Been sick, on and off, for the past several weeks. Bored but in no mood to write, I turned my hand to 3d modeling again to see if I could finally make some of my pet frustrations – proper Indo-Persian items for Mount and Blade.
September 30, 2015
August 19, 2015
Sinbad has always been one of my favorite fictional characters. Lately my reading of Indian medieval history in between jobs led me to an interesting idea about Sinbad: Sinbad as a horse trader, or even thief.
In the first voyage of Sinbad, the young merchant-adventurer is marooned when the island they land on turns out to be the back of a sleeping whale that dives when a fire is lit upon it. Sinbad washes onto a strange shore, where he happens upon a strange sight. A groom is tending a fine-looking mare, and tells him to wait with him for the seahorse stallions to come ashore and mate with the mare.
They succeed in seeing the mare through the mating, then drive the seahorse off before it can drag the mare into the sea. Afterward Sinbad learns the trade, helps the king make a saddle, and so gains royal favor.
Now, here’s the interesting historical tie: India was a great market for Arabian horses in the Middle Ages and even up to early modern times. And one of the great rackets of the day was to steal horses from the caravans wending their way up from the ports along the Gujarat and Malabar coasts to the interior.
Moreover, Hindu rajahs were anxious to crossbreed the Arabians with their own horses to improve their stock, while of course the Arab merchants would’ve frowned upon any use of their merchandise as studs until they’d been paid.
The fascinating ploy in which Sinbad took part may actually have been a distorted retelling of a horsey heist of some sort. The ‘seahorses’ referred to the Arab horse traders and their merchandise. A mare in heat could be used to lure stallions out of a paddock, either to steal them outright or more subtly, to steal their genes. ‘Driving off the seahorses’ afterward meant preventing the Arab merchants from recovering their horses, or from apprehending the guilty mare and her attendants.
August 14, 2015
Looks like I’m celebrating World Elephant Day a bit late, but got reminded about it thanks to Davide Mana at Karavansara. To commemorate it, let me post about a topic that should be of interest to gamers and lovers of period fantasy: the use and misuse of elephants in war, specifically in Asia.
The most unforgettable experience I ever had with elephants was when I followed one carrying my mother and sister up the road to Amber Fort in Jaipur, on foot and with camera in hand. Unfortunately, the beast had just finished a digestion cycle …. I will never follow an elephant from close behind ever again. I have to say though that I did resume following that elephant, because it was nicely tricked out in cloth drapings that made it look like a medieval Rajput war elephant.
From an animal lovers’ standpoint, any use of elephants (or horses for that matter) in war is a misuse. But used they were, for we humans are savage beasts, and we have a bad habit of taking up any weapon that comes to hand whatever the consequences. And the majestic elephant, with its size and strength, was definitely seen as a weapon in ancient times.
Asia from India east to Indochina was the heart of elephant warfare. Here the creatures were at their most plentiful, and the Asian elephant has always been considered easier to tame than the African. And since elephants were also used for labor, specially in construction and logging, there was also a ready pool of experienced elephant handlers available to train and crew the war beasts.
So how were elephants used in Asia? The techniques used for war elephants in ancient times were taken from India, so Eastern and Western usages were very similar. They were used as line-breakers in battle, as command platforms, and as missile platforms, carrying archers and javelineers, and later, arquebusiers and even light artillery. However, there are also some interesting distinctions.
On Elephant Stampedes
There’s a commonly-repeated trope that war elephants are unreliable, more dangerous to one’s own side than to the enemy. While elephants do have a tendency to run amok, I believe this view of them is skewed by the Western experience. If they were really that bad, they wouldn’t have continued in use for so long would they? I hypothesize instead that this trope had several causes:
First, elephants used in the Mediterranean area were often African or Atlas elephants, which were less tractable than the Asian.
Second, the elephants were raised only for war, and very likely with rushed training. They may not have been as used to people and clamor as elephants kept longer and perhaps used for work when not at war, as would’ve been the case in India and eastward.
And third, there were never enough of them to make a consistent positive impact in battle west of India.
