The Glorious Revolution is upon us, comrades! Join Red Army today to die tomorrow!
OK, truth be told, as much as I enjoy playing up the image of a dirty commie sometimes, I’m not really one. The truth of the matter is that communism doesn’t work. It’s a distant utopia that requires either unlimited resources or perfect people to function (and if you have either, nearly any social order would work fine). And the attempt to make it work has resulted in some really, really horrible things.
So, kids, don’t try communism at home.
But, as with many other historical horrors, it makes for a great game of make-believe. The time of Russian Revolution is fascinating. It was a time of ideals clashing against reality, producing nearly unprecedented human brutality. You had reds driven by unreachable ideals and personal ambitions imposing their vision of the world on common people, you had whites clinging to the old order which time was gone or attempting to find a more moderate solution to Russia’s problems, you had blacks using the chaos of war and the fact Russia is fuckhuge to seize control over some territories and try to live the ideal of anarchy, you had greens fighting for common people and ultimately being crushed and forgotten between two giants. And, of course, you had the common people themselves, just trying to survive and being pushed beyond their limits.
There is a lot of material for potential games on every level: a game of survival, political intrigue, war action, spy games, Kafkian nightmares due to the secret police gaining power and influence, assassination plots, etc., etc.
And adding supernatural component to the conflict expands the possibilities even farther. I was actually tangentially involved in a Russian TRPG project about the Revolution called the Red Lands, in which the civil war was interrupted by the sudden appearance of magic, which prolonged the war for a few years as the participants suddenly gained unexpected advantages, and turned the whole conflict from a mundane war into a direct battle of ideals, with the winner potentially gaining power of Revolution to reshape the world into their image.
As such, I’m curious how this game handled the issue. It’s only one chapter rather than the whole game dedicated to the period, so I don’t expect it to be very detailed, but let’s see how well it does thematically.
So, unlike with the previous chapter, the premise here is that Billy has found some old journals left by Harry behind. The journals were written by a Russian wizard Simon Pietrovitch (no surname given), which reminds me that Russian names look kinda silly in urban fantasy stuff. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me mostly reading foreign literature when it comes to genre fiction.
Anyway, the journals were translated and served as the basis for this chapter. Simon was a personal adviser of the Tsar during the beginning of the Revolution and later worked as an informant and consultant for the White Council. The first section of the chapter details his story and personal tragedies, highlighting the state of things at the time and leading towards the “present” for the game.
Before I begin analyzing the journals, there is another issue we must discuss regarding the idea of secrecy: major conflicts.
According to our very own DF fan commenting on the previous posts about the game, wizards stick to the shadows because they fear the new Inquisition*. Let’s leave aside the issues with making the Inquisition actually be about hunting down real witches and focus on more pressing question: who cares? People are already dying by millions, people already disappear in the dead of night never to be seen again because they were suspected of something vague thing disapproved by the ruling party.
*Which is silly: Alex Abel is a perfectly reasonable man. If you can stomach dealing with Marcone, you can stomach dealing with him. His agenda is more selfless, too.
And it wouldn’t affect just mortals. Minor talents wouldn’t have enough power to escape the prosecution, and
major powers would be pushed routinely into breaking the Laws of Magic
just to survive. The natural response to this is to use your powers to the full, either serving the system and becoming valuable enough to the rulers to be treasured (or maybe even take over them if you have some telepathic powers and the like), or to rebel against the order and try to make things better.
There is no point worrying about the consequences of broken secrecy because the worst case scenario is already in effect.
And that’s just practical considerations, without taking into account that magic users are still a product of their time and environment. They live among normal humans, they are a part of the community, and so they would share its worries, making them likely to join the cause because they believe the reds/whites/blacks/greens are right, because they have the power to make the world better or at least just a bit safer to their loved ones.
To its credit, the game does try to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, it does so by introducing the idea that wizards are forbidden from interfering in the political affairs:
“There have been two major events in European history that clearly illustrate the folly of wizards intervening in mortal political affairs. I was witness to, and some argue involved in, the second.”
Murphy: Second? What was the first one?
Billy: Harry hinted it was something the Merlin—the original Merlin—did.
(What, you mean the whole deal with Saber? You know, the whole point of using mythological figures is that everyone knows what they did. Also, Merlin is a really shitty choice for someone standing against political involvement.)
