Saturday, July 15, 2017

Chapter 14 - A Smashing Success and a Dead End

Wherein an ancient wrong reaches its bony hand out toward the present...
Fearing a confrontation with scores of skeletons, the group takes an hour break to strategize. While Dmitri watches the hall leading up to the room, Chonkorchuk has a vision about whether the chamber contains they seek. He sees a skull-topped key, and informs his companions that there may be a key in the room. He then recommends that they return to the surface for sacks to carry the treasure in, as no one sought to bring any. Lionia, however, opines that there is no reason to get sacks, as it’s unclear there is any treasure in the room – the task at hand is dealing with the skeletons. Raskel proposes using a Misty Step spell to enter the room behind the ranks of skeleton warriors to search for the key. However, this would leave many skeletons unharmed. Plamen proposes dealing away with many of them with his thunder magic, but Chonkorchuk fears there are too many. In the end, it is agreed that Plamen will instead attempt to summon a Flaming Sphere, which persists for a longer period of time, while the familiars search the room for a key. If the press of the skeletons proves to be too much, Raskel will play the flute to immobilize them. In his estimation, that would hold them at bay for an hour.
Finally, with a plan in place, Dmitri outlines a doorway with Plamenka’s sickle, and Rodion burns the final sigil on her sash. The outline glows green, and Dmitri, with Plamen’s help, pulls the portal open. Inside, the chamber is filled with skeletons top to bottom. There are perhaps a hundred of them or more. A few are dressed as Kochmak warriors, like the ones they have encountered around the warren previously. The bulk of them are unarmed, and dressed in rotting rags. While the warriors immediately begin to harry Dmitri, who is blocking the entrance, the unarmed ones begin to fling themselves at another doorway on the left-hand side of the room, apparently trying to destroy it. Another similar doorway glows on the right wall.
While Dmitri holds the warriors back, Plamen conjures his flaming sphere in the middle of the room. Chonkorchuk and Rodion blast magic over Dmitri’s head, to relieve some of the pressure. Druvvaldis provides support, and bolsters the team’s élan by summoning a bear spirit. Kutkh, as well as Chonkorchuk’s invisible fefila sneak past the combatants to survey what’s happening. The room is too packed to see anything on the floor, and soon, one of the skeletons swipes at the crow, dispelling it. Dmitri and his supporters succeed in felling some of the warriors, but in the meantime, the unarmed skeletons smash through the left-hand doorway, and begin piling out of the chamber. This requires a change of plan, as the skeletons must be stopped from leaving. Raskel blows upon the flute, and all of the skeletons stop moving.
The band moves into the room. There are too many skeletons to find anything on the floor at present. The fefila darts past the immobile skeleton sitting in the hole burrowed out of the doorway by its undead fellows. It discovers another chute on the other side, leading to the surface. It signals to its master that it has a very bad feeling about where they might be heading.
The fefila returns, and stepping carefully so as not to provoke any frozen skeletons into action, the group opens up the third glowing portal on the right-hand side. Beyond it is yet another corridor. The six treasure hunters follow it behind Druvvaldis’ beetle, and find themselves in the most maze-like part of the warren. Dmitri suspects that the maze might not actually lead anywhere, and in the end is proven right – there are multiple dead ends, including one at the very end of the series of tunnels. A search reveals that there is nothing to find there. There is concern that the skeletons will reawaken, so the group hurries back. But near the last dead end, Chonkorchuk does detect necromantic magic behind a wall. It seems that there are more skeletons, and probably another chamber (though almost certainly not as many as in the place they just came from). Unfortunately, the sigils are all used up. Someone must learn the right spell, and find ingredients to inscribe more sigils on the sash – until then, it seems that there is no way in.
A demolition forty years in the making
The band hurries back to the skeleton chamber before the enchantment expires. Once there, they begin smashing the skeletons to smithereens using staves and bones – first the last of the warriors, then the others. Eventually, they stand in a foot or more of bone rubble. A search of the floor and what’s left of the bodies reveals a few peasant-type bundles, and the remains of designs on the linen shirts they were once wearing. These skeletons are almost certainly the peasants of Trofimovka that were captured in the raid forty years ago. Are they now heading back home? Raskel also finds a series of six impressions in the floor underneath the bones. Five are fully concave, but one is just an outline of a circle. He wonders if it represents the flute – with one open note, it would match the final note of the song he played to immobilize the skeletons. Perhaps each room with skeletons has such a key, he wonders.

But there are more pressing problems. Raskel, Lionia, and Dmitri want to figure out where the escaped skeletons went, while the others hold down the fort in the bone room. There is freshly fallen snow in the meadow, so Dmitri can’t track them, but the trio head toward Lazarevo, and after coming halfway, hear shouts in the village. Almost certainly, the skeletons came here. What will happen now? Will angry villagers head toward the warren? The three return to the bone room, and then the whole band relocates to Plamenka’s chamber, sets up camp, and ponders its fate. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Annoying Anachronisms

There is no particular epoch which fantasy-historical RPGs must model. In theory, crossover genres mixing aspects of the archaic, baroque, modern and futuristic are all the rage, and perhaps that is for the best. But in practice, there is a particular period which is all too often reproduced in game settings. That period is our own.

