Sunday, October 19, 2008

Life in the Land of the Three Rivers

I think I've got something good after ruminating on Philosophy vs. Feel. Here's the latest version I'm working on for the "fluff" of the first land I'll be fleshing out, my own homeland, the Land of the Three Rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Upper Ohio River valleys). Tell me what you think, especially the Yinzers in the audience!

Making a Living

Agriculture has never worked particularly well on the Allegheny Plateau, and the heavy metals and acidity put into the soil by the Steel Giants did not make it any easier. For that reason, the gardens of the Seven Nations and the Union never penetrated south. Instead, the People of the Three Rivers rely on cattle to convert the vegetation of the land into food they can eat. Without agriculture to feed them directly, the cattle have become semi-feral, living in small herds of 20 or so animals and ranging freely. The People move with the herds, and intervene where they can to help defend them from predators. Herders divide out shifts to watch over the herd, but sometimes predators get through anyway. The People rely on the cattle for meat and dairy. Milking feral cows requires an immense amount of trust; the milkers have very personal relationships with their cows, and even then, the process involves a good deal of risk. Because of this, the People treasure the milk. They never "waste" it by drinking it directly; instead, they generally make cheeses with it.

This cornerstone of life shapes much of how the People live. They break in feral horses to use to better herd the cattle, as well as packs of semi-feral dogs. These dogs have interbred with the wolf-like eastern coyote and live in their own mixed packs of feral dogs, coydogs, and coyotes. But families of the People keep "alliances" with particular packs of these dogs; they may enter the family's camps freely and share food. In return, the dogs often help the People herd cattle and hunt deer.

Deer hunting provides the other main source of protein in the People's diet. Because deer hunting plays as important a role in their lives as their cattle, the hunters' ethos pervades their communities. When hunting deer with a bow and arrow, there comes a crucial moment when the deer and the hunter recognize one another. This evolved in conjunction with wolves, giving predator and prey a chance to collect themselves before the final chase. In this "conversation of death," a deer may stand his ground, and the wolves will back down; or, a sick, old, injured deer may stand and run away, the very thing that would ensure his death. The hunters of the People recognize this language, and the subtle body language whereby a deer starts to turn and give chase, offering the perfect shot for the hunter's bow. The People do not see any sport or violence in their hunting; they see, instead, a profound relationship that they share with the sacred Deer who gives its life for the People. Shamanic rites, performed by the Fathers, mediate this intense relationship.

The People set regular fires in areas and harvest small saplings for wood, practices which produce huge, old growth trees with a cathedral-like canopy and a wide, open understory perfect for both cattle and deer. In these forests, mostly women, but also children and the eldery of both genders, will gather wild plants, roots, nuts and berries. The People rely on these for both food and medicine.

Kinship & Settlement Patterns

Both the deer and the cattle require the People to stay on the move, so they live in small, nomadic families. These nomads do not wander aimlessly; they travel in a regular seasonal cycle, following the herds from one place to the next.

The family generally consists of an extended family, back to a common grandfather. The People trace their lineage through their fathers, so these families relate to each other as fathers, sons and brothers, with their wives and children. The People see the world as a single, complex family; all trace their lines, ultimately, to Grandfather Sky, the Overworld, and Grandmother Earth, the Underworld. But they also favor their closest relations; so, two brothers will side together against a cousin, two cousins will side together against a fellow clansperson, two clanspeople will side together against someone from a different clan, two men from the People will side together against outsiders, and so on. The People cite Papa Peter and Mother Mary as the common ancestor of them all, making them more closely related to one another than to outsiders. These fierce, nested loyalties allow the People to quickly muster a strong defense (as the Union and the Seven Nations often discover when they attempt to invade the land), but it also fosters a good deal of internal unrest.

The clans illustrate that the People do not consider species boundaries to carry much weight at all, and animals, plants, stones, places, weather and so on all relate to the People more closely than humans from another land.

