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Late reading of Exalted: the Lunars

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  • Isator Levi
    Okay, the chapter finishes with a list of sample tribal peoples from across the Directions. I think these are mostly going to be familiar, so I’m going to try to be briefer about each of them; mostly just noting their presence, and any interesting (or troubling) details that are attached to any of them here.

    There is an introductory section, and it touches on something that has been troubling me for a while; when it describes barbarians as launching lightning raids on the Scavenger Lands and then falling back to the world’s edge, it makes me pretty sure that this chapter is being written according to the same picture of a much smaller Creation that Scavenger Sons was running off of. That feels a little bit sloppy, but it’s not unique here. Otherwise, I think it was good for it to place barbarians a bit closer to the centre, either in the form of people living in the spaces in between nations or how nominal borders can still incorporate people who don’t acknowledge the central authority and live in the manner the rest of the chapter has described (with an accompanying sidebar about these “hill tribes” and the tensions between them and neighbouring cities). There’s a line about people who live apart out of a preference for dangerous freedom over slavery, and after having read about the Zaporozhian Cossacks again recently, that’s another one that does read more true to life.

    I’ll just note that the starting section for barbarians in the East both has an introduction and a sidebar concerned with how they’re folded into the society and economy of the Scavenger Lands (with a particularly interesting detail in how they might find employment plying their skills for entertainment purposes). They’re not exactly repetitive, but having both does feel a bit redundant.
    The Arczeckhi Horde are first, one that I recently read over again while going over Compass East to see how Second Edition presented Raksi and Mahalanka. They’ve still got that thing of only attributing reality to other Arczeckhi who have displayed martial success and domination (as well as things that come out of the Wyld), but I feel as though they benefit from… not being gone into in as much detail as the Second Edition book did. When it doesn’t need to harp on and on about how unsophisticated their personalities are and how they’re constantly trying to kill one another, the perspective on personhood gets to feel as though its lying atop relatively normal (if weird looking) people, and it’s less infuriating to me.

    Rather than a specific tribe, the next section describes the general premise of life in the denser forests further to the East. I think it puts together a pretty good picture; the darkness of living under the extremely dense foliage, the contrast between the people who live on the lower levels winning prestige through killing from stealth and collecting tokens off of their victims and the more severely mutated inhabitants of the upper branches who navigate via elongated arms for brachiation and kill those below with noose traps or rains of poisoned spears. I could see interesting stories of living and fighting out there, particularly from the description of the culture shock that some lower level warriors experience when they journey to the tree tops for revenge killings, and see things like the sun. It does, however, require getting through some rather repetitive writing to reach the good stuff, so it loses points for that. Last is a description of the common rite of passage (staying concealed from one’s people for a day and night), the particulars of their honour markings, and their perspective of and approach to outsiders.

    There’s a sidebar about how the East is more accommodating to surviving First Age ruins than the other Directions, introducing Mahalnaka and Raksi (here referred to as somebody who has a taste for the heart’s blood of beautiful youths offered in tribute) and Rathess.

    We have the Ten Tribes of Elder Oak, living in a state of tension with the logging colony of Farhold. Okay, I’m just going to say here; the proof-reading in this part of the book is a bit poor, with a number of extraneous and repeated words messing up sentence structures. As for the group itself, it distinguishes them a bit and adds an interesting twist on a lot of the ideas brought up earlier in the chapter with the idea that the patron god of the tribes (who effectively maintained a monopoly that has left them bereft of alternative totems) has abandoned them for the steadier tributes of the urban settlers, the resulting instability causing the tribes to start turning on one another (I’m elaborating on this as a contrast to how the rest of the chapter worked). They’re also described as being in possession of psychedelic drugs that can attune them to spiritual forces and the Wyld (said to only be reliably used by the shamans), which makes me wonder at the kinds of power they could potentially harness. There’s also a sidebar describing all ten of the tribes, but not individually; rather, in the various allied blocs they’ve divided into, and what the agendas of each of those is, which seems like an effective way of conveying the various new directions they’re heading along without having to go into all of them in excessive detail.

    Then it’s down to the South, with an introduction referring to the fact that the wealthy city-states and trade networks between them provide both a lot of opportunities for plunder by the desert and savannah nomads, and the occasional place for them to conquer and settle in. To whit, there are the Delzhan, although the focus here is primarily given to the ones who still live according to their traditional culture, rather than the inhabitants of Chiaroscuro (who are primarily detailed in Scavenger Sons anyway). There are a few details given here that I can’t recall being present in other write-ups, although those might simply speak to my not having been sufficiently observant; things like it being acceptable to redress theft by offering an unmarried adult in recompense who is then incorporated into the offending group, and practicing polygamy in a manner that can create marriages consisting of a complex web of associated husbands and wives, things that tie together to make for the process of circulating property and kinship throughout their society. There’s also an elaboration on their duelling culture, providing the refreshing detail that fighting to the death is considered inauspicious, and so they have expertise in overcoming opponents through non-lethal means. The influence of a prototypical version of Tammuz, referred to as Tamas Khan, is present here, but in a much simplified form; simply referring to him as the Lunar who united the tribes and directed them towards looting Chiaroscuro, but the fact that they’ve become so settled in is contrary to his intentions and wishes, leading to beastmen descendants prowling the city in hopes of effectively reprimanding them; I like how this take doesn’t completely override the portrayal in the core’s opening fiction and Scavenger Sons, where it can be seen as the Lunar having given them a push towards the city, but everything to do with making it their own and making peace with the Realm is entirely on them, and Exalted objections can’t simply override them. That also goes with a sidebar introducing the Kha-khan concept, which I find to be more sensible here than in the Second Edition version; a general extrapolation from their sky worship to say that somebody will be appointed by Heaven to unite and lead them, and seemingly aware of the possibility for it being an Exalted person. Last there’s a description of them having developed a kind of syncretic faith from the ministrations of early Immaculate missionaries, with an idea that general spirit worship venerates the Immaculate Dragons as a matter of course, and that they have shamans in place of monks. I think the section spends a bit less time capitalising on the intriguing subject of tension between the conquerors and the traditional nomads, but nevertheless adds decent cultural details to give the inhabitants of Chiaroscuro’s hinterlands a bit more colour.

