Friday, January 21, 2011

Untash tribesmen

I created a new label, Dark•Heritage, which is meant to cover all my posts that specifically contain an element of setting development for my homebrew campaign. Some of the earliest posts that I've given this label to actually didn't originally belong to this setting, but one of the things that's happened over the years is that four or five settings that I was kinda working on independently from each other all merged together into a single setting, elements that were too outre to fit into this new paradigm were jettisoned, and the new hybrid setting, or Mk. IV Dark•Heritage, is this new setting. Let me ramble just for a bit about the history of the development of the setting as it stands now, then I'll actually introduce the "real" content of this post, a brief essay on the nature of the Untash tribesmen, who will be an important part of the first adventure of the new campaign that I run here in, supposedly, a couple of months.

Dark•Heritage was first concieved while I was watching Attack of the Clones with one of my kids many years ago on DVD. That movie is mostly pretty terrible, but I think what I did was either fast-forwarded, or just left the room, for most of it, then came back in to watch the arena battle, the Jedi fighting battle droids, and then the eponymous attack of the clone troops and the Battle of Geonosis. Geonosis reminded me starkly of a space opera image of Mars; dusty red soil, crazy yet fascinating rock formations, red dusty sky, alien, insectile native life, etc. It had obvious parallels back to Barsoom from Edgar Rice Burroughs, or to Leigh Brackett's, C. L. Moore's, or Otis Adelbert Kline's Mars. At the time, I was starting to feel a little tired and bored with "standard" fantasy, so the idea of a fantasy setting that bore as much (or heck, more even) resemblance to Barsoom than it did to Middle-earth was appealing to me. This was the original genesis of Dark•Heritage. One of my early attempts at running a play-by-post (Pbp) game was set there, and it struggled with all the of the typical things that Pbp games tend to struggle with and ended soon and early.

I started developing the setting in earnest using the Ray Winninger Dungeoncraft methodology, mostly just because; I wasn't actually running it at that time. My own Dungeoncraft series of posts are an update of that development phase. Perhaps a bit to my surprise, I had an opportunity to run it again come up after a few months. By this time, I had migrated to Mk. II of the setting. Rather than being a habitable Mars-like world, I had gotten extremely excited about an older concept of floating islands in a vast atmospheric sea connecting by flying airships. Although my fascination with that idea was relatively short-lived, it was frozen in place for some time because I was fascinated with it when I started running the game and I couldn't exactly change it midstream because I lost interest in it. The game ended on its own a little later for other reasons, although it is still lamented and missed in my gaming group. Occasionally.

After our group consolidated with another group that was also shrinking to the point of nonviability, we played something else: Age of Worms, in fact. That was a long-lived campaign, so in the background, I started tinkering with the Mk. III Dark•Heritage; back to something that more closely resembled Mars, but also heavily influenced by the geography and political landscape of the ancient and Medieval Tarim Basin. This version of the setting got quite a bit of development done, scattered between various notebooks that I used to carry around with me to jot stuff down as I felt like it, and a wiki that I still keep archived for historical purposes, etc. I never ran Mk. III, but it was more developed than either Mk. I or Mk. II was before I stopped working on it. I did also develop a detailed novel outline for this version of the setting, and worked out almost 20,000 words of a draft before I became dissatisfied with some of the things that seemed so exciting to me at one point, but now felt just strange and difficult and awkward.

While all this was happening, I also toyed around with a few other homebrew settings. Most of them borrowed names and/or concepts, locations, and even characters from Dark•Heritage. One of them, which I called Leng Calling, first introduced the Mezzovian Sea and the Terrasan Empire, juxtaposing it with some of the cities that I had built along my "fantasy Silk Road", like Razina, Iclezza, etc. While Leng Calling was always meant to be "more D&Dish" than Dark•Heritage, it ironically became the geographic core around which Dark•Heritage Mk. IV would eventually grow. But before his, I also toyed around with my Demons in the Mist setting (again, an outre D&D setting), my Pirates of the Mezzovian Main setting (which recycled much of the Leng Calling geography again) and my homebrew Freeport setting; utilizing Green Ronin's Freeport city, but building my own little mini-setting around it, which was very loosely based geographically on the real East Indies.

For all of these, I recycled at least names, but often entire nations and bigger building blocks, which led to the creation of the Modular DND Setting wiki, where I intended to archive modular elements that could be dropped in and used without much work to create ad hoc campaign settings on the fly with existing elements. My Demons in the Mist, Freeport and Pirates of the Mezzovian Main games were fairly successful, and with all these half-formed nascent settings sitting out there, and my original Dark•Heritage languishing unused and unappreciated, it suddenly dawned on me: what I really needed to do was take the best elements from each of these and integrate it into a single, cohesive whole. Because it was also a "best of" of ideas taken from nearly half a dozen settings worked on over the course of four or five years, it was also much more unlikely to ever start to dissatisfy me; these were all ideas that had been proven out and used day in and day out in my gaming and fantasy needs for a long time.

