Friday, March 11, 2022

Live from Ukraine--an OSR guy

As far as humanitarian importance goes, I can't claim Ukraine's more important than Syria or any other piece of great-power adventurism or world disaster, however, it's the first one where people who are regularly in touch with me from the RPG scene are the victims, so I figured I might as well ask them about it.


I'm currently in the middle of an interview with someone in Kyiv--the capital and major target of the invasion--and hopefully I will have that up on Monday.


Today we've got Simon aka Bastian Weaver, who spoke to me live from Odessa...


If Simon is a CIA plant, it's a very deep infiltration, since he's been commenting on this blog for over a decade.


He's already written a little bit about what it's like playing D&D during the invasion in some popular posts over on Reddit here and here and here and here.


I wanted to know what it was like in Ukraine right now firsthand but if you just want to read the part of the interview about games, scroll down to the picture that says "Russian warship go fuck yourself".

Zak:


So, you're in Ukraine--can you say where?



Simon:


Yeah, in Odesa. Southern region of Ukraine, and, luckily, one that seems to have suffered the least from the war so far.


Zak:


So you're on the Black Sea, far from the border. Aside from Kyiv, are you hearing anything from anywhere else?


Simon:


I have friends who are in Kharkiv, and stay there even now, despite the heavy attacks. Some of my friends in other cities have moved to the west already, mostly because they had to protect their children, so the only reports I had from them about their cities were from late February. And there are some people that my wife knows who are currently stuck in places like Hostomel and Hola Prystan, they're unable to leave because of the constant Russian attacks. Other than that, I have to rely on news and comments from the local journalists and volunteers.


And outside Ukraine, there are some people who stay in touch with me from Belarus, giving some tips about what's happening there with the Russian and Belarus military and the general population.



Zak:


Hola Prystan is not so far away is it?


Simon:


Relatively close. It's kind of a suburb of Kherson. Used to be a 3-4 hours ride by bus from Odesa.



Zak:


What are the descriptions of the situation you're hearing from people experiencing the attacks or near them, like?


Simon:


In a word, bad. A friend in Kharkiv described how he was sitting with his son, and a "Grad" missile exploded about 500 metres from his window. Said it rustled like a car's wheels on gravel, and then, boom. The boy ran and hid in the corridor, because he already knew what the safest places are during a bombing - no glass, having at least two walls between yourself and the explosion, that kind of thing... then, after the explosion, he came back, picked up the book and started reading again. Soon after that they decided to have the boy and his mother leave Kharkiv, because it's not the place to be when you're, like, 8 years old. 


Another person there said that they could barely sleep because of constant explosions, they spent most of their time in the subbasement, two families together. None killed or wounded, but he said he lost 5 kg of weight in 10 days. An effective diet, but not one he's recommending to anyone. 


In Hostomel, there used to be shooting from both sides, then apparently some kind of arrangement was made, and Ukrainian artillery stopped. The man who stays there said Russian military men are coming up to houses and ask to be given supplies now.


BM-21 Grad missile truck


Zak:


I've heard a lot about how the Ukrainians had been prepared for something like this because of previous action in Ukraine. Do you feel like that's true? Do people kind of know what to do?



Simon:


Absolutely. Not all the people, of course, but a large part of the population. In 2014 the attack came as a surprise, when Crimea was occupied and annexed, when Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk were occupied in the East, when there were attempts to take over Odesa - no one knew what to do, people couldn't believe this is real, had to organize fast. Many people couldn't believe Russia would do that, obviously.


There were - still are - families that have branches on both sides of the border. But, as I repeat now and then, it's not 2014 anymore. It's been 8 years, and we always knew that there are Russian military bases in Crimea, building up the forces, and that there are Russian military men crossing the border to Donetsk and bringing weapons - it had been what they call "hybrid war" that never stopped. And people were getting ready. There were courses for those who wanted to learn tactics, field medicine, urban combat. I know the people who finished some of those courses, they're currently participating in the defense effort, and the organizers also managed to make reservations in the more peaceful cities so that the family members of cadets could stay there. Many people bought guns and learned to use them. And, of course, there are people with actual combat experience in the East. And there are volunteers who have become sort of authorities, people listen to them, so there's no chaos.