    The Jackal Tribes represent a rather significant change of pace from not just the prior entries, but the overall manner in which the chapter as a whole has presented barbarians, being as it is a collection of people not merely outcast from other lands, but doing so because of diseases or disfigurement. The fact that we earlier had a thing speaking in terms “barbarians can’t and won’t sustain the unhealthy and disabled”, only to have a sample of people whose whole cultural identity arises from banding together after having been driven out because of those things… it touches on an issue that I’ll get into when I’m summarising the chapter as a whole. In its own right, it makes for an interesting picture of communal values and a distinct form of altruism, and I like the notion that things such as approaching the Wyld and First Age ruins more fearlessly, being fairly open to the demands of associated spirits, and a perspective on mortality that leads to some long memories of oral tradition, can come together to wind up leaving them as custodians of some very ancient secrets and powers.

    Okay, the Dune People; a group that I’ve never quite been able to take seriously, owing to the cannibalism as sustenance and the whole approach to surviving in the desert with albinism (which I feel is a bit appropriative, as well as lending itself to the ugly “Evil Albino” stereotype). I understand that this was their introductory appearance. There is… ultimately not much to recommend them. The description of the approach to child rearing is kind of neat, but even I can’t really lend any credibility to it; that’s at least less of a problem for their religious rituals and how the survival of a person to adulthood is treated as particular cause for celebration. But the degree to which they’re focused around killing and eating people… it’s too silly. And I’ve never gotten why they’re supposed to bury themselves in the sand to sleep through the day.

    The West is introduced with a note on how the islands afford a lot of diversity even across relatively short spans, and how the fickle qualities of sea gods make it particularly dangerous to live out there and requires especially elaborate taboos and offerings to keep them on board. It seems the West didn’t have a particularly iconic group the way the prior Directions did, so it just starts off with general island tribes concentrated around Wavecrest. There’s a note about islander raiding being fuelled by rapidly stripping their homes of natural resources, which I find a bit questionable. They do have an interesting element of a contrast between the strict requirements of spirit appeals in their home life, and being freed from those constraints when they go sailing (combined with a general matter of treating that as a liberating experience), which lends a bit of specific context to why island women might opt to become Tya (I like that idea that the institution can serve as a point of contact between societies). Hmm, I suppose the idea of needing to periodically relocate makes a bit more sense if their concerns aren’t just for consuming plants and animals, but needing to acquire raw materials for constructions to propitiate the gods… although I’m not quite sure about the factors underlying Polynesian migrations… I’ll want to look into that. Still, I like the idea that the islands stripped down and abandoned might become eerie havens for pirates and traders. There’s an accompanying picture depicting a couple of islanders dressed in the flamboyant manner ascribed to them, and it both provides an effective visual aid for that elaborate and unfamiliar description, and gives them a very distinctive look.

    The other Western barbarians are the pelagothropes (i.e. people with mutations that enable them to survive underwater). They’re described as having a tendency to ally with the Lintha and unique advantages in raiding from their capacity to retreat to deeper waters, as well as being given some nicely distinctive forms of dwelling; crafting them from coral and seaweed is to be expected, but I rather like the idea of carving homes into the underside of icebergs. Like the Third Edition description of Luthe, it refers to their communication as requiring sign language and changing skin colour, which is referred to as causing them to avoid deeper waters where they’ll be unable to see (and making me wonder if I simply overlooked references to such communication in Second Edition). There’s a good description of their secret societies based on the concerns they need to deal with at different points and levels of the ocean (I especially like the reference to shamans needing to go deep into dark places to commune with gods and places contaminated with the Wyld), and it uses the idea that their mutations are something they need to grow into to create a very compelling picture of childhood resembling a kind of reverse amphibian life cycle. I’m not quite sure if it’s enough to sell somebody on setting stories amidst their underwater societies, but it would at least make them some interesting characters to bring up and interact with, I think.

    Last there’s a sidebar elaborating on the significance and effectiveness of the tribal practices to appease ocean gods. It includes how they can fear the consequences of breaking faith to maintain practices even after they leave islands, and how there will be shamans who take the opportunity of such an abundance of bans to slip in a few that are purely self-serving, some of which can be maintained by people unaware of their disingenuousness.

