Thursday, November 18, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - Root Quickstart & Pellenicky Glade

In fall 2019, Magpie Games ran a success Kickstarter for a roleplaying game based on the Root board game published by Leder Games. In support of the Kickstarter, Magpie released a free Quickstart version of the rpg. In 2020, on Free RPG Day, Magpie released a free quickstart adventure, Pellenicky Glade

This year in 2021, Magpie released another quickstart adventure for Free RPG Day, and plans to release the final versions of the full Root roleplaying game. At the time of writing, the second adventure is only available to people who picked up a copy in person, and the full game is only available as a pdf to Kickstarter backers.
First Impressions

There's a certain sleight of hand that Root pulls off, in both its board game and roleplaying game formats. It's a trick that draws you in with lovely digital art showing adorable woodland animals, and delivers a game of conquering factions engaged in a brutal war. 

The board game hands you cute little screen-printed, critter-shaped meeples, then sets up a conflict between a corrupt aristocracy, an invading imperialist, locals who are by turns apathetic and divided by ethnicity, a burgeoning multi-racial democracy, and opportunistic types who live outside the law and subsist on a mix of odd jobs, charity, and grift no matter who's currently in charge.

The roleplaying game casts you as the ne'er-do-wells, and drops you into a fantasy roleplaying game where all the fantasy is supplied by casting talking animals in all the speaking roles, where there is no magic at all. Your characters are weak and vulnerable, supplies are scarce and costly, the numbers are small and unforgiving, and unlike even the lowest of low-fantasy roleplaying games, you have nothing more fantastical than a well-forged sword to help keep you alive.

Want to play a game where Robin Hood faces off against the Sheriff of Nottingham, rather than one where Hawkeye and Green Arrow go after Doctor Doom and his army of Chthuloid monstrosities? Although the art shows you something that looks more like Disney's foxy Robin Hood than any dour, "realistic" live-action king of thieves, Root will get you closer to your goal than any version of D&D, or any other fantasy roleplaying game I've seen. None of that necessarily speaks to the quality of the game design, but I want to be clear about what you can expect from the setting.

Basic Mechanics

The mechanics are organized into "moves" that require rolling 2d6 and adding an ability bonus, with rolls of 7-9 representing partial success, and rolls of 10 or more representing a greater success, a system that should be intimately familiar to players of other PBTA rulesets. The basic moves involve persuading an NPC, tricking an NPC, asking the referee questions about an NPC or about a situation, recklessly breaking something, recklessly trusting to chance, attempting a "roguish feat" like lock-picking or trap-disarming, or attempting a "weapon feat" like disarming a weapon or cleaving through armor. There are also three different moves for attacking an enemy - either by grappling, attacking with a melee weapon, or attacking with a missile weapon.

I want to call out the weapon feats as being particularly interesting. To perform a weapon feat, you need to know that particular feat, and you need a weapon that is "tagged" as being able to perform it. This is loads more interesting that weapon proficiency in D&D, and something that people should seriously consider importing. Some older editions of D&D toyed with the idea of characters learning specific weapons, like axes or polearms or what have you, but since the only difference between weapons is how much damage they deal, and that's determined by size rather than type, there was kind of no point, and those rules have mostly fallen out of fashion, in favor of just learning "simple" or "martial" weapons that are mostly distinguished by damage amount. But the weapon feats seem great, because it actually matters which ones you know, and it actually gives you a reason to use one weapon type over another!

Resources are tracked in a few ways. Each character has an "exhaustion" track and a "wounds" track. Exhaustion is acquired pretty easily, and in fact many character abilities require you to take a point of exhaustion in order to use them. Exhaustion is also the easiest to recover, both by resting, and by taking actions especially related to your character's motivation. Wounds mostly come from combat. 

There's a third resource called "decay" here and "depletion" in the finished rules. Each major piece of equipment also has its own depletion track. You deplete your equipment by using it, although you can substitute your own personal depletion track for the equipment's instead of letting it run out or break. You can also draw on your personal depletion track to produce small items of generic adventuring equipment. "Decay" is a terrible name and "depletion" isn't much better. I would have gone with "use" personally, but I also recognize that the designers were a bit hemmed in by the choice to name each track for a deficiency - for "wounds" instead of health, for example. 

Each character has 3-4 points of each major resource to start off with, although you can increase them by "advancing," which is sort of a piecemeal leveling up. With so few of these intrinsic resources, and so many opportunities to lose them, I do kind of wonder how much adventuring, in practice, can actually be accomplished before the characters run out of steam. That's a question I can't answer without playing the game though, which I haven't had the chance to yet. I suspect there's a bit of a learning curve for new players and new referees alike to set an appropriate pace.

