Sunday, 15 April 2018

Men of Many Crimes and Countries - Character Concepts for Kozaki of the Steppes

"Dwelling in the wild, open steppes, owning no law but their own peculiar code, they had become a people capable of defying the Grand Monarch.  Ceaselessly they raided the Turanian frontier, retiring in the steppes when defeated; with the pirates of the Vilayet, men of much the same breed, they harried the coast, preying off the merchant ships which plied between the Hyrkanian Ports." - The Devil in Iron by Robert E. Howard

It's not often that I write a continuation to a campaign pitch I've written.  The Kozaki of the Steppes pitch went over so well though that I thought it warranted something special in celebration.  A lot of times I don't have that much to write about a pitch once it's been published.  I find myself in a unique situation though, in that there was more I wanted to explore with the Kozaki Campaign.  I don't know if Game Master does this, but I often indulge myself in fantasies.  Day dreams if you will about the type of characters that players could create for the campaigns I run for them.  Since one of the many fascinating things about the Kozaki is their diverse membership.  It seemed only natural that I'd do some writing about some character concepts that I had dreamed up about that membership.  Without further ado let's dive into the characters that've been floating around in my mind.

The Hetman 

In the foreground Olgerd Vladislav once a
hetman among the Kozaki of the Zaporoskan
river.  Seems to have a bad habit of losing
leadership of one such band and then gaining
it with another.
Every band of kozaki needs someone to lead them.  That man is the hetman.  He it's he who leads them in battle, finds them targets to rob and plunder.  Acts as their captain when they do battle against the Turanians.  This duty comes with its share of privileges.  Such as when it comes time for the loot to be divided evenly among the band.  The hetman gets first pick often taking the finer portion of the plunder for himself.  Add on top of this when the band takes captives, the hetman also gets first pick. If he decides to take all of the captives for himself?  Well that's his prerogative.  Of course all these privileges come with their share of risks as well.  A greedy hetman would be wise to remember that his rank is by no means permanent.  Any man may in the camp may challenge him for leadership.  These challenges usually take the form of single combat between the current hetman and the challenger.  Since the only real condition for membership among the Kozaki is whether you can handle yourself in a fight.  Logic dictates that their leader would be the strongest warrior among them.  As such it behooves a successful Kozaki hetman to keep his followers happy.  This usually involves keeping them occupied with raids on caravans and Turanian outposts.  The best way to a kozak's heart is through his stomach and his purse (the occasional woman doesn't hurt either).  A few generous gifts (read: bribes) from the hetman's share of the plunder to particularly skilled, loyal and daring followers doesn't hurt either.  The hetman does pose some interesting opportunities and problems to a Game Master though.  Some groups won't like having one player have power over their characters.  And while the idea of PvP over leadership makes for a great story.  Players might have a hard time not accepting the results of the subsequent battle, which can lead to conflict among the group.  A GM taking this route would have to be mindful of that.

Raid Leader

Every leader needs a reliable second in command, someone to lead in his absence.  That's the Raid Leader.  Sometimes a target is too heavily defended so you need a decoy to draw the defenders out.  Either to lead them on a wild goose chase across the steppes or to lead them into a pre-arranged ambush.  Whatever the case may be the Raid Leader is the man for the job.  It's incredibly risky and it carries a great deal of responsibility.  With that responsibility comes privileges, when captives are being divided up among the Kozaki.  The Raid Leader is second only to the hetman when it comes to getting first pick.  Conan in the story A Witch Shall be Born is a great example of a Raid Leader.  Of course just like Olgerd Vladislav a Kozaki hetman has to be mindful that his Raid Leader.  Doesn't get too ambitious as his followers may soon call for a change of leadership.

Hetman's Assassin

Possibly what a hetman's assassin would look like.
With leadership so often shifting among the kozaki a chief may often have to rely upon the loyalty of a few choice followers.  To keep him aware of when mutiny is being fomented in the camp.  Sometimes rebellions like this need to be nipped in the bud.  Preferably when these are just unhappy murmurings around the campfire.  Sometimes all the plunder and gifts aren't enough to keep a would-be rebel satisfied.  That's when the hetman's eyes and ears become his blade.  As mentioned before the Kozaki divide loot evenly among themselves, but sometimes members don't feel they've gotten their fair share.  If such is the case a kozak can challenge another kozak to a duel for possession of their share of the loot.  These duels are always to the death as it is part of the Kozaki code that any man who cannot defend his property (that includes his woman) deserves only death.  Such are the harsh laws of the steppes.  These duels make excellent pretexts under which to kill an instigator of insurrection against the hetman.  The assassin gets the deadman's share of loot in addition to his own and possibly a share of the winnings the hetman won from betting on his enforcer.  (You read right Kozaki bet on these duels).  A hetman's assassin can make himself a very wealthy and incredibly feared (possibly hated) man among the band.  It's a good thing that he has a reputation of skill with a blade.  Perhaps too good?  Sometimes a hetman having someone do this kind of dirty work for him creates a monster.  That needs to be put down by a new assassin before he starts getting the idea that he might make a better hetman.

