Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Hymn to the Bow: the Hunters

“Portrait de Jeune Noir avec Arc”
Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Special thanks to Jerry Grayson and Lloyd Gyan for their input and guidance.

Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze! The Two-who-are-One, the Hunters Without Peer! Some say that they are eternal rivals, vying for greater success in the hunt. Some say that they are twins, or parent and child. Some that they are lovers, forever together. Many in Manden hold that they are the left and right hands of the Path to Justice, the Orisha Oshossi. Many in Sukiyya believe that the Two-who-are-One were once human before they crossed over into the world of the jinn. But who can know the truth of that otherworld?

They are certainly not a god, despite the rumors that are sometimes spread. If they were a god, would the princes of Manden be required to swear to the Two-in-One before their ascension to the throne? It would be unthinkable for peers of the Caliphate to forsake Ar-Rahman.

So. Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze are manifestly not gods. 

But all agree that they are mighty spirits, the lords of brush and forest. They are the Hunters, knowers of the paths and the way. They see what is to come, and move towards the future and the past as they track their prey.

Chief among the simbon, those who are favored in the eyes of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze, are the princes of Manden. But any who desire the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze may swear to their service, should they be willing to abide by the Code of the Hunter.

"Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas.
Membership Requirements

An applicant who has proven their worth as a hunter may seek the blessing of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze. They must find a simbon, a Master Hunter, who is willing to sponsor them in the ranks of the donso, and then they must hunt and defeat an animal or beast that plagues a community. This hunt is a spiritual trial for the applicant, that will test not only their skills as a hunter, but their connection to the wilderness and their willingness to serve Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze.

Once they have returned victorious, the simbon will ask them three questions:

"Will you learn to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze before your own father and mother?"
"Will you learn that honor is never slavery, and give your honor and your submission to the simbon?"
"Will you learn that kola nuts are good, tobacco is good, honey is sweet - and give them over to your master?"

Once they have agreed, they are of the donso. The new initiates must obey the code of their brotherhood and annually fulfill its requirements, or be the sworn enemy of all other donso.


Donso wear skin-tight leggings and bear cowrie shells upon their cloak or blouse as the marks of a hunter. Simbons of great prowess likely carry a pouch of goatskin, the sassa, filled with sand and cowries for use in divination. They favor the spear, the bow, and the rifle. Simbons are likely to bear a hunter's whistle, to signal with others of the band.

Hunter's shirt. Mali.
Date unknown. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

A character seeking to become a donso must have a ranged attack bonus of +5 or greater without any magic assistance - only a combination of their base attack and any Dexterity modifications. They must gain the sponsorship of a simbon who will continue to sponsor and bear responsibility for their candidates.


After becoming a donso a character continues to level normally, but gains the following benefits in addition to their standard gained abilities at a given level (see below).


A donso character gains the benefits of the skills listed below when they achieve the level in question. No additional XP is required; however a donso must always adhere to the requirements listed below, or else the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze is withdrawn. 
  • Peerless Trackers: Improve base hunting skill by 1-in-6, 3 points, or 15% depending on your game system of choice (1st)
  • Herbs of the Healer: 25 + (level * 3)% chance in wilderness to find herbs that can grant a second saving throw vs poison (1st)
  • Future Paths: may cast augury 3x/week (2nd). 
  • Tongues of Jinn: may converse normally with jinn of brush and forest; has 10x level chance to invoke a jinn of brush or forest and converse or bargain, 1x/month (4th)
  • Simbon: Master hunter, may sponsor another applicant into the donso (6th)
  • "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas, Le Monde
  • Window to the World of Jinn: May cast commune 1x/month (9th)

A donso must always obey their oaths to their simbon regarding the three questions.

1. Even the rulers of Manden swear to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze (and their servant the simbon) above their own fathers, giving the royal court of Manden an unexpected dual loyalty. However, each ruler is sponsored by a different simbon, ensuring that no one person continues to dominate the course of the nation.

2. Along with the duties of respect and obedience to the simbon, donso are expected to oppose slavery at every turn, rooting it out when encountered. Where open confrontation is not viable, donso may take the time to operate in a clandestine manner, but they may never abandon a slave to their fate.

3. Each year, a donso must present their simbon with their level x 1000 dinars worth of trade goods (tobacco, kola nuts, etc.). This does not have to be all at once, but can be presented to the simbon over the course of the year.

In return, a simbon must prepare the medicines and powders for their students to ensure that the creatures they hunt do not continue to haunt them.  Donso take a risk when they hunt. The greater power and role that their quarry plays in the cosmos, the greater the danger is that its wraith will stalk the donso that harmed it -- unless the simbon provides guidance and protection.

Simbon speak each season with the jinn of brush and forest to ensure that they are satisfied, and to confirm that their students have followed their oaths - to guide them if they falter, and to punish them if they fail. They must teach their students the ways to talk with jinn. They must ensure that all those who hunt in their lands (donso or not) obey the traditions of the hunt. They must ensure that no prince or emir or caliph or chief encroaches upon the bounds of the donso, or answer to Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze at their peril.

Cultural Note

This entry derives strongly from the hunters of Kondolon ni Sané as related by Djibril Niane. Niane's work (as he directly acknowledges) came from speaking with the griot Mamadou Kouyaté of Guinea. The Epic of Sundiata is an oral tradition, and cannot fully be conveyed through the written word. Similarly, as you can see from the Guillot article linked below (and the Bordas photographs used for illustration here) the brotherhood of hunters continues to exist in Mali. The abilities I have referenced in this post reflect those mentioned in the Epic of Sundiata, and do not touch upon any other abilities or secret traditions that the hunters may have.

I have no connection to the Mandingo people beyond those shared from a common Islamic religious and cultural tradition. I believe that Mamadou Kouyaté's work through Niane is a valid subject for interpretation in game material because of the intended public-facing nature of the work that Niane relates, and additional discussion in the preface.