Vassalor is a nation that has never cared much for the past, or history. Vassalorians care about today and tomorrow, and very little else. The past is bad for business, long memories only lead to grudges and assumptions that get in the way of what’s really important; profit. And so the business of recording the events that make up Vassalorian history are left to a few firms who make a meager existence collecting and recording what goes on. Historians are paid small sums to dredge up information from the past that may impact a business transaction. And more often than that, they are paid to change the past so as to help business along. In Vasssalor, everything is a commodity, even history.
The closest thing to an out and out history of the nation (such as it is) of Vassalor is a rough outline. It is known that Vassalor has been around a very long time, evolving yes, but still generally operating along the same lines. Tribes, then towns, then city-states, and then a contracted alliance of city-states that grew into a nation. But every step along the way, the hand of the Changings Gods guided them, manipulated them, and put them to their inscrutable purpose.
The strange relationship between the Tevalkur and the Vassalorians began at some point during the city-states era, when the Tevalkur embraced madness as a means of escaping the Changing Gods’ machinations. The two peoples have been ideologically opposed ever since, but the peculiarities of each culture have also meant that for supposed enemies they have frequently enjoyed positive interactions. The Tevalkur are obsessed with escaping the clutches of the ordered mind, and so anything as predictable as out and out hatred is anathema to them. And the Vassalorians will never say no to a potential customer. And so they have coexisted historically. Periodically there will be a burst of violence, a short war, a periodic attempt to exterminate the Tevalkur, but it inevitably blows over. Generally speaking, both sides have historically been too fractious or impatient to really focus much on their centuries long war.
The people of Vassalor have always worshiped the Changing Gods, and held to their one law; your word is your life. Contracts are what hold Vassalor together, every city and village having signed the same immense document binding them together as a single state. All the signatories have carefully worded obligations and benefits. They protect one another; they pool together money for the maintenance of a small armed force of mercenaries, and arrange for the temples of the Changing Gods.
Not much in Vassalor changes, not on the grand scale. Because of their ignorance of the past, Vassalorians rarely realize this, but they’re operating under the almost exact rules and structures of society as they did in the beginning of time. The scale and complexity has changed, but the overall idea has not. The One Law is still the only law, the merchant princes still rule everything (with the Changing Gods as the power behind the throne, every throne), and a man’s worth is still measured by his possessions and his power. Those who fall behind are ground into the streets to live as beggars, while most are simply caught up in the never-ending swell of scheming and plotting. Vassalorian society is something that is very vibrant, very energetic, very passionate but also bizarrely static.
But that may change soon. The fall of the Larassan Empire cost Vassalor much, and their replacements in Heild are much less amenable to trade on Vassalorian terms. They are easier to manipulate, but also hard to sell to, which drives the merchant princes into fits. And with the rise of Heild, the careful balance of power put in place by Larassa has begun to fall apart. War is brewing on the horizon, and while war is profitable, it is not as profitable as a tense peace.
And very recently, too recently for anything to be proven or responses to be formed, even the reign of the Changing Gods has been threatened. Rumors are coming, slowly but inexorably from the Tevalkur bands. The rumors whisper of a Tevalkur holy man who has done the impossible; found and killed a Changing God. The stories give many names to the holy man; the Lion of Chaos, the Sacred Lunatic, the Teesha Val en Shurva (He Who Returns Gods to Heaven). But the story goes that the Teesha Val en Shurva has achieved such a connection to the ancient chaos that all the petty constructions of order are visible to him. And so he was able to pick out a Changing God easily, bested it in combat (the manner of which varies from version to version from a clash of blades, to a magical duel, to even a sacred Tevalkur exchange of dirty koans), and now either has the creature’s dead body attached to a standard, or enchained and forced to walk in step beside mortal men.
