Saturday, January 18, 2020

Review: The Witcher TRPG

On the year-end episode of Waypoint Radio, the crew discussed the game of the decade.  Austin Walker, he of Friends at the Table fame, offered a bit of a curve ball for what is essentially a video game podcast and picked Dungeon World.  Walker's argument (go to the 31:00 mark in the Youtube video linked above) was that Dungeon World was the game that he played the most, and had the biggest impact on him via Friends and the Table.  But then he said something else really interesting, which is that (and I am paraphrasing here) Dungeon World is a kind of stepping stone toward whatever is the Next Big Thing.  And I don't think Walker is alone in this view--the idea that there is a trajectory of ttrpg design that builds on and evolves from what came before seems to be the dominant model in the loosely defined "indie" portion of the ttprg world.  And that trajectory has certain markers or touchstones, such a focus on narrative and creating particular narrative experiences and a preference for light (or, at most, medium) mechanical game mechanical "crunch."

But I think if you take a step back and look at the space as a whole, you also see a couple of other trends happening in parallel to the trajectory described by Walker.  One is looking at many of the same foundational games relied upon by the indie scene (i.e. Pendragon, Burning Wheel, Ars Magica, Apocalypse World), pulling out a handful of ideas from them, and then incorporating those concepts into what are fundamentally "traditional" ttprg designs.  13th Age, which I have praised several times in these pages, is maybe the most explicit example of this model, but even something like D&D 5e has echoes of narrative mechanics and ideas (another, more ambitious, example is Modiphius's 2d20 system, which I am going to say more about in some future posts).  But there is also a self-conscious retro trend, one that wants to bypass much or all of the design ideas that have come out in recent years in favor of older forms.  The OSR movement (itself an amorphous and not necessarily singular grouping) is perhaps the most obvious example of this trend, but there are others.  Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, which I reviewed here, made a deliberate decision to use Runequest 2nd edition, a game that was released in 1979, as the baseline--it is, in a way, an "OSR" game, albeit not one grounded in D&D.

All of which brings me to The Witcher TRPG by R. Talsorian Games.  For those who don't know, R Talsorian Games is best known as the makers of Cyberpunk, which in turn was picked up by Polish video game company CD Projekt Red as the basis for the (as of this writing) forthcoming Cyberpunk 2077 game.  This relationship in turn led R. Talsorian to get access to the fictional property that made CD Projekt Red famous, The Witcher.  I should say up front that I never played any of the previous versions of Cyberpunk and have no prior experience with R Talsorian's games, which I think is relevant for reasons I will get into shortly.

Reading The Witcher, my initial thought was that this is a game that is definitely, maybe even self-consciously, traditional in its approach, at least in terms of the mechanics (look-and-feel wise, it is full color, pretty, and feels very modern).  Characters are defined by nine core statistics, basically rated on a 1-10 scale, along with a set of derived statistics.  On top of that, characters have skills (52 in total) tied to those statistics, also rated 1-10.  The system is class-based, with classes bring with them access to a class-specific ability is that is functionally a skill tree.  Task resolution is statistic+skill+1d10 versus a target number or an opponent's statistic+skill+1d10.  Rolls of 10 explode, and rolls of 1 gives a "negative explosion" in a clever way--if you roll a 1, then you roll again and subtract that roll from your statistic+skill.  But there are lots of individual circumstantial modifiers to rolls, so there are usually four inputs to every check (statistic, skill, roll, and modifier).

Combat is an opposed roll, giving the defender options to dodge, re-position (basically a dodge where you move to a different location), block, or parry (harder to pull off than a block, but doesn't damage your weapon and imposes a status effect on the attacker).  There are hit locations, and depending on which location you hit you get a damage multiplier (x3 for hitting the head) or fraction (x1/2 for hitting the arms or legs), but that modifier applies only to the damage remaining after deducting for armor.  There are also two different types of attacks for PCs, fast (two targets or the same target twice) and strong (-2 to hit but double damage, which is calculated before considering armor).  In addition, when the attacker's total is at least 7 above that of the defender inflicts a critical wound, which grants bonus armor-ignoring damage and imposes a wound-based status effect.  There are also combat fumbles, and characters can spend stamina points to take additional actions.