    The introductory section for the North appears to be a bit more elaborate than the other ones; I’m guessing that it was viewed as the Direction in which the environment itself creates the greatest obstacle and threat, and thus warrants a more in depth description. In addition to the expected points about scarcity in harsh winters, it goes into some of the distinct dangers coming from the supernatural elements and close proximity to the Elemental Pole. The wind, for instance, is described as often being pervasive and continuous, carrying dangers of wind chill, flying debris, and even psychological harm resulting from the constant noise, exacerbated by Fair Folk and malicious gods (this is given a mechanical breakdown compared to the experience of the Wyld in a sidebar). There’s a layout of general practicalities for living in the environment (which is apparently specifically referring to the Haslanti, albeit a bit loosely), such as food preservation and management, the centrality of the longhouse to village life and the authority divided between chief and hearthmistress, and their approach to dealing with gods (alternating between an ad hoc, practical approach to most spirits, and devotions based on ceremonial offerings before an empty seat at the table for longhouse gods and deities who show up manifested to partake of hospitality). It ends on a point about how, being disadvantaged against icewalkers and Tear Eaters, frontierfolk are liable to avoid warfare and stick to attempting to dissuade with tribute, reserving their violence primarily for Wyld mutants.

    Speaking of those, the Varajtul are next, and in contrast to the Dune People I actually find the description to lend them a bit of credibility beyond the basic styling of pulpy broad monster people. Sure, they still engage in cannibalism, but it’s specifically referred to as not being their sole form of sustenance, and the association with the Wyld gives their practices a bit more context even while it’s taken a bit more extreme than it’s liable to have been in real life; the idea of eating war captives alive is appropriately horrifying, but I find the idea of them harnessing the Wyld to read divinations in the manifestations of those victims’ dying emotions, and the ritualistic conjuring of past conquests to be absorbed for their strength and nobility (or just dreams of glory, as the case may be) to make for a strong picture and a halfway legitimate motivation, in terms of spirituality and benefits lent by the Wyld. Varajtul have never quite stood out to me, but I think this rendition has potential.

    That’s followed by the icewalkers, who have a fairly straightforward deal; pastoral nomads dedicated to specific Animal Masters, and using the animals of their patrons as the centre of their lifestyles. For all their prominence, their description might be the least elaborate, simply going into the pastoral lifestyle, a few notes on the transformation being wrought by the rise of Yurgen Kaneko, and their distinct concern with the possibility of mutation (to the point that it’s hard to get them to accept beastfolk from Lunars). There’s a nice idea about Lunars having a more hands off approach, interacting primarily through one-on-one encounters during rites of passage. We get a sidebar concerning the Animal Masters, but it does no more to clarify the distinction between them and other gods, it’s mostly just adding a bit to how their influence informs icewalker culture and their concerns about the rise of the Bull.

    Finally there are the Tear Eaters, heterodox icewalkers whose ancestor worship was exploited by the Lover Clad in the Rainment of Tears to make them dedicated to killing people en masse as a tribute to the Deathlord in exchange for her securing the undeath of their elders and being granted songlines between shadowlands containing First Age ruins that can provide defensive strong points and source of ancient magic that can improve their livelihoods (such as sources of light and heat without fuel), which I think both makes for another example of a group that might seem overtly villainous or just as simple lackeys more understandable and well-reasoned, and a sense for how a Deathlord might tailor their approach to appeal to a barbarian group. It tells of how the life of a given tribal group revolves around its personal cadre of the dead, who are given their own opulent tents (which amusingly have to be kept hidden when interacting non-lethally with outsiders), are sources of oracular knowledge, and are provided with offerings, especially from youths (who will be named after undead ancestors) during their rites of passage (I especially like the sense of lineage in the idea that each clan hunts a specific variety of animal designated as ritual nemesis). Honourable and praiseworthy dead get a chance to join those ranks, where a lot of others are given to shadowlands to be returned as servitors whom it is taboo to refer to as having ever been kin. Offsetting all of that is the idea that the Tear Eaters still have a firm sense of their own morality, with murder, suicide and duelling to the death being regarded as affronts sufficient to deny somebody an afterlife, while marriage is given significant weight and consideration due to the possibility of a union lasting forever.

    Final thoughts on the setting chapter: I find this to be a very mixed bag, and I mean that in a more critical manner than I usually would. For the first half, it alternates between what I think is useful and valid broad information about some of the conditions and practices that might be common across many of the cultures that it’s trying to portray, and just so much of the primitivist, triumphalist rhetoric. It lays it on so think in places that it obscures or overrides the more nuanced anthropology, and in some cases even presents some rather off-putting sentiments straight. I had heard about how the book had some conflicted messages, but I wasn’t expecting to get that sense constantly revolving within the same chapter, or even different parts of the same sub-section. I think the descriptions of sample tribal groups is generally good, even great in a few places, for presenting them as varied, ascribing some interesting practices, and making the world they live in feel compelling. But it also illustrates the weaknesses in the chapter overall, because a lot of these interesting points are predicated on basically ignoring earlier parts about how great barbarians are (especially with how much it refers to cordial relations with other cultures). Really, if the intention is to sell people on the values of savage fantasy, I think it would have done a much better job by letting the example societies speak for themselves. My ultimate assessment of this chapter wouldn’t be that it’s bad as such (I honestly think that it skews more towards stuff that is good), but I definitely think there are issues with developmental oversight that could have given it a more consistent tone.

