Origin of Writing

Items that are specifically for the attention of co-GMs are underlined.

Uruk, Sumeria, 3200 bce


The PCs encounter the ancient Sumerian king Enmerkar, and help him invent writing.


The PCs find themselves in the time of Enmerkar, founder of Uruk, inventor of writing, and builder of a protective wall against barbarians.

How about this: The characters find themselves in the midst of a battle. Someone shoves spears in their hands and sends them to the top of the wall (which I presume is between two mountains or something)

I like the idea of some bard-type person speaking/singing parts of the Enmerkar legends.
Except that that doesn’t make sense for this session, as those are about the time the PCs are in.

The PCs should discover, at some point, in some way, the campaign date, so that they can put it into historical context. Or have some way of doing so, anyway. Perhaps put something into play—not at first—to encourage a Timeline. After all, Ananda’s already started one.

I think actual encounters should be written down elsewhere, and either linked or copied to the Adventure Plan. This allows the adventure to have coherent existence.


So we’re changing the campaign date to 3300 bce, in accordance with the “”/wikis/origin-of-writing" class=“wiki-page-link”> earliest writing in Mesopotamia," and ignoring considerations of the date of the founding of Uruk, or of counting backwards from some known king’s reign date, especially as we have historical attestation for a king before Enmerkar of 2600 bce. Enmerkar may still claim to have founded Uruk; perhaps he performed some act, such as building a temple to Inanna, that he counted as founding the city.

What about the time of year? I figure unless there’s a particular reason to choose a specific time, it’s the same date as it is “now.” So the campaign began on June 19 Gregorian.


1. Welcome to the streets

The PCs awaken. It’s dark, damp, stinky and warm. They are hungry, and realize that this is what has woken them. They realize they are outdoors, laying in the gutter (i.e. an alley next to a building), and the sky seems to be brightening.

As the light improves, they look around to see a couple of brown children with black hair, about the same ages as their siblings. As they look down a lt their own bodies, they discover that they, too, have brown skin. They are barefoot and clad in woolen rags. When they speak, they discover that they can understand what they speak and hear, but realize that they are speaking some strange tongue.

This is a general encounter, to allow the PCs to become familiar with their situation and surroundings, and to give them a taste of success and failure. The PCs wander around a bit, discover they are in the slums of some ancient-looking city filled with mud-brick and limestone buildings. They speak the language, so it’s possible they might discover the name of that city (they should, really). Use a lot of description, and consider some visual aids (CP can be earned for bringing further visual aids or information on the city to the next session).

As noted in Situation above, PCs begin at 1/2 FP (round down). In other words, they’re quite hungry. If they don’t get food soon, they will start to feel the effects of hunger (at 1/3 FP). Each missed meal (presuming three meals a day) reduces FP by 1. Begging passerby for food is probably their best bet. The bazaar is the best location for this. If they’re quick and careful, they might even be able to steal some scraps from vendors’ stalls.

Consider playing the bazaar scene from Aladdin for context.

The PCs ought to both beg some scraps of food successfully, and have those scraps of food taken from them by a local bully and his two henchmen).

Water is not hard to get; a canal runs right through the city. There are wells, but none open to the general public.


Defaults: IQ-4, Fast Talk-2, or Public Speaking-3

Success: $2x margin of success per hour. There’s no cash, so we’re talking about crusts of bread, fruit, perhaps something actually valuable if they do well.

Let them keep their scraps. At some point, however, either because they roll exceptionally well or the GM decides it’s time, they get handed something particularly valuable: A nice old man takes pity on them and gives them some meat and a clay jar of wine.

Unfortunately, this leads to tragedy. As they retreat to consume their newfound treasure, a small gang of thugs appears to take their loot. Enlip is (unbeknownst to them) a local street tough, and shows up with two of his friends to confiscate their find. The PCs should not win this fight if they choose to resist; at best they can escape with minimal damage. If they do something spiteful like throw the food away somehow they will get roundly beaten. The toughs have no weapons; their fists are sufficient.

