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Strixhaven: Back to School Edition

It’s back to school season in the US, so I wanted to revisit an old post about Strixhaven. To recap, when I wrote my Strixhaven adventure, The Pub that Crawls, I was inspired by thinking about how we can learn about different real world subjects from playing RPGs. Last time, I talked about how social sciences can help us appreciate the value of difference, by exploring otherness in time (history) and place (geography, anthropology). Now, I’ll look at some of the other subjects.

Math has a pretty obvious connection, since D&D and many other RPGs are very number heavy. When parents talk about the value of RPGs for kids, this is often the first point brought up. I don’t want to discount the importance of working with numbers for childhood development, but I think we can go deeper than math and think about logic, which is where I went with the inspiration for the second pub, the Frothing Flask.

A wizard making geometric patterns from water
Ingenious Mastery by Cristi Balanescu via ArtofMtG.com

The puzzle here is directly inspired by a real world logic problem, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, whose analysis by Euler set the stage for graph theory. In the real world, the puzzle is one that is simply impossible: you cannot walk all seven bridges in such a layout without retracing your steps. However, I’d encountered the problem in the past with addendums for how to complete the path by creating more bridges, so that is the solution I facilitated in the game. Granted, this is a world of magic, so to stop the solution from being too trivial, I added a few magical barriers as well.

The next pub, to go along with the Strixhaven theme, is associated with language arts and communications. One route here would have been to focus on the written word, as I know many people have developed their reading skills and vocabulary comprehension from poring over rulebooks or associated fantasy novels. However, Lorehold’s pub, the Tall Tale, was already pretty bookish, so I went in a different direction, towards theater and performance. There has always been a theater kid contingent in RPGs, grown markedly more visible now that professional voice actors make D&D podcasts! Though I was never really a theater kid myself, I did get involved with some school plays via friends who were into both that and RPGs, so I can appreciate them as an outlet for awkward kids.

A wizard showing off her prowess with magical ink
Promising Duskmage by Johan Grenier via ArtofMtG.com

When I went about making a performance challenge for the Lucid Dreamer, I was not sure exactly how to proceed. Longtime readers will know that I’ve spent a lot of time[blog post] thinking[tweet] about how to handle the social pillar in D&D. Should it involve lots of skill challenges? Intense roleplay? When I returned to that inspiration, how RPGs can help us learn, I decided that the most important lesson for communication was helping shy and awkward kids open up, so that is what the challenge is about: putting on a performance, any performance, just to have fun. Therefore, while there are skill checks, I tried to avoid them being punitive; this has a game design reasoning as well, because you never want to throw too many dead ends in front of players, and I wanted there to be a good chance of success regardless of skill or comfort level.

That will be a wrap for now, but I promise not to make you wait so long for the next installment about the last two subject areas, science and fine art! In the meantime, you can find the Pub that Crawls on DM’s Guild, and if you want to hear the latest on ttrpgs and education, please subscribe!

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Domains of Delight

Although it is a horror setting, there is something rather silly about how the varied “Domains of Dread” in Ravenloft serve to recreate the entire Universal pictures horror franchise within the D&D cosmology. Still, there’s something endearing to me about creating a knock off mummy, wolfman, and Dr. Frankenstein to go along with the game’s own answer to Dracula.

Fifth edition made some changes to the setting, moving what was once a separate world like Oerth or Krynn into the entropic domain of the Shadowfell, which itself was added in the fourth edition as a soft of amalgamation of the old Plane of Shadow and the Negative Energy Plane. It was probably inevitable that the Shadowfell’s opposite, the Feywild, would eventually get a similar treatment, but I was still excited when the “Domans of Delight” where announced in conjunction with the release of the 2021 adventure “The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.” If the Shadowfell was a pop culture mirror of iconic horror films, what unifying principle could be applied to the Feywild?

Look no further than the Disney Princess franchise.

A Pantheon of Princesses

I’m writing about all this because this is the train of thought that led to the inspiration for Beauty’s Beast, my latest adventure on DMs Guild. I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, so the adventures I create have a habit of being an excuse to come up with wacky ideas to create meta plots in the D&D multiverse. In The Pub that Crawls, it was a thought experiment on how the Magic: the Gathering settings like Strixhaven could connect to the established D&D worlds in a way that fit with both games’ canon. This time, it was from thinking about how a network of Disney-esque princesses in the Feywild would work.

Because I knew I wouldn’t have the time or energy to create multiple princess-themed adventures, I wanted to choose one tale in particular that could serve as a hub domain to connect to others of its kind. Beauty and the Beast was already high on my list for being my wife’s favorite Disney movie, and because I’m familiar with several takes on the same tale. Then, my training in French history kicked in, and I thought, what if I did Beauty and the Beast meets the Republic of Letters?

Belles Lettres

The “Republic of Letters” is a term for the informal network of letter writers sharing philosophical and scientific ideas during the “Age of Enlightenment” in the century of the 1700s. Though centered in France, modern historians have studied the interchange of ideas on a global level. Enlightenment ideas were not just the province of Europeans, but resonated is places such as Haiti, with revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture; in India, under the anti-colonialist ruler Tipu Sultan; and in Japan, with the astronomer and translator Shizuki Tadao, to name a few. Though dominated by men, women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges also played a crucial part in the discourse.

Painting of a woman considering a manuscript with a compass
Émilie du Châtelet

In Beauty’s Beast, the domain’s archfey is based mostly on Émilie du Châtelet. She is most famous for her long relationship with the philosopher Voltaire, but she was a mathematician and physicist in her own right. She’s also, of course, an homage to the ‘Belle’ from Disney’s version of the story, also a bookworm. Through correspondence, though, I wanted to connect her to a diverse crowd of princesses in domains across the Feywild, just given a bit of flavor but hopefully enough for DMs to build off of if they desire. For this reason, the correspondences were an essential feature of the adventure in my mind, and I built much of the plot around that.

