Dragon Heresy Playtest Report: Silent Village

We had another playtest of the Dragon Heresy RPG. It was a surprisingly challenging session in terms of personal interaction. The productive way to look at this is in terms of how the rules and text of the game can attempt to deal with what is usually one of the only real problems in RPG play, which in my opinion is expectations management.

That is, players conflict with each other, and the GM, when their view of what the game world, rules, or (for lack of a better word) mission or purpose of the game is differs from others.

Some of this, in the case of a game that is still being written, with a setting that is being defined, is clearly because the ground rules are not yet fixed. Some of this was not.

Gods and Men, Men and Men

For Dragon Heresy, and specifically the pseudo-Norse setting that is being worked up, I very much need to say something about certain things. These include the Aesir – the Norse gods – and their relationship with humans and dwarves in the setting, and also the relationships that their clerics have with the Aesir, their “flock,” as well as other Clerics. 

The Aesir, the Norse pantheon, is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that there are people walking the world that have personally had relations with these deities. Some of those relations are of a very intimate nature – when someone says “I got to know Odin personally,” or especially Loki, one might be implying a certain amount of superposition.

So there’s really no “whose God is real” sort of thing. They all are, at least within the Norse pantheon. My setting is silent on whether other pantheons even exist, much less influence this world – that’s a GM decision and could go either way.

But at least the default assumption in my world is that people will feel a calling, or kinship, or affinity for one or some of the Aesir, and will tend to associate with them, pray to them, and try and bolster the strengths that that particular deity embodies. Using the more-common names, if you believe in Fate and Destiny as paramount, even over the gods, you probably follow the Norns. If you will be bound by no man or contract, but uphold dignity, honor, and delight in righteous conflict and equally-righteous hangovers, Thor’s your man. If you believe in a form of righteous vengeance that is both ice-cold and white-hot, but still justified, you are in the province of Skadi, who is basically Elsa when she’s pissed off.

But none of that means that you are going to, as a Cleric, be converting people. You don’t proselytize from one god to another, though certainly if a person is uncertain about where their affinities lie, a cleric or druid or paladin or strong follower from another class, might encourage a deliberate choice, especially if the interlocutor discovers traits in the undecided person that might be amenable to the way their deity approaches things. 

That’s how I see it, at least. And you certainly don’t say “Believe in Thor, abandon Odin, because Odin doesn’t exist.” Because that’s a great way to get on the bad side of lots of people. The Aesir are a family show, so to speak. And they do have their strife, of course:

Bruce Banner: I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him. 

Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother! 

Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.

Thor: He’s adopted?

Now, my setting doesn’t have the Marvel version of Thor (Donnar in my setting) in it – though I do think that it’s marvelous (see what I, oh, nevermind) and Hemsworth does a great job. But even when dealing with Loki, it’s love-hate. Well, unless you’re Freya (Valfreya in my setting).  Then it’s just hate-hate. So there’s not exactly competition for believers in a way that makes people stand on street corners asking “Have you bathed in the presence of Odin today? You really should convert to serving his Glory!”

But I didn’t make that terribly clear, and it caused an issue. So: lesson one learned about the importance of setting for establishing expectations.

Lesson two, and I really, really should have known this from before. Medieval, or even faux-medieval, social structure is ridiculously structured. When dealing with your social betters, you are mostly considered somewhere between clearly inferior but allowed to speak, to worthless slime that is lucky to not be decapitated on sight. 

OK, that’s extreme. And the right to kill and depart was mostly a Japanese thing. But after our group of 1st-level characters dealt rather effectively with a bandit problem, I had the town Constable approach them through an intermediary about helping to solve a problem that the jarl of Midgard (one of the big towns along the north of Audreyn’s Wall) had with a relative’s son. They challenged the right or even the fact that the Constable was actually representing the jarl’s interests. 