Other possible choices for the PCs:

  • Steal food or goods.
    • Money as such does not exist. Perhaps they can get a notion of how involved a barter system is: They can watch a barter or two take place. Remember, debt does exist, if that should become necessary to the situation. Writing does not exist, but proto-writing—keeping accounts with marked clay with the individual’s sign on them—does. In fact, let them see that. IIRC, Sumerian accounts were stones wrapped in ""bags" of clay":http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/11/prehistoric-code-mesopotamia-clay-balls_n_4083903.html.
  • Wander into the nicer parts of the city. This should be a bad idea.
    • Where would that be? Where are the “slums,” exactly, and what is there?
  • Nothing. They will slowly get hungrier and hungrier. They’re already pretty damn hungry (see above).
  • Get into random fights. This is probably a really bad idea, unless they pick their victims very carefully.
2. Starving

Their options are the same as they were before:


Defaults: IQ-4, Fast Talk-2, or Public Speaking-3

Success: $2x margin of success per hour. There’s no cash, so we’re talking about crusts of bread, fruit, perhaps something actually valuable if they do well.

Other possible choices for the PCs:

  • Steal food or goods.
    • Money as such does not exist. Perhaps they can get a notion of how involved a barter system is: They can watch a barter or two take place. Remember, debt does exist, if that should become necessary to the situation. Writing does not exist, but proto-writing—keeping accounts with marked clay with the individual’s sign on them—does. In fact, let them see that. IIRC, Sumerian accounts were stones wrapped in bags of clay.
  • Wander into the nicer parts of the city. This should be a bad idea.
    • Where would that be? Where are the “slums,” exactly, and what is there?
  • Nothing. They will slowly get hungrier and hungrier. They’re already pretty damn hungry (see above).
  • Get into random fights. This is probably a really bad idea, unless they pick their victims very carefully.

In the process, they discover two dogs fighting over a meaty bone. What will the PCs do? Will they attempt to steal the food from the dogs?

Street Mongrels
ST 7; DX 9; IQ 3; HT 9.
Will 9; Per 11; Speed 4.5; Dodge 7; Move 9.
SM 0; 70 lbs.
Traits: Discriminatory Smell; Domestic Animal; Quadruped; Sharp Teeth.
Skills: Brawling-11; Tracking-10.

If a PC wishes to befriend a dog, its opponent must first be driven off; if their food is taken away, the curs will join together to attack the thief. Even with a Good or Very Good Reaction roll (p. 3, GURPS Lite), both dogs will not follow the PCs, but will leave them alone (a result of Excellent for one dog and Good or better for the other will allow the PCs to befriend both dogs). Offering the meaty bone to the remaining dog gives +2 to the Reaction roll (which is rolled by the GM). If the PC subsequently takes part of the meal away (or uses lesser fare as incentive), the roll will retroactively be reduced by 1. Each character may attempt one roll; if any PC gets Bad or worse, the dog will attack the PC unless he is given the bone (a roll of zero will result in immediate attack regardless, but that’s not likely to become possible).

3. Good Samaritans?

This encounter gives the PCs a chance to make an ally and cement an enemy.

As they proceed about their business, they hear faint cries for help (or run across the scene directly if they find themselves in a likely location). Upon investigation, they discover Enlip and his gang (Meshe and Suthra, if it matters) assaulting a very well-dressed boy of about their age (well-dressed, in this case, likely means colorful silks). This is the young Gilgamesh, the son of Enmerkar’s war chief Lugalbanda, who has, in typical incorrigible fashion, slipped his handlers within the temple district and decided to explore the city. [I wish I knew much more about ancient Sumerian culture. Does this trope make sense in this time? Are there town guards, or are things more informal, as I suspect? What are the weapons used? This is technically pre-bronze age, after all, so copper-tipped spears are likely the order of the day] In his journey, he is confronted by our old friends, who attempt to give him a hard time.

Gilgamesh (“the boy” to the players; he’s probably about eight years old from his appearance, a sturdy boy, but not enormous for his age) stands his ground firmly as Enlip, attracted by his rich clothing (robes of scarlet linen), attempts to mug him. Gilgamesh proclaims that he is the son of a mighty warrior, to which Enlip snidely replies, “But he ain’t here, is he?” and moves in to attack. Gilgamesh stands his ground, unintimidated by three bullies twice his size and age, and prepares to give as good as he gets.

The ruffians are intent on their business, and so the PCs have an opportunity to act.

