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.)
One of the liberties I took in Mythic Russia was including vodka. After all, even if vodka wouldn’t actually be around for a few centuries, it is so deeply-embedded within the Russian trope, that I felt it my bounden duty!
However, it turns out, courtesy of this article from the Moscow News, that maybe this wasn’t quite as much of a stretch as I had thought:
One story says that Genoese merchants traveling to Lithuania brought aqua vitae, a strong liquor distilled from grape juice that had to be diluted for consumption, to Russia in the 14th century. They presented vessels of it to Dmitry Donskoi, prince of Moscow and grand prince of Vladimir.
So, strong spirits not only were present, they came from Italy, via Lithuania. This raises all kinds of interesting plot line:
- Raiding Lithuania for supplies of this potent firewater to present to the tsar (and then trying to prevent your men from drinking it on the way back)
- A Lithuanian merchant traveling into Russia looking for markets (perhaps needing local guards, guides and allies) and trying to avoid rivals from finding out his source and rapacious boyars from confiscating his stock
- Russian entrepreneurs trying to sneak into Lithuania to contact the Genoese to establish their own trade deals for direct imports, possibly even having to trek all the way to Italy to arrange it. Or maybe instead heading down to the Genoese trading stations on the Crimean peninsula to open negotiations.
A massive geoglyph (carved figure in the ground) of an elk (moose) in the Zyuratkul Ridge in the Southern Urals may be the oldest such artwork in the world, perhaps dating back 5000-8000 years. It’s massive, over 2 km long and some 275 m across, and was made with large and small stones embedded in the ground and crushed stones.
Stanislav Grigoryev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History and Archeology, said he believed that the elk was a message addressed to the gods. Of course, we know that this must be the holiest place dedicated to the Sibiryak Shape of Elk, a thin place where travel into the Otherworlds is easy.
Abilities: Devotee of Elk or Initiate of Elk, Endure Hardship, Lock Horns, Stories of Elk
Affinity: Cope With What Comes (Eat What’s Around, Find Salt, Shrug Off Bad Weather, Ungainly Swimmer, Warm Inside)
Secret: Mighty Antlers (The devotee can at will manifest great antlers, and while they are evident can use this Secret as an additional Affinity with the feats Attract Mate, Bone-Crunching Charge, Intimidating Display.