There are 6 character types included in the quickstart rules, plus 3 more in the full rules, and another 10 in the Travelers & Outsiders expansion. The ones included here are the Arbiter, a mercenary who follows a personal code of justice, the Ranger, the Scoundrel, who's maybe closer to the Joker than to Han Solo than the name would imply, the Thief, the Tinker, more of a blacksmith than a mad scientist, and the Vagrant, who is some sort of charming grifter. All these character types have some martial ability and some felicity with thieving skills, along with special abilities related to their archetype.
This is a PBTA game, with all that that implies, both good and bad. The good, from my perspective, which may tell you more about me and my preferences than about the quality of the game, has to do with the comprehensiveness of the rules. While I don't really care for heavy rulesets with fiddly bonuses and penalties and situational modifiers that only crop up under special circumstances, and I can't honestly claim that I like rules light either, with barely-there mechanics that provide so little guidance you wonder what the putative game designer's contribution was at all. Instead of rules light, I like rules simple, rules consistent, and rules clear. Flexible rules that can be easily applied to similar-but-not-identical situations, like 5e's table for Improvising Damage from the environment, I personally find far more useful than a rules heavy, somehow-still-incomplete list of hundreds of possible damage sources and their very minor variations, or a rules light exhortation that I'm the referee, and I should decide whatever damage is right for myself and apply it as I see fit.

So I like that Root includes rules and advise for the most obvious things that players might try to do, not just in combat, but also traveling, socially interacting with individuals, and crucially for a game set against a backdrop of war, for dealing with the major factions. Though minimal in the quickstart, little more than just a reputation tracker, the full rules have much clearer advise for the magnitude of favors players could request, or the retaliation they might provoke, by interacting with factions based on their current level of notoriety or prestige. The travel moves especially please me - there's one mechanic for traveling along a path, and a second for going off into the trackless woods.

The bad, in my view, comes from a legacy of trying to distinguish PBTA games from D&D by changing up the vocabulary. I generally like the idea that players describe what they want their characters to do, and then the referee either tells them the result or asks them to roll the dice to find out. But start throwing slogans like "fiction first" and "to do it, do it" and "moves are triggered" at me, and even though I agree with what you're saying, something about the passive voice and the implied relationship between the players and the referee really bothers me. I recognize this is a basically irrational complaint, but I feel it anew each time I read that text. I'm also not a big fan of special abilities that basically say "when you perform X move, add this ability bonus instead of that ability bonus like everyone else uses. " There appears to be at least one special ability like that per character type, but fortunately no more than one per type.

Playbooks I consider a bit of a mixed blessing. They're great for getting started quickly, and for having all your abilities already written out with no need to hand-copy anything. Just make a few decisions, check a few boxes, and you can begin the game. But there's hardly any room to write on these things, and as you go, your character should acquire equipment and abilities that aren't pre-printed on the original playbook. Having an actual character sheet as a backup, something you could fill out once you've advanced to the point of outgrowing your first playbook, would be a really great inclusion.
Worldbuilding and Adventuring Advice

Arguably the biggest selling point for the Root rpg, (okay, besides its connection to the board game ... okay okay, and also besides the cute art), is the campaign setting. Yes Dungeon World isn't as popular as it used to be, and yes the complete Freebooters on the Frontier is still forthcoming, leaving a bit of a hole in the fantasy offerings among PBTA games, but probably if you're looking at the free rules and adventure, it's because you're interested in what it's like to run a campaign in a forest that's at war all around you.

The quickstart rules are rounded out with advice for setting up a map with a dozen linked communities and for running a first adventure session. Your campaign map will be a large-scale point crawl with 12 "clearings," which represent villages and their immediate surroundings. Each clearing is controlled by a faction, either the invading Marquis de Cat, the moribund Eyrie Dynasties, or just the local Denizens. The denizens are a mix of rabbits, mice, foxes, and birds, although each village has a predominant species. Each clearing also has: two "landscape features," two "important inhabitants," two "important buildings," and two "problems," which strikes me as a pretty good starting point, not far off the setting creation tables you see in Stars Without Number and its sister games. 

There are only 6 landscape features, and 3 of them are water, so I imagine that gets old much too quickly. There are 36 entries on the other tables though, so you might find a clearing has "a farmer and a smith" and "a market and a bakehouse" and is troubled by "poisoned supplies and a strange mystery." As a writing prompt, that does provide a starting point, but it will still take a lot of work on the referee's part to turn that into something that's ready for players to interact with it.

