The Player Characters in this campaign will begin play as participants in a multi-racial horde near the northern frontier of the Aureshan Empire. These gatherings are a cyclical occurrence in the social and economic cycles of a number of the so-called monstrous races of Tolrea, of which goblins and orcs are the most prominent because they have the shortest time to maturity, but in general the term "horde" refers to the mobilization of nomadic or semi-nomadic people of any race, usually in response to population pressure of some description. Most hordes are mono-racial; they begin when a clan of hobgoblin pastoralists is forced to begin raiding its neighbors to secure resources, or a tribe of orcs does the same, and proceed to grow as the clans or tribes begin to unite under the control of various warlords. This phase can go on for quite awhile, as the belligerent goblins, orcs, or (less commonly) humans feud with one another. Hordes are the outcome when one or several warlords manage to put aside their differences and direct their aggression outward in search of plunder or additional territory.
But in unusual cases, hordes do not remain segregated by race. When the population cycle of two or more neighboring races coincides so that 1) each race forms a horde, and 2) the leaders of the hordes are able to weld together an alliance across racial boundaries, the result is what the Aureshans call a Great Horde. The Aureshans' perspective, however, usually has more to do with assessing the size and composition of a potentially hostile military force than it does with an analysis of its exact origins, leadership structure, or goals. This particular Great Horde is composed almost entirely of goblinoid peoples: bugbears, hobgoblins, and goblins all are represented, and indeed they make up the overwhelming majority of its membership, with only a peppering of other races.
The particular goblinoid societies that the PCs belong to have a long, relatively unfriendly history with the Aureshans. It's pointless to recount the long list of grievances on both sides, because it stretches back for many generations. The short version is that in times of peace, the Aureshans trade with the goblinoids on terms that are frankly exploitative, obtaining furs, hides, wool, exotic plants, ivory, and other trade items in exchange for manufactured goods, grain and other agricultural produce. If the goblinoids become populous enough to be a threat to the empire's settlements and trading routes, they inevitably end up fighting against the Aureshan Legions. Relations are a pendulum that swings, slowly but certainly from trade to hostility, and from hostility to trade.
In more recent history, the goblin tribes suffered a crushing defeat at the Imperials' hands in 951 IR, in the Adrag Plateau campaign. Twenty-two years have passed since then; as of 973 IR, four generations of goblins have grown to adulthood on the survivors' tales of battle against the pinkies. Those survivors are now in late middle age, at best, but they've been fruitful and multiplied, and the tribes' numbers have replenished themselves so thoroughly that their need for food now strains the capacity of the wandering herds of mammoth, bison, horse and elk that roam the northern steppes. Now, more than ever, it's time for them to settle old scores with the Imperials.
Jirchik, Takit, Ikirait and Khinghi'ut: the Goblin Tribes
There are four tribes of goblins in your general area of the steppes: the Jirchik, Takit, Ikirait, and Khinghi'ut. The Takit are preeminent over the others because of the leadership of Ganbataar, a grizzled veteran of thirty-one years whose first battles were as a young warrior in the Adrag Plateau. He's among the youngest of the surviving veterans of the conflict, and is both feared and admired for his skills as a warrior and wizard. Ganbataar is widely known for having sojourned among the Imperials, which is where he acquired his familiarity with the arcane arts as practiced by the pink-skins. Upon his return to the steppes, the chieftain earned his towering stature among the men of the Takit by teaching every pupil who showed even a hint of talent for wizardry—regardless of personal or familial enmities—and as a result, his tribe has access to more magic than any other, somewhat making up for the fact that they are numerically the weakest of the four. Ganbataar's was the idea of recruiting bugbears into the Great Horde, although he wasn't charismatic enough to put the plan into practice.
The Takit are closely allied with the Ikirait tribe, who took the heaviest casualties during the goblins' last war against the Aureshans, and whose hunting lands are subject to constant encroachment because they lie nearest to the borders of the Empire. Many of the Ikirait are fueled by hatred over their losses and see Ganbataar and his wizardry as the best chance they have to revenge their losses and reclaim lost ground. Their numbers are even smaller than those of the Takit, but they have somewhat better armament than any of the other tribes because of their proximity to the Aureshans, a relic of trade conducted in between territorial disputes.
By contast, the Jirchik tribe hunts furthest from Aureshan settlement, and their most recent feuds have been against Ganbataar and his Takit kinsmen. The Jirchik barely participated in the last hording of the tribes, and are motivated more by the prospect of looting Aureshan farms and villages than a serious desire for conquest; the senior members of this tribe are conservative traditionalists, and are uncomfortable with the social and military innovations that have taken place under Ganbataar, even if their bitter experience has been that these changes have made the Takit much more dangerous foes. They're the largest tribe by a significant margin, making them influential even though their warriors aren't as well-armed as the Ikirait or as tactically advanced as the Takit.
The Khinghi'ut normally range across the northern half of the steppe. They're more numerous than either the Takit or the Ikirait, less numerous than the Jirchik, and are likewise motivated by profit rather than a thirst for vengeance. They share some of the Jirchik tribe's conservative nervousness about Ganbataar's ambitions, but unlike the Jirchik tribesmen, the Khinghi'ut's territory borders on that of all three other tribes. They have had feuds with all three, naturally, but just as naturally they have ties of marriage and trade with all three. At the moment, the Khinghi'ut seem to be exploiting this neutrality as a source of political influence over the goblin portion of the Great Horde. The Takit and Ikirait combined are too powerfor for the Jirchik tribe to beat in a fight, but the balance of power likely would swing the other way if the Khinghi'ut decided to weigh in . . . and everyone in the goblin encampment knows it.
