Enter the Fenlands, a mist-shrouded world of low magic and high intrigue. Twenty years ago, the rival empires of the Rain League and Alussinian Protectorate fought to a stalemate across a hundred-mile wide stretch of haunted marsh. Now, it’s a no-man's land, filled with rebels, rogues, and spies, all angling for advantage as a fresh war looms on the horizon. Will you and your companions take sides, chase gold, or start a revolution?
Four key themes tie together adventures in the Fenlands.
Old Secrets, New Wars: The Fenlands has been fought over for a hundred years, and existed for far longer. Unstable artifacts, lost legions, and ancient machines interplay and interfere with modern combat and political maneuvering.
The Fog Conceals: The marshes of the Fens, with their access to the ocean and lack of government, offer rich opportunities. Strange cults, illicit mercantile concerns, and outcasts of all stripes have found shelter within its thick rushes and choking mists.
One Man’s Freedom Fighter: The factions present in the Fens are rarely black and white. You will encounter drug running rebels, religious zealots, and imperial agents, all with complex agendas and nebulous loyalties.
Authority has Its Limits: Within the Fens, the laws of both empires have a way of breaking down. Characters with connections to the uplands of Rain or Alussinia will need to justify their actions to far off bureaucrats, or face sanction.
What the Fenlands Isn’t
It’s also helpful to highlight how the Fenlands interacts with some types of stories players may want to tell.
Not Settler Colonialism: The Fenlands wants players to tell stories about political violence, borders, and people caught in complex systems. It intentionally does not identify anyone as ‘original’ inhabitants of the Fenlands, something players who investigate the claims of competing groups will quickly discover.
Not a Quest for El Dorado: While there is money to be found within the marshes, it isn’t in ancient tombs or forgotten cities. Players looking to strike it rich will smuggle spices, scavenge ancient weapons, and hunt rare plants.
No Elves, No Dwarves, No Wizards: The world of the Fens is populated by and with humans. Its technology is similar to that of 1900’s Earth, though the cultures are quite distinct. Magic exists, but is mostly lost and faded, kept alive only in ancient artifacts and forgotten corners of the world.
If this all sounds up your alley, welcome to the Fenlands!
The Fenlands is a three hundred and fifty square mile swath of lowland marshes spreading north from the Salt Sea. Along the coast, windswept sand dunes are interspersed with tide pools and small, remote coves. Narrow streams wend their way inland, passing through silty, brackish floodplains before spreading into maze-like waterways choked in reeds and scrub brush. Small pieces of high ground thrust themselves out of the reeds, but little permanent construction is possible. To the west and east, the land rises steadily into groves of scrub cedar and oak, before leveling out into rolling hills and farmland. Its climate is generally cool, with rainy winters and foggy summers. While its coastal portions are fed by the tides, the inland fens are fed by groundwater, keeping the water cold year round. Coastal fogs sweep regularly through the Fenlands, shrouding the landscape in mist.
Throughout its early history, the Fenlands has been sparsely populated. Its peat soil is acidic and wet, preventing agriculture. The constant mists gave it a reputation as a ghost haunted place, further limiting settlement. Until a hundred years ago, it was a backwater, populated by peat gatherers, coastal fishing communities, and a few hermits.
To the west, ninety years of intercine fighting among the Rain tribes was resolved with a historic peace treaty. Midwifed by five young war leaders, the newly established Rain League quickly moved eastward, absorbing the patchwork of city states and petty fiefdoms in its path. Offering continued autonomy in return for tribute and military levies, the League quickly burned its way east to the hills bordering the Fenlands, tripling in size within fifty years.
Meanwhile, in the east, the mountain Kingdom of Alussinia was shocked from two centuries of isolationism by the ascension of Queen Elesin II to the throne. Leveraging newly discovered gold deposits, Elesin began a program of aggressive expansion toward Allusinia’s historical borders. She would not live to her dream realized, however, dying in childbirth and ceding the throne to her cousin, Queen Abratin I. Abratin, saddled with a glut of land-hungry young noblewoman by Alussinia’s system of matrilineal inheritance, had no choice but to push further east to secure her throne. Styling itself the Allusinian Protectorate, her empire soon abutted the Fenlands as well.
