Population: 30,000,000 (48% humans, 10% gnomes, 10% half-elves, 10% dwarves, 8% elves, 7% orcs, 5% half-orcs, 2% other)
Exports: Manufactured goods, grain, livestock, wine, books
Imports: Spices, silk, charcoal, wood
Languages: Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnome
Dominated by humans since its founding more than three thousand years ago, the Aureshan Empire has outlasted other human “empires” by tenfold. At its greatest point, the Empire’s borders encompassed not only its current boundaries but the lands of the Federated River Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Enteria, in addition to the corsair-city of Hara. Still . . . powerful, fabulously wealthy, the Empire endures, albeit lessened in size and despite invasions and civil wars down the corridor of its long history.
The success of the Aureshan Empire owes to the fact that although it is dominated by humans, the Empire extends full citizens’ rights to members of any humanoid race. This has been true since its founding by the sons of Terel the Conqueror, a “barbarian” warlord who led his people from the steppes between the River Kingdoms and the downfallen elven nations of the south, then hammered a national identity from that core and the remnants of the conquered and converted peoples over which he’d made them overlords. From the beginning, Terel’s rule was a meritocracy—elves, dwarves, even orcs might earn positions of power and influence if they showed ability and loyalty. Terel’s heirs continued his policies, and the Empire was born.
In time, members of all the Empire’s chief races attained political rank as members of senatorial families and the legislative authority that came with it. But despite this cosmopolitain strain in the Empire’s culture, the imperial line has remained purely human. Although there have been powerful non-human bureaucrats and senators who used weak emperors as puppets, ruling in all but name, a veneer of legitimacy can be conferred upon such éminences grises only by their control of a properly crowned heir of imperial blood. Although the Empire has now seen the rise and fall of a dozen dynasties, all of them have been humans with a blood tie to the throne.
In the present day, the Empire is among the great powers of Tolrea. Centuries of slow decline under weak emperors have left smaller than at the height of its glory, with more power resting in the hands of the ancient noble families of the Senate and the obscenely wealthy mercantile princes of the great cities of Auresh, Wellen and Verdena. But the current emperor, Aurelon the Fifth, is a throwback to the time of his forbears. After fifty years on the throne, his grandfather, Aurelon IV, was deposed in a violent coup led by disaffected noblemen. The young emperor survived with the aid of a handful of loyal ministers and legionaries, and went on to sweep his traitorous foes from the field. Although he is only seventeen years old, the current Spokesman of the Gods and Ancestors is rapidly consolidating a power base that will give him a chance to reverse the slow shrinkage of the Empire’s borders.
The Aureshan Empire is ancient and its way of life has been substantially unchanged, in the rural areas, for most of the last two thousand years. The vast majority of its population is rural farmers who rent their fields from a local nobleman. Those nobles, in turn, may hold their property as the clients of greater nobles. A few landowners hold lands by the direct gift of the Imperial House; these individuals are typically noblemen or knights, and they range in importance from potentates of the Imperial court to freed slaves of the Imperial household whose hard work merits them a farm of their own.
Despite the upper classes’ near-total control of land ownership in the Empire, there is no such thing as serfdom within its borders; all free humanoids can become citizens if they are born to citizens on Aureshan soil, or if they are foreign-born but swear a formal oath of allegiance. Since a peasant farmer is free to end his lease of a parcel of land after any harvest (provided he pays off his rent to the lord of the land), the Empire’s citizens enjoy considerable social mobility.
This said, excessively high rent is a tool that can allow unscrupulous landlords to force peasants to stay when they would rather go, since freedom from a lease is predicated upon payment of outstanding debts. To prevent the worst of these abuses, the Imperial tax service sees to it that the value of a given parcel of land is assessed regularly. The assessment determines the taxes due from both the tenant and the lord to the Emperor; it also helps to determine equitable rents. The Emperor’s tax collectors take note when a noble indulges in this kind of behavior, since it leads to angry peasants . . . and sometimes to revolt.
But if such abuse is common enough to be a matter of interest to the tax service, it’s also rare enough that the Empire has a sizable, thriving urban middle class. The shopkeepers, craftsmen, merchants and scholars of the land congregate in its towns and cities. Most are rural peasants who left the countryside, or the descendants of such. More than any others, they have contributed to the growth of the Empire’s urban centers and the manufacturing and trade that take place in them.
