Friday, December 1, 2017

Chapter 22 – The Accursed Forest

Wherein the Otherworld begins to reveal its dangers...

Shortly after arrival at water’s edge, the sounds of hoofbeats are heard nearby, and darkness quickly covers land and lake. It is likely the Black Rider, and Chonkorchuk, along with Druvvaldis, go off to investigate – perhaps this rider also dropped a valuable item. It is too dark to find anything, however, and after Chonkorchuk takes a few tumbles in the darkness before their arcane senses reveal nothing as well. But when the hermit and the traveler return to the water, they find the rest of their companions – Vasya, Katarina, Plamen and Khurshid – gone. Druvvaldis calls forth a luminous beetle, and helps his companion search for tracks. Curiously, Chonkorchuk finds about a half dozen prints of mailed feet heading along the water’s edge, and several sets of horse tracks as well. He and Druvvaldis follow them to the place where they earlier sighted a dugout – their dugout. However, the boat is gone, and the tracks disappear near it.
The vasilisk - the first deadly denizen of the Otherworld
Fearing to continue their search in pitch-blackness for an apparently strong, armed group, the two companions set up shelter for the night. During the night, while Druvvaldis keeps watch, a strange creature wanders into the area lit by the beetle. It appears as a black rooster with red eyes and a long, serpentine tail, and the shaman recognizes it as a vasilisk – born of a rooster egg, and capable of turning its victims to stone with the peck of its beak. He makes a move to wake his companion, but the creature immediately flaps at him and attacks. As he attempts to hold it back with his scythe, the roused Chonkorchuk blasts it with magical energy. The heavy weapon is difficult to maneuver, and Druvvaldis is left at the mercy of the foul monster’s beak, but as luck should have it, it trips on a crag, and soon Chonkorchuk finishes it off before it does any harm to anyone. The hermit attempts to cook it, but soon sees that the creature is dripping black liquid, and is unwholesome. The pair is left undisturbed for the rest of the night, though without adequate heat, Druvvaldis catches a cold.
After it gets light, the pair resumes the search for their companions. Druvvaldis transforms the beetle into a fish, and it swims around the place from which the boat was taken, but finds nothing. He then changes it into a raven, and bids it fly to the island where the group discovered Khurshid, and search there. In several hours, the raven returns, having seen nothing. Druvvaldis then sends it along the lake in the direction they were moving the previous night, and a ways down the shore, the raven discovers the empty dugout. The two men follow the bird, and begin to search around once they locate the boat.
A Knightly device
Along the way, Chonkorchuk discusses the visions he has seen about their predicament with his friend. He beheld Druvvaldis as a younger man, lying in fear near a burning building, as well as a white horse’s head. The memories are painful to recount, but Druvvaldis tells of the invasion of his home island by the Knights of Ritterheim, who display such a head as their device. Of them, he says only that they seek to bring the whole world under the sway of their faith, and kill all who do not submit. He is not sure what they are doing in the Otherworld.
After finding a trinket likely dropped by Plamen, they follow the tracks of the group of armored people and their mounts into the woods, and camp nearby. Before that night is done, they are awakened by Vasya. He says that he and the others were taken by a group of armed men, whom he describes in less flattering terms than those he reserves for Chonkorchuk. He is not sure what device they have, aside from the fact that it is some kind of animal – maybe a duck. He does know where their camp is. As for their purpose, he says they seek the flaming river, beyond which Baba Yaga’s realm lies. The people who captured them seek knowledge about how to find this river, which Vasya claims to possess. Apparently, they want to cross in order to contract the crone to pasture her mares, in exchange for getting some of them for their service. But now Vasya has escaped, found the two of them, and is now prepared to lead them back to rescue their companions. With the help of the fefila and the raven, the group discovers an encampment at the end of the following day, and settles to make a plan of attack.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Classes as Backgrounds

Xanathar's Guide to Everything arrived this week at the start of Thanksgiving break, and I have been going through it pretty intensively. In general, I like this format for non-core rulebooks: it sounds better than Players' Handbook II, and substantively, it has a more experimental feel to it. Rather than saying "rush out and buy your copy so that you can incorporate all the new official rules into your game", the conceit of a monster's thoughts on different character types and aspects of the world frames the offerings in a more playful way, presenting different ideas and variants that you could take or leave, and that stimulate thinking about changes you can introduce into your own games.

