Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Urzya Powder Keg 2 - Boltinka Nakogard

Boltinka Nakogard is a city in the heart of the Northern Devastation Zone, far from the Capital, beyond the frontier of the Borderlands, a city of perpetual winter huddling alone in Urzya's frozen wastes.

The city is home to two great households, both alike in dignity, both ancestors of the Dragon. The great houses were once vassals to a vampire queen, but the Noble is aged and ailing, and her authority has failed. Now the two houses' enmity flirts with open warfare, and each house dreams of a new era, and a new heir to the Dragon to rule over all.

Boltinka Nakogard is a city of migrants. Miners come to dig for prism-stones. Treasure seekers search for crystals that can imprison the living magic of the wastes. The work is dangerous and the workers desperate, and the wind at night howls in mourning for the dead.

This is a city, too, of missing children. At first few, now many. At first only orphans, now more and more migrant children have disappeared.

Boltinka Nakogard is a city about to explode.

The Forbidden Lovers and the Lost Child

Tension between the two great houses has been high for sometime, but the current state of open vendetta began with the elopement of a pair of young lovers, one from each house. The two youths hid in the slums while their families went to war over the disappearance. Each side blamed the other, alleging abduction, seduction, and worse. When the pair were finally found, each spouse was executed by their own household for their treason, but the war between the houses hasn't dimmed, it's flames fan ever brighter.

Rumor has it that the lovers bore a child who was spirited away by an accomplice right before the pair were captured. Due to complicated legal and genealogical reasoning, most people believe that the child, if found, would be the rightful ruler of both houses. The public assumes each house wants to raise the child so that she will grow up loyal to them and bring their rivals to heel. If this story is true, the lost child was the first of Boltinka Nakogard's child disappearances. (I've intentionally left the timeframe a little vague here. If the child is an infant, she has no real agency of her own; if she's a teenager she becomes more of a full-fledged NPC.)

Imprisoning Spells

The reason for Boltinka Nakogard's existence is the presence of living spells howling amid the winds of the northern wastes. These spells can be imprisoned, and gemstones containing a bound spell at their hearts are a valuable treasure and invaluable tool of war for the vampire Nobles.

In generations past, the czarina and her army ruled the city absolutely. Her dragonborn vassals harvested the perfect prism-stones from the mine; her dragonmarked servants cut these stones into the ideal gem-prisons for trapping living spells. As she's weakened, her grip has loosened, and with the two houses unwilling to cooperate, the industry has all but ceased. The dragonmarked have no reliable source for stones; the dragonborn no especial skill for cutting them.

The price of even a single bound spell is enough to attract migrant workers. They forage for uncut stones along the edges of dragonborn territory, they make the simplest of cuts by copying the dragonmarked's discards. They scour the wastes looking for gems left by previous migrants and pray to find one already imprisoning a spell. But try searching a snowblind field for buried stones! Try distinguishing a prism-stone from a simple rock or shard of ice! Migrants have lost limbs from the frost and their lives to exposure. And the cold is less deadly than the living spells.

Leave an uncut gem with the correct prismatic dimensions to sit in the snow of the northern wastes, and rarely, so very rarely, a living spell will crawl inside to make its lair there. You can increase your chances with a properly cut gem-prison. You can increase your chances more by fighting the spell until it is defeated, until it is at the brink of disappearing. Then it might retreat inside the stone. Or it might slip away on the wind. Teams and pairs used to work the snow fields together, the dragonborn fighting the spells with their magic breath, the dragonmarked using their skill to bind the spells to the stones. The migrants almost always work alone, each seeking their own fortune, few willing to share the ultimate prize with their neighbors.

The railway company brings the migrants in to work. The railway company traps them in Boltinka Nakogard with exit tickets too expensive to afford.

If any one faction in town could assert authority or control over the others, production could resume, and great fortunes could be made. Increasingly, the thought is heard, once whispered, now sometimes spoken or shouted aloud, that if the rivals cannot be quelled then they should simply be killed, and let control go to the survivors. This is a thought that would drown the city in blood.

The Child Disappearances

No one but the criminals themselves knows who is behind the child disappearances. At first it was orphans who vanished. Then migrant children with living parents. Recently, Boltinka natives have gone to their children's rooms in the morning and found them missing. Recently even the children of the great houses and the railway company aren't safe.

Why are the children disappearing? The rumors are many, and seem to conflict. 
Some say the czarina is searching for an heir to take over her throne.
Some say the dragonborn and dragonmarked are looking for the lost child.
Some say a cult within the church is looking for a dragon goddess reborn.
Some say the railway company is simply sending the children away on night trains - but back to safety or onward to greater servitude?
Some say desperate gangs are working the children on the snow fields at night, using them to attract living spells.
Some say ruthless traffickers are serving any or all of the above, kidnapping children to sell to whoever actually wants them.

