Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Heroes

The following three Player Characters will occupy the central roles in the Lukomorye campaign that begins in the village of Lazarevo. They are a diverse bunch, but what unites them is their outsider status, and a facility with magic.

Chonkorchuk, Human Warlock, Pact of the Hag, Ascetic
A tall, very thin, haggard-looking man with pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes – one bigger than the other – Chonkorchuk puts in a striking appearance. Born to Kuz’ parents in Trofimka a few years before the Kochmak raid that largely destroyed the village, he traces his descent to the original hunter people who populated this part of the world before the Noriki arrived in larger numbers. Kuz’ and Noriki, heathens and Gaalites, lived side by side when the village was the property of Taras Trofimov. But when the land passed to the Church, and many of the residents fell into dependence on the Lazar and Liudmila abbey, many of the natives were pressured to convert. Chonkorchuk’s parents died shortly after returning to the village as it was being rebuilt. Exhausted by their wanderings, they nevertheless chose to remain free, and passed down some of the old beliefs to their son. The boy was left to fend for himself, doing odd jobs and living off what the forest provided, but he never abandoned his parents’ teachings, even after the head of his clan converted to the True Confession, and went into service as a guard at the monastery. Unhappy with being associated with him, his cousin and erstwhile playmate Tiutiulka informed Hegumen Yaakov that he witnessed Chonkorchuk practicing sorcery. Chonkorchuk was summarily expelled from the village.
Life in the woods requires hard work, but Chonkorchuk's eye is lazy
Fleeing to the woods north of the Vydra, the young man wandered aimlessly before falling into a dark hole. It led to a realm deep underground (or perhaps elsewhere) that was ruled by the ancient hag Baba Yaga. Chonkorchuk remembers little of the realm or its nature, or how long he spent there. But he remembers that he made a pact with the hag (whom he calls ‘The Queen’), pledging life-long service in exchange for power – power he sought to use to avenge himself on those that betrayed and mistreated him. She then sent him back, charging him to take over an abandoned hermitage in the woods nearby, and to keep the area clear of intruders. He was not to return or to seek out the portal he passed through until being given explicit permission to do so. Chonkorchuk later discovered that the hermitage was previously used by Hegumen Yaakov during his time as an ascetic also. The place was covered in scratchings and symbols – both Gaalite and heathen, though it was unclear whether they were placed there by the same person.   

Chonkorchuk remained at the hermitage for 16 years. Given his fearsome appearance, and likely, the influence of the nearby portal, he was generally left alone. Though survival was difficult, Chonkorchuk was able to supplement what he found in the forest by traveling to nearby villages, and using his gift to read fortunes. He also came to establish relationships with various denizens of the wild that the Church labeled as “unclean”, and learned to speak their language. He had grown increasingly wild and antisocial as a result of his solitude. He attributes his good fortune and survival to the Queen's goodwill and her promise to be allowed to return to the portal to learn more of her secrets. He has grown a bit choleric and unstable as a result of the long wait., derives meaning in his life by making plans to eventually confront those responsible for his exile. On those infrequent occasions when he interacts with others, he often raves about the great cosmic plan that the Queen has in store for him, and for the rest of the world. Nevertheless, when alone, he is a gentle soul, and cares assiduously for the forest. He has great reverence for the Old Ways, a deep sense of justice and believes in the equality of the great and the small.  

Plamen, Half-Polevik Volkhv (Druid), Circle of Kupalo, Healer
Plamen is a very short, though somewhat stocky young man, standing about five feet in height. Reflective of his partly non-human heritage, he is covered by thick, blond hair, which becomes almost fleece-like on his torso and upper limbs. His father Gleb was a human shepherd from Lazarevo, who wandered into a meadow about one verst outside the village with his flock one day, and had a brief encounter with a polevik woman, Tiaga. From this union, Plamen was born, into a polevik family that lived in a series of underground tunnels underneath that meadow. Typically, humans shunned it, not only because they were dimly aware of its residents, but mostly because the meadow had an ill reputation anyway. It was here that the Kochmaki drove their prisoners from Trofimka after the raid, and here that they were inexplicably slaughtered. No trees have grown in the meadow since, and people say that the spirits of the dead rise from time to time, and wander the countryside around Lazarevo. This may be true, but they do not trouble the polevik family that lives there.   
Plamen - kind of like a dwarf, but much faster

