Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ferrous Metal Food Fighting Guy!

(This is something I wrote up some years back. I'm putting it here so I can find it more easily when I want to. Though it's rather silly, it's also where I came up with the idea of high-quality materials which don't provide a bonus to the craftsman's skill, but do add to the margin of success, a mechanism which later appeared in the crafting rules in GURPS Low-Tech Companion 3.)

One of the things not to be found in GURPS 4e is extensive rules for competitive cooking. If two cooks of steely resolve rise up to face one another across a cooking coliseum, the GM can only fall back on hand-waving and contests of skill. This article fills that much-needed gap. GURPS chefs can now stage furious contests wherein they construct fanciful dishes, the more elaborate the better, and prove whose cooking rules the day. To the kitchen!


These rules provide guidance for attempting to cook complex dishes and comparing their quality when the cooking is done. A chef starts by making up a dish, what the important ingredients are, and how they are prepared (say, "drunken lobster stuffed with mango salsa" or "mesquite-smoked mackerel sorbet"). A dish with more complex ingredients and methods of preparation is harder to get right, but if done well will result in a more impressive dish. The chef must make a number of skill rolls to determine first how expertly the dish was cooked and second how attractively it is presented. Finally, someone with a discerning palate must taste the dishes to determine which one is better.


There are two important skills for competitive cooking: Cooking, of course, is the ability to cook dishes that taste good. Professional Skill (Food Styling) is the skill of making food look good. It defaults to Cooking-4, Painting-6, or Sculpting-5. Actually telling how good a dish is requires Connoisseur (Cooking), which defaults to Cooking at -3.

Flavors and Ingredients

The dish starts with the chef deciding which important ingredients to use and any other flavors he wants to impart to the dish: Mexican-spiced roast pork with smoked almond paste, pistachio butter and sweet adzuki jam sandwiches, savory cheesecake on a crisp chestnut crust, etc. There are a number of commercially available encyclopedias of ingredients providing extensive lists of ingredients and their uses which might be used as inspiration. However, for those looking for something a little more immediate, clicking on the button below will provide a list of four randomly selected ingredients, along with links searching a major recipe database for each one:

Here, likewise, is a list of flavor terms chefs might apply to their dishes:
  • Astringent
  • Bitter
  • Cool
  • Earthy
  • Floral
  • Fruity
  • Pungent
  • Salty
  • Savory (umami)
  • Smoky
  • Sour
  • Spicy
  • Sweet
  • Unctuous (fatty, rich)
A chef need only list those ingredients he wants to feature. For example, a dish of spaghetti may involve a tomato sauce including tomatoes, garlic, onion, olive oil, and small quantities of various spices as well as some sort of meat products, but in game terms, by declaring that he's simply making spaghetti, that's all that he'll be judged on. However, an ambitious chef may want to make spaghetti with rosemary-scented pork-veal meatballs in an oregano-flavored pomodoro sauce. In doing so, he's creating a dish which is attempting to simultaneously feature and balance a vast range of ingredients. This is riskier, but is likely to result in a much more impressive dish.


The chef must also harmoniously balance textures. The texture of various components of the dish is rated on a seven point scale. Textures are used

1. Crisp
2. Chewy
3. Firm
4. Tender
5. Soft
6. Pureed
7. Liquid


Finally, the chef must note which techniques he's using to cook the dish. Here is a list of some common cooking techniques, but any other the chef thinks of may be allowed if appropriate equipment is available.

  • Bake
  • Bake en papillote
  • Blanch
  • Boil
  • Braise
  • Broil
  • Caramelize
  • Coddle
  • Deep fry
  • Grill
  • Infuse
  • Poach
  • Roast
  • Sautee
  • Simmer
  • Smoke
  • Steam
  • Stew
  • Stir-fry
  • Torch

Equipment and Ingredient Quality

A standard home kitchen provides no bonus or penalty: lightweight aluminum pots and bakeware, a small set of inexpensive but full-sized knives, electric or poorly-calibrated gas stove, a few electric appliances (for example blender, hand mixer), refrigerator, and a large or double sink. A poorly equipped kitchen can provide penalties of up to -10.

