Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chapter 17 - The Galumphing Oaf

wherein Baba Yaga's servitors complete the second task she set out for them...

The three companions camp in a protected place near the south banks of the Vydra. Chonkorchuk has had it with roughing it under the early winter sky, and as the winds begin to blow overnight, he manages to catch cold. Plamen, younger and more compact, is better at resisting the elements, but also sleeps more alertly. He is awakened before dawn by the sounds of a very large person foraging not 100 feet away from the campsite. From what it mutters to itself in a foreign tongue, Plamen gathers that it has discovered the carcass of a boar that starved or froze to death nearby, and it seems to be salvaging pieces of meat.
Annar - any relation to Dubynia?
Plamen quietly approaches and addresses the creature. He introduces himself as Annar, and says that he has come from far away in search of Druvvaldis, and asks whether Plamen knows him. Plamen bids him to wait, while he awakens his companions. With Druvvaldis’ assent, he reveals that Druvvaldis is with him, and that Annar’s search is at an end. Annar drags the boar carcass over to the fire, where Plamen shares some of his magical berries with him. Annar looks twice his size. He is a volot, from a family of nomadic giant riders, which came from the steppe at the invitation of the Grand Prince of Galinda to help build his cavalry. While in the prince’s service, he had occasion to visit the island where Druvvaldis’ ancestral shrine stood. There, after falling asleep, he was contacted by the spirit of the thunderlord Perkons, who told him to seek out Druvvaldis – the last survivor of the devastation wreaked by the Knights of Ritterheim, and the scion of a priestly family. So Annar has been traveling east, and seeking Druvvaldis and followers of the old gods ever since. Chonkorchuk tells him that he is also one of these, and that his mistress, Baba Yaga, has promised that the Old Gods will soon return. After they complete the tasks set out by her, they will be admitted to Baba Yaga’s realm. But first, them must deal with a group of smugglers who, he says, have stolen one of Baba Yaga’s servants. Annar is asked to join the group so that he may help it complete its mission (and they his), and the volot accepts.
The following morning, the four adventurers cross the Vydra, and proceed to search for the smuggler’s cabin, which they have never seen directly. Making their way north, they eventually discover a hedge that familiar spirits indicate surrounds a small cabin. No one is outside, but a smoking chimney indicates that the cabin is occupied. Attempts to sense magical auras reveals that there are two sources of transmutative magic inside (likely indicating a pair of shapeshifters). Chonkorchuk becomes invisible, and finds the narrow entrance through the hedge on the eastern side. Meanwhile, the rest set up on the north side. Druvvaldis hands Annar his scythe, and the volot prepares to mow down the hedge in case of an assault.
The hermit alerts the residents to his presence. A pair of shutters opens, and an arrow flies at Chonkorchuk despite his precautions. He takes cover behind the porch, and addresses the people inside, indicating that he is aware of Vasya Toptygin’s presence, and demanding they release him back into the service of Baba Yaga, from whom he was stolen. His threats and offer of cooperation to locate Lionia gets him admitted inside, but his interlocutor – Radei Lopukh – the leader of the smugglers – says that since Lionia defrauded them, they have nothing to lose, and believe that Chonkorchuk’s companions are in possession of a treasure. He offers Chonkorchuk a chance to convince Vasya, but warns that it won’t be easy.
Vasya Toptygin performs a bear's service for his companions
The cabin is messy, and currently inhabited by nine rough-edged smugglers, some similar to the ones the party defeated in the woods over a week ago, some looking more dangerous, and better-armed. Lying on the stove against the wall opposite the doorway is a large, one-handed man, who matches Vasya’s description. He seems considerably less cowed by the invisible visitor than Radei – his nominal leader. In response to Chonkorchuk’s entreaties and threats, he indicates that he has no interest in returning to do menial labor for Baba Yaga, and would rather stay on as the smuggler’s underling. When Chonkorchuk persists in haranguing him, Vasya insults the hermit, accusing him of being a beggar with nothing to offer, who comes without gifts, and is so worthless and poor he is even afraid to show his face. He recites the insult as a rhyme, which is actually quite hurtful.

Chonkorchuk has had enough. He exits the cabin, and plunges it into darkness, signaling to his companions that it’s time to attack. Annar mows through the hedge, and is greeted by blind-fire from the cabin, though on account of his size, he still finds himself on the receiving end of darts and arrows. Behind him, Plamen sets the cabin on fire, while Druvvaldis summons forth a badger spirit to add ferocity to the outnumbered companions. Eventually, some of the smugglers manage to make their way out of the cabin, and attack the volot head on. They are no match for him, but harry him enough so that he soon decides to take cover in the darkness. Marshalling their forces for a last stand after getting out of the darkness, Radei and one of the other smugglers hit Chonkorchuk and Plamen, now exposed, with expert shots from around the corner of the hut. Then, Radei and Vasya, in the form of a bear-man, along with one other, charge the hermit and the healer, who are no longer protected by the volot. They manage to knock Chonkorchuk down, and to nearly upend Plamen as well. The outcome of the battle stands on the edge of a knife, but the fefila quickly revives Chonkorchuk, and Plamen is able to knock the bear out with his staff. The rest are dealt with quickly. Radei manages to flee, and another smuggler is brought down as he tries to do the same, while a third surrenders. The smuggler’s cabin, however, has caught fire…   

Friday, August 18, 2017

Chapter 16 - The Great Combinator

wherein the ice has broken, ladies and gentlemen of the jury...

