October 9, 2010

Epic Feasts in Hari Ragat

The Vijadesan people find many occasions to hold feasts (who doesn’t love a feast?), but feasts in this milieu are not just about eating and drinking, they’re about creating and affirming social bonds and establishing prominence.  In other words, feasts in Hari Ragat have a political aspect.

In game terms, you can throw a feast to gain Honor, though at the risk of losing Honor if your guests find your feast inadequate.  Contributing to another character’s feast also gains Honor, though not as much as throwing the feast yourself.

For the GM, a feast creates an interesting and different role-playing challenge for the players as they navigate the maze of Vijadesan honor codes.

Dominance and Honor
A feast is an opportunity for the host to prove his wealth and prestige, which in turn determine the size of one’s following.  Feasts are thus a way to advertise the benefits of becoming your follower or ally, and a politely veiled challenge to your rivals. 

The various traditions observed during a feast also carry implicit messages, and your guests will react according to these whether the message was intended or not.  A feast is a very serious matter, as one’s actions during it and even leading up to it can easily create conflicts over honor.

Refusing an invitation without good reason is a mild insult to the host of a feast.  Outrightly rejecting an invitation with contempt is grounds for a duel, or even war!

Offering Betel Chew
All guests expect to be welcomed with a twist of betel nut chew, and to be offered the same again at the end of the meal.

Moreover as a sign of respect and true welcome, the betel should be offered by someone of rank reasonably near to the guest’s, preferably a member of the host’s own household.  Sending betel to a high-ranked guest via a slave or low-ranked freeman is an insult.

Refusing a guest betel chew is a bald statement that the guest is unwelcome; any man shamed in this way after being invited is expected to immediately challenge the host to a duel!

If a free, unmarried maiden offers a man betel chew, it’s a sign she wants his attention.  Betel is normally served by slaves or followers to the lower-ranked guests, and by the lady of the house to the high-ranked guests.  If the host has no wife to do this task, he gets a relative or friend of more or less his rank to do it.

Combined with the previously mentioned custom of considering betel refused as an insult, a man wishing to cause trouble at a feast may deliberately ask betel from the host’s daughter, knowing she will refuse him, and thus use it as grounds to call out the host.

Gifts for the Host
Every guest is expected to bring  a gift for the host, according to their station.  A farmer is expected to bring little more than some fruit or a chicken,  but a warrior or datu is of course expected to give much more.

The host or one of his household must formally thank each guest for their gift, with the host personally receiving the gifts of the higher-ranked guests.

It is a mortal insult to the guest for the host or his representative to refuse to accept their gift.  One possible dodge to this, which however does not always work, is to immediately give an undesired gift to another guest.

Guests may also end up insulting each other when they compare gifts, as sometimes a guest will be shamed by another calling him niggardly with a gift that’s too poor, or accusing him of currying favor with the host with a gift that’s too rich.

Offering the Host’s Cup
It’s considered a special honor for a guest to be invited to drink from the host’s own cup.  However, this is only done if the guest is the host’s social equal or inferior, and connotes the guest being indebted to the host.

For example, a Rajah may offer anyone a drink from his cup, as  he outranks everyone else; but a Datu should only offer his cup to those who rank beneath him, and so on.

This custom can be an incendiary to the fiercely proud datus, as many will consider themselves to be of far higher rank than others.

Peace and Protection
The host of a feast guarantees all his guests his personal protection while they are in his care.  Anyone who harms a guest is answerable to the host.  Similarly, every guest is honor-bound to defend his host’s person, family, followers and property while he’s there.

Guest Ranks
Who’s the highest-ranked person attending your feast? Your character’s rank in society can be gauged by who he can invite and expect to attend.  If you’re important enough for the Rajah to come over, you’re definitely somebody. 

In game terms, the amount of Honor you’ll gain from throwing a feast is influenced by the rank of the highest-ranked guest attending. On the other hand if it’s known that you invited a high-ranking personage and that personage snubbed you, you lose Honor.

How many can you provide for at your feast?  A truly great hero is expected to invite the entire community and even representatives from neighboring communities. 

Moreover your character’s followers, family and friends are expected to contribute to your feast.  It defrays expenses, and the amount of food and drink contributed is yet another sign of how high your standing is in the community.

Your prestige is tied to the food and drink you serve at your feast, the manner in which you serve it, and the entertainment you offer your guests.  The more lavish these are, the higher your standing. 

Like any other culture, the Vijadesans consider certain items to be ‘prestige’ foods.  Rice is a prestige food; it’s harvested only once a year, and it can’t be grown just anywhere unlike the yams and plantains that are the daily staple of most folk.

Meat too is considered prestige food, especially beef, as killing a cow or buffalo deprives you of its valuable labor.  Serving game does not connote wealth the way serving beef does, but putting out a whole roast boar or buffalo that you hunted yourself makes a statement about your prowess your guests cannot miss.