It was not long before the two burgeoning empires collided. Historically, raw silver and spices, including cinnamon and cloves, had been carried east by ship across the Salt Sea. Seeking to open up a lucrative trade route, the Rain League began to construct a causeway through the center of the Fens. As it neared completion, a dispute over control of the route erupted with the Allusinians. In the mists, a chance encounter escalated into bloodshed that later came to be known as the First Battle of the Causeway. A hundred years of intermittent war wracked the Fens, scattering much of its population and scarring the land. The Causeway would be destroyed, rebuilt, then destroyed again, before the combat finally came to a close.
Upland and Downland - The Fenlands Today
Twenty years ago, after another period of inconclusive fighting, both the Rain League and the Allusinian Protectorate declared a ceasefire. Each withdrew their forces to the hills overlooking the Fenlands, dug fortifications, and began a paranoid vigil that continues today. The no-man’s land, however, soon became home to a panoply of smugglers, scavengers, and outcasts.
To those in the know, the Fenlands is now informally divided between ‘Upland’ and ‘Downland.’ Upland the land of military trenches, border checkpoints, and petty bureaucrats. In Upland, the Fens are a demilitarized zone, strictly forbidden for travel and governed under harsh martial law. Both the Allusinian and Rain militaries write reports declaring that illegal trade and artifact looting are well under control. Any talk of permanent inhabitants of the deeper Fens is dismissed as little more than ghost stories.
The second one is out of sight of the last military picket, however, Downland begins. In Downland, patrols in unmarked uniforms skirmish and spy. Merchants in boats with muffled oars continue to smuggle spice, silver, and other, stranger things from Rain to Allusia. Scavengers with missing limbs pull war junk and ancient magic from the sucking peat. And at the margins, small communities, fleeing persecution or rightfully outcast, eke out a living by fishing, hunting, and occasionally banditry. Over it all, the Borderers, a powerful criminal syndicate, hold sway and collect taxes.
“My sister and I want to go downland,” the young noblewoman said, sucking down another vial of cane liquor. “The fort commandant won’t hear of it, but we need to find out what happened to our mother.”
- A muddy border fort nestled between two chalk hills covered in stunted cedars, just east of the Fenlands
- Headquarters of the Allusian Protectorate in the Fenlands
- Under the table, a brisk clearinghouse for smuggled spice and silver from Rain
The Floating Market
I dodged between hanging lanterns, upsetting a brazier of roasted eels in a flurry of curses. Reaching the final boat, I dove into the cold water, hoping I could swim far enough to elude my Borderer pursuers.
- An itinerant, lamplit market of lashed together boats in the center of the fens
- Run by the Borderers, but open to anyone who can find it
- A locus for secret-selling, smuggling, and illegal trade in the Fenlands
“I’ve heard you have a quick boat that runs silent,” the fixer said. “If you can keep quiet, there might be a cargo for you next time the moon is dark.”
- A crumbling town of empty warehouses and abandoned apartment blocks, built in anticipation of a causeway that never opened
- The Rain League’s original staging ground in the western Fens, now under military government
- Central point for scavenging and treasure finding in the Fenlands, hosts a variety of illicit traders and archeologists.
The Low Villages
The inhabitants gazed sullenly at the League patrol. “Nothing but fish here,” the elder said, gesturing at the small boats bobbing in the canal. Tucked under a greasy oilcloth, we held our breaths and waited.
- Ramshackle villages on the edge of the Fens, composed of houses perched atop stilts or crude log cabins nestled into low hills
- Populated by anyone from elderly, born-and-bred Fenlanders to odd animal cultists
- Offers secret harbors for smugglers and entries for fortune seekers into the Fens
“There’ve been strange lights along the western causeway,” one of the scavengers said, picking idly at a peg leg. “Same place the old airship went down during the war.”
- Thin strips of land thrusting forth from the swamp, strewn with mossy cobblestones
- The remnants of the trans-fens causeway, long since abandoned and left to rot
- Attractive places for privacy-focused Fen dwellers to establish themselves
The Fenlands have a variety of competing groups and interests that players can encounter, join, or make enemies of. In the Uplands, alignment with a faction may cut off certain paths - it’s a rare Protectorate Soldier who will be allowed inside Bridgend. Within the mists of the Downlands, on the other hand, the various parties rub shoulders, make deals, and form unusual alliances.