As heirs to a cultural tradition spanning thousands of years, Aureshan citizens sometimes view foreigners with a sense of arrogant superiority. But despite the condescension even the highest levels of Aureshan society offer a degree of inter-class mixing that nearby societies do not tolerate, and “barbarians” who make a credible effort at the basics of Imperial etiquette can win a measure of acceptance.
For the lower class, life is simple and sometimes difficult – rural peasants seldom starve if they are willing to work hard, but their meals are heavy on vegetables, grains and dairy products rather than meat or poultry. The exceptions are on religious feast days, when several families may club together to slaughter, roast, and cook whole sheep or pigs. These small farmers are typically pious, but not prone to religious discrimination. It’s entirely ordinary for a peasant’s home to feature an altar to the family’s ancestral spirits alongside a shrine to Merthia, goddess of agriculture, or Oceus (or Herenus, if the peasant is actually a fisherman). Within such a household, it is unremarkable if one or more family members’ spirituality includes room for a totem animal, elemental devotion, or a fey patron such as a brownie.
The upper class enjoys an opulent lifestyle. Noble houses led by politically ambitious heads are often semi-nomadic during the winter and summer, traveling to the cities whenever permitted by the demands of managing their estates and then returning for spring planting and fall harvest, when the crops come in and taxes are due. Land management is a matter of interest to almost all serious-minded aristocrats, and it is socially expected for Aureshan gentry to be able to ride, hunt, and find their way in the wilderness. The sons and daughters of aristocratic families usually undergo a rigorous course of study that teaches them basic accounting, agronomy, and animal husbandry as necessary to enable them to administer the family estate. Lessons in dance, art, music or genteel crafts like embroidery and calligraphy are also expected, as is training in rhetoric and negotiation for those who harbor the ambition for a political career in the Imperial Senate. Members of any land-holding family can belong to the Senate, but the limited availability of senatorial chairs means fierce competition between candidates for office.
Inheritance of a noble’s estate usually passes half to the eldest son or daughter, with the remaining half being split so that a quarter of the estate passes to the next eldest and the remainder is devoted to the maintenance of the remaining children; deceased nobles without children usually pass their estates to the nearest legitimate sibling and dead houses’ lands revert to the Emperor. As a rule, the eldest heir’s portion is usually in the form of the family’s lands and estate, with cash and other movable goods being reserved for the younger siblings. Most aristocratic parents try to arrange favorable marriages for their offspring by using the inheritance money as an enticement.
Spirituality in the aristocratic families is superficially similar to that of the peasants who lease farms from them; ancestral shrines are nearly universal at the main residences of noble families. Merthian and Oceian shrines are similarly widespread, but many aristocrats also venerate Agon; corrupt gentlefolk may also honor Lereina or Ekar, and those with training as mages are often devoted to Vella. Particularly good-hearted aristocrats with military leanings and estates near the breeding grounds of monsters and evil humanoids sometimes follow Derena.
But animist practices—the peasants’ totem-worship, for example, or their veneration for elemental spirits—are markedly less common amongst the gentry. Whereas a farmer or other peasant laborer might approach the power of nature as a force to be respected and loved in keeping with druidic teachings, a nobleman often takes the wizardly approach and views nature and its spirits as resources to be put to work in service of mortals.
Between these two extremes falls the middle classes; neither tenant-farmers nor lords, these folk are artisans, merchants, shopkeepers, merchants and professionals who have carved out a life for themselves in the towns and cities of the Empire. The most powerful members of this social group rival the great noble houses in sheer wealth and influence, and some manage to arrange marriages with the younger sons and daughters of such houses.
Guilds and merchant consortia representing these prosperous mercantile and industrial interests have evolved over the last five hundred years into the Aureshan Collegia, which now rivals the Senate in terms of its political influence within the Empire. The number of mercantile princes is tiny compared to the total membership of these trade organizations, and as a unified body they are able to resist the aristocrats’ political machinations with remarkable vigor. Generally speaking, the two groups are evenly matched, and the Emperor and his bureaucrats use the deadlock as a means of creating political capital for themselves.
