Saga of the Old City
Welcome to the ancient city of Urkesh! This is a points-of-light scenario placed in a setting akin to the cradle of civilization (think of the ancient Mesopotamian cultures of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylonia), but the available weaponry and armour is the same as standard D&D. The world order has collapsed creating a dark age.
The players have grown up in the once great city state of Urkesh. The sprawling, crumbling city is dominated by great ziggurats built in ages past. Once the city held an empire, and once it was part of an extensive network of sister-cities. Now things have fallen apart. Beyond the immediate villages the maps are filled with wilderness and question marks. The great priest-kings of Urkesh still rule, but no longer hold the respect and awe of their predecessors, ruling through the intimidation of the power they wield. Some believe the city or the world itself is cursed by the gods.
Urkesh has a three-tiered cast system, using tattoos to identify all non-aristocrats. At the top sit the great extended family of the priest-king. The aristocrats service the temples of the gods and collect and distribute wealth in their names. In the second tier sit the bureaucrats who serve the palace and temple, including a thin slice of now-shrinking merchant families who once managed the vanished trade routes. Last are the regular citiziens: indebted serfs and peasants who labour over the increasingly poor soil or repair the crumbling masonry of the city. A special place is reserved here for the Minotaurs, who are honoured by the Cult of the Bull as the servants of the gods. Minotaurs always work in the service of the temple.
It has been three generations (only one for Elves) since the last trade caravan arrived in Urkesh. In that time the course of the great Tigris River has changed, slicing off a piece of the city and creating a great marshland where there were once fields. The weather has become unpredictable—-many believe the god Marduk is blamed, but no sacrifice has brought things back to happier times. Those who have tried to travel the old roads either do not return or report a wasteland of ruins.
A tradition of the city states includes the slaughtering of all magically-inclined children not borne from the proper cast. This is still maintained in Urkesh. Those who are born “correctly” are taken by the priesthood and trained to serve the gods. The folk of Urkesh also enjoy blood sport and the city’s arena is still in use.
Urkesh is racially mixed, though less than in former times. Travellers are non-existent, so races like Devas, Shadar-Kai, Shardminds, Eladrin, and so forth are not part of the city’s normal fabric. Monstrous humanoids (Orcs, Goblins, etc) are seen as brigands and enemies, so no populations of those folk exist in the city except for Minotaurs with their special status.
The priest-kings of Urkesh have ruled the city for over a thousand years. There is a great, crumbling library where clay tablets record the deeds going back to their founder, Enlil. There were once a dozen great families, but as the empire crumbled and the city shrank, most were destroyed. Only three remain: Zabaia, Warad, and Akkad.
Being born in one of the great families means a life in any of the following careers: priestly or the army (those with arcane powers are taken from their mothers and raised by the priests). All the leading priests and heads of the armed forces are from the great families. The highest office is reserved for the branch of the current king, while their immediate subordinates are the sons and daughters of the non-ruling families.
The founders of the dynasty were human, so that that race is the only one which rules, although half-elves are permitted to keep their status in the upper class when they appear.
Every great empire requires professionals to run it. As soon as Urkesh’s population and influence began to expand, the bureaucracy was born. These positions initially went to out-of-favour aristocrats or to the scions of royals and harem-women, but over time true bureaucratic families arose. These folk were the scribes, bankers, labour supervisors, acolytes, and all the other support positions required by the rulers. There were once dozens of such families, but only thirteen remain now.
The power of the bureaucrats is invested and borne from the priestly-family, so (unlike the merchants) they have remained loyal throughout the history of Urkesh. Those within the same speciality compete with each other, but do so carefully so as not to arouse the anger of their masters. Bureaucrats have tattoos specifying their family above their right eye.
Because of both professional necessity and the liberal adoption laws of the city, all the races common to Urkesh can work within the bureaucracy.
The merchants are an ancient profession. The priest-kings were never interested in the risk involved in organising trade expeditions, so the capitalist spirit fell to ambitious families below the aristocratic ranks. Several centuries ago (after one of the merchant families’ tried to take the city) all the old merchant families were enslaved to remove any potential power base. Other families filled that vaccum and some of their descendents are still entrenched in Urkesh now. With the disappearance of the trade routes, merchant groups have shrunk considerably. Some have turned to a shadowy criminal existence, while others operate as the middle men between the villages and the city itself. All their labour is oriented towards the priest-king, making that relationship the only one of importance.
