Three False Dmitrys

Once a month on the Molten Sulfur Blog, we have a post taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post, about a bizarre event in Russian history, is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!

Three False Dmitrys

Time of Troubles

In 1584, Tsar Ivan the Terrible died while playing chess. Supposedly, foul play was involved at the hands of aristocrat Boris Godunov, but no one challenged him. Ivan’s death left the throne to his only living son, Feodor. Feodor’s reign lasted until 1598, when he died childless. Boris Godunov succeeded him, but was challenged by a man claiming to be Ivan the Terrible’s other son, Dmitry Ivanovich, who died in childhood. This caused confusion throughout the empire, but no more than when it happened again in 1607, and again in 1611. The true Dmitry Ivanovich died young, but his fame comes from the three imposters who carried out his life for him. The first False Dmitry’s identity is still debated, but many historians suspect it was Grigory Bogdanovich Otrepyev, an aristocrat and monk. Apparently, he sincerely believed he was the true heir to the throne. He started claiming to be Prince Dmitry while living in Moscow, but fled to Lithuania when threatened with banishment. There, he began to search for support for a campaign to acquire the throne. Aided by Lithuanian and Polish nobles, as well as Jesuits, the first False Dmitry gathered an army and invaded Russia in the fall of 1604. His forces were beat militarily, but he gained followers throughout southern Russia. Tsar Boris died suddenly in 1605, and Muscovite boyars murdered Boris’ infant son and heir in support of the first False Dmitry. Dmitry entered Moscow in June of 1605 and was proclaimed tsar. Upon gaining power, though, he alienated his supporters. He failed to observe the traditions and customs of the court by favoring foreigners who accompanied him to Moscow, and by attempting to engage Russia in a Christian alliance to drive the Turks out of Europe. One of the boyars, Vasily Shuysky, turned against False Dmitry I in 1606, leading a coup d’état and murdering him.

Nonetheless, rumors spread, saying Dmitry had survived, and in August of 1607, False Dmitry II appeared. He is believed to have actually been a priest’s son. Though he didn’t physically resemble the first False Dmitry, he managed to gain a following among Cossacks, Poles, Lithuanians, and rebels against Shuysky. He took control of southern Russia and marched towards Moscow. He established his headquarters at the village of Tushino in the spring of 1608, and thereafter became known as the Thief of Tushino. False Dmitry II sent bands to ravage northern Russia while he went to meet the widowed wife of False Dmitry I. She somehow recognized her husband in False Dmitry II, and this gave him authority that rivaled Shuysky’s. However, Shuysky managed to eject the second False Dmitry from northern Russia with the aid of Swedish troops. False Dmitry II continued to vie for the throne until one of his own followers killed him in 1610. But that didn’t stop the barrage of Dmitrys. In March of 1611, a third False Dmitry appeared. This one was identified to have been a deacon called Sidorka. He gained the allegiance of the Cossacks in 1612, who were ravaging the areas around Moscow. The third time was not the charm, as he, too, was betrayed and later executed in Moscow.

Three False Dmitrys in Play

The PCs might oppose the three false Dmitrys. Perhaps they’re followers of the legitimate ruler and catch wind of someone out in the territories claiming to be even more legitimate. Again. And again. It might be a fun recurring joke in your campaign, letting you sprinkle in a False Dmitry session when you want to take a break from your regular story. Or maybe your PCs have killed the old ruler, only for someone who is definitely not her to spring up, claiming she was only "mostly dead”. Or a PC could be the false Dmitry. A politician or an illusionist is willing to pull the strings of power to make a loyal puppet emperor. All he needs is a willing patsy. Enter the party. On a smaller scale, this could happen to one of your PCs. It’s a tragic event when a PC dies, but what if the player rolls up a new character who genuinely believes she is the dead PC or her reincarnation? This confusion might really spice up the party dynamic.


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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