For the moment, though, the Khinghi'ut are tacitly supportive of Ganbataar, leaving him as close to a spokesman for goblin kind as exists in the Great Horde. Overall, there probably are somewhere close to eight hundred or a thousand goblins capable of doing battle. About the same number of non-combatants travel with them.
The Hobgoblin King
The hobgoblin contingent in the Horde is almost as large as that of the goblins, but unlike them it is unified under a single clear leader: Lwazi the Skin-Changer, a notoriously unpredictable druid with a penchant for spending time in the form of a golden eagle. When he descends from the clouds and resumes his natural form, the druid displays remarkable charisma and perceptiveness; he's a natural politician with a talent for seeking out common ground with potential allies, including the surviving members of whatever hobgoblin clan he and his warriors have just finished trouncing in battle. The results have not been perfectly harmonious, but the Skin-Changer has come out ahead so far.
Lwazi has united six clans of hobgoblins under his rule by the simple expedient of marrying into the families of their chieftains, choosing his new brides for the nearness of their blood ties to whichever chieftain led the clan before his conquest. The handful of traditionalists who objected to his cheerful embrace of polygamy as a diplomatic strategy were slain by lightning bolts out of a clear sky leading to the presumption that Langa, god of the sun, favors him—a belief that Lwazi has been happy to encourage. With the evident imprimatur of the gods, the mercurial druid has designated himself Kachaka: Chief-of-Chiefs.
The new Kachaka has his work cut out for him, nevertheless. His throne is precarious because it is founded upon a mixture of fear and self-interest. Of the six clans subject to his rule, Lwazi truly has the loyalty of only his native clan, the Shinga. The other five tolerate his rule, but this could change very quickly if the Great Horde falls upon difficult times. More than anything, Lwazi needs a string of quick, showy victories to quiet his remaining detractors and cement his position as ruler of the hobgoblins.
Still, as tenuous as the rule of Lwazi the Skin-Changer may be, the druid is no pushover. There's been no suggestion that he's given to gratuitous cruelty, but at the end of the day he's a warrior as well as a politician and druid, and is not averse to solving his problems through violence and intimidation when he can't get things done through the gentle art of diplomacy. Moreover, the hobgoblin tribes' continued stability under his rule is a matter of existential interest to the rest of the Great Horde, because his people are nomadic pastoralists whose herds are a crucial source of food. For the moment, the goblins and their worg allies are capable of bringing in sufficient meat to answer the larger part of the horde's need for provisions. But that will change soon, and the Horde will be obliged to subsist on the hobgoblins' largess unless its raiding parties can obtain provender by looting the pink-skins' farms and villages.
A Parliament of Bugbears
The bugbears are relatively few in number compared to their goblin and hobgoblin cousins; in essence, there's but a single tribe that is made up about fifteen different extended families that vary in size from a couple dozen to about fifty members. Decision-making among the bugbears is cumbersome because they have no clear leader; instead, they rely upon a council of the elders of the tribe's constituent bands. Unlike the hobgoblins and goblins, the bugbears aren't suffering from population pressure; their home range in the hills near the source of the River Adrag is still more than adequate to support their population, and it's unlikely that the bugbears would have joined the Great Horde, except for three things.
First, the bugbears have long suffered from encroachment into their range, because their hills contain rich deposits of copper, tin, and other metals that attract Aureshan miners interested in staking a claim. This hasn't been entirely bad, since the bugbears also have relatively convenient access to peddlers and merchants who're willing to swap furs and the occasional gemstone for manufactured goods, and their relatively close proximity to the Aureshan city of Stogna and the highway stretching east from there to Tar Viwa and the border town of Valla makes it easy for them to hire away their services as guards and mercenaries when times are lean. But nevertheless, the bugbears are close enough to the civilized world to see it as both a blessing and a curse, and their ambivalence made them amenable to recruitment.
Second, the bugbears' small population belies their potential contribution to the Great Horde's ultimate success. The average bugbear is as strong as an orc, but much tougher, and has better eyesight and a more acute sense of smell, more agility and endurance, a naturally tough, hairy pelt, and (crucially) is as stealthy and cunning as any goblin or hobgoblin. The bugbears may only contribute about three hundred warriors to the Great Horde's strength, but they are very fearsome indeed, and Ganbataar and Lwazi have been quick to recognize this fact during negotiations with them to determine the tribe's share of whatever spoils might be taken during the coming invasion.
Third and finally, the bugbears' Council of Elders may have fifteen members to bicker over every decision that comes to its attention, but one of them is the inestimable Pradha, a burly warrior woman whose stint as a caravan guard-turned-adventurer along the Aureshan Empire's highways left her unusually amenable to the goblin and hobgoblin chieftains' argument that the bugbears stood to gain more than they risked by joining in a war on the Empire. Pradha is tough, even for a bugbear, and respected both for her broad horizons and the authority with which she swings the gleaming steel warhammer she brought home with her from her career in the Empire. When Pradha speaks, her fellow elders usually listen closely, and Pradha has spoken in favor of war because she realizes that her society of hunter-gatherers has, in some respects, the most to gain out of all those who've been swept up into the embrace of the Great Horde. In this, at least, the other elders have found her arguments convincing.