in the community, the local farms pay migrant workers and their pay leaves the community. So the locals have less money.

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  • $\begingroup$ The US agricultural system actually does not. I don't think there are a whole lot of migrants in the middle of the country (aka the plains states) and here in Utah where I live most work is done by people that live here. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 21 '16 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon The USDA has a page on the topic which I'll digest and add to the answer a bit later. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Apr 21 '16 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ There isn't a lot of migrant agricultural labor in areas which mostly have crops which can be machine harvested; wheat, corn, hay, and the like. And yes, that's the Great Plains States in the middle of the country. Where you need intensive migrant harvesting in where they grow fruit and such things as lettuce and watermelons. Crops which can't be machine harvested. And note that as machines get "smarter", that sort of job is going to be quickly phased out. There are already orchard owners using apple-picking machines. $\endgroup$ – Lensman Apr 21 '16 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'd hardly call 12% of migrant workers as the US being dependent. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 21 '16 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon You get anywhere from 50% to 12% depending on how you define "migrant" and what year you pick. Also those are stats for the whole country, they'll vary by region. It's good enough for this answer to assert "yes, this is a thing that has a real life analog". For further reading I'll leave you with a Forbes article: The Law Of Unintended Consequences: Georgia's Immigration Law Backfires. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Apr 21 '16 at 7:03

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