That got a bit testy, as the relative social standing of first-level characters is not always clear in SRD5.1 games. During the discussion, I likened it to a new college grad demanding to go over the head of their Senior Manager and speak directly to an Executive VP. At worst, it’s a grave breach of protocol. I would guess that this guy – the constable – was something like an 8th to 12th level Fighter or Barbarian, possibly a Ranger, now that I think of it. He was the local captain of the guard and ran the jarl’s messenger service – very important posts. Anyway, I didn’t make it clear enough where this guy was in both the hierarchy of power, and the relative social standing of characters of a given level. Players will tend to think that the world is more egalitarian than it is, and that the nobles and administrative functionaries are lower level and weaker than they are. This was almost my party’s undoing in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands campaign, where we got somewhat lucky and managed to not get killed and burned by the 15th level Fighter we challenged the authority of. 

What I learned

I was viewing the roleplaying exchange from three points of view, all of which were negative from my perspective.

  1. The cleric involved was taking a very tough tone with the Constable, in terms of trying to convert him from Tyr (Ziu, in my setting) to Sol (brother sun, the lord of light). When the Constable noted he had his own beliefs, the conversation persisted, which violated my view of how the setting’s clerical domains worked. That is basically hidden from the players, for whom the only words of guidance are in a reasonably recent version of the manuscript – fluff text that post-dates when these guys made characters:

    “The pantheon of the Aesir is broad, and to follow one patron does not, cannot, preclude the others. A cleric that hews to the path of the Storm Domain will not deny the actions or validity of the followers of Skadi (Winter) or Ziu (justice and war), but prefers or favors a certain way of looking at, and solving, problems. When any Aesir speaks, the clerics of Torengar are wise to listen, though it is far more likely that such a message from Donnar will be delivered to a cleric of Donnar, of course.”

    I should have made this more clear. If I did make it clear, I would look to the players to respect that distinction – or be prepared to suffer the consequences, up to and including the Constable delivering a mighty beat-down.

  2. The party was engaging in spectacular disrespect of the Constable’s position, behaving as if he was a mere flunky for a low-ranking noble, and they wanted to deal directly with the jarl.

    That’s on me, in that the relative power level and social strata are not established. So the vast impropriety of the suggested direction was not apparent to everyone. This is what happens when rules come before setting in the writing process, and also when modern sense of egalitarianism and the expectation that noblesse oblige is expected because the parties are equal, rather than the expectation that the much-superior noble will condescend to have congress and treat with honor those of lower station.

    There will definitely be a social interactions mechanism – or suggested mechanism – that will be invoked here. I’m thinking of both mechanical help – setting the DC of a particular die roll, such as Persuasion or Deception – based in part on the difference in level of the two parties. Not the difference in proficiency – social strata differences are wider than that.

    But also, just a general level of how the society works and the adventurer’s place in it, as they will frequently be outsiders to a given town, and maybe outside most other societal boundaries. They might belong to no guild, have no association with the locals, and basically be tolerated because the King has this writ thing going on where he’s encouraging people to go North and conquer the lands.

    None of this was made explicit, and there needs to be some level of “careful here” in the text. The “good” news is that the Norse structures were fairly, as they say in corporate speak, “flat.” So there were basically three (broad – very broad) classes. Slaves, freemen, and jarls. The king basically being first among equal jarls. But of course, there were myriad informal strata, and not all jarls were of equal power, respect, and influence. And my world is not Scandinavia, but influenced by those cultures. So I’ve got some writing to do, and soon, on this topic.

  3. Lastly, game expectations. This is a playtest campaign. So while it’s not a series of unconnected fights or conflicts designed to test one or another parts of the rules, it’s designed to put the rules through their paces, and I’ve been so busy writing these last few weeks that I really didn’t have a ton of “choose A, B, or C” options prepared. I’d toyed with dropping these guys into a dungeon from the OSR, but looking through my options, I saw that would actually be a bit of work to convert, so I was out of time. So I whipped up a depopulated village, re-populated it with four encounters worth of bad guys, and tried to drop a job in the PCs lap. That was of mixed success, as one may have gathered.
The Play of the Game