Any or all of these seem possible. Opinions about the fate of the children are a popular topic of argument. To be partisan in defense of one's chosen rumor has become a way to cope with one's inability to prevent the disappearances.

The Districts

Grand Hotel Vanna - An opulent palace, the crown jewel of an earlier era. The vampire czarina's estate. She hold court in the building and her knights still control the grounds. Her authority outside this district is limited.

Government District - City hall, courthouse, aldermens' house, home to the czarina's disinherited dhampirs. Ostensibly the seat of city government, but largely ignored.

Spa District - Bathhouses, clinics, and resorts, all controlled by the dragonborn house. Bred for warmer climes, they love petroleum spas.

Industrial Quarter - The gem-prison mine, several petroleum wells, abandoned manufacturies. Nominally controlled by the dragonborn but mostly fallow. Migrants sometimes sneak onsite to search for prism-stones.

Financial District - Banks, jewelry stores, the mercantile exchange, home to the dragonmarked house. They're more ambitious than the dragonborn, not content with the Nakogard's current decadent state, and seek allies among the dhampirs and the railway executives.

City Center - Home to most Boltinka natives. Members of the great houses who choose to live here have only tenuous relationship with their family's seat of power.

Slums - Home to most migrants, especially the widows and orphans of slain treasure seekers. Overcrowded, vulnerable to disease, and the site of most child disappearances. The migrants, formerly disorganized, increasingly look to each other for assistance and support.

Propiska Railway Station - Company headquarters the railway. The upstairs of old railway hotel is home to the executives, the downstairs has been converted into barracks to house their security guards. The best organized and most efficient business in Boltinka.

Orthodox Cathedral - The seat of ancestral Dragon worship, segregated internally between the dragonborn and dragonmarked seating areas. Recognized as sanctuary and neutral territory, the elders of the great houses conduct sensitive business here.

Research Hospital - An abandoned university campus, centered around the hospital, fenced off and quarantined from the city. Regarded as poisonous and unclean, home to a small population of mutants and other exiles, each living in near solitude. Recently taken over by the Daughters of Tiamat, a cult determined to resurrect the Dragon Goddess, they could unleash toxic horror by accident. The townfolk have barely begun to notice that something is amiss.

Adventurers in Boltinka Nakogard

My instinct is to say that the role for player characters at the start of the campaign should be to arrive in town as vagabond spell-hunters, then become increasingly entangled in affairs and intrigue. Every native they talk to will want to gossip about the Lost Child, the child disappearances, the faction conflicts, etc. One side or another could try to hire them to commit plausibly-deniable odd jobs. There are plenty of mysteries and perils to get inveigled in.

And as they make their fortune, they'll begin to realize, for individual miners, there's good money to be made selling imprisoned living spells to various faction elders to add to their stockpile of munitions ... but for the city as a whole, there's much better money to be made restarting the mass export of the gem-prisons to the Vampire Nobles in the far off Capital.

If the players want their characters to be natives, they could play more-or-less the same game by creating a mixed-faction coalition of townspeople, representing the Nakogard's middle class, rather than the migrant underclass like the original scenario. Being embedded in the town's factions and conflicts from the very start might give this game a greater sense of urgency. Start the game with the discovery of the Lost Child, and you're off the races from the moment the starting gun fires.

A final option would be for the players to agree to all belong to the same faction, and to mercenarily advance their faction's agenda at the expense of all the others.


  1. Amazing setting. Great set up. Very Shakespearian with a rather eerie/creepy twist. It is the sort of setting I think outsiders would work very well in.

    1. Thanks, Alistair! The allusions to Romeo & Juliet are deliberate, I'm glad that they came through a bit.

      Adventurers as outsiders would certainly be my preference for running this.

    2. Part of me thinks this could be in the loosely defined ‘frozen north’ in my roughly sketched out version of Bastionland. Another part though remembers a mix of SF and fantasy in some books I read long ago, and I could possibly drop some Traveller characters here. It is a very intriguing setting idea, that is for sure.

    3. I think there are a lot of options for the kinds of characters you introduce into this place.

      Hard scifi Traveller astronauts arriving on this science fantasy planet might be kind of cool!

  2. How does the city sustain its basic needs in a perpetual winter? Do they have a greenhouse-agriculture setup, or does all their food have to be imported from elsewhere?

    1. To my knowledge, every city everywhere is dependent on imported food, since they have high populations and low areas of arable land inside the city limits.

      Here, I assume that one thing the railway company is bringing in is railcars filled with food.