The Domus Aurea
The fifth emperor of the Roman Empire was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, who reigned from 54 AD until his suicide in 68 AD. Nero is still bitterly remembered for his cruelty and megalomania. He ruthlessly persecuted the Christian community in Rome and damaged the empire during his ineffective and tyrannical rule. Ancient theologians have argued that Nero was the Antichrist or the Beast of Revelation. Whether Nero himself was a diabolist, corrupt or misunderstood is a matter of debate. Either way, the places associated with his rule and madness generally have an infernal aura. The most spectacular of these is his second palace, the Domus Aurea – the Golden House.
The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD seems to have been staged by Nero. Famously, the emperor is said to have watched the fire while wearing an artist's costume and playing Iliupersis (The Sack of Troy) on a fiddle. The fires raged and burned much of Rome, with only two of the Seven Hills spared. Included in the destruction was Nero’s own palace, the Domus Transitoria. Nero blamed the fires on Rome's Christian community and punished them accordingly.
When the fires finally subsided, Nero wasted no time in rebuilding his palace. He bought and confiscated land where houses had stood before the fire. Expanding his former housing vastly. He intended to build a palace fit for his egomaniacal self. Architects and artists were brought to Rome from all over the empire, including a famous sculptor called Zenodorus. Nero was heavily involved in the process himself. it was nearing completion before his death in 68 AD.
Later Emperors would be embarrassed by the decadence and hubris the palace represented, it would be stripped of its marble and wealth. Sections of it were used to construct the Flavian Amphitheatre under Vespasian. The Colossus outside was altered to depict Sol and moved. The Baths of Trajan and the Temple of Venus and Roma were similarly constructed upon and by the palace’s remains. What little remained was ironically destroyed in a fire 104 AD. Despite this a completed and perfectly intact version of the Domus Aurea remains hidden within an Infernal Regio.
The regio is accessible through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside. The cleft leads to a grotto with frescoes of panthers, centaurs, the god Pan, and sphinxes. All have evil looking faces and are depicted in violent or depraved acts. This part of the Domus Aurea is all that remains in the mundane level. It was a room in the palace before its destruction. Due to cave-in and the growth of Rome it has since been buried underneath the hill. Entering the rest of the collapsed rooms is currently impossible, though mundane or magical digging might reveal more similar rooms. This grotto has an infernal aura of 4, tarnished with egomania. This tarnishment means that a finder is likely to keep it a secret, as such a magnificent place is for them alone. The granted Personality Trait also makes the finder likely to accidentally enter the regio.
Crossing through the border to the regio is straightforward, indeed the infernal powers which inhabit the place want people to accidentally stumble into the halls of the Domus Aurea. Between some of the rocks, there is a piece of a royal purple toga. A symbol of the emperors of old. It has a single stain of blood upon it. Anyone who touches the toga is transported into the regio.
Inside the regio the palace is more glorious and richer than it ever was in history. Music flows throughout the halls, rose petals fall from the ceiling, sweet smells and food is served in excess on every table. The frescoes and mosaics are everywhere, depicting Greek creatures and heroes. Gold and jewellery adorn every furniture and wall. It's not until a visitor comes outside, they might realize that something is terribly wrong. Outside the palace gardens and walls Rome is burning just like it did in 64 AD, wailing families and cries for water can be heard over the walls. The smell of burning and sounds of the helpless citizen is pressing, making visitors wish to return to the pleasant halls of the palace interior.
The octagonal room is the centre of the Domus Aurea. It is seated as to overlook the xystus outside, and the burning city beyond it. The room is decorated with a large opulent table, itself also octagonal. The ceiling of the room is also particular, a model of the celestial sphere adorns it. Turning by the power of slaves, whose sobbing and whimpering can just barely be heard. The room is awe inspiring and the most decorated of any. There lies a single corpse at the table, one of Nero’s unlucky guests who choked on one of the petals falling from the roof.
The regio of Domus Aurea is a slightly unusual Abyssal Regio. It has a single level of 5 and is tarnished with egomania. Where Abyssal Regio are usually uninteresting places, bleak and mind-numbing the palace is instead awe inspiring. Yet the food here tastes of nothing. The sweet smell of the perfumed halls cling to nothing. The golden decor turns to ash if taken outside the regio. It's all false promises, made to put the visitor at ease and to hide in it from the burning outside. The Abyssal regio’s effect of penalizing the characteristic of any visitor makes these charades hard to detect. Further the demons and infernal ghosts who inhabit the palace also play their part. For every day spent in the regio, a character must make an Intelligence roll against an Ease Factor equal to five. Failure indicates that madness sets in. Compulsion (Cruelty), Delusion (Being Nero reborn) are common flaws. A botch makes the flaw permanent. Note that a character also suffers from a -5 penalty to intelligence (and all other characteristics.) The regio is inhabited by demons of Deluders. They pose as advisors of Nero, or as architects of the palace. They immediately falsely recognize any visitor as Nero – if large groups visit, they usually make a game of recognizing many and turning them against each other. The other residents are infernal ghosts who act as servants and slaves, their role is to be abused by Nero and his advisors. The imposed personality trait makes a visitor likely to believe this charade.
The infernal plan for the regio is straightforward. Lure visitors into it. Have them take on the role of Nero. Act out his vices upon the infernal ghost and lesser demons bound to the place. As no pleasure can be found in the regio the visitor will hopefully turn to more and more hedonistic pursuits – in a vain attempt to find any pleasure and relief from the burning city outside. Once the madness and sinful trait have become permanent, throw the visitor out again. Where the person will act on their new impulses and jeopardize their soul.
Story Seed: Nero Redivivus
After Nero’s suicide there was no less than three men who pretended to be him. Perhaps these were possessed by his infernal spirit, or they accidentally ended up in the already formed regio. The players' magi might hear of or even encounter a new string of these pretenders. Naturally these new pretenders were all victims of the regio. Inquiring about their backgrounds quickly leads to clues about the grotto. The story can from there develop into attempting to clear out the regio or trying to seal it away.
Story Seed: Earth and Sky
This mythical site can easily be worked into the Earth and Sky adventure from Thrice-Told Tales. The Colossus is missing from the Domus Aurea, which could be noted or discovered by the magi. This is due to it playing into the Brotherhood of Zenodorus and Nero’s other plans. Exploring the site could be run as a prelude, foreshadowing Nero’s infernal legacy. Perhaps some clues of his plans are hidden in the regio, at the pedestal where the colossus once stood for example.
Option: Less Infernal
The ruins of the mundane Domus Aurea could also be explored, the regio and infernal nature of the site could be safely ignored all together. Seekers might seek the ruins of the octagonal room as the ceiling could be a massive machine of Heron.