Monday, March 19, 2012

Scrutinizing the Scroll Part II: Comprehending the Quill

As a followup to my earlier post Scrutinizing the Scroll, I've decided to expand on the paper discussion there with some additional information about the various writing instruments associated with the various writing forms. As mentioned in that original post, all writing requires both a substrate (e.g., paper, papyrus, and wet clay) as well as a medium and, often, a utensil. In this post, I'll take a deeper look at those utensils in an attempt to provide the inventive DM additional fodder for scroll-related quests and the like.

Prehistoric Writing Instruments
The theories about what the cavemen used as a utensil are widely varied, but are nonetheless pretty interesting. While most of the following utensil types supposedly originate during prehistoric times, their use goes far beyond and, in many cases, continue through to today.

The Finger
Anyone who's ever had dust, food, or the blood of your recently killed prey on your fingers, and then wiped them off on whatever's nearby, knows it's not a far stretch to imagine that the human finger was the original writing instrument.

In game terms, the finger is not necessarily the most suitable writing instrument for producing a successful scroll. But if all you've got is the blood of that troll you just killed, and you need to draw a protective rune on the door you're about to lock, it will have to do.

Chewed Twigs
The basic concept of a twig roughened at the end to produce a set of "bristles" may find its origin with prehistoric cave-dwellers, but reaches it true place as an accepted writing instrument with the likes of the Egyptians, who wrote with both pointed sticks and, later, brushes made from rush stems.

Obviously chewing the end of a common stick to create a brush is not going to always produce the most advantageous of writing instruments. However, if the wood is forgiving and the production methodology is a step up from the standard combination of saliva and molar, an acceptable utensil can be created with meager of means. The Egyptians proved that.

Bone "Pencil"
This is a truly interesting device. It begins by taking a bone of an animal--preferably one that's straight and thick, like a leg bone. Then one end is carved into a diagonal point, resembling a pencil. The marrow-filled inside of the bone, being full of holes like a sponge, is used to "suck up" the medium (die, paint, blood, et al) to give it stability. Then the bone can be used like a pencil.

In game applications, the success and usefulness of any particular bone specimen would depend on: 1) the size of the bone, 2) the finesse of the scribe carving the bone, 3) the quality of the tools being used to carve the bone, 4) the flexibility/rigidity of the bone, 5) the fluidity of the medium being used, and 6) the "sponginess" of the bone (birds, for example, have a much higher air to bone ratio than a tiger.)

In some cases, the medium was the utensil too. Charcoal is a prime example of this. In its simplest form, it really nothing more than burnt stick with carbon residue. In it's more advanced forms (still in historical terms/not modern production methods) billets of wood are piled on their ends to make a conical pile. Openings at the bottom allow the center to then act as a flue for the flame to start underneath and spread rapidly through the wood. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay to reduce outside the inclusion of outside oxygen, making for a stronger end product.

For characters attempting to make their own charcoal (from whatever obscure vine or tree wood is appropriate to the spell type), success is dependent upon combustion rate. But even when successful, the end product for small scale production is about 50% by volume and 25% by weight.

Reed Styluses (Sumerians)
As mentioned in the last post, the Sumerians living in the fertile valley between the Tigres and the Euphrates went straight to the most available materials... reed styluses and wet clay. As the writing utensils developed, so did the style of writing.

Honestly, the only simpler solution than a stick is a finger. Fingers, however, make pretty big indentions, requiring massive clay tablets. Let's face it, clay isn't exactly the lightest stuff on Earth. By comparison, reed styluses (okay, that's not technically "a stick", but for the sake of this discourse let's assume it is) provide and economy of space on such a substrate. And when you're drawing everything pictographically, everything pretty much takes a lot of space. So the Sumerians developed an economical system of writing based on an evolved utensil. By chiseling the tip of the stylus, it allowed for easier mark-making, and the pictorial form of writing (which required a lot of organic forms and lines) evolved into a more abstracted form (using fewer lines, mostly straight), eventually being replaced by cuneiform writing (a set of minimal markings, pressed instead of drawn into the clay.)

