Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I is for Indigenous People

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

I is for Indigenous People; the aboriginal natives of Karameikos.

We all know what a "native" is, right? A person born of a place. I'm both a "native Seattleite," and a "native Washingtonian." Technically, I'm a "native American," though the term is usually reserved for people who lived on this continent prior to European arrival, and the descendants of those people.

There is a human "monster type" (similar to the bandit, noble, merchant, etc.) found in the classic adventure module X1: The Isle of Dread titled "native." The description for the entry states:

"Natives are primitive people who live in jungles, wilderness, or on tropical islands. The warriors of the more warlike tribes (including cannibals) will all be 1st level fighters, but the natives of peaceful tribes are mostly normal humans with fewer high level leaders. Most natives wear no armor (AC 9), but some will wear the equivalent of leather armor (AC 7), and the tribal chiefs may wear special armor of hardened bone or lacquered wood that is the equivalent of AC 5 or 6. Natives may also carry shields."

Here we see the term "native" used in the pejorative sense of the term. "The natives are restless," likely had its origin in referring to the indigenous (native) people of an area and, over time, came to represent any "primitive" non-Western race that a European (i.e. British) conqueror might currently be in the process of re-making in his own image.

To the point where I asked my eight year old the other day, "when I say native person, what do I mean?" and he replied "Someone who lives in a hut or doesn't have a lot of food or stuff like we do." Oh my. We had to have a loooong conversation.

"Primitive" isn't a very good term for a non-industrial or "technologically advanced" society. I'm not a trained (or even amateur!) sociologist or anthropologist, but even a dummy like me can see that ANY people organized into a society has some sort of culture and cultural tradition...concepts and behaviors that have evolved and been passed down over generations...and any such organized society is going to be as culturally developed as another.  The pre-European contact peoples of the Americas (and Africa and the Pacific Islands, etc.) already had a developed, advanced culture adapted for their lifestyles...nothing "primitive" about it.  We equate a lack of specific technology (steel, firearms, ship-building, etc.) with a lack of intelligence and development...they're a step up from cavemen!...when really the only thing they lacked was the necessity and easy cross-pollination that occurred in other parts of the globe.

[you can kill someone with a stick or rock just fine, but when the guy on the other side of the mountain range is wearing metal armor, you better develop a weapon that will penetrate it...and figure out a way to get some armor of your own!]

Post-contact aboriginals of every landmass had no problems picking up, learning, and using advanced technology, even to the detriment of their would be "colonizers" (in parts of the U.S. it was a capital crime...i.e. punishable by sell firearms to "indians" up through the 19th century). Even learning the language and customs of European was no big deal.  What these indigenous people had a much harder time with (and were oh so stubborn about) was abandoning their own culture...their own language, customs, religion, and mindset...that had developed over the course of centuries, in order to adopt wholesale the culture of these invading people.

"Surely they must be primitive...look at them following these superstitious practices!" As if the Christian religion looks O So Grounded in scientific fact, yeah? Where'd I put that machine that measures grace?

Anyway, humans of all stripes have treated strange peoples as "barbarians" since at least the time of ancient Greece (I know this because the word barbarian comes from an ancient Greek word). Age of Sail Europeans were not the first folks to conquer, enslave, and impose their culture on "others," but developments in technology allowed them to have lasting impact on huge swaths of the globe. It is what it is...but let's not continue to judge different cultures by the standards of 500 years ago, okay?

SO...Karameikos. Going by the B/X description of the duchy, there's no mention of any native (i.e. indigenous or aboriginal) humans. There are peoples residing in the land: gnomes, elves, goblins, orcs, and frost giants...but no fellow humans to be "colonized" by a conquering adventurer. GAZ1 is the first place we're introduced to the idea of an "indigenous people" of Karameikos.

Yes, I realize the concept of Traldar is first introduced in B10: Night's Dark Terror. Here's the thing: the Traldar of B10 have no relation to the people of Karameikos; they are some kind of post-neanderthal slave race who've never been "outside the valley" of the Hutaaka. In the ancient history told by B10, there are no "humans left behind to fight the gnolls." There is no King Halav & Co. -- that part of the story is all spun by Allston in GAZ1. In B10, the Hutaaka simply take their proto-humans and leave the scene...centuries later, all one finds in the region is an unblemished (by human) wilderness ripe for conquest by Stefan Karameikos and other adventurers.

All that jazz about Nithia and a "Dark Age" following Halav's battle and whatnot? That's all ADDED to the mix beginning with the Gazetteer. The "Traladara" with their "shared national identity" is all spun from whole cloth by Allston. And while it's interesting to have the political and social ramifications of an on-site conquered people in one's adventuring region, I find the history problematic, and not just because of the pseudo-Gypsy nature of the indigenous natives.