People know what's happening, people believe that it's real, people have someone to listen to. And the local administrations are not as confused as they were in 2014, too, they worked fast to keep order in the more peaceful cities and to prepare the defenses in those that are being attacked.



Zak:


You mentioned you'd gone to sniper school, is that right?



Simon:


Yes, that's one of those courses. They gave theory lessons - how to pick equipment, what're the dumb things that you should never do, how to organize in case of emergency. Those who passed the theory test could participate in practical studies - shooting, driving in a convoy, using camouflage, working together as a team.



Zak:


Did you pass the theory test?



Simon:


I did. I was kind of happy when the instructor said "Good job, one of the best". An important part was knowing about gun safety, so afterwards I often felt terrified hearing about "Free people should have handguns! Everyone would be safer with concealed carry!" from people who had no idea about how to handle a weapon responsibly.





Zak:


One thing I've heard Putin says is that Ukraine is run by Nazis, though Zelensky is Jewish and I'm seeing familiar RPG trolls and conspiracy theorists like Olivia Hill posting about Ukraine's Azov battalion and how they're Nazis. I have ABSOLUTELY no context for any of this, can you explain? Is there anything to explain? 



Simon:


If people say something there's always something to explain, I suppose. Let's go in order.

 

Vladimir Putin is a world-renown liar. A quick example - he said that there were no Russian military in Crimea, then he said that yes, there were, there was an operation to occupy and annex Crimea. Even if you don't have any other sources except for his claims, he had to be lying, because both couldn't possibly be true. 


His claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis is an old lie, it was repeated by Kremlin-controlled media since 2014, and since then we had an election, a change of power, the whole government was replaced with very different people, belonging to a very different political movement. Either the whole Ukraine is populated by Nazis, and it doesn't matter who is elected, or Putin is lying. And if Ukraine was populated only by Nazis, it would show - there wouldn't be many political parties, there wouldn't be many people of different ethnic origin, et cetera. So Putin is lying. 


Zelensky is Jewish, yes. I do not support him, but I have to say the only time I saw him do a Nazi salute was when he made a parody of Russian propaganda, mocking the very claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis, long before he went into politics. 


Olivia Hill is a person who had previously lied a lot, lied about serious things like threats to her children, and was outed as a manipulative abuser by her ex-girlfriend. Not exactly on Putin's scale, of course, but I wouldn't trust her claims on anything. 


Now, the Azov battalion. They're very right-winged. There had previously been some scandals about it, that they're using symbols related to Hitler's regime and his fascination with runes and they support the "Slavic superiority" movement which is, yeah, not nice. But they can't really use the real Nazi symbolics because it's clearly against the law here. They're more on the very right end of what's legal. Guess they're like Proud Boys, if PB were formed during an invasion and fought to defend the country.


And, of course, Azov doesn't "run Ukraine". They're a group of right-wingers, but they never had any political power.




Zak:


Zelensky is consistently described as heroic in all the media I've heard, and he has a wild story: starting as a reality-TV guy then going on to play a guy who accidentally became president on TV then he actually became president plus there's like a video of him (actually) playing the piano with his dick for some reason? And then he is shown standing up to Putin. But you're critical of him--what's your take?



Simon:


Good question. I guess it's going to be an unpopular opinion for many years, but I stick to it. 


The dick-playing-piano video is another part of his comic routine, kind of like a video of a girl playing the piano with her breasts that was viral several years ago. Shows you the level of Ukrainian humour, not something that he actually did in his free time - I think. No evidence that he did. 


Describing him as heroic - I think it's not the right thing to do. He doesn't do what the fourth president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, did, he doesn't ask Putin to invade Ukraine, he doesn't run away from the country at a time of crisis. But it's only the right thing to do. You want to see someone heroic in Ukraine? Google the video of people in Kherson with Ukrainian flags, having meetings in a city occupied by Russian forces, at those people running at Russian infantry men who have machine guns, yelling at them to get out of Ukraine. That's what I'd call heroic. 


