Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chapter 11 – Phantom Pains and Phantoms

Wherein the companions perform several sensitive operations, but then find themselves haunted by an old problem.

The band strategizes its next move, as it wait to see if Dmitri will wake up. A real healer is needed if the ranger’s arm is to receive the proper attention. The obvious answer is to find Plamen, but in light of recent events, it may be difficult to convince him. Lionia, surprisingly, undertakes to speak to him and make things right, and with the discovery of the grain, he thinks he has the leverage to convince Yelizarov to let the healer go. Raskel is willing to stay behind in the underground granary – as good a place as any to keep it safe, while the rest of the group is out dealing with their injured companion. He gives one of the four sacks – his share, as he sees it - to Lionia, to stash at his house in Medunitsa, and the Old Fox takes two sacks, turns into a fox, and runs off.
In a few hours, Dmitri wakes up, alive, but in great pain. As he cannot climb up the chute under his own power, Druvvaldis comes up with a plan to have his conjured deer-spirit drag him out once ropes are tied to his feet. The plan is successful, and, along with Chonkorchuk, he helps guide Dmitri toward the Yelizarov keep. As they get to the frozen river, they see a figure crossing it from the other side. It turns out to be Plamen himself. The healer met with Lionia earlier, who apparently told him that his mother was killed by a skeleton with flaming eyes – a story mooted earlier with Raskel. He then somehow convinced Yelizarov to let the hostage go, though before he left, Plamen had a religious discussion with the boyar, and solicited for himself a small icon of they boyar’s own manufacture in exchange for a promise not to harm it in any way.
Chonkorchuk nixes Lionia’s tale, and relates the story of Lionia killing Plamenka and dismembering her body (though he says he tried to stop it). Plamen is beside himself with grief, though he is undecided about which story is true, because he cannot understand why anyone would carry out such a desecration. Still, he agrees to accompany the trio back to the keep (there being no better option) to see what he can do for Dmitri. Druvvaldis, though, has no wish to stay at the fort; he takes one of the remaining sacks of grain, and uses it to buy himself a rest for the night at the Yelizarovka waystation).
Hopefully, they are getting the right limb
At the keep, Yelizarov undertakes to help, as Dmitri is still technically in his employ. With the assistance of all assembled, Plamen inspects the shoulder and tries to reset it. But he concludes that it is too fragmented, and cannot be salvaged. Yelizarov helps with having the arm removed, and the tough patient survives the ordeal. Along with Chonkorchuk and Plamen, Dmitri rests at Yelizarov’s for the night. Then, he has the arm fed to the dogs, and they all return to the warren the following morning, after collecting Druvvaldis.
As they approach the meadow, the fefila warns Chonkorchuk of great evil ahead. Looking up, they see a ghostly form drift toward the opening in the ground, and disappear down the hole. Getting everyone down the chute is expectedly complicated. Dmitri, now more unmaneuverable than before, gets stuck halfway down, as the dirt has frozen once more. He is freed, not without effort, by the fefila, who is an expert burrower. Then, with Chonkorchuk in the lead in place of the injured Dmitri, they skirt past Plamen’s room, and are assaulted by a floating spirit in the long corridor on route to Plamenka’s chamber.

You, again?
The spirit appears to look like the warren’s old mistress. She utters curses toward the band, though no sound comes out of her mouth, and then swoops down to attack. As she passes through, first Chonkorchuk, then Druvvaldis and Dmitri, they feel a wrenching pain, as if life itself is being yanked from the pit of their stomachs. Resistance is disorganized, and only Chonkorchuk is able to do any kind of harm to the spirit with his magic. Plamen attempts to entreat it, and unexpectedly, after having savaged Dmitri, it flies over him, and back toward the entryway. Feeling drained, even despite Plamen’s ministrations, the band proceeds toward the granary. But on route, Plamen is exposed to a frightening sight in Plamenka’s chamber: his mother’s charred and disembodied corpse, as well as the charred and picked-over carcass of his sheep.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Pravda and Krivda

I've been thinking about introducing an ethical mechanic rooted in Russian folk culture for some time, and this week, I finally wrote one up. The mechanic will invoke the twin concepts of pravda and krivda. As linked traits,  the two would function somewhat analogously to the Inspiration mechanic. Pravda means truth, justice, and the righteous path, where as krivda denotes crookedness, lies, and injustice. The two ideals are sometimes personified in the popular imagination. Aside from the holiest of saints and the wickedest of sinners, most people survive by trying to walk a fine line between the two, though they will lean toward one or the other at different times in their life.

When a character commits a particularly righteous act - defending the weak, telling the truth when it is disadvantageous, or goes without so that another may enjoy an advantage, the GM may grant the character a point of Pravda. Conversely, when a character commits a particularly heinous act - tells a lie that has an especially deleterious impact on someone, backstabs an ally, or forces another to suffer so that he or she can benefit, the GM awards the character a point of Krivda.
As with Inspiration, points of Krivda and Pravda can be used to grant advantage on rolls, but with the following differences:
  •  Points of Pravda can only be used to help other people. They cannot be used toward evil ends, nor when the character is trying to benefit only themselves. They cannot be used in neutral situations, ethic (e.g. if a character is trying to recall a bit of lore or information).
  • Points of Krivda, conversely, can only be used toward evil or selfish ends - deceiving and betraying others, and benefitting at their expense. They cannot be used to give aid, or in neutral situations.
  • Unlike inspiration, points of Krivda and Pravda can be accumulated.
  • However, Pravda and Krivda cancel each other out. For example, if a character with three points of Pravda has accrued one point of Krivda, the point of Krivda cancels a point of Pravda, and the character now has two points of Pravda to use toward righteous ends.
  • It is possible to recoup points of Pravda or Krivda by using them, but not every usage has that result.