Superior equipment provides bonuses to Cooking skill for rolls against techniques. Professional-level basic kitchen equipment, including high-quality gas stoves, superior cookware (for example, copper and enameled cast iron), and high-quality knives provide a +1 to just about all kitchen tasks. Special-purpose gear can provide bonuses to specific cooking techniques and types of foods. For example, liquid nitrogen and self-chilling freezers provide a +1 to the production of ice creams and sherbets. Terra-cotta tiles provide a +1 to baking breads. Heavy-duty stand mixers provide a +1 to any technique involving whipping or mixing. Using an immersion circulator (a scientific instrument which keeps liquids at a very even temperature) provides a +1 to poaching.

Ingredients commonly available in a cook's native society provide no modifiers. Improved ingredients generally don't improve the chances of success with Cooking skill, but will increase the dish's score if it is successfully cooked. For example, using a better cut of average-quality beef (say, sirloin instead of chuck, where appropriate) would be good for a +1 to the dish's final score. Organic grain-fed beef instead of beef raised on steroids and antibiotics might provide a +2. Using grass-fed beef might be good for +3, while using weygu/kobe beef might provide +4. Low quality ingredients will modify the dishes score even if is cooked successfully. However, anything providing a penalty of more than -3 is probably spoiled or otherwise inedible anyway.

Time and Staff

The default cooking time for a dish is 5 minutes per named ingredient or technique (the GM may specify much longer times for certain ingredients and techniques, though; for example, stews, risotto, and polenta are unlikely to take less than 20 minutes, and yeast-risen breads may take two to three hours). However, there are ways of cutting down the amount of time considerably. First, better chefs work faster. Reduce time by 10% for a chef with skill 15+ or 20% with a skill 20+.

Second, chefs with a staff can delegate their work. A chef can split the work between himself and a staff with an average skill of 12 (more skilled cooks do more of the cooking; the less skilled and unskilled are delegated the grunt work of scrubbing vegetables, washing dishes, and carrying heavy things), dividing the cooking time between them while rolling against his own skill. The maximum number of additional staff a chef can use is (the lesser of Cooking and Leadership skill)/2. He can attempt to supervise a larger or less skilled staff, but suffers -1 to his Cooking skill per excess worker or point of average skill below 12. The chef of a large institutional kitchen may administratively oversee a much larger staff, but most will be organized into smaller groups whose work relies on the skills of others. The pastry kitchen will produce confections against the pastry chef's skill, for example, though the head chef won't allow substandard creations to go to the table. The start-to-finish time to make a single dish can't be reduced by more than 80% the original cooking time (possibly longer for certain dishes, as noted above), but a large staff can have several dishes going in parallel.

For example, by default it would take 35 minutes to make the Cola-poached chipotle salmon on a bed of minted polenta. The GM might rule that because of the extra time for the polenta, it takes 50 minutes. Assuming he's as good a leader as he is a cook, our skill 14 chef could have a staff as big as 7. Dividing the work on the dish eight ways might result in having it done in a mere 6.25 minutes, but with the 80% barrier, it will take at least 10 minutes, and again the GM might rule that it would take at least 20 minutes, with most of the staff waiting around for the polenta to be done. Perhaps they'd pass the time whipping up that mesquite-smoked mackerel sorbet.

Actually Cooking

Make separate Cooking roll for:

* Each named flavor or ingredient
* Each technique used
* A single roll for contrasting textures, at a penalty equal to half the difference between the crispest and softest texture in the dish

For each roll, record the margin of success. On a critical success, double the margin of success. Add these numbers together to get the dish's total score. On any critical failure, the entire dish is ruined, receiving a score of -10.

For example, a chef attempts a dish of Cola-poached chipotle salmon on a bed of minted polenta. The GM identifies five ingredients (Cola, chipotles, salmon, mint, polenta) and two techniques (poaching, and the implied cooking of the polenta), for a total of seven rolls against Cooking skill. The salmon is tender and the polenta pureed, for a texture roll at -1. The chef's Cooking skill is 14. He's working in a professionally equipped kitchen, giving him a +1 to all technique-related rolls, and he's got fresh, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, which the GM decides is good enough for a +3.

