Saturday, July 31, 2010

Western Baronies: Imperial Culture

IMPERIAL CULTURE

The Empire of Marikuhl is a despotic imperialist aristocracy, corrupted by the acquisition of too much power too quickly without the application of restraint or mercy. Recent years have twisted the empire even further, sharply dividing the nation’s interests between the demands of the nobility and the necessities of the economy. Still, at its heart, the empire was founded on a principle of freedom from distant masters and loyalty to the emperor. These concerns are still in the hearts of the average person as well as many nobles.

The primary facet of culture and daily life in the empire is obedience to the emperor, and by proxy to his immediate servants, the noble class. This obedience is shown by the common folk primarily by leading lives of quiet anonymity. Nobles have much more expected from them, and are consequently granted both broader powers over commoners and greater responsibilities to their superiors. The emperor himself is seen as both the most powerful individual in the empire, and the one with the greatest responsibility to its safety and continuance.

No one in the empire truly owns property, save the emperor himself. All land is owned by the emperor personally, and noble families pay taxes to the imperial treasury for the right to develop the land granted to them. Only a handful of times throughout history have a major noble family failed to pay taxes, and each time tragedy resulted. These ownership laws are enforced by the loyalty of the people to their ruler, as well as by virtue of the emperor having the largest standing army in the empire. Noble families other than the emperor’s are restricted on the size of their military forces, but the emperor’s legions are staffed with soldiers drawn from all across the empire.

Most commoners live lives of little note, usually as laborers, farmers, or other types of unskilled work, living on property allowed to them by their noble masters and paying rent for the privilege. Some are given the opportunity to serve in the Marikuhlian military as grunts and cannon fodder, called conscripti, positions that actually hold some level of respect and accomplishment for the common folk. Career soldiers often come from family lines of the same, and many conscripti are as skilled at the arts of war as any noble. Conscripti from long lines with distinguished records are sometimes adopted or married into noble lines, making the military occupation even more attractive to the downtrodden masses.

A development of the last couple of centuries is the rise of an unofficial “merchant class,” commoners with money enough to virtually own their own property and employ other commoners in their businesses. These merchants frequently form guilds, unions, and other forms of organizations to regulate prices in their area, monitor new businesses, and safeguard their interests from outside merchants and the noble class. The recent Succession War has left merchants and nobles deeply distrustful of one another, despite the fact that they must work together to keep society functioning.

The nobility of Marikuhl is divided into two categories: major noble families, and minor noble families. Major families are those lines descended from the twenty-one original rulers of the Marikuhlian colonies, though five of those lines are now extinct, leaving sixteen great families, including the imperial family. Minor families are nobility instituted since the inception of the empire to aid in the bureaucracy of imperial life, govern regions in a major family’s territory, or raised up from virtuous and worthy commoners. The creation of a minor family is a significant event, and each major family has only a handful of minor families serving it.


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The average citizen of Marikuhl has few rights other than to bring grievances before his ruling family’s magistrates, which guards only against crimes committed by other commoners. Nobles are largely immune to prosecution under the law, except crimes committed against other nobles. Such crimes are arbitrated by the noble’s superiors, if committed against a member of the same family, or an imperial magistrate for inter-family struggles. Crimes against an imperial representative are always dealt with by an imperial magistrate, and often by a group of several working together.

Punishments for crimes are typically swift and without reprieve. Marikuhlians do not believe in prisons as a method of social correction, so most punishments tend to be immediate in nature. Minor crimes are dealt with by fines, forced labor, or forfeiture of possessions, while severe crimes are typically punished by maiming or execution.

Nobles can sometimes escape punishment in criminal cases by accepting exile to the Western Baronies, while imprisonment is frequently reserved as a necessity for individuals too useful to kill but too dangerous to allow freedom. Commoners cannot opt to be exiled, though many, when faced with the possibility of death or maiming, will abandon their lives, take their meager possessions, and flee west. These poor souls often change their names and live out their days in fear of being discovered. Especially dangerous escapees sometimes warrant the attention of a magistrate, or the posting of a bounty.


TECHNOLOGY

The empire is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. With their emphasis on military development, the quality of steel has been drastically increased in recent centuries. By the same token, the production of rare-metal items, such as from adamantine and mithril, is commonplace in the empire for those wealthy enough to afford it. The Marikuhlian skill in metalworking has also allowed the construction of more stable and durable objects that utilize metal in their construction secondarily, such as wagons, barrels, and so on.

One of the great innovations of the western migration was the development of a type of covered wagon that could act as both storage and living accommodation over long journeys. This wagon has also acted as a prototype for the new carriages designed for long hauls between the empire and the baronies, creating a significantly more comfortable traveling environment for passengers and messengers. These covered carriages, sometimes called “stages” for their shape, are also more defensible, a necessity with the prominence of the Ko’Manna raiders.

