Friday, November 25, 2016

Introduction to Lukomorye, a setting of Russian-themed fantasy

I’ve been working on this setting more or less seriously for about a year. I’ve run a few games (the best have been with family, surprisingly enough) during that time, but I’m starting off what promises to be a long-term campaign this weekend, so I’ve decided to lay out a handful of perspectives on what I think a Russian fantasy milieu would look like. 

When people familiar with modern fantasy RPGs think of Russian-flavored fantasy, the first thing that pops into their mind is invariably Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut. The magical fairy tales from which she hails are obviously a primary influence on the setting, but they are not the only ones. Lighter folk tales, relating of talking animals, simpletons, charlatans, and rogues likewise constitute pertinent source materials. Also important are the Byliny – verse tales of bogatyrs – the Russian counterparts to the Knights of the Round Table and Charlemagne’s paladins that were set in the Kiev period, but composed after the Mongol conquest. The folk traditions involving the 'nature' spirits of the house, field, forest and stream – echoes of pagan Slavic religion – are also salient, but so is Orthodox Christianity, with its more sophisticated cosmology, and its chronicles of miracle workers and holy fools. And although the fantasy genre typically portrays medieval environments, it’s hard to deny that Russia’s medieval past as we know it today has been thoroughly filtered through classical Russian literature and art – Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Vasnetsov, etc. - as well as through Russian and Soviet historiography and historical fiction (Alexei Tolstoy, Yazvitskii), Soviet cinema (Alexander Nevsky, Andrei Rublev, and epic and fairytale-themed films too numerous to mention), and recent “Slavic Fantasy” authors (Vishnevetskaia, Oldie). Recent historiographies that situate Russia in a wider Eurasian matrix make it impossible not to incorporate steppe-nomadic, Turkic, Muslim, Iranian, as well as Baltic, Scandinavian, Germanic and Mediterranean elements. Anachronistic features, such as vodka or windmills (only introduced in the 15th century), or the folkways of the (much later) Russian criminal underworld subculture are also difficult to ignore entirely. Lastly, the deeply-rooted tropes of modern fantasy gaming are a useful interpretive framework for organizing all this source material into a coherent whole. If that means that Novogorod’s Ushkuiniki – state-employed bandits who launched amphibious raids against the city’s enemies – become “rangers”, or that the line between the kolduny (sorcerers) and ved’my (witches) becomes more solidly defined than is warranted by the historical or anthropological literature – then so be it.   
The name of the setting -  Lukomorye  - is taken from an archaic term for a crescent-shaped cove – a typical site of cultic activity by the pagan Slavs, usually centered around an ancient oak tree. The word was thrust into modern consciousness by Pushkin, who redefined it as a kind of Russian fairy-tale Neverland – an appropriate model for a mixed-genre FRPG setting to follow.  

Below, I lay out six approaches for a Lukomorye campaign. They are patterned on the “Flavors of Fantasy” used in the most recent Dungeon Masters’ Guide, though given a Russian twist. Needless to say, in actual my actual games, I reserve the right to mix and match these as I see fit.

