Monday, 24 October 2016

A raven speaks to heaven


Did you know that 9th century Turkic shamans came up with a d4-based divination system that you can straight up use in your games right now today? They did! The Irk Bitig (“Book of Omens’) is exactly that, using 3 sequentially rolled d4s to generate a fortune and a prognostication for it. Like so (further commentary below):

Omen
Summary of the interpretation
Prognostication
1-1-1
A white-spotted falcon perches in a sandalwood tree.
none
1-1-2
A woman drops her mirror in a lake.
distressing and very bad
1-1-3
A single meadowsweet shrub multiplies to become many thousand plants.
good
1-1-4
A man encounters a god who wishes him plentiful livestock and long life.
good
1-2-1
The khan went hunting and caught a roe buck.
good
1-2-2
A bear and a boar fight together, and are both injured.
bad
1-2-3
A golden-headed snake.
bad
1-3-1
A slave speaks to his master; a raven speaks to heaven.
good
1-3-2
A fawn is without grass and water.
bad
1-3-3
A camel is stuck in a marsh, and is eaten by a fox.
bad
1-3-4
An old ox is bitten by ants.
bad
1-4-1
Chicks, fawns and children lost in the fog are found safe after three years.
good
1-4-2
A hawk pounces on a rabbit, but it injures its claws and the rabbit escapes.
bad
1-4-3
A roan horse and a bay horse are made to run until they are exhausted.
bad
1-4-4
A tiger returns to its den after finding some prey.
good
2-1-1
khan rules a stable country, and has many good men at his court.
good
2-1-2
A man arrives with good news.
good
2-1-3
yargun (?) deer climbs the mountains during the summer.
good
2-1-4
A fat horse is stolen.
bad
2-2-1
A girl's lover has died, and the water in her pail has frozen.
painful to start with, and good later
2-2-2
The Son of Heaven sits on a golden throne.
good
2-2-3
A white male camel.
good
2-2-4
A roan horse is fettered and cannot move.
bad
2-3-1
A stallion summers beneath the nut trees, and winters beneath the trees where the birds roost.
good
2-3-2
It rains and the grass grows.
good
2-3-3
A horse that is lost in the desert finds grass to eat and water to drink.
good
2-3-4
A raven is tied to a tree.
none
2-4-1
A tent is in good condition.
very good
2-4-2
chieftain sees a white mare, a white camel and the third princess giving birth.
very good
2-4-3
A leopard yawns in the reeds.
none
2-4-4
A khan returns victorious from battle.
good
3-1-2
When a man is depressed and the sky is cloudy the sun comes out.
good
3-1-3
A blind foal tries to suckle at a stallion.
bad
3-1-3
A yoke of oxen harnessed to a plough cannot move.
bad
3-1-4
Heaven decrees that a slave girl becomes a queen.
good
3-2-1
A big house burns down.
bad
3-2-2
A son who argued with his parents runs away and later comes back home.
good
3-2-3
Something to do with not making a "year stink" (?) or a "month go bad" (?).
good
3-2-4
A white-spotted cow gives birth to a white-spotted male calf.
good
3-3-1
An old hoopoe sings at the new year.
none
3-3-2
A fat horse has a hard mouth that will not heal.
bad
3-3-3
An eagle with golden wings catches and eats whatever it wants.
good
3-3-4
A falcon hunting water birds encounters an eagle.
bad
3-4-1
A crane lands but is caught in a snare.
bad
3-4-1
A grey falcon with a white neck sits on a rock, and summers in a poplar tree.
very good
3-4-1
A tiger encounters a wild goat, but the goat escapes down a cliff.
good
3-4-2
An abandoned old woman stays alive by licking a greasy spoon.
none
3-4-3
A hunter falls over.
bad
3-4-4
The old god of the road who mends things brings order to the country.
none
4-1-1
A man has no titles and a bad reputation.
very bad
4-1-2
A man goes to war, and makes a name for himself.
very good
4-1-3
A white horse.
good
4-1-4
A woman who has left her cups and bowls behind returns and finds them where she left them.
good
4-2-1
The sun rises and shines on the world.
good
4-2-2
A sheep encounters a wolf but remains safe.
good
4-2-3
A poor man's son returns home after earning some money.
good
4-2-4
Some felt falls into the water.
bad
4-3-1
A stag with nine-pronged antlers bellows.
good
4-3-2
A butcher gains ninety sheep.
good
4-3-3
An eagle summers on a green rock, and winters on a red rock.
none
4-3-4
A man returning from war encounters a swan who leads him home.
good
4-4-1
A stout-hearted young man shoots an arrow that splits a rock.
good
4-4-2
A boy finds some eagle droppings.
good
4-4-3
Messengers on a yellow horse and a dark brown horse bring good news.
very good
4-4-4
The god of the road riding on a dappled horse bestows his favour on two travellers.
good

(Yes, this chart is slightly fucked up: it has more than one entry for a couple of rolls and is missing entries for a couple of others. You want knowledge from 12 centuries ago to be transmitted faultlessly, or do you want to embrace the weirdness?)

Like, this guy can probably tell a fortune or two
This is great as an in-game divination chart: the crone at the crossroads, once her palm is crossed with silver, can inform your players that ‘it rains and the grass grows’ (2-3-2), and that this is a good omen: and it’s sufficiently vague to act as a prophecy in most situations. It also has all the right imagery for a steppe-campaign, or for any campaign that features a vaguely steppe-style culture: orcs as Mongols, elves as Mongols, they both work.

But these fortunes are not just useful in-game: they also function externally to the game as adventure hooks, and there is a powerfully pleasing synchronicity to doing this. You can have the wayside witch prophecy ‘a woman drops her mirror in a lake’ (1-1-2) and make it sound metaphorical, and then you can straight-up have your players accosted by a distraught maiden who has lost her enchanted mirror in a nearby mountain lake. It’s a trap, of course: the lake is the abode of a witch, or it is 777 feet deep and utterly lightless, or the maiden is a flesh-eating horse-spirit out to drown her prey. ‘A poor man’s son returns home after earning some money’ (4-2-3) is a tasty recipe for tension in the next village.

Some of them are a little more cryptic: ‘a bear and a boar fight together and are both injured’ could just be a wilderness encounter for the party to cautiously creep past, but it’s going to be more fun if the bear and the boar are a local abbot and a bandit leader, with their rivalry dividing the valley. ‘Heaven decrees that a slave girl becomes a queen’ (3-1-4) is an entire goddamn campaign in a single sentence. Do the party elevate her? Are they the ones who discover her, Heaven moving through her to effect its ends? Do they work against her? Is she, in fact, a party member? Can she refuse Heaven’s command? Can you refuse the deep witchcraft of using 9th century steppe magic on your players? You cannot.