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The Civilised Voice - Alternative


Alex Greene

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And so it's the turn of civilised cultures to come under the spotlight.

The words "civic," "civil," "civilian," "civility," and "civilisation" come from a Latin root, "civitas," city. It can be argued that a civilised nation is one which has reached a sufficient level of sophistication as to require urban developments - the formation of communities into cities, plural.

Throughout history, there have been a good many examples of civilised societies, each of which thought itself the pinnacle of human societal development. Until they weren't.

What, then, makes a civilisation? The cities? The languages? The landmarks? The wonders? The songs?

It could be argued that it is consensus and consistency alone which define a group of people as a civilisation or a society - the agreement that all members of that society share a common identity, history, language, and so on, and the independent standardisation of the stories the members tell of themselves, how they came to be, and who they are.

Arguably, it's the consensus which defines a civilisation. No civilisation ever declared itself to be the barbarians.

Strange Nations

This time, this blog looks at the civilisations you create for roleplaying games, rather than real world historical civilisations. The Earth has so damn many civilisations and societies that to chart them all, from their origins to their downfalls, would fill the syllabuses of entire universities. As, indeed, it does.

You don't need a doctorate to create a culture for Mythras - not a Primitive, Barbarian, Nomadic, or Civilised culture. Going by what's on the market, most roleplaying game settings just set up civilisations as backdrops for adventures, with a cursory paragraph or two defining the known history of how the city came to be, and so on. Few settings ever take the time to write long and detailed historical essays about their settings (Kelestia Publications' Summa Venariva, which defines the history of Venarive, Northwest Lythia, for the Harnworld setting, is one exception), and fewer readers will pay good money for such a book, apart from diehard completists.

Settings are presented as is, with stock tropes of Nomadic, Primitive, and Barbarian outsiders coming to the relatively static Town to sample the food, the ale, and the willing nightlife. As a Games Master or setting creator, you are not bound to follow any logical structure for defining your civilisation; but for verisimilitude, here are some guidelines.

Water

Water is the hidden element which defines where the centres of civilisation will set up. Crop plants will only grow where there is an abundant supply of water. Plants can grow in desert conditions, but not without some source of water coming from somewhere - the Atacama Desert is described as the driest place on Earth, and the only plant life which grows anywhere in that most arid of wastes exists because of the fogs which blow over the barrier mountains from the Pacific. Without the clouds bringing airborne moisture, there'd be nothing growing there at all.

Water enables plant growth. Abundant water brings herbivores, carnivores, and eventually humans. Those who decide to settle in these places of abundant water eventually found the communities which grow into cities.

Agriculture

A society develops into a civilisation when it can move out of basic subsistence farming, where intensive labour provides only just enough to satisfy one's immediate needs. Advances in farming technology, such as the Archimedes Screw, the mouldboard plough, and selective breeding of grains and domesticated animals for different characteristics such as food animals for their meat or milk, or other herd animals for their skins or wool, yield a surplus of goods which can be taken to a city for trade with its every-growing hungry population.

Other forms of domestication include apiary (beekeping), domestication of birds for their meat (chicken in particular), and even silkworms to produce silk. Just don't ask how they go about extracting the silk from the silkworm caterpillars' cocoons. You'll never touch silk again.

Surplus means trade - trade for better equipment, for money, for labour to improve on the buildings of the holdings - and even time, because if you have a stock of goods you can sell, and some way of preserving them from rot and vermin, you won't have to labour so hard to fill your stocks - and that means time to begin to pursue leisure pursuits not related to growing crops or animal husbandry.

Trade

Of course, trade goes both ways - goods come in, goods go out. Coin is a useful guide to measure the worth of something, but many civilisations exist for centuries without a currency, just going by honouring debts and bartering. Currency can be food, equipment, labour or more abstract things such as artworks. The independent publishers WMB Saltworks have published a book listing 108 different forms of currency, and some of these are historically relevant - such as salt, which was so valued to the ancient Romans that it was used to pay the wages of the Empire's soldiers - hence the word salary, which derives from the Latin word for salt, and the modern phrase "Worth their salt."

One harsh note here - a lot of ancient and not so ancient civilisations considered disenfranchised people a form of currency, too. The history of the world is a lot darker than the history books would have it, because many of the monuments and cities listed in those books were likely built, and maintained, but never run by, slaves.

Communications

Travelling along the trade routes with the cargoes would have been information; gossip, news, songs, jokes, and stories. Instructional information - planting advice, recipes, and so on - are also transmitted along these trade routes. In time, they become a corpus of information which, at least in civilisations, become solidified on paper - which leads us to:-

Writing and Arithmetic

One of the earliest signs of a civilisation, though not a definitive sign, is the adoption of a writing system to abstract trade, turning words into symbols to represent cargoes and consignments of trade goods, and number systems to quantify amounts.

