Friday, October 27, 2023

Review of book The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China

 I recently read Christopher I. Beckwith The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China, Princeton University Press 2023


Summary: Christopher I. Beckwith, relying heavily on an astonishing knowledge of linguistics and ancient languages, shows in his latest book that the Scythians were a single people speaking a single language, with a monotheistic religion, who created an actual empire that strongly influenced the Near East, China, and everywhere in between. This contradicts traditional scholarship.




This is a brilliant book, a monograph, as much linguistic as historical, very heavy going in some parts. It is very scholarly. Beckwith has studied these topics his entire life.


His thesis is that there was at one time a united Scythian empire that contributed a great deal, especially ideas, to ancient civilization both in the Middle East and in China. He approaches this partly on linguistic grounds but using archaeology, history, and any other disciplines he can draw from.


From my point of view, I have often wondered how the Medes seemed to come out of nowhere to destroy Assyria and then rapidly form their own empire, only to be overthrown by the Persians, who also seemed to come more or less out of nowhere. Beckwith says that the Medes learned much of what they knew from the Scythians, who controlled Media for 28 years (according to Herodotus); even the Medes’ common language was Scythian, but also modes of dress and warfare. Mede and Scythian bows and arrowheads, for example, are indistinguishable.


The Medes took over from the Scythians after those 28 years and within decades had destroyed Assyria perhaps with some help from the Scythians and Babylonians. Then the Persians (Cyrus the Great) took over the Scytho-Mede empire, and Darius took over Cyrus' empire, not so much war as coup.


I am not a linguist and could not follow all the details of the linguistic arguments down to the level of Chinese script and even pictographs, but Beckwith tries to show that several ancient languages (such as the language of the Avesta religious tracts) were in fact Scythian. He shows that many loan words in old Persian were Scythian. He tries to show that the organization of the Persian Empire is derived from how the Scythians organized their empire. He tries to show that four great philosophies/philosophers of the ancient world are derived from Scythia (Anacharsis, Buddha, Taoism, Zorastrianism). The Scythians, he says, had a single god, not a pantheon, and the monotheism that appeared in the ancient Near East derives from that point of view.


He also shows that the West Scythians had similar effects on China, including that the First Emperor of China was brought up in a Scythian culture.


I don’t know how experts in the field will react to this, although the tendency is to stick with what you know rather than accept the new way of looking at things. Prior to now the Scythians have been regarded as mere “barbarians,” not founders of a great empire.


He convinced me, but it’s easy to be convinced when there is no one else presenting counter arguments. Beckwith himself tries to present counter arguments and has very detailed notes and discussions of scholarship and different possibilities. The book seems to be very, very, thorough, perhaps Beckwith’s masterpiece.


How did I get this book? I actually wanted Beckwith’s earlier book Empires of the Silk Road: a History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present but my local library did not have it, and this one sounded like it might be as interesting. I suspect the Silk Road book is written for a broader audience but I don’t know.


Monday, October 09, 2023

GrogCon 2023 Report (Old School D&D Convention)

(Photos below) 

Most of what I have to say about games goes into videos on my YouTube “Game Design” channel [ ], but this time I’ll put it in writing.


This is a discussion of my attendance at GrogCon 23 Sep 30-Aug 1 in Orlando, FL. I’d been at the con for three days last year as well. GrogCon is an “old School” RPG convention, playing AD&D and Basic versions of D&D from around the same time. It’s attached to larger conventions.


Grogcon is attached to Crucible. This year Crucible merged with QuestCon. Crucible is primarily a fantasy and science fiction miniatures convention while QuestCon is an RPG convention. The miniatures took place in one of the largest rooms I have ever seen, one of the hotel’s ballrooms, that was filled with tables and terrain for miniatures play (War Hammer and War Machine). And on Saturday there was a vast number of people there playing (didn’t try to estimate).


QuestCon also brought with it a large number of vendors. The vendor area was much larger than for WBC in Pennsylvania or PrezCon in Charlottesville, though very small compared to GenCon. Many of the vendors were selling dice and dice paraphernalia such as fancy boxes to roll dice in, 3-D printed dice towers in wild configurations such as a dragon head, and lots of what might be called RPG related art. These are not the kinds of things that I typically purchase but were certainly interesting to look at. I realize now that I didn’t see much in the way of 3-D printed character pieces, I’m a little surprised.


When I arrived Saturday before noon (con started Friday morning) the GrogTalk podcast/YouTube video was being recorded. After five years every week, as much as three hours per show, one of the two principals has bowed out but the show will continue. As I came in they were showing a beautifully built “Wand of Orcus” (about three feet long) that was to be auctioned with the proceeds going to charity. (Orcus was the theme of this year’s convention.)


