Introduction to the World of Archontos
Introduction to the World of Arden Vul
The ruined city of Arden Vul, with its extensive dungeon complexes, exists in a world that has been shaped, for the past 3000 years or so, by a dominant human empire. That empire is known as the Archontean Empire after its capital city, shining Archontos. The empire has been in slow but steady decline for a millennium, even as a string of recent emperors have attempted to arrest that decline and restore the lost provinces of the empire. Arden Vul is located outside the current imperial borders, in a portion of the western continent that millennia ago was an integral province of the empire. As a former religious and sorcerous center of the old empire, it is a site of intense interest for imperial authorities, those interested in lost lore, and those looking for fortune.
I. Racial Groups:
1. Humans: humans dominate Magae (the Archontean word for ‘the earth’). Four primary cultural groups of humans may be discerned. Due to the centrality of Archontos, however, even non-Archonteans are likely to have some familiarity with the empire, its language, and its institutions.
a. Archonteans: properly the term refers to those from the great city of Archontos, capital of the empire and dominant center on the island of Mithruin, but it has come to refer to any citizen of the empire, regardless of where he/she resides. Archonteans are typically medium height (5’4” to 5’7”), with black or dark brown hair and slightly olive-colored skin. They are naturally arrogant when dealing with ‘barbarians’, even while deferring to the myriad social hierarchies that govern Archontean society. Archontean society is highly ordered, with a strong belief in the ‘city’ as the natural building block of civilization. While Archonteans do farm, the elites typically run their plantations from the nearest ‘civilized’ population. As a result of their urban focus, the Archonteans have been great builders, of towns and cities, bridges, aqueducts, roads, and fortifications.
b. Wiskinga (noun: Wiskin/Wiskinga; adjective: Wiskin) (formerly known as Skandiks)
Inhabitants of the islands of the north (called Borealios by the Archonteans), the Wiskinga are typically tall, blonde or red-haired, and fair-skinned. Their society is more tribal than that of the Archonteans, being based on small kinship groupings clustered around a chieftain’s hall. Wiskin society values physical skills and ability, and reiving is an ancient and well-respected tradition among young Wiskinga. It is also common for young Wiskinga to journey within the Archontean empire, seeking glory, adventure, and wealth before returning to the ancestral steading. Formally the Archonteans have claimed Borealios and the emperor has assigned a strategos (general) to pacify the region, but the reality is that Archontean authority is limited to a few small towns (e.g. Westholm).
c. Thorcinga (noun: Thorcin/Thorcinga; adjective Thorcin) (formerly known as Tharbrians)
The origin of these inhabitants of the western continent of Irthuin is opaque. Physically they range in size and coloring, a fact that outsiders use to claim that they are a hybrid people. Some Archontean sages, in fact, believe that the Thorcinga are the product of intermarriage by the ancient Archonteans abandoned on Irthuin when the empire pulled back to Archontos 1185 years ago. Whatever their origin, however, the Thorcinga have established their own distinctive culture. Although the Thorcinga did occupy the old Archontean cities and maintained them as trading depots, the Thorcinga prefer a rural life. A hereditary aristocracy (the thegns) holds title to most of the cultivated land and other rights of wealth; lesser folk living in villages or manors owe taxes (in kind) and service to their local thegn. Since the return of the Archonteans to Irthuin 350 years ago, and the re-establishment of imperial exarchates at Narsileon and Arcturos, many Thorcinga have chafed at the reappearance of imperial law and bureaucracy. A Thorcin Recovery League (TRL) has sprung up, led by a possibly mythical figure known only as Eadric Strigona, with the purpose of driving the Archonteans from Irthuin.
d. Khumus (formerly known as the Shen)
TheKhumus are a nomadic horse-people. They inhabit the far western side of Irthuin, and their Khor-ate is separated from the Thorcinga and Archonteans by the vast forests of central Irthuin. The Khumus are small (5’1” to 5’5”), swarthy, and typically expert riders and bowmen. They are only rarely encountered in the Archontean territories.
