Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Wild Cats of the Eastern Satrapies

Its been a while! Uh, way too long in fact. I still haven't ran a session of KoK since my last post, but I figured the best thing to get me back into the groove of writing RPG stuff and getting back to running King of Kings would be to just write somethin! Its been a really busy few months since I last posted; in August I moved into my first apartment after graduating, in September I went to see a friend of mine in New York City and another in New Jersey, and that same month my girlfriend started staying with me while she worked on getting an apartment in the same city as me! Then just last month I set a goal of watching a spooky movie a day for the month of October (perhaps something I should write some about... maybe a topic more fitting for my neocities site!) and helped my girlfriend move into her new apartment... but now things have calmed down some so I can get back to blogging!

Something that has been a central part of the King of Kings setting ever since I started working on it is aiming for, in addition to a kind of historical authenticity (a subject I might write more about in future!), a general accuracy of the flora and fauna to those that would have been living in the Iranian plateau and central Asia during late antiquity. I think so much of the distinctive vibe of a place and time can be communicated by the environment, and just as much as someone running a science fiction game might be interested in developing the alien biosphere, or a cyberpunk worldbuilder in describing what sorts of vermin flit about the concrete jungle, I am fascinated by discovering what sorts of animals lived in Iran in late antiquity and including them in my game and in my encounter tables.

So, this post is an example of that! Rather than just writing about this interest in authentic flora and fauna in a generic way, I figured it would be fun to hone in on a specific group of animals that I think highlight the incredible diversity of animalia in the pre-modern world, many species driven to extinction or to ever shrinking ranges due to human action: big cats!

I'm only providing stats for the ones that I think really need it, so big cats and cats used for hunting. Also, I'm pairing this post from Ben L. over at Mazirian's Garden with these wild carnivores; his animal terror grappling rules are one of my all-time favorite takes on this idea that I've seen anywhere! So check out his post too! It might also be a good idea to go check out my post about the geography of the Eastern Satrapies, since I mention a number of locations in this post.

The Persian/Anatolian/Caucasian Leopard
(I'll be noting the real world subspecies names in parentheses)

The Leopard (Persian Leopard, Anatolian Leopard, etc.), known in Shahanistani as Palang, is a mountain-dwelling pouncer that rests in the branches of looming juniper trees, to which it drags its prey, mountain goats and deer and smaller beasts. Its hide is a greyish or reddish color with dark rosettes scattered across, some leopards darker, some paler; its claws and teeth are curved knives that dive into flesh as if it were water, split with the prow of a boat. A male leopard claims sovereignty over a certain section of territory, and is joined by typically up to three females, and their cubs; unlike the glorious lion, King of All Beasts, the palang is jealous and vindictive, and will spar with any rivals who dare entreat on his territory.

Since even before the Deluge, the leopard has been a beast of terrible significance. Antediluvian statuary has washed up on muddy shores depicting long forgotten tyrant-queens on leopard thrones, and pallid shivering naked men brought before the palang as sacrifice. It is an omen of death and chaos, the very symbol of nature's uncaring grip on man. In the valleys of Elburz Satrapy, it is said that leopards appear before mudslides, floods, and terrible storms. The appearance of a palang's hide is a sign, among the Shahanistani sailors of Humakuyun-on-the-Sea, to avoid a seaborne trip; froglings, in their typical hubris, oft ignore this omen, confident in their fly-powered vessels. The leopard is the beastly mirror of the murderer; there are many folk tales of men driven mad by their vengeful killings of wives or sons who find themselves circled by leopards in the rugged wilds, keeping a distance out of respect for one of their own. Kings have slung leopard skins beneath their feet to symbolize victory against evil. The leopard is the favored beast of a drunkard god from a western island, now under the domain of the Gnostic Elves, who pull his sloshing carriage across land as the dolphin pull his dinghy across water. Thus,leopards can be tempted by wine.

Those bitten by a leopard are sought out by mice, who are urged by instinct to urinate on them. If one who has been bitten by a leopard is urinated on by a mouse, they will surely die; the only thing to certainly dispel the rodent is sumac blossom. 

