Fort Mutska 0104

More of a trading outpost than a redoubt, the wooden palisades of Fort Mutska peek furtively above the waterline on a hundred hectare island at the fork where the Zamok feeds into the Alavil River. Fort Mutsa is the headquarters for a frontier trade company headed by two Riverfolk gentlemen, Fishbone & Opivy. Fort Mutska’s defensible island and the reputed gregariousness of Riverfolk make it a popular location for adventurers and myriad other outcasts for both repose and rumor-mongering.

Riverfolk or otherwise, all of the furriers, trappers and scouts of the Mutska Fork Collective (MFC) are equal partners, with Fishbone and Opivy calling all committee meetings. The MFC maintains Fort Muska as a demilitarized neutral ground for all kinds and have sought to make their frontier outpost indispensable as a way of forestalling otherwise disreputable trappers from taking Riverfolk pelts.

Nate Marcel ,  Otter , 2019

Nate Marcel, Otter, 2019

Kak Dela? (1d6)

1) Fishbone and Opivy are getting married! The fort is full of drunken well-wishers, both crashers and the invited. If any of the PCs are friends of F&O they are in the wedding party. Last-minute plans will be made as their invitations were lost in transit! F&O’s wedding guest gifts are generous and in some cases, miraculous. (If F&O are already married this result is an anniversary party or semi-regular romp).

2) Dozens of Alavil River-roaming traders have filled Fort Mutska to the brim. Rumors abound but are particularly prevalent and truthful with respect to 1) War 2) A rumored Peace 3) The Shadowlands 4) Faerie 5) A dungeon the PCs have delved. 6) A dungeon the PCs have not delved.

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle and their noble pig Blacksnout are present and are provisioning themselves for an expedition into The Gardens of Ynn. Laurel claims there’s a way through there to Faerie even for a Scáthsidhe like themselves. Fishbone is begging Laurel to stay or, failing that, to send scouts ahead to Ynn to help ensure their safe passage.

4) The “Crab-Men” upriver from here have declared some kind of holy war upon Fort Muska & it’s all anyone is talking about. Fishbone and Opivy are divided on whether to sue for peace, find allies against them or to send someone to take the fight to them. One of them would likely pay for any of these services.

5) A longship from Solneya and beyond has disgorged its wayfarers at Fort Mutska. The passengers are mostly 1) Utlanner mercenaries 2) Solneyan reinforcements bound for the Bone Campaign 3) The Vadim Caravan, trying their hand at river trade 4) A far-ranging Anadolan Empire [future link] expedition 5) war profiteers from Tolsk 6) Re-roll or other.

6) “The Three Brothers,” Lech, Chek & Rus, famed scouts and hunters, are at the fort. They are bored and are potentially available for hire. Lech is a uniquely unerring scout for all points north for many leagues, Chek similarly for the west & the youngest, Rus, for the locales east of here. Each are expensive but unusually willing to serve for less experienced adventurers.

Naming Stones

On the outskirts of any settlement at least as old as the most venerable living souls sits a great runestone carved as did the northern forebearers of many of those who dwell today in the Lands of Khos.

ru-rune-berezanji.jpg

Rather than choosing their own names, parents who observe faithfully the old ways take their newborns to “Naming Stones” to be named by a cleric, volkhv or witch according to local custom. An adherent of Lada or Mokosh is a common proctor.

A typical ritual has the sacred authority holding the infant’s brow to the stone briefly, then listening close to the monolith to hear their designation. A blessing ceremony of some kind follows and the child is known thence by the name whispered by the runestone.

In the “bear’s share” of the settlements in the Lands of Khos, the names heard are of a uniform nature, names like Sasha, Yaroslav or Elena. In places where the old trees are yet observant or passages to Faerie are near, names like Rhiryd, Tangwystl or Gwerydd might whisper forth.

Decades ago, around the time the elves began to abandon this world, a few mischievous Fae began to “infect” the naming stones to occasionally offer more unusual names. Upon hearing the name, some clergy will shake their heads, beseech their deities and report regardless to those gathered for the ceremony that they’ve heard  a more traditional name.

Others elect to faithfully report the murmured name, regardless of its peculiarity. Some tricksy Fae have ventured to far realms and times, have gathered names from these places then stored them in the runestones for their amusement. The phenomenon is a topic of controversy among both clergy and the laity throughout the Lands of Khos. Some parents and their neighbors receive the unusual names as a curse while others take the monikers as a sign of great honor and portent. A recent theory circulating among a handful of religious scholars is the Fae who’ve done this have no ill intent; the naming stones are simply repeating the words whispered into them. Regardless, most have become at somewhat inured to the situation. In Vyshne, for example, there are three teenagers respectively named Thundarr, Deez Nuts & Finieous and hardly anyone bats an eye.

