Monday 26 June 2017

Almost a review: Mutant Crawl Classics

Mutant Crawl Classics is here!

Image result for mutant crawl classics
All images in this post are taken from the MCC book, and copyright their respective artists, who all did an amazing job. I mean, just look at that cockroach-guy right there!

I've read a few Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules, but I've never read or bought the actual DCC system; I feel I already have enough OSR-style systems for running fantasy dungeon crawls to last me a lifetime. Mutant Crawl Classics, however, was another matter. I mostly backed the kickstarter because of the number of free adventure modules they promised to throw in, but I was also intrigued by some of what was promised for the game itself: a post-apocalyptic RPG which offered the chance to play as a mutant, or an animal-person, or a plant-person, or a shaman who reveres a pantheon of ancient artificial intelligences as divinities. Anyone who's read much of this blog will know that unconventional PC races and post-apocalyptic science fantasy settings are two of my very favourite things in RPGs, so I backed MCC in order to see what its authors would come up with.

MCC is a stand-alone RPG whose core system is very similar to the one in DCC, which is to say that it's basically a variant of TSR-era D&D: 3d6 for stats, classes and levels, d20 vs. AC to hit, and so on. Wisdom is replaced by Luck, which can be spent to gain bonuses on rolls, and your level 1 hit points are added to your level 0 hit points, which makes characters a bit tougher than their TSR D&D counterparts. Magic items are replaced with scavenged items of high technology (complete with rules for figuring out how to use them without killing yourself), while magic itself is replaced by mutations (including psychic powers) and prayers to the aforementioned pantheon of AIs, which may heed your entreaties enough to lob the occasional orbital laser blast in the direction of your enemies. Classes are Sentinel (=fighter), Rover (=thief), Shaman (=cleric or magic user), Healer (=the one that no-one wants to play because all they can do is heal other people's injuries), and three others which have no direct equivalents in standard D&D: Mutant, Manimal, and Plantient. The game's overall vibe is very Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with nods to other sources such as Blade Runner and Red Dwarf, replicants and hard-light holograms being among the artificial lifeforms that the now-vanished ancients left behind them. Hard science fiction this is not.

There's a very lightly sketched-in setting, which casts the PCs as members of a primitive tribe scavenging among the ruins of a fallen high-tech civilisation, complete with an in-setting justification for the 0-level character funnels which DCC is famous for: to become full members of their tribe, young adults must undertake a rite of passage in which they travel out into the ruins and retrieve an item of lost technology. Their status in the tribe will depend upon the value of the item that they bring back: so all you need to do is gather together a bunch of ambitious adolescents willing to risk their lives for an impressive score, and bam, instant excuse for sending a whole bunch of level 0 characters into some meatgrinder of a post-apocalyptic dungeon complex. Those of them that make it back with valuable relics of the ancient world will be promoted to Seekers, whose task it is to procure more such items for their tribe, meaning that sneaking around ancient ruins in search of Sufficiently Advanced Technology is now their actual day job. The whole set-up is designed to provide an excuse for moving the PCs from one post-apocalyptic dungeon crawl to the next with an absolute minimum of fuss. You could run other sorts of adventures with it, but you'd have to do pretty much all the work yourself.

Related image

The mutants are pretty much what you'd expect: they get a random number of random abilities at random power-levels. The manimals and the plantients are a bit disappointing, in that their randomly-assigned plant or animal features are almost entirerly cosmetic: they basically use the same rules as mutants, except they get less mutations and get a few generic animal or plant-based powers to make up for it. The rules don't distinguish between tree-people and vine-people, or between dog-people and beetle-people, which I found a bit of a let-down. Still, all those random rolls will leave you with some memorably bizarre characters, as I discovered when I rolled up one of each as a test:

  • Mary the mutant ended up as a short, squat, heavily-built woman with heightened strength and telekinetic powers. She could also fire electricity bolts from her three-fingered hands, and generate illusions by touching her fingers to her forehead.
  • The dice turned Mike the manimal into a salamander-man with the psychic ability to conjure orange forcefields around himself - which is handy, as he also had a mental block about combat, which forces him to hesitate before engaging in any kind of violence.
  • Polly the plantient turned out to be a human-shaped lump of granite-hard ivy, with red eyes (in her leaves?) that were capable of infravision, and the ability to grow or shrink at will.

This is all good fun, although of the three of them, poor Manimal Mike clearly drew the short straw; but post-apocalyptic RPGs which let you generate weird mutant PCs are nothing new, and the robots-and-mutants-and-animal-people setting implied by MCC is pretty much the default average for the genre. There are some nice ideas in the monsters chapter - I'll probably steal the Beast Things, degenerate humans who remained in their doomed blue cities until they devolved into ape-like beasts with telepathic mastery over rats, and the Gopher-Men, semi-sentient mutants with steel claws who hoard shiny objects within their subterranean burrows - but, again, it's all fairly traditional post-apocalyptic gonzo stuff. (Its take on the ubiquitous radiation zombies is pretty good, though.) It's all solidly done, but it's probably not going to blow the mind of anyone who's already familiar with Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World or Mutant Future.

