This entry is part 3 in the series On Alien Languages

* This article was updated on 23 Sept 2012 *

Metagame Origins & Status

Bher Yuralvus is one of the least-detailed of the Shared Kingdoms. Several Paragraphs of information concerning it appear to have gone missing during the editing process of the House Rules, so that what little remains is full of non-sequitors. As a result, most of what is presented in this article will be new even to the players of the campaign.

In conceptual origins, Bher Yuralvus owes its existence to a lot of seemingly-unrelated sources. The first is the Abbey at Sarth from Raymond E. Feist’s “Silverthorn.” The second is a mobile book van that takes library books to and from the homes of the elderly and infirm in my local neighborhood. A third is some musing on the unionization of Sages and Book copiers, filtered through a bit of “Yes, Prime Minister” and the “Mythadventures” series by Robert Asprin – with a little of the Library from the University of Magic from Ankh-Morpork thrown in around the edges. There is also a little of the Encyclopedia Galactica from Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series (especially the first volume) in there. Finally, there’s more than a little of Tolnedra from the Belgariad series by David Eddings mixed in to bind it all together. And if that sounds like a bit of a mélange, it’s because it is!

A Blunt Political Summary

Bher Yuralvus is officially an Independent City-State, but in practice it is a Constitutional Monarchy that protects the ordinary citizens, perhaps the most egalitarian of the human kingdoms. Politically, it plays most of the other kingdoms against Causa Domusora, which in turn, spends a lot of its political time and effort trying to force Bher Yuralvus into their republic. Bher Yuralvus has the largest collection of written works imaginable, and makes its living from granting others access to its facilities – for a substantial fee. Writing and publishing are the most important industry, ranked equal in importance to all other industries combined. The domestic administration of the Kingdom is in second place, and everything else is lumped together as “support industries”. These three interests form a triumvirate of competing and cooperating power blocs.

Bher Yuralvus, of all the human Realms represented within the 12 Kingdoms, has a peerage least like the common model. Its ruler bears the title Primoris Interpar (‘First Among Equals’). He holds this position for life, or until he chooses to relinquish it, at which time a new Primoris Interpar is chosen by the Concilium Philologus Civitas (‘Council Of Learned Citizens’).

Membership of this body is achieved:

  • by appointment of the Primoris Interpar;
  • by becoming Presertim Custodia (‘Chief Custodian’) of the Endless Library;
  • by being appointed Caput Etcapitis Topica (Department Head) by the current Presertim Custodia, the number of department heads being set equal to the number of public appointees by the Primoris Interpar (less one for the Presertim Costodia);
  • or by popular acclaim amongst the merchants, tradesmen, and farmers of the district controlled by the city, who elect sufficient representatives to match the number of department heads, plus one.

In practice, this produces three competing power blocs of nominally equal size; the citizens of the City & surrounds, the Endless Library, and the established administration, with the current Primoris Interpar holding the balance of power.

The winner must achieve 75% approval amongst the Council of Learned Citizens. As a result, no two of these command sufficient seats on the council to elect a candidate, even were they to unite behind one; as a result, promises and politics are rife as power brokers forge deals and alliances. The necessity of gaining at least partial support within all three power blocs means that candidates cannot afford to ignore any of the three power bases. Candidates are not permitted to be members of the Council, and it is normal for the executive’s representatives on the council who opposed the eventual winner to be replaced by supporters and the failed candidates with whom deals were brokered. The age and health of the candidates thus have a material effect on who is willing to deal and who is not. Over the years, this has produced a number of ‘noble families’ who dominate for a time before retreating into less prominent social positions, only to rebuild their support networks and reemerge as the dominant force some generations later.

The council, as a body, exists to advise the Primoris Interpar, and many of its members also serve in other capacities – chief of the watch, master of ceremonies, head of protocol, chancellor, etc. The size of the Council has been known to vary from time to time; by dictating the number of positions he appoints, an incoming Primoris Interpar controls the size of the Council. The Library contingent sets a maximum to the number of representatives from each faction through the number of departments within the library; it is quite acceptable for a department head not to serve on the council, but if there are not enough departments, the Primoris cannot force them to create more.

