Tuesday, July 5, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Cyclpedia of the Realms: Time In The Realms

With the introductory material out of the way, we finally get into the meat of the product. It's always interesting to me to read the old 80s-era world guides, because the way information was organized sometimes strikes me as a bit random. I mean, I guess there's nothing wrong, per se, with starting your authoritative tour of the setting with a discussion of the calendar. It seems to be a popular choice - the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set started out in a similar vein (before segueing in uniquely Gygaxian fashion into an in-depth look at the setting's various varieties of trees...). Most world guides today would start out discussing matters of a grander scale: cosmology, the role of the gods, and so forth. Or else they'd just launch straight into the cyclopedic entries, leaving the calendar as an entry somewhere in the "C" section between "Calaunt" and "Cavaliers and Paladins".

Anyway, organizational grousing aside, this one-page section is a meaty one with some great little flavorful bits scattered throughout. Straight off the bat, we are informed that the calendar presented is the one utilized in the kingdom of Cormyr, which to my mind indicates the assumed starting region to be that kingdom or a neighboring region. Fair enough.

We're then told the year is exactly 365 days long divided up into 12 months of exactly 30 days with five special holidays sprinkled through the course of the year. Each month is divided up into three periods of exactly ten days each.

"How convenient..."
Honestly, I'm of two minds when it comes to creating calendars for fantasy worlds. I understand the desire to: (a) make years and months map closely to our own; while (b) rationalizing said time periods into logical, neat little base 10 systems. On the other hand, there's a certain verisimilitude in presenting a wonky calendar. Time and again throughout human history we have demonstrated a chronic inability to actually conform to calendrical systems that actually make a lick of sense or even track the seasons with any degree of accuracy. Read up on the Roman calendar before Julius Caesar's reforms to get an idea of how screwed up early time-keeping systems were, and then remember that even Caesar's solution produced a calendar that was nearly two weeks off by the time anyone got around to fixing it (and even then it took another three centuries before everyone got on board with said reforms...). The French tried to implement their own logical base 10 system of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds in the wake of the Revolution, but the effort went over like a lead balloon. Given the choice, people actually preferred to continue on with a system that divided months up into unequally varying periods, weeks into seven days, and time into base 6 multiples. People - go figure.

The calendrical system presented in the Gray Box is actually remarkably similar to the French Republican Calendar linked above, and I wouldn't be surprised if Greenwood based his calendar directly on that example. Although division of hours and minutes isn't discussed, one could assume that water clocks in Cormyr are calibrated to a decimal system as well.

Some conceit is made to confusing variation, however. "Although the months themselves are standardized, the system of dating varies from place to place," the text informs us, noting that years tend to be numbered from events of local significance (in Cormyr, it's 1332 while in the neighboring Dalelands it's 1357, for example). Months go by two names: the official names laid down by "the long-dead wizard Harptos of Kaalinth" and the colloquial names, which tend to reflect seasonal shifts (and would therefore also vary by region, although this is not explicitly stated - it's hard to imagine someone in Chult referring to the equivalent of May as The Melting, as they do in Cormyr).

Half the section is given over to a discussion of the five special calendar days, which occur approximately every two to three months. Sections like this are the heart and soul of any game setting worth its salt, as it's in these sorts of details that the author can communicate reams of implicit information about the setting with just a few explicit statements. Midwinter is important to nobles, as it is a time to make and renew alliances; for the common folk, it is Deadwinter Day, the apex of their frigid suffering. Wars are usually fought after Highharvestide but before The Feast of the Moon. I particularly liked this facet of the Midsummer festival:
In a ceremony performed in some lands, unwed maidens are set free in the woods and "hunted" by their would-be suitors throughout the night.

Another detail from The Feast of the Moon (the final special day of the year, falling between "November" and "December") struck me as weighty with implications for kicking off a campaign:
Graves are blessed, the Ritual of Remembrance performed, and tales of the doing of those now gone are told far into the night. Much is said of heroes and treasure and lost cities underground.
It never occurred to me before to launch a bog-standard D&D campaign as winter closed in, but I quite like the image now I think of it. The PCs are all locals and are filled with tales of the nearby haunted tower or what-have-you by the local storyteller/retired adventurer. The next day, gold pieces dancing in their eyes, they hit up the local hostelry to equip themselves for a venture...

This perception is reinforced by the final section of the entry, which lays out the Roll of Years. The current year is noted as the "year just ending". Hmm.

Speaking of the Roll of Years, this is another nifty feature of the setting. Although, as noted, precise year numbers can vary, each year is also given a qualitative label taken off a list first laid down by a Nostradamus-style figure known as "the famous Lost Sage, Augartha the Mad...". These labels are supposedly prophetic references to events that will occur that year: The Year of the Worm, The Year of Shadows, the Year of the Banner... Great stuff and grist for campaign inspiration if a GM was so inclined to design a themed, epic year-long story arc. Appropriately, the year we're heading into with the Gray Box is one of the more intriguing names on the list, the aforementioned Year of Shadows. I know that this became The Time of Troubles in the official Realms metaplot, but I'd be inclined to do a campaign based around the Demi-Plane of Shadow encroaching on reality (but then again I've always been partial to Shadows as monstrous foes).

The Realms of Bronze

I am definitely inclined to tinker with the calendar system presented here for my Bronze Age adaptation of the Realms. The Roll of Years would definitely stay, as would the "special calendar days" - if anything, that Midsummer "maiden hunt" is even more appropriate in a Bronze Age context; I'm reminded of Dionysian rites. As for the divvying up of months and weeks, I'll have to give some thought to how I want to do that. Most early calendar systems were lunar-based, and we get our base 6 timekeeping from the Babylonians, so those are two clues to go off of.

Whatever I end up doing, I'm going to resist the urge to make anything even remotely universal or logical. There's a tendency in the Realms, as in most D&D worlds, to homogenize things (I'll save that particular rant for the section on languages), but to me it's both more immersive and more fun (since complications drive drama) to mix things up as much as possible. But since I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time on this, I'll probably end up lifting several ancient calendar systems (Greek, Babylonian, Roman, Chinese, Mayan...), cutting them up, gluing them back together, and assigning them to different regions and cultures/races. I'll make a special post on this when I get something finalized.
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