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Different Fantasy: The Witcher - Monstertown

In the FB group I took a week off from running the D&D games and wanted to run non-D&D. The Coriolis game never went off but The Witcher game was full. Ended up two players missed for Internet reasons, but four players is plenty of action. I used the pre-gens from the free Witcher: Easy Mode and built my own scenario from that. I wanted to test out some more Now! style play and see what emerged. 

  • Bayaerd the Witcher (Witcher)
  • Aislnn the Mage (Human)
  • Kaska the Doctor (Dwarf)
  • Time played the Man At Arms (Human)

The Setup

An elven bard has hired you to go to Kryskul and find out the fate of the Witcher, Jhedd. 

And that was it, no negotiations. The group appears at the edge of Kryskul on the morning of their adventure. The players consulted their Education skills to find out how much of Kryskul's reputation they knew, and it turned out to be a bunch.

Backdrop

(I appreciate Ron expressing the world in such a term as it soolidified how I felt about world building). 

Kryskul became known as Monstertown over the years, because there were so many monsters in the town. The people were monsters themeselves or had family members who were monsters. In the world of the Witcher, monsters are a thing even though that is really just the catalyst for the various novels, not the main story. And I wanted to make monsters front and center in this short one-shot. The idea is to design a situation that could be run at conventions and each play have a different experience. Some key points.

  • Kryskul is known as Monstertown because so many monsters live in and around it.
  • The people in Kryskul are not neutral; they are decidedly pro-monster because it is often personal for them
  • Witchers cannot practice their trade in Kryskul, but they can visit (important point)
  • Jhedd the Witcher went to Kryskul to visit one of his sisters (the other is dead) and his new niece. Witches are or tend to be orphans, but this was Jhedd's secret and secret reason for disappearing into Kryskul. He is a monster, many consider Witchers to be mutants and monsters themselves, hiding among monsters. They do not like him, but as long as he does not kill any monsters while in town, they tolerate him. I never got around to figuring out why the sister and her family lived there.

Again, that was it. I had not plot; I had some events that happen.

Play

The party enters town and begins asking around. The local tavern rebuffs them, doesn't know where Jhedd is. This sounds suspicious and this may have been mistake #1. I could have them be hostile, unfriendly, but made it clear they leave Jhedd alone. They being the towns folk.

Outside the group begins searching and see two things (I rolled on my homemade chart)

  1. Old Man Gertz and his wheelbarrow
  2. Kids playing with creepy doll heads.

Both interesting. They could have gone either way but the group really thought the man with a wheelboarrow full of dirt and trinkets was the most interesting. Especially the player of Kaska, the dwarf doctor.

Old Man Gertz notices the dwarf and this begins a session long dialogue of wanting to buy the wheelbarrow. The group thought this could be a clue to finding Jhedd, not an uneasonable assumption. But their investigation into the home revealed only that the man was bringing dirt from somewhere to his basement and filling in a hole.

At this point they had been so obvious, that it triggered the event: Noticed by Hraerst. The elf orphan who is being raised by a human woman leads them to his mother's hostel. There, the sad but forthcoming mother says that Jhedd often stayed at her place, but had not been back to his room in about a week. (Time scales were.. well not to scale, but its fine). Three of the group looked in Jhedd's room, finding a clue - a framed drawing of a boy who looks like Jhedd with two women who look like Jhedd. There was some confusion on this point even though I made it explicit that three people were obviously related. The Mage, Aislnn, spoke to Hraerst and learned some more clues.

Sidenote - if the party had been sureptitious and subtle, Hraerst would never have known they were in town. And in this case, they might never have learned about Jhedd by this avenue. The party mission was about finding Jhedd, but the adventure was about their experience in Monstertown. 

After an encounter with the Graywolf extended family of young bullies (they are werewolves; I was not being that subtle here), the group headed over to the temple of Kreve. Kreve being the Polish version of Thor (I believe). There they learned about the Gertz family graves. This was something the group decided on; I never laid any clues to the graveyard. Here they find a mausoleum that has a new lock and has been opened. There are other clues as well. They open the door and see a preserved human woman who looks like Gertz's other niece (twins). And she is a vampire.

