Story by Martin
NEW DOWAGER CITY, call it what you like – the Grand Old Dame (or “GOD” or short), the City of Cities, the Big Pomegranate, Hell on Seven Hills or just plain old NDC. Whichever way you look at it, New Dowager City is one heck of a place. As the saying goes, NDC is the kind of city only the Lady Herself could love, but only a fool would hate.
In this post I’ll give a brief guide to New Dowager City, the largest city in the Tumbledown Lands and the first urban setting I’m developing for the Tumbledown World D&D 5e campaign. As with other posts in the Tumbledown series on Games vs Play, I’ll add links to more pages as our campaign progresses and the world continues to grow. Stay tuned, and may the light of Our Lady’s torch shine ever upon you.
The founding of New Dowager City
New Dowager City, or NDC as it’s popularly known to its teeming inhabitants, is almost certainly the largest city in the known world. The best guess is that anywhere between 750,000 and over 1 million humans, elves, dwarves, orcs and countless other races make NDC their home. However, no accurate census has ever been taken of the entire city, owing to the fact that NDC is a commonwell city and therefore lacks anything even remotely resembling a central civic authority. If law and order and living a long but boring life is more your kind of thing, better pack your bags and catch the next ship to Broyssen, buddy. NDC is for the lovers, the fighters, the schemers, the bastards and the visionaries and, of course, the stark, raving beautiful ones.
New Dowager City is built on a hilly peninsula projecting into the narrow strait known as the Broken Calf that separates the mainland from the thickly forested island of Grand Sinopia. Tradition has it that NDC was founded in the immediate aftermath of the Tumbledown cataclysm, when the Lady Dowager – a semi-Saintly figure venerated widely across the Tumbledown Lands – built a fortified stockade at the southern tip of the peninsula with her husband-to-be, Prince Falling Star. However, when the faithless Prince Falling Star abandoned his betrothed and fled across the waters of the Broken Calf, the grief-stricken Lady Dowager gave chase in her colossus, which became mired in the deep water of the harbour where it still remains today with only its crown and upheld torch rising above the waters.
The scholars of the Tarquiline Library dismiss this foundational story as a fairytale, of course. According to their learned research, it was probably the elves who established the first settlement on the peninsula where New Dowager City now stands. Fleeing the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland Elwen Ewess during the chaos that followed the Tumbledown cataclysm, a band of elves established a camp on the Sinuline Hill, the highest point on the peninsula. As more refugees arrived the elves’ camp became hemmed in by largely hostile and distrustful neighbours, leading the elven elders to erect a high wall around their encampment. In time this temporary refuge became the elvish ghetto that still stands on the Sinuline Hill to this day. Needless to say, this theory enjoys little popular support among the many human communities where anti-elvish antagonism runs particularly strong.
A third theory for the founding of NDC holds that it was in fact the druids of Grand Sinopia who first settled the peninsula some time before the Tumbledown cataclysm, when they crossed the narrow strait of the Broken Calf to establish a sacred grove around one of the many naturally occurring freshwater springs that dot the hilly terrain. This is now the site of the Great Nymphaeum, the closest thing to a high court in NDC. The druids being druids, however, have never widely pressed or sought to profit from this claim, and this theory is little known outside a select group of scholars operating out of the Sinuweo Wing of the Tarquiline Library.
The birth of the commonwell system
No matter how it actually happened, after its founding New Dowager City grew rapidly in size. As successive waves of refugees arrived on the peninsula many decided to stay, drawn by the abundance of freshwater springs and the hilly terrain that allowed for easily defensible settlements. In time these dispersed camps became permanent and a new system of collective (though not always entirely cooperative) governance emerged, known today as the commonwell system. Each of the separate camps – which gradually came to be called themes – maintained their own internal rules and laws, such that each theme could be likened to a micro-state in itself. Connecting the themes were open areas such as the commonly-used thoroughfares linking the scattered themes or the common wells themselves, after which the emerging commonwell system came to be named. As time went on some of these themes evolved into closed themes, where outsiders were only allowed to enter by express permission of the theme’s ruling body. At the same time, other themes elected to tear down their walls and allow open access, while still retaining their sovereign status. These settlements became known as open themes. The best example of a closed theme is of course the elvish ghetto, where few non-elves have ever been allowed to enter peaceably. Some of the more affluent human-dominated themes, like Seven Springs and Evenwell, are closed themes and operate essentially like gated communities. Generally speaking it is the more mercantile-minded and poorer themes that make up the open themes in NDC, the former because having open borders is better for trade, and the latter because the inhabitants are too busy just surviving to worry about keeping strangers out. However, just because a theme is designated “open” it doesn’t mean that visitors are exempt from its laws and rules, a legal nicety that many outlanders often fall prey to. The themes of Gnomish and Cinnamon Town are two of the more prominent open themes where much of the city’s business takes place, while Odd Down and Lady Falls are two of the poorer open themes of the city.