Artificers have long worked with ways to turn the black powder used in fireworks into a viable weapon, but the grain size of the substance makes such use impossible, even in large-scale weapons. The battlefields of the modern day are largely the province of armored knights, given aid and backup by legions of archers, with foot soldiers and armored infantry acting as storm troops and cannon fodder. Siege weapons are common as well, especially the trebuchet and catapult. Foot soldiers are often given crossbows to use in need, though longbows are the obvious weapon for true archery units. Horse archers are utilized as hit-and-run troops by many armies, to great success.

The power of steam has been harnessed in small ways, most of which are impractical for normal people, but artificers keep up with the developments in the hope of creating useful devices from the bulky engines. The lack of anything hotter-burning than wood has largely stymied this development, though alchemists have shown some success in substituting wood with chemical fuels.

The influx of corundum into the empire has increased the crafting of items of mystical power in recent years, though such creations are still extraordinarily rare. The energies empowering the crystal are still drawn from the chaotic power of the universe, making the use of any magical item an exercise in both caution and wonder.


FOREIGN RELATIONS

In many ways, the foreign policy of the empire reflects the worst things about it. Truthfully, most of the empire’s vices can be directly traced to its history of aggression and distrust toward foreign powers, especially those of the Old World. Marikuhl was originally a peaceful, agrarian nation, provincial in the extreme, until the War of Vengeance changed the nation’s character forever. From that point on, the Marikuhlians were no longer happily complacent in their own freedoms—outside powers would be made to respect their authority.

Many of the events of the centuries following the War of Vengeance are dealt with above, but specific considerations should be noted in the Marikuhlian dealings with foreign powers. Specifically, there are no official relations with the Old World any longer. The demon summoned during the Revenge remains in Ovidium, unable to pursue its destined enemies across the ocean, but forever preventing them from returning to the Old World.

Any Marikuhlian that sets foot on Ovidian soil is immediately aware of the demon’s presence—and that it is aware of them. From that moment forward, the demon will relentlessly hunt down the intruder, incapable of resting until the “invader” is dead. So long as even one Marikuhlian draws breath, it will never be freed from its duty, and no Marikuhlian in the Old World will be able to rest easy.

The demon requires time and energy to find its target, thankfully, making short sojourns onto the continent possible. The many islands surrounding the mainland are not protected by the demon, making them feasible locations for diplomatic envoys and small military bases. Small groups and individuals are also harder for the demon to find than large groups (such as military columns). The military control of Marikuhl over Ovidium was effectively broken by the Revenge, however, and all modern Ovidians are aware of the fact.

Marikuhl has done little to build bridges with its former parent nations. The mutual losses suffered by both regions mean almost nothing to the despotic government, while the Ovidians openly flaunt their immunity to Marikuhl’s superior military by offering highly imbalanced trade and harboring pirates and privateers. Had the Marikuhlians the power to remove the offending nations entirely, they would likely do so, but for now their rage is impotent and turned inward.

While the imperial court is aware of continents other than Ovidium, the general consensus about such places is that they are irrelevant and unimportant. They are too distant for regular trade, or even regular contact, and the continents of Galatea and Ovidium present more than enough challenges without seeking out new ones. Even much of Galatea remains unexplored, more than seven centuries after it was first settled by the Old World.

The known peoples of Galatea besides the Marikuhlians are also something of a mystery to the arrogant empire. To the north lies the lands of the Asatru, a tribal seafaring people only recently united under a single banner. As pirates and raiders, the Asatru are interested in the Marikuhlians only as targets for their predations, and the Asatru represent an enemy that the Marikuhlian navy can sharpen its teeth on. The south is the home of the Teotihuacal, an expansive empire at least as old as Marikuhl and perhaps older that is even more blatant in its worship of demonic forces. The “gods” of the Teotihuacal pantheon are little more than bloodthirsty demons that demand almost daily human sacrifice. The empire would gladly destroy the southern folk, except for the considerations of distance and poor terrain. As well, some whisper, the empire fears the power of the southerners’ demon-gods.


CLOTHING AND APPEARANCE

As the hodgepodge descendants of almost two dozen different cultures brought together by a common government, the Marikuhlian people are extremely varied in skin, hair, and eye tones. Their builds range the gamut from tall to short, from wiry to broad. Few commonalities about their general appearance can be made, not even that they dress similarly. With the provincial differences in local fashion, and the combination of a burgeoning middle class with the older upper class, the fashions among the elite of Marikuhl change almost as quickly as the seasons.

