Monday, June 07, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 1

This week I'm going to try systematically developing a single concept over a series of posts, which I don't think I've done in a while.  (Or depending on how stringently you define 'systematic', I've never done it.)  More than once I've outlined in a post or two an idea for a campaign setting of some sort, but the World of Cinder is the only milieu I've really gone any useable distance with.  My Mutant Future setting developed organically, with very little forethought and the Ruins & Ronin island I was working on collapsed under the twim ambitions of working with too broad a sandbox and trying to come to grips with another culture.  The latter case is instructive and leads directly to the original inspirational material for this week's campaign proposal: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Just so we're on the same page, I should take a moment to explain that English, the Germanic languages, Latin (and hence all the Romance languages), the Celtic languages, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and many, many other tongues are generally held to all spring from a common linguistic source, a partially reconstructed language often called Proto-Indo-European.  The PIE language is only partially reconstructed because no native writing from the Proto-Indo-European era (say, 5,000-4,000 BC) has survived.  Probably they didn't possess the art of writing but maybe they just didn't record anything on a medium that could last 7 millenium.  Either way, the American Heritage Dictionary of Yadda, Yadda, Yadda identifies PIE roots held in common among multiple successor languages.  For a simple example, counting "one, two, three" in English and "une, deux, trois" in French both go back to something like "hoino, dwo, trei".

FYI: This guy is awesome.I first got this book back in the early nineties and every few years I dig it back up and read through it.  My wife caught me reading it a few weeks ago and mocked me on her Facebook page, but I eat this crap up.  I know it's uber-nerdy to read a dictionary from cover to cover, but I really dig soaking in the foundational elements that bind together Homer, Beowulf, the Viking sagas, the Vedas and everything that followed them.  And it's less than 200 pages long, so my oddball behavior isn't quite as obsessive as reading a normal dictionary front to back.  If I've lost you in all this amateur academic nonsense I should also point out that the Kurgan from Highlander was totally a Proto-Indo-European dude.  The Kurgan people were probably PIE speakers and noted for burying their dead under mounds, also called kurgans.  Whether they were really sadistic sword-swinging badasses is not attested in the record, as far as I can tell.

Anyhoo, one passage in the Dictionary always gets me thinking that one could use Proto-Indo-European to accomplish the same thing that Professor Tolkien does with Elvish.  Obviously it wouldn't be as polished as the worlds of Tolkien or M.A.R. Barker, but that won't stop me from absconding with their methods if I can.  Here's the passage, which I scanned rather than typed to preserve all the baroque diacritical marks:

So based upon the above text, here's the elevator pitch for the Imperishable Fame campaign:   At the dawn of Western civilization it doesn't matter whether you live or die, it's how you die that is important.  Will you overcome death via the immortal poetry of the weavers of words, or will you survive as a holy force, a semi-divine boon to future generations?  Only the mightiest of heroes and the bravest of deeds can achieve Imperishable Fame.

More tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous1:26 PM

    Boy do I wish I had thought if this. That dictionary is now on my reading list. Thanks!

  2. If you don't mind I took the liberty of editing your blurb.

    At the dawn of Western Civilization it doesn't matter how you live, it is how you die that is important. Will you live on in the words of poets enshrined in an immortal epic? Or will you become a boon to future generations as your spirit is transformed into a holy force? Only the mightiest of heroes daring the bravest of deeds can hope to kindle the Imperishable Flame.

  3. Yes, that's much tighter. Thanks!

  4. Interesting. I would not have considered reading a dictionary like that - more so to get a campaign idea out of it.

    Don't feel too odd about yourself over reading the dictionary like a book, as I even tend to read unusual materials (instruction booklets for devices I no longer have, pamphlets you find in waiting rooms, and such) when I get board - or not - but I'm a neurotic bibliophile. XP

    By the way, I also have that dictionary. I got a stack of dictionaries! LOL

  5. "History of the English Language" was the hardest course I took ever, let alone college. But it's been surprisingly useful in gaming.

    Specifically, creating words that, while made up, have meaning and continuity in the setting. For example, the transition of Latin "p" to English "f" as in pater = father or pisca = fish. Or the fact that old English words were pronounced as they were spelled, and that spelling was largely idiosyncratic until the Middle English rise of the Normans.

    In RPG terms: the names of things can provide a clue as to when they were named, or by who; PCs who check for linguistic patterns may discover clues in plain sight.

    This isn't hard for a GM who does a little research. Like Jeff, who is earning mad nerd cred by reading a dictionary. Now if only there were a small-print version to fit into his pocket protector...

  6. Joe: I think you might mean _How To Kill A Dragon_ by Calvert Watkins? I've looked through a good bit of that on Google books. The amount of times he drops into another language, especially one using another script, can be a little off-putting.

  7. Awesome idea. I've been looking for a good setting/ for using the Sorcerer & Sword game ( This looks like a very promising idea. Throw in a bunch of demons and some Destiny and we have a game!


  8. Yes, that's the one! (That's what I get for posting when I'm not in front of my books.)

  9. Where would you set a PIE campaign? AIR the origin point is still in some dispute, but I'd suggest the western Caucasus/eastern Black Sea shore area - eg western Georgia and Abkhazia - gives interesting terrain and a variety of options.

    I think the historical Sarmatians are particularly interesting, known as extremely fierce warriors, Sarmatian Roman auxiliary cavalry who served in Britain are possibly one origin of the King Arthur myths. In WW2 their descendants the Ossetians won by far the most medals per capita fighting for the USSR against the Nazis, and fought a successful defensive war against much larger Georgian forces only a few years ago, a few hundred Ossetian militia holding off Georgian armoured divisions until the Russians arrived through the Roki tunnel.

  10. Hi Jeff,
    I suggest you take alook at Francisco Villar's "The indoeuropeans and the origins of europe" (or something like that)

  11. Jeff,

    You are much less nerdy than you think you are. I own many dictionaries and they are a major source of material and inspiration in my gaming and have been for many a year. I now realize that my collection needs a new addition. Thanks!

  12. Anonymous11:57 PM

    You might want to check this book out.

    It's not an easy read (I gave up on it) but the gist is in this article:

    Yeah, the guy has a bone to pick. Still, the first few chapters of the book is chock full of RPGable detail like chariots, the comitatus/honor guard, lots of stuff.