For the ingredients, he rolls 12 (made by 2), 16 (missed by 2; he may have added to much or too little chipotle, or perhaps it didn't adhere to the salmon as much as he had hoped), 8 (made by 6), 13 (made by 1), and 11 (made by 3). So far, his score is 2-2+6+1+3 for the ingredient-related rolls, +3 for succeeding with the excellent salmon. For the two technique rolls, he's rolling against a 15 for superior equipment. With a 14 and a 11, his score is up to 18. On the final texture roll, he's rolling against a 13. He gets a 14, bringing the total score down to 16. And now the dish goes to the table...


...well, almost. How the dish tastes is one thing, how it looks is another. If appearance is a factor, as it will be in just about any professional or competitive arena, the chef must make sure that the food is nicely composed on the plate, the most attractively colored bits are visible and the not-so-attractive bits are hidden, and so on. Make a PS: Food Styling roll and record the margin of success separately from the score of Cooking skill successes. If the chef has the time and inclination, he can perform a number of additional decorative techniques, such as:
  • Decorative carving
  • Garnishing
  • Piping
  • Pulled sugar
For each technique attempted, make additional unmodified PS: Food Styling rolls and record the margin of success. Critical successes and failures have the same effect on the appearance score, but presentation techniques will not significantly change the flavor of the dish. Now it's ready to go to the table.


When the cooking is done, it may take a true connoisseur to tell which dish is better than another. To judge the quality of a dish, the taster rolls against Connoisseur (Cooking) skill. If the taster succeeds, he correctly judges the score of the dish. If he fails, he's off by (1d6 + margin of failure) points; roll a second die to determine whether he scores it excessively low (1-3) or high (4-6). Also, individuals will have their own personal tastes which will effect their perception of a dish. At the GM's discretion, specific flavors and textures can cause the taster to automatically score the dish up or down by one to four points each. Conservative eaters might react increasingly negatively to dishes with more than one or two featured ingredients, while jaded palates and adventurous eaters may react negatively to any ingredients or dishes they've seen before. Judging apperance requires a separate Connoisseur (Cooking) roll, with similar effects on failure and a similar impact from personal preferences. Whether taste or appearance is more important will be a matter of personal and professional preference.

Culinary Campaigning

In rarefied culinary circles, chefs' careers will rise and fall by bare margins of points. If competing against other chefs (for example, for a job as a personal or restaurant chef), they may be judged by the total point value of a number of dishes they make, or perhaps the average of several dishes. Likewise, a chef must keep his food good to keep his job. The chief chef of the imperial kitchen, for example, might have to maintain a high average score for his dishes (15? 20? Higher?) to please the finicky tastes of the emperor.

Given the heat of competition between chefs in sophisticated societies, can adventures be far behind? To keep in top form, a great chef may depend on his favorite knives and copper pans. If they are stolen, they must be recovered! A spoiled-brat ruler may insist on a steady supply of frozen mammoth or some similar delicacy. Someone's going to have to go after it, and probably bring the chef himself along to confirm the quality of the supply (and, perhaps, ease the group's passage through barbarian lands by handing out delightful treats). Even if they don't cook, the usual array of warriors, wizards, and neer-do-wells can support any of the above ventures, stealing, spying, and fighting their way out of sticky situations. It's not just a shopping trip; it's an adventure!

Magic Chef

With food's long association with medicine and parallels with alchemy, a chef might have nigh-magical abilities. For example, in an appropriate campaign, a chef might be allowed to create potions with Herb Lore, but using Cooking rather than Naturalist as a prerequisite. Cooking might also be a method by which Esoteric Medicine is delivered. A particularly subtle chef might even have an Enthrallment (Cooking) skill. Although cooking might not have the specificity of storytelling, an esoteric chef might achieve the effects of the Persuade and Sway Emotions skills (see Like Water For Chocolate for an example).