A glimpse behind the curtain

The above is all that the PCs were told of Bher Yuralvus before play began. Everything else in this article will be new to them, and will usually be out-of-character knowledge to them. In part that’s due to the origins of the “Kingdom” and in part it’s because of the way Sages operate in the Shared Kingdoms.

Literacy and Numeracy in the Shared Kingdoms

Overall, the average rate of literacy is somewhere between 3% and 8%, and the numeracy rate – defined as any capability beyond the count-to-eleven (one for each finger and one for luck) standard of mathematics – is a little below that. Literacy and Numeracy vary from Kingdom to Kingdom, however, as well as from race to race. Most elves are literate, but very few are numerate, for example, while most Gnomes are numerate but very few are literate in the traditional sense.

Most people can’t read or write. Of those who can, perhaps one in 100 can read-and-write in a language other than their own. That means that most expertise is generational, handed down from master to apprentice or father to son. There are those who suggest that the differences in the way they think as a result of being literate is the main difference between Sorcerer and Wizard, though all concerned would vehemently deny that. In such an environment, there is plenty of opportunity for the travelling expert, who wanders into town, sets up his shingle for a few months, answers the questions of the locals on whatever problems are confronting them, and then moves on to another community.

When the twelve tribes were scattered (eleven if you accept the theological dogma of the Verus Fidesora, who provided the “origin scroll” presented piecemeal in the previous post in this series), knowledge was conveyed by Gypsies who (instead of settling down into a single community wandered between them). One of the gypsy’s habits was to acquire from the various communities they visited any books that had survived, so that the expertise they contained could be dispensed to all. They traded expertise for goods and goods for books which gave them more expertise.

At first, these gypsies were welcomed, because they provided essential commodities and services to communities who didn’t have them; but as these communities stabilized and established their own connections with the providers of merchandise, the habits of living off the land and taking whatever they needed when they found it became resented and the services they provided became less necessary. Most of the gypsies were forced to settle down and integrate with one community or another. Most became the founders of the Merchants Empire (Ineodolus Imperascora), but a few found the power of expertise to be more compelling than trade. In time, these Gypsies founded a town of their own as a central trading point amongst themselves – Bher Yuralvus.

As new books were written, copies found their way to Bher Yuralvus, until it became the Endless Library that is known today.

Consulting Sages

A sage will charge a fee for answering a question posed to him to the best of his personal knowledge. Such answers are immediate.

He will charge a larger fee for searching through his personal collection of copies of books (the originals remain in Bher Yuralvus). Such answers usually take a day or two.

He will charge a still larger fee for sending an adventurer or merchant to purchase a copy of one or more specific references from the endless library that he feels may contain pertinent information. A cross-indexed list of books held (with copying prices) and the subjects contained therein is published every decade by the Endless Library. Generally, the most relevant pages are copied first and sent as a dispatch to the Sage, to be followed by the rest of the manuscript; the Sage himself must bind it. He will often annotate his pages with research from other sources, eventually writing and publishing one or more books of his own, which he lodges with the Library. Every time one of his books is copied, he receives a commission from the Library, paid to him annually as a deduction to his taxes owed. These taxes are based on the cumulative number of reference books he has obtained in the course of his life from the Endless Library, and a lesser fee for each work inherited from a prior sage. The greater the expertise in a particular subject of a sage, the more highly-valued are his contributions to the subject. A preliminary answer – from just a page or two of relevant documentation – will take one-to-four weeks, while a more complete answer may take three-to-six months, depending on the location of residence of the sage at the time.

If the sage is “forced” to return to the library to conduct his own research into a complicated or subtle question, he will refuse to nominate a date, but instead will contract his “exclusive” services for a period of time – at the end of which, he may or may not have an answer. Some sages may be “exclusively” contracted to half-a-dozen individuals at the same time.