People admire how Zelensky stays in Kyiv, where it's so dangerous - it is dangeous, yes. But less so for the guy who has some of the best bodyguards in Europe (there had been international contests where the guards of Ukrainian presidents scored high), with a presidential residence that, I believe, had been made to be secure, and the whole Ukrainian military keeping back the enemy. The Ukrainian military and the grandma who killed a Russian drone with a jar of pickles. 


But I'm not being critical of him doing the right thing, of course. I'm critical because of things he did before February 24th. He publicly claimed that the warnings of USA intelligence about the Russian attack are "fake news and creating panic". He refused to increase the funding of the Ukrainian military because "we need the money to make the roads". Since his election in 2019, he did a whole lot of work to consolidate all the power in his own hands. Basically - he's not a nice guy. 


About standing up to Putin I have my little theory--


Zelensky grew up in an environment that was heavily influenced by Russian media. He matured when Vladimir Putin was this young ex-KGB guy who became the president of Russia, and formed this image of a strong leader - he started with the second Chechen war, about which there are strong suspicions that the terrorist attacks that started it were staged by the FSB. The nation is under attack, there's this young leader that is fearless and doesn't want any compromise with the terrorists, and the whole nation supports him. 


That's a figure that inspired many people. I suppose it was an inspiration for young Zelensky, too. And now... boy, now he's been handed a chance to play the very same part, only in his case there's a real danger, real terrorists, and the whole world is going "Wow, Putin's really lost it this time, let's help this guy to stop him". Zelensky has the military that's been rebuilding itself and training and rearming for 8 years, he has the support of USA and Europe, even the political opposition here had accepted his offer to "start over" - and by the way, he'd been using all resource available to do away with the political opposition before the Russian attack. Big time. But thankfully, after February 24th he reportedly asked Poroshenko, the former president and the head of opposition, to meet and to discuss acting together against the invasion. 


So he has the united country behind him, the army and the whole world. And all he needs to do is play the hero of his youth. Of course he's standing up to Putin - he's an ideal Putin himself, a better one than the real thing ever was. 


Problem is, what's going to happen after the war ends? With the support Zelensky has, he could easily stay in power for I don't know how long, he could possibly change the Constitution of Ukraine to give himself more than two terms. We'll see...



Zak:


What's up with this pickle jar grandma?



Simon:


It's one of the recent war stories - a woman in Kyiv saw a Russian drone from her balcony, it was hovering beneath her, so she took a pickle jar and threw it at the drone. Things like that become popular instantly, great for morale, I imagine.



Zak:


So you're scared Zelensky has autocratic tendencies? Is this a common feeling over there? If so, who with?



Simon:


It was more common before this year. Right now many people who saw what he was doing and didn't approve say "Well, now he needs our support - we need to stand together, we need to support him, he's the president and we support the president". A minority is still worried - more about Zelensky's possible decisions to make a deal with Russia, to accept some of the conditions that Putin wants, make a promise that Ukraine will stay away from EU and NATO. Because that's what we used to be - a neutral country, and where did it leave us? There's a reason why it's Ukraine and not, say, Poland that's being attacked. There's a reason why Finland, who'd been neutral for decades, now claims that they might need to join NATO. 


The people who share my feelings are, so far as I could see, those who didn't vote for Zelensky in 2019. We didn't trust him back then, and now, after having seen what he was up to until 2022, we have even less reasons to trust him. Sure, while he does the right thing, he's tolerable, no one's thinking about revolting these days - we do need to deal with the invasion first. But when election day comes - thank you, Vladimir, it was nice to have you, now let's vote for someone else.



Zak:


Who did y'all vote for? What was their deal?