Whatever the truth of the rumors, they have sent an insidious current of panic through Vassalor. The rumors grow daily, with some even telling of the Teesha Val en Shurva forming an army of Tevalkur to destroy Vassalor and slaughter the Changing Gods. Whereas before the Tevalkur were allowed to make camp outside Vassalorian cities so they could trade, and entertain with their “sacred” foolishness, now they are driven away with stones, harsh words, and in some cases swords. Cries are heard in the streets for the merchant princes to raise up an army to finally wipe out the Tevalkur madmen once and for all. But for all the whispering and even outright screaming that is happening in the cities of Vassalor, little is being done.
Everyone is waiting to see what the Changing Gods will do.
Vassalorian culture is obsessed with four things; deception, wealth, conspiracy, and power. These are the things they know, and strive for. For the Vassalorians there is no past, only a desperate present and a future that is either doomed or vaunted. There is only success or death, no room between. The only thing you cannot do to get yourself ahead is break the One Law, for then you will suffer as only the heroes of tragedies suffer.
Because of the makeup of Vassalorian society, children are raised to believe that while the truth is very flexible, contracts or one’s word are sacred. Telling half-truths, omitting key facts, all manner of minor deceptions are, if well executed, forgiven and even ignored. But an outright lie, especially on one’s word is punished viciously. While children in other lands play games where they are warriors and heroes, Vassalorian children are encouraged to play games of commerce and subterfuge. To be a warrior in Vassalorian society is no great thing, it means you are on the end of someone else’s purse strings. The heroes in this culture are the merchant princes, the shadowy collection of wealthy Vassalorians who own or can buy everything.
In a disturbing parallel to the philosophies of the Commonwealth, Vassalorians believe that everyone and everything can and should be reduced to economic terms. If you ask a Vassalorian what it would cost to murder his parents, he should be able to tell you, even if the price is something impossible. They will never say, “I would not do that.” Similarly, all relationships should be based upon economic reasons. Marriages for love are considered foolish; marriage is too much a potential for alliance to be squandered. Likewise, children are considered to be an investment, in the future and as a way of cementing a marriage. Note that this does not mean that Vassalorian parents do not love their spouses or their children; it is just that culturally love comes second to business.
Because of their focus on profit as the making of an individual, Vassalorians are also very particular about what businesses they go into or what they purchase. Art for example is not purchased generally out of appreciation of beauty, but rather as a way of demonstrating power. Vassalorians who wear jewelry and silks do so as a matter of tactics as much as anything. Similarly, celebrations and dances exist as opportunities to network or politic. Again, the celebration aspect is there, but it takes less precedent than the pursuit of power and wealth.
Vassalorians do not have many traditions, as it goes against their nature to honor the past. But what few traditions they have are related to the worship of the Changing Gods. The Gods are both a source of absolute terror and intoxicating fascination to the Vassalorians, despite the fact that no Vassalorian has ever seen or knowingly spoken with a Changing God and lived. This fascination has led to a culture-wide tradition of mimicking the Changing Gods. Most commonly is the Vassalorian fondness for masks and disguises; they show up throughout Vassalorian art, and it is not uncommon for a Vassalorian to demonstrate his cunning by impersonating a rival for a day, with the added bonus of being able to cause quite a bit of trouble if he succeeds. Similarly, masks are worn at all important social occasions, from weddings to funerals to parties.
The only thing that Vassalorians appreciate for its own sake is gaming. They have a heartfelt adoration for the art of gaming. There are thousands of different games played in Vassalor, of all types. Card games, board games, miniature games, even roleplaying games are played and treasured. Game makers and masters are honored above all except the merchant princes (who often tend to be quite talented gamers themselves), and of course the Changing Gods. It is not uncommon for a merchant prince to actually act as a patron for a game maker, paying for him to life and produce his work, while entire stables of gamemasters are known to live on the generosity of rich men. Vassalorians of course, prefer games that focus on strategy, subterfuge, and competition; games of chance are considered to be Tevalkur-foolishness. But despite the public disapproval, truly ludicrous sums are wagered on the various gaming tournaments that happen all across Vassalor.