I thought that the best bit of the book was the chapter on the AI 'gods'. 'The god of the post-apocalyptic tribe turns out to be an ancient computer' is a well-worn cliche at this point, but I don't think I've ever seen it used with as much thoroughness as it is here: so their god of war is an ancient military computer which controls a variety of space-based superweapons, their nature goddess is a sentient weather control satellite, their god of travel is the AI which once ran a worldwide maglev transport and delivery network, and so on. A shaman bonds with their 'deity' by connecting the relevant cyberware to their brain, receiving seemingly-supernatural assistance (and increasingly extensive physical modifications) from their patrons in exchange for serving the agendas of these various crazy machines. The chapter really takes the whole 'your magic is just highly advanced technology' idea and runs with it: the supernatural warriors you 'summon' are warbots teleported in from ancient subterranean storage facilities, your 'divinations' are information downloads from an extraterrestrial computer, the impossible knowledge you find yourself possessing is due to your patron AI using your brain as backup data storage space, the image of your god who appears before you is actually being projected through your retina by a holographic projector embedded inside your brain, and so on. My single favourite example of this was the bit about their goddess of dreams and madness actually being a leftover VR entertainment system, who keeps trying to encourage her adherents to try out her 3D holo-games - experiences which they, understandably, interpret as baffling vision-quests and visits to the spirit world. For players really willing to get into the spirit of the whole 'low-tech observer of high-tech phenomena' set-up, I think this could be really good fun.

Image result for mutant crawl classics

Overall, I'd say that if you're in the market for an OSR-adjacent post-apocalyptic RPG, then this is a pretty good one. If, like me, you're primarily looking for stuff to swipe for other games rather than a whole new system, then you I'd suggest just reading the gods and monsters chapters, and then flicking through the rest of the book for the sake of the art.

Because the art is fabulous. I mean, who wouldn't want their RPG party to look like this?

Image result for mutant crawl classics

Friday 23 June 2017

The Language of the Fans: Ruby Fan Murder Harlots revisited

Zayasaikhan Sambuu (better known as Zaya), Mongolian artist, born in 1975

The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, oh my chevalier!

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Windhover'

'If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.' - Isadora Duncan.

On the face of it, it seems bizarre that a bunch of dancers with complicated fans should have risen to become major players in the criminal ecology of the Wicked City. Anyone with a gun or a dagger or a rope can be a murderer, and anyone with a body can be a prostitute, yet to become a Ruby Fan Murder Harlot requires exceptional natural athleticism and years of ruthlessly demanding training in a balletic art form that almost no-one even understands how to interpret any more, all so that they can graduate to a life of running brothels or cutting people up with bladed fans. It all seems so excessive. Wouldn't it be simpler just to recruit a bunch of ruthless kids with knives and forget about all the fancy dancing?

Such questions, while understandable, get the situation entirely backwards. Hard though it may be for their victims to believe, the arts of the Murder Harlots are not cultivated to assist them in the execution of their crimes. Instead, their criminal endeavours exist primarily so that they can safeguard the continuation of their art.

This is their secret: that for all their nihilistic bravado, the Murder Harlots really care about the art form of which they are the Wicked City's last remaining practitioners. No-one who wasn't genuinely in love with the expressive possibilities of dance and motion would ever put up with their gruelling training regimen, or the years of practise needed to mould a human body into something that makes the most extraordinary acrobatic feats look effortless, leaping and spinning through the air as though gravity was merely a suggestion. In their own slightly crazy way, the Murder Harlots are actually much more purely committed to their art than the Jewelled Fan Dancers from which they inherited their traditions. For the Jewelled Fan Dancers, their dances were valuable because they were understood to embody and communicate all kinds of high-minded philosophical and spiritual ideals about Order and Balance and Harmony and Self-Control. For the Murder Harlots, the dance is just the dance. It doesn't mean anything, or at least not anything so paltry that it can be put into words. It means itself. The clean and perfectly-executed snap of the body through space contains its own meanings and its own rewards. 

It says a very great deal about the cultural state of the Wicked City that the only way the Ruby Fan dancers have been able to survive as an institution is by reinventing themselves as high-class courtesans and contract killers; but then again, if their art didn't have the side-effect of making them potentially appealing as sexual partners and hired assassins, it probably wouldn't have survived at all, or at least not in anything resembling its original sophistication. The other fine arts within the city are in a sad condition: poetry has been censored into oblivion for all purposes other than propaganda, architecture is now used chiefly to create ever-more vulgar and ostentatious monuments for the rich and powerful, and aside from the bawdy folk-songs of the very poor, music is now chiefly heard accompanying the liturgy of the city's corrupt and oppressive state religion. Under such conditions, genuine creativity finds few outlets. On balance, the Ruby Fan gang have probably done better than most.

They perform for themselves, mostly. They'll take paid engagements if the price is right, but among the city's elite, the knowledge to truly appreciate their artistry was lost when the Wicked King purged the old aristocracy; when they're hired now, it's usually by some lecherous bureaucrat who wants them to 'send a bunch of good-looking boys to do one of those twirly dances', or something similarly crass. Or they will put on public shows for paying audiences, trading on some combination of the athleticisim, obscenity, and black humour for which they are famous; morbid pornographic farces which also happen to involve an awful lot of backflips. The audience usually thinks that the most important scene is the one where the main performer jumps up and down a lot and then pretends to have sex with a camel. Only the dancers are likely to recognise that the real heart of the show, the point of it, comes in some seemingly incidental fan-fluttering passage whose sheer virtuousic complexity will not even be noticed, let alone understood, by anyone other than themselves.

