People will live anywhere they can physically compel their bodies to go. I don't know why. You'd think there'd be enough nice places that you could find somewhere to raise a family and found a civilization without having to bother with any of the shit ones. I guess the appeal of isolated, freezing, barren waste-islands is nobody is ever going to try and take it from you.
I have a fascination with the kind of territory where there just sort of... isn't anything. Not, like, a desert, because you sort of know what to do with a desert. No there's not anything in it but what isn't there has a clear personality of its own. You know what to do with it? You know that if you led a caravan train across it you'd find a bunch of nomads camped by a lush oasis and d6 of them would be jinns (I have a whole jinn post I should put up one of these days) and if you dug down into it you'd find a shitload of oil and a lost city. I mean people built a vast and mighty empire on these things. It's no wonder we have a whole set of cultural conventions for them.
I don't know if anyone ever built a vast and mighty empire on the tundra. The Russians? The Mongols? The Inuit? The Lapps? If they haven't they definitely should, and if they have they should definitely make a serious attempt to infiltrate our culture from the ground up. I could so easily make this entire blog nothing but photos of tundra.
There is an island to the far north. No, further north than that. The guys who live there think the hornhelmed warrior kings who live the bloodstained fjords around the Serpent Sea are a bunch of stupid nerds. They think those guys are soft and flabby and couldn't survive half an hour in a real blizzard. They think knowing what a song is is a sign of dangerous weakness. They are right.
Some of the guys who live there. There are two reasons for anyone to be that far north 1) you fucking live there, fuck you 2) the whalefishes. You need to catch the whalefishes.
The guys who catch the whalefishes don't live there all year round. The instant they see darkness they turn tail and fuck off back down south where the grass is normal colours and you might ever see an animal that doesn't covet your warmth. This is because they are stupid nerds. Also it is because the further north you go the more Weird Tales everything gets. The poles of the planet are zones of nebulosity, places where the field of normality radiated from the earth's core like a great big comfortable blanket that snuggles the world is at its weakest and the cold pseudopods of outer space can wiggle their way in to wrap themselves around your ankle and yank you screaming into the abyss. Obviously. Why do you think Edgar Allen Poe and Clark Ashton Smith and other three-named Americans with difficulties being social were so obsessed with them? The south pole is full of racially insensitive caricatures of cannibal islanders and big albino birds that form syllables no beak should form.
The north has whalefishes. Whalefishes look like this:
and also this:
and kind of this sometimes:
What they don't look like is whales. They aren't whales. They are whalefishes. Not even similar. Don't get the wrong idea, though, they definitely aren't fish. Some scholars think their natural habitat is the void between stars and some trickery of our gravitational well has sucked them down to dwell in earthly seas but if you ask me that sounds dumb and made up. The north has no time for things that are dumb and made up.
The people who live in the north have been hunting them, and also worshipping them, since (they will tell you) the literal Dawn of Time. The people from the south who come to the north sometimes, when the sun's out, and who are stupid nerds, have been hunting them for maybe a hundred years. They still aren't very good at it.
They are better at it than the northpeople, though, because they actually have a massive technological advantage over the northpeople in almost every way and now quite a lot of northpeople live in shantey towns (the spelling is deliberate) around the outskirts of southerner whaling ports, or in southern copper mines, or in southern zoos. So try not to be too hard on their incredible, unshakable personal superiority. It is... weirdly unshakable, though? Like it's not that you'd want them to act like people who have been made second-class citizens in their own territory, but you'd at least understand it a bit better. When they see their relatives brutalized by gunpowder-wielding imperialist sailorthugs hallucinogenically drunk off lichen-whiskey, beards dripping with pastel vomit, you'd think that would elicit a flicker of pain and sadness, I guess? It never seems to get to them. It's as if they know something you don't. It's as if they're just waiting for you to go away. It's as if that's happened before.
Anyway the southerners have tall ships and harpoons and compasses and gunpowder and steel. The northpeople have kayaks and bone. It's fine, it works well if your plan is to dissect a single whalefish and use it to support twenty villagers for an entire winter. There's no industry in it though.
Here is what you get if you butcher a whalefish:
- Whalefish oil. Lamps lit by whalefish oil burn every colour but normal flame colour, including colours that no-one has ever seen before. Wizards like them because they make the place look like a wizard owns it. May or may not give you glimpses into a howling realm of madness? Wizards would say that though.
- Whalefish bone. Corsets made from whalefish bone distort your ribcage into borderline inhuman shapes, making the expression "wasp-waisted" semi-literal. In demand among a certain kind of wealthy pervert who's bored with ordinary human proportions
- Whalefish meat. Whalefish meat tastes absolutely sickening the first time you eat it, like ammonia-soaked cat puke leavened with incest. If you can manage to keep it down (make a Fortitude save) it tastes like ambrosia the next time you eat it. Best thing you'll ever have. It goes back to tasting like shit the third time and alternates from there
This is what it looks like:
and also this:
|THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY|
(Sidebar: there are no normal animals in the northnorth. There are some normal animals in the southnorth - foxes and terns and dogs and seals and cows and so on. The only normal animals in the northnorth are creepy harbinger animals like white bears whose appearances prophesize destruction. Although I kind of like the idea that an apex predator in the southnorth just becomes a weird ratty scavenger in the northnorth. It has to compete with all the ice toads and remorhaz and living auroras and brass serpents protecting obsidian tombs and rock-eating amoebae that just eat and eat until they are big enough to fill an enormous bowl-shaped valley and then fly off into space. There's a lot of reindeer skulls about but your PCs will never see an actual reindeer.)
