Friday, October 13, 2017

Chapter 19 - – Bathhouses and Dragons

Wherein the veil is finally pierced...

Annar departs to retrieve the anvil he buried, while the rest of the team plan the fetching of Katarina – the bride who is to wait on Baba Yaga. Annar’s agreement with the Hegumen regarding provisioning the village with Plamenka’s grain will have to wait – the band doesn’t have access to the granary, anyway, because Raskel took the magical tools that open it with him, and his whereabouts are unknown. Chonkorchuk doesn’t share the contents of the racy vision regarding Katarina with the rest of the group, but he is struck by an idea: Baba Yaga never specified exactly what ‘waiting on her’ entails, and the hermit considers whether the meaning was more metaphorical than literal. He has long thought about abandoning his self-imposed isolation, and starting a coven, which would augment his magical powers. So perhaps bringing Katarina to Baba Yaga actually means getting her to accept the Crone’s patronage, and not coincidentally, joining forces with Chonkorchuk himself. Given her adventurous spirit, she seems to be an ideal candidate.
Chonkorchuk questions Druvvaldis, who is more expert in the subject of magical lore, about how arcane initiations usually take place – his own took place long ago, and was perhaps idiosyncratic. The Galind relates that he has observed in his travels that initiations in this part of the world generally take place in bathhouses, where steam, a generous consumption of psychoactives, public nudity, and blood sacrifice can, under the right conditions, invite powers from the Otherworld to share their gifts with mortals. That seems to explain the vision, at least in part, and the trio begins their search for a suitable location, as well as the necessary materials for the ceremony.
Chonkorchuk sends the fefila into the village invisibly to look in on Katarina, and find out what is happening in her hut ever since she sent out the bun to converse with his band. Katarina is playing with the bun, but her mother is keeping very close watch on her, and questioning her about who the strangers that came looking for her earlier were. She mentions that Zhitko instructed the whole family to keep Katarina under very careful watch, and to report any strange visitors who might show up. Soon, the smith himself shows up, and begins asking about what happened earlier in the day. At this, the fefila (which had worked its way onto Katarina’s lap) escapes out the open window, and rolls back to the warren. Chonkorchuk and his companions proceed openly to the village, and confront Zhitko near the smithy. They must perform a ceremony of initiation for Katarina, the hermit explains, if they are to get access to the Otherworld, and hence, the Alatyr Stone. Zhitko is hesitant, but agrees. He says that the family has its own bathhouse by the river, and on the very edge of Lazarevo, so the initiation, which he will participate in, will commence at midnight. In the meantime, Chonkorchuk and Druvvaldis go to hunt hares, which will play a key role in the blood sacrifice, while Plamen goes to (once again) raid the stores in Plamenka’s room, for he is sure that she kept hemp for just such an occasion in one of her storage jars.
Katarina prepares for initiation
At midnight, the three approach the bathhouse. Its chimney is already smoking, and the air is thick with steam. Zhitko informs anyone with a crucifix to leave it outside, but as everyone is a heathen anyway, they simply disrobe, and walk inside. Zhitko is in possession of a hairbrush that gives off a protective magical energy that binds the maiden to Zhitko. After inspecting it with their spirit sight, Druvvaldis tells Chonkorchuk that it will bleed if anything happens to Katarina, letting its holder know that she is in danger. Both are also aware of a bond of enchantment between the two of them. Zhitko himself radiates wild, transmutative magic. Katarina enters the bathhouse as if in a trance. The whole place seems to radiate magic, and it is hard to concentrate on particular effects for long.
The initiation begins. Zhitko throws some water on the hot stones in the stove, and then begins to whip everyone present with birch switches. Plamen throws his hemp on the stones, and permeates the air with its intoxicating, sweet stench. Druvvaldis begins to pound out a driving rhythm on his drum as everyone sways in time with it. Finally, as the pounding reaches a crescendo, Chonkorchuk recites his dedication, invokes the Crone to accept a new follower, and opens a gateway by sprinkling Katarina’s body with the blood of the freshly-killed hare.
Suddenly, the maiden looks alert, stands up, and purposefully, walks out of the bathhouse, and heads toward the frozen river. The men all run after her, but when she fails to stop, Zhitko grabs her, and begins to drag her back toward the bathhouse. After imploring him to release her, Plamen casts a spell to paralyze Zhitko, and then, with some effort, he and Druvvaldis manage to pry the girl from the smith’s stiff, but powerful arms. She immediately heads back to the river without saying a word. Chonkorchuk runs after her with handfuls of clothes, while Plamen remains behind to keep an eye on Zhitko in the eventuality that the spell loses its hold over him. Druvvaldis stays behind as well, and throws Katarina’s brush on the fire inside the bathhouse.
The flame serpent in pursuit
Soon, the paralysis does lift, and a furious Zhitko, after demanding to know where Chonkorchuk is taking Katarina, begins to transform into an elongated, scaled, glowing shape. Before anyone can stop him, the flaming serpent soars into the air in pursuit of the girl and the hermit. Chokorchuk sees him coming, and turns Katarina invisible. As Druvvaldis and Plamen desperately run to catch up to save their companions, the serpent reaches Chonkorchuk, and towering above him, demands to know where Katarina is. After the hermit responds that she has gone to join their mistress, the serpent belches forth a column of flame at him. Able to avoid the worst of it, and to jump away before the ice he is standing on turns liquid, Chonkorchuk sees his spell on Katarina lifted by the strength of the serpent’s fire, so he decides to try to flee by making himself invisible. As the serpent prepares to take off after Katarina, suddenly, another shape appears, as if form nowhere, out on the ice. As it approaches, it becomes clear that it is Hegumen Yaakov, perhaps come from his nearby island abbey, alerted by all the noise. Yaakov holds his crucifix aloft toward the serpent, and demands in an unearthly voice for it to begone in Gaal’s name. At this, the serpent turns, and flies off, over Plamen and Druvvaldis, back toward the land. Yaakov then turns to Chonkorchuk and the rest, and tells them to flee as fast as their feet will carry them. Surprised at this unexpected aid, they obey, and soon, they lose sight of the monk in the darkness.