For one thing, I just can't buy into the whole "high-culture-devolves-to-hunter-gatherer-stone-age-in-five-generations" thing. We're talking a single century that the original Traldar clan (from the pseudo-ancient-Egypt Nithian culture) is in Karameikos before losing their shit. Just wouldn't happen. They're not marooned on some desert island or extrasolar planet (like the MZB Darkover setting)...they're on the other side of the mountains for goodness sake! If times got too tough, they'd head back! And in the fantasy world of D&D wouldn't they have clerics, magic-users, etc. with them? And if they didn't (or if these adventuring types were all killed), isn't it a pretty safe bet that the colony would have all perished to a man? We're talking about a D&D wilderness here: one with dragons and trolls and frost giants! It's a tad more hostile than what Lewis & Clark faced on the Oregon Trail, people.

From Egyptian to Gypsy
in 1000 years.
If the Nithian colony survived at all, it wouldn't have degenerated to a state that some dog-headed artist-types could ply them with "whatever" (see the prior blog post) in exchange for turning them into their labor force. I mean a COLONY expedition would have the people they need to...duh...start a colony, "harsh winters" or not. And if they couldn't hack it, they would have returned to Nithia...or died trying.

Yes, yes...I am a dude with no imagination just pissing in the cornflakes of everyone who LOVES "Mystara" as conceived and published. Here's the thing about fictional histories and backstory, people: for most players of tabletop RPGs this stuff matters very, very little. It matters MAINLY in what it provides as adventure hooks and/or clues to solving current dilemmas (like "how do we defeat this menace" or "where do I find this particular McGuffin").

The person who will find it MOST USEFUL and (hopefully) interesting is the Dungeon Master running the campaign. The DM uses this stuff to understand how and why the setting operates; the DM uses the material to generate adventure ideas and scenarios. The DM uses it as a "setting Bible," a reference to explain to players the answers to questions (about the setting) that might arise in play. "Why do the dwarves hate our characters when we haven't done anything to them?" "Why does this particular village insist on wearing green for the entire month of July?" All that kind of "stuff and fluff" gets answered by the background material AS NEEDED.

[DMs who insist on burdening players with a bunch of extraneous setting detail run the risk of simply BORING their players. D&D is a game of active participation, not a book club]

SO...If I am the Dungeon Master that's running the campaign set in Karameikos, the damn setting better make sense TO ME. If it doesn't, I'm not going to be able to make the best use of it with regard to my players, no matter how cool some people might find a peaceful, advanced tribe of dog-people living in a hidden valley. Sorry.

Having got that all out of the way (and after, once again, deluging readers with a wall of text), let's get some possible ideas for spinning the indigenous folks of Karameikos in a way that doesn't suck too bad (from my perspective):

Option #1: No indigenous humans. This is the easiest, and most "B/X" option. Adventurers seeking to build strongholds or castles are required to clear the area of all monsters and monster lairs before building. As a monster is defined as "any creature or character not controlled by a player," I don't think it's unfair to consider the duchy to have been "cleared" of any pre-existing communities and societies. One might still find hermits, "mountain men" (and "women") or the occasional brave settler family living in the wilds, but most of these (if not all) should be recent arrivals to the region. Any ancient ruins or whatnot found should be from mysterious, long-since-vanished (or exterminated) peoples...and not necessarily human ones.

Andals versus First Men
Option #2: Iron Age rivals. Do any of you folks watch that Game of Thrones show? So, the history/backstory of that setting goes like this: the First Men crossed into Westeross through a (no longer existing) land bridge and conquered "the Forest Children" (elves) using their Bronze Age armor and weapons. These First Men were then (mostly) conquered by the Andals who invaded with Iron Age technology, including plate armored cavalry (knights)...the lone hold-outs were the "Kings in the North" who retained their old culture and religion rather than convert to the Andals' Seven Gods. Finally, a handful of Tagaryan refugees (fleeing the destruction of their ancient island home) showed up with some dragons and used their air superiority to unite the entire continent under the rulership of one Iron Throne. Riffing off Martin's world would probably put Stefan and the Thyatians in the role of the Andals, perhaps with the Black Eagle Barony being the lone "First Men" hold-out (i.e. the Starks of Winterfell). Without drago-riding Targaryans, the land becomes one of constant squabbling between various "kingdoms" (i.e. rival warlords) of which only Stefan has the best foothold of all the Thyatian/Andal adventurers in the region. By the start of the campaign history, the indigenous Bronze Age culture has already acquired and adapted steel technology, putting them on a fairly equal footing with their would-be conquerors (or "equal enough" that negotiation and political strategy will be necessary to uniting the region, not simple military conquest). The elven tribes (in the role of "Forest Children") are a wild card force that doesn't like EITHER human side (seeing as how they chop down their trees for firewood and timber), as are the goblins ("snarks"), orcs ("grumpkins") and frost giants ("giants").

