Friday, August 21, 2020

The Trophy City

The Caliphs of Noual know how to maintain a cultural myth. A couple days' travel downriver from a range of ancient mountains is Zheijaali, the Trophy City. Whenever the imperial army wins a war-- as it always does-- it seizes artisans, epics, tapestries, nobilities, and idols and hauls all of them to the city, a monument to the appropriate of wonders and artifacts from people deemed lesser.

A party of PCs may arrive in Zheijaali for a variety of reasons, but they should be foreigners. This scenario features only one magical item, but it's very powerful and has the ability to greatly shift ongoing games.

Potential Hooks:

  1. Sent by an oathkeeper of Mesomergos to recover the Tarnhelm, an important cultural artifact lost 20 years ago. (recommended)
  2. Enticed by a letter from a mountain partisan offering magical powers in exchange for help
  3. The promise of well-paying service in the Zheijaali expeditionary force.
  4. Hired to to steal a cultural artifact.
art by Benedick Bana

The Journey

Assuming the party is approaching the trophy city from Mesomergos, they will have to depart east down the river at Lischon. The long journey might be mostly uneventful-- those accustomed to the cursed chaos of Mesomergos will notice Noual is stable. Feel free to throw in as many encounters and diversions as you wish, but try to establish a tone that this empire is more "settled" than Mesomergos.

After travelling eight days on the river, they will come to the city of Fisochwei. This first city is a good place to introduce them to the norms and mores of Noual. The people here speak Tengor, and generally spurn the learning of other languages. Mesomergan currency is not accepted, but you can trade it in at exchanges for a fee. This conversion is one-way. Finally, while the worship of both Noryawes and Fisochol are accepted in Mesomergos, the split between the two is the utmost partisan issue of Noual. Each city has a policy for which is enshrined and which is repressed. 

The next major location on the way to Zheijaali is Soyang the Gate. This is a city on the coast of a great sea, boasting a great lighthouse and fortified seafront. If the party are Mesomergos natives, this will be the first time they will have seen the ocean. The aristocracy of Soyang will take a polite interest in the party if it is known that they have any status in Mesomergos. It is likely a well-off aristocrat will invite them to stay in their villa.
art by Benedick Bana

It is likely this is where the villain of our piece will first learn of the party's presence. This is a person who wears many identities, but for the sake of brevity we shall call him Wu. This is the individual who possess the amazingly powerful Tarnhelm, allowing him to change shape and become invisible. Read more about him in the section Wu the Bandit below. His default plan to take advantage of irregulars heading to the Trophy City is to gain their trust. He will frame them for the murder of their aristocrat host, then come to them as a female barrister named Tharmas. She will then share her suspicion that a rival aristocrat, Lord Zaldo, killed their host and framed them, confidant that if challenged he would succeed in a trial. (Soyang follows the Brynthic principle of justice, using trials by combat, modulated based on various factors).

Tharmas offers the party two forms of help. She can either advocate for them at court to have them merely exiled, or help them file a challenge against Zaldo. In truth, Zaldo is a cruel but innocent man, likely to pose a challenge to even a strong fighter. Tharmas is hoping either to indebt the party to her or to eliminate a rival.

If the party asks after her motives or if they are able to leave Soyang, she will tell them she has a friend outside Zheijan and suggest they find him. Giving the party a small charm in the shape of an owlbear, she says that it is a symbol that will win them the aid of her friend, Wu the Bandit. She will then leave the city, turn into a feathered serpent, and fly to Zheijaali before they arrive.

The last city they encounter before the Trophy City is called Agarabara, at the mouth of the Tan River that leads to Zheijaali. Maybe give the players a bit of a break here? Like the real power behind the throne is the heaps and heaps of cats found throughout the city, or the sultan wants them to listen to his story before they go, or competing restaurants vie for the endorsement of travelers.

art by Benedick Bana

In Zheijaali

The city is built to inspire awe in foreigners, with decadent facades and endless plazas displaying idols of conquered people. All of this orbits one long mall. If one of the city's bureaucracy learns of the PCs, they will send along wine and small gifts in the queen's name.

