Saturday, February 9, 2019

Lukomorye By Gaslight: Response to Dreams and Fevers

Eugène Jansson, Hornsgatan by Night (1902)
Wallpaper for the Dreams and Fevers blog

A 'response' to a review typically involves contestation, and not infrequently, a fair amount of snark. This is not what I aim to do here: my main goal is to be responsive - to acknowledge the attention the author has devoted to my own work, to note the degree to which their concerns overlap with my own, and only then, to clarify areas where our perspectives diverge (and to offer some thoughts as to why they do).

The reviewer in question is a Toronto-based undergraduate who authors a new gaming blog called Dreams and Fevers. I have come to know them simply as "T". Since encountering T virtually on (the soon-to-be-defunct) Google+, I have also come to know them as a player in one of my Lukomorye campaigns, and they have impressed me as a broadly knowledgeable person, especially for one so young, and especially in Northeast European/Eurasian history and mythology - subjects arcane subjects, as far as most gamers are concerned. In their review, they drew not only on the Lukomorye Player's Guide that I recently circulated online, but also on various blog posts I wrote over the last two years. Many of these concerned issues not directly related to Lukomorye per se. Thus, T displayed an engagement with my writings that even a published game designer would be privileged to have elicited from a reviewer. For all of this, and for publicizing his review on various social media, they have my heartfelt thanks.

Instead of a composing a long introduction discussing our shared interests, I will just dive into the substantive points of the Dreams and Fevers review, and allow our commonalities and differences to emerge organically in the course of my response. A reader wishing to obtain a more granular view is best served by reading T's blog (as well as this one).


Mike Mearls has recently remarked that anyone who wants to self-publish RPGs needs to understand that the art is the most important part of the product. T makes a similar point about the art and layout of Lukomorye. They are particularly unimpressed by the the faux 5e layout format, the insufficient space for some quality illustrations (notably, Viktor Vasnetsov's 1882 masterpeice Bogatyr at the Crossroads), the lack of proper credit to the artists and illustrators, and the editing.

I don't really have much of a defense in this regard, except to recapitulate the fact that Lukomorye is a work in progress, and to acknowledge that illustration and layout do not rank particularly high in my skill set. I initially started using the Homebrewery platform, frequently used by homebrew designers and Dungeon Masters Guild authors for its ease and familiar layout, to throw together some individual monster stat blocks. As time went on, the collection of "brews" grew to include races, classes, and ultimately, whole chapters, and eventually expanded to a book-length .pdf file. As this transpired, I knew that I would eventually have to try my hand at InDesign, which I've toyed with, but which has so far seemed a daunting undertaking, requiring time to master a much more complicated instrument. Time, which I've thus far devoted to research, writing, and design.

Illustration presents an even steeper hill to climb, given my lack of talent, as well as incongruously exacting ideas about what I would like the finished product to look like. Ideally, the first page with the floral border containing Pushkin's prologue to Ruslan and Liudmila - which T marks as the most attractive page in the book - is in fact fairly close to my vision of what I want the final product to look like. Public domain illustrations by Vasnetsov, Bilibin, and other classic Russian illustrators would certainly have gone into the finished product as well, with full credit. There are not enough of them to fill a rulebook, however, and I would certainly have to solicit original art, for which I do not for the time being, have the funds. For now, the illustrations are place-holders, largely for the benefit of my players. I have been given unsolicited advice by another reviewer about where I could find free illustrations. It is a venue worth exploring, but for quality illustrations that match the vision, I would probably have to turn outside the gaming community, and pay through the nose. That, or wait for my 12-year-old budding artist daughter to hone her skills (assuming she in fact wants to be exploited by her father).

As for editing, the book has been through one full redaction, though every time I look, I find new typos or mistakes. I still return to do rules tweaks as issues come up in the game, but I don't figure I'll do another thorough edit until I reformat the LPG on other software. These tweaks often require expanded text, which sometimes results in image shrinkage. It's unfortunate that this happened to Bogatyr at the Crossroads in particular, since I've long been a big fan of this illustration, and have used it in academic presentations long before Lukomorye became a serious project.

