Introducing Tir y Dail

Ah, the Spring Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere, at any rate). It is a time of new beginnings, and so perhaps a time to talk about new things. Things, at any rate, that have been gestating over the winter.

When I lived in Wiltshire, I knew hardly anyone else who lived near me (which was probably just as well, given how very patriotically English and Tory most people there were). Most of my friends were in Bath or Bristol, so I could visit them, but not hang out for any great amount of time.

Here in South Wales I have several good friends who live locally, and who have many of the same interests as me. Those interests include role-playing; something I have not been able to do seriously for around three decades due to lack of a suitable local group (not to mention lack of time).

At the same time I have read Nicola Griffith’s Spear, and am keenly aware that the place where I live was once the home of the great boar, Twrch Trwyth. This area is as steeped in Arthuriana as the area around Glastonbury where I grew up.

Now it so happens that one of my favourite role-playing game systems is Chaosium’s Pendragon. I ran a campaign many years ago. But Pendragon is very much based on Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur. It is a high mediaeval and English version of the Arthur cycle. Would it be possible, I wondered, to do something more Welsh? Something that was rooted instead in The Mabinogion?

Well, never fear. I did, after all, grow up on Original D&D (the white box version). As a consequence, I never met a role-playing system that I didn’t want to customize. I could do this.

Out of such thoughts grew Tir y Dail, a role-playing campaign set (at least initially) in South Wales, and using a variant of the Pendragon rules to create a distinctly Welsh feel to the game. Specifically the campaign begins in Ystrad Tywi, the same location in which we find ourselves at the start of Spear. But Tir y Dail is not the stylized, mythical land of Griffith’s story. It is something much more similar to the world of Hild and Menewood. Whereas in Spear, Ystrad Tywi is a wild land occupied only by a few peasants and bandits, in Tir y Dail it is a bustling post-Roman culture just beginning to learn to live with the absence of colonial rule.

The most obvious sign of Roman presence is the still-busy port town of Moridunum (Carmarthen), the most westerly outpost of the Roman Empire. From here, local goods can be traded for wine and pottery from the continent. There are two sizeable villas in the region, one south-west of the city, and one north-east. Hill forts are everywhere. Tir y Dail (The Land of Leaves) is the name of the local settlement here in Ammanford, but there are many others dotted about the region. To the north, keeping watch over the Tywi, are the impressive Dinefwr Castle and the stately home that stands in its shadow. Those are more modern constructions, but in the 5th Century the hill on which they stand still boasted a Roman fort, guarding the road west to Moridunum.

I’m telling you all this now for a number of reasons. I am NOT planning to keep a campaign diary. However, I do want to talk about the worldbuilding, and the historical research that went into it. Some of that I will only be able to drop once the players have moved past the events in question. Also I see from BlueSky that my good friend Hal Duncan is working on something similar but based in Scotland (and presumably fiction). I hope people will find the contrast illuminating.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing Arthurian stories set in Scotland. We should remember that, before the Romans came, “Wales” – the country of Prydain, inhabited by the Cymry – covered the entire island, at least to the edge of the Highlands. (I’ll talk about the problem of the Picts in a later post.) Glasgow is a Cymric city. The name, Glas Cae, means “blue field”, and is indicative of especially good grazing.

In the time of Tir y Dail, the Ystrad Clut (the valley of the Clyde) is ruled over by the Damnonii tribe whose capital was the imposing fortress of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock). It stayed that way until around 870 when Ivar the Boneless and his Viking buddies finally managed to sack the place. The Damnonii then moved their capital to Glasgow – specifically to the area called Govan which is just over the river from the Event Campus where Worldcon will be held. They also fell under the influence of their Gaelic-speaking neighbours, the Scotii of Dál Riada. The new kingdom, known as Strathclyde, remained independent until just after the Norman invasion of England, at which point they joined the kingdom of Alba (possibly because they were conquered by MacBeth).

But I digress. There’s a huge amount of Welsh history that I want to talk about. The Irish will be in on it as well (though mostly as villains to begin with). I’ll stop for now, but there will be more.