It takes seven years to master the Language of the Fans; a language which, they say, contains more subtlety of nuance and vigour of expression than any spoken tongue. You think they do that just so they can pass each other secret messages in crowded rooms?

Gackt-Shellfish Barrel Pattern Tomosode (formal kimono)

Among some of the Ruby Fan Murder Harlots, the nihilistic amorality for which the gang is famous verges on antinomian mysticism. Words are lies; categories are traps; moral judgements are laughable oversimplifications which should be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. The divisions between good and evil, sacred and profane, are meaningless: there is only action, and every action is purely and radiantly itself, and the only true meaning is that which inheres in the action perfectly executed, the curve of the arm through its arc, the smooth slice of hand or fan or blade through air or flesh. They wouldn't use those words, though. They'd say: 'The world's fucked, and you might as well laugh at it. But that's no excuse for not appreciating really good footwork.'

It would be easy, and dangerous, to romanticise the Murder Harlots. To focus on their outlaw glamour, and forget their causal cruelty: the weeping boys and girls exploited by their brothels, the innocent victims hacked down by their hired assassins, the unfortunate visitors to the city dragged off by the Secret Police after being tricked into making seditious statements for their amusement, the passers-by subjected to random bladed-fan-based mutilation just because a nearby Murder Harlot happened to be bored that afternoon. Many of them are very deeply damaged people, not least because of the gang's frankly abusive training methods; and their collective culture tolerates and encourages the expression of this damage in highly destructive ways, ensuring that they retain their reputation as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. They just also happen to encourage its expression through some rather wonderful fan-dancing. 

PCs whose first contact with the Murder Harlots comes through encounters with their victims are likely to write them off as depraved and irredeemable. A lot of them probably are. But any perceptive PC who gets a chance to witness one of their private performances, full of expressive motion and yearning gestures and eloquent, fluttering fans 'speaking' faster than the untrained eye can follow, may glimpse another part of the truth: that their violence and callousness exists mostly as a protective carapace, and that for at least some of them the things they dance aren't just the things they can't express in words, but the things that they don't dare to, even to each other. Even to themselves.

Help me.

Love me.

Fix me.

Forgive me.

So the question it comes down to is this: how well can you interpret the Language of the Fans?

Jeff Sun, Shen Yun lead dancer and silver medalist of this year's adult male division, portraying the loyal general from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Foes of the Wicked City 7: The Bog Folk

If most people think of the endless bogs of the north-west at all, it is in relation to the most famous things to be found in them, the bronze gods of the frog men: immense clockwork Wisdom Engines built by a now-vanished civilisation, which are revered as divinities by the amphibious humanoids who now live in the region. But something else inhabits the vast wetlands: and the few travellers who visit the region sometimes speak of weird encounters with bizarre, squelching creatures that seem to be composed entirely of freezing mud. They call them the Bog Folk, or the Mud Men.

Image result for mud man

The Bog Folk were born from the ruins of the same ancient culture which built the Wisdom Engines. Among the wonders that they created was an enchanted fountain, whose waters were capable of healing injuries and curing disease; and while long ages have passed since the fountain fell into ruin, its magical waters still trickle through the rubble which once formed its basin, soaking into the surrounding mud and peat. Its power has dwindled over the centuries, and the waters now possess only minor healing properties; but the slow infusion of their life-giving energies into the earth has gradually charged the surrounding bogland with a kind of dim, instinctive life. Today, the marshes around the ruin in which the fountain once stood are filled with a weird vitality; they move, they quake, they sprout waving limbs, they form crude half-faces which attempt to speak in gurgling voices. And it is from this weird half-alive morass that the Bog Folk are born.

They are a magical accident, arising from the vain attempts of the fountain's magic to 'heal' the surrounding peat bog back into a human form that it never possessed in the first place. They look like roughly humanoid figures made of icy peat; the kind of thing a child might sculpt, with crude pits for their mouths and eyes. They don't so much walk as shamble, and their voices are horrible gurgles which sound as though they're drowning in mud. The frog men fear and avoid them, as do the very occasional human visitors to their lands; but despite their disturbing appearance, the Bog Folk are not a violent race. If anything, they tend towards a phlegmatic stoicism, as though rather bemused by the fact of their own existence. They feel no pain, or cold, or lust, or hunger, so they have nothing much to drive them into action. Most of them just doze their lives away, vaguely contemplating the passage of the seasons across the marsh, mostly mistaken for simple lumps of peat by passers-by.

Related image

Thus they would have remained, little more than a local curiosity, until an expedition arrived in their territory from a far-off land. Its original aim had been to locate the Wisdom Engines, but an encounter with the murder machines built by the Mad King's worshippers forced them into a change of plans; and now all that the demoralised and desperate survivors were looking for was to escape the bogs with something to show for all their suffering. Mud men seemed as good a prize as any; so they scooped a group of them up into the sealed crates in which they had once hoped to bring back components of a Wisdom Engine, before fleeing the marshes with dozens more of the creatures on their heels.

