Years Below

Around Christmas time, my mind turns to Christmases past. For the most part, that means thinking about Dungeons and Dragons.[1] When I was a child, from about the age of 12, Christmas would be when I’d get D&D books and boxes. But it’s that first D&D Christmas[2] that sticks with me, in the form of Night Below.

I’ve written about the Night Below before, elsewhere, but that’s disappeared in to the internet. I remember first seeing Night Below at Volume One, a defunct UK bookshop. It was a regular stop off on my route home from school.[3] There began a habit that continues to today, where I feel no more at peace than when I get to browse the bookshelves. They had an extensive RPG[4] section.

My initial understanding of what Night Below was, was completely wrong. I read “The Underdark Campaign” and imagined it was a setting,[5] where you took on the roles of the various gribbly beasts of the underworld in some alien brew of warmongers, machiavells, and lunatics all conspiring beneath a sky of stone.

I was no less delighted on the Christmas day when I opened the big parcel and inside was the big box.[6] The paper torn aside, the lid lifted, and inside books and maps and all sorts of wonder. I sat down to read it, alongside all my rulebooks acquired at the same time.

Night Below takes place in a generated-for-the-adventure setting of Haranshire, intended to plonked down just about anywhere.[7] At the top of every page, a strange little Otus-like Bugbear crawls across a header; it starts with little sections on character training, gold as xp, and why can’t Elminster sort it? These are all very pressing questions for an RPG, believe it or not. There’s a map with names like Thornwood, Broken Spire Keep, full page black and white illustrations that border on the camp.[8] There are a dozen factions and threats, with about half of them in the first book alone. I admit that it was the first book, the Evils of Haranshire, that grabbed me.

I resolved to run it immediately.

First Descent

It is nearly twenty-two years since that first foray in to the Underdark.[9] Some parts I can remember vividly. I know that I had all of my brothers join in, plus one of their girlfriends. I can remember some of the characters: Rick, the oldest, played a fighter who pretended to be a wizard; Jim and Kris played a pair of scallywag illiterate mercenaries who absconded with the cargo and headed down the river to The Other Village, only to get eaten by a giant frog. My oldest brother dropped out and my mum took over his character.[10] There was friction between Kris and Lucy (the girlfriend of Jim) where she put caltrops on the bedroom floor and he stomped over them in dwarf boots.

It was all pretty ludicrous. I don’t think it lasted for more than three sessions. It was also peak D&D… or so I thought.

Second Outing

The second visit to Haranshire was myself running for and playing alongside[11] three of my brothers.[12] Jon was a tough Dwarf fighter, Liam was a tricksy Kender handler,[13] I started as a mysterious Elf druid and then just switched to be a War Cleric[14] instead, and Kris was Synoch, a Gnome Necromancer reincarnated as a human to get the Int bonus but avoid that pesky level limit.[15] He also had a staff of the archmagi from tagging along on an adventure with some other characters.

Peak D&D.

I remember only little bits about this one: Liam getting in to tricksy shenanigans. Kris and I levelling armies with our magic. I think we got the furthest of all, about the entrance to the Sunless Sea, before we just got bored and gave up. Turns out all the power of the gods doesn’t override the fact that the second book, Perils of the Underdark, is just a bit of a slog.

Last Night

It would be a few years before I’d turn again to Haranshire. This last attempt is also, to me, the greatest. We didn’t get as far as the second attempt, but what we did do was really good. I had a great time converting it and running it.

A new version of D&D had been released.[16] I’m not entirely sure what made me turn my attention back to Night Below, but I decided to carry out a full conversion of the module to the new runs and then run it. Liam and Jon were still in, and joined by my oldest friend Rob.[17]

For whatever reason, the group convened with no magic: Rob played Kennan Oakhelm, a zealous goblin hunting ranger; Liam was Leonard de Molotoff, Gnome Fighter with a custom crossbow; Jon was Bleck, a half Orc Barbarian.[18] I loved the whole group but Bleck remains, without reservation, one of my favourite characters in a game ever, ever. It’s not in the least that he was a cliché busting, stereotype avoiding iconoclast. Quite the opposite. But Jo played Bleck to the hilt as a lusty, loud, face smacking warrior for muscles. He was also the leader and, thanks to playing an impatient glory hound, the group never stopped moving.

