Monday, September 30, 2019

12 Marvels of Science

Illustration from a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi's book Al-mâ' al-waraqî (The Silvery Water)

Count yourself lucky to live in this day and age. In antiquity there were many marvels, but much was  lost. There was great glory, but it faded and fell away. There was much knowledge, but it was mixed with falsehood. Today we have the Way. As we step from the past into the future, we search for what embers of the old are worth salvaging. 

In 690, following the civil war, ancient treatises on light and the shape of the world and the workings of the organs were brought to the court of the Successor. 719 saw the secret of glass working rediscovered, recovered from the Women who protected it. Now, the Pale Folk study their bodies under the light of the full moon. Blood vessels and nerve endings are mapped, like rivers in a foreign country. Every city has a new hospital and every governor is advised by astronomers and mathematicians, whose fields did not exist a few decades before. Engineers invent luxurious fountains and pump black oil from the earth. The chemists distill tinctures or serums and pass them to physicians for experimentation. Just last year, a cataract was plucked from an old woman's eye, as if by magic. Today I saw a man with an astrolabe, and he taught me to understand the sky. 

There is light and conversation and music in the Successor's house. In libraries and schools creed and sect mean nothing, as all are brought together in the pursuit of what is good and what is true. Barren hills become observations, opening the pages of the heavens. The scribes labor over books and copies of books. They translate from papyrus to paper, from the old languages to the tongue of today. But don't just take my word for it, take a closer look.

 Linger after prayers, hear the dialogue among the congregants. They talk of infinity and space, eternal or finite. Buy sherbet and flavored ice in the market. It is sweet and cold and your tongue has never known its like. And look at these, 12 marvels of our modern knowledge, each an ingenious and extraordinary fruit, plucked from the orchard of the Way, growing in antique soil. 

Each would make a splendid gift, each would fetch a mighty price, each is unlikely to be found or even understood outside the Successor's domain. 

A illustration of al-Jazari's perpetual flute from his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

1. The Spy Glass: A brass tube with several lenses fitted inside. The tube is beautifully engraved with images of (1. Birds 2. Stars 3. Flowers 4. Horses). When held to the eye, the Spy Glass makes far away objects appear closer. The lenses can be removed and used as magnifying glasses.

2. The Water Clock: An unwieldy brass and lacquered wood box with the numbers 1-12 written on it and a small arm set into it. When water is poured into a spout in top of the clock, the arm moves across the face of the clock, from one numeral to the next in the course of an hour, resetting to 1 once reaching 12. The clock must be refilled and recalibrated once a month and can’t function in the cold.

3. The Hydraulic Servant: A small metal automaton dressed like a nomad from the north. It has a control panel on its back and is powered by water. The automaton can be programmed to do simple tasks, such as carrying things, opening doors, or grabbing things but it can only be programmed to do one task at a time. A liter of water is enough to power the automaton for a day, it cannot be operated in the cold. Secretly, the automaton has a little magic within, it cannot be detected as magical but will be effected by dispel magic, anti-magic zones, ect.

4. The Perpetual Flute: A contraption powered by water consisting of two flutes, two water reservoirs, and a tilting pipe into which water is poured. The flue can be programmed to play any tune or even make sounds like speech but quickly repeats itself. A liter of water is enough power the flute for a day, it cannot operate in the cold.

5. The King’s Water: An incredible acid which can dissolve anything but glass. A vial of the King’s Water can dissolve a 5x5ft cube of material over the course of 30 minutes.

6. The Hurricane Lantern: An oil burning lantern made of a wick held in a brass body protected by a glass dome. Its flame cannot be extinguished by winds and it trims its own wick via an ingenious mechanism.

7. The Nostril of Bahamut: A heavy weapon that uses a handpump and tube to cover enemies in sticky, burning oil. The Nostril’s maximum range is 20ft. The oil burns for 2d4 damage a round and cannot be extinguished by water. A burning target can smother the flames by taking a round to stop, drop, and roll. If the Nostril’s pilot wick is not ignited before being fired, it just covers targets in oil. Liquids other than oil can be propelled using the Nostril.

