Thursday, September 13, 2018

Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 7 - One Path Ends, The Other Continues

Before the rest of the group departs from Vladykino, Bjorg kills and roasts the second pig brought by Lokan, while Kesha takes the day to thoroughly search the village. He recalls that there was a wise woman with a somewhat unwholesome reputation that lived on the outskirts, and locates a few edibles, as well as a couple of crocks containing potions: one with a silver coin on the bottom - probably a holy water or healing potion, and another that's about a quarter full, containing a foul-smelling liquid with transmutative properties. Kesha creates a harness for the two crocks, to make sure they don't break along the way.

The following day, once it becomes clear that the weather will not improve, and once what remains of the pig is salvaged (Bjorg is no better a cook than Alden), Kesha and his big friend set out in pursuit of the four companions who left earlier in the day. Since they are on foot, they press on after dark, but find it tough going in the dense woods, and tire quickly. The following day, they run into the same scruffy characters their companions met earlier, but, not wishing to fall behind, they have the briefest of chats, and learn only that their companions proceeded south. The next day, the pair locate a giant turnip in the woods. Not seeing anyone around, Bjorg pulls it out of the ground, and brings it along, but Kesha worries that the turnip's owner will come after them. At night, he uses magic to raise the earth in an attempt to protect them from any trouble, as well as from the rain.

At the end of the third day, the two have still not caught up with their companions, but they do find the Kochmak campsite, left roughly 10 days ago. They proceed deeper into the woods, but have grown tired of maintaining their pace - even Bjorg finds the weight he is carrying oppressive. The rain has made the forest floor into a mud pit, and it is very slow going. The region seems devoid of people, though Kesha does see some lights off in the distance this night and the next. The second time around, he decides to investigate, and discovers a homestead in the midst of the woods. He knocks on the gate until someone answers. The man speaks an unfamiliar tongue, and Kesha attempts to communicate with him by creating an image of his companions on a piece of cowhide. The man is frightened, and runs off, but soon, an armed Kochmak rider appears from inside a building in the compound. Kesha attempts to charm the man, unsuccessfully, and then is fortunate to be able to flee and hide, until the Kochmak ceases his pursuit. After dawn breaks, the rider, along with another, appears with two others near Bjorg and Kesha's campsite. After Bjorg rouses himself, they seem to be a bit taken aback, but one rider fires warning shots at a tree, and orders the travelers to leave (in the Noriki tongue).

Left with no aid and no information, and beset by more bad weather, the two travelers make the best guess they can about which direction to head. There have been no signs of the Kochmak raiding party or of their companions for several days. Another Kochmak rider passes them, apparently wanting to know about the settlement they passed, so they send him on his way. The pig has been eaten, but there is still the turnip which should last for a while. Bjorg also succeeds in killing a deer in the old-fashioned way (rock to the head). The pair roast it on the fire, while trying to warm up from the rain (Kesha uses his magic toward this endeavor as well).

The deer, however, proves the pair's downfall. On the third day after leaving the Kochmak campsite, they attract a pack of wolves. The wolves follow them for a while, trying to snatch the roasted deer carcass from the volot. Four of the wolves come at the volot, and though he swats at a couple with his oslop, he does not manage to bring any down. One of the wolves bites him hard on the foot, and the big man falls, dropping his prey. A wolf snatches it, and takes off. Kesha, after healing the big man, uses magic to give chase, but his sling, and his attempts to shock the wolves prove ineffective - the road has taken its toll. Bjorg is having a hard time finding his feet after being healed, and Kesha has moved a ways away while chasing the pack. Two wolves confront the chud, and the lead wolf delivers a vicious bite to his abdomen, as the world fades to black...

You shoudda just let us go with that deer...

* * *

The main group takes a full-day's rest trying to recover from the harrowing encounter with the rusalka the previous night. The companions manage to fashion a canopy from the rain and to start a fire. Lokan and Fedor hunt down some hares, while the others catch several fish in the stream, giving the party sufficient food for the next several days. The following day, they set out, with horses and cow in tow, trying to push south. It's a slow slog through the mud and the rain, but two days later, Yuri discovers the Kochmak camp, indicating that the party has managed to find their way back to the raider's trail.

The following day, the bad weather finally ends, though the woods are thick here, there are no dwellings in sight, and the ground is still wet with mud. But hearts are lifted, as progress is made, and in three days time, the four sight a large river through the trees - presumably, the Udena. Soon, they see small fishing settlements along the bank. Curious as to who lives there, and interested in taking an opportunity in trying to sell their ill-gotten cow, Yuri and Lokan decide to investigate. Alden, on account of his recent escapades, is not invited, but left on a hilltop outside the village, with Fedor to watch over him, and keep him out of trouble.