Fearing pursuit by the villagers, Chonkorchuk races across the frozen Vydra, and into the woods. He knows these better than anyone, and hopes to make it to the burrow where he and his companions found signs of a bear being kept captive over a week ago. As he jogs northward through the woods, he is suddenly accosted by an interloper from behind. The man gives him a solid whack on the head with the hilt of his saber from behind, but the hermit is just able to turn away enough to avoid getting knocked out. The man is unfamiliar, but looks similar to the smugglers the band confronted in the woods near Yelizarov’s estate – probably a member of Lionia’s band, Chonkorchuk surmises. He turns himself invisible and attempts to get away – getting the coins to Baba Yaga is his top concern. But the ground is covered with snow, and he is easy to follow. His pursuer attempts to push him down to the ground, and to wrest the cauldron of treasure away from him, but Chonkorchuk manages to maintain his footing, and keeps moving away. The man seemingly gives up the chase, and Chonkorchuk arrives at the tree above the burrow. He climbs up a neighboring tree, covers himself with eaves, and watches the clearing.
Who is that masked man?
Within the hour, Druvvaldis arrives. He was not so lucky. He was set upon by the same man, who similarly clocked him from behind, and then finished him off when he tried to run. When he came to, the flaxen shirt in which he was carrying his share of the loot from the warren was gone, as were the man’s footprints – it is not clear where he went. His familiar, in raven form, was looking for the other companions, and returned to find him unconscious, and woke him.

Druvvaldis is uncertain why the man did not kill him, but he detected something familiar about his voice when he cursed after not being able to lay him out with a single blow from behind – he heard a lot of it until quite recently. Chonkorchuk is not surprised to hear that the likely assailant was Lionia – the double-cross appears entirely predictable to him. He is not sure why he did not try to kill Druvvaldis, but suspects that he has alerted his associates, and may be coming after the rest of the treasure, which he must secure at all costs.
Plamen arrives soon after. He still limps, and is unable to run – hence his late arrival. But he was spared the assault by the pursuer, for reasons that are not clear. He feeds some of his magic berries to Druvvaldis, who recovers somewhat from his assault. Since the trio fears the imminent arrival of the smuggler band, they take care to wipe away the tracks leading to the burrow. Druvvaldis creates a new set heading to the Rys’ River, and then the party secrets itself in the burrow.
At night, while Chonkorchuk keeps watch, the smugglers arrive. The companions’ efforts to conceal their location seem to have paid off. The hermit overhears them saying that Lionia surmised they went to the hermitage. They soon leave in that direction, apparently with harmful intentions.
The rest of the night passes without incident, and in the morning, the party heads off in search of Baba Yaga. In response to Druvvaldis’ query about how to find her, Chonkorchuk states that she usually finds them, and he is proven correct. Within two  hours after leaving the burrow, the lynx bounds up on them, though he is friendlier this time, and engages in a playful wrestling match with Plamen. His mistress appears soon after, as if from underground. She appears pleased enough with the takings brought by Chonkorchuk and Plamen, and mentions nothing about any particular amount she was expecting, though she dismissively rejects the copper pulo, and Chonkorchuk obligingly picks it out before turning over his camping cauldron full of only “pure treasure” to Baba Yaga, who demands to keep the cauldron as well. In response to queries about the nature of the treasure, she confirms that it was indeed stolen from her by Plamenka, who was able to capture it by enchanting the Kochmak warriors, and forcing them to fight one another (and to kill the villagers). She expresses satisfaction about the way she ended up (as a spirit bound to her warren for eternity), before she presses to find out when she is going to get the galumphing oaf and the young bride. The hermit promises both within the week.
What goodie did Baba Yaga get from her hamper?
The crone then turns to Druvvaldis, and demands to know who he is, as she has never before met him. Druvvaldis tells his tale – about his people who were slaughtered by the Ritterheim Knights, and about the spirits who led him to this place. Chonkorchuk recommends him as one who aided the group’s efforts in recovering the pure treasure, and Baba Yaga offers to aid him against his enemies in exchange for his help in securing the other things she wants, perhaps by brewing a potion. Druvvaldis asks for a potion of fire breathing, but Baba Yaga suggests something subtler that may discredit the Knights (who she apparently also dislikes) – a potion of diminution, for example. Chonkorchuk seconds her, but Druvvaldis is unconvinced. The hag suggests that a potion of fire breathing requires components – such as the special sacks of a fire-breathing serpent. Her supplicant Chonkorchuk waves that off as an impossible task – where would they find one? How would they defeat it? But Baba Yaga answers that one never knows when such a beast might be around, and then mysteriously recommends that the companions be sure to bathe themselves before confronting one. She then flips a curious slimy but fragrant block to Chonkorchuk, and, becoming two, walks away in opposite directions.

Having delivered the pure treasure, the trio discusses what to do next. In light of last night’s pursuers, the logical step is to track down the galumphing oaf. But where is he now being kept? Chonkorchuk surmises that the smugglers keeping him have left their hideout now that their cover is blown, though he does recall that Lionia paid off or sweet-talked Yelizarov into laying off, and that he also has a good relationship with Trofimov as well. In any case, looking in on the smuggler’s shack seems like the first order of business. The party crosses both frozen rivers, and, avoiding settlements, proceeds along the southern bank of the Vydra. They arrive to within a verst or so of the shack as the sun is setting. The companions set up camp, and Chonkorchuk sends forth the fefila, invisibly, to spy on the shack (and hopefully come back in one piece).
Before an hour has passed, the fefila returns. It relates to its master, telepathically, that the shack is indeed occupied, by men similar to the one who apparently attacked its master in the woods the previous day. There is a one-handed bear among them, but Lionia is not. In fact, the people there seemed to be very unhappy with Lionia. Chonkorchuk shares the information with his companions. Lionia has likely screwed his other associates as well. Druvvaldis wonders whether he might be at home, but Chonkorchuk opines that he is likely far away, probably going westward (where thehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostap_Bender 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It Works Like A Charm

I was editing a hypnotism-type feature I designed for homebrew spellcasting class, when it struck me that I should probably insert a warning about what happens once this hypnotism wears off. The reason I thought I had to do this has to do with a rider added to the 5th edition D&D Charm spell - a very potent weapon for low-level magic-users in previous editions, but, in the view of many players, significantly weakened in the new ruleset.