I played it very Hammer horror. The Witcher just attacks to sever her head and fumbles, tripping and losing his silver sword. The vampire rises, body not even bending but going from horizontal to vertical on her feet. Her attack fumbles and she goes face first in the stone wall. The mage uses a very damaging spell. The doctor keeps out of the fighting as the dwarf player recognized his poor combat skills.

Well combat was short and the man-at-arms chops off the vampire's head. The vampire, before she died, swore that the Pact had been broken and a thousand-thousand humans would die. They take the head and leave the mausoleum. Outside the town is waiting for them; they explain that in Monstertown there is a pact (or was) between humans and monsters to leave each other alone and not allow in hunters. The Pact thus broken, there would now be war. 

Jhedd, his sister and her family, Hraets and his mother were all put out of town along with the party and a dire warning given.This is where it ended. 

Notes & Observations

We all liked the system. It leans toward Simulationism or leans into Simulationism; there are many skills and they are defined. Combat is tactical with many choices, within the basic choices of Move and Attack. It is all straightforward. If you have played Cyberpunk, it is the same system but with some tweaks that you see in the Cyberpunk Red material. Folks like this as a step up from the normal D&D. 

However, the vampire whiffed too much. I did not make her as challenging within the system as I could have and should have. They had come for a good fight and left with an okay one. This experience solidiifies the idea that monsters are not and cannot be built like characters in systems where a challenging monster fight is what you come for. Going forward, I am going to refine the monsters and give them keyward abilities that provide color and challenge appropriate to their level. It is easy enough to convert this. But I think this is a weakness of most systems. Runequest is the one system I think it works well in and in some games, NPCs built specifically like PCs do offer a challenge. Sometimes a stiff challenge. Even RQ could make the GM's job easier by simplifying the NPC sheet and distilling it down the necessary bits. A game like Heroquest of course, is a different matter. There, building an NPC similar to a PC won't cause a lot of GM clutter.

The fiction of The Witcher is interesting. There are subtle differences in Polish folklore that you won't get unless you pay attention. I am not an expert at all in any kind of folklore. But even though its Anglo-Saxon power fantasy adjacent, there are differences that you can lean into as a group. The Eastern European experience is different that that of the western. I like the setting, but you can easily port the concepts to a world of your own.

One of the players (Roderic the man-at-arms) said to me "Did we murder hobo our way through this?" And I said, yes you did, BUT killing monsters is part of the aesthetic. And getting screwed over is part of he aesthetic. I think this touches on several parts of the Big Model ,including Setting and Color. I was not upset and I had not railroaded them. I did not lay tracks to the missing Witcher OR the vampire. I do wonder if I made the vampire story too interesting, but I can fine tune that. They had all the pieces to fine Jhedd and leave without a fight. But they had convinced themselves that this Old Man Gertz and his secret were where they wanted to be in terms of experience. And their actions had social consequences. 

Overall, I was very pleased. I tried to let the action be emergent, while still providing that convention-game feel. We all had fun and the game was productive. 

I could not get a .docx or PDF to upload so here are my notes for Monstertown

Monster Town 

Backdrop 

  • Jhedd went to town to see his sister and her new child (daughter) 

  • Kryskul is known as Monstertown. Monsters live here. 

  • Witchers are unwelcome but tolerated. It is illegal to hunt monsters here on pain of death 

Event 

  • If the characters are obvious about their actions, Hraerst the elf child sees them and asks them to follow him. 

  • All roads might lead to Jhedd. Or they might not. Players may never solve Jhedd mystery 

Monstertown Encounters 

  1. Pilgrim. Dwarf woman. Wondering around with haunted eyes 

  1. Priest of Kreve is afraid that she is infected with some necrophage disease 

  1. Group of kids playing with severed doll heads; the heads talk to them 

  1. Man, swimming in the river, appears to be looking for something. Holding out fish as a lure. 

  1. Soup Maker, moving her pot around town getting cuts of “meat” from various people 

  1. Old man playing chess by himself, talking to someone and making moves for ‘his friend’. 

  1. Young man walking two big dogs; part of the Graywolf extended family 

  1. Old Man Gertz and his wheelbarrow – niece is vampire 

  1. Group of people looking at house nervously – grandma the wraith is on the rampage 

  1. Fertilizer merchant arguing with a towny 

 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Everything makes sense in terms of your setup and the proclamations about "no plot, nope, no plot here."

