Backstory: the seven rings of Tela

Here’s another bit about the setting of Tapestry:

In working out the historical background for the current campaign, I wanted magic to play a role. So I came up with a specific magical feat: The making of a set of magical rings, one for each of the sapient races. The basic idea was that a brilliant dwarf craftsman, but one who was an only son and therefore handicapped in accumulating enough wealth to prove his worth as a potential husband, went on a long quest to gain wealth through selling his skills to non-dwarves; and in the process he discovered the principle that different metals corresponded to different races, and being a little obsessive (not uncommon in dwarves), ended up making one ring for every race.

In GURPS terms, these rings are Gadgets, with different Gadget modifiers based on the DR of their materials. Each ring grants powers suited to (a) the symbolism of its metal, (b) the favored habitat of its wearer, © the natural qualities of its wearer’s race, and (d) the individual interests of its wearer. So I have the following:

Nixies have the Ring of Mercury, which grants enhanced mobility in water, enhanced bodily flexibility, and enhanced mental and cultural adaptibility. It’s been passed down in a successful mercantile family of the largest nixie city.

Elves have the Ring of Gold, which grants longevity, resistance to disease and corruption, and skill in biological manipulation. It’s still held by the original owner, an elder stateself in the emerging elven empire of the north.

Trolls have the Ring of Lead, which gives endurance of cold and darkness and ability to call on the great spirits of arctic lands. It’s been passed down in the lineage of the Winter Queen. Given troll reliance on memory, it hasn’t been used very innovatively, but the current Winter Queen is changing this, working to alter the climate on a large scale and give herself a land where it’s always winter and never Christmas, as it were.

Selkies have the Ring of Silver, which allows them to navigate the rough seas of the outer ocean, and let its original owner found a pirate empire.

Men have the Ring of Copper, which grants improved running or horsemanship, skill in battle, and above all charisma. One of its wearers led his plains nomad clan in conquering a nixie city, now called Urbs Hominorum. It’s now worn by his granddaughter, who has ambitions of her own toward further conquests.

Dwarves have the Ring of Tin, which increases craft skills and can be used to produce superior materials. Its maker offered it to his intended bride when he returned, and they went on to develop such products as porcelain and blown glass, whose secrets she shared with several daughters, enabling them to form advantageous marriages in turn. (I haven’t worked out the details of how this fits into the system of seven endogamous clans—earth, sand/glass, clay/pottery, stone, gems, metal, dwarf—that that culture is based on.) Dwarves are the most introverted of the races, seeking not to conquer anything but to mine deeper and manufacture better products; but their products are major trade goods.

Ghouls, finally, got the Ring of Iron, made from a piece of rare meteoric iron. It confers ferocity, high pain threshold, and command of fire. It was stolen by one of the player characters a number of years back, and then passed on to a different ghoul matrilineage, whose leader is now carrying on a campaign of firestick farming at the edges of the adjacent elven lands.

At this point I haven’t tried to write up any of the Rings as a Gadget; I’m treating them narrativistically. But conceivably I might have to if the players ever get their hands on one, or meet its owner. So far their characters know about the Rings of Mercury, Lead, Silver, Copper, and Iron, though they’ve only heard of the Ring of Mercury as a figure of speech in nixie songs. They don’t seem to have gotten the idea of the seven classical metals being involved, or thought of asking what the elves and dwarves got—which is all part of “player characters aren’t good at riddles.”

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Are they arm rings like Draupnir or finger rings?

When you say “wearer” in the third paragraph I take you to mean “intended wearer”. Is that right?

To what extent could the feat of making these rings be repeated, if one knew how?

To what extent are the qualities of these rings dictated by magical necessity, and to what extent were they choices of the maker? Could other magical Gadgets be made that had quite different effects? Were they designed or discovered?

I notice that several of the rings are driving significant change of land use and technology. Is this otherwise, would this otherwise have been, an age of transformation, like a Neolithic Revolution or whatever? Or was the creation of these rings epoch-making?

Were your trolls inspired by the Gloranthan Uz to any extent?

Your PCs are engaged in a long voyage of trading and discovery, right? Is it an historic event? Likely to be transformative? If so, is it connected in any way to the great historic changes being driven by the seven rings?

