So You Want To Run A Postal Service Part 2 – Why


At last the follow up to This piece on some of the structures postal services can take in medival-esque settings. In the piece we covered everything from the Early Middle Ages through to the Industrial Era in terms of analysing real-world analogues.

This piece is going to focus on why we may want to actually include a postal service in our settings. The emphasis will be on what gameplay opportunities different structures of service can provide. It’s worth noting from the outset that you can include a blend of systems and indeed in some parts of the world there may still be no postal service at all.

Let’s get stuck in with…

What’s The Point Of Post?

Fundamentally if we’re fleshing something like a postal service out it needs to be for the purposes of actual gameplay (otherwise it’s just a waste of our limited prep time as DMs). I’m going to take some of the example systems in the last post and explain the opportunities they each present.

Before we go any further though, fundamentally we want to include postal services when we want there to be some significance to the act of communication itself.

The first structure we discussed was one common to the Middle Ages wherein illiteracy was high and the only folk exchanging letters would be nobles and wealthy merchants. This creates a low-demand system that still requires utmost function when it is in demand. This makes it expensive.

So firstly in terms of gameplay if the party has any cause to contact a distant noble acquaintance (such as a benefactor, a character’s parent, or an academic in a niche field) it’s going to cost them a lot. This adds weight to the need for communication. When a letter will cost the party some 200g to send they best make sure what they’re sending is important enough to warrant that price. Furthermore, they better nail their message. There won’t be an opportunity to alter and amend the message once it’s sent. This becomes especially significant if new information comes to light after the message is sent.

This style of post is also, while the fastest option available, relatively slow. A letter sent to a general whose war camp is on the other side of the country will take several days to arrive and the response will take several days again to reach the party.

All this means communication by letter needs to be planned. The speed of information in turn affects the speed of adventuring.

Sidenote 1: Gritty Realism Is Your Friend

I’ve talked about Gritty Realism in the past and how I think it makes for better-paced campaigns. Slowness of information sent via post really ties in nicely to Gritty Realism for what it’s worth given that downtime will last days or even weeks at a time.

If the party is in a remote hamlet to ensure its security at the behest of a local Baron and the Baron’s orders take days to arrive each time the party completes a task then the downtime that Gritty Realism requires will be justified narratively.

Back To The Point

The next system we discussed in the first piece was paid post that travels around with the sorts of folk who tend to already be travelling (troupers, merchants, armies, etc). For these people carrying mail is a nice way to make a bit of extra coin as they go.

This style of post delivers us two opportunities. Firstly there is the simple interaction of the party receiving a letter handed to them by some sailor from a sender whose name they do not recognise. The sailor demands payment, so the party has to decide whether they want to spend money to open this mysterious letter. To a broke party, this is an important decision.

This is also (obviously) a great way to present quest hooks to players.

The second gameplay opportunity here is having the party delivering messages. Adventuring parties are included in that list of ‘People who tend to be travelling anyway’, so picking up a bunch of mail before heading off to a destination several days or even weeks away ensures a quick payout on arrival. It also gives us the session content of tracking down and interacting with each letter’s recipient. These may only be minor interactions but they’ll immediately add colour and life to new locations the party arrives in.

Also, for what it’s worth, having something go awry on the road (like losing the trail and falling into a bog) suddenly carries a bit more weight when you’re in possession of a few hundred gold’s worth of mail. You best not let those letters get damaged or soggy…

Sidenote 2: The Pillars of Post

I’ve already touched on this a little bit above but a fleshed-out postal service can help provide us with content and even rules to support the exploration and roleplay pillars of storytelling. Indeed whoever is out in the world delivering mail (if not the party) is engaging in exploration constantly. It may be no more complex than travelling from place to place (or riding from horse station to horse station) but it is happening nonetheless. If these stations exist in your world then players can use them as a network for mobility (for a price) or as hubs from which to orient themselves geographically and socially (should they need to send letters).

Let’s also say the party is in a ‘political intrigue’ section of a campaign (a style of game that is often combat-lite) then getting access to the mail moving between nobles is a great way to harvest information about them. This could be done through befriending a Post Rider, through robbing a horse station, or even by posing as a regular merchant and picking up post from a noble you’re trying to secure kompromat on.

On Again With The Point

The last thing we discussed in the first piece was advanced postal services in highly industrialised towns wherein there might be several deliveries per day and literacy is much higher than our early medieval settings.

I’m going to throw out ideas rapid-fire here. Hopefully they help get the creative juices flowing for your own campaign.

 – The party are unscrupulous mercenaries. The operator of one postal service wants to move on a competitor’s territory and hires the party to do the dirty work. Whether the party bribe the competitor’s runners or kills them outright is up to them…

 – The party have a benefactor who provides them with 3 information dispatches each day, all detailing rumours they’ve heard (“Mysterious delivery at the shipyard due in tonight.”). It’s up to the party which ones they pursue. The party never meet this benefactor, and maybe that’s for the best…

 – A local gang has been intercepting mail and using the information they glean to perform highly targeted burglaries. A merchant on the brink of ruination from this criminal behaviour takes on the party to figure out who the rat is and take down the entire criminal operation. Unbeknownst to both merchant and party is the postal service and criminal gang are one and the same…

If your campaign is set in a single large, highly built-up and relatively advanced city then the postal service offers a myriad of quest hooks, story options, or even just bonus detail to the day-to-day city life.

