Curse of the Crimson Throne
Varisians have wandered Avistan since before the rise of many ancient empires, carrying their witty wisdom, vibrant performances, and deep mysticism across the continent. Their culture blends folklore, history, genealogy, and arcane secrets into intersecting layers of symbolism reflected in everything from the harrow cards they use to divine the future to their colorful clothing, energetic music, and intricate tattoos. A primarily nomadic people, Varisians tend to travel in brightly hued caravans, covering hundreds of miles every year as they trade with and perform for people from every corner of the Inner Sea region. While Avistan’s sedentary citizens may find Varisian travelers suspicious, accusing them of everything from theft to witchcraft to lycanthropy, they nevertheless cautiously welcome the caravans into their settlements, knowing that the traveling people prove reliable sources of entertainment, trade, and news in far-flung towns.
Home, to a Varisian, has nothing to do with a roof or walls, and instead lies in the relationships and knowledge a traveler keeps. Too much focus on material wealth is a liability—change always comes, they say, and those with less to lose, lose less.
Most people recognize Varisians by their vivid attire and prominent jewelry. Varisian clothing is tinted with colorful dyes and embroidered with rich flourishes depicting animals, plants, and arcane symbols, advertising everything from personal skills to family history. Jewelry is likewise impressive, as most Varisians would rather carry their wealth on their bodies than hide coin away in some vault. Scarves serve as clothing, tools, weapons, and priceless heirlooms; a _kapenia_—or family scarf—may record hundreds of years of clan history.
Beyond their ornate dress, Varisians are readily identified by their large, expressive eyes and thick, dark hair. Their skin tones range from pale in the east to richer hues in the west. Complex, whirling tattoos are so common that some rumors insist Varisians are born with their marks. Most Varisians tend toward delicate builds, but intermarriage with Shoanti tribes has created a sizeable minority of hardier body shapes. Most Varisians have little body or facial hair, and Varisian men rarely grow more than a thin mustache or light goatee. Given their small size and smooth skin, most Varisians appear younger than they are, sparking rumors of secret alchemies, cosmetics, or tonics that extend life and preserve beauty.
Resourceful, flexible, and opportunistic, most Varisians are perfectly suited to lives of travel and adventure. The majority travel with caravans—which they treat as equal parts family and movable hometowns— for at least part of their lives. They gather what they need from the land, hunting for game, harvesting fruit from wild orchards and trading with or entertaining whatever settled towns they cross. Varisian children are often familiar with half a dozen cultures before reaching adulthood. Though their travels may seem random to non-Varisians, these caravans traverse ancient routes marked with secret signs. The caravans cooperate in maintaining the signs and important resources along the way: a caravan passing an orchard in the spring might tend it so those who come in the fall find fruit, while one drawing water from a hidden well might trim the brush around it so that it continues to disguise the location without impeding use.
This wandering nomad life revolves around music and family. Varisians use their elaborate performances to entertain crowds, to bond as a clan, to teach history and other important concepts, and to celebrate momentous occasions. A dancer can’t learn the steps of the Butterfly Flight without also learning the legend of the Rabbit Prince, the bends of the Yondabakari River, and the names of her forebears who mastered the same motions.
Varisians rarely see the world in terms of good or bad; instead, the world is divided into degrees of closeness and importance, and anything could be either friend or foe depending on the circumstances. A Varisian takes care of her own needs first, her brother’s second, and her uncle’s after that. A family may unite against its caravan, but a caravan binds together against strangers regardless of inner conflicts. While practical, this philosophy makes the wanderers seem insular and secretive to outsiders.
Combined with the Varisian views on property— that individuals can’t truly “own” more than they can carry or haul in a wagon—such outlooks led to many problems when Chelish settlers first arrived in Varisia. To other cultures, the Varisian preference for wandering seems suspicious at best. After all, part of what ensures good behavior within a community is the potential for consequences, and a group of people that spends only days or a few weeks in a settlement has little incentive to obey its rules when they could move on, free of repercussions, at any moment. Rumors abound of a friend-of-a-friend being duped by an elaborate Varisian con game, of crime rates skyrocketing when a caravan rolls into town, and even of kidnapped children. In reality, while most Varisians think nothing of helping themselves to a few crops, milk from wandering cattle, or the contents of an untended crab trap, they generally have no desire to take anything that is clearly claimed and needed by others. More serious crimes—burglaries, robberies, and smuggling—can invariably be traced back to the Sczarni, a deceitful and organized Varisian criminal network. The Sczarni take advantage of the prejudice against all Varisians to disguise many of their crimes and let blame fall on innocent caravan folk, and as a result are not well regarded by their kin.