The male Asiatic Lion

The Lion (Asiatic Lion), or Shir, is King of All Beasts, the mirror in the world of animals of the Shahanshah of the Enlightened Empire, or of Truth. He is beige or yellow-grey in color, with a mane cleaving close to his neck or, in the lioness, no mane at all, but commonly faint stripes on the limbs. They live in prides, the males in small groups of only up to three or four, the lionesses in much larger groups of up to twelve not including their cubs. Lionesses are fiercely protective of their cubs, and will fight much more ferociously if they see their cubs threatened or cornered. Despite their more righteous associations, lions are, like leopards, more active at twilight and in darkness, while they sleep during the day.

The lion is the other symbol of kingship, alongside the blessed Huma bird whose shadow bestows royalty. The personal standard of the Shahanshah is a lion and a sun on a purple field, fringed with gold and crimson; in times of strife, such as during the Mountain Uprising which established the Enlightened Empire, and during the Fifty Years' Crisis, the King of Kings has employed a simple lionskin hoisted on a pole as a standard. The killing of lions is heavily restricted; villages under the terrible shadow of a ravenous shir hunting their herds down to nothing must receive special license to catch and kill the beast. At the front of a mob of peasants and herdsmen marches a village headman holding aloft a scroll emblazoned with the satrap's seal; a hunter entrusted to track down a lioness wears the papyrus on her chest. The nomads of the western frontier, on the roiling border of the Neverending War with the Gnostic Elves, carve their headstones in the shapes of lions; it is said that they guard over the dead, and snap their jaws at those who dare attempt grave robbery. 

Lions are a common target of heretical revolutionary sects, who desecrate their bodies as a symbolic act of defiance. A cult hidden deep in the mountains of eastern Elburz has been known to butcher and eat lionflesh around a great fire in a ritual asserting the immortality of flame as against that of the king. The lion is a predatory beast that pounces on the weak, just as a noble dehqan pounces on the peasants; even some of the most orthodox prophets have called upon the rich to not behave as lions do, hungrily snatching at those most vulnerable. The lion is said to have been made by Deceit, but using a model created by Truth. This is the two-sided coin of the shir; righteous king on one side, slavering hunter on the other.

The Caspian/Hyrcanian/Persian/etc. Tiger

This leaves Tigers (Caspian Tiger, Hyrcanian Tiger, etc.), also known as the Babr, final among the three greatest of felines. They are the largest, strongest, and fiercest of cats, broad faced, broad shouldered, and stout. They lack the lion's mane, but instead have orange and black variegated stripes on their fur, each tiger completely individual in its stripe pattern. Lions and tigers respect each other and keep an arm's length when encountered; it is only especially cruel or rabid tigers that provoke lions into battle. Unlike the lion and leopard, the tiger is typically active during the day. They dwell in mountains, foothills, steppes, and coastlines, and while they tend to live solitary lives, they are not hostile to one another and will share their meals.

Learned scholars in the First City assert that the tigress is impregnated by the wind, from which the beast acquires its extraordinary quickness. It is second only to the cheetah for swiftness among the beasts, and it is believed that tying a length of tiger hide to an arrow makes it fly faster and truer. As such powerful and wild beasts, the babr is the subject of much struggle to capture, dominate, and kill. In the grand menageries of the Shahanshah in the First City, a number of portly tigers are kept in gilded cages, who have been rumored to be fed heretics and rebels by some of the especially cruel Kings of Kings. There were once grand gladiatorial games in the lands now ruled by the Gnostic Elves, which pitted ravenous tigers against pit-fighters for the entertainment of the crowds. The Gnostic Elves despise such excesses, and have cracked down on the practice; but the smuggling of eastern tigers still brings lucrative rewards. Amulets and artifacts made from the skin, teeth, claws, bones, and mummified limbs of the babr are vested with the natural qualities of the beast. There are tales of a sect of sorcerers that transform themselves into tigers and dwell in reedy marshes; and it is said that in the far north, in the Land of Darkness, there dwell giant tigers, pale white in place of vivid orange, with teeth that stab through metal as if it wasn't even there.