Elves are rare in the human-dominated areas of Magae. The largest and best-known elvish enclave is the realm of Lord Gallador, located deep within the central forests of Irthuin. Those elves that travel in human society frequently do so for highly specific, temporary reasons (searching for a specific object or piece of knowledge); on occasion they reside as advisors in the courts of human lords. Most humans have never seen an elf, and will treat elves with fear and caution. Other elven enclaves are rumored to exist, but few humans have been fortunate enough to locate them. Elvish society within an enclave is broadly collective, with younger elves associating themselves with seniors who have established reputations for great deeds, excellent craftsmanship, or particular wisdom. Among these heroes are Lady Ellagel, patroness of magic and sorcerous knowledge; Lord Del-Peldor, a patron of hidden lore, including songs, tales, and history; Lord Fablor the Strong, legendary smith and worker of precious metals; Lady Laellor the huntress, patron of the hunters’ lodge; and Lord Gallador himself, whose wisdom and prescience has afforded him loose overlordship over the realm.
Elves prize core balance in all things. Those elves who are able to blend their emotions, magical sensibilities, knowledge, and connections with nature are held as paragons. Elves are curious and inquisitive, but do not care to reveal themselves before strangers (and especially non-elves). Most elves pursue a highly specific intellectual interest, as well as a specific interest in magic of some sort, whether as a practitioner, theorist, or amateur. Elves are particularly attracted by wisdom, by knowledge, by beauty, and by magical lore.
Elves encountered outside of elven homelands tend to be either seekers or diplomats. Seekers are either on specific quests designed to bring knowledge or magic to their homeland or are attempting to find proper balance for themselves. Diplomats are those sent to advise, guide, and observe human leaders and cultures.
Dwarves appear cold, distant, and avaricious to humans. By nature they are clannish, wary of outsiders, and extremely vengeful, to the extent that they frequently seem xenophobic. Sarcastic jokes about ‘the generosity of dwarves’ are common in Archontos. Dwarves are reputed to be masters of metalworking and enchantment, as well as of stonecarving; still, as a rule they refuse to offer their goods for sale, so few are able to evaluate these claims. In keeping with their flinty, avaricious natures, dwarves are often teetotalers, as they fear that the effects of alcohol may render them open to being tricked or cheated. They prefer dour black clothes, sometimes embroidered with silver or gold thread. Some warrior clans favor beards, but most dwarvish craftsmen do not. Dwarvish society is two-tiered. The upper tier are composed of the established clans, most named after a type of rock or similar substance (e.g. Malachite); members of these clans are the elites, and enjoy special privileges within dwarven holds. It is said that members of a clan will go to any end to rescue a clansmen, or at least to recover his/her body and life-stone. The lower tier of dwarvish society is composed of the clan-less. Some of the clanless were born that way, others were exiled from their clans for misdeeds, while still others are survivors of clans that imploded or were eliminated in factional politics. The clanless do much of the mining and shaping, usually under the supervision of a dwarf from an established clan.
The empire only knows of two dwarven settlements, although its sages suspect that other holds exist on Irthuin and in the southern jungles. One known settlement is Durildor, or Deephold to humans; this small settlement is set in the mountains of MIthruin. The dwarves of Durildor are technically citizens of the Archontean Empire, although they are quite reclusive. It is said that ancient Emperors swore terrible oaths of support to persuade the dwarves to come to Archontea, and that the price of their arrival was near immunity from imperial rule and law. The other known settlement is Kazildor (Dwarfhome), a major hold lying beneath the mountains north and west of Narsileon. The dwarves of Kazildor have refused all requests on the part of the empire to exchange ambassadors, so little is known of Kazildor itself. Perhaps to fend off more such requests, the dwarves of Kazildor have recently established a small permanent embassy in Narsileon. In return for certain advice and smithy work, the exarch has allowed the dwarves to operate the their own trading factor in Narsileon, and has granted them certain monopolies.
Dwarves strongly prefer the company of other dwarves, and distrust the company and culture of humans (and other races). A dwarvish PC will come from Kazildor (Dwarfhome) and must supply a good reason why he/she is willing to be traveling in mixed company away from approved Dwarvish trading factors. Reasons may include exile, a quest, or espionage. Despite all this, dwarves can prove to be fiercely loyal to companions who earn their respect and gratitude.
