Help me populate a Babylon-esque Bronze Age city's power players for political intrigue

I'm working on a setting that's heavily inspired by Bronze Age Mesopotamia. I have plenty of ideas for action and adventure out in the wilds, but I want to have some interesting political dynamics going on in the two main cities that the heroes can get involved in.

Honestly, I expect this thread to mostly be me talking to myself, as a sort of exercise to force me to come up with details. But I would love input and suggestions.

The Region
  • Two cities (Ostalin and Eshkital) lie 100 miles apart, on two rivers that run roughly parallel in an arid region. The rivers flood every spring, which supports the civilization's agriculture.
  • Each city is fairly small by modern standards, maybe 70K for Ostalin, and 30K for Eshkital.
  • If you travel a week to the west, the two rivers flow into a marsh, and then after another fifty miles or so you reach the sea.
  • Up and down the rivers, maybe a dozen smaller cities exist, like 10K people each. Cities are roughly 40 miles/2 days apart, though towns of 1K are common in between.
  • Once you move away from the two rivers, stuff gets fairly dry and inhospitable, where the largest settlements are just 100 people, but dozens of these tiny villages might all think of themselves as part of the same 'tribe.'
  • Borders are a loose, ambiguous thing, but if you travel maybe 2 weeks north, east, or south, you'll hit another 'nation.'

Ostalin
  • Ostalin is the seat of the royal family, currently led by King Nitath-Dun, to whom the leaders of smaller cities (including Eshkital) pledge loyalty, as do leaders of various small tribes.
  • Ostalin has a big ziggurat upon which stand the temples of four prominent gods: the Gods of Contracts, of Protection, of Craft, and of Secrets.
  • There are many minor gods, but none have much political power here except the God of Warriors (see below).
  • Some laws in the city's highly organized legal code are enforced magically.
  • There should be several prominent families who vie for favor of the king and of the four temples.
  • One way the families contend publicly is by sponsoring artists to make music, sculptures, even entire buildings.
  • They also try to get their children accepted as priests.
  • Naturally they also contend covertly by interfering with each other's business, sometimes even escalating to using violence or assassins.

  • One attempt to use a magical law to protect the walls of the city had a weird loophole that created the Implication, a demiplane that a group of thieves who revere the God of Secrets are able to use to slip between different parts of the city.
  • Wizards are tolerated as members of the Enclave, allowed to study arcane magic as long as they adhere to certain laws to ensure they're not competing with them in performing miracles. (This is sort of an in-universe justification for why wizards don't get cure spells or crop growth spells.)

  • Monsters are rare near the cities, but still lurk in the desert and around scattered oases. Servants of the temples (basically paladins) are tasked with dealing with these threats. Paladins can serve many different gods, but a famous family of paladins, led by a man named Sinjur, do a lot of training and organizing.
  • The families do not have children who are paladins, because it is tradition that only children with no siblings can be paladins, and no powerful family would risk only having one kid. (Sinjur's family does a weird thing of staggering generations; it's complicated.)
  • There is no standing army in the nation, but the king could call upon his loyalists to put down rebellions or to fight off foreign threats.

Eshkital
  • The governor of Eshkital is appointed by the king of Ostalin.
  • Eshkital's temples two most prominent gods are those of Rivers, and of Medicine.
  • Various local families vie for favor of the governor and the temples, similar to Ostalin, but at a smaller scale.
  • Where Ostalin's powerful families focus on power in their city, the powerful families of Eshkital make efforts to get support from the rest of the nation. Much how Ostalin supports paladins to fight monsters, Eshkital supports rangers who protect travelers and deliver news among small villages and towns.
  • Eshkital has nearby woodlands and a deeper river, and locals are good at building water wheels to power forges and mills, so it produces a lot of wealth.
  • Ostalin taxes a lot of that wealth.
  • Radicals, free thinkers, reformists, and artists flock to here. Forty years ago, Ostalin put down a rebellion when Eshkital killed its governor and refused to pay taxes.
  • The city turns a blind eye to sorcerers and druids, who use magic heavily regulated by the temples of Ostalin.
  • A major religious relic (think Noah's Ark) is beached on an island in the river near Eshkital. When the city is threatened, magical beasts emerge from it to fight off invaders.