The two companions enter through the main gate, and are immediately confronted with a gaggle of local children. They are clearly not Noriki, judging by their appearance and dress, and they are none too happy about seeing Noriki here. They say a few mean things about infidels in broken Noriki, and make fun of the companions' cow, saying it looks sickly and thin, and that no one will buy it. Yuri and Lokan make their way toward the village center, where the local shrine is located. Here, they meet the village headman, Erken, who seems happy to see them, and invites them in for a meal. He explains that the town of Udyn is actually very close by, and reveals that a large group of raiders, as well as captives, did pass by here about 10 days ago. Erken relates that his people belong to the Bahite faith, but says that those espousing different creeds live peacefully in Udyn - there is in fact a Gaalite quarter. Yuri offers that when he was young, a Bahite traveler named Hassan Abu Hakim came to Vladykino, and gifted him his oud, as well as fantastic stories about the wide world. Yuri takes the opportunity to regale his hosts with several songs from his homeland on the oud, while Lokan decides he likes koumiss - the local delicacy made of fermented mare's milk, and attempts to engage the hosts in a drinking contest. The host's friends drift into dinner, while Erken, gladdened by the atmosphere, offers the pair 30 altyn to buy their cow. Yuri recalls that this is less than a ruble, and Erken admits they can get a better price in town.

After the fourth toast, and Yuri's second song, the other guests politely take their leave, and Yuri and Lokan are offered places to sleep in the loft. After the lights go down, and the household falls asleep, Lokan slips out, and goes to find his companions on the hilltop, and sneaks them into the village. Inside Erken's house, the two uninvited guests manage to waken the hosts as they try to eat the remains of supper. Erken is a bit confused about the extra guests, and the following morning, begs off from breaking fast with the party. But the quartet leaves the village unmolested, and soon, sight Udyn - a city of tall stone spires and colorful domes rising before them on a hilltop overlooking the river...

Finally here! Hmmm... why only a wooden wall?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Do Not Marvel At This, For An Hour Is Coming: Resurrection And Society In Fantasy Settings

One strange but widespread conceit in fantasy RPGs is the existence of people, creatures and items that can return life to the dead, but the complete absence of any social impact of this truly earthshaking power. The ability of members of certain character classes to raise the dead has been with FRPGs from the very beginning, but in the fiction of specific settings, it is virtually ignored, or treated like an embarrassment. Characters in FRPGs die, just like queens in chess are taken by opposing pieces, and since FRPGs, like chess, are games, it is preferable that there exist a mechanic for counteracting character death, just like it's possible to recreate a queen by pushing your pawn to the eighth rank. But what makes good game sense seems to make bad fiction: everyone knows that people don't come back from the dead. Good fantasy writers know this, and when characters do return to life in fantasy, it is usually an occurrence of... well... Biblical proportions.

As a result, the power to raise the dead, though it is, according to a literal reading of the rules, a regular power possessed by high-level practitioners of certain professions, is commonly explained away as a simple game mechanic that makes the game "fun" for the players (characters remain in play), and yet persist an irregular feature that keeps the setting from becoming silly. Of course, it can be "fun" to have Billy Joe Cleric's Resurrection Parlor across the street from the pawn shop. But in more serious settings, resurrection, and other life-restorative magics, can simply pop up in the way of adventuring parties. Because, well, PCs are heroes, after all, exceptional in every way, and the gods, in their infinite wisdom, just happen to grant the power to attendant at the temple in the middle of Onehorseton. Because the gods have great plans in store for the PCs, who have a world to save.

An iconic image from Billy Joe's Parlor
People can have fun how they want, of course. For my part, the fun in this case lies in actually trying to extrapolate how a world that has practicable, magical ways of bringing people back from the dead would operate, as if you're trying to write a respectable piece of fantasy fiction in the brief pauses between taking a swig of your beer, or a bite of your pretzel. In what follows, I try to conceptualize several instances in the life of a realistic world in which resurrection is real, because I would find such a world more fun to run and play in than Billy Joe's world, or a world papered over with back issues of The PCs Are Heroes Magazine.

The Folk Epistemology of Resurrection

How many people in the fictional world know that it's possible for non-divine beings to come back from the dead as a regular feature, as opposed to a one-off at the End of History? A common assumption is, not many, because if people knew, everyone would be trying to come back to life all the time, and then what kind of world would we have? The permanence and irrevocability of death, like earthlike gravity, is a baseline postulate most GMs incorporate, because without them settings would be too outlandish, and too difficult to build.

But is the common-sense epistemology of modern physiology - that people live, and then die, never to return - the best and most realistic baseline for an FRPG setting? It seems to me that folk epistemologies of earlier times are a better fit as a blueprint. Anthropological research into vampire folklore suggests, for instance, that most people in the Balkans as late as the 18th century believed that decomposing bodies had agency, for the eminently common-sense reason that they continued to change, which meant that life and death were not as sharply differentiated as we moderns believe. This signified that coming back from the death was not a particularly unusual process, and sometimes, such returns even assumed epidemic proportions.

Coming back as a vampire or revenant may not have been particularly pleasant, or have the divine sanction within the prevailing religion, but the very possibility signaled that other forms of life after death were quite possible regardless of the official theological takes on the possibility. Consider the following account of the raising of the dead by Saint Sergius of Radonezh - the most popular and authoritative medieval Russian saint:

A certain devout Christian living close by the monastery, who believed in the sanctity of St. Sergius, had an only son, a child, who fell ill. The father brought the boy to the monastery, and entreated the saint to pray for him: but while the father was yet speaking the boy died. The man, with his last hope gone, wept and bemoaned, 'It would have been better had my son died in my own house.' While he went to prepare a grave, the dead child was laid in the saint's cell. The saint felt compassion for this man, and falling on his knees prayed over the dead child. Suddenly the boy came to life, and moved. His father, returning with preparations for the burial, found his son alive, whereupon, flinging himself at the feet of God's servant, gave him thanks. The saint said to him, 'You deceive yourself, man, and do not know what you say. While on your journey hither your son became frozen with cold, and you thought he had died. He has now thawed in the warm cell, and you think he bas come to life. No one can rise again from the dead before the Day of Resurrection.' The man however insisted, saying, 'Your prayers brought him to life again.' The saint forbade him to say this; 'If you noise this abroad you will lose your son altogether.' The man promised to tell no one and, taking his son, now restored to health, he went back to his own home. This miracle was made known through the saint's disciples.