A few things stay in fashion from year to year, at least among the common folk. Most Marikuhlian commoners, both male and female, tend to wear trousers, loose shirts, and sandals. In the colder climes of the north, full shoes are worn rather than sandals, and the whole outfit is topped off with a heavy cloak or long parka. A common affectation among male commoners is to wear a vest decorated with the local colors, whether provincial to show national pride or the colors of the local noble family to show loyalty. Many commoners will also wear cheap jewelry, typically earrings or bracelets, which have been passed down through the family for generations.

Until about a century and a half ago, hair length was a requisite for women to show off their cultural status—the longer the hair, the greater the status. Only the oldest and most conservative nobles enforce this tradition, however, and women of all stations have begun to wear their hair at any length. Shorter than neck-length is still considered somewhat scandalous for noblewomen to wear, and many women of common birth hesitate to let their hair grow much past their shoulders.

Men of noble birth frequently wear their hair long, tied up into topknots at formal affairs or when holding court. A few younger nobles have begun wearing their long hair in loose braids or ponytails to flaunt tradition, but long hair is still seen as very important for a nobleman’s image. Older noblemen sometimes wear exquisitely crafted wigs in late age to conceal their impending baldness. Commoners, merchants included, typically wear their hair short as a matter of practicality—long hair gets in the way of honest work by commoners, while the merchant class is still struggling to create its own independent identity.

The most recent widespread fashion statements include long dresses for noblewomen, typically brightly colored and patterned, and tightly form-fitting. Such dresses are typically clasped at the shoulder with high necks, though a few have a high collar in the back with a swooping V-neck in the front. Noblemen’s fashion currently includes the addition of a long overcoat in place of the more traditional mantle or cloak.

A common aspect of cultural distinction in Marikuhlian society is the wearing of weapons. Traditionally, commoners have been forbidden from the bearing of arms, save in the direct defense of the nation or at the order of a noble. Such restrictions have only rarely applied to the carrying of tools that can be used as weapons (such as cutting knives, wood axes, and threshing flails), but the wielding of swords, spears, and bows has long been the province of the nobility and their favored servants.

The carrying of a sword is an important part of the Marikuhlian aristocracy’s heritage, and many such swords have been passed down through generations until they acquire names and legacies unto themselves. The most common weapons wielded by Marikuhlian nobles are the longsword, a favored weapon of military families, the rapier, popular among lines noted for their skill at dueling, and the bastard sword, so named because of its popularity among the minor families that invented it. Many female nobles carry weapons as well, though their short swords and daggers are more often for show than for usage. In Marikuhlian society, carrying a sword is a sign that you are ready and willing to use it, and duels for honor among the nobility still happen fairly often.

The burgeoning merchant class still technically belongs to the ranks of the commoners, making the wielding of weapons for self-defense somewhat problematic. To circumvent the issue, merchant typically only carry daggers on their persons, but surround themselves with guards and retainers trained in the use of “peasant weapons,” such as clubs, hammers, knives, sickles, slings, bolas, nets, and so on. For those merchants that seek to emulate their betters, a few have coerced their local governments to pass laws permitting the carrying of weapons for a license fee. These “armed merchants” will often use the privilege to carry a short sword as well as a crossbow, though sometimes a merchant will become truly skilled enough to wear a larger sword openly.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Western Baronies: The Modern Empire

THE WESTERN EXPANSION

Rather than persecute or judge the remaining nobles, the new emperor declared an armistice to the war and a pardon for all parties involved. Publicly, the nobles were commanded only to set aside their differences and work together to rebuild what had been lost. Privately, however, the emperor’s advisors were plotting to make certain that this emperor’s reign would be more peaceful and robust than the last. The emperor, too, was concerned—he had seen his father murdered, his “loyal” subjects turning on him like a rabid dog on its master.

The noble families and merchant leaders most complicit in the beginning and continuance of the war were closely monitored for further signs of dissension. Such spying would eventually attract their attention, however, and the court knew that a permanent—or at least long-term—solution must be found soon. Thus, with this in mind, a plan was hatched to remove the more dangerous elements of society while enriching the empire as a whole.

In the past, the few explorers to travel beyond the Corundum Mountains in the west had returned with tales of glorious riches, including the rare and prized crystals for which the mountains were named, gems necessary in the construction of items of magical power. The west was known to be home to only uncivilized tribes of the barbaric Ko’Manna, unclaimed by any imperial force or family. It was decided that an ideal solution to social pressures at home, including the flagging economy, was to open the western lands for settlement.

An imperial decree was issued: any man could journey west and claim land, and so long as he paid taxes on that land appropriately and on time, it would remain his possession. Since in the empire itself, only nobles could truly own land, the idea of property ownership sparked the minds of many commoners.

