Saturday, January 27, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 6.

The dense concentrations of homes and workshops gradually diffuse now. The imperfect circle of cityscape draws inward and pinches along the causeway as the land suddenly slopes downward. Far to either side, the city continues for a short time, now up above our heads, but soon nothing but the clouds of smoke and the stunted outermost walls can be seen. The upper reaches of Deneroth continue to thrust up into the sky, of course. When one crosses through the First Gate, the world opens up. When one leaves the fringes of the False City, it expands. The vastness of the south-central Ersuunian Basin, ancestral homeland of the Esgodarrans, yawns before us. Its breath is cold and bitter, having few windbreaks along the flattened road, but the view of the land makes up for it, in my eyes at least.

To the east, the land slowly rises until the horizon is obscured from view, but we know that the elevation continues to climb that way until one reaches the uplands and river cascades which once formed the eastern borders of the old empire. It flattens out into a narrow corridor of steppe to the northeast somewhat behind us, and that way once offered one of the few dependable routes east which was not too close to the hill and riverside people to the south or the impenetrable forests of the Reossos which dominates much of the north. The Axebite lies somewhere thereabouts, and stretches as far east and west as any explorer on foot has ever cared to venture. While my own writing and that of others would make it seem as if Deneroth were the only city in all the land (with the begrudging exception of Nambar), several large towns do still dot this great northeastern frontier. Hard people who live hard lives, but undeniably kin to anyone who still tries to call themselves a Haraalian. I am remound of my desire to travel east someday and conduct research probing into the truth behind their tales of the wastelands even farther beyond, for I was lambasted by my colleagues (with some good reason) for my weakly-sourced compositions on the Fokari some time ago. Of course I am aware that even if I were to procure funding for such an adventure to meet distant people, my work would never see publication through the ITU. I know this from personal experience.

In any case, we are heading south- not east. Though the road does drift westward for a short while, giving our party a decent peripheral view of the gentler heights of the west. It's a far cry from the hyper-taiga of the Reossos, but the woodlands of the west have provided Deneroth with timber and firewood for centuries to come, and yet they seem far from depleted. Or at least, they seem to be from our point of view. Those who dwell in and around the hilly forests might find that their homeland is sorely lacking in 80-90% of its biomass, as one study slipped under the noses of the Department of Ecological Philosophies argues. Sharp-eyed Sarq claims that he can see people moving back and forth around the nearest pines. I would not be surprised if they are woodsmen making one last round in search of adequate firewood for the winter. It is said that the highest points in those hills cause a mild rainshadow for the west, explaining the relative dryness of the climate surrounding Nambar and its coast. I would dare to say that this is true, but that it is a rainshadow of the mind, and that it works the other way.

Closer to the roads, we begin to see small hamlets dotting the peripheries between landscapes. Our hired assistants and guides become chattier now, as they describe which village they or their family come from, or which one has the finest hidden orchards or fishing ponds. An argument over which has the prettiest women is now brewing, so I will turn my focus toward other things. Such as scanning the horizon for our next addition to the crew. We will be meeting up with an old correspondent of mine, though it is not entirely clear when, where, or for how long.

Hedge magicians tend to operate on a timescale like that.

Elrusyo is his name, and he has been one of my precious few sources for knowledge on the overt supernatural during my time in the ITU, given the longstanding bans on all things akin to conjuration. While this does not extend to the herblore which is his livelihood, passed down to him by a mother who'd reportedly wanted a daughter, the man has immersed himself extensively in the literature of all forms of magic. Of course if I were to ask him, he would remind me at length that they are all the same thing, in the end. I do still wonder how he's afforded even a quarter of the material he has referenced in our letters, however. Many traditions are quite unique to their parts of the world, yet leeches and caraway seeds can only earn a man so much. I have never met him in person, but I was told that I would have no difficulty in telling that it is him when he does finally make his appearance.

I pray that he won't be distinguishable by a pointed hat and staff, or some embarrassment of that sort.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

WHY THE MONGOLS (probably) DIDN'T STINK (any worse than the other unwashed masses of Medieval Eurasia)!

As my indecisive caps lock above indicates, this post is an attempted balance between reasoned caution in approaching the study of history, and impotent nerd-rage.

Some of you dear Burrowers may recall that I was in school for a degree in Historical Studies up until recently, with my area of interest being medieval Inner Asia. Ergo, I'm a huge nerd for the Mongol Empire, as well as any and all pastoral steppe nomads who came before or after.

The Mongols tend to get a bad rap across most of Western Europe. And Eastern Europe. As well as Western Asia- especially Western Asia in a lot of respects... Parts of the Indian Subcontinent, too...

Alright, they get a bad rap in most places that they encountered in their hay day.

Not all of it is unmerited either, because their sometimes very brutal tactics on the battlefield or in administration resulted in them fashioning together the largest contiguous land-based empire in history, and that empire produced a lot of unhappy historians from victimized groups. On the other hand, their warriors practiced violence in what was already (and would continue to be) a very violent world. But that's not what I'm here to argue about, because one trogloxene college student on a rinky-dink fantasy blog isn't going to resolve over 800 years of ethnic and cultural tension.


