Friday, January 25, 2019

Farewell to the River: Meager Country Post Mortem

The first thing my players read about the Meager Country campaign was this:

"Her eminent majesty, the Sultan of the Bronze City has little interest in this cold and poor land. The people it houses are many and barbarous, valuable only so long as they respect the empire and as suppliers of fine furs, strong slaves, and amber. However, Her greatness has made certain investments up the river. To the people of Orusk she has given a small fortune of silver. This debt she needs reclaimed and given to the Koto Kete so that they may build a fortress to protect themselves from the vicious Kazan, whose budding domain will surely threaten the empire if none can stand against them. And to you, a ragtag group of scholars, civil servants, and mercenaries the Sultan has promised a single favor, if only you do her bidding. Sell your silk robes and put on your fur coat, it’s time to head up the river, to the Meager Country."

Just last week we finished up the campaign. We started playing last June and were able to meet almost every week. Everything went well, the party delivered the 5000 gp, taken from tombs and from lakebeds and from the spoils of war bands and from the coffers of cannibal priests, into the wide lap of Khan Sarnai. The Sultan had given them 5 Besharan months to complete their mission and return to the palace, which boiled down to 105 days once the time it would take to cross and recross the Sea of Pearls was accounted for. They managed to do it in 102, a fine performance if you ask me. We ended the campaign with a quick epilogue which went over what each of the characters did with the favor offered to them by the Sultan. One had a more democratic university constructed which his adopted daughter, formerly a slave in the Meager Country, attended when she was of age. One won back his family's misspent fortune. One requested a bow made by finest Wizard-Artificers and became a mercenary. The last found her way back to the Meager Country on a new expedition to discover the origin of Glass Women.

I'm really happy with the way the campaign turned out overall. I got to test out a bunch of new mechanics and character options. I got to explore the Meager Country for the first time, which lead to the creation of this blog. We got to end the campaign with a strong conclusion, instead of letting it sputter into extinction. And all along the way there were lots of great moments and encounters which I think my players will remember for a long time. But I've also learned a lot from this campaign and realized I need to improve in many different areas. So, gentle reader, let's dissect the Meager Country.

The New Rules and Character Options

I added a lot of rules to 5e with the goal of achieving a more OSR/DIY style of play. I used a wound system with a drop dice table and an encumbrance system cribbed from the GLOG. I also put more restrictions on spell casting with my religion system, which sees most of the classes required to perform rituals to maintain their supernatural powers. I also added extra restrictions to wizards (though nobody played one). I sent around a survey to my players to ask them how they felt these rules impacted the game and we seemed to be in agreement: all these rules didn't feel like they made a huge impact on the game. People felt like most wounds could be ignored (they only needed to rest to get rid of wounds once), and completing rituals wasn't a great hindrance. I think this was in part due to the style of the campaign, it became more about negotiating and role playing rather than combat. The party's material resources were never put under the kind of long term pressure which is required for people to really notice the effects of wounds piling up and the time needed to perform rituals drying up. It might have been a better idea just to use the gritty healing rules provided in 5e so that the resources the party had felt more valuable and had to be managed over a greater length of time.

We also had new people to play as and new backgrounds. For the new people, I also took a more DIY approach, no stat bonuses and no dark vision. Not all of them got tested, but I think Bronze Folk and the Tamani definitely need something more to make them feel more unique and the Clay People's whole ivory eating thing never seemed like it got enough use and should be replaced. I'm proud of the Glass Women though. My only complaint is that they might be too powerful and dwarf the other peoples in sheer coolness. Generally, I think all the people could be better focused around 1 or 2 major bonuses. 

As for the backgrounds, only one was used (the imperial bureaucrat) and I think I bungled the job pretty badly. I neglected to fill out the bond, flaw, ideal tables and now that I've played more 5e myself I understand their utility a lot more. 

Things I learned

-You don't need a lot to have fun. Some of the most engaging sessions we played were just based on rough sketches of wilderness environments the players were charged with exploring. 

-Even failure can be engaging. The party attempted to resurrect a dead fire goddess and failed. I thought it would be really demoralizing but many of the players looked back on the moment fondly. 

-Having a campaign centered on a single mission is efficient. It provides a reason for all the characters to be working together and sets reasonable expectations for what the game will be about and when it will end. 