The job itself? 5gp per adventurer to bring back simple word of what happened. An extra 20gp per person if they solved whatever problem caused the issue, and they managed to negotiate for a bit more if they brought back proof of the jarl’s cousin’s son’s fate. Plus, the implicit “plus whatever loot you can find” that always exists in these things. 
They were given three days worth of food, and were given the use of a riding horse each – worth 75gp (about $5,000 USD!) each, but to be returned. 
What if we steal them? Well, then you’re outlaws and not welcome south of the wall. Ever. Oh, just checking.
So north they ride, and the Ranger kept them fed and watered. They approached the village from the south, at mid-morning. 
Long story short, they checked out the buildings, found signs of blood and death but no bodies, and eventually checked out the tavern (2).
(The map was generated using the Inkwell Random Village Generator, which is entirely awesome).
The tavern had bodies in it, plus four kobolds – two regular and two winged. They don’t like sunlight and so were inclined to stay inside, and the players pulled off a sweet, sweet surprise attack, killing all four quickly. Bodies inside were stacked like cordwood, being rendered down as food for the bad guys. Eww. But they did quickly locate the jarl’s (deceased) relative. So, evidence obtained.
They then realized that when they scouted the smithy (9), they never did clear it, only looking inside for a threat but not finding any. So (wisely) they decided to clear the building. Inside was a lizardfolk magic-user, who rolled a 20+ on the Perception check vs the rogue’s relatively modest stealth check the first time around, and was ready for them – when the rogue came to the door, entangling vines sprouted in front of it, but I made a mistake in placement and left a clear space in front of the door. So the grappling attack on the rogue failed, and he was able to roll a natural 20 on an acrobatic dive into the room, which was entirely awesome.
The fight was hard, but the shaman rolled fairly poorly, saving throws were made, and many-on-one always works out poorly for the one, especially in Dragon Heresy, which indulges in GURPS-like death spiral behavior at times, by design. So the shaman was overcome. 

It should be noted that I missed something important – the lizardfolk have natural DR 3, which takes 3 points of damage off any potential injury that gets by his defenses. I really need to print out my new monster section, or get +Rob Muadib to lay it out so it compresses into a smaller book, so I can look at natively Dragon Heresy stat blocks. Fewer mistakes would be made with this expedient.

By that point, it was nearly midnight, so we called it. The silent village was beset by at least one lizardfolk shaman, plus some kobolds. They still have not yet explored the houses to the northeast. That will be next time.

Parting Shot

The point of these playtest campaigns is for me to see what a group of players might do with the setting. Well, like it or not – and at the time, I did not – I found out. Some of this is expectation management, and some is that I need to write down the soft rules of the setting in an absolutely clear way. 

If I can’t express the expectations for social strata and interaction in five or fewer guidelines that could appear on a 3×5 card as guidance, I will have failed my readership in terms of providing simple, digestible guidance for how such things work. So there’s an important part of the setting that is basically “how to live in it.” Good learning there.

Another is way more explicit guidance on how holy men are expected to act. 

The combat system also needs a flowchart or a series of steps, laid out explicitly. This is present in one form already, but needs to be expanded by a few steps because even I, as GM, tend to forget a few things – but that’s because the rules have changed from the first iteration to the final one.

Explicitly: Armor Class is now two quantities. Threat DC and Hit DC. If you exceed Threat DC, something happens. If you exceed Hit DC, you are assumed to bypass all footwork, parries, and normal defenses such as shields and strike the target. From there, you have to punch through armor DR to cause injury.

Very early incarnations of the rules had an attack that meets Hit DC just inflict wounds. Then I introduced Frantic Defense, a way of turning wounds into vigor loss as an option, and then that turned into the default way of doing things. But sometimes I revert to the olde ways.

Anyway: combat flowchart. Which again will be short, few special cases, and easily internalized. It will fit on a 3×5 card or smaller in easily-readable font.

I need to write a GM advice/Running the Game section/chapter, which will have some guidance on when the PCs will be powerful enough to expect to strike out on their own and make a play for establishing a land-hold of their own. Before that, the players will be taking odd jobs and basing themselves out of a city, or even perhaps joining a more-powerful adventurer as retainers. I have a few ideas on how to make that viable.