d6 rumors
  1. Wu the bandit hides in a cave that cannot be found, save by those who know where it is.
  2. The mountain people have a magic spring whose water can brainwash you-- that's why some disloyal officials want to call off expeditions to pacify the mountains.
  3. With all the idols in the city, the sin of bestiality will provoke immediate divine punishment and you'll be turned into an animal yourself.
  4. The queen of Zheijaali is a bastard of the last caliph and distrusted by the current caliph.
  5. Swear in front of a tourist, and the soldiers will pick you up and take you to the palace.
  6. The expeditionary force is having discipline problems they're covering up-- wantonness, havoc, and disorder.
d6 random NPCs who speak Meso
  1. Yanoi, a eulogy expat from the wastelands north of Uzay. Bemused by the pageantry of the city.
  2. Ahgan, an archaeologist uncomfortable with the city's approach to history.
  3. Vilas, leader of a street gang that would be cracked down on if they ever targeted tourists.
  4. Atim, a sheltered noble who yearns for adventure.
  5. Im, a dreamer with a ferocious dignity and no concept of the world beyond military politics.
  6. Faulee, who was trapped in the body of a peacock and is not having it.
art by Benedick Bana

The Queen

Queen Zetian Afaf is politically, not personally powerful. For the most part, have her presence felt from on-screen. She is keen to use outsiders for her own ends-- apprehending Wu and oppressing the Mountain People. The leader of her expeditionary force, Captain Buku, is on board with all of this, and secretly suspects she wishes to secede from the empire at some point. Buku is kind of all about this.

art by Benedick Bana

Wu the Bandit

Wu the Bandit, it is said, performed a mystic ritual to make his body impenetrable to all weapons. He is seven feet tall, oiled, and covered spiked armor, since now all he has to fear are dogs. (Remember, he can secretly change shape and turn invisible. Essentially, a huge problem to deal with.) He claims to be the tutor of the queen's stepbrother, a young man named  Boufu, carrying on his banditry to restore justice to the throne. In truth, he is Boufu's mother and wishes to control Zheijaali himself. His bandit crew consists of about 30 mortals including Abjad, the treasurer, and Jafara, their wizard.

His current plan is to convince the mountain people to give him knowledge of the Animating Name, turn all the stolen idols of the city into vengeful golems, then seize power amidst the chaos.

art by Benedick Bana

The Mountain People

A society outside of the Trophy City, no less complicated or advanced, but difficult to integrate into the Imperial Way, and dedicated to its own customs. The local leader is Qedar Sheik, a eulogy respected for his judgement and respect for tradition. He is very old, and has shaking palsy (Parkinson's). He knows the animating name but will not share with untrustworthy people like Wu. His student, Nisba, can translate for the party.

Nisba belongs to a partisan movement among the younger Mountain People, that advocates for a more direct response to the predations of the expeditionary force. They know they cannot overpower Zheijaali, and do not love violence, but believe that freedom for the mountain won't be won on the mountain-- it will be won in the mall of the Trophy City.

art by Benedick Bana

Things Proceed

If Wu is somehow killed, the queen will offer either a hefty reward, officership, or a favor for those responsible. Eventually the mountain people will be pushed back to a final redoubt, then commence a battle that will kill and scar many, effectively wiping out the cultural memory of those people. If PCs are part of the expeditionary force, this battle would be a fitting end to the adventure in the Trophy City, though not a triumphant one.

If Wu can use the Animating Name to create idol golems, they will tear apart the city before scattering to return to their nations of origin. Unless the PCs stop her, the queen will escape to Agarabara and request a relief army from the caliph. In either case, Wu will likely manage to install Boufu as king.

If PCs continue looking for the Tarnhelm or inquire too much into his identity and intentions, Wu will try to dispose of them. He will tip them off to a potential source of information for whatever they're looking for-- the Proscribed Oasis, in the middle of a desert a month's travel away from the Trophy City. He will provision them and send them along with four porters, secretly instructing the porters to steal the provisions and leave them in the desert in the middle of the night.

The desert is old, and occasionally the bleached bones of giants can be seen. The porters will leave the party halfway between the start of the desert and the oasis, which is a silent convent dedicated to raising children to speak the antediluvian language whom all people speak who are never taught a language of earth.

Defeating Wu is very difficult, due to his miraculous abilities. He wears the Tarnhelm at all times, changing its shape when he needs to. If it is removed Wu will return to his original form, resembling that of Tharmad, but with massive sores that will soon kill him.

The Tarnhelm is one of the three dolorous regalia, which when brought together are said to be able to bring peace to Mesomergos. Another one, the Rat-Year Guan, is said to belong to the oathkeeper of Lione. The last, Mimung, was said to be taken to Fianyu, west of Mesomergos. Rumors say it found its way into the hands of a noble interested in magical curiosities, including his immortal wife, the Box of Gavrok, and a book describing expeditions into the "Gardens of Ynn," which he has grown more and more interested in.

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