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Expanding Fantasy Worldbuilding With Research: Clans of the Reisende

Too often, fantasy worldbuilding seems to be designed primarily to fill in the pre-existing name slots on some universal chart of what already commonly exists in fantasy literature. Obviously this is far from universal, and I’m not trying to claim I am the first (or best, or most important) person suggesting bucking this trend. But when I see worlds with a dwarven mountain nation, and an elven forest nation, and human kingdoms mostly ruled by monarchies with one example each of exceptions that have recognizable modern governments, I often wonder if the creator’s research began and ended with names and style. There have, in the real world, been SO many other forms of community organization, government, family, relationship, kinship, identity, association, rulership, authority,

These notes grew out of research I was doing for two different projects that never happened. The first was to update two “Viking-like northerners” kingdoms from my longest-running campaign, the Sovereign Kingdoms to 3.5 d20 rules. The second was the Runepeaks, a setting I was creating for a project to update a 3pp’s company (not one I have ever ended up working or writing for) from 3.5 to Pathfinder. (That was going to be an ongoing project hand-in-hand with that publisher, and it fell apart for various reasons). At about the same time I was exploring the history of some of my own Norden heritage. I found a lot of information abut clan structures, various Nordic mythologies, fylgja, Nordic fauna, and so on.

I got inspired to lean into some of the more interesting elements of that material to create something more interesting to me than just “Kinda-not-Vikings-have runes-and-axes.” While I never finished the write-up of that area, I did pull together a “first draft” with some key ideas I wanted to build on if I ever got to really explore these ideas in a fantasy setting.

Below is a slightly-cleaned-up version of notes for that fictional culture, the Reisende.

The Reisende

The Reisende are also called Northfolk, because they live further north than the biggest land-trade empires (which are generally the ones with the maps that include the most countries, and who thus have their names for everything used by many other nations). The Reisende themselves consider themselves “Travelers,” rather than “Northerners,” with a strong tradition of naval trade and exploration and of spending winter months gathered in roving bands of explorers, but who also sometimes act as merchants, couriers, raiders, or hired mercenaries.

Reisende culture is heavily influenced by their belief that each of their souls is created by one of the Ancestor Beasts, the original godlike examples of specific animal species. Reisende form clans based on which Ancestral Animal they are descended from, and these clans are cross-regional societies more important than territoriality, feudal allegiance, or even religious affiliation. The most powerful or well respected member of a clan generally settles intraclan disputes near them, and is often called to serve as an advocate for members of their clan with disputes with members of other clans. Local Jarls are landowning military and spiritual leaders who directly own enough land to make them self-sufficient, and generally serve as protectors of outlaying towns overseen by borgers–senior members of same clan as the jarl who convey the clan’s wishes and concerns to other town members. While a borger of a different clan might make an alliance with a powerful jarl if no strong leader of their own clan is close enough, it’s much less common.

Nearly all significant matters are handled through clan channels. Each clan has a reputation to maintain, and no matter what else they may be seen as by their neighbors (strong, or fierce, or crafty, or sly, or even cowardly), it is important to ever clan to be seen as honest and competent. There is no formal policing or court system–a person who commits a crime is rebuffed and if necessary punished by other members of their clan to ensure the clan’s own reputation is not ruined. If others are not satisfied with the can’s handling of their own members, complaints are elevated to senior clan members, borgers, and jarls.

Within any settlement, the more members of a clan there are the more strongly that clan’s behavior is considered to be enforced. A settlement overseen by a Seal Clan borger will certainly have more Seal clan members than any other, and often half or more of the population will belong to that clan. When only a very small percentage of people in a settlement belong to a clan, they often must depend on either the reputation of the nearest major member of their clan (even if that is weeks of travel away), or a strong alliance with local members in a clan with more influence nearby.

While it is often the case that a child is of the same Clan as one of more parent, it is not always so. The Ancestral Animals are divinities, of a sort, after all. If two Bear Clan parents give birth to a Sea Eagle Clan child, well, that’s Ancestral Animals for you. However, everyone has some ties to the clans of their parents, though it is not as strong as their tie to their own clan. Even so, if a Seal Clan daughter of Bear Clan parents was in a warband that took up arms against the Bear Clan, the warband would not expect her to join in the fight. Much rarer, some Reisende are strongly tied to two clans all their own, a state often known as “having an ancestor on each shoulder.”

Indeed, such cross-clan connections are often the way major issues are settled. If a town under a Reindeer Clan jarl has a territorial dispute with hunters under the banner of a Forest Cat jeger, someone with strong ties to both clans (even if not as strong as someone with an ancestor on each shoulder) is most likely to be the mediator that both sides trust.

(Being Northfolk, such issues are often formally settled by a Nærkamp–a ceremonial fight between two small groups of combatants the two sides agree are equal to one another, whether that’s three warrior to a side, or one mighty warlock for one side, against twenty farmers on the other. In some cases, other challenges settle disputes, such as drinking competitions, pig-wrestling, races, swimming contests, thread-spinning matches, butter-churning events, and so on).