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  • Isator Levi
    Now, next is a description of the lot of the herders and farmers in these societies, who are described as being on the bottom rung. This should really be a point at which it’s clear that the distinction between these so-called barbarian cultures and the societies closer to the Realm is, if not largely arbitrary, more a matter of scale, but it’s still maintaining the line about those people considering themselves no worse off than if they were under a more formal lordship. I can kiiiind of see the point that it’s getting at with the less high pressure debt bondage and (possibly nominal) greater potential for social mobility in the event that somebody’s prestige manages to rise as a result of achieving renown in raids or encountering particularly fearsome beasts (things made practically difficult to achieve by the constraints of daily routine), it’s just… not exactly doing itself a favour by still wrapping itself up in the triumphalist rhetoric. There’s a decent point to be made here about social stratification in less intensely agrarian societies, it’s just not making it so well when so much within and around it is trying to convince you that the societies aren’t stratified. It’s also helpful to elaborate a bit on how industry works in a non-specialized economy. But then it gets to the subject of slavery, and while the point about them being preferred agrarian labourers is true to life, it’s still conveying that in terms of “farming is seen as dishonourable, and a natural province for settled weaklings” rather than “farming is both tedious and a source of wealth, and owning people to do it for you secures your place in the pyramid”. It’s another point where I’m unsure whether or not to take the whole “honour” thing as rhetoric that people employ for one another in-character or something that I’m supposed to take seriously as an assessment of these groups and people. And then it refers to the matter of barbarians selling slaves to the likes of the Guild, whom they’re supposed to despise, for the sake of useful or beautiful goods, which is again accurate, but speaks to a hypocrisy that the text isn’t really acknowledging. I get subtext and all, but when the other text is laying it on so heavily it’s harder to really accept them leaving those points as something to be extrapolated. I do get the feeling that somebody is trying to subtly deconstruct the whole Conan vibe with a bit more realistic anthropology, which I appreciate a bit, but it’s working with a weight around its legs. Honestly, the whole honourable barbarian thing would almost be more acceptable if it would just commit to that, but the thing really does read like a tonal roller coaster.

    At least I seem to be able to expect more consistency from the section on warfare; there’s still some of the rhetoric, but war might be the one place where such ideas cited as motive and framing is to be expected, even a bit welcome. I do think the section makes for a fairly useful breakdown of some of the processes behind such conflict, both in terms of motivating factors and how it is conducted at that scale. And there’s something a bit interesting in the suggested machinations of the Lunar Exalted behind promotion of violence and peace, as advocates for a people or in service to their own agendas. There’s a decent description of the practice of counting coup, which I think would be useful for folks unfamiliar with it (I myself only got a decent breakdown a few weeks ago), and duelling feels like a sensible way to let smaller populations resolve conflicts, with a couple of interesting examples given for formalised methods and the likely place of empowered heroes (which puts me in mind of Cu Chulainn versus Ferdiad). There’s a description of the practice of wergild, and a note on what they might do with captives taken in battle, including the interesting practice of initiating such people into the role of lost members of a clan. It’s a bit dry, a bit too mundane (even if it does make a decent effort with references to things specific to the setting), but it’s mostly fine.

    Then it turns to the subject of attacking Threshold kingdoms, and I think that here it might get a bit awkward. I do think that there’s something worthwhile in presenting the idea that such groups are liable to be more unrestrained in attacking an enemy that is settled and urbanized in richer lands, and how that will include some practices that can be grim to hear about. Although there is one line about inflicting atrocities being misunderstood as a prelude to negotiations that I can’t quite parse… I think it’s trying to say that a tribe might do these things as their traditional prelude, which the “civilized” leaders won’t properly recognise, which is an okay matter of culture clash, but it could have been phrased more clearly. There is a fairly good breakdown of some of the priorities in such attacks, on lightning raids to acquire captives and loot, practical considerations for how they might fight a drilled formation (although still a bit heavy on the “barbarian warriors are individually better”, a not necessarily inaccurate point that could have been made with less bias and more context), and the matter of dispute and posturing over the divide of spoils. There’s another bit of not exactly acknowledged hypocrisy in the description of how tribes might turn cycles of raiding into a system of tribute and extortion, where their targets being “honourless” means that it’s legitimate to break oaths to not attack them after they pay up.

    That page has two sidebars on it. One describes the subject of honour marks (said to be made in emulation of Lunar customs), describing the use of tattoos, scars and piercings following duels to mark victory or defeat, and some of the connotations that can be behind these, such as considerations for an opponent with a lot of victories; I’m not sure if it warrants a sidebar, but I do like it as a point of characterisation and custom. And then there’s a sidebar on the subject of atrocities (of which rape is mentioned as part of a list, and given no particular unnecessary emphasis) in this kind of warfare. Setting aside the whole background given of “tribes might not consider their targets to be real humans” (although props to the motivating factors of martial glory and a bit of deprived desperation), I think the advice here is fairly good and tasteful; it acknowledges the existence of such things as an element of the warfare, but advises Storytellers to be considerate of the standards and feelings of their play groups and to not employ such things for shock value. It offers the alternative of description in general terms or focus on the human element of the aftermath, so it’s trying to navigate ways of not letting such fighting off the hook in ways that can mitigate ruined fun or actual harm for players. It places Lunars into the context of such things by describing how, while often products of such social values, the transformative element of their Exaltation can set them apart individually, while keeping subordinate raiders to such revised values is a meaningful challenge in its own right. I appreciate it being here in terms of a sentiment that not acknowledging such qualities can be its own kind of harm, and that it has a priority of advising approaches with care and consideration. I think something like that would not have been amiss in Fangs at the Gate, particularly given some of the practices ascribed to Lunar Dominions.

