The Norsteppes – from the Gazetteer of the Speaking Lands

For most folks in the Speaking Lands, the Norsteppes is the distant and barbaric land way over there, where terrifying warriors come from.  Of course, to the people of the Norsteppes, all those other places are distant, barbaric, and regularly send terrifying warriors to try and conquer them.

To the people who call this harsh landscape and its unchanging horizon home, it is ceaselessly changing and bountiful—if you know the proper way to live.  The traditions here teach when it is time to harvest, when it is time to move on, when it is time to fight, and everything else that a person needs to know to survive.  And how strange it always seems when an outsider doesn’t understand these very basic things!

Here, let’s educate ourselves on how to live:


This broad flatland spreads across the northern reaches of Ipeiros, stretching from the Toriel Highlands in the west to Loratha in the east. Its southern edge borders the Outland. As one progresses northwards, the Norsteppes grow progressively colder and, eventually, uninhabitable. The region is home to terrific thunderstorms and riverbeds that fill and empty on a seasonal basis. There are no trees outside the riverbeds, but blankets of grasses and shrubbery extend to the horizon.

The Speaking Peoples who inhabit the Norsteppes are mostly nomadic, cycling their year through a handful of geographically fixed settlement sites. Some sites have a few residents all year long with the population swelling when the tribe or clan is in residence, but most sites are empty for most of the year. Some migration routes pass through trading cities on the periphery of the Norsteppes, like Ouradon. There, the bounty of the steppes, especially furs, basketworks, and their signature rotaller horse, are traded for luxuries from the rest of the world.

While there are always variations, the general structure of the Norsteppes society organizes people into families, clans, tribes, and nations. Three to eight families make a clan, about the same number of clans make a tribe, and nearly any number of tribes can make a nation. Most families and clans are made up of a single people—humans, trolls, gnolls, orks, elves—while tribes and nations might be composed of multiple peoples. Individuals are proscribed from marrying within their families and clans.

These groups seperate and rejoin each other over the course of their annual migration, usually with the whole nation coming together once or twice a year. These national gatherings are often at holy sites and on holy days (many incorporate the summer solstice), but never last long. A nation will literally starve if it stays in one place, all assembled, for more than a week or two. The rest of the year, tribes will assemble a handful of times, and clans may stay together for the entire circuit or break off families to forage through the winter and reassemble at certain holy sites and river forks.

The absence of easily visible landmarks can make navigation across the Norsteppes difficult for outsiders, and the steppefolk’s ability to always know where they are can seem magical. The reality is more prosaic but still impressive. Each night, they navigate by the stars and then employ dead reckoning through the day. They also divide the steppe into no less than forty-six different regions, which they mostly identify by plant species and barometric pressure. All of this is transmitted generation to generation through trollsong. Each night, one or more songs are sung together around cookfires, teaching and reinforcing these geography skills along with history, literature, ethics, and religion.

The Norsteppes has been invaded many times, but rarely stays conquered for long: it simply can’t sustain an occupying force.  Invaders inevitably withdraw to their homes where you don’t have to keep moving to eat.

Warfare is not unknown on the Norsteppes, but more commonly takes the form of raiding for livestock and luxuries than seizing land. The horseraider is a larger-than-life figure both within and without the Norsteppes: a deft cavalry warrior who can strike hard and fast and then race to the horizon with their loot. Raids take place between nations but also within them. Clans of the same nation often raid each other, risking the enmity of their target’s tribe.  

Much of social standing in the Norsteppes amounts to whether you and your people are acceptable raiding targets. Those clans and tribes bring tribute to the larger gatherings hoping to win favor and some measure of protection from future raids. Elders and leaders use these gatherings to adjudicate disputes, extract pledges to refrain from raids, and to plan future raids against new targets. Families, clans, and tribes who prove too unruly to be controlled can be threatened with being cast out, although this extremity of consequence rarely comes to pass.

The nations of the Norsteppes were one of the Dread Tyrant’s earliest recruiting grounds. He would bring tribute to clan and tribe elders to hire raiding parties of their young people for months at a time. The steppefolk who refused to parley with the Tyrant often did not make the next gathering, disappearing from the migration path entirely. The Dread Tyrant siphoned off so much of the region’s horseraiders that, now that they are all returning home at once, every nation and tribe has a dangerous surplus of warriors. Tensions are rising.

Looking to the horizon for next week (which is sooner than normal because I’m so late this week), we’ve got four fine options to pick from:

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