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That’s a great set of questions, and really interesting to think about.

The PCs’ voyage is at least potentially transformative. It’s not that there has never been travel to Occasia; in the north a group of elves travelled there to found a colony when their native land was getting politically rigid, and the selkies go on voyages from time to time, to show their courage and bring home costly gifts. But this is the first time nixies have gone on such a voyage, motivated by commerce and looking for cargoes that could support a steady trade. And the voyagers are carefully preparing maps and recording a bit about languages and seeking political alliances; in fact, one of the current PCs is a native of the western land of Dumetum Furtum, a nixie realm formerly unknown to the nixies of Urbes Septemplex, who’s being prepared to be their local factor. If the voyage is a success, they can buy another ship, set up regular trade, and also sell their secret knowledge to other merchant adventurers, which can set up a route comparable to the Indian Ocean spice trade.

The only possible answer to the question about changes in land use is “yes and no.” On one hand, many of the changes are the changes that actually took place at the dawn of history—more Bronze Age than Neolithic—except that, in Tela, spirits are pervasively present, so those changes have a magical aspect: there are spirits of the hearth and forge, spirits of ships, and so on. But on the other hand, the presence of magic, and particularly of the Rings, allows certain things to happen faster. There are rituals that really do give bonuses to technological or vehicle handling skills; and also, there are early advances, such as the dwarves of Fodina Magna having high-quality bronze, blown glass, and porcelain, or the selkies being able to sail the open ocean by magically shielding their ships from bad weather, or for that matter the elves doing advanced domestication and selective breeding, including doing both to other sapient races.

On one hand, the Rings were the product of a process that someone else could carry out, if they knew how. But on the other hand, there’s something of a Feanor-making-the-palantiri aspect: the enchantments were incredibly difficult and needed someone highly gifted to bring them off. But certainly it’s possible to enchant other objects; for example, Sangmu, the trollwife healer/shaman, carries a troll-sized bow made by elves who crafted the wood to be a home for a spirit that could grant it magical gifts. The Rings also reflect the discovery by Lung the dwarf that each race had a natural affinity for a specific metal; trying to make a golden ring for a troll would be much harder.

Of course, now there are possibilities for massive conflict: men riding horses into battle, trolls aided by cold and darkness, ghouls burning forests, elves turning other races into domestic animals, and so on. There’s an underlying them in this world of the choice between racial separatism and dominance, or interracial cooperation. Sangmu, in particular, has been trying to figure out ways that trolls can continue to have a roll in a world where literacy is widespread (since trolls are dyslexic and have eidetic memories).

As to the smaller questions: These are finger rings, not arm rings; Gansuk, the ghoul who stole the Ring of Iron, got an infected eye from a wound, and the Ring of Iron persuaded him to use it to burn out the infection (and his eye). The word “wearer” does indeed mean “intended wearer” or perhaps “wearer of the intended race.” Of course I’m aware of the Uz, and find some inspiration in the way the Gloranthan races are re-envisioned, but I didn’t take anything specific from the Uz or the Mostali or the various “elf” races; in fact, probably the biggest inspiration for trollwives was Poul Anderson’s “The Valor of Cappen Varra,” with its mention of the idea that trollwives are magically gifted (though I have the vague impression that this may have turned out not to be the case).

The supernatural aspect of this world is not polytheistic (like many fantasy campaigns) so much as animistic. This reflects partly my using Big Eyes Small Mouth for a Tolkienian campaign and finding how well Shinto fit LotR’s worldview, but also partly my being aware of Roman ideas about spirits. I wanted to explore, in Watsonian terms, what things were like in a world where spirits were all over the place.

Do they even know it is a riddle? If they are just thinking it is backstory or flavour text, they may not realise there is a riddle. Or if they know any chemistry they’ll be assuming that a mercury ring is not an actual physical bit of jewellery, but is a metaphor or a poetic bit of alchemical lore.

