|"Gipsy girl". Zeugma was noted for its mosaics. image source: wikipedia|
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Zeugma was a Hellenistic city on the Euphrates, located near the current city of Gaziantep in Turkey. It was founded by Seleucia by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander's generals. It long pontoon bridge, for which it was named, made it an important trading and strategic location for the Romans, and had 70 000 inhabitants at one point. It was devastated by an earthquake in the 250s and eventually abandoned a few centuries later following numerous raids.
PERSONAL/GAMING CONTEXT: I've spoken about the campaign I ran in this world previously. I found information about Zeugma and its mosaic in 2004, and I was so struck by it that I knew there was potential for a setting there. The gaming system was Warhammer frpg 2nd edition, I wanted to see if the system could be divorced from the Warhammer setting for a low fantasy game (it can!!). I also used elements of the old Dragon Warriors system (which I highly recommend for any old-school gaming fan). The setting was set in a pseudo-earth, where some cultural groups were replaced by fantasy races - the elves are ancient Egyptians, the dwarves lost their ancient homeland and really don't like the elves for some reason. I also inspired myself heavily from Guy Gavriel Kay's novels, with some of the same terminology - the Jadites, the Asharians etc. This was done in 2008. Would I do the same today? I'm not sure. The closer you cleave to history, the easier it is to be very offensive without intent; and replacing an ethnicity/culture with a fantasy race is... perhaps unwise. If you do decide to use this setting, please feel free to not make these choices.
OVERALL THEME: In my version of Zeugma, it remained a bridge between the East and the West, an independent city-state navigating difficult waters between great rivals - the Byzantium empire, the Sultanate of Rum, Nur-ad Din (the Attabeg of Aleppo) and the Crusader states. It is a city there different people must live together, filled with intrigue, tension and opportunity.
Ok, now that's done, let's get down to the details:
The city of Zeugma is split by the Euphrates. The city is crossed by a long low wooden bridge – this bridge has had a number of collapses over the year, but is normally kept in good repair. Traffic is congested The other way to cross the river involves hiring a small boat – this service is easily obtained as it is faster than walking across and it’s a quick way for fishermen to make a few coins. Prices skyrocket when the bridge is closed, of course. There is a nominal tax for people crossing the bridge, and a greater one for mercantile goods.
It should be noted that the Euphrates is not navigable for long stretches in this area. Trade with Baghdad is done via road for a significant portion of the way.
The section on the western side of the river, Seleucia is bigger and older, and some is on higher ground – where the wealthier citizens live. The city walls are old but respectable. The eastern side, Apamea, is smaller, lower but has better city walls as there are more concerns from invasions from the east. These walls have been enchanted by dwarven runic magic, increasing their resilience. A number of narrow sewage tunnels run under the high town, and these are sometimes infested by criminals, goblins or worse. Patrolling these tunnels is seen as punishment duty within the army.
Speaking of punishment, slightly to the north of the city the Euphrates widens and in the middle there is a long, flat island. It is unsuitable for inhabitation, but crops can be grown there. Petty crimes are sentenced by fines or – for those who can’t or won’t pay – periods of work in the island. Conditions are unpleasant. Since there aren’t always enough convicts to work the fields, some of the city’s poor are frequently hired to help out, receiving a meagre pay and some food.
|The layout is based on archeological maps, although the position of the bridge roads and gates is speculative... To see the image in full size, right click, open image in new tab.|
Zeugma is an independent city state and for centuries has resisted attempts by various kingdoms and empire to fully control it. It acts as a buffer between the east and west. That being said, the city has always been more closely aligned to the Byzantine empire (and the Romans before that, and the Greeks before that) than the Persians or Arabs.
Zeugma is ruled by five Satraps. Each Satrap is elected for 10 years. Zeugma is therefore a sort of democracy, but not everyone gets to vote – only landowners do (this changed following one particular adventure). The churches also gets a certain number of votes as well. There is an election every 2 years, giving a certain constant to the government. Each Satrap has a specific area of control. The Stone Satrap is in charge of public works and maintaining the walls, the Silver Satrap is in charge of taxes and the budget, the Bronze Satrap runs the military/city watch and the Paper Satrap is in charge of the legal system and the bureaucracy. Each Satrap absolutely needs the help of the others to do stuff, ensuring that no one has too much power. The Spirit Satrap is a “recent’ position (a few centuries only) and is both the least and most powerful Satrap – he deals with maters of religion and magic. Keeping the various religious groups happy is a difficult challenge. Under Zeugma law, no religion is favored over the other, a very unusual situation.
The city has a guild of mages, whose headquarters is the Zephyr Tower. The most ancient Azyr Congregation, or the Blue Guild as the commoners call it, specializes in divination magic, and has existed as long as the city has. Some say they are the true rulers of Zeugma, although they seemingly take no part in the day to day politics of the city – beyond regulating magic use that is. That being said, there is no doubt that the guild’s foresight has been key in keeping the city independent over the centuries.