Trained elephants were always scarce west of the Indian subcontinent, relative to the lands east. Western generals who did use elephants – Hannibal, the Successors of Alexander, the Romans – never had them in the numbers a wealthy rajah of the east would.
A reliance on Indian mahouts would have aggravated the problem, because there would also have been a shortage of experienced trainers.
War Elephants in India
Curiously, it seems the idea for the howdah, the protected ‘tower’ mounted on war elephants’ backs, did not come from India. (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great).
Ancient Indians instead mounted the elephant using a harness of ropes strung high up the elephant’s sides, so the riders on the back could tuck their legs beneath it. The idea for the howdah may have been Greek, perhaps from Alexander’s successors.
The howdah, plus increased use of barding for the elephant, must’ve increased the war elephant’s effectiveness to a frightening degree. The fighting crew were now better protected, had a more stable platform on which they could easily turn to face any direction, and more men could be carried in a howdah than sitting tandem bareback.
Indian kings would use war elephants in mass charges to break the enemy line, or use them as mobile fortresses around which to rally resistance when at bay. Royalty and commanders would often ride elephants, which gave them a much higher vantage point from which to direct the battle, and more protection than being on a horse. Of course, this also made them more visible as targets, a fact taken advantage of by the horse-archer Turkic armies that later invaded India from the north.
Elephants were used as living siege engines up to late medieval times. The elephants’ natural behavior of using their foreheads to push down trees was adapted to breaking down gates. This led to many castle gates being built with spiked doors, examples of which can still be found across India specially Rajasthan. This gave me the idea of featuring elephant battering rams in my story The Black Titan of Gaikand, in Swords of the Four Winds.
One of the Indian war elephant’s worst vulnerabilities was the location of its mahout. Mahouts sat on the elephant’s neck, in front of the howdah and without any protection. There was an ancient code of chivalry that forbade targetting charioteers and mahouts – combat was supposed to be purely between warriors – but this was surely ignored more often than not.
The Mughals, who were among the first to introduce guns to India (rockets may have existed earlier) introduced an innovation of their own to elephant warfare by mounting swivel guns on elephants. These cannon were known as Jingal, Gajal or Gajnal. Elephants were also used to draw heavier artillery pieces; guns were even rated as to whether they were ox-drawn or elephant-drawn, the latter of course being bigger and more powerful.
At their height, Indian war elephants would be clad in plate-and-mail armor, often with heavy chanfrons (head pieces). Tusks might be tipped with sharp iron cones or blades, and sometimes a blade was also attached to the trunk.
Anti-Elephant Tactics in India
Commanders in India, specially of the invading Turkic and Mughal forces, often had to resort to tricks to defeat the war elephant-heavy armies of the rajahs.
Fireworks, including rockets, were used to frighten horses and elephants both.
Timur (Tamerlane) screened his cavalry charge in one battle with camels carrying burning straw tied to their backs. The fire and smoke distracted the opponent’s elephants, allowing his cavalry to win the day.
The Mughals would use oversized caltrops to spike the elephants’ sensitive feet, and artillery firing langrel shot – iron bars and spikes – which acted like spinning buzzsaw blades.
Some Indian cavalry mounts were specially trained for fighting against elephant-mounted opponents. They were trained to ramp up, placing their forehooves on an elephant’s flank or behind. The rider, thus elevated, was in a better position to shoot or lance the elephant’s riders. In the Battle of Haldighati, Rana Pratap of Mewar attacked the enemy commander, Rajah Man Singh of Amber, in exactly this manner.
You may have noted the elephant-trunk chanfron on the head of Rana Pratap’s horse. Supposedly this was made with the idea that it would make elephants think the horse was a baby elephant, and so desist from harming it. On the other hand, the elephant being a symbol of royal power may have been enough reason for this design – elephants are quite intelligent and would likely have seen through the deception!
Just as in tank warfare, though, the best anti-elephant measure was considered to be another elephant. The non-elephant using armies that invaded India would end up adopting it. The Mughals also managed to recruit Rajput allies, and these allied kings often commanded Mughal armies from elephant back, at the head of their own elephant-riding contingents.
