Friday 11 March 2022

More encounters from the City of Spires: the uplands

Second in a series of three 1d10 encounter tables, one for each of the three biomes that my PCs have been most active in recently. This post covers the uplands. Feel free to roll on them next time you need to stock a random hex!

1: Wooded hills dotted with overgrown ruins. There are many springs and streams, here, but not all are safe to drink from: some ancient catastrophe seems to have poisoned many of the aquifers, and the area is shunned by travellers, who fear that drinking from the wrong stream could spell their death. These lands are inhabited by clans of hidden folk, who live in concealed settlements deep in the forests, and keep watch on outsiders from afar. They are the only ones who know where to find the ruined, poisoned cities that their ancestors once fled from, and of which they consider themselves the ancestral guardians. Today these ruins are roamed by ex-human monsters over whom the clans maintain a sorrowful watch, believing them to be all that remains of those who did not flee quickly enough when disaster came.

2: Uplands inhabited by furry, bestial abhumans, who roam the vallies by day and creep back to their lairs by night. They have learned how to make crude gunpowder using the nitrate pools in the foothills: it's vile stuff, coarse and smoky and impure, but the abhumans love their bombs and blunderbusses and use them fearlessly despite their tendency to explode in the faces of their wielders. By these means they carry on an ancestral feud with the human mountain clans (see 3), killing them when they can and nailing their turbans to the walls of their hillforts as trophies. Though brave in battle, they live in fear of the cruel ghosts said to haunt the mountains, who carry their victims off into the heights and leave them to perish in the snows. Their king dwells in a ruined clifftop castle, his armoury stuffed with prodigeous quantities of black powder. 

3: Mountains claimed by rival clans who live by herding and raiding from inaccessible villages hidden amidst the scree slopes, their independence guaranteed by the impassable nature of the terrain, which they navigate with the same agility as the mountain goats they herd. They are easily spotted afar off amidst the rocks and snow by the bright red fabric of their turbans, though these are grey withinside and are worn inside out when the mountain-men do not wish to be seen. They are great travellers, roaming far and wide across peaks that anyone else would regard as uncrossable, and serve an important role as traders and messengers between peoples whom the mountains would otherwise have severed utterly. Outsiders passing through their lands are usually seized and held prisoner for ransom, though the clans do this entirely without malice, regarding it simply as the immemorial custom of their people. 

4: These hills are infested with rebels, who raised their standards a few years back, dreaming of rallying the people and sweeping their king from his throne. That didn't happen, and the king's men drove them into the uplands - but then his armies were called away by troubles on the border, and the rebels have been here ever since, lurking in the forested valleys, unable to return home while they are regarded as enemies of the crown. Initially many of the local communities supported them, but with each year that passes the 'contributions' they level on the nearby villages looks more like simple theft, and they are well on their way to degenerating into a mere bandit gang with a fancy flag. Their leader is a charismatic aristocrat who has discovered, somewhat to her own surprise, that she much prefers her new life as a terrifying bandit queen to her old life as an admired and accomplished young noblewoman. Her spiritual advisor, a saintly healer-priest, is quite besotted with her, and continues to insist on the obvious righteousness of their cause even as their grand rebellion declines into mere brigandage. 

5: High in these hills stand isolated villages, whose inhabitants practise a syncretic faith that combines the local state religion with worship of their ancestors. Each family traces its lineage back to one of a set of founder-heroes, to whom they maintain household shrines - a practise that has repeatedly got them into trouble with the religious authorities, who regard them as borderline-heretical and mistreat them accordingly. Their men are famous for their courage in battle, claiming their bravery comes from the knowledge that their ancestors are watching over them. The most closely-held secret of these villages is that their ancestors really are watching over them, having gained a ghastly immortality from deals struck with a dark spirit of the desert: by day they sleep beneath their ancient burial mounds, but at night they squirm from the cracks of the ground to watch over their descendants from afar. After so many years the ancestors have become bestial and barely-human, with wild eyes, claw-like nails, and tough, fibrous flesh covered only by their black and matted hair. They are a mad and bloodthirsty bunch, but their descendants are fiercely devoted to the 'grandparents' who have protected and watched over them for so long. Only the elders of each community are entrusted with knowledge of the hidden burial grounds where the ancestors 'live', and are charged with keeping them supplied and placated with offerings of blood. 

6: These rocky, forested hills were once inhabited only by solitary trappers and hermits, but the lands upon which they border are now ruled by a cruel lord who overburdens his subjects with conscription and taxation. Driven to desperation, a growing number of people have simply abandoned their old lives and fled into the woods, joining fledgling communities nestled in remote valleys where they hope the lord's men will never find them. They have acquired a protector of sorts in the form of a malfunctioning clockwork warrior with bladed wings, who was unwisely revived from deactivation by another local ruler, and promptly mutinied when it was unable to match its current circumstances with the memories recorded in its fractured mechanical mind. Paranoid and unhinged, this automaton assumes any soldiers it sees have been sent to recapture it, and murders any who trespass into its domain - a fact which has so far stymied the local lord's efforts to reclaim his errant subjects. He is growing increasingly irate about this, and has offered large bounties for anyone capable of destroying this mysterious defender of the woods.