There is also a division between ‘common’ and ‘prestige’ beverages.  Palm wine is considered common, while rice wine is prestigious.

Finally, expect your guests to carefully evaluate the wares and tables the food is served on, the mats you furnish for your guest to sit on, and the dancers, musicians and bards you bring in to entertain them. 

The ultimate in prestige is to be able to serve everyone on fine porcelain – an item that cannot be made in the islands and is thus imported at great expense – or on chased brassware.  The tables on which the food is laid – at least for the high-ranked guests – should be of fine hardwoods, varnished to a sheen and intricately inlaid with tortoiseshell or mother of pearl, and so on.

W.H. Scott & the Maragtas Controversy

I owe William Henry Scott a great debt for the inspirations and setting details I’m putting into Hari Ragat. 

Though my first reaction to his debunking of the Maragtas epic and the Laws of Kalantiaw was fury – who was this American, to trample on the cherished heritage of my people? – I came to appreciate his scholarly studies and efforts to penetrate the cloud of Marcos-era propaganda and the biases and inaccuracies of Spanish chroniclers to piece together a better history of the Philippines. 

Scott opposed American colonial policies and decried the Hispanicized colonial attitude of dividing the population into ‘true Filipinos’ and ‘ethnic minorities.’  Through his researches he proved that Philippine pre-colonial culture was not as grandiose as propagandists would have it, yet far richer and more complex than the Spanish friars were able to grasp. Scott died here in the Philippines and is buried in Sagada, a cultural landmark in the north. 

Though I’m glad to have read many of his essays and now own a copy of his book, Barangay: 16th Century Filipino Culture and Society, I still feel a real loss over the debunking of the Maragatas epic.  At the time I was in high school, the epic was still part of the official history texts. Those of you who know of it will easily recognize its influences in my fictional history of the Vijadesans.  Who says all my inspirations have to be historical canon?

Hot Buttons in Hari Ragat

I just got some ideas from a discussion at Blog of Holding regarding some of the potential ‘hot buttons’ in Hari Ragat. One of the challenges in creating this setting is how to handle issues that can feel too strange or even repulsive to gamers, specially Western gamers who of course make up most of the gaming population.

It’s All Optional

I guess this is the first and most important rule in any RPG: anything written in the book is optional and may be altered for the sake of fun. 


Slavery among the Vijadesan people is debt-based.  Within the community, a debtor who fails to meet his obligations becomes the slave of his creditor. 

In war, a captive is expected to pay ransom for his freedom; if he fails to come up with the ransom (or rather if his people don’t ransom him), he owes his captor the value of his ransom in slave labor. 

The question then is whether the war was justified or not. Vijadesans consider war to be justified when the target community has murdered or mortally insulted a member of the offended community, or has raided the offended community.

This of course doesn’t mean I’m condoning slavery, but rather I’m providing a framework for it that’s different from the race-based premise that most people think of when slavery is mentioned.  It remains a moral issue that the players will have to wrestle with in their own way.

Human Sacrifice

The Vijadesans occasionally practice human sacrifice to  propitiate the gods and spirits.  There are two kinds of occasions wherein human sacrifice is called for: to appease the spirit of a spiritually powerful person who was murdered, and to appease a deeply offended god or diwata.

In the first case, the victim should come from the same tribe or community that the murderer came from, if the murderer himself cannot be found.  The sacrifice is performed at the funeral or over the grave of the offended person.  If it isn’t performed by the next Day of the Dead, the offended person’s spirit will begin haunting the community.

When such a sacrifice is required, the aggrieved community usually sends an embassy to the offender’s community, demanding the offender be handed over to them. If refused, they are justified in raiding the offender’s community to take a captive for the purpose.

In the second case, the sacrifice is required only when the community commits a very grave offense against a god or a diwata (nature guardian spirit).  Failure to deliver the sacrifice results in a natural disaster, possibly one that wipes out the community or its land.

For this purpose, the victim must come from the community itself, the higher-ranking the better.  Thus the familiar trope of the princess having to be offered as sacrifice. 

You can also use this as an adventure hook, wherein the heroes must find a way to save the sacrificial victim – perhaps by identifying and offering up the true culprit, or negotiating with the offended being to accept some kind of substitute.


I’m going to change the game’s premise for head-taking.  Instead of putting it under ways to gain spiritual power, I’ll put it under the customs of vengeance and propitiation of the dead.  Enemy heads are taken to offer them to the anitos, the spirits of the dead, in particular great warriors and chieftains who had been offended by members of the tribe the heads were taken from.

October 5, 2010

Seafaring Traditions for Hari Ragat

As I research historical and cultural facts for inspiration in writing up the Hari Ragat RPG, I can’t help but be struck by the parallelisms between the Vikings and the Malay seafarers, which included the pre-colonial Filipino people.

A caracoa, or lanong

Vikings and Malays

Item: The Vikings were a coastal people renowned for their mastery of ships and sailing, and exploded upon Europe in a wave of piracy and colonization during the Dark Ages.  If we count the earlier irruptions of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians as part of the ‘Viking’ historical phenomenon, we see that they had not one but several waves of expansion. 