The People typically live in a kind of tipi that they call a "haus" (pronounced "hahs"). They make encampments with several hauses clustered together. When deer become scarce or the cattle begin to move too far away, they pack up their hauses and, with the help of the horses, move on to a new encampment.

Social Organization

No authority higher than the family itself exists among the People. Each family follows the annual circuit as a sovereign and independent body, subject only to its own will. Customs and traditions unite the families, of course, as well as bonds of relationship, but what the families do together they negotiate, rather than obey.
Within the family, respect rather than authority generally reigns. Each individual has an enormous amount of autonomy, but certain persons within the community have earned respect and tend to hold greater influence over the group. These include:

  • The Grandfather, whose relationships generally define the family as a unit.

  • Elders. Even if not a Grandfather precisely, the People honor the experience of elders. These will typically include the grandmother, and perhaps siblings of the grandfather and grandmother.

  • The Boss. Not every family has a Boss, but if it does, he generally will hold a great deal of influence over his own family. A family with more than one Boss often splits from the rivalry. A Boss who also becomes a Grandfather holds an enormous amount of power.

  • The Father. Not every family has a Father, but if it does, he acts as the spiritual leader of the family. Families without a Father seek out those that do for ceremonies, healing and guidance. Some Families have two Fathers, and may allow a family with none to adopt one as their own. Like a Boss, a Father who also becomes a Grandfather consolidates a great deal of power.

  • Storytellers. Most families will have a storyteller. The People look to storytellers as keepers and sharers of wisdom, and value the teaching of their stories. This gives them considerable influence in the family; a well-timed and well-told story can change the entire debate.

  • Skilled persons. The People have a very meritocratic nature. Persons who prove themselves talented or skilled earn the influence and power that goes along with that. In questions about game, even Fathers, Bosses and Grandfathers will defer to the judgment of a proven hunter, however young.

Decision making in families comes from consensus, so one cannot order these roles by descending order of power. The decision the family will reach will depend as much on the nature of the question at hand, the specific arguments made, and the immediate context as the position of the people involved.


The People have a "Big Man" tradition that stretches back to the days of the Steel Giants, particularly the Great Boss Andy, who left many long-lasting gifts and feasting halls that still bear his ancient name, "Carnegie." The Bosses do not wield any kind of explicit authority; they cannot simply make commands and expect anyone to carry them out. Instead, they accumulate a great deal of social capital by giving generously, collecting on debts all at once to throw enormous feasts that no one else could arrange, and using such occasions to compete with other Bosses and impress their people, in order to collect still more social capital. Other Bosses focus on military success in leading raids against their enemies, and maintain their power by keeping the loyalty of strong warriors with gifts and feasts. In a post-monetary world where reciprocity has become the new economy, Bosses have become the new entrepreneurs. Though the nature of the game has changed somewhat, they remain as cut-throat in their pursuits as the entrepreneurs of the Steel Giants. Competition between rival Bosses often becomes fierce, and often violent.


The People of the Three Rivers call their religion Catholicism, but it varies greatly from the Roman Catholicism of their ancestors. The main religious figures, called Fathers (even when female), wear a black ribbon around their neck, with a white stripe painted in the front. They also wear a stole, a purple cloth worn around the neck as a badge of office. Fathers act as faith healers, spiritual leaders, ceremonial leaders and prophets in their communities. People become a Father by gaining a familiar spirit. This usually involves great personal trauma, most classically the Fathers' Disease, a deep malaise which will either drive a person to suicide, or attract the pity of a spirit who will heal the afflicted, and in so doing become a familiar spirit. This often afflicts those called to become Fathers, though sometimes youths undergo Holy Rites to become Fathers. Fathers enhance their ties to their allied spirits through the use of costumes and magical items. When Fathers appear, besides their collar and stole, they also wear an assemblage of animal parts, and go about painted in various mysterious symbols.

Ceremonies often involve trance dancing that can last all night long. The People long ago lost the ability to make accordions, which significantly changed the sound of traditional polkas. Played on drums, with gourds and the occasional guitar, the same beat takes on a percussive quality much like techno music. Fathers dance frantically to these songs all night long, until they slip into an ecstatic trance to enter the Dreaming.