Simon:


In the second tour of the election, it was down to Poroshenko, the former president, and Zelensky. Poroshenko was elected in 2014, things were going very badly back then, and he did a lot - two thirds of the occupied territories of Donbass were freed from the occupation, Ukraine received much-needed help from the western countries, we signed the Eurointegration agreement, there was the cancellation of visa requirement for Ukrainians who visited Europe, there were changes in the Costitution that made it official that Ukraine is working towards joining the EU and NATO. Sure, there were mistakes and failures, but all in all he was doing a good job.


The problem was that there was a heavy disinformation campaign, sponsored both by Russia and by local oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoysky, Zelensky's then-employer. A whole lots of lies that were hitting the emotions, and spread through TV, social networks, news sites. And then there was this thing with Donald Trump, then-president of USA - according to the leaked documents, Rudy Giuliani asked the Prosecutor General of Ukraine if they could dig up some dirt on Joe Biden, and then Trump would support Poroshenko. Poroshenko said "no". 


And so we ended up with the current political situation.



Zak:


Oh wait so the Trump administration had phone calls with both of them, right? Like first Poroshenko via Rudy, and then Zelensky once he was in office?

And it was the same both times: Trump wanted dirt on Biden?

I'm starting to remember.



Simon:


Trump wanted dirt. I don't have any information about Biden making such contacts with Ukrainian government. And yes, after the election, there was the famous phone call between Trump and Zelensky and talks about "the server that was hidden in Ukraine" that was, according to Trump, used by the democrats in 2016.



Zak:


I wanted to ask about everyday conditions right now: are schools and businesses generally shut down or just in those cities? What's daily life like?



Simon:


So far as I know, the education facilities all switched to online work as soon as the attack began. Strange, but the coronovirus pandemic helped a lot - people were prepared to something like that. The school buildings are currently used as shelters, as places for volunteers to organize and gather supplies, food, clothes, that sort of thing for the military and for the displaced people. Some businesses shut down, especially small ones, like my favourite pizza place that was run by war veterans - I guess they have other things to do now... Domino's Pizza works as usual, though.


Large businesses keep on working, but they've put some limitations. Like there's Rozetka, the country's largest online store - it had to close most of their offices and blocked the online orders for a while. I think they keep one working office in every large city now, and had began shipping prepaid orders. 


Supermarkets work. The daily life is... interesting. In Odesa it's been relatively peaceful. It's strange to walk the street, hear the air raid alarm howling, thinking "Yeah, time to get home", and seeing people who just stroll casually, some with their children, some just standing and talking to friends. And then there are people who take it seriously. One of the players at our table spends their time during the alarm in a cupboard, it's sort of a niche between two bearing walls so it's the safest place in their apartment. And they have two claustrophobic cats. Fun times. 


There's way less people in the streets than it used to be, similar to the early pandemic days. Many people have left to Moldova or Poland. I saw a guy in the street a couple days ago, screaming into his phone "Look, I'm taking all of my money, I'm buying dollars, and I'm out of here!" 


And there's the curfew. There's the thing about "Wonder if I can get home before curfew". That's new.


The supermarkets are fun to visit - there's a cheaper network, and the shelves there are always half-empty. For the first week it was almost impossible to find any bread. Now I imagine those bread hoarders finally filled their treasuries and sleep peacefully on top of their crunchy treasures. In more expensive stores it's pretty much the same as it was before the attack. No food shortages so far, thankfully.


I frankly have no idea what happens if someone is found in the streets during curfew. There are scary rumours about "being shot on sight", because anyone who breaks curfew might be a spy or a terrorist. I never tried it myself, so I don't know. I thought about getting a journalist's pass, but since it's not allowed to write anything about how the defences work, I didn't see a point.





Zak:


So what's happened locally? You mentioned drones?



Simon:


There have been reports about drones being shot down by anti-aircraft weapons, as early as, I think, 25th of February. More recently, reports of Russian fighters that were hit above Odesa, and a missile strike that targeted a military installation close to the city. 


Do you know the story of Snake Island, the "russian warship go fuck yourself" one?



Zak:


Nope. What is it?