Varisians worship Desna first and foremost as their guide, patron, and creator. Varying myths claim the Song of the Spheres either delivered the Varisian people to Golarion or else spun them into being from her dreams, leaving the stars in her footsteps so her children might follow along to her celestial palace once they journey beyond the land of the living. Varisians offer her prayers and songs before long journeys, after vivid dreams, or for a bit of extra luck. Appropriately, even the most nihilistic Varisians shun the worship of Lamashtu and Ghlaunder.
Shelyn, patron of beauty, music, and love, and Erastil, master of the hunt and community bonds, cater to Varisian day-to-day life and often share space with Desna in roadside shrines. Calistria and Cayden Cailean appeal to the Varisian free spirit. Those who worship Sarenrae focus on her role as goddess of the sun, which gives life but never stops moving. Additionally, many Varisians gravitate toward personal patron deities among the ranks of the Empyreal Lords, with Arshea, Black Butterfly, and Keltheald being some of the most popular. Evil Varisians pay homage to Urgathoa as the goddess of indulgence or to Norgorber as master of thieves, secrets, and greed.
Until Chelish colonists arrived to log and farm the wilderness of Varisia, the people of the land—Varisians and Shoanti alike—interacted little with outlanders following the fall of the Thassilonian Empire. Once enslaved, now set free to find their own way in a littered with the work of their fallen forebears, Varisians are heirs to a culture that resonates with haunting traces of lost traditions.
Varisian Tattoos and Magic
Tattooing is an ancient and revered Varisian tradition; many Varisian artists also design and ink tattoos for their clan. Unlike the tattoos of the Shoanti barbarians, which tend to the angular and abstract, Varisian tattoos usually represent concrete objects.
Many Varisians choose tattoos for aesthetic or sentimental reasons, but several symbolic tattoos represent Varisian values and magic. Even the Varisians themselves have forgotten why these tattoos conjure particular associations,
but they keep the tradition alive.
Varisian culture contains three distinct types of magic. Most outsiders know Varisians best for their public magic: flamboyant, entertaining stage tricks. Dexterous Varisian children quickly learn how to palm coins and cards, pull scarves from ears, swallow swords, and bring “dead” sparrows back to life. The Sczarni use this training to malicious ends, strengthening Varisians’ mostly undeserved reputation as swindlers and pickpockets.
In addition to stage magic, many Varisians also possess a streak of real magic, in the form of sorcery. Wizardry exists among Varisians, but is relatively rare due to logistical difficulties. Some wizards do the best they can, studying at libraries whenever the family stops in a city, or trading spells with other wizards they meet on the road. Sorcerers have an easier time, as their power comes from within, and most families see such manifestations as a gift from the spirits. Sorcerers
often call thrushes or giant butterflies (same statistics as a thrush) to serve as familiars, as these creatures have strong ties to their religious beliefs. In addition to sorcery, some Varisians follow the path of the cleric, generally worshipping Desna, and Varisian druids bring substantial value to the wandering people.
Finally, Varisians believe in what they call true magic—that which their fortunetellers possess. Fortunetellers, almost always female, believe they draw their power directly from Desna and the spirits of their ancestors. Even among clan members, a fortuneteller’s power seems mysterious and frightening. None know for certain how these powers come about—the gift comes from within, and even its bearer may not understand the power completely.
Fortunetelling, the oldest and most respected Varisian tradition, is the domain of the women. While men have taken up the mantle of soothsayer in the past, women by far possess the most talent and the greatest success at predicting the future. Yet, ever since the unforeseen death of the god Aroden and the resulting failure of prophetic magic, Varisian fortunetellers have found themselves lost and adrift. Their predictions once guided their people, but now their castings come up bleak and distorted.
Still, fortunetellers remain the heart of a clan. A fortuneteller lives in a small, private wagon, and the members of her clan frequently leave tokens of appreciation—posies, embroidered handkerchiefs, fresh-baked buns—outside her door. Though her predictions are now inconsistent and sometimes fail entirely, clans still consult their fortuneteller before making any major decision.
Fortunetellers traditionally pass their knowledge down to their daughters, ensuring their talents live on through the women of the tribe. Varisians pay their elders great respect out of the belief that power increases with age, and this is especially true for fortunetellers. The eldest woman in a clan possess the greatest wisdom, and stories abound of elderly fortunetellers who can lay curses on enemies, read a person’s death in their eyes, and speak with the spirits of the dead.