The Outrider

An outrider doesn't always have to travel alone.  Sometimes they travel in
groups of a dozen at most.  Splitting into smaller groups to evade capture
by the Turanians with prearranged members of each group with orders
to return to the main band if their own group should be compromised.
The Kozaki are in many ways much more than a band of mounted bandits.  They're an army of insurgents that not even the soldiers of Turan, the greatest empire of the Hyborian age.  Has been able to completely destroy.  An army needs eyes and ears; scouts.  Someone to do reconnaissance so that group doesn't get crushed between two forces of Turanian (or for that matter Kothic, Zamorian or Shemite) cavalry.  Like metal between a hammer and anvil.  While some hetman like to do their own scouting not unlike Hannibal (yes that Hannibal) it's not always practical.  As a band can't always be relied upon to show up at a prearranged rendezvous (why kill the hetman when you can just abandon him on the steppes) and can't afford to stay in the same place for too long.  Thus outriders serve the critical role of riding out ahead of the band keeping their eyes peeled.  For oasis's/springs to water the band's horses at, possible ambushes and other dangers that could spell the Kozaki's doom.  It also sometimes helps to have someone keeping an eye on your potential target.  So you're not in for any nasty surprises when you attack it.  (That caravan doesn't actually carry any goods and there's a Turanian ambush over the next ridge). Much like the raid leader a good outrider commands special privileges, namely being ahead of the average Kozak when it comes time lay claim to any captives.  

Mystic/Shaman

If you had a guy like this among your band,
it'd probably be wise to worship whatever he
did.
Howard didn't write a lot about about the Kozaki so there are lot of details that missing about them.  One of the missing details is who they worship.  Howard wrote a great deal about the religions of the Hyborian Age.  Creating such deities as Crom, Bel, Ishtar and Mitra.  So it leaves a question up in the air, who do the Kozaki worship?  Are they agnostics?  Living only for the present moment and hedonism?  Leaving the concerns of the afterlife to the priests and those who expect to live long lives?  "Plenty of time for the earth in the grave."  So to speak?  Do they like all thieves and bandits pay lip service to Bel the Shemitish god of thieves?  It seems unlikely that they'd worship Tarim/Erlik the god of their bitter enemies the Hykanian of Turan.  With some of bands having escaped Stygian slaves in their midst, do they turn to the Stygian serpent Set?  Liking the sound of his advocate of the strong devourer of the weak thing.  Or they might not like the idea of having to serve him unquestioningly.  Mitra doesn't seem a likely choice given the Kozaki's propensity for theft, lying and betrayal.  Perhaps they worship the spirits of the natives of the steppes.  A faith not unlike that of the northeastern Hyrkanians.  Whatever the case the Shaman leads this worship and possibly acts as a mixture of healer (the Kozaki trade is violence and that means wounds) and advisor to the hetman.  

Native Kozaki

A lot of Conan Games I've come across rely on character race and homeland.  The problem with the Kozaki are that they are a mixture of foreign slaves, fleeing criminals and deserting mercenaries.  Am I forgetting something?  Oh yeah and the pastoral tribes native to the steppes that they inhabit.  Howard wrote very little about these natives.  Quote, "The non-Hyrkanian dwellers of these territories are scattered, unclassified in the north, Shemitish in the south, aboriginal, with a thin strain of Hyborian blood from wandering conquerors." end quote.  From that we've gained that they are some variation of Shemite, but obviously with some cultural differences due to their different habitats.  When compared to their desert dwelling cousins.  A Native Kozaki comes from one of these tribes perhaps raised in a tradition of resisting the Turanian conquerors of their homelands.  

