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[SETTING] The Second-Oldest Profession

June 5, 2010

Plundered?

The world’s second-oldest profession may have been tomb robbery, a practice that threatened social order, for it allowed wealth to be recycled. Tomb robbery has obvious parallels in the looting of temple treasures and other practices, which demonstrated that ideologies and legitimations were not completely persuasive or coercive.

— Yoffee, Norman (2005) Myths of the Archaic State. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 36.

There is something very pleasing about the thought that the profession of dungeon-crawler is not only the second oldest in the world but practically inevitable. The psychology of tomb looters may be rare, but adventurers will appear as surely as wealth, inequality and sex.

The accumulation of wealth by adventurers, and the consequences of vast amounts of treasure entering the local economy, is also sometimes seen as a problem or a unrealistic consequence of D&D’s 1 gp = 1 XP mechanic. Yoffee’s observation, though, reminds us that this influx is another opportunity to make the sandbox dynamic.  Recycling the wealth plundered from tombs threatens the social order: the existing rich and powerful in a settlement will not be pleased at the arrival of wealthy adventurers. Their own positions are put under threat. Those the gods grant wealth will also garner power and influence, wholly illegitimate and disruptive to existing hierarchies.  Men who plunder sealed and cursed tombs clearly fear nothing.  They deny the right of rulers even to keep their own possessions in death, and thus throw doubt on all other privileges of rulers living, dead, or in ghastly state of necromantic lingering. This should provoke responses from those in power – from harassing lawsuits, attacks on slaves and property, assassination, to political intrigue rendering the PCs’ place in the community increasingly untenable. At the same time, the PCs may form the nucleus of political ambitions of others who have not yet gained an entry to the halls of power, or used as foils to further private ambitions. Apart from providing roistering opportunities, then, the very treasure adventurers bring back is disruptive, able to cause a cascade of events – further adventure – as precarious political relationships are upset.

[CLASSES] The Ranger

June 4, 2010

Sargonid Rangers

Uruk has produced the greatest Rangers in Sumer and Akkad, relics of that city-state’s expansionist and imperialist past, when rangers accompanied Uruk trade- and war-caravans far into the north to exploit the timber, metals and precious stone of the Cedar Mountains. Now in Uruk they form a pseudo-tribe, a society secretive and mistrusted, claiming descent from Enkidu and the prostitute Shamhat, into which rangers are adopted. Rangers also revere Dumuzi the Shepherd and their great training house in Uruk is called the E-mush, “House Which is the Precinct” in honour of the temple of Dumuzi in lost Bad-tabira. They consider themselves hunters of the wild animals and demons of the wilderness in emulation of Enkidu, more at home in the Wild than any city-dweller should be. Rangers may also found among the pastoral nomads and wandering tribes throughout ERIDU – the tent-lands of the Martu and Amurru – who often require arduous initiation rites as a part of attaining entry into the class.

Minimum Ability Scores: Strength 13, Intelligence 13, Wisdom 14, Constitution 14

Ranger vs. Bull

Race: Human only

Hit Dice: d8 (2d8 at 1st level; max 11)

Alignment: Any

Armour/Shield: Any (except reed/tower shield)

Weapons: Any

Weapon Proficiencies: 3, +1 every 3 levels

Non-Proficiency Penalty: -2

Attack/Saves: As fighter

Magic Items: As fighter

Class Abilities

Surprise opponents on a 1-3 on a d6; are surprised only on a 1 on 1d6.

Fighting Wild Opponents: Rangers add a point of damage for every level of experience attained when fighting wild and giant animals and corporeal demons.

Tracking: rangers are able to follow trails with a base 20% chance of success, increasing by 10% for every level after 1st; ground conditions, numbers of creatures being tracked, time elapsed since their passage, and other such factors, will modify this chance as the referee dictates.