Friday, October 18, 2013

Panel Discussion Addendum

I was late to Douglas Cole's panel discussion of SJ Games staff and frequent contributors to Pyramid magazine, so I missed a lot of the questions asked directly to the authors, and technical issues prevented me from answering some others once I got there. These, then, are some things I might have said, had I been able:

Douglas: How well does that mission statement resonate with you guys? Do you like to write crazy stuff? Do you like to get out there with expansions on existing material? How do you tie what you’re writing to either the themes Steven has suggested or what’s in your heart.

I like to write a range of stuff; how I do it varies. I get an idea and go where that takes me. On one end, there's the pure historicals. In things like "A Brief History of the Thieves' Guild," it's mostly ideas and background information. Maybe I mention a skill or advantage to give it a fig-leaf of GURPS, but that's about it. At the other end, there are the crunch-heavy, worked-example articles like the additional DF loadouts article, which is a collection of lists of gear. And then there are a few weird ones, like the mall generation table in the Cyberpunk issue. It's sort of all crunch in that it's a great big table to roll on, but it incorporates next to no actual GURPS rules. That said, I do try to provide some rules material so the readers don't spend eight bucks to be told "here's a great idea, and you'll have to figure out yourself how to use it," so a lot of what I'm writing these days combines fluffy ideas with implementations.

Douglas: Do you like writing the theme? Or do you have this…, I know that Christopher has you know 700 articles covering a broad range of things and just you know, and just puts them all in Stevens [email] box to encourage sanity loss, but you know, for the rest of you guys do you write to theme or…?

Constraints are a blessing and a curse for any writer. During the web-Pyramid days, there was a lot of room to experiment. Not just with subject material, but with the format. The current edition is less freeform, so I can't do whatever tickles my fancy. On the other hand, the themes give me a structure which informs articles I never would have written otherwise and provides hooks on which to hang ideas I've had kicking around but couldn't quite beat into shape. The adventure I had in the Power Of Myth issue is a prime example. I had the basic idea something like 25 years ago when I was studying anthropology as an undergrad, and I'd even run an adventure very much like the one which was eventually published. But while I'd had extensive notes written down, it didn't come together as a publishable article until I realized that it matched the mythology theme in the Pyramid wish list.

Douglas: What are the best and worst parts for writing for Pyramid?

Worst: it's a limited resource, like anything else. It only publishes so many pages a month in chunks of limited length, and sometimes on themes in which I have no interest. So I'm limited in how much I can write.

Best: it's writing professionally. Sure, it's a fringe publication from a midling-sized publisher serving a niche market, but there's still an editorial mechanism that gets you to step up your game. For one thing, you have to write well enough to interest an editor whose job is not to let bad articles in. You have to pay attention to actually communicating with other people in ways you don't if you're just writing for yourself. Another aspect of that is that once you've engaged the editor's interest, you're working with someone who is interested in getting your article to be as good as it can be and will suggest things to improve it that you didn't think of. Editors rarely get enough credit from authors, but in my writing career, both at SJ Games and elsewhere, I've been fortunate to work with good ones, and it's improved the final product of my writing considerably.

Oh, getting paid for it is also good. It's not enough to make me quit my day job, but there's little higher praise than someone giving you actual money.

(Crunch/fluff balance in adventures)

This is another example of going where the idea takes me. Any adventure is going to have a mix of fluff to provide the structure of the events and crunch to let you start using it, and, particularly because of Pyramid's space limits, any given adventure requires its own specific mix. If there's a complex plot to unravel, like in "Air Devils of the South Seas," or a novel or complicated high concept like in "The Golden Geniza of Ezkali," there'll necessarily be a lot of non-rules material. A simple dungeon crawl like "The Search for Ed" I did for web-Pyramid, though, can be mostly monster stats and lists of traps and treasure with a light gloss of premise. The clever thing is to try to make some of the text do double duty. For example, the character descriptions in "The Zephyr Club" are intended as descriptions of personalities and adventure seeds and collections of game stats. The stats support and expand the text description not just by attaching gameable numbers to the characters, but also by pointing to particular traits as notably significant.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chigan: Geomancy

Geomancers in Chigan are specialists in locating and arranging spaces conducive to good luck and positive spiritual properties. Where astrologers find lucky times, geomancers find and to some extent arrange lucky places. Geomancers take the Hidden Lore (Geomancy) skill.