Spiritually, middle-class families in the Empire are very mixed. Some are true to their peasant roots and continue to display tendencies towards ancestor worship, veneration of animist spirits, and the worship of Merthia and Oceus. Others are attempting to co-opt aristocratic norms by gravitating towards Agon. Still others are staunch devotees of Corones, god of change. Seafaring merchants are especially likely to worship Herenus in his aspect as a god of travel, and the most ruthless members of the class often devote themselves to Lereina or Ekar. Compared to both the peasants and the aristocracy, however, the middle class is considerably more secular.
For the average humanoid on the streets of an imperial city or in the fields of the Empire’s countryside, politics are a distant concern. The Emperor is popular because he is viewed as a dynamic figure that makes things happen when the Senate and Collegia are deadlocked, but working people are otherwise uninterested in anything that doesn’t increase their tax burdens, cause food shortages or send their children off to war. Common laborers have little interest and less voice in the councils of the mighty, but riots and uprisings are not unheard of in exceptionally bad times or in the face of serious abuse from the upper crust.
Artisans, craftsmen, professionals and the rare freehold farmers of the Empire are more active politically because they have more to lose from unfavorable policy decisions on high. If hard times bring the working poor together into a mob, it is these skilled and educated individuals who frequently step forward to lead them. The clergy of Corones are overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the middle class’s skilled laborers and business owners.
In more settled times, the structure provided by the guilds and trading consortia, and above them by the Collegia, allow this group of ambitious men and women to loosen the stranglehold of the nobles of the Empire upon the reins of power. This struggle has been in progress for the past six centuries, and the traders and guilds have met considerable success in limiting the power of the nobility.
In general, political conflict within the Empire focuses upon rivalries between the middle class, the nobility, and the Emperor. Most nobles are agrarians at heart, because the source of their wealth is in their estates. Whether a particular noble family gets its income from lumber, ranching, farmland, or mining is almost irrelevant; the fundamental position of most noblemen is that the raw materials provided by their estates should be protected by tariffs against competition from foreign sources. The counterargument used by traders and craftsmen is that protective tariffs will hurt the Empire’s ability to export finished goods of all sorts when other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.
Another perennial conflict in Imperial politics is regarding the appropriate use of the Empire’s tax revenue, regardless of its source. Again, the middle class and the aristocracy fall at odds. Most of the Empire’s mercantile concerns are best served by a strong navy which can protect Imperial shipping and exert control over the oceans. Aristocrats are usually more interested in the Imperial Legion because their wealth is tied up in land and natural resources; a navy cannot defend and hold land. Similar disagreements play out with regard to the maintenance of roads versus navigable waterways, the allocation of water rights for use in irrigation or to drive mills and machinery, and dozens of other issues.
Political life is further complicated by the presence of druidic orders which displease traders and nobility alike by pressing for controls over how natural resources are used. Countless points of information – from the numbers and types of trees felled on a nobleman’s estate, to the amount of waste dumped into a river by a craftsman’s factory, to the amount of water diverted from that river for irrigation – are the basis for druidic meddling. Because of the druids’ role as religious leaders and authorities on natural spirits, they have a large following amongst the peasants of the Empire. Aristocrats and middle class alike have learned that they ignore druidic warnings at their peril.
Finally, political activity in the Empire is influenced by secret societies at every level of the culture. Nobles, merchants, and professionals of all sorts are commonly members of cabals that may include a handful or dozens of other members, all working together for common advantage towards some shared goal. The nature of these goals varies widely, from charitable endeavor to illegal drug smuggling to the collection of dark and forbidden magic; some secret societies are nothing more than social clubs that spend their time in revelry and merrymaking. The origin of this phenomenon is not well understood. Some scholars sometimes attribute it to imitation of druidic orders, but others think that the great guilds and trading consortia arose from similar beginnings.