Clan membership is not restricted by heredity. While most Northfolk are dwarf, elf, goblin, grendel, human, orc, or ulvemann, each of those is equally likely to belong to any given clan. A Bjornung dwarf and Bjornung orc are likely to be much closer to one another than a Bjornung dwarf and a Havorning dwarf. And if a gnome, or cyclops, or half-dragon centaur shows up and is recognized as descended of the bear (perhaps bya clan member in communication with their fylgiur–a kind of divine prophetic animal guide who likely appears in dreams), they are a beloved member of the Bjornung as well. Clan-kinship can also be extended by members of a clan who are willing to be responsible for the actions of the person they bring into the clan. Spouses, shield-mates, and hearth-bonded groups of any size often include members of numerous clans, and the most respected member of that joining (who is usually a woman, who are considered to be wiser on matters of family, but less often may be a man, especially in families of choice that do not have women as members) can petition the most respected local sage or wise-one of their own clan (also most often a woman) to accept all the members of the family-of-choice as clan-kin.

Of course just as people of the same nation or same family may feud in other lands, two members of the same clan may dislike, mistrust, or work against one another. But such animus is the exception, rather than the rule, and is almost never allowed to go so far as to damage the clan as a whole. If someone within a clan is considered to have committed crimes not great enough to deserve death, but too great for the clan to ever vouch for them, then are generally branded with a severed-head sigil indicating they have been cast out of the clan. It is difficult for such outcasts to be find a home anywhere but with brigands or in lands far from the Reisende, though it does occasionally happen (usually as the result of performing some legendary act of heroism, kindness, or crafting), and the tales of Ulfathe Thrice-Branded proves even someone outcast more than once can earn their way into a new clan.

There are dozens of clans, and the prestige, reach, power, and size of each varies as the fortunes of their notable members rise and fall. The following are the most powerful, well-known, widespread, and respected of the clans.

Bjornung (The Descendants of the Bear)
Hafgufang (The Descendants of the Leviathan)
Havenselung (The Descendants of the Seal)
Havorning (The Descendants of the Sea Eagle)
Lintormeng (The Descendants of the Dragon)
Moskusing (The Descendants of the Musk Ox)
Ratatosring (The Descendants of the Squirrel)
Reinsdyrung (The Descendants of the Reindeer)
Reving (The Descendants of the Winter Fox)
Skoggkattung (The Descendants of the Forest Cat)

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Saint Bennen, and Paladins, in the Sovereign Kingdoms

My mention of the Bennenites–staff-wielding warrior-priests from my old Sovereign Kingdoms fantasy campaign–in an article about Staff Mastery Feats has apparently raised some interest in the worldbuilding about the order. (More than in the feats they inspired, in any case 🙂 ).

Most of my notes about that more-than-20-year-old-game are scrawled in pencil in a few different notebooks and one big red 3-ring binder. Having moved 11 times in that two decades they aren’t all in one place, and many are in boxes in storage (though I have laid eyes on most of them on the past 18 months). But I have dug some up, and can

In the Sovereign Kingdoms the major religion was the Apostolic Church, which worshiped a supreme deity who had 4 specially blessed demigods who oversaw interactions with mortals. Three of those rebelled (essentially taking the role of three differently-themed antichrist/lucifer figures), and the fourth, YSRIES, began teaching various mortals directly. Those mortals who followed his teachings to a state of high enlightenment were granted tiny motes of his divine power, becoming saints.

Sainthood was essentially treated as a mega-paladin template in that campaign, making every paladin essentially a potential saint in training. Paladins were considered to have been given a mote of divine power they were trusted to use appropriately, with only those dedicated to the concepts of benevolence and morality even giver that power. There are paladins of other faiths (though they were rarer, and included the singular Green Knight of the druidic faith, the Proctors of the Gnostic faith, and the Salt Warriors of the eastern Apostolic Church).

The power of a paladin was sometimes granted temporarily for a good, faithful follower in particularly desperate straits (as happened to a PC at least once during the campaign). However, the ability to draw on the mote of divinity required a level of dedication and purity. If a mortal failed to live up to that standard, the connection literally became metaphysically impossible. It was not that divine powers withdrew their assistance, but that mortals too far out of balance with the essence of the divinity couldn’t access it.

(As an aside, while the power of a paladin came from outside themselves, actually drawing on the power of a mote of divinity was a skill that could apply to different power sources. If a paladin fell far enough from grace, one of the three fallen demigods could grant a fiendish power source which, if accepted, turned the bearer into an anti-paladin. Anti-paladins tended to have powers diametrically opposed to paladins because they were using the same training manuals to manipulate the aligned planar energy within them.)