By the time they reach the other bank of the river, the nude bathers have managed to get some of their clothes on. They are very cold by now, but Katarina shows little sign of freezing. When they are able to get her to speak, she simply expresses a desire to reach the Otherworld as soon as possible. The four jog through the woods in wet clothes, and when they reach the vicinity of the old hermitage, they meet the crone, standing by a large and deep hole in the ground that definitely was not there before, though Chonkorchuk is starting to remember it from many years back. Next to the hole is a tree, with a rainbow-colored string of yarn tied around it, and dangling of into the hole, and into darkness. The hag bids the band to descend down the string, as this is what they came for. Katarina goes in first, and the men follow.
The string proves surprisingly strong, though after beginning to climb, everyone loses the sense of where the sides of the crevice are, and feels a sensation of falling through a thick, soft fog. Finally, they all land softly, but in complete darkness. Druvvaldis’ companion lights the area in the form of a fire beetle, and they all espy a small ladder leading up to a trap door in a cellar. They all climb out into daylight, in the middle of a heathen sanctuary. Standing stones representing various Old Gods stand in an enclosure of a large, multicolored wooden temple. Chained to the closest standing stone is Vasya Toptygin, and next to him, stands Chonkorchuk’s camping cauldron, filled with silver 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Chapter 18 – The Hag, the Hegumen, and the Heartthrob

Wherein our heroes begin to tackle the last task set before them by Baba Yaga...