-Burnout is real. It was incredibly hard to prep a session from almost scratch every week and I felt pressured to produce a lot of unique material for a unique setting. I think this pressure really hurt the campaign and led to many parts of the game feeling a little underdeveloped. 

Things I need to improve on

-I really need to do traveling across the steppe and having encounters there correct. It often felt like we were traveling across just expanses of nothing but grass. In general, travel felt a little too vague, like there wasn't much room for player choice. 

-I need to get better at incorporating NPCs into the game. The party picked up a lot characters who traveled with them but I feel like they didn't have much of an impact on the game. 

-I need to get better at running a political game. There was lots of interacting with different factions but I felt like I could do a lot more to make this an interesting focus of the game. 

Credit Where it's Due

I often wonder about how much material from blogs finds its way into real games. I'd certainly like to hear about it when somebody is so kind as to sue something I've made. So I'd like to take a moment to thank Joseph Manola for all the great stuff he posts on Against the Wicked City. I made great use of his rules for wrestling, improvised a fun encounter involving a Shurale, and ran a really great dungeon inspired by these two posts of his.

What's next for the Meager Country?

I think I'm done with the Meager Country and the Besharan Empire for now, though I'll certainly return to them soon. I'd like to play more, run different systems, get some more breadth in my DMing portfolio. I'm so excited to start new games and continue the long process of getting better at running the game.

When I do come back to the Meager Country it will be quite different, new wallpaper put up for new guests.  For one, I've got to move it beyond just being the bastard child of the Wicked City, Centerra, and Ibn Fadlan's encounter with the Rus.

 Beyond that, I'm not sure what direction I'll go in with the Meager Country. It might not be in 5e anymore, it might take the perspective of the natives of the Meager Country, it might take place in the future where the Besharan faith spread across the world before promptly self destructing. I'll still post about the Meager Country though, as I retcon and renovate, though it will probably be mostly lore and background stuff scattered with the few encounters and dungeons which are fit for being edited and put on here.

I'd just like to say thanks to everybody who has supported this blog or enjoyed what I do here. I look forward to entertaining you more and, hopefully, contributing useful content to your games. 

This post is dedicated to Sallam the Interpreter, who spoke 30 languages 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Light, World, Glory: A Review of the Lukomorye Player's Guide

Time to dip my toes into the huge and murky world of pedantic RPG reviews.

I became aware of Boris Stremlin when I stumbled across his blog, Bardiches and Bathhouses, on Google+ and was shocked by how similar our projects are. We both write for 5th edition, both have OSR/DIY influences, and we both play in settings based off of historical eastern Europe. I feel a bit beaten to the punch honestly. The most recent flowering of Boris' work is the latest draft of the Lukomorye Player's Guide, which he made public on google drive a few months ago. Though some of the art and layout seems yet to be finalized and the text could use another edit for typos, the content of the book is complete. It's a fascinating project with a broad scope, as befits a book which begins with a history of the tabletop RPG starting from traditions of oral storytelling.

Lukomorye is Boris' Russian fantasy setting. It draws on both Russian fairy tales and folklore as well the historical context of 14th century Russia to built an impression of the land of Nor, the setting's Russia analogue, which feels both historical and mythological. The guide does not just introduce new character options for playing world of Lukomorye but recontextualizes these elements and brings wide ranging changes to the rules of 5e. This review will not just evaluate what is in the Lukomorye Player's Guide but also comment on the, perhaps unstated, ethos of the book and finally describe how I would run a game in Lukomorye.

General Remarks: Art and Layout

Though work is still being done to the visual elements of the book, I should still comment on them. Honestly, the layout is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The guide goes with the same presentation as the Wizards of the Coast books, faux parchment paper and all. I'm not very fond of this look and I wish the book did more to differentiate itself from the Wizards' products. It's not all bad though, the first page of the guide is a lovely poem by Pushkin framed by a floral border, almost like something Ivan Bilibin would illustrate. This is the most beautiful page in the book and I wish the others also reflected the aesthetics we associate with Russian fairy tales. On the other hand, the art choice is mostly great. All the best Russian fairy tale illustrators and Romantic painters are here, though sometimes in a grainy resolution. Here, I would only ask that the paintings be better credited and better placed. This issue is more pronounced in the appendixes, where some of the illustrations break the flow of the text too much and Viktor Vastetsov's iconic Knight at the Crossroads is shrunk to the size of a thumb.

