Street Urchin
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"Street Urchin", he thought. Urchin sounds about right - spiky, slimy and smelling slightly of rotting seaweed.

Vimes, from Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

Basic Information

A street urchin is a (somewhat romanticised) term for a (semi)feral child living in an urban area. Such children may be part of a homeless family, or even have homes to go to which they are merely absent from most of the day1, but they may equally well be at least functional orphans.

Such children - even if nominally supported by their parents - are often involved in crime to one degree or another, whether as perpetrators (typically begging or petty theft), victims (sexual exploitation is common) or both (exploitation may well end in being trafficked as a child prostitute). Street children may also be recruited into criminal gangs (Fagin's kitchen in Oliver Twist being one of the most famous examples). More honest work often involves selling small items to passers by2 or providing services such as shoe-shining, message carrying and horse-holding (or in the modern era, windscreen washing). Speaking of trafficking and abuse, any society with a functioning slave trade (legal or otherwise) is likely see a lot fewer street children: many potential urchins will have been sold at the block one way or another, and the remainder will be a lot more circumspect due to the risk of being bagged and dragged.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Possibly a background for a PC thief (or any other urban underclass character) - even Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe is shown to have grown up as a street urchin.
    • For fans of The Expanse, it's worth looking into the history of Amos Burton and finding out about Timothy.
  • They can also be recruited as intelligence gatherers … whether you happen to be a violin playing detective or a sinister eunuch.
  • A PC could be sold something significant that an urchin has "found".
  • Finding a child that has been "lost" in a city may require extensive urchin sorting.
  • Urban campaigns could include conflict between charity workers trying to "save" the urchins and criminals trying to recruit them.
    • Inevitably the criminals will probably be more appealing to the urchins - given that the choice is liable to be "church and school" vs. hanging out with a street gang. Of course, when the actual alternative to being washed and sent to school is being perfumed and sold as a bum-boy (or shot down in a turf battle), things may look different, but by then it's usually too late … and children are traditionally slow to develop critical thinking skills.
  • Interesting Campaign Idea: PCs in a pre-modern setting are investigating the disappearance of significant numbers of street children (although getting historically authentic reasons for this may be a struggle) and eventually track down the abductors … who turn out to be time travellers who are pulling them into the future and turn out to be deliberately targeting those least likely to cause paradox - and people who died as homeless children are ideal as their impact on history is minimal. With this knowledge, PCs must then decide whether or not they want to stop the flow … unless the kids are being used to power Omelos or otherwise badly abused, even being up-timed as indentured labour may be preferable to what awaits them in the alleys come winter.
    • Other motives could include: re-population (or at least refreshing the gene pool) after a population crash; raising an army or providing spare parts (whether transplant organs or wetware processors).
    • Smart PCs may want to look at the demographics of the urchin haul - those mainly collecting girls may want servants or concubines, those wanting an army may prefer boys … those claiming they want colonists should really be collecting a fairly even mix.
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