Red Brotherhood turned Kozak

Step 1. Acquire a ship and a crew
Step 2. Proceed to take the Turanians for everything they have
Step 3. Profit.
The Kozaki aren't the only ones giving the Turanians trouble.  The Hyrkanians have built their cities along all but the northern shore of the inland sea of Vilayet.  There's is an empire built upon trade with numerous eastern nations.  Principle of these is the importation of goods across the Vilayet from distant Khitai.  Such is the bulk of the goods imported that innumerable merchant galleys.  These galleys need to be crewed however and it is often cheaper in the long run to crew them with slaves.  (As the Turanian bazaars are famously glutted with cheap slaves).  The Turanians are cruel masters and as result it is not uncommon for slave crews to mutiny and take to the sea as pirates.  Becoming members of the Red Brotherhood, a nation of pirates known to be even more fierce in their hatred of the Turanians than the Kozaki.  Going so far as to charge Turanian Naval vessels on sight.  They fight for vengeance just as much as they fight for plunder.  Sometimes though it becomes necessary for these pirates to lay low when the Turanians start cracking down on their raids.  So every once in a while pirates will take to the steppes joining up with a Kozaki band.  Raiding with them until the Turanians start cracking down on the Kozaki, thus prompting the pirates to return to the Vilayet.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  This is concepts presents a lot of opportunities for colourful origin stories.  Such as Kushite Corsair captured by the Stygians and sold into slavery in Turan.  Only to be liberated by the Red Brotherhood and return to their life of Pirating, now with a part time job as a Kozak.  Another idea is a Barachan, Zingaran or Argossean expat that's come to the Vilayet to plunder the riches of the Empire of Turan.  Only to now have to go into hiding on the steppes after making too much of a name for themselves.

Brythunian Rescuer

Natala from The Slithering Shadow.
A typical Brythunian female who could
serve as an inspiration for this character
type's loved one.
Brythunian women are like the Hyborian Age equivalent of the Twi'leks from Star Wars.  What I mean by that is if the villain has a harem chances are he'll have at least one Brythunian slave girl in it.   Howard wrote very little about Brythunia and never wrote any stories set there.  The only things we know about the place is that the women are blonde with blue eyes and are often kidnapped into slavery.  (More often than not by Zamorian kidnappers).  After all these damn kidnappings of their women you'd think the Brythunian menfolk would get sick and tired of it.  That's exactly what the Brythunian rescuer is.  A Brythunian male who's tracked a kidnapped female loved one all the way to the slave markets of Turan.  The loved one could be his sister, daughter, wife or fiancee it doesn't matter.  Point is you've found them and fully intend to take them back home.  The problem is Turanian slave owners don't like having their property stolen from them.  (That's right property under Turanian law it doesn't matter that she's your loved one.  To the Turanians she's a slave owned by a master who is their fellow countryman.  Something you are not).  You may have been jailed or enslaved yourself as the result of a failed rescue attempt.  Only to escape to the steppes and take up with the Kozaki.  One day when the Free People (what the Kozaki prefer to call themselves) take the fight to Turan, you'll be at the forefront.  In hopes that you'll see your loved one again and take her back home to Brythunia.

Darfari Cannibal

The Darfari are a tribe of the Black Kingdoms with a fearsome reputation.  They worship a Demon known as Yog whose doctrine demands that they consume human flesh at least once a month.  That's right they're cannibals.  They file their teeth to points and use mud to style their hair into the shape of horns.  Giving them an almost demonic appearance.  You'd think with such a reputation as cannibals the peoples of the civilized Kingdoms would give them a wide berth.  You'd be wrong apparently the Stygians often capture Darfari and sell them as slaves.  (Who would ever want to who could potentially kill them and eat them in their sleep?  Search me).  As such Darfari tribesman are often found abroad, even in Turan with its slave markets.  Zamboula is actually a Turanian city where Darfari walk the streets freely.  Practicing their dark rites to Yog with impunity at night.  The idea of a Kozaki band having a Darfari in their midst is just too good to pass up.  Who should you be more afraid of the cannibal?  Or the guys who knowingly ride with one?  Few players would be willing to play a cannibal though, so maybe this particular case is reformed?  Being something like the Hyborian Age answer to Friday?

