Varushka hearth magic
In the world of Empire, formal magic is the application of learning and willpower to create supernatural effects. There is another form of magic, however which does not require the user to be a magician. Hearth magic employs the innate natural magic of the world to produce subtle but significant effects in much the same way that a compass needle always points true north. The magic is not based on the abilities of a magician, but relies on the innate mystical properties of the world. Hearth magic is usually subtle rather than potent, and where formal magic is predictable and reliable, hearth magic is none of these things.
While the principles that underlie hearth magic are common throughout the world, in Varushka there are certain specific practices, customs, or traditions that draw on the power of the world's innate magic. Often these proud customs are nothing more than traditions - but sometimes their practice taps into some facet of the world resulting in a truly magical effect.
You can learn more about hearth magic, what it is and how it works, here.
Hospitality is the practice of honestly sharing what you have with a guest. The iron laws of hospitality are one of the things that make life bearable in Varushka. Without them, it is doubtful if any strange traveller would ever be permitted to enter a vale, given the dangers such people can bring with them. But the hearth magic of hospitality provides a powerful protection for the host. Those who offer food and shelter to visitors know that if any mortal betrays their trust they risk ruin. Varushkan tales warning of the terrible curses that befall those who violate the laws of hospitality are almost as common as the stories warning of death for any who leave the safety of the roads. There are robbers and brigands in Varushka just as there are in any land - but none so foolish as to ask for hospitality from their hosts before robbing them. At least not for long.
Powerful as this protection is against mortals it is even more effective against unnatural creatures. Mora - Varushkan shapeshifters - will often assume the form of a human traveller seeking hospitality. They try to trick their hosts, but the magic they use to change their appearance carries a crucial weakness. The magic binds them to the form they have taken for as long as they are treated courteously and offered hospitality. While they are being treated as if they were what they appear to be, they cannot change their shape and are compelled to continue in the role they have assumed. There are many Varushkan stories of such creatures being bound to act as a polite guest and leave without hurting their hosts, or of a reckless fool who takes a mora as a spouse and meet a terrible end when they mistreat them.
Not only the guest is bound by hospitality - those who offer it are equally bound to keep the sacred trust. An innkeeper who gives food to weary travellers before robbing them will suffer in the same way as a traveller who steals from their host. Supernatural creatures are likewise compelled to keep faith with their guests. It is common for a sovereign to offer hospitality to those who visit its demesne, and doing so binds them to treat fairly with those who accept it. A wise volhov knows that the nature of the sovereigns is duplicitous however; the wicked host will often lay traps designed to trick a guest into breaking the rules of hospitality in some fashion, freeing the sovereign to destroy them. In one well-known example, a party of travellers met a grim end because they ignored the advice of their volhov guide and assumed that everything on the dining table was safe to consume unaware that the wine was not intended for their use.
There is one well-known limitation on hospitality; only creatures capable of offering hospitality can be bound by it. The murderous husk and the hungry lion alike are unaffected by the bonds of hospitality because they are incapable of serving as hosts.
Hospitality in Play
Choosing to offer hospitality to someone who visits your camp is a great way to play out the Varushkan traditions and to invoke this important hearth magic. You don't need to provide a sumptuous meal - all that is required is that you make an honest attempt to share what you have. Remember though that you don't need to offer hospitality at all unless you want to. Varushka is not a charitable nation, so visitors who aim to play on your good will should be made to work for their dinner or sent on their way with a flea in their ear. If you offer someone hospitality and they abuse it, you can always get rid of them by offering them "a drink for the road". Anyone who does not quickly mend their ways after receiving such an offer can be slung out of your camp without fear of retribution. If someone says those words to you, then it means your character has overstayed their welcome and you should make amends or move on.
While most Varushkans will keep their guard up around strangers or anyone who is acting a little odd or suspicious - your character can relax if they accept your hospitality. Likewise if you have entered someone's camp and been offered hospitality then it is a good sign that they are friendly and mean you well. One of the benefits of the hearth magic of hospitality and the curse that befalls anyone who breaks it is that you can use it to overcome some of the natural suspicion that characterises Varushka if you want to. If you know your character has broken this sacred trust then you know you will be doomed as a result, unless you can find a way to make amends and lift the curse. Embracing the roleplaying around such a curse is a great way to create drama for yourself and others, even if that just means roleplaying that any misfortune that falls on your head is a result of your doom.
