Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lesserton Play Report: field trip

earth and sky by Brayo earth and sky, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

Strathbogie: "We allowed this Swamp Man (Mendel is his name, and he was once a carpenter in Lesserton before he got turned-on to Earth Magic) to lead us on an excursion where we walked a full day through swamp, marsh, bog, and quagmire-- and then a second day over a blasted heath but little better suited for the comfort and sanity of humans. And at the end of it all, there was a cave full of bones. Isden, with his eye for coin, found barely enough to pay for the hard-tack we've eaten on the way here and a bowl of soup at the Original when we return. But all the same, I'm intrigued by this Earth Magic, the two bowls carved into the rock of the cave, one stained, the other clean."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lesserton Play Report: Swamp Justice II

Critter from Above by Furryscaly
Critter from Above a photo by Furryscaly on Flickr.

Sometimes it’s you who gets justice and sometimes it’s justice that gets you. Strathbogie has never enjoyed the Centipede Races. But he knows it’s part of what makes Lesserton special. And so when Isden found an opportunity to get in with the fine folks who raise the best racers by collecting some young pedes from the swamp, he was honored to be a part of it. And it looked like an easy harmless way to make a living. Trek out to a little island of rock and spindly trees an hour out in the swamp, make the baby centipedes sleep, and then scoop then into sacks. But then things went South. Mommy centipedes showed up. (“The females are always the most vicious.”) The spindly trees and vines and weeds sprang up and pulled us down to the soggy turf.

And then one of the swamp people showed up to give us a lecture about letting wild things stay wild. He made us promise to let the centipedes go. And told us he could tell if he were lying. We agreed. And Strathbogie is trying to figure out how he does that trick of knowing when people are lying.

Lesserton Play Report: Swamp Justice

"How 'Bout Dem Os!" by Brayo
"How 'Bout Dem Os!" a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

As I mentioned in my “reviews” of the Lesserton and Mor product, Strathbogie did recover his spell book, with interest, and justice, perhaps excessive, was done to the elf who had stolen it. It was a great game, with each of the PCs making an interesting contribution. Strathbogie bought some decent clothes and took a meal at the Platinum Pegasus, the one really fancy place to eat in town. Sure enough, there was an elf staying there. Strathbogie tailed him out, and watched him buy a horse. And he got a good enough look at him to be sure that this was the same elf who’d sold his spell book to the Platonic Order. But as I mentioned in my review, Lesserton is not the kind of place where you can expect much from the authorities. We didn’t consider reporting the theft and even after we knew who the thief was, we knew we’d have to deliver justice on our own. But outright lawlessness is not tolerated inside the city walls. His purchase of a horse told us he was planning to leave soon. So Thakko talked to his friend Hank who owns the stables at the city gate. The elf’s horse was there. Hank had a sense of when the elf was planning to leave town, and he agreed to add something to the horse’s feed so that it had some problems out on the road. Meanwhile, we prepared an ambush. Thakko and Isdn found a place to hide about an hour outside town. Isdn buried bug teeth in the road to serve as caltrops. Strathbogie hung around outside the gate.

Briefly, the plan worked. Not perfectly, but well enough. The elf wasted his charm spell on Strathbogie who would have been nearly useless in combat anyway. Thakko and Isdn were not especially well-hidden but the bug teeth were. We felt a little sorry for the elf’s hired guard who got mixed up in all this. But that's swamp justice for you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review : Lesserton and Mor II (One Player’s Perspective on Mor)

This is a continuation of my previous post on the “Lesserton” portion of the Lesserton and Mor product. Lesserton is the town where adventurers may base themselves in between expeditions to the ruins of Mor.

Perhaps the best testament to the interest of Lesserton is the fact that our party has spent little game time in Mor. There’s enough going on in town that we’ve only ventured out on a few narrowly-defined missions. It’s also because while Mor itself probably contains dungeons, we haven’t been looking find them, and have experienced Mor as a “wilderness.” In some ways, Mor is not so different from Lesserton—some of our most interesting encounters have been with the Orkin tribes, who are of the type that put the “human” back into humanoid. We have not fought any of them (although there are rumors of more warlike tribes who might attack on sight) and have instead engaged them in trade.

Whether Mor is a “dungeon” or a “wilderness,” it is an expansive ruins and this type of setting is popular for good reason. The mirror image of the dirty little town of Lesserton, the ruined capital of Mor juxtaposes the grander of towers, temples, palaces, and fountains with weedy swamps and lots of beasties. Although the Mor Book includes a “dungeon crawl,” I expect that our adventures have been generated by random tables supported by concise descriptions of notable locations.

A glance at the Mor map shows that much of Mor is left for the referee to fill in. It seems that there is enough background description and random tables for the referee to run a few sessions as a way of introducing the setting and gauging player interest. I think my group has reached the point where we’re hoping for something meatier. Again, leafing through the Mor book, I don’t know that there’s anything ready-made. But as a player, I am curious about all those supposedly empty building, and I know that we haven’t even seen more than a small portion of the ruins. There’s a lot of “emptiness,” but the it doesn’t feel empty; I’m engaged enough to believe that there’s a lot more to discover.

What makes Mor most engaging are the constant subtle reminders of its connections to Lesserton. These connections are probably most evident in Lesserton. Many of the townsfolk will speak openly of their distrust or dislike of elves, and their “reason” (something about the elves failure to prevent the destruction of Mor) is so well-know that it doesn’t need to be said. Likewise, anyone who shows strong Orkin traits is regarded, with a mixture of fear and condescension, as being “from the ruins.” Then, when you’re in the ruins, those residents (the Orkin tribes) speak of Lesserton with their own mixture of wonder and disdain.

