November 29, 2016

Of Battle Cats and Saddle Birds

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One of the coolest ways to say ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore’ is to have flying mounts in your world. Or if not a flying mount, some bad-ass horse-alternative like a giant flightless bird, or giant canine, or even a giant feline; in short, badass often means carnivore.

Done carelessly though, this can shoot a conworld’s believability full of holes. Let’s leave the questions of gravity and aeronautics aside for now, but focus instead on the factor that has the greatest impact on the rest of the setting; fuel. What does your big, badass, carnivorous, maybe flying mount eat? How much, and how often? And where do you get it?

An animal large and strong enough to carry a human in flight is certain to require lots of food. If it’s a carnivore, it needs a lot of meat; if a herbivore, it needs a lot of fodder, an even greater mass of it since plant matter contains a lower calorie concentration than meat. There’s also the issue of a herbivorous digestion requiring a larger stomach or constant feeding, or both. It’s why a cow spends more time eating than a tiger does.

Carnivorousness creates another problem: territoriality. Eagles, which weigh far less than a dog and would have difficulty carrying even a small child any distance, require huge hunting ranges just to feed themselves. This makes them highly territorial, and thus, rather antisocial among their own kind. How can we then keep giant eagles or the like in a stable?

In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, the pastoral economy of Pern revolves around providing the dragon-weyrs with a tribute of livestock. The dragonriders are few, but their mounts consume a large proportion of their world’s food production. The weyrs’ requirements are so high, that in Dragonriders of Pern one of the lord holders threatens to rebel against the system.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, the Na’Vi tame giant raptors for hunting. Their entire planet is a jungle, and the Na’Vi are few, so as long as they keep their planet a jungle, there will be enough meat to go around. Avatar also offers a solution to the eagles-in-a-stable conundrum: the mountain banshees nest in rookeries like seabirds. They’re already social by nature, despite their carnivorousness.

In S.M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, a few elite Martians keep stables of genetically engineered giant eagles, Paiteng. At first I found this really odd by the lights of the setting – how do you get enough feed on a  dying planet? But then you remember that the Martians are master biotechnologists, and their main source of meat is renewable; their domesticated, or rather genetically engineered Rooz bird grows a neck-flap of meat that regrows after harvesting. The Paiteng are very few, reserved only for the elites. As for their territoriality, again they’ve likely been genetically engineered to be social.

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel offers a very valuable insight for world-builders in the section where he compares animal domestication patterns worldwide. Why, of all the animals large enough to carry a human being, did the horse end up our main carrier by such a huge margin? Diamond cites a host of factors that all came together in the horse that were lacking in other ungulates, even in its close relatives the zebra and the wild ass.

The horse had just the right mix of anatomical build, sociability and disposition, genetics (which allowed the development of different breeds for different purposes), dietary requirements, hardiness and adaptability to suit our needs. Zebras, donkeys, antelope, the South American camelids, buffaloes and oxen did not. Charles Saunders’ vision of African tribal cavalry on Cape Buffalos kicks ass, but it’s very unlikely; the Cape Buffalo is simply too badass to be tamed that way.

Finding the right balance between Rule of Cool and plausibility is always a challenge. I’m currently mulling over a new sword-and-planet novel, and yes, I want flying mounts in it; but coming up with a believable premise that hasn’t been done before is not easy.

Giant, social flying piscivores won’t work because the setting is a desert planet. The genetic engineering/advanced biotech angle doesn’t work for me either, because the setting is post-apocalyptic. That environmental premise also knocks out the Avatar-style notion that there’s simply enough to be hunted.

I think I have my idea down for the terrestrial riding animal though: A fleet desert-dweller, warm-blooded dinosauroid, lives in small herds, scratches insects and roots from the desert floor with its big foreclaws rather like a meerkat. Rears up into bipedal stance to fight with those same claws, thus battle mounts are fitted with thoracic armor.

Since I’ve a fascination with Asian history and war elephants, I couldn’t resist coming up with a giant-size war beast: A big ape-like creature, normally walks on four limbs but switches to bipedal mode to fight. Its hands are often armored in steel, because its favorite attack is to smash down with doubled fists, a la the Hulk. In sieges, it throws big stones and tears gates from their hinges. A living tank, catapult, and wrecking machine all in one … and yes, it’s a herbivore because otherwise it’d be too much to feed.

PS. I started writing meaning to say something about Tolkien’s wargs and He-Man’s Battle Cat, but I guess I said all I needed to about predators as riding animals already.

November 6, 2016

Hari Ragat Art Previewed in Wellington NZ!

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Thanks to Ambassador Jesus Gary Domingo, Philippine envoy to New Zealand, for including Hari Ragat art posters in his recent Diwata-themed exhibit at the Pistang Pilipino in Wellington!