“Harry told me over and over that it seems that wizards can’t get involved in politics or national affairs without causing a bigger tragedy than whatever they were trying to avoid.”
(Oh, hey there, Unwind, I didn’t miss you.)
“Simon, I worry about your continued involvement with the Tsar. Consider how that involvement looks to the council. You must certainly see how it might look improper. They take prohibition against political involvement seriously.”
“Simon knew it was a bad idea, but his hands were tied. He couldn’t get involved in political decision making—and he claims he didn’t.”
And so on.
Yeah, I don’t buy it. Maybe the White Council does think that, maybe Merlin went full “NEVER AGAIN” after the Britain debacle and poisoned the minds of others with his ideas, but, again, who cares? What is the White Council going to do to people joining the fight due to the reasons I’ve stated? Kill them all? They can’t even reliably deal with warlocks in time of peace, what chance do they have of tracking an enterprising telepath infiltrating the inner party circle? And, again, for many people safety is something unreachable: someone is going to try to kill you anyway, or hunger and cold would get to you, so the White Council is not a big deal.
These concerns, of course, apply not only to the Russian Revolution, but for other major conflicts as well.
What, does the game expect me to believe that wizards simply sit the World Wars out? Did no Chinese wizard lift a finger during the Mongol invasion or bloody internal wars? Did Native American wizards just watched their people being slaughtered because the White Council didn’t want to get involved due to some vague considerations?
Wait, the last one is actually canon, nevermind.
Yeah, the separation of mundane and magic just keeps getting more and more silly and disturbing.
So, Simon worked as Tsar’s adviser and an instructor on hunting vampires for a selected few from the Imperial Guard and the Church, because that’s not interfering with political affairs, obviously. He was also the one to introduce Rasputin to the court, because of course Rasputin is around.
Rasputin here is an actual magic user with a talent of biomancy. Healing, mostly, which does fit his story. He manipulated Simon into going to the frontline with the Tsar, which led to the Council cranking down on Simon and forcing him to retreat to his estate. No actions were done against Rasputin despite him being much more active politically. Is the idea here that only White Council members are forbidden from getting political? Because that leaves even less reason for the rest of magic users to hide in shadows.
Anyway, Rasputin later was killed by Simon’s apprentice following his off-hand remark (which might or might not have been designed to provide plausible deniability):
“I regret ever laying eyes on the madman Rasputin. He has ruined everything, and has the Tsar and Tsarina under his spell. I wish his mother had smothered him in the cradle. Once again, you are forbidden to see him.”
(It actually should be Tsaritsa, by the way)
Apparently, the White Council didn’t like it and actually executed the apprentice for hiring a gunman who killed Rasputin. Not sure why: the method of murder was mundane, so no Laws were broken, Rasputin himself was a magic user, so he shouldn’t be protected under “no political intervention” clause and, in fact, could be blamed in it himself. So, IDK, more drama.
Rasputin, of course, didn’t die completely then. Instead, he’s made a deal with Winter Queen for life and power:
“I knew Rasputin was a talented biomancer, but I had not anticipated how talented. I learned details much later, through means that I do not wish to commit to writing. Through the power of his magic, Rasputin survived a cranial gunshot wound that would have killed almost anyone else. As his will wrestled with his biology over his fate, Mab, the Winter Queen, appeared to him and proposed a bargain: she would deliver to him life and great power, and in exchange he would deliver Russia to her.
While maintaining the public fiction that he was dead, Rasputin incited revolution in February of 1917, using psychomancy sponsored by Winter. He wielded the lightest, most delicate of touches on the minds of large numbers of people, inciting anger and hatred and lust for justice. He arranged for a young firebrand named Lenin to return to Petrograd from exile in Finland, and then simply awaited the inevitable second revolution—this one with Lenin in public control—in October of the same year.”
…OK, seriously, the Anastasia plot? Rasputin is behind the Revolution?
Look, I was expecting to see him around because he’s one of those larger-than-life figures I wouldn’t be surprised to see among FSN Servants almost unmodified*, but I was expecting him to have a more personal or local agenda, not be the mastermind behind everything.
*Just give him an actual magecraft skill and an NP reflecting his failure to die, and he would make a decent Caster. The NP would even cover the usual weakness of Casters being squishy humans.