Plamen was fully accepted by the poleviks. Like them, he developed a deep connection to the land, and learned their received wisdom about all the plants that grew in the vicinity. He also developed a facility with flame as he raced joyfully and frenetically through the field with his half-siblings in summertime. But he always looked beyond the meadow. He liked to wander the woods, and would also occasionally steal into Lazarevo by way of underground tunnels that led from the meadow into the village. He would become fascinated with stray livestock that wandered in from the village, and then tended to them, fed them, and healed them. Sometimes, he returned them to Lazarevo’s outskirts, and encountered villagers. Soon, several of them would seek out his help, bringing sick animals and calling his name in the meadow, hoping that he would emerge while they are gone, and then return the healthy animal to the village. More bold people would call on him to help with their own injuries, and waited for a face-to-face encounter. As he began to take a greater interest in the outside world, Plamen also came into contact with an uncle – Yegor - another half-polevik – who had been trained as a heathen priest. When he came to stay with his family in the meadow, Yegor would help Plamen hone his skills as a healer, taught him the ancient dialect of the Volkhv Order, and began revealing its secrets rituals and stories about the old gods. 
As his reputation spread around Lazarevo, he began to wish for closer contact. Roughly a year ago, he met his father for the first time, and soon came to stay with his family in the village. He helped in the field, and supplementing the family's diet with wild fruit, herbs and nuts that he gathered in wood and meadow. But soon after he came to stay in Lazarevo, people stopped coming to seek his aid. This may have been because of his background and his heathen beliefs, though many of his supplicants said that their needs were now better served by Hegumen Yaakov, who had acquired a mystical glowing shrub that greatly increased his effectiveness as a healer. To remain in the village and stay useful, Plamen went to the island, and asked, Yaakov, against his Polevik family’s advice, to allow him to stay in the monastery to practice his craft. Yaakov replied that this was impossible without conversion, and even in the latter case, Plamen would have to stop using his powers, which, he said, had as their source Bies the Devil, and not God. So Plamen returned to the meadow.

In person, Plamen is rather a sweet 16-year old boy, though his furriness makes him look older and a bit bestial. He doesn’t really understand divisions between humans, poleviks, other nechist’ beings, and animals, and tries to help and become friends with everyone he meets. He does go in for creature comforts, when he can get them, and has a bit of a weakness for a certain herbal intoxicant.
Rodion “Raskel” Raskolnikov, Fox Skinshifter Wizard, Kabbalist, Mountebank
Rodion, or “Raskel”, as he likes to be known, is a man of many names. He is in his forties, though still has fiery red hair, streaked with gray. He is of slightly above average height and weight – in human form. Being a fox skinshifter, he can also change into a humanoid with a fox head, a body and limbs, covered in red fur, and prehensile hands (and shoe-ready feet). He was born human, of skinshifter parents. As such parents are unable or unwilling to raise human children, he was placed in a basket outside a priestly household in the city of Krinets – a trading metropolis, and for most Noriki, the largest city in the world. He was raised in the household as a family dependent (not an adopted son). Spending his childhood among the servants, he did have some attention lavished on him in childhood by Yaroslava, the priest’s daughter, though little by Zinovii Raskolnikov himself. Raskel has never sought to discover his birth parents, and has no interest in doing so.  
A Raskely form - good for a bonus bite, but not very trustworthy
His ability to change shape became manifest in early adolescence. At this time, Yaroslava took pity on him, and began to teach him skills he would need to survive in human society, which treated him with suspicion. From her Raskel learned letters, as well as magical formulas for changing appearance and creating illusory images (she, though in training for the priesthood herself, had picked up a smattering of lore from foreign Kabbalists). Soon, Raskel would fall in with swindlers and scam-artists, and began to engage in various schemes involving the sale of supposedly magic beans, smuggling, and impersonating officials, especially ones of an ecclesiastical variety. Pretending to be a priest or holy man became his go-to con, though it also proved to be his downfall. He tried to get a man to part with his money by having the voice of God order him to do so. Unfortunately, this man turned out to be the future Hegumen Yaakov, who had just arrived in town to enter the seminary. After Yaakov reported Raskel to the Archbishop, Raskel fled, and Yaroslava helped smuggle him out of town in a box. He has lived on the road ever since, though he is curious about how his benefactor has fared since his forced departure.
Primarily, Raskel-Rodion teams up with other traveling mountebanks to smuggle goods traded along riverine routes, using his magical talents to make containers appear empty to avoid paying duties. Sometimes, he also impersonates tax or church officials to avoid paying, or to get out of sticky situations. And he still uses his fairly considerable knowledge of religion to get people to part with their possessions in the name of outfitting new churches or launching crusades. At one point long ago, he partnered with Taras Trofimov, and even stayed with him before his village changed its ownership, and its name. Raskel thought of that boyar's village as a safe space, and has recently come to town looking for a place to lay low in after an unsuccessful venture, and before the start of the winter trading season. After arriving in Lazarevo, however, he received an unpleasant surprise after finding out that Yaakov is now the village's de facto ruler. While staying at the waystation for the last week, he has avoided running into the hegumen, though he has come to learn that the village has had a very unsuccessful harvest, and that Yaakov is stockpiling grain, which he plans to use as leverage to get people to become the monastery’s peons. He has also learned that a mysterious and ill-aspected stranger – the blacksmith Zhitko, has arrived in Lazarevo, and is staying in the household of the local smith.