Identify plants: at third level, a Ranger may identify plant types as does a druid

Identify animals: at fourth level, a Ranger is able to identify animal types

Identify pure water: at fifth level, a Ranger is able to identify potable and non-poisonous water

Locate pure water: at sixth level, a Ranger is able, through scrutiny of the surrounding landscape, to locate a source (possibly buried) of pure water within 24” should any exist.  This ability functions underground only in natural caverns.

Ranger Table 1.

ADDENDUM: In Uruk the E-mush is an e-gal, a “big house” provisioned with kitchens, beer-breweries and storehouses, and a shrine of Dumuzi, Utu-Shamash and Inanna with its attendant lustration and purification priests (classed and leveled clerics) and a lukur priestess, a cultic prostitute honouring Shamhat. The support staff are on the whole 0-level types, with a few low-level fighters and 0-level guards.  Of the Imru-Enkidu, the society itself, most are classed and leveled rangers. A few outstanding fighter-types may rarely be adopted into the clan as an honour for feats accomplished in the wilderness or services rendered to another Ranger. There are also, however, – particularly in Uruk and Ur – mentions in the accounting tablets of people called “Rangers of the Precinct” or “Rangers of the City”, who appear to be possibly hereditary prebendaries attached or associated with the E-mush. A much-loved ale-house song recounts the misadventures of a buffoonish ‘Ranger of the Precinct’ of corpulent aspect and no martial ability whatsoever and his pursuit of one of the “women of the city gate” – suggesting that the Rangers so designated are not masters of desert survival but rich landowners’ and traders’ sons somehow associated with the ribald feasting and beer-festivals of the E-mush (0-level socially powerful NPCs)…

[CLASSES] The Mesopotamian Bard

May 30, 2010
Standard of Ur detail

A Mesopotamian Bard

In ERIDU, most bards subsume the roles of lamentation priests (Sumerian gala, Akkadian kalum), temple singers and musicians, court minstrels, heralds and those who recite the great Epics of gods and heroes – the so-called nar.  They are masters of a wide variety of compositions: ‘lyre-song’ hymns of praise; ‘harp-songs’ of lamentation; and the ‘lamentations of the metal drum’. Entertainments in the ale-house are better served by the irtu, “breast-songs”, ditties of love and romance. They benefit from some scribal training, allowing access to archives, epics, and even magical tablets. Bards are thus at home at any lugal’s court with its intrigues, at festivals and rites solemn or orgiastic in the temple, and at revelry in the ale-house; as singers of royal and godly praise they are crucial to legitimising the rule of kings, but are simultaneously disruptive, ambiguous figures, mercurial heralds singing the songs of the Anunnaki.

Bards must be proficient in at least one instrument: tigi, great lyre; zami, lesser lyre; the balag harp, the adab drum or metal shem drum; the sabitum, a horizontal harp of Elam (Sabum); flute or double-flute. Their songs have the power to bind, banish and beguile; and as they are most often temple-trained, they are considered a sub-class of clerics. Bards must also speak Sumerian and Emesal (the “fine tongue”, sometimes called the “womens’ language”, a special dialect of some temple hymns), as well as Akkadian (Common).

Minimum Ability Scores: Strength 12, Intelligence 12, Wisdom 15, Charisma 15

Silver Lyre of Ur

Race: Human only

Hit Dice: d6 (max 12)

Alignment: Any

Armour/Shield: Any

Weapons: Any

Weapon Proficiencies: 3, +1 every 4 levels

Non-Proficiency Penalty: -4

Attack/Saves: As cleric

Magic Items: As clerics and fighters

Class Abilities

Just before or during melee, a bard may chose to chant either a hymn of praise or a diatribe.  Both require two rounds of uninterrupted recitation. The hymn raises the moral of associated creatures by 10%, and gives a +1 bonus to hit.  The diatribe requires a morale check at –10% by the bards’ enemies at the close of the second round, and delivers a –1 penalty to their to hit rolls.  Both effects last a turn.

The song-based attacks of some monsters are negated by a bard’s playing.