I also agree that a pronunciation guide for some of the Russian terms would have been helpful, but it's actually a more difficult task than it seems. First, I'm used to the formal Library of Congress system of transliteration, which is useful for scholars who can read Cyrillic script, but less so for gamers, who cannot. Transliterating words like "volkhv" (the Slavic counterpart to the druid) presents special challenges to anglophone players not used to Slavic consonant clusters. In other words, transliteration often requires the design of a new system, suited to the task. And as it is, simply listing Russian and transliterated titles for the classes and races is already a turn-off for some potential players.

But enough said about art and layout.

Character Design

On the whole, I'm largely in agreement with T about what the strongest and the weakest parts of the design are, although in spots, I think they underappreciate the complexity of making a design that is simultaneously (relatively) balanced, resonant with existing 5e rules, and sufficiently respectful of the folkloric or historical source material. I should add that this applies not only to Lukomorye, but to 5e design itself.

In Chapter 2, like a number of others who have looked at Lukomorye, T likes the new skills (Consumption  - the ability to hold one's food and drink, and to thereby impress the hosts - and Literacy), as well as the Pravda and Krivda points that serve as a supplement to the Inspiration rules and a partial replacement for the alignment system. They think that a system for awarding experience should be detailed here, though a player's manual is really no place for that. Curiously, T later complains about some generic rule variants in Chapter 7 that are not specifically tied to the setting. What they propose here would certainly be another instance of such a generic system. Awarding XP is an idiosyncratic business, and a lot of 5e GMs prefer to not be bothered by it at all. In any event, the plan was to make the XP system part of the (forthcoming) Lukomorye World Guide. But partly at T's prompting, I have recently laid it out here.

With regard to races (or Kinds, as I call them here - partly because "kind" strike me as a better translation for род (rod), partly because the language of 'race' in RPGs has always rubbed me the wrong way, precisely because it is inevitably understood in a modern and not a medieval sense): here I feel that T lets their OSR predilections get the better of them. Though they like the fluff descriptions of the various player options, they find the mechanics unimpressive, and wish the game reflected a more humanocentric, OSR-type system. With regard to the latter, I can only say that Lukomorye is not, strictly speaking, a historical simulation, and I think leaving out non-humans in a Russian-based fantasy setting would have been a huge missed opportunity: the folkloric creature types are simply too interesting to leave by the wayside in order to conform to any sort of design model. And I say this as someone who finds much to like about OSR, and who usually plays humans when on the other side of the screen. My players' interests in the various Kinds has been pretty well distributed between humans, changelings, shapeshifters, and more alien creatures, which suggests to me that both the selection and the writeup are somewhere near the Golden Mean. Making the selection more human-focused would have probably meant either a) bonuses for particular ethnicities, which is even more distasteful than "races" to begin with; or b) jettisoning kinds altogether to focus on feats/special abilities. This, I think, would have resulted in a substantial loss of color, and long lists of generic "feats" that are not particularly representative of the setting.

T wants the Kinds to have a unique "shtick", like the ones in the 5e Player's Handbook, but at the same time, they complain that the PHB, with its passive bonuses and race-class synergies, doesn't do it enough. In fact, glancing through the PHB, the "unique shtick" design is used inconsistently. Elves still have their Fae Ancestry, halflings now have luck, half-orcs have a slew of features (Uncanny Endurance first and foremost), and dragonborn have a breath weapon. Dwarves' resistance to poison is not really much of an outstanding feature (and notably, T dislikes resistance to necrotic damage as "the" feature for Lukomorye changelings); their true "shtick" is the ability to wear armor regardless of class, which, to put it mildly, is not very interesting thematically or design-wise. Gnomes have saving throw bonuses, which no one else gets, but which are not very "gnomey". Tieflings and drow, like Lukomorye changelings, get a slew of resistances and cantrips. If one were to suss out a design principle from these, the Lukomorye chudy (Fair Folk, more or less) do, pace the reviewer, have one, or even a couple of unique "shticks" (even if some of these are 'lifted' out of the PHB: they have stonecunning, they have sunlight sensitivity, and they can talk to small animals). They may seem like a hodgepodge of elves, dwarves, and gnomes, but the point is, no other Kind has these characteristics in Lukomorye. As far as giving them knowledge of a great secret, as T recommends - this seems like something best left to individual player backstories.

