Let me tell you a tale of greed and final justice, of ruthlessness and fall. I shall speak of how king Vangaul of long-lost Carrena was undone by his own doings, and his doings in turn by his sons. So, sit and learn, for to avoid the sins that lead to fall you must know their face.
The seeds of evil
When the gods were young, they gave plenty of leeway to their creations, for they themselves did not understand the laws of the universe in their entirety, did not know the full extent of the works of the One.
The Ancients wielded power beyond imagination in their golden age, for magic was there for the taking, and the young world easily impressed. They had carpeted the world with realms, and sown wonders recklessly over the countryside.
What they received so easily, they did not value, and squabbled over slights perceived and imagined. The mightiest them saw their lesser kin but as pawns and minions fit to obey their every whim. They had no morals and feared no judgment, for they were not accountable to anyone below nor above the skies.
Undone by victory
Vangaul, self-styled king since he slew anyone who dared to claim otherwise, was certainly not the worst of that abyssal lot, yet still his vices were many and profound. In the moldy gardens of his mind, lust reigned supreme. Whoever caught his fancy had little choice but to share his sheets or perish.
As sure as the sun goes to sleep after a labored day, so did the king's reckless passion lead him to desire one who would not have him, defiant in the face of his blunt advances and furious threats. Filled with newly-fledged love born of previous innocence, Asleanna had known but sixteen winters and had neither steel nor magic to support her refusal; still, the maiden denied the enamored king his wish, well aware that a clear "no" may be her last.
Wrath and lust fought in the sovereign's shriveled heart; in the end, the fury subsided, replaced with grim determination: she would be his.
Yet all his gifts and displays of grandeur left no mark upon the damsel!
So enamored was she that her mind could not be bent away from her flame by the mightiest sorcery!
So devoted that she loved her chosen even after the king's spells twisted him to shapes hideous and repulsive; devoted even beyond his grave...
Possessed of a loose grip on sanity even previous to his insurmountable frustration, Vangaul was obsessed with the silken skin and chestnut tresses of his 'Mourning Muse', how he came to call her, daydreaming of her firm hazel gaze and sculpted chin, of her clear voice that cursed him a thousandfold.
Of enchanted jewels he had reaped from the cooling grasp of adversaries and innocents alike, the king forged a crown unlike any other, a metal and gem patchwork still singular in purpose - to assert his dominion over a single heart, to make her his and his alone.
Into the haphazard bent shape, his covetous wishes, his greed, hubris and lust flowed, forever tainting the metal with unadulterated and unbridled want.
So they stood, the broken humble maiden, her remaining strength focused through her disdainful gaze, and the sneering king, boastful and certain of his triumph, the tasteless amalgam of riches resting as a gilded parasite upon his head.
"You can deny me nothing in the end, wench!" he exclaimed as the power of the covetous crown reached out to her.
Then, Asleanna knew she could not resist, her fount of strength having slowly dried out since her lover's death.
Exhaling a last time, she gave the tyrant all of herself, far more than he bargained for.
Encountering no resistance, the insatiable crown took all that she was and bestowed it upon its surprised owner; while he could finally claim the damsel's will-less body as a plaything, his mind was crowded with her essence - the purity of spirit, the single-mindedness of her devotion, and utter loathing for him. The maiden had loved with her whole being, and likewise was her resentment of the sovereign distilled, chiseled, focused in its clarity.
In revulsion towards himself, Vangaul clawed at his own body until it was no more.
The short life of the deadly crown
Standing over the cooling disfigured corpse that was their king and sire, the most powerful of te bastard sons of Vangaul, more than a score and a half of them, eyed their peers with suspicion. They had forged a semblance of unity and found strength in numbers to weather the unstable moods of their maker, and knew well that other "kings" would soon descend upon their dominion if said solidarity was gone.
"I suggest we make a fake king, a simulacrum, to be the first to fall; matters of import, we will decide by discussion" one of their number spoke, and the others nodded, having not formed devious plans yet.
"What of the crown? Who shall have it? Certainly not a mindless fake?" a voice of dissent was heard.
"Is it your wish to have it - after what it did to him?" a third ridiculed.
"You both are partially right - it is too mighty to be wasted, yet too powerful to harness. It shall be broken, and made into lesser crowns. To each of us a warming fire, instead of giving one an all-consuming blaze. Shall it be so?"
And they found his suggestion good.
The culling of the thirty-one
Shattered into fragments, the greed and craving of the lesser crowns was not all-encompassing and maddening - it was drive, desire, a tool.
Increasingly aware of the boons and gifts bestowed upon others and led by the crown's seething power, the brothers learnt of the their use: they could be used to claim, take, reap, harness what was not theirs. With sufficient focus, one could harvest another's strength, vigor, even inspiration and magical talent and enjoy them as if they were his, until the rightful owner claimed them back, in life or through passing on.
