Monday, March 31, 2014

Mapping Vanor: The City

The following post contains the neighborhood capsule descriptions I sent to my players before the Ruins of Vanor campaign started properly. All neighborhoods (or regios, as the Vanorans call them) refer to locations on the Big Board map to the left, which is mounted on a piece of poster board 3ft x 2ft in size. At this early stage of the campaign, some areas are more defined than others, hence the abundant white space for most of the map. We'll add more to the Big Board as the campaign goes on. 

Oh, and three guess which historical city I have based Vanor on...


The ruined city within the outer Marcian Walls consists of ten districts. Of these ten, only four have settled habitation; the remaining six are in ruins and teeming with beasts, kalingoi goblins, and undead. As residents of Vanor, you know much about the settled districts and significantly less about the ruined ones.

The Settled Districts

Regio I. Campus Marcianus
This district (the "Fields of Marcian") is the second most populous area of the ruined city. Originally a marshy plain outside the walls of the original city, the Fourth Witch-King, Marcian the Reclaimer, had the marsh drained and used as a staging area for his wars of expansion and conquest. Eventually, the fields became a built up area of grand public buildings, temples, and theaters; refined boulevards and columned porticoes; and dense urban apartments clustered in between. Bordered by the Basana River in the west and the Via Lata (aka The Broadway) in the east, the current district is anchored by the great and still functioning Baths of Tullius and the massive but crumbling Stadium of Marcian. Retaining walls along the Basana have fallen into disrepair, and repeated flooding has turned part of the district into ruined marsh, which now serves as a den for thieves and criminals. Closeness to the neighboring Regio IX. Overlook district has meant repeated monster, undead, and vermin incursions, threatening the stability of the Marcian Fields. It has seen better days.

Regio II. Campus Vaticanus
This district ("Vatican Fields") is the smallest, newest, and most orderly of the ancient ruined city's districts. Anchored in the west by Vatican Hill and the massive Solarium of the Unconquered Sun at its base and in the east by the looming Barbican fortress, Vatican Fields is a planned district of detached villas, domus residences, marble porticoes, and religious statuary. Isolated from the ruin sprawl by the Basana River, Vatican Fields suffers little of the monstrous incursions that trouble the Regio I. Campus Marcianus district directly across the river. Silver and gold-clad sun priests stroll along the Via Cornelia on sunny days. Country gentry visiting their urban villas move through the streets on covered litters. Street vendors hawk their wares from tabernacle shops. And at night, the streets are lit by the soft blue glow of lumin lamps. Life in Vatican Fields is truly touched by the Sun.

Regio III. Transbasana
This district is the largest and most densely populated of the ruined city's districts. When access and services fell away from other districts as the city collapsed, Transbasana across the river retained key water and infrastructure services, so people poured in. Today it is a teeming slum and manufacturing district that completely covers the summit and slopes of the Janiculum Hill. It is home to the great basilica known as the Hall of Work, headquarters of the powerful Labor Collegium; the looming and twisted Tower of Mysteries, holding the secrets of the Arcanum Collegium; and the Naumachian Pits, a former artificial lake that's been converted into gladiatorial arenas.

Regio IV. Aventinus
This district was once the key port of entry into Vanor for river trade and commercial traffic, with its river banks converted into long, porticoed quays fronting row upon row of storage warehouses that reached all the way back to the slopes of the Aventine Hill. Today, commercial traffic is fairly limited, and most of the quays and warehouses have been converted for other purposes or left to ruin. Instead, due to its direct border with the ruined Regio V. Via Interius district, Aventinus is the key staging area for explorations into the city's ruins, centered on the Delver's Porch, a portico along the river serving as the key mercenary market; the Emporium, the largest quay and chief docks; and Northmen's Landing, the quay and warehouse compound taken over as a Varangian holdfast. And adding to the district's dangerous character are the two witch king tombs squatting on the Aventine's twin summits.

The Ruined Districts

Regio V. Via Interius
Sparsely built and serving as the chief overland entrance from the ports of the Inner Sea, this district is dominated by ruined caravan posts, religious shrines, and a large bath complex overrun with kalingoi goblins.

Regio VI. Celian Heights
In its heyday, this was a fashionable residential district, dotted with wealthy homes and villas, recreational baths, and opulent basilicas. Today, delvers target the family crypts dug deep into the Celian Hill's north slopes and beneath the ruined villas as sources of lost wealth.

