May 5, 2015

Sundaland: the Real Lemuria?

Sundaland: click to view large

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.

Building 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

Seasons of Play


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.

Storm Winds:
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.
Harvest Winds:
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.
Trade Winds:
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.
Spring Winds:
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.
Summer Winds:
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.
Rain Winds:
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.


Season Rules

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.

Sea Travel
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.

Land Travel
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?

May 2, 2015

Hunting on the High Seas

Raiding karakoa by Wylz Gutierrez

Maritime adventure is a core component of Hari Ragat, and the tropical island setting offers a lot of interesting adventure opportunities. A lot of these have to do with sea raiding and other piratey activities. Some cast the heroes as the defenders, some as the attackers righting some wrong, and getting some fame and profit on the side. Here are some ideas for your tropical Vikings:

Pack Hunting
Vijadesans sometimes go raiding in single vessels, but more commonly they operate in fleets of half a dozen or more craft. The largest craft belongs to, or is commanded by, the highest-ranked warrior on the expedition, and serves as both flagship and mothership to the smaller craft, carrying extra supplies and water for them, and in case of a fight at sea, serving as the fleet's heavy hitter. Fleets may disperse for small-scale operations such as kidnapping and attacking small merchant craft, or operate as one unit against settlements or large enemy vessels or convoys.

Vijadesan rulers often sally out with their followers and sometimes with the addition of mercenaries to raid their declared enemies. Corsairs are distinguished from outright pirates by their 'correct' behavior: they only attack enemy settlements and shipping, they allow all their captives the right to ransom themselves free, and they keep any captives that could not do so, instead of selling them in foreign lands.

Certain chiefs are considered outlaws for breaking the Vijadesan conventions of warfare, and these are the true pirates. They attack anyone, without provocation and often engage in slave trading. Very wealthy captives may be ransomed, but a beautiful woman or boy may be retained even if they can offer ransom because the pirates hope to make more from their sale on the slave blocks in foreign lands.

Seasonal Raids
Whether pirate or corsair, Vijadesan sea raiders strike according to the season. When the northeast monsoon blows, they hunt west and south of their home ports, and when the winds turn, they may hunt to the north and east. Occasionally a bold or crafty raider will chance raiding on a contrary wind for surprise or a faster getaway, but this is risky specially in storm season. Entire raiding fleets have been lost and the fates of kingdoms and dynasties changed when a raiding fleet got caught in a bad storm.

Dawn Landings
Pirates and corsairs will usually attack settlements in the dark before dawn. Advance parties may land in small boats farther up or down the coast, hoping to eliminate any sentinels, who are usually conspicuous atop their watchtowers. At a prearranged time or signal, the rest of the raiders will descend, beaching their vessels en masse to pour into the hopefully unaware town.

Land Approaches
Sometimes raiders will land well away from their target settlement, specially if they have local help, and march through hills and jungle to come at the target from the landward side. A land approach may offer concealment all the way to the very edge of the settlement, and works specially well if the raiders have allies on the same island who will provide guides or even join in the attack.

Kidnapping on the Tidal Flats
Pirates will often take captives however they can, and one favorite tactic is to sail close to shore in smaller boats at low tide, when the fisherfolk come out comb the tidal flats for shellfish. The raiders will disguise themselves as fishermen, often positioning their craft between the sun and the beach to make it harder to identify them. When they spot an unwary victim, they rapidly row in, grapple their victims into their boats, then row away. 

Hunting at Sea
Raiding settlements is almost always more profitable than nabbing vessels at sea -- there is more loot, and if the raiders have enough force, a more certain target. On the other hand, shore raids require a lot of fighters to be successful, and if the tables are turned on the raiders they could lose everything. Attacking enemy ships is thus a secondary activity to shore raids, generally practiced by smaller outlaw bands, or against a known, specific target.

For example, a raider may lie in wait for a specific merchantman they know will have to pass a certain route, or for a bridal ship carrying some wealthy noble bride and her husband with her dowry and gifts, or for a groom's ship on the way to a wedding to take the bridal gifts on board.

Narrows and Shallows
The favorite hunting grounds for raiders are the narrows between close-lying islands, and shallow waters near rocky outcrops or mangrove swamps that give easy concealment to their vessels. An entire fleet can hide in a mangrove swamp, specially before the full light of morning, shooting out when prey is sighted like a pack of wolves bursting out of a cave lair.

There are places in the islands known for their narrow or shallow waters and a prevalence of light, fitful winds where an enemy vessel might be slowed or becalmed, and thus be vulnerable to attack. Raiders will frequent these during the seasons when calms are likely to occur.

Games of Deception
Raiders may employ many schemes to get their prey by surprise. Sometimes they will pose as traders. Sometimes an advance party will land pretending to be traders, perhaps even offering loot from a recent raid as their 'goods,' and ask to guest with the local chief; in the middle of the night they will murder the chief, fire his house, and with that as a signal, bring the other raiders down on the confused community.

Sometimes raiders in traders' guise will approach other vessels offering things for sale, or inviting the other vessel to land and trade. If the victim follows the raiders' wishes, they will quickly have armed men drawing weapons on board, or be surrounded and cut off from escape while on shore.

Sometimes pirates pretend to be their own victims, hailing a passing vessel for help from the hulk of their last victim, while the rest of their fleet lies in hiding. When the target comes in to offer aid, the disguised pirates attack and raise the signal for the rest of their fleet to converge on the prey.

Wrecking and Wreck Diving
Outlaws and some greedier chiefs will often try to plunder any vessels that run aground on their domains. Sometimes the wreckers will take only the goods, as 'payment' for rescuing the crew and passengers, and sometimes they will also try to capture these for ransom or the slave blocks, or simply kill them all because the dead tell no tales.

Many vessels also sink in Janggalan waters during storms, and the Vijadesans consider it fair for anyone to help themselves to these -- if they can! Large vessels from Wu Long and other wealthy foreign lands are carefully watched when a storm is brewing or expected, so that its course can be tracked. If it sinks, locals will have a pretty good idea where to start looking, and will send out their most skilled divers as soon as the weather calms.

There are also famous wrecks that have never been found, and certain wrecks considered sacred for some reason by the locals, who prevent all others from trying to salvage from them.

May 1, 2015

The Winds of War

An Iranun joanga, a galley with outriggers

Sea raiding is the primary kind of warfare practiced in the Hari Ragat setting, which ties war squarely to the cycle of monsoons.

I’m basing this pattern on my research sources, specially W.H. Scott’s Barangay and James Warren’s Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity. Warren quotes his sources, noting that the Iranun and Balangingi raiders would sail to Palawan and wait for the southwest monsoon to bear them north up the Philippine archipelago, while at the time of the northeast monsoon their activities would focus on the Malay and  Indonesian islands, and as far as Indochina, to the west and southwest.

Map of the Janggalan Isles

In the Janggalan Isles, everybody guards against raids and goes raiding when they can and have cause. The winds dictate targets and strategy. Raiders generally prefer to have the winds with them on approaching the target, to speed their approach and hinder interception at sea.

Sometimes, though, raiders will also sail with the wind against them going out, to have the winds with them on the escape if pursuit is expected.

If the approach to target is made with the prevailing monsoon winds, chances are escape will be made via a roundabout route, both to tack against the wind, and to throw off pursuit.

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