Note that accumulating too much Krivda can have significant drawbacks. A character who has more effective points of Krivda than their Charisma modifier will be making all Charisma checks vis-à-vis anyone aware of the character's behavior with disadvantage.
The Pravda-Krivda mechanic may be thought of as a replacement for alignment. Rather than defining themselves by adherence to an ethical or moral dogma, most characters struggle to live up to their higher ideals, and are defined more by what they *do*, not what they believe.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Chapter 10 – Just Rewards

After much time and effort spent on learning their way around a new platform, the Lukomorye Five get down to business.

Having taken a brief rest, the band decides to settle in for a longer stay. Plamenka’s magical tools are in their possession, and too much blood has been spilled to leave the warren empty-handed. The two doors are locked, to keep any other guardians from wandering in. Lionia is feeling peckish, and suggests cooking Plamen’s sheep, now that the bread given by Yelizarov has been eaten. Chonkorchuk ventures that Plamen might get upset when he learns what happened to the animal he was nursing back to health, but Lionia reminds him that he will probably be upset about what happened to his mother anyway. The other two carnivores present agree that a bit of meat might be a good idea.
Fefila - from Vishevetskaia's hand, to a dungeon near you
While the sheep is cooking, Chonkorchuk decides to call upon the Queen for a bit of additional help. He has seen visions that suggest she sends servitors to aid especially loyal followers, and given his efforts, he thinks he is deserving of one now. In his dreams, he has seen a creature called Fefila, created of a divine spark and fallen to earth, as a fine companion – solicitous of its master, adept at protecting him from magical attacks, and able to find salubrious fruit in even the unlikeliest places – particularly useful now, given the healer’s absence. In an hour’s time, a scratching is heard outside Plamenka’s bedchamber, and a curious, red creature with tufted ears, looking a bit like a cross between a squirrel and a beaver, emerges from a small hole in the wall, reassuringly whistling and warbling. Dmitri immediately dubs it a ‘squeaver’. The squeaver fefila presents Chonkorchuk with a large berry, which he breaks up into parts for himself, Dmitri and Lionia. Those who eat it now feel full – but the sheep is already roasting on the fire. The fefila crawls up on Chonkorchuk, and turns invisible, after which it melds minds with its new master, and explains how that is done.
In the meantime, Raskel is busy transcribing some magical formulae from memory using the ink he received from Yelizarov. Having filled three sheets with arcane scribbles (and tossing one of them on the fire), he makes a more thorough search of the room, discovering jars with dried herbs, and several containers of oil. The band requisitions those, and refills the lamp that Plamen picked up on their last visit. Raskel also scrutinizes Plamenka’s special objects, and handles them meditatively. The flute is imbued with some sort of charm, as Chonkorchuk informs him, but the other objects have transmutative effects, and work in tandem. The sickle is used for preparation for gaining entry, the fire from the lantern provides the trigger, and the runes painted on the sash are the agent.
The rest of the band rests and meditates for about half a day, while the sheep roasts. After everyone has eaten and slept, it is time to continue the hunt. From the far door, they continue down a series of mazelike corridors. Raskel remembers the way well, and before long, the band stands before a wall, beyond which Chonkorchuk senses a necromantic presence. Raskel goes to work: he draws an outline of a doorway on the wall with Plamenka’s sickle, and then snips off a section of her sash with one of the mystic symbols on it, and throws it onto the lit lantern. The door glows with an unnatural light, rocks and sand begin to crumble out of the crevice, and the door slowly swings inward.
Inside the room, four more skeleton warriors lie in wait. These comport themselves rather better than the previous four, and moreover, they benefit from the fact that the narrow hallway allows only one person to engage them effectively, at least at the start. Dmitri  gets the worst of it, as he faces off with a swordsman and a spearman poking at him diagonally. He hasn’t managed to recover as well as he might have from the previous encounter. The bony warriors press him, and after Lionia manages to send down one enemy with a well-thrown dagger that shatters a skull, another one sends the wolf down with a spear thrust to the shoulder that seems to come close to going through his throat. Lionia pushes into the room, but has little success. Chonkorchuk follows him in, shooting blasts of magical energy. Druvvaldis summons forth a bear-spirit to aid the collective effort, and thus aspected, tries to blast his way in also, while Raskel, who merely distracts the skeletons with illusory hounds until the very end, brings down the last remaining skeleton with a blast of his own.
The band members turn to their fallen comrade, who lies bleeding out on the floor. The fefila can offer no help, and Raskel and Druvvaldis try to staunch the bleeding by tying a scarf around the shoulder, but the blood flow is too rapid, and the scarf too threadbare. Desperate, Raskel manages to stop the bleeding with his sling, seemingly at the last moment. Dmitri is at death’s door; worse, his arm is hanging by a thread. The resourceful fox has a needle and thread; under direction of Druvvaldis, who has heard a lot about medicine, but has never performed surgery, he tries to sew the arm back on before it’s too late. The arm is now attached, but it looks like it’s merely hanging on by the threads.
The treasure. But is it pure?

