Spells and Realism: Goodberry and Plant Growth

Topher
6 min readAug 24, 2020

Goodberry is different from the other spells I’ve analyzed so far in that it is only castable by Druids and Rangers. As a first level spell, it’s accessible much earlier on than Create Food and Water, but except in rare cases, a Druid with this spell still wouldn’t be able to support more than about 30–40 people on it’s own (I find it highly unlikely that a Druid would spend ALL their slots on this spell, although a 3rd or 4th level druid could support over 100 people with goodberry if they had to). However, unlike Clerics and Paladins; Druids and Rangers as they are generally portrayed would probably consider living in a tribe of 50 to a few hundred to be perfectly normal, even if they were powerful 5th-10th level casters

Since a casting of Goodberry could feed a much larger percentage of the population than Create Food and Water, it’s effects would be more significant and harder to predict. To guess what effects this spell would have, I referenced Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, focusing on Chapter 6: To Farm or not to Farm.

Guns Germs and Steel mentions that there isn’t a hard dividing line between farming villages and nomadic hunter gatherers. In very ancient times, many hunter gatherer societies in areas with a high density of edible plants didn’t need to move around to find enough food to eat. Because of this, they lived in villages instead of as nomads.

Goodberry increases the amount of food a tribe has access to, decreasing the amount of land (or quality of climate) needed to sustain a small tribe. Combined with Create/Destroy Water, Goodberry could allow a Druid to lead a significantly larger tribe in a desert or similarly harsh climate than you could ever have in the real world. Tribes with low level druids or rangers could even form villages in sparsely vegetated areas where, in the real world, a nomadic lifestyle would be the only way to prevent starvation. Because a tribe with access to Goodberry wouldn’t need to gather as much food, they could have much greater specialization than surrounding non-magical tribes.

This specialization and ability to support a larger population means that a tribe with a druid or ranger would have a significant advantage when it comes to tribal warfare. Unless the gods or spirits granting the Druid powers were opposed to it, a Druid’s tribe could probably take the most bountiful territory in the local vicinity by force, giving them an even greater advantage over competing tribes. If the Druid dies, the tribe runs the risk of being kicked out by a stronger tribe.

However, Goodberry alone wouldn’t lead to a farming culture. According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, many Polynesian cultures didn’t adopt farming until after they’d hunted the local large wildlife to near extinction, even though they knew how to do it. In the ancient fertile crescent, farming didn’t develop until a large increase of wild domesticable crops (kickstarted by climate change in the late Pleistocene) incentivized hunter-gatherers to develop efficient methods of collecting, processing, and storing that are necessary to reap any of farming’s benefits. In other words, a surplus in wild food from domesticable crops increases the probability that humans will find a way

Goodberry doesn’t decrease the amount of wild meat or give people any good reason to develop prerequisite technology for farming, so it probably wouldn’t make people suddenly want to sow seeds and plow a field. It might increase the population density (another one of the factors mentioned in Guns, Germs, and Steel that led to the rise of farming), but if the density rose above what goodberry could support, the tribe may just take a better piece of land. If there isn’t better land in the local area, the population would probably even out in the absence of other factors that make it likely to develop farming.

Moving away from tribal societies. . . If your typical medieval D&D kingdom gained access to a significant amount of casters who can prepare Goodberry (say, 1 in 800 to keep with my general estimate of one level 1–4 caster per 200–500 population while accounting for the fact that not all casters are Rangers and Druids), this spell could have pretty significant effects. It’s still not enough to support a village (except as a last resort in times of famine), but what if you drafted them into the military?

Assuming 3% of the population is in the military (my reasons for assuming this are at the end of the blog post) and half the druids are drafted, there would be about 48 ordinary soldiers per druid. Since most of our druids will be first or second level, they won’t be able to support the entire military with magic. However, if you concentrated them in a few companies, you could get armies that don’t need supply lines, greatly expanding your countries’ military reach and making you a very formidible country to fight

If a Druid or Ranger becomes strong enough to cast Plant Growth, the entire dynamic changes. Once a tribal spellcaster gained the ability to cast this spell and knew what it did, they’d probably choose to cast it over 8 hours on an unusually productive section of land at the core of their tribe’s territory, possibly casting it every day until they have more than enough food to support their tribe in half as much space as before.

If the surrounding area has domesticable crops in it, their yield would also be increased. If you give a tribe an increased crop yield, they’ll develop ways to collect, process, and store it. If a tribe has an abundance of food, their population density will increase. When their population density increases, they’ll take more steps towards developing farming which will lead to an even greater population density.

If the tribe maintains a line of druids or rangers who can cast Plant Growth for enough generations, and the nature god granting these powers isn’t opposed, they may become a full-blown farming society. Over the course of many generations, they might spread across the land conquering or pushing back other tribes and developing technology as they go, just like ancient farmers in the real world. Counter-intuitively, this means that pre-agrarian tribes that train druids may technologically advance faster than those that train (non-nature domain) clerics or wizards, at least at first.

We’ve analyzed the effect of Plant Growth on tribal societies, but tribal Druids and Rangers aren’t the only people who can cast this spell. Bards and Nature Clerics, can as well (and don’t forget about those technologically advanced Druidic societies).

There would be at most one or two spellcasters who can cast Plant Growth in each kingdom, but they would be some of the most important people. If such a spellcaster served the king (or government), they would likely be assigned to travel the land every winter/spring casting Plant Growth a couple times in every farming village. These services might be taxed exorbitantly, possibly charging as much as 40% of the crop for this alone, but since half the crop wouldn’t exist without this spell, villages would still be better off than they would be without it.

If a spellcaster that could cast Plant Growth was scorned by the king, they could easily become a hero of the people by using this spell, starting a revolt if they wanted to.

If a kingdom used this spell to nearly double their food output, it would allow population density to increase, and let a significant portion of their population to move away from farming. Plant Growth probably wouldn’t be as large an effect as the real world agricultural revolution, since it doesn’t help you harvest those abundant crops. However, a kingdom with plant growth would still have the advantage over its neighbors when it comes to making technological innovations, supporting professional armies, or anything else that requires a high degree of specialization.

Overall, the “naturey” spells Goodberry and Plant Growth would be a much more potent tool in developing large, advanced civilizations than any other food creation spells in the game.

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Reasoning for assuming 3% of population is military: Posts on this forum estimate that medieval countries could support a maximum of 5–7% of the population in the military, while this blog post estimates it’s closer to 1.2%. Pages 22–23 of Atlas of Military Strategy 1618–1878 by David Chandler tell us that between 1600 and 1800, many European Countries had militaries with of 1–4% of their population. 3% seems to be a middle of the road number, so it’s what I’m using for this post

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