One of the things I love doing is having players create part of the setting. My setting is big and has a fair amount of fluid space for exactly that reason, so when a friend of mine came to me with an idea for a culture of halfling horse archers, we sat down and banged it out, I polished the edges, and there it was. It had always been there, of course. Using a real world map means I could actually put them in Mongolia, which is kind of neat. They have a few other classical references, like the halfling version of the rape of the Sabine women, which seemed like the sort of thing an early raiding culture would do.
In a nutshell:
Similar to Mongol horse archers of history, the Qulan, halflings of the Eastern Madjan herd yaks and live in yurts, but ride dogs or even dinosaurs rather than horses. Nomadic, they maintain a warrior culture filled with esoteric rituals to maintain respect. Their clans are ruled by a Matreiya, who controls all domestic affairs and a Khan, a person in charge of matters of hunting, herding and war. The roles aren’t gender specific, and the exact structure tends to vary from clan to clan (there are twenty-one families in a clan, fourteen clans make up a tribe, and there are seven tribes), but they’re essential. Some tribes might have sub-khans, or more powerful Khans than Matreiya. The last segment of their infrastructure are the Naiman, incorrectly referred to by outsiders as the eighth tribe. Shamans and mystics, the Naiman dedicate themselves to the preservation of the people as a whole, just as Oyugun did when the brothers of the Qulan first came to these lands long ago.
The legends say that once, the Qulan lived in cities. Surrounded by walls, they had seven cities, and a population of a hundred thousand. But as all things must end, so did the age of cities. The fabric of the world was torn asunder, each of the cities falling away into fire, darkness, chasms or oceans, depending on the story. The Qulan of the seven cities were largely killed, but the gods are not so unkind as that, and to tell the story of the seven cities is to tell the story of their survivors. Once, there were seven brothers, the sons of Oyugun, a herdsman from the country. After falling out over wine, women, and life, the family was sundered, each brother unable to stand being in the same city as his kin. These brothers alone survived, of all the Qulan in the cities, and returned to their father’s yurt to tell him the news. “Our people are dead,” they said. “We are the last.” But Oyugun was cunning, and knew the ways of the hidden paths. He knew of the death of the cities, for the gods had come to him and told him to lead those who would find him to a far off land where they would be tested, but where their small people would become the brave and fierce warriors they were meant to be. “My sons,” he said, “Walk with me.” And they walked. Through dark places, past great hoards, over lakes, and through terrible blizzards they walked. For ten years they walked, until arriving at their new home, a cold, dry place of rocky steppes. “Here we will begin anew,” Oyugun told them.
They had no women, no crops, no herds, but nonetheless his sons began to build a settlement with their own hands, and what they brought with them. Quorchi hunted with his bow, and Subetai found a place for their camp. Vachir used his magic to light the fire, while Temur used his tools to begin making camp. Out gathering water, Chinuadai befriended a wild dog, and Batu found the first herd of yak, but it was Dashnai whose luck ensured the life of the Qulan. Looking for firewood, he ran across a woman. Of his own race, no less. Following her on silent feet, he found her clan. When he returned to the camp with the news that their own people were already here, Oyugun simply nodded and formulated a plan. Using their gifts, the brothers set up a good camp, gathering furs and things for gifts to these people. Finally, Dashnai approached them, inviting the people back to their camp for a feast, and they accepted. Oyugun regaled them with stories of the cities as they feasted, but it was Vachir’s herbs in the food that put the men to sleep. While they slumbered, the seven brothers took the women, and moved on. Such was the beginning of the Qulan.
More recent history includes the Qulan’s clash with Xianyang Benxi a hundred years ago, an exiled Xiang general who had his followers build towns near the base of the mountains, and thought to raid the Qulan’s herds. Taking their yaks, he slaughtered an entire settlement of the Gan’Dashnai. The Qulan united against him as the word spread, and not even the dust from the bricks of those towns remains, the land where they stood a plain of bones, a testament to those would would murder the Qulan.