Mighty and gifted with twisted genius even before, the siblings grew into a power to be reckoned with, never short of an ace up their collective sleeve, bringing to bear a vast array of unexpected talents against their enemies: Ardor the Lord of Thirteen Flames was cut down by a dagger's swipe, for the spawn of Vangaul had pilfered the endurance of salamanders; Black Asha found her deadly poisons useless, for the brothers had taken the recipes for antidotes from her familiar; the Maiden Temple of Kalia fell to them as well, stormed under the guise of stolen femininity.
Even though so much remained unclaimed, in dissent the Takers fell upon each other, and, through betrayal, passing alliances, murder and mockery of justice, thinned their numbers - first of those they deemed insane, dangerous or simply worthless, then of whomever seemed a danger at the time.
Since the first death, a year had passed and only seven remained.
The reign of the seven kings
The survivors were all honed by the intense strife into creatures far deadlier than they were a winter before. All had expanded their mastery of their father's crown, learning the most important detail: easiest to claim is something that is freely given.
Through the crowns, their supporters could give up their might, wits or vigor to aid their sovereign - and the seven kings did not hesitate to coerce, sweet-talk or fool the unwary to improve their power base.
I shall name them, for you will come across their appellations and titles in numerous texts of old:
There was Leunis, the Warlord, peerless leader of men, unbeaten in combat, the Rider on the Golden Drake, the Peerless Sword.
There was Saloth, of the Thousand Tongues, the Seer of Secrets, the Herder of Lore.
There was Bannath, the Voice of the Beyond, the Dancer with the Dead, the Warden of the Last Day.
There was Velsern of the Green, the Thousand Beasts as One, the Wildest Hunter.
There was Anziel, the Fairest, the Master of the Honeyed Tongue, the Peacemaker.
There was Dornual, the Archmage, the Enslaver of Elements, the Eldritch Epitome.
Last, there was the Faceless, the Shadow in the Robe, the Endless Shapes that are None.
Outwardly at peace with their brothers, the Seven expanded the dominion to the Straits of Morskoi in the west, to the ice-bound waste of Fyrndloth in the north, cursed Nemthea in the east, and to the shifting sands of Nelsaum in the south, subjugating or crushing any resistance encountered.
Unimpressed by age, they reigned over the hundred and one nations of the known realms, and that age became known as the Age of Wonder, for the cyclopean forts of Kala-Sumi, the water-gates of Elder Sund, the walking city of Hasod, the speaking library of Kash and many other miracles saw the light of day during the reign of the Seven. None dared to assail their realm, and even the fell beasts and hellspawn hid in the deepest shadows, but lurkers cowed by the combined light of the Seven.
The unmaking of wonders
It was all but the calm before the storm, for the brothers had been boarding power and allies to unleash upon their kin.
I shall speak not of the thousands of battles fought in the first Great War, only note that it left five in six men and one in two women dead after two dozen years of merciless conflict.
The guardian colossus of Skyforge saw its components scattered across ten square miles, the Carved Mountain became the Crater of Duskwell, and the Tree of Life became the charred spire that presides over the Ashen Barrens to this very day.
Their powers fuelled by taken vitality and borrowed might, the brothers fought with no remorse, asking for no quarter and giving one. Today's ally could be tomorrow's foe.
The Golden Drake pierced the many hearts of the Faceless, only to be slain by a poison dagger driven by his mistress, who fell to the silver tongue of the Peacemaker. The Archmage and the Hunter allied to bring down the Fairest, and in the end they depleted his legions of coerced followers, only to turn upon each other in their victory. The Seer expected their conflict, and laid in wait, to join the battle when they were weakest. Alas, the Dead Dancer raised the fallen brothers, and sent them after the Lore-Herder, who could but pen his eulogy.
There he stood, the last brother, upon a realm of ruin, decay and shatted glory, with the dead to keep him company.
Ashamed, he cast the brothers' crowns to the ends of the world, and withdrew to the bowels of the earth to contemplate his sins.
The rebirth of greed
The lesser crowns had been locked away in the fortress of the Lore-Keeper, impenetrable and hidden. Alas, Fhalrhagod the Fell - you must have heard of the hell-forged dragon for sure! - was slain at the very site, and the sorcery released from his shattered heart was enough to strip away the layers of illusion wrapped around the keep, and crack its seamless walls.
The slayers of the beast ventured within, and with the riches and wonders from the vaults, they carved out the kingdom of Dragonfall.
Their descendants rule over that realm to this very day, each noble house claiming a crown, with its reigning champion the recipient of its gifts, bloated with borrowed power, more than human, and also less.