What I am here to talk about today is one of the secondary beliefs about the Mongols, which contributed to but wasn't central to others' perception of them as the quintessential barbarian. This was the idea that the Mongols never bathed, and never changed their clothing until it literally rotted off of their bodies.

Here is a discussion of the topic on reddit which I originally stumbled upon for reasons I can't recall, and which initially got me thinking about that idea, how popular it is, and how true it may actually be. I quickly took a skeptical stance, as you will see if you manage to slog through this whole thing.

The basic idea is that these unhygienic behaviors were enforced by the Mongols' own rulers for some reason or another, and that the two practices came together to contribute to a rank smell that was allegedly so horrible that an approaching Mongol army could be smelled before it could be seen.

The original reports of these decrees against washing or bathing come to us in highly fragmentary form from various 13th-to-15th century historians and travelers, primarily of European and West Asian/North African background, who were attempting to describe the character of the Mongol Empire's Yassa Code.

The Yassa Code was a private customary law code which was used by the Chinggisid rulers of the Mongol Empire and its successor Khanates to inform their decisions on public policy. Allegedly, the Yassa was compiled from the scattered reports of the deeds and sayings of Chinggis Khan so that those who came later could benefit from his wisdom- almost like a secretive, non-religious Hadith.

Because the Yassa was secret, intended only for the nobility of the Mongols who sometimes followed it and sometimes did not, it was never made public in a clear, written form. The only indicator that the actual laws of a region in the Mongol Empire were written with the logic of the Yassa in mind was if the authorities of the time said so. Thus, even contradictory edicts could plausibly be said to have been informed by the contents of the Yassa.

That didn't deter outsiders from trying to understand it like an actual written body of laws, so any practice which could be said to be derived from the nebulous Yassa was written down by the visitor as if it was a law. Because of this, it wasn't difficult for misunderstandings or plain fiction to enter into these accounts. And again, these accounts were themselves fragmentary, with none describing the entirety of what it called the Yassa, and not all of them even corroborating the same laws.

So, our current understanding of the Yassa is formed by bringing all of those reports together and comparing their consistency, as well as taking into account the reliability of the people who originally wrote them down.

This leads to two issues. The first is that actual laws or customs could have been taken out of context and exaggerated in their reproduction. The second is that not all of these writers had what we would consider perfect intellectual integrity.

Issue 1:

The evidence that Mongols never washed themselves or their clothes comes from fragments written by a Mamluk Egyptian historian from the 14th-15th centuries, named Taqi al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn 'Ali ibn 'Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhammad al-Maqrizi. We will stick with just al-Maqrizi for now, as most other sources do.¹

The logic for this prohibition, according to what al-Maqrizi either wrote or repeated from earlier scholars (more on that later) was that the Mongols did not wish to pollute sources of running water and thereby anger the powerful spirits or "dragons" who controlled the water cycle. The Mongols were (and to a degree still are) a shamanic and animistic people, and belief in spirits who influenced natural elements like water is not out of the question. But the conflation of spirits with dragons is unusual, because of the rarity or almost complete absence of dragons from the native mythology of Turko-Mongols. Dragons are prominent in Tibetan and especially Chinese beliefs however, which makes me suspect that if it is authentic, this prohibition was recorded in a region where Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist cultural influences had already been embraced by resident Mongols, as much as a century after the life of Chinggis Khan. This presents the reality of Mongols living in and around increasing numbers of Chinese and Persian cities which often had public baths. It also may have been that the prohibition was developed in a non-Mongol context by some other subjects of the Empire.

Further, the original edict might have been mangled in translation, a bit like a game of telephone. A later historian and French Orientalist named François Pétis de la Croix (17th-18th century) with access to Al-Maqrizi's work formulated that the original prohibition may only have been against washing or bathing in water during a thunderstorm, due both to the inherent danger of that act, and a need to respect the power of the Mongols' supreme sky god, Tengri. Russian-American historian George Vernadsky, writing in the 20th century, agrees with Pétis and argues that the original prohibition was not nearly as restrictive as the  fragments we've received would indicate, and that it originally served a "partly ritualistic" but also "realistic, or scientific" goal.² And even if this law should be read as referring to the use of water for washing at all times, it still only specifies running water- therefore, water collected in a vessel and used indoors would probably be omitted from this rule.

Water could be very scarce on the steppe or in the surrounding desert-like environments of Inner Asia, and conservation of existing water sources is a totally valid concern, and I don't mean to diminish that reality. One would probably save most available water to drink or water animals with, if the choice was between that and bathing. But a traditional nomad who performed military service but did not experience urban luxuries alongside the imperial elite would probably not need to bathe that many times in a year to be comparable in cleanliness with the rural populations of much of the rest of Europe and Asia. I say this being aware of the misconception that people of the middle ages "never" washed, but also aware of the reduced availability of bathing facilities outside of large towns or the private homes of the wealthy, in a time when the majority of people belonging to a polity or state were still rural and directly concerned with food production, whether agrarian or pastoral.

