Not so much a mythic as a messy Russia: ‘Aluminium Wars’ and a 1990s mini-setting for the new Malandros game
Hillfolk by the estimable Robin Laws — who also created the HeroQuest game engine behind Mythic Russia — is a system using the DramaSystem engine, which puts even more stress (in every sense) on interpersonal conflicts and relationships. It won both the Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence and the Indie Game Awards’ Indie Game of the Year in 2014 and not surprisingly, has since been ported to different settings. One of the most recent and, I think, most exciting is Malandros, tapping the considerable (trust me) but underexploited potential of late 19thC Rio streetlife. It is currently in the middle of a KickStarter funding/pre-order campaign and let me strongly encourage you to head over to its page, watch the video and read the text, as odds are that you might not have realised what an exciting and dynamic setting that represents. Then back the project, not least because one of the stretch goals, if it raises an eminently-reasonable £1000, is a mini-setting which I’ll write, Aluminium Wars (yes, that’s Aluminum Wars for the Americans among you…), taking the system into the freewheeling Russia of the 1990s ‘Wild East’ days in an impoverished industrial Siberian city being ripped apart by criminal-political wars over the local industry. Here’s the short blurb:
£1000: Aluminium Wars, an alternate setting PDF by Mark Galeotti
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and everything was up for grabs. In the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk, while the big beasts of the new gangster-businessman world fight it out for control of the local aluminium industry, corrupt cops, ambitious politicians, hustlers, thugs, and even a few idealists struggle to thrive and survive in a new Russia without rules, rhyme or reason.
Now, wouldn’t you want to see that?
Last weekend saw the pomp and circumstance of the thousandth anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir the Great — St Vladimir — who brought Christianity to the Rus’ and who, as prince of Kiev, is also an interesting bone of contention between modern Ukraine and Russia. On my “serious” (relatively) blog In Moscow’s Shadows, I note that:
However, reading his eulogy to Prince (and Saint) Vladimir I (ironically, of Kiev), who forcibly baptised his population and thus brought Orthodox Christianity to the Rus’, delivered yesterday (28 July 2015) on the thousand-year anniversary of his death, I wondered if Putin had a new role model:
“By stopping fratricidal wars, crushing external enemies, Prince Vladimir laid down the foundation for creating a single Russian nation and paved the way for the construction of a strong, centralized Russian state.”
To this end, here I give both the official write-up of the saintly cult of St Vladimir from Mythic Russia and also a distinctly tongue-in-cheek rendition of a different St Vladimir altogether…
Vladimir was the prince of Kiev who converted to Christianity in 988 – and his city with him. He is thus considered the first evangelist of Russia, but is essentially a saint-hero rather than a purely religious Power. (Cynics say that his conversion was a political move, and this is why he has no secret, but they will no doubt burn in hell for their impiety.) In Kiev and elsewhere he is also regarded as a patron of all good and great Christian rulers.
Abilities: Commanding Presence, Devotee of St Vladimir or Initiate of St Vladimir, Life of St Vladimir, Order People About.
Virtues: Authoritative, Evangelical, Think New Thoughts.
Affinity: Prince of God (Baptismal Blessing, Bright as the Sun, Strike Down Rebel, Summon the Godly, Topple Pagan Idols)
Rites & Representations: St Vladimir is always shown in conventional terms, as a crowned prince in his robes, with crucifix in one hand, the other empty or holding a sword. His feast day is 4 February, still a great festival in Kiev. [Vlad-DEE-mir]
Worshippers: Princes, warriors, evangelists and proud subjects of Kiev.
Disadvantages: St Vladimir cannot be worshipped through dvoeverie as well as pagan Powers. Furthermore, pagans who do not practice dvoeverie often despise St Vladimir – and by extension his worshippers – for turning against the old ways.
A Time of Troubles demands a hero, and St Vladimir was one such: warrior, lover, spymaster and tsar. Born from humble stock in Leningrad, he learned the ways of the street and then of the Cheka and finally of power, mastering them all with coolly effortless efficiency.
Abilities: Cold Hands Warm Heart, Cultivate Right Friends, Devotee of St Vladimir of the Kremlin or Initiate of St Vladimir of the Kremlin, Judo Master, Life of St Vladimir of the Kremlin, Obscene Slang.