For the first couple of centuries after the Tumbledown event the new settlement or settlements of New Dowager City expanded at an uncontrolled and chaotic pace. As its wealth continued to grow, the city began to attract marauders from both land and sea, such as orcish bands venturing down from the Drombroggi Knots to the north and Khaskhetti pirates striking up from across the waters of the Rift to the south. NDC was rightly seen an easy target for raiders, due to its lack of central defence mechanisms among the independent and largely isolationist themes.
Eventually, it became obvious even to the elves on the Sinuline Hill that the constant attacks and raids were a threat facing all inhabitants living on the peninsula. Thus, about two hundred years after the city’s founding the rulers of the individual themes finally agreed to come together to build a shared defence strategy. The result was the Maskeline Wall, a series of massive fortifications protecting NDC that would be maintained by the Guild of Wallwrights, a city-wide institution supported by donations and volunteers from across every theme. When to everyone’s surprise this ungainly cooperative venture actually worked (though not without a massive increase in political intrigue and corruption), the themes agreed to establish a second city-wide body, the Guild of Waterworkers, which was tasked with maintaining the city’s water supplies and sewerage.
Today, nearly 700 years after its founding, New Dowager City still retains this same basic civic structure of independent themes, shared open areas and the two cooperative guilds of the Wallwrights and Waterworkers. The only other city-wide institutions are, naturally, the thieves’ guilds, of which there are four major ones: the In and Out Crew (burglars and thieves) Hot to the Touch (drug smugglers and black-marketers), Your Eyes Only (spies and intelligence pedlars) and the Kind and Gentle Lovers (assassins and hitmen). These rogues and ne’er-do-wells will be covered in another post.
New Dowager City today
Today, New Dowager City is the largest, richest, most influential and most chaotic of the commonwell cities. Separated into at least thirty and perhaps more than twice that number of independent, self-governing themes, NDC is a place of infinite variety and countless dangers, of astounding beauty and crushing despair. In the list below I’ve described some of the more prominent themes and locations in New Dowager City where adventurers may find themselves visiting or looking for work. This brief overview is of course far from exhaustive – NDC is just too big to cover in one puny blog post!
The elvish ghetto: Located on the summit of the Sinuline Hill, the elvish ghetto of NDC is the largest and oldest elvish ghetto in the Tumbledown Lands. Closed off to all except elves and half-elves, no-one knows for sure how many inhabitants are crammed inside its high walls, with estimates varying from as low as 300 to more than 3,000. For their part the elves of the ghetto rarely venture out into the rest of the city due to widespread anti-elf feelings and their race’s natural reclusiveness. The elvish ghetto is thought to be ruled by a council of elders called the Conclave of Tears. Due to the elves’ great longevity, some of these elders might be old enough to have witnessed the actual events of the Tumbledown cataclysm 700 years ago .
The Pits: The theme reserved for the barbarian nations of Khaitan, its name is derived not from any particular lack of sanitation (though it’s far from being the most salubrious theme), but rather from being the site of the first godball arena in NDC. Other dowagerfolk, being unfamiliar at the time with the rules (or lack thereof) of the ritual ball game that is so important to the Khaitani barbarians, erroneously called the godball arena a fighting pit. The name stuck, and in time became applied to the entire theme. Although the Pits is considered a single theme, the barbarians themselves divide its overcrowded blocks to reflect the myriad nations and tribes of their home continent of Khaitan. Some of the major Khaitani ethnic groups present in this densely-populated theme include axe-fighters from Jantland, spear-warriors from Venland, sorcerers from Chent and rangers and wizards from Ong-ar-Eng.
Cinnamon Town: Named after the largest spice bazaar in NDC, Cinnamon Town is the theme of the blue-skinned Montagnards, a civilised but non-Tumbledown human culture that hails from the tropical Spice Mountains located many thousands of leagues to the north. Though Cinnamon Town is an open theme, the Montagnards jealously guard the flow of spices and exotic drugs into NDC, and are known to punish smugglers of spice seedlings, magdalanian cactus cuttings and St Crepin Viper hatchlings with swift and brutal retribution.
The Tarquiline Library: The largest seat of learning in New Dowager City and in the Tumbledown Lands west of the dwarven principalities, the Tarquiline Library now occupies the entire hill after which it is named. Founded by a group of wizards fleeing the Tumbledown cataclysm, the Library was originally intended to function as a cache of magical lore stored in a secure location in the event of another world-wide disaster. Over time the scholars who gathered at the Library to pursue their arcane studies began giving impromptu lectures to aspiring wizards and researchers, with the result that the Tarquiline Library now fulfils the role of a university as well.