    The warfare is rounded out with a description of how tribes and war bands can become consolidated into larger hordes to make more severe warfare, even for the sake of conquest. Apart from the basics of the interests and authorities that can result in such a unification (from ambitious chieftains to the commands of patron deities) and some of the practices and customs that can bind them together, there are some fairly interesting points on the tactical assets that might be employed. For instance, the horde’s leader taking advantage of tribes with various disparate fighting styles by organizing them in strategic arrangements that maximize the power that each type can apply at different points of a battle, as well as the possibilities for shamans being able to guide and goad large monsters of the Wyld as major sources of pressure against enemy formations. There’s a note on how many kingdoms on the edge of the Threshold might arise from such hordes conquering and settling into new territory (again using the rhetoric to suggest that doing so amounts to going soft), compared to Lunars liable to raze things down prior to retreating or being chased off in the face of Realm legions (a matter said to be helped a bit by the continuing line about Dragon Blooded being incompatible with cavalry making it hard for them to give chase). There’s a sidebar noting how Lunar power might make for more cohesive, longer lasting hordes, and says that prior to the current timeline none have managed to fully capitalise on this as a result of Wyld Hunts, barbarian rivals (which I could place in the context of the Introduction by imagining that there are elder Lunars who didn’t want their juniors rampaging across the Threshold limiting or sabotaging their efforts), and even occasionally the Realm’s First Age weapons, as well as saying that the current environment affords Ma-Ha-Suchi the opportunity to start building an especially large and powerful horde. I think the section effectively makes a picture of the kind of war that might have come out on the Threshold for the legions to deal with, as well as effectively accounting for limits to their progress prior to the Time of Tumult.

    Now it goes into a description of the so-called barbarian morality. The core of the ethos is predicated on the scarcity and continuous dangers of the Wyld that they have to cope with, which is said to be the basis for valuing individualism (as the communities are too close-knit and interdependent to deny people) and a tendency to hold up personal merit and accomplishment (while conversely being more hostile to outsiders). There’s a description of how these things are conveyed and maintained through communal storytelling, and in that line I find some of the language helps to convey a certain grandiose tone that is actually fitting. And it ties the subject into how the exiled Lunars formulated a code for their own lives intended as a response to the Old Realm, saying that many tribes had based themselves off of locally modified versions of the Exalted one. The idea of attributing numerous cultures like that to Exalted influence isn’t quite to my taste, but in this milieu I think it could have served a purpose in rooting the backstory of these people into the setting mythology and creating an intended through line between them, so I can’t be too critical of it.

    Then it starts breaking down the qualities of those codes, dividing it up into paired details. Strength and cunning are put together as basically the desired standards of how people assert themselves against others and their environment, the former expressed as a value for everybody being ready to bear arms and hunt as necessary, the latter for things such as outsmarting enemies and acquiring innovations that can be adapted to their needs; there’s a note on the idea that people don’t exactly need to be good at either of those qualities, so long as they’re putting forward their best effort. That leads into the subject of how accomplishment forms the basis of one’s personal honour, and thus the value of things like oaths to one’s chief or fellows (this is reconciled with the individualism in terms of how demonstrating one’s own capabilities gives weight to voluntarily subordinating oneself to another, and declaring like-minded values), as well as the foundation for bragging, which is said to be regarded as its own kind of oath (that part also references the interesting concept of people getting into bragging contests, where they try to outdo one another with what they claim to be capable of, which can have the unfortunate consequence of people writing cheques that they can’t cash), rounded out with possible treatments for people who lose face or outright oathbreakers. This part is pretty good, since bragging and interpersonal obligations do tend to be a significant part of the kinds of cultures that the book is trying to convey, and it’s laid out in a manner that makes how it would spur action clear.

    I’ve been critical in other parts of the chapter about apparent hypocrisies in how it proposes people apply their values, but I’ve got to admit that the section on chauvinism puts a bit of it into perspective; that when their standards of honour are seen as a necessity for maintaining a tribe’s cohesion, but outsiders are competitors and enemies, that there’s no contradiction in reserving one’s honourable conduct for people in the in-group while virtually anything goes for others. There’s a point about how the divine power of Lunars is the kind of thing that can be impressive enough to cross cultural boundaries that I think is interesting in setting up how they relate to these groups, and a reminder of that notion of being taken captive actually possibly providing an inroad into respectable society. That’s followed by a description of standards of generosity, how it’s used as a way of demonstrating individual power and keeping the group bound together, as well as a form of trade that can circulate goods around the span of Creation (a point that I think could have interesting implications for those Lunars who want to bind them more closely together to accomplish something). Last of these described values is hospitality, specifically in terms of acceptance of outsiders who declare a wish to be taken in as guests, which might be one of the most nuanced elements so far in how it acknowledges that the degree to which such customs are followed varies between different cultures (although it still sticks to an idea that even the ones who engage in it uniformly aren’t exactly enthusiastic, even if they reserve some of the most extreme punishments for those who violate it).

    Then it goes into the kinds of childhood that are typical of these lifestyles. It starts with the approach to dealing with children when any given group can only support so many people, including reserving proper names for them until they’re judged worth keeping, and some of the standards that might be applied to deciding whether or not to leave a neonate for exposure (which can be practical or somewhat more arbitrary, such as taboos about eye or hair colour), some of which can be overruled by shamans conveying the decisions of gods (said to often lead to children who become new shamans), as well as those who aren’t willing to set aside a baby deemed unsuitable, which is said to often result in exile. From there it gets into a breakdown of the typical childhood, such as play activities as preparation for fighting and hunting, and being given some of the menial duties such as herding and gathering, with hunting and war forbidden in any context besides education. It does paint a picture of upbringing that I think could make for some compelling character background, at least. That’s built upon with descriptions of rites of passage, which in addition to a few examples from specific cultures that sound good, gives a general framework of the priorities for what a given rite conveys; any significant tribal history or origin story, how to deal with the gods, hunting techniques, some of the scoop on tribal politics and gossip, and sex education. The latter part of this section spends a fair amount of time talking about that last one, as well as the matter of gender segregation in rites of passage as a result of the discussion (including a line about reinforcing and guarding “male and female ways”), and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s at least not writing with the kind of rhetoric typical of other parts of the chapter, no “civilized people are sexually repressed, compared to how liberated we are” or anything like that. It ends with the matter of how ascension to adulthood can be signified with gifts and markings, and expresses the sense of elation on entering society as a full adult for the first time as something that people might pursue their whole lives.

