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...


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  2. This is beautiful! It's like an interactive version of a widescreen Hong Kong-Mongolian-Russian film with amazing panoramic shot-on-location-in-the-Altais-and-in-Siberia-and- in-Khazakstan scenery and lush orchestral and folkloric music, but unfortunately this film doesn't exist yet. I really like what you've done!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Sadly, I fear no Sino-Mongol-Russo-Kazakh film collaborations are likely any time soon, but you never know what might come out of South Korea...

  3. I absolutely love these adventures you lay out, they have such a great amount of player agency, and are also pretty easy to slot into pre-existing worlds.

    1. Glad to hear it! And, yeah, player agency - *real* agency - is the point, as far as I'm concerned. I most enjoy GMing when I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen next!

  4. I've just stumbled upon this adventure while reading through all of your ATWC content. Thank you very much; it is inspiring, and structured like the type of adventures I like to run. I want to try out new sys

    1. ... new systems (was I going to say before fatfingering the "publish" button) using this adventure!

    2. Glad to hear it! If you do run it, please do let me know how it goes!