Aside from reducing the duration from several days (or even weeks, or more) to one hour, and changing the effect from having the affected creature do what you want (as long as it wasn't suicidal) to having it regard you merely as a "friendly acquaintance", the main change is that after the effect ends, "the creature knows it was charmed by you" (PHB, p. 221). Since the release of 5e, many pixels have been used to argue that the spell is essentially rendered useless by the last provision, apparently because the risk of being outed as a blackguard who practices mind control makes all your plans to gather information or practice sabotage in the shadows - presumably, the ends you had in mind when you tried to charm the creature - go up in smoke.

The conclusion that having the victim of the Charm know what you tried to do to it renders the spell useless is widely off the mark. Charm is only a 1st level spell, and even if the charmed creature now hates the charmer, as many assume, the spell is still quite useful - in the short term, it prevents bloodshed and saves lives (likely including those of the caster and the caster's companions). The fact that Charm is still a frequently-cast spell speaks to its continued utility.

Second, older versions of the spell did not stipulate that the target of the Charm would remain ignorant of what happened to her. There was no provision that mind-altering (much less memory-altering) effects would persist after the spell ceased functioning (though the much longer duration of the effect mitigated the impact of the victim's realization of what had happened). What 5e has done is to issue a clarification, not a change.

More substantively, precisely because the spell does not alter long-term memory, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the end of the spell effect allows the victim to know who the caster was if the victim does not possess any special insight regarding that fact. If you charm a goblin you've never met in a dungeon corridor, all the goblin knows is that some fat human in a green hat tried to charm him. He will not know the fat human's name, occupation, where he came from, etc. More importantly, if the same goblin is charmed by a person who gives a false name (someone else's name), by a person in disguise, or a caster concealing her identity with, say, a Disguise Self or Alter Self spell, he will not have any way of knowing that Ferdous Crugg the Fat Male Human in the Green Hat is really Lainel Coronnim, the Skinny Female Elf in a Kerchief. The more preparation you put in making your Charm work better, the better the long-term payoff will be when the spell ends.

Finally, and most importantly, the notion that as soon as the victim realizes she's been charmed, she calls 911, and the authorities put out an APB for the caster flies in the face of what we know about how abuse works. Certainly, casting a Charm on someone is intrusive, and a form of abuse. But like other abusers, the charming caster can make it abundantly clear before the spell wears off  (e.g. by using Intimidation, or perhaps another spell) that revealing any information about him and what he did will have very deleterious consequences. He knows where the victim lives, and has already demonstrated his arcane prowess by charming her.

Aside from being frightened into submission, the victim may simply feel too ashamed to tell anyone else what happened. Even if witnesses friendly to the victim were present during the charming, the victim may in fact attempt to blame himself for his behavior at the time. It's not that he was under the effect of a mind-controlling spell, it's just that he used bad judgment and made bad decisions and aided the enemy. His friends do not have any special out-of-game knowledge about whether their companion failed a Wisdom save or not.

Alternatively, instead of intimidating or shaming the victim, the caster can try to make the experience pleasurable. Here is this great wizard or sorcerer, and she wants to be my friend. She lavishes attention on me and treats me with respect when my so-called friends ignore me or make me the butt of their jokes. She gave me 10 gp, and promised to give me a magic item later. So what if she was using a spell? If she keeps treating me like this, she can Charm me any day of the week. Perhaps, depending on how he was treated, the victim develops feelings for the caster that last long after the spell has ended. Or if not feelings, then a Stockholm Syndrome-like understanding - sure, that bard who charmed me was Chaotic Evil, but he is just a product of his environment, and his party was actually fighting for a good cause.

There are many opportunities for strategizing and role-playing with this spell, and taking the time can really improve its functioning and add enjoyment to the game. And the same goes for my custom sorcerer's Heavy Gaze ability I was talking about at the start. I ended up inserting text into the description that said the victim becomes aware it was mind-controlled, but could be persuaded or intimidated to keep quiet about it.    

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Chapter 15 – Как Мужики Клад Делили*

Wherein the business of the band appears to conclude...