The Emperor: Aurelon V governs from the city of Auresh at the center of a network of bureaucrats who collect taxes, gather intelligence on enemies foreign and domestic, and administer the programs and services under their liege’s care. His steady campaign to reclaim power from the Imperial Senate and Aureshan Collegia has earned him the respect of his servants in the Imperial government, and his deserved reputation for meritocracy continually attracts ambitious would-be officials to his service. Additionally, the Emperor is the chief magistrate of the Aureshan Empire, and thus presides over the highest court of the land. Other judges and courts are created by his command.
The Imperial Senate: The Senate, a legislative body composed of 500 representatives elected from the Empire’s hereditary nobility, exercises aristocratic rule. Most lawmaking is conducted through the Senate, which meets for a week at the spring and fall equinoxes and for two weeks at the summer and winter solstices to consider business. Special sessions are scheduled as needed by majority vote of the Senate; additionally, the Emperor can command the Senate to convene a meeting to deal with emergencies. Despite the burdensome duties of a senatorial chair, there are more than three times as many eligible noblemen as there are seats. Therefore the prestige and influence of such duty is enormously attractive to aristocratic houses, and the leading families of the Imperial aristocracy compete viciously for the privilege of filling one of the seats, which are elected along regional lines. Senatorial positions are held for life or until the incumbent relinquishes his chair.
The Aureshan Collegium: Legislative power is held by the mercantile middle class through the Collegium. This body of 900 representatives is drawn from the ownership of trading consortia and from the senior officers of the major guilds; each representative is elected to a six-year term. Like the Senate, they conduct sessions at the equinoxes and solstices, lasting one week and two weeks respectively. Unlike the Senate, however, the Collegium plans most business outside of formal sessions by appointing its most capable members to specialized committees. Such groupings of representatives may range in size from a dozen to twice that number, depending on the importance and urgency of the business at hand. The Collegium almost always votes in line with the recommendations of its committees, and the increased efficiency of its operation through this method makes it easier for them to counter the stratagems of the Senate.
Druidic Orders: The phenomenon of organized groups of druids with a single hierarchy and shared goals is not unique to the Aureshan Empire. But the Empire has more than its share of druidic orders that exercise real power over the political and economic circumstances of the areas in which they operate. These druids are frequently organized along monastic lines, and the druidic warrior-monks often practice martial arts that fuse unarmed combat with shape-shifting in spectacular ways. In addition to their martial prowess, the druidic monasteries often collect income as landlords over peasant farmers. Their role as spiritual leaders grants them enormous influence above and beyond their wealth and power, and as a result even the Emperor treats them with respect.
Auresh (Metropolis, population 135,303): The grand city of Auresh is the center of culture and public life in the Aureshan Empire. It is the site of the world’s largest temple to Agon, the imperial deity of government and justice, and the seat of power for Emperor Aurelon, the fifth of that name to sit upon the Ivory Throne. Auresh is a great crossroads of trade as merchants and cargo from all over the known world arrive by water and land to conduct trade, and the endless tides of commerce in the city support a thriving culture that values music, drama and fine cuisine as well as warfare and industry.
Verdena (Metropolis, population 51,196): Verdena is the third largest city of the Empire, lying at the hub of a network of farming and ranching communities that support a lucrative textile industry. Wool from the sheep raised in the countryside competes with cotton from neighboring plantations; both are woven into cloth of exceptional fineness and durability. Despite the textile merchants’ prosperity, a rivalry between the ranchers and planters threatens to break out into violence. A disproportionately large population of alchemists is active in partnership with the city’s dyers, who color the finished cloth in hundreds of brilliant hues. Verdena is also a popular staging point for adventuring expeditions, since the jungles of the southernmost reaches of the Empire are home to exotic plants and animals, potent artifacts from the downfallen elven kingdom of S’Darielos, and captives from the barbaric elven tribes that still inhabit the forests. All of these jungle treasures fetch a healthy price in Verdena’s bustling port.
Wellen (Metropolis, population 80548): Second only to the city of Auresh in terms of size, Wellen is a vast metropolis along the western coast of the Empire, and rivals Auresh in its capacity for commercial shipping. Wellen far exceeds the Imperial City in terms of its role as a military port, since it serves as the headquarters of the Empire’s admiralty. Its shipyards are the largest in the world, employing veritable armies of carpenters, metalworkers, ropemakers and sailmakers. Meritocracy rules the Imperial Navy, and the navy rules Wellen, so the middle class in this city is unusually large and powerful, consisting of a large proportion of retired naval officers who have turned to mercantile shipping.
