The town of Portage is a settlement that can not make up its mind. It is either a small town on the verge of collapse, or a village struggling to make the next step. Founded in years past, during one of the periods of peace that are grandly called Empires, this town sits at a critical bend of the Sto River, or rather a bend of the river that used to be critical when river traffic was the primary means of commerce and watercraft abundant. The inaptly named Rapids below the fortress are impassable, and the town sprung up around the necessary portage. Barges offload to the north of town and awaiting barges to the south of town take the goods downstream to the cities on the coast and vice versa. Though not as common as the Merchant Guild caravans and their armed escorts, the people of Portage are entirely dependent on this flow of slow barges and this overland exchange for their existence.
There are a few farms on the west bank, but the soil is difficult to work due to the constantly encroaching forest and relatively poor soil. The plains to the east are fertile, but largely untilled. The effort of clearing out the bandits and outlaws lurking there doesn’t seem worth the return of a few more farmsteads to the tax rolls to the parent colony of Safirakor. The Duke of Safirakor largely ignores the town, and the local rumor is that he’s never heard of it, and certainly he has never had occasion to visit. Many in the town are equally ignorant of the current Baron’s name. The town is governed by a Reeve, a largely ineffective bureaucrat placed at this obscure outpost due to his lack of skills, rather than because of any latent talent. While the townsfolk are supposed to vote for the position, only one name is ever placed on the ballot by the Baron, so he remains in place.
The Reeve and his administration live in the stronghold, although much of the rest of the fortification has fallen into ruin. The wall across the oxbow has been repaired at least once in the last century, a segment of palisade is testament to that, but there is still a 100 yard rubble choked gap between the rotten logs and the remaining segment of masonry wall. The main road into town cuts through the middle of this gap, the rubble piled loosely just a few feet away from the edge of the road. Houses have been built along and amidst the ruined walls, only staying clear of the area directly adjacent the keep.
The town is mostly inhabited by Humans, although there are several Halfling families living in town as well. The occasional Elf can be seen wandering the streets, visiting from the forests to the west. The people are familiar with all the other races as well due to the diverse makeup of trading caravans. Generally the poor cluster on either side of the rotting logs of the palisade wall to the south and east of the city in small shacks or long narrow communal structures. The landowning or commerce based homes are constructed to the north and west, near the masonry wall. Guards are posted at the bridges, but not along the ruined walls. They are complacent to their “guard” duties, as no bandits have attempted to move on even this lightly defended target. Their duty consists largely of breaking up brawls between barge crews and caravan teamsters.
The people of Portage get by, the trickle of river traffic ensures that, but they do not thrive. Recent years of high snowfall in the mountains to the north have made the rapids navigable for months at a time in the spring. Should the portage become unnecessary so will the town. As things stand each week without traffic forces another family to leave town or take up life as a tenant farmer for one of the local landowners.
Portage is highly influenced by my time in the city of Dayton, Ohio. After spending the better part of 3 summers in Dayton for work/academic regions I got fed up and created a harsh caricature of the city. A one-time powerhouse still waiting 40 years later for US Steel to recover, but until then a smelly, economically depressed, crime-riddled town (with a few pockets of nicer areas, so I don’t totally piss off any natives). Again, I was attempting to find a way to make the characters feel that their wanderlust and adventure seeking ways were out of place. They were looking for Tombstone, and ended up in Dayton. What a disappointment. That said, the muddy backwater is filled with people getting by. They aren’t rich, and several of them would certainly be looking for a way (any way) to improve their lot before the town collapses.
There is perhaps too much history in such a tiny backwater with the ruined keep…but I liked the notion of a squalid camp on top of what must have been a magnificent fortification at one time. It creates a bleak outlook, without resorting to post-apocalyptic tropes. These people have simply forgotten and moved on, now shadows of what once was. In one of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books he described humanities penchant for reoccupying the same cities over and over again like lizards sunning on the building stones of a once magnificent city thinking “Oh my, what a wonderful sunning place someone has built for me.” That was the image I was going for with Portage.
I created Portage before I really had a sense of what Naissus would end up like, and before I created a map or history of the region. As such this was my first map (as I’m sure you can tell by the poorly executed fonts/key). Starting in such a backwater also 1) provides motivation for the characters to move on and beyond to better places and 2) provides an outlet for the characters when their levels advance a ways. I’ve always figured that level 1 characters are very competent individuals…but not supermen by any stretch of the imagination. They would belong in a mercenary band, or group of caravan guards but not even necessarily be the leaders…yet. This seemed like a good place to start that level of skill.