The Lonely Continent
A Brief History of Urda
Long ago, in a time now remembered only through ancient tradition and foggy mythology, the land of Urda was one continent of many. It was the center of a vast global empire in a time of peace and plenty, the home and capital of a mighty race whose name is long forgotten. Masters of magic and technology, this race forged instruments of terrible power and built cities of extraordinary beauty; legend has it that they gained the ability to heal all diseases, built magical devices to explore the heavens and rob the seas of their secrets, and shaped the face of the world at their pleasure.
There are competing legends about what happened to them—some say that they were punished by the gods for their pride, others that they destroyed themselves through war, or transcended this plane of existence at a terrible cost. (There are even those who say they ever existed at all.) Whatever the reason, they disappeared suddenly and completely, leaving the continent of Urda scorched, broken, and cut off from the rest of the world by an enormous barrier of awesome magical energy. (This event is referred to as “The Cataclysm” in learned circles and is estimated to have taken place roughly 10,000 years ago.) Their cities were left in ruin and all their knowledge and culture was lost forever as the Cataclysm exterminated almost all life on the continent, plunging Urda into an age of darkness and savagery from which it would not emerge for thousands of years.
There isn’t much to record from this period of Urda’s history. Petty kingdoms rose and fell, people scratched out a living as best they could, and what little remained of the legacy of the First Race—books, ruins, etc.—was lost in the constant warfare or crumbled to dust as the centuries rolled on. About 3,000 years before your campaign begins, Urda once again saw the light of civilization as a powerful empire began to forge itself out of alliances between Elven tribes based in the vast tracts of forest in the northeast. This coalition slowly became the just and powerful empire of V’aarad, which lasted for nearly 2,000 years and, at its peak, united most of the Lonely Continent for the first time in millenia.
Prosperity and peace ushered in a new age of learning, and it was at this time that most of what is now known of the magical arts was re-discovered. V’aar Shale, the capital of the Elves and the jewel of Urda, became a haven for scholars and magicians of all schools. Though jealous of their knowledge and hesitant to spread magical secrets to the world at large, the Elves worked to improve the lives of the people of Urda. V’aarad citizenship, which in those days meant safety, comfort, and knowledge, was granted in exchange for promises of fealty and tribute; in this way the V’aarad Empire was expanded with little call for warfare. Some provinces, as time wore on, began to resent the influence of the Elves, but for the most part people were content to let the Emperor reign in V’aar Shale and to enjoy a time of serenity unseen since The Cataclysm.
Over time, however, wealth and peace brought complacency to V’aarad, and when a real crisis reared its head the Elves found themselves totally unequipped to meet it. In the jungles of the Northeast, in a small and relatively unproductive province known as Lumen, a fanatical faction of Humans led by the so-called “Council of Ten” overthrew the Elven governor and began sweeping toward V’aar Shale, gobbling up huge tracts of territory as they went. The Luminians, using a previously unknown style of mental warfare known as Psionics, captured and enslaved whole cities overnight; those who could not be persuaded to fight in the Luminian army were exterminated outright. Within weeks the Luminians were at the gates of V’aar Shale and the Empire came crashing down almost before news of the revolt had reached the other provinces.
An ordinary army of Lumen’s size would have been forced to expend the whole of its strength on capturing a city like V’aar Shale, but the Elven mages were helpless against the Psions; the fall of V’aarad swelled the ranks of Lumen with hundreds of thousands of psychically dominated Elves. It is said that as the horde swept on towards the Southern provinces the Emperor himself was sighted cutting down his own subjects, starved and maniacal in the slashed ruins of his ceremonial garb.
It was in the human province of Wistron that Lumen’s advance was finally stopped. Wistron had always enjoyed a favorable relationship with V’aarad, both economically and politically, and when the first news of the invasion reached their borders they supplemented their small battalion of V’aaradian warriors and mages with 20,000 hardy Wistron farmers. For several days they fought the Luminians at Westhelm as eight men out of ten were cut down by the endless waves of crazed Elves; the rest sacrificed themselves to hold the horde in position as the last of the Elven mages diverted the river. The greater part of the Lumen force was swept away; as the Psions retreated they executed the remaining Elven slaves en masse. (This marks the first year in the Wistron calendar; our campaign begins in the year 998.)