The Qulan have traditions for everything. There’s a ritual for saying hello, for saying goodbye, for fighting and making amends. It’s the only way to make sure people only get killed when they’re supposed to, and the rituals are especially important for governing interactions between tribes. One of the more important rituals, practiced by every tribe, is the rite of the faceless wanderer. When his grandsons wished to learn the magic of the gods, Oyugun took them out to the desert and covered their faces with clay, instructing them to stay there. Those who gave in to hunger or thirst and took the clay off of their faces could return to their tribe and receive the markings of an adult, but the ways of the gods were not for them. Those who remained, who had the faith and discipline to wait until the clay fell off on its own would wear the clay eternally. Faces devoid of clan or tribal tattoos, the Naiman would walk the path with all of the people, existing apart.
The religion of the Qulan is centred on the Naiman, who interpret the will and wield the magic of the gods. At the fire of the gods Cheren, god of the path, sits across from Shria, god of the people. At Cheren’s right hand rests Osolnai of the wind, guardian of the path. At Cheren’s left is the great beast Yekejin, who lurks beyond the borders, in the spaces in-between. On Shria’s right is Altan the warrior, who calls the people to fight. To Shria’s left is Nasan the sorcerer, who commands the dead. In the centre, the fire itself is named Tolui, fire of the world. Tolui is life, and nature, and struggle. The gods are not always halflings, they take any shape they like, but a very lucky or unlucky Naiman might dream of being a horsefly at their fire. In their discourse is the life of the Qulan, its past and future. Over the years, the Qulan have learned to listen, by watching for the omens, the effects their discourse has on the world. Traditionally, Naiman priests will take power from a few, rather than dedicating themselves to one entirely. To do so is to neglect the others, often with poor consequences.
Magic is an important part of life for many of the Qulan. The magic of the gods, wielded by the Naiman, came with Oyugun from the old lands. But there is also the blood magic inherited from the women of the tribe the seven brothers took, wizardry and sorcery capable of great feats. Many magicians are also warriors, but those who dedicate themselves solely to the mastery of their art are greatly valued and greatly feared, often becoming warleaders in their own right.
The steppes of the eastern Madjan are fraught with perils. Dinosaurs, ogres, giants, bulettes and other magical beasts, not to mention the undead who rise from the blackened desert and the things that come down out of the mountains. That’s also forgetting the eternal threat of the expansionist Xiang empire. They haven’t set their sights on the lands of the Qulan yet, but they still could, bringing their walls and marching lines with them.
The Naiman have com up numerous times before, but there are some more details. The Naiman aren’t celibate, but they cannot be parents. A Naiman woman’s baby is given up for adoption, often to childless couples, and adopting one such is usually considered quite an honour. The child of a Naiman man stays with the family of its mother, raised as a normal tribesman.
The Naiman usually act as go-betweens and diplomats in the Qulani nation, trusted to mediate clan and tribal disputes because their loyalty to the people as a whole is guaranteed. They are the keepers of the laws, and each seek to serve the people in their own way, either through keeping the traditions and legends alive, fighting in battles, healing the sick, aiding the hunt, or any other way. This doesn’t leave much time for a personal life, but the Naiman is expected to have one. Any Naiman must be able to name his friends, his allies, and his battle-brothers, because if he has no attachment to the world, he has no loyalty to the world.
The seven tribes:
Each tribe was founded in the offspring of one of the seven brothers and the taken women. Though thoroughly mixed now, the tribes retain their names and honour their heritage.
They are the Quorchi, who pride themselves as bowyers and archers. The Subetai, who are the finest hunters. The Vachir who, mixed with the newfound magic, have many mages. The Temur, who have actually slightly settled at the base of the mountains and mastered the making of steel. The Chinuadai breed the best dogs, and the Batu have the best and largest herds of yaks, weaving fine tents and garments from their hair. And finally the Dashnai, who hold themselves both above and below the others, pride themselves on their luck. From the Dashnai have come great leaders, for it is said that the Dashnai do not walk in the same world as the other tribes. Those seven, with the help of the Naiman, comprise the nation of the Qulan, a country which is also a family.