Having recovered their strength, the companions decide to split up. Raskel and Druvvaldis hold down the fort in Plamenka’s room, to defend their base, and direct attention away from the rest, who thoroughly search the non-family parts of the warren for the treasure chamber. They investigate all the dead ends, finding some to have been originally planned as more escape chutes, before the plans were abandoned. All are primarily stone rather than dirt, and appear to lack crevices that conceal portals behind them.
As they move through the tunnels, Chonkorchuk detects magical auras, to see if some sort of dweomer might be inscribed into walls, or concealed behind them. After finding nothing, and establishing to their satisfaction that the dead ends in fact lead nowhere, Chonkorchuk, Dmitri, Plamen and Lionia return to the corridor in the maze beyond the bone room, where the hermit did detect necromantic and transmutative auras before. Lacking the magical sigil to open the portal, Chonkorchuk orders his fefila to dig through the wall. After intensive digging lasting a third of an hour or so, it has created a one-foot tunnel into the room beyond. Unfortunately, though it is invisible, the creatures beyond are vigilant, and succeed in catching and dispelling the poor beast. Then, one begins to poke a rusty spear through the opening. The companions blast and hack at the bony limb that holds it, and succeed in wresting the spear away, but its holder retreats deeper into the chamber.
The band takes counsel about how to best draw out or destroy the skeletons in the chamber. Plamen proposes blasting them with thunder, but that is hard to do through a wall, and the tunnel is simply too small. He can also roll in a flaming sphere, as he did in the bone room, but the party members worry that the room contains treasure, and the fire would damage it. In the end, it is decided that the sphere is the way forward. Plamen rolls it around different parts of the chamber, but the sound of creaking bones suggests that the skeletons are avoiding it. Soon, something seems to burst into flame, and a sizzling sound is heard. Fearing that they are indeed damaging something valuable, the healer dispels the sphere.
Having failed to destroy or draw the skeletons out, the group decides to retreat a bit, so that the skeletons come out to them. Eventually, the ruse works, and four of the nezhit’ crawl out through the opening. Chonkorchuk blasts one (the erstwhile owner of the rusty sphere) in short order, but he and a tibia-wielding Dmitri have a really difficult time with a second. Meanwhile, Plamen holds back the remaining two with his staff, while Lionia deftly disposes of them with his sabre. Finally, the holdout is subdued before any further harm comes to the companions, and after enlarging the tunnel with their shovel, they slither inside the chamber.
Inside, they finally locate what they have been searching for this whole time. A wooden water pail was filled to the brim with copper and silver coins, but the wood was mostly burned by the flaming sphere, and now the treasure lies in a heap upon the floor. Fortunately, most of it was undamaged, but several hundred coins were melted together into slag. Though they are no longer contained, Plamen and Chonkorchuk both have cooking cauldrons, which can hold about a third of the coins, and Lionia produces a sack, which fits the rest. Thus loaded with precious cargo, the four return to Plamenka’s chamber, and begin counting the loot.
There is much kibitzing as Raskel and Druvvaldis try to count and separate the different types of coins, causing them to lose count on several occasions. Lionia insists on getting a full quarter-share, as was originally agreed on, and is not challenged on this claim. He mostly stands apart from the counting, watching the door, but he does interrupt several times, and at one point, his hand is seen hovering over the pile, precipitating an argument, and causing the counters to lose track once more. Eventually, he suggests that the counters begin again after they have slept, for the morning is wiser than the evening.
The night passes uneventfully, and in the morning (if that is what it is), the counters return to work. This time, they are interrupted by loud screams, and sounds of a scuffle reverberating off the tunnel walls. Chonkorchuk, who has not been involved in the counting, has spent time recalling his fefila from the Otherworld, and now sends it to investigate. The fefila soon sends him a telepathic message about an evil spirit near Plamen’s room. Not wishing to confront her, the band decides to wait her out, thinking that she does not stay in one place for long. In the meantime, the count concludes, and the treasure is divided up into proper portions – a quarter for Lionia, and an equal share for everyone else.
Before leaving, the band has one final discussion about what to do with the loot. Chonkorchuk makes a final pitch to return all of the treasure to Baba Yaga, though he is not sure whether the copper coins constitute part of the “pure treasure” or not. Plamen and Druvvaldis, who were not in it for the money from the start, are inclined to follow him, though perhaps going directly to the hermitage is a mistake, because that is the first place the villagers are likely to look for him. Lionia, for his part, insists that he joined the band only for the treasure, and feels he owes nothing to Baba Yaga, who, at any rate, never specified how much of the treasure is hers. He is unswayed by Chonkorchuk’s warning of the crone’s wrath, nor by promises of access to her realm, but does seem to hold to the promise of turning over the galumphing oaf, and says he will discuss the matter with his associates. But for now, he will be returning home, and tells all those going off with Chonkorchuk to seek him there. Raskel decides to accompany his fellow fox, while Dmitri says he will go and see if he can use the treasure to restore his lost limb.

The band disperses. Last apperance together?
Finally, the band is ready to leave the warren. At the main entrance by Plamen’s room, there is no trace of the evil spirit, though there is a dead body of a villager dressed as an armed servitor of the monastery, which looks like it is denuded of its life essence. The group leaves it, and exits the warren. There, some follow Chonkorchuk toward the river, and some follow Lionia in the direction of Medunitsa. Suddenly, there are sounds of crying villagers and monks approaching from the direction of Lazarevo. Lionia yells for everyone to scatter – those following him should meet him at home later. Chonkorchuk runs for the river, telling those following him to meet up at the hermitage.

*(How the muzhiks divided the buried treasure)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Chapter 14 - A Smashing Success and a Dead End

