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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Colors and Campaign.

About a month ago I read this book,
"Color A natural History of the Pallet" by Victoria Finlay
It was quite interesting.
And very applicable to RPG games.

This is definitely not a scholarly work, and I don't mean it as one. I'm just a guy who games. This is a huge wide ranging subject as such this blog will just scratch the surface of the possibilities but lets look at some quick ones.

Things to know and use:
Tyrian purple was thought to have been discovered by Hercules, but in fact it came from shellfish left to rot in vats. Form the  juice inside the  Hypobranchial gland of said shellfish, to be exact. It took about  10000 molusks to make one gram of purple dye. Not to mention the  process stunk, literally. In fact It stunk to high heaven. If characters are coming up to a dye making town that made Tyrian purple chances are they woudl smell it long before they saw it. In fact garments dyed with a purple made from the Murex were said to hold a "fishy smell" forever. I guess Theodora didn't mind smelling like a carp in the name of style.

It's difficult to get the murex muscles, it's a nasty smelly process, and the dye stinks like fish, so why?
One reason to the Romans the stuff when applied to silk was worth three times as much as gold.
Color meant money. Dyes were hard to make, quality dies were even harder. There was a hint of alchemy to the  whole process and a family of  good dye makers would pass secret formulas and techniques down through generations. Whole towns an cities could make their fortune based on one  recipe for a particularly vivid dye.

Fun fact: In Sidon there is a place called Murex hill which is a mound of accumulated debris left behind by the Phoenician (1200 to 539 -BC give or take) dye making  factories. It is 100 meters long and  50 meters high covered by houses, and a cemetery. It is also made up almost entirely of Billions of Murex muscle shells. Incredible.

Tyrian or "royal" purple is just one example.
Tekhelet is another snail dye said to be used to color the tassels and corners of garments of Jewish rabbis. the true holy blue color is said to be lost to antiquity and the exact formula and process is still sought after currently.  There have been rare ancient samples found, but  my digging around the netterwebs has not  produced anyone claiming to have  rediscovered the exact method of dying.


Dye can also come form plants, for example Woad and indigo. Woad was widely grown in Europe (France Germany, England) to produce a blue dye. For this to happen the plants were harvested crushed and soaked for weeks in vats of ammonia. the only place at the time to get ammonia was urine, people urine to be exact. There were folks who made a living going around collecting urine pots from household and delivering them to the dye factories. This makes the War-hammer Fantasy Role Playing Game's "rat catcher" look like a glamour position. 

Much like rotting Murex the characters would smell the dyer before they ever saw them.



Insects can also be sources of dye's the Cochineal for example is the  source of a vivid scarlet dye. Kermes is also a dye derived from an insect of the same name and produced it's own red dye.


Going withe the Cochineal there was a booming industry  gathering , drying, grinding and  shipping  these insects from the  new world of South America back to Europe. Having characters travel to a distant land, over a forbidding ocean, into an unexplored jungle, to gather insects that will make them rich, sounds like the jumping of point for a rip roaring campaign. 

Ocher or  mineral rich  colored clay has been used as a pigment since man found out that it could be used a s a pigment, meaning  a A very long time. (the Blombos cave contains Ocher works dated to about 75000 years ago. Also the cave drawings in Pech Merle were done whit Ocher) 
Many indigenous people  see ocher and the locations for gathering the purest ocher as holy. Used in ceremonies as offerings, for art, and  as body  adornment, ocher plays a huge role in many traditional and  shamanistic systems.

In fantasy setting A source of good high quality Ocher could be valuable to  adventurers and  perhaps priceless the people already living there. 


Lapis Lazuli has been mined as a valuable commodity since the neolithic period. In Europe it was ground and made into the  finest ultra marine pigments. Anything that is mined means caves and as we all know caves are infinitely d&d-able. 


Nothing to see here just a 3100 year old dungeon map.

















Fun right? How does all this help your Campaign?


Background. Giving a campaign world just enough of a toe in reality that the  weird stuff can stand out. I mean it can't be all dragons, crashed space ships, and tentacles all the time. I like to base allot of my game world in things that could be real, things that could have happened. So when a guy named Vorul makes a messenger explode in the center of a local pub, the players take notice.