If you're interacting with a supernatural creature you can relax a little if it offers or accepts hospitality. If a sovereign offers you something to eat then it is likely that you can emerge from the encounter unharmed - as long as you keep your wits about you. The creature might well try and trick you into breaking hospitality in some way - but it won't outright attack you unless you do. Have a care what you say also - many sovereigns treat any insult or poor manners as a breech of hospitality.
There is a hearth magic that strengthens someone in their own home, a natural consequence of the law of dominion. The things that you keep around your home serve to strengthen this hearth magic by making the place your own - but they can also carry some of the magic with them when you travel. Varushkan cabalists often seek to incorporate items taken from their home when performing rituals, or deliberately invoke imagery of home and hearth to strengthen their magic.
Most Varushkans will fight with everything they have to defend their home, and many find they can call on reserves of strength they did not know they had at such times. The power of this hearth magic can extend beyond a single home in the right circumstances. A single community, most commonly a vale, will often find themselves banding together to oppose an external attack. The hearth magic benefits everyone who fights together in this way to defend their shared home. This seems to be as far as it runs though - attempts to employ this hearth magic across regions, territories or the entire nation always fail.
The power of a sovereign grows dramatically the closer they are to their demesne, the location that is the centre of their power. No two sovereigns are alike in appearance, personality, or powers, but that they all share this same quality of being tied to their home. Their power is vast, but only because their remit is so heavily circumscribed. Some are so tightly bound to the spot that they cannot travel abroad, day or night. Others may roam a short distance, but are unable to leave the confines of whatever region they inhabit, forced to rely on wolves and other servants to enact their wishes in the wider world.
Home in Play
Although the vale you call home is where you should feel most powerful, this can extend to the temporary home you create when you visit Anvil. If you have a tent, or a shared communal tent, you may treat that as your home and modify your roleplaying appropriately. Expecting respect and civil behaviour from guests, feeling empowered and secure in your home, or decorating the place with banners or similar that leave no doubt as to who it belongs to are all good ways to call out this hearth magic.
Likewise, when you are visiting someone else's home, you may feel a little uncomfortable or vulnerable, or go out of your way to be polite to your host. One way to bring this out might be explicitly asking if there are any taboos or expected behaviours you should know about while you are visiting someone else's home.
If you can then it's great to decorate your camp with things that might have come from home. This might be as simple as a picture to hang on the wall of your tent, or roleplaying that the banners you hang or the tools you cook with all come from your home. Anything you can do to make your area feel more homely invokes this hearth magic and helps to make the Varushkan camp feel more evocative for everyone.
While magical wards created using ritual magic are more reliable, almost every Varushkan knows a simple way to ward off evil. Many Varushkans wear a talisman or amulet with a personal symbol that represents protection carved on it, and gifts of protective talismans are common. Such wardings are not to be relied on but they are better than nothing. There are almost as many different symbols of warding as there are wards themselves. The use of eyes and faces that watch vigilantly for danger is common, with tent posts, lintels and fence stakes carved with faces that can keep watch. Other wards employ the stars and moons to represent the light that comes at night, or images of torches and burning brands, as well as symbols of swords and shields that represent armed might. Some symbols of the Imperial Faith are used as well, especially the labyrinth which represents a hope that monsters will become lost and unable to find the bearer. In dire need, many things can be used to ward an area. There are tales of travellers who were saved by a circle in the earth inscribed with salt, flour, or even petals or flowers.
The most basic ward known in Varushka is a simple wall. It is the essential nature of walls that they create a barrier. In Varushka they traditionally have warding symbols carved into or painted on to them, and it is vital that such sigils be maintained. Many monsters have strictures that prevent them clambering over walls or attempting to breech them to get at the inhabitants. Just as they can keep things outside, they can also be used to trap things inside. There are plenty of stories of sovereigns trapped inside enclosures of one type or another. Wise travellers know that if they encounter an old wall in the wilderness, perhaps one with no obvious doors, they should leave well enough alone. Those who don't risk bringing ruin on everyone else nearby.
Varushkan wise ones say that roads are “walls laid on their side”. They are much more than just a route to travel. Properly marked and signed, they represent a triumph of human will over the Varushkan wilderness, driving the marks of civilisation into a land that might otherwise resist them. The powerful warding they provide is what allows Varushka to exist as a nation. Few wolves will dare to step over a properly constructed Varushkan road. Without this protection, it is doubtful that meaningful communication between Varushkan vales would realistically be possible.
