The Hungry Games

Eric Lis

Adventuring is a lifestyle that can really get in the way of your appreciation of a good meal.

In my experience, it's rare that storytellers pay close attention to whether the player characters are being well-fed. Aside from back when I was regularly playing Vampire: the Masquerade, where how often (and who) the character is eating is a central part of the game, I almost never think about characters' diets as either a storyteller or a player. In twenty years and uncounted campaigns of playing D&D and other games, I've had to keep track of my character's food twice: once playing in the old Dark Sun campaign setting, and once in a more typical fantasy game when the storyteller locked us in an inescapable dungeon for one month of in-game time. Otherwise, it's something I rarely if ever think about as a player, and certainly something I never give players a hard time about when I'm storytelling. The fact is, though, that by all rights, most adventurers should have lousy diets. When you're on the road for two weeks at a go, or stuck in a dank catacomb, then food is a real issue. Except when in a city -- and even within a city, depending on their wealth or the city's status -- or when amply equipped with magic that can create supernaturally-nutritious and fortifying food, adventurers presumably go for long periods eating dry and tasteless rations in unsatisfyingly small volumes, and may not be able to stop for three predictable meals a day if being pursued or struggling to survive a hostile environment. The actual rules of the majority of role-playing games are pretty forgiving of this, and we usually gloss over it in the name of simplified rule mechanics and, more importantly, better story pacing, but it's just one more story element which a canny storyteller should know is at their disposal.

Adventurers live a lifestyle of frequent, short-term starvation punctuated by moments of intense physical activity. We can't easily study how this affects adventurers, but we do have an excellent real-world model for this. It turns out that there's a wealth of empirical research on how Muslims are affected by Ramadan, when observant people go one full month fasting during the daylight hours; since Ramadan moves from year to year, these fasts can last upwards of two thirds of a 24-hour period during the summers. Some of this data has been collected specifically in high-performance athletes, which means that we can look at this data to see how one day of fasting or one week of disrupted eating schedule can affect physical performance. This is a potentially very nifty way of considering how an adventurer's health is affected by limited food access; if anything, since few adventurers probably function at an Olympic level, a Ramadan-like eating schedule probably hits adventurers harder than it does top athletes. For those who want to read more, I refer you to two articles which review this body of research, namely this one and this one. Both articles were written by the same reviewer for different journals and there's clearly a certain degree of redundancy between them, but the first of the two was published just this past month and is the more up-to-date.

How does the daytime fast affect someone? Let's start with an easy one: sleep. Because the holy month sees observant people eating a special pre-dawn and post-dusk meal, the sleep schedule can be disrupted. During summer months, the observant can lose more than two hours of sleep per day, which will impact on your functioning whether you swing a sword or cast a spell. In real life, people often compensate with daytime naps, but this is difficult if you're walking all day or defending the camp from goblins. Now for something a little weirder: on average, the body temperature drops during Ramadan, which reflects how the body's metabolism changes in response both to reduced energy intake and other factors. Regular people, now eating two meals per day instead of three, generally still seem to get enough calories in to maintain themselves, but there's some (contradictory) evidence that athletes, especially elite athletes, may have difficulty taking in enough energy to meet their more intense requirements. Fat stores tend to stay stable, so weight loss is likely due to losing muscle mass. The body enters catabolism and will begin to break down muscle tissue, which can place excessive stresses on the liver and kidneys, especially if the person is also dehydrated. The level of intensity of the exercise unsurprisingly makes a big difference; soccer players may be more at risk of weight loss than judoka, for example. Blood sugar tends to drop, which may impair physical performance as well as make the individual more short-tempered and irritable, but in all studies examined by these papers, blood sugars never dropped dangerously low during daily fasting.

Inconveniently for the observant, the most intense fasts occur during the summer, when the heat is often the worst. Dehydration can become a severe problem. In regular individuals, this is usually minor, and by the end of Ramadan the kidneys have adapted so that body fluid balance and urine output have remained basically stable, but for the elite athlete performing a 100-meter sprint in forty-degree heat, heat stroke is a real risk. Still, few studies found any signs that the fast was acutely dangerous from this point of view.

With everything taken together, it isn't surprising that athletic performance generally drops. Little deterioration is seen in athletes who have the leisure and training to take proper care of themselves, but most studies do show a noticeable decline if performance later in the day and towards the end of the fast. Athletes fatigue faster and recover slower. Various authors note that it's hard to tell whether this impaired performance is more due to physical factors, or poorer motivation.

As far as actual physical health goes, much of the data actually suggests that observing Ramadan is protective. If fasting is done carefully, it has beneficial effects on diabetes (type two or adult diabetes, at least) and heart disease.

Although not directly related to athletes (or adventurers), it's worth noting that there's evidence that traffic accidents are more common during Ramadan, at least in certain countries, and people often feel more irritable. There is, after all, more than one way to get injured during a fasting period.

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on August 10, 2013. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system