 When Fell the Bogatyrs of the Noriki Land (Heroic Fantasy)
The Land of Nor’ lies broken. A century ago, an uncountable horde of Kochmaki appeared on the steppes, sweeping away anyone and anything that stood in their way. Though some of the Nor’ princes tried to resist, even the bogatyrs, the traditional defenders of the land, were overwhelmed, and thousands upon thousands died with them. The capital city of Bogumil sank to the bottom of a lake, while other towns fell one by one to the invaders, or chose to voluntarily submit and to pay tribute. No one knows why the Devil’s Horsemen came. Some say they were the Scourge of God, punishing the people for their sins. Others say an older evil drove them to avenge the people’s turning away from the Old Faith, and toward the True Confession. But whatever the case, their arrival signaled to other enemies that the time to join in on the feast over Nor’’s carcass had come. In the north, Garip knights began a war of conquest that sought to root out the True Confession. In the West, the Galindy princes moved in to pick up the pieces, and to take the lands that had been ruled by the Alferovich dynasty, and make them their own. And everywhere, unclean spirits sensed that the resolve of the Faithful to resist them waned. They came out of the forests, the swamps, the waterways, and the graves, and preyed on the people in both body and spirit. Beset by foes, the land is without unity, without hope, and without heroes.
But perhaps the fall has not been complete. In some villages and towns, rumors of a new generation of bogatyrs, rising to champion the common people, to defend the Faith, and to join the country together in a common struggle have begun to spread. Some battle the invaders, some drive back the monstrous spirits that haunt wood, steppe, and mountaintop, and some martyrs - podvizhniki - take up the sword in the service of God. The priests of the True Confession are also rising as leaders by preaching the faith to remote tribes, setting an example by living lives of pious asceticism, creating holy icons of great beauty and power, and performing miracles to remind people that God is still with them. And even the unlikeliest heroes – the lowly Fools - sometimes appear to win the hands of princesses, or the blessings of powerful spirits or angelic messengers.
Characters in this setting are living through epic changes and trying to live up to their destiny. Perhaps their fate as heroes has been foretold since their birth, or perhaps they have learned of it only recently. Some will willingly submit to it, some will try to resist, some will do their best to try to escape it, some will fall and become antiheroes. Others will march to meet their destiny while being blissfully unaware of it. Regardless of how they choose to act, the people around them believe in the power specially gifted or magical individuals to change the fate of the world. Once heroes have gained a measure of power, they will inevitably be sought out to decide the fate of villages, towns, principalities, nations, or even the world as a whole, though they will also attract their share of rivals. 

Do the roses still shine there? (Mythic Fantasy) 
The power of the gods is waning. Old jealousies and slights, fear that their own creations are growing more powerful than they are, and growing powerlessness in the face of a new religion herald the passing of mighty beings who have ruled the world since its beginning. Along with the gods, other beings of yore - giants, serpents, shapechangers, and spirits of various kinds still live and walk among humans. Magical aptitude is common, and some adepts may weave spells of almost godlike power. Fortresses, ships and bridges may spring up on command, and among heroes, the possession of a flying mount, a magical sword, or a cap of invisibility is unremarkable. Not a few people know the way to the Other Realms, the Thrice Tenth Kingdom, or to the mystical Island of Buyan, where the World Tree yet grows.
Despite the proliferation of magic, this setting is tinged with tragedy. Its heroes have at least an inkling that this old world is dying. They may be making one last push to ensure that their tutelary deity emerges victorious over its rivals, though they know full well that such an outcome is unlikely. Or they may be doing their utmost to preserve the old wisdom in the world to come, where the gods will be gone, or hidden. Perhaps the heathen age has already passed, and the heroes are trying to recover lost secrets by reforming mystic brotherhoods and sisterhoods, or seeking out hidden places of power.
The foremost heroes of such a setting are mighty spellcasters. They are volkhvy – priests who divine the gods’ will, uncover the world’s mysteries by assuming animal form, and advise princes and warlords, always being careful not to impart knowledge that will cause weaker vessels to burst asunder. They are sorcerers whose bloodlines stem from the gods themselves. As they battle their rivals for power and prestige, they strive to preserve something for their descendants in the world to come. They are bards, teaching people of the exploits of gods and heroes, and struggling to encode the old legends into customs that will be impossible to eradicate by the rulers of the dawning new order. And they are bogatyrs, undertaking to do great deeds while there are still bards to sing about them and to preserve them for posterity.