Xanathar's Guide isn't perfect. Without getting into the DM's section (which I haven't read yet), I feel that several questionable decisions were made when the player's section was put together. Four archetypes from the Sword Coast's Adventurer's Guide were included in the new book with virtually no changes. This was not done to ensure that all of the archetypes not in the Players' Handbook could be found in one place, because there are eight specializations that are not included (so if you are being accepting of all published variants, you still have to lug the SCAG with you). The reason for reprinting four variants in the new book has more to do with the fact that not a sufficiently large number of variants published in freely available Unearthed Arcanas over the last two years received a sufficiently high fan rating, and their place was taken by the more popular SCAG subclasses.  Some of the offerings seem overpowered - especially the Rogue Inquisitive, which is popular precisely because it allows you to play a constantly backstabbing Sherlock Holmes. Some, like the Monster Slayer Ranger, seem redundant - isn't slaying monsters already what the Hunter Ranger does?

But on the whole, most of the class options are well done, and those that went through two iterations before making it onto the pages of this new book definitely benefited from playtesting, criticism, and editing - a lot of the rewritten features are much crisper, clearer, and more flavorful than the early prototypes. However, what stood out most for me were the flavor tables that introduced each class. These tables allow players to generate (or choose) backstory options relating to the person who trained or patronized them, icons that symbolize them, places that serve as their base prior to the start of their adventuring life, and so on. In a later section, a series of tables list options for why a character chose to enter a particular class. These are all very much optional offerings, and are unnecessary for good players who are motivated to come up with detailed backstories. But they do kindle the imagination and make it easy even for middling players to come up with interesting histories for their characters. They also help situate characters in the world, and provide more evidence that classes are not just bags of mechanics, but real social entities in game settings.

Since I have engaged in numerous discussions about the last point over the last several years, I thought it only right that I should rewrite these "class as background" options for my Lukomorye setting, since it differs somewhat from the standard fantasy setting assumed in D&D splatbooks. I have certainly borrowed heavily from the options in Xanathar's in some instances, but largely ignored them in others to emphasize the social over the purely personal. I'll probably rework some of these and make them a bit more descriptive before putting them into my own Players' Guide, but I like these as a first pass.

Lukomorye Class Backgrounds


Typical Performance Spaces:

  1. Churches
  2. Boyar/merchant feast circuit
  3. Princely palaces
  4. The street/markets
  5. Taverns/hostels
  6. Villages/the road
Main Instrument:

  1. Gusli (zither)
  2. Gudok (viol)
  3. Flute/horn/kuvykly (pan pipes)
  4. Domra (mandolin)
  5. Percussion (drum, tambourine, rattle, etc.)
  6. Vocals
Biggest Failure/humiliation

  1. Whistled down by people for poor performance
  2. Performance disaster (fire, animal attack, etc.)
  3. Beaten down by authorities for lewdness/profanity
  4. Chased away by notable for insult
  5. Defeated in a musical contest by rival
  6. Lost a public bet/failed to live up to a boast

  1. Saint/pagan deity
  2. Hero/companions
  3. Rival/enemy
  4. Paramour (generally high-born, dead, or otherwise unattainable)
  5. Common people
  6. Nechist' ('unclean' nature spirit)/other monster


Origin of might:

  1. Visit of holy people to home
  2. Inherited at birth from superhuman ancestor
  3. Fell into vat of a potion of superhuman strength
  4. Awakened from magical sleep without memory of past life
  5. Granted power from consuming a magical draught/food
  6. Granted powers by monstrous/wondrous creature
Prominent physical feature:

  1. Booming voice
  2. Thunderous gait
  3. Very long hair/beard/hirsuite
  4. Pronounced feature (very large hands, very blue eyes, etc.)
  5. Very strong smell
  6. Intense gaze/radiant smile