Big Cat (Lion, Tiger, Leopard)
Number Appearing: 1d4
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: See below
Armor: as leather and shield
Morale: 9
Pounce: Big cats' preferred mode of attack is pouncing into a grapple with their victim. They receive a bonus of +3 (tiger, lion (+2 STR, +1 size)) or +2 (leopard (+2 STR)) to grappling rolls against human-sized opponents. When in a grapple, they deal 1d6+3 damage; if they fail to enter a grapple, they can attack twice in a turn, dealing 1d6+1 damage with each attack. Big cats can maul and are ferocious (see Ben's post above).

Leopards also drag

The Asiatic Cheetah

Leaving the great cats behind, there are three kinds of middling-sized cat tamed for hunting, each unique to a given territory. 

From south to north, first there is the Cheetah (Asiatic Cheetah), or Yoz, the favored hunting companion of kings and nobles. Its name in Shahanistani means "leap," for that is how it hunts; by chasing down its prey on its extraordinarily quick feet, before bringing down its quarry with "but a single bound," as a poet extolling its virtues once said. It is the fastest creature in the whole world, with tan-colored fur bedecked all over with black spots. The cheetah dwells in arid grasslands and sandy deserts; it was first tamed in the southern continent, although now hunters using cheetahs range as far north as the Kavir-e Bozorg. They are honorable beasts, and much poetry has been penned about them; the yoz is a very moral creature. There is a special saddle design oft used by members of the nobility with a second seat for a cheetah to accompany them on hunts. Subjects of the Gnostic Elves foolishly believe that cheetahs are the bastard offspring of a lion and a leopard, due to their appearance and the difficulty of their breeding in captivity. The yoz is a lucrative item for trade with the Empire of the Great East; their princes and emperors are fascinated by these hunting cats from distant lands.

Number Appearing: 1d6
Hit Dice: 2+1
Attacks: See below
Armor: as leather and shield
Morale: 8
Swiftness: Cheetahs are the fastest of beasts. They have advantage on opposed rolls for chases and on initiative rolls.
Pounce: The cheetah's preferred mode of attack is to chase their quarry before pouncing on them. They receive a bonus of +1 (+1 STR) to all grappling rolls. When in a grapple, they deal 1d6+1 damage. Cheetahs can maul and drag (see Ben's post). 

The Caracal, or Siahgush

Then, in similar arid regions as the cheetah, there is the Caracal, or Siahgush, meaning "black-eared" in Shahanistani. It is of reddish hue, with a handsome face and tall black-tipped ears. This hunting cat is smaller than the cheetah, and is thus more suited to hunting hares and birds; as a result, it is less favored by the nobility, who are most interested in big game, and is instead the hunting cat of choice of bazaaris and the better off peasants. The fur of the siahgush is amazingly soft, oft used for the lining of coats; less expensive than sables from the Land of Darkness, but still rich in quality. The caracal is also known as "the herald of the lion," for it travels before a lion on the prowl, alerting the other beasts of the king's coming. Then, after the lion's attack, the siahgush feasts on the remains, safe in the knowledge that the lion is sated. Thus, the caracal is depicted as the greedy courtier to the lion's kingdom, at once fearful of the sovereign's wrath and reliant on his generosity. A caracal crossing one's path is a sure sign that lions are nearby. 