    That page also has a couple more sidebars. One is concerned with the approach to religion; it has to get through a bit of cruft about how being a barbarian doesn’t entail or require abstract philosophical rumination because the nature of reality is something that they experience first-hand, but then gets into something interesting with the practicalities of it. It talks about how gods of more wild places free from the restrictions of Immaculates or more urbane gods tend to manifest freely and surround themselves with overt miracles, which presents both a vivid picture of how one might represent the challenges of living out there (and a few things that Lunars might deal with, if they’re not the ones providing it in the role of deity), and a bit more context for what might distinguish shamans here from other kinds of intercession with gods. The other sidebar refers to the Silver Pact having its own initiation rituals tied to fixing Caste, describing how the rites vary depending on the decided upon Caste and preferences for the initiator, and how such a thing supersedes a tribe’s own rites, which at the very least confers adulthood regardless of the Lunar’s actual or apparent age. And just checking ahead… there’s one more sidebar concerning rites of passage, namely the possibility with Lunars opting to turn up during other people’s initiations. There’s a whole thing about how they’ll tend to select the form of a totem animal or revered ancestor, and the application of such appearances to teach and maintain values that the Lunar would want to impose (plus a belief that such appearances might make Exaltation for the initiate more likely), finishing on the different standards Lunars have for whom they appear to, ranging from those who showed an exceptional talent in childhood to ones who’ll show up for everyone (said to be generally discouraged in the Pact for fear of cultivating dependence). I think that last sidebar is a useful one for giving a sense of how Lunars might be tied intimately into associated societies, and I find it a bit reminiscent of their own experiences with Luna.

    Then there are a couple of pages explaining some of the practical considerations of the barbarian approach to worship. Shamans are further elaborated as people who need to have a familiarity with the local supernatural landscape, including not just the identities and natures of surrounding gods but what kinds of First Age remnants might be exerting an influence. There’s actually a bit of explanation for the intended purpose of worship under circumstances where gods aren’t merely extorting it; where a god’s duty is something that is beneficial to society, the point is to try and keep them on point with reminders of their purpose and a bit of flattery for their handiwork, and for those that are more dangerous the intention is alternately to persuade, bribe or shame the god into relenting for a bit, or else calling upon allied gods (or just putting out a general complaint to be picked up on by the god’s superior or nearby Exalted) to take notice and deal with the problem. That actually sounds like a bit of information on humans handling the gods that would be useful to have in a few other places as well. There’s a description of how the Exalted can be fit into this approach to divinity, which focuses primarily on the Lunars, since they’re the ones who have gotten to spend centuries cultivating an attitude towards themselves; hence, they’ll have people among whom they can go openly, and expect to be greeted with praise, gifts and high quality animals to hunt. What’s most interesting here is the agency that is afforded to the barbarians that Lunars (or other Exalted) might interact with; that there’s limited recourse for acting in a manner that doesn’t fit a tribe’s conceptions of what a god should be, and that acting in a harmful manner (or even offering advice or guidance that doesn’t fit a tribe’s values) might have them trying to call upon other gods to deal with the unwelcome Exalt. I think that’s an interesting attitude of placing some of the power in such interactions with the people, and having it that being Exalted doesn’t necessarily allow one to run roughshod or easily get one’s way; this is another attitude I think could have done with being spread around a bit more. Last is a description of the perception of Dragon Blooded, with those originating from the Scarlet Dynasty being viewed contemptuously for coming from the Realm as spiritual beings who poison the elements with the taint of civilization; that rhetoric is coming up again, but in a context like this, where it associates with political dispute with the Realm and creates a bit of mythology for opposing Dynastic Terrestrials, I find it more acceptable, even interesting (outcastes are said to be hardly different from other Exalted, with some viewing them as free versions of divinities that are otherwise enslaved by the Scarlet Empress).

    Next there are Wyld cults, given divisions between things like individuals or groups lured into it by the intoxication of manifestations of their own legends and reputations, the occasional hidden infiltrators who’ll subvert rites of passage on susceptible individuals to direct them to Fair Folk to be consumed, or the whole culture having integrated Wyld questing into their way of life (said to be a process liable to gradually strip humanity away from them). It’s explained that while such cults can often be directed by Fair Folk, it’s entirely possible for the nature of the Wyld itself to be a lure, both for providing an environment in which dreams of glory can become manifest in otherworldly vistas that offer relief from the difficulties of everyday life in the wilderness, as well as powers such as prophecy and beneficial physical mutation. Between that and the manner in which Fair Folk lure, command and exploit them, it sounds like an interesting and nuanced picture of what draws people to the Wyld and what the results might be.