Their comrade apparently stabilized for the time being, the rest of the band checks out the chamber. In the back of the room are large stone bins filled with grain. Is this the polevik treasure? Chonkorchuk sees a vision of a bony hand reaching out for silver, and concludes that it probably is. Lionia suggests that the party look around the rest of the warren, as there are areas that have not been explored yet, but Chonkorchuk says this was the only area where Plamen was not allowed to go, so it likely is. Lionia estimates that there are between 50 and 100 poods (several thousand pounds) of grain. He rejects Chonkorchuk’s suggestion to store the grain at his hermitage, branding it “unsafe”, and recommends his own house. The rest of the party decides that aside from the four sacks they have to fill, this is as good a storage place as any for the time being. Druvvaldis does summon forth a deer to help take what they can now. Lionia, however, recommends that the band can gain much more by selling a little at a time, and waiting for the famine to drive grain prices through the roof. He also suggests that the grain may yield influence – more valuable than money if it comes from the right people. Chonkorchuk insists that the treasure should be given to Baba Yaga.
There are apparently no other, obvious or hidden exits in the room, and the band settles in the hallway outside the room to catch its collective breath, and weigh its options.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Chapter 9 – Dough and Bone

Wherein our heroes find themselves in several sticky situations...

Lionia urges the group on – there is not telling when Plamen might follow them, and this is work best done without him. The five cross over the frozen Vydra on foot, and proceed to Crows’ Meadow, skirting around Lazarevo. Plamen knows a long tunnel that leads into the warren from one of the taverns in the village, but no one else has seen it, and there is no telling how confusing the passage might be, and what might be waiting for them there. Better to face the dough guardian – (now affectionately called “cookie monster”) by going down the way they know.
Aren't crows supposed to go to Crows' Meadow?

However, as soon as the group leaves, it is followed by a flock of crows from the woods beyond Yelizarov’s keep. Chonkorchuk is especially worried that they will spy on them, and reveal what they saw to their own nechist’ master. Dmitri suggests misleading them by going into the woods for a while, while Chonkorchuk suggests going back to his hermitage, and returning later. But Lionia is impatient: he says if they wait any longer, more people will learn of the warren’s secret (he nods at Druvvaldis as he says this). In any event, the master of the forest is asleep until spring, and he can be dealt with later. A vote is taken, and the majority sides with the Old Fox – it’s now or never.
The chute into the warren has been partly sealed up, and then frozen, so Dmitri takes to the shovel, and is aided by Druvvaldis, who grows a torch flame, and softens up the dirt. It’s time to give it a try. Rodion conjures up an invisible servitor to carry the torch into Plamen’s chamber, so as to get the cookie monster to follow the flame, and give more people a way to join the attack against him. The plan seems to work, though not without some sweat, as brawny Dmitri gets stuck in the chute on the way down, and has to be wiggled free by Rodion’s arcane hand. When he makes it down, he sees the shape in the chamber, stomping out the torch, so he rushes in to attack with his spear. Lionia soon joins him, though Chonkorchuk, who is next, also gets stuck.
While the hermit struggles to make it down the chute, Dmitri and Lionia are having a tough go of it. The guardian is easy enough to hit, but weapons get stuck inside him, and the monster pummels both repeatedly with his doughy fists, which also make them stick to it. Worse, the dough reforms itself around the rends and divots made by saber and spear. When Chonkorchuk, and following him Druvvaldis and Rodion, finally make it down, and begin blasting the monster, it continues to demonstrate resilience. If anything, the cold makes it tougher. It crushes Druvvaldis’ crow, though he quickly summons a weasel to replace it. Finally, Dmitri manages to pull away enough to change – into a wolf-headed humanoid – and then bites the creature through a hole just made by his spear. The cookie monster’s head comes off, and it tumbles onto the ground.
Having won their way back into the warren, it is time to rest: a lot of arcane energy went into the fight, and Lionia and Dmitri are pretty well pummeled. The five decide to camp out right there in Plamen’s chamber: though the owner might appear at any time, there is hay and straw there, to make for a comfortable rest. The sheep that was there earlier seems to be gone.
Now where the hell is my rusty Kochmak helmet?
After an extended and undisturbed rest, the group is ready to go on. They heard  occasional creaks coming from the tunnels, and Druvvaldis sensed the presence of nechist’ in the area, but nothing appeared. It is best to follow the way they know, especially since it leads to where they need to go – Plamenka’s chamber, and her special trinkets. Progressing around the maze, the group suddenly encounters four skeleton warriors, dressed in scraps of rusty Kochmak armor, around the corner from the Mother’s chamber. Plamen’s lost sheep is behind them, bleating loudly. Perhaps it was set up as an alarm system, because the noise awakens Plamenka, who comes up, livid as ever, behind the skeletons. The skeletons’ rusty weapons prove relatively ineffective, and most of the warriors are dispatched quickly, though Plamenka succeeds in frightening Lionia and Druvvaldis, who flee back toward the entrance. The rest summon up reserves of courage: after Dmitri dispatches the final skeleton, Plamenka sends him to sleep (along with the sheep), but Rodion succeeds in putting Plamenka herself into a deep slumber. Awakening Dmitri, they tie her up in their net, gag her, and put the iron manacles found earlier near Chonkorchuk’s hermitage on her hands.
The battle appears to have been won without murdering Plamen’s mother. However, Lionia, changed to foxman form, soon returns, and while no one is looking, slips a dagger into his hand, and slices at the captive’s throat. While the companions are at first aghast, he shouts that they will never have peace while she is alive. In any event, she has many deaths on her head, as the skeletons warriors attest, and should be dealt with quickly. It is not Lionia’s day, however. He succeeds only in waking the prisoner, and in the blink of an eye, she transforms into a cat, breaks out of her bonds, and vanishes. Rodion manages to locate her and put her to sleep again. In the ensuing chaos, Lionia continues going about his dirty business, Dmitri attempts to shield the falling Plamenka, and Druvvaldis, who has now also returned, aims a frosty blast at her, but hits Dmitri in the back instead. Rodion finally lays her down again with a blast of magical force, but the resilient poludnitsa gets up again. Finally, Lionia hacks her to pieces with his saber. The band drags the mutilated body, oozing black blood, into her chamber, and collapses from

Monday, April 17, 2017

Atypical books as campaign source material

There is nothing particularly innovative about using books as source material for setting RPG campaigns. Some, like the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Amber Chronicles have already been used to build settings (and indeed, mechanics) for use in those specific worlds.