It’s especially jarring since he’s mentioned only once since then, playing a minor and distant role. He mostly disappears from the narrative, doesn’t have a stat block, etc. So what was even the point?
Mab’s involvement is also kept vague. The book even questions what could she possibly gain out of it:
“I can only speculate about Queen Mab’s motivation for this. I do not know what she gains from dominating mortal country, even one so clearly suited to her domain as Russia is…”
That’s, you know, an important question since the Winter Court is supposed to be a big player here, and their motives would naturally influence their behavior. What are their end goals here?
Again the book resorts to create a mystery instead of providing interesting answers that I could change if I didn’t like them. Really don’t like that approach.
But, anyway, the Revolution proceeded as per our history, leading us to the actual setting of the game: Novgorod, 1918, a major hub of transportation and munition supplements suffering from the lack of food and other supplies, populated by people pushed beyond their limits and infested with various supernatural threats.
But before I get to describe the setting proper, these two quotes are funny together:
“Fear is about the only thing the Russians aren’t short of.”
“…and if there was one thing 1918 Russia had no shortage of, it was ghosts.”
“Nobody expects the Russian Revolution! Our chief weapon is fear… fear and ghosts …ghosts and fear…. our two weapons are fear and ghosts…”
“What about bears?”
“What about them?”
“There is a werebear among threats mentioned.”
“He’s a baron, not a revolutionist.”
“But he’s a bear.”
“All right, so our three weapons are fear, ghosts and bears… and almost fanatical devotion to the cause… Our four…no… amongst our weapons…. amongst our weaponry…are such elements as fear, ghosts…. I’ll come in again.”
So, the setting.
It’s very mortal-centric compared to the other ones. The main conflict revolves around the party pushing for more and more munitions, local authorities trying to take care of the people with very few resources, paranoia over counterrevolutionaries rising and leading to figurative witch hunts (with some people reporting innocent people against whom they hold a grudge) and most people just trying to survive while the situation grows steadily worse and less and less food and other supplies becoming available.
The idea here is that one of the major themes of the setting would be examination of relationship between supernatural and mortals and how mortals became powerful enough to outshine the supernatural in power and cruelty.
Yeah, I can’t say I like it much. It seems like a waste of fantasy elements. Russian Revolution is a fascinating period, but you don’t really need wizards to demonstrate it. If you’re going to involve magic, I would expect it to be central to the plot, either being divorced from mortal concerns with RL setting being colorful background, or intertwining with them (vampires as the corrupt elite, Nazi with actually working occultism, etc.).
A big part of it is DF insistence on secrecy clashing greatly with the potential conflicts: Bolsheviks can’t fight capitalist bloodsuckers (that is, Red Court vampires), White Guard can’t request help from the Summer Queen to become platonic ideals of knights for a year and a day, greens can’t use chtonic forces and turn the land itself against their enemies. All of that would irrevocably change the history as we know it, leading to potentially great scenarios but also to complete divorce with DF timeline.
And we can’t have it.
So, let’s see what we are allowed to have.
The supernatural powers are actually concentrated mostly in the hands of suggested PCs.
This chapter returns to a coherent PC group, as opposed to the focal points approach of the previous one. Specifically, the suggested PCs are all residents of a local boardinghouse. They don’t have any prior connections, unlike the crew from Baltimore, but they’re easy to tie together by common concerns.
So, a variation of “you all meet in a tavern.” OK.
The first one is Larisa Yevtushenko, an apprentice of Simon sent to the city as an informant. Her goal is to watch over the mundane and supernatural events and report them back to Simon. A local Cheka (ЧК, actually, it’s an acronym that can be roughly translated as emergency committee, though people rarely used the actual name of the organization because newspeak is so much more efficient) started to suspect her to be a dissident and threatened to arrest, so, in panic, she burned him to ashes and wounded his subordinate, whom she then killed to silence.
His replacement was Nicolai Bolshov, who may or may not be Winter Knight, but he certainly is a remorseless killer. I talk about him later. For now, it’s sufficient to say that he’s not a nice guy, and he’s made an already shitty situation that much worse.
Larisa blames herself for his arrival, to the point of writing in her journal, and I quote, “My God, what have I done?”