The chronicler here has the unenviable task of simultaneously underlining St. Sergius' status as a miracle worker, but also concealing the fact of resurrection that seemed obvious to the fortunate father in the story by theological dogma, which declared that only God had the power to raise the dead, and only at the appointed time. Although the father is sworn to silence, and news of the miracle was only propagated through proper channels, it's pretty clear that the saint had to invoke his considerable power to shut the man's mouth. The Orthodox Church was as powerless to convince people that some saintly clerics couldn't raise the dead as it was, several centuries later, to stem the vampirism epidemic.

The question is, how would most people react when their belief that certain persons had the power to bring back the dead was confirmed?

Sites of Resurrection

The typical narration of bringing someone back to life in an FRPG setting leaves society entirely outside the process. When adventurers show up at the proverbial Resurrection Parlor, they are usually in an antiseptic setting that resembles a funeral home or therapist's office. The place is quiet, with minimalistic decor. Billy Joe, the agent of the higher powers, tastefully presents the bereaved party members with various service options, and asks them to select a payment plan. When an agreement has been reached, the deceased person is taken into a special chapel (or side room of the office), laid upon a specially blessed altar or bed. Incense is lit, the officiant utters the necessary words and makes the necessary signs with his or her digits, and soon, the departed begins to stir. Soon, the returnee is taken to the inn to rest in a room while faithful companions drink downstairs, and think about returning to the dungeon to make a disbursement into Billy Joe's payment plan. Billy Joe sees no reason to warn the companions to keep mum about what has just happened - not only does he lack the power as a representative of God's one true church, but there is no reason to worry, because there is no one who can know.

Not taking anything away from incense and quiet chapels, if knowledge of miracle-working saints permeates society, resurrection parlors are much more likely to be surrounded by a press of desperate humanity. In other words, the headquarters of a character who can bring back the dead will look more like a pilgrimage site than a lawyer's office in a sleepy provincial town. Except in addition to the paupers with crutches, covered with goiters or scabrous skin, and accompanied by wailing children, all waiting to touch the robe of the holy man, the relic, or to drink the miraculous water, you will also have people dragging little coffins, or corpses of dear ones cut down by marauders or thrown by horses. The authorities, or the saint's servitors, will certainly try to keep such people behind a certain perimeter: not only do they lack the means to satisfy all the supplicants, but they would also fear pollution (ritual and actual) that would result from contact with supplicants. Shrines would therefore be surrounded by fences and defended by a heavy contingent of armed guards; or the saint would flee to some out-of-the-way shrine (which desperate people would likely find anyway). However, any saint who wants to maintain her reputation would probably be savvy enough to maintain at least some demotic contact and not treat supplicants too harshly.

This scene from plague-striken Florence might be typical of what one may
expect outside a 'resurrection parlor'
The appearance of adventurers, who are much more likely to receive an audience with the saint because they are much more likely to have means at their disposal introduces an additional element into this desperate scene. The supplicants have probably been camped out at the site for a while, and despite the lack of any indication by the saint or the authorities that they will be received, they have likely formed a spontaneous waiting list. Now here come some grandees, or worse, parvenus, and, violating all sense of propriety and popular justice, cut to the front of the line. How many people are muttering curses under their breath, spitting at the new arrivals, or even rushing them to tear them apart? Sure, putting themselves in the way of murderhoboes might not be a good idea, but these are desperate people with nothing to lose. And is it a good idea to engage in mass murder on the doorstep of a saint's shrine?

And God forbid if any of the adventurers belong to minority races.

Resurrection and Social Hierarchy

Clearly, the limited availability of a saint's services would result not only in putting resurrection out of the reach of the vast majority of the population, it would also serve to divide the population into the (very small) elite who can afford to bring their loved ones back, and the huge majority, who cannot. Access to resurrection is even likely to be the determining factor differentiating these two social groups, because it would be tougher to point to mortality as a universal glue that connects lords and servants. If resurrection is affected by divine agency, those who are eligible for it are obviously favored by the gods, while those who do not are probably regarded as cursed. Elites looking for further legitimation of their status are wont at some point to broach the subject of blood. The blue bloods are the ones which the gods can bring back, while all the rest are essentially different in their constitution. GMs who are favorably disposed to the "PCs are special" trope can make this literally true. The question then becomes, to what special bloodlines do the PCs belong?