Other Inspirations

Early modern France gave me a theme to build the rest of the setting around. The exterior needed to have a beast’s garden where the story’s iconic rose could grow, and I also based it off the concept of French and English gardens that were popular in the 1700s. These landscape gardens tended to incorporate architectural elements like fake ruins and grottoes, giving the illusion of a wilderness in a planned setting. The interior I based off the typical French salon, the in person equivalent to the Republic of Letters, where poets and philosophers could debate lofty ideas (and do a bit of grandstanding for social prestige). This also inspired me to create debate mechanics, a fun little experiment of creating a magical social “combat.”

Garden fountains surrounded by embroidery-like patterns of hedges.
‘Parterres de broderie’ or ’embroidery flower beds’, a common feature in French landscape gardens

As I pointed out in a note in the adventure, two of the minor characters in the story are inspired by two participants in a famous debate from the period, Charles Perrault and Jean de La Fontaine. Quite apart from their debate, these men are famous for popularizing literary fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, respectively. Even though I used modern retellings as my jumping-off point, this was my way of acknowledging the deep history of fairy stories which are at the root of the Feywild setting. Just as the Universal horror movies are mostly modern takes on very ancient myths and legends, this was my attempt to make sense of the whole D&D cosmology in my own mind.

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Liches and Witches

The Russkies are back in Stranger Things 4! In other times, I might have talked about the typecasting of Russians as villainous in American media, but given that Russia continues to commit atrocities in its imperialist war against Ukraine, I don’t really feel like that right now. So let’s talk about Vecna!

Yes, if you hadn’t heard, the main villain in the new season is Vecna! Not the actual Vecna from D&D, of course, but just like the “demogorgon” and “mind flayer” in seasons 1 and 2, the big bad from another dimension gets a catchy moniker from the kids based on a fantasy monster in order to make sense of these alien antagonists.

Wizards of the Coast released a “Vecna Dossier” on D&D Beyond to cover the (slightly retconned) in-game history of the villain, but I wanted to take a look at the publishing history of Vecna himself and his creature type, the lich, including some (probably!) Slavic folklore influence on the monster.

History

The lich came first in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to the original D&D rules. Here, the lich was just an undead spellcaster without a lot of the flavor that has since been associated with them. The actual word, “lich,” is an archaic English word for a corpse, still seen in terms like “lichgate,” the covered entrance to a churchyard where a body was kept before burial. While there were many undead sorcerers in the pulp fantasy works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and others who influenced D&D, Gygax himself stated that the direct inspiration for this monster came from Gardner Fox, who debuted the creature in his 1969 short story “The Sword of the Sorcerer.”

A skeletal figure wearing robes and a crown
The Lich from the 1977 Monster Manual

The name Vecna would pop up a year after the Lich in the 1976 Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Vecna, however, was only mentioned in the backstory in the two artifacts that bear his name: the hand and eye. These were written not by Gygax, but by Brian Blume, one of the controlling partners of TSR, the company Gygax had founded to print the D&D game. The name came about as an anagram of Jack Vance, another writer favored by Blume and Gygax and whose Dying Earth stories inspired D&D’s system of memorizing spells. Vecna was, according to the flavor text here, long dead, and we would not get much more information about him until his return in the 1990 adventure module “Vecna Lives!” (exclamation point included).

Meanwhile, the lich was developing more of its lore, including the “soul hidey place” more often known as a phylactery, though how it got this detail is a bit convoluted. The term is first mentioned in 1977’s AD&D Monster Manual: “The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, nonliving existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery.” What is a phylactery? Well, the manual never tells us, but the greek term means a “protectant,” and was usually used for tefillin, small leather boxes used in Judaism. They contained verses from the Torah and could be strapped to the body, often on the arm or head, during prayer. How such an item would relate to lichdom is not explained, but it should be noted that 1979’s Dungeon Master’s Guide included three phylacteries as magic items. These were usable only by clerics, and were the Phylactery of Faithfulness, which helped a cleric retain their alignment; the cursed Phylactery of Monstrous Attention, which lured enemy monsters or even deities to attack; and the life prolonging Phylactery of Long Years. Even though it was published later, it seems probable that some notes on this sort of item existed and might have been the intention of the item mentioned in the lich’s write-up.

The idea that a lich’s soul resided outside its body was not put forward until a 1979 article in Dragon Magazine by another veteran game designer Len Lakofka, the original player of the character Leomund and his famous Tiny Hut. The article, “Blueprint for a Lich,” never mentions the term phylactery, but details how the lich uses an item enchanted with the Magic Jar spell to contain its soul and allow an escape should its body be destroyed. Eventually, the phylactery and the soul jar would become conflated, leading to the lich lore we know today.

Folklore

The story of a creature that keeps its soul, life, or heart outside of its body is an old one. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) index, it is type 302. It is an incredibly old tale, told all over the world; in fact, network analysis of the ATU story types found that this one is among the top 10 most central stories.1 Julien D’Huy, “Folk-Tale Networks: A Statistical Approach to Combinations of Tale Types,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2019), https://www.folklore.ee/era/pub/files/jef-2019-0003.pdf In these tales, some villain (often an ogre) keeps its life force outside its body, and the hero must go on a quest to find and destroy it in order to defeat the monster. Possibly the most famous version of this tale is the Slavic version, in which the antagonist, Koschei the Deathless, has hidden his soul in a needle in an egg in a duck in a rabbit in a chest buried beneath a tree on the mythical island of Buyan. Koschei is a sort of ogre, but his name probably derives from the proto-slavic word *kȍstь for bone, and in fact the villain is sometimes called “Old Boney” in English versions. Though not exactly undead, this skeletal figure of immortality seems a likely candidate for part of the origin of the lich, despite his lack of spellcasting.

A sickly, skinny old man with a long beard wielding a scimitar and riding a horse
Koschei the Deathless, by Ivan Bilibin

In the latest take on Vecna, the Vecna Dossier, the source of Vecna’s power is obscured as a mysterious voice that whispered to him. In older versions, this source was called the Serpent, though still shrouded in mystery. In my own personal head cannon, this can be none other than Baba Yaga; one possible etymology for “Yaga” is from the word for serpent, and it seems only fitting for me that the mother of all witches would have a hand in the creation of the first lich!

