Friday, May 6, 2011

The Black City: the Story of Trade Town

Before launching into the details of Trade Town, the small home base area for the Northmen on the island of Thule, some history is in order.

The Thule archipelago and the Black City were discovered by the raider Harald Olvirson some few years ago when his ship and crew were blown off course by a storm.  They began exploring the city, liberated some strange artifacts, and sold them for a small fortune in the southern market town of Hedeby.  Over the course of several years, Olvirson tried to keep the islands a secret, returning each spring with his growing fleet to build a semi-permanent settlement at the site of Trade Town.

Meanwhile, some of the curious artifacts sold in the markets were carried south to the decadent cities of the inner sea in the hands of Araby merchants.  One of these items, a gold tablet with curious dot matrix inscriptions, reached the vizier of Prince Dion of Karkhedon.  The Prince's vizier, Shafat, a scheming wizard, deciphered the writing and realized it was a spell fragment that predated even the awesome magicks of the ancient Hyperboreans, forerunners of all modern wizards.  Shafat followed the trail of the tablet back to the source, and ultimately journeyed with the Northmen to see the Black City for himself.

In the intervening years, the legendary Harald Olvirson was lost in the ruins, but his successor (Bergfinn the Bold) has created a new strategy to exploit the city.  His loyal retainers, Bergfinn's Bashers, keep the law in Trade Town and operate a checkpoint at the Well of Woe entrance to the city.  At the Well of Woe, they've built scaffolding and ladders to ease descent into the sub levels, and occupy a small armed checkpoint for escorting laden or injured raiders in and out of the city - for a price.

The Wizard Shafat has used an "instant fortress" to establish a wizard's tower on the hill overlooking Trade Town.  Through some magical means, a steady stream of luxury trade goods and adventuring equipment from the southern cities reaches the wizard's tower, and raiders from the city line up outside the tower to have the wizard's assistants weigh, catalog, and either buy or discard the strange artifacts they've liberated from the ruins.  A growing pile of discarded baubles and refuse grows on the side of the hill.

Back in the Northlands, when spring arrives, freemen and farmers prepare their homesteads for the growing season, fixing fences and planting crops, and then make decisions for the summer trading  and raiding season.  Many take up Bergfinn's offer to explore the city, and point their ships northward towards the island of Thule, to raid the ruins and recover artifacts and baubles to sell to the wizard for luxury items from the south.

By late spring, a handful of long ships are beached near the Trade Town, their crews setting up tents or building simple longhouses with imported timbers.  By summer's end, the raiders have made their deals with the wizard Shafat and sail their way home before the autumn storms make the northern waters unsafe.  More than a few Vikings, distrustful of the greasy southern wizard, still take their ships to the market town of Hedeby for the buying and selling.  And every year, Bergfinn's Bashers are able to take custody of those ships that go unclaimed by summer's end, their crews lost forever in the ruins.  In many cases, a relative or kinsman returns the following year to claim the ship back, and Bergfinn is glad to reach settlement and turn the ship over to the family.

The history above provides a little background on the player's roles at the start of the game.  They'll be Northmen of the freemen class - warriors or farmers - who leave behind thralls to do the work and family members to mind the farm, while they seek adventure on the seas.  Their local lord, a chieftain or "Hersir" likely outfitted the first ship they sail with to reach Thule at the start of the game.  Each ship is expected to pack enough supplies to weather a summer of camping on the rocky shore not far from Bergfinn's Trade Town.

There will be limited amenities in Trade Town, just the basics to support D&D style adventuring - things like clerical healing, food and shelter, a great hall for meeting other adventurers and recruiting mercenaries, and a place to buy adventuring equipment.  Shafat's assistants can conjure most items within a week, but everything offered by the wizard is at ridiculous inflationary prices.

Character classes will include the basics.  Northmen could be fighters (vikings) and thieves; clerics will be warrior priests of the Northern gods.  Magic users would be rare amongst the Northmen, but could represent southerners like Shafat or scholars from the continent.  Recently freed thralls or ex-thralls could introduce foreigners from the southern lands.  For instance, using a fantasy version of dark ages Europe, you could imagine monks or scholars as clerics or wizards, Byzantine mercenaries or visiting knights from the continent as fighters.  I'm undecided if demihumans will play much of a role, but elves and dwarves fit the theme, and halflings could be amongst the ex-thralls.

If you have an opinion on rules edition, don't forget to vote on the poll 'which system should the Black City campaign use'.

When I post part 2 of Trade Town, it will include the details for the home base and get that place ready to go!


  1. Hey Beedo, I know your Vikings aren't strictly historical in inspiration, but Viking Trade towns there were a plenty, and you could draw on Kaupang, Birka, Gotland,and early Dublin for inspiration. You'll have to choose between a Ringfort style town or an open settlement (ala the icelandic trading towns or an expanded version of Lans Au Meadows). Very few of (real) Vikings would be staying in such a "town", but they would be making semi (or even completely) subtereanean "booths". Basically 10 - 30 foot long rectangular buildings made of yard wide turf walls and a woolen tent roof. These would be scattered around within walking distance of town.

  2. Thule is above the arctic circle, so folks really only beach there for the summer - other than adventurers, no one else comes "to trade". But I like the idea that the structures might be dug outs with turf walls and wool tent roofs - it's easy to picture. I'll see if there are any layouts for those historical trade towns online that might give ideas for the map - thanks!

  3. Sounds like a decent starting base. Like the use of an 'instant' tower too.

  4. Birka was actually written up in "Towns" by mmidkemia press - but its only a very loosely inspired version. Turf walled structures are the Viking adaptation to arctic and sub arctic conditions. The tent coverd deals are the "Thing Booths" built for temporary summer camps at meeting sites. Here's a somewhat more permanently built example

  5. That's a great link - that whole journal about the visit to Iceland is really fascinating - what an interesting place for a trip!