The risk with wards is that their power comes from the separation between the people who dwell within them and those kept out. If someone inside a ward - whether it be a ring of salt, a palisade of stout oak, or a sturdy keep of white granite - invites someone to enter then any supernatural protection provided by the barrier is negated. This need not spell disaster - an intelligent creature can be offered hospitality and bound by the rules of host and guest - but it is a fact drilled into every Varushkan child that one should always be extremely careful about inviting a stranger into one's home, especially after dark.
Wards and Walls in Play
Every Varushkan knows at least one way to ward off evil. There are some examples above, but you are free to make up one of your own in a similar style. Employing that warding in dangerous situations can help heighten the drama. The Varushkan camp is regularly warded by players, and you can add to this magic by including some of your own specific methods, hanging warding symbols along the fence that surrounds the camp, or including warding symbols in the decoration of your personal or group tent.
If you are a ritual caster, you or your coven can make a big deal of warding the area where you are performing magic to ensure that no outside influences impinge on your working - or to protect bystanders from any side-effects of your magic. This is particularly appropriate for magic such as Whispers through the Black Gate that may have unexpected outcomes, or for curses that already draw on malignant forces to achieve their ends.
Oaths are a powerful hearth magic throughout the world. There is a power in binding oneself with a self-imposed oath, especially those that are spoken in front of witnesses. Swearing an oath can give you unlooked for strength, but breaking it can have dire consequences. Those who do so often find themselves cursed as a consequence. There is a strong sense of "an eye for an eye" in Varushka, and this hearth magic is no exception. Those who break oaths and bring curses down on themselves often find that their misfortune takes a form ironically connected to the oath they broke or the harm they did by abandoning their vow.
Likewise, the laws that govern civilised society have the weight of hearth magic behind them. Imperial laws are a boundary that separates mortals from monsters - abiding by them provides a level of protection from the dark forces rife in Varuhska. Those who choose to cross that boundary may end up consumed by those forces. In the end, a criminal may end up becoming a monster; running the risk of destroying not only themselves, but their friends, family, or vale. This risk applies to everyone in dwells in Varushka, no matter where they hail from and without regard for where the lawbreaking took place.
Varushkan monsters are not bound by Imperial laws, but many of the darkest powers are bound by geases of their own. Monsters cannot willingly break their own rules, at least not without great risk to themselves, so if the rules that apply to a certain creature can be understood they can be used to gain protection against it. In the vale of Barynya in Karov, for example, every child knows that they must never look behind them when they travel the paths through the woods, or they may meet the lambent yellow eyes of the Thin Man and mark themselves as its prey. A clever volhov may be able to defeat a monster by using the creature's own rules against it, or by tricking it into breaking an oath.
Laws and Oaths in Play
Swearing an oath should be a big deal for any Varushkan. If anyone asks you to make a promise - any sort of promise - it's appropriate to treat it as a major, weighty decision even if the actual promise seems inconsequential. Formally requesting an oath from someone you are dealing with can add drama to any interaction, and if you're a witness to such an undertaking you should take it very seriously indeed. Once someone makes a promise, you would expect them to be bound by it. If someone breaks an oath you have witnessed, you may want to take action of your own - ostracising of shunning them, warning others not to deal with them, or helping fate along by delivering a curse of your own.
In some nations, those who successfully skirt the edges of the law might have a degree of social acceptance, but in Varushka it's appropriate to treat anyone you suspect of being a lawbreaker as very dangerous indeed. The hearth magic implications of transgressing the law mean that those who do so represent an ominous threat that is difficult to quantify. Keeping such people at a distance is one way to respond, but its even better to actively support the law and report your suspicions to the magistrates and militia. It's easy to be a law-breaker in a live-roleplaying game, whereas striving to uphold the law can be a real challenge. By doing so you emphasise the importance that Varushkans place on the law and make the game cooler for everyone.
Finally, you may want to create a particular rule for yourself or your group - something related to your home vale that helps to keep you safe from the unique dangers that haunt the outskirts. You might give a libation before you settle down for a meal, never give your name to someone until they have told you their own, or engage in some equally unexpected but innocuous behaviour. This kind of incongruous behaviour will help to make your group distinct and emphasise the sinister nature of Varushka.