The generator for creating a starting adventure is more detailed. You get a starting location, a goal, the person who hired you, objects related to your goal, threats and groups related to your goal, and possible complications. So you might start out en media res "in a forest between clearings," there to "destroy an item," sent by "Local Help, a leader of a neighboring clearing." The item you're there to destroy might be "a strange device or relic," you might be threatened by "an overzealous guard captain," while your goal might require the involvement of "a metalworker's guild" in some way, and the whole thing might be complicated by "a usurpation in progress" in that neighboring clearing. This would take more work to bring to the table too, but it strikes me as more interesting than the clearing generator results. There's the inherent dynamism of having a goal and things standing in the way of completing it of course, but I think the adjectives are doing some heavy lifting here too. If we didn't know that the relic was "strange" or the guard captain "overzealous," the prompt would probably seem flatter and duller.

There's a page of advice for creating NPCs, complete with a list of sample names, and (importantly!) a half dozen sample combat statistics for different types of opponents. This too reminds me of Stars Without Number - the different enemies your players' characters might fight will be distinguished by things like faction membership, role, and motivation, but not so much by mechanical differences. One thing I like here is the recommendations for treating mobs of civilians as single, powerful opponents, with three different size options based on the size of the crowd.

The final touch here is advice for having the war pass through clearings between player visits. In between one session and the next, you could find that an army had been through and ransacked the place. Obviously the war shouldn't intrude in that way in between every pair of sessions, but the possibility of one side slowly winning or losing in the background makes the war a source of change and instability within the campaign, which seems appropriate. And although the player characters are assumed to be outsiders with no particular stake in the local conflict, the fact that the war's not just a perpetual stalemate might also give them some incentive to get involved, and have an impact.

Pellenicky Glade

The glade is the first pre-made clearing that Magpie released in support of Root. As I mentioned, they also put out another free one this year, although I haven't seen it yet, and the complete rules include a book of four more clearings. I'm really glad to see that, because I find it frustrating to a new ruleset or campaign setting come out, but no supporting materials offering any clear idea of how to play it. 

I mean this in two ways. First, every ruleset is good at some things and bad at others - presumably things the designers want you to be able to do more of, and things they don't think you should bother with, respectively - but it's not always easy to tell all the cool things the designer thinks you're supposed to be able to do, or how to assemble those tasks into a coherent adventure. Second, every unique or interesting campaign setting seems like it should host adventures unlike those you could have anywhere else. But again, if the only set-ups you already know are from other settings, it can be challenging to develop something that's both a good fit for the setting, and good full-stop.

Rulebooks can and should offer advice for adventure writing, but to be frank, these almost always suffer from what we might call the "draw the rest of the fucking owl" problem. The gap between what the advice in the book says and what a good, complete adventure ought to look like might be almost insurmountable for novice referees, and even experienced refs might benefit from help writing adventures that are specific to the setting, not just whatever they're used to running, regardless of how well it works with the new game. And the best kind of help is probably a good example.

All of which is to say that I'm glad to see Pellenicky Glade and the other pre-written clearings. I haven't read the adventure writing advice in the complete rules, but the gap between the quickstart advice and what's actually in Pellenicky is absolutely a "draw the rest of the fucking owl" situation.

Pellenicky Glade is a clearing dominated by birds, but mice make up a numerical majority. They were formerly allies of the Eyrie, but are now functionally independent. There are four major conflicts ongoing at the time the player characters arrive, and a brief summary of how each conflict will resolve itself if the players decide not to get involved in it. I love the idea of this, because it provides a baseline for deciding what effect the players actions have, and it helps you create the feeling of a living world where at least some things happen without the players making them happen. 

The Eyrie is demanding that Pellenicky rejoin them; everyone in town has an opinion about whether to try to remain independent or submit to vassalage, and the Dynasties might invade regardless of what the townspeople decide. Also there's a mayoral election coming up with three main candidates, two mice and a young member of the Goshawk family. Also also someone has killed the patriarch of the Goshawks family, and three possible heirs are vying for succession. Also ALSO also, a notorious cat burglar is in the area, and no one knows what she might be trying to steal, or how to stop her.

There are about a dozen named and statted NPCs involved in all this drama and a half dozen locations are briefly described. In addition to recommended resolutions if the players don't get involved, there are also tips for escalating each situation in response if they do intervene. There are a 6 pre-generated characters to use, and tips for giving each of them ties to the community. What you have here is not so much an adventure as it is a sandbox with at least a half-dozen possible patrons who might want the player characters' help, and who might offer up various adventuring tasks as ways to provide that help.

