Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Polnezna

The Polnezna
A faction in Krevborna

Description
The Polnezna are vagabonds who wander Krevborna and the greater world by wagon or riverboat. Joining the Polnezna is akin to pursuing an itinerant vocation and rejecting the comforts of settlement, hearth, and home. Polnezna earn money in their travels as carnival performers, musicians, actors, and soothsayers; they are distrusted due to their rootlessness, but few do not look forward to the respite from the everyday that their roving circuses and fairs provide.

Most Polneza troupes make it their mission to travel the world and collect local history, folklore, and occult knowledge that can be used to push back against the evil that plagues the world. The Polnezna possess bardic traditions that new members are initiated into. Behind their skill for entertaining the masses lie hidden powers of persuasion, the art of illusory magic, and secret rites of healing. However, some Polneza have become corrupted in their purpose and instead act as spies for the vampires of Lamashtu. 

Motto
We must keep the lore of the land from dying a quiet death.

Beliefs
  • Collecting and preserving local history and folklore will keep the world from slipping into a dark age of ignorance.
  • Although the road is hard, we must persevere. 
  • Only a fool would settle in this tainted land.

Goals
  • Disseminate information and techniques for combating the forces of supernatural evil.
  • Train others in our bardic traditions.
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Director's Commentary
Stereotypes about Romani burden depictions of "Gothic gypsies" found in the source literature and its film adaptations. One way to keep the interesting, non-offensive part of this convention is to strip away the ethnic identifier. 4e D&D did this with Ravenloft's Vistani--it became a traveling group any race could join, let alone being a specific ethnic group. (Which, grossly, was separate from "normal human" in 2e AD&D.) Unfortunately, they went back to the ethnic backstory in Curse of Strahd.


The Polnezna is my attempt at keeping what I like about the literary convention while discarding what I find distasteful. I'm not sure it's wholly successful, but all things are a work in progress. Feedback welcome: what would you add or take away from this faction?

41 comments:

  1. Jack Vance always seemed to me like he was semi-obsessed with putting Romani analogs into his stories. I wonder if traveling circuses / musicians / acting troupes could fulfill a similar function within fiction? Those groups show up a fair bit in science fantasy, and they seem like they could be at home in a Gothic setting, too.

    Your precis for the Polnezna seems like it contains two pretty good adventure seeds.

    First - a group of bandits have described themselves as Polnezna and their crime spree (in addition to the usual bad effects one of those will have) is also defaming the actual Polnezna in the area, who fear they'll be attacked by a mob if the bandits aren't caught soon.

    Second - a Polnezna who was childhood friends with one of the player characters has burgeoning psychic powers - and they've revealed that there's a Lamashtu spy in her troupe. But her powers are too new and uncontrolled, so she can tell there is a spy, but doesn't know who the spy is. She asks the party to help her find the spy and expose them. If there's a bard in the party (or any other eligible character), they might need to join the Polnezna on a trial basis as a cover for their spy-hunting.

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    1. Hmm, I haven't read enough Vance to notice that, I've read a bit of his Dying Earth ice ages ago, but I'll keep an eye out.

      Both of those adventure seeds are dope. I'd use either one, no question. The bandit one is a nice alternative to the (maybe kinda tired at this point) group of bandits who dress up like vampires, complete with wooden fang dentures, to ply their dishonorable trade.

      I also like the idea of a rooting out the bad apple from a troupe. I'll need to think on that one more, but there's a lot you could do with that scenario.

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    2. @Anne - Vance has a sort of gypsy group in Planet of Adventure, though the itinerant aspect is de-emohasized. Showboat Worlds traveling shows were one of the inspirations for my post

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    3. Bandits dressed up as Scooby-Doo vampires is a hilarious idea. Might be good for a very first outing for 1st level monster hunters? I think there's an episode of "Star Trek Voyager" where our heroes get defamed this way.

      Roma-like figures feature prominently in "Trullion: Alastor 2262", but maybe not as widely as I was otherwise thinking? In retrospect, it's not clear to me who the "night men" who show up in "Moon Moth" are intended to be analogous to. "Trullion" also has some messed up gender politics, but it is a pretty good depiction of sport in a fantasy novel.

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    4. I think the adventure that came with the 2e AD&D DM's Screen had those fake-vampire bandits. There was even an illustration of their fake teeth!

