The World of Tel-Avi
Ardamachans scoff at doing anything halfway. Even their optimists aren’t happy unless the glass is completely full. So Ardamacha is a strange place to find an entire race of beings known as halflings thriving in a monster-infested swamp. Or maybe it’s the only place you would find them.
Baron Phlensos Ursuma came by his barony the way most bards make important friends and enemies — making fun of politically expedient targets. While entertaining at court in Airspur a few years ago, Duke Khrulis Cranden was deeply in his cups as Phlensos performed a dead-on impersonation of Khrulis’s main political opponent, Lord Ramsay of Banchor.
Khrulis was so amused that he immediately granted Phlensos the title of Baron. Drunk, but not stupid, Khrulis didn’t give Phlensos much land to speak of with the title — just a small area of slightly less than two square miles in the Adder Swamp.
“Resourceful as a bard” (as the old saying goes), Phlensos decided to do something with his unexpected windfall. He gathered his extended “family” of halflings and built a small keep and playhouse on the most solid part of the land. From there, he runs a bardic training school and a theater for minstrels and acting troupes to perform in. Since then, numerous smaller halfling villages have sprung up both within and on the outskirts of the swamp, where ever there is solid and cultivable land.
Dozens of bards from across Cyfandir have made the trek to the tiny barony to study and trade information. An entertainer’s haven, Baron Ursuma welcomes any bard or would-be jester who shows up and wants to study. (No one else cares much or wants to risk a trek into the Adder Swamp to find the place.) The Ursuman Amusement Emporium is not a secret, but only bards in Ardamacha generally know its presence and specialties. In the past few months the Emporium has begun gathering a reputation for its breadth of offerings and the baron’s dedication to unexpected performances.
Those who do make the trek find a sturdy stone keep with room after room of child-sized living space, an enormous hall for dining and holding court, and an open-air theater that seats nearly 200 people. The theater gets used a great deal. Shows run most days in a tenday, and the audience is filled with an odd mix of halflings, drifters, and werecrocodiles who lumber in from the swamps to see the shows.
Shows include dramas and comedies, pantomime, acrobatics, storytelling, knife-throwing displays, and more inventive offerings. One night a week is open stage night when anyone is allowed to stand up and do just about anything. And in the “anything goes” land of Ursuma, just about anything has been tried at some point.
Laws are playthings for Phlensos in his barony. In such a small space formal law is unnecessary — and therefore becomes a means of entertainment. The Baron issues edicts and amendments at the drop of a hat (sometimes concerning the dropping of hats) for his own amusement or someone else’s. Laws that the Baron has issued include daily handstands for citizens under 50, a “Tossstones Day” every tenday, and the requisite addressing of the baron as “Milord High Poofy Trousers” when court is in session.
However, the ersatz baron seriously attends to some matters of state. Chief among these is security. Soon after moving onto his fiefdom, Phlensos noticed the constant lizardfolk-flumph war raging in the Adder Swamp. Rather than become a casualty, Phlensos watched for a few days, and then approached one of the stronger gangs of werecrocodiles. He offered them food, shelter, and frequent entertainment if they agreed to act as the elite guard for the barony.
Most were having none of that, and only well-placed spells got Phlensos out of the situation alive. But one werecrocodile did listen — an individual known as Grevas. The draw of easy food was strong for him, and the way the halfling talked and moved intrigued him. Though at first he had planned to wait until their guard was down and eat the children, the daily circus of halflings turned out to be enjoyable for Grevas. Further, the veneer of legitimacy suited him more than he thought it would. Within a few months, Grevas became “Captain of the Ursuman Guard.” Of course, Grevas represents the entirety of the Ursuman Guard, but he’s very fond of the title, and the halflings give him a measure of respect for the protection he provides. Grevas spends most of his day sleeping, but once or twice a day he does a wandering patrol of the grounds. He is unforgiving and violent with intruders. His reputation as a fierce fighter is well known among the lizardfolk; his presence alone is usually enough to drive them away. The flumphs and werecrocodiles don’t bother him either. They don’t want to live with the halflings, but they’re free to come to performances if they don’t cause trouble, and most enjoy the entertainment enough not to ruin a good thing. Most of them only kill halflings when they’re absolutely sure nobody will find out.
Though the sentiment is appreciated, the halflings of Ursuma are no pushovers. Every one of them is trained in tumbling and knife throwing. They also drill defense tactics every day in the guise of festive contests: Whistling, knife throwing, distance spitting, wrestling, foot races, and log rolling are favorites. While some of these seem to be quaint pastimes, all of them are actually barely hidden drills in home defense. Knife throwing and wrestling are obviously applicable, although disguised by the presence of ale. Other defense mechanisms are more devious.
First, the Ursumans have developed a set of whistling codes that can alert anyone nearby of danger. Simple messages (“fire” or “lizardfolk,” for instance) can be relayed across the entire barony literally in seconds. Next, most Ursumans carry small vials of hot pepper powder somewhere in their belongings. The powdered pepper is painfully hot in a person’s mouth, but outright caustic when it gets in someone’s eyes. Finally, the mostly swampland of Ursuma is littered with logs that the children have dragged in place. When lizardfolk or unruly flumphs decide to attack the barony, the Ursumans lure them onto these slippery logs and begin rolling. Anyone caught on a log with an Ursuman halfling must succeed at an opposed Balance check or fall prone into the swamp muck.
Aside from acting, story telling, and buffoonery, the “state activity” of Ursuma is juggling. By law, any resident of the city for more than two weeks must learn to juggle, and Ursuman law mandates daily “juggling hours” between dusk and sunset. Unlike other laws in the barony, this one is seriously enforced, though mainly by social pressure. Anyone in the barony who cannot juggle is mercilessly heckled and becomes an unwilling participant of passing games between skilled halflings. Knives, torches, and axes fly dangerously close to heads and groins of those who don’t join in. As the sky darkens, juggling implements are often set afire to provide light, and some halflings trade juggling clubs for real clubs in case they need a weapon handy in the dark.
Of course, bard schools and baronies don’t pay for themselves — at least not the ones without peasants located in swamps. Of course they charge tuition to outsiders who come to study, but it’s usually a pittance — only a fraction of operating costs to keep a household of several dozen halflings and a school running. So to fund operations, members of the Ursuma hire themselves out as itinerant entertainers. Ardamachans love their bards almost as much as they love fighting, so a trained bard who’s quick with a knife is the most popular person in the alehouse most nights. After a season on the road, Ursuman entertainers wander home again, bringing a percentage of the take back to be “taxed” by the Baron. To encourage proper reporting of funds, positions within the noble “family” are given to those who bring the most money back.
“Poobah of the Marsh” and “Chief Doorknob Shiner” positions don’t really have any responsibilities associated with them, but these halflings eat first, get first pick of clothing shipments, sit in the best seats at the Emporium, and issue orders to the halflings who came back with the least amount of money. As a result, many of the Ursumans race to bring the most money so that they can keep the entertainment going and continue the history of the realm while having fun at the expense of the “politically” expedient.
Ursuma Pepper Powder: This powder is ground from very hot peppers imported from Chondath and mixed with a secret alchemical substance. When put in a person’s mouth, the user takes 1 point of subdual damage. One round later, the pepper powder can be spat into a foe’s eyes. If the spitter hits with a ranged touch attack (10-foot range increment), the recipient must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 13) or take 1d6 points of subdual damage and be blinded for 1d6 rounds. “Spitting” is considered an exotic weapon. Unless proficient, spitters suffer the standard -4 penalty to spit attacks with Ursuma pepper powder. Ursuma pepper powder is not sold, and therefore has no price. Its weight is negligible.