Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Genius of Peat and Gilkask

Let me start by apologizing.  My head space remains, for the time being, with the issue of tech levels and the changes that are growing in my head regarding the overall system.  Although I've finished an overview of those levels, I don't feel I'm done yet.  I hope the reader will indulge me a little while longer and let me go on talking about this.

After three weeks, let's come back around to the problem I presented with Gilkask, the city in the far north of Russia that I presented as a stumbling block.

I keep getting suggestions on what to do with it (some not publishable), most of them running like what Mujadaddy recently posted:

"The Brass King, a hobgoblin chief from a mining-tech-level area, has a fortified outpost, Gilkask, hidden deep in the tundra where his primitive cousins toil in open pits for the 'black fire'."

I don't want to deliberately pick on Mujadaddy here.  The description above would work as an adventure.  I wouldn't use the descriptive 'black fire' - all the creatures in my world are intelligent enough to know what coal is: a rock that burns.  Fire is orange and yellow in every part of my world, it doesn't burn black; even the coal itself is not black when it's hot, so on the whole the description doesn't make sense.  It's exactly the sort of 'rule of cool' faux-fantasy cheeze-speak that every DM feels defines the emotional feel of their world . . . but I think it is horrible, awful schlock that only cheapens a campaign into the realm of kiddie fare.  I'm quite happy to call it coal and to have the creatures who dig it out of the ground call it coal, too - because the tension and depth of my world does not rely upon giving coal a descriptive fantasy face-lift.

I'm building up to a post on self-discipline: that I am bound by the rules I assign to my world and that the world gets better because I have to stretch myself to obey those rules.  In the case of Gilkask, I've posited that the tech level ought to be 5.  This means that the settlement must obey the precepts established by a tech 5 culture - that all cultural associations are nomadic in form, that settlements are impermanent (and cannot, therefore, be 'fortified'), that higher tech practices such as agriculture and founding cannot exist, etcetera.  And because of previous rules I've set up that I am also bound to follow, Gilkask also has a population of 6,500 and it also produces coal - not because I say it does but because the city it is based upon, Norilsk, actually produces coal.

I realize it is very difficult to make many understand why this is important.  Part of the fun for me in building my world this way is that I learn - on an intrinsic, ground level - how the world works.  Prior to my discussing this part of the world (see the map), I'm prepared to believe that none of my readers had the least idea of the existence of Norilsk, its coal deposits or its geographical situation.  How, may we suppose, do I know these things?  I know because I began at one point in the world and I steadily made my way outwards until I set myself to learn everything there was to know about all the places in Krasnoyarsk Krai, where Norilsk is.  Once I learned, I adapted the territory into my world and mapped it, drawing out all the lakes shown in the map - lakes where right now people live, fishing there and watching their children skip rocks.  I didn't choose which hexes would be civilized and which would not - the rules I designed for building my world based on more research did this for me.  All I did was follow those rules to make the lay out shown on the map above, a map that revealed itself to me as I made the map, having no idea ahead of time what that revelation would be.

This is why I love to map-make so much.  Because the process is an investigation and a revelation, step by step, hex by hex, conglomeration by conglomeration.  I live in continuous fascination and awe of the profound circumstance of the world as it presents itself to me, as each new part of the world comes into being.  I'm not inventing my game world as much as I am channelling it - and in the process, letting it change me and my preconceptions again and again.

Norilsk doesn't come from my imagination.  It's a real place.  I feel that if I'm going to apply my imagination in changing its existence to one populated by nomadic hobgoblins, I should try with all my might to retain the flavour of the original.

Let me put that another way.  Rather than fabricating yet another cheesy cliche of a fortified mine, I'm using the whole world as a crutch for my imagination - forcing my imagination to adapt to the world rather than making it adapt to my imagination.  I want Norilsk, Gilkask, to live up to something really different and interesting, something more than just another humanoid king on another pile of rocks in another part of my world.  Gilkask has to be more special than that.

This is why the peat-for-coal suggestion works so well.

On the Stumbling Blocks post, kimbo made the suggestion of replacing the coal mined at Gilkask with peat.  I like this for a number of reasons - first of all because the Tunguska region, where Gilkask is, does produce peat.  It is indigenous to the area.  Peat and coal are both fuels so there is a continuity there.  And peat is easily dug up by nomadic tribes, who do use it for fuel because it is convenient and practical - particularly in areas where wood fuel doesn't exist or where wood is often too frozen to burn (seen pictures of the taiga in winter?).