They have several options:

  • If they send one of their number for help, they will have a difficult time getting anyone to believe them; it will take some time for help to arrive (in fact, help in the form of a palace guard will arrive in about the same time as the PC can get help unless the PC is particularly persuasive), and the boy will get badly beaten before he is rescued.
  • If they intervene, they act with surprise. This is probably the best option (for Gilgamesh, in any case). The thugs will turn their attention to the PCs, but hopefully the characters have managed to get some good knocks in first. There are loose cobblestones the PCs can use to brain their opponents, and with a little searching and ingenuity, they may discover other weapons, such as a barrel full of staves (this encounter likely occurs near the bazaar, possibly in the very same alley in which the PCs were themselves assaulted).
    The PCs do not have to kill the thugs; if they manage to deal damage for the first couple of rounds, the thugs will flee. Otherwise, if they hold their own for a few rounds, help will arrive; or perhaps, with Gilgamesh’s help, they will actually win the day. Again, the thugs will flee when help begins to arrive. If the PCs are defeated by the thugs, they will be transported to the palace.
  • If they start to walk away, the boy screams to them for help. This no longer makes sense. Suggestions?
  • If the PCs actually walk away from the encounter, they find themselves confronted by three palace guards wearing leather jerkins and wielding copper-tipped spears, who gather them up, accusing them of being the prince’s attackers. The actual attackers have melted into the scenery.
    • Yes, this breaks a simulationist approach, but this is almost a wholly narrativist, not a simulationist, game. The point is to get the players through the storyline without obvious railroading, not to discover “what would happen.”

Regardless of the outcome, the PCs are escorted to the palace by the guards.

4. The Trial

Depending on the PCs’ actions in the previous encounter, they are either honored as saviors of the prince, or accused of assaulting him [how were trials managed in ancient Sumeria? Did the King preside over all of them? Was summary justice meted out by lower officials? “In Mesopotamia there were legal codes but no lawyers. Parties involved in disputes had to plead their cases directly to government authorities, often people close to the king or the king himself. All legal decisions and agreements were ratified by an oath taken before the gods and subject to their wrath or punishment if the agreement was broken.” "Mesopotamian Justice System ":http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1517.html#chapter-3]. If the latter, the prince comes to their defense, noting that they were innocent bystanders.

Honestly, I like the idea of them being put on trial regardless of the outcome. This lets them see a bit of Sumerian justice, and the religious feeling overshadowing almost every activity (this should be evident in other dealings and transactions as well; trades should be conducted with an invocation of the relevant god, for instance, and alms should be accompanied with a blessing).

What is the text of the oath?

Gilgamesh, of course, tries to forestall the proceedings (either by saying that they were innocent bystanders or that they fought by his side, depending), but Enmerkar (or perhaps a priest acting as a bailiff?) admonishes him to keep silent until the appropriate moment in the trial, when his testimony will be solicited. I like the idea of Enmerkar teaching him how things work.

Regardless, the PCs are offered menial jobs in the palace (kitchen help, most likely), either as a reward or out of a feeling of guilt by the prince. (As Sarah says: “If they continue to walk away a palace guard can come up, and assume they were involved in the dispute, and they can be brought to the palace on charges of assaulting the prince. He can then talk to them, feel bad for getting them in trouble, and argue in their defense. As a result, they are released and the prince finds them jobs in the palace because he feels bad for them.”

Moving up in rank

The next question is how they come into the notice of the king. This could be positive or negative, but positive is probably better; I can’t think of anything a menial servant could do wrong that would attract the personal attention of the king without also causing the servant’s death.

There is, after all, a war going on (right?). Perhaps the PCs are drafted as servants to the soldiers on the front line. Perhaps our courtier takes them with him into battle. That seems likely. While at the city wall (miles away from the city), they perform some act of unforeseen derring-do. This causes said courtier (the son of some lord, I’m sure) to bring them to the attention of the King to be honored.

Wait though; if this courtier is a combatant, is it likely that he would be endangered by some random street thugs? Maybe it’s a girl after all; but then why is she at the Wall? Hm.

The ‘courtier’ turning out to be Gilgamesh makes this much more plausible; of course he sneaks off to the battle, bringing his new friends with him.

Audience with the King

The climax of the adventure. The King grants an audience to the PCs to honor them for their unexpected bravery, and the messenger appears. He gives the message from the opposing king, receives Enmerkar’s message in reply, but cannot remember it all. This vexes the king, and he casts about for a solution.