The fundamental point is that the race designs in 5e itself do not have "unique shtick" or "new types of party synergy for a new dungeoning experience" as their prime directive. 5 is a legacy game that wanted to bring people back to experience traditional character archetypes. In a sense, Lukomorye does that, too, although the archetypes it seeks to represent are not D&D-fantasy, but Russian-folklore-fantasy. The design is from the archetype up. In that regard, a basic cantrip like Mending seems like a good feature to give to a half-domovoi (a changeling birthed of a human-'house goblin' union; the latter keep the house clean if well-treated). To me, cantrips seem underutilized as racial features, given that non-humans have particular affinities to magic. From the point of view of player preferences, extra cantrips are always attractive (especially in a system where magic is subject to various limitations). No one has played a half-domovoi yet (though there have been plenty of other changelings - half-ovinniks [human/barn goblins], half-poleviks [human/field goblins], half-rusalkas [human/water nymphs], and half-letuns [a kind of cross between a tiefling and a dragonborn]). If someone ran Lukomorye for me, I'd definitely play one: I like their down-to-earth feel, for the same reason I like humans. In general, most of the Kinds in Lukomorye are able to pass as humans, which does make it feel more like a human-centric game while at the same time giving players the option to run interesting non-human characters.

Additionally, I feel like it's not quite fair to say that the "shtick" of the changeling characters is reducible to resistance to necrotic damage. First of all, the changelings in Lukomorye are not really a race in the way D&D dwarves are a race - a distinct group sharing physical and cultural characteristics. They are a very broad group of creatures that share descent from nechist' - "unclean", goblin-like beings. Beyond their "unclean" blood, which gives them necrotic resistance, they don't share much with other changelings, as they are descended from very different types of nechist' beings. There are nine subtypes of changelings, as opposed to the usual two or three. Each sub-type is much closer to a "race" in its own right - the better analog for changelings is 'demihumans' (a term that has dropped out of 5e owing to a proliferation of races). And the unique features of each type of changeling are not a particular ability, but the complex of traits. The bonus magic and skills they receive are not random, but thematic: ovinniks get Animal Handling, because they live in barns, and preside over barnyard animals. They get access to fire-starting cantrips because they are creatures of fire. There is no fundamental difference between that and a vodyanoi's ability to breathe underwater (because he is a water creature). T prefers the latter as a defining ability, but does it really make a difference if the feature is expressed in terms of a spell or not (in fact, the vodyanoi's "amphibious" trait is described in terms of the Water Breathing spell)?

The ovinnik as represented by Pathfinder
The creature's stats are pretty similar to what I assign to the
half-ovinnik changeling in Lukomorye

On the whole, I understand the penchant for wanting a unique shtick for each type of creature - it does seem like elegant design. Perhaps, as Lukomorye evolves further away from its 5e roots, a redesign along these lines might make sense. But at the same time, I think the "shtick" approach can become a false idol. I don't (at present) see how each changeling can be assigned its "own" ability without making a hash of the folkloric bases of these creatures. And assigning them a "shtick" simply because "it's good game design" is putting the cart before the horse. From what I can gather, people want to play changelings because they focus on the story aspect. What is it like to grow up among humans, and be different? To be constantly drawn to a world beyond the human social sphere? To try to blend in, while knowing you never really can? That seems like the main reason people choose to play different Kinds. It's about character development - and that's something a 5-type game does better than OSR games, with their much higher level of character mortality.

