Visit scenic Chiaro! [Cavaliers of Mars]
Drafts for Cavaliers of Mars are starting to come in. Since I posted “Two Swords of Mars” the other week, this week I’d like to spotlight the city it takes place in, Chiaro. Chiaro is a lively city caught between those who would loot its ancient past and its role as a lifeline for modern Mars.
Stats have been redacted pending playtesting.
On the subject of the playtest: We had a huge response, with more groups than I could process feedback from in one go. I’ve split the playtest into multiple phases, so if you haven’t gotten a playtest packet you may soon.
Thanks go to Meghan Fitzgerald, who wrote most of the entry.
Chiaro was once upon the edge of a mighty river of Old Mars, built atop the ruins of a Cydonian city that itself was built atop one even older. As such, it lies among a network of valleys containing some of the greatest First Martian and Cydonian tombs and monuments.
Chiaro is ruled by a council of elders. Some are alleged to have been children in past millennia when the Silt Sea was parted and perhaps the last of the First Martians still walked the world.
The “city” is divided into two parts:
Chiaro-that-was: Home base for tomb robbers and those who supply and trade with them. A tent city surrounded by a low wall, running as close to the monuments’ edge as is (probably) safe. A few less ambitious raiders dig here hoping to find remnants of layered ruins, but this place is long since picked over.
Chiaro-that-is: Further to the southeast, a small port along the Stygian canal. A more prosperous city, high-walled and at less hazard from the things that walk the desert at night. Chiaro-that-is benefits from the relic trade in Chiaro-that-was, while also producing its own food and goods.
At night the torches of Chiaro burn with a blue flame that the priests claim keeps the tomb stalkers at bay.
To the south of both Chiaros is a defunct atmosphere processor, ruptured from the inside by incredible forces. Like all atmosphere processors, it is guarded with death traps. Unlike many, the secrets of its traps and chambers are unmapped, and no Roundhead is known to dwell here with his cult.
Cloister of the Blind Saint
In Chiaro-that-is, a cavernous stone monastery lit with enormous blue-flame beacons at each of its four corners stands aloof from the bustle. The monks here revere the Blind Saint, whose story lies obscured in the dusts of history. In emulation of their saint, they pluck out their eyes in a holy initiation ceremony, believing that to truly see the truths of time and space, one must cut out the distractions of the here and now. When many chant in tandem, they use echolocation to “see” their surroundings through the blending harmonies of the sounds they produce. They also know how to perform an ancient, sacred throat singing technique, which they claim allows them to see far beyond the physical through its eerie overtones. Perhaps they view parallel dimensions, or far-off realms, or even the distant past or future. Or perhaps they view nothing at all.
- A monk approaches the characters with a strange warning: one of them is the crux of a looming cosmic event, but the monks only know faint details. The monk beseeches the characters to come to the Cloister and let the sacred chant reveal more. What will the monks do once they learn who is responsible and how?
- The secretive Cloister’s vaults hold treasures from ages past, guarded jealously by the monks and their retainers. Word comes from a reliable source in Chiaro-that-was that a harp with crystal strings has begun to play itself within those vaults and is dangerous beyond measure, but the monks refuse to listen. Can anyone prevent the disastrous consequences?
- The Cloister’s flame-beacons burn continuously night and day, while most of the city’s torches burn only at night. Superstition says that these beacons take the monks’ chorus into the sky and call out to something far away. Now rumor has it that whatever it is has answered the call, and it’s coming.
- Djada, Red Martian monk and secret Cloister recruiter (Expressive Gestures X, Uncanny Senses X, Knows Too Much X; Trouble: Blind when Alone)
- Whisper, nervous Red Martian Cloister retainer (Orphan Raised by the Blind X, Knows the Cloister Inside and Out X, Apprentice Scribe X; Trouble: Terrified of the Unknown)
- Docya, Wyeth scribe and superstition monger, wants the Cloister’s secrets (Persuasive Pen X, Noble Connections X, Blends into a Crowd X; Trouble: Can’t Take a Hint)
- The Cloister is guarded by two imposing Skarrut mercenary siblings who only allow authorized visitors inside. (Sharp Blades X, By Any Means Necessary X, Stone-Faced X)
- During certain celestial alignments, the monks shut themselves inside and chant for three days and three nights. While they do, the sky for miles around warps, showing otherworldly, disorienting visions.