Gear is a big part of the game.  Weapons and armor degrade, and can be repaired.  There is a dedicated Crafter class, who can not only repair things but can make new things.  Those new things are defined by a diagram for that item and a list of components (literally--forging an iron longsword requires 1 unit of timber, 2 units of iron, and two units of leather).  There are two pages full of charts of possible crafting components, and ten pages of charts of item diagrams showing how to combine those components.  Alchemy uses a similar system, with nine different alchemical reagents, each extracted from about a dozen different sources each.

As I mentioned above, my initial response to all of this was how old-school it seemed.  In fact, in my first draft of this review, I said "this game could have been written in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was getting into tabletop RPGs."  But I now realize that's not quite right.  Yes, the core mechanics and the focus on granular combat feel very early 90s, but it is clear that there are some very modern influences--video game influences.  It's been a while since I played The Witcher 3, but the alchemy system may actually be the alchemy system in the game, and if it isn't, it could be.  The quantized scrounging of resources to fill out your crafting shopping list is basically what you get in the Far Cry series.  The combat system has light and heavy attacks--just like the Witcher video games (or, at least, The Witcher 3, as I haven't played the others).

In doing so, The Witcher TRPG is engaged in an interesting form of genre emulation.  Many ttrpgs have tried to emulate literary or cinematic works (with varying degrees of success), and video games have been emulating ttrpgs since the beginning, but I can't think of a clearer example of a ttrpg emulating a video game.  In fact, way back in the days of the hot flame wars over 4e, "it's trying to be World of Warcraft" was a core talking point/slur of the anti-4e partisans.  Here, though, I don't think this is a disputed point--this game is trying to feel like and play like the CD Projekt Red games, and only derivatively like the books or the TV show.

Given the predominance of video games, this dynamic is not surprising, and probably inevitable.  If you did a free association using the words "Baldur's Gate" and "Planescape," I suspect far more people would come up with something video game related than name some D&D product from which those concepts originally appeared.  With regard to the Witcher series, outside of Poland the overwhelmingly predominant point of access is the video game series, and so that's the lens through which people (including the designers) are going to view the material.  Leaning into that makes a lot of sense, no matter what reaction it might generate from a certain sort of purist.

What The Witcher TRPG doesn't do is engage meaningfully with any of the influences or trends that Walker is talking about.  There is a very brief section that deals with "social combat," presented as an optional rule, that truthfully feels like a placeholder for some more robust idea or system.  Beyond that, there is basically none of the narrative mechanics or concepts that most modern games at least gesture toward.  There is a lengthy discussion of the tone and feel of the Witcher universe, but it is all in the GM section in the form of "GM advice," without much in the way of mechanical support for those ideas.  It's as if the folks making this game played ttrpgs through the 90s, switched over to video games for 20 years, and recently came back.  And, if you look at the history of R Talsorian Games, that's basically what happened--the company went on hiatus in the late 90s while creative lead Mike Pondsmith went to work for Microsoft, sidelining the company until its association with CD Projekt Red and the Cyberpunk game lead to a recent renaissance.  The primary designers of The Witcher TRPG are Cody and Lisa Pondsmith, Mike Pondsmith's son and wife, respectively, but the arc of Mike Pondsmith and R Talsorian Games feels baked into the DNA of the game.

Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  There are a lot of people who do not like the design ethos and concepts that inform the "indie" design arc that Walker is referencing, and for them this kind of game might be well suited to their tastes.  In that sense, while I don't think it is right to call it an "OSR" game, it has some similarities to the ethos of those games.  Also, a whole lot of people love The Witcher video games, and not without reason, so getting a chance to explore and expand that space is going to be attractive to many people.  And the game does a good job (at least from my perspective as a casual fan of the Witcher video games) of capturing the combination of grimness and medium high fantasy of that world.  To that end, there is a solid setting section for folks who are not deeply immersed in the lore already.  The Witcher TRPG serves both of those audiences well.