Tales of Varisian treachery and deceit usually come from interactions with the Sczarni, a clan of Varisians dedicated to larceny and confidence games. The Sczarni travel less frequently than their kin, setting up shop in cities for months—even years—at a time. So long as their criminal activities go undetected, Sczarni continue to bleed their victims until their pockets are full and neighbors grow suspicious. They then move on to the next town and start over.
The Sczarni possess hearts of stone and morals of butter, but they rarely engage in outright malicious activity. Their concern is gold, not violence, and they generally eschew more violent crimes like rape and murder. Instead, the Sczarni focus on subtler lawbreaking: gambling operations, con artistry, swindles, scams, petty theft, and minor thuggery. They believe this nets them the highest possible profit at low risk. The Sczarni might find themselves driven out of town, beaten, or imprisoned—perhaps even mutilated—for their crimes, but they rarely hang.
Most Sczarni consider themselves proud Varisians. They believe they honor their culture by living off of the foolishness of outsiders, many of whom mistrust and persecute Varisians. Traditional Varisians frown on the Sczarni way of life, believing their actions exacerbate tensions with outsiders, but they also accept Sczarni as family. A Varisian clan might hate the Sczarni, but they still come to their kin’s aid in times of need.
Varisians trust their family, their caravan, their fellow Varisians, and the Shoanti—in that order—and rarely put faith in foreigners. Likewise, most non-Varisians, and even those settled peoples of partial Varisian descent, view the wanderers with distrust. Despite this, Varisians are widely traveled, both as a culture and as individuals, and they find friends and enemies wherever they go. Some nations and cities impose strict laws restricting or limiting their movement or preventing them from settling anywhere for more than a few days. Caravans rarely respect borders, and their peregrinations sometimes inf lame political tensions in unrelated nations—tensions the Sczarni worsen with their rampant smuggling. Outsiders’ opinions of Varisians may be positive or negative, but it’s rare to meet an Avistani who doesn’t have an opinion at all.
Varisians associate most closely with the Shoanti tribes of the Storval Plateau, with whom they frequently travel, trade, and marry. Their distant shared history as subjects of the Thassilonian Empire causes some aspects of their art and mythology to overlap. They also have surprisingly warm relations with the Ulfen people of the north, as Varisians build few cities to raid, and the Ulfen are always in need of people with whom they can trade. Thanks both to centuries of slavery and modern colonialism, Varisians see only the worst aspects of the Azlanti and their descendants, the Chelaxians and the Taldans. Even the most lawful Varisian might look the other way when her sister robs a “chel.”
Isolated groups of both elves and dwarves in Varisia serve as occasional allies for caravans on little-used trails. For a people that distrusts most who are not their kin, beings who stand beyond the realm of humanity inspire no small amount of unease. Halflings and gnomes— jovial, adventurous, and similarly distrusted by others— stand apart from these rules. Many caravans journey alongside half ling or gnome travelers, sharing food and music. Varisian families are even known to adopt outcasts of other races, particularly half-elves and half-orcs.
Varisians are accustomed to having fey, draconic, and angelic visitors teach them of the wider world. They seem more at ease with intelligent but inhuman supernatural creatures than some other humanoids, and the sheer volume of sorcerers, aasimars, changelings, and other unusual bloodlines among Varisian populations speaks to this open-minded attitude.
Where on Golarion?
Varisians travel far and wide across Avistan and beyond, but originate from the region that bears their name: Varisia. Prior to the rise of Thassilon and their subjugation by the runelords, Varisians’ origins supposedly lie anywhere from distant Vudra to the stars above. Now, they make up a sizable minority in Varisia’s three largest city-states— Korvosa, Magnimar, and Riddleport—while the majority wander beyond any city’s walls. Outside their homeland, Varisian caravans and villages dot the Lands of the Linnorm Kings, Lastwall, Molthune, Nidal, Nirmathas, and especially Ustalav. The furthest-ranging populations might roam east into Brevoy and Iobaria, south to Andoran, or north as far as the Crown of the World, where they trade seasonally with the Erutaki settlements or even journey to the northern reaches of Tian Xia.
Several clans settled north of Lake Encarthan long ago, founding the nation of Ustalav, and Varisians remain the rulers and majority population of this mist-shrouded land today. The people of Ustalav retain their clannish nature and rich folklore, but a settled lifestyle and historical traumas have caused them to grow superstitious, and many Ustalavs hold xenophobic prejudices against their wandering cousins.
Seven Days to the Grave
It is revealed that some folks of Varisian descent were immune to the Blood Veil due to being a distant relative of the woman who interrupted Vorel Foxglove’s ritual of lichdom.