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  2. yeah, no, just calling it a vocation instead of a race and then importing every other stereotype you can think of doesn't fix this lmao.

    what role does this archetype serve in gothic horror that we feel the need to replicate it so exactly, over and over again, tweaking it as little as possible to meet what we think is the bare minimum for political correctness? why are we so incapable, in this one case, to overcome the prejudices of the genre's forerunners? vampires have been reinvented over and over, werewolves have been reinvented over and over, it's all been respun and remixed and rejiggered, except for this ONE piece of flagrantly racist set dressing which we feverishly refuse to excise. how fucking hard is it to come up with something new? "nomads with wagons, tarot cards, widely considered thieves and witches" like jesus christ, man. fuckin hell.

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    1. I'm all ears if you want to suggest something new.

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    2. I mean, what of the stereotype do you need? Take that and replace the rest.

      Do you want them to be loyal flunkies of the big bad, like in Bram Stoker's Dracula? Strip out the colorful clothes and the fortune-telling and make them mimes instead. Travelling band of vagrant mimes, ever-silent, mistrusted by the villagers but barely tolerated for the entertainment they provide in the bleak gothic landscape. But when the chips are down they'll side with the vampire every time.

      Do you want them to be a morally-ambiguous third party, ready to help or hinder the heros as they see fit, and potentially a source of new funky magic in the setting? they're flamingo cultists now, clad in blazing fuscia robes and beak-shaped masks, they amputate their legs above the knees and walk around on long bronze stilts. Keep the fortune-telling, maybe replace tarot with something else though, maybe they cast runes like a fucking Viking. Do you need an excuse to have them selling random wares and shit like Ravenloft Vistani? their creed dictates that they gamble away as much money as they can, so they've resorted to crass mercantilism to finance their games.

      Do you want them as a friendly, misunderstood group that the players' hearts can bleed for, who they can happily carouse with to take a break from the darkness, who can serve as quest fodder in a pinch? Replace the colorful silks with tye-dye, add a pinch of psychoactive substances, and boom, your gothic landscape's infested with hippies. Pacifist, vegan, terrible hygiene, always smoking some herb or other out of their gigantic reefers. There's a stereotype that's fun and harmless and easy to lean into. And then it's easy to turn them into villains again if you want to by playing up a Manson Family angle!

      Or combine shit into something else entirely. Hippie Mimes. it's the fucking OSR, yo. Let it never be said that all I do is complain and never deliver, ok

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    3. I've made some edits since your first post; does it read any better to you in this version? There's no mention of colorful clothes, tarot cards, or being regarded as thieves & charlatans.

      Also, one thing that wasn't explicitly stated here, but is now evident to me, is that if you state that certain stereotypes don't apply (not an ethnic group, regarded as thieves but aren't really) they unintentionally get brought along for the ride. Which is something to think about further.

      Although, shifting to Viking runes just exchanges the ethnic stereotype, doesn't it? Man, I don't want Norse neo-pagans knocking on my door to discuss what Real Asatru is all about.

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    4. sure it shifts the stereotype, but there's something comfortable in wildly mixing and matching stereotypes. you take a native american chieftain, a jewish moneylender, and a wise old kung-fu master-- any of them could be an uncomfortable, if not flat-out hateful, on their own. but put them together into a guy with a feathered headdress, a hooked nose, and a fu-manchu mustache who spouts off tautological proverbs while helping you refinance your mortgage, and the impact's sort of dulled, isn't it? I mean, it's a shitty example, since there's nothing particularly clever about just jamming together random stereotypes, but you gotta admit it's way better than just putting any of these in a setting on their own.

      also, yeah, the revised version is definitely better lmao. sorta boring now, but at least it doesn't feel like you're trying to keep just as much of the stereotype as you can get away with... new photograph's better too lol. It's fine, I guess? but I'll still take amputated mystics on stilts throwing runes and organizing gambling extravaganzas any day, and that's just some shit I came up with on the fly lol...

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    5. Thanks for coming back to read it again and giving your feedback. It is appreciated.

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  3. I like the way criminality has been eliminated from what is now a volitional group. We have schismatic movements on the brain in our house right now so I wouldn't be surprised if this is a remnant survival of some religious or magical faction forced underground by people who hated the freedom they offered. The circuses and antique lore would then stem from that once more extensive ritual apparatus . . . meanwhile the lore might come from some land of legend but the people are recruited right here. You or a relative can join. Witch hunters and diabolists alike take a dim view.