But what if we try to push the boundaries of what's acceptable material outward a little? There are many varieties of literature that do not typically fall into standard gamer purview, or fit into standard categories like "fantasy", "science fiction", or "pulp", but that could, properly handled, definitely serve as backdrops for highly unique and attractive game settings. Some of these might fall under the rubric of "serious literature", and are shunned by a lot of gamers because they are perceived as being "difficult", or "boring". Some may derive from linguistic cultures with which most gamers are not familiar. Some might be children's literature that have not yet been mined for RPGs.

In what follows, I select a number of such books, and highlight their gameable aspects. The list is highly idiosyncratic: it reflects books from my childhood that I have mused over through the years, or those I encountered later that immediately struck me as RPG quarry. There are certainly blank spots, which represent major oversights in my own fiction-reading history. On the other hand, the list deliberately avoids "genre books" classics that already have a strong RPG echo (e.g. Spencer's Faerie Queen, Dante's Inferno, or Stoker's Dracula) or cult classics (e.g. Burrough's Naked Lunch, the Illuminatus! trilogy, or Pavić´s Dictionary of the Khazars) that already have high purchase in the gamer community. The point is to get people to become acquainted with interesting books they may not be familiar with, to share their own lists of titles, and to stimulate a discussion that will expand our collective gamer horizons.