But I also think many people are going to bounce off The Witcher TRPG, especially those who are coming out of the more narratively-oriented parts of the ttrpg pool.  It's crunchier than 5e, and while I wouldn't say it's at the Pathfinder 1e level of mechanical weight, it definitely adjacent to that space.  And if you are the sort of person who might think, "gee, I wonder what a Dungeon World or Blades in the Dark hack in the Witcher universe would be like?" then you probably should work on that as opposed to picking up The Witcher TRPG, as you are very likely to be frustrated by its lack of narrative support mechanics and perhaps a bit fiddly game engine.  It would be too far to say that The Witcher TRPG and the indie games exist in different universes, but they definitely exist in different ends of the spectrum.

All of this, I think, speaks to a broader point about "where ttprgs are going."  The answer to that question is clearly "at least a couple of different directions."  There is the trend that Walker points to, manifest in both the indie games as well as (in a somewhat different way) the culture of play coming out of streamed D&D--roleplaying and narrative forward, relatively limited rules engagements.  But there is also a retro trend, looking back not just to 70s-era D&D but older play models more generally--more rules engagement, far less self-conscious narrative structures.  And then there are hybrids and permutations branching off from these trends, incorporating other influences (such as, in The Witcher TRPG's case, video games) in the process.

I suspect that the power of the IP, the connection with the video game experience, and the crunchy, somewhat retro mechanics are going to make The Witcher TRPG a popular and relevant player in the fantasy RPG space.  Whether it works for you depends in large measure on where you see ttrpgs heading in the future.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Fantasy Religions, Part 3--Glorantha (or More Specifically, the Lunars)

When you talk about religion in fantasy, the discussion usually finds its way to Glorantha.  And that's fair, because I think Glorantha provides the most in-depth and complex presentation of religion in a fantasy setting.  Looked at in a certain way, religion in Glorantha is the whole setting, as everything engages to one degree or another with the gods and with the God Time.

I've talked about Glorantha a bit here, and there is far more to talk about than can possibly be covered in a single post.  So, to try to get something manageable, I'm going to focus on my "entry point" for Glorantha, and my favorite part of the setting, the Lunar Way.  In the last post, I praised The Blood of Vol for being a believable "bad guy" religion with believable motivations.  Well, the Lunars are the ultimate bad guy religion, so much so that there is a credible argument that they are not actually the bad guys at all.  But, even better, their argument for why they are not the bad guys is very likely to resonate with the actual people interacting with Glorantha--21st Century pluralistic Westerners.  The Lunar Way is, by far, the  point-of-view in Glorantha that most closely aligns with "modern" Western sensibilities, and pitching them as antagonists (at least by default), you create space to ask some interesting questions about Western modernity.

To unpack this, we have to take a detour into the core Gloranthan mythology.  Note that what follows is going to be a radical simplification of the story (for a more detailed, but still basically entry-level presentation, I would recommend the Glorantha Sourcebook, available from Chaosium), it only reflects the version of the story told by those living in more or less the center of the main continent of Genertela, and is something of a consolidated point of view of many different cultures (in in-world terms, it would be a "God Learner" point of view).  But the basic story is that when the world got created and settled, it was first ruled primarily by the gods of the Fire/Sky tribe, led by the sun god Yelm.  Yelm's rule was challenged by the gods of the Air/Storm tribe, led by Orlanth.  This conflict reached a climax when Orlanth gained possession of Death, and used it to kill Yelm.  This led to a period of rule by the Air/Storm tribe, but the act of killing Yelm opened the door to Chaos entering the world.  There's much to be said about what Chaos is (especially from the Lunar point of view), but for now we will go with the "orthodox" position that Chaos is an entropic force that seeks the destruction of the world, and thus is an existential evil.  Orlanth and the Air/Storm tribe gods battled Chaos, but quickly began to lose, and the world started to fall apart.