They accomplished a lot across Haranshire. They got caught in the middle of an Orc/Goblin war. They busted up several smugglers rings. In one of our best set pieces, the core trio managed to hold off an army of Gnolls on their home turf.[19] They even managed to crack parts of the mystery around the abductions in Haranshire and pursue the middle-management villain to his lair.

It fizzled out in the end due to external factors, but it remains one of my top campaigns.

Future Expeditions

It’s been, then, nearly ten years since I last ran Night Below. Every few years, I do crack it open and have a look over either, as above, to reminisce, or so below, to think of what I would do with it now. I’m not running anything and I’m sans group,[20] so it’s purely academic, but I like the theoretical exercise.

I focus on the first book. There’s two reasons for this. First, most obvious, biggest, is that the Evils of Haranshire is just better than books 2 or 3, by quite a large margin in the case of Perils. It’s a very nicely fleshed out area, with two population centres, a bunch of vibrant locales, multiple enemy centres all coiling in to the central conspiracy. It has several notable characters to interact with, ranging from cranky wizards to bizarre cults and on up to a restive green dragon. It also encourages you to add more details.[21]

The last attempt I made was a full conversion of the campaign – and I’m pretty glad I did. It meant I read through everything in the module and translated every detail. That was third edition D&D and that kind of full scale build was pretty much mandated by the scope of changes between editions. It’s not really possible to run orcs from 2nd edition as is in 3rd. More than that, though, it meant I had to relearn what is going on, who is where, and what’s going on. It’s quite good prep in general.

The latest version of D&D is, I think, probably fully capable of running Night Below almost as is. It more or less plays as a revised and tidied up version of 2nd edition, almost as if the two editions between had never existed. With only a little bit of a fudge around Saves, it probably works. But I don’t think I’d do that. On the other hand, there are other options.

The characters in the as is Night Below are positioned as outsiders coming in to town and finding its problems. This is very true to the origins of D&D; it’s not really fantasy or mythic, D&D is a western I Tolkien costume. PCs are the persons of no name, the magnificent seven, hired guns brought on to deal with the restive natives.

What if I were to take another angle? Haranshire, especially the little towns of Milborne and Thurmaster, is positioned as the home base for a party, from which they will venture certain fathoms beneath the surface. But it could just be home. If modern D&D is a good enough fit for Night Below, Beyond the Wall could be even better, seeing as it adopts the Saving Throw and ability check models from older games.

In the context of the campaign, then, the characters would have all grown up in Haranshire, either in one or other (or both?) of the towns, or perhaps in the even smaller hamlet of Harlaton (where Milborn is the ‘big city’). The conspiracy in Night Below targets people they know; the abducted apprentice Jelenneth[22] might be a childhood friend and the characters go looking for her.[23]

Something I’d give thought to if I approached the campaign from this way, would be how recently the conspiracy started. In the original campaign, the solution and cause are both outside forces interfering with Haranshire. In this iteration, it’s a novel even disturbing the country idyll. I might prefer, then, to have the roots of the abductions stretch much, much further back. Magic users have always found it hard in the Shire. No one investigates because it’s only scary people[24] that get taken and that’s a release anyway. The characters, then, are those who seek to protect their home not just from monsters, but also from the complacence that has let the monsters thrive.[25]

Of course, one of the things that disillusioned me from Beyond the Wall was the complete lack of mechanical oomph behind inter-personal relationships, whether that’s between characters. D&D derived RPGs put the majority of their focus on combat resolution, less on noncombat challenges, and massive amounts on magic. For some this is a feature, for me it is a bug. Despite its origins as a D&D mega-campaign, Night Below opens with the intention that characters should be forming relationships and bonds with the people of Haranshire; friends, mentors, allies. Of course, the game leaves the arbitration of all that in the hands of the referee.

There are a lot of D&D adjacent and derivative games that integrate some sort of relationship mechanic. 13th Age[26] has the Icon dice. You could do something similar in Haranshire with the various NPCs as the relevant power players or, rather, agents of the power players in the area. I would almost certainly need to do some custom Icons, simply because the conspiracy in Night Below adds powers that don’t have a presence in 13th Age, namely that of the tentacled horrors in the deep and the people that love them. This would be helpful in the long stretch as the characters move out of the Evils and on in to Perils and Sunless Sea.