War Elephants in Southeast Asia
War elephants appear very frequently in ancient Southeast Asian art, from Burma on India’s borders all the way to Vietnam. Even the Southern Han of China used war elephants for a while.
As in India, elite fighters and commanders rode in howdahs, shooting arrows and throwing spears. A naginata-like polearm consisting of a long saber blade on a long shaft was common to elephant riders, who used it against their counterparts on other elephants or to slash at the heads of cavalry and infantry who tried to attack their mounts.
The Southeast Asian method of controlling the war elephant was more complex but perhaps better for the mahouts than the Indian. Where the Indian mahout sits on the elephant’s neck, Southeast Asian mahouts were often described as sitting behind the howdah, controlling the elephant with a long pole.
A signaller could also be posted to the howdah, standing behind the commander; he would be responsible for signalling to the mahout, who of course couldn’t see where they were going, and perhaps to the army at large as well.
Just as tanks in close or urban terrain are vulnerable to infantry, so elephants could be vulnerable in jungle. One tradition often represented in Siamese, Burmese and Cambodian art is the posting of ‘elephant guards,’ at least four men stationed at the elephant’s legs.
These walked beside the elephant and engaged any infantry or cavalry that tried to attack to elephant. This posting would’ve required agility and nerve – you’d have to be quick to dodge between stamping elephant legs in a melee, and nervy enough to do it!
Elephants would continue to be used in war into the 20th century, with the British army using them to transport artillery and supplies in the Burmese hill country up to World War II. Modern gunpowder weapons, however, had ended the battlefield reign of the armored main battle line war elephant.
[None of the photos used in this post are mine. Credit belongs to their creators, however I was unable to find attributions.]
June 9, 2015
There’s a thin and easily crossable line between what I feel is true swords and sorcery, and what starts shading into high fantasy. This is specially true with the creatures one decides to place in an S&S setting.
As I’ve started writing a new S&S story – perhaps the start of a new series – I find that I’ve painted myself into an even tighter corner by choosing a historically based setting. It’s an interesting challenging, getting a good S&S feel out of that corner, so I gave myself some guidelines for it. The main one, as my post’s title suggests, is to stay away from making species out of my monsters.
Well, consider the standard D&D foes: every kind of foe is typically a species. Orcs. Goblins. The different kinds of dragons and giants. Beholders. Etc. etc. etc.
Now I personally hold that the more an S&S story or game feels like a typical D&D adventure, the farther it is from what I consider as the core flavor of swords and sorcery, which is a grittier, lower-key form of fantasy.
Moreover, establishing a monster’s identity explicitly as an existing species takes away a vital chunk of its mystique. It becomes an accepted part of your world. But part of the appeal of the best sword and sorcery monsters is the feeling that they shouldn’t be there.
Consider some of Robert E. Howard’s best monsters. In The Devil in Iron, the monster is an iron eidolon animated by a formless creature from beyond the abyss. It is one of a kind, and by existing it breaks all the known rules of nature to the minds of those who encounter it. In Worms of the Earth, the baddies are a lost race of humans who have mutated into something monstrous. In Beyond the Black River, Conan is horrified to face a saber-toothed tiger, because he knows the species is extinct.
So to sum up, I can use the following filters in creating my monsters:
- Solitary unique beings from somewhere else
- Mutated versions of known creatures
- Artificially augmented versions of known creatures, e.g. apes trained to use weapons
- Creatures that should’ve been extinct, e.g. dinosaurs or early hominids
- Creatures that shouldn’t be alive, i.e. undead
- It could exist in the world, but is unknown and unknowable by normal means, e.g. a deep-sea monster, or a lost-world inhabitant
A word about the undead, though. Since D&D/high fantasy has coopted the trope, how can a sword and sorcery undead be differentiated? I think I can play more with the sheer unnaturalness of the state of un-life.
It should be a temporary thing, held in unnatural tension vs. the natural tendency to die and rot away, by unnatural forces. It should have impact on the world of the living as a palpable taint; quite simply, you can’t have ghouls and zombies in green forest glades, but they can exist in areas of devastation or desolation.