The stolen Bog Folk were traded from hand to hand; first as oddities and then, after the healing properties of their mud were discovered, as a source of medicines and cosmetics. It was for this purpose that they were ultimately sold to a group of alchemists in the Wicked City, who keep them locked in a sealed lab, and regularly harvest their mud for use as a rejuvenating skin cream popular among the city's elite. By then they had gone through so many owners that no-one was really sure where they had originally come from; and while the competitors of the alchemists who owned them would very much have liked to undermine their monopoly, they had no idea where to start looking for mud men of their own.

But the Bog Folk were more persistent. Hiding their faces of frozen peat in filthy rags stolen from the settlements on the edge of the swamp, they stumbled from village to village, town to town, asking after their lost brethren in their horrible, gurgling voices. It took years for them to pick up the trail, but they had no shortage of time. They learned. They travelled. Gradually, they became more skilled in imitating the humans among whom they moved. From the swamps to the taiga they went, and from the taiga to the steppe, and from the steppe to the desert - until finally, after many years and many, many miles, they came to the gates of the Wicked City.

They will find their stolen kin. And they will bring them home.

Image result for swamp thing

There is a Master of Mud: You can play one of the Bog Folk, if you want to, although you'll want to keep your true nature hidden under concealing clothing most of the time, lest you be carried off by profit-crazed alchemists and used to manufacture soothing, rejuvenating face creams for the very rich. Game information is as follows:
  • You are proficient with simple weapons, and with all forms of armour (although you will need to be careful about drying out - see below). You are not proficient with shields. 
  • You gain a bonus to all your to-hit rolls equal to half your level, rounded down.
  • You gain 1d10 HP per level.
  • You don't feel cold, hunger, pain, or exhaustion; you are immune to disease and poison, and you never need to breathe or sleep. Any cold damage you take is halved, rounding any fractions down.
  • You are vulnerable to drying out if you get too hot. Hot, wet conditions (e.g. a tropical monsoon) don't bother you, but hot, dry conditions will require you to constantly replace your lost moisture, at the rate of about a pint per hour. (Extremely hot and dry conditions, such as a shadeless desert under the summer sun, may require two or three times this much.) For every four pints of moisture lost and not replaced you take 1 HP of damage, which cannot be healed by any means until you get good and soggy again. You take double damage from heat and fire.
  • Being saturated with magical healing waters, your mud has soothing, healing properties. Anyone who rubs it onto their injuries will heal an extra 1 HP per day, in addition to any bonuses they may already be receiving from medical care. 
  • Your body is made of flowing, metamorphic mud and sodden peat. You are immune to damage from piercing weapons such as knives, spears, and normal-sized bullets (although a cannon or a blunderbuss will still splatter you). 
  • You can stretch out your arms and legs to double their normal length at the cost of halving their effective strength: so if you normally have strength 10 and a 2' reach, then you could stretch out your arm to reach something 4' away, but would only be able to grasp it with a strength of 5. By stretching out your legs to double their normal length you can massively increase your stride length, allowing you to keep pace with a jogging human - which is convenient, because you can't really run. Lost body parts can be regenerated given enough time and mud, but the magic animating you dissipates if you take enough damage to kill you. 
  • You can squeeze yourself through very small entrances, although doing so may involve leaving some or all of your equipment behind. By narrowing your head and body you can squish yourself through a gap just 3" across, although it will take some time to squeeze your whole body through. This ability means that you cannot be effectively restrained with normal ropes, chains, snares, straitjackets, etc.
Bog Folk Summary Table

Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)

Starting equipment: Thick, concealing robes (+1 AC), club (1d6 damage), stolen pistol (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload), extremely tolerant riding camel, 1d6x10 sp.

Related image

Tuesday 13 June 2017

'The Heads of the Headless': Penny Dreadful titles as scenario seeds

Related image

'Penny dreadfuls' - the cheap serial novels which were sold to children and the working poor in early Victorian Britain for one penny per installment - didn't acquire their name by accident. They featured plenty of blood and thunder, devious crimes, nonsensical plot twists, and authors who sometimes lost track of which century their stories were supposed to be set in, but the quality of the writing was... not high. Bombast, melodrama, and aggressive incoherence were pretty much the order of the day.

Their titles, however, were fabulous. 