There is nothing particularly surprising, or even problematic about this. Our own age is the one we live in, and are most familiar with. Accepting features of our of society simply as "the way things are" is second nature to us. When we invent worlds de novo, we do not know them anywhere near as well, even if have taken the time to make up their religions, languages, and history. Given the presence of a huge number of blank spots, and the imperative to conjure things up on the spur of the moment, we understandably turn to what we know. Sometimes, we turn to well-worn tropes in contemporary fantasy literature, written by authors who are products of the same world as ourselves.

But sometimes, certain features are overused, to such an extent that continuing to replicate them constitutes a large-scale failure of imagination. We play RPGs to explore, to push back boundaries, and to learn new things. When settings become cluttered with the same baggage, boundaries retreat, and doors close. Sometimes, we should try snapping ourselves out of ruts where we implement the same material over and over, even if it requires a bit of work and preparation. Doing things a bit differently will, under the right conditions, cause our players to play their characters in new ways as well.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not object to the features I discuss below being in specific fantasy-historical settings. Some of them are not, strictly speaking, modern inventions at all. What I find distasteful is their near-ubiquity, their generally modern form, and the relative lack of alternatives.

Taverns

The stereotype of the tavern as the starting point of adventure is so pervasive that some recent publications have even shifted to treating them ironically. Thus, the Yawning Portal tavern is the linchpin tying together a multiplicity of old school adventures. You finish one, then return to the tavern to learn about the next one. The tongue-in-cheek element present in the construction obviates looking for other connective elements (though I know from personal experience that people running Tales from the Yawning Portal seek something more substantial as the tie-in for a campaign).

Taverns are the places you go for news and information. It's where you learn whether anyone is trying to kill you, and why. It's where you make connections with seedy, underworld types. And it's where you go looking for a fight if you can't think of anything better to do. The entire world recedes behind the tavern, because there is really nothing worth noting going on anywhere else that isn't the dungeon.

Taverns, of course, are nothing new. Alcohol consumption has been part of human society for some 6000 years, and much of that consumption has taken place in public. But the form of the public drinking establishment has varied greatly. The fantasy RPG tavern is a curious blend of the late medieval and Renaissance English pub and the modern dive bar. Like the former it should have a colorful name like the Yawning Portal; you can even generate similar names randomly here and there. Like the latter, it has a bar, at which the regulars sit, and booths, where adventuring parties can confer quietly.

Over their 6000-year history, most drinking establishments did not look like this. In many cases, "publick houses" (hence, pubs) were simply private homes which were opened to customers seeking victuals and potables, which were usually produced in-house. Oftentimes, these establishments did not have a name, and were simply known as "the house of so-and-so, where you can get something to eat and drink".

It may seem like a minor point, and perhaps even a poor choice to make establishments less flavorful and memorable by calling them Johnson's instead of the Merry Mermaid. But the differences need not be merely cosmetic. Family-run taverns usually organized space differently than modern bars, which invariably serve as the models in games. If you drank there, you were essentially invited into people's house, into their familial environment. You were in a common area, sitting at tables (or even a single large table) with other patrons, and mingling with the servers, and often, cooks. If the tavern doubled as a hostel or inn, the guests also slept in the common area (or in a shed, with other guests, and not in private rooms made up with beds, chairs, desks [!], and other hotel furniture short of a TV). There was often little or no division between the areas where the food was prepared and the drinks poured, and the area where the customers consumed what was being served.

A more typical medieval tavern
The atmosphere of such establishments was more intimate. Although money might be exchanged, the visitor was more guest than client. The host's or hostess' family, including children, was usually present. It was significantly more likely that outlandish guests attracted much more attention than they would in a bar, where the only important thing was that they paid with coin. Children could become fascinated with, or frightened of, exotic visitors. Family problems would be much more visible, and the proprietors much more likely to ask powerful-looking strangers for help (without offering much in return). Long-term friendships and intimate relations with family members might arise much more frequently, but so would incidents where a desperate family might murder or rob a wounded adventurer. On the whole, a frequenter of such establishments would more quickly become integrated into the fabric of the local community than the customer in a modern-type bar.

If adventuring parties are looking for information, or meetings with influential people, there are places to go other than taverns. Most cities and towns had public squares, where markets were set up, and where gatherings of the town assembly took place. Some cities had town criers who announced important news at such venues. The harbor or port is another locale to gather news, and so are religious establishments. The latter may even provide free room and board, though supplicants can expect to receive offers to join the flock, or donate money later. A caravansarai (if such an institution exists in your world) is another place where information about interesting locales, or even work as a caravan guard can be acquired. With their open-air layout, mysterious alcoves, and beguiling stories by mysterious foreigners, they provide a very different feel from the typical tavern.

The citadel of the local ruler is also a good place to gather information and offer one's services. Trying to get an audience with the ruler or official isn't the same as going to a bar and spending some coin. It might involve preparation (like buying presentable clothes, or the procurement of gifts, or forging letters of introduction), but the role-playing opportunities at such venues are arguably greater and more varied than in taverns. And coming to know the local notables is another step toward integration in the community.