Geomancy has two significant uses. One is to find and arrange auspicious places at which to begin a new activity (for example, a birth, a marriage, or negotiate a treaty). “Arranging” involves modest changes to the location, such as clearing interfering shrubbery, moving furniture around, erecting temporary barriers, or painting or putting up banners or tapestries in suitable colors. An attempt takes one week and a roll against Geomancy skill using the standard Geomancy modifiers (see below). If the roll succeeds, participants in the venture present on site at the beginning (for example, a child being born, a newlywed couple, or negotiating diplomats, but not assistants or spectators) get one reroll as per Luck during that venture. On a critical success, the participants get one reroll per year, should the venture last that long. Failure by more than three results in one failed roll in the course of the venture per Unlucky, or one per year on a critical failure.

The other use is to construct fortunate and healthful buildings in which to live and work. This requires both finding the site and participating in the design of the building. The roll takes the standard Geomancy penalties and takes one month of work. Effects depend on the degree of success or failure:

Failure by 10+: -1 to HT rolls and 1 failed roll, as per Unlucky, per year.
Failure by 6-9: -1 to HT rolls to recover from injury and resist the effects of age and disease.
Failure by 1-5: no special effect.
Success by 0-4: +1 to HT rolls to recover from injury and resist the effects of age and disease.
Success by 5-8: +1 bonus to HT roll and 1 reroll as per Luck every year.
Success by 9-12: +2 to HT rolls to recover from injury and resist the effects of age and disease and 1 reroll per luck every year.
Success by 13+: +2 bonus to HT roll and 1 reroll per Luck every month.

A Geomancy roll is unmodified if the geomancer has complete freedom to pick a site within an area of 100 square miles or more. However, restrictions on available space (if, for example, other buildings are already in place or land owners prevent access to the land) can impose significant penalties in built-up areas. The roll is at -1 for every 10 square miles less the geomancer has to work with; the roll is essentially at -10 if the geomancer can only rearrange a given site. Because there are cosmic influences involved, Astrology can be used as a complimentary skill. Architecture may be used as a complementary skill for constructing buildings.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chigan: Trade, Travel, and Striding Pavilions

Because of the difficulty of transport by water in Chigan, most travel happens over land. Roadways are cut across steep hillsides, switching back and forth in order to reduce impossible ascents to merely difficult ones; a journey can easily be five to ten times the straight-line distance between start and destination. The roads rise to passes to adjacent valleys, some of which are closed seasonally by bad weather, while just about all passes and the roads below are subject to temporary closing because of avalanches and storm runoff. A patchwork of bridges stitches up the gaps caused by less negotiable dips and depressions, as well as cobblestone paving and retaining walls to shore up fragile roadways, but most roads are unpaved, muddy in the wetter seasons and strewn with jagged rubble when dry.

Travel is complicated by a lack of good beasts of burden. With a lack of good pasture, large animals don’t thrive in Chigan. In addition to the water buffalo kept for agricultural use, some horses and camels and even a few elephants are kept by the wealthy and long-distance merchants. But none travel particularly well on the rugged high mountain roads. Hardy goats are sometimes pressed into service as pack beasts by semi-nomadic herdsmen, though they can’t carry enough to make them worth using for serious trade and transport.

Most shipping within Chigan is done by the striding pavilions. Striding pavilions defy easy categorization beyond “miraculous.” They combine aspects of plant, animal, architecture, and mechanism. Pavilions start as a wild plant growth, appearing randomly and infrequently in uncultivated areas of the lowlands. They grow ten to twenty years; longer-growing pavilions are larger and stronger, but marginally slower. They start as a dense, woody shrub, but grow into the shape of a covered octagonal pavilion. As the main trunk grows up, roots grow out to cover the surface of the ground like a wooden floor. A canopy of branches extends from the upper part of the trunk and drops long shoots from its edges to the ground; these turn into subsidiary trunks around the edges of the root floor. By the time it reaches full growth, it becomes a partly enclosed space, with roof, floor, and usually partially screened walls of tangled creepers and branches around the edges. The top sports a domed cupola, big enough for a person to sit comfortably.