Finally, I had a dialog with a well-known name in the OSR community about some rules he wrote that I wanted to borrow, and he agreed to let me take and modify them. This was fantastic news to me, but more on that later, perhaps.

So a lot learned this time, but very little of it had to do with combat mechanics or the hard-style rules material. Even negative experiences – or even especially negative experiences – can drive learning, and last night’s game was a case in point. I got a lot of soft-style setting learning, which is timely, since my remaining tasks are:

  • Finish the fluff text and editing of the monsters section. This is non-trivial, since there are 250-300 monster entries and there will be both fewer (as we decide that, say, an ancient Egyptian monster or ancient Mayan monstrosity or Celestial has no place in the setting) and more, since there are scarce-few good fey in the SRD, and my setting needs to be lousy with them. Plus a lot of re-skinning. Sure, crocodiles would not be found in the northern parts of my setting . . . but swamp ormr? Sure. What are they? Ahem. Crocodiles with the name changed, and the lineage/monster type set to “dragon” instead of “beast.”
  • Write the setting information. My notes have been growing on this, and my own mental understanding of the setting and world. But I have to put them into the manuscript. I know how I’m going to do it, too, for the main.
  • Write the outline for the GM book, which will include sections on the setting, general adventuring guidance, rewards and treasure, magic items, and specific guidance on expectations management and running the game for GMs.

Stuff like:

  • A foe with no armor and no shield is going to be easy meat for PCs, almost regardless of wound/vigor capacity. 
  • Conversely, foes with a shield or DR X or higher armor are going to be tough nuts to crack. In my playtest games, archers simply stopped shooting at guys with shields. There are ways to beat this, but they require a line of disciplines archers acting in concert. This has not yet occurred.
  • How to use the morale rules so that every encounter does not end in a TPK for one side or another. 
  • When to insist on using passive scores for certain tasks. I already have a “no fishing” boxtext and thought of a simple alternative for GMs and players that like to roll dice that works equally well.
  • Other tidbits that came up during the playtest campaigns that can be turned into general guidance. 
But here we come to the crux of it all. The game’s quite nearly done, quite playable, and offers some benefits to lots of different groups of gamers. I was hoping to be able to publish one book instead of two, but I’m not going to make a tome that’s a single 550-page volume. I may, however, go the GURPS route of having (for example) the book mostly concerned with characters and basic game play be page 1-275, and the campaign and setting book start at p. 276 and go to p. 525. We’ll see what my playtesters think of that.

3 thoughts on “Dragon Heresy Playtest Report: Silent Village

  1. It would have been helpful if it was more clear how high up the guy we met was. I felt like I, at least, was treating him respectfully, but until you said "Vice President" I thought he was basically like the local Sargeant or something of that sort – the bottom of the top, or the top of the bottom. So it wasn't clearly articulated. You really do have to spell things out to the players in very concrete, direct terms. Subtlety is the same as not telling them at all.

    So maybe, "You meet with so-and-so, who is the jarl's personal representative and a big muckity-muck in the area. He's way above you in social rank and expects to be treated and spoken to as your social superior. He'll be able to back that with legal force if necessary." That's better than, "You meet a man of some importance, and he seems to talk to you like he's your social better." Okay, seems to be? Is? Just a jerk? Can we bargain with him?

    That's a good GM tip right there, I think – flowery descriptions are fine, but setting information that would be obvious to the people in the setting (even foreigners) should be treated as technical writing. Make it totally clear, so you're all on the same page.

    1. Yeah, I did say he was the commander of the guard in Midguard and the head of the messenger service, but that was probably too cryptic.

      I found a good link talking about medieval hierarchy and roles, and I will be including a version of it in the settinng information, as well as some sort of reaction roll chart and typical values and reactions for certain types of interactions and requests. This isn't to predetermine results, but to set expectations. The GURPS equivalent of "what if I roll 10 on the reaction roll?"

    2. For what it's worth, I had assumed we were sufficiently peon-level that anyone was above us, but I didn't get that he was VP-level. Just that we weren't in a position to mouth off to more than the town's baker without courting some trouble.

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