Book Review: Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens by William C. Pfaff and Escape Velocity Gaming

Baba Yaga. Vecna. Mordenkainen. Bigby. Leomund. Tenser. These names might be familiar to you if you have played 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons at some point (or later versions in some cases). Each name reminds me of hours spent scouring dungeons for rare magical items, scrolls, and enemy spell books. As you too might have learned early on, names have power. Whether that power is shared or concentrated varied more than a bit…

Though I never recall owning Baba Yaga’s Hut as a character way back in the mid-1980s, I remember being awed by the concept. Baba Yaga was a powerful wizardess from the deep past who created a magical hut that lived on long after she had disappeared from the Prime Material plane of existence. This device was worth nearly 100,000 gold pieces and out of reach of all but the most seasoned, experienced, and rich adventurers. The simple-looking thatched Hut sat high atop tall bird legs and could quickly move leagues over swamp, hills, or other terrain. Of course, once you stepped into the Hut, it was a different story, much like the Bag of Holding. Inside lay a small palace safe from harm big enough to make even Robin Leach from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous jealous.

With the resurgence of making old things new again in D&D 4e and Pathfinder, I wasn’t surprised to see that someone was resurrecting Baba Yaga and hoped that we’d learn a bit more about this curious figure from 1st Edition. Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens by William C. Pfaff and Escape Velocity Gaming captures just enough to more easily bring the stories into a modern game with a few twists.

Based on old Russian and Slavic myths, according to The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures from John & Caitlin Matthews, Baba Yaga “is famed as a hag who rides through the air in a mortar propelled by the pestle, or in a great iron kettle with her sweeping fiery broom… She has teeth of stone or knife-blades. Her mouth can become so huge that passing travellers may mistake it for a cave and so are drawn in and devoured. She is sometimes said to travel with Death and
eats the souls of his victims.” As if that wasn’t enough, she “lives in a moveable house which has chicken’s legs in a forest clearing fenced by a palisade made of bones with skulls on top of them.” This is a hag who would fit into one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales alongside the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” and probably enjoy the neighborly conversation.

But beyond that, Baba Yaga is also thought to be a “primal goddess whose knowledge of the world is unequaled.” Sometimes she even appears as a pleasant old lady who can help people truly in need. So she appears to be fierce and feared, but also with a softer side that doesn’t always manifest.

In the “Intro” to Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens, Pfaff sums up her background from Slavic myth in a single paragraph. He then goes on to describe her three servants, a trio of dziads – nature devils – masquerading as riders on horseback in three different forms. Night rides with a black cloak. Sun rides with a red cloak. And Day rides as a pale white. I’d never heard of dziads before this and did a little research… It appears that in some tales, the Hut itself is connected with these riders. And the dziads themselves were mentioned in the story Joseph & Kaza by Isaac Bashevis Singer as “many lesser babas.” So I have to say I was impressed by the combining of many tales in such a succinct way.

Beyond the introduction, Pfaff breaks down the Baba Yaga construct a bit for easier use in a 4e game world. He’s created three separate incarnations of the crone and her riders. One for the heroic tier, one for the paragon tier, and one for the epic tier. Each is terrifying in its own respect, offering complete stats, lore, and combat tips. Past all that, two skill challenges and two vehicles are described.

I have to admit there’s a lot to like here. Not only can you include a world-class villain in a campaign, but you can include a classic magic item – Baba Yaga’s Hut – as well. And I’ve never seen the stats for “Baba Yaga’s Mortar” – the very mortar the crone travels in when she’s not in her hut. I think any character I had would run for cover if they saw either the Hut or the hag herself in her Mortar appear. Stories rarely hold up to the real thing, but in this case I think we’ll make an exception.

In addition, the skill challenge for “Seeking the Witch’s Knowledge” provides a great non-violent way to get information from the hag. This is one thing I do like about 4e is the plethora of ways to reuse existing rules. Building in certain ways to improve the party’s odds (i.e. finding azure roses for making Azure Rose Tea, which Baba Yaga seems to like), makes this even better.

The writing is clear and the layout is fair throughout the book. I was a little confused in the Skill Challenges and Vehicles sections after having the previous three sections be split into Heroic, Paragon, and Epic. I couldn’t figure out why there were only two sections and the items and challenges weren’t repeated as they were for the Dziads and Baba Yaga. Only when I saw the words “All Tiers” in the lower left or right corner of the page did I figure it out. That might be made a bit clearer with a heading.

However, where the book disappoints a bit is with the artwork. I know good art is expensive, but when it’s not great and it’s repeated in three sections of the book, it can really drive me crazy. The cover art from Otto A. Pessanha is great, but the art for the Dziad, the interior Baba Yaga, the riders, and the Hut leave quite a bit to be desired. I think it would have been better to have found stock art from another source or used less art entirely.

But don’t let the art throw you off. If you are a fan of Baba Yaga, it’s tough not to love the idea of bringing her into a 4e campaign. Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens offers solid stats for a classic villainess eager to eat meet your players on the field. Be sure to check it out at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG today!

I look forward to seeing what else Pfaff and Escape Velocity come up with next! Check out their website for more info about what they’re up to…

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