The parallel problems of picking a leader for the town and for the richest family, and the tie-in to the setting-wide problem of aligning with the warring factions both strike me as good ways to introduce the players to the themes of the setting. The mysterious cat thief isn't directly tied to the Marquisate faction, but I guess she serves as a reminder that there are cats in this game too? I'm less certain about her inclusion, but it does make sense to have at least one problem that's not of the locals' own making, which is maybe not something I would have thought of if I were developing a clearing without an example to reference. Pellenicky is also ostensibly a prime place to resupply and repair equipment, which ties directly to the unique rules of this game, which again seems good, although this seems like almost an afterthought compared to the political maneuvering.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Brain Infestations - Wheel of Evil

Wheel of Evil is a module for use with Labyrinth Lord by Jeff "Bighara" Sparks and Joel Sparks, recommended for 4-6 characters of Levels 3-5. I ran this module as part of my ongoing home campaign, ran in Errant over the course of about 3 sessions, with 3-6 players ranging from levels 1 to 3.

The basic set-up of the adventure is that the party is hired to protect some generic town's prized cheeses from marauding kobolds. This familiar premise is soon up-ended as the party quickly discovers that there is something more sinister afoot. Soon they will stumble into a subterranean fungal hell ruled by a sentient mold with plans for world domination, and those lowly kobold the party was prepared to genocide are likely to become valuable comrades, their bottles of distilled urine a weapon to combat the mycelial menace.

A Blast From the Past

Remember when Labyrinth Lord was the system du jour for the burgeoning OSR? Go back through the archives of DTRPG far enough, and you'll see our current crop of made for OSE adventures give way to LotFP, and before that to Labyrinth Lord (or at least, that's what the historical trajectory of my DTRPG library looks like). And something you'll notice on those modules which you don't see as much nowadays in modules, or at least not featured as prominently, is the expected range of player characters and their levels that are suitable for playing the adventure. This little snippet of paratext is, I think, key for interpreting the contents of the module within.

Because within this module, dear reader, you will not find any Kempian lateral thinking challenges, McDowellian traps, Gustovian factions or orienteering, combat-as-war, or any of the other well-worn bon mots found in the Principia Apocrypha. The structure of the module is, essentially, an introductory prelude of exposition and light investigation followed by a linear progression of set-piece encounters with a succession of Morale 12 Hostile creatures (aka guaranteed fights to the death). The one section within the adventure in which there is some non-linearity hazarded, as the players find themselves lost in a sprawing complex of cave tunnels that they will need adequate light to navigate, is handled by a succession of ability checks, resembling nothing so much as a 4e skill challenge. Indeed, there is no chance of the players failing, even if they run out of light sources, so long as they manage to survive the two pre-determined encounters that occur within this section (and any wandering monsters). After 8 ability checks they are guaranteed to move onto the next part of the dungeon.

To me, this is indicative of a time when the R in OSR might be better understood as "revival" rather than "renaissance". While the OSR and its proponents often purport to be a return to the good old days of how the game used to be played, this is nothing more than a romantic creation myth; as John B. notes, the play culture of the OSR and its precepts is a latter day invention, a re-reading of the fundamental texts that revealed new avenues of play largely unexplored. The predominant culture of play "back in the day", which John B. dubs Classic, is the style of play we can see evinced textually in the TSR tournament modules of old, with a focus on the 

linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly".

And it is this play ethos that I see reflected in Wheel of Evil primarily. This makes sense to me historically; that early in the OSR's history when values, norms, goals, and expectations around design were still inchoate and yet to cohere into a more stable play culture, early efforts by revivalists would align more closely with early D&D design as they actually remembered playing it, rather than how the "OSR" design orthodoxy which later emerged would dictate they remember it.

Taken within this context, the design decisions of Wheel of Evil seem much clearer. Structurally its very similar to a tournament module; even the reward structure of the adventure, with characters paid in shares of sales from the cheese festival, the value of those shares determined by a number of key factors related to the party's performance within the adventure, functions explicitly as a sort of grading system akin to those employed by Referees at conventions. Within this framework, the linear adventure and the set-piece encounters function to provide a uniform rubric against which the player's performance can be evaluated.

Yet more textual evidence for Wheel of Evil falling more squarely within a classic mode of play rather than a normatively OSR lies in the adventure's adherence to the aesthetics of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy. Yet another norm of the OSR is the reskinning of monsters, describing them in odd ways, and refusing to name them; this is to undermine player's attempts at system mastery and force them to engage with novel and unexpected challenges beyond those for which they have an expected frame of reference. By contrast, many of the encounters in Wheel of Evil seem to rely on an assumption of system mastery, that your players will know what a shrieker is, or a yellow mold or gelatinous cube or black pudding. It deploys these familiar creatures in novel situations, using their presence to signal to savvy players to be on the look-out for danger and treachery. Successful players will parlay their knowledge of these monsters to navigate the new and novel situations they've been reconfigured into, while those who do not recognise the black masses being spat out by a minion in the boss battle as a black pudding or the immobile skeleton floating down a tunnel to be evidence of a gelatinous cube and not some malign undead are likely to have a very bad time.