Of course, the separation between elites and masses defined along these lines is likely to be blurry, and open to challenge. One imagines that access to resurrection would probably be one of the major causes of peasant uprisings. Millenarian ideas about the restoration of some Golden Age universal immortality, or the punishment of those who monopolized resurrection (including, in a fantasy context, certain gods) would help attract mass followings to rebels. Even saints may be targeted, if they are instrumental in upholding the existing power structure. The wrath of popular justice may even assume the form of destroying the possibility of resurrection for anyone: as E. P. Thompson relates, even the modern campaign for universal suffrage was fueled by a popular misunderstanding of the term as denoting universal suffering: if one suffers, all must suffer. Where would PCs come down in such a conflict?

In the interests of stability and social peace, elites would probably offer the masses some access to resurrection, perhaps in the form of pro bono services. A more demotic turn in religious doctrine, such as what took place in late Pharaonic Egypt, when mummification and magical scrolls guaranteeing afterlife became available to people outside the royal family is likely to be in evidence. Of course, raising the people's hopes will probably be accompanied by a spread of charlatanism: instead of qualified priests or real saints, one is likely to encounter slippery folk who offer only symbolic tokens of salvation, or who use illusion or necromantic magic in place of the real deal. Taking a page from Doubting Thomas may be good business practice for PCs who have sold their steed and all their weapons to bring back a friend.

The Gem Trade

3rd Edition D&D introduced the idea that spells that raised the dead required diamonds of a certain value as material components. Aside from resonating with 'crystal power', particularly popular at that time, this innovation introduced an additional element into the economy of resurrection. It was no longer sufficient to have gold, or the will of the gods and their agents: now access to the restorative magic required the availability of gems.

How many Fourth Crusades would be required to keep this icon
encrusted with gems if they were actually used up in returning people to life?
The idea that gems have mystical power is of very ancient provenance, and the use of gems in everything from amulets made of precious stones that were inscribed with passages from the Book of the Dead, to gems set into Orthodox icons and royal crowns attests to deep-seated beliefs connecting gems to life after death and the world beyond. For this reason, gems and semi-precious stones were one of the first items of international trade. Lapis lazuli was a 'system-forming' good that played a key role in articulating the Ancient Near East, from the Nile Valley to Afghanistan, where the stone was mined. It was also a prestige good that stimulated the formation of elites throughout the whole region.

In a world where gems are literally capable of resurrecting the dead, their strategic value is hard to overestimate. The essence of civilization becomes putting your up-and-coming barbaric kingdom on the map of the Gem Route, through raiding existing treasuries, conquering countries that contain gem mines, rerouting caravans at crossbow-point, in short, by any means necessary. Having gems means that your elite is recognized as such by foreigners (now that they qualify for resurrection), and being able to better maintain social peace (the more gems, the more people can be raised). Having gems also means being able to attract the most able priests and the most prestigious saints, further raising the profile of your realm.

A model for a fantasy world's 'resurrection nexus
But there is no substitute to being located on one of the main branches of the Gem Route. Gems are probably the raison d'être for the existence of both commerce and religion. In fact, the two are almost certainly closely intertwined. Morris Silver, a specialist on the Bronze Age economy describes a trading system whose major nodes are located at places where routes intersect, which not coincidentally, are the locations of some of the largest temples. These temples are not only centers of gravity for some of the largest markets, they are also financial centers that loan money or other preciosities, presumably, in our case, for creating dependence on magical services.

This sort of gem trade puts the activity of the proverbial orcs and other marchers into perspective. The orcs are external counterparts to revolting peasants, who want access to gems, because that way lies access to resurrection, recognition, and at least a semblance of social equality. Orcish fecundity in this light is a strategy for longterm survival in the absence of access to resurrection. But orcs aside, a good many wars in our fantasy world are probably fought over access to gems. If raiding or having more children is ill-advised, perhaps import-substitution is the way to go. A lot of energy is bound to be expended on searching for Elixirs of Life or other material components, which would allow peripheral lands to escape dependence on kingdoms that control the Gem Route. The latter, one can be sure, frequently use sanctions and embargoes as tools in economic warfare. Triggering the flight of priests and associated brain drains would in turn increase pressures on non-compliant regimes on the frontier.

* * *

Hopefully, I've laid out ways to 'socialize' resurrection as a game feature. PCs might be made aware that their desire to bring a party member back to life may be an episode in a deeply-rooted class struggle. Much of the motivation for adventuring could be bound up with procuring material components for Raise Dead, Resurrection, and similar magics. Even those who are specifically partial to dungeon-delving may see such expeditions as desperate measures to steal gems from the hoards of ancient elites, who protect their burial sites with divine and demonic agents dedicated to limiting access to life-restorative components in the cosmic moral economy.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 6 - Comrade Wolf Knows Who To Eat

Alden and Fedor depart Malinka after despairing of the archbishop's justice regarding Yulian the Stablemaster or Zbigniev the Miller. Fedor is able to convince his horse to carry his lupine companion, and the two of them are able to reach Vladykino after a day's ride, in half the time of their companions. They locate Yuri in what's left of his yard in the village, searching for horseshoes and any savings his family left behind (as it turns out, he locates a clay jar stuffed with pulo, kopecks, and a piece of silver jewelry hastily buried underneath his stoop). Meanwhile, Alden and Fedor become acquainted with the giant man - Bjorg, whom they heard about back in Malinka.

Shortly thereafter, Kesha returns with Lokan, who is driving two pigs from the mill before him.  Alden takes initiative, slaughters one of the pigs, and stays up all night to roast it. Parts of the pig are undercooked, and parts - charred, the following morning, so the group sticks around in the burned-down village for an extra day to allow the pig to finish cooking, and for Alden - to catch up on sleep.