Virtues: Action Man, Coolly Self-Confident, Ruthless.
Affinity: Sovereign Democracy (Demonize Foreigner, Recount Ballots, Rewrite Rules, See Spies All Around)
Secret: Paramount Image (When publicly engaging in some ridiculously over-the-top test of physical manhood such as wrestling bears or kicking holes in stone walls, the acolyte gets the Community Support bonus from all onlookers, regardless of whether they are actively assisting him)
Rites & Representations: There is but a single true icon to St Vladimir of the Kremlin, which weeps myrrh and crude oil. Nonetheless, in less holy imagery he is depicted in a range of manly and martial activities. His holy day is the Self-Annunciation, held on 4 March.
Worshippers: He is revered by functionaries, spies, thief-takers, swordsmiths and, of course, all good, loyal citizens of the modern Rus’.
Disadvantages: No worshipper of St Vladimir of Moscow can follow any other saint or deity; it is unthinkable.
NIGHT WITCHES, by Jason Morningstar
Bully Pulpit Games, 2014
In 1941, as the Soviet Union reeled under the hammer blow of blitzkrieg, with most of its air force destroyed on the ground on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, it looked for pilots wherever it could. Nothing could get in the way of the war effort—even the endemic sexism of a regime that preached equality but in practice was everything but. The third of three, the 588th Night Bomber Regiments, was the only one that was all-woman. Hardly coincidentally, it got the oldest planes, Po-2 biplanes, and the toughest missions.
And despite terrible losses, a crushing cycle of night-after-night missions and the patronizing contempt of many of the senior commanders, it proved an astonishingly successful, 23 of the so-called “night witches” being made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Night Witches the game, derived from the Apocalypse World system, pits a team of players against not just the challenges of night-time bombing raids in obsolete aircraft but the ingrained sexism of the Soviet military command and the privations, rivalries, intimacies and intolerances of a high-stress life close to the front line. This is just a pre-play, first-glance reaction to the book, but it certainly looks like a wonderful, evocative and psychologically-intriguing game. Play alternates between night and day phases: night for the war, day for the human stuff around and in spite of it that actually represents a much more interesting part of the game. What’s more fearsome” a German ack-ack shell, an NKVD secret police interrogation, or falling for one of your fellow pilots, knowing all the risks involved and the probably heartache? Do you go with the flow or buck the system? Are you a victim of the Stalinist state, or its willing and enthusiastic collaborator?
This is a lapidary project, carefully cut, finely polished (just take a look at the carefully detailed character sheets and mission outlines freely available on the Bully Pulpit site, as well as the extensive preview). It’s intended to do something very specific, that’s less about war and more about people caught up in the grinding iron gears of war. It looks powerful, it looks clever, but just as much as that, it actually looks moving. An impressive achievement for something that also looks fun and playable.
Courtesy of Professor Michael Fuller, an anthropologist at St Louis Community College, and his extensive page of images here (there is a vast array, ranging from the modern back), here are some photos of his taken from a MosFilm set recreating a large Russian village (or small town) from the Mythic Russia era. Click on the thumbnails for bigger images.
Here’s another magical–in every sense–mystery, the eight sandstone mounds of Sunduki (“Boxes”) in Siberia, which appear to be the world’s oldest observatory. Sunduki is near the Bely Iyus river in the Abakan River Basin in Khakassia, south-central Siberia (not the town of the same region in Tver region). According to a piece in the Siberian Times,
In all, Sunduki comprises eight fantastical sandstone mounts rising incongruously from a flood plain on the bank of the Bely Iyus. Parallel to each other, almost equal in size, they are crowned with strange rock hats looking like giant boxes or chests.
The word ‘Sunduk’ in Russian means ‘chest’ or ‘trunk’ which explains how the place got its modern name.
‘For many years I tried to unravel these mystery ‘chests’, said Professor Vitaly Larichev, of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Determined to decode some of the mysteries of Sunduki, he admits he became an ‘astro-archeologist’.
‘We don’t dig in the ground – we study what ancient people knew about astronomy’, he said.