At that point, the pavilion becomes markedly more animal-like. Using thick bundles of roots as legs (a pavilion can easily have eight to twenty such “legs” up to three feet long), the pavilion tears itself from the ground and begins to move around. A pavilion which has become ambulatory acts like an exceptionally docile if fairly stupid and senseless beast. It ambles across the countryside, sometimes bumping into solid objects, changing direction and wandering away if it does so.

It is at this stage of its life that the pavilion becomes useful. Long ago, the people of Chigan discovered that drumming on the pavilion in the vicinity of the top cupola causes the pavilion to move. A driver sitting in the cupola can, with a set of sticks, steer the pavilion like a vehicle or riding animal, making it go faster or slower or turning it in a desired direction by modulating speed and points of impact. Once the drumming stops, so does the pavilion.

Beyond that, however, pavilions seem more machine-like. They are all but immune to any other kind of stimulation. They clearly feel no pain, do not react to sound, and give no sign of reacting to heat, cold, light, or darkness. A “wild” pavilion is sensitive enough to the feel of the ground beneath its feet that it is highly unlikely to walk off of one of Chigan’s many cliffs, but a mad or just unwary driver could easily send it over one. Pavilions do not appear to tire, but their drivers do, and at any rate travel on the precarious mountain roads at night is exceptionally dangerous.

Ownership of a pavilion varies from valley kingdom to valley kingdom. In some places, any new-grown pavilion becomes the property of the ruler or temple in charge. In others, it’s the property of the very lucky landowner, who may sell the new-found shrub for a modest but tidy sum or a full-grown pavilion for a great deal more.

Though expensive and difficult to obtain, striding pavilions are a prized form of transportation, having a much greater capacity and being much cheaper to keep and easier to work with than beasts of burden. They are their owners’ most prized possession, so much so that there’s a considerable industry in decorating them. Pavilions are elaborately painted, fitted with decorative carved panels, and bedecked with elaborate lanterns, banners, icons, and other bits of décor to show off the owner’s wealth and good fortune.

Ironically, much of that decoration isn’t visible during transit. Pavilions are typically loaded as heavily as possible, and since they can carry loads which overflow their internal volume, bundles are piled on top of the roof and hung over the sides. Drivers may accept some passengers as well, but they must ride on top, finding places among the cargo and sitting in the open air. The journey ranges from uncomfortable to downright unpleasant depending on delays and the weather, but it’s preferable to walking.

Striding Pavilion Stats

9' pavilion
12' pavilion
15' pavilion
18' pavilion
21' pavilion

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chigan: Supernatural Abilities

The supernatural is quite demonstrably real in Chigan, though out of reach of most people. The most common skills dealing with the supernatural are those which require some learning but no particular special talent. Astrology and geomancy are respectable professions through the region. Astrologers are consulted frequently by all but the poorest members of society on matters of business and family. Geomancers are consulted somewhat less often, but their skills can provide excellent long-term benefits. Alchemists produce remarkable potions, but they are rare and expensive. People also petition the gods through prayer and offerings, though the effects are unclear.

More definite supernatural effects are available to particularly gifted individuals. Through study and virtue-accruing activities, holy men and mystical scholars may learn to perform magic, and dedicated fighting men may also acquire remarkable abilities.
Alchemy and astrology from GURPS Fantasy-Tech 1 are in use and may be purchased without Unusual Background or other limitations, though their adventuring use is limited. Cinematic martial arts abilities are available, but characters must learn a style which includes them. Characters may take the Magery advantage and learn spells as per usual, but they must also take a Pact limitation approved by the GM to reflect physical and mental disciplines. Powers-based abilities will be considered on a case-by-case basis as necessary.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chigan: Architecture