Here are fifty, all of which I think would make fantastic titles for D&D scenarios. Roll 1d100, halve it, and use that as the title for your next adventure!
  1. Ada the Betrayed, or the Murder at the Old Smithy
  2. Adeline, or the Grave of the Forsaken
  3. Alice Home, or the Revenge of the Blighted One
  4. Alice Leighton, or the Murder at the Druid's Stones
  5. Almira's Curse, or the Black Tower of Bransdorf
  6. Angela the Orphan, or the Bandit Monk of Italy
  7. Anselmo the Accursed, or the Skeleton Hand!
  8. Bellgrove Castle, or the Hour of Retribution
  9. The Black Mantle, or the Murder at the Old Ferry
  10. The Black Monk, or the Secret of the Grey Turret
  11. The Black Pirate, or the Phantom Ship
  12. Captain Hawk, or the Shadow of Death
  13. Captain Kyd, or the Wizard of the Sea
  14. The Castle Fiend, or the Fate of the Loved and the Lost
  15. The Companions of Silence, or the Knights of the Iron Ring
  16. The Death Ship, or the Pirate's Bride and the Maniac of the Deep (This is probably one of the greatest titles in the history of publishing.)
  17. The Death Touch, or the Terrors of the Wilderness
  18. Deeds of Guilt! Or the Desolate House on the Waste
  19. The Demon Dwarf, or the Bond of Blood
  20. The Demon Huntsman; a Romance of Diablerie 
  21. The Destroyer, or the Sorcerers of the Domdaniel
  22. The Dice of Death
  23. The Fate of Gaspar, or the Mystic Caverns
  24. Fate, or the Avenger's Doom
  25. Geraldine, or the Secret Assassins of the Old Stone Cross
  26. Giralda, or the Invisible Husband
  27. The Goldsmith of Paris, or the Invisible Assassin
  28. Guy of Aulstone, or the Secret of the Iron Chamber
  29. The Heads of the Headless
  30. The House of Doom, or Love, Pride, and the Pest.
  31. Julian, or the Dead Man Come to Life Again.
  32. Kabaosa, or the Warriors of the West
  33. The Kinsmen, or the Black Riders of Congaree
  34. The Lady of the Fell House
  35. The Man With the Huge Umbrella
  36. The Mountain Fiend, or the Victim of Tyranny!
  37. The Mysterious Dagger, or the Avengers!
  38. The Mysterious Freebooters, or the Bride of Mystery (The more mystery the better, right?)
  39. The Oath, or the Buried Treasure
  40. One O'Clock, or the Knight and the Wood Demon
  41. The Phantom Voice, or the Doomed One of the Hulk
  42. The Ranger of the Tomb, or the Gypsy's Prophecy
  43. The Red Cross Warrior, or the Spirit of the Night
  44. The Rivals, or the Spectre of the Hall
  45. The Sea-Fiend, or the Abbot of St Mark's
  46. The Skeleton Lover 
  47. The Wild Witch of the Heath, or the Demon of the Glen
  48. The Witch of the Wave
  49. The Wood Devil, or the Vampire Pirate of the Deep Dell 
  50. Two Dead Bodies
(Many more can be found here, which is where I got all these from in the first place!)

Image result for mysteries of london reynolds

Sunday 11 June 2017

I wrote most of a thing and you can buy it! (Although not from me.)

What's that? Fifth edition? What madness is this?

So, funny story. A while back Benoit de Bernardy, who runs the D&D 5e website Goblinstone, put out an open call for people to submit adventures for him to publish. I'd never played 5e - B/X is more my style - but I'd heard people say it wasn't that different to the older editions; so I wrote a scenario and sent it in, and to my surprise Ben liked it enough to buy it off me. He then sorted out the art and the maps and the layout, and made some changes to the adventure, to make it bigger and more fifth-edition-y: I'd written the whole scenario as essentially one big puzzle for the PCs to solve, and Ben's rewrite added more action and combat and whatnot, as well as all that fifth edition 'roll this skill to get some information' stuff. He then put the resulting project up as a kickstarter, which you can see here.

Anyway. The module is called The Chapel on the Cliffs; it's set in a thinly-disguised version of late medieval south-west England, and it's a Gothic horror adventure about getting chased around a haunted village by a fuckload of angry skeletons. It's a 5e module, but it should be easy to run in B/X D&D instead, especially as B/X was what I wrote it for in the first place. It also features art by the rather talented Raluca Marinescu, who painted both the images featured in this post. Five euro gets you a pdf, and ten euro gets you a print copy. Money goes to Ben, not me, but he deserves it for getting the damn thing into a publishable state...

If anyone runs it, I'd love to hear how it goes!

The Shrine of Saint Sidvela

Thursday 1 June 2017

The Rosefinch Khatun: an ATWC adventure

As promised back in February, here's a quick adventure set in the ATWC setting, involving spirits and stuff. Reading heaps of text on a blog is awful, so I've tried to use images to do as much of the scene-setting as possible. This adventure should be suitable for a low-level party, is heavy on social interactions, and should take a couple of sessions to play through.

Image result for rosefinch

The Rosefinch Khatun

Setting: An expanse of taiga on the northern edge of the steppe, someplace. 

Possible Hooks: 
  • A leading family within a nearby steppe clan is offering a reward to anyone who can bring home their missing son, Ganbaatar. You like money, right?
  • Or maybe the PCs need to find Ganbaatar for reasons of their own. Maybe he owes them money. Maybe he knows something they want to know.
  • Or maybe the PCs are looking to build an alliance with one of the clan's leading warriors, and he asks them to ride into the taiga and help his daughter, Narangerel, bring back her missing fiancé. What makes her happy makes him happy, right?
  • Or maybe the PCs have some connection with the local inhabitants of the taiga, the Nine Valleys People, and are called upon to help them deal with this bunch of pushy steppe nomads who have showed up demanding to know where this Ganbaatar guy is.
  • Or maybe Galiya (see below) hired them as security for her research trip. (In this case, the PCs replace the gun-toting mercenaries mentioned in her description, below.)

The Adventure:

Meet Ganbaatar.

Buryat Mongol.:

Ganbaatar is a handsome, athletic young warrior from a clan of steppe nomads. He and his friends recently rode into the taiga to do some hunting; but during a chase through dense woods they became separated, and afterwards his friends found no trace of him. They searched for days, but eventually they had to return home without him. This is because he's no longer in the woods at all: he's been carried away by the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), and is now being kept by her in the spirit world, as her lover. He is unaware of how much time has passed in the outside world.

