Paint It Black

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In the far southern lands, on the lawless steppe that surrounds the Scar, the human tribes have women that they call the moon songstresses, who gather and sing during the religious festivals they hold, dancing through the ancient ruins that litter the region. For that occasion, all fighting ceases, and even old enemies gather to listen to the song together.

Me and the rest of my expedition into the region, long before the Black King's advance started to threaten the area, were allowed to witness the ceremony, so that we may record it. The others - the others were enthralled by the beauty of the song, the colourful ritual clothes, and, let us be candid about it, the songstresses, enraptured by the dance in the moonlight.

But I... I could understand the words. They sung in some kind of corrupt, debased variant of draconic, but a scholar such as me could nevertheless comprehend the general meaning. As the others looked on with fascination, I could only stare in mute horror at the serene smiles of the songstresses and the tribesmen, and ponder whether they even understood the meaning of their lyrics - or, indeed, as terrifying as the prospect is, if they were smiling because they understood.

The others did not understand why we left the village we were staying immediately that night, and kept moving until we reached our port, but I could not stay there a moment longer, desperate for the succor of my homeland. It did not help, however - that baleful pallid glow in the sky remained, seemingly pulsing to the beat of that dreadful song... no, I'm sure now that it does. Watching, seething, judging, always judging. I could not escape the beat of the drums at night, even in the deepest ruins.

Too long have I lived in dread of each coming night, seeing my friends and colleagues drift away from me, worrying as I waste away, but I can't bring myself to inflict my knowledge on them. There is only way for me to escape now, first inconceivable, but now the last remaining hope. I am afraid that this is the end for me.

To those who may read it: do not follow my steps. The legends are true. The lands around the Scar are blighted, touched by a madness even I can barely grasp. Let the Black King and his army of corpses have it; it is a fitting place for monsters, not men.

I can feel its gaze even now, eternal and unrelenting. It is time.
-The final letter of Professor Enlil-bani Namzu, an esteemed Hegemony explorer and researcher, found after his final departure towards the Desert of Glass. The body was never found, his soul trapped within the glass, lost to the ancestral shrine.


Basic Outline

A game about a group of explorers being sent into the ancient and abandoned ruins of the Dragon Capital, most of which is now an enormous hole in the ground, a scar on the planet's surface that the spirits can't seem to heal, and where the souls cannot rest, undertaking the most perilous task of uncovering its secrets, lost when the place was destroyed during an ancient war between the dragons and the Moon. What awaits them, nobody knows, in truth - beyond the Hegemony's own expedition and the local attempt at doing the same as you. You will be exploring a place that even the dragons decided to abandon. Go forth, and may the light of the Moon illuminate your path.

Background

The South is a land of a thousand kingdoms, ruled by petty kings and feudal lords, divided and weak. The primary population within the region is human, although there is a notable elven presence, and even the dwarves and the enigmatic, semi-legendary "deep elves" make their home there. It has long served as the playpen of the imperialistic Hegemony, far too individually weak to resist its whims, yet too stubborn to work together to counter it. It is the fate of the weak to suffer the whims of the strong, for what else can they do? The dragons taught us that much, before someone even stronger swatted them like a fly.

This has all changed with the coming of the Black King, whose rule is strong yet fair and kind, and whose legions marching under the featureless black banners are conquering kingdom after kingdom, bringing with them the law and the order - one law, one order for one people united under one immortal rule. The bandit lords are cut down, the traders are free to travel without crippling taxes at dozens of separate borders, the health of the poor is taken care of. With the treasures he took from the ruins of the Sky Spire and its children, the Black King raised castles into the sky. For once, the people of the South are becoming strong - strong enough to resist the crushing grip of orcish imperialism, perhaps even strong enough to one day tear it down entirely.

But that grip is not loosened lightly. The Hegemony is always waiting for a chance to strike, calling us barbarians, abominations, the vilest of necromancers, arming our enemies, undermining our great work. A war is coming to this world, a great war, unlike any seen since the fall of dragons and the Golem war of liberation. We intend to win this war - we must, if we are to have any future but one under the orcish boot, having traded one fanged masters for another.

Far in the South, in the regions that even the Royal Army has yet to reach, lies the Scar, the ominous sign of an old war so great and terrible that not even the dragons were able to suppress the memory of it. The struggle between the dragons and the Moon, considered ever since a sign of hope, its pale glow hateful to the tyrants and oppressors.

As the stories say, and which the surviving dragons have confirmed, the Scar was once the place where the capital of all dragonkind was - a city the size of a nation, whose tallest spires reached beyond the sky. Now, all that remains is a great scar in the land, reaching so far down into the depths of the world that nobody can truly measure it.

Legends say that it is a place of nightmares, where the souls of those killed in the calamitous war can not rest, and where those trying to explore its mysteries disappear, consumed by the horror that overtook the ancient ruins, seeping even into the inert stone over the centuries. Indeed, those brave adventurers who have attempted to unlock the Scar's secrets often do not return. However, the situation has become grave.

Against all expectations, a group of local petty kings is working together to assemble an expedition to the place, desperate to find anything that would let them keep their power in face of the Black King's advance. The Hegemony, too, worrying that someone could grasp power greater than theirs, has landed a force in the region, seeking to take it for themselves, despite its reputation. We can ignore neither of these, and in truth, the Black King himself wants to know the fate of the dragon capital, a place so blighted that its very name was struck from the records and never rebuilt.

As such, we are funding this expedition - made up of people from all across the world, who share our curiosity, not merely have been ordered into the breach. Our goal here is quality, not quantity.