Land for construction is often at a premium. Lowland real estate is needed for farming, and slopes are difficult to build large structures on. Therefore, buildings in Chigan are relatively tall and narrow, with three or four stories being very common. In the lowlands, a typical household consists of several narrow towers at the corners of a walled courtyard. Stories within a tower typically consist of a single room; any necessary divisions are created by portable wooden or fabric screens. Small windows on all sides, often decorated with elaborately carved lattices, provide cross-ventilation without letting in too much light, while the courtyard provides shaded but open work space. Particularly wealthy homes are a complex of towers and small courtyards and sometimes contain a large central tower or high-ceilinged hall; temple and monastery architecture is similar. Poorer people live in compounds where they may occupy a tower (or just one floor of a tower) but share a courtyard with neighbors. Ladders are usually used instead of space-gobbling stairs; spiral staircases are a common sign of an up-and-coming household. Higher stories, and particularly the inward-facing sides, may have balconies.

At higher altitudes, a household may have a single, large tower with very thick, insulating walls. The interior is likely to be divided into rooms with walls rather than portable screens. Though such buildings typically have a walled courtyard, the walls are much lower than a town building, and work is only done there in calm weather. Typically, animals are kept on the ground floor, and people live upstairs.

In any event, most buildings are made of earthen materials. The hills are rich in broken stone, so most structures are rubble packed together with earth, with wooden floors and ceilings. The very poor may live in structures constructed mainly from bamboo, possibly with facings of mud and straw. Buildings are typically colored differently than their surroundings. Buildings of the moderately wealthy are whitewashed and have contrasting colors of paint around doors, windows, and any visible structural members, but even the poorest have at least a facing of clay which contrasts with the nearby earth. Inside, elaborately carved wooden panels and tapestry wall hangings are common decorations.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Chigan: Society

Chigan is a large and extensively subdivided region, so despite a number of shared ideas and practices, individual realms host a great deal of cultural diversity. Chigan societies are relatively “flat” with regard to social classes. Though people range from street beggars to royalty, and some families command greater wealth and power or better reputation than others, there are no formal, much less inheritable, class or caste differences. The ruling classes hold their position on the strength of their wealth and collective personal influence, not by holding titles. So while it may be difficult, it is certainly possible for one to start out destitute and become fabulously powerful. To put it another way, there is status, but status is not by itself inheritable and the range of status levels is fairly small.

There are a few exceptions connected to particular offices and professions. In some of the more stable monarchies, the ruler is regarded as semi-divine and must be protected from the profane and impure. This usually means that the ruler, despite having considerable theoretical authority, is a semi-prisoner in a royal palace and must rule through a palace bureaucracy which holds the real power.

The sexes can’t be called equal, strictly speaking, but they do have some kind of parity. Many Chigan societies are matrilineal and matrilocal. That is, one reckons descent through a line of mothers and grandmothers, and when a couple marries, the man usually moves in with his wife’s family. When a family outgrows its residential compound and some members of the household must move into a new dwelling (typically sisters in younger generations along with their spouses and children), it is generally thought of as the house of the most senior woman in the group. Professions may be reserved for one sex or another, or at least exhibit a strong gender bias. For example, in one valley, men are expected to be farmers while women are merchants or craft professionals, while in another women control banking but men control trade, and in yet another doctors are male while scholars are female, and so on. The specifics, though, vary widely from realm to realm. Foreigners violating those norms are regarded as odd or a little crazy, but are excused on the grounds of being ignorant barbarians who don’t know any better, and widows and widowers are accounted free of any such restrictions. Most warriors are male, but there is an active tradition of woman warriors as well. A monarch is as likely to be a king as a queen; in the vicious game of Chigan politics, winning is what matters most. Monasteries are usually single-sex and the few which aren’t have strictly segregated facilities. However, men and women are equally likely to become monks, and both will have no trouble finding a monastery to take them.

