A charcoalburner is a type of feuller common to the middle ages. In such times, fireplaces were the main sources of heat in the winter. Not everyone lived near a woods to gather fuel from. Commonly, forests belonged to Kings or other Nobles. Gathering wood from them without permission might well be deemed treason by the courts. Wood could only be taken from certain places, and might have to be transported great distances in an era with very little transportation infrastructure. Charcoal is a lighter weight fuel, and easier to transport and store than wood. It's advantages are obvious.
Provided they are near an uncontrolled frontier forest, or can get permission from a Woodward in charge of a less remote forest, the charcoalburner can go about their job. First they chop and gather wood from a forest, then carefully arrange it in a particular pattern to control air-access. This pile is then covered over with soil, or bricked around, to form a kiln. It is then slowly burned in this reduced-oxygen environment to produce charcoal with specific properties. Ideally, the finished coal takes up around 60% of the area, and has about 25% of the mass, of the original wood.
Charcoal has numerous uses beyond merely heating your house and cooking your food. Charcoal can be used by a blacksmith or smelter to turn iron into steel. An apothecary can use it to make charcoal biscuits to protect against ingested poisons. A alchemist can finds all sorts of uses for charcoal ranging from compound-making and kiln-fueling to filtering. So a charcoalburner has a lot of potential customers.
Charcoal production could be a fairly insular business - it was a dirty, smelly job that usually needed to be done in the middle of the wildwood and so tended to attract a specific sort of person. In some places - such as medieval England - they virtually formed a seperate caste, in others they were merely networked and clannish. The Italian Carbonari (an organisation with interesting parrallels to the freemasons) arose from charcoal burners (and a members of a few other wood working professions).
Charcoal-burning was very common in Medieval Europe, but the practice lasted up through the ages until recently when better fuels and mass production made it increasingly rare. As recently as 1879, in Nevada there was a "Charcoal-Burner's War" between unionized charcoalburners and the large mining outfits that tried to lowball their prices.
Game and Story Use
- In many medieval settings, a charcoalburner may well operate under a direct licence from the landlord (for either a fixed fee or a percentage of gross) or, like mineral extraction, be licenced by the Crown in despite of any local landlord. Any part of this could lead to adventures, from fee fraud (for example, the burner employing a small army of "apprentices" to ensure that he can produce far more charcoal than was anticipated when he paid a fixed fee - or concealing his production to reduce his "piece rate" tax bill) to attempts by a landlord to extort or drive off a crown licensee who is interfering with his use of his woodland.
- PCs could be on any side of this - from woodland peasants whose livelihood is being disrupted, to a landlord who as charcoal burners foisted on him (or fiddling him out of his fair share): or involved when the druids start to object to all this felling and burning.
- A dense woods might form a national border, or serve as refuge for outlaws or monsters. The charcoalburner thus must be a hardy and brave individual.
- Thus they are the stuff from which adventurers are made. It's a good background for a low-level character whose just recently become a hero.
- A charcoalburner NPC might be the first person to witness the evil that's awoken in the old woods, or might have witnessed criminals fleeing into the forest. He then becomes a valuable source of clues and intelligence for the PCs. From them comes the first foreshadowing of what develops later in the dark reaches of the forest.
- Perhaps the outlaws have look-outs who pose as, or moonlight as a team of charcoalburners. This gives them a legitimate reason to be always active at the outskirts of the forest, and a good cover to avoid detection.
- Charcoal burners huts (active, abandoned or mothballed) could provide useful shelter and refuge in the deep forest.
- A pyromaniac might be drawn to the profession. A charcoalburner would certainly have the skills and equipment to commit Arson.
- Such an arsonist might be merely a henchman or underling hired by whoever wanted the building burnt down.
- Settings with magical trees, or tree-monsters might have very special fuels. It's easy to envision a setting where charcoal-burners are an important link in the supply chain to get spell components or the like.
- Large scale charcoal burning could - and historically did - drive deforestation at least as fast as the demand for agricultural land. Plantation arboriculture helped feed some of the requirements, but long term increasing scarcity of charcoaling wood drove the switch to coal mining.
- The possibilities for conflict with other forest users are obvious.
- On the other hand, deforestation may uncover the remains of previous civilisations (for example Roman ruins buried in an area that re-forested after the fall of the empire).
- For a renaissance era setting, or even late medieval in some areas, this can become a significant part of campaign dynamics.
- The charcoalburner's war of Nevada could serve as model for similar conflicts between labor and big business.
- Especially given the additional aspect of transition from charcoal to coal (and given the radically different skill sets involved, its not even as if charcoalers could work coal themselves).
Building This Character
- Depends entirely on how dangerous the local woods is.
- Physical Attributes such as Strength are of primary importance. Chopping and hauling is hard work.
- At least one member of the charcoalburner's team needs the Charisma to close a sale.
- Much of the charcoalburner's job is unskilled labor. You chop trees down and haul them around. The hard part is controlling the fire and reducing the charcoal properly. This is probably a narrow skill that doesn't show up in many RPGs.
- As mentioned above, at least one member of the charcoal-burner's outfit is going to need the social skills to haggle with potential customers. I would expect prices to be on a sliding scale, based on weather and dangers involved around the woods.
- Wilderness Survival or Nature Lore are possibilities, depending on how close the forest is to civilization. Such skills may also help identify the best woods for coaling.
- Some sort of small advantage or bonus may be in order, like +1 to rolls to start, control, or put out a fire.
- As a minor character quirk, you might give them a deep voice like a smoker. They've inhaled too much around the kiln.
- Pyromania attracting them to the job, or pyrophobia driving them to retire.
- In a fantasy setting, this work could really be simplified by pyromancy. Arcane charcoalburners are easy to imagine, producing all sorts of enchanted charcoals.