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How to feel bad for killing a really unlikeable jerk

The post title refers to one of the casualties in the session, which also included one player-character catching on fire and getting stabbed in the face. But all told, our first knock-down savage RuneQuest combat went rather well for our heroes.

It's strange to be building a fantasy setting by little bits, knowing certain images and ideas through unexamined gut-level certainty, and "finding" what other things look like and do strictly by getting to the point of needing to do so via play. Obviously it's a big help to have Ian, Matthew, and Gordon in there doing the same while they apparently think they're trying to fit in with or not-screw-up my "master vision."

For rustic, slightly lazy fantasy, it's remarkably fast-moving and dramatic, in terms of story events. The characters feel vivid, driven, brooding, capable of immediate action, and the setting itself just keeps giving, then growing richer, and giving more. I wish I could say the same for play speed. This recording is a freaking beast at over three hours pre-editing, maybe the longest session I've played of anything for quite a while, and I actually didn't edit much out, mostly just momentary glitches in video functions. I've looked over the recording to try to figure out why it just took so damn much time, and found a couple things to improve for next time.

One significant rules-question came up afterwards, about bound spirits and shaman stuff, which I hope will come up in the comments. And I'm almost done with the write-up for the cult of Néa, which I'll edit in as an attachment when I get the chance.

I'd love to see some commentary on this series. This is one of the Great Games, a defining thing for our hobby, and still one of its most ambitious on a number of levels. And for all the commonly-repeated dismissals it gets, none of them have impaired our enjoyment or the raw power of the mechanics' delivery of nail-biting, emotional action.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
RuneQuest

Comments

Gordon C's picture

I'm fascinated by so many of the details in and about this game. I've probably got 3 or 4 issues I'd like to bring up, but for now, re: "How to feel bad for killing a really unlikeable jerk" ... guilty. Of killing, and feeling bad. Both I and, as I imagined, Binry were kinda hoping we wouldn't end up killing Jodry. He had been sketched as an unlikeable jerk, but in my mind Binry might well bear that label as well. There was nothing specifically, personally jerky to him for Binry, and ... when I rolled that 02, I was really appalled..

Ron's narration was appropriately gruesome, and I had an added detail: I didn't want to break play to get into rule minutia, but the impaling rules clearly make it difficult to get your weapon back after you stick someone. So in my mind, my spear is still stuck in Jodry, a grotesque third arm, swaying and then eventually becoming still as he died. A significant “good roll” moment that had an entirely different emotional texture and story-impact than I’ve had … maybe ever, certainly ever in a Runequest/percentile-die game.

I guess I’ll have to leave it there for now, and add the obvious: I’m looking forward – with a bit of trepidation – to where Binry, Jhynathon, and  Alkerton go from here.

Ron Edwards's picture

I completely agree about the impale. I used the word "transfixed" in my initial verbal description during play, with an eye toward the kind of imagery you're using, but got wrapped up in his dying gaze instead. So yes, double-yes, I'm glad that our shared understanding of the rules took us into the same imagined zone.

Speaking of appalled, considering the bar shoot-out in Sorcerer, the school bullying and near-shooting in Vigil (not yet posted here), the diseased-monk mob in D&D 4E, and these events in RuneQuest, all from my GMing in the past week and a half, I think I've left Woo and Tarantino behind and discovered my internal Peckinpah, maybe even Beat Takeshi.

"Jodny," with an N. We better come up with a name-and-who list fast; this game has generated a real living-breathing cast in a relatively short time of play, which itself has established tons more implied-and-experienced setting than any gazetteer-style sourcebook could do.

I'm looking forward to the three-or-four issues you have in mind!

iancooper's picture

Ron alluded to this one, so let's get it out there:

I wasn't really sure if you had bound the spirit or controlled the spirit. The former is an 'everyone' thing, but you just get to use the INT and POW for your spells, and the latter is a Shaman thing which means they can remain disembodied, detect stuff via the spirit plane, and most importantly initiate spirit combat.
 

If its binding, then technically you can't use them offensively because they are embodied. If you release them, could you get them to attack in spirit combat? The rules don't really say. I  know that some folks played RQ that way: you could release a bound spirit, and task them to do one thing as part of that, before fleeing. I guess you could also try to bind them again, but they would likely be pissed at you then. Whilst disembodied, they could initiate spirit combat. That drifts a little toward the later HW/HQ 1e view where you could release the spirit from the fetish to get a tougher attack. (HQG doesn't force you to do that, because binding spirits is considered to happen 'off stage').

If its control, because you are an apprentice shaman, then they are disembodied and so can use spirit senses and initiate spirit combat. That is nasty. Shaman are tough!! (A game influenced by Greg where shaman kick butt, who would have guessed).
 

In the classic reprint, they include a box out with a Chaosium change that you can ignore an attacking spirit to keep fighting, but the spirit wins the contest and gets to drain power every round in that case.
 

So if it was a bound spirit, it's possible that we would be a one-time act, and the spirit would flee after. If it was a controlled spirit, then you have a 'powerful ally' as Yoda would say.
 

Didn't really want to ask questions in play, as I was unsure of the rules and the exact relationship that you had with the spirit. I prefer to see it flow, then talk about it after.