    It's a delicate thing whether it's a cradle religion or something for converts of happenstance. On the one hand, they might have a gnostic orientation and avoid having children of their own, preferring to take in orphans and adult converts. But baby stealing may be too uncomfortable a slur.

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    1. Thanks! And yeah, it does suggest to me that they would be the remnant of some kind of religion, occult secret society, or precursor pagan faith. Mummers always already bearing the twisted secrets of the past, and all that. Or even Morris dancers. *shudder*

      A good question I haven't put too much thought into is: who joins and what motivates them to do so? Probably best to keep that individual.

      I probably don't want to add anything that hints at baby stealing, but in a world where we can play more freely with how stereotypes begin, they could be a group who adopts orphans and foundlings because it's the right them to do...but then through the process of distortion the wider world gets it twisted and starts thinking of them as child thieves.

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    2. Yeah, morris dancers are the new juggalos with all the horror, camp and eye rolling that might entail. And yeah, some people probably always run away "to" the circus and others just run away "from" their situation and end up here.

      One cool door that opens if these people are a kind of divergent underground religion is the possibility that a bunch of other character archetypes are just out-of-phase clerics. Thieves are urban peasant sects, wizards are the academic high church, aristocrats still have that dynastic healing aura left over from archaic times. Going to have to think about that as part of the broader cleric thing.

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    3. If I had to gut-check which group I am more uncomfortable around, I might pick Morris dancers over juggalos. "No bell tolls, and yet, you've slipped into the painting?"

      As to the second bit, this is a tangent but: in a world with living saints I wonder if we get saint-hunters who are looking to collect holy relics prehumously.

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    4. Love it! Heck, if you're hunting fresh saints in the wild, why not engineer ideal lab conditions and start a relic farm. Do it right, it's incredibly lucrative. Worst case, you eliminate wild competitors. Although this might be where mainstream clerics already come from BTB.

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    5. The magical-logic of D&D makes this even weirder. A couple regeneration spells a day and you might actually need to be careful about not flooding the market with the genuine article. A) you'll have the fake relic dealer's guild up your ass and B) when the commodity loses its prestige you're left trying to get your wares into the various Dollar Stores.

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    6. BTB is a weird land. A high-enough-level saint can just hand the famine-wracked townies a hand to sell and then do it again in a couple weeks. Good day to put "Baby of Macon" on in the background with that bootleg VHS trade dress to match the Joe D'Amato canon. The implied endgame we deserve!

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    7. Now that you mention it, the idea of a singular Hand of Vecna doesn't make any sense. Everybody would have one eventually.

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    8. Do the blasphemous rite right, all hands will become vecna over a long enough time frame. That might be something the Polneza are working so hard to prevent!

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    9. Right, keeping the Hand(s) of Vecna out of the cookie jar becomes a full-time job.

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  4. I removed it from my Krevborna games as it still feels like "Romani with the serial numbers filed off" and that wasn't enough for us to feel comfortable with it. I don't have any suggestions for a replacement because we haven't felt its lack in our games.

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    1. Fair enough. What part of the above feels like "Romani" though? If you could point to that, it might be helpful to me.

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    2. The above does seem to be a step away from the brief mention in the book that sort of screams "Romani". In the book, there's so little detail that it could apply just as well to an ethnic group; clarifying that it's a faction that anyone can join (sort of like the implications about the D&D 5e Bard College of Lore) helps a lot.

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    3. Thanks. Yeah, that little blurb in the book wasn't something I was happy with. It's prime territory for an edit.

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  5. I have a couple of thoughts about this, which might answer some of Captain Crowbar's questions, without quieting their rage. Alas, this got long, so I'm breaking it into 2 pieces.

    As usual, I think there are European and American sources for the archetype, and they're different, and they serve different purposes, and conflating them is part of the problem.

