An Inconvenient Truth
As DMs, we spend a great deal of time building things, cities, histories, mythologies, NPCs and the like. It is an inconvenient truth that for the most part this building will either be glossed over, blatantly ignored, or completely forgotten by the average player. Lord Tikonov of the Black Lance company is denegrated to Mr. Stabby-Pants, and the 800 year history of the City of Guilds is demoted to Shopping Mall-town. It has happened to us all, and hours of creative brainstorming, writing, and effort is flushed away with so very little effort.
A Simple Solution
The idea is tempting, make the players change, make them appreciate the depth and granduer of what you have created. This idea is invariably going to fail because once the histories are forced, it stops being a game and becomes a lesson in Fictional History and memorization. Your players will abandon you for another DM, or will change games, or anything else to avoid getting out their sketch paper for the dungeon and using it to remember who assassinated Duke Cullingfordshire after the battle of Kyllymth-Solen.
I propose an idea, a way to go with the flow, as the expression goes. This idea highlights a few key elements of a location that are likely to be remembered by players as well as being based off of some semblance of real world conditions both current and historic; location commodities.
In our modern world it is easy to forget that even as little as 100 years ago there were no major corporations, no networks of intrastate transit, and nationwide distribution. Manufactured goods were generally made locally, crops all grown locally, and animals were all bred locally. This isolation aspect of a semi-subsistence early capitalist economy creates distinct local variations. A prime example of this definition is in the form of Horses, almost every horse breed is named for a location, where they originally came from. Arabs are from the Arab peninsula and Clydesdale draft horses are from the Clydesdale region of England.
the following scroll will detail various location commodities as I come up with them. These things will never stand at the forefront of a game, but if used in a continuous manner could create local character and things the players will remember about a place moreso than a mangled name and half-hearted stabs at trying to recall who actually won the battle of Caen Carvasse.
Additional Ideas (7)
I have already dusted over this section in 30 Horses, but a bit more explanation is in order. Horses are a high end commoditity, like a modern car. Like cars, the breeds of horse were much like makes and models of car, some better at some things others better at other things, and of course, some being just better animals than others.
A location can be noted for have great horses, and a strong cavalry tradition. In a place with poor horses, their cavalry will be weak, infantry stronger, and getting a good horse generally much more difficult than in other places.
So the 1st question to chrome: What kind of horse is native/local to the region?
While less a commercial commodity than a horse, dogs are also going to be location specific. Do the locals keep guard dogs, or do they even need them? Do dogs wander the street in mongrel packs or is the lack of man's best friend painfully obvious.
The way to answer the question is to consider the hunting and sports of the region. Wetlands are going to have sight hounds to help hunt marsh game, deserts are going to have lean dogs with thin coats. Areas where livestock predation is a problem will have larger dogs able to defend the livestock from wolves, coyotes and the like. Most of the small and toy breeds can generally trace their origins back to some noble court or similar institution where they were bred to be small and quiet companions.
Cheese is a valuable commoditity. It is rich in nutrients, protien, is easy to carry and keeps well. Locations with milk producing animals, goats sheep and cattle, will invariably have some sort of cheese product that they make and store. The flavor of the cheese will be a factor of the location itself, in the aspect of what kind of animal produces it and what siad animal eats. Preperation is the other half of the equation.
One location that happens to be in a wet area might work to make a very dry very hard cheese that is resistant to moisture and spoilage, and is characterized by the smokey flavor it has from being cured in a smokehouse after it is formed. A seaside community might prefer a softer cheese that they pack in brine to keep fresh, the list goes on and on.
Far traveling PCs might even find their long distance foodstocks quite valuable if the cheese wheel they purchased in one town is highly prized in another town across a border and some two weeks away by usual travel. While I am not saying that the PCs should become cheesemongers, it could be a way for them to invest their after adventure loot for greater returns. Another aspect could be the PCs guarding a caravan loaded with hundreds of wheels of cheese bound for a distant market where they will bring six to ten times their value at the point of production.
Wine is perhaps the most prestigious of location based commodities. Unless it came from the Champagne region of France, it's just a sparkling white wine. Vinters tend to be found in warmer climates with generous rainfall, and a region that becomes famous for it's wine (Burgundy, Dom Perignon) can demand exorbitant prices for their bottles.
An area with a climate suitable to produce grapes will have wine. Such areas will have access to grappa or the raw fermented grape juice that is later aged into wine. Areas that are cooler, or too dry will have to import their wine, creating a demand for the commodity that outpaces the immediate location demand. Nobles like their wine.