The bard’s music has a chance (given on the table below) of casting a charm person or monster spell with a range of 40 feet (yards outdoors); the bard must play uninterrupted for at least one round, and if the chance to charm roll is successful the recipient is entitled to a saving throw vs. magic. A failure indicates the hearer is charmed; the effect will persist after the bard ceases play, with further saving throws possible, determined by the charmee’s intelligence as detailed under the charm person spell.

At third level, the bard’s playing and singing also has a chance of exorcising, or driving away demons, unclean spirits and the undead (or “charming” in the case of evil bards, controlling undead as does an evil cleric). This is equivalent to a cleric’s turn undead ability; bards do so as a cleric two levels below their bard level (e.g., a fourth level bard turns as a second level cleric).

Also beginning at third level, bards gain the ability to cast clerical spells (see table below).  They benefit from Wisdom bonuses to number of spells available per day as do clerics.  Spell casting requires the bard’s instrument as well as a holy symbol as material components.

Legend Lore and Item Knowledge allows a chance of identifying items, places or persons, as given on the table below.  The chances shown are for normally obscure items; the DM may adjust these up or downwards according to the particular character of the item or person in question.

At 1st level bards have a 20% chance of reading any language encountered, a chance which increases by 5% per level until 80% is reached at 13th level. They are also able to speak and understand additional languages as given in the chart below.

Bards’ scribal training also allows them to employ magic-user scroll-tablets at 10th level as do thieves, that is, with a 25% percent chance of misunderstanding and chances for mis-casting.

Bards Table 1.

[LOCATIONS] Preliminary Notes on Some Regions, Geographical Features and Petty Kingdoms of ERIDU

May 28, 2010

A Map of the World

All land is surrounded by the Bitter River, encircling Ocean.  In her depths Leviathans heave.

CEDAR MOUNTAINS, running east-west along the northern fringes of the world; thickly forested hilly flanks, riddled with ancient mines and caves, the abode of beasts. The ossified body of Humbaba the demon slumps recumbent amongst the peaks. On Mount Nimush lies grounded the hulk of Utanipishtim’s great Ark, the surrounding slopes perilous with all the escaped monstrosities it once contained.

LAKE VAN shimmers in a Cedar Mountain valley; the surrounding slopes gleam with the black radiance of abundant obsidian.  Secretive tribes gather the nodules of volcanic glass to trade and transform into valued tools, knives, jewellery, amulets and inlays.

SUBARTU, the rolling grasslands of the north between the rivers, stretching to the feet of the mountains. Scattered with the ruined forts, outposts, colonies and settlements of past empires, and some living enclaves of Men.  Nomadic tribes herd their sheep and goats, moving between their monuments and ancestral lands and burial places. The eastern extent of Subartu is held as

ASHUR, a petty territorial kingdom of settled Amurru ruled by Tikulti-Ninurta, who surrounds himself and his people with monumental art of hysterical terror and cruelty. Assyrians are slave-takers and resettlers of subject populations, but also wily merchants whose caravans extend across the Land; an Assyrian trader (like a Phoenician) may appear anywhere. Their settlements include Nineveh and Assur.

SINJAR MOUNTAINS, of eagles and Anzu-birds; a fortified pass in the mountains leads to the Subartu northlands and is the rumoured home of demon-worshippers.

ARATTA, a citadel and mountainous kingdom, ancient adversary of Uruk.  Famed for its mines of gold, quarries of marble and porphyry, and for the lapis lazuli obtained from veiled traders from beyond the mountains. Aratta’s king Ensuhgirana plots in an impenetrable fortress of lapis lazuli spires and red-brick walls.  Somewhere in Aratta’s vale dwells Urjirinuna the Summoner in a tower of obsidian, a sorcerer exiled from a land destroyed.

ZUBI MOUNTAINS, on the north-eastern flanks of Subartu, source of copper, tin, silver, gold and stone, all lacking in Sumer and Akkad and contested by the city-states; many mines and delvings riddle the peaks.  Across these fences of the world sweep atimes new tribes into the plains of Sumer and Akkad.