This is an image which deserves space!

New Player Options 

Let's get into the content. Lukomorye makes a few changes to the character creation process with the addition of 2 setting specific new skills: consumption (one's ability to eat and drink in excess) and literacy (one's ability to read and write, characters without this skill are illiterate). I love these two skills, I can easily imagine great banquet challenges and I like that being able to read is a specialized skill in itself, as it has been for most of history. Lukomorye also forgoes alignment, replacing it with two competing ideals: Pravda and Krivda, which are roughly equivalent to good and evil. Players get points of Pravda or Krivda for acting in accordance with either ethos, which is a great departure from the mostly static alignment system. Lastly, there are just 2 things which I think are missing from this section. Firstly, I'd like to see a Russian pronunciation guide somewhere in the introduction which covers the words written in the Latin and Cyrillic script. I'd like to know if the two 'o's in 'Lukomorye' make the same sound. Second, I'd like clearer rules for gaining xp. The book suggests that xp will be awarded for gaining information and treasure, a fascinating proposition, but doesn't offer concrete rules to make such awards.

Lukomorye also doesn't have races, backgrounds, or classes. Instead, it calls these categories Kinds, Stations, and Callings and offers both new and altered options in all these areas. First off, the kinds consists of humans, half-human and half spirit changelings, animal shapeshifters, giant Volots, animalistic Psoglavs, and secretive Chudys. There are a lot of options here, with 9 different changeling types and shapeshifter varieties for 9 animal species. Though humans are unchanged from vanilla 5e, the book provides a great selection of nations and ethnicities which gives a sense of diversity and ubiquity which could not be conveyed with a single page of information. The descriptions of all the spirit and shapeshifter varieties is similarly impressive in depth, but the Kind mechanics are not particularly interesting. Changelings get resistance to necrotic damage, a few stat bonuses or proficiencies, and maybe a cantrip or two. There's a few more exciting abilities, like the speaking with water animals which the Half-Vodyanois get. The shapeshifters are better, they gain more powerful animal abilities as they level up but the other Kinds are marked by a similar lack of inspiration. The Chudy, for instance, get a hodgepodge of extra proficiencies and spells, as well as increased darkvision, sunlight sensitivity, and the ability to talk to small animals. Though all of these abilities fit the Chudy's description, which paints them as chthonic but good-natured guardians of knowledge from before the Great Flood devastated the world, none of them really make me want to play as one. Think about the Dwarf and Elf of vanilla 5e. Though each has a mess of different little bonuses, but each also posses a really unique ability, the Dwarf's resistance to all poison and the Elf's Trance, which come to mind instantly when I think about them. The Chudy has no such definitive trait, like starting with knowledge of a great secret or the ability to control subterranean animals. The Psoglavs and Volots fair little better, though the complications arising from the Volot's size and the Psoglav's Rampage are more in the vein of what I'd like to see. I love the concept of all these Kinds and the attention payed to the folklore they're drawn from but I just wish the execution offered more unique mechanics. Personally, I'd like to see the design of races in 5e abandon these boring bonuses entirely and only use unique active or passive abilities. I also think an opportunity to change how humans work was missed. I would have liked to see more encouragement for an all or mostly human party, as the vast number of options here seem to encourage a mostly non-human party in a setting where humans vastly outnumber the other Kinds.

Now, for the Stations. In Lukomorye there are 10 new stations and 11 from the core books which have been renamed, recontextualized, and given new starting equipment to conform with the revised equipment list found later in the book. Stations are also connected to Estates, which determine the social class of your character and their starting wealth. I'm very pleased with the new Stations. They're all deeply rooted in the Lukomorye setting, show great attention to the history the setting is based on, and many of them provide more than the usual personality trait/bond/ideal/flaw tables. For instance, the Peasant Station has a table of suggestions for why your peasant might stand out and choose the adventuring life. I'm also fond of the few tables in the back of the section for determining what family members characters have, which make choosing something more interesting than being an orphan only a dice roll away.

