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.


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.

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.