Nothing stirs an adventurer’s spirit like the lure of discovery in unknown lands. And when it comes to D&D (and its successors), we’re more apt to find players exploring the game’s eponymous dungeons rather than escaping them.
If you’ve read my other work for Kobold Press, you’re no stranger to the fact that I take great inspiration from the works of Robert E. Howard and his pulp contemporaries for my tabletop roleplaying. Indeed, Howard’s Hyborian Age is one of the great prototypes for modern fantasy world-building. This “Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars” is also a time of mystery, when lost cities lurk in the undiscovered depths of shadow-haunted wilderness.
Those of you looking to supplement your game with the stuff of legends need seek no further—this pairing of fantastic locales culled from the pages of Robert E. Howard’s weird fiction is guaranteed to put some extra pulp in your campaign just as sure as the sun sets on Stygia.
“Not a light shone from spire or tower. A great black mass of mystery, it reared cryptically against the moonlit sky.” —Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails”
In the jungle south of Stygia and Darfar lurks the dead city Xuchotl, a strange and sullen mystery of the Hyborian Age. A treeless plain stretches on all sides of the city to the dark forest edge, which marches in a vast, dim ring. Nightmarish, prehistoric reptiles prowl the outlying areas of that black impenetrable ocean of shadows, but rarely do these “Dragons” (as local legends refer to them) venture into the time-haunted desert surrounding Xuchotl. No roads run to the city’s four gates, though the rusted bolts of the great North Gate seem to be broken from the inside. Rust flecks the iron bracings of these mighty bronze portals, while spiderwebs glisten thickly on hinge and sill and bolted panel.
But the North Gate doesn’t look upon an open street or court as one would expect—it gives directly into a long, broad hall of heroic proportions which runs as far as the eye can see. The floors are fashioned from a curious red stone, cut in square tiles, that seems to smolder as if with the reflection of flames. The walls are hewn from polished jade. And vaulted ceilings of lapis lazuli—adorned with crystalline skylights and clusters of great green stones that gleam with poisonous radiance—cover every inch of the oval-shaped city. Three balustraded galleries full of interconnected chambers run along each side of the great hall—one above the other—resulting in a four-story stronghold, walled-off from the outside world. The chambers, floored like the hall, and with walls of the same green jade, or of marble or ivory or chalcedony, are adorned with friezes of bronze, gold, or silver and littered with wealth; precious jewels are as common in Xuchotl as cobblestones in the cities of the world.
The history of Xuchotl is one of hideous battles fought in black corridors, of ambushes on twisting stairs, and red butcheries. The strange, sinewy people of Tecuhltli, the quarter by the western gate, war with those who dwell by the eastern gate in mysterious Xotalanc. Both factions prowl the witch-lit rooms at all hours. The halls and chambers between the two settlements are a disputed region, owned by no man, known as the Halls of Silence. But these gaunt people are neither sane nor normal; nor are they the original inhabitants of Xuchotl…
The mysteries of the ancient Xuchotlans lurk in the catacombs beneath the quiet city—secrets of black magic and wizardry conjured out of the black night, of weird creatures invoked out of darkness for horrible allies. In these things the Xotalancas have the advantage, for it is in the eastern catacombs where the bodies of the greatest wizards of the ancient Xuchotlans lay waiting. And the throne rooms of each sect bear a distinctly different totem…
In Tecuhltli, a black column of ebony stands behind the dais, with hundreds of red dots scarring its polished surface—the bright scarlet heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood; one red nail for every slain Xotalancan. Ranged along the wall behind the dais in grim Xotalanc are rows of glass-covered shelves; and on those shelves hundreds of human heads, perfectly preserved, staring at the court with emotionless eyes, as they have stared for only the gods know how many months and years.
In the miniature world of Xuchotl, each handful of feudists is an army, and the empty halls between their castles is the country over which they campaign. But the strange people of the dead city have never set foot outside its walls; they were born in Xuchotl, and in Xuchotl they shall die.
Dramatis Personae: Techotl, the Mad Tecuhltlian; Olmec, Prince of Tecuhltli; Tascela, Stygian witch / princess of Tecuhltli; Yasala, Tascela’s handmaiden; Tolkemec, degenerate wizard.
Locations of Interest: Tecuhltli, Xotalanc, Chamber of Tezcoti, Great Hall, Halls of Science, Halls of Silence, Catacombs.
Development: Both factions are quick to distrust outsiders; but since the Xotolancas have gained the power of Xuchotl’s arcane secrets, Prince Olmec and the people of Tecuhltli (guided by the hidden hand of Tascela) are more likely to enlist the aid of any would-be interlopers (read: adventurers).