  1. Glory
  2. Defense of the Realm/people
  3. Justice
  4. Specific duty (slaying a monster, finding an item, etc.)
  5. Service of God/gods
  6. Revenge
Heroic Flaw:

  1. Boasting
  2. Bloodlust
  3. Envy
  4. Gluttony/drunkenness/lust
  5. Stubborn/narrow-minded
  6. Issues with authority

Druids (volkhvy):


  1. Bathhouse
  2. Barn/granary
  3. Thunderstone
  4. Cave/grotto
  5. Enclosure with standing stones in woods
  6. Covered wooden shrine (usually hidden)
Cover (to remain hidden from authorities):

  1. Hermit
  2. Healer
  3. Shepherd/animal whisperer
  4. Communal elder
  5. Artificer (smith, potter, weaver, etc.)
  6. None - openly challenging authorities

  1. An astrological sign betokening a god's return/disaster
  2. Compromising knowledge about an authority figure
  3. Knowledge of birth of a great hero/prince
  4. Location of mystical item/landscape feature
  5. Location of portal to Otherworld
  6. Vision of own doom
Circle contact/mentor:

  1. Voice in a dream (maybe spirit of dead ancestor)
  2. An ancient crone or hermit
  3. A family member
  4. A local notable
  5. A nechist' creature
  6. A shapeshifter


Training Company:

  1. Peasant self-defense force
  2. Town militia
  3. Company of princely or boyar servitors
  4. Local fighting society
  5. Guard for travelers/caravans
  6. Raider/brigand/criminal enforcer
Company Tradition:

  1. Marching song
  2. Clothing article or other marking (headband, face paint, etc.)
  3. Honor code
  4. Unit legend
  5. Slang
  6. Hazing ritual
Unit type/position in unit:

  1. Point/anchor
  2. Tactician
  3. Support/specialist (archer, siege engineer, etc.)
  4. Quartermaster (in charge of supplies)
  5. Heart of the unit (mediator/peacemaker)
  6. Auxiliary/skirmisher


Foolish conceit:

  1. Easily distracted
  2. Talks to self/disembodied voices
  3. Credulous/apparently credulous
  4. Tells long, pointless stories
  5. Lazy malingerer
  6. Disgusting or weird personal habit (nosepicking, incessant laughter, etc.)

  1. Sweets/food
  2. Drink
  3. Nice clothes
  4. Cute animals
  5. Praise
  6. Fast movement (on vehicle, horseback, etc.)
Special possessions:

  1. Garish outfit
  2. Cheap object you are convinced is magical
  3. Bag of useless items
  4. Toy (doll, rattle, etc.)
  5. Book or text fool can't read
  6. Improvised weapon/armor (pot, broom, etc.)


Reason for entering the Church:

  1. Family business
  2. Best career option
  3. Heard a voice
  4. Promised God to do so after near-death experience
  5. Atonement for past sins
  6. Witnessed a miracle

  1. Rural parish (White clergy)
  2. Urban neighborhood church or monastery (either)
  3. Wilderness monastery (Black clergy)
  4. Ecclesiastical administrator (Black clergy)
  5. Confessor attached to noble (either)
  6. Diplomat/missionary (Black clergy)

  1. Expounding prophecy
  2. Proselytism
  3. Self-flagellation
  4. Berating others/threatening fire-and-brimstone
  5. Must always work (the devil makes work for idle hands)
  6. Seeks the devil everywhere

Crises of Faith:

  1. When faith conflicts with reason
  2. When bad things happen to good people
  3. When you are passed over for advancement/hurt
  4. When you get away with sinning/succumb to temptation
  5. When people who don't share your faith act righteously
  6. Never (completely dogmatic)


Reason for becoming a ranger:

  1. Desire for wealth, fame, and advancement
  2. Service of boyar or prince
  3. Called on as bringer/protector of civilization
  4. Exile
  5. Raised on the frontier
  6. Seeking knowledge (possibly about own origins)
Views of the world:

  1. You yearn for the sweet smoke of your fatherland
  2. Your duty is to protect people from the terrors of the frontier
  3. Settled lands must continue to expand to tame the frontier
  4. Towns and villages are fine places to rest and carouse
  5. The world beyond the frontier is soft, and no place for a hero
  6. The frontier is honest, settled regions - corrupt
Attitudes toward favored enemies:

  1. Respect - we are all just struggling to survive
  2. Hatred - they must be crushed, so they can never threaten the world again
  3. Disdain - they are worthy of humiliation whenever possible
  4. Sympathy - kill only those that directly threaten you, protect the rest
  5. Disinterest - it's a job - deal with them, and move on
  6. Obligation - they will always be our enemies - it's part of the natural order


Reasons for becoming a rogue:

  1. Village wiped out by plague, fire, famine, or raiders
  2. Escaped slave, peon, or indebted scofflaw
  3. Heathen whose home has been destroyed and people scattered
  4. Demobilized soldier with no employ
  5. Impoverished, non-inheriting noble
  6. Second (or third, etc.) generation rogue

  1. Beggar
  2. Goon
  3. Hustler
  4. Gambler
  5. Tavern regular
  6. Libertine

  1. Goon in the employ of noble/VIP
  2. Neighborhood/locale self-defense force
  3. Unskilled worker 'craft guild'
  4. Gang-member led by criminal ataman
  5. Thief-in-law
  6. Lone wolf

  1. Ways to buy stolen/contraband goods
  2. Compromising information on noble/VIP
  3. Location of a treasure hoard
  4. Location of rival gang hideout
  5. Presence of (hidden?) monsters in locale
  6. Way to sneak into town/citadel/stronghold


Physical Marks:

  1. Extra digit/webbed hands/feet
  2. Clubfoot/cloven hoof on one foot
  3. Conspicuous birthmark
  4. Vestigial tail/horns
  5. Enlarged teeth/elongated maw
  6. None (but born with a caul)

  1. After adolescent illness
  2. After bout of madness
  3. During a sexual encounter
  4. During violent/injurious incident
  5. After drinking from mysterious pond/stream
  6. Power imparted by other sorcerer (on deathbed)
Community response:

  1. Shunned (unless services are needed)
  2. Driven out (perhaps more than once)
  3. Oblivious (you are good at hiding your gifts)
  4. Accepted (community is in crisis/Church is far away)
  5. Prophecy has made some powerful people seek you
  6. You have a protector (for reasons that may not be clear)
Main activity:

  1. Selling your services to villagers/townspeople
  2. Living alone in the woods and keeping curious visitors away
  3. Trying to avoid unlife by performing righteous and pious deeds
  4. Seeking gain by working with criminals/bandits
  5. Looking for others belonging to your bloodline
  6. Battling a rival sorcerer/authorities


Reason for making pact:

  1. Ideological (hatred of Church/priests)
  2. Revenge/jealousy (power to act against rivals)
  3. Necessity (to avoid death/other serious problem)
  4. Curiosity (knowledge of secrets)
  5. Solicited by coven members
  6. Solicited by patron
Terms of Pact:

  1. Service of labor
  2. Blood sacrifice
  3. Retrieving an item
  4. Takeover of settlement/organization
  5. Siring/bearing and granting offspring
  6. Unclear/immortal soul
Patron Relationship:

  1. Patron treats warlock as family member (and will become furious if betrayed)
  2. Patron is completely unpredictable at each encounter
  3. Patron is a stern taskmaster
  4. Patron is an abusive sadist
  5. Patron likes to make deals/renegotiate
  6. Patron is inscrutable/incomprehensible
Coven size:

  1. You have no coven
  2. d4 plus yourself
  3. d6 plus yourself
  4. d8 plus yourself
  5. d10 plus yourself
  6. d12 plus yourself

Friday, November 17, 2017

Chapter 21 - The Enchanted Forest

Wherein the Otherworld begins to yield its gifts...

