Saturday, 1 February 2020

yet more BUTCHERY

The little makeshift coffin bursts open.

A thin tendril of flesh shoots out, plunging into the dark earth and planting itself like a root. Then, raising up by the mottled cord that extends from its torso, something wholly unlike the newborn it once was. It screams, mouth splitting open in a cross, full of too many needle-like teeth, its white eyes rolling and bulging. It reeks of death.

The butchers grimace at the sight. This being is not a child of witchcraft. They know the fell, unnatural magic that birthed it from the grave - the magic of monsters. These are not beasts of the natural world, but are created by humanity when they meddle in nature’s laws. And this abomination is what happens when a parent murders their own child.

Dannoll and Allas look to each other and nod. Dannoll flings his spear, aiming high but just missing the monster’s twisted body, the silvered point of his weapon instead severing the cord that binds it to the earth. With a fleshy, snicking sound, the stump of the cord grows anew, regenerating, shooting back down to the ground. The monster barely has time to fall before it has rooted itself in the soil once more.

The thing opens its mouth once again, an otherworldly scream building in the air - cut short, as Allas sends a silver-tipped crossbow bolt through the creature’s head.

It splutters and falls in a heap on the ground.

Under a dusky sky just beginning to fill with stars, the butchers set about placing the stricken monster on its pyre. It hasn’t been human for a long time now, but even so they feel as though they are putting the child to rest.

Returning to the farmhouse, Dannoll and Allas aim to wring the truth from the family. Confronting the women with what they know of the truth - that the blight was caused by a monster taking root in the ground, one that can only be created by infanticide - they ask what happened. If the young woman is the true mother of the dead child, and its killer, then she must atone.

The older woman, silent this whole time, finally speaks. She confesses everything: how her husband was wracked with worry over her pregnancy, how he believed they would never survive a winter with another mouth to feed. And then when the child came, and there were two... He did the unspeakable. The mother, seeing her child killed by its father, flew into a rage and took his life in revenge.

Overcome with guilt, she breaks down, weeping. The young girl has tears in her eyes too, but her expression is resolute as she takes her sister from her mother’s arms.

The butchers do not begrudge the older woman her actions, it’s not their place to judge. But men have their laws just as Nature does, and they tell her they will take her into town to face the guard’s judgement. She comes quietly and willingly, leaving her daughters clinging to one another, alone by the glow of the hearth.

The ride into town and back sees the moon rise high in the sky. Ivar and his guard hear the butchers’ tale, and take the woman prisoner as a formality. Their people will feed her better than she could’ve done otherwise. Good as their word, the guard load Donnall and Allas’ horses with enough supplies for a few weeks’ journeying.

The butchers look at one another as they pass the farmstead again. Tying up their horses once more, they unload the supplies. This family, or what remains of it, will need it more than they.

Under the waxing moon, the two traipse into the field one last time, to try their hands at an old ritual. Entreating the aspects of Spring, season of new life and regrowth, they attempt to encourage the land into bearing a healthy crop once more.

Nature is silent. No matter. She will take the land again in due course, now that the curse has been lifted. The smell of decay is gone, at the very least. Time will tell how the valley fares from here.

The butchers set off down the road again.


That concluded the session. BUTCHERY is nicely episodic like that, mirroring how I tend to play games anyway. That first quest was very Witcher-esque, wasn’t it? The full game takes from a wider pool of inspiration.

Now, let’s finish off talking about the combat mechanics in BUTCHERY, and get into why I call this an investigative combat system.

My earliest RPG gaming memories, outside of tabletop, come from Pokémon. I could go on and on about the hows and whys of what makes those games so dang good, but for now I’ll focus in on one particular aspect of the battle system.

Each of your lil boys can learn four moves, which are like cool combat techniques. Attacks, buffs, all the JRPG things you’d expect. And monsters also have types, abilities and other aspects unique to a species which mean certain moves are going to work better when executed by certain ‘mon, or against a particular opponent.

Mastering all these interactions is the first key to high-level play - but the initial rush I felt as a kid is what I’m chasing here. Something as simple as the three-step mental process of:
- hmm, that guy looks fiery. I haven’t seen him before, but he seems to have a big Fire thing going on.
- I have a water guy. Water puts out fire, right? So... What happens when I use this water move?
- “Super effective”! I win!

The appeal to a little kid is straightforward. It’s hardly master strategy, but at that age it feels like it is. And it’s a thought process that I think is at the core of good problem-solving in games, video and analog. This thing *should* work, so I’ll try it... and it does! Games that focus on letting the players try things and having them produce at least some result, like Breath of the Wild or, I dunno, all OSR games, tap into that creative problem solving loop.

Which brings me to BUTCHERY? Well, kinda. First it brings me to Monster Hunter.

Monster Hunter is a HUGE franchise of action-RPG games from Japan that’s only recently started breaking through overseas in a big way. I came onboard with MH Tri back on the Wii and have been hooked ever since.

MonHun hides that core problem-solving loop within layers upon layers of design. Everything about the game’s boss-level enemies - their creature design, animation, movesets and game stats, even the local ecology where they’re found in-game, all feeds back into that loop.

It’s not just “Fire... water!” with MH, although that’s one of the layers for sure. It’s big footprints... big target” and “old scattered bones... carnivore?” and “tunnel... shortcut... trap?” and “bathes in mud... protective coating... wash it off during the fight somehow” and “if I can find out what it eats I can drug the food, or leave a trail to get it close enough to this other monster’s territory and get them in a fight, then jump on the monster’s back and ride it away as it flees to its nest where I can fight it one-on-one -“


And you find all this out through playing. Fighting monsters makes you - the player, not the character, characters don’t level up - better at fighting monsters. It was Dark Souls before Dark Souls.

It’s a good game.

Etrian Odyssey’s battle system - also an inspo

Which, finally... BUTCHERY.

I’m loathe to put more mechanics in a TRPG. So much of what I love about these games I found through the OSR and subsequent takes on that genre - light and streamlined rules that you hack apart and work around in play.

But you, or at least I, need that intersection between pure freeform play and The Rules to really hit a sweet spot, and when i run BUTCHERY I feel like I’ve hit that same spot that Pokémon and Monster Hunter did for me. People burnt out by 3e through 4e often complain about TRPGs that try to bring in “video game” elements, but if my dang golf game hadn’t clued you in yet, I’m all about that noise. Or, at least, if not bringing in elements directly, then the feeling they evoke.

BUTCHERY’s monsters have individual parts, each a hit location with its own HP. (This is never as crunchy as it sounds to prep - there’s a basic template formed around a d6 table that can be easily adjusted on the fly.) Taking parts out can disable a monster’s abilities or kill it outright. Avoiding damaging parts lets you harvest them later. And, crucially to that investigative combat - each hit you make in BUTCHERY, each reaction the monster takes, tells you more about your prey. And the more you know, the harder they fall.

No lore to read or boxed text or intelligence rolls. Just roleplay and combat - the meat of the game.

I didn’t even have to suggest that my players start keeping a Bestiary with details of all the monsters they fought, to reference during that same fight or in case they come across the monster again. But they did. BUTCHERY just makes these things happen effortlessly, and I love it.

BUTCHERY is coming to ZineQuest on KickStarter tomorrow. Click here to follow the project!

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