One small section of the Imperial Necropolis on the Esquiline Hill
Regio VII. Esquillae
Largely made up of the Esquiline Hill and the upper greenbelt ridge that divides the eastern Marcian Walls with the summits of the Quirinal, Viminal, and Cispian Hills, Esquillae is a dangerous regio dominated  by the tomb of the evil Third Witch-King (remembered only as the Anti-Pater) and the imperial necropolis contained behind it, which serves as the chief source of all the undead in the ruined city.

Regio VIII. Alta Semita
Containing the Quirinal, Viminal, and Cispian Hills and the upper summit behind the hills, Alta Semita was a rich and sumptuous district of villas, basilicas, schools, and temples affording excellent views of the lower regios of the city. Today, it is perhaps the most dangerous and overrun ruin in the city, due to the presence of two witch king tombs on the lower summits of two hills and one witch king tomb built beneath a massive and ruined bath complex on the upper summit.

The old Temple of Sol Invictus
Regio IX. Overlook
Dominated by the long ridge of the Pincian Hill, Overlook was known as the Hill of Gardens due to the overabundance of pleasures gardens and recreational complexes. Bordering with the Regio I. Campus Marcianus district, this densely built district is a key focus for exploration delves and holds the ruins of the first Temple of Sol Invictus, rumored to be filled with great wealth in its hidden lower vaults.

Regio X. Velabrum
Once the political heart of the mighty city centered on the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, today the Velabrum is littered with ruined forums, crumbling market porticoes, overgrown horse tracks and amphitheaters, and, at the heart of it all, the dangerous and deadly tomb of the First Witch King, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, perched atop the Palatine Hill.

Image Credits:

Images #1-#5: Map by author, working from the public domain image "Plan of the Hills of Ancient Rome," engraved by C. Smith, Strand (link).

Image #6: Roman Graveyard Image from Lapham's Quarterly (link).

Image #7: "Model Temple of Aphaia Glyptothek Munich" (link).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Play Report #1: Beer Wisdom in the Ruins of Vanor

Scene: A quiet evening of drink and talk in the Laughing Goat, a salty tavern built on a pier jutting out into the Basana River from the Transbasana regio, is this very night concerned with the recent workings of the Diggers College.

"Heard the Diggers are makin' a push into the Overlook."

"Really? Thought they did most of their delvin' in old villas outside the walls?"

"Well, the head man, John of Tharsensis--"

"Oh, shame how he died...."

"Certe, certe, seems like the wolves are gettin' worse every season. Anyway, ole John set his best Diggers to task on it before he met the Sun. Even rounded up some burly, mute Northmen and a gobbo turncoat to fill the delve out. It's the talk of the Fields, or so I hear."

"Mute Northmen?!? Gobbo turncoats? Was John tryin' to kill it before it started?"

"Don't be talkin' ill o' the dead. The Diggers seem like alright people. And they care about this city a whole heap more than some others I could name."

"Hey, ab imo pectore, friend, didn't mean nothin' by it. Just surprising is all. How's the push going?"

"Well, friend of mine who frequents the Digger flea market heard talk they made their first delves into the old Temple of Sol Invictus."

"The one on the Palatine?"

"Certe non, I said Overlook. This one is apparently on the lower slopes of the Quirinal."

"Huh, didn't know there was one there. What'd they find?"

"Slime, skeletons, stinkin' gobbos, and some death to finish it off. One of the Northmen drank poison."

"Drank poison?!? Just swilled it down? He lose a bet or something?"

"Who knows. You know Varangians. They'll drink anythin' if it's in a horn or looks like bee juice."

"Certe, friend, certe."

Image Sources:

Image #1: "Mead" by Eldoras (link).

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Religion in Vanor: The Church of the Unconquered Sun

Sol Invictus is the Sun Personified; the Sun as Light, Warmth, Rebirth, and Symmetry; the Martial Sun who forges order throughout the cosmos; the Great Sun who rises each day to bring light and life to the world, then descends into the Star Sea to do battle with the Chaotic Night Below. He has never lost this war. He is the Unconquered Sun.

In the ruins of mighty Vanor, the Church of the Unconquered Sun conducts and maintains the Solian creed, directing the proper rituals; ministering to the faithful; and recording the litany of the past from the Great Solarium in the Campus Vaticanus regio. It is a henotheistic faith, which means it worships and holds preeminent a single god while also tolerating the existence of other deities, sects, spirits, and cosmologies in the world. In the past, this tolerance has not always manifested itself very positively in the Church's dealings with other faiths, but since the fall, it has generally comported itself more liberally, out of necessity if nothing else.