Raskel is worldly and has a wide network of contacts. He is light on his feet, and would rather hit the road than to have to sort out his problems. As an experienced swindler, he knows how to find the right mark, how to disguise his true appearance, and how to say the right thing to win people’s confidence. He is, however, a bit of a gambler, and sometimes bites off more than he can chew. His overconfidence translates into a belief that no one can fool him the way he fools them – a belief that has nearly led to his downfall on several occasions. Though he is baptized, and even knows enough to pass as a priest in front of a layperson, he is in fact a freethinker, and does not tie himself up with religious dogma or feelings of guilt.

Dmitri Vladimirovich, Wolf Skinshifter Ranger, Soldier

Dmitri is a large, bulky man with scraggly dark hair and a scruffy beard. His brown eyes have a noticeable yellow tinge, and his unsettling grin shows off a pair of oversized canines. Dmitri is in fact a wolf skinchanger who was born to packmaster Vladimir Draganovich roughly 20 years ago. The pack lived near the village of Orlovka south of the Vydra River, and preyed on the village for generations, but in a controlled way. When Dmitri was a young child, the landlord – a boyar named Viacheslav Orlov married a close relative of the Prince of Kliakva. In so doing, he acquired a powerful protector for the still half-heathen village. The boyar’s new relatives commenced building a new fort near the Orlovka, and impressing what remained of the village youth into service to the Prince. Meanwhile, the nearby Lazar and Lidmilla abbey began to offer spiritual protection to the villages. Vladimir, who saw that antagonizing the new authorities would be unwise, decided to try to deal with them. Before his son’s shapechanging ability became manifest, Vladimir took him to the fort, and gave him over for training. Since the youth was sizeable and came across capable and fierce, the Kliakvites gladly took him on.  
Now if only stitching limbs were as easy as stitching that cloak...
Dmitri spent the next decade in the Prince’s service. He was stationed at various outposts, and because of his facility with wilderness survival, he was recruited by a ranger lodge in the Kliakvite domains. It was when he was with the lodge that he gained the power to change shape, but as he was careful, and as his superiors and comrades were happy with his service, so it never became an issue. Soon, however, the lodge would have a new assignment for Dmitri and several of his companions. They were to return to the fort near Orlovka, and to serve as caretakers and hunters who had to provide for the boyar’s table. Dmitri soon learned that their real job was different – he was to exhaustively scout the trails, settlements, and defenses of his home region. Clearly, his information was being used by the Prince’s people to prepare an invasion.  
After spending several months preoccupied with his new task, Dmitri was suddenly called in for an audience with Viacheslav Orlov. The boyar informed him that his unit was being disbanded, because the Prince of Kliakva had apparently reached an understanding with the local prince. Later, intimated that the real reason for his dismissal was the resumption of the pack’s attacks against Orlovka. After it became clear that no help would be forthcoming from Vladimir, Dmitri appealed to Orlov for aid. In view of his years of faithful service, the boyar found a solution. Another nearby boyar – Yurii Yelizarov, based just north of the river, needed help tracking down a smuggling ring that was apparently operating from one of his villages. Orlov gave Dmitri a letter of introduction, and the skinshifter entered Yelizarov’s employ. While tracking the smugglers through the woods, he fortuitously encountered Katarina’s suitors.
Dmitri is a dogged fighter, who treats whichever allies he is working with as members of his pack. He is used to leading his unit into action, and has stared down many dangers, from wild animals, bandits, rival lodges, to relatives who threatened him in order to test his mettle. At the same time, Dmitri knows that being an effective soldier means using good judgment, not giving in to emotions, and not leaving unsound commands unquestioned. In the heat of battle, however, Dmitri occasionally loses control – his lupine heritage is strong inside him, and sometimes, he abandons himself to his bloodlust.

Druvvaldis, Human Shaman, Heathen

Druvvaldis is a middle-aged man of average height, on the thin side, with striking grey eyes, and shockingly white hair. He is the lone survivor of an isolated Galindy tribe that got wiped out by the Knights of Ritterheim when he was a young teen. The tribe lived on a remote wooded island that remained an important cultic center of the Old Faith, though it had fallen into disuse after the Knights began to establish their dominion along the coast of the Western Sea. The old priesthood that tended to the idols had long vanished, and the people kept the old ways as best they could remember. Still, the Knights had sworn to wipe out every last trace of heathen ways, and one day, they landed on the island, and put the god-pillars, the temple, and the outlying village to the torch and the sword. Druvvaldis attempted to flee, but was cut down. As he lay dying, he lost consciousness. The next thing he knew, an old man, dressed like one of the priests, was bending over him, muttering an incantation. Druvvaldis lost consciousness again, and when he awoke again, the village was empty, smelling only of smoke. His family, the knights, and the old man were gone, but countless spirits of the dead, whom he could now hear, screamed out their vengeance into the night sky. A black raven pecked at the ground by his side. A strange sensation told him that raven was an emissary from a world beyond life and death. He didn't know if he had been saved, or cursed.