The Death of a Sage

Because literacy is relatively low, and because Sages like to translate their works into obscure languages, most communities will happily accept the 1gp reward per volume that is returned to the library from a Sages’ personal collection when a Sage dies, if there is no apprenticed heir to the collection. Some nobles – amongst whom the literacy rate is profoundly higher – have tried to hold onto all or part of such collections from time to time. The Library is happy to permit this, in return for an annual fee for that permission. The fee (1gp per hundred pages or part thereof, per volume, per year) is sufficiently high that no noble will hold onto a book that he cannot read, or that does not contain directly-useful information to him. A well-educated noble might have as many as twenty books on ‘loan’ from the Library in this way. Some nobles write their own books and ‘donate’ the manuscripts to the Library as an offset – such books are generally valued at up to one half what a sage of equivalent expertise would produce.

A few nobles, from time to time, make the mistake of refusing to pay these fees. Bher Yuralvus simply withholds from those nobles, and from the communities beholden to them, the services of their members until such time as the economic foundations of the nobles authority have been reduced by the debt owed, ten-fold. They will then subsidize a raiding party from amongst the noble’s political enemies to retrieve their stolen property, granting those enemies the benefits of their expertise for free in the planning of the mission; it is well-known that plans to the dwellings of all nobles are sequestered within the pages of the Endless Library.

There have also been cases where the reward for the return of a Sage’s library – often equal to the annual income for a village of a decade, or more – has tempted individuals to hasten the demise of the Sage. This is an extraordinarily bad mistake to make, as Bher Yuralvus will happily pay, even under suspicious circumstances, while quietly investigating the circumstances of the death with experts in the human body, monster lore, and/or whatever else may be relevant. Since no-one not of the Endless Library knows what expertise it contains and confers, there is perpetual uncertainty as to what its experts can uncover. If, after investigation, those suspicions appear well-founded, the Library will exact a terrible revenge on the behalf of the murdered sage – they will simply instruct every sage who visits that realm or deals with it’s citizens to lie to them half the time in such a manner that the results will be the opposite of those intended. Rather than instructions on how to combat a blight amongst the crops, or a coughing sickness amongst a herd, or how to design and construct a large hall safely, the blight will spread, the herd will be devastated, the hall – after much expense – will collapse and perhaps kill many of the workmen. This ‘treatment’ will continue for the expected remaining lifetime of the Sage, plus a punitive period based on his reputation, plus a day for every gold piece extorted from the Library with the original heinous act, plus compound interest.

The Dispersal Of Expertise – the rules

The public face of Bher Yuralvus are the sages, who are each experts in a given field. Without such expertise, skill levels are effectively capped at 10. Education and tutoring by such sages in specific subjects – frequently bestowed apon young nobles at great expense – raises the skill level cap to 15. With inherently creative fields, this cap refers to the number of skill ranks that can be applied to a skill; in all other fields, it refers to the total skill (including characteristic modifiers). There are exceptions to all of the above in the case of individual skills (eg “Spot”, “Listen”) and characters with other kingdoms of origin; these are more GM guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. Any feat which confers a skill bonus also increases the cap, for example, and the cap does not apply to characters who have reached Epic Levels (character level 21+). Some skills (e.g. “Knowledge: The Planes”) have separate and firmer restrictions.

Bher Yuralvus – The Geography

The best lands had been thoroughly claimed by the time the Gypsy founders of Bher Yuralvus began to think about settling down. As a result, they were forced to choose less-than desirable real estate for their city. Bher Yuralvus is located to the East-northeast of Capitas Duodiem, about two weeks travel along good, well-maintained roads. The region is mountainous, the soils are poor, water flows are often seasonal and prone to flash-flooding on occasion. Although at the time of it’s founding it was located at the fringes of civilization, a millennia of growth has led to it being completely surrounded by communities with other political affiliations.