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Glagolitic

Glagolitic is a writing system devised in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a missionary from Thessalonika, to translate scriptures and holy books into the slavonic language of Great Moravia, centered on modern Czechia and Slovakia. It was the earliest known writing system for Slavic languages, though it quickly went into decline; in Moravia and Western Christendom, its use was mostly banned in favor of Latin liturgy, while in the east, it was supplanted by the Cyrillic alphabet devised by Cyril’s students. It was used into the modern era in some parts of Croatia, but it is probably most famous for appearing in the Witcher games, which have a strong basis in Slavic folklore.

tablet featuring the Glagolitic script and Latin equivalents

Why learn Glagolitic? Well, it can be a ready made fantastic looking script much like Norse runes or the Irish Ogham script. If you’re learning a Slavic language like Polish or Ukrainian, it can also help teach you a bit about the sounds and grammar in those languages. Or, if you’ve always just had a desire to learn Old Church Slavonic (does this apply to anyone other than me?) then Glagolitic is one of the two scripts you can use for practice!

I’d originally put together flashcards for myself on Tinycards, a now defunct Duolingo spinoff. I was able to back up some of the data before that service was discontinued, and it recently occurred to me that I could put together some simple Moodle resources to test myself in the same way. Since I made this for myself first and foremost, I focused on what I needed to practice: flashcards! I focused on two types of quiz questions: first, short answer questions entering the Latin or Cyrillic character based on seeing the Glagolitic character, and second, multiple choice selecting the Glagolitic character based on the name/sound in Latin script.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn some basic Ukrainian. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, but I liked some of the exercises they used to reinforce the alphabet, specifically practice drawing letters and using vocabulary rather than single letters. The other level added by Duolingo, using audio files, is feasible, but adds additional work in creating the recordings, plus my pronunciation is probably atrocious, so I’m focusing on the others. Drawing letters would seem like a difficult feat to pull off, but Moodle actually has a plugin for a Freehand Drawing question type (albeit one with some bugs on mobile, but it’s something).

Using vocabulary is easy enough to set up, and I can even mimic Duolingo’s question style with various drag-and-drop question type plugins. Of course, one actually needs to know the vocabulary, which led me down another rabbit hole. Where could I find ready made Glagolitic text to use? Well, why not go to the oldest Glagolitic manuscript, the Codex Zographensis, which happens to be fully digitized and searchable? This led me to the ultimate nerdy idea of making a language 101 style course. After all, the gospel of John discusses introductions (“There came a man who was sent from God. His name was John.” -John 1:6) and vocabulary like “word,” “teacher,” and “student” (technically “disciple,” but I don’t believe Old Church Slavonic makes a distinction).

examples of drag-and-drop and drawing quiz questions

So, now that I’ve fairly memorized the Glagolitic script itself, in order to provide myself further practice, I find myself embarking on a self-study course in Old Church Slavonic. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, don’t they? Right now, I have a simple course with a lesson, some reference pages, and a repeatable quiz, but I plan to add more as I tinker along. And the course is open to anyone who’d like to come along for the ride! Feedback is, of course, welcome.

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No Thank You, Bullywugs

For the past year, I’ve been trying different RPGs with my oldest son. Lately, one he really likes is No Thank You Evil! by Monte Cook Games. After we’d played through all of the adventures included in the box set, I ran for him the next adventure I had on hand, Frogs of the Feywild.

Frogs of the Feywild played into some fairy tale tropes, so the adventure seemed like a good fit to play for young kids. Of course, the adventure is written for 5e, so I had to do an on the fly conversion into the Cypher System that forms the core of No Thank You Evil! Besides that, the adventure consists mostly of combat encounters; this was the first adventure I published for sale, and combat was what I was most comfortable designing for at the time. I decided to alter some of the combats, both to better fit the No Thank You Evil! aesthetic, and because I felt better about presenting an adventure with more nonviolent options throughout.

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Note: I’m spoiling the whole plot of Frogs of the Feywild, you are warned.

No Thank You Evil! takes place in the world of Storia, with thematic regions that the protagonists can access from their homes. ‘Into the Closet’ is the vaguely Narnia-esque land of fairy tales and fantasy; ‘Under the Bed’ is the spooky realm of ghost stories; ‘Behind the Bookshelf’ is a diverse land for historical or mythological adventures; and ‘Out the Window’ leads to distant sci-fi worlds and high seas adventures. With the strong Feywild connection, Frogs of the Feywild seemed to fit best within ‘Into the Closet.’ I decided to nix the entire plot hook involving the dastardly Prince Jermyn, and instead used something direct for young kids: a wedding invitation! This got the characters to the venue quickly and also provided an excuse for them to have access to a map of the gardens. I noted that the wedding was for Princess Tania, but made no mention of her suitor.

The opening of the adventure remained fairly unchanged: the characters witnessed Bullywugs chasing guests out of the garden where the wedding was taking place. I decided the difficulty level for checks against these Bullywugs should be fairly low, a 2 or 3 at most. A ‘Smarts’ check allowed the characters to recall what they knew about Bullywugs; namely, that they could sometimes act like bullys, but like all bullys, were cowards at heart. (Is that too Dad of me? Oh well.) The wizard was able to use an illusion to scare off most of the Bullywugs with ease. Since my son still seemed to want to fight, I decided that the leader of the Bullywugs at the gate was unfazed an stayed to fight (in 5e, this was a Bullywug Croaker who also does not flee). However, this Bullywug did surrender when disarmed.

Gale the Gardener remained unchanged, giving the characters information about the current goings on and explaining the challenge of the Chaotic Maze. This challenge worked well; my son initially tried to just navigate it normally, regardless of the warning, but kept getting popped out. He figured that the Bullywugs had probably gotten through by jumping (they are frogs, after all), so he made some springs to jump over himself; I ruled that the magic vines were suitable for this task. As long as a character comes up with a way to get through, the difficulty should still be low at this point, 2 or 3.