The specific myth that Mongol armies could be smelled before they could seen could probably be chalked up to a combination of folk belief, and the reality that all soldiers on campaign tend to get pretty ripe, especially if they are cavalrymen.

Issue 2:

Once again taking issue with al-Maqrizi, I point to the fact that both he and his sources may not have been trustworthy. Maqrizi allegedly received all of his information on the Yassa Code from a contact of his by the name of Abu-Hashim, who insisted that he had seen a copy of the entirety of the Yassa housed in the libraries of Baghdad, during his brief political exile there. We know little about the accomplishments of Abu-Hashim today, and nothing about the materials he supposedly studied, if they existed at any point. But what he toted as the entirety of the Yassa Code was a comparatively small list of offences and punishments (including bathing and clothes-washing) from the supposed criminal law of the Empire, so either Abu-Hashim was wrong or lying, or al-Maqrizi only paid attention to a very narrow section of what he was given.³

Further, al-Maqrizi does not acknowledge that in his writings on the Mongols, he borrowed heavily from a scholar named Ibn Fadl Allah al-Umari, who in turn wrote his material based off of what he knew from the even earlier historian, Ata-Malik Juvayni. Juvayni was an accomplished official in the Mongol Ilkhanate, as well as the author of the History of the World Conqueror, which is famous for being one of the most complete and unbiased accounts of the Mongol conquests under Chinggis Khan of the 13th century, despite much of the subject matter pertaining to the conquest of Juvayni's own homeland.

Juvayni does include the Yassa stipulation about bathing in his work, but it specifies that it could not be done during a certain time of day during the spring and summer months, which is when thunderstorms are most common, and is not repeated in al-Maqrizi's work. Additionally, the entire edict is presented so that Chagatai Khan could throw the law straight out the window and demonstrate his mercy and wisdom as a ruler by pardoning and then giving property to the poor Muslim man who was caught bathing in midday.⁴ This gives the entire entry something of a didactic or praise-literature character that was, despite Juvayni's admirable attempts at historical accuracy, one of his primary responsibilities in writing his History for the Mongols of the Ilkhanate. So, it may be that the law was present only in a small portion of the post-division Mongol Empire, little-known and little-enforced in its hay day, if it did exist at all. Juvayni, after all, was working with the same limited knowledge of the real, secret Yassa Code that most other historians were.

The section plagiarized by al-Maqrizi, dealing with criminal justice, seemed also to be chosen for a very particular purpose which has to do with the political climate in which al-Maqrizi was involved at the time of his writing. Al-Maqrizi, as an aristocrat and historian living under the Egyptian Mamluks from 1364-1442, had perhaps an understandably sour opinion of the Mongols, and the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde in particular, who represented the aftermath of some of the most brutal conquests of Muslim-majority states by the first waves of Mongol invasion. But the Mamluk elite itself, derived from administrators and slave-soldiers taken from areas of Turkic Central Asia, possessed numerous Mongol influences. This included their own law code called the Yasaq. As the similarity in names might indicate, there was a line of influence and continuity, or at least a perceived line of continuity, between the Mongolian Yassa and the Mamluk Yasaq.

When the political tensions between the Mamluks and the religious scholar elites of Egypt resulted in the Yasaq being applied to cases which were normally under the exclusive jurisdiction of Muslim judges and the interpretation of Shari'a law, al-Maqrizi was very vocal in defaming the practice. He even referred to the original Yassa from which the Yasaq was derived as being "Satanic" (lit. shaytaniyya).⁵ Therefore, al-Maqrizi's already plagiarized and de-contextualized observations on the Yassa Code have a distinctly negative, propagandist attitude, as he attempted to diminish the Yassa in comparison to the schools of jurisprudence favored by the religious scholars of Egypt, whom al-Maqrizi was strongly in support of.


To try and form a concise thought out of all of this, we know next to no complete details about the Mongol Empire's Yassa law code. We should be extremely cautious in treating any fragmentary writings by outsiders pertaining to it as if they accurately depict it and apply equally to the entirety of the Empire and its lifespan. Historians such as al-Maqrizi (who could be a very attentive and respectable historian otherwise) were not above using the Yassa to take a political stance, and the popular myths which have sprung up around these centuries of scholastic smack-talking should not be taken at face-value as truth.

The Mongols probably did not smell much worse than any other political group in medieval Eurasia. To our modern senses of hygiene, they may have smelled unpleasant, but this would have been the same for any other imperial power of the day possessed of large numbers of soldiers and even larger numbers of horses.


¹ Vernadsky, George. "The Scope and Contents of Chingis Khan's Yasa." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 3, no. 3/4 (1938): 337-60. Pages 340-341.

² Ibid, 352-353.

³ Ayalon, David. "The Great Yāsa of Chingiz Khān. A Reexamination (Part A)." Studia Islamica, no. 33 (1971): 97-140. doi:10.2307/1595029. Pages 101-104.