The lesser crowns
Two dozen crowns were worn by those brothers who did not live to join the Seven. Their potential has failed to fully flower.
Still, they are artifacts of power.
Each crown has the ability to steal one trait from a being, whether a portion of its might, an ability (anything from seeing in the dark to the power of a dragon's flame) or a portion of knowledge (either a timespan of memory, or memories that make up one skill or the like).
This requires a contest of wills; usually, the victim is restrained and will eventually lose. One attempt may take anywhere from a few seconds to a day, depending on the magnitude of the power and the subject's resistance.
The stolen energy belongs to the crown's wearer until the victim dies, manages to confront the Crowned and force a new contest of will, or until the wearer voluntarily returns what he took.
Each crown can have one stolen power at a time.
Alas, with voluntary gifts, it is different. Anyone wearing a Slave Circlet linked to a Crown of Glory may bestow a trait of his upon the crown's wearer, as long as he lives or until the Recipient returns his gift. How many Slave Circlets a crown can have active at a time depends on the wearer's will - fifteen is not unusual, with exceptional individuals being able to claim thirty.
(note: the circlets are not necessary, but allow the Lending to work over any distance; without the Slave Circlet, the link is broken once Donor and Recipient are more than a dozen miles apart)
More donations of the same trait are cumulative only to a certain degree: if you already have the might of three men, if a common man gives you his strength, you will not feel the boon; only a mind brighter than yours may improve your thinking.
Besides control, another important skill the Crowned must learn is Shielding - for, by taking into yourself someone's essence, you may become more like him unless your will is as a tower of steel, and your judgment and sense of self sovereign.
In Dragonfall, the position of Donor is a lucrative one, for the Crowned will provide well for these most useful subjects; commoners see acquiring a lucrative trait and then lending it to a noble as a viable way to a comfortable life.
With vitality, it's a different matter, for that is truly spent. The Crowned can drain their Donors of life with a touch to heal their wounds or to slow down aging; usually, this is an excruciatingly painful and horrible punishment for criminals and traitors. With regular feeding, a Crowned can maintain health and live half as long.
Currently, there are nineteen noble houses in Dragonfall; five of the lesser crowns are not accounted for.
Likewise, not all of the fragments of the original Crown of Vangaul have been collected to make crowns. If found and recognized for what they are, additional lesser crowns could be forged.
The Seven Crowns
Matured and grown into something far more potent upon the brows of the Seven, the greater crowns are relics of legend, incredibly valuable and to many worth killing for.
The Crown of the Faceless is permanently linked to a twisted being in a reality beyond mortal comprehension. How that horror became a willing Donor, none can tell; yet, it is always ready to supply unholy and unnatural power directly into the body of the Crowned and all his other Donors.
The crown's wearer can shift into shapes of nightmare, his flesh tranformed into flowing darkness that can birth eyes and mouths, or droves of voracious creatures intent on murder. The most dire of his wounds close with disturbing swiftness, while his blood is acid and fire and poison; his senses can perceive worlds beyond this one, though gazing there is best left to the strongest of will.
The other Donors receive a portion of this power in return for their gift, usually sufficient to manifest one useful unnatural trait. Likewise is this vile power bestowed upon any offspring of the Crowned.
Slaying that dark patron most likely would deprive the crown of this power.
The Peacemaker's Crown is a most devious tool: if anyone willingly becomes a Donor, the Crowned may subjugate his will instead, and there is no limit to the slaves he can control in this way (he can still claim boons from around two dozen Donors at most).
The Slaves retain a measure of autonomity, sufficient to keep up appearances and go about their daily doings, yet the Crowned may command them telepathically anytime, anywhere. The sole limitation on the Crown's power is that one mind can issue only so many orders at once, and process only so much information.
The Crown of the Wildest Hunter also allows animals to be linked to it, through special collars; if the Crowned managed to capture and subdue the beast through his own might, without the use of the boons of the crown, the beast's 'gift' will not strain the wearer's will, and effectively not count against the number of Donors he has.
As feral power accumulates in the Hunter's Crown, humans in the vicinity of the Crowned will feel the call of the wild, becoming more bestail and ferocious. This may be a boon, but also a bane to disciplined warriors and mages alike.
Such was the elemental mastery of Donual that the Archmage's Crown can harness the fury of the storm, the heat of a volcano or a river's might. To that end, a monument must be erected in the vicinity of the natural feature to be tamed, and the inhabitants of that place must donate its power to the Crowned. Deviously, once they do so, the crown cares little if they change their mind afterwards.
Alas, the monuments must stand in order for the link to work; breaking them down deprives the Crowned of the taken power.
Imbued with a hunger for magic, the circlet will trap any spell unsuccessfully used against its wearer, banning the caster from its use until the Crowned returns the power or dies.