MASHU’S Twin Peaks, a double mountain, said to be where the sun rises and sets; its passes are guarded by a citadel of scorpion men and seven gates, and beyond it is rumoured to lie the jewelled garden of the gods.

THE BASALT PLAINS, a flat upland plateau riven with basalt outcrops.  Scattered across it are enigmatic stone formations, funerary cairns, enclosures, and dead cities of basalt entire: spirit haunted, picked over, and occasionally tenanted by a few families of awed degenerates.

THE ABOMINABLE DESOLATION, west of the plains of Sumer and Akkad, a fearsome desert, an Empty Quarter, abode of demons and whispering pleading wind-borne spirits. A few secretive tribes such as the Beni Howa, Sons of the Wind, pace between oases, nursing strange cults and timeless grudges. Remorseless dunes blow over the ruins of Antediluvian pleasure gardens.

SUMER AND AKKAD, The Land, the southern and northern territory Between the Rivers. A flat alluvial plain crosscut by the channels and canals of the Tigris and Euphrates, with lush date-palm groves on the levees and rich agricultural plots where watered.  Here lie the scattered city-states, estates of the gods, some the dwelling places of Men still, others lost or abandoned in horror. On the plains roam the tent-dwelling pastoral nomads, sellers of wool, milk, yoghurt; mercenaries; and destroyers of cities in times of drought.

THE BITUMEN PITS OF HIT, bubbling chasms and sumps of tar, where smokes and fumes constantly rise.  A shanty-town of squat mudbrick dwellings houses the harvesters of the bitumen, their ale- and whore-houses, and the trader caravans come to exchange for the stuff; but sorcerers are drawn to the sulphuric emanations too, gathering about the bubbling pits to harvest secretions or construct bituminous experiments.

THE MARSHLANDS of far southern Sumer; trackless and innumerable water-courses, ever-shifting; among tall reeds the fishermen and pastoralist marsh dwellers pole their long barks and fashion dwellings of reed and mud, and floating reed islands entire on which their settlements drift. Alongside lurk the lizardmen, degenerate remnants of genetic experimentations by the Ophidians, and their pets, prey and enemies, frogemoths and worse.  Scattered half-sunk and rusting in the marsh are the abandoned Machines of the shapeshifting Ophidians, and somewhere too their last settlement, Ubeyid, a temple-town in which they claim for themselves the title of Anunnaki.

DILMUN, a fabled Blessed Isle and vast necropolis, drifting in the waters of the Lower Sea.

ELAM, a continuation of the Mesopotamian plain to the east and territory of the city-state Susa, where, atop a high terrace surrounded by a necropolis, copper-axe wielding priests celebrate the orgiastic rites of the goat and murmur praises of the Elamite lugal.

THE LOWER SEA, flowing into the Bitter River; its banks are studded with scattered communities of fishers and pearl divers. What slumbers in the slime below even the Apkullu fish-sages of Eridu hesitate to say.

[SETTING] An Animate Universe

May 22, 2010

But what is it thinking?

An artfully made bright crenellation rising out from the abzu was erected for Lord Nudimmud. He built the temple from precious metal, decorated it with lapis lazuli, and covered it abundantly with gold. In Eridu, he built the house on the bank. Its brickwork makes utterances and gives advice. Its eaves roar like a bull; the temple of Enki bellows. During the night the temple praises its lord and offers its best for him.

Before Lord Enki, Isimud the minister praises the temple; he goes to the temple and speaks to it. He goes to the brick building and addresses it: “Temple, built from precious metal and lapis lazuli; whose foundation pegs are driven into the abzu; which has been cared for by the prince in the abzu! Like the Tigris and the Euphrates, it is mighty and awe-inspiring. Joy has been brought into Enki’s abzu.”