  1. New Atlantis (Francis Bacon).     In general, early utopian literature is a great gaming genre. Here, I choose to focus on New Atlantis rather than on More's Utopia or Campanella's City of the Sun largely on account of its peculiar institution - Salomon's House, but an amalgam of the three is certainly possible. The settings for all these novels are large islands in the middle of an ocean, which are discovered by adventurers during an age of exploration. The society on the island is highly orderly, though it may be egalitarian (as for More), or divided into distinct castes (as for Campanella). Typically, the utopian society does not use money internally, though it is rich, and uses its stock of wealth to purchase what it needs from the outside world. The society is usually both open and closed - it accepts what it regards as rational ideas (for Bacon, that included astronomy, Platonic philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity), but it does not permit regular immigration, and free trade. Unlike for More and Campanella, who have highly visible monarchies, Bacon keeps governing institutions very much in the background, and focuses on Salomon's House  - a prototype of a baroque scientific academy, but also easily recognizable as a Mage's Guild and an employer of adventurers. Salomon's House can direct visitors to procure spell components, seek out ancient tomes and worthy collaborators, and even influence foreign politics by placing desirable candidates on thrones (if they are judged as having potential for advancing knowledge). At the same time, adventurers who reside in New Atlantis over long periods may find that as foreigners, they are deliberately excluded from the halls of power, prevented from integrating into the society, and used to destabilize the outside world to promote the New Atlanteans' "security". 
  2. Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann).     A sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps attracts all sorts of ailing and neurotic patients. Although the book offers subtle commentary on fin de siècle Europe and various modernist projects, it can easily be read as early magical realism. The mountain is separated from the mundane world in the manner of a D&D demiplane, or a World of Darkness horizon realm, and escape from the sanatorium is either impossible or inadvisable (steep cliffs, or possible yetis/icepeople, as the GM sees fit). The denizens of the sanatorium - great models for quirky NPCs - may also be powerful mages, who are seeking to entrap other visitors in their lunatic fantasies (further horizon realms that could be directly accessed from their quarters). The inmates may even be deity-level entities, who appear as patients, but who are simply using the premises to test their mad schemes upon the world. The set-up is somewhat similar to Paranoia, or a Cthulhu Now adventure, set early in the digital age at an asylum where Cthulhu has infected a computer. Here, the role of the mad computer or Cthulhu can be played by a divine-rank psychiatrist, or perhaps even by the gnomes of Zurich, who live deep under the mountain, preparing to unleash a golem-like Davos Man upon the world in another half century.
  3. Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov).     The Devil, who holds an annual ball in a chosen city, has selected early Soviet Moscow, and has descended upon it with a retinue made up of Princes of Hell, in various guises. Some appear as gangsters, some - as middling bureaucrats, and at least one (named Behemoth) - as a human-sized, bipedal black cat. Along the way, they engage in theological debates with Marxist functionaries, hold seances of mass hypnosis, grant pacts to initiates (including the main heroine), and turn a theatre manager into a vampire for refusing to take his own phone calls. This is almost an ideal setting for an urban fantasy using Mage: the Ascension rules, as it involves hefty doses of paradox-generating spell use that completely undermines (or backhandedly promotes) a newly established regime of the Sons of Ether who have gone over to the Technocracy. Additional fun may be had courtesy of one of the resident NPCs (the novel's hero), who is building a conduit to ancient Judea in order to explore the relationship between Procurator Pontius Pilate and a certain Yeshua of Nazareth. For additional hijinks, throw in some of Bulgakov's other plot lines into this setting (a mad scientist who creates a dog-human hybrid; another mad scientist who makes a mistake, and imports the Eggs of Doom into his lab).
  4. War With The Newts (Karel Čapek).     Čapek is best known for inventing the neologism "robot", and with it, the trope of robot revolt against human masters. War With The Newts is a more mature, and in my estimation, better written work (Čapek's gifts as a lyrical writer comes through much better in novel than in dramaturgical form), but it explores many of the same themes. In the book, some pearl divers in the East Indies discover a colony of intelligent, amphibious newts. Local people are aware of them, and advise European sea captains to steer clear of the "sea devils", but sure enough, soon the newts are caught up in the wheels of industrial civilization - first, as zoo curiosities, then as laborers, and ultimately, as fodder for raw materials (the macaroni-class newts, bred on a mass scale simply to produce tissue for manufacturing and pharmaceutical concerns). The newts are overbred to such an extent that the World Ocean soon becomes too narrow for them, and a movement led by a Grand Salamander springs up virtually overnight to make demands to expand the ocean at the expanse of the earth's landmass (where the human masters reside). This is a great 1930s style pulp setting, though given the obviously environmentalist themes Čapek conjures up, it can easily be transposed to an apocalyptic scenario set in our own time.
  5. Old Khottabych (Lazar' Lagin).     This is a children's book that was originally published during the height of the Great Purges, but still gave several generation of Soviet (and post-Soviet) kids one of its most beloved heroes - Old Khottabych. A powerful djinn named Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khattab (Russified as Khottabych) is punished by the King of the Djinns Suleiman ibn Daoud (the Biblical King Solomon) and imprisoned in a sealed bottle, which is then thrown into the sea. 3000 years later, it is discovered by 15-year old Young Pioneer Vol'ka Kostyl'kov, who scrapes off Solomon's Seal, and releases the djinn from his imprisonment. Khottabych has no greater wish than to shower his young benefactor with wealth (jewels, palaces), and to shield him from problems created by teachers and fellow students, all of which he effects by tearing hairs out of his prodigious white beard, and muttering ancient incantations. In Vol'ka, however, Khottabych meets his match, because the young man takes it upon himself to reeducate the djinn, get him to abandon his retrograde ideas on slavery, hierarchy, the power of money, and miracles, and to exchange them for faith in equality and technology: the novel ends with the djinn abandoning magic to become an engineer. Despite the clear ideological message, a lot of people read it as tongue-in-cheek; in any event, Khottabych's popularity is caused precisely by his colorful use of magic, and his eccentricity. In many ways, Khottabych is a Soviet version of the Famous Five books (the djinn leads Vol'ka and his school chums on global expeditions on a flying carpet, to battle Italian fascists and American bankers). It is perhaps even a forerunner of I Dream of Genie, which essentially shares its main plot line.  