As well, any landowner that could pay taxes of a certain amount for a period of no less than ten years would garner a noble title for himself, to be passed along his family line. Merchants and ambitious commoners alike virtually drooled at the thought of gaining a noble title, earning recognition and greater social standing for themselves and their families. Nobles also paid close attention to this decree—it threatened their power in a way that demanded they retain a presence in the west, a presence that would strain their resources and diminish their prominence in imperial affairs.

Those nobles and merchants deemed most “dangerous” by the imperial court were strongly hinted to that maintaining western holdings would ingratiate them to the emperor—and that not doing so would bring down trouble upon them. Caught in a bind, the most troublesome elements of the empire were undercut tremendously with virtually no effort on the emperor’s part.

The western migration attracted folk from all walks of life: commoners seeking a better existence, nobles hoping to increase their holdings, merchants looking for respect and power as well as wealth, and criminals following their livelihood. Tens of thousands of them streamed across the passes, accompanied by an imperial legion to safeguard the construction of a new city. This city would be the official imperial capital of the region, a place where the emperor’s handpicked representative would ostensibly oversee the new provinces. Due to the vagaries surrounding its inception, this city would come to be called Cenotaph.

The western migration relieved many of the stresses of the day, but more were coming.


THE EMPIRE TODAY

The modern Marikuhlian Empire is like an oak tree infested with worms: strong on the outside, but corrupt and weak in the interior. The noble families, their numbers significantly smaller due to the Succession War, hold less power than even a century ago, and the emperor has largely become a figurehead for the council of advisors and delegates that once were his court. The power of the merchant families is great, but so is that of the vast and varied crime syndicates. Indeed, so many merchants deal in the illicit, and so many crime families in the legitimate, that it has become hard to tell the two apart in many cases.

The average commoner has enough to eat to stay alive and keep clothes on their backs, but little besides. Public education is lacking, and public services virtually nonexistent for the poor. Almost everything is based around one’s ability to pay—taxes to the nobles, money for goods to the merchants, more to the crime families for protection, and only a small amount set aside for the earner. The traditional way of serf and master has been left behind, but few rights or protections have arisen for the common folk.

The little power left to the imperial family is largely from its connections to powerful mage-priests, demon-worshipping sorcerers who have long served the emperor and his kin. Their hunger for corundum continues to be a major expense for the imperial family, while the dregs of the supplies are then resold to the lesser noble families for their own court sorcerers to utilize.

The noble families divide their time between their Marikuhlian concerns, where all of their political power and much of their economic wealth is located, and their baronial interests, where there remains much opportunity for advancement for the bold and the lucky. This keeps their attention divided, allowing the merchant class to frequently run roughshod over them and permitting the imperial court to further undercut their political ambitions.

Common folk, greatly emancipated from their lowly social status of a century ago, frequently abandon their lives to travel west. Many die in the journey, and still more find the western lands impossible to adapt to. Still, they try, seeking a better life beyond the horizon. Those who remain behind do their best to survive and adapt in a bad situation, especially now that the possibility of social advancement exists. Most never rise above their position of birth, however.

The empire is far from dying, but it is sick. This sickness could, given time and allowed to continue unabated, spell disaster for the old empire of Marikuhl. Hope remains, but it is as narrow as the edge of a sword.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Western Baronies: The Rise and Fall of Imperialism

IMPERIALISM ASCENDANT

After a century of peace, followed by a decade of war, Marikuhl had transformed from a carefree frontier nation into a mighty world-threatening empire[1]. The aid offered to the emperor by the Ordo Astra Lyceum had its terrible price paid—during the war and after. One hundred years of human sacrifice also changed the character of the empire. Its leadership became significantly more jaded, more inured to horror and compromise. Though the war had been won, demon worship forever became embedded as a constant in the Marikuhlian nobility and public consciousness[2].

The War of Vengeance left a deep and abiding mark on the Marikuhlian persona, making the people more conscious of war and the nobility more aware of the potential of military force. The necessities of military action over the decade of the war forged the Marikuhlian Empire into a militant and rigid hierarchy, one in which military service was the highest goal a commoner could achieve and in which nobles were expected to be generals.

Quelling the remaining rebellions in Ovidium and exacting tribute from the defeated took the better part of a century, during which Marikuhl grew fat and strong on the labors of those who would have been their masters. Finally, after the end of the century of repayment to the demon-god of the Atlantean Ocean, Marikuhl extracted its interests from Ovidium and turned its attention to home. The society there was unlike the one that had existed before the war—more politically charged, more militant, crueler. Demon worship was as common as the following of the gods from the Old World.

Over the following centuries[3], Marikuhl solidified its hold upon the eastern half of Galatea, ignoring the largely desolate lands beyond the Corundum Mountains in the west. At the same time, the Marikuhlians, expanding for the first time in over two hundred years, drew the attention of forces both to the north and south of their empire.