Within the Apostolic Church, saints were arranged in three tiers of reverence–the Apostles (taught directly by YSRIES), the ArchSaints (taught by one or more of the Apostles, usually after YSRIES left the mortal plane), and the Canon Saints (recognized as saints by the authority of the Ecclesiarch of the Apostolic Church).

Saint Bennen was the first of the Canon Saints, a farmer-turned-mercenary-turned-priest who had decided to dedicate his life to the protection of the oppressed. Most famously, during a war against devilish cultists, Bennen-as-mercenary refused to leave a town of innocents when local defenders pulled out, as the defenders believing any fight to save it doomed to total defeat. Because the retreat had to be performed swiftly, the sick, wounded, young, and old were all left behind. When Bennen refused to leave, his commander stripped him of his spear, sword, and dagger. Thus when Bennen stood at the edge of town to defend it from oncoming attackers, he did so armed with only a staff.

The half-fiend commander of the attacking forces was so amused, it decided to destroy Bennen personally before overrunning the town, so as to sow fear, misery, and despair among the townsfolk. However, as the fight began, Bennen was granted the power of paladinhood, and was joined by a Bagwyn* companion as a steed. Bennen defeated the half-fiend, the devilish cult army fled in fear, and the town was saved. Due to a wound sufferend in the battle, Bennen forevermore moved with a severe limp. In thanks for the divine aid, Bennen turned to religious studies, and became a priest, and in time a Arch-Prelate (the third-highest rank within the Apostolic Church).

*A bagwyn is a heraldic creature of mythology with the body of an antelope, mighty backwards-curling horns, and the fetlocks and tail of a horse. In the Sovereign Kingdoms, bagwyns were basically unicornlike creatures that served any good-aligned mystic forces, while unicorns were specifically angelic.

I haven’t yet found the list of who Bennen was the patron saint of, but if memory serves it included farmers, mercenaries, defenders, wood-gatherers, woodwrights, the ill, the infirm, the lame, bagwyns, and lost causes. While most Apostolic Orders were extremely suspicious of druids, Bennenites often formed aliances with them, and when a Green Knight arose, Bennenite priests would see to their training.

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Bennenite Staff Mastery Feats for PF1

In my longest-running fantasy RPG group campaign, The Sovereign Kingdoms, there was a famous religious order who revered Saint Bennen. Known as “Bennenites,” they were warrior-priests who were considered masters of quarterstaff fighting. They were a popular piece of lore for the world, and anytime a character was described as wearing heavy armor and carrying a wooden staff, shod in cold iron at one end and silver at the other, players knew to take them seriously because they obviously had received Bennenite training.

Bennenites were one of the major Good Guy organizations, and included clerics, fighters, priests, and “Kirks” (which were a form of religious order given roughly the same authority and respect as Knights, but only where that religion was acknowledged). However, Bennenite training was made available to anyone not known to be of foul character, and young peasants, squires, mercenaries, and craftsmen often trained at Bennenite Chapterhouses. If those trainees later turned evil, that did not somehow take away the benefits of their training. (One major villain was a mage with Bennenite Training, and a magic staff).

I had begun to work on Bennenite training feats for 3.0 and 3.5 fantasy RPG rules, but never finished them. Here is a new take on the ideas, at least to start, for Pathfinder 1st edition.

Bennenite Training
You have been trained in the fighting style of St. Bennen, who said “Let none who can pick up a stick see themselves as unarmed against adversity.”
Prerequisite: Proficiency with quarterstaff, base attack bonus +1 or 1 rank Knowledge (religion)
Benefit: When equipped with a quarterstaff, you can use it as if it was a longsword, shortsword, or one of each, except the weapon damage type is bludgeoning. You are still considered proficient with the weapons when you use the quarterstaff as a longsword and shortsword, even if you aren’t proficient with longsword and/or shortsword. You can use this as proficiency for feats (such as Weapon Focus: Longsword), but if you only meet the proficiency as a result of Bennenite Training you can only use those feats with a quarterstaff. Any feat, ability, or action you have access to you can apply to a quarterstaff you can continue to use even when treating the quarterstaff as a longsword, short sword, or both. You cannot gain the same benefit twice by using one version for quarterstaff and one for another weapons (for example if you have Weapon Focus with both longsword and quarterstaff, you cannot apply both to the same attack).

If you take an action that normally requires two weapons (such as attacking with two weapons), you must treat the two ends of your quarterstaff as the two weapons.

If you are proficient with quarterstaff, longsword, and short sword, this feat acts as Weapon Focus for any attack you make with a quarterstaff.

Bennenite Training Specialization
You have learned advanced teachings of St. Bennen.
Prerequisites: Bennenite Training, base attack bonus +4 or 4 ranks Knowledge (religion).
Benefit: When you make an attack with a quarterstaff, regardless of what weapon you treat it as, you gain a +2 bonus to damage dealt. This counts as Weapon Specialization, and does not stack with other forms of Weapon Specialization.

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