Go I Know Not Where, Fetch I Know Not What (Fantastic Voyages)
Lured by the promise of riches beyond the seas, a merchant-adventurer selects a crew and outfits a vessel to travel to the land of the gold-digging ants. A prince who has lost his true love rides beyond Thrice Nine Lands, in search of Baba Yaga’s help to defeat her captor, Koshchei the Deathless. And in a seedy tavern, a drunk regales wide-eyed novices with tales of fantastic wealth in underground Copper, Silver, and Gold Kingdoms.
The characters in a Fantastic Voyages campaign are Lukomorye’s answer to Swords & Sorcery heroes. Part treasure seekers, part explorers, part delvers into occult mysteries, and part questing heroes, PCs in such a campaign are driven to seek the distant, the new and the unfamiliar, rather than to solve local problems, defend the land, or gain political advantage. They are less rooted to particular places or tied down with Bonds than characters in other settings, but more likely to adventure outside the Land of Nor’ - perhaps even to Realms Beyond Death or other planes of existence. Crossing swords with pirates on the high seas, racing against undead pursuers across the steppe to reach an ancient crypt, or finding just the right gift for the Bogdoi Tsar on a high mountaintop might be common activities of adventurers in a game centered on Fantastic Voyages.  
Of necessity, such a campaign is likely to center on high-level challenges, and a myriad wondrous items.  Perhaps, flying ships or powerful artifacts will be required just for getting to the requisite destination. A mix of diverse character types, including those that are specifically flagged for foreigners (like wizards, paladins, or shamans), would be appropriate, so long as all were larger than life, and able to laugh death in the face.
Although well-suited to a lighthearted approach, the Fantastic Voyages campaign may also explore the themes of exile and homesickness that often find an outlet in early Russian travel literature. The more they have to adjust to foreign norms, the more they miss their mother, the smell of the woods outside their native village, and the kindly parish priest offering blessings and forgiveness for their dissolute life and the mistakes of their youth.   

My Children, Do Not Cause Strife Among Yourselves (Historical Fantasy)

In their walled fortresses, the princes plot against their cousins and nephews, seeking to kill or blind them in order to seize control of valuable trade routes or to earn the Khan’s favor and the prized charter that makes one of them a Grand Prince. To ensure that their plans succeed, they recruit enterprising but ruthless enforcers, spies, and masterminds. Meanwhile, in the cathedrals and monasteries, bishops and hegumens work to ensure that the princes remain loyal to the True Confession as they play their deadly games. In the large trading cities of the north, political factions backed by criminal gangs vie with one another for control of the popular assemblies. On the borderlands, armed desperadoes seek employment to guard frontier provinces from external enemies, or turn to raiding and banditry themselves if they do not find it. And beyond the frontiers, foreigners, unbelievers, and exiles are ever striving to tear off cities and lands to feed their own ever-growing ambitions. This struggle for survival is brutal at times, but the ongoing economic recovery offers potentially rich rewards to those who play the game to win, and have fortune on their side.

This prosaic playstyle is not, strictly speaking, a historical simulation of appanage Rus’, but it does strive to model the mindset and methods of its main protagonists. The typical character in this setting is motivated by power and gain. Violence, deceit, sabotage and betrayal are standard weapons in the arsenal of actors pursuing these goals. Those who prioritize other ends – honor, morality, or compassion – either fall by the wayside, or settle for subordinate roles. But the best players are those who can formulate long-term plans – the undisciplined player who backstabs an ally at the earliest available opportunity is no better than the idealist. Concealing your character’s true motivations is a required and highly prized skill. 
Historical Fantasy characters may be gritty, but that does not mean they cannot be colorful. They are exemplified by the lowborn Ratnik fighter with big ambitions, who is willing to slaughter whole families if it means becoming a boyar and receiving a land grant as rewards. The thief who steals valuable documents to promote the cause of their faction, the bandit who kidnaps princes for ransom, or the Ushkuinik who has to decide whether his purposes are best served by attacking enemy fortresses, or robbing the merchants of their home city are also good fits. Although magic is obviously rarer than it is in other settings, it is not altogether absent, and though it’s likely looked down on as a form of deviltry, the subtle practitioner can really tip the scales of power for their side.  Skinshifter wolves who serve as enforcers for the local strongman, foreign wizards who seek buried treasure from an earlier age, priestly intriguers who traffic with demons for the sake of political power would make strong additions to this setting as well.