And suffice to say, while Vassalorians see well done cheating as a sign of skill, being caught…goes badly.
Behind the scenes, power in Vassalor belongs to the Changing Gods. But on the surface, the Merchant Princes rule. The title of Merchant Prince is given based upon a single requirement; being wealthy enough to buy a share in the enterprise of a city or the nation of Vassalor itself. Each city, and in fact the nation itself is technically the property of the merchant princes. Shares represent different aspects of the governance of the nation or city; waste disposal, law enforcement contracts, even the maintenance of the army. By purchasing a share, and gaining control over that aspect, a Merchant Prince becomes both responsible for and the sole beneficiary of the profits from that particular aspect. As a result everything is run to generate a profit.
Of course, not everyone or everything relies upon the services of the Merchant Princes. Some communities instead set up their own law enforcement contracts, hopefully at a cheaper rate than those offered by the Prince. But such practices are vulnerable to the predation of the Merchant Princes, who are not above using violence to help maintain their monopolies.
And of course, there is the will of the Changing Gods. Most of the time, whatever the Changing Gods want to come to pass will through their peerless ability in regards to manipulation. But every now and then, they will want to make an announcement, at which time they will send one of their changeling priests to the Princes concerned. Once the command is delivered, none dare go against them. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does everyone takes note. Something that drives the Gods to make their will directly known is something that must, somehow be important. Such events usually become surrounded by a flurry of business dealing, divination and plotting as everyone tries to figure out what the Gods want and how they can profit or avoid being hurt by it.
(Note: there are probably a little less than a hundred Merchant Princes in total that own stock in Vassalor itself. As for the cities, each one will have around ten to fifteen Princes depending on size and wealth.)
A note about Vassalor’s economy: Something kind of interesting I’m doing with Vassalor. Generally in this world society has evolved to a level equivalent to the mid to late 1700’s socially, politically, technologically, and economically. Vassalor however, enjoys a level of economic sophistication closer to the late 1800’s and maybe even the early 1900s. They have institutions similar to the stock market, widespread banking, and have even developed the idea of corporations to some extent. They’ve achieved this because of how incredibly focused they are upon the economy. Other nations have focused on improving their laws, governments, and socieites; Vassalor has focused only on making more money. Also note that because of Vassalor’s sophistication in this area, no other nation comes close to the economic powerhouse that is Vassalor. The downside is the fact that militarily they are ridiculously far behind; having what in reality is a collection of mercenary companies rather than a standing army. Also they lack the unity and ability to operate collectively that other nations do.
Vassalor’s archrivals, and ideological opposites, the Tevalkur are a collection of very loosely organized tribes that share two common traits; loathing of the Changing Gods and a spiritual philosophy that embraces chaos, paradox, and rejects reason and planning. The Tevalkur believe that reality is a prison constructed by the Changing Gods, who secretly control every society in the world, though none as much as Vassalor. The rational, reasoning mind is an instrument of the prison, one encouraged by the Changing Gods as it keeps mortals focused with the false reality around them. The Tevalkur philosophy, the Path of Lions or the Road of Holy Fools, attempts to disengage its followers from thought and from reason, allowing them to connect with the truth that lies behind reality. Common practices along the Path of Lions includes dancing, ordeals of pain, sleep deprivation or starvation, and scarification and branding, with the idea being that the intense discomfort forces the “chain-mind” into dormancy.
Such practices are supplemented by the contemplation of bizarre, often rather profane koans, exercises in cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in ones minds and hold them both to be true), and a variety of “clowning behaviors.” Clowning often takes the form of animal mimicry, in which the Tevalkur will dress himself in the skin of an animal, often lions, and spend days, weeks, and in some cases years pretending to be that animal. Another common means of self-liberation is the practice of chancing, in which the Tevalkur gives up his free will and allows the inner truth of reality to guide him. The Tevalkur will use a die or divining bones to make very decision, refusing to make any choice that isn’t dictated by the instrument of chance or fate.
