Friday, 3 March 2017

Khanates of the Endless Steppe

Steppe nomad woman in Central Asia.:

North of the Great Road, the steppe stretches out for what feels like forever: hundreds and hundreds of miles of emptiness, of tall grasses swaying in the endless wind. There are very few trees, and very little cover to shelter travellers from the heat of the day or the cold of the night, or to stand between them and the winds and rain. In most places the soil is too poor and dry for farming, and so the people of the steppe khanates live by herding, and by hunting, and by war.

Each khanate is composed of an alliance of clans, usually united by their shared membership of some larger ethnic group. They are defined by continuity of culture, rather than of territory: being nomadic, the steppe peoples can (and often do) perform heroic migrations over the course of their history, and it is by no means uncommon for the people of a given khanate to live hundreds or thousands of miles from the lands inhabited by their ancestors. Each individual is part of a clan, and each clan is part of a confederacy, with a single khan at its head. Some of these confederacies have held together for many centuries, and are now so tightly bound together by alliances, intermarriages, and shared history that only the direst emergencies would break them apart, while others are much more recent creations, likely to fissure as soon as an incompetent or divisive khan takes over the duties of rulership.

In the real world, the early modern period was a transitional moment for the people of the Eurasian steppe. For a thousand years, from Attila and his Huns in the fifth century to Timur and his Turco-Mongol followers in the fifteenth, the periodic risings of the steppe peoples had terrorised (and occasionally obliterated) the surrounding empires: but by the eighteenth century technological innovations in Europe and Asia had allowed the empires to reverse the situation, with Russia and China carving up most of Eurasia between them. The genocide of the Dzungar people by Qing China in the 1750s may be taken to mark the definitive point at which mass violence ceased to be something which was exported from the steppe into the surrounding empires, and started to be something imported by those empires as they expanded their reach into the steppe. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thus formed a period of queasy near-equilibrium, during which the steppe khanates no longer possessed the power to snuff out entire civilisations, but were still resilient enough to mostly resist imperial encroachment - and it's this moment in their history which I want to evoke with ATWC.

Tatar horseman:

To generate a steppe khanate, use the following tables:

Size (roll 1d4)
  1. A minor confederation, composed of 2d3 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a city.
  2. A small confederation, composed of 2d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a province.
  3. A large confederation, composed of 4d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a small nation.
  4. A very large confederation, composed of 8d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a large nation.
Degree of Integration (roll 1d6)
  1. Very loose. The clans barely co-operate, each pursuing their own interests independently and frequently clashing with each other. Only a major threat or opportunity will bring them all together, and one major crisis is likely to tear the confederacy apart.
  2. Loose. The alliances between the clans are firm enough for them to co-operate in important matters (such as waging war or mutual defence), but in more everyday matters they mostly pursue their own paths.
  3. Intermediate. The clans take their shared ancestry and oaths of loyalty seriously enough to mostly work together, but each clan still has a strong sense of independent identity, and strongly resists attempts to curtail their independence. Getting them all to cooperate requires exhausting bouts of compromise and diplomacy.
  4. Strong. The clans have fought beside one another so often that they regard one another with mutual respect, and generally cooperate with one another for the good of the khanate. However, the confederacy is divided along some kind of dividing line (usually religious and/or ethnic), and in times of strain the clans tend to group together accordingly. If a major disaster ever befell the confederacy, it would probably fissure along this dividing line. 
  5. Very strong. Generations of intermarriage has softened the barriers between clans, and they generally regard each other as branches of the same people, bound together in loyalty to the same khan. Only in times of severe difficulty will the divisions between the clans begin to show.
  6. Extremely strong. The clans have so much shared history that they consider one another as brothers, and will stand together to the last. Khans may come and go, but only the most extraordinary crisis will break the confederacy itself. 
Camel races, Mongolia:

