Medieval Moscow Blues: Designer's Notes for GURPS Russia

Designer's Notes: GURPS Russia

By S. John Ross
It was 1992, November, and the winter was an especially nasty one. Here in Virginia where I live, we had snow and sleet for days on end, hitting us in waves and piling up in layers three feet thick. The highways were scraped "clean" (the highway service have clearly expanded that term beyond my occasional experience with it), and the air was filled with blinding clouds of sparkling ice.

This I thought, is perfect. I had recently convinced SJ Games to let me create GURPS Russia, and the mood was exactly right to get started. I emerged from my apartment, bundled tight and snorting vapor, and headed for the library, an inch at a time. I only slipped once, and the thought of beginning my Russian journey kept me going. I was roleplaying. Go figure!

The Russians have many proverbs on the subject of fools; I was being proverbial. Of course the library would be closed. The rest of the state was closed. I stood there for a while in the snow, listening to it and pondering how long I had walked.

I decided that I wasn't going to waste the trip. I Cavorted. In the snow. I ran and jumped and belly-flopped down hills. I smashed into trees and threw snowballs at them. I shouted songs from Fiddler on the Roof at the top of my voice. GURPS Russia was to include complete rules for Advanced Combat and movement in nasty winter conditions, so Cavorting counted as research. As a bonus, the locals could peer out of their warm living-rooms and see a laughing fat guy slide by the window shouting for vodka.

That night created a mood that would stay with me throughout the following months, and in many ways it defined how the book "feels," in the end. Within a few weeks, I had the beginnings of the real research assembled, and my Russian journey was properly underway. I had my outline, a working knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, and a roadmap made up of five goals:

One: To design a GURPS worldbook for that fragment of history so frequently ignored in this century: the Russian Middle Ages, the Russia of swords and fire, of mad Tsars and treacherous Romanovs -- the Russia of Baba Yaga and her gruesome skull-lamps. What Vikings and Swashbucklers had done for the medieval Scandinavia and the Age of Sail, I intended to do for Holy Russia (Fiddler on the Roof is about a much later period, but the songs are cool).

Two: To describe Russia -- whenever possible and practical -- from the level of the soil, as the Russians knew it. I didn't want an outsider's standpoint, sketched through the filters of condescending Europeans, and I didn't want a sterile bird's-eye view of moving armies and shifting borders. I wanted a more complete picture.

Three: To convey something of what it means to be Russian, the elusive blend of mirth and misery, a sense of certain doom leavened with a love of family, of stories, of drinking and laughing and fighting and friendship. The "cultural character" of Russia was, from its very beginning, the product of tragedy upon tragedy. It was not ever, even for a little while, a nice place to live.

Four: To present Russian folklore with a sense of theme, not just as a list of monsters and spells and magic items. Russian fantasy isn't dungeon-crawls with furry hats and vodka; it's a portrait of Russian fears. On a friendly day, a little hope creeps in (every story needs a victim). While I was at it, I also wanted a list of monsters and spells and magic items; that's in there, too.

Five: To blend these elements into an enjoyable game-world, a complete Russian environment ripe for adventure. Russia has unique and powerful advantages as a game-setting; it treads a narrow path hidden between the familiar themes of medieval Europe and the more alien lives of the Slavs and the Far East that influenced them. The first provides an accessible doorway to the latter, and I believe very strongly that this is one of the richest gaming environments ever explored. There's still a lot of territory to be mined for material, too.

Those goals gave the worldbook its form, and provided me with a lot of fuel to go on. Along the way, I discovered a number of fantastic things. The most intriguing was this: Medieval Russia, in terms of both history and folklore, isn't about Happy Endings. It's about taking heroism where you find it. It's also about facing adversity by getting friends together and laughing at it, which I found immensely appealing. I've always felt that one of the great virtues of our hobby is exactly that kind of attitude. Furthermore, I believe that role playing games are more effective, more memorable, when they aren't nice. Russia isn't nice.

I also discovered that medieval Russia was a playground for modern political ideologies. Because it would one day become a communist superpower, Russia's early centuries became the victim of savage re-writes, subtle revisions, long arguments, and thinly disguised personal agendas. Most people writing on the subject didn't really seem to care what life at the time was really like, or what concerns the people who lived there really had. To most historians, the medieval Russians weren't people, they were some kind of petri-dish microbes proving or disproving the validity of whatever social theory the historian had decided to feel passionate about. To bring Old Russia to life, I had to carve through more than just language barriers and dry primary sources, I had to carve through walls of deliberate deception.

The challenge was exhilarating and fraught with eyestrain. I wear glasses, now.

GURPS Russia presents the entire span of Russia's medieval period, from the Viking "Rus" of the 10th century to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. As can be expected of any GURPS worldbook, it's chock-full of adventure seeds, maps, characters, settings, equipment, anecdotes, creatures, spells, advantages, and new rules, from character stats for Baba Yaga to (of course) Advanced Combat in ice and snow . . .

So go use them, already. Cavort!

Article publication date: May 1, 1998

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