The Tevalkur have a strange relation with the concept of holiness. Their love of paradox and contradiction often means that very peculiar things get treated as holy. For example, the word for their holy men, Toosha Tav is also one of the most heinous insults in Tevalkur culture. Similarly, it is not uncommon for Tevalkur to declare things that other peoples would find disgusting or disturbing to be “holy.” As with so many things, this bizarre attitude is intended to help the Tevalkur break down the conscious, organizing mind.
Because of the hostility the Tevalkur hold towards the Changing Gods, and the instinctual revulsion the scheming Vassalorians feel towards the Tevalkur’s beliefs, relations between the two people have never been friendly. But as stated above, the very traits that make the two peoples enemies also make them generally unwilling to pursue that enmity too far. The only exceptions to this rule come into play on the occasions that Vassalor is given reason to believe that the Tevalkur’s beliefs may have some truth to them. The tendency of Tevalkur bandit groups to unerringly strike the most valuable cargo, and the way that bizarre, and often seemingly suicidal tactics and strategies work out for them brings out something ugly within the Vassalorian people. The Toosha Tav in particular have a tendency to stir up the old hatred, and more than one of the holy men has been torn apart by a crowd of screaming Vassalorians. And then there are the persistent stories of Tevalkur tribes being somehow immune to Changing God infiltration…
As for the Tevalkur themselves, they both pity and hate the Vassalorians. They see them as the most terrifying example of what reality, and the Changing Gods intend for mortal kind. And thus they must be both fought and when possible liberated. Of course, Tevalkur methods tend to have very limited success, often veering between bandit raids aiming to free Vassalorians from the chains of property, or surreal pranks intended to shake their “kinsmen’s” sense of what’s real. The former is successful, at least in terms of collecting goods. The Tevalkur have a proven talent for raiding, riding on the back of their war lions and unloading with javelins and pistols.
Vassalor’s smaller, insular western neighbor, Halitrad controls the western coast of the continent of Vassalor. A collection of highly fortified, wizard-ruled city-states, Halitrad exists as a carefully controlled machine. The lower classes and slave population are kept in line through fear, divinatory surveillance and the power of enchantment. Magical research and political power plays are the focus of life amongst the wizards, or Daari of Halitrad. But despite being a center of magical research, Halitrad is intensely conservative and restrictive in its practices. Deviation from accepted theory and methods of magic are punished severly, with maiming being a common “first-strike” punishment. Repeat offenders are generally either given to the Ocuirari, or banished.
Language: Common (Draconic is restricted to the Daari (Kings, i.e. wizards).
Government: Magocracy: Halitrad is ruled by a council of 21 Jennu-Daari (Great-kings), three from each of the traditions. The members of the council are selected by the council and hold office for life. Upon the death of one of the Jennu-Daari, the councilors from the same tradition of the deceased, nominate candidates. The candidate with the most votes becomes the new grand-master. In the event of a tie, the candidates duel one another in a manner appropriate to their tradition.
The Nesimi (Traditions): Every wizard in the nation belongs to one of seven accepted traditions. Each tradition is strictly focused on its style of magic, and upon a particular duty to the city. Magic-use not associated with one of the traditions is strictly forbidden and punishable by the nation’s harsh laws on the subject. Sorcerers and foreign wizards are allowed in the city, but by law cannot cast so much as a cantrip. Warlocks, do to their magic coming from a pact with an extraplanar entity, are imprisoned and executed upon discovery. The only way for a foreign wizard to be allowed to cast spells in the city is to go through the apprenticeship process of the Traditions, no matter their skill with magic.
Economy: Obviously, much of Halitrad’s wealth comes from magic. The city hosts some of the most prestigious magical schools in the world, and is unrivaled in its production of magical items. Outside of magic, the city relies heavily upon the slave trade and agriculture to get by. The lands surrounding the cities are home to sprawling farms worked by slaves, who are under the constant control of the enchanters.