Two Caucasian Lynxes

In the mountainous north of the Enlightened Empire, in the forested hills surrounding The Conqueror's Wall and the coastal lowlands south of the Sea of Giants, there dwell Lynxes (Caucasian Lynx), also known as the Vashaq, the favored hunting cat of the Land of Darkness. They are larger than the caracal, but with smaller ears and shorter tails, a mottled grey and brown with scattered black spots. Their paws are large and cushioned, making traversing snow easier. Northerners traditionally tame them for hunting similarly to the cheetah and caracal. The sacred order which presides over the Conqueror's Wall keeps 200 lynxes for hunting small game to supply their food. It is said that barbarians in the Land of Darkness, beyond the wall and mountains, don't even keep dogs, instead hunting exclusively with the vashaq. A far northern goddess of love, war, and sorcery rides a chariot pulled by lynxes through the snowy twilit forests; even those barbarians not in the tribes she presides over are wary of killing lynxes or blaspheming in their presence, worrying that they will report back to her. The pelt of the vashaq is soft, warm, and has especial properties: wearing it inspires sexual desire and virility and holds off hemorrhoids and similar illness. Burning lynx hair can heal festering wounds. Lynx urine crystallizes into an amber-like gemstone termed a lynx stone, which cures jaundice and other diseases of the kidney, and when rubbed against cloth has an attractive power on many substances.

Number Appearing: 1d4
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 2 claw (1d4)
Armor: as leather
Morale: 7
Pounce: Caracals and lynxes' preferred mode of attack is pouncing; however, due to their size, they cannot meaningfully grapple with human-sized opponents. Do you really want to have to roll for a caracal grappling with a duck?

A Sand Cat

A Steppe Cat (Asiatic Wildcat)

A Jungle Cat

Then there are the four kinds of least cats. Three are of similar size and appearance to the cat kept as a pet: the Jungle Cat, Sand Cat, and Steppe Cat (Asiatic Wildcat). Each of these types of cat are solitary hunters that tend to keep a wide berth from towns and villages; thus, they are more often encountered as surprise omens by travelers than beasts sought out for their fur or hunting capability. The jungle cat is widespread in marshy and riverine environments; they are especially notable in the Hinterbog on the edge of Elburz Satrapy and in the lake country of Numistan. Travellers across the Hinterbog must always remember to leave gifts for the jungle cats, for some among their number are jinn in disguise. The bite of the jungle cat is liable to fester and rot more readily than that of other felines. Sand cats are the most elusive cat of them all, small tan-colored things that crawl through the driest depths of the Kavir-e Bozorg, so rare that even most desert-dwellers have never seen one. They are active only at night, and leave small faint footprints where they walk. They often nap in the shade of ancient ruins, to which a traveller can furtively follow them for treasure. The steppe cat is the furtive companion of travellers along the routes between the Enlightened Empire and the Empire of the Great East, dashing in and out of view in its shyness. The Southern Dog-Headed Men despise steppe cats, putting their skins as tassels on their spears and banners.

This is my favorite pallas cat picture

And, finally, there is the strangest cat of them all: the Manul (Pallas' Cat). This most secretive of cats ranges across mountains from the Elburz range north of the Kavir-e Bozorg east through Numistan and into even more arid and wintry plateaus, from whence whispers of fabled Kadath emerge. They are small in size by covered all over with an excessively fluffy coat, giving them a rotund and soft appearance. Their faces are incredibly expressive, and they have qualities in sympathy with humanity that have led some to say that they are the ghosts of mountaineers who perished in avalanches or froze solid from frigid winds. The distinctive image of the eastern mountains is the frostbitten corpse with a manul curled up in its lap. Their coats are so pillowy soft that they are sometimes termed the "eastern sable," so valuable and rich their rare hides are. The hurdle to acquiring sable furs is the great distance and danger in venturing into the Lands of Darkness; the difficulty in hunting the manul is solely their secrecy, for they hide in shadows and snowbanks and are only very rarely seen in person.

And, for those curious, here are some of the sources I used for inspiration when writing this post!
Encyclopaedia Iranica (especially their pages on Mammals of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, on The Classification of Mammals and Other Animal Classes According to Zoroastrian Tradition, on the Caracal (this page is especially of interest because it includes direct citations from medieval Iranian treatises on hunting cats!), and on Lion Tombstones.
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri (Penguin edition)
The Natural History of Pliny the Elder
The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages (A really fantastic resource in general! Gathers all sorts of information from several medieval European bestiaries in one digital location!)
And, to be completely honest, also Wikipedia.