To the north, a savage and clannish people called the Asatru[4] had ceased warring with one another and began turning their gaze outward. The Asatru had once been a seafaring people, descendants of an ancient colony long forgotten by the empire that spawned it, but their livelihood had been destroyed by the Marikuhlian pact with the demon-god of the ocean. The storms that prevented the Ovidians from crossing the ocean also prevented the Asatru from fishing. Starvation decimated their numbers, and it took them long generations to repopulate. Finally, their numbers strong once more, they rebuilt their mighty ocean fleet and began preying on Marikuhlian trading ships and Ovidian tribute vessels.

South of Marikuhl, lay an empire with a history spanning many centuries, the land of Teotihuacal[5]. The Marikuhlians knew of a distant land populated by strange folk, but only during the expansion period did they actually have cause to encounter them. Where demon worship was an accepted, if somewhat distasteful, part of life in Marikuhl, in Teotihuacal it was the norm. Frequent and public blood sacrifices and daily bloodsports were the accepted order in Teotihuacal, all under the fanatical rule of a group of god-kings—arcanists drawing immense power from their demonic patrons. As imperial lands encroached upon their ancestral lands, Marikuhlian citizens began to disappear from their homes, victims of Teotihuacal raiding parties.

Both of these problems would occupy Marikuhlian public consciousness and the military’s attention for the next two centuries.


TROUBLED TIMES

While vanquished, Ovidium was far from content with its lot. Many of the countries that had stood aside in the War of Vengeance came to regret their actions, feeling that if they had aided their former enemies, then perhaps they could have beaten back the colonials[6]. Now that Marikuhl had demonstrated its power and quelled its rivals, they feared, the day would come when Marikuhl’s expansionism would lead them to conquer the rest of the continent. The continuing Marikuhlian presence in the neighboring nations did little to allay their fears on this matter, and the noted continuance of demon worship in Marikuhl only made matters tenser.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a leader of one minor nation began forging secret alliances with neighboring leaders, seeking to build a coalition to stand against Marikuhlian ambition when the time came. The rumors of a gathering army were reported to Marikuhlian spies almost immediately. Before the War of Vengeance, such a rumor would have been greeted with cautious concern, and right after the war, it would have been met with humorous disdain. In the centuries since the war, however, the Marikuhlian leadership had grown paranoid of threats and greedy for resources—an unstable combination even at the best of times.

Based on these rumors, the military was mobilized and prepared for battle against once-harmless Ovidian countries. Even the battle-hardened soldiers of Marikuhl showed pause, however, when they found that their opponents were militarily weak and hardly a threat at all. Even the basic mutual defense agreements made by the Ovidians fell apart under the hammer of Marikuhlian force, and nation after nation fell in stunning fashion.

Desperate to save their people, a group of Ovidian sorcerers turned to dark patrons for aid in much the same way that the Marikuhlians had done so long before. This time, however, they did not simply seek to delay the invading force, as had the Marikuhlians, but to utterly destroy it. Such magic exacted a higher price than they were truly prepared to pay, however. While the demon-god summoned up by the Ovidians wiped out nine-tenths of the Marikuhlian invasion force, the population of their entire nation was consumed, to the last man, woman, and child.

The few remaining soldiers returned to their commanders, beaten and broken by the sights they had seen during the demon-haunted night thereafter called “the Scourging.” Faced with a crippling shortage of manpower and a possible mutiny if they chose to remain, the leaders of the army chose to limp back to Marikuhl, skeleton crews manning the ships that once held hundreds. While the nobility publicly mourned their losses, privately they fumed over those losses. With the army diminished their previous stranglehold on power was loosened, perhaps fatally.

The people did not take this opportunity to rebel, as their leaders had feared, but only stoked their anger against the Ovidians. Their faith in their noble ruling class was harmed, however, and the common Marikuhlians gained a deep distrust of their leaders. This distrust, and the weakness of the noble families, allowed a burgeoning merchant class to rise from the commoners, gaining power and influence in areas of daily life that had once been the sole province of the noble class[7].

Where nobles could once simply order their commoners to perform labors in exchange for a portion the food they themselves had grown by virtue of controlling a large military force, the losses in the Scourging War made such simplicity impossible. Now, those that had money could gain greater service than nobles, who were forced by necessity to themselves offer payment for things once theirs for free. As a corollary of this fact, merchants—who were expert at producing goods or moving them around in such a way as to generate profit—could make money more efficiently than nobles—whose sole skill, generally, was rulership[8].

The noble families gradually grew weaker as the merchant class strengthened, their control over the non-military aspects of Marikuhlian life slipping dramatically. Within a decade of the losses suffered during the Scourging, many merchants were living as well as their betters had done; within two, many merchants were the de facto rulers of their regions and provinces, governing through the regulation of trade while the nobles were too weak to stop them.


