Perfectly Legitimate Adventuring Party
Hold up your left hand with the fingers making a ‘C’, and imagine you’re holding a great big pearl between thumb and forefinger. The hand is a small continent/large island containing four squabbling principalities: Kymiss is the finger, Elbin the thumb, Venstra the back of the hand, and Mestra fits between the other three. Each of these subdivides into several squabbling counties, earldoms, and other fiefdoms only a herald could remember. To the south, the Principalities fade out into deep forest and the White Wastes, which are exactly what they sound like.
The pearl is an island/peninsula called Northport (to its inhabitants, “The Pearl”; to others, less flattering names), about ten miles across, and this is where the game starts.
Out to the east and north lie the imaginatively-named Eastern Islands, aka the Dragon Isles. Inside the ‘C’, to the west of Northport, is the “Half-Sea”, which connects to the eastern ocean only by a narrow and dangerous strait running between Northport and Elbin.
Northport is important because geography makes it a bottleneck between the Principalities and the Islands, and between Kymiss and Elbin. The outer coast of the Principalities runs for hundreds of miles of sheer cliffs and rocky waters, reputedly home to savage sea-monsters; there is a big port in the south end of Elbin, but it’s ice-locked for most of the year. The shores of the Half-Sea are gentler, but there’s no good way to get through the straits and out to the ocean beyond.
But Northport has a relatively good harbour on the ocean side of the island. While shorefront space is limited, a very impressive program of magically-augmented engineering means it’s possible to hoist ships out of the water altogether (for a reasonable fee) and store them, dangling in the air, for a few days (at a reasonable fee) until they’re ready to set out again. Meanwhile the offloaded goods are stored (at a reasonable fee), resold (duties apply), and shipped out to the Principalities. To the north, connected by an elaborate flying-fox arrangement, there’s a very narrow and rather precarious peninsula (the Fingertip) that leads to Kymiss; to the south, another flying-fox transports goods and people to and from Elbin; to the west, more conventional ports on the Half-Sea allow shipping travel between Mestra, Elbin, and the Pearl. (Costs apply.)
Kymiss and Mestra are major agricultural producers. Aside from fish, most of the food eaten in Northport comes from these two principalities. Elbin has farmland but also has large forests (wood is very important to Northport). Out to the west, mountainous Venstra is a major producer of iron, gold, and some gems, but limited in almost everything else; it doesn’t have direct contact with Northport so trade mostly goes via Mestra, through a rather dangerous mountain range
The Dragon Islands go on for quite a long way, up to the tropics. They got their name because of the popular belief that every island is home to its own dragon – although this may require creative interpretation of “island” and “dragon”. Some of the dragons are cantankerous, and a couple of the bigger ones receive a healthy retainer for “protection”, but mostly they keep to themselves.
The Islands’ main trade is in luxury goods for the elite of the Principalities: pearl, coral, coconut wine, exotic animals, unusual fruit, spices, and the like. Mages are much more common than in the Principalities (although high-powered ones are still rare) and they sell a lot of minor magic items as well as the occasional counterfeit. Some Islander mages travel to work in the Principalities for a few years, sending money back home (minus the Pearl’s percentage). In return for all these the Islands take iron, mainland gems, and gold; one might speculate as to where all those gems and gold end up.
Northport itself produces very little tangible; most of its inhabitants are involved in trying to extract as much as possible from the trade that passes through. However, it has become known as a centre of learning. It has several competing colleges of magic, which have tried to collect and systematise magical knowledge from the Dragon Islands and the Principalities (and to control the spread of that knowledge through a very aggressive guild system). Although mainlanders tend to view magic as a less-than-respectable calling, some of the more pragmatic families have recognised the value of having a mage or two in the family and will send off their more studious children to get trained up. Some of them eventually go back to use their talents helping their families with crop yields and border wars; others stay in Northport.
Politics and History
Several hundred years ago the whole region was terrorised by a pair of great dragons. The female nested out in the east of the Dragon Islands, and many of the dragons that live there now are presumed to be her descendants; the male occupied the island/mountain that’s now Northport.
Eventually a motley group of heroes showed up, as heroes are wont to do, and dealt with the dragons. In the process they became rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams, having collected the treasure of not one but two gigantic wyrms. Two of them went west and established the Grand Kingdom, which soon fractured into the Principalities due to a very tangled argument over the succession. Others scattered further south, or into the Islands. One, a great mage, chose to stay in Northport and used his magical talents to build it up into the trade hub it is today. He was succeeded by the Council, a body of mages and merchants who collectively run the place and give neighbouring politics an occasional nudge as required.
Before the dragon-slaying, the region had been lightly populated. News of the dragons’ deaths (and the prospect of treasure) brought many migrants into both Northport and the Principalities from a long way off, so it’s acquired quite an ethnic mix.
The Principalities are feudal, with politics running on a complex mix of oaths, blood-feuds, and occasional opportunism/brute force. There’s a strong culture of chivalry, and the highlight of the calendar is the Grand Tourney, a contest of arms that draws well-born knights from all over the continent. Events range from one-on-one jousting to romantic poetry competitions, heroic quests, and fighting ferocious monsters brought in for the occasion. Winning is a tremendous honour but has been known to bankrupt the winner, who’s obliged to host the next Grand Tourney; the more pragmatic knights tend to agree that coming second is almost as good and very much cheaper.
Occasionally one of the lords of Elbin, Mestra, or Kymiss gets the bright idea of trying to take over Northport by force, but usually they abort these plans once they get a whiff of Northport’s defences and start thinking about the implications of having Northport cut off their trade access. Attempts to hire wizards away and build their own all-weather ports are politely ‘discouraged’ by the Northport Council, and those who don’t listen tend to come to a sticky end one way or another. Northport also keeps sizeable reserves of grain to guard against attempts to starve them into cooperation.