While Druvvaldis watches the perimeter to make sure the escaped smugglers don’t return with reinforcements, Annar, Plamen and Chonkorchuk deal with the chaos of the battle’s end. Annar restrains and binds the felled Vasya while Plamen feeds him berries to ensure he does not die. Upon regaining consciousness, Vasya alternates insulting Chonkorchuk with complaints about being turned over to Baba Yaga, whereupon he is gagged. In the meantime, Plamen uses his natural polevik power over fire to extinguish the burning cottage. The group then moves in to search what’s left.
The takings appear to be rather meager. Chonkorchuk finds a dagger with an ivory hilt on one of the vanquished smugglers, while Plamen takes another, ordinary, dagger. Chonkorchuk also replaces his torn and bloodied overcoat with another overcoat, as well as a padded surcoat worn by one of the more dangerous-looking smugglers. Annar, for his part, lifts a few loose coins from several of the bodies. He is much more interested in the smugglers’ iron cauldron in the fireplace, and an incongruous anvil he discovers near the door. The volot undertakes to carry the anvil, the cauldron, and the bound Vasya as the group travels to find Baba Yaga, but then thinks better of it, and decides to bury the anvil outside the cottage, resolving to return to reclaim it later.
The group travels back toward Chonkorchuk’s neck of the woods, crossing the two rivers in the same places as they did when they walked to the smugglers’ hut. On route, Annar enquires where they are to find Baba Yaga, to which Chonkorchuk replies that she usually finds them. That turns out to be the case. As the group crosses the Vydra, Plamen spies her sitting on a tree branch, smiling and chortling to herself.  Annar is surprised to discover that she is the same crone who pointed him in the direction of Druvvaldis when he first crossed into the Land of Nor’.
Baba Yaga, sporting some new duds
The crone happily receives her cowed quarry, and appears surprised to meet the volot as well, though claiming she hasn’t seen one in a long time. When asked what he is doing there, Annar offers that he is seeking Perkons, his divine master. The hag replies that he has come to the right place, and that this god, and many other old gods besides, reside nearby, and are making plans to return. She tells him that she will reveal his presence if he aids the party in its last task – the recovery of the bride. Annar accepts the assignment, but asks for no reward until he fulfills his part of the bargain, which Baba Yaga assesses as a wise decision. She then takes possession of Vasya, and parts ways with the party.
Chonkorchuk leads the group back to Vasya’s old prison underneath the oak tree where he, Durvvaldis, and Plamen recently spent the night. Annar is too big to fit through the doorway, though, so the group departs for the hermitage. Chonkorchuk finds his old abode destroyed, however – it is partially burned, and the logs with mystic inscriptions have been smashed with an axe. He suspects people from Lazarevo, and then decides to set up camp nearby. A fire is lit – the experience of the previous night convinces him that roughing it in the cold is dangerous to his health. Prior to turning in, the hermit calls forth a vision of the bride they seek, and sees an image of Katarina, naked, chained to a wall by her arms by an iron chain. The vision fades, and then changes into another, of Katarina, again nude, washing herself.
The first half of the following day is occupied by hunting. While Annar manages to hunt down a couple of hares to supplement the diet of berries conjured by Plamen, Chonkorchuk has another vision of villagers packed into a church, where Hegumen Yaakov is leading a service. Slowly, the group makes its way down toward the warren, as they come up with a plan of action. Annar can’t fit into the chute, so a decision is made to send him into the village. He is as yet unknown, and perhaps may learn something of what is going on with Katarina, and in the village in general, without being suspected of working with Chonkorchuk and his band of misfits. After arriving, Plamen, Druvvaldis and Chonkorchuk take cover in Plamen’s old chamber, while the volot heads to Lazarevo.
Hegumen Yaakov
Upon seeing the giant man, he is immediately surrounded by fearful villagers, and soon, by the monks’ armed servitors, who conduct him to the island along the ice. The volot is led to the mess hall, and fed, and then left alone for a private audience with Hegumen Yaakov himself. The abbot seems fully aware of Annar’s collaboration with Chonkorchuk and Plamen, and of their recent activities, and the threats these present to the village. He does aver that he dealt with the walking dead men, however. Annar, largely unaware of the conflict between the monastery and his strange new friends, reveals the full extent of the group’s work for Baba Yaga, and their plans for Katarina. Yaakov unexpectedly offers Annar a deal: deliver the grain requisitioned from Plamenka’s warren to help stave off famine, and he will not stand in the way of the group’s plans, provided they do not bring further chaos upon Lazarevo. He also asks Annar to swear that whatever happens to Katarina, he will protect her with his life and ensure no harm comes to her. Annar agrees to the terms, and, being offered warm accommodations after months in the wilderness, sinks into a bogatyr’s sleep.
The following morning, Plamen and Chonkorchuk, leaving Druvvaldis to watch Plamen’s room, walk into town, unaware of Annar’s activities of the previous night. The hermit disguises himself as a peasant, while the changeling healer turns into a dog. Chonkorchuk knocks on Katarina’s door, and is confronted by her mother, who seems upset by the fact that a stranger and his dog are asking after her unmarried daughter. She refuses to let them in, though they do espy the girl listening by the window. Chonkorchuk leaves after announcing that they will wait for a meeting with Katarina a short ways outside the village. After they leave, Annar, who awakens late, approaches the same compound. He is looking for Katarina’s father – the smith. After he is fetched by his assistants, Annar solicits him to make weapons fit for one of his size, and offers him two kopecks. The smith laughs, and says that he is not really a weaponsmith, and that at any rate, the cost will be significantly higher. Annar then offers to deliver him an anvil, which intrigues the smith, if only because it can be melted down.

The volot leaves, preparing to fetch the anvil, and runs into his companions in the meadow. Chonkorchuk is not entirely happy about Annar’s revelations to Yaakov, and doesn’t think that Katarina’s father (as opposed to Zhitko) is the right smith for the job of weapon making. Plamen, for his part, sees no way in which the village is entitled to his family’s grain stores. In the middle of the discussion, a small baked bun made of dough, with raisin eyes rolls in, and tells the group that it was sent by Katarina, who wants to learn what they want. Chonkorchuk replies that they want to meet her in the meadow to speak to her about a private matter. Annar attempts to kick the bun, but it avoids him, and begins to roll circles around him, insulting him and telling him he is a big dumb oaf who cannot catch it before rolling toward home. Offended, Annar goes off to fetch his anvil, while Chonkorchuk and the dog Plamen return to the warren.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Random Encounter Tables as Emergent Social Theory