THE SUCCESSION WAR

The Succession War of half a century ago initially started as a conflict over the rights of individual noble families as compared to the inclusive powers of the imperial court[9]. Over the last decade, the imperial family and the emperor’s court had been placing more power directly in their own hands, circumventing the traditional checks and balances of provincial control by passing sweeping laws that affected all territories equally.

The initial thrust of these laws were actually designed to hamper the power of the merchant class, now that the empire’s army was back up to strength and the reigning emperor strong enough personally to envision their defeat. With the merchants thus hampered, however, trade slowed and stagnated, making goods more expensive locally and regionally, as well as damaging the remaining trade interests of many noble families.

Those nobles that had adapted to life under a strong economic system resented the trade law changes, while those that had not done so were too poor to truly benefit from them. The new taxes greatly benefited the emperor’s family and those families that had gained his favor, but few others saw profit from the alteration.

As the emperor’s court grew richer and more decadent, the rest of the nation suffered in poverty. Many merchants continued to trade goods under cover of night, turning to smuggling and racketeering to make their profits. Crime rates soared as even normal people were forced to turn to crime to support themselves. The nobles, ever struggling for dominance, entered the contest as well, bringing finesse and skill to the tables of the underworld.

The war was truly happening in the shadows and dark corners of the land for months before it was officially declared. When a minor noble family was implicated in the death of a merchant family leader ostensibly under the protection of a major noble family, the two groups went to war. Such a thing had never been done in the empire before, and all too quickly, now that the traditional means of settling grudges had been passed by, old hates and rivalries came to the fore. Within a month, most of the noble families were at war with one or more of their fellows.

The imperial family struggled to remain above it all, impartial and beyond reproach. Fear of the imperial legions and remaining respect for the emperor’s line kept the noble families from acting against the emperor directly, but they stayed deaf to repeated pleas to end the conflict.

Five years passed with the empire locked in a nearly constant state of warfare. Entire noble lines were extinguished in the conflict, and the common people suffered greatly. Starvation became a real concern in many provinces, as well as increased bandit activity, the commonality of criminal syndicates, and the rapaciousness of the army. In battles, few distinctions were made against military or civilian targets, and the citizens of rival provinces were often seen as little more than spoils by an invading force. The war raged on, no end in sight.

In the fifth year of the Succession War, a battle spilled over into imperial territory, and a legion responded to the encroachment with lethal force. Both enemy commanders turned on the interlopers, and the legion was destroyed, nearly to a man. When the dust settled, the emperor decreed both families at fault and commanded that they be eliminated. Rather than wait for the command to be fulfilled, one of the families—no one is quite sure which—had the emperor assassinated. Now truly leaderless, the empire collectively drew its breath in horror.

For over six hundred years, the line of the emperors had been sacrosanct, untouchable. Now, an emperor had been murdered by those that called him liege. The other noble families rallied around his death as a point of honor, setting aside differences to destroy both families—for in their eyes, both had been to blame. When the dust settled, and those two families had been eliminated, a truce was brokered with the new emperor, oaths were renewed, and the nobles looked out upon their folly and wept.


Notes:

[1] Much like America did after World War I. Admittedly, the timeline here isn't a direct analogue to American history, but it's a fantasy setting, so I've got some leeway.

[2] If one were politically minded, one could interpret this as America's increasing willingness to compromise its founding principles in the face of expedience.

[3] I leave this time vague here, but I believe I later establish the overall amount of time that Marikuhl has been around, so it's possible to extrapolate it from that.

[4] Yes, Vikings. Everything is better with Vikings. Especially if they're stand-ins for Canadians. =3

[5] Also, Aztecs. I tried my best to depict the neighboring cultures as not actually worse than Marikuhl, just a different kind of corrupt. This isn't a personal commentary on Canadians and Mexicans so much as it is a way to build up the Old West's mythology into a coherent sense of otherness. In the milieu of the Old West, all "foreigners" are dangerous; at least the natives have some sort of nobility amidst their savagery.

[6] This really is the sort of regret that France's nobility felt in aiding America's revolution when their own people rose up against them a few years later. Other colonial powers would look back on the American and French revolutions as the beginning of the end of the colonial age, though Britain would continue expanding well into the 20th century.

[7] The rise of the middle class is a necessary step toward the settlement of the west.

[8] This is intended to be a direct comparison to the decline of samurai power at the end of the Tokugawa Period, leading into the Meiji Restoration.