    First, there's the American "Barnum Carny" chronotope (really a whole literary-and-praxis genre with a continuing tradition of adherents). It keeps getting recycled because it's a handy adventure-generator. And it's adjacent to The Demimonde (actors, hookers, art-people) and Organized Crime.
    Classic adventure hooks:
    1. nobody will help these itinerants but you, and they're the Only People Aware Of The Menace (I'll adopt tvtropes-style format, if you're unclear about any Trope Shorthand Title, pls ask), but for some reason (probably lack of social capital) they're Unable To Ask The Police. This puts the PCs In A Suspicious Light and gets them Hounded By Pitchfork-wielding Peasants.
    2. they are distinctive and colorful characters, kind of like a Troupe Of Costumed Heroes. Actually, I guess they're the prototype for troupes of costumed heroes - the Strongman, the Bearded Lady, the Con Artist/Trickster, the Trick Knife-Thrower...
    3. they have a Dark Secret, which is made trickier because their whole act depends on a Slippery Relationship With The Truth - they speak thieves' cant, their acts depend on kayfabe and misdirection, more generally they inhabit a Secret World of inmates' signs and histories and tend to be bound by omerta.
    Few people seem to object to this chronotope, even though it's built on a bunch of ugly stereotypes. It's perfect for Gothic lit, though, because it is both attractive and repulsive. The audience comes to enjoy a little scare, then when the safety bars prove unreliable, can be overpaid with scares.

    Notes:
    - this chronotope is probably enough for most purposes. It doesn't have to be ethnized because it already has the standard ethnic markers (language, look, distinctive habits, prejudice) without dipping into what's generally recognized as racist territory. Even though the stigma of carnyism can carry over through multiple generations and make it prohibitively difficult to leave the life, buy a house, etc.
    - other non-ethnic but pseudo-ethnic groups to which this has applied: bargemen, miners, migrant workers, tanners, undertakers, favela-dwellers.

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    1. I find this part especially fascinating:

      - this chronotope is probably enough for most purposes. It doesn't have to be ethnized because it already has the standard ethnic markers (language, look, distinctive habits, prejudice) without dipping into what's generally recognized as racist territory. Even though the stigma of carnyism can carry over through multiple generations and make it prohibitively difficult to leave the life, buy a house, etc.
      - other non-ethnic but pseudo-ethnic groups to which this has applied: bargemen, miners, migrant workers, tanners, undertakers, favela-dwellers.

      ...because it highlights the way that progressive western ideals grapple with "race" or "ethnicity" in ways very different from the way they grapple with "class." If they grapple with class at all, obviously. In America we generally like to believe that class isn't a real thing--so class-based stereotypes get a free pass. In some European cultures it's evident that class stereotypes are largely still regarded as "true," and thus also get a free pass.

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    2. That's kind of a major beef of mine in general. I find the debates in the US (and in Britain, and France) have really specific triggers and boundaries, which make no real sense to me. When I arrived in the 90s I had a hard time with how "race" really, really equated to "African-American." Since then, some Chinese-American and Latinx pressure groups have managed to get a bit of consideration, but not really Native American, South Asian, Eurasian... And I suspect class is still a full generation away from getting broad recognition.

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    3. maybe in one more generation, the carny will look like a Sax Rohmer character, too.

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    4. If, of course, it's even possible to recognize class in American with that level of scrutiny without the whole house of cards falling down!

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  6. Second, there's a variety of groups who get more or less sympathy these days from the general public, for reasons I find it hard to understand, and who are accordingly much harder to handle in a game. Top of the sympathy list, having undergone a sharp increase over the past 30 years, are the Roma. Then Irish Travelers (Shelta-speakers) are semi-legit these days (see The Riches tv show). New Age Travelers are still thoroughly low-sympathy and you can make whatever jokes you like about them. For historical games, we could add Moriscos, Wandering Jews, various displaced groups washed up by wars of religion, rebellions, heresies and inquisitions. For topical games, Refugees offer a lot of the same potential conflicts/story seeds and probably point up the common uncomfortable aspects hard enough that most people would shy away from them.

    These groups are all hard to handle, but with the right roleplayers, any one of them can offer great gaming opportunities. They offer some of the tropes outlined above - Misunderstood By The Locals, having Traditions The PCs Don't Know When They First Meet Them, being Coherent To Themselves but not necessarily in a way that you can reveal It Was All A Misunderstanding, such that once the core mystery is revealed, everyone can Break Bread Together for a happy ending. All of them trigger Not In My Back Yard syndromes from locals Worried About The Price Of Property.

    Now the usual advice when handling any real-world group in a game is to do TONS of research so you get them "right," to be "sensitive" and "respectful," but I don't personally think it's possible to go far enough down that road for it to actually work. Someone will always complain that if you're not a group member you don't have any right to talk, or if you are a member then you can't speak for others anyway. Ethno-nationalism despises tourism. And what sort of stories are you limited to, if your top priority is respect? Can you still have a villain be from the group? Can things work out badly for the group in general, or are you then just repeating cautionary tragic tales about difference, to keep everyone in their lane and reinscribe prejudice?