Slaughterhouse Park: The largest open zone in the city, as the name suggests Slaughterhouse Park was once the site of slaughter yards and abattoirs. Now it is for the most part a thickly-wooded depression at the foot of the Sinuline Hill into which numerous gullies empty from the surrounding higher ground. A place during the day for middle class family picnics from the affluent themes of Evenwell or Light-of-the-Lady, at night Slaughterhouse Park is rumoured to be the haunt of the city’s criminal underworld as well as, ahem, visitations from the actual, infernal underworld. Not to be missed by tourists or warlocks alike.
The Dwarven Concessions: A clutch of heavily fortified, extraterritorial dwarven enclaves clustered about the tip of the lower peninsula. Emulating the architecture of their home cities several thousand miles to the east of NDC, each of the Dwarven Concessions attempts to outdo its neighbours in the construction of multi-storey stone skyscrapers. The closed micro-themes of the dwarves play a crucial role in NDC’s economic and political life as both embassies and miniature battlegrounds in the endless feuds and wars pursued by the various rulers of the Dwarven Principalities.
Little Sinopia: A theme inhabited mainly by migrants from the island of Grand Sinopia and the neighbouring Trans-Sinopic Isles, Little Sinopia is notable for housing the Great Nymphaeum, a temple complex built around a natural spring and oak grove held to be sacred by the druids. Under the neutral and impartial administration of the druids, the Great Nymphaeum has become the nearest thing to a central court of justice for the city. Many disputes and disagreements between the themes that have failed to be negotiated through New Dowager City’s legal system of custom, contract and challenge have been resolved instead through the mediation of the druids based at the Great Nymphaeum.
Holy Hollow: The theme occupied by traders, mercenaries and emissaries from the freehold city of Broyssen and more generally from the Eliandish lands, a densely-populated, primarily human region of the Tumbledown Lands to the east of NDC. Veneration of the Hallowed Saints is strongest in Holy Hollow, and the theme boasts more chapels and shrines per inhabitant than any other part of the city.
Swinging Jack: The largest and most intact colossus located within NDC city limits, Swinging Jack is a 60-foot tall black iron colossus covered in massive spikes. Thought to have originally been a battle colossus, Swinging Jack stands with one arm raised in an attitude of triumph in the middle of St Nunquam’s Plaza in Odd Down, where it is used as a popular site for hangings and other theme-sanctioned executions.
Kowl Town: The only theme of New Dowager City that is not physically located on the peninsula, Kowl Town lies directly across the waters of the Broken Calf on the shores of Grand Sinopia. The original settlement sprang up as a staging point for boats travelling between the mainland and Grand Sinopia but soon became considered part of the city, a relationship that was formalised only about eighty years ago when the Guild of Wallwrights finally gave in to repeated petitions from the inhabitants of Kowl Town to build seaward defences to protect the settlement from Khashketti pirate raids.
The Hippodrome of St Temblor: Located in the rough and tumble theme of Odd Down, this is the largest hippodrome in the city where punters can watch and place bets on the prestige sport of chariot-racing. Often considered to be of higher cultural value than the more popular sport of godball, ironically chariot racing was also introduced to NDC by migrants from Khaitan, where the best charioteers are said to come from the barbarian nations of Jantland and Venland.
Gnomish: As the name suggests, this is the gnomish theme of NDC. The gnomes, however, have always prided themselves on living in an open theme, and thus the population of Gnomish is among the most diverse in the city. Gnomish is a centre of trade for colossi salvage and back-technology famed throughout the Tumbledown Lands.
Lady Falls: A poverty-stricken theme ruled in everything but name by a sometimes antagonistic alliance between the two thieves’ cartels of Hot to the Touch (drug smugglers and black marketeers) and the Kind and Gentle Lovers (assassins and hitmen), Lady Falls is the kind of place where an enterprising traveller possessing either a very robust or very fluid set of morals can find pretty much anything they need to pursue the adventuring life.
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Image sources: Banner image – TheMedievalMuse; medieval Constantinople – Awesome Stories; aerial view of medieval Constantinople – Mystagogy Resource Centre; slums of Naples – Flickr; walls of Constantinople – Slings and Arrows; the Roman ghetto – Port Mobility Civitavecchia; Jemaa el-Fnaa, Medina, Marrakech – Wexas Travel; Duke Humphrey’s Library, Oxford – Wikipedia; San Gimignano – 123RF; Zwinger Palace nymphaeum – Encyclopedia Britannica; the hippodrome of Constantinople – Byzantine Military; Statue of Liberty hand and torch – How Tall is the Statue of Liberty?