Halflings are uncommon, and are largely found in segregated agricultural communities. Most Halflings known to the Empire live on the Grain Islands to the east of Archontea, where their agricultural prowess provides important food supplies to Archontos itself. These halfling communities are largely self-regulating, although they are under the loose supervision of the Imperial Strategos and his legion. Aside from occasional Wiskin raids, theirs is largely a quiet, peaceful existence, as they are largely content to grow their crops and tend their burrows. Local Halfling lore does not fully account for their existence on the Grain Islands, being content to distantly recall the Great Voyage on the Big Ships [Imperial records suggest that the Old Empire may have had a hand in transplanting them from elsewhere]. Halflings of the Grain Islands are generally conservative and slightly lazy, eschewing risks and adventure for the simple rural pleasures. A few bold sorts attach themselves to the staff of the Strategos and end up traveling ‘across the water’ to Archontos. These Halflings are seen as exotic and rustic, and they tend to suffer some general paternalistic patronizing from Imperial citizens. The Halflings of the Grain Islands also retain a myth of some ‘lost families’ of Halflings; where these families are is unknown to the Halflings (who generally don’t get too curious about the stories as long as they’re interesting). Imperial scholars believe that there are isolated Halfling communities on the western continent of Irthuin, however. These communities are significantly more adventurous than the Grain Island Halflings, and are considerably less complacent about the Empire and its expansion than their eastern cousins.
Halflings from the Grain Islands (even adventurers) tend to be cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and optimistic. Imperials consequently see them as naive at best or as child-like at worst. This reputation can be quite advantageous to the few Halflings who take up adventuring (particularly roguish) careers. Imperial officials will treat Halflings in a genial but patronizing way, and will assume them to be political naifs. Ordinary citizens of the Empire will treat Halflings as great curiosities, and will often approach them, pinch them, and ask them simplistic questions.
The humans of Archontos enslaved the goblins of Mithruin in antiquity and put them to work as miners and as laborers on the vast imperial latifundia of Mithruin. Millennia of servitude – but also of exposure to the ‘civilizing’ forces of the Archontean empire – have created a distinct racial subgroup. Even if they resemble ‘wild goblins’ (monsters) physically, these ‘imperial goblins’ are culturally distinct from their monstrous kin and thus look at wild goblins with disdain. Imperial goblins are short, long-armed, and bandy legged, with yellowish skin and, frequently, yellow eyes. They possess coarse and lank black hair (although freed goblins are known to fixate on unusual hair styles). They are comfortable wearing minimal clothing, but possess their own standards for fine dress (these include tall conical caps, colorful vests, and jodhpurs tucked into beautiful leather boots). They reach a maximum of 4’ 8" in height. Goblins are known for their wiry strength and tough constitutions.
Goblins have bright and sunny personalities on average. They are inquisitive, love trading and bargains, and embrace life with sang-froid. Of course many of them harbor resentment about their enslavement, but most hide these feelings or express them only to other Goblins in extremely rare and secretive Goblin-moots. Imperials stereotype Goblins as acquisitive and sharp traders; they are valued as estate/household managers. Given their servile origins and/or status, most Imperials treat Goblins – even freed ones – with disdain and casual racism. Goblins encountered outside of Mithruin are likely to be freed-goblins, that is, citizens of the empire freed from servitude at some point in the past (sometimes in the distant past). Although legally citizens of the empire, these freedgoblins are typically treated as second-class citizens by ordinary Archonteans; they are wise to carry manumission papers with them at all times. Despite this precarious social situation, some of the freedgoblins are extremely wealthy, having made much money in sharp trading. Indeed, goblins are welcome in some of the merchant Factors (see below) for their acumen. Note: imperial goblins use the mechanics of gnomes from the PH.
II. Human Institutions
1. The Emperor
The basileus, Constans XXV, rules the Archontean Empire from his palace in Archontos. Constans is 35 years old, with thinning black hair, piercing brown eyes, and a keen mind. He is titular head of a large clan of siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews, whose interests he is expected to further while simultaneously fending off their ambitions.