    (cont'd)

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    1. The mention of historical games is definitely of interest to me here. Does omitting the stereotypes that were operational in the real-world also efface the experiences of the people who had to live under them? It's something I find needs to be balanced against "playability" because, in the end, it's just a game. (At least to me. The object is for people to have fun, not exactitude or fidelity.)

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    2. it also becomes highly variable whether your players are familiar with the stereotypes or with the specific mix of them you have in mind, so there may be diminishing returns. I played a couple of sessions of Vempire, the Dark Ages back in the 90s and, without intending to, we kind of made a mockery of the boxed text, by playing a mixed band of Jews, Hussites and Neoplatonists, and then being told "we are all Christian gentlemen here."

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    3. Hah! "In the loosest possible sense, of course."

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    4. "We are all Christian gentlemen here" is a great koan if not cohen. Fight the boxed text!

      Great stuff throughout.

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  7. Here's the thing: the potential roleplaying gold of using these groups is the discomfort. Hard choices, people who will not easily be persuaded, negotiations to find imperfect compromises between unfriendly locals and disadvantaged entrants - or even long-standing disadvantaged residents who simply have never been accepted. Crossing of community boundaries, when locals and travelers want to marry (and it's famously difficult to run away from the mobile family). For the Gothic, the charm and threat and unresolved tension of difference. These are grown up challenges for a game.

    And the familiarity of the uncomfortable situation is what gives it power - its applicability to the world outside the game. If you make up a new group, which has no recognizable elements that show it's an analogue for these familiar difficult questions, then you have to teach your players bit by bit that... well... you kinda wanted to explore the difficult relationship between outsiders and bigots, or the homeless and NIMBYs, or "minority" and "majority" ethnicities, but in a way that everyone would be comfortable.

    Why? To avoid offense? Because people should be comfortable about these issues? In the meantime, you sacrifice the tropes that tickle the players' interests, that give them immediate handles for play. And a bunch of classic pitfalls that the players may drop into, when dealing with such a group, which the DM could use to slowly peel away prejudice and show that (in addition to real, complex people) there's interesting story underneath.

    Is this an argument for just replicating "the gypsy" as a story element and having it play out like Peter Sellers' "gypsy violin" on the Muppets?
    No. It's an argument for not rejecting genres out of hand but instead putting some thought into how you might rework them. Let's imagine for a moment starting with Sellers's character there. It's pretty repulsive. It's obviously an act. What if you get talking to him after the act and you learn he's putting on that act because he knows it's what the punters want? What if, yes, in fact he does wear a headscarf on a day-to-day basis, but it means something else for him than for the punters? He goes about kind of dragged up as a showbiz version of himself, which cannot help but leak into his everyday life, and it colors all his other interactions, with his family as well as outsiders? As a player, I'd like to go on the journey of finding out what troubles and opportunities he faces, because of his peculiar social position, partly his own adaptation, partly the niche offered him buy a society that's less inclusive than it likes to admit. And (even) if he comes from a fictional ethnicity, appropriate to the fictional universe he inhabits, I'd maybe enjoy slowly adjusting the prejudices he excited in me at the start.

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    1. This really resonates with me:

      Here's the thing: the potential roleplaying gold of using these groups is the discomfort. Hard choices, people who will not easily be persuaded, negotiations to find imperfect compromises between unfriendly locals and disadvantaged entrants - or even long-standing disadvantaged residents who simply have never been accepted. Crossing of community boundaries, when locals and travelers want to marry (and it's famously difficult to run away from the mobile family). For the Gothic, the charm and threat and unresolved tension of difference. These are grown up challenges for a game.

      ...because with the people I play with regularly, I have no worries that we'd end up in dicey territory. When everyone playing is an adult, there's an opportunity there. Unfortunately, when speaking to a wider audience--and especially publishing for that audience--it seems like you can't assume that everyone approaches in good faith.

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    2. Part of me really wants to put "you must be [ this detached ] to play this game" on all my stuff, with something like "ivory-tower philosophe" under the level-of-detachment box.

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    3. For ages 13+ and detachments Ivory Tower Philopshe+

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  8. Regarding the Polnezna specifically, I like the fact that they evangelize - makes them significantly less ethnic. And that thy have goals, rather than just "being." They're Grimms, as well as fables!

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    1. Thanks! I think any faction has to have a way in and a reason to be involved. This is perhaps a place where games diverge from real life; anything "static" in a game tends toward dead ends.

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