I should state directly, if it’s not obvious, that I’ve been playing D&D a long time and so have the other players. Less experienced players might have some frustrations with the PC's poverty, the slow level advancement, and the lack of signs saying, “This way to the Dungeon.” These issues could be “corrected.” For instance, there are a couple adventures included, including a mini-dungeon set in Mor. A referee could get this one going in the typical way (“you’re hanging out in the tavern and a stranger comes up to your table.”) To be successful, the referee might have to allow more standard character collection, so that thief characters could not only afford lockpicks but also know where to buy them. Some value would be lost—the way we got to know Lesserton was by, for instance, checking in at various potential purveyors of lockpicks. And likewise, when we entered Mor, we knew that we couldn’t survive more than one or two fights and were thus forced to negotiate with the Orkin. But maybe there are other ways to balance competing values.
In summary, I’ve very much enjoyed playing in both Lesserton & Mor, and having a hard time restraining myself from delving into the “DM-only” books more deeply so that I might start planning a session with my own group of players.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review : Lesserton & Mor I (One Player’s Perspective on Lesserton)

This review is superior, in its conception at least, to your typical RPG review in two ways. First, I review the product based on my experiences using it in play, rather than after merely reading it. Second, because my experiences with the product were as a player, I can, and will review the product, based on the perspectives of a player. Because I hope players out-number refereees in most sessions, this makes my review more directly relevant to more people. Obviously, the experienced referee and the professional game designer have their own strengths that they bring to the reviews that they write, but I won’t try to compete with those, at least in this post. A friend of mine got an advance proof of L&M at least a month ago and I’ve played in 3 or 4 of the sessions he runs weekly. As he’s run it, L&M feels like what Gary Gygax seemed to have envisioned for the Keep on the Borderlands, but that I never quite pulled off when I tried running that classic module: a multi-layered, multi-leveled adventuring locale paired with a base town that offers not only a relatively safe place to rest your head, but also some intrigue of its own. Granted, my friend is better at running a game than I was at 10 or 12 or 16, but just glancing through the four books that comprise L&M, I sense that he’s been given a few more tools to work with than the bartender’s preference for honey mead over small beer. The greater accomplishment by The Monkeys is in Lesserton, the dirty little town serving as the PCs “base.” I’m not so much saying that Lesserton is “better” than Mor, the sprawling ruins of a once powerful city, but that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a town/base with such personality, and with the right balance of fixed and dynamic elements. Today’s technology allows The Monkeys to provide players with a free pdf Player’s Guide to Lesserton, and I think this greatly enhances play. It provides a very high-level account of the history of the town, and then moves into concise, but flavorful descriptions of the various neighborhoods, focusing on surface-impressions rather than facts. In other words, it gives players the sense that their characters have spent a little while looking around than the town, and NOT that they’ve just read about something on Wikipedia. The 5 neighborhoods are described both in terms of an overall theme (rich, poor, middle-class, commercial vs. residential) and with two sentence descriptions of notable buildings. I didn’t read the whole thing before I playing. I haven’t read the whole thing yet. But it gives us all a common reference throughout play. We all know what it means when someone says, “I’m going to buy some clothes so I won’t look so conspicuous walking around The Heights.” As it turns out, that character had to settle for buying clothes so he wouldn’t look so offensively poor as to deserve a sound drubbing. And if I can point to one place where the texture and flavor of Lesserton comes from, it’s in the player’s guide section about creating a new character in Lesserton, the most important detail being that PCs start with gold equal to their Charisma with which to buy equipment. Not charisma times 10, but just Charisma. In the case of a charming young magic-user, 15gp is pretty awesome, but it goes quickly, and a little bout with addiction can reduce you quickly to rags, 10 feet of rope, and two rocks. Most everyone you meet in Lesserton is similarly poor and desperate if not more so. Finding a ring in your sausage is a reason to go back to the place you got it—and plunk down another handful of coppers to buy another, hoping for more good luck. Pooling resources to buy a small barrel of lamp oil or “fire-starter” to trade to the Orkin tribes of Mor for cruelly-addictive wild honey to resell to folk of Lesserton is a respected (if illegal) business plan. Over-friendly barmaids with their hands all over you really are very frightening, because they can snatch the few coins that would save you from starving this week. This is not to say Lesserton is joyless or lawless. You can have a lot of fun playing toss-bottle or racing centipedes (maybe not for my PC). There is a town watch. And there’s a temple of divine purpose. So you can’t rough-up the barmaid to get your ring back. The priests really do want addicts to get better. And although you can’t report that elf who stole your spell book to the authorities and expect them to do anything about, you need to get him out of town before you can take justice into your own hands . . . along with the elf's boots and the fancy bridle on his horse . . . and his empty scroll case . . . and To be honest (go on junkie, be honest), not all of Lesserton’s diversions translated well to the game mechanics of D&D, at least not for me. For instance, the idea of different colored centipedes racing each other to get to a staked giant insect is some kind of highly original cool. But resolving it with d20 roll was a little anti-climactic. Then again maybe that’s because my character didn’t have any silvers to bet. For whatever reason, the other players seemed to enjoy this—and toss-bottle more than I did. But to get back on my wave of enthusiasm, Lesserton is a great place for a different kind adventure because despite the corruption and desperation, it’s not a dungeon and you live by your wits, not your sword or your spells. As someone who has real-life experience living somewhere that boys compete with goats to dig breakfast out of other people’s garbage pile, and where too-successful business attract on-the-spot tax assessments, it feels real and alive, donkey-eared, walrus-toothed Orkin bodyguards notwithstanding.