2. the Five Families
The five families are clans of upper aristocrats, whose members typically appear in the most important political, military, judicial, and financial roles in the empire. The families are these: the Basileon, the Krakteros, the Junienos, the Ligareon, and the Xenarcheon. Each of these ‘families’ is in truth a wide network of related (sometimes distantly) kinsmen, some of whom are wealthier and more politically prominent than others. Still, regardless of an individual’s personal wealth, membership in one of the Five Families is an incredibly valuable right. Each of the families operates a clan compound in major cities of the empire; while not all members reside in the compound (with the wealthiest preferring their own private estates), these compounds are a source of conviviality, emergency financial aid, and, if needed, security. The Five Families are in constant competition with each other for influence with the Emperor.
3. the Archontean army
The Archontean emperor maintains a standing army composed of five legions of heavy cavalry (cataphracts), six legions of heavy infantry (scutarii), and three legions of light infantry (velites). In addition, the emperor directly controls nine cohorts of the tagmata, or imperial guard. Each legion is supposed to have 1,000 men divided into 10 cohorts, with cohorts subdivided into kentarchia (40 men) and spatha (20 men). The tagmata are organized into 100-man cohorts (i.e., they have no legions).
4. The Imperial Bureaucracy
The imperial bureaucracy is divided into three main branches, the House of Coins, the House of Sight, and the Private House. Each branch is led by a thesmothete living in Archontos, who consults regularly with the basileus about decisions affecting the empire. In each imperial theme or exarchate, the local chief bureaucrat is a logothete, who administers a small army of chartularii, enforcers, guards, and so forth.
a. the House of Coins
Perhaps the most hated of the three branches of imperial government, the administrators of the House of Coins are responsible for all direct and indirect public taxation, and for operating one of the five imperial mints. In addition to being responsible for paying 10% of their annual income to the officials of the House of Coins, citizens are liable to a bevy of other taxes, including tolls, usage fees, extraordinary ‘aids’, and so forth. In Narsileon the current logothete of the House of Coins is Lord Alexandros Junienos.
The smallest of the three official branches of government, the House of Sight is concerned with the road system, with postal service, and with diplomacy. While formally a subsidiary office within the House of Sight, the Drome is in practice a separate bureau. In Narsileon, the current logothete of the House of Sight is Lord Rebecca Xenarcheon.
c. the Private House
The bureaucrats of the private house are responsible for administering all property and financial rights held directly by the imperial family. These duties include managing the emperor’s personal estates, collecting revenues due from tenants on those lands, ensuring that tolls and other exactions held directly by the emperor are paid promptly and in full, and so forth. Although its purview might seems the smallest of the three branches of government, the Private House is, in fact, the largest of the three branches, with numerous chartoularii serving in regional offices of the Private House all over the empire. In Narsileon, the current logothete of the Private House is Lord Georgios Hellakreon, called ‘Half-Hand’ for obscure reasons.
d. the Drome
Technically a bureau housed within the House of Sight, the Drome is the name of the imperial secret police. So important is the Drome that its facilities are usually distinct from – and much larger than – those of the House of Sight; indeed, regional dromes are led by logothetes, not chartularii. Special agents of the Drome are known colloquially as the Black Lotus, and are greatly feared. In Narsileon, the logothete of the drome is Keko the Lame, a cripple who has a quiet and engaging public demeanor but who is ruthless in the pursuit of imperial interests. Keko’s family name is unknown, a fact that causes much consternation among the Five Families.
