A peasant is an agricultural worker who subsists by working a small plot of ground in a pre-industrialized nation or era. The text that follows pertains most directly to the medieval English peasant, because that's what the majority of English-language sources cover. In other locales and eras, the nature of peasant life may vary somewhat.
They tended not to own much (at least when compared to modern habits of accumulating belongings), and would often have just one or two sets of clothes, a small hovel to live in, and the tools and pots needed to eek out a living from the land. Due to these shortages, we tend to think that your standard medieval peasant had a miserable life.
To some extent that was true, but one shouldn't be so quick to dismiss. In some ways, and in some years, peasants actually had it pretty good. It depended a lot on the political climate, who was on the throne, and other social or environmental situations. No one can deny that during the years of the Black Death, the peasants had it rough. Half of Europe died, after all. But after the plague had run it's course, the surviving peasants found they had a lot more power over their lives. There was a shortage of labour following the big plagues, which allowed the peasants to negotiate, organize, and make demands. (It also gave women a toehold into businesses that had been largely the domain of men until then, but that's a topic for another page.)
Your typical peasant worked only about 70-75% as many hours in a year as you or I. Modern office and factory workers put in close to 2000 hours a year. Medieval peasants, on the other hand, are believed to have put in about 1400 hours, most of it around the harvest season. What could you accomplish if you had an extra 600 hours of free time a year? The peasant has plenty of time and opportunity to work on whatever projects they find themselves interested in.
Which means of course, that they weren't always as uneducated as we tend to picture them. Many peasants would take the time to learn to read and write, often getting lessons from their local priest. The need to read and write was largely to understand any laws or proclamations put forth by the nobility. Peasants had to keep an eye out for sneaky manipulations by the ruling class, who had the power to make sweeping changes without the peasants getting any say in things. In England in 1381, the nobility went too far, and a huge army of peasants organized and attacked London. They used coded handbills to plan and coordinate the attacks in advance.
With the exception of revolts such as that one, the peasants were usually at the mercy of their lords. Not just in the literal sense involving threats of violence, but also in a more pervasive social sense, because the peasants didn't own their own land1. In many medieval kingdoms, all land belonged to the King. Nobles would manage the lands, and have peasants or serfs to work it for them. A peasant family would have a particular tract of land that they worked, in exchange for protection from the local lords and constables. The peasant had to pay rent to his landlord, and a tithe to the church. Tithes were 10% of the peasants income or production, and could be paid in money, crops, or goods, so churches would accumulate big barns storing the stuff the peasants chose to pay in. The parcels of land didn't belong to the peasants, so in most cases they couldn't be fenced off. The "barrier" between two different peasant's pieces of land was usually just a thin strip of unploughed grass, often marked by sticks driven half-way into the ground to mark the corners of the property.
In most medieval farming systems a field under a given crop was divided into a series of longitudinal strips which were variously let to tenants, kept as demesne (the Lord's own holding) or glebe (church owned or leased). The field was ploughed and usually sown as a whole and the interlaid strips were meant to ensure that the good and poor quality land in a field was shared out evenly. The number of strips that formed part of a tenancy made the difference between struggling and being (comparatively) well off.
It's worth noting that the term 'peasant' covers most or all of the medieval rural working class, and so encompasses both serfs and freemen. The main difference being that a serf was bound to the land he lived and worked on by a hereditary contract that could not be legally dissolved without the consent of both sides, whereas the freeman either owned his land in fief from the king or rented it from some other landowner. The freeman had the ability to relocate whenever he wished, was usually free to bear arms and had various other liberties, as well as owing no more to his Lord than his taxes and any rent due. The serf owed his Lord a varying number of days of labour per week as well as rent and tax and was usually under his jurisdiction in pretty much everything, but against that had almost complete job security and an expectation that his Lord was contractually bound to defend him and take care of his wellbeing. Being unable to leave your land without permission was far less of a restriction in an era when agricultural land was the primary source of wealth and a secure hold on it was greatly sought after.
Farming was messy business, and peasants used human feces as fertilizer (no doubt animal feces was used as well). This resulted in a fairly serious health risk if you ate crops that had just been pulled out of the ground. So, the mainstay of the peasant diet was bread and pottage2. Pottage was basically a stew made from whatever food you had on hand, put in a pot of water and boiled for at least two hours, possibly just left over the fire for days (often tomorrow's pottage was made by topping up the remains of today's). Beans and onions tended to form the core of it but all sorts of vegetables, any grain that hadn't been made into bread and what little meat was to be had (including bones) went into it, whatever was on hand - even the lettuce was boiled. You just didn't have much choice. On the plus side, though, the peasants drank a lot of beer and ale. The reason for that, too, had to do with health - most villages had very poor water quality, so it was all either beer or boiling.
Typical peasant housing had thatched roofs over a wooden frame covered with a mixture of mud, straw, and, some sources tell me, manure. This was called a cruck house or wattle and daub construction. They were cheap, easy to repair, and well insulated, but not particularly healthy or pleasant. To protect against rustlers, wild animals, and accidents, livestock was frequently brought inside for the night - which made the place stinkier and even less healthy.