This is Narangerel:

Girl with Bow, Kazakhstan 2013 Photo by Sasha Gusov:

Steppe nomad, expert horsewoman, skilled archer, enthusiastic but ill-disciplined wrestler. She is engaged to be married to Ganbaatar, and is not at all happy about his disappearance. She has rounded up a band of friends and relatives and led them into the taiga, determined not to return until she's found out what has become of him.

These are the Nine Valleys People: - 1881 Wood Engraving Siberian Indigenous People Costume Bow Arrow Fowl Hunting - Original Wood Engraving - Prints:

Taiga-dwellers, they inhabit the woods where Ganbaatar went missing, and live by hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. They are led by their impetuous young chief, Toyon Ayhal, and their grizzled old shaman, Kaskil. The horse-breeding steppe clans view themselves as innately superior to the reindeer-breeding forest-dwellers, but the two communities also engage in trade and relations are normally peaceful, if strained. They are currently a lot more strained than usual due to Narangerel and her band roaming from camp to camp, demanding to know what they've done with her fiancé and threatening dire consequences if he is not returned to her.

Kaskil knows where to find the sacred grove of the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), but will not reveal this to outsiders except under exceptional circumstances. 

This is Batbayar:

Mongolian wrestler:

A mountain of a man, and the best wrestler in his clan. He's Ganbaatar's best friend, and was with him on the hunt where he disappeared. He also has a massive crush on Narangerel, which he feels very guilty about - he believes that he has successfully concealed this from everyone, but actually it's pretty obvious to most people, including Narangerel and Ganbaatar themselves.

Batbayar has (truthfully) told Narangerel that he thinks he glimpsed Ganbaatar vanishing into the woods with a strange woman, but Narangerel suspects he's making this up in the hope of getting her to give up on her fiancé: after all, none of the hunters were able to find any tracks, and she knows full well that Ganbaatar isn't that stealthy. (She always had to creep into his yurt. He woke her parents every time he tried to sneak into hers.) Whatever Narangerel's suspicions to the contrary, Batbayar does genuinely want to find his friend, and has accompanied her back into the taiga; he now goes around looming menacingly over every young woman he sees, in the hope that they'll confess to having Ganbaatar concealed in a hidden love-nest somewhere. This intimidating behaviour is doing very little to endear him (or Narangerel) to the Nine Valleys People.

This is Tuyaara:

Stunning Yakutian woman, Yakutistan:

She's a young woman of the Nine Valleys People, and a noted beauty. As such, Batbayar will regard her with intense suspicion, as just the kind of girl who might have turned his friend's head. His suspicions will be deepened by the fact that she makes regular trips into the woods, alone; in fact, these are her visits to her uncle, Elley, an eccentric shaman who lives deep in the taiga and relies upon Tuyaara to keep him supplied with drink. Tuyaara is very popular among her people, and the more that she is harassed by Batbayar, the more hostile the Nine Valleys clan will become to him and his companions.

This is Firebird Woman:

Gennady Pavlyshyn "Amur Tales": I just love Russian illustrations.:

Firebird Woman is a Payna, a woodland spirit who lives in a hollow tree deep in the taiga near the yurt inhabited by Tuyaara's uncle, Elley. She and Elley have a long-term (if intermittently acrimonious) relationship; they're currently on the outs, however, and spend a lot of time yelling at each other and accusing one another of imaginary infidelities. PCs who overhear Elley accusing her of seducing other men may wonder if she is behind Ganbaatar's disappearance, but Firebird Woman is hot-tempered and will react extremely badly to strangers poking around her tree. If anything happens to Tuyaara, Elley will unleash Firebird Woman upon whomever he believes to be responsible. 

Both Elley and Firebird Woman know where to find the sacred grove of the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), but will not share this information without good reason. 

This is Galiya.


She's a scholar from the Wicked City, far to the south, who has come to the woods in the hope of locating and excavating an ancient tower which she believes to be hidden somewhere within this part of the taiga. This tower was once the residence of a great Khatun (queen) of the steppe peoples, and Galiya is eager to find it, partly out of a disinterested desire for historical knowledge and partly because she's hoping to find ancient jewellery that will sell for a fortune back home. She's currently staying with the Nine Valleys People, accompanied by a group of thuggish, musket-toting mercenary bodyguards; she herself carries a multi-barrelled pepperbox pistol, and knows how to use it. Her hosts know perfectly well where the ruins of the tower are, but they have no desire to see it desecrated and have been fobbing her off with claims of ignorance, much to her increasing frustration. 

All the locals - steppe and taiga-dwellers alike - think Galiya looks terribly foreign and glamorous, and Narangerel will suspect her immediately as soon as they cross paths. (As mentioned above, Batbayar's main suspect will be Tuyaara; but Narangerel thinks that if Ganbaatar has been unfaithful to her, it's much more likely to have been with someone exotic and sophisticated like Galiya, rather than the daughter of some taiga-dwelling reindeer-herder.) She may well try tailing Galiya on her trips into the forest, just to make sure she doesn't have Ganbaatar hidden away somewhere. Unfortunately, Galiya has suspicions of her own; if she becomes aware that the steppe warriors are tailing her she will assume it's because they want to follow her to the ruins and steal her loot, and will react accordingly.