The Woman Behind the Hetman

The favourite concubine of a particularly
wealthy Kozaki hetman.
Women are rare among the Kozaki and the majority of those among them are wives, concubines, etc.  Of course the rules of membership are that anyone who can ride and fight is welcome among the ranks.  As such female characters aren't an issue, beyond occasionally having to deal with some harassment over their gender.  Every once in a while.  The Hyborian Age isn't exactly the shining beacon of sexual equality.  Three types of women often show up in Conan stories.  Ones that can hold their own in a fight (Belit, Valeria and Red Sonja), femme fatales (Salome, Thalis, Atali) and the damsels in distress.  It's the second of these archetypes that this concept deals with.  A woman of power within the band, perhaps the hetman's wife or his favourite concubine/slave girl.  She's privy to his thoughts and plans, possibly acting discreetly as an advisor.  Such subterfuge is often necessary in order to survive on the steppes.  Many times when a hetman is slain his women and children are abandoned or killed.  To prevent them from seeking vengeance for the slain husband/father.  A hetman's concubine/wife makes a point to keep him in power.  If that proves to be impossible she does whatever she can to get within the good graces of whoever takes her man's place.  Maintaining her position of power within the band by taking her place at the side of the new hetman.  This really would work better as an NPC concept but if a player wants to try playing this concept.  Hey more power to them, the Temptress Class in d20 Conan is a perfect fit for this.

Anyways that just about wraps it up for me.  I had a lot of fun writing this post and I hope you found similar enjoyment in reading it.  Thank you for tolerating my ramblings about various character ideas for Kozaki of the Steppes.  If you enjoyed this post be sure to +1, reshare, follow this blog and discuss in the comments down below.  May you roll many crits and have a nice day.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Campaigns I'll Probably Never Run: Kozaki of the Steppes

"On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and borders of the easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past half-century, formed originally of fleeing criminals, broken men, escaped slaves, and deserting soldiers.  They were men of many crimes and countries, some born on the steppes, some fleeing from kingdoms in the west.  They were called kozak, which means wastrel." - The Hyborian Age by Robert E. Howard

A lot of people don't like the game made by Mongoose.
Which I can respect, but you gotta admit it has some
damn good looking art.
If any of you weren't aware I am a huge Conan the Barbarian fan.  Hell, my first official D&D character Thogetor Hawklight was a Conan expy.  More in line with the Schwarzenegger Movies from the '80s than the stories by Howard.  (At the time I had only seen the films and read the Tower of the Elephant).  Being such a huge fan of the character it has long been one of my ambitions to run a Campaign; set in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age.  A number of factors have prevented me from achieving this goal.  One being a lack of players willing to play in such a game.  Compared to the Tolkien-esque dungeon crawls that people usually think of when you bring up Tabletop Roleplaying.  The Swords and Sorcery setting that Conan inhabits is hurting for popularity.  Another factor is that I kept wheedling about what system I'd use to run such a game.  Should I use the one from Mongoose Publishing?  Hack D&D 3.5/Pathfinder for use in the Hyborian setting?  Or use the Conan Sourcebook from GURPS?  So it seemed that my dream of a Hyborian campaign would be stuck in development hell for an indeterminate amount of time.

Now some of you regular readers have probably noticed that there's been a lot of inactivity on this blog.  Despite my promises and best efforts I've fallen behind on updating.  Rather than putting out my usual four posts a month I've ended up cutting back to two.  This has been caused by a combination of a decrease in free time and just generally feeling uninspired when I do get a chance to sit down in front of my laptop.  In short I've got writer's block and less time than I used to.  A deadly combination when you're writing.  I do feel obligated to update when I can though, so this is me trying to make up for lost time.

The Campaign

The style of game I eventually settled on.  A Kozak game.
When I first envisioned running a Conan campaign I always figured that it'd be a thieve's game.  Specifically one set in the Zamoran city of Shadizar.  A city that Howard had written notes about but never set a story in.  The idea of a running a game in a city so wicked that it's own creator never set a story in it appealed to me.  The fact that there was a great supplement written about Shadizar by Mongoose games, helped too.  I eventually lost interest in it though.  There just seemed to be no real source of conflict to a game about thieves in the most wicked city in the world.  It just lacked that something that would've made it distinctly feel like it was set in the Hyborian Age.  There're plenty of settings about playing thieves in a corrupt city.  Dungeons and Dragons probably has several of them.  I needed something more that would make it feel unique to Hyboria.  (I was a little disappointed about not playing in a Zamoran city since The Tower of the Elephant is one of my favourite Conan Stories).  My thoughts next turned to a campaign about Piracy (Queen of the Black Coast is another favourite) but again, there are several games like that in regular D&D.  That's when I remembered another favourite story of mine A Witch Shall Be Born.