  6. Neznaika (Nikolai Nosov).     Another classic Soviet children's book that later grew into a trilogy. Neznaika (literally, 'Know-Nothing') is a garishly-dressed bad boy with no obvious skills or talents aside from fighting, teasing, and generally annoying his friends. He is a Little Person, and lives Flower Town with others of his kind. But this classic children's book set-up soon yields a lot of peculiar elements. Neznaika's home is a gender-segregated commune, and when he inadvertently becomes the leader of a hot-air balloon expedition, he and his commune mates end up in a wholly gender-segregated town, whose population split into two separate settlements as a result of a war between the sexes. In the sequels, where Neznaika and friends travel to a suspiciously Campanella-like Sun City, and then to the Moon, it becomes clear that Neznaika's society is also a classless, money-less communism. Its denizens refer to one another as Brother, have mostly technological and artistic inclinations (but no religion), and end up leading an effort to help Little People on their moon to overthrow a rapacious capitalist order. At the same time, Neznaika, like Khottabych, is a lovable rogue who enjoys taking self-important and preachy Little People down a notch, and who exhibits leadership qualities precisely because he doesn't play by the rules. The fact that he doesn't exhibit much personal growth from book to book is a stark contrast with, say, The Wind in the Willows, where the forces of order succeed in taming Mr. Toad, and getting him to see the error of his ways. The setting, which encourages colorful (if whimsical) characters is easily reinterpreted as a fey scenario with a dose of windpunk and steampunk thrown in for good measure. 
  7. Generation P (Viktor Pelevin).     This is a post-Soviet answer to Generation X and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A literature student comes of age in the very late Soviet period, when the country had already effectively lost the culture wars to the West (the "P" in the title stands for "Pepsi", which became a major American import at that time). As he watches the system collapse around him, he is forced to apply his literary talents in advertising agencies, translating Western ad campaigns into a cultural medium that will be understood by culturally disoriented, and then increasingly nationalist Russophone audiences. After notable successes at work, psychedelic experiences in a decaying post-Soviet countryside, and seances with the ghost of Che Guevara, the hero is discovered by the mysterious and debauched Ministry of Beekeeping, which, as it later turns out, operates a media-driven virtual reality, which, among other things, is responsible for designing the entire Russian political system. But behind the Ministry is an ancient Babylonian cult, whose leader must consummate a ritual marriage with the goddess Ishtar in order to prevent an ancient apocalyptic beast from manifesting in Russia's northerly wastes. This setting, which combines the Matrix, occult conspiracy, and biting social and political satire, would make a good backdrop for a Virtual Adept-centered Mage campaign, especially as it can be supplemented by Pelevin's other World of Darkness-resonant themes (e.g. "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia"). 
  8. Baudolino (Umberto Eco).     A 12th century bard, scholar, and likely pathological liar, the title character sets out to find the kingdom of the Legendary Prester John. After his patron  - the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa dies in the course of the Third Crusade, Baudolino continues eastward into the distant lands of the medieval European imagination. Some are inhabited by the classic beasts of fantasy RPG lore (manticores, basilisks, chimeras, satyrs, rocs, and unicorns), while others  - torso-faced blemmyes, skiapods, and the dog-headed cynocephali - have, inexplicably and unjustly, been ignored by designers of fantasy races. What Eco presents in this lesser known book (compared to the Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum) is a veritable master-class of medieval-type fantasy world design. Not only is there a credible (given sufficient suspension of disbelief) articulation between the real medieval world (from which player characters likely originate), and a fantasy realm packed with legendary beasts, monsters, and potentates; there is also a truly medieval geography - the eastern edge of the oikoumene, where Prester John's realm is located, simply ends: as in Pratchett's Diskworld, water falls off the edge of the world. It's hard to count all the people who won't countenance any but high-magic campaigns, and yet insist on drawing up continents on a globe, where standard physical laws must function. To account for this world's existence, one of the characters  recounts a Gnostic creation myth - a red thread that runs through most of Eco's novels. That makes it possible to run Baudolino as an occult conspiracy game like Nephilim, or, both of which strongly feature historical conspiracies and have modern echoes. But standard D&D - with a twist - is also an eminently workable option.
  9. We, the Gods (Bernard Werber).     We, the Gods, and the other two books of Weber's Gods Cycle, rest on a fairly simple premise: cultural heroes of each nation (both fictional, like the book's narrator, and real, like most of the supporting cast of characters), after spending time as transfigured angelic spirits guarding their assigned humans, are promoted to deity status. As gods, their quarry is no longer individual people, but civilizations. They are given training in world design by establishment deities (most notably, the Olympians), and then set loose on a planet of their own, contending against other newly-baked gods, to see whose civilization will come out on top as the globally dominant one (notably, Werber is a believer in a single world government). Along the way, they engage in intrigues against one another and the tutor gods (most importantly, Aphrodite), and try to give their people a push by entering their own civilizations in mortal guise. Ultimately, the series is best described as Sid Meier's Civilization video game transformed into an RPG. There are annoying aspects of the cycle, like the author clearly favoring 'his people', strongly drawn contrasts between "good" and "bad" civilizations, and strange takes on Toynbee's notion of civilizational affiliation (the Americans are a modern incarnation of the Romans). Still, it's an interesting twist on most conceptions of divine characters in play, and could be fruitfully portrayed using a game system such as Exalted or Scion.
  10. The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon).     Although it won the Nebula Award, this book is not commonly identified with the sci fi genre, but is better described as a noir detective novel meeting alternative history. Set in Sitka, Alaska, which became a locus for a resettled European Jewish population at the start of the Second World War, the novel looks at the final days of the autonomous settlement, which is to revert to the State of Alaska at the end of its 60th year. The resettlement plan succeeded in rescuing the majority of the Jewish population from the Holocaust, but the State of Israel never got off the ground at the end of the war, and Palestine is a messy jumble of sectarian statelets beset by militants of various stripes. The novel's hero - hard-drinking police detective Meyer Landsman - tries to solve a murder mystery as he negotiates the divide between Sitka's Jews and the native Tlingit Alaskans, pursues Jewish mobsters and millennarians, and uncovers an apocalyptic  US government conspiracy to usher in the Messiah and rebuild the Temple in a newly Jewish State. The unique and colorful setting could serve as a backdrop to an investigative game using the Gumshoe system, or perhaps even constitute a twist on an international espionage setting. But to me, Meyer Landsman and his Sitka offer a much richer take on a Dresden Files-type urban fantasy, with Yiddish dybbuks and Tlingit Land Otter People there as otherwordly presences for the professional wizard to summon, bind, and bargain with.    