Fathers also use water soaked with tobacco and certain psilocybin mushrooms to enter the Dreaming, but consider these inferior means of entry. Weak or inexperienced Fathers may have to call on plant allies like these; likewise, a Father who finds his strength sapped or faces a very difficult task might call on such allies; but for the most part, the people expect a Father to find his own way into the Dreaming, without demanding sacrifices from sacred plants.

Communion plays an important part in the religion of the Three Rivers. The people believe that everyone must have a guardian spirit, sometimes called a patron saint or a guardian angel. Without such a guardian, people do not have the strength to live through life. At age seven, in an initiation ceremony called First Communion, children spend several days alone, fasting, as a kind of cosmic dare: the child vows to remain there until a spirit takes pity on him and adopts him to become his guardian, or starves to death. After their First Communion, faithful people go on Communion later in life to seek boons from their guardian.

As their origin myth makes clear, the philosophy of the People of the Three Rivers emphasizes the mediation between conflicting extremes. They understand disease and misfortune as the product of excess in one direction or another. The rituals and practices of their religion focus on restoring balance and striking a middle way between extremes.


Spoken Language

The Pittsburgh English accent, or "Pittsburgese," may not have actually existed before people began referring to it. More an amalgamation of regional elements from Appalachian and Midwestern dialects, its reference in local media helped to create an in-group identity, and it thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the fall of the Steel Giants, the need for such an in-group identity only became stronger, and the use of Pittsburghese became more pronounced.

The structure of Pittsburghese also underwent a major shift. As the People learned how to hunt and track, how to follow the cattle herds, and how to live off the wild plants, it became necessary for them to understand the personalities all of these things could take. The names for these things became verbs unto themselves. For example, the People came to use the term "deer" not as a noun describing a kind of animal, but as a verb that meant to behave or present oneself as a deer does. With this linguistic shift came a philosophical shift that emphasized patterns of movement and relationship, rather than objectivity. This proved crucial to the People's ability to hunt, track, and live alongside the herds of semi-feral cattle, or the packs of semi-feral dogs. Elders who have used this language throughout their lives eventually come to understand this as illustrating a personhood common to us all; humans, deer, cattle, horses and dogs differ not in their essential personhood, but in their patterns of movement and relationship. So a dog simply means a person dogging; a horse, a person horsing; a human, a person humanning. The Fathers say that when they shift their shape, they simply go dogging for a while, or hawking, or trouting. While shapeshifting seems like an impossible fantasy in the English of the Steel Giants, it makes perfect sense in the Pittsburghese of the People of the Three Rivers.

Body Language

But spoken language in total has become less central to the People of the Three Rivers. Growing up in close, personal contact with a steady, core group of people has made body language extremely potent. In fact, among one's oldest relations, the People can read each other's facial micro-expressions and subtle body cues so expertly that they can rarely lie to one another. They use these intuitively, by close awareness and long-standing relationship rather than a conscious understanding of the cues they read and a deliberate reasoning of their elements. Even among less related people, body language allows for the quick communication of emotional state and intent. This often proves absolutely essential on the hunt, allowing a party to move with almost superhuman coordination, exhibiting what an untrained, outside observer might mistake for something just shy of telepathy.

This makes spoken language something the People can use more sparingly. They see "small talk" as a key indicator that someone feels particularly nervous, and probably intends to hide some kind of deceit to do harm. The People do not trust someone who makes small talk.

Animal Communication

This body language also lies at the heart of the People's ability to speak with animals. Most everyone learns basic calls, howls and dances of the most common animals in the Land of the Three Rivers, and has some ability to both understand their meaning and to mimic them. They consider this the same as learning their own spoken language. And in fact, the People claim to have extended conversations with birds and animals, and that they learned a significant portion of their own spoken language from such sources. They also learn to read the body language of other animals, telling them their emotional state and intent as clearly as with other human persons. Hunters in particular consider this an absolutely essential skill.