7: Officially these hills are the site of one of the local ruler's hunting lodges, and nothing else. Secretly, however, he also maintains a hidden prison here, in a low, mossy fort concealed by screens of trees. Here he stashes those inconvenient individuals whose disappearance he has deemed desirable, who are dragged to the prison by night and kept in ignorance of its location. They are watched over by snarling semi-human guards, who have been alchemically modified by the king's enchanters to ensure their ferocity and remove their ability to speak. Here many people are held who are generally believed to be dead, including high-status individuals implicated in a recent rebellion (see 4).

8: Half of an ancient castle clings to a mountainside, here - the other half lies smeared and tumbled across the slope below, having been toppled in an earthquake centuries before. Once the seat of some ancient tyrant, it is now the home of an exiled magician, banished from her homeland for dealings with unholy beings who promised her knowledge and power - an opportunity whose loss she still very much regrets. Since taking up residence here she's managed to refurbish the flying stone skull-throne that belonged to the castle's original owner, an airbourne symbol of power and terror that has allowed her to convince the inhabitants of the surrounding villages that she's a terrible witch whose wrath must be placated with offerings of food, herbs, and flowers. Although amoral in the pursuit of knowledge, she's otherwise a decent enough sort, and far from the fearful hag the villagers imagine her to be, even if her years of living in isolation are making her increasingly eccentric...

9: Long ago, this mountain was partially hollowed out by a now-fallen empire as the resting place of its most honoured dead. Whole sections of the complex have collapsed over the centuries: what remains is accessible only by clambering through ancient elevator shafts, and is still defended by zomborg guardians, who stand watch over endless rows of ancient, embalmed corpses in broken glass cases. Few were buried with much treasure, but the halls are an antiquarian's paradise, and the cumulative value of all those rings and earrings and belt buckles is considerable. In the uppermost part of the complex the embalmers themselves still rest in cryosleep, though various freezer malfunctions over the centuries has turned their brains to mush: if revived they will mostly come lurching from their chambers crazed and screaming, some of them brandishing still-dangerous cybernetic limbs. Only one of them, an apprentice embalmer wearing a protective amulet gifted to him by his sorcerer uncle, is really reviveable alive and sane, though he will be utterly distressed to learn that his civilisation has fallen while he slept. 

10: Beneath this mountain lies a great vault, built to contain the egg of the Great Worm. At some point after the fall of the civilisation that built it, the egg hatched, giving birth to a vast, blind worm-god crawling endlessly around its prison. At some point after that a band of luckless refugees chose the wrong cave in which to seek shelter, and ended up being converted into worm cultists by the psychic radiation of the monster-god below. Now they and their worm-man followers labour endlessly to dig their way through the innumerable tons of rubble that lie between them and their buried god: already they have dug close enough that anyone descending into the lower workings will be enveloped in the dreams of the Great Worm, a hallucinatory dream-world of alien jungles that the Worm recalls through ancestral memory, but has never actually seen. The cultists have unearthed many relics of the ancient world in the course of their excavations, and will eagerly trade these for sturdy pickaxes and shovels if the opportunity arises. Vulnerable travellers who are unable or unwilling to hook them up with good shovel suppliers will be abducted and dragged down below instead, where the Great Worm's psychic radiation will progressively transform them into worm cultists as well. 


  1. Love me some hollow mountains. Little miniature hollow-earths poking out above the surface.

    Also that last one, goddang! :o

  2. The wacky worm cultists are very amusing indeed, until they succeed in digging out their God and unleash it upon the world. Then it gets a lot less funny.

    1. My PCs reached much the same conclusion, funnily enough. They managed to find 'diplomatic solutions' for almost everyone else: the witch, the rebels, the mountain clans, etc. But they concluded that the worm cult were just too dangerous to live, and ultimately exterminated them with the aid of a trainload of killer robots.

    2. I can imagine. Also, any story that includes the phrase "trainload of killer robots" has to be interesting.

  3. Do you have some sort of setting primer for this? I've been reading your latest posts the past few weeks and would like to delve a little deeper, but with some sort of structure to my browsing!

    1. 'City of Spires' is the campaign that resulted from me adapting my romantic animist fantasy Wicked City material (written 2015-8) to the action-adventure science-fantasy world of my Team Tsathogga campaign (played 2016-19). The result was basically 'science fantasy Central Asia if all the Silk Road cities were built on top of ancient ruins crammed with dangerous magitech relics.' We're currently three years in.

      I've never written a 'setting primer' for it, because it's an exploration-based game and my players read this blog, but my notes on the process of adaptation that led to it can be found here:

      I guess I could do an overview-level writeup of the campaign world (or at least the bits of it the PCs have discovered so far) if people were interested in it...

    2. Thanks for those links!

      I would certainly cast my vote for seeing some sort of small campaign bible for it - I'm enjoying reading about it, but am at a bit of a loss on what to read when and where at any given point. :)