Thursday, 5 September 2019

Three Peoples

A few weeks ago the perennial question of the role and nature of race in [fantasy] RPGs once more became prominent (mainly on Twitter but to a limited extent on the OSR discord), prompting this post. As someone with a background in social sciences, I have never been happy with the way the terms "race" and "class" are employed in RPGs: the latter term being a clunky legacy of OD&D that shows no sign of dying any time soon (and probably relates to the idea of "classifying" combatants, war game style), while the latter has a older provenance in fantasy literature, from JRR Tolkien's pen.

What follows is not an essay exhibiting any of my opinions on the subject directly: I think the two disparate currents in this debate are very well addressed by this Lyndsay Ellis video (Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding) and this reddit post by u/horcipotulree/
(TL/DR: The former is a dismantling of using fantasy races as real world racial analogues; the latter is an alternative approach to D&D's racial "essentialism")
..instead, I present three pieces of in-game lore concerning three entirely human races, and a conclusion which (I think) makes my opinion apparent.



THE JEHEMENI

As everybody knows, the first people were the Emlohem, and their first King was named Jehemen. He led his people out of the desert, slew the Other Ones who for so long had denied the Emlohem the wealth of their land, and established the city that still bears his name. For this reason, those who descend from his bloodline and bear the name Jehemeni can claim to be of the noblest and most ancient of human stock.

Now, the lands that Jehemen inherited - the length of the Inoko river, the mighty delta where it meets the Crystal Seas, and all along the glistening coast - were known as Thran to the Other Ones, and that name remained. And so it came to pass that Jehemen rebuilt the cities that the Other Ones had allowed to fall into disrepair, and his people learned how to work the land and grow grain, and they prospered.

Jehemen had two twin sons, Anidi (one) and Huleti (two), named for the sequence in which they were born. In appearance the boys could not be told apart, but in manner their behaviour diverged sharply. Anidi was forthright but considerate, whereas Huleti spoke in riddles and loved to play tricks on his older brother. Their father loved them both equally.

The boys were barely of age when their father died in battle with the barbarians of the west, and the kingdom was due to pass to the more senior boy. Yet Huleti so connived and convinced his elders as to the veracity of Anidi's claim, that they saw the only true course of action was to split the kingdom in twain. Anidi took the city of his father's name as his capital, and begrudgingly Huleti accepted Tethis. Anidi took the name of his father to honour him, while Huleti took the name of the ancient kingdom, Thrane, as proof of his desire for power.

Over the centuries, the two kingdoms prospered, but the descendants of Thrane continued to plot against their now distant relatives. By sowing the seeds of corruption amongst the north, they were able to seize control of the entire polity, but at great cost. The house of Thrane had employed diabolic magic to win their victory, and once achieved, the demons turned against them. The war of the mages had begun.

During the ensuing anarchy, those Thranes that could fled back to Tethis, while those that could not abandoned their homes and returned to the desert to live as primitive tribesman. Only the Jehemeni people remained and now, hundreds of years later, have only just begun to restore their honour.


  • Sees self: "We are an honourable nation of warriors and landowners. We honour the gods and respect magic, but the sword is mightiest of all.
  • Sees Thranes: "The descendants of cowards and weasels. Those that dwell in the desert have gone some way to restore the honour of their bloodline - which is distantly removed from ours - but those that dwell in the city of Tethis are serpents and sorcerers and are not to be trusted.
  • Sees Kyrans: "The descendants of goat-herders. Their religion is nonsensical, but they make good warriors. Their merchants are untrustworthy."
  • Sees others: "The Oroks have their place but must be watched closely. The olive-skinned northerners are arrogant and condescending, but their gold is useful."


THE THRANES

So everyone knows the story of Jehemen I and his indistinguishable twin sons, Anidi and Huleti. Bright and mischievous, the two boys loved toying with their care-givers, and switching names on a daily basis, much to their father's dismay. It was his intention that the crown be passed to Anidi when he came of age, which caused Anidi much anguish. Huleti convinced him that when the time came, they should simply switch places, enabling Anidi to concentrate on his true passion, sorcery.

And so, upon the sad day that King Jehemen I fell in battle, the crown meant for Anidi in reality passe to his conniving brother, Huleti, who declared himself King Jehemen II. Anidi, not wishing to forever now be known by the name of his brother, changed his name to Thrane.

