Sunday, February 9, 2020

Urzya Powderkeg 1 - Dreaming of Urzya

One of the first fantasy worlds to really make an imprint on my imagination was Magic: the Gathering's Ice Age setting. I love the frozen landscape, the taiga and tundra and glaciers and ice. I love the image of medieval redoubts holding on to the last vestiges of civilization against the unceasing winter night. That's probably why B/X Blackrazor's Land of Ice is one of my all-time favorite unpublished campaign settings.

I remember playing out in the snow with my sister, imagining a world so cold that magic sometimes froze when you cast it, and the land was littered with ice crystals containing frozen spells. (In retrospect, that part sounds a bit like unexploded ordinance leftover on a battlefield, which is actually consistent with Ice Age's status as a kind of nuclear winter following an apocalyptic mages' war.)

I remember dreaming once of a frozen land, where the royal court was ruled by psychic vampires, who could read minds and drink souls, where among the outcasts dwelt warmth vampires, who craved the heat of another's touch and could never, never drink in enough. (The lords in my dream wore armor like Babylon 5's Vorlons. The outcasts went naked in the wastes, but wrapped shivering in furs within any settlement; it was only HUMAN warmth they longed for.)

source: Zero Wing
So when Jack from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque published Dirge of Urazya, detailing a postapocalyptic fantasy Eurasia ruled over by a decadent and collapsing feudal hierarchy of vampires, the setting he described managed to touch on a very formative bit of my own personal fantasy mythos.

Jack also manages something that Eberron tries, and, in my opinion, fails at, which is to make historical conflicts between monster factions matter to the present day of his setting. Eberron has something like 40 thousand years of recorded history that takes place before the player characters show up and get to interact with anything. All the events of that history are really samey and easy to conflate, and they're also all just backstory with no particular relevance to the gameworld the players are interacting with. You could maybe argue that all that long history is intended to help gamemasters pick appropriate set dressing and treasures for the ancient ruins the player characters might explore, but it's presented in a way that does nothing to facilitate that goal.

In contrast, in Jack's campaign set-up for Saltmire, the waning vampire lords have two groups of unruly vassals who are jockeying for ascendance, and both are derived or descended from dragons. This in turn implies some prior conflict between vampires and dragons that the vampires won, but the war itself is never even mentioned, the focus is entirely on the present-day conflict. (Jack Vance did something similar in The Dragon Masters, with humans and aliens each breeding captured members of the other species to create fantasy monsters. Unfortunately it's one of Vance's weaker books; the idea is much better than his execution of it.)

Trey of From the Sorcerer's Skull has some really good advice for making setting history matter in your game. One of the key points for our purposes here is that history is useful when it helps define the parameters and scope of the present-day adventure.

Dirge of Urazya itself is much less a setting than an invitation to the reader to create their own setting, within certain parameters, and Jack's recent post about making a powder keg is another invitation, with Saltmire as an example "powder keg" campaign set-up along an unnamed piece of Urazyan coastline. (I don't know why, but I assume either the Black Sea or Caspian Sea.)

To make a grotesque and/or dungeonesque powder keg you need six ingredients:
  • two ambitious noble houses with a bitter rivalry
  • a fading imperial power that nominally holds the nobles in check
  • a trading company or corporation wants to expand from economic to political power
  • a religious sect whose members are more loyal to it than to any other authority
  • a foreign barbarians who exist outside the society the other factions belong to 
  • and finally, some scarce resource that all five factions are competing to control
Ideally, the scarce resource should be something the players want for their characters as well. That gives them maximum incentive to get their hands dirty and join the competition. As Brendan from Necropraxis advises, let the players decide who their enemies are. (Although they could, I suppose, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, simply play each against all with the goal of creating maximum chaos.)

source: Babylon 5
Jack has successfully inspired me to make a powder keg campaign start of my own. I'll create an outline here, and add details in future posts. For now, I'll focus on the key elements. Names for things are a detail to be added later. (Also, since this is my own little thought experiment, and since I initially misread the title of Jack's zine, I'm going to be spelling it as "Ur-zya" rather than as "Ur-a-zya".)

Location: An isolated town in the far north of Urzya, possibly in what used to be Siberia. Based on details from the factions, it looks like the town was once some sort of vacation or resort spot, that it houses either a biological weapons laboratory or a biological waste dump site, and that it has a railroad running through it.

Imperial Power: An ailing vampire tsarina. She has a loyal court of aging suitors and their household knights, and the town has a sizable population of disinherited dhampirs. The tsarina holds court in a former grand hotel. She badly wants an heir, ie, a young person she can perform either brain transplant surgery or a psychic personality transfer on.