Wealthy merchant cities had feast circuits where important people met, hobnobbed, and exchanged intelligence. Those who gathered there wielded influence and had money to spend. As members of the elite, many of them were also skilled combatants, thus privy to knowledge about expeditions and adventure. Getting invited to a feast wasn't easy if you were an unknown or a new arrival, but trying to gain admittance by performing in public, or pretending you were a foreign prince could sometimes result in an invitation. If that didn't work, hiring oneself out as a servant could get you in the door, where you could then overhear all kinds of things. How often are adventurers in the position of servants, instead of customers? Why aren't they? As a variant, VIPs can also get together in a bathhouse; it would really change things up to have an encounter there, rather than in a bar.

Finally, all too often, taverns are nodes in a widespread criminal network. In fact, the slum-filled metropolis was a fairly rare occurrence in history before the 18th century. Most societies were simply not wealthy or stable enough to afford a large criminal underclass (plus, punishments for even minor crimes were generally quite severe). People who engaged in criminal activity were not career criminals, but generally poor people who acted out of need. This doesn't mean that there are no gangs, or gang-infested taverns in the cities frequented by adventurers. It does mean that thugs and thieves usually have day jobs, and spend time at establishments other than bars. I recently ran a session in which players were looking for a companion who disappeared. It turned out that he was last seen in the vicinity of a fishmonger's shop. The owner of the establishment, and a few sailors who supplied him with wares were subcontracted by a notable to make an undesirable person (one of the PCs) disappear. They were not mafiosi or thieves' guild members, just sailors and a small merchant who wanted to supplement their income. The fight that took place in the shop was great fun to run (the fishmonger flung a fish at one of the PCs at one point). Yet another barroom brawl would likely have been much less interesting.

Mercenary Companies

Can't think of why the PCs should be working together? Make them part of a mercenary company! Mercenary companies do what adventurers like best - the collect disparate individuals from different walks of life together into a team that likes to kill people and other creatures for money. In a way, mercenary companies are even easier than taverns - instead of going around looking for the right people at the right bar, and spending money to learn things, you just go to the headquarters of the mercenary companies, and see what the boss needs done, or just look on the bulletin board.

Like taverns, mercenaries have been around since antiquity, but they were not ubiquitous. Typically, the widespread use of mercenaries required the coincidence of two partly contradictory factors: political and social instability, coupled with high levels of wealth. Such conditions prevailed in 14th century Italy, which was politically fragmented, and significantly richer than the rest of Europe owing to its greater integration into long-distance trade networks centered in the Muslim heartlands and other parts of Asia. Mercenaries were convenient auxiliaries for seigneurs and urban republics because they did not fundamentally threaten internal social balance. Mercenaries turned to brigandage and kidnapping on occasion, but they lacked the wherewithal to take power into their own hands, at least not for long, and they could be quite easily destabilized through the fine art of poisoning, provided the right commanders were targeted. This was the golden age of mercenary companies, such as the renowned White Company, headed by the Englishman John Hawkwood.

But these conditions did not last. Already by the 15th century, the city-states that hired mercenary companies turned to standing armies, in part to address the problems of brigandage and the mercenaries' loyalty deficit. In addition, as the wealth gap between Italy and other states began to flatten or disappear (in great part, because of the discovery of the Americas), opportunities for mercenaries to earn good coin as 'guest workers' began to dry up. Technological advances directed rulers to invest more money in cannons and defensive fortifications rather than mounted mercenaries. So, while mercenaries have been around for a while, they were far from common, and prospered only under certain conditions.

Another factor to keep in mind about mercenary companies is their structure. Judging by the form they take in many GMs' settings, mercenary companies are made up of various unattached individuals from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and possessing diverse expertise as specialized warriors, safe-crackers, demolition mages, and so on. In fact, mercenary organizations were significantly more homogenous than that. Some were simply composed of the retinue of a particular aristocrat who was looking to make some money, or carve out a new domain. In other words, the mercenaries were actually bound to their captain by oaths, and not merely by wealth. Outfits like the White Company were more diverse, but even they consisted primarily of Englishmen. Maintaining the coherence and fighting élan of a military unit was much easier if its members share a sense of identity, and a language. Most of the private mercenary companies in Italy during their 14th century heyday were composed of Englishmen and Germans, and companies would frequently get into scuffles with one another to defend national pride. Identity factors typically do not figure at all in most fantasy RPG mercenary groups.

White Company mercenaries. Note the obvious distinction
from SEAL-style commandos
Perhaps the most noxious instantiation of mercenary companies in games is when they are explicitly presented as fantasy versions of commando or special ops units. Their tools and training are hyperspecialized, and they reflect a division of labor that one simply does not find prior to the 20th century. To me, technology disguised as magic makes the magic lose its mystery. If people want to play larger-than-life characters patterned on modern exemplars, fine, but it's the incessant replication of Navy SEALs in fantasy garb that's becomes grating if you've seen it one too many times.