Design note: It’s seldom explicit, but many D&D worlds have “naming stones” in them. The judges of these worlds methodically craft and distribute their culture-specific recommended name documents but there’s occasionally that one player who chortles to themselves and records “Boaty McBoatFace” for their Dwarven sailor character. In addition to his unfortunate name, Boaty will soon be discovered to possess a shockingly bad “Scottish” accent. In a world of divers authors, modules & products, naming stones also serve to explain why in an otherwise Nordic-themed campaign there might be a village named Orlane full of folks like Grover Ruskadal, Zakarias Ormond & Kilian Gade.

Kyrgorod Keep - 0102

On a bluff overlooking an idle river, the ruined remnant of the Shadowland warlord who built this castle an age ago has been re-purposed by a company of Scáthsidhe (shadow fey) soldiers who call themselves the Raven Guard.

John Martin,  Moonlight - Chepstow Castle  (watercolour), 1815

John Martin, Moonlight - Chepstow Castle (watercolour), 1815

Kyrgorod Keep (Pop. 150) is badly dilapidated, most of its wooden interiors long since rotted away excepting the refurbished keep at the interior of the fortifications. Gaps in the crumbling battlements are filled perpetually by an undulant inky “smoke” which only the Scáthsidhe seem able to see through.

What’s Going On In Kyrgorod? (1d6)

1) The Shadowlands portal in the yard behind the keep has somehow changed and travel from here to there has become uncertain. The Raven Guard have tasked themselves as guardians to prevent umbral incursions but now find they are oft prevented from scouting those dark lands or joining their kin there.

2) 3d6+5 deserters from the Bone Campaign have drifted here from the camps at Ostrog. Captain Eithne (AE nyuh); Sca6, permits them to squat in the outer yard and has allowed some to escape punishment by emigrating to the Shadowlands - for a difficult fee or favor. Some have become desperate and are possibly for hire.

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle, and their noble pig Blacksnout have returned from the Shadowlands & have struck a great blow against Baron Krulak and his ghul regiments. Three nights of merry feasting by Cpt. Eithne (EN-yeh) and the Raven Guard are in progress.

4) The Vadim Caravan [future link] have ventured a detour from their usual circuit to provision the Scáthsidhe of Krygorod. The caravan leaders are in good spirits and have thrice their usual chance to have rare goods at hand. A re-roll is allowed for any fortunes told by their mediums.

5) Lt. Lohd Preben and 2d6+3 bear soldiers are quartering here until one of their 1d3+1 giant bee drones (stinger-less; produce memory honey) are recovered from injury. The billeting was agreed to and compensated, but there is a 1-in-3 chance of false pretense with Lieutenant Preben doing reconnaissance on behalf of another.

6) The Scáthsidhe tattoo artist Ciaran (KEE ur ahn) Nightshade is in camp. For a price, he can ink magical tattoos. Most are temporary, but he also knows The Final Sunset marking (Infravision but normal sight forever limited to 60’). Ciaran is prone to flattery.

The Fall of Magic

J.R.R. Tolkien,  Rivendell

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rivendell

Some divide the fantasy literature from which D&D sprung into two broad categories: Tolkien or Howard. I appreciate both, but my Lands of Khos campaign will look more to Tolkien and his predecessors. An age undreamed of precedes each, but their sense of what has been lost differs. For Howard’s Conan the past is unfathomable, mysterious and of an equally amorphous moral fiber as his present Hyborian Age. With Tolkien’s Third Age, even victory over a clear Manichean blight was accompanied by a sense of loss about what too was passing away from Middle Earth.

I’ve run enough old school fantasy RPG games to feel both thrill and anxiety at what sometimes follows the first steps of campaign’s long road. For the short arcs and one-shots of the myriad small-press RPGs I’ve reveled in the past fifteen years, I’ve learned to welcome character decisions that can’t be taken back. For the long-form sandbox campaign I have in my mind’s eye, however, I want to be careful about the “toys” I place within. Maybe I’ve simply read too many threads about Rings of Invisibility or Brooms of Flying and such. I want the PCs to be able to utterly transform their Age but am wary of adding permanent elements to an ongoing campaign that might bring harm to the overall endeavor by taking focus away from the characters and putting it on their toys.

Hence, “The Fall of Magic”. The Elves of Khos have almost entirely “gone west” to their Feywild and magic is passing away from this world. This will reinforce themes of loss and decay as well as create escape clauses for my mad experiments.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Along with traditionally consumable items like wands and “potion growlers,” most magical items will have one of the six classic polyhedral dice ascribed to them, e.g. “Helm of Telepathy (d10)”, Gauntlets of Ogre Power (d20). Each time an item is activated, the assigned die size will be rolled and if it comes up a “1” or “2” then the die size will be decremented one size until it reaches a d4. When such a diminished item is risked further, on a “1” or “2” result its magic will depart and the item will either break or be inert. The default activation time will be one turn or one use as appropriate, but might vary according to the nature of the item. Even magical weapons and armor will need be “called upon” and stoked to power before a fray.