Where others were shy, Druvvaldis made wandering into
small villages with a raven companion a new fashion  
When he was strong enough to walk, Druvvaldis followed the raven, and made his way to the mainland. It said nothing, but pressed him ever to keep moving. Not knowing where to go, Druvvaldis made his way to the city of Laima. It was now the capital of the powerful Grand Principality of Galinda - the last remaining heathen stronghold, and it shared the name of a goddess venerated by his tribe. But even here, he felt oppressed by the size of the city. One night, one of the ancestors came to him in a dream, and told him to seek out a place in the east called the Crows' Meadow. His fate, and fortune, awaited him there. In the morning, the raven pressed him to keep moving.

Druvvaldis walked for hundreds of miles. There were many places that seemed to fit the description of a crow's meadow along the way. But after he stopped to investigate, it always seemed that there was nothing significant about them. And after a time, the raven urged him onward once more. 
The area Druvvaldis had wandered into was populated by a people who spoke a different language.   Their religion was a salvation cult that shared something with that of the Knights, but it seemed less aggressive, at least some of the time. Durvvaldis found that under the official veneer, the people actually shared many of the customs of his people.  Most of them had forgotten the names of the old gods, but they still performed rituals that venerated them without fully knowing why. They also knew that the minor spirits of the woods and streams and meadows had not gone away, regardless of what their priests said, and propitiating them was a matter of survival. He found a common language with these people, and began to feel that perhaps something of the old ways was still alive among them.

Recently, he has been traveling along a river called the Vydra.  The winter colds had just set in, so Druvvaldis began to think about finding shelter for the winter.  But his raven has also been pushing him on, claiming, at night, that the place he was sent to find was nearby.   Perhaps, if he were to cross the river that had just frozen over, he would find what he is looking for…    



Monday, November 28, 2016

The Village of Lazarevo

This village is the initial setting for the Lukomorye campaign - a Fantasy Russia game using a variant of D&D 5e rules that we started this past Saturday. On the surface, the village appears relatively mundane, but as time will show, not everything is as it seems.

The village of Lazarevo stands at the confluence of two rivers – the Vydra and the Rys’. It is built on the site of an older village called Trofimka, which was destroyed in a raid by the Kochmaki two generations ago. On his deathbed, the boyar owner of the old village - Taras Trofimov – willed his holding to the Church, though his family still maintains a household in the region.
Having gained control of this key strategic point, the diocese set up a new abbey on an island located at the confluence. The bishop called Yaakov, a hermit who lived in the woods north of the Vydra, to become the monastery’s hegumen. Yaakov was born to one of the victims of the Kochmak raid in old Trofimka, but his mother died a few years after his birth, and the orphan lived in the woods before becoming ordained as a hieromonk. The new monastery was dedicated to the martyr saints Lazar’ and Liudmila – two sibling princes who suffered at the hands of their evil brother, but refused to take up the sword against him. The newly rebuilt village was named after the monastery.
Since taking up the leadership of the new abbey, Yaakov has been able to attract many of Trofimka’s refugees, and other local peasants to Lazarevo, and the village has grown to around 500 people. The new hegumen has proved to be an effective administrator, and has also developed a reputation as a great healer, and draws in supplicants from far and wide. Further, the strategic importance of the village, near a ford, and on the route between two powerful neighboring states – the Dominion of Great Krinets, and the Principality of Kliakva - has not escaped the Kochmaki, who set up a waystation for their messenger service – the Yam – at the heart of the village. Two taverns – one administered by the monastery, the other – by the village commune of yeoman farmers, also stand opposite the waystation.  
A sizeable number of local residents are Kuz’ – descendants of the original hunting tribes that populated the region before the Noriki migrated there in recent centuries. Most of this population has now converted to the True Confession, but even those who have keep some of their old heathen ways and beliefs alive. Some of the elders say that the confluence of the rivers was a sacred ground to the old gods, and that they still walk around the region, in disguise. Some also say that in a bygone age, the region used to be heavily populated by monstrous giants and serpents, and that they still lie beneath the earth, waiting to return. Needless to say, the Church discourages such talk in the strongest manner.