So imagine Gilkask as a sort of drifting settlement of tents that does not exist in exactly the same spot from month to month, but does orbit a large peat moss lowland, usually near the large lake (Pyasin).  Each year, two hundred clans or so follow herds down the Yenisey river valley until they reach Garka.  Shown by the route drawn, these clans travel east from Garka along the shore of the lake (Vodokhran) to where they can cross over a stone plain to the next lake (Keta) . . . then down river to Gilkask.  It is a difficult route, 160 miles, but it is well-traveled and the huge fields of peat are worth the trip.

Why not simply continue down the Yenisey and come at Gilkask from the north?  Because past that grey line at the top of the map there are gnolls, the Samoyads - and travelling through their lands is dangerous for hobgoblins.  So they travel the route their forefathers took.

Once in Gilkask, they dig up several years supply of fuel, enough for their family; all around them are thousands of tents from other clans, all doing the same.  There are fights, blood feuds, exchanges of brides and tales of far away lands.  There are high clans, low clans, outcasts, clans of impressive age and size - and of course many single families.

Some will arrive in the spring and make their way out in the autumn, with just enough time to get out of the hills so they can winter on the Yenisey in Garka.  Others will be moving into the valley in autumn with the intention of wintering there, until they can get their supply ready in spring.  On the road, there will be clans moving in both directions.

I wonder if the reader can see how this makes a far more interesting adventure for the players.  Rather than one static location - Gilkask - there's a whole process of finding their way up from Garka to the peat fields.  If they don't want to be killed by thousands of hobgoblins, they must find a way to disguise themselves and maintain the disguise; or they must somehow justify being there.  Their reason for going to the fields could be a number of things.  They need the peat as an ingredient for a magic item.  They wish to start a war between the hobgoblins and the gnolls, urging one or the other side to attack across the border.  They are seeking a specific hobgoblin who happens to be journeying along the route because this is the year he goes there with his clan.

Most of all, this makes Gilkask unique.  There are no other huge hobgoblin marches; no other arctic tent cities of this magnitude; no other 'peat fields' of extraordinary activity; no comparable places where the presence of thousands of passive hobgoblins might yet worry the few gnolls who watch that frontier (offering another interesting backstory).  By obeying the restrictions of the tech 5 design, I have a far more interesting framework for running a profound adventure than just another mining outpost like so many outposts in so many sci fi/fantasy stories.


  1. Tremendous work. I definitely agree that a big part of the fun in world-building is taking a bunch of seemingly-opposed concepts and finding a way for them to mix (personal example: I use your elevation generator to generate the topography of my world and occasionally end up with weird dips and pockets; normally I'd just choose an elevation to change but I've gotten in the habit of adding more Aral Sea-style depressions instead for more flavour).

    As I start adding in states and resources to my world, I'm curious to see what other issues may crop up. Part of me wants to just place nations and then resources to minimize things like the Gilkask Problem, but I expect doing it the other way can add some interesting historical aspects (after all, many independent nations depend essentially on their resources).

  2. Doesn't turning a major coal producer into a peat producer mess with your trade tables? Or is the idea that trade of a fuel like peat would have a similar effect on the demand, price and availability of coal in the wider world, enough so to hand wave whatever the actual difference is.

  3. That is generally the idea, Graham.

    Consider this. The 1952 encyclopedia set that I use includes production for all sorts of things that did not exist in 1650. Take, for example, hydroelectric power. This is referred to quite often in the books and obviously I can't include that in the trade system.

    However, it would be impractical to ignore that production - since in 1650 they DID employ waterwheels on many of the same watercourse where hundreds of years later they would build a dam. Therefore, I decided early on with my trade system to write in 'waterwheel' whenever I read 'hydro power.'

    There are other, similar examples. 'Airplane parts' became hippogriffs. 'Automobiles' and 'rolling stock' became wagons and carts. 'Canneries' on seacoasts became dried fish. 'Armaments' became armor. And so on.

    All that I'm doing, therefore, is making the same downgrade that I did with those other higher tech productions - I'm just doing it piecemeal for different parts of my world, now, so that coal produced in Germany can remain 'coal' while coal produced in Norilsk can become 'peat.'



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