I was watching a Youtube video about making random encounter tables by some virtual buddies of mine, and it struck me how similar a sandbox 'hexcrawl' campaign driven by such tables was the notion of theory that is often employed by quantitatively-oriented sociologists today. Just as proponents of sandbox-style games argue in favor allowing campaign themes to emerge from a combination of player agency, a GM's ability as an improviser, and the outcome of die-rolls on random tables, just so quantitative sociologists make the case that particular theories that explain social structure and social change "emerge" from the result of regressions and other statistical operations on data that accounts for a particular social process (e.g. rates of healthcare provision or female education in Third World countries). In this way, theories themselves become testable, rather than religious-like propositions that one must accept on faith. They also promote a much more pragmatic view of the world, make programs to promote social change much more supple and resonant with people's actual needs, and put a damper on excessive identification between theorists and their theories, because the theories are not products of a life's work, testaments of loyalty to an advisor or foundational figure, but are really just outgrowths of the data itself. Similarly, GMs who are inclined to just let the players do what they want argue that imposing no overarching theme, and just generating challenges randomly increases everyone's enjoyment of the game and prevents the gamemaster from becoming a little dictator who is always pushing players back onto the 'right path'.

This is the older distinction, but quantitative sociology,
especially of a left-globalist bent, bases itself on an
explicitly inductive, pragmatic philosophy
Older approaches to social theory were more resonant with setting-driven and plot-driven approaches to running RPGs. 'Theory', as a derivation from the Greek theoria - speculation, observation - was an almost religious act, a point that is driven home by its Latin equivalent contemplation  - literally, the marking out of a space to observe the outcome of an augury in a specially designated part of the temple. Thus, theory derived from a synthetic and prolonged process of observation and thought, as well as ethical and epistemological commitments, rather than emerging spontaneously from observed data. In gaming terms, a more contemplative approach to world design and the emplotment of campaign structure likely involves transposing life-long study of and interest in different game systems, as well as historical settings, mythologies, literary genres, book series, or even attempts to transpose a specific vision for a novel onto the canvas of the game world. This approach is sometimes criticized for being 'railroady' and solipsistic, because it involves a greater imposition of the GMs vision onto the players, who, according to currently popular outlooks, are supposed to be co-creators. Games are not meant to be novels or movie scripts, but a distinct medium.

Without denying that the above criticisms of contemplative approaches may be justified in particular cases, we cannot fail to note that popular settings continue to reproduce certain established tropes (high fantasy, apocalyptic sci fi, space opera, cyberpunk). Certain book or cinematic settings (Middle Earth, Star Wars, comic books) continue to serve as fodder for setting design, as do region-specific quasi-historical settings (loosely based on East Asia, the Middle East, and others). In other words, models based on contemplated worlds that are unique, internally coherent, and based on specific narratives maintain a hold on the gaming imagination. The importance of narrative also emerges in a lot of advice writing and videos about how to maintain dramatic tension, draw in player buy-in through interesting descriptions, which are novelistic techniques. A parallel phenomenon is the reaction to the quantification imperative in neighboring disciplines, like history, where in recent years a marked move back toward narratives (especially personal narratives) is evident.

One problematic aspect of the quantificationist approach to theory is the assumption of data neutrality. Let the data speak for itself, the motto proclaims, do not impose the researchers' biases over it. But data generation of course, is not neutral. It is produced by government agencies, the World Bank, NGOs, etc., with a clear agenda in mind - to produce absolutely objective facts, upon which an absolutely rational administration of the agency, the country, or the world, becomes possible. Subjecting the data to analytical and statistical techniques furthers this agenda. It makes regional specificities appear irrational - since these appear as products of the data, they can be manipulated to reflect desired correlations in desired areas. Not to attempt to do so, or to argue that the distinctions have a right to exist would fly in the face of such technocratic rationality.

The purely sandbox approach to setting design and running can suffer from similar blind spots. We might think that allowing players (any players) to take more initiative, to bring all aspects of the rulebooks into play if players take an interest in them, and making settings more open to pastiche and collage (a pinch of Game of Thrones, a dram of clockpunk, a dash of Car Wars) -  et voila! Fun for the whole family! Perhaps such an approach works, but sometimes it doesn't, and becomes an proverbially awkwardly-patched pottery bowl. Worse, if a setting is not properly contemplated, and subjected to improvisation from every angle, it frequently becomes like any other setting - generic. The more generic, the more open to different kinds of interests - the better.

It is a pointless exercise to insist that one approach - the contemplative or the emergent, the quantitative or the qualitative - is a priori better than the other. People's choices behind theoretical commitments are aesthetic, ethical, and shaped by personal experience, and telling them that they "are doing it wrong" will not yield particularly useful results. It is not my purpose to preach in favor of one of these alternatives. In terms of gaming philosophy, I'm a convinced tricameralist - I believe that the ideal campaign is in approximately equal measures shaped by the GM, the players, and the dice. I believe that well-designed random tables help introduce an element of unpredictability into GM designs and danger into player plans. Breaking with narrative and dramatic structure can be refreshing because it creates living worlds. Our own sense of drama and narrative is now too shaped by Tarentino and the Coen Brothers (who were themselves in turn shaped by the experience of random encounters) for us to run games strictly in accordance with Aristotle's Poetics.