The following morning, Fedor, Alden, Yuri and Lokan depart, with the understanding that Kesha and Bjorg will follow, once Kesha's business in Vladykino is concluded, and once they are done roasting the second pig (Bjorg eats for four). The away group has four people riding two horses, which still allows them to cover significant distance, despite the brief shower on the first day. The second day the weather worsens. A prolonged shower dampens spirits, and Vera has more problems with her shoes. This time, Yuri is ready with backups, but as he pounds in a new horseshoe, the party is surrounded by a group of six scruffy people, who invite them to sit around their fire. To Yuri and others, they look like they could be displaced peasants or bandits, but Lokan recognizes them as the people who had told him about the raid, the mill, and the miller on his way north.

After grudgingly following the scruffy people the party is led to a makeshift camp deeper in the woods, and the two groups proceed to exchange information. After Yuri briefly recounts their travels, and says they are following the Kochmaki to try to redeem his family, a man who calls himself Nikolai says they probably won't catch them. The Kochmaki passed here over a week ago, and are probably approaching the city of Udyn, which is a major slave mart. The slaves are usually housed on an island in the Udena River before they are sold, sometimes to city notables or the household of the local amir, sometimes down the river to Atavask, at the steppe's edge, where they are exchanged for horses. Yuri thanks Nikolai for the information and attempts to leave, but Nikolai acts a little offended in the party's refusal to reciprocate and to accept his hospitality. In response to his pressing, Yuri and Fedor tell him about the mill and its special properties, the dark magic of its operator, and the fact that he is now being held in Malinka. They have no explanation for why the Kochmaki left the mill intact, except to speculate that Zbigniev was somehow in cahoots with them. Yuri then begs off, using the fact that they have no time to lose in following the raiders as an excuse. Having received their information, the woodsmen allow them to go.

'And they say that we are baddies...'
Toward the end of the day, the group reaches the low bluff where Yuri had ridden to on his previous foray (before four Kochmaki chased him away). The campsite is abandoned, though evidence of the raiders' passage is still present. Searching through the debris and the undergrowth, Lokan manages to find a curved dagger, which he keeps. That night, a luminous, white-clad woman emerges from the woods, and singing haunting melodies, advances toward the clearing. Quickly gathering their things, the party flees into the woods - they can only imagine what sort of woman would be walking through here at this time of day, and Noya - Kupalo, one of the most magical days in the Noriki calendar, is only a few days away.

The following day is also overcast and wet. The party decides to follow a stream in hopes of making the best time possible. Since the pig has now been largely eaten, Alden is sent ahead to find some game. On his own, he quickly picks up the scent of an herbivore, but it turns out to be cows, not wild animals. Alden decides to take a risk, and discovers a small wooden tower surrounded by a compound on the banks of the stream. Inside, he spies a single person chopping wood, and apparently conversing with some barnyard animals. Deciding that the needs of the party outweigh the needs of the owner, and not having anyone to stop him, he changes into a wolfman, and rushes the main inside, taking him by surprise, cutting into him with his scythe, and then biting through his throat. As the man bleeds out, Alden succumbs to bloodlust, and devours much of the poor man. He then looks in the barn, and finds, to his disappointment, that there were only two cows (and two goats). The goats flee, while Alden takes one of the cows, and leads it back toward the party.

Alden's companions are rather shocked to see him bringing a cow rather than a deer, and even more shocked to see him drenched in blood. They demand to know what happened. At first, Alden tells them that he took the cow from some peasants, and ate a goat while in the village. In response to pressing - how many people saw him? - he finally admits that he killed a man, but blames him for resisting. Yuri answers that resisting an attack on himself and his property does not make the other man guilty, and wonders aloud whether he is able to travel with Alden anymore. Then, Alden justifies his actions by saying that he was looking out for the needs of his companions, who must have something to eat while they pursue the Kochmaki. After Yuri states his dislike for the raiders does not justify wanton murder - and eating! - of people, Alden responds by saying that he was recently enslaved, while his kind have been dealt a bad hand, and are often unjustly treated, and this makes him lash out in ways that he can't control. The Yuri and Fedor shake their heads, but there is nothing to it, the deed is done, and they must continue on their mission (along with their new cow). But they make Alden swear to never do something like this again.

As ever are the weak at fault before the strong
  The party camps further downstream at the end of an exhausting day. Just before dawn, the white woman appears again. This time, she moves purposefully toward Lokan, who is on watch, and while he is waking his companions, demands to know who killed her husband. Lokan tries to resist, but the woman dominates the rest of the group into submission, and quickly learns the answer to her question. She instructs Alden to accompany her, and leads him into the stream, where she proceeds to try to drown him, and bites him twice in the neck, causing him to weaken. Lokan tries to throw his companion a rope, to no avail, while Yuri, thinking that she is in trouble, attempts to help her by trying to pull her out of the stream. None of the party's interventions appear to work, and Fedor starts repeating the man's wife is a rusalka, and that Alden is a goner. Finally, Lokan breaks out the whip, and connects with the woman, which gives Alden a chance to break free, and flee to the other bank of the stream. Exasperated, the woman announces that Alden is to be a curse to his companions, breaks off, and swims quickly down the stream.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 5 - Bjorg's Bear's Services

Lokan, a vagabond from the south, has come to Malinka at nightfall. He had heard from some rough men living in the woods that Kochmak raiders have recently destroyed the village of Vladykino, though they left the village mill, its lifeblood, untouched. As they tell it, the archbishop's people from his summer estate at Malinka came afterward, and took the miller with them, for unknown reasons, but likely having to do with dark deeds.