Eh, a bit of overreaction, I’d say. It’s not like she has created him. He already was around, and he was already a murderous psychopath, he just was a murderous psychopath somewhere else. So, at worst, Larisa participated in redistribution of evil.
Anyway, she regrets her actions that day and wants to make up for them to local people, disregarding the order of non-involvement from her mentor.
Also, her surname is really distracting as there is a famous poet with the same one.
The next PC is Elena Koslovskaya, the owner (not officially after the Revolution, but she’s allowed to run it by the party due to her husband being a war hero) of the boardinghouse. She’s also an ectomancer, that is, a mage working with ghosts. She can contact them, bind, send away, etc.
Her husband was a soldier. When he was away on frontlines, a man named Jakub Skorski who stayed at the boardinghouse used psychomancy to get Lena into romance. So, she was basically raped via magical coercion.
She’s realized it soon enough, summoned some kind of unspecified dark spirit and sent it after Jakub, destroying his mind, wounding his body and driving him far away.
As usual with rape narratives, I’m really not sure it’s needed. The scenario would work much the same if Jakub were to run a scheme to get ownership over the boardinghouse instead (a relatively cozy place by the standards of the time, a source of additional ration cards, an attractive target) or if he were trying to get Lena under his control because of her powers, which can be used to do a lot of interesting stuff, considering how much people sometimes want to talk to their dead loved ones and how much some ghosts would know about various sensitive subjects.
Rape doesn’t really reflect the themes of this setting more than other possible crimes, and I doubt many game groups would focus on that aspect, so…
At least it’s not gratuitous, and the blame is placed squarely on Jakub, to the point of kinda contradicting the game’s own moral:
Butters: By my reading, that’s a Fifth Law violation there . Maybe Second, too.
Murphy: Bastard had it coming.
Billy: Hell yeah, he did.
Hey, what happened to “always wrong, no matter the intention or context”? In the very previous chapter there was an example of a psychomancer trying to fix people with disastrous results, and in general the Laws are treated as something you should regret breaking, but not here?
I mean, I’m on Lena’s side here, to hell with the inconsistent Laws, but it’s weird to see the characters agreeing with me. I guess DF world-building got even to the devs, finally.
Anyway, her husband returned from the war, wounded, and for some time they lived peacefully, until he disappeared one night.
“One warm night in June 1918, Josef went for a walk but never returned. That night Lena awoke to see an apparition of him in their bedroom, faintly glowing. He looked afraid, something she’d never seen in him before; she slowly realized that strings, as if on a marionette, were attached through his hands, head, and feet. The strings pulled him up and out of sight, but not before she heard him call out to her, sounding as though he were at a great distance. Had the spirit Lena used against Skorski exacted its price? Or was something else going on?”
Again with vagueness. Look, book, I’m perfectly capable of changing the culprit from a dark spirit to Antanta sorcerers if I really want to, you can afford giving definite answers and actually proposing game scenarios I can use, so fucking do it already.
Anyway, since then Lena spends her nights trying to find the soul of her husband and discover what happened to him. She also runs the boardinghouse and ensures it has the necessary supplies despite the resources becoming more and more scarce.
Our next PC is Badass McBearkiller, also known as Svetlana Kaplan. She’s a believer in the ideals of Revolution and a mortal mosnter hunter. She didn’t actually kill a bear (or at least it’s not confirmed outright), just managed to escape the baron werebear who ruled and terrorized his village and told his secret to everyone, leading to some good old pitchforks and torches march.
Since then, she started to hunt monsters and became pretty damn good at it, with the aspect I Have a Shell for That and a stunt I Have Just the Shell allowing her to proclaim she has any special material needed to bypass supernatural protections, like inherited silver and such.
The book paints her as being close to the edge, but there actually isn’t anything in her backstory or aspects to confirm she ever went after undeserving target.
The last PC is also the only guy on the roster, Konstantin Voronkov. He’s a changeling charged by his Summer masters to find promising artists and help them escape to the West, because I guess Summer doesn’t care much about common people, only about someone capable of praising it prettily.
Otherwise, he’s a drifter and a petty criminal who crossed local crime boss. Seems like he has a potential to fall into the infuriating archetype of a charming criminal daredevil, with him “testing” Larisa if she’s willing to help him by jumping her on a street and saying she must cast a veil, or they would both be dead, despite him being capable of casting himself. He doesn’t quite cross the line in his backstory, though, so there is a potential to play him better.
