Saturday 12 March 2016

War Masks of the Wolf Khans

Persian 15th century mask from the Persian Exhibition in Poland.:

I've written before about how the Eurasian steppe eats history. Nations lie lightly upon it, crossing the plains like wind or shadows, leaving few traces: and even when they do build cities or monuments, it only takes a few generations of neglect to reduce them to a handful of grassy mounds scattered across a million square miles of wilderness, difficult to find even if one happens to know where to look. The once-great Confederacy of the Cuman and Kipchak Khans, known to the West simply as Cumania, is a case in point. For more than three hundred years they ruled an empire the size of Western Europe, stretching from Hungary to the shores of the Irtysh River; but then the Mongols rode west and, well, everyone knows what happened to people who tried to get in the way of the Mongols. Soon there was very little left to show that Cumania had ever existed at all.

Like many Central Asian peoples, the Cumanians revered wolves - 'Wolf' was a title of honour amongst them - and so, in ATWC, I'm simply going to call the fallen empire based on them the Realm of the Wolf Khans. Every D&D setting needs a great lost empire, and they fill this niche nicely: everywhere you go was probably ruled by the Wolf Khans, once, until a newer and hungrier empire tore them down. Where did this ancient tomb complex come from? The Wolf Khans probably built it. Why is there a ruined city out in the middle of nowhere? One of the Wolf Khans probably used it as his court. Why are we going into this insanely dangerous dungeon? In order to find the war mask of one of the Wolf Khans. You do want his war mask, don't you?

You see, the Cumanians wore masks into battle.

Replica Kiptschakischer mask helmet from the 13th century, Archaeological Museum Krakow.:
Modern replica of a 13th-century Kipchak helmet with war-mask.

In ATWC, these masks are the one thing about the Wolf Khans which everyone still remembers. Everyone other than scholars might be very unclear about where they came from and which language they spoke and whether they were good kings or bad kings; but everyone knows that they wore masks, and that these masks contributed to their prowess in battle. The secret of making them was lost when the Wolf Khans fell (although it is speculated that powerful spirit-pacts were involved), and an intact war-mask which once belonged to a Khan or to one of his Wolves can now command very high prices.

The simplest of these were soldier's war-masks, which the Wolf Khans mass-manufactured by the thousand. These look pretty much like the mask in the image above, and so many of them were made that they're not that uncommon, even today; they're the kind of thing you might find being worn by a prosperous mercenary captain or bandit chief. They fill the wearer with wolfish agility and ferocity in battle, granting them +1 to-hit and damage. Long-term usage tends to leave the wearer with a strong craving for a meal of raw, red meat.

Reconstruction of the Polovtsian warrior (Cuman/Kipchak) - The first half of the XIII century. Materials burial in Kovalam, South Kiev region.:
Cumanian warrior in 13th century wargear. Note the mask.

Much rarer, and much more valuable, are the officer's war-masks, which resemble more elaborate and decorative versions of the war-masks used by common soldiers. Officers were less expendable than the men they led, so their masks were also provided with defensive enchantments; they grant a +1 bonus to-hit and damage, just like the soldier's masks, but also grant a +1 bonus to AC and all saves. They are much prized by steppe chieftains and other individuals of high net worth who must, none the less, occasionally expose themselves to the rigours of battle.

Kipchak "face mask" helmet:
Another Kipchak helmet with war-mask. Note the crazy moustaches.

Rarer still, and worth a small fortune, are the war-masks of the Khan's Wolves. 'Wolf' was a title bestowed by the Khans upon their greatest war-leaders and champions, and upon their most faithful bodyguards and companions; their masks were suitably magnificent, decorated with silver and gold, and forged with stern and majestic expressions to inspire reverence amongst their followers and strike fear into their enemies. These have all the same effects as officer's war-masks, but they also grant +1 morale to any soldiers personally led by the wearer, and impose a -1 penalty to the morale of all enemies able to see its terrible steel visage. Anyone who wears one for any length of time will find themselves responding to challenges with growls and staredowns, and gains a quite unnerving ability to emit blood-curdling howls, audible for miles across the steppe.

This one's actually Iranian, but you get the general idea.

Rarest and most precious of all were the war masks of the Khans themselves. Only twenty-three of these were ever made, one for each reigning Wolf Khan; each was buried with its wearer, and as the Wolf Khans, like most steppe kings, took great pains to keep the locations of their tombs secret, most have never been found since. Each is worth a king's ransom, for as well as all the abilities of a Wolf's mask, the war-masks of the khans blessed their wearers with the ability enter a trance state in which they could perceive and communicate with the world of spirits at will; furthermore, all but the mightiest spirits seem to regard their wearers with respect bordering on awe, and always offer them advantageous terms on spirit bargains. Before he vanished into his tower, the Wicked King often wore a mask which at least looked very much like the war-mask of one of the Wolf Khans, and possibly its powers helped him to establish his reign over the Wicked City. Then again, perhaps he just wanted people to believe that he could command the spirits at will...

One final note: the Wolf Khans, like the historical Cumanians, took it for granted that whenever a great man was buried, his most trusted lieutenant would commit ritual suicide in order to accompany him into the afterlife. So, along with the inevitable balbals, anyone planning to rob one of their royal tombs had better be ready to take on one hell of an undead guardian first...

Kipchak/Cuman warrior:


  1. Stolen.

    Puts me in mind of the masked bad guys from Moorcock's "Hawkmoon" books.