Another option, and one I prefer, is to steal Bonds from Dungeon World or, better, something like Influence from straight Powered by the Apocalypse conversions like Masks.[27] This is a really simple but really great mechanical widget representing obligation.[28] It can be used to help others… or for others to compel your aid.

I mentioned that I consider every few years how to execute Night Below. The influence idea ties a lot in to an idea I had for a Savage Worlds conversion[29] that involved one of the characters being created as a minor noble, the Baron of Blanryde, and told to clear up Haranshire and make it profitable. What I wanted to do was play around with the politics of the area and, in particular, explore how exactly a novitiate adventurer goes about (or fails) to conduct their feudal obligations.[30]

That feudal obligation links in to the Beyond the Wall idea of Haranshire as not just a base, but as home. If, on some symbolic level, the descent in to the earth represents a journey of discovery, then there needs to be a connection at every level. That’s probably why my mind always turns back to Night Below around this time of year. It’s a piece of my childhood that I can turn over in my hands and so continue to do so in my mind.

[1] I used to run a Christmas one-off RPG for friends. This year, my younger brother got in on doing that. I played a shirtless hobbit barbarian called Dirty Bilbo. It was pretty fun.

[2] For me. I was introduced by my brothers Jim and Rick and I’m sure they must have been gifted game books at some point.

[3] As was Games Workshop but I found – and find – GW an uncomfortable place to pop in to. There was always an aura at GW that clearly broadcast that I was not welcome. Never the case in the bookshop.

[4] Initially, this would be a D&D section but, as the 90s wound on, Storyteller games would start to be included. I think there might also have been some GURPs.

[5] The language all comes from D&D’s wargaming routes. Adventure, Campaign, Campaign Setting.

[6] I still remember that my parents were mortified when they thought they’d got the wrong thing when I said it wasn’t what I thought it was. I’m pretty sure I explained that I had misunderstood it, rather than they hadn’t gotten me exactly what I had asked for.

[7] A recurring theme in D&D. I’ll return to this frontier mentality later.

[8] Including one of an inexplicably near-nude sexy druid.

[9] Darkbad, Helltown, Shadowdark

[10] And, in retrospect, doing a really clever thing by shifting the character portrayal to an ascetic mystic and guardian of Liam (the youngest).

[11] This is always a bad sign.

[12] I have a lot of brothers and that means I tended to spend most of my childhood with them. Means I’m totally unable to relate to normal people.

[13] Not some sort of pervert groper, just a slightly worse version of the thief. Better skills, no backstab.

[14] That’s right, I went from one of the most powerful classes to the other of the most powerful classes. The intention was that the group needed a healer. Didn’t work out like that.

[15] This in particular still makes me chuckle.

[16] The 3rd edition, or possibly the 3.5 revision. Not sure. It’s only relevant that the rules had changed a great deal.

[17] Poor Rob. In my defence, he asked me to teach him D&D many years ago. I think it’s in his top three regrets.

[18] At points, the group would also be joined by my other brothers: Kris was a defrocked Bard/Cleric; Jim showed up as Kul Daeruk, a half Orc Rogue; Rick was a Dwarf Necromancer.

[19] Which, because they didn’t kill all the Gnolls and had to retreat, they thought they had lost.

[20] I’m playing in my younger brother’s D&D game and rather enjoying myself.

[21] Which I did in the form of orc nations, gnoll camps, slavers, and all sorts.

[22] D&D names. Jennifer would probably do.

[23] Grabbing a Conspiracymid from Night’s Black Agents would be a useful tool for looking at how the factions connect in Night Below.

[24] Witches get stitches

[25] I’ve just got Cubicle 7’s the One Ring and the passage of years could be an interesting way to get back to this.

[26] Which is probably my favourite D&D hack.

[27] As they’re doing, more or less, in World of Adventures.

[28] In the Mask variation, it represents that a person or thing is able to affect a character’s impression of themselves.

[29] For those who know Savage Worlds, it bears mentioning that my conversion had little to do with the rules of SW or even what it is good at.

[30] An Echo, Resounding could do this. I haven’t read enough of it, but it would also allow me to link back to the acquisition of wealth and the accrual of power – Night Below defaults to ‘Gold as XP’ in the traditions of D&D. There is something interesting about this, again, talking about the origins of D&D: It’s very much a game informed by libertarian ideals, the accumulation of wealth and minimisation of risk – and the ever tempting lure of betrayal to gain more loot.