⁴ Juvaynī, ʻAlāʼ al-Dīn ʻAṭā Malik, John Andrew Boyle, and David Morgan. 1997. Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pages 204-206.

⁵ Ayalon, David. "The Great Yāsa of Chingiz Khān. A Reexamination (Part A)." Page 105.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 5.

With this curiosity explained and my young peers at least partly satisfied with the answers, we continue onward. All around us, mounds of fresh snow are heaped at the sides of the roads by diligent locals with shovels. It all melts rapidly, but this way most of the water is diverted into the long, narrow trenches which line most of the major avenues, rather than making an unwieldy mess of mud out of the lightly paved causeways. We pass by one of the destinations of several such ditches as our caravan lumbers forward, and several of the draft animals are drawn aside so that they may briefly drink from the small step cistern, as many others are. It is as we watch this that the wind shifts to blow from behind us, and the smell of beast is suddenly overpowered. Several of us cough from the acrid smoke, far more potent than that coming from any chimney or fire pit, and we all twist around to behold the large, diffuse cloud of smoke rising up in the north, beyond the grey mass of the True City.

Ciudo mistakes the smoke for a conflagration at first, fearing that the timber buildings of the northern end of the False City are somehow on fire. But Hraela speaks up, stating that she knows the reason for the smoke, and jogging my memory of Gertisch traditions in the process.

The smoke comes from just beyond the edge of the city, you see. The northern quarter is most heavily populated by those of Gertisch descent, who typically set up camp there, close to the roads which connect Deneroth to the low-lying plains, rivers, and drowned coasts of their homeland. As such, cultural practices of those esteemed, rindy river peoples are strongest on the north side.¹ One such seasonal ritual is one of great excitement and leisure for the entire community, generally taking place sometime before or after the hibernal solstice, depending on local tradition. I speak of course of the Burning of the Children.

I will give my readers the opportunity to collect themselves and reread that last line now.

Don't worry. Contrary to popular belief, they are not real children, although their likeness can come unnervingly close at times.

It would be more accurate to say that it is the Burning of the Effigies of the Children, but that just doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, nor does the average Ersuut speaker have the glottal fortitude to properly inflect the original Gertisch name for the holiday.

In the mythology of the northerners, winter is personified as a haggard old man, bald and bedecked in the knotted ropes of a hundred sunken river pirate vessels. It is his cold and impassive hatred for all people, especially children who have the youth he envies, which brings the bitterness of winter. In the wake of his ropes, ice creeps up the rivers as he walks along the surface of each, capsizing any boats or rafts he comes across and freezing off the toes of fishwives. The only thing which can quell his cold anger is the smell and sound of a child wreathed in bedazzling flames, which soothes him and gives him ghosts to tie up in his ropes, drag away, and finally gnaw upon during the long warm months in which he sleeps. To sacrifice a child in such a way is to spare the world a long and brutal winter, and the more youths are immolated in this fashion, the faster and more magnificently spring will arrive.

By this point, Ciudo is pale with horror and Sarq seems to be on the verge of violent sickness, though that may be due to the dubious quality of the meat on a spit he bought from a vendor not long ago.

Hraela only smiles in recollection of her own childhood memories.

Understandably, the Gertisch do not actually like to sacrifice their children, nor the children of their enemies, though that is another common legend attached to the old ways of the archetypal bandy-legged river pirates of their past. Instead, the tribes take advantage of the poor sight and general stupidity of Old Man Winter, and instead construct a facsimile of the child to be "sacrificed".

I must agree with her that the Burning of the Children is quite a clever development in mythology, when you take into account how poorly other groups of people tend to respond to human sacrifice, or human sacrifice for reasons different than their own. Each effigy is a creation of carved and polished wood, sometimes painted and decorated with expensive cloth, and nested in a "throne" of wicker which keeps the figure in place when it is erected atop several poles. The effigy itself is rarely taller than four and a half feet, but the poles can add another five or six. At least one child is crafted by every family involved in the celebration- to contribute nothing is to flirt with disaster and bad luck for the rest of the year, or perhaps even the loss of a child due to the lingering magic of Winter. There is however no upward limit on the number a family can burn, assuming they have the children to copy. Particularly large and wealthy clans thus often furnish the Burning Field with dozens of effigies in a display that is sure to make them the envy of their neighbors for months to come.

This attention to detail is because each effigy is meant to resemble a specific child in features and proportions as close as humanly possible, in order to deceive Old Man Winter. Given the renowned skill of Getisch woodworkers, these lacquered clones can be uncanny indeed. The child who is represented in effigy is considered to be a hero of the whole village, and to gain a great boon of good luck. Any siblings who don't get their own double made, but who help in decorating their "chosen" family member is said to gain a bit of that luck for the next year as well. Then, once all families have come together on the appointed day and raised their progeny high into the air, they light them one by one.

