Gong Farmer
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Basic Information

Gong-Farmer is a profession and term dating to the 15th Century in England. A gong farmer's job is to remove night soil (human excrement) from privies. Some castles had dedicated latrine towers, and gong-farmers would have to brave the depths of these towers to empty them from time to time. (Other castles featured garderobes that emptied out into a cesspit outside the castle, or even just dumped human waste into the moat or a nearby river. Be very picky about swimming holes and drinking water near a castle.) Larger towns and cities would often feature public latrines as well, but they were generally few in number and overused. Somebody had to gather this stuff up and port it out by the wagon load. Gong farmers, and nightsoil men generally, also collect the contents of domestic chamberpots in some places (usually those with no sewerage and laws against emptying your waste into the street1).

Once hauled away, the night soil wasn't just buried or discarded. It was used to fertilize fields, of course. It was also used to make homes. No kidding. Mixed with mud, straw, and water, night soil was a sealant for the walls of wattle and daub cottages. Stale urine was sold to leather-workers, dyers and the like to use as bleach and to prepare leather and hides. A really dedicated (or desperate) gong-farmer would dig through the muck in search of supplemental income in the form of items discarded or dropped into the latrines. (For another job that salvaged things other people through away in this era, see rag and bone man.)

Gong farmers made good money, but had lousy hours. No one wanted you hauling buckets of poop through the city at mid-day, so laws were made to restrict it to night-time work. They of course also had unsanitary and unsafe health conditions, and some even died from asphyxiation amongst the privy fumes. (I don't recommend passing out while at the bottom of a deep pit full of feces and urine.) In some times and places, gong farmers were required by law to live in their own little communities separated from the general populace. This was to control disease as well as scent, and so that you wouldn't be likely to buy something second-hand and only later figure out it had been rescued from the privies. Where a caste system exists, these people will be at the bottom of it.

Modern sanitation is generally a lot cleaner, but there are still places where the sewer workers need to go in and clear obstructions by hand - the worst offenders are often plugs of congealed fat from the food industry that are capable of blocking a walk-through sewer to above head height (and creating a backlog of sewage behind it).

Sources

Bibliography
4. Non-Fiction Book: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again
5. Non-Fiction TV: Discovery Channel's Worst Jobs In History

Game and Story Use

  • In a setting with Otyughs, Were-rats, and the like, the Gong Farmer's job is a dangerous one.
    • The gong-farmer may team up with the rat catcher, the rag and bone man, and others not afraid to brave the sewers and cesspits in search of adventure. It'd make a memorable NPC party. "We're the Nightsoil Knaves, we are. The dirtiest bunch of adventurer's in the whole city, so don't cross us!"
  • A valuable jewel falls down the garderobe, and is found by the Gong Farmer who cleans it up and sells it. The PCs are sent after him to get it back, or perhaps they're just hired to replace him.
    • Or maybe it's a powerful magic item that ends up in the privy. Armed with it, the local gong-farmer decides to change the balance of power. Talk about your ill wind blowing across the political landscape…
    • A vital clue or murder weapon is thrown into the slop to hide it from an ongoing investigation, and is found by the gong-farmer. Realizing the importance, they bring it to the PCs (or the rightful investigators).
      • Or maybe the gong-farmer turns up dead, and it's later revealed that he died because he'd found the clue and tried to blackmail the person who ditched it into the privies.
  • Should the PCs ever have to go digging around in a latrine, it's probably time for some constitution or willpower checks at a severe penalty.
  • In most fantasy settings, there's cantrips or other low-powered magic that can levitate or sort the waste, mend found items, clean up stains, create illusory scents to mask the wretched odors, or just buff up your endurance rating for a while. All of these minor magics would be in heavy demand amongst the gong-farmers.
    • Perhaps this is the line of work that failed wizards tend to gravitate towards. Possibly in the same way that failed civil (and sometimes chemical) engineers are said to end up in sanitation in real life2.
  • The latrines are backing up, and the local gong-farmer is missing. So the castle bailiff or steward hires a replacement. Then the new guy vanishes with the job half-done as well. Is there a monster in the latrine tower? The PCs are the third-string gong-farmers / adventurers sent in to clean up the job.
  • Critters that eat feces could be seen as serious competition to the gong-farmers. Cage some sort of slime monster, gelatinous cube, otyugh, etc, in the latrine, and you could save yourself some money.
    • If such a monster ever got loose, though, it'd be a disaster. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the toilet…
      • The Venerable Guild of Gong Farmers and Night Soil Carters might hire the PCs to cause such a disaster, to discourage other nobles from trying to replace the Guild with a bunch of slimes and jellies.
    • Alternatively, installing and maintaining "consumer unit" might be the deluxe end of their service.
  • The majority of sewerage in the developing world is maintained in pretty much the same way (if it is maintained at all) - even in modern downtown Bombay you can occasionally see a dalit in a dhoti being lowered into a manhole to clear some obstruction with a shovel. Same goes for anywhere without mains sewerage - most of the world doesn't use vacuum tankers to empty the sewage tank or pit latrine…
  • There are several historical examples of castles being taken or magnates assassinated by someone who climbed up the gardrobe chute: this could be done either by or with the assistance of a gong farmer.

Building This Character

Character Level

  • Probably a low-level character, since it's such a menial task and a bit of a shit job.

Attributes

  • Constitution and Endurance need to be very high, or you might die on the job.
    • Or quite low, due to a history of repeated infections.
  • Willpower is likely to be high as well, because you force yourself to go into these awful disgusting places on a regular basis.
  • There's a lot menial labor involved, so Physical Attributes will be a higher priority than cerebral development.
  • If you're lucky, your weakest/lowest attribute will be whichever one governs Perception. What is that smell?
    • What smell?

Skills

  • Athletics and Climbing are top of the list, and may be the only things that matter.
    • If the latrines are deep (such as the latrine tower of a castle), then rope use and even swimming (yuck) become life-saving vital skills.
  • Social Skills are likely to be either non-existent, or quite extensive. When you smell like that, there's not much use in a middle ground. Either you over-compensate, or no one but other gong farmers will give you the time of day.

Special Abilities

  • If you want to get ahead in this job, you'll need Iron Will, Fearless, or something that decreases the chance of your character passing out. Take Edges and Feats that represent your ability and willingness to go places and do things that would makes lesser men faint.
  • Resistance to Disease is a must, because you're going to be exposed to all sorts of nastiness.

Flaws and Hindrances

  • Given the frequency of baths in era that employ Gong Farmers, expect some sort of penalty to your social rolls. Amongst the peasants this might not matter, as they smell just as bad as you do. Everyone else will stay upwind of you.
  • If you didn't take some sort of disease resistance special ability, then you should consider the opposite. You could have a specific disease, or just a generally rotten health from all that much you wade in.
  • Some mental disorders, such as coprophilia, might also be appropriate.

Combat Role

  • No particular combat role suggests itself, but you can rest assured you won't be the parties faceman.
  • If your game has detailed rules for illness, contamination or nausea, you may have some humorous (or just plain disgusting) options available.
    • Don't overdo it just for giggles, though. Gross-out humor can wear out it's welcome pretty quickly, and you may undermine other player's willing suspension of disbelief or even make them not want to game with you any more.

Variants

  • Failed Wizard's Apprentice - A little bit of wizard goes a long way. There's a variety of minor magics available in most systems that would do wonders towards making this job tolerable. Given a bit of illusion, no one would ever guess your moonlighting as a gong-farmer. The ex-apprentice type will have higher Mental Attributes than other gong-farmers, but probably has some flaw or weakness that explains why they dropped out of the Magic Academy and started hauling poo for a living.
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