Wherein an ancient wrong reaches its bony hand out toward the present...
Fearing a confrontation with scores of skeletons, the group takes an hour break to strategize. While Dmitri watches the hall leading up to the room, Chonkorchuk has a vision about whether the chamber contains they seek. He sees a skull-topped key, and informs his companions that there may be a key in the room. He then recommends that they return to the surface for sacks to carry the treasure in, as no one sought to bring any. Lionia, however, opines that there is no reason to get sacks, as it’s unclear there is any treasure in the room – the task at hand is dealing with the skeletons. Raskel proposes using a Misty Step spell to enter the room behind the ranks of skeleton warriors to search for the key. However, this would leave many skeletons unharmed. Plamen proposes dealing away with many of them with his thunder magic, but Chonkorchuk fears there are too many. In the end, it is agreed that Plamen will instead attempt to summon a Flaming Sphere, which persists for a longer period of time, while the familiars search the room for a key. If the press of the skeletons proves to be too much, Raskel will play the flute to immobilize them. In his estimation, that would hold them at bay for an hour.
Finally, with a plan in place, Dmitri outlines a doorway with Plamenka’s sickle, and Rodion burns the final sigil on her sash. The outline glows green, and Dmitri, with Plamen’s help, pulls the portal open. Inside, the chamber is filled with skeletons top to bottom. There are perhaps a hundred of them or more. A few are dressed as Kochmak warriors, like the ones they have encountered around the warren previously. The bulk of them are unarmed, and dressed in rotting rags. While the warriors immediately begin to harry Dmitri, who is blocking the entrance, the unarmed ones begin to fling themselves at another doorway on the left-hand side of the room, apparently trying to destroy it. Another similar doorway glows on the right wall.
While Dmitri holds the warriors back, Plamen conjures his flaming sphere in the middle of the room. Chonkorchuk and Rodion blast magic over Dmitri’s head, to relieve some of the pressure. Druvvaldis provides support, and bolsters the team’s élan by summoning a bear spirit. Kutkh, as well as Chonkorchuk’s invisible fefila sneak past the combatants to survey what’s happening. The room is too packed to see anything on the floor, and soon, one of the skeletons swipes at the crow, dispelling it. Dmitri and his supporters succeed in felling some of the warriors, but in the meantime, the unarmed skeletons smash through the left-hand doorway, and begin piling out of the chamber. This requires a change of plan, as the skeletons must be stopped from leaving. Raskel blows upon the flute, and all of the skeletons stop moving.
The band moves into the room. There are too many skeletons to find anything on the floor at present. The fefila darts past the immobile skeleton sitting in the hole burrowed out of the doorway by its undead fellows. It discovers another chute on the other side, leading to the surface. It signals to its master that it has a very bad feeling about where they might be heading.
The fefila returns, and stepping carefully so as not to provoke any frozen skeletons into action, the group opens up the third glowing portal on the right-hand side. Beyond it is yet another corridor. The six treasure hunters follow it behind Druvvaldis’ beetle, and find themselves in the most maze-like part of the warren. Dmitri suspects that the maze might not actually lead anywhere, and in the end is proven right – there are multiple dead ends, including one at the very end of the series of tunnels. A search reveals that there is nothing to find there. There is concern that the skeletons will reawaken, so the group hurries back. But near the last dead end, Chonkorchuk does detect necromantic magic behind a wall. It seems that there are more skeletons, and probably another chamber (though almost certainly not as many as in the place they just came from). Unfortunately, the sigils are all used up. Someone must learn the right spell, and find ingredients to inscribe more sigils on the sash – until then, it seems that there is no way in.
A demolition forty years in the making
The band hurries back to the skeleton chamber before the enchantment expires. Once there, they begin smashing the skeletons to smithereens using staves and bones – first the last of the warriors, then the others. Eventually, they stand in a foot or more of bone rubble. A search of the floor and what’s left of the bodies reveals a few peasant-type bundles, and the remains of designs on the linen shirts they were once wearing. These skeletons are almost certainly the peasants of Trofimovka that were captured in the raid forty years ago. Are they now heading back home? Raskel also finds a series of six impressions in the floor underneath the bones. Five are fully concave, but one is just an outline of a circle. He wonders if it represents the flute – with one open note, it would match the final note of the song he played to immobilize the skeletons. Perhaps each room with skeletons has such a key, he wonders.

But there are more pressing problems. Raskel, Lionia, and Dmitri want to figure out where the escaped skeletons went, while the others hold down the fort in the bone room. There is freshly fallen snow in the meadow, so Dmitri can’t track them, but the trio head toward Lazarevo, and after coming halfway, hear shouts in the village. Almost certainly, the skeletons came here. What will happen now? Will angry villagers head toward the warren? The three return to the bone room, and then the whole band relocates to Plamenka’s chamber, sets up camp, and ponders its fate. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Annoying Anachronisms

There is no particular epoch which fantasy-historical RPGs must model. In theory, crossover genres mixing aspects of the archaic, baroque, modern and futuristic are all the rage, and perhaps that is for the best. But in practice, there is a particular period which is all too often reproduced in game settings. That period is our own.

There is nothing particularly surprising, or even problematic about this. Our own age is the one we live in, and are most familiar with. Accepting features of our of society simply as "the way things are" is second nature to us. When we invent worlds de novo, we do not know them anywhere near as well, even if have taken the time to make up their religions, languages, and history. Given the presence of a huge number of blank spots, and the imperative to conjure things up on the spur of the moment, we understandably turn to what we know. Sometimes, we turn to well-worn tropes in contemporary fantasy literature, written by authors who are products of the same world as ourselves.

But sometimes, certain features are overused, to such an extent that continuing to replicate them constitutes a large-scale failure of imagination. We play RPGs to explore, to push back boundaries, and to learn new things. When settings become cluttered with the same baggage, boundaries retreat, and doors close. Sometimes, we should try snapping ourselves out of ruts where we implement the same material over and over, even if it requires a bit of work and preparation. Doing things a bit differently will, under the right conditions, cause our players to play their characters in new ways as well.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not object to the features I discuss below being in specific fantasy-historical settings. Some of them are not, strictly speaking, modern inventions at all. What I find distasteful is their near-ubiquity, their generally modern form, and the relative lack of alternatives.


The stereotype of the tavern as the starting point of adventure is so pervasive that some recent publications have even shifted to treating them ironically. Thus, the Yawning Portal tavern is the linchpin tying together a multiplicity of old school adventures. You finish one, then return to the tavern to learn about the next one. The tongue-in-cheek element present in the construction obviates looking for other connective elements (though I know from personal experience that people running Tales from the Yawning Portal seek something more substantial as the tie-in for a campaign).

Taverns are the places you go for news and information. It's where you learn whether anyone is trying to kill you, and why. It's where you make connections with seedy, underworld types. And it's where you go looking for a fight if you can't think of anything better to do. The entire world recedes behind the tavern, because there is really nothing worth noting going on anywhere else that isn't the dungeon.

Taverns, of course, are nothing new. Alcohol consumption has been part of human society for some 6000 years, and much of that consumption has taken place in public. But the form of the public drinking establishment has varied greatly. The fantasy RPG tavern is a curious blend of the late medieval and Renaissance English pub and the modern dive bar. Like the former it should have a colorful name like the Yawning Portal; you can even generate similar names randomly here and there. Like the latter, it has a bar, at which the regulars sit, and booths, where adventuring parties can confer quietly.

Over their 6000-year history, most drinking establishments did not look like this. In many cases, "publick houses" (hence, pubs) were simply private homes which were opened to customers seeking victuals and potables, which were usually produced in-house. Oftentimes, these establishments did not have a name, and were simply known as "the house of so-and-so, where you can get something to eat and drink".