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chapter 8 – Obstacles Clear and Paths Open

Wherein the band ties up some loose ends, and grows yet again

A stranger with white hair and a patchwork overcoat stands on the banks of the Vydra River. He has a spear and a scythe strapped to his back, a drum hanging off his belt, and a large raven on his shoulder. The raven’s voice resounds in his head, urging him to follow the river eastward. But the stranger is drawn to the opposite bank. There, three fur-clad riders are trotting toward a village about a verst from the opposite bank. The man exhales a cloud of cold air, drowns out the raven’s voice in his head, and walks across the ice. The villagers fishing through holes in the ice cast askance glances at him, but he follows the riders toward the village.
At the waystation in Yelizarovka, the host informs four guests just rousing themselves on a frigid Gruden’ morning that his lord has come to call on them. Boyar Yurii Yelizarov and his two sons – Yulii and Lev, clad in coats with sable collars and cuffs, and with sabers hanging on their belts, stride inside the shed. Yelizarov says he heard about a commotion in the village the previous night. He then questions Dmitri about the previous days’ goings on, and inquires as to why he didn’t return to the fort. In response, Dmitri tells him of his travails, and indicates that he came upon a body in the woods that crows had begun to feast on. He left it in some confusion, and, rather than continuing to search for the dead man’s companions, or their hideout, he decided to head back before running afoul of the wood’s guardians. He encountered Chonkorchuk, Plamen, and Rodion somewhat later, and followed them back to the waystation to inquire into what they were doing in the woods. Chonkorchuk adds that the companions – students of local lore from Lazarevo – were combing through the woods to learn about the cairn, the crow swarm, and other landmarks. Rodion says the party was resting when Dmitri suddenly came upon it, and then engaged its members in conversation that lasted deep into the night.
To all appearances, Yelizarov does not believe these stories. As Dmitri is still in his employ, he tells him to retrieve the body, and to continue his search for the other smugglers, and their base. He agrees to have Chonkorchuk accompany him, though the hermit first wants to look for Lionia. Yelizarov stares at Rodion intently throughout the conversation, and then insists that while the other two are off in the woods, that the redhead remains at his keep as his guest. Rodion consents, and convinces Plamen to accompany him as well. 
Yuri Yelizarov lays down the law in his domains
 As the group is in the process of departing the waystation, it encounters the stranger coming into the compound. The host crosses himself in the stranger’s presence, while Yelizarov gives him, and his raven, a long, parting glance. At the shed, Chonkorchuk exchanges a few words with the laconic stranger, indicating that his friend Rodion also has a crow, before being informed that ravens are different. He gathers his things, and goes off in search of Lionia. From the villagers, he learns that Lionia actually lives in the village of Medunitsa two versts away. He follows the northwest trail, and soon arrives at what locals say is Lionia’s abode. Behind the hut, the owner keeps a large number of beehives (the village as a whole is apparently famed for its apiaries). But no one is home, and after knocking, Chonkorchuk leaves to meet the rest of his party at the Yelizarov keep.
While the rest of the group is traveling to the keep, the boyar points out that the stranger’s raven is following them. He invites Dmitri to a shooting competition: both draw their bows, and launch arrows at the raven, but fail to hit their target. The raven flies off toward Yelizarovka, back to the waystation, where its master is setting himself up for the day. Having paid the host, and setting aside bulky equipment such as his fishing gear, he awaits the raven’s story about what he saw. He then proceeds to follow the group into the woods.
At the Yelizarov keep, the boyar gives Dmitri a sack for bringing back the body. Along with the hermit Chonkorchuk, the trailseeker treads the previous day’s path. The crow flock is acting more aggressively now that Plamen is not there to placate them. Without aggravating the birds or troubling the cairn, the duo progresses until arriving at the clearing with the freshly dug grave. On top of the grave, they discover the body, though, with most of its face pecked off, it’s barely recognizable. It’s not clear why it's there – this is not where yesterday’s combat took place. Dmitri finds tracks leading in the direction of that altercation – clearly, the body was brought here, perhaps as a warning, perhaps as a way to keep people away from the smugglers’ compound. But that search should commence later – it is now time to get the body back to the keep in one piece.
Meanwhile, the stranger enters the woods after skirting the keep. After being set upon by crows, he tries to frighten them away, but after the birds draws back, he blasts them with cold magic. The crows fly at him, trying to beat him down with their beaks and wings, and the stranger barely gets away with his life. As he approaches the cairn, he meets Chonkorchuk and Dmitri, carrying a body. Formal introductions are finally exchanged. The stranger is named Druvvaldis, and he hails from the coast of the Western Sea. Long ago, invaders destroyed his home and killed his people, and he has been wandering the earth in search of what remains of the old world. He is a speaker to spirits, and a seeker of wisdom beyond the visible realm. His companion spirit has pressed him to seek a place called the Crows’ Meadow, where his fate awaits him. Chonkorchuk indicates that he knows the place, and that he and his companions are heading there as well, in search of a treasure.
As they begin to make their way back, they suddenly meet Lionia, who in typical fashion comes up behind them. The old man is fully armed, with a sabre at this side, and demands to know why they are still hanging around his territory. Dmitri explains that they were forced to collect the body, and asks why it was moved onto the grave. Lionia indicates that it was put there to make it easy to collect, and to keep people away from the base. Learning about Rodion’s detention, and expressing exasperation at the party’s failure to mislead Yelizarov, he says that he will have to handle matters with the boyar himself. He then attempts to engage Druvvaldis, and to learn who he is, but the newcomer stays tight-lipped. Chonkorchuk tells Lionia that the spirit-seeker may be useful to the group’s plan to recover the treasure. The Old Fox reminds him that he warned about more people learning about the treasure. He is willing to bring the newcomer along, but insists that the original deal, whereby he gets a quarter of the proceeds, is honored. After some wrangling, Chonkorchuk acquiesces. Lionia then parts ways from the rest – he heads to the Yelizarov keep, they – back to the waystation.
Druvvaldis - another corvid bearer
At Yelizarvoka, Chonkorchuk, Dmitri, and Druvvaldis talk about future plans. The hermit relates the stories of the polevik treasure, his relationship with Baba Yaga, and the search for the Alatyr stone. Druvvaldis expresses surprise that his new acquaintance knows Baba Yaga, but indicates that he has no interest in treasure and material goods, and voices his dislike of the ginger Lionia, and all those who pursue material goals. Chonkorchuk says the treasure is merely a means to an end, and so is Lionia, who is likely freelancing, and not telling his band-mates about the treasure. Dmitri wonders what he has gotten himself into. As Dmitri and Chonkorchuk have no coin, they head out to sleep under the stars, promising to meet their new companion down by the river in the morning.
In the night, Chonkorchuk’s extremities become frostbitten, and he catches cold. Managing to rouse himself, he meets his companions down by the river. The attempts to ice fish are less than successful, but by mid-morning, Lionia reappears. He has succeeded in placating Yelizarov, he says, and Dmitri, and the rest of the group are now off the hook, and free to proceed back to Crows’ Meadow unimpeded. Dmitri ask if Yelizarov would be willing to give them supplies – winter clothes, torches, sacks, a net, a shovel, and a bit of food. Lionia indicates that the boyar should be in a good mood, and amenable. He returns with the requested supplies, and with Rodion in tow – Plamen has been conveniently “forgotten” at the keep. He then calls on the rest of the group to lose no more time in attending to business.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chapter 7 – Two Bands

Wherein our heroes grow into a band, and come to terms with another one after two tense confrontations