Having packed the bear meat onto Druvvaldis’ mule, the five unlikely trekkers through the Otherworld finally depart from the temple. The recently freed Vasya, as the person who has spent the most time here, is put in charge of leading the group through the dense woods. It is difficult progress – the tree roots are craggy, and the absence of heavenly bodies makes traveling in one direction difficult, so the bear-man does the best he can with the aid of his companions and the occasional appearance of the three riders, which all seem to travel in the same direction.
Khurshid awakes in the
By nightfall, the group comes to a lake. There is a small island with a single tree a little ways offshore, and Vasya insists that if they continue traveling left from the standing stone, they have to keep going straight, and through the island. After some discussion, the rest of the group agrees, but for this, a vessel must be fashioned. Chonkorchuk finds a suitable tree, and begins fashion a dugout from it. After resting for the night, the work resumes, and by late morning, the dugout is ready (in the meantime, Plamen summons up restorative magic to rid Chonkorchuk of his festering wound, and his lockjaw, to boot). Finally, after dispelling the mule, the group climbs into the dugout, and paddles to the island. After arriving, the discover a sleeping man, dressed in leather, and armed with a spear, snoring away behind the tree. After being awakened and questioned, the band discovers that the man is named Khurshid ibn Ali, and that he is a noble and courtier from far-off Rakhman lands. The last thing he remembers is being waylaid in the mountains by bandits, and he has no idea how he came to appear in this strange land. Having martial gifts, he agrees to accompany and protect the band while he searches for answers.

After taking refreshment, the group of six continues rowing across the lake, until reaching the opposite shore. Here, they disembark, and continue on foot across particularly difficult terrain. As they travel upland, Chonkorchuk discovers a copper necklace with a green stone hanging from a thorny bush. There is no indication how the item got there, but the hermit soon discovers that the item possesses magics that aid their wearer against noxious gasses and other dangers. During that night, Plamen discovers another arcane item nearby the group’s camp – it is a shepherd’s pipe that seemingly whistled to him. In the morning, he attempts to play it, and succeeds in frightening Katarina and Vasya, who have to be restrained by their companions to prevent them from fleeing into the woods. At the end of the night, the White Rider seemingly charges the band as it breaks camp, but instead of attacking, he just rides by, and accidentally drops a fur-lined hat. When Druvvaldis examines it, he discovers that the hat allows the wearer to magically disguise himself.

The group sets off with its new finds, and by dusk finds itself before a body of water. A brief investigation reveals that they have circled around and returned to the same lake they crossed not two days earlier.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Chapter 20 - The Otherworld

