Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Lost City of Legend

It could be a lost city of gold, or maybe the silver mine those two men were killed over.  Or maybe it's a whole lost kingdom in the mountains, full of jade and fruits and luxury.

Legends of lost and bountiful places make for great adventure.  They're a great way to combine searching for a lost treasure with exploring the wilderness.

Overgrown Ruins - Nicole Cadet

Lost places come in many kinds.  For this article, I'll be focusing on five:

Lost Place (d10)
1-2a lost Mine for a valuable mineral
3-4a lost City of wealth and wisdom
5-6a lost Tomb that might contain power and truth (along with bones, of course)
7-8a lost Colony built around a bountiful crop or healing waters
9-10a lost Country ruled by a good philosopher-king

Legends of lost mines show up all throughout America, and they're easy to drop into a setting just about anywhere.  A ragged mountain man shows up in town one day with some bits of silver they don't want to talk about, and presto: the legend of a mine is born.  (A legend of a lost mine can easily overlap with a gold rush.)

Lost cities are a bit harder to hide, but in a vast enough wilderness full of hostile people and hostile terrain, just about anything could be out there.  In a land that has suffered a great apocalypse, there's always the possiblity that a wealthy city once existed whose inhabitants all died, leaving their treasures behind.

Tombs and burial mounds are left behind by many civilizations, and it's no surprise when their richest people are buried with great wealth.  Most of these get plundered almost immediately, but every now and then the tomb of a powerful ruler is lost to time (like the tomb of Genghis Khan).

Colonies don't usually disappear, but when they do (like Roanoke) speculation runs wild.  Did they leave for greener pastures?  Did they all die?  (A search for a missing colony can fit well with a great migration going on.)

A lost country is much like a lost city: hidden by distance and unknown country more than anything else.  Legends of the great power to the north or the Jade Empire to the west might turn out to be true.  Medieval European legend spoke of a great Christian kingdom somewhere beyond the Arab world, ruled by the wise Prester John.

Let's roll up a lost place as we're going along.  4: A lost city of wealth and wisdom.

St. Brendan the Navigator
What esoteric or secretive group was said to have founded this place?

Supposed Founders (d8)
1an elven imperial military unit that was supposedly wiped out by a poorly-known enemy
2a fierce giantish house whose annual monument was made of human skulls
3an ancient human kingdom said to know secrets of the earth
4a wise giant poet who led a band of followers into the mountains and was never seen again
5an elven religious brotherhood that was expelled from the empire
6a human conspiracy said to practice witchcraft and summon spirits
7a utopian society of two peoples working as one
8a company or lone entrepreneur who hired/enslaved workers

A good legend of a lost place starts with its founders: the secret silver mines of the Jesuit order, the lost cities of the ancient ancestors of the west, the tomb of the Crow King.  They supposedly went off to go build this place for their own private reasons.

8: A company or lone entrepreneur who hired/enslaved workers.  I'm imagining one of the powerful elven trade corporations, going off and founding a secret city somewhere in the Northern Lands, as their own private enclave, outside of imperial authority.

But how have they managed to keep it secret all this time?  Why would they want to keep it secret in the first place?

Reason for Secrecy (d12)
1-3so the authorities couldn't take a share of its wealth
4-6so their enemies wouldn't destroy it
7-9so they could prepare for war
10-11because they all died before it could be discovered
12to wait until the world was ready for its revelation

9: Secret so they could prepare for war.  A corporation founding a secret city so they could prepare to wage war against...another company?  One of the major colonies?  The empire itself?  Some kind of great intrigue was going on with this place, intrigue that might still matter in politics of today.

The secret city of the Indigo Company, full of guns and ready for war.

(Looks like I need to finish that blog post about random trade companies.)

All they found was "Croatoan" carved on a tree.

Some clue gets the adventure started.  Roll to see how the protagonists become aware of the legend, then roll again for another clue to get the ball rolling.

Clues of Its Existence (d12, twice)
1an incomplete map with very specific directions
2a ragged traveler on the brink of death who claims to have found it
3an old story of an explorer who made several attempts to find it, never returning from their last
4an old wooden object, carved with a revealing name or sign
5a small golden item with a face that has a strange feature
6an earlier site that turned out to be unsuitable for it and was abandoned
7tales of a treasure hunter who found signs of it a while back
8a piece of artwork depicting it in its surroundings
9a widely-believed prophecy
10records of the disappearance of its creators
11a song or nursery rhyme that everyone already knows
12an old book with some pages torn out

10: records of the disappearance of its creators.

Digging around in records of the Indigo Company (trying to find out what happened to a ship, the Saint Tevel) the party notices a curious pattern.  Several major administrators' records all stop in the year 1602 without any note that they died or left the company.  1602 is also the year several of the IC's ships disappeared, along with a sizeable amount of wheat, gunpowder, and gold.

7: tales of a treasure hunter who found signs of it a while back

Everyone who knows about the indigo trade has been telling the party to look for the wreck of the Saint Tevel down in the southern isles, but there's one account of a treasure hunter who claims to have seen the ship's bell in a human town up north.  That treasure hunter might still be alive.

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island - William Hodges

As they investigate the story, the adventurers should learn of some particular landmarks that lead to the lost place.  Whether there's an explicit map or just some bits and pieces of information about a journey, the tale tells of landmarks along the way.  (Three sounds like a good number.)

