Tuesday, June 16, 2009

White Mountain, Black River: The Present State of the Empire

More Wushu campaign background--

The Present State of the Empire

The fall of the Fourth Dynasty, Jiang, once again brought the Empire into an Age of Chaos-- where the Mandate of Heaven remains absent from rulers and the people suffer. So many claim, with the oracles pointing to any disturbance as a sign of displeasure from the Celestial Court and any disaster as a mark of the world in disarray. These stories give force and legitimacy to those who seek to reunify the Empire-- rulers, advisers and heroes alike.

The present age finds itself with three major powers-- The Warring States-- and a handful of minor regions which remain at the fringes-- either undecided or fluctuating in their allegiance to one side or the other. The PCs serve the Kingdom of Tian, largest of the three Warring States, and by most reckonings, the legitimate claimant to the Mandate and the creation of a new ruling dynasty. Still, as has happened before, those who exposed and fought the corruption of the previous dynasty may not be those who lead the Empire forward.

The present Emperor of Tian, is Tian Xuande. His grandfather, Tian He, has first took up arms against the Jiang. Tian He had been a noted and respected general and leader in the Wulin world. He served loyally despite the corruption and evil ways infecting the Empire. Then the Emperor Jiang Du saw the fiancée of Liu Cao, a cousin of Tian He and another Wulin hero. The Emperor demanded the woman as his concubine and when her father protested, the Emperor had him and Liu Cao assassinated. When the fiancée, rather than allow herself to be enslaved, killed herself, the Emperor declared that the families of all parties involved should be put to death up to the third distance, Tian He finally rebelled. Armed with this animosity and bearing the loyalty and honor of many, Tian He fought for five years, finally driving back the last of the Jiang and seizing control of the capital. The took the seat for himself and declared a new and wise dynasty which would seek the Mandate of Heaven. However, while Tian He had been successful in tearing down the old dynasty, he had not been as successful in establishing the new. He controlled the largest portion of the old Empire but rivals still remained-- the Kingdom of Zhang in the west which had been planning action against the Jiang dynasty but who found their carefully crafted timetables upset by Tian He's action; the Shisun Kingdom in the east, where the last members of the house of Jiang had fled and allied themselves with the barbarians there; and the handful of smaller regions who either had declared or de facto independence. Still, despite these fractures the Dynasty of Tian claims the largest and richest areas and holds the old capital, giving them a line of legitimacy unrivaled by the other factions.

Tian Xuande, the present Emperor, took the throne when his father died in a tragic accident nearly two years ago. The Emperor has only just begun to come into his own, though many hold great hopes for him. There are, however, still fears about those who surrounded him-- including several powerful ministers and relatives who seem to have sway over some of his decisions. This has been tempered in part by the efforts of some noble generals who have tried to bring a sense of perspective and balance to his decisions. Most people, however, still wait to see what kind of man the young Emperor will become. Negotiations for a suitable continue, in an attempt to find an excellent political and personal match. Most believe that the Emperor can become as good a man as his father or grandfather, given the right influences, and believe that the Mandate of Heaven might return to the land.

Some point to the positive step that the present Emperor has made to the restoration of the Offices of the Provincial Inquiry. At one time this order and these officers made a huge difference in the maintenance of the Empire. They served at the behest and selection of the Imperial Authority, but instead of managing the highest level Imperial affairs, took as their commission overseeing justice and civil unity within particular provinces. Officers would be assigned to a province for a period of years before moving on to another province. Those who chose this path would have to have great adaptability and skill, being willing to drag up roots quickly. They created a fearsome check on corruption for generations-- standing between the authority of the highest Imperial Magistrates and the local Regional and Civil Magistrates. Many from the Wulin world took up this path-- which included Investigators, Judges, Enforcers, and Exorcists. However, during the Jiang dynasty, the Emperor suspended the mandate of the Office, citing vast and widespread corruption. Many officers were tortured and put to death and the Imperial Magistrate Corps claimed to have stopped a plan to topple the Empire. Despite the manufactured proof, most people continued to regard this group as legendary heroes, though their cachet faded over time.