But if run the game by encounter tables and randomness we must, we should also explicitly incorporate contemplative models into their design. Staff hexcrawl tables with creatures from a particular mythology that are associated with certain terrains. Draw up a key underneath the table as to what the creatures indicated by the encounter want (if they are a prince's servitors, might they be looking to extort tolls? drinking companions? impress wandering adventurers into service?) Also, have a sense of how frequently caravans pass through the area, how far away the bandits' encampment might be, what the marauder might offer if put in a tight spot (e.g. his daughter's hand in marriage).

Rulebooks are already replete with random tables offering a choice of narrative structure. Is the setting awaiting the imminent return of an evil deity? Is magic becoming manifest in the world again after a prolonged absence? Is the Light of the Elves failing? Deciding what goes into such a table depends on the thoughts the GM is already kicking over inside her head regarding the type of setting or simulation into which the players will be placed. Such theory-informed tables illustrate how contemplative commitments can fruitfully interact with emergent design to create well thought-out, unique, and still open-ended and unpredictable settings.

Sample Wilderness Encounter Descriptions (taken from a table from my Lukomorye campaign):
These creatures all appear on a random encounter table I use. It is differentiated by terrain type, season, and time of day, but it is definitely informed by my own contemplations of what a Mythic Russia setting might be like:

Baba Yaga. An encounter with the Old Crone herself will always make an impression. She will never appear in the wilds by accident – she obviously intends for a meeting to take place – either to take a prisoner, to offer information, or to wreak a doom that she has determined. She may appear through a portal, flying out in her mortar and pestle, with a great deal of shaking and thundering. If she desires to be subtle, a party will simply see her hut in the woods, facing away from them (if they do not take the hint, Baba Yaga may appear out of the ground after they have turned away from the hut). If the party meets with a younger version, she may be in command of an army (if in mature form), or an elusive young maid, either leading them to the crone, or perhaps in the Hut, pretending to be a servant or prisoner. If for some reason Baba Yaga is on the warpath, her coming will be preceded by a great gathering of hags.

Bandits. Groups of bandits (2d6) may be coming to share a fire, or to take valuables, if encountered at night, and if they feel a party is weak enough. During the day, they are usually laying a trap, or committing highway robbery if encountered along a main thoroughfare. A bandit encampment is likely to be well watched at all times, and defended by snares and other traps. Depending on their mood and location, they will kill captives, sell them into slavery or for ransom, or blindfold people, strip them, and leave them somewhere in the woods.

Bogatyr. A questing knight on the steppe is not to be trifled with. They are pursuing an important quarry or prize, or, perhaps, just looking for someone to measure their strength against. It is possible that a bogatyr has seen a prophecy in which someone in the adventuring party figures as an important protagonist. Some bogatyrs also act as steppe bandits, and set up elaborate traps for the unwary in overgrown areas.

Firebird. The incredibly rare Firebird only appears at significant times, such as around the New Year, when it is reborn as a fledgling (or, when a fledgling hatches). It may also be attracted to a particular person, whose fate is to encounter one. Additionally, the Firebird may be fleeing its old master, and moving on to a new locale. Its appearance is highly notable, and is likely to blind whoever sees it if it is full-grown.

Giant. An encounter with giants is most likely going to entail large, hill-dwelling folk. They are usually hunters, and wish to be left alone. Infrequently, they are sent out into the world to search out people in human society. They may also be dealing with a problem that requires outside aid. Most rarely, a party will meet a truly colossal being, which likely just woke up, and is disoriented.

Hermit. Hermits are people or beings leading a solitary life in the wild. They may be religious ascetics, but also volkhvy, sorcerers or warlocks who hide in the woods. A few are hags who may have been there for generations. While they may be encountered in the act of collecting food or herbs, they probably live nearby, typically, they live in small huts or lean-tos that protect them from intruders. They also have signaling systems (involving spells, or other denizens of the wild) to alert them to the presence of strangers. A few have a taste for human flesh. [If encountered on the steppe, they may be flying, or kempirs]. [In the Tundra or Steppe, the encounter may be with an itinerant shaman].

Koshchei. Koshchei usually appears suddenly, and approaches a party very quickly, on a flying mount, or simply flying under his own power. His appearance is accompanied by peals of thunder and lightning, darkness, wind, and other dramatic effects. Sometimes, he appears at the head of a war party or a horde. The party has angered him, he has an interest in someone in it (probably as a captive), or he is after an object or information in the party’s possession. According to his code, he may not kill people he has encountered for the first time, but he is sure to put them on notice.