June 2, 2015
Fatherhood does interesting things to gamers. Some fathers are left to answer the dreaded question, ‘Dad, what’s a murderhobo?’ My friend Jay Anyong of Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer is proudly Tsinoy, and in thinking of how he was going up to bring his new son the Tsinoy way, came up with a great gaming solution.
The result is Heroes of the Falling Star. This writeup is based on the latest preview copy Jay furnished me. I often use Jay as a sounding board for development on Hari Ragat, so now it’s my turn to give feedback. :-)
In HOTFS, you play heroes in a fantasy Chinese-inspired world who are tasked with missions to help the needy by the goddess of mercy. To aid you, the goddess has granted you a special magic item that arrives on a shooting star – thus the title.
There are quite a few cool features in this game. First of all is the game’s clear vision of what it wants to do – to teach the virtues of kindness, loyalty, courage, respect and honesty – via magical adventures and trials of character that a kid can understand.
This is supported by a very rules-lite system that focuses only the essentials. Your character sheet can fit on a 3x5 inch index card with lots of room to spare. Here’s a sample I created in two minutes:
I am Really Strong (+2), Sort of Friendly (+1), and Not So Smart (0)*
*Yes, I’m channeling Number Ten Ox from Bridge of Birds.
My kung fu is Lifting, Pushing and Holding.
Rolls are made with a single six-sided die, with a bonus if your stronger traits are applicable. Stone Ox for example would get +2 to feats of strength. If your Kung Fu applies, you get to reroll your die once if you fail a related roll. Simple!
Jay’s gone back to the Chinese etymology of the term kung fu for this game, which is basically a generic for any deep discipline, not just martial arts. This fits very well with HOTFS branding as a non-violent or deprecated-violence game. Your kung fu in HOTFS can be cooking, painting, even pathfinding or animal taming. I like this way that the game encourages kids’ creativity. (Of course, you could also go the Ranma way and treat everything as a martial art!)
Falling Star Treasures
At the start of every adventure, the Lady of Love and Mercy gives the heroes their mission and, like a Buddhist version of James Bond’s Q, gives them wondrous magic items to help them out.
Again, the mechanic of these treasures points up the game’s nonviolent and ingenuity-encouraging stance, because these treasures are almost never weapons. Instead, they each have one wondrous property that never fails to work. They’re meant to be used as tools to help get through an adventure, but shouldn’t be powerful enough to solve the adventure by themselves.
This is also works as a challenge to the game master, who will have to make sure that the treasures he hands out cannot be used as obvious solutions to the core mission. For example, the Immortal Uncle’s Robes allows its wearer to assume any guise desired. I really like the absence of an artillery function in HOTFS’ magic system, as for me this makes magic feel much more wondrous.
One question yet to be addressed is what happens to your Falling Star Treasure after each adventure. Do you get to keep it, and get a new one, or do you keep it as your permanent gimmick, or is it replaced with a new one every adventure?
I’ve never made a secret of my preference for mechanics that drive the desired style of play, and this is one of those. It came about during a discussion with Jay on chat, where we came up with the idea of encouraging players to find win-win solutions.
The ability to compromise is a key social skill, so it’s great that this game helps to teach it. When a conflict is resolved in such a way that even the heroes’ opponents end up happy (or at least satisfied), the heroes get an extra Star (XP) each.
Every ten Stars won gets you a Constellation thematically commemorating your feats. From then on, you get +2 for any rolls involving the theme of your Constellation.
I don’t have kids. I’m still one at heart in some ways though, so when I say I like this game, I’m saying it resonates with my inner kid. Aside from my designer’s appreciation for the craft of this game, there’s an earnest innocence to Heroes of the Falling Star that just makes this jaded old coot want to play.
May 5, 2015
Another tidbit for folks wanting to design a Southeast Asian-inspired setting: Sundaland, SEA's real 'lost continent.' Before the end of the last glacial age, when sea levels were much lower, Peninsular Malaysia, most of what is now Indonesia, and even some of the Philippine Islands like Palawan were connected to the continent of Asia as one landmass geologists now call Sundaland.