Some of you may have been wondering if I’m dead. I’m not, heh. But a bad back has kept me from writing at all the past few weeks, so progress on readying Hari Ragat for release has slowed.

September 19, 2016

The Shield from Across the Sea

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Round shields are far less common in the Philippines, most tribes from back to the arrival of the Spaniards being recorded as carrying the tall, narrow kalasag instead. The round shield is called Tamin in parts of Mindanao, but elsewhere it is also known as Palisay.

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Now I’d always thought that Palisay was a local word, until while browsing an article on Sinhalese arms and armor I came across a very surprising detail: they called their round shields Palisa. Further research revealed a bunch of other very similar names: Phari in Northern India, Paliha in South India, Perisai in Sumatra. They all referred to a round shield, often of wicker, with a central boss; as one goes south, additional bosses are added around the center to form the pattern you see at top.

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I’ve seen shields both with and without the bosses here. The boss-less shields are usually of carved wood coming from the Sulu and Maguindanao areas. There are also wicker ones, both with and without brass bosses; and a few entirely of brass, with very ornamental bosses in the form of six- or eight-pointed stars, or other symmetrical polygons often seen in Islamic art.

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I think this gives a clue as to where the Palisa came from. The word itself is very likely Indian, given the spread of the term across various Indian languages down to Ceylon. The predominance of Islamic motifs and the almost exclusive use by Muslim tribes tells me the most likely source of this shield design: it came from our west, that is across the Indian Ocean, brought by Indian and Arab traders, likely adopted in Malacca, and from there to Mindanao.

September 8, 2016

Beer-Braised Chicken

It’s been a while since I posted a fire-n-forget cooking recipe, but tonight’s dinner reminded me that it was perfect for this topic. The whole point of this ongoing series is to give gamers who like to cook something quick and easy to make for game night, and what could be easier than dicing a few ingredients and popping them into an oven?

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2kg chicken, preferably thighs
  • 1/2 can strong-ish beer (pilsen)
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 tomatoes
  • bay leaf
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • chili powder, to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

PROCEDURE

Combine brown sugar and seasonings with all the liquid ingredients. Arrange the chicken in a deep baking dish and pour the mixture over it. Mix well; if you have the time, it’ll be good to let the chicken marinade in this for about an hour. I didn’t, but it still turned out good.

Bake at 240-250 C for 45 minutes. Serves 3-4 people, just multiply the recipe as needed for your group. And remember, whenever you cook with beer you’ll get the best results by pouring half into the cook.

July 7, 2016

The Greatness of David Gemmell

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Psychological Sword and Sorcery. Two trope families that at first seem incredibly distant, perhaps even exclusive. And yet David Gemmell seamlessly blended them to awesome effect. How did he do it?

Perhaps the answer lies in Gemmell's own rough past, his reformation at the hands of his stepfather and boxing training, and most heavily in how he got started in fantasy. Diagnosed with cancer, Gemmell thought he had only a few months or years left to live, and was moved to write a story about it. The story would take the form of a hopeless siege, as an allegory for the cancer; if he got cured the fort would stand, if not the fort would fall. Thus Legend, and a legend, were born.

Time and again in his novels Gemmell goes back to the lessons he learned in life to animate his characters. One of the most striking features of the Gemmell novels is how much they emphasize psychology. The crippling effects of fear and doubt. The false power of anger, and its ultimate weakness. The colossal role of confidence in victory. Inner demons, always larger the greater the hero wrestling with them.

In Legend, the aging, has-been champion Druss rallies the confidence of the demoralized garrison to the point that they successfully hold the doomed fort. In The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, the young Druss receives valuable lessons in anger management from a champion boxer. I think a large part of that was Gemmell paying homage to the life debt he had to his foster father. In The White Wolf, Skilgannon has to live with the guilt of an entire city massacred by his command. And in almost every novel, the line between living and dying for the mortally hurt is neither strength nor science, but their will to live.

The result of this outlook is incredibly powerful narrative, the equal or even the superior of Robert E. Howard's breathless energy and pacing. Yes, sword and sorcery can work even when written from inside a character's head rather than dwelling on his iron thews. We can only wonder, with regret, what an even older and wiser Gemmell could have accomplished had he not been taken away by a heart attack in 2006.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a compulsive homage to Gemmell in the form of a little RPG, Chronicles of the Drenai. I tried to adopt Gemmell's approaches to character building and narrative by building the game around overcoming Passions, like Fear of Harm to resolve combat.

Re-reading it, I have to smile at how crude the game is. The passion mechanics still seem promising*, though, making me wonder if it's suitable for a generic sword and sorcery game with a psychological bent. Perhaps with enough work it will make a worthy offering to the great Saga Masters now in Valhalla.

*Original French blog post for the link above.