Halitrad vs. Larassa: Halitrad rivals Larassa as the world’s foremost seat of magical knowledge. The two nations have very different styles despite their shared talent for the arcane; Halitrad takes a methodical, what we would call scientific approach to magical research, while Larassa of course treats it like art. The end result is that despite having similarly vast amounts of magical lore, each nation finds the others methods incomprehensible.
Most serious threat in Halitrad: Nomag wux xkhat vignar ghoros wer siksta lleisgaric. (May you become ash before the sun rises.) Often used as the lead up to a duel between two Daari.
Despite what one may think, there are many faiths in Vassalor. The nation is filled with petty cults, and little gods, prayed to in moments of crisis or to invoke good fortune. But often the reason behind such veneration is pragmatic; the cults are used to network and pool resources, and the prayers are spoken only to get the good fortune, not out of any real devotion.
But the only true religion in Vassalor is that of the Changing Gods. But they do not ask much from their worshippers, merely prayer and yearly offerings given to the changeling priests. And of course, that they do not break the one law. The Changing Gods enforce contracts in Vassalor, acting as the brutal consequence that keeps everyone just honest enough for the nation to function, and function profitably. They are creative, vicious, and absolutely merciless in their pursuit of lawbreakers, generally only relenting upon the victim’s public suicide or loss of sanity. But none really know when or why the Changing Gods act, not for sure.
Beyond their ability to impersonate others, and their immense magical power, the Changing Gods (it is rumored) possess a truly immense network of spies, investigators, and assassins that spans all of Vassalor. But again, no one knows for certain. Common wisdom suggests that rather than have their own network, the Changing Gods use their abilities and that of their priests to infiltrate and piggyback off of innumerable espionage networks that anyone of influence in Vassalor has.
There is little certainty in Vassalor as to how much control the Changing Gods actually have. Some outside Vassalor suggest that everything in Vassalor is controlled and manipulated by the Gods. They suggest that it is the gods who have engineered Vassalor into a society perfectly fitted for a race of shape changers, one filled with conspiracy. Others suggest that the Changing Gods only control Vassalor so far as their own interests are held. If something interferes with their comfortable position, they act against it. And others ask the more frightening question: What is their real purpose?
To the Vassalorian mind, magic is simply just another means of drawing in profit. Every form of magic has its uses in business, and so Vassalor is only rivalled in magical knowledge by Halitrad and only outdone by Larassa. The main thing holding back research is the fact that Vassalorians do not believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The purely theoretical work that Larassa and even Halitrad are happy to support gets no funding in Vassalor, with one exception; The School of Divination. Information is prized in Vassalor, and so diviners are highly prized and respected in Vassalorian society. Reliable, professional diviners are able to live quite comfortably acting as consultants for merchant princes. There is also the vain, dangerous hope amongst some that diviners are somehow able to detect the Changing Gods, or that a divination spell capable of such a thing will eventually be created.
But given how profitable work as a diviner is, competition in the field is amongst the fiercest in Vassalor, which is saying something, something terrifying. More than one person has been murdered for an apprenticeship, and sabotage, misinformation and slander are common tactics between rival diviners.
Vassalor is a nation characterized predominantly by its cities, especially its ports for it is in these places that most of the money is made. There are villages and towns dotting the nation, but they generally exist to serve as waypoints for trade caravans moving between cities or between Vassalor and Halitrad. It is interesting to note that while much in Vassalor is disorganized or compromised, the trade network within the nation is a well-oiled machine. The roads are maintained and well-guarded, and is it rare for caravans to turn up late or missing. Whichever anonymous Merchant Prince sees to the roads must be both very knowledgeable, very smart, and making a killing.
(Note: as part of the original contract that formed the nation of Vasselor, all city names are required to begin with “Vassel,” as a sign of unity. Far from the strangest clause in that document.)