Lokan stopped at the mill on his way to investigate the burnt out village, but found nothing save a suspicious bag of bones, a dead vasilisk, and some starving animals at the barn. He decided to continue on to Malinka, to see what he could learn about the miller's fate. But he arrived to after nightfall, and found the gate to the estate closed, so after finding a crabapple tree a short ways outside, he decides to spend the night in the tree.

* * *
In Malinka Yuri looks to gather a party together to go off in pursuit of the Kochmaki, in order to recover his family and his paramour. He hears from Father Oleg that a curious traveler has arrived from the north - a huge man, standing over four arshins tall. As Fedor and Alden are busy running an errand for the brewer, and Kesha has private matters to discuss with the priests, Yuri decides to seek out the foreigner, as he seems like he would be a useful companion. Oleg recommends that he get his party together as fast as possible, seeming to suggest that their further presence in Malinka is troubling to the archbishop.

The billing lives up to the hype. The foreigner, Bjorg, is indeed a huge man, who has come from the Land of Birma to seek out news of his kind living on the eastern edge of the Land of Nor'. He wears peculiar headgear, and carries a huge cudgel with a stone driven through it, but on the plus side, he is eager for adventure, and wishes to prove himself against the troublesome raiders. He and Yuri agree to leave early the following morning, and at his request, Father Oleg provides him with two days of food for seven people.

Bjorg in a candid moment, without his horned hat

* * *
Kesha speaks to Father Oleg about the deed to the land that he has carried with him all these long years, since he left the Svora Mountains, and returned to the world of humans. Oleg confirms that the land mentioned in the document is the land upon which the mill in Vladykino now stands. He also confirms that Kesha's mother was the owner of the land, but that she was deeply indebted to the archbishop, for which reason Kesha was enslaved when he came to the village. The mill was built on the land at the archbishop's behest, but it is not covered by the deed. Kesha would technically be within his rights to attempt to recover the land, but his mother's debt is still outstanding. Moreover, Oleg adds, trying to recover it is not worth his trouble for other reasons. Now that the archbishop has granted him his freedom, Kesha should take advantage of it, and travel to all four corners of the world, and the sooner, the better.

Taking that under advisement, Kesha goes to speak to Zbigniev. The miller's bonds have been removed, though he is still in the same room at the rectory. Zbigniev seems to bear a grudge against Kesha and his companions, and accuses them of attacking him without provocation, and stealing wealth which he came by fairly, and without killing anyone. He also threatens that his father will kill Kesha and his friends. Not wishing to make enemies, Kesha returns his portion of the coins he took from the mill, but Zbigniev demands that the money taken by the others should be returned to him also.

* * *
Yuri and Bjorg leave Malinka the following morning. Kesha, who has slept in, is to meet them outside the gates, while Fedor and Alden, who are still preoccupied, will meet up with them on the road as best they can.

Outside the gate, they find a hirsute man, with a somewhat grisly visage, sleeping in a tree. Lokan awakes to the sounds of heavy stomping and hoofbeats. He sees the gate open up ahead, and watches a rider, along with a huge man, approaching him. He asks the travelers who they are, and as Yuri introduces himself and Bjorg, Lokan decides to fling one of the crabapples he gathered the previous evening at the volot's head, just to see his reaction. The big man is amused, or perhaps not, so he picks up the vagabond, and throws him back into the tree. Lokan misjudges the distance, misses grabbing the branch with his hands, and goes into it head first, before falling, unconscious, onto the ground. Both Bjorg and Yuri stand astounded at the sight of this man, who they have just met, bleeding out from his head. Yuri begins to furiously call for Kesha or the priests, and fortunately, the small man with the eye bandage just happens to be walking out the gate. Kesha runs up to the body, and, his hand glowing with light, applies aid to the man's head. The wound closes, and Lokan regains consciousness. Bjorg is chagrined at not knowing his own strength, and the rest are relieved at not bearing witness to a murder just outside Malinka's gates. Grateful to his savior, and hoping to return to Vladykino with some protection, Lokan happily joins the group.

* * *
The group travels south along the beaten path, and encounters no obstacles during the day. At night, while Yuri and Kesha are on watch, they hear a high-pitched whine approaching them. They awaken their companions, and while Kesha summons an arcane light onto his walking stick, Yuri peers into the darkness, to see what is coming for them. Soon, a huge swarm of mosquitoes flies into view. Yuri attempts to lead them away from the group on his horse, but the rest of the group runs at the swarm as it begins to follow. Lokan is surprisingly successful at swatting masses of the pesky gnats with his whip, but Bjorg has Kesha light a branch, and throws it at the insects. He overshoots, and hits Yuri's horse Vera in the rump, sending sparks all down its hide. The horse panics, and flees the scene of the battle, while Yuri attempts to calm it. In the meantime, Kesha attempts to zap the bugs with magical discharges. Masses of bugs are dispatched, but they have become enraged, and attack all they can reach. Bjorg continues flinging projectiles at the cloud, and is still not having much luck. He hits Kesha with a rock instead. Finally, weakened by zapping and whipping, the big map brings a rock down on top of what's left of the swarm, and raises his arms in triumph.