Sol Invictus's chief symbols are the sun disc, the sun star (a sun disc with six star points), and the flaming pilum (a short throwing spear).

The Creed
According to tradition, a Vanoran's life is one of cyclical change and perpetual renewal. The Church teaches that all life in the universe comes from the Great Sun in the form of sun sparks, which constitute one's conscious being (i.e., one's soul). Upon death, an individual's sun spark ascends up into the Great Sun, becomes cleansed in the holy fire, and then descends once more to the world to be reborn. Vanorans usually symbolize this process through funeral pyres and cremation rituals followed by the erection of ustrina, or cremation altars.

This perpetual and enduring process changed slightly with the coming of Lucius Aurelius Solius Invictus, the first Witch-King of Vanor. According to the Church, the first Witch-King, at the height of his glory, prowess, and might, discovered the immutable truth of the universe. This ur knowledge, normally beyond the ken of human understanding or comprehension, gave Sol Invictus the means to achieve Unitas ("unity") with the hyper cosmos (i.e., that which is beyond all). Upon his death, the sun spark of Sol Invictus rose up into the Great Sun and, instead of returning anew into the world once more, it transcended beyond.

Now when a person's sun spark joins with the Great Sun upon death, Sol Invictus himself sits in judgment. Those deemed worthy and ready are allowed to achieve Unitas and join the Hypersol ("The Sun Beyond"). Those deemed not ready for judgment are returned to the world to be born anew and to continue working toward the higher path of Unitas. Those deemed unworthy are cast out of the Great Sun into the Star Sea, never to be reborn or reach Unitas, to float for all eternity in the Blackest Night.

Therefore, those wishing to transcend beyond and join the Hypersol receive guidance and instruction in the higher mysteries from the Church itself, which remains the terrestrial arbiter of Sol Invictus's spiritual path to Unitas, and the Collegium Solare, or Solar College, which consists of saintly individuals past and present whose lives and deeds demonstrate this path.

The Calendar
One of the Church's most vital yet taxing obligations is the maintenance of the celestial calendar called the Decimemoria. Nominally for record-keeping and the timing of festivals and holy weeks, the Decimemoria represents the Church's efforts to provide the faithful with some semblance of order and structure in the chaotic world left in the wake of the Vanoran collapse. The Church has maintained the Decimemoria for over 420 years.

Measured by the regular if inconsistent movements of constellations and other stellar objects in the Star Sea (most notably the ringed planet Helios), the Decimemoria is a decennial calendar where one celestial year consists of 129 months of twenty-eight days each and forty-three festival/holy weeks of seven days each. This makes each celestial year 3,913 days long, or approximately ten solar years and nine months in length.

The Decimemoria is a complex calendrical system that proves difficult for the Church to maintain adequately. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the imprecise movements of stellar objects in the Star Sea and the irregular pattern of seasons make it difficult to measure consistently the passage of time in the world. As such, the Church regularly needs to revise the calendar, leading in some instances to the rearranging or removal of entire months of festival weeks. In one notorious incident, the Church decreed the removal of an entire solar year from Celestial Year XXXII (thirty-two).

Second, there is considerable debate within the Church over the proper role of the Decimemoria and the use of more accurate calendrical systems. Thus, while the Decimemoria is the canonical church calendar, other orders and sects associated with the Church regularly advocate their own idiosyncratic calendars. For instance, the Stylite Monks of the Seeping Dawn, popularly known as the Column Pissers (not a term of endearment), claim to have discerned a pattern of time keeping in the occurrences of rainfall upon the ruined city, leading to their insistent proclamations that it is currently the year 8,631 since the first rains fell on Vanor (this date has not changed for a number of years).

Finally, the complexity of the Decimemoria and the proffering of competing calendars has led to much lay resistance in adopting any calendrical system. Most living in the ruins of Vanor maintain a rough attachment to straightforward solar-based calendars pegged to any number of foundational years or merely note the passage of time by the seasons, with no particular care whether or not there are calculation errors or misalignments in the systems. This has made the Church's advocacy of the Decimemoria that much more challenging.

Image Sources:

Image #1: Sun Disc by Bulldoggenliebchen (link).

Image #2: Giant Prominence on the Sun Erupted (link).

Image #3: Ars Pacis Virtual Recreation (link).