Given that cuneiforms are not unlike runes, a chisel-tipped writing instrument would be suited to such. It is not, however, conducive to more script-like forms of writing, particularly elvish. From a sourcing standpoint, any type of tubular shaped item will do (claw, bone, reeds, bamboo, wood, wax.)

Brushes Made From Rush Stems (Egyptians)
This baby was really a sort of hybrid pen/brush. A thin-stemmed rush, or reed, plant was cut (usually to a length of about nine inches.) Then, via a similar method to their caveman precursors, the chewed or hammered it at one end to soften it. The rush stem was easily frayed, and held enough ink to get through (at least) a few letters before having to re-ink.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here from a practicality standpoint. First, the more you use something like a rush brush, the more frayed and worn it will become over time. However, trimming it down and re-chewing or hammering the end will "freshen it up." From a material standpoint, whatever sort of stem or reed is used, it must be soft and thready. Again, from a sourcing standpoint, any sort of hollow (or semi-hollow) tubular resource (within reason) will suffice.

The Qalam (Arabia/Persia)
The qalam is an reed pen with a flat nib, the word "qalam" being a derivative of the Greek word for "pen." The angle of use evolved with the various forms of Aramaic (khufic and naskhi) and, later, Hebrew and Sanskrit, all of which feature strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.

The Evolved Stylus (Romans)
The Romans used a couple of basic forms of stylus. For writing with ink (on parchment), they used a very simple pointed wood stylus. For writing on wax, they used a metal stylus with a pointed tip on one end, and a flat end on the other which was used to "wipe out" their mistakes. For some applications, the writing tip of the stylus might have a slightly chiseled tip to allow for variation in stroke width.

When it comes to metal styluses, casting or forging is required. Wooden styluses, on the other hand, are really not much more than a wood dowel with a pointed or chiseled end, requiring very little from a manufacturing standpoint.

The Quill Pen
Invented around 700 A.D., the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument for most of our recent history (pretty much until the fountain pen was invented in the late 1800s A.D.) Essentially, the feather of a bird is cleaned and then sharpened using a special knife (thus the origin of the term "pen-knife.") This is actually a lot more laborious than it sounds, especially because each quill lasted only about week (which is still much longer than a rush brush would last.)

In an historical context, different types of birds yield different types of instruments for different types of styles (chicken and turkey being most prevalent due to availability.) Others were prized for their beauty (like the swan's.)

In a game context, there is the most potential here, particularly given the types of creatures that possess the feathers, and the increased chances of success for particular types of scroll creation. The questing here is almost unlimited. Take, for example, the mythological caladrius, a snow white bird that supposedly would not look at any patient that was not going to make a full recovery. Smells like the perfect quill for a healing scroll.

Quills do have a major drawback, though. While they seem more desirable for their durability (compared to reeds/stems) and variety, they are less flexible in terms of writing style and, therefore, somewhat limited. For example, they do not lend themselves to the calligraphic thin/wide strokes required for the likes of elvish and other hands. Furthermore, unless that magic-user is going to keep a particular creature caged, the supply of quills from it will be limited.

Hair Brushes
It is likely that the Chinese have been using hair brushes for over 3,000 years, though the oldest example only dates back about 2,000. If an animal has hair, and the hair is long enough, it can be made into a brush. Consider the brushes that have been made using the hair of weasels, rabbits, deer, chickens, goats, pigs, and tigers. Moreover, using a brush for calligraphic purposes is a true art form, with almost unlimited potential for beauty and finesse. In fact, in China, it's considered the highest art form, each example being judged on its bones (authority and size), meat (texture of the fluid ink), and muscle (spirit and vital force.)

If you though the potential for questing quills was unlimited, imagine the questing potential for any animal with hair! The hair brush is also superior to the quill for variety of line weight. And given it's potential for beauty and impact (bones, meat, muscle), the potential benefits for using a scroll created by the hands of a master calligrapher is almost overwhelming. Can you say, "dexterity bonus?"

1 comment:

  1. fascinating stuff
    (for gaming, and for real)

    I await your post on inks!