Wherein our heroes explore a new world...
Vasya complains about being chained to the standing stone, and pleads (or demands) to be released. He claims Baba Yaga placed him, along with the cauldron of silver, for the party of suitors, to dispose of as they see fit, but Chonkorchuk is skeptical. He believes Vasya will escape, and leaves him chained, while he retreats to the high-gabled temple inside the compound.
A heathen shrine rises above the heath
The temple is clean and empty of any statuary. No one seems to be present. At the center of the hall is a lit fire pit, but it gives off no heat whatsoever. The ceiling is covered with symbols that Chonkorchuk cannot read, but it reminds him of the scratchings inside his hermitage. Soon, his companions join him. Meditating by the cold fire, Chonkorchuk and Druvvaldis recall stories of the old gods – Perun – ruler of the sky, Veles – ruler of the Netherworld, and Mokosh – the Moist Mother Earth. The Thunderlord and the Lord of Cattle had a disagreement over who could claim Mokosh – a disagreement that reflects the permanent state of strife among the Old Gods. Sitting by the fire, both, along with Plamen, who is also their servant, intuit that this is the reason why the Old Gods lost control of the Visible World Yav’, from which they hail, to the adherents of the New Faith. The Old Gods retreated, or were forced to retreat, here, to the Otherworld, where they marshal their forces, and wait for their chance to reclaim Yav’ for themselves. Mokosh – the keeper of Fates – tries to maintain the peace and to work for the reconciliation of her divine kinsmen, but often to no avail. In other forms, she is known as Baba Yaga.
The companions inspect the grounds. The other standing stones are tended, but no offerings have been left anywhere but at the stone to which Vasya is chained. The compound stands atop a hill, and a narrow path leads down. A huge, dense forest surrounds the hill, but a patch of rocky, open land several versts wide surrounds the hilltop. No visible rivers wind through the land, which is, however, dotted with lakes and ponds. No sun is visible in the sky, which is nevertheless bathed in golden light. The sounds of hoofbeats are heard below, and Plamen espies an armored rider, dressed in white, and mounted on a white steed, charging by down below. The forest is illumined in bright light.
Bride? Horse? Death?!?
The three companions, along with Katarina, descend down the steep winding path, and find themselves on a desolate heath. At the very bottom of the path is a large boulder with an arcane inscription. A raven sits on it and pecks at it. The writing is the secret script used by the volkhvy – the servants of the Old Gods – and Plamen, instructed by his uncle when he was yet a child – is the only one who can read it. The boulder is a Doomstone, and proclaims that those who go left will win a wife, those who go right will win a steed, while those who go straight will lose their life. Plamen attempts to converse with the raven and asks what lies about this place, and whether there are any towns or settlements. The bird responds that there are small settlements scattered in the woods, but no large towns are to be found anywhere near. Only Baba Yaga and her servitors, along with the strange riders, go by here. Plamen searches for the healing and nourishing berries he found in great abundance in his own world, but here, none are to be found. Snow covers the earth, and winter grips the land.
The companions go back up the hill, and put in a halfhearted effort to free Vasya from his chains – Chonkorchuk is still not convinced he should be freed, though Katarina argues for his release. In any event, the group only succeeds in bending the links out of shape, which makes the chain harder to remove. They then head off to search for food, promising a desperate Vasya that they will return once they have found some sustenance. Druvvaldis summons a mule spirit, to help them carry back whatever they find.
They proceed leftward past the Doomstone, not wishing to find their death, and having apparently already found a bride. Soon, they find themselves in a dense wood. It is hard making their way in one direction, as there is no sun in the sky, and no familiar growth on the south side of trees. Nevertheless, the party proceeds as best they can. They find no game, but as scramble over gnarled roots and prepare to turn back, they are set upon by a monstrous bear, which roars out that it will destroy them. Plamen attempts to fend it off with his cudgel, while Chonkorchuk and Druvvaldis try to blast it from a distance. Druvvaldis' mule comes in to help the beleaguered healer, while Katarina shouts that she feels power within herself, but cannot release it without some sort of channeling mechanism. The bear rips at Plamen’s chest, and lays him out onto the turf, but Chonkorchuk is able to put the beast down with a well-placed blast, while Druvvaldis summons forth a helpful serpent spirit to revive Plamen, who is now sporting a nasty scar.
The group returns to the temple, their mule loaded down with bear meat. Along the way, they search for a way to let Katarina release the power she acquired after the bathhouse initiation, until Chonkorchuk grants her the ivory-handled dagger he took from the smugglers. Plamen tends to Chonkorchuk’s wound acquired in that fight, and wonders if they should return to their own world to seek the aid of Hegumen Yaakov. Katarina finds a tree struck by lightning, and two loadstones near the Doomstone, to use as casting components. As they approach the hill, a black-clad rider on a black horse passes nearby, and soon, the land is shrouded in darkness.
The mysterious third rider
Upon their return, the party begins to roast the meat, and then settles down for the night, which passes uneventfully. After a red-clad rider passes by down below, the sky lights up, and the group rises for breakfast. Chonkorchuk has trouble chewing, however, and Plamen surmises that this is the result of being stabbed with a rusty blade by one of the skeletons in the warren. He again brings up returning to the Lazar’ and Liudmilla Abbey, but soon realizes that the power to purify and make things whole resides in him no less than in Hegumen Yaakov, though it will take a little time to summon it forth. In the meantime, he invokes the bear spirit that he calls on during battles, and grants its power to Vasya, who finally, with some help from Katarina (who uses her newfound magic to realign the deformed links) rips the chain off the standing stone. As the group makes preparations to descend back down, Chonkorchuk peers into the temple fire one least time to see whether it is a good idea to free Vasya. He sees only Baba Yaga’s laughing face in the fire.  

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)].