At their Christening, children of the people receive a clan name from the Father performing the ceremony. The people have meticulously preserved these names from ancient times, names like Jack, Joe, Terry, Art, Peter, Franco, Roberto, Chuck, Ben and Bill for boys; Mary, Jessica, Sophie, Rachel, Annie, Nellie, Ally-kwippa, Willa, Gertrude and Elizabeth for girls. Clan names apply to ceremonies and rituals. In everyday use, informal nicknames prevail. After a child's First Communion, these nicknames almost always incorporate that person's guardian spirit; so, for instance, a boy with a jackrabbit guardian known for his quickness might have a name like, "Jackrabbit Quick." Fathers and Bosses always have that title in address, so if the same boy became a Father, people would call him "Father Jackrabbit Quick"; if he became a Boss, "Boss Jackrabbit Quick."


Bill Maxwell said...

Problem I still have with it is you're not living there. It's like the description of "earth-in-the-past" in Ishmael, which takes place being seen from above.

I know, it's supposed to be first draft fluff but 2 things: (1) it's not fluff, it's actually the heart of what you're trying to do. You're trying to open up a window so we can see the future and then you're giving our fate over to the gods so we can viscerally experience it now. (2) Hell... I just forgot what 2 was supposed to be.

Think of how things link. Cattle are sacred, aren't they? The headman told me they're not to be touched until the gloaming-time (and then neglected to tell me what that meant!). Milking is fine, some bloodletting. Eating of the flesh AFTER a sacred kill is fine. It has to do with a debt. The Horned One gave up everything (even its freedom!) to serve man for an age and give man everything he wanted. After that age, man would have to return the favor, watching after the Horned One and his children as the Horned One watched over them.

And entheogens? What entheogens do you actually have out in Pittsburgh? I'd expect maybe some pot but that's probably a medicine. And I wouldn't go for a fancy sickness. I'd go for someone who survived heavy metal poisoning OR went out to a swamp and came back with a malaria analog. That gives you two quests (potentially) -- without knowing the area -- you want to be a Padre? (different than the word for father; of course, you could also go German...). Go down to the Valley opposite the Grey Canyons and eat a lot of ironleaf (ironleaf being spinach). There is a fungus down there that acts as an emetic. You will take it after you've eaten enough ironleaf. Another quest -- The Marshes of Rainroads (different name for rainbow, reflects lack of bow and old blacktop roads that have a rainbow sheen AND the fact that the "marsh" is a seep left over from industrial production). Go and meditate in the middle of the marsh for a full four days. If you are chosen, the fever will come.

Or maybe do the old vision quest; your region is close enough to the Lakota that I'm sure they've taught your people the Sacrifice Road by now.

All right. I know. I'll stop lecturing and go back to hunting my own stories.

Oh... you could describe Dog. The Dog of the People, in fulfillment of the Ancient Pact that binds Man and Dog together, is now both a solitary and pack hunter, has a sharper nose, and more bristly side hair (similar to a coyote's) :) Normal coyotes and dogs that are not the People seem to give them a wide berth.

The people of the Land (or at least their headman, who might be lying just to mess with me) tell me that the pact with the Horses is a new thing. Once, they had Haugs and Sickles to ride but those went away in an ancient time. Then, they only used 2 legs to follow the cattle. But, as a gift from the creator, Horse came back to the land from under the earth and began to be found where the Horned One's children were found (a clear sign if there ever was!). A pact was made and a strong bond formed. Because of that blessing, the people NEVER eat horsemeat (only a wicked, awful, barbarian would do that!) and consider those nations who do an abomination.

And deer? They're just food.

Jason Godesky said...

You've got a gift, Bill; I hope you have some time over the next year, 'cause I'll need it! I'll need to figure out how to present this all soon. For now, I've got to scramble just to have enough down to play. I know I keep using the same excuse, but I think it has some validity: you've got some really great ideas on how to write up and present these ideas, but I've still got to get the ideas straight.