Sundaland is the reason why these islands have continental Asian flora and fauna such as deer, tigers, rhinos, elephants, and water buffalo, while Australia and New Zealand don't. Anthropologists speculate that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines made their way to Oz via the coasts of Sundaland, marching or canoeing until Australia was only a short canoe hop of open sea away.
When the glaciation ended and the seas rose, Sundaland was inundated leaving only the highest points as islands. The larger mammals died out on most islands, which is why the Philippines' biggest wild mammals are wild boar and deer; tiger fossils were found on Palawan dating back to c. 15,000 years ago, but eventually there wasn't enough big prey to support them.
As for Man, scientists are still wrangling over whether the Austronesians who populate Maritime Southeast Asia came from Sundaland, from the north by sea through Taiwan, or diffused from the Malay Peninsula by sea.
Now we get to the interesting part: Could there have been one or more civilizations on Sundaland? According to most histories, Mankind didn't even know farming yet, and the only domesticated animal we had was the dog.
But new finds are pushing the boundaries of history ever farther back, and many advances like agriculture and larger permanent settlements seem to have occurred much earlier than scholars first thought.
Still, the idea of an advanced civilization that early is unlikely. But of course that's what we gamers want! So yeah, for our purposes there was a Lemuria.
Let's assume that the inundation of Sundaland was pretty gradual. Marine biology findings seem to bear this out.
I got to attend a lecture by underwater photographer Lynn Funkhouser, who showed slides from a recent biodiversity study comparing numbers of species in Australia, Hawaii, and the SEA Coral Triangle (I live smack dab inside that Triangle, whee!).
The Coral Triangle had the most species by a huge margin, and Funkhouser said the scientists now believed this was because slowly Sundaland had isolated marine life into many lagoons until sea levels rose high enough for them to get out and mix.
So Lemuria could've existed as a peninsula of Asia, but like the northern Mediterranean it would've had a very 'squiggly' coastline with lots of bays, gulfs and lagoons isolated from the sea or even fully landlocked. Sinking was pretty slow, noticeable over several generations -- maybe it did so in periodic floods, aided by quakes and volcanic eruptions, instead of a constant slow sea level rise.
Plenty of time for a civilization to develop. If you go for a more 'realistic' feel this civilization could be similar to Mycenean Greece, broken up into rough city-states with seafaring economies. If you like a more gonzo feel, speculate away -- you can always explain the sea as having hidden everything interesting.
After all, it's Lemuria's coastal plains and valleys that now make up the floor of the Coral Triangle, so every place mankind would've settled is now underwater and well-covered up.
The idea of Sundaland = Lemuria gets really interesting for me when I consider that the Lemurians could've been Austronesian, or the ancestors of the Austronesians. That gives me a reason to mash together Malay and Polynesian elements, and if I knew more about the early history of the Malagasy I could include that too.
Big stone temples like the ones in Ponape. Scowling gigantic eidolons like those of Easter Island. Epic sea battles on catamaran dreadnaughts. And spirits more powerful than anything After the Flood!
May 4, 2015
Since I want the seasons to play a part in the game, I've created a table for the GM to use in determing the starting season for a campaign or adventure. Serendipitously I came up with six seasons by splitting the traditional division of two seasons -- wet and dry -- by the state of the winds and the expected events and activities across most of the islands. With six seasons, you can determine your start by rolling a six-sided die.
The southwest monsoon (Habagat) is blowing. Typhoons are drawn from the east and swept north-northwest by the monsoon wind.
Mostly rainy, with strong chance of typhoons. Hot and humid.
Travel and other outdoor activities mostly curtailed. Raiders from the south or west active, but cautious of storms. Emergency repairs to the ricefields after a heavy storm.
The southwest monsoon gives way to the northeast monsoon (Amihan), bringing drier, cooler weather.
The rains finally stop, and the weather cools.
Rice harvest, accompanied by sacrifices, festivities, and often marriages. It’s considered lucky to marry in this season. Raiders from locales that grow little rice, or were badly hit by storms, may attack and try to steal some of the harvest.