‘What I discovered was a surprise even to myself. Comparing maps accumulated over many years of astronomical observations, I came to understand that here in Sunduki, we can see the oldest astronomical observatory certainly in Asia. Its age is about 16,000 years old. The ancient inhabitants of this valley daily observed the sunset, the sunrise and the moon’.
The mounds and strategic rocks and clefts can be used to predict the solstice and even tell the time:
High on one cliff wall is a rock engraving showing dragon heads in one direction, and snake heads in the other.
‘If the sun were shining, we could tell the time,’ he said. ‘In the morning the shadow moves along the snake’s body from his head to his tail, and in the afternoon it comes from the other direction along the dragon.
‘From the same observation point you can determine true north and south by sighting along the mountains’.
Still today showing petroglyphs of every kind, the mounds of Sunduki were seemingly natural formations, to which shamans added stones and perhaps carved clefts to make them into these observatories. Obviously a powerful magical place, deeply imbued with the spirits, maybe even having its own Shape. Most likely, though, it could instead connect one versed in right right mysteries, knowing the songs to sing, the steps to dance and the herbs to chew, directly to that glorious, godly, glaring Shape: the Sun. Or perhaps leaping through the cleft at the Solstice might bring one directly into the spirit realm of the Sun, or else into another Solstice, years in the past…
Never mind Loch Ness, Russia claims not one but six legendary lake monsters, and Russians are no more eager than the Scots to give up on these tales (which, incidentally, are great cameos for Mythic Russia games). Indeed, Russia Beyond The Headlines recently reported on the way that a deep dive into Siberia’s Lake Labynkyr promptly sparked all kinds of rumors about finally coming up with evidence of its particular monstrosity:
The dive made by Dmitry Schiller’s team into the icy waters of Lake Labynkyr on February 1, 2013 could qualify for the Guinness World Records. The team members dived to the bottom of the polar lake at the coldest time of year, in Russia’s coldest region.
The dive has already prompted a blaze of publicity in the Russian media, not to mention the repercussions it has borne. Rumors abound that parts of the skeleton and jaws of a huge animal were found on the lakebed, with the help of camera technology.
The members of the Russian Geographical Society team have since denied this claim, but “Nessie Fever” was unstoppable. Both scientific and pseudo-scientific exploration teams have set off in pursuit of a Russian Loch Ness Monster all over the country.
Lake Labynkyr is meant to be the home of a massive, predatory fish, with a “dark-grey, oval-shaped body,” known as the “Devil of Labynkyr.” A similar “bull-pike” is reportedly to be found in nearby Lake Vorota and also distant Lake Khaiyr, in Yakutia above the Arctic Circle, along with a more reptilian or serpentine creature, “probably 4 to 4.5 meters [13-14 feet] long, 1.5 to 2 meters tall, with a long neck, maybe 1.5 meters. It had a small, flat head, like a snake”… Far, far to the east is Lake Elgygytyn, and no one even knows what the great entity living within its icy depths may be. These aren’t all beasts of Siberia, though. Bubbling Lake Brosno, located in Tver Region, is considered home to Brosnya, a water dragon. (That RBTH article also has a handy map showing the locations of all these places.)
It turns out that the torch made to light the flame at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in southern Russia will be shaped like the feather of a Firebird. Of course! It may not look that featherish, but apparently it will produce “a previously-unseen massive orange-red flame.”
Quibbles about the actual torch aside, it’s nice to see the Russians in a nod to one of the classic pieces of Russian folklore.
There’s a very nice little history by Kevin O’Connor of Gonzaga University the rise of the Latvian city of Riga on his blog Briniskigi! here. Complete with the map below (a little early for the standard Mythic Russia timeline, but a good base) and the picture to the left (which is Riga in 1621, so conversely a little late), it gives a sense of the way it emerged and above all the role of the Crusading Orders (the Livonians, the Sword Brothers) in that process. (This is also discussed on this Latvian history site.)
Still today, Riga is a gem of a city with a lovely medieval centre now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — very well worth exploring if ever you get there. (I confess I also have a hankering to try the ‘Medieval Adventure in Old Riga‘ ‘interactive guided tour’ even though, or maybe because, I suspect it will be quite hokey.)