It may seem like a minor point, and perhaps even a poor choice to make establishments less flavorful and memorable by calling them Johnson's instead of the Merry Mermaid. But the differences need not be merely cosmetic. Family-run taverns usually organized space differently than modern bars, which invariably serve as the models in games. If you drank there, you were essentially invited into people's house, into their familial environment. You were in a common area, sitting at tables (or even a single large table) with other patrons, and mingling with the servers, and often, cooks. If the tavern doubled as a hostel or inn, the guests also slept in the common area (or in a shed, with other guests, and not in private rooms made up with beds, chairs, desks [!], and other hotel furniture short of a TV). There was often little or no division between the areas where the food was prepared and the drinks poured, and the area where the customers consumed what was being served.

A more typical medieval tavern
The atmosphere of such establishments was more intimate. Although money might be exchanged, the visitor was more guest than client. The host's or hostess' family, including children, was usually present. It was significantly more likely that outlandish guests attracted much more attention than they would in a bar, where the only important thing was that they paid with coin. Children could become fascinated with, or frightened of, exotic visitors. Family problems would be much more visible, and the proprietors much more likely to ask powerful-looking strangers for help (without offering much in return). Long-term friendships and intimate relations with family members might arise much more frequently, but so would incidents where a desperate family might murder or rob a wounded adventurer. On the whole, a frequenter of such establishments would more quickly become integrated into the fabric of the local community than the customer in a modern-type bar.

If adventuring parties are looking for information, or meetings with influential people, there are places to go other than taverns. Most cities and towns had public squares, where markets were set up, and where gatherings of the town assembly took place. Some cities had town criers who announced important news at such venues. The harbor or port is another locale to gather news, and so are religious establishments. The latter may even provide free room and board, though supplicants can expect to receive offers to join the flock, or donate money later. A caravansarai (if such an institution exists in your world) is another place where information about interesting locales, or even work as a caravan guard can be acquired. With their open-air layout, mysterious alcoves, and beguiling stories by mysterious foreigners, they provide a very different feel from the typical tavern.

The citadel of the local ruler is also a good place to gather information and offer one's services. Trying to get an audience with the ruler or official isn't the same as going to a bar and spending some coin. It might involve preparation (like buying presentable clothes, or the procurement of gifts, or forging letters of introduction), but the role-playing opportunities at such venues are arguably greater and more varied than in taverns. And coming to know the local notables is another step toward integration in the community.

Wealthy merchant cities had feast circuits where important people met, hobnobbed, and exchanged intelligence. Those who gathered there wielded influence and had money to spend. As members of the elite, many of them were also skilled combatants, thus privy to knowledge about expeditions and adventure. Getting invited to a feast wasn't easy if you were an unknown or a new arrival, but trying to gain admittance by performing in public, or pretending you were a foreign prince could sometimes result in an invitation. If that didn't work, hiring oneself out as a servant could get you in the door, where you could then overhear all kinds of things. How often are adventurers in the position of servants, instead of customers? Why aren't they? As a variant, VIPs can also get together in a bathhouse; it would really change things up to have an encounter there, rather than in a bar.

Finally, all too often, taverns are nodes in a widespread criminal network. In fact, the slum-filled metropolis was a fairly rare occurrence in history before the 18th century. Most societies were simply not wealthy or stable enough to afford a large criminal underclass (plus, punishments for even minor crimes were generally quite severe). People who engaged in criminal activity were not career criminals, but generally poor people who acted out of need. This doesn't mean that there are no gangs, or gang-infested taverns in the cities frequented by adventurers. It does mean that thugs and thieves usually have day jobs, and spend time at establishments other than bars. I recently ran a session in which players were looking for a companion who disappeared. It turned out that he was last seen in the vicinity of a fishmonger's shop. The owner of the establishment, and a few sailors who supplied him with wares were subcontracted by a notable to make an undesirable person (one of the PCs) disappear. They were not mafiosi or thieves' guild members, just sailors and a small merchant who wanted to supplement their income. The fight that took place in the shop was great fun to run (the fishmonger flung a fish at one of the PCs at one point). Yet another barroom brawl would likely have been much less interesting.

Mercenary Companies

Can't think of why the PCs should be working together? Make them part of a mercenary company! Mercenary companies do what adventurers like best - the collect disparate individuals from different walks of life together into a team that likes to kill people and other creatures for money. In a way, mercenary companies are even easier than taverns - instead of going around looking for the right people at the right bar, and spending money to learn things, you just go to the headquarters of the mercenary companies, and see what the boss needs done, or just look on the bulletin board.

Like taverns, mercenaries have been around since antiquity, but they were not ubiquitous. Typically, the widespread use of mercenaries required the coincidence of two partly contradictory factors: political and social instability, coupled with high levels of wealth. Such conditions prevailed in 14th century Italy, which was politically fragmented, and significantly richer than the rest of Europe owing to its greater integration into long-distance trade networks centered in the Muslim heartlands and other parts of Asia. Mercenaries were convenient auxiliaries for seigneurs and urban republics because they did not fundamentally threaten internal social balance. Mercenaries turned to brigandage and kidnapping on occasion, but they lacked the wherewithal to take power into their own hands, at least not for long, and they could be quite easily destabilized through the fine art of poisoning, provided the right commanders were targeted. This was the golden age of mercenary companies, such as the renowned White Company, headed by the Englishman John Hawkwood.

But these conditions did not last. Already by the 15th century, the city-states that hired mercenary companies turned to standing armies, in part to address the problems of brigandage and the mercenaries' loyalty deficit. In addition, as the wealth gap between Italy and other states began to flatten or disappear (in great part, because of the discovery of the Americas), opportunities for mercenaries to earn good coin as 'guest workers' began to dry up. Technological advances directed rulers to invest more money in cannons and defensive fortifications rather than mounted mercenaries. So, while mercenaries have been around for a while, they were far from common, and prospered only under certain conditions.