I have suggested several alternatives to the mercenary company-style adventuring party organization. Perhaps they are all bonded to the same lord or lady. Perhaps they are traveling with a caravan, pilgrim group, performers' troupe, or gang of vagabonds. Perhaps they all originate from the same village, and are actually related to one another. It's not that these approaches are necessarily "better" than just making everyone into a mercenary. It's just that it's different, and builds on the recent imperative to actually make characters real people with social ties, rather than bags of statistics.  Why bother having a background if the only thing you use it for is to narrate stream-of-consciousness thoughts before you swing across the chasm in a special rope contraption while blasting minions with smithereens from your rechargeable wand?

Offices

Of all gaming anachronisms, this one is the most anachronistic, and my pet peeve. Everybody who is anybody has an office. The commander of the watch has an office. The gang kingpin has an office (usually several, so they are harder to track down). The priest at the local temple has an office. Mercenary companies, of course, have offices, and tavern owners have offices, too, somewhere in the back.

What do they all do in those offices? Well, produce and collect documentation, of course. All transactions in fantasy worlds must be documented. Not only sales and purchases, but also reports on everything imaginable. All people in offices carry on wide-ranging correspondence, in writing. And, owing to the absence of computers, such documents are all filed away, using a rational system, like alphabetic order. In filing cabinets.

There is a built-in assumption in many popular fantasy RPG systems that nearly everyone knows how to read and write. If that is the case, then perhaps the mass production of documents is not out of place. However, mass literacy was a rarity virtually everywhere prior to the late 19th century. Even in places with relatively high literacy rates, such as Renaissance Italy, or Greece in the 5th century BCE, the ratio of literate people rarely exceeded 25%. And even then, a lot of the writing was done on things like potsherds, owing to the fact that there simply wasn't much stationery available. Because the large-scale manufacture of writing implements doesn't make much sense if most people are illiterate.

This 'office' was called the Steelyard. Note what this
merchant wrote on, and how he filed documents
There were many reasons why most people remained illiterate until fairly recently. The most important has to do with the fact that most people were engaged in primary production (i.e. agriculture or herding, when they weren't hunting or gathering), and primary production does not in itself require documentation. There was insufficient surplus available to maintain more than a few record keepers and manipulators of symbols. And training people to use these symbols was a lengthy and expensive process that most simply couldn't afford. Additionally, those that could read and write generally tried to prevent most people from trying to learn, because they knew that knowledge was power, and did what they could from upending the established social order in which they enjoyed privileges (in fact, periods when literacy and documentation expanded were usually periods of great social convulsions). So, if mass amounts of documentation were not produced, there was no need of offices, and certainly not office spaces. For people who did know how to write, and did store documents, their "offices" often had multiple functions - counting houses, scriptoria, libraries, coffee houses, domiciles, sand so on. In other words, offices spaces doubled as manufacturing, consumption, or residential spaces.

How much damage can you do with
this mace of office?
The word "office" and its cognates has been around since the 12th century or so, but initially, it simply meant "work", "function", or "service". The position was not symbolized by having a space with a desk in the corner of a glass-and-concrete building, where you could enjoy a view from two windows, as opposed to only one, but by a weapon - a staff or a mace - granted by one's superior or a religious official. This object was usually ceremonial, and kept in a treasury, from which it was only removed on special occasions, but in a fantasy world, a commander of the guard is much more likely to be swinging a magical mace of office and dealing damage with it than hanging out behind a desk, shuffling papers.

The definition of an office as a place of business is not attested prior to the mid-16th century (significantly, about a century after the European invention of the printing press). Most office workers at the time labored away in state chanceries, which were relatively small institutions compared to later ministries and departments. In subsequent centuries, joint stock companies like the Dutch East India Company - a globe-spanning conglomerate that functioned much as a state in the areas in administered, were among the first to actually construct office buildings that served as their headquarters. In some cases, they had earlier prototypes, such as the kontors of the German Hanse (another early "multinational corporation"). But such operations - progenitors of today's corporate multinationals - were exceptional - a far cry from our own age of office ubiquity, where "going to the office" is nearly synonymous with "going to work".

A related institution where documents were kept - the library - certainly existed, but was significantly rarer and more difficult to access than is the case in many RPG campaigns. Usually, getting admittance to one is about as difficult as getting a library card if you are a contemporary gamer moving into a new town. But monastic scriptoria were often fortunate to own ten volumes, and those who labored there frequently had to write books on top of older ones, owing to the dearth of writing materials. Huge libraries existed, but institutions like the Great Library of Alexandria, or the Bait al- Hikma in Baghdad were truly extraordinary. They did not survive to our own day precisely because the materials they housed were so fragile, which in turn necessitated restricting access. There is a great sequence in Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind (to use an example from fantasy literature) that depicts the difficulties of the hero, a matriculated university student named Kvothe, from accessing the university library, despite the fact that he technically had the right to do so, and had to, in order to complete his education and become a scholar. There were restrictions at every turn, often thrown up arbitrarily by those who guarded the stacks, simply as a demonstration of their power. There was a restricted section where the truly valuable tomes were kept, and it was inaccessible to virtually everyone. And even having access didn't guarantee being able to find anything, because, in the absence of a universally recognized system of classification, each new library administrator invented a new one upon gaining the office. The whole place was a hot mess, and finding what you needed was a long-term enterprise that usually required the help of friends. To a lesser extent, this would apply to searching for the right thing in someone's "office": things are tucked in randomly here and there.