The Seer's Crown catered to its master's insatiable hunger for knowledge well: besides claiming donors, the wearer can emblazon books and other stores of knowledge with his mark, and they will be accessible to him wherever they are. Sentient creatures accepting this mark will make their senses and their knowledge available to the Seer at all times, over any distance. Scrying devices, such as palantirs and sorcerous pools, may likewise be tied to the crown.
Of course, with the vast tide of information the artifact can provide, it takes a disciplined mind to avoid being sidetracked and overwhelmed.
All of the Donors and the Marked likewise feel the crown's boon: they may communicate with each other telepathically through eye contact or with a touch.
Once carried aloft by the golden drake Arzethai, the Warrior felt its hunger for arcane heirlooms and artifacts of power. As he ascended to harmony with his steed, so the greed became his. The Warlord's Crown can claim enchanted objects as donors by marking them with slave rings, and channel their power to its wearer. So could he unite the power of several enchanted blades in his sword, or claim the protection of a couple of arcane armors.
Any Donor of the crown will be deprived of fear and many weakening emotions along with his gift, and be filled with the power of the Golden Drake, becoming as resilient and vicious as the beast.
Whether Death's Crown is the mightiest, one can but speculate. Truth is that its master prevailed over the wearers of the other six. Presumably still sitting atop the brow of its immortal maker, the clutches of the Dark Circlet reach deep into death's domain, drawing power from the deceased. Not only does the Crowned not lose the benefits of a gift when the Donor dies - he also is freed of the strain needed to maintain the link, allowing him to claim a new Donor. The old one will rise as an obedient undead minion, too.
Is it possible to deprive the Warden of the Last Day of the legions of his ghostly supporters? No one knows. With their aid though, he may pose an insurmountable challenge.
The crowns are objects of great temptation and power; many have killed for a Lesser Crown, and many more would do so for one of the Seven.
Even one of the lesser circlets can transform a man into a serious threat with the right choice of donors. The Seven will bestow upon him the possibility to become a major power.
Through their very nature, they foster greed, for others must supply any boon the Crowned is to claim. The wearer is tempted to claim more, to trick unwilling creatures to donating or accepting his mark. With the possibility to take another's life to prolong his, not many can resist. Health, beauty, knowledge and power are there for the taking - and with the possibility to claim them, morals, regret and conscience usually are left behind.
Do not forget: with one's ascent, others notice and feel threat, envy, or a challenge. Will you be ready?
*Swimming with the sharks: a PC finds a lost Lesser Crown, and prepares to join the nobles of Dragonfall. Intrigue, warfare and fierce confrontations will pass before he can claim a throne.
*The higher they rise...: a Lesser Crown was claimed by Sir Brightshield, a staunch defender of faith and the realm. Alas, as he grows in power, the valiant knight grows short in temper and understanding, at last confronting his own church for leadership. Who are they, so meek and simple, to oppose his judgment? Will he stop there - or will the champion set his eyes on the crown, all in the name of the greater good?
*A seeker of truth: how does high inquisitor Ardor know the wicked from the righteous? He steals the truth from their minds. Sadly, the constant contact with the minds of the fell has tainted his soul as well.
*Faithful: subjects to a Crowned lord, the PCs work to further the goals of their kingdom, find juicy donors and keep their powerhouse on the sane side.
*The Sins of the Seven: whenever a greater crown is claimed, it is sure to cause upheaval and confrontation. When a mad wizard reigns in a volcano or the ocean's tide with the Archmage's crown, a band of heroes is called for to stop his reign of terror; then the Peacemaker's Crown begins to take the wills of key individuals, the PCs are in for a race against time as the thralls of the Crowned abound; the spies of the Seer may be anywhere, and the Hunter's madness may turn cities into menageries of rabid beasts!
*Temptation: tossing a greater crown between the PCs is very much similar to what Eris' apple accomplished. Remember, the power cannot be shared.
*A Kingdom Crowned: placed in responsible hands, greater crowns have helped the kingdom prosper - the high arcanist holds the Archmage's crown to deter any would-be invaders, the royal advisor uses the Seer's crown well, and the king ensures the loyalty of many through the Peacekeeper's Crown. Who of them runs out of common sense first?
*At Least Crowned: equipped with newly-forged Least Crowns that can only steal one trait, not accept donors, the PCs must creatively steal the right tools for the job.
Additional Ideas (1)
Plot Hook -- Campaign Starter:
Everyone in the party has been forced to give up a part of their power to one of the Crowned. Perhaps the evil king has been "recruiting" recently, and the PCs were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only do the players potentially lose something vital from their character sheets, their characters' health and vitality may also be continually sapped as they adventure. Will they be able to bring the bastard down with a key part of their abilities missing? Or will their biological clocks run out first?