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Telling Time in sunless, ever-lit caverns


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Helloooo everyone, I'm here to pick your brains about an interesting logistical and cultural puzzle that I have not been able to find anyone having ever mentioned in the forums:

 

How would they tell time in Avernum?

 

1) The humans and nephil would certainly still have their biology ruled by a circadian rhythm. Humans would need 6-8 hours of sleep a day; nephil, unknown.

 

2a) Human society would need some way of understanding when it was "day" and when it was "night" for the purposes of commerce. i.e., you need to buy things? Well then you'd better be able to tell when the shopkeeper was awake and doing business.

2b) Obviously this doesn't really come up in the games. Towns are always active for the player's convenience (and Jeff's too I'm sure).

 

3) Metal and skilled craftsmanship for mechanical clocks would be nonexistent. Sundials would be pointless. Nothing that relies on tracking celestial bodies could function in Avernum without magic.

 

4) Candle clocks? Beeswax is obviously nonexistent, and I don't see the skinny cave cows, or muscular lizards, really providing enough fat to make candles affordable. Bits of glowing lichen in a jar must provide most of the usual indoor light.

 

5) In other fantasy subterranean settings like D&D's Underdark, you have heat clocks for creatures with infra-vision in the dark, but that concept isn't going to work for humans in Avernum.

 

6) Ultimately, a water clock seems like the obvious solution, and you would expect that in order for a community to run smoothly, there would need to be one in a central location in a town, but also one at each gate or entry point, so that travelers and caravans would know the local time, since, clearly, calibrating these clocks to an "Avernum Standard Time" long-distance without wasting a precious mage's scarce time on the task would be otherwise impossible. Maybe one of the ubiquitous non-speaking town guards is tasked, during business hours, of tooting the time out on a horn all day long?

 

 

Essentially, I've been wondering about this little cultural/flavor question for a good while now. I have not turned out to be creative enough to come up with anything unique for Avernum. I'm really curious to hear if anybody else has thought about this, and what your thoughts are!

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51 minutes ago, Edgwyn said:

It is possible that when the original mages created/altered the glowing fungus that they gave it a day/night cycle as well.

 

I thought about that possibility-- 

 

but given that the original creators of the glowing fungus were the Vahnatai, who seem to be fully adapted to cave life, and who certainly had the magical and technological means to make superior timekeeping devices, I figured it was probably unlikely that the glow fungus would dim and brighten. It's already amazing enough that they probably produce oxygen, or contribute somehow to oxygen formation in the caves. Shutting off for eight hours a night just seems TOO fantastical, lmao.

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I will never be sold on the "we or "they" created the glowing fungus line. Improving it? Sure. Created it? Probably not.

 

There are a variety of forces at work as a planet goes through its orbit and rotations. I am not an expert on this field, and will not pretend to be one, either. But I have wondered about the fungus brightening and dimming due to the facing of the planet, or even as the seasons progress, the axial tilt might do something, etc. It's a charming concept at the very least, while also leaving some room in there for some quality science fiction relating to biology. How well one can perceive what might be going on with the natural cycles as interpreted by the local fauna is a different matter, of course.

 

As per clocks and mechanisms, I'd say that one could make fairly respectable clocks given the apparent technological capabilities of the Avernites. They might not be great, but I think it could be done. They'd be a feature of the richer towns for sure. Formello would be a great candidate, all posh and all that.

 

Finally, the great elephant in the room which explains everything that we don't do a dissertation on is magic. Wizards do their scrying and make their impossible contraptions to capture their feats. Magic is an overused trope for sure, but unless one really takes a deep dive to flesh out what happens, or should happen in the setting, magic is the duct tape that holds the story together. Fortunately, Jeff seems to like science fiction quite a lot, so magic is not always a required explanation.

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On 11/12/2022 at 5:00 PM, smaller said:

2b) Obviously this doesn't really come up in the games. Towns are always active for the player's convenience (and Jeff's too I'm sure).

Surprisingly enough, there are a few references in the early games -- even a sign in Formello (in E/A1) that reads "Sermons daily at sunrise" and lots of references to "morning" and "night," especially at inns.  This doesn't seem to be ironic.  Maybe the glowing fungus has a cycle?

 

On 11/13/2022 at 4:06 PM, smaller said:

but given that the original creators of the glowing fungus were the Vahnatai, who seem to be fully adapted to cave life, and who certainly had the magical and technological means to make superior timekeeping devices...

The vahnatai were the original creators the glowing fungus per se, but it seems likely that Erika modified it -- and there doesn't seem to be any dispute that Erika was responsible for creating cavewood trees (based on surface trees they teleported down), cave plants, and the new strains of mushrooms that kept Exile/Avernum fed up until A6.  So she certainly was capable of modifying species.  We only ever see one Vahnatai capable of that, so there's no real reason to think fungus shenanigans would require Vahnatai skills more than a once-in-a-generation talent for magery.