Foreign Politics
  • To the north are mountains that feed the two main rivers, and beyond them is Qazvin, less a nation and more a land bridge (with seas on either side) with a shared culture. The people there have barely any metallurgy. Their culture is fatalist, rejecting the worship of gods but instead favoring famous heroes and natural spirits. Their land is mountainous and rough, so Ostalin never managed to conquer it, and today it's mostly a buffer with Kequalak to the farther north.

  • Kequalak is inspired by Slavic folklore and Christian demonology. The region was contacted by Ostalin by sea a century ago, then conquered.
  • It was remote enough that four decades ago, when Ostalin was busy with the rebellion in Eshkital, the priests and nobles running the Kequalak 'colony' decided to operate independently.
  • It's way poorer than Ostalin, but has access to much of the same magic, plus demon summoning, which is illegal in Ostalin.
  • One of the power families in Ostalin has brought a group of Kek demonologists to the city to try to showcase their power and get the law revoked, appealing to the king's fear of looking weak.

  • To the east are the Pleian Basins, a bunch of small river valleys stretching for hundreds of miles (based on Persia) with tons of small villages but no unifying hierarchy these days. A couple centuries ago they were a growing threat, but Ostalin invaded, sacked their capital, and stole a statue of their Sun God. The region has never reunified, but they maintain a great resentment toward Ostalin.
  • One of the power families of Ostalin have contacts with rich gold mines in the region, a source of wealth that their rival families like to disrupt.
  • The region is recently being beset by roaming undead, and different tribes are blaming each other for angering their gods. One tribe reached out to Sinjur to send his paladins to help, but he's wary of acting without getting the king's permission to intervene in another nation.

  • To the south is Chathus, a nation famous for its chariots and necromancy, ruled by a line of demigods. Over the centuries, Ostalin and Chathus have clashed often enough that they always see each other as rivals. About two decades ago, though, the nations ended a small war by declaring a patch of land between them as a 'neutral zone,' where no one from either nation could settle, farm, graze, hunt, or mine.
  • In the intervening years, tribes who worship the God of Beasts moved into that area. They believe their god demands they not use written language, which makes them hostile to the God of Contracts. Right now they're just a small thorn in the side of both countries, raiding villages on the border of the 'neutral zone.'
  • Warlords near the border who are pledged to King Nitath-Dun claim the Chathans are supporting the tribes and using them as proxy warriors. They want to invade and slaughter the tribes, though this might provoke a war. They'd be okay with that.
  • One of the power families in Ostalin thinks this could be an opportunity for Ostalin and Chathus to forge an alliance by working together to defeat a common enemy.
  • The temple of the God of Medicine in Eshkital actually has friendly relations with some of the beast tribes, and is trying to persuade one of the power families in Ostalin to support starting trade with the tribes.

D&D-isms
  • Imagine that few people are any higher than 5th level, and even the most powerful individuals cap out at 10th.
  • The Enclave wizards do control a few teleportation circles in hidden locations, but none are in any of the major cities.
  • The ziggurat temples theoretically can raise the dead, but the supply of diamonds is incredibly low because the region simply doesn't have the right types of mines, and so politically the rich and powerful aren't going to raise anyone from the dead unless the fate of the nation depends on it.