8. 1d6 Naptha Pots: Clay jars full of oil, sulphur, and nitrates plugged with a wick. Several seconds after ignition, the jars explode, dealing 2d8 damage to everything within 10ft of it.

9. The Compass: A magnetized piece of metal suspended in water and laid over the four cardinal directions. It always points north.

10. Physician’s Kit: A box the size of a suitcase containing the latest innovations in medicine. It is full of herbs to treat different ailments and infirmities, smelling salts, acid for cleaning wounds, and soap for cleanliness. A kit has 2d4 charges. Each charge can be used to restore 1 point to a damaged ability score, let a person reroll a save against disease, or restore a creature to consciousness. Additionally, the kit’s charges may have other uses. The herbs are good for cooking, for example.

11. 1d6 Lightning Bombs: Like a naptha pot but filled with pyrotechnic compounds. Explodes in a blinding flash which disorients sighted beings within 10ft of it.

12. The Hollow Needle: A metal tube with a plunger at the back and a sharp piecing tip. The needle creates suction. It can be used to carefully and precisely extract fluids or small objects, such as parasites or contaminants, from the body or just suck up liquid. The effects of potions administered via the needle last 2 rounds longer.

Further Reading: This post is inspired by the Golden Age of Science in the Islamic world, but the inventions on this list are not all accurate to the period. The telescope, for example, was invented in the 17th century in the Netherlands. If you'd like to know more about this period, I'd suggest watching Jim al Khalili's Science in a Golden Age series or just reading "List of inventions in the medieval Islamic world" on wikipedia as a start.

This post is dedicated to Kallinikos, the petroleum consultant 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Ibn Fadlan is Not an Adventurer: XP Rules for Travelers and Diplomats

The world according to Ibn Sahl al Balkhi, 9th century

So, I've been reading Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness again and thinking more about what an adventurer is exactly. Adventurers acquire things, that's how they level up in traditional D&D, but Ibn Fadlan starts with wealth and loses it. The basic pattern of the D&D adventuring life, starting with not much and working your way up, doesn't fit. Though Ibn Fadlan and Abu Hamid's accounts have been held up as great resources for RPGs, I haven't heard of any other attempts to make campaigns based on their journeys. This is probably because they just aren't adventurers. They are diplomats, travelers. They witness and negotiate and educate instead of taking, overcoming, and ruling.

I don't just want to run a game in a setting inspired by the sources in The Land of Darkness. I want players to act like Ibn Fadlan and Abu Hamid, to be driven to see things and meet people. To that end, I've written new xp rules for travelers instead of adventurers. The rules make a lot of assumptions about the party and their loyalties, but I think that goes hand in hand with the subject matter.

The Arrival of Ibn Fadlan in Bulgary, Urmanche Baky, 1973

To level up, the party must collect Marks equal to their current level + 1. When you level up, the party’s Marks are erased and you start again from zero.

You get Marks for 3 activities: finding wonders, uncovering information which is useful to the postal agency/intelligence service, and diplomacy.

Wonders: The world is full of wonders, aja’ib, mirabilia. Indeed, the stars themselves are wondrous, proof of the infinite variability and glory of the Lord’s creation. There is always a great thirst in court and in houses of learning to hear of new wonders from abroad. We live in age of reason, all wonders must be verified by proper methods. Each wonder found and verified is worth one Mark.

Places: Strange locations in the natural world or significant ruins left by antique civilizations. To verify your discovery, you must determine its exact position and relation to other landmarks using astronomical tools.

Examples: An island inhabited entirely by snakes, a huge dome of lead constructed by giants, an enchanted temple which no mortal can enter, a cave where ice turns to crystal, a sea of pure darkness

Creatures: Unusual or rare animals. To verify your find, you must be able to accurately measure the animal (preferably in cubits) and describe its features in detail from a living or dead specimen. Demons, the undead, and other abominations do not count as wonders. People are also not wonders.