July 6, 2016

Living Arrows of the Sea

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A Vijadesan riddle asks about an arrow of moonlight that swims by day; the answer is the Balo or garfish. This long, slim fish can grow up to a yard long, with a sharp six-inch beak, and often bursts out of the water in spectacular jumps, impaling anything in the way. Sometimes entire schools jump in unison, raining over ships and boats like a flight of arrows. They do this not to attack, but to escape predators in the water, or merely because something surprised them.

When hooked, though, Balo will sometimes charge the fisherman. They are a very common hazard across the Janggalans, and have injured or killed many. The worst thing about them, though, is that their flight is all too often just a harbinger of something much bigger and nastier coming.


This creature for Hari Ragat is based on the real-life Needlefish, aka Garfish or Houndfish. It’s very common in tropical waters, and I used to encounter them often when I was snorkeling as a kid in Puerto Galera. Little did I know then how dangerous they could be. Here’s a scary description of what they can do.

July 5, 2016

Ottoman Origin of Philippine Mail?

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I once found a blog claiming that the kurab a kulang, the signature brass mail and plate armor of the Mindanao Muslim tribes, was of Turkish origin. The blogger pointed out the Ottoman expedition to Aceh as the start of manufacturing this kind of mail in Southeast Asia. This is an interesting point, and with lack of clear evidence it’s hard to prove or disprove. Personally I don’t agree with it.

Item: The kurab a kulang was used by the Tausugs, Maguindanaos, Maranaos, and the Bugis people of Sulawesi. It was not found in large quantities by either the Spanish or the Americans, and was likely used only by leaders, very rich people and perhaps their bodyguards. However, there are still quite a few examples floating around, specially among American museums and collectors, and the Museo Armeria Real in Madrid.

Item: The kurab a kulang is mail and plate in Indo-Persian style, which does encompass the Turkish style. However, it is not fashioned after the Ottoman prestige style of the krug, which has a rounded or octagonal belly plate.

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The krug was the armor worn by Ottoman officers and its elite cavalry, the equivalent of European knights, called spahis. Had the Moros been imitating the Ottomans, and given the fact that Moro armor was made for the elites, why didn’t they adopt the round belly plate? All the Philippine and Buginese armors I’ve personally seen or found photos of have square or rectangular plates.

Item: Other styles of Ottoman armor are usually characterized by plates set very close together, even overlapping. This makes the armor really heavy, but that worked for the Turks because they were meant for mounted combat. The kurab a kulang however is characterized by plates spaced rather widely apart, likely to save weight and to remain cooler in the tropical heat.

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Item: The closest kind of armor I’ve seen to Moro armor is Indian, in particular the armor of Sindh.

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As you can see, this Sindhi armor consists entirely of rectangular plates spaced widely apart and connected by mail, very much like the kurab a kulang.

If the kurab a kulang owes its origin to the Ottoman expedition, it is not a Turkish design but rather derives from their allies and mercenaries, which included many Sindhis, Gujaratis, and Malabarese.

Chances are, though, that such armor was already being made in the islands well before 1565. For one thing, armor was known and used much more widely here than we think.

The indigenous epics often mention the heroes wearing ‘war-coats.’ These were mostly of fabric and padded with cotton or abaca fiber. Some were stiffened with scales of hardened carabao hide, brass, carabao horn and other materials. American forces found these in widespread use throughout Mindanao, and the Spaniards did mention some of the natives wearing ‘escaupilles,’ the same word they applied to the padded cotton vests used by the Aztecs.

For another, Malacca and Borneo had long been trading directly with India and Arabia, and by the time the Spaniards arrived the rajahnate of Manila was a Bornean vassal state, while Butuan had already passed its glory days as a rival of the Cham empire in Vietnam. Indian armorers were likely long in business already in the major ports and royal capitals when Magellan arrived, and their techniques were quickly learned by the locals.

These armorers had had time to adopt their design to tropical usage, stripping away the long sleeves and leg pieces, which would’ve been too hot and heavy to use here. And they had turned to working almost exclusively in brass, with non-metallic plates on some pieces (horn, lacquered leather, etc), likely due to the scarcity of iron and its tendency to rust easily. Brass mail rings were common in India, but there they were mixed with iron rings to form Ganga-Jumna mail, with alternating yellow and gray patterns.

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Perhaps another factor in the use of brass was the local affinity for it; brassworking is a well-developed art all over the Malay lands, specially but not exclusively among the Muslim Malays. Among the non-Muslim Lumad tribes of Mindanao entire villages would specialize in brassworking, existing in intricate trade networks with other specialist villages that produced basketry, pottery, weapons and tools, and so on.

The kurab a kulang though existed only among the Muslim tribes. Only these coastal traders could afford the sheer quantity of metal that went into them. So whether Turkish or not, these armors are really interesting examples of how Indian and Islamic arts influenced the Philippines. Maybe one day I’ll find evidence that’ll settle the question for good.

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