Gradually, writing systems expand beyond their remit of facilitating trade to encompass the transmission of stories, poems, and so on.

Laws and Standards

As a development from trade, civilisations develop standardised weights and measures to determine the standards by which traders must follow, in an attempt to establish universal consistency across the market places in all parts of the overall community or polity which shares the common cultural identity. Lawmakers arise, to press their stamp on fair trading standards on things like the length of cloth, standard weights of grains, the prescribed formulae of medicines, and so on. Trade guilds form to codify the authorised procedures which members of the guild must apply to their work, and set the standards of quality of goods, and the market prices.

The highest forms of laws governing such topics as crime, enforcement, trials, and punishments, srise from the earliest trade laws. It does not take long for the law to change to forbid murder, once some landowner starts killing off their neighbours to take their land.

Shared Resources

This, then, is where civilisations develop, when there is a shared experience of history, carried down through the generations both orally and in written form; where systems regulating trade develop into bureaucracies, and all that leisure time develops into arts and crafts, songs, poetry, myths and legends. Every culture develops its cultural identity through art, but civilisations do what they can to preserve the material forms of those expressions - artworks, books, journals, recipe collections, history books, and so on. Biijs, including libraries of scrolls, enable people to learn what once had only been available to a selected few who'd been entrusted to keeping the oral records through recitation.

Community and Identity

In the end, it is the people who define their society as a civilisation. It is people who are responsible for maintaining the histories and creating their own, for sharing their dreams and composing new songs, for forgetting stories only to have mystified future historians dig them up down the line.

Most other cultures generally have little time for such things as professional dancers, artists, and philosophers - and there is a threshold through which a society must pass in order to be considered a civilisation, something which does not depend on inventions and technology, but on the ability of its individual members to live out entire lives pursuing abstract goals unrelated to living out a life making or growing things just to survive. It is the move away from subsistence which provides the roots for the consensus and consistency which define that which is shared by the civilisation.

The Civilised Voice

Here, then, is the alternative Civilised Voice. This one is set in Fioracitta, the Heart of Power.

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My name is Zurhan al-Turaph, and this is my journal. I have been asked to provide a regular journal of my daily activities and musings. A man in Lascha East swears to me that my written thoughts can be a source of much luchre from an ever-increasing, demanding audience, so I cannot deny him his ambitions, however vain they seem to be to me. After all, what harm can it do to write about my life?

The hardest thing for me to write about is contemporary idiomatic speech. What exactly does it mean when somebody is rolling in the pigs? It is an expression much used among the young to denote someone who has come into wealth. Personally, I cannot see the metaphor. Pigs are inedible to me, carriers of parasites, dwellers in their own filth.

Although, now I've written down those words, perhaps the metaphor does describe the rich, and their behaviour once they have money. I cannot exactly exempt myself, since my home in Degianna appears to be the most expensive home of this party of Adventurers to which I have become attached, and I am considerably wealthier than all of them put together.

Perhaps this is a timely warning to myself not to allow myself to follow suit and "roll in pigs."

I would introduce the other members of this expedition, but they have all requested that I refrain from dropping names. They are all, in their own way, charming and peculiar. One, a Latolian, was once seen by myself as they emerged from the staff entrance of The Painted Mask in Lascha East District, before crossing the piazza to attend services at the San Tamaggia opposite. Until then, I had never met a more beautiful - looking person. I was assured by my employer that they are definitely human, unlike my Bestia and Longane colleagues.

I am not startled by the sight of Bestia, Longane, Monacielli and Serpent People roaming the streets - my old mentor was a Besti - but these two companions of mine are a rare breed. I had never seen anyone swim that lake as quickly as my Longane companion. I swear, she must have mystical capabilities.

The other two are as human as I am, though they have not got, nor can they imagine, my history. My story is unique. As with the Latolian, I am not certain of the sex of one of my colleagues - I swear, they are male one moment and female the next, or so it seems in the dark of this place we are exploring. A trick of the light, perhaps. The other, a well-dressed and refined man, reminds me so much of myself in my impetuous, cocky, callow youth.

So, then, these are the people I am to work with. And a fine assembly they are. I watched them from the vantage of the rowing boat which bore me to the boat dock of the house we are to explore. My boat was last, of course, and apart from my rower I was alone; but I watched the others as they sat in pairs in their boats, chatting and gossiping excitedly.

I have not yet told them about the destination, this house in Escharro we have to explore. Namely, that I think I may know its layout better than they can imagine. It is tied to my story - for this is the home of my old mentor in the Arts of the Benedittara.

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If you want to know the rest, see if there's a space available in "A Race Through Dark Places" at GenCon on the 17th and 18th of September, at GenCon Online.

Or you can wait till I publish the fanfic afterwards ...

Edited by Alex Greene

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