Well, that’s it for PCs. Now, to the antagonists.
The biggest one is Bolshov, a Cheka officer basically in charge of the city who may or may not be the Winter Knight. Here the problem with the Winter Knight as a playable template comes to the fore: the book is unwilling to commit to the idea because someone may want to play as one, which means the book can’t detail what he actually does as Winter emissary that he wouldn’t do as a regular Cheka officer.
Moreover, it exposes the silliness of there being only one Winter Knight combined with the local focus. With one Winter Knight, you’d figure he would be in the thick of things. Among party’s inner circle, maybe, stirring the war in the right direction or devising winning strategies, or on the frontlines, leading the charge with the help of magic. Novgorod is important, but it’s not exactly crucial, so our friend here seems wasted on the city.
It’s possible that his presence is due to some grand ritual or brewing supernatural conflict, but the book is silent on that front, too.
So, yeah, he’s here to harass PCs, basically.
Hey, remember I told you that Rasputin is mentioned again? Yep, he’s back! But not personally. Long story short, Jakub mentioned above ran into Rasputin in his flight and became his thrall, gaining sponsorship deal from Winter in the process, increasing his powers. Now he’s sent back to get Lena under Rasputin influence as well due to her power. He has no intention of doing it, however, because he’d rather have her all to himself because the only thing better than rape in TRPG is more rape.
Then there is our werebaron, angry at the peasants daring to defy his power in general and at Sveta in particular. He’s here for revenge against her, but, ironically, he likes to share his murder and would attack anyone he finds a deserving target.
Then there is Dmitri Yegorov, a crazy church caretaker. Long story short, he was unappreciated and underpaid for years, his wife died of treatable illness because the doctor refused to go to her without payment, and he had a generally shitty life, so when the Revolution came he killed two out of three priests, locked up the third one and organized gladiatorial fights between people he finds deserving and a Black Court vampire he’s found… somewhere and crippled. The remaining priest serves as a deterrent, shoving a cross at the vampire so he would remain inside a cage while people are forced inside.
I’m really not sure where the hell he’s found a vampire of all things. The game does take place after the fall of the Black Court, so I guess it’s not impossible the priests found and mostly dealt with it, only for Dmitri to save its life for his game, but still, some elaboration would be nice.
Anyway, the vampire lacks a leg and a hand and is kept in a sturdy cage decorated in garlic, but is still capable of killing people sent its way. There is a possibility of him escaping due to his mental powers: sooner or later, he should be able to worm his way into Dmitri or the priest’s head.
Also, a lot of people attend the show, making the idea of secrecy even more silly.
Most other major characters actually integrated into the setting are mortals: Anna Trushina, the head of local authorities trying to keep the city running while meeting the demands of her superiors, Alexander Durov, a party man worrying only about meeting the quota on munitions and getting a promotion, Boris Gulin, a smuggler baron and a leader of the local underground, Igor Bezrodny, a cowardly Red Guard captain ensuring that his people stay as far away from the action as possible for as long as possible, Fyodor Sharonov, a counterrevolutionary saboteur trying to orchestrate an explosion in local factories, Old Vasilisa, a local source of interesting stories and GM exposition living in the boardinghouse, and Olga Golovina, an old woman reporting on people whom she dislikes as counterrevolutionaries. Bolshov is fond of her, apparently.
I should note here that the book has a section detailing the role of women in the Revolution. Long story short, due to a lot of men dying in WWI and the Revolution itself (to the point of women noticeably outnumbering men), women gained more social freedom and power. They served in the Red Army, occupied various administrative positions, etc., etc. The process is similar to what USA has experienced after WWII, I think, only even more pronounced due to greater losses.
It is reflected in the PC roster, as you can see, but unfortunately didn’t impact the rest of the cast much, as it’s still dominated by men. The total number of characters present in the city proper is 9 men and 4 women, not counting PCs, or 10 men and 7 women. The latter actually is not bad by the standards of the media, but a far cry from women actually outnumbering men (the one time following the historical accuracy would actually be a positive thing), plus keep in mind that suggested PC characters are the most easily discarded ones, since it’s a good bet a lot of game groups would create their own.