The strictest interpretation of tradition calls for each child to scream as if in pain, in order to make as convincing a display as possible for Old Man Winter, but generally it is acceptable for them to simply hoop and holler, or even cheer and laugh among their friends, trying to see who can be the loudest and most "appetizing". They are not discouraged from losing their voices during this event, because it is vital that no child makes a sound until they are certain that Old Man Winter will have eaten his fill of smoking ghosts. Generally during this grace period, the children are entertained with gifts and toys given to them by their parents, said to be looted from the sooty remains of "those who were taken". it is a joyous occasion, meant to reinforce a child's belief in helping the community, as well as exalting their efforts in doing so.

Of course no child can "live the dream" for their entire lives as our friend puts it, and before long they begin to ask why none of their gifts are burned, or who they're taken from if everyone uses an effigy. Eventually every Gertisch parent takes their child aside and gently breaks it to them that there probably is no Old Man Winter. Better to be told sooner, as she puts it, for it is even worse to come to the realization that one year, a child is a child no more, and will no longer stave Winter off as well as they used to.

Now Hraela is wistful, and will speak no more of the heartbreak she felt when she discovered that it was her father who made those howls and dragging sounds across their rooftop every year.

¹ Of course it must be noted that the proud old tradition of Gertisch alehouses can be attested to as far south as the edges of Deneroth and beyond, even in these disjointed days.

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 4.

I suppose that it is now a wise time to address the horking zood cow in the parlor.

The Ivory Tower University is not in the business of studying or enacting magic, as I hope would be painfully obvious to any reader located within the campus grounds or city proper. But for those theoretical readers beyond, I must emphasize this. Though the imperial ban on any form of conjuration not to the personal liking of Haraal have long since dissipated into the ether of liquidated law books and disintegrated regimes, it lives on strong in the practice and outlook of the ITU's administration. "Suffer not the witch to matriculate" has been one of the most hallowed of bullet points in the University's code, right below "say not in one word what could be said in one thousand".

But that is not to say that there aren't certain peculiarities surrounding the Tower which could easily be construed as "magic".

Laizij was a brilliant mind, and though he was deified shortly after his passing, I do not refer to the cult which formed around him, nor their rituals. Rather, I focus on a tradition which he started long before any of that. The detached perspective which the Grand Scholar possessed allowed him to take some particularly odd angles on what would otherwise seem to be self-evident truths about the world around him. He found that while knowledge is powerful, it is conviction in that knowledge which allows one to utilize it fully, or transcend it.

Take for example the time of sunrise on a particular day. Laizij and his disciples, as well as many students of the University today, are accomplished in astronomical calculations, and may come within a margin of error of seconds as to the time at which the sun crests the eastern horizon. Laizij knew that full and well. But one day, his notes and telescope were tampered with. The official narrative perhaps unsurprisingly pins these deeds on the followers of Dherna, but one blasphemous alternative is that he simply was mistaken one night over his calculations. Regardless of how it happened, Laizij's sunrise equation had the sun rising exactly two talecks earlier than it was supposed to.

And then it did.

Initially it was not noticed by anyone else, but Laizij did his calculations in batches, so over the next few weeks it became more and more clear to his students and fellow scholars that something was wrong. Or exceptionally right, as Laizij insisted. He was a proud man, proud of his intellect, and he was insulted at the idea that he could have miscalculated by such a wide margin. So adamant was he that those around him began to find their own math not adding up properly any longer, even if not a single number were changed from how it should have worked days prior. Even today, centuries after that fateful transformation, the sun rises earlier when it is being observed from grounds of the First Tier.

This adjustment to reality appears not to persist very far beyond the walls of the city's uppermost level, however. A lengthy dispute has developed over it in fact, when in AR 96 the amateur astronomer Throne-Steward Ilritus Mesyor erected his own observation deck upon the citadel's tower, which is in fact taller and higher than the crumbling point of the Ivory Tower.¹ Academic correspondence between the citadel and the University eventually revealed this inconsistency to both parties, and the dispute has been raging ever since, at least as much as astronomers are capable of raging.

Other inconsistencies and examples of "corrected reality" present themselves across Deneroth from time to time. Despite the earliness of sunrise, solar eclipses tend to occur half an hour later for the University than for the rest of the city. So much so that those highborn enthusiasts who miss such a celestial event "the first time around" have been known to catch it "again" by sneaking or paying their way onto the campus grounds. Water weights slightly less within the campus, and so the aqueducts in use there are uncommonly light, elegant, and made of materials which would otherwise give way quickly to water erosion. Meanwhile, they are substantially larger and more reinforced on all other tiers. Convoluted puns become objectively more funny the higher up one climbs, with negligible statistic impact on crowds even being recorded a few yards outside of the city walls.

Most far-reaching, and perhaps most potent, is how differently history played out from the perspective of all of Deneroth. While generally unpopular abroad, the histories written by Denerothi chroniclers become more true the closer to the city one comes, even if the events they pertain to happened long ago and far away. On at least one occasion, the Nambarish adventurer Anrar found that his own annotated travelogues of Sarq the Interviewer became somehow less annotated, and more concerned with the genealogies of Haraalians, at around the time that he had crossed the border between Outer Esgodar and Deneroth proper.