For my money, the Callings are probably the best part of the book. Like the Stations, the Callings include both whole new classes and sub-classes as well ones from the base game which are adjusted and justified for the setting. All the classes have revised starting equipment and proficiencies as well as new tables for determining Calling-specific traits like what kind of fighting company your fighter hails from or who mentors your druid in the ways of the Old Faith. I like that being part of a Calling implies specific things about your character and their contacts, rather than referring vaguely to a set of skills. Before I get into the new content, I'd like to mention how well the classes, even the ones who don't get any new archetypes or rules changes, are integrated into Lukomorye. The descriptions of each Calling are studded with exemplars from the literature which inspires Lukomorye and it really feels like you're not reading about the fighter or bard but about Voin and Boian who might be mechanically similar to the classes of 5e but partake of a wholly different and glorious tradition.

 The land of Nor is home to 2 new classes: the Fool, an idiot savant who can bend reality; and the Bogatyr, the Russian equivalent of a knight errant. The Fool is great, she gets an interesting set of powers (including seeing the future and animating objects) and feels perfectly suited for a fairy tale style game. The Bogatyr seems a bit muddier, like a mix of fighter, barbarian, and bard (if you choose the Cossack path) but he still has enough distinctive traits to feel unique. The Cleric has also been reworked into the Priest, who plays like a 'full spellcaster' variant of the traditionally martial Cleric. I love how the Priest leans hard into the already Christian flavor of the Cleric to portray a kind of holy man who is native to history but usually absent in D&D. You even get to perform baptisms, it's perfect. The Priest also comes with an expanded spell list, full of more explicitly biblical miracles to perform. Of the subclasses, the ones for Druids, Warlocks, and Sorcerers are all similarly great. They perfectly tap into the world of European folklore and superstition which isn't common to see in D&D and leads to a roster of casters with powers of hexing and prophesying and shape shifting. It all feels much more authentic to Lukomorye's inspirations than all the flavors of lightning and fire D&D magic users often employ. I'm also a fan of the changes Boris has made to the Warlock and Ranger classes. Warlocks have a coven who they must borrow their extra spell slots from and are subject to inter-coven politicking and the more absolute abilities of the Ranger (like her immunity to becoming lost) are made subject to the possibility of failure. I do, however, have concerns about the Cost of Magic rule which punishes the casting of spells which hurt others with points of Krivda. The description of the rule notes that it is mostly applicable to Sorcerers and Warlocks but also that any casters who don't derive their power from a divine source may suffer from it. This is an important, game changing rule which just needs better clarifying. For instance, does the Ranger have risk accumulating Krivda by casting her spells? Though a DM could make a ruling on this simply, a clearer list of who this rule applies to would be much appreciated.

 Lukomorye also provides options for playing characters who hail from beyond the land of Nor in other 14th century inspired realms. The Callings foreign to Nor (Paladins, Wizards, Mystics and Monks) are fleshed out and other foreign subclasses are presented (the Djin-wielding Saahir Warlock is quite good). Again, there are 2 new classes provided: Shamans and Magistrates. I'm really impressed by the scope of these options and the dedication shown to fleshing out the world beyond Nor, the little nod to the continuing practice of Manichaeism in Buddhist institutions is particularly impressive. The Shaman class is good, it feels like a very different kind of magic user with access to a number of animal spirits and information gathering powers. However, I'm lukewarm on the Magistrate. I love the idea of the Magistrate Calling. The figure of the Islamic bureaucrat, lawyer, scientist, theologian, and politician all rolled into one is one of the driving inspirations of my own Meager Country but I'm not sure he fits into the combat oriented world of 5e. Boris has tried very hard to make the Magistrate fit, but his signature ability, quoting scripture to interrupt enemy actions, feels contrived. Similarly, his ability to make legal rulings which he acquires at higher levels doesn't seem applicable to Fantasy Russia. The Priest's powers seem drawn directly from the divine, whereas the Magistrate's skill set is so grounded in a number of political, educational, and religious institutions that he doesn't make sense outside of that context. There's also a new list of feats, or special talents, many of which are class specific. I'm not a big fan of feats in general but many of these, especially the warlock feats, are great because they add on interesting complications to getting the benefit from the feat (like having to construct a phylactery or bathe in a river).