To save the world, Orlanth and his companions journeyed to the underworld to find Yelm.  Upon finding him, the two rival powers buried the hatchet and forged what is known as the Great Compromise.  Under the Great Compromise, the prior events, and the gods themselves, would in essence be frozen into an eternal stasis of endless repetition.  Yelm would be endlessly killed by Orlanth, endlessly travel to the underworld, and then endlessly rise out of the underworld to start the cycle anew (i.e., day and night).  By contrast, the world, and the mortal races therein, would be subject to Time, in which events would occur and people and places were capable of changing and dying.

Three things are really important, I think, about the Great Compromise.  First, the stories of the God Time prior to the Great Compromise are the "rules" by which Glorantha works in Time.  To take the easiest example, the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning because it is the playing out of the narrative of Yelm's death and rebirth--not because of any "scientific" explanation or process.  Magic, at least the Rune Magic that comes from being a devotee of a particular god or goddess, is about embodying the stories of the God Time and making them manifest in the world in Time.  Second, because the Great Compromise fixes these stories in place, the world is in theory static.  Everything that happens in time should be just the replaying of the stories of God Time, with different mortal actors playing the various roles.  Indeed, that stasis is the thing that keeps Chaos at bay.  But that is only in theory, because the story of Gloranthan history in Time is the story of various groups for various reasons trying to "change the rules of the game" versus other groups either trying to keep things as they were or trying to change the rules according to some alternative, competing agenda.

The Red Goddess Ascendant
Which brings us to the Lunars.  Twelve hundred and twenty years after Time began, a group of folks known as the Seven Mothers (not all of which were women, FYI--there is a whole essay to be written on how Glorantha engages with gender in fascinating ways) were living under the brutal occupation of the Carmanian Empire, and sought some means of liberation and salvation.  Rather than following the paths of the established stories, they went on an "unguided" journey through the God Time, and managed to incarnate a goddess of the moon that was killed during the God Time.  This entity, who became known as Sedenya or the Red Goddess, beat down the Carmanians, and then wrapped herself in a chunk of earth and ascended into the sky as the red moon.

The problem, at least from an "orthodox" perspective, is that there was no red moon in the stories of the God Time, or at least not in the form expressed by the Red Goddess.  The Seven Mothers, in essence, stitched together various pieces of various stories into a new story, that of the triumphant red moon goddess made manifest in Time.  And, because she is manifest in Time, the Red Goddess is not bound by the Great Compromise like the other gods are.  As such, from the "orthodox" perspective, there can be only one explanation for the Red Goddess--she is a being of Chaos, a return of the dread powers that the Great Compromise was designed to control or limit.  The Red Goddess changes the rules, and that change is precisely the thing that the Great Compromise was designed to avoid.

To which, the Red Goddess and her followers essentially plead guilty.  Yes, the Red Goddess incorporates Chaos into her nature.  But, you see, this is a good thing.  Chaos is not the evil force that it is portrayed as by the "orthodox" traditions, but an essential part of the universe that acts to break up the otherwise scleretic structures and realities, allowing for genuinely new things to emerge.  By incorporating Chaos into her person, and by incorporating Chaos into the new religious tradition made possible by her incarnation, the Red Goddess transcends the rigid, fixed divisions inherited from the God Time.  There is a new order now, expressed best in the mantra of the Lunar Way "We Are All Us."  Difference and change can be brought together and harmonized, as manifest by the Red Goddess.