In the section of the ruined party, my son got excited and grabbed a bunch of stuffed animals to play the lingering party guests. This led to a new NPC, Madame Elephante (a stuffed elephant), who was able to give more information about Tania and the events of the morning. I added a detail of a bright light and a swirling cloud emerging from the fountain when Tania dropped in the Golden Ball that summoned the Bullywugs. These two phenomena settled in either of the terraces, giving a clear choice for the two paths forward. My son chose the Summer Terrace to proceed.

rpg print out maps and materials with crayon colored on
The adventure got an art upgrade too!

Now, the Południca in the next section is sort of a wicked character from folklore, and here I decided to soften the encounter somewhat. I described how the terrace felt incredibly hot, like the hottest summer day, and how the characters felt overcome with sleepiness. This sort of mirrors the Południca from folklore, which personified sunstroke in the fields. Once the characters had their nap (they failed the 3 difficulty) and found the giggling Lady Midday, she told them how she and her sister, Lady Snow, were accidentally pulled into the garden from the Land of Faerie (rather than the Feywild), and how they’d very much like to go back. No combat, just an environmental challenge and some flavor. She was able to come along to the next stop, but then went off to find her sister. If the characters were to choose the other path, the Snegurochka could be played fairly similar.

At this point, I decided to simply skip the fight at the fountain with the Wodnik Watercrafter. This was actually for time reasons, more than anything: I was making dinner at the same time, and wanted to wrap the adventure before we ate. I do think the Wodnik would be a fun character to describe, turning into water as he does, but since there is another combat immediately following, I’d probably tilt this more towards non-combat like with the Południca. Maybe the Wodnik could play tricks on the characters, without actually fighting? The Wodnik would have had a medium difficulty of 3, maybe even 4.

The final battle with Dragomir and Tania I played as written, with one important difference. The original was a trick battle, where Tania’s antagonism towards the PCs was disguised as part of Dragomir’s action in order to throw off the characters a bit. In this version, I specifically called out the fact that whenever Tania spoke, that made the effect that made the characters want to run away (higher difficulty here, at least 4). My son had been wondering why Tania had dropped that Golden Ball into the fountain to begin with, so this caused him to flat out ask her: what’s going on? At this point, I immediately stopped the battle and gave Tania’s exposition which would normally come after Dragomir was defeated. In this version, though, Dragomir was always the intended groom, and it was always a misunderstanding that made the guests flee the Bullywugs, and the Bullywugs in turn act rudely towards the guests. Dragomir and his soldiers all apologized for their part in it, and Tania had the characters assist in a magic spell to send the fey magic back. Afterwards, the wedding proceeded as planned, with a heart shaped cake (my son’s idea 🙂).

This conversion is all completely unofficial, given the terms of DMs Guild’s licensing agreements; however, I do like how the story turned out with the ad hoc changes. As I mentioned, Frogs of the Feywild was the first adventure I wrote for sale, and since then I’ve developed more of a personal design philosophy which I’ve added in after the fact here. If you’re looking for a fun RPG to play with kids, I can’t recommend No Thank You Evil! enough, and if you want to try my adventure (with the above notes), since you’ve made it through the article, help yourself to a discount code to get it on DMs Guild.

Have you changed adventures to run with younger kids? Leave a comment below!

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Ukraine: Folklore, History, and Language

As readers of this blog should be aware by now, talking about Eastern Europe is kinda my thing. I have always tried to focus on Eastern Europe beyond Russia (my avenue for this was mainly through Polish history), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made me think more critically about Russian cultural imperialism and its role in the perception of this region. So, I thought I’d revisit some of the ground I covered in my post on Slavs & Soviets and discuss how I’ve been thinking about Eastern Europe via three lenses.

Language

Russia ostensibly began this war to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, although Russian speakers have been the majority who have suffered the atrocities in the country’s east; Putin and his proxies have also used language in some of their arguments denying Ukraine’s legitimacy. This is nothing new; Tsarist Russian officials claimed Ukrainian was simply the Russian language “corrupted” by Polish.

I’ve started studying Ukrainian informally on Duolingo. Having studied Polish both in a classroom and on the app, I was surprised just how many cognates there are between the two languages, but by measurements such as “lexical distance,” Ukrainian is actually closer to Polish than it is to Russian (though it is closest to Belarusian). This is not to say that Polish and Ukrainian are the same language any more than Ukrainian and Russian are… to use an example that may be more familiar, it’s similar to Romance languages, where Spanish and Portuguese are very similar languages, and both are also similar to Italian, but not as close as they are to each other.

I was previously unaware, but some scholars have dropped the division between East and West Slavic languages altogether and speak of a single North Slavic group encompassing Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, and others. There is a cultural division between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, and it is reflected in the use of different alphabets: Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes it visually very different from Polish or Czech, but if you focus on the sounds instead, comprehension is fairly easy, at least based on my knowledge of Polish. The South Slavic language have the same cultural split, but maybe they haven’t been similarly divided because a single language, known as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, is regularly used in both alphabets: Latin for Croatian and most uses of Bosnian, Cyrillic for Serbian. All the Slavic languages are on a sort of continuum, with varying levels of mutual intelligibility between them, again reminiscent of the Romance languages or the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. The influence of the Russian language specifically owes primarily to Russian imperialism in its many forms.

Fairy tale illustration of a man reading from a book pointing at a many headed creature in a cave.
“Zmey Gorynych? I don’t think so. It’s pronounced Zmey Horynych in Ukrainian!” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’

History

Russia is an imperialist power. It doesn’t seem like this should need to be spelled out, but there’s been denial of it on both sides of the political spectrum, so here we are. Russia was an imperial power under the Tsars, and it was also an imperialist power under the Soviets. There is a lot of complexity involved in the Soviet case, and I’ll dive into that, but we need to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was an imperial power in its near abroad, in Eastern Europe, and even within its own borders.