This is the PCs’ chance to truly shine. They have the opportunity to help King Enmerkar invent writing. If they don’t have a solution at that moment, they have a chance to think on it overnight (i.e. until next session). If they are completely stumped, a prophetic dream can come to them (indeed, this can happen at any point they seem stuck, and probably should happen before their first meeting with the courtier, to incite them to intervene) in the night.

There should probably be some denouement, but I don’t know quite what that would entail.


  1. What happened to the bully? He was a good enemy, but he just vanished after the second encounter.

Some random encounters of some nature, especially when in the slums, seems like a good idea. One or two would be plenty. Perhaps a city guard patrol?

they’re walking through the market place area and hear a merchant arguing with a customer about what’s owed. As the walk by, the customer grabs one of them and insists that they solve the problem, hoping they’ll side with the customer. Either one could be in the right, but this would give them an opportunity to think about the clay tablets, record keeping, and the barter system.


This adventure differs from later ones in that the core advancement is mythical, and most likely false. It is unlikely that Enmerkar invented writing in the manner described in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. However, I wanted to begin the campaign with the origin of writing, as I wished to set the campaign in purely “historical” times. Of course, this adventure is an exception to that wish by definition, but it does fit with my wish to set the earliest adventures in the times recorded by the first writings, and I thought it would provide some useful and interesting context to later adventures. However, this all makes this adventure thoroughly optional.

The timing on this is wonky enough to make me question the wisdom of this adventure at all.

The dating is not crucial, actually, as the characters will not be given a definitive date during the adventure. However, they should be able to estimate the campaign date through external sources. What’s more, the date changes the details of the setting.

Therefore, it makes most sense to set the adventure at the time of the earliest known writing in Sumeria: circa 3200 bce.

I had originally calculated Enmerkar’s reign to have begun in 4220 bce and for the campaign, therefore to be set in 4100 bce, the 120th year of his reign. However, though this gives respect to the Sumerian King List, it ignores the fact that Enmerkar’s predecessor Enmebaragesi is verified to have reigned circa 2600 bce. That is, of course, still later than 3200, but at least it’s in the ballpark, especially as several other kings are also attested to in 2600. I’m still leaving it as the 120th year of Enmerkar’s reign, and I’m still allowing him to claim that he built Uruk. They’re probably lies, but what of that?

…On second hand…what if what Enmerkar really invented was proto-writing? Let’s say that accounting methods using symbols pressed into clay existed previously,

Yes, this starts to make sense. Apparently the texts from circa 3000 bce are rather advanced, using abstract rather than purely pictographic symbols, which means that there must be earlier versions1…or not; see the footnote.

“The earliest-known cuneiform documents were found at the sacred temple precinct Eana in the city-state of Uruk”2

bc 2
8500 Simple tokens in the Middle East
3500 Complex tokens and clay envelopes
3400 Numerical tablets
3300–3200 Earliest writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt

Some of the earliest signs inscribed on the tablets picture rations that needed to be counted, such as grain, fish, and various types of animals. These pictographs could be read in any number of languages much as international road signs can easily be interpreted by drivers from many nations. Personal names, titles of officials, verbal elements, and abstract ideas were difficult to interpret when written with pictorial or abstract signs. A major advance was made when a sign no longer just represented its intended meaning, but also a sound or group of sounds. To use a modern example, a picture of an “eye” could represent both an “eye” and the pronoun “I.” An image of a tin can indicates both an object and the concept “can,” that is, the ability to accomplish a goal. A drawing of a reed can represent both a plant and the verbal element “read.” When taken together, the statement “I can read” can be indicated by picture writing in which each picture represents a sound or another word different from an object with the same or similar sound. The Origins of Writing

Adventure Overview

I think I’d like to dump the PCs into a primitive farming community in Mesopotamia during the rise of Sumeria. My presumption is that although cities and kingdoms existed, there were also small farming towns as well. I’d like the PCs to get a sense of what that would be like.

It’s my plan at the moment to handle almost all of the game mechanics myself at first, never looking anything up unless it’s some stat that I know exactly how to find.

Plot Summary

I like the idea of them discovering firsthand what the city walls were for, and possibly helping man the defenses against either invaders or wild animals.