Now the Office has been restored-- though the exact nature of the mandate remains fuzzy and subject to interpretation at many levels. Still there exist no shortage of those willing to go through the necessary trials to claim an Office. A candidate must demonstrate personal integrity, martial skill, knowledge, and technical precision. This has endeared those of the Wulin world who see the availability of such offices as a sign of the Emperor respecting their place in society.

Still, the task will be difficult for those who follow this path. Many provinces are large and have an established and storied history. Some will require the Officers to act with discretion, balancing political concerns with the need to enforce right laws and right thinking. One such province is that of Yanzhou. Yanzhou lies in the northwest of the Middle Kingdom, the Tian Empire. It serves as an importance trade route and has a number of importance historical areas, including Seven Waters Mountain, nearby. The Provincial Governor Qui Cheng has great respect among his people, but also possesses a reputation for being a dangerous and shrewd fellow, one prone to take advantage of his place on the borders perhaps a little more readily than is proper. He brought Yanzhou into the Empire twenty-some years ago, striking a hard bargain with the Emperor's father. He prides himself on a certain amount of autonomy that the presence of the Provincial Magistrates may upset. Still, he's maintained good relations with the Imperial Magistrates who have served in the area.

The situation in Yanzhou is complicated as well by the presence of Guan Cang, a former general of the Empire. Yanzhou is his homeland and he and his family wield great influence and power there, especially in the cities outside the provincial capital of Yanshan. Yanzhou also borders two smaller provinces outside of the Empire, Tengzhou and Wei. Both have played a careful game in making their choices about who to ally with-- the Empire of Tian or the Kingdom of Zhang. The Kingdom of Zhang stands within marching distance past these two provinces and many suspect that their agents work actively throughout the area, trying to gain intelligence and undermine the Tian Dynasty. To the north of Yanzhou lies the wild plains, a lawless and loosely populated area where several sects and strange factions operate. Beyond that lies the Iron Wall separating the Kingdoms from the strangeness of the northern and inhuman fallen lands. All of this is to say nothing of the rumors of the Hell Clans activities throughout the area, a corrupt Wulin faction said to have grand ambitions, secret lore and access to a vast criminal underworld. All of this will make the the lives of newly minted Provincial Magistrates more than a little difficult.

The Kingdom of Zhang: Western neighbor of the Empire, Zhang held a prominent place within the Empire of the Jiang Dynasty. However the Zhang themselves came to be known as dangerous and manipulative-- working with the corrupt Emperor, but also expanding and extending their own hold on power. When Tian He began his uprising, the Zhang found themselves taken unawares. They had been carefully putting together plans to undercut the Empire-- seizing control in key places and managing a concerted effort to undermine and suborn important officials. They suddenly found those resources and plans for naught, lost in the chaos of the rebellion. It took them time to gather themselves and claim their own rebellion against the Jiang, neither directly opposing Tian He's actions nor supporting it.

When Tian He established himself as the founder of a new dynasty, the Zhang said nothing. They simply established their own kingdom and turned away embassies from Tian. Slowly and carefully since then they have rebuilt their armies and spy networks. They maintain distant relations with the Tian Dynasty, carefully only addressing them as equals rather than as the heirs to the Empire. The current lord of the Zhang Sheng is said to be a terrible and potent Wulin master.

The Kingdom of Shisun: When the Jiang fell, a few members of the royal household, accompanied by the most powerful members of the Eunuch cabal fled to the east. While Eunuchs still remain in power and civil service in both Tian and Zhang, those who had been seen as the most corrupt managed to escape. In the east they joined forces with the barbarian tribes of the desert and wilds there. The Jiang brought secret lore, knowledge and powerful stolen relics to the Shisun, allowing them to make common cause with them. While most people express concern openly about the political machinations of the Zhang, behind closed doors they worry about the secret powers and dark rites of the Kingdom of Shisun.