Ok But… Magic

By this point you may have been reading all of this going ‘Well what about spells like ‘Sending’?’

At first glance it would seem as though Sending largely negates the need for the party to interact with a postal service in terms of actually writing and sending letters. There’s an element of truth to this though I would actually posit that Sending further highlights the need for a postal service both in terms of your setting as a whole and the party itself.

Firstly, not everyone has access to magic. The party’s noble benefactor is still just some schmuck who has to write letters. Only nobles above a certain rank have in-house Arcanists who can sling out Sending spells at their lord’s behest. Or maybe the noble doesn’t trust his Arcanist! Why give her all that privileged information. A letter is more direct, more honest…

Secondly, 25 words is not enough (he says having just written his 1,387th so far). If the message is any longer you need to either spend more precious 3rd-level spell slots or crack out the ink and parchment. Sending is great for quick updates. Finer communication still requires letters.

Lastly, Sending requires familiarity. How do you establish contact with people whom you lack familiarity with? A letter is still the best way.

(Sidenote, Sending is rude as hell! Imagine you’re a noble enjoying a quiet bath when suddenly the voice of that pimply-assed wizard you hired to get you out of a hag contract blasts through your head. See that’s the problem with magic-users, they think that just because magic can be used means it should be used…)

But above and beyond all of that I personally believe that the existence of magic in D&D should be used to supplement post. That’s truly the biggest unique opportunity provided here. Let’s take a look at what that might mean.

Sending Relays

Maybe instead of posts with horse riders settings instead have networks of magically-learned whose job is to pass messages around the continent. Indeed this may be a career option for those who acquire some low-level magical tuition.

This has pros and cons though! Remember that noble who didn’t trust their Arcanist? It’s easy to tell when a letter has been tampered with. Anything send via the Sending Relay inherently requires that people beyond just the sender and recipient hear the message. It may be faster, but it’s far less secure. Spell slots are still limited too, even when it’s NPC’s. Indeed perhaps your setting has a ‘God of Mail’ so that employees in the Sending Relay service can strike pacts and have easily-refreshable spell slots. That gives you 50 words every half hour per Relayist.

Any self-respecting Duke or halfway-decent Arcane University will have magical wards in place against magic that might compromise their security. This will mostly cover classic Divination spells like Scrying but can just as easily extend to something like Sending. Perhaps to be able to use Sending on anyone sufficiently wealthy or powerful you also need to know the countercharm to their magical wards (almost like needing to know one’s exact phone number to be able to call them). This countercharm will not be given out lightly…

But that also means learning a noble’s countercharm (perhaps by unscrupulous means) opens them up to being scried on too. As soon as the party earned the Duke’s trust and was given their countercharm they were shaken down by the Arcanist’s guild who extract the code from the party and set their political coup in motion.

Higher-Level Sending Magic

As much as 5e’s communication magic more or less caps at Sending, perhaps more bespoke magic exists in your setting that allows for post-esque services operated magically. Remember, you’re allowed to have magic in your setting that the players won’t be able to learn and recreate.

So now the elite can simply stand in their ‘Sending Circle’ and speak messages to whomever they have the ‘Circle Code’ of (again, much like a phone number). When the recipient stands in their own circle they will first hear the messages they have been sent since last entering the circle.

But again magic is not foolproof. A suspicious king trying to uncover a plot to overthrow him hands the party a magical device that will ‘crack’ any Sending Circle and relay its stored messages to the device’s owner (given enough time). Now the party has to break into a Viscount’s manor, find the Sending Circle and let the cracking device do its work, all while avoiding (or perhaps holding off) the security automatons that roam the manor’s halls.

How To Decide What Post You Need

The last thing I want to do here is go through a series of questions you should answer to help you work out what structure your postal service should take on. Some questions will be related to the type of setting you want to have, others will be related to the types of gameplay opportunities you want. In my opinion these are the questions you need to answer:

 – What is the general level of literacy in your setting? Furthermore, who tends to be literate? (This determines who, if anyone, is sending letters).

 – How remote is the part of the world where the campaign takes place? (More heavily-settled areas will have more post infrastructure, more remote areas will have less but being able to send letters will be far more important as the only means of communication)

 – How commonplace is magic, especially among those likely to be literate? (This will help determine the balance between magical and nonmagical communication)

 – Do you want to have NPCs your players will need to communicate with via post? (This will determine whether the postal service is just set dressing or not)

 – Will your campaign be paced such that post will even be relevant? (If your campaign takes place over a week then letters won’t matter, if it’s years and also using Gritty Realism post will have more room to become important)

 – Roughly what real-world era is your setting an analogue of? (D&D runs the gamut of early middle ages all the way up to renaissance and early industrial Europe, all of which had different postal needs)

With all that sussed out you can build your bespoke postal service.

Or you could decide this is all far too much effort…


These pieces were a blast to write! I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed researching and creating them.

As always thanks for following me and reading this post here on my blog. I do also have a Patreon if you really want to show your support! It’s the little bit of extra I get through there that gives me time to research more dense topics like this once and ensure I actually playtest any advice I give out.

And thanks, as ever, for reading!

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