The more closely-located a community is (in terms of travel time) relative to Bher Yuralvus, the more easily it can consult the Sages and the more frequently Sages pass through. This both raises their level of dependence apon the expertise of the Endless Library, and increases their productivity and hence their value to the Kingdoms with which they are affiliated. All of this increases the level of sympathy towards the administrators of Bher Yuralvus at the expense of their loyalty to their nominal Kingdoms.

The Dispersal Of Expertise – Demographics

Bher Yuralvus and its adherents are numerically the smallest of the Shared Kingdoms in terms of urban population, numbering perhaps 20,000 citizens in total. Of these, about 12,000 live and work in Bher Yuralvus itself. A further 2,000 operate as a network of roving resource allocators, moving from community to community and making recommendations as to the type of expertise that each is most in need of at any given time. There are 1,000 guards and watchmen for the city, about 2,000 sages, and about 2,000 guards / assistants to each sage. The last 1,000 are apprentice Sages and scribes employed directly by Sages. These are supported by a further 15,000 or so who live and work in the farms surrounding the city.

These 15,000 direct supporters receive the benefits of free consultation with the Sages of the Library. As a result, their farms are amongst the most prosperous in the Shared Kingdoms, despite the relatively poor location of the city.

Bher Yuralvus – Political Authority

This numeric inferiority in no way translates to their level of political authority within the Shared Kingdoms. After close to a millennium of gathering intelligence, they are believed to have it within their power to obliterate any community or Kingdom within the collective political region. They make few allies and few care to make them enemies; they tend to hold themselves aloof from the more rough-and-tumble world of temporal politics and preserve their independence and authority. On those rare occasions when they do issue a statement backing some political initiative, their position invariably weakens the opposition and brings in supporters who would otherwise not involve themselves. They are the Experts.

Gaps In The Knowledge

There are three areas of knowledge in which Bher Yuralvus can be considered deficient.

The first is the realm of Theology, which is the province (jealously guarded) of the Versus Fidesora, and all things related to it. While historical records may exist within Bher Yuralvus of relevance, they will be incomplete and, to some extent, inaccurate. If you want to understand the Gods, don’t ask a Sage.

The second is the realm of Magic and related fields of knowledge, again the zealously guarded province of another member of the Shared Kingdoms, the Causa Domasura. Records within Bher Yuralvus may state that something was achieved by magical means, or that something was affected by Magic, but explanations are few and operating principles unknown.

The third is in the contemporary knowledge (and, by association, the future). Bher Yuralvus draws its primary expertise from the past records. More works are published to the Endless Library each decade than can be indexed and catalogued; the gap currently stands at 15 years and rises by six months with each passing decade, despite the best efforts of the administrators to anticipate future needs. They are experts at taking historical record and unearthing relevance from past events to the modern world; but perspective takes time to achieve. They are historians and lorekeepers, but their expertise is always necessarily behind the times. This tends to make them relatively conservative, politically. They are also predisposed to be documenters and observers rather than participants, which reinforces that conservatism.

That doesn’t mean that they have NO knowledge more recent than this 15-year gap; it simply means that their knowledge and perspective is no better when it comes to contemporary matters than anyone else’s, unless they can bring some analogous situation to light from past events, to use as a guide.

What they do tend to have, far more than any other human-oriented members of the Shared Kingdoms, is a near-Elvish appreciation for the Long View. They aren’t interested in immediate solutions to immediate problems; they always want to consider the ramifications and impact of those “immediate solutions” and “immediate problems” a decade or more down the track. This can make them slow to react in emergencies and to sudden changes in circumstances, but also makes them far less prone to knee-jerk reactions and flawed solutions.