Another factor to keep in mind about mercenary companies is their structure. Judging by the form they take in many GMs' settings, mercenary companies are made up of various unattached individuals from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and possessing diverse expertise as specialized warriors, safe-crackers, demolition mages, and so on. In fact, mercenary organizations were significantly more homogenous than that. Some were simply composed of the retinue of a particular aristocrat who was looking to make some money, or carve out a new domain. In other words, the mercenaries were actually bound to their captain by oaths, and not merely by wealth. Outfits like the White Company were more diverse, but even they consisted primarily of Englishmen. Maintaining the coherence and fighting élan of a military unit was much easier if its members share a sense of identity, and a language. Most of the private mercenary companies in Italy during their 14th century heyday were composed of Englishmen and Germans, and companies would frequently get into scuffles with one another to defend national pride. Identity factors typically do not figure at all in most fantasy RPG mercenary groups.

White Company mercenaries. Note the obvious distinction
from SEAL-style commandos
Perhaps the most noxious instantiation of mercenary companies in games is when they are explicitly presented as fantasy versions of commando or special ops units. Their tools and training are hyperspecialized, and they reflect a division of labor that one simply does not find prior to the 20th century. To me, technology disguised as magic makes the magic lose its mystery. If people want to play larger-than-life characters patterned on modern exemplars, fine, but it's the incessant replication of Navy SEALs in fantasy garb that's becomes grating if you've seen it one too many times.

I have suggested several alternatives to the mercenary company-style adventuring party organization. Perhaps they are all bonded to the same lord or lady. Perhaps they are traveling with a caravan, pilgrim group, performers' troupe, or gang of vagabonds. Perhaps they all originate from the same village, and are actually related to one another. It's not that these approaches are necessarily "better" than just making everyone into a mercenary. It's just that it's different, and builds on the recent imperative to actually make characters real people with social ties, rather than bags of statistics.  Why bother having a background if the only thing you use it for is to narrate stream-of-consciousness thoughts before you swing across the chasm in a special rope contraption while blasting minions with smithereens from your rechargeable wand?


Of all gaming anachronisms, this one is the most anachronistic, and my pet peeve. Everybody who is anybody has an office. The commander of the watch has an office. The gang kingpin has an office (usually several, so they are harder to track down). The priest at the local temple has an office. Mercenary companies, of course, have offices, and tavern owners have offices, too, somewhere in the back.

What do they all do in those offices? Well, produce and collect documentation, of course. All transactions in fantasy worlds must be documented. Not only sales and purchases, but also reports on everything imaginable. All people in offices carry on wide-ranging correspondence, in writing. And, owing to the absence of computers, such documents are all filed away, using a rational system, like alphabetic order. In filing cabinets.

There is a built-in assumption in many popular fantasy RPG systems that nearly everyone knows how to read and write. If that is the case, then perhaps the mass production of documents is not out of place. However, mass literacy was a rarity virtually everywhere prior to the late 19th century. Even in places with relatively high literacy rates, such as Renaissance Italy, or Greece in the 5th century BCE, the ratio of literate people rarely exceeded 25%. And even then, a lot of the writing was done on things like potsherds, owing to the fact that there simply wasn't much stationery available. Because the large-scale manufacture of writing implements doesn't make much sense if most people are illiterate.

This 'office' was called the Steelyard. Note what this
merchant wrote on, and how he filed documents
There were many reasons why most people remained illiterate until fairly recently. The most important has to do with the fact that most people were engaged in primary production (i.e. agriculture or herding, when they weren't hunting or gathering), and primary production does not in itself require documentation. There was insufficient surplus available to maintain more than a few record keepers and manipulators of symbols. And training people to use these symbols was a lengthy and expensive process that most simply couldn't afford. Additionally, those that could read and write generally tried to prevent most people from trying to learn, because they knew that knowledge was power, and did what they could from upending the established social order in which they enjoyed privileges (in fact, periods when literacy and documentation expanded were usually periods of great social convulsions). So, if mass amounts of documentation were not produced, there was no need of offices, and certainly not office spaces. For people who did know how to write, and did store documents, their "offices" often had multiple functions - counting houses, scriptoria, libraries, coffee houses, domiciles, sand so on. In other words, offices spaces doubled as manufacturing, consumption, or residential spaces.

How much damage can you do with
this mace of office?
The word "office" and its cognates has been around since the 12th century or so, but initially, it simply meant "work", "function", or "service". The position was not symbolized by having a space with a desk in the corner of a glass-and-concrete building, where you could enjoy a view from two windows, as opposed to only one, but by a weapon - a staff or a mace - granted by one's superior or a religious official. This object was usually ceremonial, and kept in a treasury, from which it was only removed on special occasions, but in a fantasy world, a commander of the guard is much more likely to be swinging a magical mace of office and dealing damage with it than hanging out behind a desk, shuffling papers.

The definition of an office as a place of business is not attested prior to the mid-16th century (significantly, about a century after the European invention of the printing press). Most office workers at the time labored away in state chanceries, which were relatively small institutions compared to later ministries and departments. In subsequent centuries, joint stock companies like the Dutch East India Company - a globe-spanning conglomerate that functioned much as a state in the areas in administered, were among the first to actually construct office buildings that served as their headquarters. In some cases, they had earlier prototypes, such as the kontors of the German Hanse (another early "multinational corporation"). But such operations - progenitors of today's corporate multinationals - were exceptional - a far cry from our own age of office ubiquity, where "going to the office" is nearly synonymous with "going to work".