Chigan societies recognize a complex scheme of life stages, ascribing proper activities and relationships to each. Generally speaking, infants are treated very indulgently, but those old enough to walk and speak become subject to strict discipline and, often, demanding education. By mid-adolescence, young people should be marriage prospects, though most spend four or five years “on the market” before marriages are arranged for them. Adolescents and younger adults take on more responsibilities within the family and whatever enterprises it carries on (and young adults are expected to start having children as soon as they’re married), but only when they approach middle age do they generally take on oversight of the family and its business. At an advanced age, people are expected to go into partial retirement, spending more time in virtue-building activities and advising people of late middle age or younger.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chigan: Religion

Chigan’s native religion acknowledges an indefinite but very large number of gods. Mountains, winds, classes of plants and animals, stages of life, strong emotions, and just about any other aspect of life and the natural world has at least one god. There is some dispute over whether the god of, say, the southeast wind as he is worshiped in one place is the same as the god of the southeast wind in another but under a different name, a physically separate aspect of a primal god of southeast winds (who is in turn an aspect of an even more fundamental god of the winds), or an entirely separate entity. However, the debate is largely scholarly, with most people worshiping the gods they grew up with.

Practical aspects of religion concern the accumulation of what is loosely called “benefit” or more commonly “virtue.” Virtue, in this context, comprises a variety of good and selfless acts, physical and emotional suffering, and esoteric meditation and practices. Different acts can provide different kinds of virtue, which in turn are believed to grant different kinds of moral and physical power, but there is significant overlap. For example, many believe that, say, giving a bowl of rice to a poor person provides a certain moral virtue, but giving up that rice from one’s own meal instead of eating it provides a physical virtue as well (mere starvation because of poverty is insufficient; self-denial must be a deliberate act).

When a soul acquires enough virtue, it ascends to a different and eternal plane; there are several different such planes corresponding to different types of virtue: scholarly, familial, martial, and so on. The quantity of virtue necessary to do this, though, is vastly greater than most people can accumulate in a single lifetime, so souls are reincarnated several times before they can do so. Souls approaching transcendence are believed to inhabit people in a position to accumulate more of the virtue they already have. Monks and priests, for example, are often seen as reincarnated souls which have accumulated “prayerful” virtues, while having a large family is seen as both a cause and result of accumulated familial virtue.

As a consequence of the doctrine of accumulated virtue, practice of the local religion is less focused on influencing the gods (though cultivating their favor or at least not angering them is universally regarded as a good idea) and more on exercises to acquire whatever types of virtue the individual desires. Just about any action, if undertaken with a spiritual mindset, might be regarded as suitable to gaining virtue. Many roadways, for example, are maintained by the labor of volunteers seeking to better their spiritual position. For those who can afford teachers, martial arts training is a popular method of accumulating virtue, and many tiny highland monasteries offer the opportunity to acquire both prayerful and martial virtue.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Chigan: Politics

Most realms are either straightforward monarchies ruled by a leading military clan or theocracies governed by a high priest or a monastery. A minority is some sort of republic, typically a merchant oligarchy, or divided into small “feudal” domains build around fortified family strongholds. Both tend to collapse into a more centralized authoritarian regime after a few generations.

Though there are no authorities over the region as a whole, either in legal fiction or actual fact (there has never been a “Chigan empire”), there are some cultural traditions which at least give Chigan a framework for interacting with one another. Many of Chigan’s more powerful families are connected by marriages arranged to create alliances between them. However, since new marriages are arranged to facilitate a constantly shifting set of alliances, actual loyalties are quite muddled. Instead of a family in valley A being allied with one in valley B but not valley C, it’s more often the case that A has lines of communication with B and C (to say nothing of D, E, and F), and will actively cooperate with the one which gives it the most advantage.

Valley realms are not known for their warm relationships with one another. Cross-border raiding is common, but larger actions are rare. Even ignoring the problems of marching an army up one steep hillside and down another, it’s very easy to fortify the few viable passes into a realm. Small guerrilla forces of expert climbers can make more difficult trips across unguarded areas and disrupt a neighboring realm, but invasions in force are vastly more difficult. Where open warfare is practiced, it is usually preceded by softening up the enemy by some combination of supporting internal discord (sponsoring a revolt is very common), targeted raiding, and blockades, usually in cooperation with neighboring allies. However, the realms are generally, though grudgingly, at peace with one another, and so a certain amount of trade can go on between them.