It's unique in terms of Conan stories in that Conan himself is hardly in the story.  He's reduced to playing the role of the cavalry that arrives after the threat has been defeated by the other heroes.  While he does arrive late there was something about the forces he's leading that always intrigued me. He's leading an army of eleven thousand Zaugir raiders.  Little more than bandits, yet enough to be seen as a threat to a city-state and the mercenaries occupying it.  This idea of such humble forces being a legitimate threat to a government, is something that I seized upon.  From there it was just a matter of thinking on how to turn that into a game.  

The Kozaki prefer to strike against Turan but they aren't adverse to turning
their sights elsewhere.  The border regions of Zamora, Shem, Koth and its
subject kingdoms of Khauran and Khoraja are often targets of their raids.
Once I had the initial idea though it went easier than I thought it would.  The characters would be the leaders of a small band of Kozaki.  Nomadic bandits that live on the north-western steppes claimed by the Turanian Empire.  They dress and fight like the Hyrkanians/Turanians.  Riding atop horses, wielding bows, lances and scimitars.  Despite dressing in the style of their enemies, they are not of their culture.  Some were born on the steppes of Shemite stock with some Hyborian blood thrown in. Others came from as far west as Zingara, as far east as Khitai, as far North as Cimmeria and others still as far south as the lands of the Black Kingdoms.  Some were brought here as slaves, others criminals fleeing crimes in their homelands and some are just mercenaries/military deserters turned bandit.  The Kozaki or the Free People as they prefer to call themselves.  Aren't picky about who joins their ranks as long as a man displays skill at arms, horsemanship and a hatred of Turan.  He is welcome.  This willingness to take in anyone is great for a GM because his players can play whatever character race their little heart desires.  The same goes for character classes/types.  Though some roles might have a harder time fitting in than others.   The beauty of the setting though is that you can create characters that come from many walks of life.  Having been soldiers, thieves and pirates well before they were Kozaks.  Much like Conan himself.  The campaign also offers some opportunity to travel, so the characters won't always be out on the steppes.  They could visit the deserts of Shem to do some horse trading with the Zaugir.  Perhaps raid a Shemitish caravan on it's way to Aghrapur on the trip back to their homelands.  They could take a trip Shadizar (I still want to have them at least visit it once) to dispose of their ill-gotten gains.  The possibilities are endless.
  •  Take up mercenary work as caravan guards with merchants who have lost faith in the Turanian Outriders' ability to protect them from Kozak raids.  In true Roman fashion they hire barbarians to protect themselves from other barbarians.
  • Raid Turanian outposts, cities and forts.  Maybe even one day actually take one of them as their first step in carving out their own empire.  
  • Strike up a clandestine alliance with the piratical Red Brotherhood of the Vilayet Sea.  (An opportunity that occurs to me is to have them meet Valeria as their contact with the Brotherhood.  I'm aware she's a member of the other Red Brotherhood but hey if Conan can gallivant around the continent why can't she?)
  • Ally themselves with other bands of Kozaki in hopes of forming an army to face the Turanians head on.  Perhaps even a band lead by Olgerd Vladislav the former Kozaki hetman who later leads the Zaugir in A Witch Shall Be Born.  
  • Evade capture/slaughter by soldiers/mercenaries hired by the Turanians to stomp out the Kozaki.  Perhaps led by Constantius the Desert Falcon.  The Kothic Mercenary that crucified Conan in A Witch Shall Born, he makes a great villain for the players to hate.  
  • Attend an exchange of hostages at the Turanian Fort Ghori.  Exchanging Turanian prisoners for the release of their fellow Kozaki.  
Those are just a sample of the ideas that've been bouncing around in my head.  I think the concept holds a lot of promise.  Too bad I haven't found the right group to play it with.  I played with a guy in High School who always wanted to have a character that led an army.  I'm sure he would've salivated over the possibility of leading a band of raiders like the Kozaki.  Anyways, I think I've ramble long enough.  I hope you enjoyed reading this, hopefully I'll be able to write more than I have been later this month.  If you liked this post be sure to +1, re-share, follow this blog and share any opinions you have in the comments below.  Have a nice day and may you roll many crits.

Edit: I've written a sequel to this post, dealing with various character concepts that might appear in a Kozaki band.  You can find it by pressing this link.