- The monks are capable of uncannily coordinated combat when they fight while chanting in large groups, almost as though they could read each other’s minds.
Ruptured Atmosphere Processor
Long ago, a massive force ripped apart the atmosphere processor to the south of both cities from the inside. The Roundheads leave it be, having no interest in its broken husk, and none of the few scavengers who have returned from its labyrinthine guts can describe it accurately or act as guide. The secret of its ruin lies buried somewhere in its steel belly. Known, it might give great insight into the ways of the First Martians. But its traps are deadly, and its winding chambers stretch maze-like into the darkness, made impassable here and there by malfunctioning machinery, collapsed rubble, or razor-fanged traps exposed by the damage.
- A faint voice calls for help from within the processor’s shadowed recesses. The deeper in the characters travel, the more urgent its cries become. Is someone trapped in here? Is it the spirit of one who died here, lost and forgotten? Or something even more sinister?
- A noble offers a ludicrous sum to any stout adventurer who can penetrate the processor’s defenses and learn its secrets. The offer seems straightforward on the surface, but after the characters accept, a rival noble offers an even more ludicrous sum for the same. Will either noble take no for an answer? Why are the secrets suddenly so important?
- The characters hear a rumor that the processor has begun to emit a distant mechanical hum, as though something had been activated inside, and reports say that a peculiar odor lingers in the air around it. Is it miraculously functioning again, or is it spewing some kind of poison? Who’s responsible?
- Somewhere inside the processor, a strange multi-faced clock counts down from three thousand years. Only a few days are left before the final hand strikes zero. What happens then? Should it be prevented? Can it be prevented?
- The characters find something of incredible value inside the processor — a gem of lost First Martian genius or a scrap of machinery made of pure radium, something that could win them riches. But as soon as they try to leave with it, the entire place locks down. Doors close and refuse to open, and all lights extinguish.
- One room inside the processor contains posed and preserved corpses, positioned as though working on the machinery. Were they killed when the processor was ruptured, or at some other time? The characters can find clues hidden in nooks and crannies, if they can avoid the traps.
- Taribat, Roundhead hiring fixers to repair the processor (Utterly Ruthless X, Eye for Character X, More Money than You X; Trouble: Overzealous)
- Yuyu, scavenger who lives inside the processor (Last of My Kind X, Mechanical Autodidact X, Anything Is Food X; Trouble: Alien to All)
- Shyan, Zaius scholar studying the processor (First Martian Expert X, Suffers No Fools X, Quick Wit X; Trouble: Low on Resources)
- Barra, Red Martian found sleeping in stasis (Fights Dirty X, Talks Dirty X, Fearsome Mien X; Trouble: Lost Memory)
- Pimali, Red Martian peddling false processor maps (Could Sell Sand in the Desert X, Underworld Connections X, Mysterious Wealthy Benefactor X; Trouble: No True Allies)
- Mun, Red Martian processor worshiper (Gentle but Firm X, Dutiful until Death X, Talks to the Wind X; Trouble: Magnet for Thieves)
- A fanatic with followers claims the broken processor is blasphemous and campaigns to have it destroyed or walled off, threatening violence if unheeded.
- A great mechanical beast lurks in the processor’s dark places, spewing smoke and working its creaking limbs. It has lost its original purpose. (Enormous Claws 5, Dangerous Fumes 4, Erratic Function 3; Vitality 4)
- It takes great concentration and an unerring sense of direction to find the path back to the exit once the characters enter the processor’s half-ruined maze.
- Large swaths of the interior shudder in their instability, ready to collapse into rubble when disturbed, crushing interlopers and cutting off exploration — or escape — routes.
- Explosives, hidden blades, noxious gas traps, and steel cages await the unwary throughout the processor.
- Ice hornets, usually only found at the North Pole, have nested in an uncannily cold part of the processor. Their sting freezes skin and blood, and they are roused to fury by heat.