T gives the shapeshifters more love - because they have an obvious game-changing "shtick" - the ability to change form. Making them was more difficult, because shapeshifting and getting a bonus attack are such powerful abilities, that they have to be nerfed by a series of crocks, and a staggering of features until higher levels - otherwise, no one would want to play any other Kind. Simply copying the Eberron changeling (much closer to Lukomorye shapechangers than Lukomorye changelings) seemed uninspired. I don't know if Eberron fans like changelings, but I saw nothing outstanding about them story-wise. As for my shapechangers - they are part lycanthrope, but also part fairy tale beast (not unlike those in the Uncle Remus stories), and it is the latter aspect, and the mechanics that express it, that makes them appealing as characters. As a result, they have a rather large number of (positive and negative) features that may not be optimal from the point of view of simplicity and clarity. The same applies to the giant volots, which were also difficult to balance (but making them Medium-sized, like 5e does with goliaths and firbolgs) seemed like a cop-out, so I opted for an experimental design that limited the buffs they get from being Large-sized. Like the chudy, they were added to the lineup late for the sake of increasing variety. I may want to change them in the future, but both types of creatures are popular with players (though probably because they remind them of 5e cognates).

There is little to say about T's take on Stations (backgrounds, but slightly altered to be more along the lines of occupational groups) and Callings (classes, with their quality as heroic professions stressed to a greater degree than usual). They like them, and likes them for the right reasons. The stations are historically based, so they would work for a mostly human, or low-magic (or straight historical simulation) game that T prefers. I agree that the callings are the best part of the rulebook, and if anything, the reflavoring of the standard classes for the setting was even more fun to do than designing new classes. I was certainly more cognizant of the "shtick" imperative here than I was with the Kinds, but this sort of emphasis seems more necessary for classes than for races (which seems to be reflected in the 5e design as well). I agree that the bogatyr (knight errant) is muddier than the fool, though I'm not sure at this point what I can do better, and how. I definitely will not remake it as a barbarian archetype - the flavor is just too different, and the Bogatyr's Might feature is not rage - it is much more versatile, though it has similarities mechanically (in terms of uses per long rest). Flavor-wise, the bogatyr is more paladin than barbarian, but the spells and the ability to lay on hands just don't work for an Ilya Muromets or a Dobrynia Nikitich. Ironically, Bogatyr's Might may actually be closest to a fighter's Action Surge and Second Wind. But bogatyrs as a distinct class strike me as too good of a thing to get rid of even if it leads to a somewhat muddy hybrid design. They definitely need mounts (whereas mounted combat gets very short shrift in 5e in general). There is more justification for them to have d12s than for barbarians due to their physical differences with normal people. In the end, I like the idea of them as 'the sorcerers of the martial classes' - characters who are born to their calling more than they are trained for it.

Speaking of muddiness, I'm a bit surprised that T likes the priests - a traditional cleric reconfigured along the lines of actual Orthodox or Catholic clergies. The point was to enhance their casting options in such a way as to transform them into something akin to religious wizards. But doing that also muddies the design, because the lack of combat prowess makes it necessary to provision the priest with features like more versatile variants on channeling divinity, a much more extensive spell list, access to socially useful abilities like Mysteries, and so on. In general, I think 2e actually made it much easier to fashion this sort of cleric than 5e, which makes it much harder to tinker with hit dice and armor. But I'm glad T chose to play a Dominican priestess (more or less) to help me test this design out. Until now, there have only been two priests played: the first one died a heroic death at 1st level while trying to steal an icon from a nunnery; the second one I played myself when my daughter was trying her hand as DM for the first time. She was a bit of a monty hauler when it came to awarding XP, so my advancement along the sacerdotal career ladder was probably not representative. 

The foreign callings in Chapter 8 were a bit of an afterthought. In a bid to make it possible for players to take class options not commonly available to characters in the Land of Nor' (an analogue to Rus', with the name being derived from a 'Noriki' - a synonym for 'Russians' that crops up in the Primary Chronicle), I relegated paladins, wizards and monks to this section. Figuring that Muslim character types need some representation as well, I looked at options in 5e homebrews of the al Qadim settings, and found them a bit lacking. In particular, the absence of a a sacerdotal clergy in Sunni Islam increasingly made me want to design a non-magical cleric/administrator, rather than taking the Gygaxian model as a template. The Magistrate calling was the result. Is the Magistrate's signature feature - reciting scripture to negate enemy actions - contrived? Probably. In a vague sense, my model for the Magistrate was the non-magical Scholar class in Adventures to Middle Earth. They have more of a story-game kind of feel, and seem a bit more contrived than the Magistrate. A lot of their abilities were based on preparations the character supposedly made before the adventure. The Magistrate is a an attempt to make a similar character on a more simulationist basis, where player choices and rolls represent character actions, rather than plot twists. To another reviewer, generally less favorably disposed toward the whole project than T, these unique features made them attractive. Perhaps their appeal is greater to a power-gamer (as opposed to historical-gamer) mentality.  I don't know. Time will tell how they perform during play. So far, there has been one Magistrate, but it was active during the more roleplaying-focused sequences, and didn't get to test many of its features.