After the coronation, his mother approached him, and asked him why he allowed his brother to take his place. Thrane protested, but his mother insisted that she knew the truth, for it was her second born son now wearing the crown. She presented her case to the council of elders, stating that the reluctance of Thrane in taking the crown was a sign of his gentleness and wisdom, qualities that would be needed in the new era of peace.

In consolation, Jehemen was handed governorship of the city that bore his father's name, and Thrane moved the capital to Tethis. Thence ensued more than one thousand years of peace and prosperity, with the Thranian Empire expanding across the coast of the crystal seas, and down the length of the Inoko river. But as the descendants of Thrane prospered, they grew indolent, and were oblivious to the evil that crept across the land.

City by city, the Empire fell under the sway of dark sorcery, and a great war ravaged the land. Such was the curse of the Other Ones: abundance breeds decadence, and decadence engenders chaos.

So, during the tumult known as the war of the mages, those true Thranes returned to the desert of tears, whence their ancestors had once toiled, and have returned to a simpler way of life. Though they do not bear his name, they are truer to the First King Jehemen than his supposed house claim to be.
  • Sees self: several centuries ago, we returned to an honest way of life, foraging, hunting and herding between the oases of the desert of tears. We practice the sacred magic of our ancestors, knowing that knowledge must be earned, not stolen. We trade with the cities out of necessity, not desire. We are mighty warriors and hunters: were the Jehemeni and Kyrans to vacate their farmland, we could hunt their and sate our bellies. 
  • Sees Jehemeni: Those who claim descent from the First King are a disgrace to that name. Their warriors are weak, hiding behind metal and fearing death, for they know they will be damned in the next life. Their farmers are weak and stupid, but they can fetch a good price as slaves with the cities to the far east.
  • Sees Kyrans: Those who cross the desert are good warriors, but their merchants are untrustworthy and beguiling. Their religion is the wrong way round: they worship a demon and curse the name of the true gods. Their cities are places of horrible noise.
  • Sees Urban Thranes: Our cousins who remain in the cities are fools, but we pray they will return to us one day. In Nahemot and Ishmakh they hide behind the faith of the Kyrans, but in Tethis they indulge in the same dark practices of our ancestors, and are lost to us.

THE KYRANI

Jehemen I had three children: Anidi, Huleti, and Kyra. When he died without declaring an heir, the three siblings discussed how they should divide the Empire of Thrane.

"I was our father's first," said Anidi, "and inherited his prowess at arms and understanding of the land. For this reason, I declare myself King Jehemen II, and will make Thrane an unrivalled military power."

Huleti frowned, for while he agreed with the initial facts of his brother, he disputed the conclusions Anidi had drawn.

"You are indeed a fine warrior, and our father would be proud for you to take his name, but my knowledge of the land exceeds yours, as does my cleverness with magic. For this reason, I will take the name Thrane I, Emperor of All!"

Kyra shook her head in dismay, disputing either claim.

"As a woman, it is not right that I should take our father's crown, but that does not mean my counsel is without merit. You both have your strengths, but neither of you is considering your mutual weaknesses. Anidi: you know how to fight against your smaller cousins and to put on an entertaining show, but have never drawn blood in mortal combat. Huleti: indeed, you have gained much cleverness through the reading of the texts left by the Other Ones, but you know nothing of the world beyond your library, save for what others have told you! Can you truly say that you are wise?"

It is said that the two brothers were rendered speechless by their sister's admonitions, but Kyra's concerns outweighed any fears she may have had for her own safety.

"Is it not better for matters of state to be addressed by those elders who fought alongside our father, by our elders who truly have knowledge of the world? The crow, meanwhile, can serve as a symbol, shared by his sons until one of them proves themselves truly worthy to wear it."

Divided as the sons of Jehemen were over which one should inherit their father's throne, they were united in anger at the words of their sister. She was cast out from her family's palace, and banished to the wilderness.

Kyra wandered for days was found by a noble yet uncultured tribe of herdsmen, whose young chieftain saw her as a worthy bride. She promised that she would honour his proposal of marriage, if he agreed to assist her in the defence of her brothers' kingdom. Though she had been mistreated by her siblings Kyra still feared for their safety and that of their subjects: her suitor agreed, and together they defended the Empire's southern and western frontier for generations.