A related institution where documents were kept - the library - certainly existed, but was significantly rarer and more difficult to access than is the case in many RPG campaigns. Usually, getting admittance to one is about as difficult as getting a library card if you are a contemporary gamer moving into a new town. But monastic scriptoria were often fortunate to own ten volumes, and those who labored there frequently had to write books on top of older ones, owing to the dearth of writing materials. Huge libraries existed, but institutions like the Great Library of Alexandria, or the Bait al- Hikma in Baghdad were truly extraordinary. They did not survive to our own day precisely because the materials they housed were so fragile, which in turn necessitated restricting access. There is a great sequence in Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind (to use an example from fantasy literature) that depicts the difficulties of the hero, a matriculated university student named Kvothe, from accessing the university library, despite the fact that he technically had the right to do so, and had to, in order to complete his education and become a scholar. There were restrictions at every turn, often thrown up arbitrarily by those who guarded the stacks, simply as a demonstration of their power. There was a restricted section where the truly valuable tomes were kept, and it was inaccessible to virtually everyone. And even having access didn't guarantee being able to find anything, because, in the absence of a universally recognized system of classification, each new library administrator invented a new one upon gaining the office. The whole place was a hot mess, and finding what you needed was a long-term enterprise that usually required the help of friends. To a lesser extent, this would apply to searching for the right thing in someone's "office": things are tucked in randomly here and there.

I would personally prefer if every written document, even a shopping list, contained a magical spell inscribed on it, to having offices stuffed full of well-organized documentation on every corner. It would be extreme, but it would better represent the phenomenal power writing possessed in most ages. In my Lukomorye game, I don't even bother making casters with spellbooks find special ink or stationery to scribe new spells, since the regular thing is hard enough to find. I also make Literacy a distinct skill that you need to possess if you want to be able to read and write. Magical spells can be written in normal languages, but since most people can't read, it might as well be a magical script. So reading and writing are rare, but at least there are no office buildings to deal with. I should note that my Wax and Wendigoes setting has fairly widespread literacy, and even joint-stock companies (hence, not a few offices). But that's the thing - it shouldn't be the only, or even the most common type of setting.

Does having few or no offices complicate meeting the right people at the right time, and keep you from what you want to do? Not necessarily. It might make meeting important people different every time (see 'Taverns', above), instead of a rerun of the same social situation. Since people's work tends to be more active, and often takes place outside, rather than in an office, NPCs might need to be tracked down. Perhaps you will need to make use of messengers, which involves entering into another social relationship. Perhaps one of the messengers is even a PC (why are rogues and bards never messengers?). Perhaps finding the VIP necessitates the use of spells, which can involve planning and strategizing. I actually find that some spells, like Augury, are much too underutilized in the game, in the same way that meetings in offices are overutilized. Meetings with office-holders can then take place in a variety of locations - feasts, bathhouses, and yes, taverns. And breaking into places that contain records would be a major undertaking, because documents are so precious. They would be protected by magical wards and guardians, and be difficult to find. So mind-reading and scrying spells would find much more use than they typically do as well. As would Harry Potter-style memory globes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Chapter 13 – At Death’s Door

Wherein the band discovers another trove...

Plamen decides to take a day off after his eventful foray, to have a chance to charge some holy water prior to returning to the warren. He feeds his remaining berries to Dmitri and Druvvaldis, and the two are now fully recovered. They have had a very successful couple of days trapping in the woods, and have managed to catch four hares, which Lionia cooks up into a stew.
Over the evening meal, Chonkorchuk relates the content of the visions he saw at his recent retreat. He is now more certain that the grain is not the treasure Baba Yaga seeks, and is willing to return to the warren to look for another treasure room. There is still disagreement about what to do with the treasure if and when it is found, and Plamen still displays a great deal of skepticism about working with Lionia and Rodion, but nevertheless, all are in agreement about returning.
Should treasure hunting fail, another career awaits Raskel
Rodion spends the next evening studying and playing Plamenka’s flute. Set to Druvvaldis’ accompaniment on the drums, it produces a mournful yet enchanting sound. Given what he knows about the magic contained in it, the workings of Plamenka’s other items (the sickle and sash), and its likely purpose, Rodion divines that it is likely a mechanism for calming the walking dead – probably a charged item, which is discharged by playing a particular sequence of notes. He questions Plamen about whether his mother ever sang to him, and the healer recalls a simple, three-note tune, which Rodion reproduces, and masters.
The following day, drizzle changes to light snow, and over the season’s first winter tapestry, the entire band returns to the warren. With the new earthworks, the way inside is clearer now, and the group, led by Plamen, moves in the direction of his previous skeletal encounters. Led by Rodion’s dancing lights, they make it to the entrance of the long tunnel leading to Tsibulka’s tavern, the band encounters the four skeletons fought  by Plamen two days ago, though only one of them is still operational. He throws a spear at Dmitri, and puts up a good fight, but it ultimately smashed by the ranger’s spear, with an assist by Druvvaldis’ frosty blast. At the conclusion of the encounter, the group inspects the remaining skeletons, wondering whether Plamenka’s ghost has been reanimating them. Not these ones, it appears.
Plamen leads the group away from his family’s chambers, hoping to thereby save their lives. The way is now lit by Druvvaldis’ fire beetle, summoned up to replace the deer and raven. Thus illuminated, the band encounters four more animated skeletons in the maze. At this juncture, Rodion-Raskel slips past the boney patrol, and tries out the flute, succeeding in immobilizing three of the four. The remaining one is dealt with by spear and blasts, while the other three are finished off in due course, as they cannot effectively defend themselves from the party’s assault after being immobilized. So two questions appear answered: there are more animated skeletons, and Plamen’s song is effective when performed on his mother’s flute.
A confusing series of mazelike tunnels, with several dead ends, terminates in a final dead end. This area is unfamiliar to Plamen, and Rodion, who has been mapping, thinks there are no other tunnels nearby. Chonkorchuk checks for the presence of magic. A massive aura of necromancy radiates from behind this wall…