    Last is a sidebar describing the worship of Luna that is promoted among barbarians by her Chosen. It’s actually another element where some of the agency is given to the people, as it’s described as the kind of thing that they often extrapolate from observation of nearby Exalted, and that they view Luna as a more direct presence in their lives and thus more worthy of worship than the other Incarnae by virtue of being the power behind those Exalted who are amongst them. It gives descriptions of Luna in terms of being a huntress, fertility deity and destroyer of the dishonourable, as well as seeing her light as a form of night guidance for hunters returning home (and hence something auspicious to do things like name children or swear oaths by), and I’m getting a distinct impression that this is meant to be read as people impressing their own values upon the goddess, rather than being a fully objective description of her purviews. It ends with a description of a few of the rites given for Luna, such as the sacrifices offered and undergoing ordeals as a means of boasting of one’s deeds and giving thanks for the goddess providing strength to accomplish them. As a picture for how people might worship one of the Incarnae, and the consequences of her Exalted being active among their communities, it’s fairly nice.

    Right, this chapter is almost finished, so I’m going to take a break here and come back to it in a few hours.

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  • Isator Levi
    Chapter One: Setting opens with a rather charming art piece in which a fairly roughshod looking Red Jaws is on his knees before a well-dressed raksha with outstretched hand. Ah, this fiction is actually his Exaltation story, sooo… yes, that figure is actually Luna appearing to him, while he’s out hunting in the snow and ready to die. I like the intimate speech that Luna is giving to his new Exalt, the closeness, the praise and the encouragement. It’s a simple story, but I think there’s good imagery for struggling against the wilderness, and presence of Luna is a very significant element.

    Okay, the introduction to the setting is where it starts to extend some of that stuff about the Silver Pact to the people they live amongst or rule outright, and this is where it starts to incorporate the “cities weak, barbarians strong” language, including an idea that “barbarian” is a term that they apply to themselves. Or at least, it summarises a few points of so-called barbarism and talks about how people under the Silver Pact actively subscribe to them. However, there is some of it that is using the rhetoric to make points that are critical of hierarchically stratified societies, and that’s a bit interesting. I don’t think they’re exactly bad points, but if there’s a line between in-character biases that are presumed to be fallible, and actual endorsement in the text, it’s admittedly a bit blurry. I kind of like the point about how part of the challenge these peoples might present to the Realm is in a capacity to unify and overwhelm, but that does leave a hanging question about whether it’s homogenizing them a bit too much.

    Hmm, but as it’s going on, it is starting to lay it on a bit thick. There’s a sidebar clarifying some terms, such as how it means to not use “barbarian” and “savage” as pejoratives, and attributing these values to the leadership and example of Lunars, which… lends them more influence than I honestly tolerate for the Exalted (although it’s not quite out of order for how these early First Edition books tend to phrase things); it does at least lend another line to that point about Lunars who want to wield armies to fight the Realm and the kinds of treachery that pushed them to the edge of the world. But then it’s getting into the whole thing of “barbarians are more direct and individualistic and would never kowtow before an authority”, aaannd… I recognise the kind of pulp fiction this is drawing from, and in a vacuum it wouldn’t be a bad representation of it, but there’s a problem with how it grates against the attitude in other books, and it’s a bit too idealised.

    That said, it’s got a nice description of the difficulties of living in closer proximity to the Wyld and the Elemental Poles, as well as being out where some dangerous First Age ruins are likely to exist. It describes some of the manner in which they need to keep their heads to be forewarned of such threats approaching, and the idea of a mindset of viewing everyday survival in the face of such conditions as a form of heroism. I’ve got to admit, it could almost sell me on the whole “being a barbarian is inherently more heroic”, if there was just more of a sense of it being something like a necessary coping mechanism…

    A breakdown of some of the lifestyle conditions… there’s a section on technology in which it goes back to using some of the primitivist rhetoric to describe some of the basic premises of living in societies with less specialized professions. That part’s tied into a notion that Lunars see this as advantaged compared to societies with institutionalized decision-making and economies based on demarcated production; it’s not saying directly, but the implication is that the Exalted are seeing those things as weak points that can be struck at to cause large scale collapse, and that’s not a bad basis for an ethos. It also makes a point about the ingenuity of people in adapting to such environments, such as easily assembled and dismantled tents, utilizing Wyld prodigies as a means for having products of equivalent quality to industrial output, the idea that they value people (including Lunars) who can bring back innovations (including from First Age ruins) that their societies can make use of. And one point about how they still have sophisticated artistic output, that can convey culture or practical uses, and can be valued for trade in the Threshold. This is better, it’s less extreme than the previous stuff and is getting at points such as “barbarian doesn’t mean unsophisticated” and the potential advantages of not distributing specialization.

    But then it goes back in the other direction by saying that they’re bad at farming and demean such a skill as slave work, reserving it for their own captives. There’s an okay description of the significance that livestock tend to have in some societies like this, and how that shapes cultural practices such as developing ongoing feuds, and a not inaccurate point about how their diets can be more varied and nutritious in a way that limits associated illness, but then there’s a whole thing of “hardship and the Wyld cull the weak, so they can be more uniformly fit and strong”, and it’s starting to lose me a bit. That’s a point where it’s starting to push a bit too far past idealization, and into something that’s just kind of gross to state.

