Off To The Races: Thoughts on Old Babylonian Chariots

As can be expected from any big writing project, there are quite a few bits and pieces that didn’t make it into the final draft of BFJB 2.0.  Some of these were true dead ends, but many of them represent ideas that I would have probably developed further given infinite time, space, and readers’ indulgence.  Among these was a sub-chapter on Old Babylonian Era chariots, which would have appeared in §12.4 alongside other notes on military organization.  As an accompaniment to that, I’d thought about supporting this information with expanded entries in the equipment sections for chariots.  That done, the inclusion of chariot driver profession seemed the next natural development.

I never got much farther than some very basic research for this information, primarily because chariots were ever-so-slightly too niche for inclusion in the Core Rulebook.  The campaign options for chariots are circumscribed both by the cost of maintaining a chariot, and the logistics of carting it around with you everywhere.  Ultimately, they would have taken focus away from more important aspects of the world of 18th Century BCE.

With the book out and selling now however, I find myself looking back at these underdeveloped pieces of the game.  I’d like to spend some time addressing chariots in this post.

1.0  Old Babylonian Charioteering

Chariots, in less sophisticated forms, have been present in Mesopotamia for at least a millennium prior to the reign of Ḫammu-rapi.  By 1767 BCE, they can be grouped broadly into three major categories.  The first two of these, the four-wheeled “platform” chariot and the two-wheeled chariot can be designed to carry one or two persons.  The third type, the “straddle” chariot carries a single rider.  Most players will find the design of straddle chariots rather novel, however, they are popular among charioteers of the Old Babylonian era, and have notable benefits compared to their other brethren.

Design.  Beyond these three broad categories, this entry does not attempt to distinguish further.  In a general sense, the individual design components of the chariot cars themselves can vary, especially among the first two types.  Several kinds of yoking and control devices with varying degrees of sophistication also exist for each of these.  Again, distinctions between harnesses will be of little interest to players, and result in minimal differences with respect to game mechanics, so they’re glossed over here.

Wood is essential to the construction of a chariot, although metal may be added for protection or ornament, and animal hides for comfort.  By the time of Ḫammu-rapi, most chariot wheels are not solid, and instead have an outer surface supported by four-to-eight spokes.  Spoked wheels are an important development because they significantly cut down on the car’s weight, while saving on material.  These benefits mean that chariots can have larger wheels.

Horse Ass Power.  As discussed in the BFJB 2.0 Core Rules (§13.1) horses are unusual in Mesopotamia during this era.  When encountered, a horse is called sisûm (wr. ANŠE.KUR.RA, Sum. lit. “foreign ass”).  The occasional foreign horse aside, most chariots are pulled by a team of two to four donkeys or onagers (stats identical to the “donkey” entry in §15.3 of BFJB 2.0). Regardless of species, draught animals are living things with their own personalities and needs.  Not only do they have to be watered, fed, and rested, they can be startled, get sick or angry, and sadly, become injured. Players attempting to drive a team of animals will first be limited by the speed of the slowest animal in the team.  The “normal” tactical and strategic “walking” speeds of a team of animals are those given in that animal’s entry in §15.3 of the Rulebook.  For animals harnessed to a chariot and driven by an experienced driver, this base movement rate can be increased to the maximum of the slowest animal’s movement scores times their Body score.  This is in addition to the benefits conferred by the Swift talent.

For instance, the normal donkey has a strategic movement of 4 mph.  With the Swift and Stat Increase (Body) talents, this becomes 8 miles per hour, meaning the donkey’s maximum tactical movement is 24 mph.  It’s worth noting that there’s nothing unusual about a donkey moving this fast.  In fact, they can move much faster over shorter time intervals (times that fall somewhat closer to those contemplated by tactical movement, but too long for the abstract “round”).

That said, with the exception of the straddle chariot, other chariots impose a limit on maximum strategic speeds, irrespective of the maximum speed of the animals themselves.  Larger and heavier chariots mean that animals must labor harder to pull them, and this affects their maximum speed.

For every hour a character operates a team of animals at a speed higher than their base rate, the animals must succeed at a Body check, with an added bonus: the driver’s Soul score.  (Non-critical) failure at this check means that the animals grow tired or annoyed, or for some other reason can only move at their base rate. When a team of animals suffers a critical failure at this check, the GM can determine the results normally, or roll a d6 and consult the following table:

Training.  Like human characters, donkeys and the like have to be trained to the task of pulling a chariot.  Untrained animals will suffer a -3 to any of the checks listed in this post, although this penalty will be reduced by 1 for each trained animal in the team with the untrained animal.  Untrained animals who are in teams with other untrained animals will never suffer more than a total -3 penalty, that is, the presence of another untrained creature does not make them any worse.