[9] Yes, it's the American Civil War.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Western Baronies of Marikuhl: The War of Vengeance

THE WAR OF VENGEANCE

A century of easy peace and prosperity passed for the Marikuhlian Empire, its various provinces holding on to their colonial identities with pride and their noble families ruling well and with light hand. After the heavy-handedness of the old empires before the secession, no one wanted to risk public ire again by putting too much pressure on their people or their resources. Expansion halted as population growth slowed; without a constant influx of new settlers from Ovidium, the need for more land abated.

All of that ended in an eyeblink when a huge war fleet landed in Medrach Province and overran the provincial government within a day. From their beachhead at Medrach, the invaders made known their intentions: they had come from the Old World, newly united under a single ruler, and they intended to take back what they saw as theirs.[1]

The early weeks of the War of Vengeance were a bloody and futile affair, with the Marikuhlian forces beaten back time and again before the sheer size of the Ovidian army. More ships landed every day, and things seemed grim for the young empire.

An increasingly desperate emperor turned to his greatest advisors and generals for answers. At first, none were forthcoming, and it seemed that the empire must fall before their enemies. However, from obscurity came a cabal of sorcerers who offered their aid to the emperor. Magic, long a feared and reviled force in Ovidium, had flourished once more on Galatea, out from under the heel of oppressive and fearful governments. While Marikuhl had never officially sanctioned arcanists, neither had it persecuted them. This cabal, the Ordo Astra Lyceum, revealed to the emperor and his court a way to turn the tide of battle—though the cost would be terrible.

With heavy heart, the emperor accepted the cabal’s bargain: in exchange for a century of human sacrifice, the order’s patron, a mighty demon-god of the sea[2], would turn the seas against the Ovidians. Without the aid of their navy to speed battles or to allow reinforcements, the Marikuhlians would have time to organize a suitable defense. As well, the cabal would grant their services to the army itself. While magic was of little use against large numbers of men, its aid in destroying key personnel and facilities was invaluable.

The empire turned its significant resources to the manufacture of weapons and armor, the production of siege engines, and the indoctrination of soldiers. With a year of stalemate guaranteed by the emperor’s terrible bargain, the Marikuhlian Empire returned to the war in a far better position. The fearless Marikuhlian soldiers, fighting not just for their homes but for their way of life, harried the depleted Ovidian forces across the southern provinces of the empire, finally rooting them out of their last strongholds and sending them scrabbling for the deadly embrace of the sea.

It took nearly three years, but the Marikuhlians were at last successful. The expulsion or death of nearly every Ovidian invader was not enough to sate the newly awakened Marikuhlian bloodlust, though. The people cried out that the War of Vengeance would live up to its name—that they would have revenge upon those who would attempt to usurp their sovereignty. The nobles heard their cry, and a massive effort was put forward to build an invasion force. Within six months, with the aid of the demon-god of the sea and a massive building effort, the Marikuhlian fleet made their way across the Atlantean Ocean and back to the continent of their origin—where they would be victorious.

The end of the War of Vengeance was as one-sided as the beginning, but no salvation made itself known to the embattled Ovidians. Any empire that aided in the invasion was cast down, its leaders slain, its army shattered. Those that had not been complicit in the War of Vengeance were given a simple message: stand aside or share in the same fate. Since most of the remaining empires were losers in the Ovidian Ascension Wars of the previous century, and thus barely recovering themselves, the choice was easy.

Within five years, the empires of Ovidium were no more, and the Empire of Marikuhl had made its supremacy in world affairs known.[3]


Footnotes:

[1] Yes, this is intended to be a fantasy version of the War of 1812, turned up to 11.

[2] Cthulhu, basically. In later stuff about the Marikuhlian Empire, I make the Lovecraftian stuff a lot more clear.

[3] Like I said, dialed up to 11. The War of Vengeance starts off as a fantasy version of the War of 1812, but sort of ends as a fantasy version of World War I: "America gets big and goes to Europe to stomp all over everybody." Of course, the Marikuhlians are invaders this time around, and that ties in neatly with some of the themes of the setting, particularly about how barbarism saves civilization, but also condemns it. Giving in to violence is the only way to protect yourself from violence, but it also turns you into the thing you're fighting.

Western Baronies of Marikuhl: History of the Empire

ORIGINS OF MARIKUHL

Eight hundred years ago, the empires of the continent of Ovidium[1] were strong and confident in their power. They held ancient rivalries and passed down grudges from one generation to the next. Many wars had come and gone on Ovidium, leaving regions of the continent with blood-soaked histories dating back centuries. Finally, however, the wars had paused long enough that several of the empires began to look beyond their own borders to lands that had been hinted of by scholars in old times—the legendary Western Lands.

A dozen unsuccessful naval expeditions across the Atlantean Ocean[2] left a bitter taste in the mouths of many governments, but others kept trying. After years of trying, one such expedition took root on the eastern shores of a continent that its discoverers named Galatea[3]. This land quickly became known by its nickname, though: Nova Mundi, the New World. The success of one colony inspired the launch of dozens more, many of which were modestly successful. After fifty years of colonization, almost twenty self-sufficient tributary colonies had been established along Galatea’s green and prosperous coast.