So who are the people in the power families in Ostalin, and what are they up to? How might their schemes interfere with each other? What non-family organizations do I need to include to get involved in these machinations? I can create new minor gods, or get the four big temples involved in things. I can have tribal war leaders wanting protection from monsters or raiders, or small cities perhaps fighting over control of an important canal and the taxes from its villages. Some noble might have their family treasures stolen. A powerful merchant might be slandered by a family that wants to get into his business. A great work of art might be presented, and the artist might be imperiled or their family threatened. Someone might be trying to build a new temple for a minor god, but have to broker deals with other folks who have control over various artisans, or even over the docks on the river that would bring in quarried stone.

I'm planning to have a villain try to assassinate some folks at a sort of proto-Olympic Games event, which (ideally) will kill the king's male heir, but leave his daughter alive, leading to various groups vying to marry her, all while folks hunt the assassins and their allies.

But who are the people who are going to do the vying? Ages, personalities, specific goals, weaknesses, reasons the heroes would want to help them, or hinder them?
 

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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
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I usually like helping others do stuff like this, but I’m drawing blanks beyond mere generalities & stereotypes.

I mean…having a group trying to corner the market on diamonds is both realistic and probable, not just for their intrinsic value but also because of the resurrection angle. Who controls the supply of diamonds controls who lives again after death.

That group having made corrupt inroads into the hierarchy of the ziggurats could be a major plot mover.
 
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aco175

Legend
Demarius, who is one of the priests of Secrets and part leader of the thieves guild is behind the assassination. However, it is a ploy and the heir is alive and body double was used under illusion magic. Few know all the secrets of the Implication and Demarius was able to swap the heir and the double during the festival. The double is not dead, but found drugged like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

A warehouse in the market district loads jars of olive oil destined for Chathus in which the drugged body of the heir is hidden. The necromancer Carrion needs the body to perform a ritual that will make the heir a basic zombie under his control. The merchant does not reach Chathus but instead the wagons are attacked by raiders in the neutral zone. Now there is a missing body neither side know where it is.

The Spymaster for the King gets word from the gate soldiers that wagons left to the south and one paid the bribe to leave uninspected. The goods have been tracked back to the warehouse and a cleric of Contracts divined that an Implication gate was recently used in this area, I'm picturing something like in that Jumper movie where Samuel Jackson played a paladin tracker.

This leads to a third party hiring the PCs to investigate the neutral zone and find out what is going on.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Chat GPT gave me these:

  1. House Daram: A wealthy and influential family known for their control over trade routes and commerce. They have strong ties to the temple of the God of Contracts in Ostalin. Led by Patriarch Zerin Daram, an elderly but shrewd businessman with a penchant for fine arts and patronage. He seeks to expand his family's wealth and influence by monopolizing key resources and trade networks. House Daram's weakness lies in their lack of military power and reliance on economic leverage.
  2. House Arvand: A noble family with deep ties to the temple of the God of Protection. Headed by Lady Elysia Arvand, a fierce and disciplined warrior. House Arvand maintains a private army of skilled fighters and mercenaries, ensuring their family's security and territorial control. Their ultimate goal is to secure a strong military alliance and expand their influence beyond Ostalin's borders. However, their strict adherence to honor and duty may blind them to political manipulations.
  3. House Zara: A family deeply rooted in the temple of the God of Craft. Led by Master Artisan Galen Zara, a master sculptor and architect. House Zara is renowned for their artistic contributions to Ostalin, and they seek to solidify their family's legacy through the creation of a grand architectural masterpiece. However, their artistic pursuits often distract them from more practical matters, making them vulnerable to political schemes.
  4. House Morven: A shadowy family with connections to the temple of the God of Secrets. Lord Vesper Morven, a mysterious and enigmatic figure, leads the family. House Morven engages in covert operations, espionage, and subterfuge to gain an advantage over their rivals. Their ultimate goal is to destabilize the power structure in Ostalin, paving the way for their rise to dominance. However, their secretive nature makes it difficult to trust them fully, and they have a reputation for being ruthless.
Other Organizations:

  1. The Enclave: A group of wizards sanctioned by the temples of Ostalin. Led by Archmage Selenea, they study arcane magic and maintain the Enclave's rules and regulations. The Enclave aims to safeguard the balance of magical power in the region while ensuring wizards do not encroach on the temples' domains. They can be potential allies or sources of quests for the heroes.
  2. The Brotherhood of Sinjur: A sect of paladins led by Sinjur, a renowned warrior and monster hunter. The Brotherhood is dedicated to protecting Ostalin from external threats and maintaining order within the city. They have a complicated relationship with the power families, as they remain independent and neutral in political matters. The heroes may join forces with Sinjur and his paladins to combat monsters or uncover hidden conspiracies.
  3. The Implication Thieves' Guild: A clandestine organization that operates within the demiplane known as the Implication. They revere the God of Secrets and specialize in stealth, infiltration, and acquiring forbidden knowledge. The guild can become entangled in various schemes, both aiding and hindering the heroes depending on their goals.
  4. The Tribes of the Sun God: A collection of tribes residing in the Pleian Basins. They hold a deep grudge against Ostalin for their past aggression and the theft of their Sun God's statue. The heroes may encounter tribal war leaders seeking alliances or assistance in combating the recent undead threat. The tribes could serve as potential allies or antagonists, depending on the players' choices.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
You mentioned a “Noah’s Ark” near Eshkigal, from which magical beasts emerge to protect the city at times of peril: a powerful beast emerges, at a time of no obvious peril, to warn of an impending catastrophe.
The beast ( dragon maybe?) is also the messenger prophecied among worshippers of the God of Beasts, and those tribes trek to Eshkigal, ready to add their strength to the city, perhaps against Ostalin?
 

aco175

Legend
The Riders of Aruut are a group of 12 paladins all sired by the merchant Aruut. They are all half brothers and sisters to each other as they have different mothers in an attempt to get around the only child thing. Few know they are all related outside of each other and Aruut, who sponsors their missions to surrounding ruins. It is rumored that he is collecting old artifacts. There is another ruler of a 13th child that was thought dead by all of them, but has been secretly trained in the wizardly arts.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
Questions:

1) Is this a human only campaign, or do you have nonhuman sentient species as well? If the latter, are they open to being PCs? What kind of societies do you envision them having?

2) are you open to including a society of monotheistic* nomads within the region? I’m thinking they would be loosely based on the early Israelites, but with a different actual faith.

3) Is “Kek” an abbreviation/nickname for people from Kequalak? If so, might I suggest “Keq” as an alternative spelling? Pronunciation would be the same, and visually, would be both more intuitive and “exotic”. (It also wouldn’t be the same as a word popular with certain members of the alt-right.)



* in typical FRPG terms, not necessarily that there’s only one divine being, but believing that one is significantly more powerful than any of the others, and thus, the only one truly worthy of devotion.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
* in typical FRPG terms, not necessarily that there’s only one divine being, but believing that one is significantly more powerful than any of the others, and thus, the only one truly worthy of devotion.

its interesting, many scholars now consider early Canaanite religion (including Yahwehism) to be Monolatry (worship of one god amongst many) rather than Monotheism (only one god). Zoroastrianism and Ankhenatens Belief appear to be the first known monotheistic faiths - and to have influenced Moses in the Hebrew exodus
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
its interesting, many scholars now consider early Canaanite religion (including Yahwehism) to be Monolatry (worship of one god amongst many) rather than Monotheism (only one god). Zoroastrianism and Ankhenatens Belief appear to be the first known monotheistic faiths - and to have influenced Moses in the Hebrew exodus
Thanks for that: it’s been so long since I took a Religion class I had forgotten that term.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Nothing to contribute here, but just wanted to say I love this. I am loosely creating a Bronze Age setting predecessor to my Shadowdark setting, both for use to pull out ancient references when they come up, as well as to use as a sword & sorcery setting as needed. (My Shadowdark setting is firmly iron age and has a different tone.)
 

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