Peasants. Depending on the time of day, year, or day of the week, an enounter with peasants will be with peasants en route to/from the fields (or fishing), going to Church, moving from one landlord to another (typically after harvest time). They may also be people driven from their village by invaders, hunger, fire, or disease. Unless they have reason to be hostile, they will either be looking for handouts, looking to sell or trade wares, or perhaps interested in hearing news of the outside world. They may also possess pertinent information about the surrounding countryside.

Serpent. Low-level serpent encounters may be with snake swarms (that have some firebreathing ability), or with a passing letun, who may pass over the party as a fiery object, and then returns in a human guise because he or she has taken a liking to a party member. An encounter with a true serpent will either take place in the vicinity of a lair, or with a serpent flying far overhead. In the former case, the area will be subject to blight – little or no vegetation, a burnt forest, destroyed villages, no animal life, etc. A party that has noted these signs will likely encounter the serpent in one of its human forms before it reaches the lair. In the latter case, the serpent's passage is certainly going to be a major event in the locale or beyond. It may be on route to collect tribute from a village or town, or to burn it. All subsequently encountered people will be affected by its passage, and trying to save themselves, or to divine the meaning of the serpent's appearance. True serpects will have three, seven, nine, or twelve heads.

Servitors. Under this rubric, Yam messengers, bounty hunters looking for outlaws, or pressgangs may be included. Messengers are on a delivery, and are likely looking for travelers to just get out of their way (unless they are being pursued, in trouble, lost, etc.). Bounty hunters are also on about their business, but may be ornery and/or looking for money. Pressgangs are generally looking for easy prey (but may have bad judgment).

Skinshifter. Typically, they will be encountered in animal form, though this is less likely for those types that get this ability at higher levels (in which case, hybrid form is more likely). Bears are probably protecting a nearby hut or apiary. Cats are curious Travelers, and are either trying to steal something, learn information, or have taken a liking to a party member. Falcons are probably Travelers or Servitors on a quest, and will either be riding a party down, or surveying them from above, trying to figure out if they are enemies. Foxes are also Travelers, and are either trying to steal something to eat or to work a larger con. They are most likely to be encountered in human form. Frogs will be at home, and, in hybrid or animal form, will be curious, and trying to enage a party in a long conversation. Hares will be running by, pursued by a more dangerous creature, and/or looking for aid. Roosters will be on a mission, and either looking for allies, or a contest of strength and daring. They may be pursued by Foxes (or bandits). Ravens may be outside their hilltop fortress, or spellcasters near their forest retreat. They may have a prophetic message to deliver from a VIP. Wolves will generally be aggressive, and are likely to attack in animal form (which gives normal wolves a bad name). They may also be sorcerers or warlocks, eager to change a party into wolves. Skinshifters may be in the company of others of their type, or normal animals of their type. [In the Tundra, encounter is probably with a Bear (or, somewhat less likely, Fox, Wolf, or Hare)].

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chapter 17 - The Galumphing Oaf

wherein Baba Yaga's servitors complete the second task she set out for them...