Operation.  A character driving a chariot (that is, the character at the reins) is not required to make a check during tactical or combat situations so long as his chariot is moving in a straight line.  In this fashion, the operator of a single-person chariot can use his round to make an attack, cast a spell, or perform another round-type action. Only attempting to control or maneuver the chariot requires the driver to make a check; this includes actions such as stopping a chariot, or trying to turn it.

Turning a Chariot.  When moving at tactical speeds, turning a chariot can be difficult, depending on the kind of vehicle being operated.  Each of the kinds of chariots require a certain distance before they can be turned under optimal conditions.  These are listed in their entries below.  Even so, attempting to turn a chariot during tactical movement always requires the driver to make a check, to which they can add either their Body or Soul score.  Success means that the equids and car follow the desired course; failure means that for their full movement that round they continue in the same direction they were heading.  This check is a full round action for the driver, but he can attempt to turn the team again on his next round.

Damaging a chariot.  Like items, chariots have the equivalent of Body scores, which can be damaged.  When this score is reduced to zero, the chariot is rendered inoperable and must be repaired.

2.0 Types of Chariots

Four-wheeled platform chariots.  These kinds of chariots can have room to accommodate one to three riders, and will be pulled by two to four equids.  In four-animal teams, often only the middle two of the animals are yoked in such a way that they’re performing the actual work of pulling the car.  The unyoked animals will still limit the speed of the team as described above, but they can also serve to encourage untrained “pulling” members of the team.

These chariots first became popular because they served as mobile attack platforms for men engaged in hunting or at war.  That being the case, drivers are rarely provided more than a bar on which to rest while they’re operating.  However, benches or small seats are often included in two-person chariots.

Platform chariots have the least mobility of any of the types listed.  A four-wheel car must travel at least 10 feet before it can turn 45°.  They are also the slowest of these vehicles.

Two-wheeled chariots.  These chariots are usually constructed to accommodate one rider, although larger cars might have space for two.  Like the four-wheeled chariot, they can be pulled by teams of up to four equids, however chariots pulled by two animals are more common.

These kinds of chariots are more maneuverable, and only need to travel 5 feet to turn 45°.  They are also generally faster, and as such are subject to a variety of uses, including messenger-work, hunting, transport, and combat.

Straddle chariots.  The fastest chariot types, these are preferred by mobile couriers and those who have to travel over long distances very quickly.  A straddle chariot is a two-wheeled conveyance intended for one rider.  However, instead of standing in an open car, the rider straddles the middle part of the chariot, which is built in such a way that it emulates a saddle (or a motorcycle).

These vehicles are typically pulled by one or two equids.  A straddle car can turn 90° with only 5 feet of travel.  They set no limit on the maximum speed allowed by their animals, although space is at a premium on a straddle car, and characters who use them will have to travel light.

3.0  Charioteer Profession

(OB. rākib narkabtim, wr. ra-ki-ib GIŠ.GIGIR)

The charioteer is a well-respected member of Mesopotamian society.  As a professional driver, they are responsible not just for the animals under their care, but the expensive conveyance which they drive.

Charioteers can serve various functions, both civil and martial.  Among their non-combat occupations, charioteers often work as messengers or couriers.  They can also undertake the transport of passengers between the city-states, or may serve as hunting guides or game wardens for upper class nobles. Charioteers employed in military operations add combat operations to this portfolio.  Military service can confer an additional benefit on the character, in that the local king can grant them the use of a 2 ikûm (7,200 km2, or 8,611.2 yards2) plot of land, which carries with it the obligation (OB. bīt narkabtim) to field a war chariot.

Allowed Classes:  Awīlum

Relevant Checks:  Charioteers are trained in the use and maintenance of chariots.  In this profession, they also gain knowledge of the care and feeding of draught animals, as well as knowledge of basic chariot construction and repair, even if more complex work (such as complete construction or reconstruction) is the exclusive purview of the Artisan.

Charioteers who are employed in military or hunting operations will be proficient in the use of two of the following weapons: bow, javelin, net, sling, and throwing stick.

Professional TalentDaring.  When a charioteer utilizes this talent, they automatically add 6 to any check they make.  However, they automatically fail the check on a roll of 1, 2, or 3.  This automatic failure is treated as a potential critical failure, and they must make a critical roll.  Results of 1, 2, or 3 on this critical roll result in a critical failure.

Starting Equipment:  A straddle car or two-wheeled, one-person chariot, a team of two donkeys, and 2d6 shekels.  Characters employed in military service gain one weapon with which they’re proficient.

4.0 Conclusion

So there you go. I don’t know if I’ll make this part of a regular series, or if this is a one-off post. As I said above, I have quite a bit of extra material from BFJB 2.0 that I’m not precisely sure how to present. I guess we’ll see.

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