Lastly, T's concerns with regard to the Krivda accumulated by amoral spellcasters seem like the product of a misreading rather than that of a different design philosophy. Pravda and Krivda points are given out for particularly altruistic (or selfish and cruel) actions, respectively. They can be given for any sort of action and to any character, whether what they did involves magic or not. These points work similarly to Inspiration, except the fact that they can be stockpiled, and the fact that they must only be used toward 'good' ends (for Pravda) or 'evil' ends (for Krivda). Accumulating a lot of one or the other probably affects a character's conduct (since you have incentive to use the points you have). But they do not really hamper a character mechanically. The (variant) rule with respect to arcane casters is that they must find a way to unload their Krivda points prior to death if they do not want to rise as one of the living dead. The best way to do so is to impart your Krivda to an apprentice prior to death. But in any event, a character's death is a rare enough occurrence (and what happens after death is generally outside the scope of the game) that worry about what happens then is most likely a roleplaying challenge than a mechanical limitation to the character.

Mechanics and Flavors

T is basically correct to ask whether the mechanics for interaction, exploration and combat are of a piece with the rest of the Lukomorye Player's Guide. Most of what one finds there have little to do with Russian-flavored historical fantasy. The core of the chapter is simply a bunch of houserules that I have accumulated since I began playing 5e.They began with a "gritty" healing system, initially based on what one already finds in the DMG. The one main aspect of 5e that I find myself unable to accept is the near-total recovery of hit points after short and long rests - partly because it just "feels" wrong to someone who grew up with learning resource management in the old AD&D game, partly because the "balancing" assumptions of 5e entail having a very combat-centered game to justify this easy hit point recovery. In addition to that, I developed a critical system that incorporated lingering injuries, a fumble system and a system for spotting the opposition. Over time, these rules were tweaked and refined, and supplemented by a more granular system for skill checks (derived more from 3e than any other ruleset), rules for adjusting AC based on creature size (ditto), some systems for downtime activities (largely inspired by Xanathar's Guide for Everything), a morale system (based on the old AD&D DMG) and a few other houserules.

It's hard for me to judge how "intuitive" these systems are for anyone who is not me. The system for critical hits has quite a few variants depending on the severity of the wound (whether it was caused by a critical hit, a reduction to 0 hp, or both), and the type of weapon or damage that caused it, but implementing it is quite speedy, and I have not found it to break up combats (especially since in practice, many effects occur after a fight is concluded). A few rules do seem ponderous (like the system for catching thrown objects). This was something I was aware of when I was designing it. Mostly, it was an exercise in making a "logical" system based on rules that were already in place, and seeing if I could easily implement it. The reform (or even overturning) of the system of catching objects is something I'm certainly not opposed to. I mostly just want to experiment with these rules, and see if I can get to a point where I can use them with speed and facility. If I (or anyone) can get there without too much sweat, than they're "intuitive" enough. If not, then they're not. The same applies to e.g. the morale system, which is fundamentally a "translation" of the one Gygax made (but probably didn't use) for 1e. The "rulings, not rules" guideline is just as important for Lukomorye as it is for 5e in general - so I saw no reason to include clear statements on whether e.g. undead should be affected by morale considerations or not (it should be added that Lukomorye nezhit' aren't wholly identical with D&D undead).

T is also irked by my providing DC values for actions that "one should be able to do" - like tie a knot in a rope that suspends one's pants - but these are there largely as humorous examples of actions with a DC level of 5. For the most part, they can be easily ignored, though losing one's pants in combat from time to time could be an amusing ice-breaker.