Merchants enjoy free movement around the city and cannot be pressed as labourers. They wear a special tattoo above their right eye that states their status (something they are given when they reach adulthood, the age of 12 in Urkesh). Each merchant family maintains an estate, but many of these have been abandoned or partially sold to the priest-king.
The racial profile of the merchant families is as broad as the bureaucrats, again due to adoptive practices, but the heads of the families are always from the race of their founder.
Since the founding of the dynasty the lot of the regular people has slowly declined. The coming of the dark times has made everything worse. The peasants are now essentially slaves, so indebted to the powers within the city that they live mostly off rations provided by the temple. As miserable as many of them are, they believe the gods of Urkesh are maintaining the priest-king in power and this has prevented a general revolt. The people also fear the nothingness beyond their borders—-the wilderness has grown up around them and their fields are failing. It’s a dangerous time, but even amongst the hopeless a few individuals have been known to rise up. Most are agriculturalists, but general labourers do all the other work required. Like the rest of the non-royals, the serfs have tattoos indicating their field above their left eye. All men above the age of 12 can be pressed into military service at need.
Any race that is allowed into the city can be found among its people, save Minotaurs whose special status keeps them above the lowest ranks.
The city slopes up onto a low granite hill around which the alluvial plain sweeps before turning into desert. The Tigris used to form the western edge of the city, but 75 years ago it changed course surging east, creating a vast swampland on its southern and eastern fringe. The opposite side of the Tigris is a great forest and wilderness now, with only fishermen and hunters travelling to it. The ruins (some submerged) of abandoned villages remain. Five great ziggurats dominate the city, matching a great constellation sacred to Urkesh, but the southern most temple was lost to the river when it changed course.
The aristocrats inhabit the hilltop, which is surrounded by a thick wall of dressed masonry. The merchants east of the hill, while the bureaucrats are housed both within the walls and just beyond them. A half-dozen villages spread out from the city. Herdsmen take their animals north onto the plain, but not very far.
The old eastern trade route to Eridu was obliterated by the marshland when the Tigris changed course, but the few brave folk who have traversed it report it derelict and unused on the other side. The northern route to Marad was the last to see use, but it is now not even a grassy road, instead overgrown with bramble and invested by wild animals. Travel on the river was difficult at the best of times, but now it is beset by wild men and evil humanoids.
There are no large external threats beyond poor harvests, but tribes of Lizard Men have recently settled in the marshland and the priest-king is unable or unwilling to move them. Bandits and the dispossessed live in the outskirts of civilization and serve as a constant harassment, while clans of gnolls roam the northern and eastern fringes.
Gods of Urkesh
Echoing classical pagan tradition, there are a multitude of household and other petty gods-—each accepted and revered-—but those listed below are the most powerful and universal (which is to say, others from the same culture revere them too). All folk acknowledge the Cult of the Bull, which is a facet of the larger culture.
Enki: God of water, male fertility, and knowledge
Inanna: Goddess of love, female fertility and warfare
Ki: Goddess of the earth
Marduk: God of weather
Nanna, God of the moon
Ninlil: Goddess of air
Ninurta: God of agriculture
Urkesh: God of the city
Utu: God of the sun
History of Urkesh
The chronology of Urkesh, like the other city states of the region, used the founding of the city as the starting point of their calender (so ‘BF’ means ‘before founding’).200 BF – Humans arrive in the region of Urkesh, finding it inhabitated by a sophisticated but declining Minotaur culture. 1 – Enlil founds the city with the support of the remaining Minotaurs. 146-169 – Rule of Ashurbanipal, who creates the first great Urkesh empire; he builds the first ziggurat. 398-421 – Rule of Hammurabi, who creates a new empire and builds two great ziggurats. 476-499 – Rule of Nebuchadnezzar, who rebuilds the empire and builds a ziggurat. 527-563 – Rule of Sargon Akkad, who rules the last Urkeshi empire; he builds the last ziggurat. 791-809 – Rule of Naram Akkad, the last member of that line to rule. 877-903 – Rule of Kadingir Warad. 903-914 – Rule of Nergal Warad. 914-925 – Rule of Telal Warad; deposed by the temple after the Tigris changed course. 925-962 – Rule of Katilliash Zabaia. 962-985 – Rule of Ekur Zabaia.