“Your lock has no rival. Your bolt is a fearsome lion. Your roof beams are the bull of heaven… Your vault is a wild bull raising its horns. Your door is a lion who seizes a man. Your stairway is a lion coming down on a man.”

Enki’s Journey to Nibru, ETCSL translation t.1.1.4

The temple of Enki at Eridu is alive. Its brickwork makes utterances; its door bolt is a fearsome lion.  Like much else in the universe – perhaps everything – it is animate, filled with beliefs and desires and wishes: wishes to do you harm or render aid or be left alone.  The Mesopotamians maintained an “I-Thou” relationship with the world and objects around them; things need be negotiated with, not manipulated.

In ERIDU, then, the trap-filled dungeon may itself be dimly aware of the tomb-robbers crawling around inside it.  The ziggurat hates you, and its door bolts are rampaging lions.  Arrogant adventurers will find more traps are sprung, more ceilings collapse, more locks possessed of a savage bite.  But the dungeon or temple may be propitiated, too, flattered as to its awesome beauty, bribed with treasures to decorate its walls and avert its wrath…

Some of these structures may indeed be subterranean technological relics, bunkers humming with a morbid and paranoid AI; but many more simply have the sentience of complex things.

Thus: reaction rolls applied to entire levels of the dungeon.  An “enthusiastically friendly” dungeon may be as disconcerting to PCs as an “immediately hostile” one, but it would certainly make a difference to their traversing of the level. Negative reactions result in increased chances for pits and traps to be triggered; effects of traps more virulent (+1 to damage or –1 to saves); secret doors more secretive (1 in 8 or 10 chances if 1 in 6 normally); wandering monsters checks more frequent or more likely to result in an encounter; denizens more aggressive, recalcitrant, or sneaky (their own reaction rolls –10% or more).  Positive reactions would do the reverse. DMs may of course judge reactions through roleplay and the actions of the PCs, though random reaction rolls give a flavour of an alien intelligence.  While abandoned tombs in the desert wastes may be slumbering or senile or filled with savage ancient hallucinatory dreams, the temple attended by throngs at the centre of its city is taut with quickened perception. To the normal dungeoneering paranoia then must be added diplomatic prudence and wheedling of the world around them. Charisma is not a dump stat indeed!

Magic items, likewise, will often have an awareness in addition to a mere set of functions.  Some may be psionic. A bolshy ring of protection +1 might soon become wearisome in play, but more powerful magic items should certainly be self-willed, alert, watching.

[SETTING] After the Kingship Descended from Heaven…

May 21, 2010

Enki himself

…the Kingship was in ERIDU.

Eridu was the first city.  Before the Flood, Father Enki established there the Abzu, the Subterranean Lake of Sweet Waters, source of wisdom and gate to the Netherworld, and raised atop it the E-engura, his pure temple. There still among his mumbling priests and in the archives of many tablets knowledge may be sought, for if Eridu now crumbles, in ancient days the fathers of this city’s scribes were taught by the Apkallu fish-sages crawled from the sea laden with the omens of Enki. Knowledge on the ways of the world, the Fates of men, the secrets of ancient tombs and the names of their builders, and many more things beside lost or forgotten or now buried in the desert wastes. And Enki himself may still be moved atimes to whisper to men the secrets of the Seven Who Decree Fate, to tell of the councils of the gods.

This is the city that, like Greyhawk or Blackmoor or Carcosa, lends its name to a whole setting.  This blog is an attempt to sketch out that setting from its beginnings;  I am thinking aloud as I do so.  The system is 1E AD&D (and therefore compatible with OSRIC, or Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion, or, frankly, anything you chose); the place is a savage Bronze Age Mesopotamia; almost all else will be developed as we go.  Here, though, are some general conceptions:

Both grit and pessimism I take from the Mesopotamians themselves.  In Eridu, everything was reduced to ruin, was wrought with confusion, runs the city lament for Eridu; even in the midst of his vainglorious boasting, Shulgi of Ur knows that “whatever is acquired is destined to be lost.” The Egyptians may have considered their stone monuments eternal, defying time; Mesopotamians saw their mud-brick ziggurats decaying into featureless mounds before their eyes. What is lost may however be found again. The world is old, and filled with the remnants of ancient things (Lovecraftian archaeology): a perfect playground for adventurers venturing beyond the city gate!