I figure the characters appear as servants in the King’s palace. After some time to familiarize themselves with the setting (how? A few encounters, I presume), they encounter the main action of the adventure: King Enmerkar has a problem: His messengers cannot remember the complicated messages he needs them to transmit to the lord of Aratta, with whom Enmerkar is embroiled in hostile diplomatic negotiations. The challenge is for the characters to help Enmerkar invent writing on clay tablets.

This, of course, should be incredibly easy, which is great, but may involve going to the Craft Shop to figure out how to actually create and write on clay tablets.

So how do the PCs end up in an audience with the King? I figure they start out as street urchins, and through some notable act, such as saving a member of the Court from a thieving attempt, they find themselves offered jobs as servants in the palace. Once there, they perform some further exceptional service, which gains them the attention of the King.

What’s nice about this approach is that it’s flexible. The PCs may not follow a roadmapped path and yet still get where they need to go. Also, it gives them a patron in the Court, which means an NPC to anchor the situation.

Still, there should be a roadmap with several encounters, including combat encounters. Perhaps a beginning subplot involving the difficulties of life on the street. There should be at least one combat encounter; this shouldn’t be difficult in the gutters.

The point here is to set the first adventure in the time which our oldest legends attest to. As far as I can tell, in our oldest written legends, we were civilized. There are no coherent tales of hunter-gatherer days. So the first adventure covers the invention of writing, which is recounted in one of those tales, and comes even before the legends of Gilgamesh, who is a later king than Enmerkar.

Inventions/discoveries already in existence when this adventure opens:


  • Nature
    • Outdoors living
    • Stargazing
  • Invention
    • Stone tools
    • Bows and arrows
    • Oil lamps
    • Bone/wooden tools
    • Woodworking
  • Daily Life
    • Hunting
    • Gathering
    • Fishing
    • Economics
      • Potlatch
    • Clothing
    • Food
    • Dogs
  • Discovery
    • Fire
      • Cooking
      • Iron pyrite
  • Math
    • Counting
  • Language
  • Art
    • Cave paintings
    • Paint
    • Sculpture
  • Music
    • Flute

The First Settlers

  • Politics
    • Warfare
      • City walls
  • Daily Life
    • Houses
    • Economics
      • Barter
      • Division of Labor
    • Clothing
    • Food
      • Bread
  • Discovery
    • Animal domestication
      • Herding
        • Breeding
      • Goats
      • Pigs
      • Oxen
    • Farming
      • Wheat
        • Einkorn
        • Emmer
  • Invention
    • Pottery
    • Linen
    • Sickles
      • Better stone tools in general?
    • Rafts
    • Querns
  • Philosophy
    • Religion
      • Astrology
      • Temples

Advances made during the period the adventure is set in (some of these took place before, some after the specific adventure dates):

  • History
    • Politics
      • Abraham leaves Ur
      • First recorded ruler in Mesopotamia
    • Nature
      • Events
        • Disastrous floods
    • Daily Life
      • Economics
        • Coins
      • Clothing
      • Food
        • Barley
          • Bread
          • Beer
      • Masons and smiths become craftsmen
    • Mesopotamia
  • Literature
    • Myths
      • Ishtar and Tammuz
      • The Epic of Gilgamesh
        • Gilgamesh the King
        • The Revenge of Ishtar
        • The Last Quest of Gilgamesh
  • Science
    • Discovery
      • Copper smelting
      • Bronze
      • Mineral springs
    • Invention
      • Irrigation
      • Scales
        • Build a scale
      • Wheeled vehicles
      • River boats
      • Writing
      • Cuneiform
      • Plough
      • Potter’s Wheel
  • Math
    • Cardinal and ordinal dates
    • Numerical system based on 6 and 12
  • Art
    • Brick temples

1 “Surely it cannot have happened overnight, it must have gradually evolved. Yet where was the missing link, where was the prototype? It seems plausible that writing started with a relatively small number of pictographs, which gradually increased in number, slowly changing into ideographs.” PREHISTORIC ACCOUNTING AND THE PROBLEM OF REPRESENTATION: ON RECENT ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE OF THE MIDDLE-EAST FROM 8000 B.C. TO 3000 B.C., p. 73. However, the article goes on to assert that the prototype was the various geometrical tokens that meant “sheep” or “jar of oil” or whatever, implying that there was no earlier “written” form of the language other than these tokens. Hm.

2 Visible Language Finder.png

Origin of Writing

Adventures in Time Calion Calion