Creatures: The “Dragon”; Xotalanc and Tecuhltli warriors; The Burning Skull; The Crawler, serpent of the Catacombs.
Treasure: Immeasurable wealth in precious stones and jewels; The Burning Skull (dormant); The Pipes of Madness; Tolkemec’s Wand
Notes: from “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard, 1936.
“I still hear that hellish gong in my dreams, sometimes, and see that silent, hideously ancient city in that nightmare valley. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still calling to me across the years. But that’s nonsense.” —Bill Kirby, “The Voice of El-Lil”
A deep, musical “voice” calls out to travelers of the continent’s Southern jungles. The incessant throb of this haunting whisper can be traced to a hidden valley, where a forgotten people worshiping a forgotten god dwell in their forgotten city. Here, from the precipice of a domed temple tower, the high priest rings a mystical gong—the symbol of their dark god—to lure interlopers to a fate worse than death.
Deep within the Eastern jungles of Punt, steep cliffs surround a large valley wherein lies the remnants of ancient Eridu, concealed from the outside world. Various streams cut narrow canyons through the high ridge to feed a massive lake in the center of the vale. A small island occupies the center of this lake, upon which sits a sullen and massive temple to an elder god known as El-lil. Beyond the temple, at the far eastern end of the lake, is the walled city of Eridu. A stairway cut into the solid rock of the cliff twists down and around through irrigated fields toward the iron-braced gates of the city.
Contrary to the mud and bamboo villages of the jungle, the square-built, flat-topped brick houses of Eridu—some apparently three or four stories high—are hewn from a yellowish-brown stone of unknown origin. All the shores of the lake are cultivated and the fields are green and flourishing, fed by an irrigation system advanced well beyond the technology of “modern” civilization. Eridu is much like any other city—men, women and children going to and fro, arguing, buying and selling. But all in all it has an effect of apartness—of vast antiquity. And its people are an older, dusky race of shaven-headed men and dark-eyed women. The warriors of Eridu are clad in a sort of tunic and a unique kind of iron helmet, peaked at the top, open in front and coming down nearly to their shoulders behind and at the sides. They carry big metal-braced shields, nearly square, and are armed with narrow-bladed spears, strangely made bows and arrows, and short straight swords of unparalleled design.
Sostoras, the grim-eyed priest-king of Eridu, presides over his court with a cruel countenance. And the fate of all outlanders lies “in the lap of El-lil.” Only the slave girl Naluna, “the dancer of El-lil,” has learned to speak the languages of outsiders. With a heavy heart she tends to the needs of the condemned. Prisoners are eventually led through a small gate bearing a grinning skull to a broad flight of steps leading down to the water’s edge. There, a strange, high-prowed boat—manned by four slaves with severed tongues—awaits to ferry them across the lake.
The island itself seems altogether older than the city and is girdled with masonry—built up from the water’s edge in broad flights of worn steps that circle the entire island. The tower, some ten tiers high, is grim and sullen—an architecture symbolizing an age when men were still in the dawn-shadows of Creation and dreamed of monstrous gods. Under the domed roof of the highest tier, three rings of tall columns encircle a great gong made of a strange green stones—the symbol of the god-head itself—the Voice of El-lil. Here, the priest-king Sostoras wields a long-shafted golden mallet to channel the voice of his maker through the jade gong. According to the severity of their “crimes,” offenders are placed within the encircling columns in closer proximity to the gong; and outlanders face the worst punishment of all.
For the Voice of El-lil had its creation in some inhuman age when dark wizards knew how to rack brain, body, and soul apart. Its terrible sweetness is beyond human endurance, and the rending and ripping vibrations of its lurid sound waves are keen enough kill a man from the black raving of utter madness. Yet, the temple of El-lil also serves as Eridu’s trophy room, and houses the weapons of those captured in defiant victory. Escape is only at arm’s reach; or so it would seem…
Dramatis Personae: Sostoras, the priest-king of Eridu; Naluna, the dancer of El-lil; Gorat, war chief of Eridu; Eridu Soldiers; men and women of Eridu.
Locations of Interest: Royal Palace Throne-Room; Royal Palace Gaol; The Temple of El-lil
Development: Should they follow the Voice of El-lil and venture too close to Old Eridu, adventurers will likely find themselves challenged with escaping the hidden city for their very lives.
Treasure: The Voice of El-Lil, the accursed gong.
Notes: from “The Voice of El-Lil” by Robert E. Howard, 1930.