The Art Of Maximizing Prosperity

Given the unique means of appraising the value of any given text, there is an artful compromise between concision and content. The more pages a work contains, the more valuable it is deemed to be – but the less accessible the information within a given work, the less valuable it is. The greatest prosperity for an individual author or Sage is thus somewhere in between these two extremes. It is quite common to ‘pad’ a treatise with examples, ruminations on significance, circumstances leading to insight, philosophizing, recipes for chicken soup – in fact, just about anything that is, or can be, (however marginally,) connected to the point in question. Construction of some of this padding from material in other languages as a means of practicing those languages is also commonplace. Sages work assiduously at ensuring that no discernable pattern can be applied to extract the ‘gems’ from their published works, lest someone rewrite them into some more concise and less profitable format – something that happens from time to time anyway.

Consider the logic: if an author extracts all the value from a published work of 100-odd pages and boils it down to 80 pages, then adds another 20 pages of more recent developments or insights into the subject, he makes the value a little more accessible than it used to be and adds to it; his book will thus become more ‘popular’ as a reference than the old book, and its he that will reap the ‘sales’ rewards. If, on the other hand, he takes that 100-page effort and pads it to 120 pages in length, then adds another 20 pages of more contemporary content, for most questions on the subject the older, more accessible work will remain the standard, and the only people who will buy his book will be those for whom that more up-to-date content is relevant. The more padded a text, the greater the temptation to edit it into a more condensed form in order to ‘steal’ the revenue from its author for oneself.

The other danger with making your work too concise is that it becomes too easily comprehended, and – once comprehended – the book itself becomes unnecessary. The paper in which Sir Isaac Newton published his three laws of motion consists of the three laws, a justification for them, and an analysis of the theoretical repercussions of the theory. So far as an expert on anything other than the writings of Newton is concerned, as soon as the laws become accepted, it’s the three laws that become valuable and the rest is padding that can be ignored. This can be great for the prospects of name recognition, but means that the work can be summed up and dispersed on less than a single page of text to any with the wit to understand it. Hence, there is no need to buy a copy of the paper, just a copy of that half-page – if that.

A good Sage gives answers in the form of instructions to be followed – and with minimal explanation. Explanation means that his services are less likely to be required tomorrow. However, they can’t go so far as to insert nonsense into the instructions or what minimal explanations they provide; if the techniques are wrongly applied to some similar problem in the future, he will be the person blamed (for giving bad advice) and its his reputation which will suffer. The perfect middle ground is to provide just enough legitimate explanation to aid plausibility to the answers.

Languages in Shards Of Divinity

All of which brings us to the question of how Languages are handled in Shards Of Divinity. Let’s start with The Linguist Feat:

The Linguist Feat

Linguist [General]

Effect: Permits the character to have up to (5+ INT bonus) in ranks in any given language skill. Permits the character to expend 3 skill points to obtain +1 rank in all currently known spoken or all currently known written languages.

Special: This feat may be taken multiple times. Each time after the first, the increase in permitted ranks reduces by 1 (from 5+ to 4+, then to 3+, then 2+, and then finally to the minimum of 1+). IE a character who has taken this feat 7 times can have a maximum of 5+4+3+2+1+1+1+INT BONUS = 17+INT BONUS ranks in any of their language skills.

NB: This feat does not permit the character to ignore the normal restrictions on ranks by character level.

General Rules for Languages in Shards Of Divinity

The languages section of the House Rules for Shards is so extensive that it’s been broken into seven (!) more manageable parts. This is the first part, which gives context to the five that follow…

Spoken Languages:

Available Spoken Languages are divided into 5 categories: native, common, unusual, rare, and obscure. These categories are differentiated by miscellaneous modifiers. The referee may (should) specify these individually for characters of unusual background, race, or ethnicity.

Characters who have taken the “Linguist” Feat have the option of expending three skill points simultaneously to obtain 1 rank in all languages known. Characters who have not taken this feat must expend skill points to get skill ranks individually for each language.

Characters always get their first rank in “Speak Language: [native language]” free. Characters of high INT may also get 1 rank in other languages free.

Languages cannot have more ranks than the characters’ INT bonus. Characters receive a +1 miscellaneous bonus in a language when they achieve the maximum permitted ranks.

Characters automatically get a +5 miscellaneous bonus in their native language. They also get a +2 miscellaneous bonus in other free languages.