Hamburger America

Almost all the regional hamburgers George Motz presents in his YouTube show are pretty much the exact same burger with one or two slight variations. And yet, within the constraints of this formula of bread and beef, these slight novel introductions manage to produce what feel like wildly different culinary experiences. Looking at Wheel of Evil, this is similar to what I find to be the joy of the vision of Classic design with which it presents us.

The scenario design in Wheel of Evil feels like a tone poem or a limited palette painting that asks, "how many ways can we combine all the classic oozes, slimes, and molds in D&D to create weird new encounters?" By working within a known and stable set of conventions, the slight novelties and variations it introduces strike me as being all the more surprising and delightful. The excitement and tension within the module derives not from the vast possibilities arising from a sandbox or a more open-ended adventure, but from the juxtaposition of discrete mechanical parts (e.g. monster statblocks or traps with very particular abilities represented mechanically) whose interactions present very narrow paths of success. The very first hostile encounter within the module sets the stage for this, with a large mushroom grove within which lurks an incredibly stealthy high HD monster with a paralyzing attack (and as the ability to swallow a paralyzed target) as well as a number of shriekers which will immediately alert said high HD monster. This is also illustrative of a trend within the encounter design where a familiar monster will be combined in an encounter with a new, bespoke creature, or else be presented in a novel environment (the chamber leading to the boss battle is a shallow pool studded with slippery stepping stones, within which lurks a gray ooze) or form (miniature starter cultures of yellow mold, or mini black puddings, for example). 

This mechanistic adventure design produces an almost point-n-click adventure game logic to the puzzles and challenges within the module. Preceding the dark, twisting caverns is a grove of bioluminescent fungus, which will glow for 1d6 hours; before the players descend into the fungal depths they have the opportunity to discover a large still of distilled alcohol, which the fungus monsters in the module are weak to (and later on they will encounter a cadre of potentially friendly kobolds who have similarly helpful flasks of distilled urine). In the spirit of presenting a tournament-esque level playing field, everything a group of clever players would need to bring to bear to be successful exists within the closed system field of the adventure itself.

The corollary to this is that there a number of very clever, rather devious "gotcha" moments in the adventure waiting to catch unwary players off guard. The first and most obvious of these is the mold valve in the starting section of the adventure: investigating too closely will lead to that character getting stuck in the valve and, if not rescued, being deposited to the lower levels of the dungeon in an unconscious state, where they will be carried by a bunch of goons to be devoured by the boss monster of the dungeon. Their party members have time to rescue their unfortunate comrade, but the most readily available way to damage the mold valve, fire, will also end up causing damage to the cheese that provides the bulk of the party's reward. Another trick that I particularly enjoy is that, right after the party emerges from the dark, winding tunnels that require light sources (e.g. torches) to navigate, their next encounter will be with a creature that is attracted to fire; a clever party who managed to navigate these tunnels by mushroom light quickly enough won't face this danger. 

My favourite, however, has to be the twin pit traps. When I ran this module, the party sprung the first pit trap, and then, being on the look-out, easily spotted the second pit trap further down the hallway. But, beyond that second pit trap, is an ochre jelly whose proportions just so happen to perfectly align with the size of the pit trap they avoided springing. Thinking themselves very clever, they goaded the slow jelly back down the hallway, avoiding a fight by making it fall into the pit trap. To their dismay, however, they then saw the translucent mass of the jelly that the bottom of that second pit trap contained some very attractive plate mail and a magical greatsword, which was rapidly being dissolved within the acidic mass of the jelly.

There is a great joy in seeing this kind of tight design, similar to the feeling one gets seeing a well-engineered Rube Goldberg contraption go off. While such design may not be en vogue in the old school scene anymore, I think there are many valuable lessons to be drawn from the examples set by Wheel of Evil.

Other Passing Remarks

The kobolds in this adventure all speak in peevish Bavarian accents. This is great. It seems the natural extension of WH40K's football hooligan Orks. I want to see every problematic fantasy humanoid recast as a farcical European caricature.

There are lots of nice little handouts in this adventure. My favourite is the one for the cheese shares the party gets. 

Ludic Dreams III - My Body is a Cage

At long last, I turn my Ludic Dreams series to what I probably should have been doing all along: reviewing games and adventures about dreams...