Noble House: The first noble house are dragonborns. Sorry Jack, I'm shamelessly stealing your idea here. The dragonborn were bred by the vampires either to fight their war against the dragons or as some kind of symbol of victory after the war ended. These days they're the more established noble house. I bet they love the petroleum spas in the town's old resorts. I'm not sure what they want besides knocking off the competition, but that's another detail that can come later.

Noble House: Stealing from Jack again, my second noble house is made up of dragonmarked humans. Their dark and gritty origin story also involves being bred as enslaved soldiers by the vampire elites long ago, and let's suppose that they're the more up-and-coming of the two houses. I'll need to look up what the different dragonmarks do to pick out the right one for these nobles. I do remember that dragonmarks come in different sizes, and the larger ones are more powerful.

So one thing they want is to find a child with the correct aberrant dragonmark to become their new leader. Probably the current leader wants to kill the kid, someone else wants her on the throne so they can be regent for a decade or so, and, I don't know, maybe there are revolutionaries who want her as a figurehead atop a democratic government. Three sects within the same faction feels like too many, so ideally I'll narrow that list down to two going forward.

Trading Company: I think that something like the Trans-Siberian Railroad ought to run through this town. Probably no one controls its entire length anymore, or at best there's a very fragile syndicate made up of dozens of local franchises who control the tracks in their turf. (Or maybe there IS a single company that runs the whole thing, and THAT level of control and ownership makes them one of the most politically powerful forces in Urzya?)

Anyway, there's a local company operating out of the old railroad station, and they control passage into and out of town on the only mode of transportation that will reliably get you to another bastion of civilization alive. In addition to controlling the food supply, they're probably also arms dealers selling to both the noble houses, amplifying the risk of conflict. I bet the foreign barbarians have been causing them trouble lately. What do they want that they don't already have? Good question! It'll have to wait until a future post for the answer though.

Religious Sect: My favorite Urzyan religion so far is Our Lady of the Drowned, but I don't think she's the right fit for this town. Instead, I want to use the followers of the Five Headed Empress. Tiamat was a literal weapon of mass destruction in Urzya's past. Let's say that she was defeated at the end of the war and her cult was outlawed.

There's presumably a mainstream dragon-worshiping religion that manages to fill the churches in a town with two different dragon-descended noble houses. In that case, the cultists are like followers of the left-hand path of dragon religion, hoarding banned books and forbidden scriptures, meeting in secret to worship a figure who acknowledged but despised by the dragon church's orthodoxy.

Tiamat was a biological weapon, so let's suppose the cultists are either searching for samples and research notes from her original creation or remnants of her that were buried as waste. They're probably risking touching off a plague by accident. Let's also suppose that they really want to find either a human vessel who can reincarnate Tiamat's spirit, or some way to raise her up in her entirety as an undead (or reborn) dragon goddess.

Foreign Barbarians: What kind of creatures live in the frozen wastes outside of town? Well let's start with some sort of feral life-drinking vampire type. The name "breath-stealer" has a nice ring to it. Let's also have some living spells out prowling amid the snowdrifts. These aren't a coherent faction yet so maybe some sort of winter elves would fit in here? I'm also not sure what they want, other than to raze the city and kill everyone in it. They sound scary though!

Scarce Resource: My first instinct is to say "enough food to last the winter," but that seems really depressing, even for a grimdark crapsack like Urzya.

A thought occurs to me that each faction might be searching for a specific young person - a vampiric heir, the bearer of an aberrant dragonmark, Tiamat Reborn. Perhaps, like in Dune, each faction's messiah is the same person? Each faction might racing the others to find the girl before anyone else, and place her on their preferred throne. The town's other children could probably also use a champion to protect them from being kidnapped by the various factions. (Wait, IS this actually any less depressing than the grain idea? I guess "town where children are disappearing" is time-honored plot element, often in stories intended for children, although it seems awfully creepy. But would this work for a game, or is this the kind of idea that works for book, but wouldn't be any fun to play?)

This part might require more consideration. If there's not any one single thing all the factions want, then there should at least be a couple desired objects with overlapping interest groups.

source: me


  1. This is amazing:

    >I remember playing out in the snow with my sister, imagining a world so cold that magic sometimes froze when you cast it, and the land was littered with ice crystals containing frozen spells. (In retrospect, that part sounds a bit like unexploded ordinance leftover on a battlefield, which is actually consistent with Ice Age's status as a kind of nuclear winter following an apocalyptic mages' war.)

    And it gets better from there.