I would personally prefer if every written document, even a shopping list, contained a magical spell inscribed on it, to having offices stuffed full of well-organized documentation on every corner. It would be extreme, but it would better represent the phenomenal power writing possessed in most ages. In my Lukomorye game, I don't even bother making casters with spellbooks find special ink or stationery to scribe new spells, since the regular thing is hard enough to find. I also make Literacy a distinct skill that you need to possess if you want to be able to read and write. Magical spells can be written in normal languages, but since most people can't read, it might as well be a magical script. So reading and writing are rare, but at least there are no office buildings to deal with. I should note that my Wax and Wendigoes setting has fairly widespread literacy, and even joint-stock companies (hence, not a few offices). But that's the thing - it shouldn't be the only, or even the most common type of setting.

Does having few or no offices complicate meeting the right people at the right time, and keep you from what you want to do? Not necessarily. It might make meeting important people different every time (see 'Taverns', above), instead of a rerun of the same social situation. Since people's work tends to be more active, and often takes place outside, rather than in an office, NPCs might need to be tracked down. Perhaps you will need to make use of messengers, which involves entering into another social relationship. Perhaps one of the messengers is even a PC (why are rogues and bards never messengers?). Perhaps finding the VIP necessitates the use of spells, which can involve planning and strategizing. I actually find that some spells, like Augury, are much too underutilized in the game, in the same way that meetings in offices are overutilized. Meetings with office-holders can then take place in a variety of locations - feasts, bathhouses, and yes, taverns. And breaking into places that contain records would be a major undertaking, because documents are so precious. They would be protected by magical wards and guardians, and be difficult to find. So mind-reading and scrying spells would find much more use than they typically do as well. As would Harry Potter-style memory globes.
  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Chapter 13 – At Death’s Door

Wherein the band discovers another trove...

Plamen decides to take a day off after his eventful foray, to have a chance to charge some holy water prior to returning to the warren. He feeds his remaining berries to Dmitri and Druvvaldis, and the two are now fully recovered. They have had a very successful couple of days trapping in the woods, and have managed to catch four hares, which Lionia cooks up into a stew.
Over the evening meal, Chonkorchuk relates the content of the visions he saw at his recent retreat. He is now more certain that the grain is not the treasure Baba Yaga seeks, and is willing to return to the warren to look for another treasure room. There is still disagreement about what to do with the treasure if and when it is found, and Plamen still displays a great deal of skepticism about working with Lionia and Rodion, but nevertheless, all are in agreement about returning.
Should treasure hunting fail, another career awaits Raskel
Rodion spends the next evening studying and playing Plamenka’s flute. Set to Druvvaldis’ accompaniment on the drums, it produces a mournful yet enchanting sound. Given what he knows about the magic contained in it, the workings of Plamenka’s other items (the sickle and sash), and its likely purpose, Rodion divines that it is likely a mechanism for calming the walking dead – probably a charged item, which is discharged by playing a particular sequence of notes. He questions Plamen about whether his mother ever sang to him, and the healer recalls a simple, three-note tune, which Rodion reproduces, and masters.
The following day, drizzle changes to light snow, and over the season’s first winter tapestry, the entire band returns to the warren. With the new earthworks, the way inside is clearer now, and the group, led by Plamen, moves in the direction of his previous skeletal encounters. Led by Rodion’s dancing lights, they make it to the entrance of the long tunnel leading to Tsibulka’s tavern, the band encounters the four skeletons fought  by Plamen two days ago, though only one of them is still operational. He throws a spear at Dmitri, and puts up a good fight, but it ultimately smashed by the ranger’s spear, with an assist by Druvvaldis’ frosty blast. At the conclusion of the encounter, the group inspects the remaining skeletons, wondering whether Plamenka’s ghost has been reanimating them. Not these ones, it appears.
Plamen leads the group away from his family’s chambers, hoping to thereby save their lives. The way is now lit by Druvvaldis’ fire beetle, summoned up to replace the deer and raven. Thus illuminated, the band encounters four more animated skeletons in the maze. At this juncture, Rodion-Raskel slips past the boney patrol, and tries out the flute, succeeding in immobilizing three of the four. The remaining one is dealt with by spear and blasts, while the other three are finished off in due course, as they cannot effectively defend themselves from the party’s assault after being immobilized. So two questions appear answered: there are more animated skeletons, and Plamen’s song is effective when performed on his mother’s flute.
A confusing series of mazelike tunnels, with several dead ends, terminates in a final dead end. This area is unfamiliar to Plamen, and Rodion, who has been mapping, thinks there are no other tunnels nearby. Chonkorchuk checks for the presence of magic. A massive aura of necromancy radiates from behind this wall… 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Chapter 12 – Go To Where The Treasure Isn’t

Wherein one changeling's quest for the truth yields unexpected results.

