The Totentanz has swept across the land. First, the winters grew longer, and the crops began to fail. Then, a plague struck all the large towns, before sweeping into the countryside. The corpses of the dead rose before the survivors had a chance to bury them, and marched across the land in the train of the Sensenmann, reaping those that had been spared. And behind the dead, other nightmares followed. Packs of hungry werewolves roamed the woods, and witches had grown bold enough to hold grisly rituals on hilltops within sight of city walls. The devastation destroyed commerce, as people feared to travel to areas where the Totentanz might still be raging. And many of those who were willing to take the risk lacked the coin to conduct trade. Initially, there were not enough miners to dig up silver and gold. But soon, the mines themselves ran dry, or creatures who dwelt in them no longer desired any intercourse with humans.
Those that were left, frightened and confused, turned on one another, trying to claim what fertile lands and important thoroughfares were left. The faithless, rightly or wrongly suspected of welcoming the Reaper, were driven out of their compounds, and forced to find towns that would take them in; those that failed to do so, starved. Many also blamed the Church, which had failed to either predict or to stop the disasters. New heretical sects flared up across the land. They were led by preachers who questioned its legitimacy, and proclaimed that a time of tribulations, heralding a final accounting before God, was at hand.
But in areas where the devastation had been less complete, or which had the good fortune to partially recover, new opportunities for those willing to face the dangers of the world left behind. Despite the scarcity of coin, magnates were willing to pay handsomely for to those who undertook to clear the royal highways to restore trade, or to keep the armies of the dead at bay. The Church was also willing to pitch in, especially to recover abandoned monasteries, or to root out witches and heretics. Towns in regions where mines had been plentiful sent out scouts to pump out water, in hopes of finding new veins in areas that had been submerged. Despite the Church's disapproval, rulers and nobles sought out magi who could make gold and silver out of base metals, unleash the power of the elements, and read fortunes to give their patrons an edge over their rivals. And mercenaries of various kinds sought work with anyone who would benefit from seizing their neighbors' treasure.
Lay of the Land
A formerly prosperous region where major trade routes intersected, Markwald is dotted with numerous towns, each roughly 10 miles distant from its nearest neighbor. Most are inhabited by 1000 - 3000 people, though the seats of the magnates tend to be a bit larger. Some of the smaller towns have become deserted as a result of the Totentanz.
The towns that have survived are well-fortified to defend against the predations of bandits, monsters, and lords overeager to extend their domains. Behind the walls, one may breathe the free city air - many of Markwald's towns have imperial charters guaranteeing their right to self-government - provided one can put up with the stench generated by life in close quarters.
Most of the cities are ruled by councils that are composed of heads of the most important guilds. The councils, in turn, elect a Burgomeister, Shultheiss, or Vogt, usually based on how much money an aspirant for the office distributes to the individual syndics. The rough-and-tumble of political life is further stimulated by the patronage of major magnates, moneylenders, and the Church, all of which promote their own candidates and informal 'parties'. Successful syndics, it is often whispered, are those who have made mutually beneficial pacts with household kobolds or other Fee beings.
The insecurity of life for the underprivileged breeds anxiety that is often expressed through mass public gatherings. The majority of the population - including apprentices, unskilled laborers, and refugees from the country are not politically represented, and have little recourse other than to riot or loot when they want their voices heard. Aside from that, people turn out for funeral and holiday processions, public executions, visits by fiery itinerant preachers, bonfires of vanities, and fairs. Groups of itinerant Augurs occasionally encamp outside of the city walls, but in times of great stress or strife, town residents may carry out attacks against them. When strife within cities becomes pervasive, they are visited by the feared Vehm - a group of armed justices who punish guilty and innocent alike to restore order.
Beyond the walls lie tracts of woodland and scattered villages. The peasants are, if anything, even more anxious than the urban residents, exposed as they are to marauders without the protection of city walls. Many of them have sunk into personal dependence on the noble landowners, who, in exchange for work on their estates, promise to shelter the peasants within their castles in times of need. Some villagers have found that freedom is a high price to pay for security, though many suspect that they have instead made deals with marauders, or even the Dark Powers.
The roads that connect the towns to one another have, in many instances, fallen into disrepair. Places where they have become impassible often become sites of ambushes - by hungry peasants, greedy landlords, unpaid mercenaries, or even worse horrors. City governments, large magnates, and princes of the church are often willing to pay people to clear away roads and marauders, but they also act at cross-purposes to one another, favoring the restoration of certain routes at the expense of others.
Further afield lie abandoned mines and deep forest hollows that are haunted by creatures of darkness.
The Totentanz has encouraged some of them to return openly into the world. Some of them have even set up their own backwater estates that are tacitly recognized by the magnates in exchange for being left alone. Here, they lord it over peasants, forcing some to work, and some to be eaten. Other creatures, though typically not allowed to reside in cities, are protected by the major courts, and thus have some freedom of movement throughout Markwald. Worst of all are the abandoned villages and towns, which serve as gathering places for the dead, werewolves and witches - especially at night. Wondrous beings of a bygone age - unicorns and serpents, have been reported in some of the most out-of-the-way places, and their reputedly magical properties foster lords to hire hunters to harvest them for body parts, or to capture them for placement in menageries.