Ice Caravan Camp
Just north of Chiaro-that-is towers the Chiaro Reservoir, a hulking stone basin that holds the glacier water brought down from the North Polar Cap and delivers it into the city through channels controlled directly by the elders. The ice caravan camp surrounds the reservoir, with its Guardian barracks, its stables and craftsmen, and its haphazard tents. Here, Chiaro’s two caravans take turns living their lives — one rests its animals, restocks its supplies, repairs its equipment, and pursues its whims while the other takes up the hazardous journey to the North Pole. The ice water is transported in water-tight containers bought from the Pale Martians, carried on the backs of aepys and on wide canal barges.
Impromptu marketplaces rise and fall constantly here as port merchant families and canal traders follow the shifting trends of the camp’s cycling population. The Reservoir Guardians are the camp’s most valuable and most closely watched denizens. To be a Reservoir Guardian is a well-paid honor, but punishment is swift and harsh should anything happen to the glacier water on a Guardian’s watch.
- A reckless youth climbs the reservoir on a dare, and falls in while fleeing the Guardians. The youth can’t swim, but who will risk the wasting curse to fish someone out? Will the Guardians allow such a rescue to disturb the water further?
- Canal pirates approach the characters with a proposal for a lucrative scam that involves the caravan-master’s son and skimming a little water off the top. Turning them down means knowing too much and becoming a threat.
- The camp falls prey to an earthquake, killing several Guardians on the eve of a caravan’s departure. Desperate to keep to the timetable lest the city’s water reserves deplete, the caravan-master implores the characters to travel with them and guard the precious cargo, for a handsome reward.
- A Reservoir Guardian is accused of sabotaging a botched delivery, and the elders plan to put her on trial. She approaches the characters, insisting that she has done nothing, and begging them to represent her in the trial to prove her innocence.
- A sickness breaks out in the city, and some experts claim that the latest glacier water shipment contained a contaminant. The characters are hired to investigate this claim and determine whether it’s true — and if so, how such a contaminant came to be; or if not, why such a claim was made.
- For years, several foreign noble families have quietly warred to see who could gain control of Chiaro’s reservoir first. So far none have succeeded, but they’re not above persuading or tricking strangers into making chess moves for them.
- Dust, Red Martian child and caravan stowaway (Light Fingers X, Big Brown Eyes X, Stolen Flintlock Pistol X; Trouble: Sought by Abandoned Parent)
- Anzoli, Red Martian captain of the Reservoir Guardians (Merciless Blade X, Eyes Everywhere X, Secret Lover X; Trouble: Set in My Ways)
- Namenzira, Skarrut marketplace trader (Wide Smile X, Exotic Tastes X, Pretty Lies X; Trouble: Abject Cowardice)
- Khebim, Red Martian aepys breeder (Speaks the Wild Languages X, Retired Cavalier X, Just Won’t Die X; Trouble: Seen Too Much)
- Maatu, Red Martian barge sailor (Can’t Be Bought X, Canal Rat X, Worships the Ice Gods X; Trouble: Can’t Read)
- Sejesta, Red Martian caravan entertainer (Rousing Performer X, Friends in Low Places X, Friends in High Places X; Trouble: Falls in Love Easily)
- Long-standing superstition says that anyone who disturbs the glacier water before it reaches the city is cursed with a deadly wasting sickness. Locals have stories that back it up.
- Some caravan camp denizens say they hear the call of the North, an urge to go into the vast cold abyss and never return. Some have heeded it. Eventually, they say, all will heed it.
- A caravan merchant sells curios that come from the North Pole. Soon, the curios thaw into parasites that leech blood from their hosts.
- A feud breaks out between the two caravans during the changeover. Naked blades and flintlock pistols are drawn on both sides, with everyone else caught in the middle.
- A rare amphibious predator, the milak beast, emerges from the canal to feast on the caravan’s aepys. It attacks anyone who gets in its way.
- Something came back from the North Pole with the recently-returned caravan, unbeknownst to them. It carries people off silently in the night, evading the Guardians with ease.