The band hurries back to the granary to make sure that Rodion/Raskel and the supplies are safe. He is, and says he is not seen the apparition. Those who have just been attacked by her are quite drained and want a chance to recuperate. Rodion would prefer making the granary their base, and slowly taking over the entire warren, but Plamen objects that the warren is already home to the poleviks, and that his companions are the ones spreading darkness and destruction. Dmitri adds that it’s unlikely Plamenka could have killed all those people and turned them into skeletons, considering how easily the group bested her. Rodion suggests that they don’t know the full story, and Plamen is being blind to the fact that he is a good son raised in a family of monsters. He futher ventures also that the group needs to think through what it’s doing here – there is little reason to continue putting themselves into harm’s way just to become enslaved to Baba Yaga. Chonkorchuk is offended by this, and responds by saying they do this voluntarily to learn ancient secrets, and to win the hand of Katarina. In any event, there is little sense in staying here and look for a treasure trove other than the grain, because they have searched the whole warren already, and Plamen asserts that there is nowhere else it could be stored. His visions from his queen have been cloudy, likely for a reason, and he needs to separate himself from the group for a while to meditate on what to do next.
Is this the real treasure?
Chonkorchuk departs for his hermitage, while the rest of the group prepares to leave also. Rodion comes up with an idea to use Plamenka’s blankets and tapestries to make more sacks, since no one thought to bring any back. While he is busy sewing them up (and Dmitri - stuffing his quiver), Lionia shows up, bringing one additional sack with him. He had just encountered Chonkorchuk on the way out of the warren, and had a brief exchange with him, in which the ascetic told the Old Fox to inform his companions of any tales of flaming skeletons ahead of time, and to stop worrying so much about the material world. Lionia did not see the apparition on his way to the bedchamber and the granary, but he is concerned that the band is being pulled in different directions, and seems to lack a plan. If people cannot continue with the search after the previous day’s encounter and insist on leaving, they should have a place to recuperate and store the grain without risking dying of cold, or burying full sacks in the ground (much less taking them to the hermitage, which has already been attacked once). He again offers his own house. Rodion accepts gratefully, while the others, including Plamen simply accept it silently as the most viable move in the absence of alternatives.
Before leaving, Rodion would like to close up the granary. Thinking this should be done the same way it was opened, he traces an outline in the entryway with Plamenka’s sickle, while burning another section of the sash with a sigil on it (one now remains). The outlined doorway glows green for a moment, but nothing happens. A discussion between Rodion and Druvvaldis establishes that the characters making up the sigil are for opening portals, and may be successfully reproduced by someone who knows the formula for the opening spell, and acquires the necessary ingredients for the ink to scribe it. Druvvaldis successfully reproduces the sigil on his drum. The band then pushes the section of wall that swung outward back into place. The entryway glows for a moment, and then the doorway once again becomes invisible.
Exiting from the warren is easier now after the burrowing job done by the fefila, and the group proceeds to Lionia’s house in Medunitsa across the frozen river. The bitter cold spell has ended, but the ice is still solid, and everyone arrives at his house without difficulty. It is a small hut at the edge of the village, and it does seem to have hives in the back, suggesting that the occupant does indeed keep bees. The inside of the house is stuffed to the brim with jars, tools, and junk of various kinds, but Lionia declines Rodion’s offer of helping him clean the place, saying he knows exactly where everything is. He would appreciate some help with the chores – chopping wood, carrying water, and perhaps, catching some game in exchange for his hospitality, while he is off at church in the morning (it being Nedelia). He finds a plucked chicken and some other viands in his cellar, and sups on it with his guests.
Lionia's place: a house of mystery, or a just hoarder's hut?
The next morning, after breakfast, Dmitri takes Druvvaldis into the woods to teach him how to set traps, while Plamen has a conversation with Lionia and Rodion about what happens next. He reiterates that he does not believe the story about any skeletons, as he has not seen them, and thinks it is the band, and not his mother, which is the cause of great evil, having invaded his family’s home, and engaged in wanton slaughter. Further, the doesn’t think there is any treasure, as he has seen nothing other than the grain, which he thinks his family grew themselves. Rodion and Lionia contest his take on the proceedings, and point out to him that everyone has seen the skeletons (they were responsible for Dmitri’s loss of his arm). The disappearance of the villagers at Crows’ Meadow, and the fact that parts of the meadow remain unexplored need to be taken into account. They should proceed on the basis of what is known, not fantasies, of the type Chonkorchuk peddles. Plamen says that he wants to investigate the matter for himself, asserting that he wants to protect the rest of the sleeping poleviks, and that he will learn more by himself by specifically going to where the treasure isn’t and talking to the denizens than the party will by following the violent methods it has been using. Lionia says it is too dangerous to go there alone. Even though he disagrees with Plamen and Chonkorchuk about their approaches to the task at hand, he respects their abilities, and does not want to lose them as allies in a common enterprise. But in the end, he and Rodion realize they cannot stop Plamen from going back. Lionia demonstrably mouths a prayer, and Plamen sets out alone.
He approaches the warren in the same way as before, but proceeds south rather than east from his own chamber, and works his way toward the rooms of his stepfather and half-siblings. When he comes to a long hallway that he recognizes as leading back to a shed in Lazarevo, he encounters four skeleton warriors, who attack him, as he cannot flee quickly enough with his limp. The skeletons are clearly armed with old Kochmak weapons, and wear old pieces of Kochmak armor, he notes. Plamen draws upon the power of thunder to smash them to smithereens, but he also wants to awaken the warren’s denizens with the noise. He manages to survive the encounter unscathed, but is almost immediately confronted by the livid image of Plamenka, who floats up to him, and mouths a demand that he leave immediately. Plamen complies, and exits the warren via the long tunnel.
He sneaks out of the shed cellar at Tsibulka Tsibulkovich’s tavern. The yard and the village are quiet and almost entirely empty – everyone is at church.  After he surreptitiously leaves the yeard, he runs into Chonkorchuk, who had returned to the meadow from the hermitage. After he heard the thunderous noises of battle, the fefila directed him back to Lazarevo. The two of them now make their way back to Medunitsa.

