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So, I was presented with a rule book for Iron Kingdoms RPG and some accessories, and a directive to run a campaign. Ninja_Wolf had given me a big army bag full of Cryx (steampunk-fantasy undead + undead pirates), and I had access to a few army bags full of Digital_Rampage's Khador army minis (steampunk-fantasy not-Russia). Also, I found a pretty coffee-table book of Russian fairy tales at the thrift store. I'm a fan of Ivan Bilibin's artwork. And, one of the major characters in the Khador army is the Old Witch of Khador, who's pretty much a steampunk-fantasy Baba Yaga.

I got the idea to cobble together a questing adventure that would draw some inspiration from the tale of Tsarevitch Ivan, the Grey Wolf, and the Firebird, with the idea that this would basically be a series of "dungeons," with the unifying theme being that Tsarevitch Ivan was dragging the heroes along on a vaguely-defined "quest," with the possibly mythic Firebird serving as the MacGuffin to justify all this trouble.

In the world of Iron Kingdoms, there are a number of elements I could work with. First, the Old Witch of Khador is a mysterious, scheming being of such age that she's clearly immortal. In the game lore, she has taken actions to support Vladimir Tzepesci, the "Dark Prince of Umbrey" -- a warcaster prince of a Khadoran territory of "Umbrey," that was once part of a larger kingdom with some lands that extend into neighboring country Llael (and this serves as a pretext for the invasion of Llael by Khador). The Old Witch is the sort of person who might well help you on a quest ... but then her ultimate schemes will still lead to your downfall, "for the greater good" of Khador, from her point of view. She can be ally and/or antagonist -- much like how Baba Yaga is portrayed ranging from friend to monster in the fairy tales.

Arcanists, Warcasters, Warlocks, Witches, and Sorcerers
There are also "witches" or "sorcerers" -- and yet there are also perfectly legitimate spellcasters.

There are magical clergy: The worship of "Menoth" is a loose parallel to Catholic Christianity in this setting, whereas a split-off branch of it, known as "The Old Faith," is practiced in Khador, with allusions to the Eastern Orthodox church -- and in this fantasy setting, priests of Menoth can actually invoke minor miracles (more in the lines of purifying evil with fire than anything typically associated with clergy in fantasy settings, such as actually HEALING anybody).

But then, there's also "scientific" magic: Arcanists and warcasters go to academies to learn organized magic, and it's treated as a science. After all, a lot of the more magnificent devices, referred to as "mechanika," merge magical and steam-powered elements. Magic in this setting tends to be big and loud and destructive, or with fairly crude effects. Bolts of cold, explosions of fire, forceful telekinesis tossing people about like dolls -- that sort of thing. Especially fine magic that can tell friend from foe, or do anything so sophisticated as HEALING is generally restricted to the divine arts -- and even THEN, healing magic tends to be fairly crude, leaving lasting scars and having a high chance of going wrong, making conventional healing measures often a preferred way of recuperating unless you're really at death's door and have no hope otherwise. "Arcanists" are the more conventional spellcasters, focusing on raw magical power. "Warcasters" are more focused upon channeling their magic through objects -- such as mechanika, or the steam-powered "golems" known as steamjacks.

But then you have "witches" and "sorcerers" -- terms that have very definite game mechanics meanings, but in the "fluff" are terms used very flippantly by the populace to basically describe any sort of magic that doesn't follow the normally accepted "rules," and doesn't have the mantle of respectability that comes with a magical academy degree. Some "sorcerers" are simply born with an inherent ability that manifests itself usually in raw elemental forces, and often uncontrollably (leading to unfortunate disasters when these powers awaken). "Witches" may not actually have any inherent power, but they work deals with supernatural entities such as grymkins, nature spirits, or even infernals (though in the latter case they'd be more properly termed "infernalists") in order to get magical favors -- at times with far more wide-ranging effects than would be possible with mere "spells."

And then there are the curious individuals known as druids -- the Blackclad Druids of the Circle Orboros. In strict game terms, they're spellcasters much like anyone else, but in the canon they are ritualists, and in significant numbers they can enact powerful rituals drawing power from "ley lines" of the world (Caen) to do crazy-powerful things. (This sort of thing, however, is in game terms managed by the GM -- i.e., a plot device.) The druids are secretive, manipulating tribal communities and members of the "wild" races, in a grand scheme to achieve "balance" in the world (by their judgement) ... which generally works at odds with the will of Menoth, and with the interests of civilized people living in cities. (In fact, many of the druids would like to see cities wiped off the face of Caen, and would be happy to resort to plagues and such to do so, but for the fear that such things might get out of control.)