Dungeons & Dragons is possibly the greatest cooperative game in the world, quite the opposite of a competitive environment. But people try to run tournaments at conventions, and the “traditional” tournament at GrogCon pits various randomly generated groups against one another, all playing the same adventure with different GMs. In this case there were three tables with 6 to 8 players per table for a maximum four hour adventure. The adventure was primarily detective work. At the end of the time the GMs and the convention organizers/writers of the adventure got together and decided which table won the tournament, and each player from that table got a prize, which appeared to be a 3-D printed kind-of paperweight of a Buddha like figure.


A “tradition” of the con is a Holmes Basic D&D adventure using 3D terrain. In Holmes rules a character species is the equivalent of a character class. In this case the favorite is fourth level dwarves, 12 of them. There may be some clerical capability but no magic users. Last year the dwarves entered the Lonely Mountain and finally encountered Smaug the Dragon. This year the biggest terrain object was an Aztec-style step pyramid, with each level removable so that you could place the miniatures as necessary within the pyramid. The other major terrain was a Tudor style inn several stories tall.


I don’t usually play games at conventions, unless it’s necessary for playtesting one of my games, because I don’t want to get tied up for many hours in one activity. Also I’m not a big fan of one-shot as opposed to campaign D&D. The more I watch one-shots, the more I realize how vastly different they are from campaigns. I’ll be writing about that for “Worlds of Design” on, likely next year.


David (missed his last name) ran an interesting adventure Sunday afternoon. The adventuring party was five high-level (ninth?) paladins with holy swords and one high level cleric with a mace of disruption. They had gone to a demi-plane and were up against some really hefty monsters, beginning with a 64 hit point black dragon.


The dragon breathed on two characters, one failing her save and surviving with 3 hit points. At my urging (the GM approved of my intervention) all the paladins charged the dragon. In that situation (especially with no magic to speak of), either you all flee or all charge and try to kill the dragon before it breathes too many times. Someone had a Wish, and Wished for everyone to have five times as many hit points as their normal maximum, permanently, as well as something else. Many of us shook our heads at this, far too powerful; in the end the GM allowed half-again his points for a period determined in rounds.


Here I encountered an interpretation I hadn’t heard before, but turns out to be from the Moldvay Basic D&D version. The dragon’s second breath did only as much damage as the dragon had hits remaining. That actually makes a lot of sense. I’m familiar with Holmes Basic, but never read Moldvay.


The players did away with the dragon (a Vorpal Blade cut off its head), and soon after a couple demons. David had a dilemma because he had underestimated how powerful the party would be despite missing two clerics for lack of players. But since it was a one-shot, and being played for the first time, I suggested to him during a break in the action that he just put in more monsters. He was already setting the monsters to maximum hit points, I don’t know if he put in more monsters or not and I had to leave before the adventure ended.


It was a new hotel this year, a Doubletree within walking distance of Universal Orlando. The rooms were $139, but the parking was officially $29 a day (con attendees got a discount). Two of the three elevators for the 18 story tower that I stayed in did not work much of the time I was there, and evidently on Friday none of them worked. At check-in time I counted five people behind the desk, but only one was actually checking people in (and no famous cookie!). I did not see a map anywhere at any time, which meant I had to ask several questions about where various restaurants were. The room was very nice. But the restaurants were expensive for a convention, as in $20 for a Cobb salad and $26 for fish and chips, with a 16% gratuity added on automatically. There was only one (Korean) restaurant nearby. You may have gathered I was Not Impressed.


On Sunday I had an hour and a half lecture/conversation with James Garoutsos, organizer of the con and of GrogTalk, recorded for GrogTalk, about strategy and tactics in AD&D. When it is posted I’ll try to remember to provide the URLs below. I’m thinking of expanding the 23,000 words I gathered for this, and a lot more including my never-finished D&D Army rules, into a small book.


Attendance. Last year a hurricane swept through Orlando the day before the convention started. The result was that the attendance at GrogCon was much less than the registration because people couldn’t fly in or chose not to come, especially from the northeast where the hurricane headed. This year the weather was fine but the attendance was not much more than the actual attendance last year. Furthermore, last year there had been many mostly younger people playing in organized D&D sessions as part of Crucible. This year QuestCon was supposed to be bringing more RPGs, but I hardly saw anybody playing RPGs as part of Crucible/Quest. I walked past the three rooms reserved for that several times, and I don’t think there was anywhere else where RPGs were supposed to be taking place but I’m not sure. On Friday when the con was already in session but I was still at home, I had checked the event list which showed how many people had signed up for various RPG events. I noticed that several had been canceled and many had few or no sign-ups.


The upshot of this is that I wondered if, post pandemic, people are less likely to go to conventions (at least, to play RPGs) than in the past, especially as there’s been an uptick in Covid cases recently. You can’t really judge from such a small sample space, but it is interesting. I’m puzzled if we can draw any conclusions from this. Is it a genuine lack of interest in face-to-face RPGs, or is it something else?


I believe I heard there is an Old School RPG convention in Minnesota, otherwise I don’t know of anything like GrogCon. It is nearly unique.