These and other curiosities too numerous to list have trickled down from the Tower and through the connected Ersuunian world, often picking up exaggerations or added elements. Over time they've woven together to present the Ivory Tower University as something mystical, almost as sorcerous as it is proud and arrogant, and willing to visit any naysayers and dissidents with a judicious bolt of lightning.

Perhaps the faculty and staff secretly take pleasure in that last facet, despite their general distaste for the rumors.

¹ The damage sustained by the Tower proper during the Rupture has famously remained unrepaired in the centuries since, owing to the building codes set in place by one of the descendants of Haraal who came to administer the city and province. Traditional Denerothi law prohibited a secular power from building or establishing its headquarters upon the highest tier. Feeling spurned, the prince erected his gubernatorial citadel to exceed the height of the Tower by the length of the tail-hair of an ox. Further, he forbade the construction or alteration of any building in the city which would exceed the grandeur of the citadel. Such a visual challenge for supremacy and authority within the city was easy enough to ignore from the ground, but when the Tremors caused the Tower's highest point to collapse, the University sorely felt the prohibition which that same prince had set in place, as if he had seen the future.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Furt Digs Into / Things I Wish They Did More With, #3: Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde.

Betcha saw this one coming a mile away.

Long ago, when I was just a little whelp of... some age that's sufficiently little and whelp-like, I found our entire house bereft of phone, internet, and cable television during one of those rainy spring breaks that flies by too quickly despite offering few opportunities to do anything with it. What's more, my TV was for some reason out of commission at the time, so my technology-addicted self was agonizing over a very long weekend.

My mother, in her infinite mercy, allowed me to drag one of my game systems into my parents' bedroom for part of the day, and even picked up a rental game from Price Chopper (anyone else remember those days?) that she thought I'd like.

This turned out to be a copy of Goblin Commander for the Nintendo Gamecube.

All together, now: WAAAGH!

Of course I immediately threw myself into this game. I had never played any of the Warcraft series at the time, and World of Warcraft was still several months away in late 2003, but somehow I was still drawn to a game all about non-evil goblinoid creatures as if by instinct. Probably because I somehow managed to sympathize with or find a few of the orcs from the Lord of the Rings films charming.


You'll notice I was very quick to mention Warcraft in this post. That is because there are certain massive similarities between the universes, as I later discovered after delving into WoW and its precursors for a decade. I will try to point all of these parallels out after I'm done rambling and waxing nostalgic.

The story starts us off with an introductory historical narrative by a mysterious baritone voice while we are treated to a crawl of the map of the land of Ogriss. The goblins of this world are not a native, evolved species, and were instead created from scratch as servants and laborers by the ambitious human sorcerer Fraziel. Fraziel put the five goblin clans (the mining Stonekrusher, deforesting Hellfire, lightning-channeling Stormbringer, swamp-farming Plaguespitter, and ancient technology-scavenging Nighthorde) to work building a "Great Machine". The goblins dutifully labor toward what Fraziel promised them would be a source of untold power for them all.

Then it gets sabotaged and explodes.

Fraziel dies amid the wreckage.

Grommel, chieftain and head foreman of the Stonekrusher clan, gets framed for Fraziel's murder in his efforts to figure out what the hell happened, causing the other four clans to rise up against him and his people. With picks, hammers, rocks and bullwhips in hand, this motley bunch of miners goes on the offensive to try and uncover the truth before their people are torn apart by war. Grommel also happens to possess the power to transform into a ball of energy that is the literal cursor of the game, so he takes to the air to command his troops for the bulk of the actual game.

Goblin Commander suffers from the same clunkiness that most console-based RTS games experienced up until... well, it's still a thing, really. Unit selection was limited and cursor movement was slow, though base management was fortunately very minimal. Each clan had one or more Shrines on a map from which units would spawn, and where the game's two resources were pooled: gold, and souls. Neutral buildings could occasionally be fought over, including Alchemist shops where one side could obtain magical aid. One of the big draws of the game was that, with enough upgrades, gold, and souls, you could summon your clan's Titan. This massive creature was directly controlled by the player, and was significantly stronger than most units. The Stonekrusher titan is, appropriately enough, a Stone Ogre.


I definitely struggled against the controls a little as I played, but that didn't seem to dampen my enjoyment of the game as a whole. I don't remember it being too terribly long, because I was able to finish it before the end of that long weekend.

As Grommel advances through the locales of Ogriss, defeating the heads of the other clans who oppose him, he absorbs the clans and gains access to their units. This growing confederation of tribes eventually corners the Nighthorde clan, whose leader, Naxus, was the one who sabotaged the Great Machine. As it turns out, the Great Machine was actually a massive weapons factory which was able to produce hundreds of magical bombs capable of stealing the souls of everything killed by them. Fraziel was going to use these bombs to sap all of the soul energy from Ogriss, presumably including his own goblin servants, in order to reshape the world in his image and pave the way of conquest into other worlds through ancient portals called Moongates, which the Nighthorde clan had originally been tasked with unearthing. Naxus wanted this near-omnicidal power for himself however, and so offed Graziel and framed Grommel so that he'd rise to the top.