Reconstruction of a Philippine Balangay, 2009

viking-shipReconstruction of a Viking ship: note the similarities.

Item: The Malay peoples were a coastal people known for their sailing abilities and skill at building vessels capable of navigating the treacherous waters of the South China Sea. Much of what is now Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia were settled by these seafarers, and the predatory activities of some peoples lasted well until the 19th century. 

Item: The Viking success was founded on their skill at nautical engineering.  The Viking longship (drakkar) and trading ship (knarr) excelled at sailing close to the wind, penetrating waterways with shallow draft, and were faster than other European ships at the time.

Item: The Malays built a bewildering variety of watercraft, which could sail close to the wind thanks to their rigging – more like modern or Arabian style than the simple square sails of the Vikings – and go up shallow waterways fraught with corals and sandbars.  Sounds familiar, eh?  Save my ancestors had it much better, as when they landed it would be at a balmy tropical beach …

I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Here’s  quote from historian James Francis Warren:  “The Iranun warriors, like the Vikings, were worldly raiders who traveled in search of slaves and work, sometimes for years on end, around the great ports of Manila, Makassar, Batavia, Penang, and Singapore. They often spoke a variety of languages, and were familiar with the traditions and religions of all quarters of Southeast Asia. Some were literate, able to negotiate ransom, or unravel the intricacy of [the] colonial legal system, and they were knowledgeable in martial arts, weapons manufacture and seamanship.”

Now the idea of Vikings is very popular as a fantasy gaming trope.  So why are there no games about the Malay seafarers? 

Researching Malay/Filipino Vessels

As you can probably tell by now, I’m set on coming up with my own game inspired by this.  The devil, however, is in the details.  In particular, ship names and descriptions.

I’m having trouble finding sources that give detailed descriptions of early Philippine Islands vessels (being a Filipino, I’m trying to keep my inspirations Philippine-centric).  I’m also finding that a lot of boat names that I took for granted as indigenous were actually Spanish, so I have to reject them and look for the local term.

For example, I’ve always wondered about the caracoa war galley, at first thinking it was Spanish, until I found the Indonesian kora-kora, which made me think it came from a Malay word; then I learned kora-kora was in turn a corruption of caracoa, and that it’s indeed Spanish after all, cognate with carrack.  Oops. Another oopsie was the falua of Batanes, which turns out to be a kind of whaleboat or pinnace common in Spain.

Fortunately I found James Francis Warren’s books on Iranun and Sulu  raiders, and William Henry Scott’s Barangay.  The boat descriptions I’ve gleaned from them are still skimpy, but at least Warren has good illustrations, including vintage photos. I can now come up with a classification of boats for Hari Ragat based on size and usage.

Watercraft for Hari Ragat

I’ll classify watercraft in the Hari Ragat game into three classes: Utility Boats, Voyaging Boats, and Warships.

Utility Boats
Utility boats are small craft used for short-range transport and fishing.  I’ll put here the generic Bangka, which in Tagalog can indicate anything from a two-seater dugout to larger ferries and fishing vessels carrying up to a dozen or more.  In Hari Ragat, the typical bangka will be a 2-4 man fishing boat.

Voyaging Boats
Voyaging boats are small to medium size craft used for long-range transport, trade, and sometimes war.  The workhorse of Hari Ragat’s maritime society is the Barangay, a medium to large sailing vessel the biggest of which can carry up to a hundred persons.  The Barangay is the Hari Ragat equivalent of the Viking knarr.

The Vinta is a small but fast coaster, capable of entering very shallow water with impunity, and thus makes a great transport for small groups of explorers, envoys, traders and raiders.  This is the type of boat most player characters should have – it’s good for just about whatever they want to do, short of a big sea battle.

Also included under voyaging boats is the Garay, a large sailing craft that’s designed to be faster than the Barangay, capable of carrying as many men but far less supplies. It can be used for fast trade runs, for deep sea fishing, and for raiding. 

The Lanong is an outriggered war galley, the Hari Ragat equivalent of a large Viking drakkar.  It is powered  by at least 2 masts with lug sails and oars, about 20-30 to a side, and can carry up to a 100 passengers.  Having such a vessel constructed and maintained should take the resources of a very wealthy datu (chieftain) or even a rajah (king), as it only pays to have one if you can profit from war – or if you’ve too much at stake not to have a warship’s power.

An Aside

As an aside, I have to note why this means so much to me personally.  Ships and sailing are actually a part of my family heritage, as in the 1700s and 1800s my ancestors were prosperous traders plying the Pasig River and Manila Bay in casco barges.  Members of the family joined the Revolution in 1896, whereupon Spanish colonial officials seized the family’s vessels and burned them. Hari Ragat may be a game for my players, but for me it is also a homage to the history and traditions of my people.

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