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Friday, 8 April 2022

Friday Fantasy: Where the Wheat Grows Tall

There is a lonely farm. Perhaps the last in the village, for everyone else has left, their farms abandoned. This last, lonely farm has been in the Polotnikov family for generations. Behind the farm is an old stone wall—broken in two places—which separates it from an ancient field of high grass, worn paths, and long abandoned buildings. It is said that the field behind the farm is cursed and that this curse is the cause of the other farms failing and being abandoned. It is taboo to enter the field, so no one does, not even the Polotnikovs. Mother Galina Polotnikov knows a little of the old ways, but is nowhere near the witch that her grandmother, the one-eyed Elena, was, nor as strange as her mother, who disappeared in her old age, so perhaps she knows about the curse? None of the Polotnikov family has been heard from in many days, and Piotr—Galina’s husband—has not been seen at the nearby market which he always attends. Thus, Andrei, Piotr’s brother is growing concerned. What secrets are the Polotnikov family hiding? Have they broken the taboo and entered the field behind their farm? And if so, what happened?

This is the set-up for Where the Wheat Grows Tall, a scenario which describes itself as an ‘Agrarian Adventure’. It is written to be used with the Old School Renaissance retroclone of your choice, but the stats and numbers are relatively easy to adapt to your preferred roleplaying game and its mechanics. In terms of setting, it is another matter. Where the Wheat Grows Tall  is set on a peasant farm and in its neighbouring field that together are caught between the competing desires of two sister spirits… One of whom has had her idol destroyed in the field, and unfettered, The Noon Lady has risen, and where her gaze drew the farm labourers’ sweat, soothed their rest with its warmth, and made the crops grow tall, now it falls cruelly upon the labourers’ backs with sunstroke and the crops grow wildly. Her sister, The Midnight Maiden, is secretive and playful, watching over men from the shadows and easing their sleep with dreams, but where her sister is unfettered, she is broken—perhaps by abundant growth encouraged by The Noon Lady. In the wake of this upset order, Barstukai, Children of the Crops, stalk the unwary, Night Goblins invite others dance and steal from their new dancing partners, roots snake and entangle, Turnip Jack searches the field for light to eat, and Likho, the One-Eyed Witch, watches, one eye at a time…

Where the Wheat Grows Tall is a deep, dark descent into Slavic myth and fairy tales played out across two halves. First, there is the ‘farm crawl’ where the Player Characters have an opportunity to get hints of what might have happened to the Polotnikov family and suggestions that they will need to break the taboo and go over the wall. Second is the ‘field crawl’, where the Player Characters will encounter all manner of the weird and the whimsy as they explore the area in search of the missing Polotnikovs. None of what they might encounter is necessarily dangerous, the dangers likely arising because the Player Characters are either careless or discourteous when comes to interacting with the inhabitants of this whimsical world. Some will want to dance or play, some to be left alone, and others happy to enjoy the company of visitors such as the Player Characters. The Game Master will find herself portraying a wide cast of characters and creatures—there are no real monsters in Where the Wheat Grows Tall —and imparting a fair bit of information as the scenario very much emphasises interaction and investigation.

The scenario is written in a very concise, bullet point fashion, style, and that has both benefits and issues. The benefit is that its information, whether background, location details, or NPC descriptions, are all easy to grasp, but the issue is that often, they do feel underwritten. Some of the NPCs could have done with a little more information as to what they will and what they will not tell the Player Characters. The advice for the Game Master, which most consists of hooks and rumours, along with suggestions on how to shorten the scenario as a one-shot or due to time, is also underwritten, making the scenario that much bit harder to prepare than should really be necessary.

Physically, Where the Wheat Grows Tall  is ably presented. The writing style is short and to the point, but still packing a lot of description into its terseness. The artwork, done by Evlyn Moreau, is excellent, primarily because it absolutely fits the wonder and the whimsey to be found in the field beyond the stone wall. The map is clear and easy to read, but two of the scenario’s locations, both underground, are not included on the map. Both of course could be anywhere in the underground of the field, but their depiction would have been useful. In places, the scenario could have been better organised, the map placed somewhere more readily accessible, and arguably the overview of the scenario at the beginning could have been stronger.

As delightful as Where the Wheat Grows Tall  is—and it really is—another issue hampering it, is its genre and mythology. Fitting it into an ongoing campaign is going to be challenging given its strong use of Slavic mythology, but there are settings and supplements that the scenario would work with and work well. Older supplements would include Mythic Russia and GURPS Russia, but more recent settings suitable for Where the Wheat Grows Tall would be that of Kislev of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Hill Cantons of Fever Dreaming Marlinko.

Where the Wheat Grows Tall is charming and challenging, weird and whimsical. It presents an utterly disarming excursion into lands beset by long summery days and barely soothed by nights of Moon-lit shadows, where there is a mystery to be solved, a family to be rescued—perhaps, and a restoration to be made…

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