Beyond the drifting borders of Chiaro-that-was lie river valleys where the nobility of Cydonia and where, before them, the panjandra of the First Martians were laid to rest. Out of the red sands rise great stone pyramid-tombs and grotesque, eroded quasi-Martian figures with distorted proportions. Ruined mausolea half-sunk in the desert’s all-consuming maw are built atop ungainly machines that won’t run. Carven Skyward Faces gaze at the stars, so massive that they can only be seen clearly from far above. Those who venture out among these monuments to sample their ancient secrets come first upon Cydonian marvels of stonework and architecture, sculpted statues with alien faces and labyrinthine crypts. Those who dig deeper and stray farther from the beaten paths find a layer of ruins and graveyards buried beneath the younger civilization’s legacy, onyx black machine-structures choked with sand that show little hint of what they once were for. Among all these stride the tomb stalkers, tall machines with ridged, cyclopean heads walking on tripods of long metal limbs.
- The Singing Tomb is a pyramid close to the edge of Chiaro-that-was, unique for the indecipherable pattern of gaps in its walls. A wind sings through them, melodic and mourning like the tomb itself keening for its dead. Any who sing along relive scenes from the lives of the entombed. Are they possessed by spirits, doomed to reenact tragedies, or does the wind simply carry memories in its ghostly dirge?
- The Cydonian Labyrinth is said to house both the lost people’s greatest treasure and a dream-eating void at its center. No one has yet reached that center, but every year one of Chiaro-that-is’ nobles sponsors a band of adventurers to try their luck.
- At the bottom of a crater shaped like an enormous footprint lies the Lyot Mirror, a glassy black surface that shows reflections of what might have been. It mesmerizes those who linger, and after a time they become dust devils, cursed to wander the lonely land. Maybe they could communicate, if anyone could survive being torn apart.
- A scavenger gang takes up residence in a crumbling vault, claiming to have found a working First Martian water pump inside. Rumor has it they’re selling access at exorbitant prices, but is it real or just a scam?
- A series of grisly murders among the tomb raiders has each group pointing fingers at the others, and a turf war among the tombs is about to break out — inevitably drawing the tomb stalkers’ attention. Can the murders be solved before bloodshed starts?
- A scholar hears about a living specimen of an originally river-dwelling creature long thought extinct, in the river valley among the tombs, but the area is too dangerous for her to investigate. She offers a reward to any who study it in her stead.
- Stray, Red Martian treasure hunter offering a share for protection (Opportunity Is My Middle Name X, Nose for Trouble X, Swift Dagger X; Trouble: Built Like a Twig)
- Netjera, Red Martian self-proclaimed tomb guide (Desert Survivor X, Bandit Decoy X, Disarming Smile X; Trouble: Misplaced Loyalties)
- Julid, Pale Martian outcast seeking redemption (Dedicated Relic Hunter X, Adept-in-Training X, Dead Languages X; Trouble: Homesick)
- Maryu, Zaius ancestor-worshiping pilgrim (Ghost-Seeking Whistle X, Believes All Are One X, Deft Hands X; Trouble: Trusts Too Easily)
- Diavol, Red Martian cavalier with a vendetta (Valley Bandits Killed My Brother X, Fencing Master X, Dune Lion Tamer X; Trouble: Overweening Pride)
- Jiani, cutthroat Red Martian archaeologist (Sneering Intellectual X, Bigger and Better Things X, Meticulous X; Trouble: Attracts Rivals)
- The characters think they’re excavating a Cydonian tomb, but in its bones is an ancient and malevolent machine they accidentally activate without knowing how. It seeks to capture and preserve them in its cabinet of once-living toys.
- The Valley Bandits aren’t an organization so much as a plague. Small bands of savage guerrilla-fighting brigands live and lurk among the tombs, waiting for a ripe mark.
- The largest of the Skyward Faces bears an engraving at its base, posing a riddle to all who dare approach. A wrong answer can be fatal.
- What the characters think is the entrance to a tomb turns out to be a sleeping tomb stalker buried under the sand. When it wakes, the ground trembles.
- In some subterranean tombs live clumps of a strange blue cactus that gives off a bright glow. Its water is nourishing, but once above ground it turns yellow and causes a bloody rash.
- The gargantuan delve beetles stand guard inside pyramids, protecting Cydonian treasures. (Pincers Sharper than Surtur Blades X, Sees in the Dark X, Jealous Hoarder X)