Simon:


Okay then, it's another popular one. 


There's this island - Zmeiny, "Snake Island" in translation, in the Black Sea. There were some scientific installations there, and a garrison of 13 men. In February, it was attacked by Russian forces. The radio talks were leaked, the dialogue going like "I'm Russian warship, we suggest you surrender peacefully to avoid unnecessary violence". "Russian warship, go fuck yourself". After that the island was hit with the ship's artillery and missiles, there was no communication, and the garrison was presumed dead.


The phrase became a wartime meme immediately, the words "go follow the Russian warship" can be heard anywhere. But the story doesn't end here. 


A rescue ship was sent to the island to retrieve the remains of the defenders, with a priest on board. And Russia captured the rescue ship and is keeping the crew as prisoners. It also turned out that the men on Snake Island, at least some of them, were not killed but captured alive. Russia made accusations about Ukraine "not caring about the people" and "claimed that they were dead immediately", but it doesn't sound right, "not caring" about people who became national heroes instantly. 


And the rescue crew is still being held by Russians. From what little inside information I have, every day one of the crew makes a phone call to their family (different one every day), telling them "We're alive, we have food and water", then the call ends.



Zak:


I think you mentioned you're still playing games, right?



Simon:


We tried. We used to gather on Sundays and play, and, obviously, people had doubts after 24th of February, if we should gather, if it's safe... but in the end we decided we can do it. I brought "The Inquisitors' Road", one of your Cube World adventures, and we played it. It was fun, everyone seemed to feel better. The next week we gather and played the second part of the adventure, "The Gray Fortress". Also fun, but people were seriously distracted, checking the news every couple minutes, and I could hardly blame them. And last Sunday we just sat and chatted. First we had to go down to the shelter, because the air raid alarm kept howling and wailing and people were nervous, then we came back up, then I could see we just didn't have the heart and the nerve to play. Or maybe it was just me.



Zak:


The worst kind of bored, I find, is "alert bored"--like when you have a job like security where you are supposed to do nothing but keep your eyes open in case something happens. I imagines there's a lot of that for y'all.



Simon:


It is, yeah. That, and "I'm sitting here and my country is at war, oh god, I'm a traitor!" sort of thoughts. We're not going nothing, of course. Everyone I know does some sort of contribution, but it often doesn't seem enough.



Zak:


So what works to kill the time-- reading? Movies? Or does it need to be something more  active?



Simon:


Reading helps, in my case. Writing - I wrote some notes about how we played on /rpg subreddit, stealing the title from your blog, called it "Playing D&D in Ukraine". 


And, as it turns out, my review of the Inquisitors' Road was removed by the /rpg moderators, to keep the community "safe, civil, and true to their purpose". I think they don't quite understand what safe, civil and true to the purpose means.



Zak:


Well like all mods their purpose is to keep from doing too much moderating. 


Is there a place to donate or  otherwise help that you'd recommend? Is there anything in particular readers in Europe can do?



Simon:


There are plenty. There are international organizations like the Red Cross. There's a fund in Germany that helps the local volunteers buy much needed medical supplies, here's the post that they made on Facebook. 


And as for readers in Europe - the easiest thing to do is write about what happens in Ukraine, raise attention, show that people care about it. The politicians pay attention to what people talk about.



Zak:


What have you been reading?



Simon:


The last thing I read was Tom Sharpe's Vintage Stuff. The kind of disgusting humour that keeps me going. Before that, Daryl Gregory's Album of Dr. Moreau. And I'm rereading Vornheim. 



Zak:


Album of Dr Moreau sounds like it has some D&Dables in it?



Simon:


The main characters are animal-like guys, and there's a nicely written "murder in a closed room" mystery that could make a fun D&D adventure.



Zak:


Outside the war, what's the Ukrainian game scene like?