Hunting whalefish is a simple matter of longboats and harpoons, identical in theory to standard-practice nineteenth-century whaling. The captains (who are all mad enough to make Ahab cry "steady on") have their pick of the starving, poverty-stricken assholes of every nationality who loiter around the docks. True northerners make the best harpoonists but nobody trusts them. Harpoonists of other races can usually get work doing normal whaling, which is dangerous enough as it is. Only the absolutely destitute and those for whom normal whaling no longer holds any challenge, who want to try themselves against something yet more terrible and powerful, wind up heading northnorth. I have read at least parts of Moby Dick so I could probably write a fair bit about whaling mechanics but I'm tired and it's late so I'll keep it simple - practically anybody can sign on as an able-bodied seaperson for a share in the profits, maybe a two-hundredth or so. Harpoonists and rowers and whalespotters (who develop unusually keen eyes, almost a sort of sixth sense that lets them see past the horizon) get extra. The captain gets a tenth, and is beholden to shareholders in the boat who dwell back down in the southnorth. Rank-and-file seapeople don't make much money and it's very easy to get trapped forever in a cycle of signing up for a voyage, eating weevily busciut for three months (pronounced "busk-ee-yut", it's how they say biscuit for some reason) getting your meagre share of the profits, realizing it's not enough for passage back to the southnorth and you don't know what you would do when you got there, pissing it all away on lichen-whiskey (boiled in a reindeer skull for maximum effect) and signing back up for another one. Harpoonists are richer but their skills are even less transferrable.
There's not quite enough demand for whalefish products to support the industry. It's unclear where all these people come from, or why they stay here, or how they support themselves.
Whalefishes often have qualities that make the whole harpooning and dragging-to-death thing go awry. To wit:
- Releases blubbergangers when flensed. Blubbergangers are like shitty blubber-fashioned counterparts of the friends and family members of whoever is doing the flensing. Experienced crewmen will chop them down in great swathes. Novices will hesitate, be dragged into the whalecorpse and smothered. Their crewmates will think this very funny and linger before rescuing them
- Is a singular colour, a sort of yellow-white, like a dead tooth or the shark from the pirate comic in Watchmen. Only whalefish with this quality are of this colour. Has 3x normal treasure (in form of bone, oil, meat). Once your ship catches sight of it you must kill it before three sunsets have passed or everyone aboard will be dead in under a month
- Has a cottage on its back. Tufts of grass, a couple of stunted trees. Not quite a full island but something resembling it. The captain will personally emerge to engage in cautious negotiation w/ the true northerners living in the cabin - they are often shamans or witches. But sometimes they're just peasant and their homes can safely be harvested. Fun when combined with #2
- Has impregnable turtle-like shell. 2x normal bone, because that's what the shell is made of. Special amphibious divers in cold-resistant suits of waxen paper required to hook it from beneath and flip it over. Not all ships carry them or their equipment
- Is pregnant. Will spontaneously give birth as defence mechanism. Baby is also pregnant. Baby's baby pregnant with a kind of deformed unviable cyclops thing. 1/10 chance that cyclops thing actually psionic ultramind + bearer of hideous wisdom, was mentally controlling whole whalefish turducken, now seeks new slaves. 2x normal meat
- Once harpooned, will reveal ability to fly into space. Happens often enough that crews are prepared for it, can swiftly attach harpoons to lead weights, anchors. Whalefish needs certain amount of momentum to get going
- Hundreds of spines lie flat in subcutaneous layer, each the length of a man. Will spring out if you get too close, potentially knocking you into water. Each one embedded in sort of gaseous sphincterpore, attached to whalefish by wobbly length of nigh-unbreakable tendon, has sides studded w/ backward-pointing bristles. Whalefish will shoot them into side of ship, dive. Harpoons back
- Has inordinately long catfish barbels that will grab you, pull you into water, lasciviously caress you while you freezedrown. If killed, barbels will detach, try to escape, attach themselves to different whalefish, persuade or compel that whalefish to seek vengeance against the slayers of the original
- Single enormous red-rimmed cyclops eye. Skin sagging and wrinkled, gasps and wheezes like elderly man. Anyone staring into the eye must save or find themselves standing on an infinite tundra of pale yellow shrub watching the cirrus clouds above them form unspeakable shapes. If they move at all when the clouds attack them they will probably fall into the water. If they don't their soul will be eaten by clouds
- Overrun by hundreds of dog-sized brown lice who "crew" the whalefish exactly as if it were a ship.Their sleeping quarters are inside the whalefish's mouth, which they keep impeccably clean. They have drilled a hole up in to its brain from the back of its throat and control it by tugging on ganglions. It's also their food source, which is convenient. They are on a peaceful trade mission but have no way of communicating that and, if attacked, will defend themselves with alien pain weapons
(also you're not allowed to read this post unless you're listening to this song. i'm sorry. i should have given it to you at the beginning. you'll have to read it all again)