Examples: Mundane animals of unusual size, a hypnotic lizard with crystal flesh, a furry rhino with a huge horn, chimeras of all sorts, huge oozes which blend into the water, ravens with iron talons

Phenomenon: Inexplicable and recurring events which dazzle the mind. To verify your discovery, you must witness the phenomenon thrice in full with your own eyes.

Examples: Armies of jinn who fight in the night sky, a river that turns bright blue when the moon is full, stone elephant tusks that grow in the earth, a huge fish that beaches itself to be eaten daily

Spying: These are uncertain times and eyes loyal to the court are always needed in places far from the Commander of the Faithful’s influence. You must gather information, on both the Successorate's subjects and potential allies.

Governors, Shaws, Amirs: Power must be delegated to keep the Successorate running, but those trusted with that power often have their own ends in mind.

The party will gain a Mark for discovering that:
  • A Governor, Shaw, or Amir practices a heretical religion 
  • A Governor, Shaw, or Amir has committed an act of treason or plans to (e.g. failing to recite the Successor’s name in communal prayers, failing to enforce the Successor’s edicts, or working with her enemies)
  • A group of rebels operates in the territory of a Governor, Shaw, or Amir

Major Factions: Not every tribe of idolaters is of interest to the Commander of the Faithful. Major factions control trade routes, cities, or have access to important trade goods. Be warned, khagans are not above misrepresenting their influence to win foreign favor.

The party will gain a Mark for discovering that:
  • A major faction is trading with a rival of the Successorate (Whose goods do they have?)
  • A major faction has adopted a religion which rivals the Besharan Way (Who advises them, where do they pray?)

Diplomacy: The party represents the Successorate, the Commander of the Faithful, and Besharan Way itself. Adopting the faith and forming an alliance with the Successorate are inextricably linked. Keep in mind that all reasoning creatures, not just people, can follow The Way and may be converted.

The party will receive a Mark for:
  • Opening formal diplomatic relations with a faction and inviting their conversion to the Besharan Way, they will expect gifts from Beshara
  • Correcting the practice of converts to the Besharan Way, converts often continue to practice idolatry
The party will receive two Marks for:
  • Converting a faction's leaders the Besharan Way, they will expect a large gift from the Successor himself, but a lesser religious figurehead can be petitioned to provide the gift

Mark Bounties: Certain objectives have Mark bounties assigned to them, which the party will be made aware of at the start of their journey. Here are some examples:
  • There is a reliable rumor that a Governor has secretly claimed the title of Successor, finding out who will be rewarded with 3 Marks
  • Finding the Iron Wall of The Two Horned Shaw is worth 4 Marks 

Relevant Setting Information

What is the Successorate and the Besharan Way?

The greatest state under heaven. Ruled by the Successor of the Prophetess' favorite assistant, Idris. Rashida adopted Idris into the Besharan people and named him the Commander of the Faithful before she ascended the sacred mountain. For three centuries Idris dwelt in occultation before reemerging to unite the followers of the Way and restore the faith to its roots, founding the tradition we know as the Besharan Way. All the Successor's have been descendants of Idris. The current dynasty are the Nourids, the family of Idris' middle daughter. 

Who opposes the Successorate? (the following list is not exhaustive)

The False Successorate: A rogue faction of Besharan nobility who lay claim to the titles of Idris. They control most of Tamania, but the true Successor maintains rule west of them.

The Way-Universal: A tradition of the Way founded by the Prophetess' favorite companion, Hallaj. There are many streams of the Hallajite tradition, but none is as powerful as the Way-Universal. It is probably headed by the Pontifex Maximus in the Eternal City, or perhaps by the Basilinna in the City of the Constant Emperors. Many kings and rulers follow the Way-Universal and oppose the Besharan Way. Many are interested in the Meager Country.

The Cult of Fire: A left over religion from antiquity. Their practice is not banned but it is heavily discouraged. Lingering loyalty to this old tradition sometimes grips of hearts of non-Besharan Shaws and Governors and its dying influence is still enough to spark troublesome rebellions.

This post is dedicated to Oghuz Khagan