Simon:


Table-top wise, still seems to be heavily influenced by Russia - Russian translations of the game, some Russian variants, some good old plagiarism. There are a couple stores where you could buy dice and minis, mostly those related to whatever movie came out this year, like suddenly there were figurines of Spiderman all over. Munchkin seems very popular. FATE games are popular among the guys I play with, which is why I start every other session with "You do know that people who make this game supported the harassment of VtM 5th edition and looked for people to hire at 4chan and oh, there's this funny story about harassing people of colour and then not wanting to talk about it?.." 


And I do my best to promote the stuff I like, like CubeWorld. People who try it here tend to like it.



Zak:


Are there any natively written-in Ukrainian/Ruthenian games?



Simon:


None that I know of. My wife had an idea for one before the war became the primary concern. I hope we'll get back to it, I liked the idea.



Zak:


Can you talk about it or is it a secret?



Simon:


No secret, we wanted to use some elements of Ukrainian folklore, the creatures of the forests and the rivers, the pre-Christian tricksters, that sort of thing. And I wanted to include making deals a part of the system. When you look at old fairy-tales, Ukrainian included, it's always about making a deal. Hiring a troll to build a cathedral. Working with a bear to grow the crops. Or the whole "okay, you want my fire bird - I'll give it to you if you get me a winged horse from the guy who wants to marry the fairy princess" sort of thing that's popular in Slavic tales. I wanted to try and make deals the mechanism for character development, your powers change as you make and break and fulfill the deals.



Zak:


I was rereading Hellboy recently and that part where he is captured by the mermaids and then gets free because they each want a prize from the witch--it has that kind of perfect fairy-tale structure where each part of the story follows from the set-up. But it's Hellboy so in the end he has to punch people--like I suppose it'd be hard to make a fun RPG that's all  just deals and no chance and  or tactics.


Simon:


Sure, there has to be more than that, there should be tactics and cunning and hitting-it-with-my-axe. The more options there are, the better are the chances to have fun.



Zak:


No no! Didn't you get the memo? Games must have focus and be about one thing and not be violent and not be like D&D which, as a colonized person, you must hate.



Simon:


I hate to break it to you, but system doesn't matter.



Zak:


Fuck! Well in that case I hope you guys get to make it.



Simon:


Thanks! We'll certainly try.



Zak:


Alright--I think that's good! Keep in touch, stay safe, and if you think of anything we can do, let us know!



Simon:


Thanks, Zak. It was a pleasure!


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Like I said, interview with someone who's in Kyiv on monday.




Also, I am still in the middle of a series of articles on things I learned during all the legal action about the Something Awful RPG trolls, if you're interested in that, don't forget to vote here.

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5 comments:

Benjamin Cusack said...

Thank you both, for choosing to speak and inform, and for taking time to think about what you say.
Hope things don't go awry, but in the meantime - thanks for helping me and others know what is happening.

There's a lot of media that tries to explain where and how to find or avoid misinformation regarding this conflict, and this kind of thing helps a lot.

Thanks!

Zak Sabbath said...

@anon

Sorry, no anonymous comments allowed.

Adamantyr said...

Thanks for doing the interview and sharing it. It's always good to read perspectives that aren't from the main media.

My company has an external software team made up of Ukranians. (A very GOOD team, in fact.) All are presently safe, and they actually apologize to us for not being 100% available. They're afraid that the company is going to transition the applications they manage to other teams. Our bosses scheduled a meeting Monday to tell them personally they have our full support.

I'm stressed out over Mariupol. My cousin and his wife adopted a young Ukranian girl from there; they had to go between variant spikes to get the paperwork done in the Ukraine. It was touch and go because she 16 years old and the bureaucracy gets complicated. Most of her extended family is in Mariupol, and the last contact they had from them was 10 days ago.

Trent_B said...

Good stuff.

Adamantyr said...

Small update... my cousin finally got some news. Their adopted daughter (Yulia) heard from her God mother who managed to get out of Mariopol with her husband. Sadly Yulia's aunt, brother, and grandmother are still unknown. And a good friend of hers with his girlfriend was killed when they drove their car over a mine. I'm sick just thinking about her pain and anguish.