Swatting mosquitoes - a perfect opportunity for another bear's service!
The party is covered by mosquito bites, and bruises caused by their big friend. They decide to take extra hours of rest before setting out, even if it means arriving in Vladykino under the cover of darkness. In trying to flee the fight, Vera lost a horseshoe, which slows movement even further. Finally, several hours after sunset, they arrive in Vladykino. It is no longer burning or even glowing, but wood smoke and the stench of burned flesh still hangs in the air. Otherwise, the place appears to be undisturbed.

Yuri goes back to what is left of his home, and searches the compound for any horseshoes that might have survived, and as his family were horse-breeders, he does succeed in finding three dozen. He then settles down with Bjorg to eat what's left of the priests' food, while Lokan, closely followed by Kesha, returns to the mill. Here, he releases the hungry animals, all of whom, except the fowl, run out of the barn. He succeeds in enticing the two pigs with his crabapples, and they follow him back to Vladykino, hoping they will be fed, and not food.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 4 - Domestic Disputes

The following day, while the rest of their companions are attending to personal matters, Alden and Fedor - both persons-at-arms and servitors of the Archbishop, seek to occupy themselves. Fedor consults with Father Oleg - the attendant priest, and liaison to the Archbishop - about possible ministration for his limp, but the good father cites the prohibitive expense, and the Archbishop's business with other matters.

The two then go into the practice yard to spar. Alden gets the first lick in with a wooden sword, but the fight is full of falls and missteps, and Fedor's hard hits with the axe handles send Alden tumbling to the ground, and yielding. Three other warriors watch the fight, and narrate it with snide commentary. One of them throws Alden a kopeck for the entertainment the fight provided.

When the training day is over, Misha the brewer wheels several casks of beer into the compound, to help the soldiers relax. Fedor engages him in conversation, and asks them if there are any matters in Malinka or the vicinity that need attending to, that might earn them a bit of coin. Misha does have a problem that he would be willing to pay to solve. Apparently, he and Yulian - the master of stables - fought for the hand of the same woman. Misha won, and married her, but Yulian never let the matter go. As Misha tells it, the stable master is also a sorcerer, and has given him the evil eye, and caused accidents for him on several occasions. If the pair drive him out of the estate, Misha is prepared to pay them one ruble.

The following day, the two head to the stables to seek out Yulian. They find him carrying a bag of horseshoes into the stable. Fedor tells him to lay off Misha, and to find someone else to court. Misha tells them to mind their own business. When they persist, Misha smacks Fedor in the head with a horseshoe. The stablemaster is quickly subdued, but as the two warriors beat him down, Fedor feels hands closing in on his throat, choking him. At first, the two men think Yulian is doing this through some dark magic. But the choking continues even after he is knocked unconscious. Seeing no one else around, the two quickly tie Yulian up and leave. Only after they get a ways away from the stable does Fedor feel the pressure on his throat lighten.

Yulian, when he's not being pestered about his personal life
The two bring Yulian to Father Oleg, tell him the tale of the contendings of Yulian and Misha, and claim that he used dark magic to try to choke them. There is a lot of dark magic going on on the Archbishop's lands, they say, and something needs to be done about this. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Gathering Information: Situations, News, and Rumors

An open-ended approach to urban adventures involves gathering information for a long-term project or an emergent side-venture chosen by the player characters themselves. Cities are typically the best-known parts of the world, and are clearing houses of information about other parts of the world, so operating in cities can make the world somewhat less mysterious than looking outward from small villages or trekking through the wilderness. Being aware of a city’s rulers and its history and people, key trade items and attractions, political position in a wider world, and secrets can help determine characters actions in a campaign or an individual adventure.

Character Knowledge

The larger the city, the more knowledge is available about it. Use the following table as a rough guide for setting difficulties for a knowledge roll (typically History) about a particular type of settlement:

Type of Settlement                                                            Base DC Knowledge Roll
Isolated Settlement                                                                                 30
Hamlet                                                                                                    25
Village                                                                                                     20
Town (1000 – 10000 population)                                                            15
City (10000 – 50000 population)                                                            10
Capital/Metropolis (over 50000 population)                                           5

It is open to GM discretion whether characters who lack proficiency in the knowledge skill in question may make a knowledge check about a particular settlement. The number of facts also depends on having proficiency, and/or on the result of the roll. Rolling to know Secrets (see below) is usually done at disadvantage. Further, at GM discretion, a failed roll may result in misinformation being learned (Variant: 40% of all information learned via a successful Knowledge roll is a red herring).