And then there are Warlocks (no relation to Witches!) -- people of various races who develop an affinity with wild beasts (and, note, this world has a very strange definition of "beast") -- the awakening of such power being known as "the Wilding." Humans with this ability are usually identified and abducted at a young age by the druids, and develop an affinity with various of the more conventional wild beasts -- but also strange hybrids and shapeshifters nurtured by the druids, such as Warpwolves, Griffons, and Satyrs -- or "artificial" warbeasts made of stone and wood known as Wolds. Trollkin warlocks have an affinity with full-blooded trolls. Gatormen warlocks tend to have an affinity with the beasts of the swamp (including giant non-sapient or semi-sapient alligators). Farrow (pig-man) warlocks tend to develop bonds with the wild boars known as Razorboars ... or with larger, more brutish members of their own race.

Tsarevitch Ivan, the Grey Wolf, and the Firebird
So, working with a few of these principles, I tried to set up a storyline to serve as a justification for this quest.

In the traditional story of Tsarevitch Ivan, he is one of three sons of a Tsar who yearns for a magical Firebird that steals fruit from his orchard -- so he sends out his sons on a quest to find the bird. On the way, they reach a split in the road (so convenient that there's a ROAD to follow for this quest!) and a marker indicates that on one road, "You will die, but your horse will live," on the second, "Your horse will die, but you will live," and on the last, "You will know naught but cold and hunger." The two elder brothers were indecisive and held up at this point, but young Ivan rode onto the middle path.

Soon enough, a giant grey wolf bounds out, attacks Ivan's horse (knocking him off), then kills and devours it. The wolf then speaks, apologizing to Ivan, claiming that it was mad with hunger, and promises to serve Ivan to make up for the loss of his horse.

What follows is a somewhat repetitive cycle, as Ivan finds a castle with the Firebird, is warned by the Grey Wolf to touch only the Firebird and not to touch the open cage that held it. Ivan, however (in the first of several times) ignores the Grey Wolf's warning, and once he takes the firebird out, decides to seize the golden cage as well, but alarms sound, and he is captured. The king of the palace tells Ivan that if only he had asked for the firebird, he could have it, but since he attempted to steal it, he must perform a task: he must go to another castle where there is a marvelous horse, and retrieve it for this king.

Rinse, repeat. Next castle, there's a marvelous horse. Grey Wolf gives Ivan instruction. Ivan ignores it. Ivan gets caught. King there goes, "Gee, I would have given you the horse if you'd asked nicely, but since you tried to steal it, here's another task. Go to this tower where Helen the Beautiful is, and bring her back to me."

Last castle, where there's a princess out in the middle of nowhere. Somehow Ivan manages to actually get her out of there, but on the way back to Castle #2, they "fall in love." Grey Wolf solves the problem by shapechanging (didn't you know wolves can do that?) into a beautiful maiden to take Helen's place. Ivan "gives" the wolf in maiden form, gets the horse, rides off, and Grey Wolf then escapes.

At Castle #1, Grey Wolf takes on the appearance of the HORSE, so Ivan can get the Fire Bird, Ivan leaves, Grey Wolf escapes, and now Ivan has magnificent horse, fire bird, AND Helen. What a deal! Ivan bids farewell to the Grey Wolf, and rides back on the horse with Helen and the fire bird.

They reach the crossroads, where the two other brothers have been idling this whole time. The two older brothers, nice guys that they are, decide to kill Ivan, and split his treasures between the two of them. (Helen apparently just being an object that can be taken in this way, and won't tattle to the Tsar, because FAIRY TALE LOGIC.)

So Ivan is, like, totally dead, lying there, and the Grey Wolf shows up. Not to fear -- the Grey Wolf will save the day! A raven and her brood come along to feed on the body, and the Grey Wolf seizes the mother raven's children, demanding that she go and fetch the Waters of Life and Death. (Because, of course, ravens can do that.) The wolf tears one of the raven children apart to show how serious this is.

The raven does so, and the wolf uses the Waters of Death to restore the body of the young raven, then the Waters of Life to restore it to life again, as a test. When this works (and the ravens fly off), the Grey Wolf then does this to Ivan -- and, presto-change-o, he's back to life again. How convenient!

Grey Wolf then carries Ivan back to the Tsar, he confronts his brothers before the Tsar, and, depending upon the version of the story, the older brothers get beaten up, gobbled up, set on fire, or whatever, and Ivan inherits the kingdom, gets Helen, and has the most awesome horse EVAR. The end.