I was in a campaign several years ago that used a form of this rule to track ammo. Rather than having 20 arrows and having to account carefully for each single arrow, people had, for example, Arrow Quiver (d12) and would roll at the end of a combat to determine whether their ammo had diminished sufficiently to decrement their quiver to a “d6”.

I asked on Twitter about the origins of this kind of a mechanic and heard back that Confrontation had a form of it, that Logan Knight and James Young later used it to track torches at their tables & that David Black’s The Black Hack may have been the first published old school FRPG to use something similar. Apart from the aforementioned campaign, I think I re-discovered it elsewhere.

I’ve not considered it much, but it occurs to me now that so long we’ll be taking the time for such decrement checks, some other result (4s?) might result in a “flare” and/or a side-effect for some items as one finds with house rules or systems where magic is unpredictable (Dungeon Crawl Classics excels in this kind of thing).

The “breaking weapons” element in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game received mixed reviews. Players seemed to either enjoy or dislike the feature. It wasn’t implemented exactly the way I might have chosen, but I appreciated its design intent & thought it was mostly successful. Facing a given conflict, I liked having to choose whether to end it quickly and with less risk by using a superior weapon or to “keep my powder dry” by charging in with a humble Moblin club.

I felt the draw of this kind of design aesthetic recently while watching a playtest of Agon 2nd Editon. Deciding moment by moment, situation by situation, whether to exhaust a resource or reserve it and increase one’s risk of loss is powerful.

When at its best, two hearts of good old-school role-playing are managing resources and putting meaningful decisions into the hands of players. I hope to infuse more of both by basing my game in a world where magic is dying.

Incidentally, while far from the old school (closer to freeform academy), the Fall of Magic is a stellar RPG, a favorite of mine, and one I hope to to return to. It’s a game that evokes for me that Tolkien-esque sense of loss of a world which is passing away.

Mimir's Head - 0101

A sylvan valley hides a shallow brook. Half-buried in the muck of the runnel lies the colossal form of Mimir’s Head.

Mimir’s Head nears nine feet ‘cross and weighs a thousand stone.

Odin left him ages past for some sin to atone.

His pallid skin and lolling tongue toll forgotten dread.

His haunted eyes weep anon and stain the waters red.

John Bauer,  Odin Speaks With Mimir’s Head For The Last Time  (illus.), 1911

John Bauer, Odin Speaks With Mimir’s Head For The Last Time (illus.), 1911

What’s on Mimir’s mind? (1d6)

“Stay awhile and listen.”

1) Gibbering madness. Mimir cast Contact Higher Plane and it went… poorly last time out. He’ll be himself in 1d6 weeks.

2) The 2d4 giant centipedes painfully feasting on his ever-regenerating flesh & the fey Branch Sisters not three leagues away who left them here to feed and grow plump with wisdom until they come to collect them. Or perhaps it was Baba Yaga who did this?

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle and their noble pig Blacksnout have not returned from the quest which Mimir bade them. Mimir senses they have run into trouble 1d6 chambers into a fell place 1d6 hexes from here in a random (1d6) direction.

4) The dreams of the dragon Vaithrax to which Mimir has unhappily become attuned. Mimir knows where Vaithrax is when the wurm sleeps and for how long they are likely to slumber. Mimir is vexed with bouts of useless greed until this bond is somehow broken.

5) The latest scheme of either a lich or Khoschei the Undying. Present company excluded, there are few who know of Mimir’s location. Mimir knows the hiding place of the lich’s/Koschei’s phylactery. If the latter, Khoschei’s goat Peony is nearby to ensure Khoschei knows when and whether this information is relayed, but it’s possible (2-in-6) Peony has wandered off for a bit.

6) Little to put into words for those whose lives are but a candle’s length. Mimir is thirsty for knowledge of the lands where he’s been abandoned & is predisposed (+ 2 reaction) towards those who might provide such.

Mimir cannot likely be slain nor moved, however much he might wish. He can cast Contact Higher Plane, Geas, and its reverse as a 14th level caster. If well-disposed, he might act as a sage with nine specialties including Ancient History, Dragons, & Northern Lands. Mimir knows the properties of most magical items created on this plane. If ill-disposed and/or poorly-treated, expect a Geas involving collecting some intelligence or artifact for him.

Inspiration for Mimir’s Head comes from John M. Stater’s NOD #6 (p35)

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.