To our game group, a couple of dozen people in Northern California’s Diablo Valley playing hundreds of five-or-six-player sessions between 1978 and 1983, “Dungeons and Dragons” was not yet an accepted rite of geek passage, a million-dollar industry, or a major cultural influence. In those days it was barely known outside SFnal convention circles or college campii; I learned of it through a fan friend who was heavily involved with legendary game-guru David Hargrave‘s Arduin campaign — “campaign” being the term for an ongoing adventure milieu, a created world like (and often modeled on) Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Lewis’ Narnia, or Leiber’s Lankhmar.
As much has elsewhere been written on this topic, suffice to say that playing D&D, particularly the Arduin variant, has been a major influence on my life and work. The most addicting element for me is “worldbuilding”, or devising a campaign — establishing an ecology of people, monsters and treasure within a self-consistent storytelling framework. It’s an excellent outlet for structured creativity, as I found in 1995 while running a printing press one day and letting my mind wander. Ann was working and staying in Berkeley four days a a week, leaving my nights free. I had nothing else to do. Why not create a new world? So I grabbed a pad, scrawled a coastline and bay, added some mountains and a river basin, and began writing about who lived there.
Ten years later I had compiled several notebooks and folders, maps and diagrams, charts and lists, races and religions, legends and monsters, all written in two-to-60 minute slices as part of what Ann & I have come to call “my knitting” — an ongoing project for when fancy and spare time conspire to devise magikal artifacts, lost cities, or alien cultures (I once drew a cartoon of a fellow knitting a blanket with dragons, rockets, castles, etc., out of what uncoiled from the open top of his head); I had even written an almanac in the style of an educated inhabitant of this world (which I had first called “Generica, Land of Monsters and Treasure” before settling on the more mysterious-sounding World of Aertharn, setting for the Exilic Lands and the Uulian Commonwell). It was a lot of fun. But it was also pretty lonely: I was spending idle moments in creative bliss, but the bliss was purely solitary. I don’t play D&D all that often, and part of me felt a bit … unrequited, and somewhat silly.
Then I decided I had some stories to tell, about and for people who feel “spiritual but not religious,” or “religious but not THAT religious;” stories about a traveling cook who used to be a priest because I used to be a journeyman printer who wanted to be a rabbi; stories with what I like to call “working-class spirituality.” Besides, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to actually live — i.e., make a living — in one of these invented worlds. Everybody wants to slay dragons, but somebody also has to clean up after them (and probably pay rent).
That’s where Prosatio Silban came in. He had been a passing merchant (and information source) for a party of valiant adventurers during our last “run” five years ago. It and he were invented out of whole cloth (I like the Uulians to have vaguely Roman-sounding names), but I liked the name so much I used it for the Cook For Any Price. And now that you know that, I can tell you this:
The Rimless Sea stories are intended as fables and entertainment; I want to make you laugh or wonder or say “Whoa.” The fables emphasize a particular point, whether it’s how which people use or abuse religion as an excuse either for outstanding kindness or unbelievable depravity; that “faith” is where and how we meet the world; that everyone is an exile from someplace, usually better; that there’s always a warm hand to help, if you offer one; or that who we are and what we do matters.
As for the entertainment, I love sharing things which I enjoy — and this “worldbuilding nonsense” has brought me great joy (and occasional comfort) during the past several years. I had enormous fun creating the Exilic Lands; the degree to which that’s obvious (and infectious) will tell me how successful I’ve been. Sans further ado, here’s what the just-arrived-to-Aertharn Need To Know. Thanks for reading this far.
Beyond the sunrise lie the Exilic Lands, where dreams come to die – or so say the coffeehouse wits of Soharis. But they are a professionally cynical lot, and often fervent in their presumptions.
Here by the southern edge of the Rimless Sea two abler-than-wise peoples anciently fought each other to land-cracking oblivion, leaving their regressed descendants wandering the shattered plains and scorched forests with no greater legacy than a few artifacts, mutual blame, and the hope of future redemption.
This hope was handed across the generations through tales of Rimless Sea-borne saviors who would restore to the Xao their lush countryside before conveniently withdrawing. Some believed this, others pretended to, and those who did neither made plans of their own.
Thus, when the Children of Uuli washed ashore in three great fleets filled with agricultural necessaries at the mouth of the Great Bloody River (as it was then known), the indigines greeted them with a mix of joy, surprise and consternation. The Uulians were fleeing their own self-made mythic catastrophe and, according to the Flickering Gods and their High Sacreants, had reached where to repent and prove themselves worthy to return to their own lost homeland.
Deeply self-absorbed and heedless of their role in the local mythology, the Uulians could comprehend neither the indigenes’ initial amazement nor their eventual irritation as their diligent fingers restored the land – and built the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell. While the Xao grew more perplexed by the century, the Commonwell ripened into that state of elegant decadence without which no civilzation can honestly be called interesting. Still, some (indigenes and Uulians alike) continued to believe in their ancestors’ prophecies; others pretended to; and those who did neither made plans of their own.
One did all three, often simultaneously and sometimes successfully. His name is Prosatio Silban – former Sacreant, mercenary cook, and subject of these fables.