Bureau of Magical Recovery (Rain)
- Heavily armed archeologists hunting lost magic in the swamps
- Riddled with infighting and not above a bit of backstabbing between researchers
- May be secretly cutting in the Borderers on their finds in return for protection
First Frontier Company (Rain)
- Hunters of smugglers and impromptu police in the Western Fenlands
- Many of their recruits are Fenlanders, creating questions of divided loyalties
- Aren’t above selling a bit of confiscated silver to fund their operations
Fenlands Royal Trade Concern (Allusia)
- Small fleets of black painted smuggling craft bringing goods from the West
- Competing factions with royal charters and little mercy for their competitors
- Funds the Fenland Liberation Front in the hopes opening up untaxed smuggling routes
Forward Reconnaissance Forces (Allusian)
- Clandestine intelligence gatherers for the Allusian Queen
- Lone agents run informants and wetworks squads hunt Rain spies
- Rumored to have a gentlemen’s agreement with the First Frontier Company to conveniently ‘miss’ each-other when out on patrol
- Swamp mafia and the only recognized authority in much of the Fenlands
- Tax every bit of licit and illicit trade in the swamps, but also keep the peace
- Its leaders may be devoted to the cult of a mysterious marsh god
Fenland Liberation Front (Fenlanders)
- Poorly organized rebels and deserters dreaming of an independent Fenlands
- Playing all sides for advantage, but mortal enemies of the Borderers
- Some say they’re more interested in running drugs than making a revolution
The Fenlands lie between two imperial powers, each at the terminus of a massive period of expansion. Player characters or NPCs of any race, gender identity, or cultural/historic inspiration can fit easily into the world and its factions. A few personalities, each with an adventure hook, are outlined below:
Ayana Hala (she/hers)
An Allusian noblewoman from an impoverished cadet house, related six generations back to the Queen’s uncle. Ayana has closely cropped curls, coffee colored skin and frequently wears a wry grin on her face. The seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, she was pressed off at sixteen to the Allusian Army with instructions to not come back empty handed. After six years of guard duty in the choking fog, Ayana deserted into the Fens to make her fortune. She’s become an occasional agent of the Bureau of Magical Recovery, who value her ability to pass unnoticed in Allusinian territory. A week ago at the Floating Market, Ayana purchased a heavily rusted book printed on iron plates, which she believes contain military codes. Since then, she can’t get over the feeling that she’s being watched from the mists.
Soon Pal (they/them)
A middle-aged merchant with a charter from the Allusian Royal Trading Company, Soon is a native of the fishing villages along the Salt Sea coast. They are heavily tanned, with a shaved head, thickly muscled neck, and a fondness for sweeping, multi-colored sarongs. Soon and their crew specialize in bringing bales of cinnamon, cloves, and coriander from the Rain Confederacy under the cover of darkness. Although they nominally work for the crown, they aren’t above transporting a few Allusian political dissidents or League spies east when business is slow. Unknown to all but a few bribed officials in Bastion, Soon’s charter of trade is an elaborate fake, paid for with the proceeds of their first cross-border smuggling run. Now, a Borderer gang that Soon crossed two years ago threatens to expose them to the local military governor.
Amet Birza (he/him)
A dockworker at the Bridgend docks, Amet is secretly a Fenland Liberation Front (FLF) sleeper agent. He is well built, with pale skin, a shock of black hair, and noticeably protruding ears. Raised in the village of Cedardown in the western Fens, Amet’s parents moved to the Fenlands in hopes of a life free of crushing factory work. Instead, they found backbreaking labor as scavengers amid a landscape littered with unexploded bombs and deadly magic. Amet was ready fodder for an FLF recruiter preaching independence for the Fens. Until recently, Amet’s activities were confined to intelligence gathering. Yesterday, his cell leader asked him to look the other way as the FLF swaps out a shipment of boxes bound for a League military warehouse.
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Generations of industrial espionage mean that the technologies available to Allusia and Rain are quite similar. In Bridgend and Bastion, electrical lights flicker and early motor cars transport supplies to the front. A high ranking officer may have a new telephone connection, backstopped of course by the reliable telegraph connection. Powered flight is still a few years off, but hot air balloons might be used by enterprising players. Within the Fens, technology tends to be a bit more backward, but the characters will encounter steam engines, revolver toting thugs, and phonographs playing the latest tunes.