Related image
The Black Horseman by Ivan Bilibin, 1900
New Rules

Lukomorye adds a lot of new rules, many of which are welcome additions and many of which seem unnecessary. There's a new equipment list, a wound system, changes to combat rules, downtime activities, an overhauled rest system, and a whole host of new adventuring rules. There's also a few more old school additions, like morale rules and encounter distance tables. I like the overhauled equipment and item list as well as the accompanying market rules. There's an impressive list of items to buy and services to pay for, which speak to a deep engagement with history on the part of the author. If you could find it in a 14th century Russian market, you can find it in this book. Armor has received the most changes, heavy armor as a category no longer exists and is replaced by accessories such as helmets and greaves. There's also a quite clever set of rules for determining what's in stock which is simple and seems easy to apply even to items not covered in the sprawling lists provided.

There's also a lot of changes made to combat through the wound system and other rule additions. Generally, the changes made make for a grittier game where combat is not exactly more lethal but more impactful, more risky to limb and to equipment. The wound, or impactful hit, system checks a couple of important boxes for me, it's clear when you need to roll on it and offers specific descriptions of wounds, but determining what kind of wound is garnered and what it does is an extremely complicated process. I can imagine using this system but I can't imagine it being intuitive. As for the other rules, they seem good if a little bit too fiddly at times but add a healthy helping of realism. I'm a fan of the Fighting Against Multiple Opponents rule and the penalties for firing missile weapons into melee, but the rules for determining if bow strings snap seem a bit much for me. I'd recommend that a DM should take a good look at all these rules before deciding which they'd like to use. In regards to the morale rules, I'd say I'm conflicted. I think having this type of rule system in 5e is a good idea but the solutions Lukomorye provides seem like blunt instruments. In the text, there's no suggestion that some creatures might not make morale checks at all (e.g the undead) or that player actions beyond presenting a more significant force might be able to shake enemy morale. In the hands of a DM familiar with using morale rules I think Lukomorye's are good, especially in how they give enemy leaders options for boosting morale, but most 5e DMs aren't familiar with such systems and better guidelines for using  both the morale and pursuit rules would be a great help. As for the new rest system, I can take it or leave it, it's interesting in how it makes hitdice and the accommodation the party is resting in more relevant, but it might be easier just to stick with the gritty healing rules found in the DMG.

The rest of the rules for exploration, social encounters, physical feats, and downtime activities are a mixed bag. There's a lot of tables with difficulty classes for tasks associated with different skills and while they seem like good guidelines they often give DCs to things which players should just be able to do, like tie a knot, or notice the smell of a rotting corpse. I take similar issue with the complicated rules for catching thrown objects and other physical feats. Other sets of rules, like the perception check rules which invent the term 'perception champion' to be more clear, feel over complicated. It seems like these rules are trying to do the job of a competent DM, who should be able to feasibly determine what actions a player can accomplish without a check by their own intuition. Nonetheless, some of the rules here, like the table for encounter distance in different terrain types, and the reaction roll rules found in this book are all great additions to 5e and useful tools for the DM to use. Also, I will give Boris a great deal of credit though for noting that the rules I complained about above are to be used at the discretion of the DM. Finally, the downtime activities. I'm generally positive about these, some of them are a bit overwritten but all of them have interesting complications and I can easily imagine my players being interested in all of them.

Notes on the Appendixes

In addition to the content I've already discussed, there are a few appendixes to the player's guide which provide information on the realms, religions, and calendar of Lukomorye. These are all good sections. They do a wonderful job of navigating the gulf between mythology and history. I really appreciate how the organization of the realms, which all have a great fairy-tale vibe, is treated as a debated subject, as opposed to the objective organization of the planes of vanilla D&D. I'm also impressed by how seriously both the pseudo-Christianity of Lukomorye's True Confession and the pagan-inspired Old-Faith are taken. The perspectives of both religions are considered and a clear picture is painted both of how they see themselves and each other. It's also nice to have the calendar included in the book, though I'd like to get a calendar with the holidays marked that I could print out.