This is Terbish:

Archer with pike and axe, Mongolia circa 1889:

He's another of Ganbaatar's friends, who was with him on the original hunting trip and who has now returned with Narangerel to find him. He's a rather cynical soul, who believes what he sees with his own eyes, and little more. He assumes that Batbayar's story about seeing Ganbaatar with a woman was simply invented in the hope of driving a wedge between him and Narangerel. His own theory is that Ganbaatar was probably murdered by the taiga people for the sake of his horse and hunting gear, and that's what Narangerel should be looking for.

Although still young, Terbish has already fought in two campaigns in the service of his khan, and his soldiering days have left their mark on him. He's not an especially cruel man, but he does tend to believe that most situations can be resolved through sufficient applications of matter-of-fact brutality.

This is Sayiina:

Kyrgyzstan Horsewoman, 1936.:

She's a rather wild young woman who lives on the very edges of the territory held by the Nine Valleys People, with her two younger brothers and her aged grandmother. (Her parents died a few years back.) She found Ganbaatar's horse wandering by a river, and his clothes and weapons scattered on the ground not far away; she assumed that both must belong to some idiot foreigner who'd wandered into the woods and managed to drown himself in the stream, and promptly claimed them for herself. The clothes and weapons are stashed in her yurt, but she rides the horse every chance she gets.

Because of the extremely remote location of Sayiina's yurt, Narangerel's band are unlikely to come across her until they've finished with the main encampments of the Nine Rivers People (and thus with Batbayar and Narangerel's suspicions that Tuyaara and Galiya, respectively, may know what has become of Ganbaatar). If they manage to get this far without antagonising the locals too much, however, it will only be a matter of time before Terbish spots Sayiina riding around on Ganbaatar's horse. If he sees Ganbaatar's clothes, he'll be somewhat surprised by the lack of cuts or bloodstains on them; but he will continue to regard Sayiina as the prime suspect in his friend's disappearance, and will attempt to grab her and beat the truth out of her at the first opportunity he gets. (If he and his friends haven't already totally alienated the Nine Valleys People, then this will probably do the trick!) 

This is The Mourning Khatun:

Mongolia 1920s:

According to legend, she was the khatun of an ancient khan among the steppe peoples, who - after his death in battle - rode into the taiga to live out the rest of her life in mourning and seclusion. The Nine Valleys People tell a different version of her story: according to them, after three years of mourning she fell in love with a handsome young taiga huntsman, and become the ancestress of their people. They revere her to this day as the Rosefinch Khatun, ancestor-spirit and spirit of the taiga, and will not kill a rosefinch anywhere within her woods, because of the love she was said to bear for them.

The steppe clans know that the Nine Valleys People revere some kind of rosefinch-forest-mother-spirit, but are unaware that she and the Mourning Khatun of their own legends are one and the same. If told, they would find the idea that a heroine of the steppes like the Mourning Khatun could lay aside her sorrows for a simple taiga huntsman highly offensive!

This is the Rosefinch Khatun today:

Buyrat Woman:

She has, indeed, become a powerful spirit of the taiga, although she's a bit vague about whether or not she's also the progenitor of the Nine Valleys People. It was she who spirited Ganbaatar away, attracted by his youth, beauty, and athleticism, and his vague resemblance to the khan she loved so long ago. He believes that she is madly in love with him, but the fact is that she's already getting bored with him. If Narangerel (or someone else) could locate her sacred grove and deliver a sufficiently-impassioned plea for his return, he'd probably come stumbling out of the woods a few minutes later, wild-eyed and naked and with no idea how much time had passed in the outside world. Of course, if the person making the plea has already antagonised her by mistreating her worshippers, she's much more likely to keep him with her forever just to spite them. The location of her grove is known only to the spirits and shamans of the Nine Valleys People (Kaskil, Elley, Firebird Woman, and the Shurale), who keep it as a closely-guarded secret.

The idea that the Rosefinch Khatun might be behind Ganbaatar's disappearance will honestly not occur to the Nine Valleys People, despite the fairly clear parallel with their own origin myth, which also involves her being attracted to a handsome young huntsman whom see sees riding in the taiga. They are so used to thinking of her as their spirit that they tend to discount or forget her origins among the steppe peoples, and simply assume that she, like them, will view the steppe nomads as annoying intruders, rather than as countrymen for whose language and culture she might still feel some lingering affection.

This is the Khatun's tower, or what's left of it:

Old forgotten house taken over by a tree! Micoley's picks for #AbandonedProperties

Finding it without a local guide is difficult but not impossible, and if she's not driven out of the taiga first then Galiya will find it eventually. It's overrun by the forest, a haunt of animals and birds - especially rosefinches, which might suggest to alert PCs that the Mourning Khatun of steppe legend and the rosefinch spirit revered by the Nine Valleys People are one and the same. Within it lairs a Siberian tiger of prodigious size, which will defend its territory ferociously.

The upper floors contain some old antiques which would be valuable to the right collector, once all the bird shit was cleaned off them. There are also some old carvings of the Khan and Khatun, from before his death. If either Batbayar or Narangerel sees these, they will comment on the khan's resemblance to Ganbaatar.

Searching the place will reveal an old tomb nearby - this is not the grave of the Khatun herself, but that of her faithless handmaiden, the witch Bolormaa. It does contain some treasures - Bolormaa was buried with her enchanted jewellery - but disturbing the grave in any way will unleash Bolormaa's ghost the following night.