The three companions camp in a protected place near the south banks of the Vydra. Chonkorchuk has had it with roughing it under the early winter sky, and as the winds begin to blow overnight, he manages to catch cold. Plamen, younger and more compact, is better at resisting the elements, but also sleeps more alertly. He is awakened before dawn by the sounds of a very large person foraging not 100 feet away from the campsite. From what it mutters to itself in a foreign tongue, Plamen gathers that it has discovered the carcass of a boar that starved or froze to death nearby, and it seems to be salvaging pieces of meat.
Annar - any relation to Dubynia?
Plamen quietly approaches and addresses the creature. He introduces himself as Annar, and says that he has come from far away in search of Druvvaldis, and asks whether Plamen knows him. Plamen bids him to wait, while he awakens his companions. With Druvvaldis’ assent, he reveals that Druvvaldis is with him, and that Annar’s search is at an end. Annar drags the boar carcass over to the fire, where Plamen shares some of his magical berries with him. Annar looks twice his size. He is a volot, from a family of nomadic giant riders, which came from the steppe at the invitation of the Grand Prince of Galinda to help build his cavalry. While in the prince’s service, he had occasion to visit the island where Druvvaldis’ ancestral shrine stood. There, after falling asleep, he was contacted by the spirit of the thunderlord Perkons, who told him to seek out Druvvaldis – the last survivor of the devastation wreaked by the Knights of Ritterheim, and the scion of a priestly family. So Annar has been traveling east, and seeking Druvvaldis and followers of the old gods ever since. Chonkorchuk tells him that he is also one of these, and that his mistress, Baba Yaga, has promised that the Old Gods will soon return. After they complete the tasks set out by her, they will be admitted to Baba Yaga’s realm. But first, them must deal with a group of smugglers who, he says, have stolen one of Baba Yaga’s servants. Annar is asked to join the group so that he may help it complete its mission (and they his), and the volot accepts.
The following morning, the four adventurers cross the Vydra, and proceed to search for the smuggler’s cabin, which they have never seen directly. Making their way north, they eventually discover a hedge that familiar spirits indicate surrounds a small cabin. No one is outside, but a smoking chimney indicates that the cabin is occupied. Attempts to sense magical auras reveals that there are two sources of transmutative magic inside (likely indicating a pair of shapeshifters). Chonkorchuk becomes invisible, and finds the narrow entrance through the hedge on the eastern side. Meanwhile, the rest set up on the north side. Druvvaldis hands Annar his scythe, and the volot prepares to mow down the hedge in case of an assault.
The hermit alerts the residents to his presence. A pair of shutters opens, and an arrow flies at Chonkorchuk despite his precautions. He takes cover behind the porch, and addresses the people inside, indicating that he is aware of Vasya Toptygin’s presence, and demanding they release him back into the service of Baba Yaga, from whom he was stolen. His threats and offer of cooperation to locate Lionia gets him admitted inside, but his interlocutor – Radei Lopukh – the leader of the smugglers – says that since Lionia defrauded them, they have nothing to lose, and believe that Chonkorchuk’s companions are in possession of a treasure. He offers Chonkorchuk a chance to convince Vasya, but warns that it won’t be easy.
Vasya Toptygin performs a bear's service for his companions
The cabin is messy, and currently inhabited by nine rough-edged smugglers, some similar to the ones the party defeated in the woods over a week ago, some looking more dangerous, and better-armed. Lying on the stove against the wall opposite the doorway is a large, one-handed man, who matches Vasya’s description. He seems considerably less cowed by the invisible visitor than Radei – his nominal leader. In response to Chonkorchuk’s entreaties and threats, he indicates that he has no interest in returning to do menial labor for Baba Yaga, and would rather stay on as the smuggler’s underling. When Chonkorchuk persists in haranguing him, Vasya insults the hermit, accusing him of being a beggar with nothing to offer, who comes without gifts, and is so worthless and poor he is even afraid to show his face. He recites the insult as a rhyme, which is actually quite hurtful.

Chonkorchuk has had enough. He exits the cabin, and plunges it into darkness, signaling to his companions that it’s time to attack. Annar mows through the hedge, and is greeted by blind-fire from the cabin, though on account of his size, he still finds himself on the receiving end of darts and arrows. Behind him, Plamen sets the cabin on fire, while Druvvaldis summons forth a badger spirit to add ferocity to the outnumbered companions. Eventually, some of the smugglers manage to make their way out of the cabin, and attack the volot head on. They are no match for him, but harry him enough so that he soon decides to take cover in the darkness. Marshalling their forces for a last stand after getting out of the darkness, Radei and one of the other smugglers hit Chonkorchuk and Plamen, now exposed, with expert shots from around the corner of the hut. Then, Radei and Vasya, in the form of a bear-man, along with one other, charge the hermit and the healer, who are no longer protected by the volot. They manage to knock Chonkorchuk down, and to nearly upend Plamen as well. The outcome of the battle stands on the edge of a knife, but the fefila quickly revives Chonkorchuk, and Plamen is able to knock the bear out with his staff. The rest are dealt with quickly. Radei manages to flee, and another smuggler is brought down as he tries to do the same, while a third surrenders. The smuggler’s cabin, however, has caught fire…   

Friday, August 18, 2017

Chapter 16 - The Great Combinator

wherein the ice has broken, ladies and gentlemen of the jury...

Fearing pursuit by the villagers, Chonkorchuk races across the frozen Vydra, and into the woods. He knows these better than anyone, and hopes to make it to the burrow where he and his companions found signs of a bear being kept captive over a week ago. As he jogs northward through the woods, he is suddenly accosted by an interloper from behind. The man gives him a solid whack on the head with the hilt of his saber from behind, but the hermit is just able to turn away enough to avoid getting knocked out. The man is unfamiliar, but looks similar to the smugglers the band confronted in the woods near Yelizarov’s estate – probably a member of Lionia’s band, Chonkorchuk surmises. He turns himself invisible and attempts to get away – getting the coins to Baba Yaga is his top concern. But the ground is covered with snow, and he is easy to follow. His pursuer attempts to push him down to the ground, and to wrest the cauldron of treasure away from him, but Chonkorchuk manages to maintain his footing, and keeps moving away. The man seemingly gives up the chase, and Chonkorchuk arrives at the tree above the burrow. He climbs up a neighboring tree, covers himself with eaves, and watches the clearing.
Who is that masked man?
Within the hour, Druvvaldis arrives. He was not so lucky. He was set upon by the same man, who similarly clocked him from behind, and then finished him off when he tried to run. When he came to, the flaxen shirt in which he was carrying his share of the loot from the warren was gone, as were the man’s footprints – it is not clear where he went. His familiar, in raven form, was looking for the other companions, and returned to find him unconscious, and woke him.