Pittsburgh's got a good many entheogens: tobacco, fly agaric, and morning glory. I wouldn't call marijuana an entheogen--not exactly psychedelic. I do like the heavy metal poisoning idea. I tried to find some information on the long-term ecological impact of old steel mills, but came up empty. I really like the use of the term "Father" over here. Frankly, we don't really use many if any German loan words. People around here say "Father." We've got a lot of Catholics--Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, Polish Catholics, you name it. As Mike pointed out, it also underlines the "macho" vibe that Western Pennsylvanians have nursed for so long. I left it somewhat unsaid in the first draft, but yes, the shamanic sickness does inspire some people to try to catch it. I like your take on how they might do that.

I've actually taken some inspiration from the Lakota already. It looks like the Siouan people might have originally come from here, but tracking down the pre-Columbian population in this little pocket has some challenges.

I wouldn't necessarily emphasize motorcycles so much, since they don't have that big of an impact here, but all in all, I very much like the tone you've struck, and when I get to some serious writing, once I've gotten enough down to playtest and I've run some games and I know this all works, we'll definitely need some of that.

Bill Maxwell said...

On entheogens, you've given up some wonderful clues right there! Give up the idea of Shamans; go for what they were called: Holies. They are holy people, touched. The possibilities are wonderful with what you have. Tobacco is a sacred, grown by those who are Holy enough to be able to nurture plants in a place otherwise unsuitable for sustained growing. It might be used as it is today (ceremonially), as an offering. Fly agaric, on the other hand, has been used as a food source before; its entheogenic force has also been tapped for berserkers. That could make it a Shifting sacred. The People ingest it, deliberately, in times on conflict to take on the spirit of Dog, Horse or the Horned One to aid them in battle. Now, morning glory... it's good for heart medicine, spiking a fever. That means anyone deliberately taking it past that is trying to get in touch with dis-ease spirits. I'd look upon them with much the same way my land-brothers, the Tongva, looked on their morning-glory Holies -- with pity. It's a hard, hard road to take that stuff and not for everyone.

Pot's a funny one. In certain people and in certain doses (though not reliably), it DOES induce hallucinations. So, some people might use it as a lighter version of the morning glory but remember, it does only affect a few.

As far as the Lakota, I was honoring a prophecy they were given by White Buffalo Woman, that their core beliefs would be the seeds that would reignite spirituality in the world after the current era. Since I go to a sweat lodge out here, in California, and will carry some of their traditions with me even if everyone passed away, I figured that those of you who might be closer... :)

Oh... and the bit about the motorcycles? It's a comment on energy descent. Away from cars and over to bikes and powered bikes. That's why they're more memorable, not because of any fetish. :)

Last thing -- Grandfather says you need to stick your head out the window. It'll help you find that piece you're looking for.

Jason Godesky said...

Give up the idea of Shamans; go for what they were called: Holies. They are holy people, touched.

I thought I had...?

Now, morning glory... it's good for heart medicine, spiking a fever. That means anyone deliberately taking it past that is trying to get in touch with dis-ease spirits. I'd look upon them with much the same way my land-brothers, the Tongva, looked on their morning-glory Holies -- with pity. It's a hard, hard road to take that stuff and not for everyone.

Hmmm--didn't know that.

Pot's a funny one. In certain people and in certain doses (though not reliably), it DOES induce hallucinations. So, some people might use it as a lighter version of the morning glory but remember, it does only affect a few.

I wasn't going to attribute pot with any hallucinogenic properties, or even addiction. The attitude of the People of the Land of the Three Rivers was going to emphasize how generously the plant offers itself for such a wide range of uses: cordage, cloth, and yes, smoking.

Last thing -- Grandfather says you need to stick your head out the window. It'll help you find that piece you're looking for.


Bill Maxwell said...


Um... mistake on morning glory (hiding face in shame). Sorry about that. Perfectly useable entheogen.


Bill Maxwell
Still studying plants.