With the passing of decades, the Galatean colonies grew and encroached inward on the continent, pushing back the native peoples, the Ko’Manna[4]. While early contact with the Ko’Manna had been peaceful, colonial expansion and greed caused tension with them in less than a generation. The Ko’Manna lost much territory but gained a new innovation: horses. Fleeing west, the Ko’Manna became horse nomads, many tribes giving up their traditional homes rather than have to face the foreigners in open warfare. Several tribes of Ko’Manna actually integrated with the colonials, becoming a valued and vibrant part of life in a number of the colonies.

Communication with the Old World became more sporadic as tensions among the old empires increased. The colonies reflected these attitudes at first, acting toward one another with hostility and spite. Gradually, however, the colonial citizens came to realize that they had more in common with one another than with their originators back home. Many colonies had become so thoroughly dependent on one another for trade and economy that the rivalries of their empires could not be practically pursued in any fashion.

Finally, as had long been expected, war broke out once more in Ovidium and the many empires of the Old World demanded that their colonies follow suit. Orders for colonial food, soldiers, weapons, crafts, and aid of all sorts passed down to the regional governors, who then had to face the rancor of their people. The overburdened colonies groaned beneath the weight of their own needs added to the demands of their distant masters. Many regions faced deprivation, while others had to deal with insurrections against the local government.

At last, a leader emerged to take command in this time of strife. His name was Marik d’Amici[5], and he was a nobleman who had long been a staunch supporter of greater freedoms for the colonies. As civil unrest became more common, Lord Marik led a delegation of nobles from all of the colonies to make certain decisions for their people’s well being. Seeking to insure their own livelihood and the survival of their people, Lord Marik’s council came to the inevitable and difficult conclusion: to stand against the commands of their empires, they would have to be united, and they would have to cut all ties to their original homelands.

It took surprisingly little effort to unite the colonies beneath Lord Marik’s banner, and the brief skirmishes needed to expel imperial military forces were hardly worth the appellation of “war.” Busy with their own affairs and wars, the various empires of the Old World put aside their desire to punish their wayward children until they were finished with the matters at hand. It became an unspoken condition of the war that whichever empire triumphed would have first pick of the colonies when the time came to recapture them.

In a matter of scant months, the Galatean colonies had gone from territorial holdings to a single nation, united in spirit if not in origin. The many races and nationalities of the colonies celebrated their new freedom from distant masters and lauded their noble lords with praise. Lord Marik’s council was elevated to the status of rulers, and Marik himself was crowned Marik I, first emperor of the Empire of Marikuhl[6].

From these twenty-one families rose the ruling caste of Marikuhl, each family holding sway over one of the former colonies, now provinces, plus an additional region now set aside as the personal demesne of the imperial family. Each ruling family set up subsidiary noble families to keep account of their holdings and to administrate the daily goings-on of the provinces.


Footnotes:

[1] I called the "old world" Ovidium because it was evocative of Ovid, a Roman historian and poet, which set the tone for the old world as being "classical" and ancient.

[2] This is to tie the "new world" into the real-world myths of Atlantis, as well as to keep a touchstone with actual history. The Atlantic Ocean is also named for Atlantis.

[3] Galatea is the woman created from a statue by Pygmalion. The imagery I was trying to evoke here was of a new world made from the efforts of explorers, embodying it as a woman who came to life by the will and desire of her creator. It also continues the Greco-Roman theme of the old world.

[4] For the native peoples, I was looking for a world that included "mana" (magical energy or life force), so I shortened "cooperating-with-mana" and redubbed it a bit to make it look exotic. As a note, the Ko'Manna are human; there are no non-human PCs in the setting.

[5] Again, the naming is to emphasize the Romanesque sense of the old world. Also, it's a setup for the eventual name of the empire.

[6] Take "America," slur it to "'mericuh" and conflate it with "miracle." You get "mahr-ih-KOOL."

Western Baronies of Marikuhl: Intro

So it occurred to me that I've never posted up the medieval fantasy Wild West setting I wrote ages ago, Western Baronies of Marikuhl. When I wrote it, I was looking to create an Iron Heroes setting, but the elements work well enough in any action-oriented roleplaying system. Essentially, I wanted to capture the things that were iconic about the American Old West in film and literature, and then retrofit them to a medieval-fantasy setting. Remove guns and replace them with swords, but otherwise try to capture the feel of the Old West with magic and dungeon-crawls.

Over the next week, I'll be posting up the pieces of the setting (and there's a lot of it). Feel free to let me know what you think about it!