    There’s a straightforward description of nomadism that covers most of the bases of how such a lifestyle works, which I think is a useful addition for the sake of portrayals and getting into the mindset. There’s a point tying it directly to the setting with how many Lunars are trying to consolidate disparate tribes into larger hordes that can be a greater danger to Realm adjacent societies, and an idea that they’re more actively intersecting trade routes to extract tribute. Also an idea of how the icewalkers will sometimes draw their weakened animals in covered sleds, which I’m not sure of the practicality of, and a reference to the Dune People reinforcing the idea that they’re cannibalizing people as a primary form of sustenance, which… is pretty silly. About the same goes for the description of the so-called settled barbarians, of typical social structures (including a little reference to the matter of tribal secret societies, which I do like the inclusion of) and living arrangements. That one’s acknowledgment of the fantastical comes in the form of saying that sometimes the resources that support settles life come as a result of openness to the Wyld (accompanied by an art piece of somebody with a wide-eyed expression tentatively drinking from a bowl while the background gets psychedelic; I like the idea as a possible consequence of living at the edge of the world), and that Lunars might arrange for settlements that serve purposes such as guarding a First Age ruin or providing steady chiminage for payment of an allied god.

    These sections… they’re casting with a broad net, but if it’s shorthand because the chapter would prefer to go for guidelines rather than solid examples, at least it’s decent shorthand.

    There’s the sidebar about songlines, and the concept is a… bit different from how I recall people having tended to describe it, and somewhat closer to real life applications of the term as I understand them. The basic concept is the use of story and song as a mnemonic to allow people who presumably lack navigational tools to be able to find their way and measure travel distance, with an added notion that there’s a certain subtle mystical quality (or just well-encoded information) that can allow Lunars to find their way to hidden sources of power or danger. It also says that many traditional songlines have been rendered inaccurate by breakdowns both from natural sources and the tumults of the Great Contagion, which lends itself a bit to story seeds of Lunars composing revised songlines of greater accuracy, or stumbling off the tracks and into some weird territory. There’s another sidebar a bit after that concerned with the subject of taboos, but it’s only just describing some categories and processes, with just a bit of suggestion for mechanically arbitrating the introduction of new ones (the process given looks decent enough, just making a Lore roll following a dramatic event to tie the intended taboo to it, with a difficulty depending on how extreme it is).

    Swing back again on a section concerning the subject of chieftains, starting with a point about how in a “society of heroes, government is chaotic and sometimes violent but also less tolerant of the scheming and backstabbing that characterizes civilized rule”, which… come on. Even within this milieu, no it is not; there are absolutely going to be people who use duplicity, innuendo and backroom dealings to undermine one another and advance themselves. Lunars can provide all the influence they want, that isn’t going to keep this spiel about it’s all about individual achievement and personal glory and authority consolidated in single people. It tries paying lip service to points about possibly needing an approval process or circumstances in which heirs to a previous chief might be weak and controlled from behind the throne, but in this context it reads less like nuance and variety and more like trying to have it both ways; even if the intention is to provide, these kinds of contradictions mean it’s plain not being written well.

    The following section on shamans is about as broad, but it’s somewhat less objectionable because it doesn’t harp on as much about individual prowess; it’s just a role that is necessary in just about any society in Creation. Here distinguished a bit by the point that most people in a barbarian society will know daily rites to their gods, while shamans are those marked as something apart who have more direct personal communion with one or more spirits, so that’s neat. But then a bit later on it’s talking about shamans as a source of withcraft, including the idea of using poison… so what, poisoning is an underhanded and cowardly method of killing an enemy, except for when it’s not? Sure there are certain social hypocrisies, but it doesn’t read that way to me, it reads more like putting in another contradiction. The shaman section started strong, but ends on a mildly sour note.

    It’s getting late and I’m about halfway through this chapter, so I’ll just finish on a sidebar that takes up an entire page to itself, going into greater detail about the potential patrons a shaman might adopt. This is a decent little section; it gives a sense of what shamans might expect to get from their arrangement, and breaks down each of the possibility categories for tutelary gods, including not just spirits, but Lunar and other Exalted, Fair Folk, and occasionally odder things. Most of these sections illustrate their descriptions of what a “god” might want with particular examples of a few beings and people, what they might provide, and what they could be paid in return. This is a good sidebar, providing some examples of how to incorporate the concept into play and give it a more personal touch. The addition of clarifying details feels reminiscent of the kinds of things our grand current Edition would do.

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  • Isator Levi
    I keep thinking about that introduction, how it gives me a particular picture of the development of the Lunar Exalted. That after the Usurpation, their disillusionment with the Realm caused them to try utilising their powers to explore a lifestyle far from the societies of the Shogunate, in which they developed the Silver Way as a code and a lifestyle guide for navigation and fulfilment in their new environment as well as a certain sympathy for and desire to elevate the people they were living among. That they would gather newly Exalted Lunars under the safety of that umbrella, out of a sense of sacred duty and kinship owing to their reverence for Luna and feeling that they were all a kind of family under her auspices. That the reason that they didn't try building competitive empires was, for older Lunars, because they were taking a vacation from their own experience of all that, and the younger Lunars are both being held back a bit by them and less capable of sustained survival against the Wyld Hunt; these things not exactly amounting to doing nothing if one assumes that there are people and monsters and adventure out there, helped by the Wyld being right next door.

    And then you get to the Time of Tumult, in which the surviving older Lunars have started to weary of their lifestyles and want to reclaim some of what the Realm has, and find themselves surrounded by lots of younger Lunars that have grown strong in the world their elders made for them (not exactly the only world they've ever known, but a world that doesn't take long to be known much more than their mortal lives if those were closer to the Blessed Isle), who've widely radicalised the Silver Way to something more extreme and uncompromising. And the elders are left looking at that and wondering if they made a huge mistake.

    I don't know what the rest of the book will do with it, but I think it's a good starting premise.

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