Wine producing areas will have a greater variety of lesser quality wines, at a much reduced price, wheras importing areas will tend to have the middle grade or better wines owing to not wasting the time and money importing the cheap wine. Growing areas are also less likely to cut their wine with water to make it go farther. This commodity can be best used with the fancy-pants elf PC who insists on a glass of wine while his compatriots drain mugs of beer.
Historically, some wines were produced specifically for export, fortified with additional alcohol to prevent spoilage, such as Spanish wines intended for England.
Beer, arguably one of the oldest beverages. If a region can grow grain, it can make beer.
Ale is fermented from the top down in warmer conditions. A mixture of spices and herbs called gruit can be added to flavor the beer. The ingredients in a particular gruit (groo-it) tend to secret recipes of brewers.
Lager is fermented from the bottom up in cooler conditions. Lager is less likely to be spiced or flavored due to it's cooler condition.
Before the accomplishments of Busch and his compatriots, all beer was microbrewed and locally distributed. Prior to pasteurization, most beer would spoil relatively quickly which limited how far it could be shipped. While not as regionally developed as horses and such, certain styles of beer are associated with regions, classes, and occupations. The Porter style of beer gained it's name from the dock porters who originally drank the dark and stout beer. Thusly, each region will have a taste for a specific beer, such as England's preference for ale over lager, America's Pilsner beers, and European continental lagers.
About this time, specialized breweries began to appear. They started as innkeepers and common house keepers began to sell their beer to other inns and common houses. Eventually they found it easier and more lucrative to just sell the beer and forgo any other business.
A tied house is required to buy (almost all) of its beer from a particular brewery. A free house was able to choose the beers they stock freely.
Now since brewers made a great deal of money (at least in the Isles), they began to buy or own pubs. The pub itself may be owned by the brewery in question, with the pub's owner/manager renting the pub from the brewery. This is called tenancy. However most breweries appointed a salaried manager to run the pub (a company store so to speak).
Frequently a Brewer, being rich because everyone loves beer, would finance the purchase of a pub with soft loans. The new pub owner would be required to buy his beer from it in return.
The advantage of tied houses (for breweries) was the steadiness of demand they gave them; a tied house would not change its beers suddenly, so the brewer had a consistent market for its beer production. The advantage for the drinker was they knew what the beer was going to be like... which in the age of every place brewing its own... could be dicey. The disadvantage for the drinker was that there was only ONE type of beer available (or beers from only one brewery).
GP, XP, beer and wenches all go hand in hand with the average beer and pretzels PC party. Gold is gold, XP is XP, we've addressed beer above, and wenches may be wenches, but they are as varied as the leaves on a tree.
Prostitution is largely dependant on the social standards of the location, a place where whoring is deemed unacceptable and even illegal the quality of wenches available will be poor. In an area where it is just another occupation, the overall quality will be better. But this isnt about overall quality, it is about variety. One location that is particulary adverse to sex for sale might only have run-aways, criminals, and the destitute sell themselves for money. Not an appealing romp in the hay for even the most callous of PCs. A coastal city might have a wenches guild where everything is done proper and business-like. Another location might be renowned for the beauty of it's blonde and buxom wenches.
Caffiene is the lifesblood of the modern world, and in the past it was a luxury item, and almost any fantasy world is going to seem a bit hollow with some sort of caffiene based beverage. Tea and coffee are the main sources, with cocoa rounding things out. While climate generally limits production of these plants to hot and humid locales, the real variety isnt there, it is in the preparation of said goods.
You say Klah, I say Coffee
You can dress it up or give it a funny name, but in my experience PCs dont have a problem with either coffee or tea as they are, minus the whole British East India Company and all that historical business. Generally only modern beverages like carbonated soda drinks arent accepted. For inspiration of the caffiene presuasion, just stop by the coffee and tea aisle at your local grocery store and get a whiff of the variety thay have in the gourmet roasts and flavored teas.
Given the standard middle European setting for swords and sorcery fantasy, coffee tea and chocolate are going to be luxury items imported usually by ship from a foreign land. Ports will be the primary source for the goods, and will be thusly associated. One port might favor a dark and robust tea, while another specialized in spiced tea, while yet another might just do a very plain green tea. The same goes for coffee and chocolates.
It is informative in general and provides many applications/ examples in the specific .
The main reason why coffee/ tea became popular is that it was one of the safe ways to "drink water" and get some taste, without the alcohol. The boiling/ heating killed off the "Stuff" in the water, and the coffee/ tea killed the interesting taste of most water.