Learning Information

Information about a city or settlement can be acquired at most public places, though doing so anywhere outside of a Tavern, Hostel, or Market might have to be performed at a disadvantage (especially if the character attempting to do so is clearly not local, or an authority figure such as a noble, official, or priest). In some cases, the disadvantage may even apply at these locations as well. Typically, to acquire a piece of information, a character will have roll a successful DC 15 Investigation check, though the difficulty may increase to 20 or more (or carry a Disadvantage in the case of an isolated Homestead in a particularly small settlement, or if an investigator is trying to learn Secrets. Common information can include the following (see also DMG, p. 112):

·      Who rulers or VIPs of a particular locale are
·      Their relationship to other VIPs in a locale
·      Recent occurrences at the locale (see Year’s Occurrence Table or make one yourself)
·      The presence of a particular type of business or trade item in the area
·      The presence of a particular type of institution (e.g. a church dedicated to a particular saint, a ranger lodge, a postal waystation, etc.)
·      The presence of a particular family or significant individual (if not in hiding)
·      The timing of important events (local celebrations, weddings, tax levies, the planned arrival of an external VIP, the departure of an important mission, etc.)

The first thing newly arrived travelers will likely discover is the general situation in the town or settlement. Unless you already have an idea in mind, you can roll on the following table, or select a particular situation:

Situations (d12):

1.            The settlement is well-governed, orderly, and prosperous
2.            The settlement is preparing for war
3.            The ruler has mysteriously vanished (or is being held hostage)
4.            There is strife between factions or sects, with likely support from outside forces
5.            A revolt is brewing among the lower orders of the settlement (with likely support from above)
6.            The ruler and his/her supporting clique are fools, weaklings, or religious fanatics
7.            An isolated clique wields power with little internal support
8.            The settlement is recovering from a recent calamity (invasion, attack, famine, plague, economic collapse)
9.            particular neighborhood is unsanitary/has been taken over by unsavory characters
10.          charismatic stranger has recently arrived with wondrous objects or new ideas
11.          The settlement is overcrowded with refugees from a nearby disaster

12.          The settlement is beset by an inexplicable sense of foreboding and dread 

In addition to learning about the local goings on, characters in settlements may also learn of important goings on in the outside world (News). To learn a piece of information, a person must succeed on an Investigation roll. The difficulty is determined by the size of the settlement one is present in (see the Character Knowledge Table above). If information is sought about a locale with 10 kilometers, the roll is made at advantage. If it is sought about a locale more than 1000 kilometers away, the roll is made at disadvantage. Further, if one seeks information at a tavern, hostel or market, the roll is made as if the settlement is of a type one row lower on the table than in reality (i.e. an isolated tavern is a treated as a Hamlet, a hostel in a Village is treated as a Town, etc.). Moreover, if information is sought at a Waystation, the roll is made as if the settlement is of a type two rows lower (a Hamlet is a Town, a Village is a City, etc.). Types of available information may include (d10 for a random result [Variant: roll a d20, and treat 11-20 as “No Result”]):

News (d10):

1.            Another city or realm are undergoing internal trouble (revolt, civil war, invasion, famine, plague)
2.            Another city or realm are planning to launch an invasion against someone
3.            Another city or realm have just had a change of ruler, dynasty, or political order
4.            Another city or realm is planning or thinking about a religious conversion
5.            Another city or realm is experiencing an unprecedented period of prosperity for some reason
6.            A Power, group of monsters, or calamity (earthquake, comet) is terrorizing a city or a country
7.            A treasure, wondrous item, or new technical marvel have been discovered or imported
8.            A VIP has set out (or returned) from a distant journey with wonders and tales to tell
9.            A prophet, saint, revolutionary or great scholar has arisen in another city or realm
10.          An ancient ruin, creature, or item have been rediscovered
In addition to News, Rumors and Secrets can also be gleaned about a particular person, family, household, or estate. The DC for an Investigation roll is typically set at 15 (as stipulated above), though attempts by outsiders may have a higher DC (or be made at Disadvantage). To determine the nature of the rumor, roll a d6 (if you think a rumor about the NPC is likely), or a d30 (if you think it's unlikely, and consult the Rumors and Secrets table below (treating all results above 6 as "no result"). . [Variant: failed rolls, or 40% of learned rumors in case of success yield spurious information]):

Rumors and Secrets (d6):

1.            Illegitimate child/illicit affair
2.            Criminal wrongdoing in the past or present (theft, graft, desertion, treason, murder)
3.            Secret hatred for or rivalry with another
4.            Dabbling in forbidden religion or lore
5.            Secret identity (including being a changeling, skinshifter, of another gender, etc.)
6.            Possession of secret treasure (or creature)
You may want to consult the DMG, p. 90, for further options.

A particularly effective way of learning about adventures, receiving news, and sniffing out rumors is to gain admittance to a feast. Any true city will have a feast thrown at the mansion of an oligarch, rich noble or merchant, or other VIP thrown on any given day. To win an invitation, one must seek out the appropriate person at the right public place or at their home, and convince them by making a DC 15 CHA roll (CHA-based proficiencies may apply, as appropriate). The check may be conditioned by the following factors:

Admission to a Feast:

Character is an important prince or boyar, or a high-level VIP                        Advantage/-5 from DC
Character is a competent performer                                                                 Advantage/-5 from DC
Character is a commoner or bondsman                                                            Disadvantage/+5 to DC           
Character is foreign or markedly “different”                                                     Disadvantage/+5 to DC
For each additional person trying to gain admission simultaneously                +1 to DC

If a character has managed to gain admittance to a feast, he or she may make further Investigation checks for Information, News and Rumors and Secrets at advantage (or without disadvantage), as appropriate.