Marxism, of course, argues against imperialism. And the Soviet Union supported decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This has meant some lasting goodwill for Russia in those regions long after the Soviet Union’s fall. There were even some attempts to rectify Russian imperialism early in Soviet history: Lenin warned against “Great Russian chauvinism” and did set up semi-autonomous “republics” for some of the empire’s subject peoples like the Ukrainians and Belarusians. These moves might have been made in good faith, or they might have been cynical moves to try to keep the territory of the former empire under Soviet control. They might have been a bit of both. However, there was no tolerance for true self governance for non-Russians, even by other socialist movements.

The relative liberalism under Lenin would also not outlast him: Stalin used even bloodier repression to enforce compliance in the Soviet Union, and promoted a Great Russian identity despite the fact that he was an ethnic Georgian. Stalin was an admirer of Ivan the Terrible, and prided himself for expanding the Soviet empire farther than the Tsars ever had through satellite countries all the way to, and including, East Germany. Though Soviet leaders after Stalin never went to the same lengths of repression, neither did they reverse his measures of Russification.

Soviet culture is an interesting phenomenon, because it did, at times, promote a new kind of patriotism that was Soviet rather than Russian. This is most evident in the 1920s and their fascination with futurism. However, in the quest to prove the superiority of the Soviet system, there were state policies to dominate the world stage in traditional aspects of Russian culture like winter sports, ballet, and chess. Russian language, Russian culture, everything Russian would remain premier in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Fairy tale illustration of a couple fleeing a dragon on a horse.
“I feel like this is a metaphor for Russian imperialism…” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’

Folklore

This brings me to my main area of interest on this blog, the folklore of Eastern Europe. We saw with language, that there are strong links between the various Slavic languages (and this applies to a lesser degree to non-Slavic languages in Eastern Europe like Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Romani; maybe a subject for another time). We also saw that Russian culture has historically been promoted above all others in the historic areas of Russian and Soviet domination. Although I was aware of these both, I still fell into the trap of uncritically dealing with Russian folktales as obviously exemplary of Slavic and Eastern European tales more broadly.

I’ve read Wratislaw’s collection of folktales from various Slavonic sources1Wratislaw, A.H. Sixty folk-tales from exclusively Slavonic sources. (London, 1889). https://archive.org/details/sixtyfolktalesfr00wratrich, but most of the tales I’ve read have been from Afanasyev’s Russian collections. In an attempt to begin rectifying my own ignorance, I started with ‘Cossack Fairy Tales’ collected by R. Nisbet Bain2Bain, R. Nisbet and Noel L. Nisbet. Cossack fairy tales and folk tales. (London, 1916) https://archive.org/details/cossackfairytale00bain. So, what can we learn by looking at Ukrainian fairy tales specifically?

First, we should note that there are many similarities between Ukrainian and Russian tales. There are, of course, the similarities that can be found between tales of all cultures. Furthermore, there are trappings similar in both kinds of tales: scheming witches (somewhat less common than in Russian tales), tyrannical many headed dragons (perhaps a bit more common that in the Russian), boyars, tsars, saints, and vampires. There are even some of the same specific phrases, like the narrator’s “the mead dripped down my beard, but it never touched my lips.” There is an occasional use of the “thrice nine kingdoms” to describe a great distance, but even more common is one uniquely Ukrainian, that of the “endless steppe.” One of my particular favorites from the collection, ‘The Vampire and St. Michael,’ uses the ATU type 307 ‘Princess in the Coffin’ plot not unlike an episode in the novel ‘Viy’ by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol or in the Witcher story of the strzyga in ‘The Last Wish’ and in the S1E3 episode “Betrayer Moon.”

What stood out most to me in these tales was the role of the trickster. Now, tricksters are a common feature in many folktales, and they feature in Russian tales as well. When comparing folktales, there are not usually hard and fast rules where something appears in one groups’ tales but not another. Rather, it is usually a matter of emphasis. For instance, in ‘The Golden Slipper’, a Cinderella type tale (ATU 510A), there is the usual plot of a poor girl who gets a magic dress and catches the eye of a prince. In this one, though, is a minor character I hadn’t seen in this tale before, the prince’s court fool, who devises the method for finding the girl by making her slipper stick to the floor. In the familiar western version, the shoe is lost accidentally, and then serendipitously used to find the girl. Here, someone has to come up with a plot to achieve the same result.

Compare this to Russian tales, where an aura of fatalism often pervades. Again, yes, there is a certain amount of this in every region’s fairy tales, folk are given strange commands and prohibitions which they follow blindly (or forget at their peril). When a son is betrothed by accident to the Frog Tsarevna, he is of course distressed that his wife may not be able to bake bread and sew clothes, but he and his family still don’t really question that the scenario needs to play out like this. And to each lament of the son to the impossible tasks set before his wife, the frog just says, “the morning is wiser than the evening,” a wonderfully poetic version of “all will work out.” In her stories, when Baba Yaga asks if you came of your own free will or were compelled, the correct answer is always a bit of both, ie no choices are completely free. This dichotomy, active trickster vs fatalism, remind me a bit of the difference between French and German tales identified by Robert Darnton: “although each story adheres to the same structure, the versions in the different traditions produce entirely different effects… horrific in the German, dramatic in the French…”3Darnton also identifies the effect as “comic in the Italian versions” and “droll in the English,” but he mostly focuses on the French and German corpus. Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. (Basic Books: New York, 1984). p. 46

It’s hard not to read into this difference some argument about “national character,” it wouldn’t be wrong to note that Russia has a long history of autocracy while Ukraine has a long history of defiance to the tsars and other would-be rulers. The tales we tell ourselves can be important! But they are not destiny.

As a parting note, I want to share one more tale from the collection, this one a unique story of a trickster who prospers: ‘The Ungrateful Children and the Old Father Who Went to School Again.’ If you enjoy it, you can find the other stories from the collection on the same site or available in other formats from Project Gutenburg. Have a favorite tale? Please share in the comments!