The Lunar Way, thus, is an inclusive, cosmopolitan, progressive religious tradition.  In a world that is largely (though not exclusively) patriarchal, it practices gender egalitarianism, and if anything has a feminine leaning and flavor.  Older ideas and ideologies are not suppressed, but instead incorporated into the broader tapestry of the Lunar Way (well, mostly. . . ).  It can fairly said to be multicultural and pro-diversity.  It was born out of oppression, and preaches liberation from narrow, limiting orthodoxies.  And, in a sense, it is the only tradition that even allows for the possibility of human and cultural development, and embraces the idea of development without reservation.  The Red Goddess, to use terminology currently fashionable in the tech world, is the ultimate "disruptor."  As such, it is the closest parallel to our modern, Western perspective in Glorantha.

Sculpture of Jar-Eel in classic
"heroic nude" style by Eric Vanel
What's that you say?  The Lunar Empire is deeply and thoroughly imperialist in its methods?  It uses terror weapons like the Crimson Bat to keep the populations of its peripheral possessions in line?  If you don't pay your taxes, Lunar Tax Demons will appear and drag you to hell?  Hmm, interesting.  Surely there are no parallels for any of those things in the modern Western way of engaging with the world.  I have this vision of Jar-Eel the Razoress, the preeminent Lunar champion, speaking in front of a group of solidly liberal New York Times readers, trying to convince them that they should really support the Lunars in their conflict with the Sartarites and other Orlanthi.  I suspect the line she would take would be "we Lunars are like you, and the Orlanthi are basically ISIS.  They are terrorists--for example, they summoned a dragon to eat all of our people when we tried to build a temple to spread Lunar ideas."  And, when someone in the audience brings up the Crimson Bat, she would be able to say "you drone strike your enemies, we use the Bat.  Just because the Bat shoots blood from his eyes is no reason to get squeamish now."

And that's why the Lunars are so amazing as a fictional antagonists.  At its heart, the ideals of the Lunar Way are not bad, especially when viewed from a modern Western perspective.  Their primary opponents are, at the end of the day, basically religious fundamentalists.  And if you want to criticize them for their methods, you end up asking some pretty uncomfortable questions about ideas and practices that many of us except without much critique or deep thought.  And by setting them up as the default antagonists, and casting the players as Orlanthi rebels, you get this wonderful arc of development--"the Lunars suck, we hate them; oh, wait, they kinda have a point; oh wait, they are kinda like us in real life.  But they still suck."

And, then, here's the great secret--the Orlanthi heroes that oppose the Red Goddess and the Lunar Empire are not actually advocates of a status quo antebellum.  They, too, are looking to change the rules of the game, just in their own ways and for their own ends.  The ultimate Orlanthi champion, Argrath, is every bit the "disruptor" that the Lunars are, tapping into the lost magical secrets of the Empire of the Wyrm's Friends (which had the goal of summoning new dragons, in order to reshape the world).  Like all fundamentalist movements, the rhetoric is about the past and a return to some stable equilibrium, but the reality is firmly set in the present.  And its not like the Orlanthi are pacifists, or particularly concerned with collateral damage--Argrath was so determined to defeat the Lunars that he eventually was willing to bring back from the dead the Gloranthan equivalent of Genghis Khan, knowing (or at least, Argrath should have known) that this was going to unleash unprecedented destruction in the Lunar heartlands.  So, the "woke" take that imperialism is bad and thus the Orlanthi are good after all is not free of major difficulties and problems, either.  Both sides think they are doing the right thing, and both sides are at least a little bit full of shit.

There is a segment of the Gloranthan fanbase that is sick of the Orlanthi/Lunar conflict and wants Chaosium to focus its attention on the rest of Glorantha.  This may make me basic, but I think that would be a serious mistake, as the Lunar/Orlanthi conflict is the most interesting part of the setting, and really shows off the best of what Glorantha has to offer.  Chaosium has promised a "Great Argrath Campaign" along the lines of the Great Pendragon Campaign coming soon, and I can't wait.  Lots of fantasy worlds promise nuanced, multi-dimensional conflicts and point-of-view clash.  Glorantha, and specifically the Lunars and their opponents, delivers this in a way that no other setting I am aware of does.