Assailants from the woods rain darts and sling stones, then come out swinging!
The dart hits Chonkorchuk in the shoulder, and is followed by two pebbles launched from slings. Four men dressed in sheepskin overcoats and hats, and with scarves tied around their faces to conceal their identity, step from out behind trees, and charge the group, waving cudgels. They surround Chonkorchuk and Plamen, while Fox-Raskel flees deeper into the woods. The battle initially goes badly for the companions. Chonkorchuk is struck square in the ribs with a cudgel, and decides to flee when he has an opportune moment. Plamen is left face to face with all four, though one turns to pick off the fleeing Chonkorchuk with a dart. He initially tries to fight back with his own cudgel, but to no avail – the men’s coats are too thick, and he lands only a glancing blow. He draws out a spirit of bear-kind from beyond, which bolsters the party’s morale, and likely keeps Chonkorchuk alive. He then summons forth a wave of thunderous force to lay low the assailants. The first wave does not deter them, but the second sends three to the ground, blood coming out of their ears because of the impact. The last one standing attempts to flee, but Plamen finally connects with his cudgel, and cracks him upside the head.
Fox-Raskel watches all this from behind a tree. The assailants seem to pay him no mind, but Kutkh the crow shortly informs him that another assailant approaches from the direction in which the companions were walking. He is similarly dressed, but otherwise looks different – bigger, faster-moving, and better armed. Raskel soon sees him – a dark-haired, bristly man armed with a spear and shield, and carrying a quiver and bow on his back. Raskel prepares for the worst, and changes into a fox-man in full view of the man. The man stops before closing with Raskel, and surveys the scene, though shortly, Plamen dispatches the last of the four assailants, and goes over to minister to Chonkorchuk does not pass out from the pain. Raskel asks the new arrival why he is following them, and the man explains that he was actually following the other four, who he claims are smugglers.
The armed man announces himself as Dmitri, and says he is in the employ of Yurii Yelizarov – the boyar whose fort the companions passed earlier in the day. Yelizarov asked him to track the smugglers, to see what they are up to and where their hideout might be. He lost them in the woods, and came upon a frightening cairn (which the companions also passed), and which he claims nearly killed him. He then assists Chonkorchuk and Plamen in checking to see if the assailants are still alive. One has apparently died from the impact of the blast, but the other three are still hanging on. Chonkorchuk ties their hands with their scarves, while Raskel takes the dead man’s overcoat, and rifles through their pockets. A few darts, sling pebbles, copper pulo coins, and two hunting knives are discovered, but nothing else of value, and nothing that indicates who they might be. Their faces don’t look familiar – they simply appear to be young villagers heading out to trap in the forest, but Raskel detects a slight meady, honey smell about them. Dmitri indicates that one of them has only one mitten, which matches a mitten he saw earlier on the cairn.
Dmitri - a well-armed hunter with a canid scent
Plamen uses one of his magical berries to revive one of the survivors, who is quite scared, and willing to spill the beans, apparently honestly. Though he does not directly admit to smuggling, he says that he and his companions were “working”, and that they were going to their hideout to meet up with other associates, who are preparing the base for winter, when sled traffic will travel freely upon the frozen Vydra River. Among their associates is someone named Radei, who apparently stays at the hideout, as well as Vasya – a one-armed guardian whose description matches that of the Galumphing Oaf the companions have been seeking. The smuggler indicates that they were aware that Dmitri was following them through the woods, and tried to mislead him by throwing a mitten onto the cairn. He is quite surprised, however, that Yelizarov had them followed, because he is under the impression that Lionia had “arranged everything” with the boyar. It thus appears that Lionia is part of his band as well, though the smuggler insists that he works with him, not for him. The smugglers attacked, he says, because they thought the group was trying to surround them on their own turf, but he denies they were trying to kill anyone. 
It is now decision time. Dmitri and the others are a bit taken aback by Yelizarov’s role in this, but they conclude he was probably trying to press the smugglers to get a better deal out of them. The nearby cottage might contain the band’s cache, but there is little desire to move against Lionia’s allies at the moment. Unsure what to do, the companions decide to go to Yelizarovka to search for Lionia so they can get some answers, figuring he would have an easy time finding them there. Dmitri follows them, thinking he can at least learn more about what he was really doing, and pick up some new work after his deal with Yelizarov expires – the companions indicate they are looking for treasure, and might be interested in taking on a little muscle. They release the prisoner, who runs off in the direction of the hideout, and leave the two survivors warming one another under their coats (they take two others sets of clothes, as well as the other objects found on the smugglers), and head back to Yelizarovka.
After a few misadventures (Raskel gets caught in a snare near the fresh grave, Dmitri pokes at the mitten on the cairn, and feels a bit queasy as a result, Plamen sends the flock of crows to feast on a dead body near the smugglers’ cottage), the four arrive in Yelizarovka, and buy a place to stay for the night at the local waystation. After they finish off the venison, Kutkh informs Rodion (who by now has changed back) that a sizable group of people is resolutely approaching the waystation compound. They take positions around the perimeter, and one of them heads for the front gate, converses briefly with the host, and then heads toward the shed where the companions are holed up. Nervous, Dmitri slips out the back, and hides.
The man turns out to be Lionia. He tells the party that it’s time to deal, as he has something they want, and they have something he wants. There is a bit of wrangling regarding who was responsible for the altercation. The companions now know where Vasya is, and where the hideout is located, though Lionia points out that they can’t relate this information to Yelizarov, because they are responsible for the death of one of his peons, and he will want restitution. He does seem grateful for the information about Yelizarov’s spying on the smugglers. In turn, he pointedly reminds the group that the longer they wait, the more likely it will be that someone else will move to take the treasure. Plamen is still reticent to move against Plamenka, though he is willing to stand aside and let Lionia and the other companions take the treasure provided they use stealth or magic to keep her asleep, instead of trying to kill her. The old fox suggests that the tracker may make a useful ally, and replacement for Plamen in this endeavor, and asks if he might come back inside and join the parlay. Dmitri returns, and the rest of the group fills him in on what they know about the poleviks under Crows' Meadow warren, the treasure, and its ultimate destination. Lionia agrees to meet the group outside of Lazarevo in three days time, when everyone has finished recuperating. With regard to Yelizarov, Lionia agrees with the group that it’s a good idea to play for time, and then to blame the death of the smuggler on the crows (who were invited to eat his body anyway). Before he departs, Lionia asks for the two sets of winter clothes the companions took off his smugglers, and they acquiesce.