And this became Dark•Heritage Mk. IV, which gradually took over the Modular DND Setting wiki, as they converged into becoming literally the exact same thing, except with a cohesive framework that integrated all of the "modules" together. It has elements of the Freeport setting: my nation of Qizmir is transparently borrowed from Green Ronin's Kizmir, and Porto Liure is Catalan for Free Port. Kinda. It has elements of my original Dark•Heritage setting, especially in the slightly Leigh Brackett Mars influenced cities of Kurushat and Baal Hamazi. It has big Lovecraftian regions, with infamous names like Carcosa and the Plateau of Leng integrated directly into the Forbidden Lands. It has the Terrasan Empire and some of its far flung colonies from Leng Calling as the main geographic centerpiece. And so on and so on.

And it gradually became less D&D like in some ways too, over time. While some of those component settings that I used originally had things like elves, dwarves, wizards, clerics, etc. Dark•Heritage makes no such assumptions. It's a more classically Sword & Sorcery feeling setting in many ways, especially with regards to fantasy races and fantasy professions. It's got significant tone influence from Glen Cook's The Black Company books. And it even allows me to indulge my inner paleontological nerd, by having a faunal assemblage borrowed from Pleistocene North America; with both familiar animals as well as familiar recent fossils from places like La Brea; dire wolves, sabertooths, Columbian mammoths, etc.

Whew. That was more long-winded than I intended it to be. But that is the State of the Setting as of January 2011... and I anticipate it will remain so indefinitely, with the exception of more detail and definition continuing to come out as the setting moves back out from the backwater of theory and into the trial by fire of an actual game for real people again.
So, I need to develop the Untash tribesmen a little bit, since they will play a role in the first session of my new campaign when I start it. The Untash tribesmen are to the north of the Terrasan territories, as well as northwest of Tarush Noptii, the vampire kingdom. I envisioned them when I was mapping out the former territories of Baal Hamazi, and I expect that a few centuries ago they would have been involved with that empire, at least in some fashion--probably as a source of mercenaries and slaves. Since the fall of the Empire, the Untash have grown from being a minor tribe to being a big confederation of loosely related tribes and bands that is regionally dominant, and a real headache to their more "civilized" neighbors, like the former Baal Hamazi regions of Pnakot and Shushun, the most northerly Terrasan settlements north of Iclezza and Razina, the northern marches of Tarush Noptii, and the rival Tazitta tribes. In very vague terms, I see the Untash as not unlike the Comanche of the mid 1800s, or pre-Imperial Mongols--dangerous, powerful, respected, feared; consumate raiders and light cavalry.

The Untash live in xeric grasslands interspersed with intermittant badlands, not unlike the Tabernas desert in Almería in southern Spain; a favorite location for the shooting of spaghetti Westerns. They are sometimes called colloquially the Bone People because of their habit of crafting clothing from the bones of bison and edging them with thin leaf iron. Bison and pronghorn make up the primary food source of the Untash, and some observers have noted that they appear to be the most carnivorous people in the region, eating very little fruits and vegetables and taking most of their sustenance from meat and pemmican. While most tribes follow and hunt wild bison and pronghorn herds, some do keep semi-domesticated herds as well. As well as hunting from horseback, the Untash keep dogs and red hunting cats to help them herd, corral or hunt their prey.

The Untash keep large herds of scotties (a native North American horse, for my purposes not unlike a tarpan or Heck horse--although occasionally possessing modest stripes on the rear legs) and their horse culture is one of the dominant features of life. Although an exaggeration, it is sometimes said that Untash children can ride before they can walk; certainly older children and adults are strongly associated with their scotties and rarely dismount when traveling. They are also renowned for their skill in archery; young Untash braves are known to lean over the sides of their horses and launch 5-6 arrows under the neck of their horse before the first one hits its target. Combined with their unengaging hit and run tactics, this makes the Untash very feared as raiders and bandits--Terrasans and others may be proud of their rifled muskets, but they can't compete with this rate of repeating fire.

As is typical of hunting and pastoral nomadic societies, the Untash have few permanent habitations, and live in easily disassembled and moved structures called kullaks which are not unlike yurts or teepees. At least one band of Untash, sometimes called the "Royal Untash" live out of large covered wagons.

The Untash make a point of disagreeing with most of their neighbors. The hated hamazin once had a fairly successful run at enslaving many of their people. The Tazitta are traditional rivals. The vampires of Tarush Noptii are hated and feared for obvious reasons. Whatever comes out of the Forbidden Lands is killed on sight. However, the Untash tend to be curious and even somewhat friendly to anyone else that they encounter crossing their lands, and their hospitality is also as legendary as their fierce raiding tradition.

Currently, the Untash are undergoing a cresting population boom. This is making their relationships with their neighbors even more strained, as Untash braves have increased their raiding frequency and distance substantially. However, some of the city-states of hamazin and Terrasa have seen this as an opportunity to hire them as foreign mercenaries, and many braves have accepted these offers. Untash warriors; mostly young ones, are now still a rare sight in the cities, but not as rare as they used to be.

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