There are a few examples of systems in Chapter 7 that are more or less setting-specific. Downtime rules for making successful marriage matches or doing charitable works, knowledge DCs for awareness of specific political and religious institutions - these systems are a good fit for Lukomorye, though arguably, they would be useful additions for most historical fantasy settings. The AC adjustment for size is also important, because it is factored into the AC for 'critters' that appear in Appendix 5 (and whoever thought it was a good idea to give a cat 12 AC has never tried to catch a cat that didn't want to get caught - just ask Arya Stark).

Fundamentally, Chapter 7 is there as a reference for my current players, rather than something that needs to be there in a player's manual. In the interests of having all non-standard 5e rules as one file in one place, it was better to include it in terms of 'full disclosure' of what characters might be up against, and so perhaps to help players make decisions about what choices to make in selecting character options. But as Lukomorye transitions from being a vanity project to something that may have marketable value, it is quite likely that most or all of these rules will get axed, and revert to what they are - homebrew options.

In terms of the larger issue of the relationship of the variant's rules to its style, I think T is right to note a disjuncture between the fairy tale flavor that seeps through in the Guide and the emphasis on grit and social embeddedness that I have outlined in this blog, but probably wrong to characterize the disjuncture as a contradiction. The issue is a compound one. First of all, there is no necessary connection between grit and embeddedness. OSR games are typically gritty, but tend toward the asocial - the characters are dungeon delvers or travelers to distant lands, but their own social bonds and obligations are remote or nonexistent. Second, there is no necessary disjuncture between embeddedness and a fairy tale setting. The idea that classes are callings, or incorporate archetypes is pretty resonant with the notion that mythological (hence, fairy tale) heroes are embodiment of archetypes. In fact, the random tables to determine family relationships are explicitly based on fairy-tale tropes (twins, seven brothers, orphaned children, etc.). Moreover, in certain cases, the causality between what appears in Lukomorye and the theoretical considerations are expressed in my blog posts is the reverse of what T suspects. Covens and the priestly hierarchies were designed first, and later the general ideas they express percolated into more general musings about class.

Most importantly, although T has taken the trouble to search through posts on this blog to contextualize the ruleset and style of Lukomorye, they seem to have missed the most relevant post - "Introduction to Lukomorye: A Setting of Russian-Themed Fantasy" - one of the first to appear in this space. In it, I detail various styles of play which one might select to play in it (these are also to appear in the Lukomorye World Guide). The list of styles - a riff on a similar list of fantasy styles from the 5e DMG - includes tropes like heroic fantasy, mythic fantasy, fairy tale fantasy, fantastic voyages (a twist on swords & sorcery), historical fantasy, and rustic horror (horror with a Gogolian twist). It is unarguable that magical fairy tales are a central influence on Lukomorye. But a quick look at the character types reveals that they are far from the only one. The bogatyrs are derived from the byliny - a cycle of heroic lays that, unlike fairy tales, do have some historical substance. Nechist' and changelings are creatures of popular religion and mythology, not fairy tales, and have a much grittier, horror-type feel to them. Lukomorye rogues, as well as its political and social structures, are historical in origin.

The upshot is, Lukomorye is not a fairy tale, dark horror, or a historical simulation, but a) is all of these mixed together, injected with a dose of D&D-type fantasy, and/or b) offers the person who runs the game and the players who play in it a chance to emphasize one style over others. The Lukomorye Player's Guide also says as much, right in the Introductory chapter, and then again in the final appendix on source materials. None is unquestionably the "right" approach. And although I think 5e D&D high magic rules are well-suited for a fairy-tale type game, I don't agree that a fairy tale game necessitates starting characters to be accomplished heroes. That is demonstrably not so in many fairy tales and legends themselves: Vasilisa the Wise is a simple peasant girl living in a bad family environment who gets sent out to the woods to look for light (she does happen to be related to Baba Yaga, as it later turns out). Ivan the Fool is the idiot no one takes seriously. And Ilya Muromets starts out as a cripple who cannot walk! So folkloric characters very much have to deal with gritty, medieval Russian reality from the start. They don't turn into archetypal heroes until later in the narrative.