Estavar (Large City, population 24,534): Nestled in the rugged eastern hills of the central empire, Estavar pre-dates the conquests of Terel by a thousand years. The core of its population now as then is a collection of dwarven families that joined the human warlord by choice rather than face him in battle. The subsequent millennia have been good to them, and the products of Estavar’s mining, smelting and smithing operations are eagerly sought after throughout the world. Contracts to provide over half the armor and weaponry of the Imperial Legion ensure that the dwarven craftsmen of the city are a byword for quality. The focus of this city is on serious work, and the adventurers who visit to use it as a staging point for hunts after wyverns, dragons and other dangerous creatures of the hills find its residents no more than professionally courteous, welcoming their coin but not the trouble their antics can stir up.
Pianura (Large City, population 21,107): Pianura is a busy river port at the junction of the Irenica River and the Lesser Auresh River, and the point of origin for vast quantities of grain and beans that are shipped downriver to Auresh and Wellen from the farmlands between the two rivers. Further east, rolling hills harbor the country estates of some of the Empire’s oldest noble families. These estates operate some of the richest vinyards of the nation, and as a result Pianura is a city of wine merchants. Large beds of clay near the city provide the raw materials for a variety of pottery goods, ranging from fine art pieces to huge amphorae used to ship the local vintages.
Areta (Large City, population 19,542): One of the industrial centers of the Aureshan Empire nestles in a large valley in the Arentine Mountains, north and west of the capital at Auresh. Areta is known for its wool, the fine granite and basalt quarried in the nearby mountains, and for the quality of the iron smelted from ore mined there. Gemstones, fine artwork, and excellent honey and mead are also exported from the area as trade commodities. Areta lies at the eastern end of the Ismar Pass, which allows passage across the Arentine range into the Stone Plains, the vast desert inhabited by the Ferendi nomads and assorted monsters. The nearby Imperial legions at Caster Arentine are responsible for defending the pass against raiders from both of these groups. Since the Ferendi are numerous but fractious and prone to blood feuds against each other, the legionaries consider Caster Arentine a boring but relatively easy posting, and view Areta’s taverns as a source of welcome relief from their otherwise tedious duties.
Floresta (Large City, population 13,713): Floresta is an ancient, prosperous city tucked along the shores of the River Ilog. It began its long history as the site of an elven city known to myth and legend as Luulesi’im. The original elven inhabitants were conquered by the human warlord Terel, who forced them into submission and relocated the majority to the modern city of Sabbia after razing Luulesi’im. Initially a semi-permanent camp, Floresta soon became a base of operations for timber buyers, and then attracted businesses to provide goods and services to the timber buyers. This rapid growth went unchecked for decades, even in the face of several outbreaks of disease and three fires that consumed whole neighborhoods. The last fire provided an excuse for an Imperial planning experiment that resulted in the city’s current layout of straight, broad, paved streets in an orderly grid, and an overwhelming majority of yellow-white brick buildings roofed with baked clay tiles. It was at this time that the Imperial University was established by charter at the edge of the city, primarily as an institution responsible for training lawyers, philosophers and government officials. The university has since become a center for innovation in engineering, agronomy, and technology.
Sabbia (Small City, population 9,454): Sabbia began as a relocation settlement founded by Terel the Conqueror, the grandfather of Emperor Auresh I, who began the process of welding a great nation out of the fractious human city-states and humanoid tribes and clans that came before. The elves of Sabbia are almost entirely the descendants of an elf clan originating in the forests near what is now the city of Floresta. Their forefathers signed a peace treaty to avoid extermination at the hands of Terel’s army; as part of the terms of this agreement, the clan relocated from their ancestral home to Sabbia, and their leaders became hostages in Terel’s capitol at Pianura. T he presence of a small but deep and well-protected harbor at Sabbia ensured the city’s eventual prosperity. The elves and humans of the original settlement were gradually joined by halfling and dwarf immigrants who specialized in metalwork and carpentry, and later by gnomes with similar aptitudes. Sabbia ultimately became the home of a shipyard staffed by a large cohort of unusually skilled workers, and it continues in this role to the present day.