It's ... kind of a stupid story, really. The fire bird is swell, and I suppose a pretty princess is nice (though she doesn't bother to mention to anybody about that murder thing, so she doesn't seem very proactive at all), and so's a horse, but IMHO the most awesome thing/being to have was that magical shape-shifting, all-knowing Grey Wolf.

The White Duck
Another tale that I thought of using was that of the Duck Princess/Queen.

In summary, there's a Tsar. He has a wife, the Tsarina. A witch comes along, turns the wife into a white duck, and takes the Tsarina's form, but before the witch can finish off the duck, it escapes. The Tsarina was with child at the time of this, and, as a duck, lays three eggs. She raises the duckling-children, and there's a bit of back-and-forth about how the smallest duckling is the only smart one, and the older ones are always getting in trouble and wandering off. Eventually they are captured by the witch, who fattens them up, and plans to kill them in their sleep, but the youngest thwarts her plans a couple of times ... until at last the youngest falls asleep, and they're all slain.

What happens next varies, but it involves the white duck coming and crying over her dead children. In one version, the Tsar somehow goes, "Aha! This must actually be my wife, and who I thought my wife was, is actually a witch!" and then he does some magic stuff (how? who knows? FAIRY TALE LOGIC) and turns the duck back into his wife, and awful stuff happens to the witch, and ...

Blargh. Okay, these stories are really stupid when I revisit them. But they still have a certain iconic nature, and I thought it might be an interesting challenge to set up an adventure that might be inspired by them, and maybe even make a little more sense.

The Adventure Setup
Okay, so one thing that bothered me about the original Ivan tale was the matter of -- WHY did Ivan's older brothers hate him so?

So I came up with this convoluted plot that crossed the two stories (and a few more for good measure).

In the province of Trans-Umbrey (a little territory split off from Umbrey), Tsar Vazlov had a wife (the Tsarina), and three sons. The trouble was that, little did he know that his "wife" was actually a witch who had used infernal-granted powers to transform his actual wife into a great white swan (who managed to escape, and haunted the lake behind the palace). The two older brothers were sons of the true wife. The youngest, Ivan, was the son of Tsar Vazlov and the identity-stealing witch. The witch cared nothing for the elder sons (they weren't hers, after all), and lavished everything upon her own son. Either because of her doting, or despite it, Ivan was very foolish and naive about certain elements of reality. He got into various bits of trouble, yet mysteriously he'd get right back out again -- largely because of the magical machinations of his mother.

The witch planned on seeing to it that her son would become the next Tsar, and if he was an idiot, so be it -- she could be the puppeteer pulling the strings behind the throne. Tsar Vazlov's health had been declining (long-term poisoning), and she manipulated him into coming up with a "quest" to determine which of his sons would inherit the throne, rather than letting it go to the eldest.

However, some of her scheming got a bit out of hand. She had worked deals with infernal spirits, but their granting of her "wishes" was done in such a way that introduced new perils. The marvelous fire bird meant to be the object of this quest ended up flying deep within the wilds of the Thornwood, far beyond the witch's influence. She had a favor she could call in from the Old Witch of Khador, but the Old Witch had her own mysterious ways, and it wasn't wise to rely on her alone. The wheels had already been set in motion, so she resorted to a desperate measure: She hired a few mercenaries to accompany Ivan to protect him and keep him on track. Enter the PCs -- the "Grey Wolf Irregulars."

A Quest of Fairy Tales
So, this was my rough premise for a journey into the Thornwood. Ivan fancied himself to be a warcaster, but he was actually a warlock with a peculiar resonance with "beasts of man" (dogs/wolves, and horses, in particular -- with a nominal resonance with cats, except that cats don't follow orders, so it's kind of moot).

A dungeon featuring Koschei the Deathless (another Russian fairy tale) ended up being completely bypassed by the PCs. (Thus are the dangers of running a game that's too "sandboxy.") Along the way, the PCs did some work for the Old Witch of Khador and got to travel the rest of the way in the magi-mechanical Dancing Hut.

I worked in a few non-Russian fairy tales: Goldilocks and the Three Bears got a spin, the Three Billy Goats Gruff (three satyrs and a troll), the Three Not-So-Little Pigs (Farrow), the Frog Princess (involving some Croaks and a lot of humiliation for Ivan; the PCs got way too much fun out of this one), and more.

In the end, the PCs did indeed manage to keep Ivan alive, they made it back, and there was a big showdown with the other brothers, but they managed to work out a deal whereby Ivan would be the nominal leader, but the eldest brother would be the "real power behind the throne."

... and from there, Digital_Rampage took over as GM for a while, to try out the new "Unleashed" game variant that came out. (To be continued.)
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