The Amihan winds gain in strength, bringing with them traders from the northern lands beyond the Janggalan Isles.
The coolest time of the year. Occasional rains, but mostly dry and sunny, with cool winds. It gets positively cold in the highlands.
Foreign traders call at the largest ports. Vijadesan traders begin sailing out a week or so after, bringing imported goods south and west. Raiders set out to attack southern or western targets.
The height and end of the Amihan monsoon.
Dry, initially cool but quickly growing warmer every week.
Voyaging to the west and south picks up. Height of the deer rut season, and migratory birds from the north are fattest at this time, just before they set out for their nesting territories; much hunting is done now.
The Amihan gives way to the Habagat sometime during summer. At the midpoint of the season there may be little or no wind at all for days.
Very hot, and increasingly humid. Thunderstorms in the afternoon or evening grow more frequent toward summer’s end, heralding the start of the rainy season.
Traders who have gone south prepare to return as soon as the monsoons turn. Early summer is considered excellent time for voyaging.
Farmers prepare the rice fields for planting. Rice is planted as close to the start of the rainy season as the farmers can, but with enough days to grow sturdy enough to take the heavy rainfall.
With good weather and clear waters, this is also the height of pearl diving season in areas that have pearl beds.
The Habagat picks up strength, bringing heavy rains.
Increasingly rainy. Often it rains all day for several days at a time. Hot and humid when the sun is out, cool and humid when it’s been raining.
Traders and raiders from the south make their way north or east. Farmers and their families are busied guarding the crop against wild animals, specially deer and wild boar who relish the young rice shoots.
Now that we’ve a table of the seasons, we can set up rules for using them in play.
Determining Starting Season
Roll a six-sided die and refer to the table. 1 means Storm season, 6 means Rain.
Any voyages in the direction of the prevailing monsoon gains +1-2 Advantage dice. Voyages against the direction of the monson gets you 1-2 Disadvantage dice (that is, they are rolled by your ‘opponent,’ the GM). The later in the season you go, the stronger the effect of the current monsoon.
You take 1-2 Disadvantage dice whenever travelling overland in heavy rain. This will of course occur more often during Rain and Storm seasons.
If caught by a typhoon at sea, you and your crew must ‘fight’ the typhoon to survive. The pilot rolls to save the ship; everyone else rolls to stay aboard and uninjured. Typhoons are typically Threat 4-6, Resistance 3-6.
Every time a pilot loses a roll vs. a typhoon, the ship takes Hull damage equal to the typhoon’s Victory Points, unless the pilot Pushes the roll.
Every Victory Point scored by the pilot vs. the typhoon on the other hand means he’s made progress toward safety. When the typhoon’s Resistance has been expended, the vessel is out of the storm.
Overland travel during a typhoon is simply impossible – driving rains, powerful winds, and flooding make progress in the trackless wilds too difficult and dangerous. If the PCs insist, let them roll vs. the typhoon as with a typhoon at sea. Each loss vs. the typhoon indicates some exhausting or injuring accident has occurred to that PC.
Additional GM Tips
As a GM, you can use the seasons to flavor the game even more. What are the people doing? What are they eating? What are they looking forward to or dreading?
Rice is most plentiful right after the harvest, of course. But most of the Janggalan Isles can’t grow a lot of rice, which prefers low, wet or irrigated ground. Most Vijadesans will have no more rice by summer’s end, or earlier if they were profligate with it, and will be eating mostly yams and taro instead.
Game meat is most plentiful during the Spring hunting season, when the hunters are bringing back venison, wild pork, or gamefowl, specially migratory ducks, almost every day. After this, fresh game meat will be more of an occasional treat.
Though meat animals like chicken, hogs, and buffalo breed all year in the Janggalans, Vijadesans will usually consume domesticated animals only after a sacrifice. Since sacrifices peak at Harvest season, this is also when you can expect meat on the table most often.
Trading and Raiding
The big question here is, will the PCs’ hometown be on the sending or receiving end? Is their hometown prepared to receive the enemy’s visits? Are they sharing your island with anyone who might team up with a raiding fleet from elsewhere?