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Social Sciences at Strixhaven

This is expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote a while back. See the original (link)

Even though I don’t play much Magic: the Gathering, I was excited by the release of their Strixhaven setting and its a D&D crossover book. Between graduate school and my work in instructional design, I’ve never strayed far from academics in my life. Even my favorite TV show was set in a community college! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie So, an official educational setting for my ttrpg hobby was a natural fit. I immediately knew I would set my next big project there.

Wizard students amid a pile of books, from the cover of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos
Time to get academic in this roleplaying game. ‘Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos’

The idea for a pub crawl came up early in my brainstorming. Once I’d settled on that, it was obvious I would need at least five pubs to correspond to the five Strixhaven colleges, which are tied to the subjects of classes you’d take in the real world. Between working in education, being a parent, and playing a lot of ttrpgs, I spend a lot of time thinking about the educational value of roleplaying games. Somewhere along the line I thought, why not look at how rpgs interact with each subject area, and use that as the basis for the pubs and their puzzles?

RPGs’ relation to some subjects is fairly obvious: for instance, handling all of the stat bonuses, adding dice rolls, and judging probability on the fly is good practice for math skills. RPGs also seem to be beneficial for developing language skills based on the number of nerds who got their first introduction to words like alacrity, expeditious, and simulacrum, Baudrillard notwithstanding.

History and the social sciences are a bit less straightforward, but this is the area closest to my heart, since I majored in history. D&D developed from historical wargames, and it’s true that there is a learning there, like the difference between a glaive and a halberd. The quasi-medieval flavor of the game can definitely foster an interest in the past, but a lot of the facts you could pick up from the game are superficial at best and inaccurate at worst (look up banded mail for a benign example). To better understand how RPGs might relate to social science education, I want to discuss the question: what *is* the purpose of studying history and the social sciences? This has no easy answer, and there is no single consensus by scholars, but I’ve developed my own ideas that I think are often reflected by a good number of them.

A wizard historian surrounded by floating books with an unhinged look on his face.
Please, sit back while I expound my many theories! ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ art by Svetlin Velinov via artofmtg.com, copyright Wizards of the Coast

The adage that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” implies that history is useful for its predictive power, but I know of few historians who would actually make this argument. Knowledge of the past certainly gives us insight into why things are happening today, and it can give us good ideas on some possible futures, but it is a fallacy to think that a historian is therefore better equipped to predict the future than anyone else. We can’t be like Maxwell’s demon, able to tell the state of future objects because we know their trajectories in the past. Too much of history is contingent on factors beyond what we could model. The most compelling argument we can make about the analytical value of history is that it can help foster critical thinking, a valuable tool for navigating the present, but still limited in knowing the future.

At its best, I think that history, and the social sciences writ large, give us an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. Just, seeing that people think differently in different times, different places, and different contexts, and that’s okay! This can help us learn how to interact with people who are not like us; incredibly important in an ever more global society. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Robert Darnton, that “nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today – allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” 

I think there is a benefit to studying the past for its own sake, just because it is interesting, but if I were to justify the place of history and social sciences as a curriculum requirement, I would defer to the appreciation of otherness. In an RPG, we can go further than observing or even immersing in otherness, we can embody it! Now, there is a danger here in thinking that because we read about otherness we understand what it is like to be other, but keeping this in mind I believe the benefits to empathy outweigh the risks.

Lorehold campus, an ancient ruin emerging from a desert canyon.
History is worth studying for its own sake, if only for all the cool ancient ruins. ‘Lorehold Campus’ by Titus Lunter, via artofmtg.com, copyright Wizards of the Coast

As I mentioned on Twitter, the ultimate design accommodates both the wargaming-style traditional military history as well as a more empathic approach based on cultural understanding. I hope it is a good summation of ways we can approach history and social studies through the lens of roleplaying. In future posts, I’ll visit the other subject areas of Strixhaven and how they fit into the design: mathematics, language, science, and art.

Did RPGs spur interest in any particular region or time period for you? If you’re a social studies educator, how would you use (or how have you used) roleplay in the curriculum? Leave a comment below and please subscribe for more updates on Revue 

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Slavs & Soviets

When writing about folklore and mythology, I’ll sometimes switch between talking about Eastern European, Slavic, and Russian tales. These are related, but not synonymous. I’d already been thinking about writing a post to clarify these terms; then, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin gave a ranting speech in which he justified his invasion of Ukraine with ahistorical claims about the history of Ukrainian nation and people, so I think the topic is more timely than ever. Please bear in mind that the following is a vast simplification of a millennium of history, but feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

Where is Eastern Europe?

Eastern Europe as a category is a surprisingly modern phenomenon. It is usually used to describe the countries that had communist governments (either home grown or installed by the Soviet Union) after World War II. So, although they are in the east of Europe, Greece and Finland are usually not considered part of Eastern Europe because they were allied with the US (for Greece) or neutral (for Finland). Some areas of Eastern Europe, like modern Poland and Hungary, would have previously been lumped together with Germany and Austria as Central Europe. This term is gaining more popularity since the fall of the Soviet Union as a way for them to assert their historic connections to Western Europe.

Who are the Slavs?

The Slavs are an ethnic and linguistic group. All of the Slavic countries are in Eastern Europe, but not all countries in Eastern Europe are Slavic: Romania speaks a Romance language (ie, grouped with French and Spanish), Hungarian and Estonian are closer to Finnish, and Albanian is in its own language family. The Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian) are somewhat closer to the Slavic languages but in their own category.

Map of Europe. East and West Slavic countries are shaded blue, South Slavic countries are shaded brown.
The majority Slavic countries in Europe

The Slavic languages are further subdivided into Western, Eastern, and Southern. So while there are many similarities between Polish (a West Slavic language) and Russian (an East Slavic language), there are even more similarities between Russian and Ukrainian (both East Slavic languages). Just like Danish and Norwegian, two Germanic languages, are much closer to each other than they are to German or English, also Germanic languages.