But I don't understand a thing about what you're calling the "Jhedd mystery." Is the mystery that he has family here? I get that this would be unknown to the player-characters, or generally a secret in the sense that Jhedd doesn't advertise it ... but in player-character terms, why is that a mystery?

I understand that the players did not pursue that topic and that's fine. No issues there. This turn of events makes my question about Jhedd moot, but I'm still mentioning it because I don't get it.

Now, as to what they did turn their attention toward, I'm also in the dark about the vampire fight. The Gertz family includes a vampire - but that is not strange or awful in this town, is that correct?  As far as I can tell, the player-characters checked out a cemetery plot which held a vampire, which itself is not a mystery or problem as far as anyone living there is concerened, and then ... vampire fight! But this is just, you know, a vampire, who lives here, according to the monster pact, and it's not like that's strange ... is that correct?

Maybe I am missing a core concept to the source material that would help me understand.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying anything about what "should" have happened or how things could have been "better." When I say I don't understand, it's not some euphemism to challenge you to justify what happened in play. It's a literal statement.

Sean_RDP's picture

Absolutely. I can (I hope ) clear those up.

Jhedd is a Witcher, which brings with it a certain set of expectations. Witchers tend to be orphans and not have families. Witchers are also emotionaliess or have muted emotions. It is part and parcel of the becoming a Witcher. So the idea that Jhedd has a family and cares enough about them to sneak into Monstertown to see them is significant. Or well, potentially interesting

In the source material, all mosnters are bad, unquestionably. I think it is safe to say that there is a degree of Matheson's I Am Legend in questioning wherher Geralt of Rivia and any Witcher is also a monster. And to a larger degree, I think fantasy RPGs ask that question even if they do not explicitly state it. Are the PCs the monsters? Mutants and others are also bad, in addition to monsters. 

So in Monstertown, the monsters are accepted and tolerated. Or at least protected as a general rule, because Witchers and other monster hunters are considered disruptive elements of society. Case in point, even knowing Monstertown is a place where Witchers are not welcome, monster hunters are not welcome, the characters still decided to just kill the vampire without ever asking anyone. The vampire did not rise and threaten them. She remained in place and did do anything until they attacked her. So they just assumed that they were there to kill her.  

And to their credit, post game we spoke a bit about that. If they had closed the door and ignored the vampire, no one would have been sucked clean. BUT, that is the thread they followed, with little or no investigation into what was going on. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks for the answer, which clarifies my general impression.

As I see it used, the term "murderhobo" is often used as an acknowledgment that, hey, in this game, that's what we do. Even if the player's reference was not as insouciant as, say, paying the ho for sex in Grand Theft Auto then killing her afterwards to get your money back, it still falls back on see-the-foe-kill-the-foe as something that role-players "just do" when nothing else seems to offer itself ... favored a bit, too, as I see it here, when the source material leans that way.

Here's my point, which hopefully elevates this comment above merely scolding or judging. The events of play also strike me as predictably so, because you apparently provided a change-up in the setting or "assumed instructions" for play as they'd absorbed from the source material. This change-up was not particularly explicit or in any way even present in their minds, and if it's not present at all, it can't be perceived via clues, et cetera. In that context, rather than agency, I think you handed the players the unavoidable role of basically being a murderous motorcycle gang.

Now ... is that bad? In the abstract, not particularly. The world's presumed progress toward a better Federation Future is not impaired by the events of a single convention role-playing event. If they splatter a bit more pop culture experience with unjust murder, well, I guess they do, it's not exactly news. More positively, one might point to the whole thing as an object lesson, "Now go and think about what you did," which is perhaps observed in the player's comment afterwards.

But is that what you wanted to do? Kill the wumpus + a "now look what you did" reflection? I get the impression that what you wanted was very different: an open-ended approach similar to Circle of Hands, in which players' actions are intutively reflective as opposed to reflexive. That's what "agency" means, and it doesn't seem to be what happened.

Sean_RDP's picture

I think that is spot on. I did want to encourage the players / characters to reflect on their actions, but there was not enough explicit information. Lots of things were implied in an attempt to encourage exploration. I think a little more explicit 'hey you need to think before you act in this town' might have gone a long way. And to be fair, if the vampire had eaten one of them or two of them, that might have been seen as a consequence. As it happened, the fight ended up lop-sided because of poor rolls for the vampire.

But that is why we play and it has helped me with design in terms of this adventure and others. 

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