If Galiya finds the tower, she will order her men to shoot the tiger and break open the grave before setting up camp and exploring the ruin more thoroughly. She'll probably become Bolormaa's first victim.

This is Bolormaa:

Diao Si Gui is a Chinese ghost of someone who was hanged to death. Morbid. Yeesh.:

If unleashed, she roams the woods by night, apparently a bewitching maiden with long, dark, silky hair. She will try to lure any men who see her into the forest, where she will lean in as though to kiss them. Then her mouth opens impossibly wide and she'll suck the breath from their lungs in one, huge, ripping gust. She is semi-material, and it is possible (although difficult) to destroy her with mundane weapons alone.

Once it becomes clear that some kind of ghost-woman is roaming the woods, preying upon young men, the Nine Valleys People will strongly suggest to Narangerel that maybe it was this malicious spirit which took Ganbaatar. If she is persuaded of this, Narangerel won't rest until she's hunted Bolormaa down.

This is the Ill-Luck Forest:

Banshee Art Print by Jana Heidersdorf Illustration:

It's a region of bog and taiga inhabited by malicious spirits, and plagued by flocks of ironclaw ravens. At its heart lies an old, desecrated burial ground, haunted by an abaasy ghost. (These graves contain some valuable trinkets if looted, but the only way to search them safely is to placate the ghost with offerings of blood.) Near the burial ground is a thicket inhabited by a Shurale, which will attempt to abduct any woman who comes near its lair, hoping to add her to its collection of pretty things.

The shurale knows the nature of the Rosefinch Khatun, and where to find her sacred grove, but PCs seeking such information from it would have to bribe it with valuable-looking items. Fortunately, it's pretty stupid, so polished glass will do just as well as gems. Alternatively, they could  just kill it and steal its treasure-haul. No-one likes it anyway.

Once Narangerel and her band have made themselves sufficiently unwelcome among the Nine Valleys People, Toyon Ayhal will come up with the idea of telling them that Ganbaatar has been spotted riding into the Ill-Luck Forest, in the hope that a visit to the place will either kill them or convince them to give up. In practise, it will do neither, although enduring multiple ironclaw raven attacks and an embarrassingly unsuccessful abduction attempt by the shurale will make Narangerel very, very angry. Once this has happened, some kind of showdown between her and the Nine Valleys People is probably inevitable unless Ganbaatar can be found very quickly indeed.

This is the Rosefinch Khatun's Sacred Grove:

Man figured Ewvenki totem.:

It's very deep in the taiga, and virtually impossible to locate without the guidance of a local shaman or spirit. Rosefinches nest here in huge numbers, and perch on every bough, watching everyone who enters the grove.

This is where Kaskil comes to leave offerings for the Rosefinch Khatun on behalf of his people. PCs who make it this far can try to strike spirit bargains with her too, if they want to: her preferred gifts are precious objects, as befits her regal status, but she will also accept offerings of food and drink if they are plentiful enough. She has power over birds, forests, and hunting. Anyone digging at the base of her spirit poles will find quantities of (now-corroded) offerings left to her by generations of the Nine Valleys People, some of them quite valuable. Anyone stealing these will suffer continuous and outrageous misfortune - hit by falling branches, attacked by wild animals, falling into rivers, and so on - until they either die, return them, or leave the taiga.

If Bolormaa somehow ends up here, the Rosefinch Khatun will withdraw from the grove in displeasure at such a vile creature being allowed into her presence. All of her spirit poles will immediately explode into rotten splinters, and unless she can somehow be coaxed back with suitable offerings, she will be deaf to all entreaties (including pleas for Ganbaatar's return) for the next 1d6 years.

Spiritually-attuned PCs may glimpse the Rosefinch Khatun here, lurking among the trees, but if they try to interact with her directly she will simply dissolve into a cloud of rosefinches. (Or maybe what they saw was only ever a flock of rosefinches, which they somehow mistook for a woman in the uncertain light?) She will, however, hear every word spoken within her grove, and a sufficiently impassioned plea (or a sufficiently large offering) will persuade her to release Ganbaatar back into the world.

Image result for mongolia taiga

Probable Events if the PCs do nothing:
  • The three groups (steppe nomads, taiga dwellers, and Galiya's expedition) will continue to mutually antagonise one another for a while, while Batbayar and Narangerel follow up various false leads, becoming increasingly frustrated in the process.
  • Finally tiring of Batbayar's harrassment of Tuyaara, Toyon Ayhal will give Narangerel a false tip about the Ill-Luck Forest, from which she and her companions will barely escape with their lives.
  • A confrontation will ensue between the now-furious Narangerel and Toyon Ayhal, which soon turns violent. Blood is split on both sides and the steppe warriors flee the taiga, promising to return with a warband of their kinsmen.
  • Meanwhile Galiya will find and loot the Khatun's tower, unleashing Bolormaa in the process. Bolormaa will kill Galiya and her guards in the night and proceed to roam the taiga in search of victims.
  • A few weeks later, Narangerel comes back with a small army of steppe horseman and drives the Nine Valleys People from their homes. Bolormaa probably gets hunted down and killed by steppe warriors after preying upon the wrong victim. 
  • A few weeks after that, the Rosefinch Khatun finally gets bored of Ganbaatar and he comes wandering out of the forest, confused and naked, believing he he has only been gone for a few days...