The city has been plagued by a thieves’ guild for so long that’s it has almost become an accepted part of life. Racketeering is the main activity of the guild, and almost every individual of some means (from humble shop-keeps to powerful noble) pays a fee for the privilege of being left alone. The guild is fiercely territorial, and will aggressively keep out other criminals, going as far as investigating crimes it is not responsible for… leading to the unusual situation where the guild is almost a part of the police system. Smuggling is also an important activity for the guild, to avoid paying the bridge tax imposed on goods.
The leader of the thieves' guild has the title of Shadow Satrap; something that seems suspicious indeed to some. Cynics claim that the the guild organizes most burglaries, investigates them, blames their enemies, returns most (but rarely everything) of what was stolen... and perhaps are spying for the other Satraps! But what can be done?
Zeugma has about 50 000 people in total, which is less than its peak of 70 000. Several old buildings serve as warehouses. The majority are human of Greek/Roman origins. There are well over 5000 Arabs, and the Turks have a good 2-3 thousands present. There are about 700 Dwarves, haflings are a bit shy of 500 (they ended up playing no role whatsoever in my campaign), half-elves are a bit under a hundred, and elves who's blood is pure enough to rightfully call themselves full blooded elves can be counted on the digit of one hand.
Institutions, customs and personalities:
This building is well over a thousand year old and can accommodate about 5000 spectators. Although they have fallen out of favor in several areas around the world, Zeugma has found a plethora of uses for the building - not only are gladiarioral bouts still featured occasionally, but the place is also used for important public trials and executions, theatre, civic ceremonies, occasional mass auction, militia training, festivals, etc. To the average Zeugma citizen, a city without a Coliseum is as absurd as a house without a kitchen.
-The public Baths:
Although the same cannot be said for Western Europe, personal hygiene is still seen as important in the Byzantine Empire. As such, the old baths of roman times have been maintained.
-The Black Dwarf Of Zeugma:
This dwarf is the city's most infamous assassin, mostly because of his rather blunt mode of operation (show up, hack at the target with a sword, leave without a trace). He's also infamous for carrying a bow - a very big no-no for dwarves due to religious reasons. A few more recent assassinations (via a trio of arrows) have been speculated to be his doings as well. Gossips claim he is behind baby disappearances (dwarves eat babies after all), bodies found in the river, accidental death of important people, arson, plagues, and rats. Cynics point out that it's rather convenient for the city to have someone who only actually commits a few murders a year and who can be blamed for all unsolved crimes.
-The White Dwarf of Zeugma:
Rabbi Thrain Silvertouched may be the best liked individual of the city. Spirit Satrap for over 3 decades (he has been elected without opposition the last 2 elections), he has managed to mediate conflict betweens different churches with uncanny skill and to improve relations between the Blue Guild and the Council. He is also a powerful runesmith, and has inscribed a Rune of Power on the eastern walls - no one seems to know what it does exactly, but those with sorcerous skills say it will be most potent in defending the city if need be. To the common man though, the old Rabbi is a white bearded dwarf with a strong but kind voice, who often takes time to walk around the city helping various people with sound advice, a willingness to listen and sometimes either coin or actual labor. The Rabbi had denounced the Black Dwarf as a vile felon. This hasn't stopped some people from claiming that perhaps he actually IS the black dwarf! To the common Zeugma, this is evidence the speaker is either stupid, looking for a fight, or both.
-The Silver Ring Brotherhood
A fairly "new" institution, the brotherhood is a semi-secret organization to which only a select few can enter. To do so, a person must be two things: a resident of Zeugma, and a master of the sword. The workings of the organizations or its goals are not well known, but its membership is: All members are entitled to wear two silver rings wrapped around the handle of their sword. Such a swordsman is to be respected - not only has he proven himself to be an exceptional swordsman, but he has the ear of other swordsmen who are probably very well connected. Gaining the rings is therefore a way to move up in social standing, for even the lowliest born, but carries responsibility as well - the brotherhood does not tolerate villains within its ranks for very long.
(I thought my players would be into this, but nope, not at all).
- Bhavik Singh
This small old man comes from the far reaches of India and practices a religion that is not well known in Zeugma. He rose through the ranks of the military both through martial skill (he wields his curved blade like a whirlwind, a blade that proudly wears two silver rings) and leadership - he has the capacity to inspire the loyalty of his men and to manage large organizations. He eventually became watch captain, then was elected as the Bronze Satrap, and is now in his second term. He wears a colorful, elaborate turban that grows larger with time and has a tendency to attract arrows, sorcerous bolts and worse - proof that it is a very good turban indeed! Bavik has earned the ire of some of the nobility for only promoting according to talent, not birth, but is well liked by the common man.
I think that this post has gotten long enough, and I hope you enjoyed this look back at my old game. If people are interested, I can post more about factions, regional politics, Elven customs, conversions from Dragon Warriors to Warhammers frpg 2nd ed, and an extensive NPC list. Otherwise, this will probably be the last post about Zeugma.