Whither Russia?

Matt Colville asked on Twitter recently “How is your campaign setting different from everyone else's? What's the weirdest thing about your world?” One of many replies was “It’s based on Eastern European/Russian folklore.“ I studied Russian history in college thirty years back and I’ve been working on my “Lands of Khos” dark faerie tale Slavic setting since shortly after The Witcher III dropped in 2015. I’m still far from finished, but it feels like there’s lately been a lot of material sprung from this zeitgeist in the D&D world. When I arrived home, I found my copy of Ussura had arrived. I decided a cursory review of some of the Slavic fantasy influences in D&D might make for a post or three. There are a lot of reasons a D&D game set in a fantasy version reflecting Slavic Eastern Europe/Russia elements makes a good fit. I thought I’d also maintain a living bibliography for those looking to build a world inspired by similar sources. A summation of what follows might easily be “My campaign world project is not all that weird.” A lot of dark faerie tale and Slavic fantasy game settings have proceeded it. I’m okay with that.

Ivan Bilibin,  Tale of Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf  (illus.), 1899

Ivan Bilibin, Tale of Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf (illus.), 1899

I never played in the default setting for 4th edition D&D, but I liked the description of it & felt like the whole “Points of Light” thing recalled something primal in Dungeons & Dragons. 4E’s Nentir Vale was described as a cold and sparsely populated land, a frontier dotted with ruins and monster lairs. It brought to mind Gygax’s Keep on the Borderlands, & reminded me of my early years play in Judge’s Guilds’ Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting. For me, part of D&D fundamental setting was always near post-apocalyptic. There was a Golden Age in the past where people and things we know little of constructed and dwelt in these amazing places that have since fallen into dissolution. The reason these dark corners haven’t been explored, (and this is where the adventurers come in), is not only because these places are dangerous, but also because the lands are… big. They contain a frontier so vast that one could spend lifetimes exploring it. It’s a place has enough of the familiar to make it relatable in game and narrative terms, but a place that is also strange and unfamiliar. To me, a westerner, that’s the draw of Russia -a concept that contains both West and East. A place of contradictions and therefore a place for my fantastical grotesques alongside Whitman’s multitudes.

Another common trope in Dungeons & Dragons for me are its connections to heavy and later “viking” metal music. I’m not as versed in this connection as many, but I’ve skimmed its surface at enough at least to absorb its shibboleths. You see it in the early artwork, in the popular conception of vikings, in R.E. Howard’s Conan, in other Appendix N fiction, and as a result, in many of the role-playing hobby’s early and current devotees. My roots in the hobby go back to the Satanic panic of the early 80s. From this mental space, my mind wanders to the Rurik dynasty, Kievan Rus’ and the Varangians. For me, the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons explorers were viking peoples & so it only makes sense that the borderland frontier for their adventures might be placed in a fantasy version of the East Slavic lands and beyond.

I’ll return here to edit and maintain all the resources I’ve been using to build my “own private Novgorod,” but for now I’ll point simply to the first in Basic D&D’s Gazetteer series The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (GAZ1) as an impetus for me to follow this Slavic path. I wanted to someday run the well-reputed adventure module Night’s Dark Terror (B10) which is contained within this duchy. I read of Karameikos’ Rugalov keep, its Patriarch Aleksyev Nikelnevich, its meandering Volaga River and my course was set.

Living Bibliography:

GURPS Russia S. John Ross, Steve Jackson Games Publications. S. Jackson Games, 1996.