Animals which they are famous for breeding (roll 1d10 1d3 times - duplicates mean that they're just really, really good at breeding that animal)
  1. Yaks.
  2. Reindeer.
  3. Goats.
  4. Sheep, famous for the quality of their meat.
  5. Sheep, famous for the quality of their fleece.
  6. Cattle.
  7. Horses, famous for their speed.
  8. Horses, famous for their stamina.
  9. Horses, famous for their beauty.
  10. Camels.
Accomplishment for which they are famous (roll 1d10)
  1. Archery. All the steppe peoples are great archers, but the people of this khanate are amazing.
  2. Horsemanship. All the steppe peoples are great riders, but the people of this khanate are unbelievable.
  3. Wrestling. All the steppe peoples are great wrestlers, but the people of this khanate would snap you like a twig.
  4. Shamanism. The people of this khanate are famous for the number and power of their shamans.
  5. Hunting. 
  6. Eagle hunting. (That's hunting with eagles, not hunting of eagles.)
  7. Slave-taking. 
  8. Felt-making.
  9. Trading.
  10. The making of high-quality kumis.
The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a Mongolian people that practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. Buryat shaman communicate with hundreds and thousands of gods, including 100 high-level ones, ruled by Father heaven and Mother Earth, 12 divinities bound to earth and fire, countless local spirits which watch over sacred sites like rivers and mountains.:

Religion (roll 1d6). 
  1. Traditional shamanism. The religions of the Great Road have made no inroads amongst them.
  2. A syncretic fusion of traditional shamanism with one of the religions of the Great Road.
  3. An influential minority of the people have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, but most still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors. 
  4. An influential minority of the people still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors, but most have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road.
  5. The people are divided between two different religions of the Great Road, which serves as a powerful source of tension within the khanate. Shamanism is on the decline.
  6. The entire khanate has been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, and are now among its most zealous followers. Their shamanic traditions persist only in secret.
(NB: Religions of the Great Road can be generated using the tables here. Information on shamanism can be found here.)

Relationship with the nearest empire (roll 1d8)
  1. The emperor still fears the khanate due to the terrors that it once inflicted upon his ancestors, and leaves them alone as much as possible.
  2. The khanate engages in opportunistic raiding and slaving along the imperial frontier, retreating back into the steppe whenever a punitive expedition is launched against them.
  3. The khanate and the empire are linked together in a tenuous alliance, characterised by deep mutual suspicion. 
  4. The empire views the khanate as a convenient source of mercenary cavalry, and tolerates it so long as it remains willing to send horsemen to fight in its wars. 
  5. The khanate is currently playing a very dangerous game, attempting to prolong its independence by playing the empire off against its rivals. 
  6. The khanate has recently been forced to cede control of important territories or trade networks to the empire, and its current khan is scheming how best to recover them. 
  7. The khanate has come under steadily-increasing pressure from the empire, forcing its clans to migrate deeper into the steppe.
  8. While still notionally independent, the khanate has suffered the indignity of having to swear allegiance to the emperor, a humiliation which its current khan finds almost unbearable.
Abylai Khan:

The current Khan is... (roll 1d12)
  1. A skilled diplomat, expert in persuading the often fractious clans he leads to pursue the same course of action.
  2. A heroic warrior, famous for his personal prowess on the battlefield, who has no respect for anyone incapable of holding their own in a fight.
  3. A devout convert to one of the religions of the Great Road, in which he has been trying to interest his people, with mixed success.
  4. A devotee of the traditional shamanic practises of his people, who lives in awe and fear of the spirits and seeks the advice of his shamans before every major decision.
  5. A bloodthirsty warlord who sees the rest of the world as nothing but a source of slaves and plunder.
  6. A staunch traditionalist, who is convinced that his people have gone soft, and that if only they returned to the old ways then they could rebuild their former glories.
  7. A learned and civilised man, whose yurt is full of books and mechanical marvels imported from the cities of the south.
  8. A charismatic visionary who dreams of leading his people in the conquest of empires, just like their heroic ancestors.
  9. An embittered realist who has realised that the great days of the steppe khans are over, and is trying to find a new path to guarantee the future of his people.
  10. A drunken thug who spends most of his time blitzed out of his skull on arak and/or kumis.
  11. A moderniser, eager to experiment with the military potential of firearms and artillery. 
  12. A weak and indecisive man, the last heir to what was once a great dynasty of conquerors whose armies once terrorised the world.
Tatar warrior, 17th century:


  1. As always Joseph, comprehensive and useful!

    1. Thanks, Connor - glad to hear it. 'Comprehensive' is the easy bit - it's the 'useful' part that's tricky...