More than Content

So that's the Lukomorye Player's Guide. Though DMs may choose what they choose to use in it, I think it's all been put together for a purpose which goes beyond what is stated in the book's text. The introduction to the guide outlines the sources of inspiration for Lukomorye and gives the impression that the goal of this book is to provide rules substitutions and new character options which evoke both Russian fairy tales and 14th century Russia. However, many of the rules substitutions do not further this goal. The morale system, for example, doesn't strike me as particularly Russian. This is not to say that these rules have no place in this book, rather I'd like to suggest that the rules presented here are working at dual purposes. 

On one hand this book is developing a set of rules for the Lukomorye setting and on the other hand its rules work to encourage a certain style of game, a style we should have a clear idea of if we want to use this book effectively. I think this style of play can be understood best if we consider Lukomorye in the context of Boris' other writings, particularly his essays: 'Far-From-Equilibrium 5e', 'The Sociology of the Murderhobo' and 'Putting More Class In Your Setting'. These essays all express a dissatisfaction with 5e and put forth new ways of approaching D&D, usually with the help of examples from history. We can see evidence of the influence of all these essays on the Lukomorye Player's Guide.The influence of 'Far-From-Equilibrium 5e', which offers concrete mechanical suggestions for moving 5e toward a less 'balanced' style of play, is most obvious. Almost everything the essay suggests, from the coven rules for Warlocks to the wound system, make their way into Lukomorye. Even the more theoretical essays influence the book. The impact of 'Putting More Class In Your Setting', with its arguments for imagining class as representative of "concrete social groups", can be seen in the Priest's deep connection to the institutions of the Church and the tables included for each Calling which associate them automatically with different companies and covens and mentors. Similarly, 'The Sociology of the Murderhobo' also suggests a view of adventurers as people who are deeply involved in society, or who adventure to make social gains. The essay's focus on the 14th century as a time which provided the perfect conditions for adventures to operate is reflected in Lukomorye's choice of the 14th century to ground its historical aspects.

All these essays taken together with the rules in the Lukomorye Player's Guide paint a picture of a rather gritty sort of game, one whose PCs are deeply embedded in society or have numerous social obligations, one whose PCs are liable to die ignominiously in pursuit of power, a game of brutal but subtle politicking among the opportunistic factions of Nor, of heroes who claw with bloody hands from the anonymity of history to take their places as kings or prophets or revolutionaries. However, I think this style of game might conflict with the fairy-tale aspirations of Lukomorye. The protagonists of fairy tales do not start off at level 1, they are born heroes, they don't have to worry about getting frostbite or having their bow strings snap at an inopportune time. Yet Lukomorye paints such a compelling picture of a fairy tale adventure too, with its Pushkin poetics and romantic paintings, before the sense of heroism is drowned in rules for getting arsenic poisoning and shooting your friends in the back by accident. I'm skeptical that you can have a game that checks both boxes, that can be full of fairy tale heroics and gritty historical drama. I think how well running a game in Nor goes may depend on which side of this dichotomy you want to lean on. I'm still not sure that these two tones can't be combined but if I were to attempt this feat I'd want to play a game about fairy tale antiheroes who might be capable of great heroics but are dogged by their own flaws. I'm reminded of Kullervo, the tragic hero from the Finnish Kalevala, who was born with magic and ignored his family's warnings to pursue revenge. He's a character who I can imagine performing deeds of valor one day and starving to death under the high pines the next, one who might provide a model for a game as historical as it is mythological.

Repentant Kullervo by Aski Gallen-Kallela, 1918

Final Thoughts

The Lukomorye Player's Guide is a fascinating project which blends Russian legend and history to propose a direction for 5e that I don't think it's been taken before. Sometimes the strength of the mechanics it uses to describe its world are not as strong as its vision but its deep attention to grounding itself in the sources which inspire it is consistently impressive and gives the impression of a believable and compelling setting. So read Lukomorye. If you want to run 5e with more staple rules of OSR games like morale and reaction rolls read Lukomorye. If you want your combat to be messier and grittier read Lukomorye. If you have been desperate to see a Russian D&D world which feels authentically Russian in a way which goes beyond cliche read Lukomorye.

You can download the latest draft of the Lukomorye Player's Guide for free here 

Update: Boris has written a response to my review, which you can read here

This post is dedicated to St. Cyril and St. Methodius