"Gath of Baal"
Option #3: Conquered dissidents. So maybe there WAS a large population of indigenous humans that the Thyatians/Romans overran with their armored legions...think the opening scene from Ridley Scott's Gladiator (or Tacitus's text Germania). Even better, let's look at fantasy equivalents like James Silke's "Death Dealer" series (based on the Frazetta character) with Thyatians in place of the steel-clad, slave-taking "Kizzak Horde" and the tribal ("barbarian") villages of the region being the stand-in for the Iron Age communities of the Forest Basin. Of course, without Gath of Baal to pull the villagers' fat out of the fire, conquest would likely be a walk-in touchdown for the Kizzak/Thyatians. Enslaved and oppressed by a ruthless, technologically superior (and magically formidable) force, the player characters would probably end up fighting a guerrilla war...either as members of the indigenous community or "sympathizers" among the Thyatian conquerors. Maybe. In such a setting, I think it'd be important to start the "invasion history" with Stefan's arrival on the scene (i.e. thirty years prior) rather than GAZ1's published timeline in order to give the PCs a fighting chance of upending the Horde's decimation of the native peoples and deforestation of the region's resources. This is a pretty grim campaign setting, filled with atrocity...but so is any story of conquest, really.

Black Eagle Barony?
Option #4: Conquered decadents. As a slight alternative to Option #3, make the indigenous people an ancient powerful and "advanced" society, overthrown by their own people as much as by the invaders. This is the enslaved tribes of Mesoamerica joining forces with Cortes to overthrow their Aztec overlords...or perhaps some sort of weird and decadent Atlantean/Egyptian society that is in no position to defend themselves from an ambitious, violent invader (they're too busy indulging in hallucinatory drugs and sorcery for entertainment to control the slave uprising that accompanies the Thyatian advance). Plenty of pyramids and thousand-year old strongholds (complete with exotic treasure and still functional booby-traps) are left behind after the conquest of the region, and Stefan is only too glad to allow youthful adventurers the chance to pillage such structures (he knows his coffers will receive a healthy tax on any loot recovered). Perhaps these ancient-but-still-standing fortresses can become castles for Name level adventurers...maybe Fort Doom is the equivalent of Castle Grayskull and Baron Ludwig is just the latest person to "claim" it as a residence.

Ya. More tomorrow.


  1. Awesome idea to do the A-Z with Karameikos! Enjoying this series very much.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. I was going to write about Karameikos anyway, but the structure of the challenge has increased the scale of my writing/thoughts to epic proportions. 30+ posts instead of a half dozen?! Hoo-boy!

  2. Neanderthals? I know they are not in the setting material but they are in the B/X monster manual section so Neanderthals are probably there... as native peoples.

    1. Neanderthals died out about 40,000 years before present, so even in a REALLY OLD D&D game, they're not especially appropriate outside a "lost world" setting (there is a tribe that appears in X1: The Isle of Dread). Probably any "land that time forgot" would be a good placement for such humanoids, though I can think of a couple *weird* ways to use them, too...
      ; )

    2. They also appear in B5: Horror On The Hill. Have an Ogre problem, I recall.

      ", though I can think of a couple *weird* ways to use them,"

  3. There are 'natives' mentioned in Treasure of the Hideous One by David Cook. The adventure should probably be placed somewhere near the border of the shires and karameikos based on clues in the text. These natives could be part of what's left of the gnolls invasions and linked to the traladarans, or used in place of them.

    1. Huh! I never owned AC2, so I'd never heard of this adventure (took me a while to find it on the internet). Very interesting..."Duke Stefan the Hermit?!" What is THAT all about?

      I'll have to peruse this when I have a free moment (I don't right now). Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    2. Members over at the piazza made an adjusted timeline, merging Stefan the hermit with the gazzeteers timeline. It's pretty interesting, it's archived on the vaults here

    3. @ Lance:

      Yeah, I found it last night, along with “Threshold ‘Zine #1” (which I think is where it first appeared). Man, a lot of work has been put in by a lot of folks over the years to make Mystara run extra smooth.

      By the way: I’ve been reading your blog (just haven’t had a chance to comment yet); really like the interviews with you father. Very different from my personal experience but fascinating nevertheless.
      : )