Unlike the Greeks or Norse, the Slavs did not write down their language before they were converted to Christianity, so much of what we know about their pagan beliefs is based on second hand information and guess work. Of what we know, there were similarities among all the Slavic groups, like the thunder god Perun. Their folk tales, too, are often very similar, with shared characters like Baba Yaga, Leshy, and Domovoi. There are also crossovers with non-Slavic groups: for instance, the vampire myth can be found in the Romanian strigoi, the Polish strzyga, the Albanian dhampir, and the East Slavic upyr, to name a few.

The Kievan Rus

So, we can find the history of many groups speaking Slavic languages in the eastern part of Europe as far back as the early Middle Ages, but for much of the history since, they were not organized into separate countries. One of the major exceptions was the Kievan Rus. With its capital in Kyiv (the capital of modern Ukraine), this country ruled an area spanning modern Ukraine, Belarus, and the west of modern Russia. It was founded by Vikings, but the majority of the people were Eastern Slavs. It traded with the Byzantine Empire and converted to the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantines.

The reconstructed Golden Gate in Kyiv.

The Kievan Rus splintered and was conquered by the Mongols around 1240. Some 240 years later, when Mongol power was waning, the ruler of Moscow, Ivan the Great, was able to declare his independence from the Golden Horde. His grandson, Ivan the Terrible, would eventually declare himself Tsar of Russia. Thus, the Russian state tied itself to the historic Orthodox kingdom of the Kievan Rus.

Meanwhile, Kyiv came under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish was the language of the nobility, but the Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians maintained their unique identities. As the Russian Empire grew in power, conquering Siberia and reaching the Pacific, the Polish state entered a period of decline. In the 1700s, it was partitioned by its stronger neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation

In 1917, the Russian Tsar was overthrown, and most of what had been the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union. However, along the empire’s western border, non-Russian ethnic groups asserted their independence: Finland, the Baltics, Byelosussia, and Ukraine. In the wars that followed, Byelorussia and Ukraine were reabsorbed by the Soviet Union and a resurgent independent Poland, but Finland and the Baltics kept their independence. The Baltics were conquered again by the Soviets during World War II, along with the rest of modern Belarus and Ukraine.

As an empire that spanned across Eurasia, Russia had never been ethnically homogenous. The Soviets reorganized the old empire into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or SSRs. The SSRs were somewhat independent (the Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs had their own seats at the United Nations), but still subject to the central government in Moscow. The largest constituent republic was the Russian one, but even it contained multiple Autonomous SSRs for ethnic groups like Tatars, Chechens, Mordvins, and Udmurts. Still, Russians were the largest ethnic group, both in the RSFSR and the USSR as a whole. So, “Russian” and “Soviet” were considered synonymous in the West during the Cold War, but this disguises the fact that there were always non-Russians in both the old empire and the USSR. With the dissolution of the USSR, the SSRs became independent countries. The ASSRs remained within Russia, though Chechnya fought a bloody war trying to gain independence.

I hope this puts some of the current events in context. For my part, I love to study the culture and folklore of this region, and I desperately hope the people of Ukraine can soon live peacefully despite the whims of an autocrat.

Edit: earlier version of this post used “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine.” Sometimes I get caught in historicisms but I want to be more accurate to the moment. I’m still using “Byelorussia” to refer to the historic country and region, but “Belarusian” to refer to the ethnic group.

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Russian Doppelgangers

It’s Tuesday, 2/22/2022. Happy Twosday! For the occasion, I’d like to write about a doppelganger, of a sort…

Having been born in the waning days of the Cold War, I’ve been primed to always see Russia as a strange doppelganger to the USA. There were of course the lofty conflicts like east vs west, capitalism vs communism, and authoritarian vs democracy. But it was also at the level of pop culture, with everything from “backwards” letters like Я and И to the Russian reversal joke construction, “In the Soviet Union, TV watches you!” Marvel comics even had the Winter Guard, a team of bizzaro Avengers aligned with the Soviet bloc.

I have a similar experience reading Russian folktales. These stories follow familiar plots and feature similar motifs as the Western tales popularized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney. They are so close, in fact, that when there are disparate elements, they stick out all the more. If the same ideas appear in folklore from across the world, then Russian tales are in a sort of uncanny valley relative to Western Europe.

Marya Morevna standing before her armed host.
Marya Morevna as a commanding figure of authority.

Take, for instance, the tale of Marya Morevna. Near the beginning, in a scene reminiscent of the story “Bluebeard”, Marya warns her new husband, Prince Ivan, not to look in a certain closet while she is away. In Bluebeard, it is the wife who looks into a room or closet against her husband’s warning to discover the titular Bluebeard’s macabre habit of murdering all of his previous wives; the rest of the tale involves the wife outsmarting and escaping her deadly paramore. In Marya Morevna, Ivan finds a man chained in the closet, but it turns out that this man is actually an immortal villain Koschey the Deathless. Ivan’s kindness allows the now freed bony man to kidnap Marya, and the rest of the tale is about Ivan’s rescue of her.

Another famous Russian tale is that of the Frog Tsarevna (or frog princess). Frog princesses do appear in Western tales, even in a Disney movie, but the more well known version involves a frog prince. In these stories, the frog is betrothed to a girl and only gets transformed back to its princely form through a conveyance such as a kiss, being invited into the girl’s bed, or, my personal favorite, being thrown against a wall. The frog tsarevna needs to work quite a bit harder for her transformation, proving her ability to sew, cook, and perform other traditional domestic duties better than her sisters-in-law. In some versions, her husband discovers and tries to hide her frog skin, which only causes further problems and the need for a rescue from, who else, Baba Yaga (link).

Prince Ivan presents a cake to his aged father.
No one bakes better cakes than the frog tsarevna.