Stogna (Small City, population 9,208): Stogna predates the Aureshan Empire, since it was originally the site of a large dwarven clanhold that took advantage of plentiful tin and copper deposits to the east of the city. The oldest sections of the city still exhibit dwarven architectural influence after nearly a thousand years under imperial rule, and dwarves still dominate the mining and smelting operations that serve as mainstays of the economy and the major sources of refined bronze, copper, and tin ingots for the empire. Almost as important to the city’s economic prosperity is the prism-finned sturgeon fishery of Lake Adrag to the west. The great fish often reach lengths of ten feet, with rare examples up to twice that length, and their flesh is prized locally as a food item. Their tiny eggs’ rich flavor makes prism-fin caviar famous as far away as Port Hope, and the spring spawning season is preceded by a frantic rush to harvest as many gravid females as possible so that their roe can be preserved and shipped away for sale. Endless monitoring and intervention by druids in the area ensures that the fisheries are not depleted past the great fishes’ ability to replace their losses—and that the price of caviar stays high.
Caster Arentine (Small City, population 7,277): This castellated military base lies to the north of the large city of Areta, and stands at the mouth of Ismar Pass, which leads across the Arentine range into the Stone Plains. Initially the fortifications were intended to discourage the Ferendi nomads of the desert from trying to raid into Imperial territory, and occasional raids do still occur. But the population of the surrounding province is growing, bringing conflicts with the more dangerous wildlife in the region, and the garrison now spends nearly as much of its efforts on monster hunting as on the suppression of the Ferendi. With the growth of the local population, police duty has also begun to drain the garrison’s resources because the Imperial Satrap’s guards only serve the city of Areta, not the settled areas outside the city. The Seventh Legion and its 5000 legionaries serve as the garrison for Caster Arentine, and for the past twenty years it has shared quarters with the First Arcane Artillery and the Thirteenth Engineering Company.
The Empire is ancient and powerful, with plenty of natural resources, and its numerous urban centers allow it to raise, train and field vast armies when it is faced with serious external threats. It has been several centuries since an invading army even came close to threatening the Aureshan heartlands, and most of the Empire’s recent warfare against its neighbors has amounted to armed squabbles over tariffs and trade. The spies and agents of these neighbors—now belligerent opponents, now uneasy allies and trading partners—are scattered throughout the Empire, plotting their rulers’ glory and the Empire’s downfall.
Nor are external threats the only source of danger. Only a handful of years ago, a civil war rocked the Empire as disloyal nobles took advantage of the weak rule of an aging Aurelon IV to try to install a new dynasty under the pretender Severian. Aurelon V, the grandson of the deposed emperor, emerged victorious from the conflict and has made brutal examples of those conspirators whose involvement could be proved to the satisfaction of a formal court hearing.
Nevertheless, some conspirators doubtless remain hidden in the shadows, waiting for a misstep from the young emperor. Adventurers loyal to Aurelon may find themselves thrust into a shadow war between the traitors and Aurelon’s spies. Others may side with the traitors, or play the two sides against each other in hopes of guiding power towards the strengthening middle class.
Elsewhere, secret societies scheme after goals fair and foul, and heroes inevitably arise to aid or thwart their plans. Likewise, the druidic orders attempt to prevent or guide humanoid settlement of the Empire’s remaining spans of unspoiled wilderness, or pursue the agendas of powerful elemental spirits from other universes. Further still into the wild lands of the Empire, dragons, monsters, and uncivilized tribes of all kinds lurk. They launch raids into the settled lands from time to time, prompted by harsh winters, droughts, encroachment by “civilized” pioneers, or less scrutable motives of their own.
Guilds of merchants, craftsmen and thieves buzz with activity in the cities, all bent on profit and the pursuit of property. In the course of their business, all of them occasionally find employment for brave souls with a handy blade or spell.
Finally, the priests and priestesses of the Celestial Court and other deities seek to advance the tenets of their faith throughout the Empire and into the lands beyond. The actions prompted by their faith reach through the land, from the steps to the Ivory Throne to the depths of the ruins left by the defeated elves of millennia past.