PC Races: At present I imagine these as human only.  There may be twisted Dwarfs lurking in the Cedar Mountains or elsewhere, and the inhabitants of Blessed Isle of Dilmun be near immortal; but they will not be available as races to PCs as yet.  Humans struggle in their tribes and city-states and temple-towns and villages and in these crucibles forge civilisation; demi-humans would be rendered too mundane as playable races.

Mace head

No more Mesopotamian weapon

PC Classes: Core AD&D (PHB) classes.  Clerics, certainly: many city-states are ruled by their shaven-headed priest-kings. There is no more Mesopotamian weapon than the mace.  Druids are restricted to a minor heretical sect of Bab-Ilani’s Hanging Gardens.  Fighters will be distinguished by their weapons and armour (hinted at below).  Paladins have a place as god-haunted warriors. Rangers, deprived of Aragornian associations, track in the wilderness, hunt wild beasts,  and maintain the few uncertain paths between oases; they are found most commonly among the nomads. Thieves and Assassins come with civilization; and there may even be a place for a (cultic, equestrian) thief-acrobat (!).  Magic-Users and Illusionists are (for now) included – with an eye to more thinking about both clerical and arcane magic systems, particularly demonology, exorcisms, omens, astrology. Their spells are held not in spellbooks or scrolls but in the pure signs of tablets and as skeuomorphs, tokens, figurines and amulets; rarest are papyri of Kemet, scrawled with baneful signs in black and red ink.

Standard of Ur detail

A Mesopotamian Bard

Bards will, perhaps surprisingly, be kept with tweaks.  Gilgamesh had his minstrel Lugalgabangal; the (undying, bureaucracy-obsessed) King Shulgi of Ur boasted of his prowess in music; the Lyre of Ur is a great treasure of the Royal Tombs; and those who must have recited the Epic of Gilgamesh had no less power than the tellers of the Mabinogion or the degenerate lute-strummers of mediaeval Europe.  Clearly they must be shorn of their Celtic or even jack-of-all-trades trappings but the bard will remain in some form.

Of monks I forbear, for the moment, to speak.

Technology will, with some exceptions, be Bronze Age.  No crossbows or plate mail, but stone tools and weapons, copper knives, bronze axes.  The exceptions relate mostly to the experiments of the wizards of Bab-Ilani, and the older things from far away lurking in the southern marshlands – the latter providing elements of science fantasy to the Bronze Age.

Money does not exist in ERIDU; coins have not been invented.  Standard weights of silver are, however, in general use (shekels, minas, talents).  Adventurers in ERIDU will no doubt seek fabulous gems, gold adornments and lavish artworks – but more common are crocks of fish paste, reed bundles, jugs of oil, sacks of grain and even cakes of dung for fuel.  If they’re lucky.

Monsters: no orcs (or many evil humanoid monsters in general, though degenerate bestial Gutians are a possibility) but many demons, howling in the wilderness and whispering at the crowded city gate.  Wild, and demon-infested, animals in the wastes; swamps alive with all the malign frog-things and lizard-things AD&D has imagined. Scorpion men. Golems. Shedu and lammasu in their proper place. Liches and ghouls and vengeful wraiths and revenants enraged at improper burial.

Abandoned cities; crumbling ziggurats; the elaborate and trap-filled tombs of dead dynasts; the barely understood monuments of wandering tribes; and settlements in lost valleys absorbed in their own inward cultic dramas.  Marshland, hiding things older and stranger, in the south; cedar-studded mountains far north; ever-wrangling, politicking, and warring city-states Between the Rivers and the highland territorial kingdoms encroaching upon them. These may all be found in ERIDU.