Lionia returns to the house from church shortly after Plamen, claiming he feels cleansed after the service. Plamen then admits that Lionia and the others were right about the skeletons, and tells them about encountering the apparition again. He now doesn’t know what to think, and is ready to return to the warren to inspect the passages in the other part of the warren, that he was warned by his mother to stay away from, the following day. Lionia is happy to hear that, and pushes for a new expedition, saying that the enlarged entryway is increasing the chances that someone else will find what they are looking for first.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

The PC and Family

Families are not usually important to members of the typical adventuring party, though this has changed somewhat since the introduction of the "Bond" feature. They were, however, key to the survival and identity formation of people in non-modern societies (and continue to be today, especially if we agree with the contention that we have never been modern).

If adventurers don't concentrate exclusively on slaughtering monsters, and wouldn't mind having some kin, but their players and Game Masters both have other things to think about, rolling on a table is always an option. It may spark the player's interest,  especially if an older brother means a chance to borrow some money, or even to recruit a new meat shield to bring into the dungeon.



Parents:

As an option, to provide an incentive to figuring out whether a character has parents or not, allow the starting character to double his or her wealth if both parents are living, and multiply it by 1.5 if only one parent is living. Assuming the character is in good standing with the fam, that is.


d8 roll

  1. The character is an orphan who grew up with strangers (never knew parents)
  2. Both parents are deceased (but known by the PC)
  3. Character is a black sheep
  4. Only father is living
  5. Only mother is living
  6. Both parents are living
  7. Character grew up with other relatives (grandparents, aunts, etc.)
  8. Other (character had multiple families of origin, grew up in non-standard/polygamous family, etc.)
Siblings:

This is an admittedly idiosyncratic table suited to a fairy-tale environment (which is what I run). It can easily be changed to reflect a more realistic situation. 

It is possible that some results will conflict with those of the Parents table, so ignore or rationalize inconsistent results.


d12 roll

  1. PC is the youngest of three children of the same sex
  2. PC is the youngest of seven children of the same sex
  3. PC has a younger sibling of the opposite sex that he/she is responsible for
  4. PC has an older sibling of the opposite sex who is responsible for her/him
  5. PC is the only child of a widowed mother who obsessively dotes on him/her
  6. PC's mother died, father remarried. Stepmother has a child from a previous marriage, and she and the step-sibling hate the PC
  7. PC was a foundling adopted by an elderly couple (only child)
  8. PC has three siblings of the opposite sex, and is responsible for marrying them off
  9. PC has an identical twin (who may or may not be the PC's polar opposite)
  10. PC and a fraternal twin of the opposite sex are children of a widowed parent who has remarried
  11. PC has a "named" sibling (may be of a different people or race) who has sworn to aid him/her in an hour of need
  12. Player choice: anything other than any of the above
Family of Procreation:

If anything, this comes up even less frequently than the question of parents/siblings, but can be a great stimulant to play (if a character is adventuring to find a match, or, conversely, to get away from an unsuccessful marriage).

d8 roll

  1. PC is single and innocent
  2. PC is single and experienced (may be unmarriageable as a result)
  3. PC is promised to someone
  4. PC is married but (still) childless
  5. PC is married, with 1d4 children
  6. PC is widowed, with no children
  7. PC is widowed, with 1d4 children
  8. Player's choice (vow of celibacy, polygamy, cohabiting, same-sex relationship, etc.)


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chapter 11 – Phantom Pains and Phantoms


Wherein the companions perform several sensitive operations, but then find themselves haunted by an old problem.