Druvvaldis is uncertain why the man did not kill him, but he detected something familiar about his voice when he cursed after not being able to lay him out with a single blow from behind – he heard a lot of it until quite recently. Chonkorchuk is not surprised to hear that the likely assailant was Lionia – the double-cross appears entirely predictable to him. He is not sure why he did not try to kill Druvvaldis, but suspects that he has alerted his associates, and may be coming after the rest of the treasure, which he must secure at all costs.
Plamen arrives soon after. He still limps, and is unable to run – hence his late arrival. But he was spared the assault by the pursuer, for reasons that are not clear. He feeds some of his magic berries to Druvvaldis, who recovers somewhat from his assault. Since the trio fears the imminent arrival of the smuggler band, they take care to wipe away the tracks leading to the burrow. Druvvaldis creates a new set heading to the Rys’ River, and then the party secrets itself in the burrow.
At night, while Chonkorchuk keeps watch, the smugglers arrive. The companions’ efforts to conceal their location seem to have paid off. The hermit overhears them saying that Lionia surmised they went to the hermitage. They soon leave in that direction, apparently with harmful intentions.
The rest of the night passes without incident, and in the morning, the party heads off in search of Baba Yaga. In response to Druvvaldis’ query about how to find her, Chonkorchuk states that she usually finds them, and he is proven correct. Within two  hours after leaving the burrow, the lynx bounds up on them, though he is friendlier this time, and engages in a playful wrestling match with Plamen. His mistress appears soon after, as if from underground. She appears pleased enough with the takings brought by Chonkorchuk and Plamen, and mentions nothing about any particular amount she was expecting, though she dismissively rejects the copper pulo, and Chonkorchuk obligingly picks it out before turning over his camping cauldron full of only “pure treasure” to Baba Yaga, who demands to keep the cauldron as well. In response to queries about the nature of the treasure, she confirms that it was indeed stolen from her by Plamenka, who was able to capture it by enchanting the Kochmak warriors, and forcing them to fight one another (and to kill the villagers). She expresses satisfaction about the way she ended up (as a spirit bound to her warren for eternity), before she presses to find out when she is going to get the galumphing oaf and the young bride. The hermit promises both within the week.
What goodie did Baba Yaga get from her hamper?
The crone then turns to Druvvaldis, and demands to know who he is, as she has never before met him. Druvvaldis tells his tale – about his people who were slaughtered by the Ritterheim Knights, and about the spirits who led him to this place. Chonkorchuk recommends him as one who aided the group’s efforts in recovering the pure treasure, and Baba Yaga offers to aid him against his enemies in exchange for his help in securing the other things she wants, perhaps by brewing a potion. Druvvaldis asks for a potion of fire breathing, but Baba Yaga suggests something subtler that may discredit the Knights (who she apparently also dislikes) – a potion of diminution, for example. Chonkorchuk seconds her, but Druvvaldis is unconvinced. The hag suggests that a potion of fire breathing requires components – such as the special sacks of a fire-breathing serpent. Her supplicant Chonkorchuk waves that off as an impossible task – where would they find one? How would they defeat it? But Baba Yaga answers that one never knows when such a beast might be around, and then mysteriously recommends that the companions be sure to bathe themselves before confronting one. She then flips a curious slimy but fragrant block to Chonkorchuk, and, becoming two, walks away in opposite directions.

Having delivered the pure treasure, the trio discusses what to do next. In light of last night’s pursuers, the logical step is to track down the galumphing oaf. But where is he now being kept? Chonkorchuk surmises that the smugglers keeping him have left their hideout now that their cover is blown, though he does recall that Lionia paid off or sweet-talked Yelizarov into laying off, and that he also has a good relationship with Trofimov as well. In any case, looking in on the smuggler’s shack seems like the first order of business. The party crosses both frozen rivers, and, avoiding settlements, proceeds along the southern bank of the Vydra. They arrive to within a verst or so of the shack as the sun is setting. The companions set up camp, and Chonkorchuk sends forth the fefila, invisibly, to spy on the shack (and hopefully come back in one piece).
Before an hour has passed, the fefila returns. It relates to its master, telepathically, that the shack is indeed occupied, by men similar to the one who apparently attacked its master in the woods the previous day. There is a one-handed bear among them, but Lionia is not. In fact, the people there seemed to be very unhappy with Lionia. Chonkorchuk shares the information with his companions. Lionia has likely screwed his other associates as well. Druvvaldis wonders whether he might be at home, but Chonkorchuk opines that he is likely far away, probably going westward (where the