The task before you is simple - using all resources at your disposal, go forth and discover the fate of the Lost Capital, along with any information that might prove useful to the Black King in his selfless duty. The Black Army is on its way, but there is still much to do for it - and we can't wait any longer. You will not be without support, but you must venture beyond the reach of the Black King's hammer and anvil for now. Take care, however - skirmishers of the Royal Army and the Hegemony are already fighting in the region, and a full-scale conflict might be coming sooner than anyone expected.

So go forth to the ancient ruins of the Lost Capital, brave explorers. Go forth and paint them black.

Setting Information

Setting shared with The Hunt for Manticore. Note: shameless Hegemony propaganda present on the page.

In the beginning, the world was ruled by dragons, the most ancient, intelligent and mighty of all the species. Their rule was not kind.

Called forth by the prayers of their subjects, who were being used as little more than slaves, experimental subjects and livestock, the First of Demons descended from beyond the stars on the wings of fire and created a great desert of glass and sand where It landed. The dragons did war upon it, but it was for naught, and the First Civilisation ended in a single, terrible night. The planet was left without its masters.

It came to the former slaves to fill in that gap.

Eventually, after many trials and disasters, the great nations of today emerged - barely a shadow of the power and wisdom of the dragons, even of their last refuge where the few of them inexplicably spared by the First have started to rebuild, but now at last able to decide their own fates. The one exception is the Free Golem Nation, created in process of a civil war that nearly ripped apart what little the survivors of the Night of Endings have managed to build, and which managed to hold onto many of the secrets of the past, frozen in unaging cognitive crystals.

The Hegemony of Ur is one of such nations, the most advanced and - or so its citizens claim - the most civilised and cultured. Created by orc refugees around a network vast, ancient draconic industrial complexes, it is the first of the survivor nations to rediscover the production of gunpowder, and the greatest one in terms of territory and economy.

Over the time of the last century, it had been expanding its influence, bringing various weaker nations under its control as colonies and puppet states. The idea that the Hegemony - as the most advanced and cultured nation in the world - has the responsibility to take the role of the global leader and help lift other, less fortunate and civilised nations up to a "proper" level is currently dominant in its society.

The fact that it often uses those it is claiming to "help" to gain an advantageous position against the necromancers of the Black King, whose armies had been spilling from the far north for the last three decades and who threatens their dominance, is usually left unsaid.

The Black King, in turn, is one of the greatest magicians who have ever lived and one who has already abandoned his humanity, leading a necromantic empire on a seemingly-endless campaign of conquest amongst the southern kingdoms, republics and free cities. His Royal Army is made up of both volunteers, incredibly sophisticated human constructs and certain draconic machines that he managed to recover; an irresistible force in the weak an divided South.

Yet, for all the appearances, he brings great safety and prosperity to his new subjects - offering unified code of law, pushing bandits off the roads, providing healthcare for free in return for the corpses of the dead, giving traders more opportunities to make a profit than they ever had in the region. The Black Kingdom, fueled by necromantic magic, is quickly bringing the living standards in the South to the level of the Hegemony and the Commonwealth, and then beyond - with the King himself, no matter how monstrous he may appear, beloved by many for giving them strength and hope, rather than merely weakness and the gnashing of teeth in the night, waiting for another raid to come and pillage their homes.

The Magic

Everything in the world has a spirit - from the living beings to the waterfalls to the stones. The one exception are the First and Its creations, who are nothing but void. The craft of a magician is fundamentally based on communing with those spirits, bargaining for their services and borrowing their power to affect the material world.

That connection can be strengthened with time and effort, and it is not uncommon to see centuries-old suits of ancestral armour or weapons be far superior to ones freshly made, their spirits carefully cultivated, shaped and even sometimes befriended by their owners and their families. While mages specialise in this, a certain degree of communion with spirits is common in most of the survivor nations, and forms the core of religion and spiritualism within them.

Even the spirits of living beings can be managed and reshaped in such a way, with many great wizards greatly prolonging their lives and increasing personal ability by perfecting their selves. Similiar methods are used by trained doctors and healers, but reshaping the spirit of others is a controversial area - it is, along with genetic experimentation, how the dragons created or altered many of their slave species, and the scars of that time are yet to heal, despite the passage of time.

The spirits are respected, the spirits are, in many ways, revered - however, there are also mages strong and amoral enough to force them, chaining them to their wills. It is how the black art of necromancy was created - by binding the spirits to the bodies of the dead or specially prepared vessels, in order to use them as servants or to further one's own knowledge. Necromancers are most often also those most skilled in reshaping their own spirits, that being the easiest way of attaining power to perform their craft. The greatest of necromancers in history, rivaling even the great dragons of the past, is the Black King, who stands in opposition to the Hegemony.

The Characters

There are no limits on where the characters might come from, or what race they are of, although of course orcs might be viewed with a degree of suspicion; the expedition is assembled from people from various lands, not just the Black King's domain. You are likely to have a reputation by now - those who join an expedition to a place with such a grim reputation are, after all, usually the most hardened of explorers. However, ultimately, the details are up to you. What the Black King prizes under his meritocratic rule is capability, and as long as you are able, those who are bankrolling the expedition and giving you support are going to be fine with you.

There are three stats: Physical, Mental and Social. During character generation, the players assign priority to them. First priority gives 7 dice to roll, second 6, and third 5; there are also 11 free-floating points to add to stats, although no stat should exceed 14 points. In addition, the players can pick one speciality that lowers the difficulty on relevant rolls by one and adds an additional dice. They should be rather specific, though - "firearms" speciality is not really going to fly, for instance. They can take the form of a physical object - such as a heirloom musket or a hunting hound, for example, or be less material, depending on player preference.

Magic is generally handled as a combination of Mental and Social stats, though certain situations might only use one of them.

A wide variety of weapons is accessible, though the standard modern weapons are firearms of various kinds, mostly flintlock muskets and hunting rifles.