A Great Multitude of Peasants, Fools, Drunkards and Buffoons (Fairytale Fantasy)
The prize turnip in your orchard just won’t come out of the ground, a dough bun baked by your neighbor is on a rampage, and the hen in the next village has laid a golden egg. Meanwhile, the village idiot is running down pedestrians as he tools around town on his stove, the smith has hired a bear assistant who is eating him out of house and home, and the fox has suddenly found religion and is collecting money from the parishioners, to go on a pilgrimage.
The whimsical Fairytale Fantasy campaign likely contains no overarching story and has no clear sense of what the mighty of this world are up to. Its protagonists tend simple people driven by simple goals like hunger or laziness, but they pursue these goals with all the extraordinary powers they have at their disposal. Oftentimes, they plan nothing more than to spread as much mayhem as possible, or, conversely, to be left alone despite being caught up in a succession of hilariously unlikely occurrences. Authority figures and protectors of order in this kind of setting are probably corrupt, humorless, but ultimately feckless boobs who are routinely bested by heroes, but remain in charge simply because no person of any true substance or worth wants to be in a position of responsibility. 
Though such a game may not be entirely without combat, it often results in comical incapacitation rather than death. The emphasis is certainly on the role-playing end of the gaming spectrum. The typical characters that populate this setting may be: the peasant who has no skills, and is told by her lord to become a thief to take care of aged parents; a Fool who inherits a Firebird feather and has no idea about what to do with it; a Skomorokh trouper, who is traveling to a convention in the City of Fools; or even a bogatyr swindler who wants to teach his miserly priest employer a lesson. Non-human characters, especially skinshifters, are particularly well represented in the Fairytale Fantasy game, and their animalistic stereotypes of behavior and traditional rivalries (e.g. hare vs. wolf) are prominently on display. Eating, drinking and merrymaking, as well as items associated with immoderate consumption like the Magic Tablecloth, are conspicuous. Of course, so are enchantments like Two in the Sack - a purse containing cudgel-wielding brutes who will beat down dunces unwilling to learn the easy way.

There Are All Sorts of Horrors in the World (Rustic Horror)

The villages are isolated and distant from one another, but the woods that surround them are dark and full of terrors. The powerful, caught up in their petty rivalries, care not a whit about things that trouble the simple folk as long as they pay their taxes. The parish priests are often scrambling for survival themselves, and are probably underqualified: nothing in their training has prepared them for the magnitude of the Evil they face. For under the thin veneer of the True Confession, the old ways, with their bestial rituals, death cults, demon-worship, and human sacrifice are all still very much alive.

The atmosphere of the Rustic Horror game is replete with liminal dread. The veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld of the spirits and the dead has grown thin. Behind closed doors and palisades, people make offerings to their domovoi as if he were a member of the family. A stroll through the forest to pick mushrooms or berries can turn into a frightening encounter with a leshy or kikimora, and those who do not know how to traffic with them may never return home. A visit to the healer woman to cure a toothache or to return a straying spouse can easily turn into a meeting with her familiar (the one whose head rotates all the way around), and a collective wash in the bathhouse might become a night of unearthly chanting and screeching that concludes with a selling one’s soul to a bannik in exchange for magical powers. Even the holidays provide little solace, for at such times upyri and other members of Lukomorye’s rich panoply of undead rise from their graves to suck blood, drive people mad, or simply cause them to drop dead from fright. Old church graveyards, hollow trees, and abandoned mills are typical loci of adventure in this setting.
Rustic Horror characters tend to be laconic, mysterious, and inscrutable – that is, when they are not just raving lunatics. Many of them exhibit strange marks on their bodies, or hide dark secrets. Some are (or believe themselves to be) cursed. Obviously, warlocks, witches and sorcerers haunt such settings in great abundance, and changelings – products of unholy congresses between unclean spirits and humans are quite common as well. Priests, of necessity, are too – fighting what often seems like a losing battle against the forces of darkness. Magical powers, at least at a low level, are widely distributed throughout the populace. Not infrequently, even simple peasants may possess a cantrip or two, and while truly powerful items are rare, potions, herbs, mushrooms, enchanted trees, as well as magical brooms and cauldrons often make an appearance.
Given the rather rural structure of even the larger cities, it is entirely possible for a Rustic Horror game to be set in urban environments also. Higher-level games featuring powerful monsters and magical items are likely to dovetail with a Heroic Fantasy campaign, or a hybrid setting can mix elements from both genres. 

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