The chapter ends with the descriptions of Koschei the Deathless and Baba Yaga because all Western fantasy involving Russia is contractually obligated to include the two. Koschei is statted both as an immortal necromancer and as a Black Court vampire masquerading as a sorcerer, for the GM to pick a preferred option. See? That’s much better than vague shady vagueness so much loved by the book.
Baba Yaga is what you expect, a crazy powerful force of nature:
“Every Russian forest is her forest, every Russian stream her stream, every meadow and lake and mountain are hers, and once you enter her domain and attract her attention, time and space mean very little.”
It’s always amusing to me to see such passages because in the stories I know she’s, well, a witch. Not much different from the one Hansel and Gretel encountered. She’s old and wise and powerful, but not to that extent. For those familiar with Pact, Crone Mara is pretty similar to her.
Also, in quite a lot of stories the nature hates her guts. Children has escaped her by asking the trees, the river, the clouds, etc., to stall her, and they were happy to oblige.
“Of course, if you seek Baba Yaga in her chicken-footed hut, I am sorry to say that you will not be able to find her, unless she wishes to be found.”
A lot of stories actually include a bit where the heroes entered her hut against her wishes because the stupid thing answers to anyone who knows the right words.
If you want a true force of nature from Russian folklore, Vasilisa the Wise is a better bet. She actually is described more as a nature spirit than a human, with a river flowing from her sleeve. She also typically grants a brush capable of summoning a forest to a hero, which seems to be pretty far above Baba Yaga’s level (her level is more “here’s a skull full of green fire to kill her family”).
Speaking of inaccuracies, there are a few:
“Russians typically refer to one another by just the first name or, for more familiar relations or friends, the given name followed by the patronymic—such as Simon Pietrovich, meaning Simon son of Peter.”
It’s actually the opposite: given name plus patronymic is a sign of respect: students address a teacher that way, subordinates – their boss, servants – their masters, etc. What tripped the devs off here, I think, is that it was not uncommon back in the day to use this form of address between friends, confidants or even relatives, but the principle was still the same: given name plus patronymic indicates respect, the lack of patronymic indicates superiority or informality. In modern time, though, it’s not uncommon to use just the given name to refer to young people even in formal settings, but that, in turn, comes from an attempt to create a fake familiarity, similar to how fast food people are required to smile and such.
In any case, if you were to find yourself in Russia, don’t address someone only by their given name, especially someone older than you, it may be impolite. As a rule of thumb, it’s preferable to not use names at all and go by pronounces: ti (singular informal, used among peers, to refer to inferiors and kids), vi (plural) and Vi (singular respectful, the default one).
Then there is the use of word ‘baba’ to mean ‘grandmother.’ It’s an archaic use, and nowdays the word has another meaning. I’m actually not sure how it was used back at the time of Revolution, but it’s still pretty jarring to see it now, especially since it’s mildly improper. Baba Yaga is an exception here since her name is pretty much codified through the centuries of use.
I think there are a few more inaccuracies like that. Nothing too big, but still jarring to encounter.
So, overall, it’s not the worst take on Russia I’ve seen (oh, White Wolves, so much klukva), but the product is very unpolished. The idea behind focusing on one city only was to provide a reflection of the Revolution as a whole while giving the players a place they could care about, but the Revolution clearly proved to be too big to handle for the devs. The supernatural elements are not integrated properly. There is no description of Winter enclave or anything in the city, despite them being a major moving force behind the conflict. Vampires are absent, wizards like to watch and not act, no army of hungry werewolves lurk in the night, the local authorities don’t resort to demonology to keep the city running, etc., etc.
Supernatural just doesn’t play much of a role in this conflict. Part of the reason for it is space constraints – it’s hard to tackle such a massive issue in one chapter – but another, more important part is that they can’t, not without breaking the very idea behind DF apart by eliminating the secrecy and becoming a proper part of the war on ideals.
Honestly, I would have preferred for the devs to invent some bullshit about how wizards obliviated all muggles of supernatural involvement in the war rather then see so many opportunities passing unnoticed.
So, yeah, my verdict is that there are a couple of ideas that could be stolen for better games, but otherwise I find this chapter lacking.
That’s it for now. Tune in next time for Florida Man.