Finally, we could look at the Tale of Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf. Wolves almost always take the role of villains in Western tales. The most famous examples would be the ‘big bad wolf’ from Little Red Ridinghood and the Three Little Pigs, but they also to turn up in about every other Disney movie from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. The grey wolf of the Russian tale, on the other hand, is a supernatural helper; he helps Ivan to rescue a princess, to capture the firebird, and he even, at one point, brings Ivan back to life. This is another tale that has lesser known Western analogues, though in these the helper is almost always a cunning fox, a creature that has enjoyed a more positive (though not unambiguous) depiction.

Illustration of a wolf's silhouette

I love how Russian tales offer an opportunity to view these familiar folktales in a new light. Given the recent wave of popularity of Eastern European motifs in shows like the Witcher and Shadow & Bone, I like picking apart what contributes to this setting. I’ve chosen these tales for comparison because they’re among the most popular in Russia and the West, respectively. But we can dig even deeper to find comparable tales.

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index (or ATU) is an exhaustive list of folktale plots from around the world. Each plot type is numbered: so, for instance, the main plot of Marya Morevna is categorized as type 302, “Ogre’s Heart in the Egg.” Any tale from around the world in which a villain hides their heart or soul outside of their body (and there are many!) would receive the same classification. So what would we learn if we compared tales with the same classification? For instance, Cinderella vs Russia’s Vasilisa the Beautiful, both ATU 530? Sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but this is something I’d like to develop in future posts. Please subscribe below to stay tuned!

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Baba Yaga

In its second season, Netflix’s The Witcher has a new villain, the mysterious Voleth Meir. Unlike the creatures and characters in season one, and throughout the rest of this season, Voleth Meir was not featured in the original Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, nor did she appear in any of the Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red. However, the ‘Deathless Mother’ does have an origin in Slavic folklore: Baba Yaga, the mother of witches.

Art Nouveau illustration of a witch flying in a forest.
Baba Yaga riding in a mortar and pestle, how she does. Illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

The following contains minor spoilers for season 2 of the Witcher.

If the Netflix show is your first introduction to the Witcher franchise, you may not be aware of the story’s Polish pedigree. When you get past the elves, dwarves, and dragons, which have been standard fantasy fare since Tolkein, nearly all of the monsters that Geralt hunts have their origins in the myths and legends of eastern Europe. Some of these, like the striga, are not far from their folklore equivalents: the striga is a type of vampire, closer to what we might call a ghoul, but its bestial nature is more faithful to the actual legends than the suave image of vampires from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and beyond. Others, like the kikimora, are a bit further from the source: a multi-legged monstrosity in the show and games, this creature is generally a birdlike humanoid in the old stories. Even the term ‘Witcher’ is based on a type of folkloric spellcaster called a ‘vedmak’ in Russian or ‘wiedźmak’ in Polish.

Baba Yaga is primarily associated with Russian folktales, but she does sometimes appear in Polish folktales, including under the monikers Jezibaba or Baba Jęzda. Baba Yaga’s most famous attribute is her house, a hut that stands on chicken legs, which makes a prominent appearance in the Netflix show. In a more subtle allusion to traditional tales, the visions that Francesca, Yennefer, and Fringilla have of figures cloaked in white, red, and black are much like the three riders who serve Baba Yaga and who themselves represent morning, day, and night. Even the way Voleth Meir, despite her obvious villainy, offers aid to these three women owes something to folklore.

Baba Yaga in Folklore

Baba Yaga appears in many fairy tales, but the most famous is probably that of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa, sort of a Russian Cinderella, is sent by her stepmother into the woods to perish, but she instead finds the hut of Baba Yaga. Guided by a doll from her dead mother, Vasilisa is able to complete several impossible tasks for the crone, and thus avoid getting eaten. Rather, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a skull with burning eyes to light the girl’s way home, where she finds that no fire will light in the house. She offers the fire from the skull, but this consumes the wicked stepmother and her stepsisters, and Vasilisa quickly leaves the scene and eventually ends up marrying a prince.

Art nouveau illustration of a peasant girl holding a skull on a stick. The skull's eyes are glowing and in the background is a hut on chicken legs.
Vasilisa on her way home, with Baba Yaga’s hut in the background.

This is typical of Baba Yaga, she is both the monstrous, devouring ogre and the helpful donor. In some tales she is more one than the other, but in sum this is her character. There’s no character quite like her in other European folk tales, and she has a real staying power in Russian culture. Perhaps her uniqueness is also responsible for her appearances in Western media.

Baba Yaga in RPGs

Baba Yaga has a long history in roleplaying games, dating back to one of the earliest D&D supplements, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. Well, only her hut would appear in that book as an artifact, but it then became the location for an adventure in Dragon Magazine, then a standalone AD&D module, in which the mother of witches herself would appear. Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut was reworked in Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition, and was also the centerpiece of Pathfinder’s ‘Reign of Winter’ adventure path. Baba Yaga is a major player in Kobold Press’ Midgard campaign setting, and even an elder vampire in Whitewolf’s ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ In the D&D adventures, Baba Yaga had an adopted daughter, Natasha, who was eventually identified as the same Tasha who created the Hideous Laughter spell and eventually a Cauldron of Everything in 5th edition.

Image of adventurers in front of a dancing hut, a leering witch in the background. Title reads 'The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga'
The AD&D adventure, my first actual encounter with Baba Yaga.

Though not explicitly so, my latest 5e adventure, The Pub that Crawls, is an obvious homage to Baba Yaga’s hut, so I tried to lean into its associations throughout D&D’s history. In its various incarnations, the dancing hut was a place of weird whimsy, including a room with a decommissioned Soviet tank and one with a giant lizard monster in alternate reality Tokyo, to name a couple of the most memorable. It was a place where the sprawling multiverse of the D&D settings coalesced and branched out, and the Pub that Crawls does a bit of the same thing.

What’s next for Baba Yaga? Will she ever get an official stat block in 5th edition? Will she, er, will Voleth Meir come back for another season? Whatever happens, expect to see echoes of this character in the future, and watch out for huts on chicken legs.