A few technologies unique to the Fens are described below:
Marsh Carts: Small, steam powered boats with a circular central paddle and a galvanized rubber hydrofoil. Not sneaky and prone to bogging down in the tighter channels of the central swamps, but commonly used in its outer areas.
Diving Bells and Suits: While most of the waters in the Fenlands are shallow, that isn’t true everywhere. Enterprising scavengers and treasure hunters have repurposed diving gear from the Salt Sea. It requires a trusted friend on the surface to hand-crank its oxygen supply, or the user will soon find themselves suffocating in the deep.
Bounders: Clockwork land mines scattered liberally by balloon across the Fenlands. When triggered, they spring upward and explode into a cloud of grapeshot. Many have been replanted by the inhabitants of the Fens to deter unwary intruders.
Lumin: A bright, bioluminescent paint derived from the glands of a frog common to the Fenlands. Often used by smugglers for marking caches in the persistent smog.
Barges: Wrecked steam barges are strewn across the eastern portion of the Fenlands, relics of a failed Allusian offensive. Some have been converted into floating encampments by the inhabitants of the Fens, while others may still hold treasure.
Brushblack: A lush moss found nowhere else in the world and colored so deep green that it is almost black. It grows in the deeper parts of the Fenlands. When dried and smoked, Brushblack is psychoactive, highly addictive, and growing popular in Rain.
Magic in the Fenlands
As late as the start of the first Rain - Allusinian war, magic was, although uncommon, not unheard of in either country. A court magician might know a few rituals to call rain, speak across far distances, or throw fire. Older, more potent magics were typically imbued into artifacts and jealously guarded by its owners. In a hundred years of conflict, however, they became scarcer, as the fires of war consumed magical items and magicians alike. Even spells carefully recorded against the ravages of time grew unreliable, weak and sputtering before ceasing to function altogether in the modern era.
While the reasons behind the decline of magic are for the players to investigate, the average dweller of the Fens accepts that it is somehow linked to the rise of modern technology. A more uncomfortable argument might point to the profligate use of an already scarce resource during the fighting. A few of the artifacts that players might encounter in the Fenlands are below:
Reanimator: A black metal amulet in the crude shape of a human heart, commonly found inside a destroyed corpse. When installed into the chest of a recently deceased person, it brings them to temporary life as a howling, psychotic warrior, lasting until their body is dismembered.
Thorns: A bag of small, silver hooks, packed in a rawhide bag along with a beaten metal compass. The reverse side of the compass carries a ritual that causes its needle to point toward a properly prepared hook, no matter how distant it is.
War Golems: More often retrieved in shattered pieces, these seven foot tall, peat encrusted clay figures were used by both sides of the conflict. A complete Golem, especially with its activating instructions, could be worth killing for.
Players entering the Fenlands will engage with three primary plot arcs, each of which has the potential to affect the others.
Whispers of War
A new war leader, Ala Thunderspeaker, has ascended to the head of the Rain League. Pressured by declining tax revenues, he looks to choke the illicit trade running through the Fenlands. But as his personal operatives flood into the Fens seeking smugglers, they risk upsetting the delicate balance of power that has evolved over the last twenty years. And with the Allusianian Army just over the horizon, any new instability in the Fenlands risks sparking a larger war.
As smugglers are pushed into the southern Fens by Thunderspeaker’s forces, newly discovered magical artifacts begin to hit the markets of Bridgend. Scavengers whisper of rich salvage in the tidal flats, while the Bureau of Magical Recovery openly recruits for a southern expedition. Some of the recovered artifacts bear the marks of long immersion in the Fens, while others appear almost newly made. Has the ocean uncovered a remarkably well preserved cache, or has someone at last unlocked the secrets of artifact production?
After months of tensions, the Fendland Liberation Front declares open season on the Borderers. In the reed beds and waterways of the Fens, a quiet, brutal war erupts, pitting brother and sister against one another. Seeking freedom from Borderer taxation on its smuggling, the Fenlands Royal Trade Concern runs guns to the FLF. Meanwhile, fearing that the FLF are little more than a front for brushblack trafficking, Rain’s First Frontier Company secretly offers support to the Borderers. What began as a small frontier struggle risks spilling over into a proxy war between the Protectorate and the League.
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