The Shadow of a Passing Year

As I write this, I am sat on a train heading north from High Wycombe to Nottingham (transfers at Banbury and Derby). It is the 31st December, the last day of 2015, and I am once again collecting my thoughts before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. Apart from that, in almost every sense, I am very far from the point I was at this time last year.

2015 has probably been my worst year, even considering life-threatening illness, injury, and other sundry miseries that have afflicted my life. I’m choosing not to dwell because there’s little point, but the first nine months of the year can be accurately described as in the shit. I am in no hurry to revisit them, so I shall move on to when things picked up. Similarly, and perhaps a little selfishly, I think that for all the tragic events of this year, others have said it better than I. Sometimes, the only appropriate response is silence.

I have been living and working in High Wycombe for three months now. My job, which I won’t go in to for security reasons, has been going well enough. The people I work with are quite nice people, though many of them are leaving in 2016, including one of the two who have been coaching me in my role. As is always the case when someone departs, there is a wistfulness for those who remain as the change forces them to reflect on their own position. Largely, it is a job and like all jobs something that is done to pay for the things we like – capitalism fails – but right now the novelty of a monthly pay cheque has not worn off. For my part, I am hopeful that the new year will offer me chances to continue my development. I work with a place that offers excellent access to training and I intend to exploit it to the fullest.

If my workplace has been welcoming, my new lodging has not. Nothing sums it up more fully than this: Having returned from my visiting my parents’ over Christmas, I found a Christmas card left outside my door. The message? “Please remember to empty the bins once a week and switch off all lights.” None is the worse tyrant than the petty one.

Socially, High Wycombe has been challenging! I’m not, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who can just go in to a pub or café[1] and start making friends. Yet I did not wish to live in isolation in my new home, if for no other reason than it would be quite boring. I have made a few efforts to meet people that have had some success, using the site meetup to, well, meet up. I have gone to a coffee meeting in Marlow where I met a group of older adults. They were friendly and chatty but I found I had little in common with them. I have also signed up with a reading group, which I really enjoyed and will be going to again at the end of January for The Martian.[2]

The largest and most active group has been the most challenging. After a shaky start at a comedy club, where I largely did not get to talk to anyone, I had two more events with them. The first, at Halloween, was a complete farce. I up alone in costume walking the streets of London as they had missed the train. The next time I met them, for brunch at a local bar, was similarly fraught, as they chose not to sit at the table they had booked. I elected to give it one last shot for a Christmas meal in Marlow. I admit that, with so many false starts, I was a little trepidatious. I half expected them to have changed reservations at the last moment. Thankfully, I went through with it and had a chance to speak with everyone. They seem like very nice people, so I was glad I did.

I have been able to read a great deal more, despite having less free time. I think this is probably a result of having to give structure to my days, what with having demands on my time. I have meant to write a little on the books that I have read since coming to High Wycombe, but I suppose there I but up against the limits of my time. I’ve moved back on to non-fiction for the last little bit of they year, having just finished Flynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan. At some point I will try and look back on some of the things I have read; Rivers of London, in particular, was both better and more thoughtful than I expected.

I continue to write, much the same as I did last year. Having finished ‘The Mountain’s Shadow’[3] I returned to an old, old idea of mine. I first came up with what was then titled ‘Zodiac Rising’ on the train to Stoke-on-Trent to visit my then girlfriend while she was at university. The bones of the tale, a journey of self-discovery, remain; all else – gods, magic, monsters – has gone. I’m a very slow writer but I try to put in 500 words a day – some days I do more – and it currently sits at 100,000 words. Some months ago I returned to rewrite the beginning, which is extending things somewhat. I had originally intended to do one and done but I am now thinking that perhaps it could work split in to two parts. The vital thing for now is to focus on getting it finished, then I can worry about the rest. I suspect this time next year I shall still be writing about it!