5. the Seven Collegia
Almost all human magic-users are trained in one of seven collegia, or guilds, of magic. The exceptions are some rogue or renegade hedge-wizards, who are either self-taught or who received training from fugitives from the collegia. Until about 1300 years ago, the Order of Thoth was the only collegium in the empire, and it was dominated by the upper Archontean nobility. A group of young magic-users, led by Priscus Pulcher, led a drive to democratize magical training. The argued that it was better to bring in talented boys and girls from all strata of society than to lose the potential fruits of such training; they also argued for the admission of ‘barbarians’ (Wiskinga and Thorcinga) in the collegia. This sticking point was one of the causes of the infamous War of the Sortians and Theosophs (Sortians: younger magic-users; Theosophs: old-timers and members of the great temples), which ravaged the empire and eventually forced it into severe retraction. Too late, the old guard agreed to open up magical training, and six more collegia were created. But by that point the empire was in retreat, and Priscus Pulcher had had been slain.
a. Order of Thoth: the largest and most ancient of the collegia. Its reputation in the present is for training well-rounded generalists of every stripe. It has lost any aura of snobbery it might once have held.
b. College of Perception: focuses on training illusionists.
c. Order of the Fifth Circle: this collegium specializes in summoning magic, although magic-users of every sort can be trained here.
d. Imperial Academy: originally founded during the War of the Sortians and Theosophs as a home for the traditionalists who opposed democritization, the Imperial Academy retains an aura of snobbery and exclusivity. Its members come from the uppermost nobility, and graduates expect to take important posts in imperial administration.
e. New School of Arcane Might: although fully democratic in admitting students from all strata and regions, the New School is known for attracting and producing magic-users who revel in power and domination. Unsurprisingly, most necromancers come from this collegium.
f. Collegium of Macrina: one of the first of the ‘new’ collegia founded during the War of the Sortians and Theosophs (by Macrina, a famous if pacifistic Sortian), the Collegium of Macrina trains generalists and scholars. Along with the Order of Thoth, the Collegium of Macrina has produced the largest number of new spells over the years.
g. Collegium of Cinder: often dismissed by the other collegia as the home for ‘children who like to play with fire’, the Collegium of Cinder specializes in evocation and elemental magic. It is governed loosely by a council of mages known as ‘the Cold Fires.’
9. Imperial Justice
Justice is administered through the House of Coins, and cases are argued in front of the appropriate kritai, or judges. Four layers of justice exist.
a. High Justice: covers crimes against the Emperor and/or the State, including murder, arson, rape, criminal conspiracy, and any crime committed against a member of the imperial family. Imperial authorities initiate a case against the accused. Punishment usually involves fines followed by death.
b. Justice of the Body: these are offenses against the persons of imperial citizens, or against those granted official protection by the empire. Crimes covered by Justice of the Body include assault, insult, slander, wounding, and sexual assault (but not rape). Pleas are initiated by another citizen (the victim). Punishment ranges from fines to amputation to death.
c. Justice of the Household: these are crimes against the property of imperial citizens, and include burglary, theft, damages worth more than 50 gp to moveables; disputes concerning marriage, divorce, and/or inheritance; and disputes over ownership of property valued at 50 gp or more. Pleas are initiated by a citizen, who pays for a writ of summons against the accused. Punishments include fines, amputation, blinding, castration, or a combination thereof.
d. Low Justice: these are offenses against non-citizens as well as disputes over damages or ownership of good valued at less than 50 gp. Lesser courts here Low Justice cases on a monthly basis; it is incumbent on the aggrieved to arrive early and register for a hearing. Punishments vary considerably, from fines to death.
6. The Factors
These organizations are essentially guilds of merchants. By banding together and pooling their resources, the founders of the factors sought protection and greater economic impact. The following are the four largest, empire-wide factors. Each has factor Halls in every one of the major imperial cities. Typically a Factor Hall has a public ground floor in which members of the factor can arrange deals, buy and sell, etc.; upper floors are reserved for goods storage and the dwellings of the members. As a member of a factor, one is assured a safe house wherever one travels in the empire.
a. the Golden Band: the largest and oldest of the factors, the Golden Band is exclusive and rather picky about admitting new associates.
b. the Silent Factor: this factor believes in cloaking the identity of members, who wear heavy robes and silk face masks. Members communicate with non-members by hand-signs or through a small number of official ‘liaisons’ (hence the “Silent Factor”).
c. Prosperity Factor: a more recent organization.
d. Wisdom Factor: a more egalitarian organization.