The band strategizes its next move, as it wait to see if Dmitri will wake up. A real healer is needed if the ranger’s arm is to receive the proper attention. The obvious answer is to find Plamen, but in light of recent events, it may be difficult to convince him. Lionia, surprisingly, undertakes to speak to him and make things right, and with the discovery of the grain, he thinks he has the leverage to convince Yelizarov to let the healer go. Raskel is willing to stay behind in the underground granary – as good a place as any to keep it safe, while the rest of the group is out dealing with their injured companion. He gives one of the four sacks – his share, as he sees it - to Lionia, to stash at his house in Medunitsa, and the Old Fox takes two sacks, turns into a fox, and runs off.
In a few hours, Dmitri wakes up, alive, but in great pain. As he cannot climb up the chute under his own power, Druvvaldis comes up with a plan to have his conjured deer-spirit drag him out once ropes are tied to his feet. The plan is successful, and, along with Chonkorchuk, he helps guide Dmitri toward the Yelizarov keep. As they get to the frozen river, they see a figure crossing it from the other side. It turns out to be Plamen himself. The healer met with Lionia earlier, who apparently told him that his mother was killed by a skeleton with flaming eyes – a story mooted earlier with Raskel. He then somehow convinced Yelizarov to let the hostage go, though before he left, Plamen had a religious discussion with the boyar, and solicited for himself a small icon of they boyar’s own manufacture in exchange for a promise not to harm it in any way.
Chonkorchuk nixes Lionia’s tale, and relates the story of Lionia killing Plamenka and dismembering her body (though he says he tried to stop it). Plamen is beside himself with grief, though he is undecided about which story is true, because he cannot understand why anyone would carry out such a desecration. Still, he agrees to accompany the trio back to the keep (there being no better option) to see what he can do for Dmitri. Druvvaldis, though, has no wish to stay at the fort; he takes one of the remaining sacks of grain, and uses it to buy himself a rest for the night at the Yelizarovka waystation).
Hopefully, they are getting the right limb
At the keep, Yelizarov undertakes to help, as Dmitri is still technically in his employ. With the assistance of all assembled, Plamen inspects the shoulder and tries to reset it. But he concludes that it is too fragmented, and cannot be salvaged. Yelizarov helps with having the arm removed, and the tough patient survives the ordeal. Along with Chonkorchuk and Plamen, Dmitri rests at Yelizarov’s for the night. Then, he has the arm fed to the dogs, and they all return to the warren the following morning, after collecting Druvvaldis.
As they approach the meadow, the fefila warns Chonkorchuk of great evil ahead. Looking up, they see a ghostly form drift toward the opening in the ground, and disappear down the hole. Getting everyone down the chute is expectedly complicated. Dmitri, now more unmaneuverable than before, gets stuck halfway down, as the dirt has frozen once more. He is freed, not without effort, by the fefila, who is an expert burrower. Then, with Chonkorchuk in the lead in place of the injured Dmitri, they skirt past Plamen’s room, and are assaulted by a floating spirit in the long corridor on route to Plamenka’s chamber.

You, again?
The spirit appears to look like the warren’s old mistress. She utters curses toward the band, though no sound comes out of her mouth, and then swoops down to attack. As she passes through, first Chonkorchuk, then Druvvaldis and Dmitri, they feel a wrenching pain, as if life itself is being yanked from the pit of their stomachs. Resistance is disorganized, and only Chonkorchuk is able to do any kind of harm to the spirit with his magic. Plamen attempts to entreat it, and unexpectedly, after having savaged Dmitri, it flies over him, and back toward the entryway. Feeling drained, even despite Plamen’s ministrations, the band proceeds toward the granary. But on route, Plamen is exposed to a frightening sight in Plamenka’s chamber: his mother’s charred and disembodied corpse, as well as the charred and picked-over carcass of his sheep.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Pravda and Krivda

I've been thinking about introducing an ethical mechanic rooted in Russian folk culture for some time, and this week, I finally wrote one up. The mechanic will invoke the twin concepts of pravda and krivda. As linked traits,  the two would function somewhat analogously to the Inspiration mechanic. Pravda means truth, justice, and the righteous path, where as krivda denotes crookedness, lies, and injustice. The two ideals are sometimes personified in the popular imagination. Aside from the holiest of saints and the wickedest of sinners, most people survive by trying to walk a fine line between the two, though they will lean toward one or the other at different times in their life.


When a character commits a particularly righteous act - defending the weak, telling the truth when it is disadvantageous, or goes without so that another may enjoy an advantage, the GM may grant the character a point of Pravda. Conversely, when a character commits a particularly heinous act - tells a lie that has an especially deleterious impact on someone, backstabs an ally, or forces another to suffer so that he or she can benefit, the GM awards the character a point of Krivda.
As with Inspiration, points of Krivda and Pravda can be used to grant advantage on rolls, but with the following differences:
  •  Points of Pravda can only be used to help other people. They cannot be used toward evil ends, nor when the character is trying to benefit only themselves. They cannot be used in neutral situations, ethic (e.g. if a character is trying to recall a bit of lore or information).
  • Points of Krivda, conversely, can only be used toward evil or selfish ends - deceiving and betraying others, and benefitting at their expense. They cannot be used to give aid, or in neutral situations.
  • Unlike inspiration, points of Krivda and Pravda can be accumulated.
  • However, Pravda and Krivda cancel each other out. For example, if a character with three points of Pravda has accrued one point of Krivda, the point of Krivda cancels a point of Pravda, and the character now has two points of Pravda to use toward righteous ends.
  • It is possible to recoup points of Pravda or Krivda by using them, but not every usage has that result.

Note that accumulating too much Krivda can have significant drawbacks. A character who has more effective points of Krivda than their Charisma modifier will be making all Charisma checks vis-à-vis anyone aware of the character's behavior with disadvantage.
The Pravda-Krivda mechanic may be thought of as a replacement for alignment. Rather than defining themselves by adherence to an ethical or moral dogma, most characters struggle to live up to their higher ideals, and are defined more by what they *do*, not what they believe.