Nu Pogodi!'s Wolf boogies with Baba Yaga in the iconic hut
There is a wide enough field in which crossed styles do not become
a tasteless mishmash of 'generic fantasy'

Another point outlined stressed in the introductory chapter of the LPG is that what makes a Russian-style fantasy game different is the alternative distribution of 'civilized' and frontier spaces, as well as the mythic and mundane spaces. Typically, fantasy games divide into those that emphasize historicity and social embeddedness, the frontier and gritty adventure, or a truly mythic landscape. Given the characteristics of Russian geography and history, these lines are much more difficult to draw. The Forest and the Steppe are distinct, but the Forest is itself a frontier area, one that starts at the edge of every town and every village. The mundane and the mythic intersect within most villages - often, all you need to do to find unclean spirits or uncover the Old Faith is a trip to the bathhouse, or to the local wise woman. There is no reason to track to the proverbial dungeon. So the idea that setting needs to emphasize one specific fantasy trope is out of place in Lukomorye - by design.

As I underlined in the post on non-equilibrium 5e, which T cites in support of the fact that my general (gritty) outlook on the game conflicts with Lukomorye's fairy tale character, my choice of system is specifically guided by the fact that it is sufficiently supple to facilitate its development in a DIY direction. This is precisely what makes it possible to develop a spinoff variant like Lukomorye, and to suffuse it with variant play styles.

Taking Stock

On the whole, T's review is insightful, and their judgments and conclusions are more often accurate than not. I am particularly thankful for their appreciation of what both they and I agree are the best parts of the manual - the callings and the stations, as well as the appendices dealing with the Realms ('planes') and religion. I am also pleasantly surprised by their appreciation for the equipment chapter, which players without their level of historical knowledge are sometimes impatient with. I made the equipment lists more extensive than they need to be because I had a few good sources to work with, and decided to err on the side of completeness. In a published version, I would probably have to cut back.

T's criticisms of the graphic, formatting, and editing aspects of the project are on target, and I can only be thankful for their patience and ability to look beyond these flaws and to see to things that they (and I) find worthwhile. I do have my work cut out for me in these respects, but given that a more or less complete version of the Guide exists, I do think that the glass is more than half full.

With regard to what T flags as the weakest parts of Lukomorye, I am largely in agreement. Down the road, all or most of the seventh chapter will likely be excised. If parts are saved, or transformed into a set of homebrew rules for players only, some weak rules will have to be revisited. I would like to test these rules out in play for a while longer before I make the final decision.

To a lesser extent, that applies to the Kind design. I see where T's criticism is coming from, but at this point, my feeling is that someone who sees the setting and the system as they do can easily just focus on the more human characters. With time, I may come around to do a more streamlined design with more of a focus on "shticks". But at this point, what I see in terms of player preferences, as well as my own reading of 5e race design in general, is telling me to wait, in favor of 'doing no harm' in the long run. The key thing here is again, playtesting - the more the options are put in play, the clearer it will be if changes are in order.

Lastly, I believe that our stylistic preferences and design visions simply diverge at a certain point. T sees the disjuncture between the fantastic and the historically grounded to be a bug, whereas I see it as a feature. My choice of the 14th century as a historical backdrop was largely dictated by the fact that the Appanage Period which coincided with Mongol rule brings together the largest set of tropes to explore on a single canvas. Russia neither ancient nor modern, neither frontier nor empire at this time, the presence of paganism was still quite evident, and the fact that the Mongols feature so prominently in Russian epic and fairy tale consciousness makes it possible to investigate the myriad ways in which all these features might interact in a game. T's own Meager Country game, which I find an interesting project, is a more classically OSR-style construction, where 10th century Rus' plays the role of frontier for a more sophisticated Dar al-Islam. For my part, I see that period as an example of a recurring attempt to transform the region that would become Russia into a secondary core, rather than a typical instance of a urban metropole/underpopulated hinterland relationship. And, in a game with this backdrop, I would always be wondering what Baba Yaga, Zmei Gorynych, and Koshchei the Deathless are up to.

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