Portable Culture

February 1, 2012

In my last update (of any length) I talked about the dazzling dangers that planet Horizon inflicts on those with the temerity to, y’know, DARE WALK ITS SURFACE. But living in the realms of men isn’t all thunderstones from the sky and searing heat and bitter cold.

It’s manageable it you travel. When it gets hot in the south, you go north and check out the game and fruit of lands that you haven’t visited for a year. When it’s cooling down in the north and the fish are starting to thin out, you move south. Famine’s rare because no one’s staying in one place long enough to reduce its edible species below the sustainability threshold. Moreover, a nomad population has a built-in population cap. So there’s always enough, if you work hard enough.

The tribes of Horizon are essentially snowbirds, writ large and armed with machetes.

This raises the question though: How advanced can a civilization GET without a sunk-in economic base. If you’re only in each region for one season of the year, how are you going to manage mining? If you don’t develop farming, who’s going to pay enough attention to figure out astronomy? Without reliable farm harvests, how do you get food supplies that can support survival-inessential people like judges and minstrels?

For the answers to these, I just take the license offered by a fantasy setting and cheat, cheat, cheat.

The mining question is easy, as I mentioned before: Having meteorite showers every year certainly leaves one strip of land uninhabitable in the long term, but there’s very nice iron to be had, if you can get to it first. If you can skip straight to ironmongery, why bother with bronze? Gold is nice, but you can find that by panning in streams, too (probably while looking for crayfish). It’s not essential.

Players who really want astronomy (which, as the computer game Civilization taught us all, leads to navigation) can fall back on the meteorites as well. You have crap like that flying out of the sky, you start to pay attention. Just as reasonably, mapping the constellations might seem like a splendid idea for people who are constantly on the move, especially through the Ironfall Waste. Pummeled by rocks for geological aeons, there are fewer prominent landmarks by which to steer, but you have to cross it to get away from winter’s chill and summer’s swelter. Sounds like a reason to guide yourself by the stars to me.

Finally, you have the question of the higher social classes and deeper thinkers—the kinds of people that a society’s hard-pressed to develop if comfortable survival demands perpetual motion. As a solution I propose giant turtles.

Not literal turtles, of course, but picture something tortoise-shaped, only the size of an Earthly suburban cul-de-sac. Call it 200 yards by 120 yards, big but not unmanageable. I see it with side-mounted jaws the size of a pine tree, restlessly sweeping any trees, shrubs or tall grass into its mouth, chomp chomp chomp, and it crawls forward on hundreds of legs, each the size of an elephant, flattening everything behind it but leaving a shorn plain ready for renewed growth. These creatures (called “suterraps”) were semi-domesticated generations ago and, while their top speed is 3-4 miles an hour, they never rest, never pause and are amenable to some human guidance.

On the suterrap’s back, you build the better class of home, along with your meeting halls, churches, ironmongeries, schools and similar structures required for heavy thinking and social evolution.

The suterrap is central to the Horizon tribes, the same way the horse was to the Mongols. They keep the tribes moving and unified, because the better things in life—governance, organization and culture—are all based on their backs. You can live outside their orbit, but it’s either a settled existence where the weather punishes you for a third of the year, or you’re a roving bandit preying off what you can trade for, steal from, or beg off the four big nations. Each of the four tribes has around a dozen suterraps and they spread out in their long, gradual orbits of well-worn migratory routes.

The social classes of the four tribes are all based on travel. Specifically, how you do it.

The highest class, as you might expect, are those who are smart or strong or ruthless enough to get someplace on a suterrap’s back. They’re known as ‘Those Above’ and they’re the elite.

The bottom class is the Walkers, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. Many of them have horses, ox-carts or other beasts of burden. But to them, a horse is just one tool among many. These people are mostly gatherers, woodcutters and pedestrians. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t run away from you, you get it from the Walkers.

In between those Above and the Walkers, you have the Riders. Nobody ever told them they aren’t the upper class. They grudgingly pay the Above with barter or respect, but to a Rider, there’s nothing better than ranging wide, hunting hard and being a swaggering macho badass. (I anticipate many player groups will favor Riders.) They hunt down stuff that won’t stand still—mostly game, but they’re also the rough militia, posturing and yelling at the Riders who follow different suterraps within their tribe, and getting rougher still with Riders of other tribes when they encounter them on the periphery. Because, after all, when you’ve got populations in motion to stay within constantly-shifting bands of tolerable climate, they’re occasionally going to bump into one another.

Next Time: Levels of Social Contact and Why That Makes for Cool Fights.