Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Animal Husbandry

This is the post I didn’t want to write. There are too many relevant directions to which the subject can be taken, and too many ways in which I can get bogged down talking about actual history and actual social development – subjects which I think I have a tendency to spend too much time on already.

The domestication of animals enabled, as with fishing and agriculture, an improvement on the food supply in relationship to hunting. With the discovery of brick and pottery, it becomes practical for substantial villages to develop. However, where agriculture is strictly dependent upon the seasonal production of food, animal husbandry is less reliant on the yearly cycle. Animals can be kept until those times of the year when food grows scarce ... plus the production of milk and blood (yes, blood, which is drained from the living animal for sustenance) can be spread through those lean months when yields have yet to materialize.

Certain animals are also able to do work. Oxen, horse, water buffalo, donkeys and yaks could be employed in ploughing, pulling and carrying ... vastly increasing the amount of work which mere humanoids are capable of doing. You may think it logical for a group of kobalds to dig out vast underground tunnels by hand, but you might consider that without some sort of kobald donkey able to haul the hard rock to the surface, you might as well suppose that the corridors are coincidentally melted away by convenient clerics or druids with nothing better to do than turn rock into mud. In which case, the tunnels better lead up rather than down, if you’re not running a sort of opaque underwater (undermud?) adventure.

Of course, there might be a huge cavern sea for all that mud to drain into. Easier, I think, to invent a donkey.

But I am the kind of DM who doesn’t want a lot of willy nilly conceptual explanations for why such-and-such might occur in my world. It makes choosing any kind of purpose in said world a veritable nightmare, which probably accounts for the number of those worlds that I’ve seen pass by the wayside.

Having a logic to your world is part and parcel with the purpose of these posts. When encountering a group of 200 nomads, you should not describe their appearance with, “You see the wagons of 200 nomads camped upon the flat where the river loops below the ridge;” what you should describe is, “You see 3000 cattle. You might guess that there are nomads camped somewhere nearby.” I say that because it is virtually for certain that you will discover the herd (and smell the herd) long before you stumble across any of the actual people.

This goes for nearing a town, also. Where are the groups of herdsmen with their sheep on the hills, surrounding the Keep on the Borderlands? Such a place may not be conducive to agriculture, but surely there would be livestock everywhere, needed to support the outpost. When was the last time a party in your world approached a town from the direction of the stockyards? When was the last time a party was awakened at 5 a.m. by the innkeeper feeding his pigs?

Before the discovery that animals spread diseases, humanoids did not carefully separate their livestock from themselves as does the modern farm. Goats and pigs lived immediately underfoot, as did chickens and ducks; goats and pigs ate garbage and offal, making them mighty convenient, while fowl grazed for food in every place possible. I once inquired of a Slovenian farmer (grandmother of a player I had once) how much grain was required to feed the chickens, and she laughed at me. There is no need to feed the chickens. The concept of feeding chickens was invented in the 20th century, when chickens became an industry. People who dwelt on a farm who ate the chickens themselves did not bother. The chickens were fat enough.

Naturally, living cheek and jowl with animals resulted in plagues – a notable addition to society at the time of villages and animal husbandry. Close proximity to others, plus animal-carried diseases (domestic-potential animals have generally lived in close proximity with one another), resulted in killing outbreaks of disease, something hunter-gathering societies have almost no experience with. This would be the first time that an increase in food supply actually resulted in contributing to a weaker population.

There’s also the condition to be considered that abundant food reduced the amount of physical activity of the populace. People actually began to become fat. Among certain classes of the populace – kings and priests who were to come into existence in order to manage the creation of all this food – there arose the condition of obesity. Among the common people, however, this wasn’t possible. Caloric intake was still too low (and would be until the 20th century).

So down in the valleys the villagers are becoming well fed, fat and disease-ridden. What of the hill people, then?

Nomads, as I said – or more correctly, nomadic herders – would begin to gather large flocks or herds of specific animals, those for whom transhumance is practical. Transhumance is the practice of moving animals steadily between seasonal pastures (highland pastures in the summer, valley floors in the winter, or migration with the seasons), or continuously, in order to provide a food supply. Those hunters who once hunted wild rams or cattle discovered they could be driven methodically to rich pasturelands, then preyed upon just as methodically for food. Animals such as the horse and cow could be combined with the wheel to create the cart (two-wheeled) or wagon (four wheeled) mechanism, allowing wide ranging travel and the accumulation of material wealth. Later on, of course, the horse would be combined with a very light cart to create a terror weapon, the chariot – which I will discuss in good time.

The constant movement of the herds meant an equally constant movement among the herders themselves ... the result, in combination with the high protein diet, was a very strong, very well fed and organized society – organized because the logistics of moving herds about demands coordinated activity. From the development of herding societies about 7500 years ago, to 4000 years ago, nomadic herdsmen increased in numbers and in method until population pressure pushed them out of the hills (and off the steppe, in some cases) and into the valleys.

It is at this time, approximately 2500 to 2000 BCE that the established agricultural societies along the four major rivers – the Nile, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Indus and the Huang Ho – are beset upon by great numbers of bloodthirsty migratory tribes. The Hyksos in Egypt and the Martu in Sumeria provide the most archaeological evidence – but of course Aryans descending from Central Asia into India and China are no less notable.

We have a description of the Martu: roughly in English, as quoted from Larry Gonick (I love his cartoon histories, mostly because they agree with the sources I read studying ancient history at university): “The Martu, who knows no grain, the Martu who knows no house nor town, the slob of the mountains ... the Martu who digs up truffles ... who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after his death ...”

It was not the Egyptians who invented the chariot (as implied by Civ IV), but the Hyksos, who arose in the Caucasus and who invaded Anatolia and down the Mediterranean coast into Egypt. Chariots have not been overly popular in D&D. This is probably due to the criminal lack of practical rules in managing combat with horses in general – an omission for which the original producers of the game ought to have been rightly flogged. Nine pages on ‘artifacts’ and next to nothing on charging with horses? Now I ask you.

While the players themselves might avoid the acquisition of a few chariots, there’s no reason why you as DM should ignore the possibility. Why not identify a particular humanoid race still limited by this technology? Perhaps one of those races with a low to average intelligence. The chariot has both the possibility of overrunning opponents (add the horse’s weight to the mix and you have quite the ‘overbear’ capacity) as well as distance archery. It would probably drive your party half nuts to be thrown into combat on a plateau facing forty orcs on foot supported by 10 pairs of orcs in chariots – each with one driver and one hurler armed with a score of javelins (bows too, of course, but I haven’t talked about archery yet). Woe betide the thief who sneaks off on his own, only to get run down by a 3-ton chariot (counting four horses and riders). Assume, please, the drivers are competent and not likely to drive near anyone on foot.

Well, I could go on ... and I might, if something else occurs to me. This has been a rambling post, and if I don’t shoot it in its tracks right now it might get loose and do real damage.


R said...

Looking forward to an in-depth horseback/chariot post if you ever get around to it

Chgowiz said...

FWIW, I may not be able to use these directly, but your posts have always influenced me to challenge my own perceptions about how my fantasy worlds work. I'm better off for it. This all is good stuff.

Telecanter said...

I appreciate these posts. I seem to have a similar urge towards realistic background information and have recently been studying medieval villages intensively.

If someone asks why, your mention of encountering the nomad cattle is, for me, a perfect example of the flavor that comes out of this kind of information. Thanks.