Something else that I am looking forward to in the new year is my return to running role-playing games. I and two of my brothers had been dabbling, in a desultory manner, with gaming[4] while I still lived in Gloucestershire. I have invited a few friends to take part in a VOIP game session drawing inspiration from pretty much the entirety of my gaming life. Titled ‘The Road of the King’[5] the concept is that the characters are the children of a band of great and good heroes who were felled by an insidious and triumphant evil – the “King” – and it is up to this new generation to take up the fight. I’ve written a fair bit on the setting[6] and am really looking forward to it – largely because of the excellent character ideas I’ve already received.[7]

The past two weeks saw me back at my parents for Christmas. I visited Liam and Susie in their new home in Quedgeley, which is a lovely little house just right for them. He showed me his pride and joy[8] while Susie jetted off on hers.[9] I went to a Greek restaurant, the Mythos,[10] in Chepstow with Jim. I saw my parents, more of my brothers, and my nieces. I went for a run and, for the first time, fell over while doing so. The foresters appear to have taken a dislike to their trees, hewing them haphazardly and turning the paths in to mud-slicked nightmares. It rained a lot. I ate a lot. I played far too much World of Wacraft.[11]

With the liberty afforded me by salaried employment,[12] I’m actually able to play things for the coming year. In addition to ongoing little things like theatre trips and a triumphant return to watching an awful lot of awful films.[13] Like the world and his dog, I went to see Star Wars VII. It was probably my film high-light of the year.[14] I took two of my brothers on the trip and all three of us were absolutely thrilled. As we left the cinema, we were pleased but as we walked and talked, comparing the little details of craft and wonder, our esteem grew and grew. It was not a film that shocked or surprised, but rather a master-piece of intentional design – much like the original Star Wars film. Others may not have enjoyed it as much as I; I wouldn’t know, I stopped reading op eds about it even before it had screened. Unusually for me, I am keen to see it at the cinema again – I may go while in Nottingham, or when back in Wycombe.

I’m also hoping to get back in to regularly watching theatre. So far, I’ve restricted myself to National Theatre screening of plays, so as to recoup the cost of moving and setting up here in Wycombe, but I am thinking of going to see the Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer. I have been recommended the Wycombe Swan; at the moment it is panto season (which I do not care for) but hopefully something will tickle my fancy. There have been some mumblings among the social groups I have attached to about going to some cultural events – they’re still of an age where clubbing and rekt is the main diversion – and I think I would enjoy the company.[15]

I also have bigger plans in the offing. Having missed 2Cellos perform in London, I have looked up their tour dates and am planning a trip in late May to see them in Munich. That will be a bit of a double treat, as it will be a chance to see performers I greatly esteem and my first trip outside of Britain since 2012, when I went to Paris. It will be my second trip to Germany.[16] The chocolate comes highly recommended. I am also hoping to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival in August. This is being arranged with the Meet-up group so there is every chance it will go wrong. Finally, and most excitingly, my brother Jim and I are planning a trip to Marrakesh in time for Christmas/New Year’s for 2016. It will be the first time I have been off continent. I anticipate growing fat from all the tagine I will be eating.

[1] Not that Britain has a café culture. More’s the pity.

[2] I was a bit pleased that a group primarily focused on literary fiction chose a sci-fi book to start the year. On the other hand, a reviewer I greatly admire has made a good case that ‘The Martian’ isn’t a sci-fi novel at all. We shall see!

[3] At least for now. I have some further ideas to expand it.

[4] 13th Age for those who are curious and care about system.

[5] RPGs are where I get my latent pomposity out, I’m sure.

[6] RPGs are also where I allow myself the luxury of world-building – mental masturbation at its finest. For those who have read me elsewhere, this is a reimagining of the Xerxes/Sol Crucis setting.

[7] I don’t want to tell you about my character, but I really do about these guys! A demon-summoning warrior and the son of a Time Lord and the Old Woman of the Mountain. Sweet.

[8] Playstation 4

[9] A motorbike

[10] I am not an aficionado of Greek cuisine, but the food was excellent and the service great.

[11] I seem to relapse at Christmas. I got a rocket this year.

[12] It is amazing the difference money makes. People parrot the cliché that it cannot buy you happiness but the honest truth is that without it, you will be miserable.

[13] I was so excited for Black Mass and it let me down.

[14] But Fury Road is so close!

[15] I do have a theatre buddy in London, but she is occupied with work commitments most of the time. Those hyenas won’t hunt themselves.