The game ends deep in the pits of the world, with all of the other goblins, including a traitor faction of Nighthordes, cornering and defeating Naxus. He lights one of the bombs in the caves before legging it through a Moongate however, trying to escape and kill as many of his pursuers as possible. Grommel manages to throw the bomb through the gate behind Naxus, destroying the gate and presumably killing him in an ambiguous Event Horizon-esque moment.

Finally, with his people united under him, Grommel poses on a mountaintop and announces his intention to find a purpose of their own with master and machine now gone.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of Warcraft lore, you might have already picked up on the similarities between the goblins here, and the orcs there. Ogriss is essentially Draenor, and the clans of goblins working together toward a great goal are the Horde with less demonic influence. Fraziel is very similar in function to Medivh the corrupted human archmage, or perhaps the orc shaman Ner'zhul with the tragic backstory bits left out. Naxus meanwhile is a power-hungry usurper like Gul'dan, and his Nighthorde clan seems to me to be as sneaky and clandestine as the Shadow Council full of warlocks and their ilk. Even the Moongates leading to other worlds amid unstable explosions resembles the twilight hours of Draenor during the Second War, when orcs who were of the opinion of "Screw this, I'm outta here!" were fleeing a losing battle through portals whose arcane energies were in turn tearing the planet apart.

On the other side of things, Grommel, chieftain of the most orc-like clan by proportions, seems to combine the heroic elements of Orgrim Doomhammer and his successor Thrall, as civil war victors and saviors of their people, respectively. Grommel even wields a hammer in cutscenes similar in size and design to the Doomhammer. His name seems light it could be evocative of Grommash Hellscream at first glance, but he bears no real resemblance to that ambivalent character at all.

All in all, the game was one of those odd titles with middling-to-decent review scores you'd probably only ever find in the store bargain bin. But I had fun with it, which is why I'm always slightly disappointed that it was a very stand-alone title, and that it didn't even get a proper PC port, where I think it could have performed way better overall. Objectively speaking, sales didn't merit the sequel that was planned. The company in charge of making it, the US division of Jaleco Entertainment, moved on to other projects until it seemed to quietly go defunct sometime around 2008. Wherever the property rights are, if they even exist, is a mystery to me.

I'm not counting on it, but maybe someday we'll get another game similar to this out of the quirky indie market.


On a more positive note looking forward, there are games somewhat similar to this in concept out there, but different in execution. Possible for the best, really. I regret not helping its Kickstarter, but the game Goblins of Elderstone might someday give me my goblin RTS fix, but this time elaborated into a full-fledged city simulator with more building, worker management, and stupid levels of cuteness.

I don't have another shallow, one-word response
to this picture like the others. I just really like it.
They're really charming little buggers.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 3.

My assistants all turn to me with a variety of questions as we advance through the vast disk of lowland cityscape.

Most of them have been outside of the city walls of Deneroth proper at least once in their lives, but true knowledge and understanding of the place tends to be scarce for people who lair within. That the University where we all dwell keeps strict regulations on the availability of information pertaining to the False City does not help either. But they know that I have been outside numerous times, or at least would not be surprised to find that I did, having heard so many other rumors about my person.

One question sticks out in my mind as I write, and I will take the occasion to commit it and its answer--or the closest to one which I can conjure--to writing.

"How did the False City come to be? Why is it named so?"

Admittedly these are two questions rather than one, but their answer returns to the same moment in history.

Nigh on nine hundred years ago, according to the official Imperial Narrative¹, the city of Deneroth was founded by Laizij, who was in life the companion, adviser, and close friend of Haraal, renowned god-emperor and wooer of women who would unleash a hundred generations of sons upon the Ersuunian Basin. Laizij was the most brilliant mind of his day or any which has come after, and he was highly valued by Haraal as inventor and philosopher both. But he was also wary of the then-mortal Eternal Scholar's mind. While enormously creative, he also tended to drift from subject to subject without completing a project into which huge amounts of resources had been channeled, and he was prone to revealing state secrets in mumbled self-conversation regardless of company.

Additionally, Laizij was somewhat mistrusted by the horse peoples and Gertisch tribes whom Haraal had united under the banner emblazoned with his own image. They saw him as a moon-touched sorcerer whose mind was at risk of spilling over with magic at any given moment, eradicating any who had the misfortune to be close by at the time. That Laizij's own personal retinue of followers was at best stubbornly devoted and at worst slavishly worshipful of him and his person, did not help matters at all. Nor did the fact that there was, officially, an imperial ban on the practice of any and all occultism, witchcraft, and conjuration (read: mathematics, calculation, and rhetorical discourse).