Peasantry as an institution survived into the 20th century in some parts of Europe - albeit generally composed of freeman farmers rather than serfs. Generally it was the industrialisation of agriculture that lead to its abolition - the breaking up of small farms and the division of food production into large operations with labourers rather than many small family operations. Once farming started to be equipment heavy, small farmers couldn't support the cost of the necessary plant and could thus be out-competed and bought up by their larger neighbours. De-feudalisation also broke up the convoluted tenancy arrangements and the closed manor-economy which had relied upon and sustained the peasant's role.
- Grain-based Local Currency and Dual Currency System, because Peasants are unlikely to have any gold to carry around.
- Corvée, a sort of "tax" paid by labor. It was the noble's "right" to demand a certain amount of unpaid labor every year. That's how big projects would get done, such as the building of castles.
Game and Story Use
- Well-educated, motivated peasants with a lot of time on their hands, could accomplish big things.
- The PCs will tend to dismiss the background NPCs, and may not realize there's something afoot until the plot is already in motion. Surprise!
- What if an army of thousands of peasant sprang up out of the rural areas, and overthrew the king? The PCs may have to choose between being the hero of the people, and the hero of the nobility. Are they chaotic good, or lawful good?
- Peasants are a good way to inject some "local color" into your game.
- If you want the dingy, gritty, manure-caked version of history, some time amongst the peasants will help reinforce that.
- If you want a "high fantasy" feel, you might forgo the manure and pottage all together. A few cantrips and blessings will no doubt clean up and simplify peasant life quite nicely.
- Peasants in a country with lots of magic will have it easier. When your local priest can purify food and water, you no longer have to settle for icky pottage.
- This may make for a distinct difference between the lower classes of different realms within your game world. The theocratic countries might have better health and living standards, but have a brutal tithing requirement in exchange.
- The PCs are traveling and come to a remote village that has no priest. The locals eat pottage, and/or have a good immune system. If the PCs don't have their own purifying magic, they'll need to face your game's disease or fatigue rules. But if they do have "purify food and water", they might be able to score some brownie points with the locals.
- A manipulative priest or demanding feudal lord is over-taxing the local village. The peasants have no money, and must pay their dues in livestock and tools - meaning next year they'll produce even less, and possibly starve next winter. The far-thinking village elder or other peasant approaches the PCs about it. He has nothing to pay them with, but he and the other peasants will hide and/or cover for the PCs if they challenge the lord for his title. This may provide the impetus for some political skullduggery, espionage or outright rebellion by PCs who've been coveting a castle (or manor) for a while.
- Similar social status and situations might be employed in the far future, especially if there's an evil empire governing the galaxy, and the big farm planets are used to feed the teeming masses of the planet cities and the crowded capital ecumenopolis. Extraterrestrial peasants in space!
- I almost forgot the old trope, common in early adventure modules, of the one peasant who's actually a retired adventurer, with a +1 sword under his mattress. Sometimes peasants aren't exactly what they appear to be.
- In later years, peasants would prove both a fertile recruiting ground for professional militaries (used to being outdoors, used to doing what he's told, not used to fancy food, can dig…) and a potent force for conservatism (as social change threatens the centuries old family farm and their entire way of life more generally). Early twentieth century reactionary (such as Spanish Carlists) or non-progressive revolutionary movements (such as the Italian Fascists and similar national-socialist/national syndicalist groups) often drew large elements of support from rural peasants as much as from urban lower middle and upper working class elements.
Building This Character
- Usually very low. Unless your game is a very low-powered campaign, peasants will be NPC extras who exist mostly to make other character look good by comparison.
- Peasants need to be strong.
- Young peasants will have good endurance or health as well, but eventually all that hard work and unsanitary conditions wears down your stamina.
- Farming, Agriculture, etc is the main skill of the Peasant.
- Animal Handling is a must. (But it might not include any Riding skills.)
- Repair is needed, because peasants can't usually afford to replace something that's just showing a little wear and tear.
- Construction skills are likely to be honed when building one's own house, as well as public works via the corvée.
- Survival seems a likely outgrowth of the above, or may just cover it all if your game has only a few broadly-defined skills.
- In some eras and locales, peasants were conscripted into a militia. If that's likely, expect at least the veteran peasants to know archery or polearm skills. The sling was also a common peasant's weapon - something many children learned to used to turn crop pests into dietary supplements and some job roles - especially shepherds - would need into adulthood.
- Peasants should have lots of hobby skills3, little things like knitting, hunting, gaming, athletics, cooking, herbalism, tanning, etc. They've got lots of free time, and must fend for themselves, a combination that encourages being a jack of all trades.
- Disease or other hallmarks of being in general poor health should be fairly common.
- Peasants could logically suffer charisma / social penalties, due to smelling like a barn.
- Mooks, Roadbumps, or Ranged Ping probably. Veteran peasants returned from war might fit the more threatening category of Sniper or Ranged DPS instead.
- History is full of examples of Priests, Knights, Mercenaries, Explorers, and even Feudal Lords who started out as the lowly child of a peasant, and had a lucky break that lead to glory. Such a character might have the skills of a peasant retained from childhood, and then a new set of skills and advantages layered on top.