First off I think if I have a significant town in my campaign, that town should do something. It is historically accurate to say that towns popped up based on the economy of dye production. When fleshing out towns for a fantasy game dye production is a good  economic base to start with. It can add interesting flavor in that their sights and smells of dying are unique in antiquity.


"Your party stands on low but well constructed retaining wall looking out into the sea. It seems a flotilla of boats are returning for the day. Each offloading crates of  small shelled creatures. To the west a literal mountain of white shells glitters in the sunlight, and when the  wind changes a wretched stench fills the streets"



I find this an engaging change from a more typical fishing village or port.

It's also a bit unexpected, a town that deals in a commodity that may give players a bit of a logistical hassle. Transporting a powder or liquid that is worth more than gold? That can be an adventure in-and of it's self. Can you keep it dry ? Don't spill a drop of that dye! 



Color can definitely  be a signal to players as to who has the money and the power in any situation. Peasants don't dye their clothing. Merchants might have some  dyed cloth, local landed gentry would have some colored clothing. Only the richest and most important  people would have what I would describe as "richly or deeply colored garments." The color of clothing has been one of the  most regulated aspects of daily life through out history. Heck, Nero made the  wearing of purple by anyone but he punishable by death.
Use the economy of color to your advantage as a Gm, once the players figure out that only the rich can afford that deep red cloak then the players will know who the  power players are in most situations.



Here are some quick  hooks.
  • An alchemist has discovered a synthetic method to produce a popular dye. (1856 in the real world) She hires your party to take the first samples to a nearby monarch. Naturally any dyer that makes the natural dye would want those samples destroyed, perhaps even see the inventor killed. Anyone else would want to steal valuable the formula.
  • One of the local cites has an economy built around processing woad into blue dye for clothing. The past two seasons however the crop has been failing. The  city  elders think it might be a neighboring  town trying to spoil their woad in order to establish them selves as a dye producer. the town hires the party to find out whats going on.
  • A new source of a bight yellow pigment has been discovered, its' going to make any one involved filthy rich, unfortunately it's made from the shells of a large,  aggressive cave spiders. Are the  party members willing to go and  "harvest" this new resource. 
  • The shaman in this setting  gain their powers form the intricate ocher designs they paint on their skin. This could be a class option, a kit, or what ever you like for players. Or a stepping off point. (a Creature has moved into ht cave where the sacred ocher is found.... and so on.)
  • A caravan carrying a large quantity of dyed fabric destined for the  empires capital has disappeared. The guards found murdered in a river bead, the  horses running free. The  emperor has offered a hefty reward for the return of the stolen goods, causing a veritable gold rush of adventure types turning up looking for the  lost caravan.
  • One old woman who lives high in the mountains has a process for creating a deep blue pigment used in the  highest quality spell books. She is getting old and  is looking for a young woman to pass the secret to.
  • Ancient Lapis Mines, go...
  • A booming  industry of insect collecting has sprung up in a vast forest to the south. The forests are vast and dangerous, mostly unexplored. The discovery of the pigment producing insects has caused it to become a lawless frontier the  kind of place adventurers can get rich or get killed in the effort. 
  • Each type of dragon's scales can produce a vivid dye of their particular color when dried and crushed. These pigments are used in the creation of  magical cloaks and other garments. It is even said that a painting painted with skill and these types of pigments may act as a gate between dimensions. Such paints are highly being sought by a certain court artist, at any price.
  • A giant form of the local dye producing shellfish have been discovered! Unfortunately they are only found in the deep ocean, and they are not quite as docile as their smaller cousins. Can the  party  harvest some and strike it rich  or will  another  group  beat them too the prize?
  • This is a rich town built around a booming dye business. However there is a problem three young socialites have been brutally murdered in the past month. The only  person who may have witnessed one of the murders is one of the  factories urine collectors who was out making his rounds in the dead of night. Unfortunately he has not been seen in several days. Can the party help?

Some links:
Time line of Dyes
Here is an interesting video about processing indigo
Lapis Lazuli Mines

Thank you for reading,
I hope there is something here you can use for your  campaign.