The Kyrani continued as the unacknowledged defenders of the realm for more than one thousand years, but in the end they were unable to save the Thranian Empire from its worst enemy: itself. The aristocrats were indolent and the priests were in league with demons, and sorcerers were free to raise their won armies and set the nation ablaze. The Kyrani fled to their most remote oases and pondered their next move.

It was three hundred years ago that the hero, Ezra, was born to a noble Kyrani merchant in the city of Nahemot. The story of the New Temple ad the faith that he found is too long to be hold here, but it was through his vision and the will of the One True God that the Kyrani became saviours of the wretched peoples of the Inoko River region. Stability is restored and the devils have been cast out, but still the Jehemeni and the Thranes refuse to accept the error of their blasphemous ways, just as their ancestors refused the wisdom of their wise sister, Kyra.


  • Sees self: "We are a noble people with a long history, tied to the desert and the fickle winds that blow across it... but it is our most recent three centuries that have been our proudest. Our new faith has not only been our salvation, it will be the salvation of all humanity. Cleanliness is next to godliness: we keep the sabbath and only clothe ourselves in white."
  • Sees Jehemeni: "Those who dwell in the city of Ren and have taken the waters of our faith are our brothers and sisters, but beyond that city they are an arrogant people. That said, their merchants know value and can be bargained with respectfully. Jehemen keeps its gates open to our caravans, and until such a time as they are not, that city and her subjects are our allies."
  • Sees Thranes: "In Nahemot the Thranes who have taken the waters of our faith atone for the sins of their fathers, though their children seem fixated on the so-called 'Thranian Revival' in Tethis. That city is a cess-pit of vice and decrepitude, but it is the Thranes who dwell in the desert who are most deserving of pity. Theyknow not of the true ways of the nomad, and toil on the eastern sands, for they are still in the service of spirits and demons. they will not find peace until they take the waters, as we have offered."
  • Sees Others: "The white skinned northerners and the copper-men of the west we are wary of, but we accept them as God's children and invite them to take the waters of the New Temple, for it is part of the father's plan. All else that walk or talk as a humans but are not human by blood are an abomination: the bestial Oroks, the diabolic Varanesi, the Kizagu half-men... they are not even worthy of being burned. May the Lord of the Dead rot their souls for all eternity." 

THE TRUTH
There are myriad groups of humans in the Inoko River valley and the surrounding deserts, and they can be divided innumerable ways. However, most will identify as belonging to one of three groups: the Jehemeni, The Thranes, and the Kyrani. All speak a dialect of the ancient language of Thranian. Adults range from 5' to 7' in height, with 5'11" being the modal average. Women tend to be between two-three inches shorter than men. Skin tones range from purple black, through deep burgundy, to a burnished beige, with hair colour being universally black, all the variations occur.

As with all human populations, there is greater variation within populations than between populations.

Around the city of Jehemen, in the Inoko River delta, and along the shores of the Crystal Seas, most people describe themselves as Jehemeni, speak (and, if sufficiently educated, write) the Jehemeni language. Large cities will include representatives from other populations, particularly the erstwhile imperial capital, Jehemen.

In the deserts east of Jehemen, the nomadic humans call themselves Thrane. They speak an ancient dialect of Thranian, although it is mutually intelligible to both Kyrani and Jehemeni. They practice pastoralism (herding both camels and cows), as well as hunting and gathering. Spirit wirship is an essential part of their daily life, which they believe ties them to the land and absolves them of the sins of their imperial ancestors.

In the city of Tethis, the majority of people still refer to themselves as Thrane, but their culture is very similar to that of the Jehemeni to the north. In Nahemot, nearly half the population describe themselves as Thranian, but practice the New Temple faith which so characterises the Kyrani. Indeed, it is this faith that defines the Kyran more than the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors: a Kyrani community is just as likely to be an urban peddler or even a sedentary peasant as they are a wandering desert nomad.

To confuse matters more, to the west (particularly around the coast of the Old Sea), there are those Kyrani who still worship the Old Gods, and violently oppose the New Temple Faith. Conversely, Jehemen in the City of Ren keep the sabbath and wear white, yet they speak the Jehemeni tongue and are proud of their ancestry.

But what of the real truth? Which origin myth is genuine? That story is lost to the past, and would elude satisfactory validation. What would make a peasant change refute the values passed to them across one hundred generations? Only gold or violence, not reason.

What would the "true" story prove, anyway?

Nothing that the storyteller had not intended, assuming they were a sufficiently good narrator.

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