So, Haraal decided to give his scholar a monumental task of busywork to distract him with, while he continued with his own personal crusade against the universal tyranny of governments which didn't have him as their head. A lonely pinnacle of rock in the middle of some recently de-Esgodarrified Esgodarran flatland was given to Laizij, and the Grand Scholar proceeded to have an equally grand place of learning and repository of knowledge erected upon its summit. But as his floor plan for the labyrinthine seminary blossomed and ballooned, Laizij quickly ran out of pinnacle to build upon. So he devised a way to build up the rest of the mountain around it by constructing massive concentric circles of white stone and grey earth outward from the protrusion of bedrock. Soon the nameless mountain was completely swallowed up by the edifice, and the Eight Ivory Tiers² of Deneroth were created.

"Deneroth", meaning "Leaving of the Dark/Black", has been hypothesized to refer to the dark onyx or obsidian color of the original peak vanishing under the city's construction. In the canon of the University, it refers to how the benighted minds of the Ersuunian lands would at last know the bright light of truth and learning. Alternatively, and more to my liking, folk etymology refers to how Laizij's dark brown head of hair grayed to stark white from stress and obsession over the creation of his city.

Laizij, being a decent employer despite his eccentricities, ensured that each and every servant and laborer involved in this great project was then housed within the city. But Laizij, being an eccentric despite his decent traits as an employer, adamantly refused to allow his city to be altered in any way after the final capstone had been placed. Despite the fact that the size of the city tiers exactly matched what was comfortable for their population densities, there would never, ever be any expansions or additions to this perfect city-from-a-hill.

As one might expect, populations fluctuated as families shrank or expanded, as they are wont to do, yet Laizij's administration rigidly maintained the deeds and demarcations of the city's founding. Palaces of declining families stood nearly empty for decades, clustered together mere yards away from a household perpetually filled to bursting.

But it was still a beacon of wealth and learning, and that drew outsiders. Outsiders who legally had no right to anything in, around, or related to the city, but who would damn well try their best anyway. And so, less than ten years after Deneroth's founding, the first cottages were built outside of the city's prodigious outer walls. These first "intrusions" were tolerated but conspicuously ignored, for many were farmers who would reclaim the plains from the wilderness after they had been depopulated by the passage of the Haraalians. Soon after, tradesmen and other skilled individuals came to cater to the needs of the farmers, and of the city-dwellers, whenever possible. Like a mass of camp followers surrounding its immovable vanguard, folk of all walks of life but scholastic nobility came and built the ground-level up and out.

There were once whispers of this place having the potential to become Deneroth's "Ninth" Tier, but Laizij went to his grave defaming the idea of his greatest creation being altered for the sake of convenience. Eventually one of Haraal's thousand sons was appointed as governor of the city, but the elite was so deeply entrenched and reliant upon the memory of the newly-deified Eternal Scholar for prestige and legitimacy that no one with half a desire to could change the official policies.

Unofficial incorporation occurred from the very start, of course. The denizens of Deneroth were thrilled to have such a vigorous connection to the outside world then as well as now, even if they didn't (and still don't) like to admit it. Luxury items form afar could be tidily delivered to the city's doorstep thanks to the False City and its exploding economy, as well as very real necessities of life which would otherwise have to be imported over long distances. The land on which the False City was built was incorporated into the burgeoning Province of Deneroth as the Empire consolidated and regulated its internal organs. It only took about a half-dozen bandit raids and a districts-wide conflagration to convince the city administration to include the wider area within its military and firefighting jurisdictions. Unfortunately, incorporating the land into the domain of Deneroth also meant that the denizens of the False City were considered to be squatters, and more than a few governors in past centuries have drummed up the political support of restless traditionalists by sending "pacification units" into the outer districts in order to help clear them out. Of course these have been pointless gestures up to now. Pointless, but quite adept at bludgeoning nonetheless.

And so the dogged False City continued to grow. It saw hardship and retraction just like any other province when the Rupture thundered over us from the south. But it also bounced back with the startling alacrity unique to people who seek self-validation instead of denied recognition. For nearly three hundred years now, it has provided the Successor-State of Deneroth with a much-needed buffer against the outside world, as well as a vital (if undesired) link to it.

Now that we are more than a few miles out from First Gate, the exclamations and heckling of locals  thrown in our caravan's direction evokes another question which I am far more loathe to try and answer.

"Why does everyone out here think that the University is full of wizards?"

¹ Curiously, research conducted on artifacts preserved within the Ivory Tower's Sanctum of Self-Reflection suggest that urban habitation of the Denerothi Plain did not begin until approximately six hundred years ago, and efforts to reconcile this sizable gulf in dates has been met with limited success. The University's official response to these and other inconsistencies has been "Shut up, Litte."

² An urban myth persists that Laizij was initially content with only seven tiers in his city, but that he later changed his mind after he heard tell from one of his underlings of another far-off majestic city of white stone with exactly seven layers. Not to be outdone, or gods forbid, matched, Laizij demanded that the eighth tier be created. When it was explained to him that they had already reached ground level at the bottom and completed the University at the top, he explained that they simply needed to lift everything up and then slip it underneath. This legend, though amusing, remains unsubstantiated.