[16] I stayed in Berlin while travelling Europe in my early twenties

Castles in the Sky

64. In what concerns war, their customs are the following. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle. Whatever number he slays, he cuts off all their heads, and carries them to the king; since he is thus entitled to a share of the booty, whereto he forfeits all claim if he does not produce a head. In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the capotes of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together. Others flay the right arms of their dead enemies, and make of the skin, which stripped off with the nails hanging to it, a covering for their quivers. Now the skin of a man is thick and glossy, and would in whiteness surpass almost all other hides. Some even flay the entire body of their enemy, and stretching it upon a frame carry it about with them wherever they ride. Such are the Scythian customs with respect to scalps and skins. – Herodotus, The Histories, Book 3 (taken from here)

I have been packing the past few days. At the moment that involves putting books in boxes; as an adjunct to that sorting the various notes I have made in the past few years then secreted on shelves, between pages and other sundry places. It evokes a romantic image all those scattered musings on crinkled paper. A thought that has fetched through my brain, one that drifts through from time to time, is to combine the disparate strands I have written down into a coherent whole. Most of these scraps are not story ideas, they are outlines for secondary worlds or more accurately specific locations within them. Given that I have consistent pre-occupations that’s not such an impossible challenge. In some ways this is an extension of a habit I already have, taking several ideas and trying to make them into a larger whole.

When I was younger, had more time and played more Dungeons & Dragons I engaged in world building as an enjoyable activity in itself. In crudes strokes I would lay down a bit of terrain, the people there, their gods and heroes and shade in their relationship to one another. As fitted the genre I was working in, fantasy dungeon-hackery, it was constructed around the axes of conflict and adventure. It was and remains a great deal of fun but it is pseudo-masturbatory. This does evoke the image of the author hunched over their labours, but frames it somewhat differently.

Secondary world composition can be a self-indulgent activity that can provide framework to inform a consistent setting for the events off a story. A simile I like to deploy (and probably heard elsewhere) is that world-building provides the scaffolding for your story. Character studies and plot diagrams are materials in the same support structure. The trick is to exercise the discipline to remove the props without damaging the structure in place.

When I have used world-building techniques in the past I have found it mostly useful as a reference work to facilitate consistency. My current project involves using naming conventions from a European but not Anglo context. I have a reference document to keep all the names straight, especially useful as I proof-read. It also helps promote continuity within the story, as I know what each character is doing where. Liken it to an artist’s composition sketches. They pre-empt and prompt the finished art but (ideally) they should not be visible.

I don’t think that world-building exercises are exclusive to genre-fiction, though I it might be a peculiar vice of them. Books with pages in the 1000s filled with plodding exposition of the funerary rites of an imagined people is intended as window dressing but just serves to mud up the view. This is an absurdly reductionist idea, but the sometimes retrogrades passions of genre can need reining in. Kill your darlings indeed.

There is an unremarked conceit of literary or mainstream fiction that there is a substantial amount of this kind of composition going on; the evocation of a ‘real’ world within fiction allows can facilitate lazy reproduction but it is possible to re-present the world in such a way as to make us see it anew. Material conditions, psychological horror, or just plain old attention to detail and deployment of familiar themes bring to life a world that exists simultaneously on page and brain. Nowhere is this clearer than in visual media such as film and television; dress departments are providing a shorthand for the world via fashion.

It is also important to draw from sources outside your comfort zone, or try to. I grew up on a steady diet of conventional westernised fantasy; sub-Tolkien stuff with elves, dwarves and men. It is only in recent years that I have expanded from that and looked to other things and, I think no unrelatedly, my thoughts and fiction has developed as well. This isn’t a question of quality, but rather that the particular mechanisms of creativity feed from whatever resources you give them. There is a lot to be said for research, even when composing something fantastical.

I began with a quote lifted from Herodotus on the Scythians. I am currently working my way through the (gorgeous) Landmark edition, having read Xenophon prior to this. There is a definite poetic rhythm to his language; Herodotus was both born into a culture that valued lyrical composition, and the Histories are intended to spoken as much as read. His is a work of non-fiction, one of the earliest to come down to us, that includes the meat and potatoes of world building. Research can provide fodder for imaginary worlds; the most famous fantasies are largely derived from historical mythologies. In many ways culture is reproduction of culture (I might like to revisit this at some point) and we can only talk about the things we are aware of.