Language Modifiers for obscurity:

  • Common languages receive a -1 miscellaneous bonus for every 3 skill ranks [excludes native languages] e.g. a human character with a +5 INT bonus learns the common language “Elven” using ‘Speak Language’. The first rank receives a -0 miscellaneous bonus, giving a roll of INT BON +1 -0 =6. The second rank also receives a -0 bonus, so the roll becomes INT BON +2 -0 =7. The third rank receives a -1 modifier, so the net roll becomes INT BON +3 -1 which still =7. The fourth rank receives no additional modifier, so the net roll becomes INT BON +4 -1 =8. The fifth rank received no additional modifier from the number of ranks, but does receive +1 because this is the maximum number of ranks the character is currently permitted in the language, so the net roll becomes INT BON +5 -0 = 10.
  • Unusual languages receive a -1 miscellaneous bonus for every 2 skill ranks [excludes native languages].
  • Rare languages receive a -2 miscellaneous bonus for every 3 skill ranks [excludes native languages]. They are also considered cross-class skills unless native to the character. If the language is native to the character, he must specify a common language that will be considered cross-class for the character and which will receive the miscellaneous modifier instead.
  • Obscure languages receive a -3 miscellaneous bonus for every 4 skill ranks [excludes native languages]. They are also considered cross-class skills unless native to the character. If the language is native to the character, he must specify a common language that will be considered cross-class for the character and which will receive the miscellaneous modifier instead.

The purpose of these modifiers is to reflect the increased difficulty of mastering an obscure tongue. As far as possible, they should be spread evenly. For example, to gain +1 net rank in an Obscure language, (assuming it is not a native tongue to the character), he must invest 2 skill points each level over 4 levels.

The referee should also assess the ‘relatedness’ of languages in his campaign. If the character has more ranks in a language than it’s relatedness to the language he is trying to speak, he gains +1 synergy bonus on his attempts to speak the language in question.

The relatedness of the languages in Shards Of Divinity will be the subject of closer scrutiny in future articles in this series.

If there is sufficient time available, “Speak Language” skill checks always succeed and should be secretly rolled by the GM. The ‘additional time’ system should be employed to determine how long it takes the character to communicate whatever he was trying to say. On a ‘1,’ the character has (perhaps inadvertently) insulted or complimented the person he was speaking with (depending on what he was trying to do) and the referee should determine the reaction if the character is speaking to an NPC. On a 20, the character always manages to convey the sense of what he was trying to say.

Instead of a take-10 / take-20 option, this campaign uses a time-based modifier. A poor roll means the character takes longer to succeed if the task is not time-critical; if time becomes a problem, he can stop short of full success. Similarly, and using the same house rules, a character can attempt a task that would nornally require a certain amount of time to achieve in less time than it would normally take, simply by taking a modifier to his skill check.

In a time-critical situation or when attempting to use the skill for a purpose other than direct communications, the player rolls the check unless otherwise stated and there may be success or failure outright.

Written Languages

Characters do not normally get the written form of any language (if there is one) for free, they have to expend ‘free’ language slots to purchase “Write Language” for the appropriate tongue. However, for each ‘free’ spoken language known that has a written form, a character entering play is permitted to roll a Speak Language Check against a DC of 20; if the check succeeds, the character exhibited sufficient talent at speaking the language in question that they were also taught (spoken ranks)/2 in the written form, free. If it fails, it may not be rechecked at a later time, the character has to expend skill points and starts at 0 ranks. Note that this check should also be performed for the character’s native language, if appropriate.

Expertise in the written form does not automatically advance with increased skill in the spoken form, and vice-versa.

Written languages for non-obscure languages are always 1 grade more obscure than the spoken version.

There may be exceptions to these rules specified by the GM for any given campaign. There may also be specific written-only languages made available by the GM in specific campaigns.

In the next part: More of the shared Kingdoms, and we look at Common Languages in Shards Of Divinity!

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