Landmarks in the Tale (d20, thrice)
1an out-of-place name or sign carved on a tree
2a cairn of stones with an unexpected artifact underneath
3a rock that looks like a face from the right angle
4an island surrounded by cliffs with only one safe landing place
5a two-headed mountain whose peaks line up with another feature
6a tribe of humans with an unusual appearance
7a stone statue from an ancient civilization
8a copper medallion, wrapped in cloth and recently buried
9sunlight on a certain day of the year shines through a gap to show the way
10a single tree that bears fruit in the wrong season
11strangely-colored birds who line their nests with something valuable
12a tree that has grown around bones
13a shipwreck quite a ways from the shore
14a mighty waterfall that can be heard for miles around
15a lone tree in a dry and barren land
16the place where jade and copper are traded once a year
17ruins of a settlement that was utterly destroyed
18a deep shaft into the earth where mining once failed
19an underground journey beneath the high mountains
20one of the great natural wonders of the world

18: failed mining shaft, 17: ruins of a settlement, 5: two-headed mountain

The treasure hunter's story eventually led them to the human town up north, where the party met an old human woman who had heard stories of elven castaways from her grandfather when she was a young girl.

She told them that the elves were shipwrecked and built a town to survive the winter, and that they killed many of the humans.  Her grandfather led an army to subjugate the elves, destroying their town and enslaving them to do menial work.  They were taken somewhere off to the west to work in the ancient mine where the two-headed mountain becomes one.

In the Longhouse - Lewis Parker

As the legend spread outwards from its source, it changed, getting less accurate as the miles and years wear on.  From the adventurers' perspective, the legend usually gets more accurate as you get closer.

When entering a new region or country, roll to see how the legend changes.  If you're on the right path, the local version of the story is more accurate than what you heard before.

Development (d6, occasionally)
1It gets bigger. (The lost city of gold? They say it's the capital of a whole empire.)
2It gets older. (The colony of Nayan? According to the journal, it was founded on the site of an earlier settlement.)
3It gets smaller. (Seven cities of jade? There's only one that I know of.)
4It gets darker. (The old mine of Taratessa? I hear they massacred all the slaves working down there.)
5It changes into a different type. (The fabled Snake Kingdom? They say its wonders were all buried with its last king.)
6The legends lead you to something similar, but underwhelming. This is not it, but a lesser place confused with it in the stories. The true place is still out there.

4: It gets darker.

Journeying into the northwest, the adventurers come to the Black River country, where they eventually find the mine once worked by the elven castaways.  There they read the words the elves left behind, scratched onto rock and written with blood.  The castaways were planning to escape and rejoin the other ships at the site of the secret city, and their writings reveal something dark about the purpose of that place.

I have some ideas of what the dark purpose of the city could be, but I'll wait till I've rolled on the last table below.  Something about the nature of the apocalypse?

Seekers of the Seven Cities of Gold - Jim Carson

The lost place will not be easy to find.  Following clues and legends is hard enough, but there are other reasons the journey will be difficult.

Difficulties (d10, twice)
1It's much farther inland than the legends say.
2It's in a very rugged/dangerous country.
3The legends have gotten it mixed up with a different place.
4It was moved/rebuilt at a new site.
5It's now underwater, covered by the sea/river/swamps, possibly only visible at low tide.
6Someone powerful is gaining great wealth/knowledge from it.
7Its builders (or their descendants) still defend it.
8Searching for it will draw the attention of a cruel enemy.
9It's buried under a present-day settlement, reachable only by a deep well or chasm.
10A strange and fearsome species dwells in the vicinity.

2: rugged/dangerous country
5: now underwater

The secret city of the Indigo Company was built in one of the fjords of the inhospitable northern coast.  Mountains in the interior, rocks and fierce storms on the shore, there's a reason the elves never officially ventured this far north.

When the apocalypse came, a great wave destroyed the city and its ruins are now only explorable at low tide.

Discovering a Lost City - Søren Bak

Discovering this lost place will change things in ways beyond the control of the protagonists.  There could be a powerful artifact here or immense wealth.  This place could contain truths that should have remained hidden, or it could be the sign spoken of in the prophecy.

Effect of Its Discovery (d10)
1-2It contains something amazing: a lost technological marvel, a magic tool from folklore, or a lost treasure.
3-4You will learn the secret behind the rise of one of the great powers of the world.
5-6Immense wealth can be found inside, though it'll take a lot of work to extract/transport it.
7-8Kings and governors will wage war over this place.
9-10The prophecy will come to pass and a sign will be seen in the heavens.

1: It contains something amazing.

The secret city of the Indigo Company contains a lost technological marvel of the age before the world ended, a great engine that could detect deposits of gold from hundreds of miles away.  It functioned best in the cold winds of the north, and it consumed great quantities of coal each time it was run.  But it also caused catastrophic side effects that eventually collapsed the land around the secret city, and it was smashed by the great wave.

They knew about the side effects, and they didn't care that it would eventually destroy the city and kill its inhabitants.  As long as the Company gained enough gold to fund its army, they didn't care how many lives would be lost in the process.  But the city failed before the Company could find the gold.

So of course the adventurers discover the logs of the distant gold detected by the engine, along with plans for the engine itself.  The Company survived the apocalypse.  It's not so clear the adventurers will survive the Company.

Roll up your own lost place of legend:

random Lost Place
lost place
supposed founders
reason for secrecy
clues of its existence
landmarks in the tale
development as you travel
effect of its discovery