The war was over for the time being, but the Elves had been almost totally exterminated. All but a handful of those within the borders of V’aarad had been either killed or forced into the army, and since the Elves had always to preferred to live within their own borders—mostly out of love for their native forests—there were few expatriates to take up leadership of the Empire. Most of the surviving Elves—many of them mages who had used their magic to escape the Empire as it fell—fled to the uninhabited Isle of Manse in the west; a few stayed behind in Wistron, spending the remainder of their long lives forging the former province into a new nation powerful enough to hold back the threat of Lumen.
Urda in the modern age
The fall of V’aarad meant the collapse of most developed society in Urda, though nothing on the scale of the true dark age that followed The Cataclysm. The few magicians who had escaped carried with them a mere fraction of the learning accumulated by the Elves over the centuries of their rule; some basic principles of magic practice and craft were handed down, but all of the true masters of the craft had fallen defending the college and the ancient library at V’aar Shale. What learning remained was put to use defending the border of Wistron or hoarded by the Tower of Manse. The provinces reverted to anarchy and warfare as local chieftains exploited the power vacuum to grab up fiefs for themselves; for several hundred years the “Middle Lands” remained in relative barbarism.
In the South, the scattered and feuding mountain tribes banded together under Dwarf leadership—mostly survivors of the war with Lumen—to face the threat of growing populations of Orcs, Goblins, and Trolls formerly suppressed by the Elves. An alliance with the powerful Goliath clans created the nation of Skarl, which has since remained impregnable to every enemy incursion throughout its nearly nine hundred year history, largely due to the much-feared Goliath legions which to this day make up a significant fraction of the Skarl military.
The college of magicians on the Isle of Manse made slow but steady progress over the centuries in recovering the lost magical arts, but it wasn’t until 590 W. that they were persuaded to begin selling magical items and techniques to the mainland. The resulting trade partnership was the nucleus of what would become the Garic Federation, a loose conglomerate of independent city-states that quickly gained a foothold in the region by deftly manipulating the explosive growth of the “magic market” trickling out of the magician’s college as well as other regional resources. The Federation itself does not maintain a standing army, but each individual city is well-defended and Garic mercenaries are known to be some of the cleverest and most effective warriors in Urda; whenever possible, though, the Federation has historically preferred to resolve tensions with other nations through diplomacy and trade agreements.
The vast expanses of rolling grassland between the Garic States and Wistron were traditionally the home of loosely-governed communities of nomadic herdsmen and simple farmers, but as wealth, magic, and technology began to spread across Urda from the Garric Federation, ambitious ranchers and agriculturalists used new economic strategies to expand their wealth and shut out the competition. In 723 W. the Republic of Areen was inaugurated in response to a growing popular demand for central governance and economic regulation. Originally the Republic was used mostly to prevent abuses of the lower classes and to coordinate defense against incursion from Lumen and Skarl, but the government is now hopelessly mired in bureaucracy and corruption; the bulk of the power is now wielded unofficially by wealthy plantation owners who govern huge tracts of the plains of Areen. The Republic has recently annexed an extremely valuable piece of land from Wistron through some dubiously legal maneuvering and all indicators point to designs on future expansion.
Throughout all these the relatively peaceful centuries Wistron had maintained a cautious and uneventful vigilance over Lumen territory, punctuated only occasionally by skirmishes and small battles, but in 900 full-scale war broke out afresh. For decades Wistron has been holding its own, but resources have been stretched to the limit and the Luminians continue to invade in ever-increasing numbers. 990 W. marked the first significant loss of territory to Lumen in nearly a thousand years as Westhelm, for so long the linchpin of Wistron’s defenses, was overrun.
As 1000 W. approaches, the future is uncertain and the fate of all Urda hangs in the balance . . .