 

I looked and it turns out this actually has come up on the forums previously (for example, here) -- "glowing fungus cycle" seems to be the most common place people end up.

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Slarty, just curious:

Is there any specific canon that states the Vahnatai created the glowing fungus?

 

That specific lore might have been lost on me after (a.) not playing all of the games to completion as well as (b.) my own take on the story. With the latter - and based on the former - there seems to be a constant that magic wielded by mortals does not create new life, but rather just modifies what already exists. Conveniently this jives pretty well with the real world as well.

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I think that, for the most part, they don't seem to tell time in Avernum, at least to a level of precision greater than a day. I don't think there are any explicit references to timekeeping- that is, characters might say "a few days ago..." or "tomorrow night..." or the like, but they don't seem to have anything much more precise. I'm doubtful of the usefulness of magic or mechanical timekeeping systems in a setting where everyone's circadian rhythms are disrupted by living in a dimly-lit cave for years.

 

All that said: "magic fungus that cycles between light/dark every 24 hours or so, and which is somehow omnipresent enough and bright enough to keep the humans of Avernum roughly diurnal," while kind of a handwave, is the explanation most in the spirit of the games' setting.

 

There are also problems with larger-scale timekeeping in Avernum (that is, on the scale above the day). Avernum follows a calendar which marks time in days, weeks, and months (280 days to the year, divided into 8 months of 35 days apiece)- and, curiously, the calendar seems to be a mixture of surface-specific and Avernum-specific features. The year is oriented on the anniversary of the first exiles' arrival in Avernum- this day, the first day of the month of Remembrance, is the first day of the year. It doesn't seem likely that surfacers would commemorate this event in the same way, or use it as their new year's day, or name an entire month in commemoration of it. But other months have names that clearly refer to surface seasons, which Avernum does not experience- "Suncome," "Leafloss," "Icefall"- indicating that the month-names, at least, must come from a calendar devised on the surface, though I don't think there's any reason to expect that the months of these names, as observed in Avernum, correlate to the relevant seasons on the surface. Bizarrely, though they must have named/renamed the month of Remembrance in memory of the first exiles, one of the months of the Avernite calendar retains the name of "Empire."

 

The first wave of remakes actually brought this problem into existence (the Exile games don't have the calendar system, and only E3, set largely on the surface, counts days), and the re-remakes sort of retcon it back out of existence: they no longer reference the calendar, and AFAIK the holidays observed in A1 no longer have any effect in A:EftP. A3:RW keeps track of how many days have passed, but doesn't relate them to an explicit calendar.

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On 11/14/2022 at 10:25 PM, Thaeris said:

Slarty, just curious:

Is there any specific canon that states the Vahnatai created the glowing fungus?

Yes, although "created" could easily mean "by modifying another type of fungus" rather than "from scratch" -- so I don't think this conflicts with your interpretation.

 

The clearest statement comes from Patrick in X2: "It is their magic that created the glowing fungus that gives us light, and thus life."  While it's always possible he's wrong, nobody ever contradicts him, and I can't think of any character in the series better positioned to assess their origin, anyway.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks for following up on this one!

 

I'd say what such a response leads me to ask is what Jeff himself might think of the origin of the Vahnatai. I certainly wouldn't expect an answer, but if the Vahnatai needed to at least tweak the cave biomes to make life possible (with the glowing fungus in question), it seems likely that they have their origins elsewhere. Perhaps they're not even from Ermarian, and you can cue the science fiction bells as you like with that one. 😛

 

...What might be worth interjecting here is the matter of the Slith. The Slith, from all available information, are most definitely from the caves. Both they and the Vahnatai have well-developed eyes, so light was always a factor for the deep-dwellers which we know of on Ermarian. I'd argue this again asserts that there was always a source of light down there.

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7 hours ago, Thaeris said:

I certainly wouldn't expect an answer, but if the Vahnatai needed to at least tweak the cave biomes to make life possible (with the glowing fungus in question), it seems likely that they have their origins elsewhere.

I doubt this. The Vahnatai are more adapted to the caves than the caves are adapted to them- their large eyes suitable to a low-light environment, their slow metabolisms that let them subsist off of scant meals of fungus and meat, their low rate of population growth and division into widely-spaced tribes, and above all their periodic hibernation to allow the cave ecosystem to bounce back between periods of use, something which leaves them terribly vulnerable for many years at a time, but which is uniquely necessary for a sustainable existence in the caves. I think it's reasonable to conclude that the Vahnatai have manipulated the caverns to make their lives easier- things like brighter glowing fungus, maybe, or faster-sprouting mushrooms- but they and their society are still very narrowly adapted to their environs. (Unless they can engineer themselves to not have to hibernate, or to reproduce faster, or the like, there doesn't seem to be much of an incentive for them to go much further, either.) Thematically, also, the fact that the Vahnatai and Sliths are native to the caves, and adapted to them, while humans and Nephils aren't, is something which is hinted at as early as A2, and becomes extremely important in A6.

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