I personally had never heard of the 7 classical metals. Except in an archaeological context of stone age then copper age, bronze age, iron age. Or sciencey stuff like people invented arsenical bronze, then discovered that making it with tin was better and less hazardous to your health…

That’s interesting. I had assumed that everyone knew the classical and medieval system of correspondences, at least for values of “everybody” that apply to fantasy fans. (I realize the history of science is a narrower interest!) The system is Luna = silver, Mercury = mercury, Venus = copper, Sol = gold, Mars = iron, Jupiter = tin, and Saturn = lead (and they go respectively with envy, avarice, lust, pride, wrath, gluttony [Jupiter is the god of feasts], and sloth, but I’m not using the Seven Deadly Sins in this campaign). If you have GURPS Thaumatology, the table of planetary correspondences on p. 247 has the whole system. (It can also be found in Planet Narnia, a really interesting critical study of C.S. Lewis’s fiction.)

No, I haven’t explicitly told my players that there’s a riddle. But they’ve gamed with me for years, and sometimes for decades; they’ve encountered my habit of making arcane little jokes in my campaign material. And, well, if you know that five of the races in a setting each got a ring of a specific metal, and that there are seven races, that seems to invite wondering about whether the other two races also got rings, and what metals they were made of. I guess I’m not using “riddle” literally so much as “pattern available for them to spot.”

Of course, they only learned about the rings of silver, mercury, copper, iron, and lead in the latest session (by raising the question of a discrepancy between Weather Sense and magical weather prediction). So they may just need more time. But so far their investigative methods have turned more on summoning and questioning spirits (including the spirit of the first Winter Queen, Deviyakka) than on asking themselves, “Okay, did the elves and dwarves get rings, too, and what metals might they have been made of?”

An interesting question for me is what properties of the metals might plausibly have magical resonances. For example, mercury is capable of chemical transformations (changing mercury to cinnabar and back was a big theme in Chinese alchemy) and can be used to extract gold from mineral deposits; so I think of it as giving the wearer the ability to extract wealth from an economy through trade. . . .

To be Doylist about the matter, in a lot of ways Tela is me talking back to Tolkien, the way Travis Corcoran’s Aristillus novels do to Heinlein (there’s a scene where one of the uplifted Dogs wants to “throw rocks” at Earth, for example, and the self-aware computer says, “Oh, you’ve been reading The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Here’s why that’s a Really Bad Idea”), or the way Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis deconstructs the Foundation stories. In fact, the better known continent, Terra Media, explicitly points to this. I have multiple sapient races, of which men, elves, dwarves, and trolls share names with Tolkien’s races, and to some degree habitats, though I rejected the idea of “evil” races (which, to be sure, Tolkien felt increasingly ill at ease with in his later life). The race that actually stands in for “humans” is not men, but nixies, by analog of hobbits, though they’re more like the ancestral folk Sméagol came from than the Shirefolk—but they still have bread and beer and tunnels and trade. I have “man the mortal, master of horses,” with a mounted nomad culture less idealized than the Rohirrim. The world is “ancient” and low-tech, but it has bits of more advanced technology such as glass and porcelain. And it even has magic rings.

Of course a lot of post-1970 fantasy is in Tolkien’s debt generally, but the intended commentary here is more specific, kind of like that in Bujold’s Sharing Knife books (with their short farmers and tall, magically gifted Lakewalkers). On the other hand, I’ve tried to avoid the overobvious borrowings of writers like Brooks or Feist. And my theme is not all like Tolkien’s of loss, nostalgia, and memory; the central theme of the world is the choice for each race of turning inward to seek its own good and its own dominion, or turning outward to interweave all the races in, well, a Tapestry—as is happening with the trading ship, jointly owned by two ghouls, a nixie, a selkie, and a troll (the campaign theme is sort of “to explore strange new lands; to seek out new life and new civilizations”).

The question of how the different races are adapted to their different habitats is the big Watsonian counterpart to this. Though I do think Tolkien at least hints at awareness of ecological differences among the peoples of Middle-Earth.

A further note on this is that the different races each have a different way to seek exclusive power for themselves. Dwarves (the most introverted) are tempted to dig deep tunnels and fill them with hoarded works of craft that no one else can even see; nixies to act as middlemen and gain enormous profits from monopolizing trade; elves to cover the world with highly cultivated forests in which the other races survive only as domesticated servants; men to conquer empires with chariots or cavalry, and selkies with fleets of ships; ghouls to do firestick farming, eat the corpses, and loot the bodies; and trolls to cover all the world with winter in which only they can thrive. So each ring represents a distinct and dangerous temptation.