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Basic Information

A cairn is a pile of unmortared stone, used as a marker of various kinds by a variety of cultures.

The most basic type is used as a route marker, especially in mountains and other remote places - a series of cairns within visual range of one another will indicate a safe and convenient route in an area which is too sparsely travelled for a path to be beaten across it. Some cultures also used their cairns as lane markers, showing the edges of a route to a game jump.

Some expeditions have been known to use cairns as supply caches - these serve both as way makers, and to stop the local wildlife from messing in the supplies. Sometimes. For obvious reasons, they are unlikely to be much protection against pilfering humans, but if you are deep in the wilderness, that may not be a problem.

Cairns can also serve as grave markers - the deceased is either buried inside the cairn or underneath it and the stones piled around and/or above them, possibly as a sign of respect (if each mourner brings a stone, the bigger the cairn the better), possibly to keep them in their grave (if undead are a feature of their culture) or, more prosaically, to keep scavenging animals from digging the corpse up and eating it.

In some places, a cairn may also serve as a shrine or marker of a sacred place to local spirits.

Depending on its role, source culture and environment, a cairn may be a fairly complicated piece of drystone engineering, or just a conical or semi-conical pile of rocks.

Most cairn using cultures also include the tradition of putting a stone onto every cairn you pass - besides any supernatural benefits, this has the eminently practical effect of ensuring that passers by maintain the integrity of the cairn to some degree, especially if it is serving as a route marker. This could mean that an ancient cairn in a rocky areas is very large indeed.

Some cultures also attach other decorations to cairns, especially those of spiritual significance - such things such as prayer flags, ribbons, streamers or painted stones are have all seen use.



Game and Story Use

  • Combined with execution by pressing, the "inhabitant" of a burial cairn might not have been dead when the cairn went up.
    • Where undead are an issue, they may still not be entirely dead but remain extremely annoyed.
  • Cairn robbing might yield treasure if it was built as a burial mound.
    • Or just mean that you're vandalising local way-markers.
    • Or antagonising the spirits of the area.
  • Moving way-cairns around might be the sort of potentially lethal practical joke that the (normally unseelie) fae might get up to.
  • Navigating from cairn to cairn is all very well until the fog lands on you … then you start to realise that it's really no substitute for being able to use a compass.
  • Cairns are sometimes home to all sorts of small animals - things like rabbit, cuy and hyrax might all make their home in one and be available for food use … as might less appetising things like snakes and scorpions.
  • A given culture might well have a tradition of keeping emergency stores in cairns - sort of like the wilderness hut meme where users are free to avail themselves of its amenities, but are expected to leave the place as close as possible to how they found it or better.
  • Room for culture clash between the "cairn is a tomb", "cairn is a roadsign" and "cairn is a supply cache" cultures.
    • Someone used to thinking of cairns as a supply cache might accidentally desecrate an important grave, especially if food offerings are routinely left there.
    • Someone used to thinking of them as roadsigns might end up wandering around between supply sites or graves.
    • Someone used to thinking of them as graves might stray from the path or miss an opportunity to resupply.
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