7. the Knightly Orders
These groups are not necessarily ‘chivalrous’ in the typical sense of the word; in truth, they are basically private military forces.
a. the Black Legion: a well-organized and well-funded (by the Basileon clan) group of mercenaries
b. the Sacred Band: an order of paired lover-warriors. Some are male-male, some male-female, and some are female-female. It is widely thought that the Sacred Band houses the most fearsome warriors in the empire.
c. the Order of the Azure Shield: the most chivalrous of the three knightly orders, the members of the Azure Shield are organized into septs, whose stated mission it is to right wrongs on the outskirts of the empire.
8. the Benevolent Brotherhood
The empire-wide thieves guild. The Brotherhood is an open, public institution, with guild houses in all major towns and cities. Those needing the services of a thief can enter the guild hall and apply to have their contract fulfilled by one of the registered Brothers. The Brotherhood takes an extremely dim view of freelancers.
9. the Vengeance Factor
A semi-secret guild of assassins. Unlike the Benevolent Brotherhood, the Vengeance Factor does not operate fully in the open. Still, their existence is well known, and those with a need find their way to the Factor. Services are not cheap.
10. the Thirteen Themes
The Archontean empire is currently divided into thirteen administrative themes. Some of the themes are ancient, while others are of more recent creation. Indeed, it is not uncommon for an emperor to declare a new theme when trouble brews in some corner of the empire; such a declaration allows him to appoint a military governor (strategos) whose extensive judicial and financial powers will hopefully allow him/her to solve the local problem(s). On Mirthuin, there are six themes: the urban theme of Archontos itself (governed by an eparch), plus three agricultural themes governed by archons and two mountain themes governed by strategoi. On Irthuin there are only two themes, the special exarchates of Narsileon and Arcturos. A ninth theme is the agricultural theme encompassing the grain islands (governed by an exarch). The final four themes are all military themes governed by strategoi: one covers the sea around Borealios, one the sea towards Ostralios, one the sea around Mithruin, and the last the islands of Borealios.
III. Titles and Hierarchies
Sebastos: formal head of one of the Five Families
Exarch: governor of a province extended from the imperial city
Eparch: prefect or governor of the city of Archontos
Archon: either governor of one of the seven urban districts of Archontos, or sole governor of a smaller city/town
Strategos: governor of a theme (unless that theme is governed by an exarch)
Thesmothete: senior administrator, particularly as chief assistant to an archon
Protonotarios: civilian chief administrator within a military theme
Logothete: financial administrator under an archon or exarch
Chartoularios: ubiquitous middle- and low-level administrators, reporting to a logothete
Proedros: mid-level administrator charged with logistics; under an archon
Krites (pl. kritai): judge
Domestikos: commander of an army
Strategos: 1) governor of a military theme; commander of all navies; 3) generic word for general
Taxiarch: brigadier, assistant to strategos
Novarchos: captain of a naval vessel
Polemarchos: commander of a legion
IV. Geographic Areas
Magae: ‘the earth’
Mithruin: island in Wine-Dark Sea, location of Archontos
Irthuin: continent to the west of Mithruin, location of Narsileon, Arcturos, Arden Vul, Thorcinga
Borealios: archipelago in the north, home of Wiskinga, location of Westholm, Freya’s Landing, and Skallasholm
The Grain Islands: agricultural islands to the east of Mithruin, home of halflings, location of Ostentown
Wine-Dark Sea: central ocean
Ostralios: continent to the south of Mithruin, jungle-ridden, former home of Ophidians
Kazildor: subterranean realm of the dwarves, located in northern mountains of Irthuin
Realm of Gallador: hidden enclave of elves, located in central forests of Irthuin
V. Cities and Towns
Archontos: 95,000 persons, seat of empire, on Mithruin
Narsileon: 40,000 persons, site of imperial exarchate on Irthuin
Arcturos: 30,000 persons, site of imperial exarchate on Irthuin
Newmarket: 4,000 persons, newly founded town in exarchate of Narsileon
Upford: 2,000 persons, small town in exarchate of Narsileon
Epirenus: 6,000 persons, town in exarchate of Arcturos
Terchester: 4,200 persons, town in exarchate of Arcturos
Westholm: 2,500 persons, largest town in Borealios
Ostentown: 3,750 persons, main town on the Grain Islands