Ron Edwards's picture

I struggled with this during play, and to some extent made a snap-shot decision without considering it carefully. If you'd brought it up, I might not have concluded the same thing.

What threw me was that we'd already played with a spirit combat, when Alkerton fought the disease spirit infecting Dess. It sort of locked down "how you do spirit combat" in my mind, and although I already knew the rules you mentioned, having read them approximately eighty times in the past thirty-five-plus years, that's not the same as the 'learning' you get from play.

So yes, if Alkerton wasn't a shaman yet, he shouldn't have been able to send his bound spirit winging after Mard and Yoreen like that. And considering how significant that was in play, that would have been a really aggravating misplay on my part.

Fortunately, however, we actually had played through a considerable amount of material both in the previous session and in this one which can only be interpreted as initiatory shamanic training. So ... is his bound spirit-bird a fetch now? Or is there now a controlled spirit more or less associated with the same visual effects as his bound spirit? We certainly did not settle any of those questions prior to the fight, but now that the events are fixed via play, a little retconning is not only necessary, but fortunately quite logical given what we did play.

Obviously, what happened is that Ebban had provided Alkerton with a controlled spirit intended to guard him, probably with a one-fight limit, and that's what we saw go after Mard and Yoreen. Associating it with his "familiar' spirit bird is merely a fun special effect. And now it's gone, having done its job.

iancooper's picture

I'm not sure how often people tried to develop Shaman in play, it's new to my experience. The rules suggest it takes a year, at the end of which you gain a fetch. But do you get anything in-between as you learn, apart from a lot of chores? Less clear. So I see no reason that Alkerton might not have gained a controlled spirit. Of course, that actually requires a bargain of some power. Now you could retrofit that, which would mean Alkerton had to sacrfice a little bit of power. Matthew might actually like that, as I think he was worried his POW was unbalancing.

I didn't really recall the shamanism rules at the time, just that their relationship with spirits was different, and I think that I assumed from the fiction of Alkerton's journey that he was already an apprentice shaman. That was why I was unsure if that was where you were heading.

iancooper's picture

I can't say that I really knew whether I would continue to follow the Witch's cult, and their demands or step away and seek a different route when the session began. Ron does a pretty convincing line in evil, and coming from a family of hunters, being exposed to the wild, I could see Jynathon would relate to the idea that: townsfolk live in denial of the power of the wilderness, we embrace it, which gives us ower. I could also see that any teenager would thrill the idea of being invited into secret adult matters.

But killing is a different matter. One thing about Runequest is its combat system, which is dangerous and visceral. Stepping into a fight is a risk, and doesn't stop until someone is badly hurt. So you think twice about it, in a way that other systems might not encourage.

And I felt Jynathon didn't feel like he was ready to kill age-mates. Strangers, maybe, but not an age mate like Binry. So he didn't participate in that first attack, in fact he aided Binry.

The cult's reaction, and his understanding as his relationship deepend, showed that the cult depended on fear troughout its hierachy. I felt Jynathon was not looking put off by that, but still going along because he wanted to impress Yoreen. But Yoreen's dismissal of his efforts hurt. And Yoreen's sexual liaisons with Jodney hurt even more.

And when he did act - to betray his age-mates, to give someone a little shove, the horror of what he was getting into, and his sense of betrayal that Yoreen had used him became too much.

He'll have scars now, and with the cult his enemy who knows how long he will live. But those scars may be marks of his mistake that he carries with him now.

 

Ron Edwards's picture

I was and am moved by Jynathon's story so far. You've played him exceptionally well as moving quite far into evil without realizing it, partly through temptation but even more by taking the easy way and agreeing with slightly charismatic, slightly threatening adults. I got the idea that he didn't even realize how shitty it was to try to spy on Alkerton, and by the time he was able to get Binry to go to the party, this kind of manipulation seemed like it was becoming second nature to him.

For my part, I was greatly enjoying the fact that I had no Grand GM Plan, and could do my job whether Jynathon took his cult membership all the way, eventually to seek Rune status, or defied them at some point. Or made himself so toxic to the other player-characters and their loved ones that he becomes a true villain, worse than anyone I could make up and introduce. Anything. I got the idea that you too were not planning but merely seeing where the most to-the-hilt, most commited-to-this-moment play would take you.

What strikes me is how genuinely contingent the outcome was. Jynathan succeeded not only in pushing Jun into Mard's axe-strike, he got away with doing it by using Sleight - no one saw it. Add to that his remarkable meanness to her before that, first inviting her to the party just to make his urging Binry seem more innocent, and then playing up to her at the party to try to save face when Yoreen snubbed him. Yeah, the overweight girl whose parents had just struck and abandoned her, whom Yoreen told, "Shut up, you fat bitch" - man, you want some moral lines crossed, you got'em.

And yet there's that basic decency toward Binry, for which we need no special explanation from the past, just one of those friendships and unconsidered actions to help him, which happened not to have been devalued to Jynathon by Mard and Onive, unlike Alkerton. They might well have, considering that Binry was responsible for minimizing the disease-birds' effect on Dess, and bringing Dess back in time for the healers and Ebban to save his life, but their offended rage and considerable fear were focused on Alkerton who'd just revealed himself as a very powerful potential shaman. Again, rolls, rolls, rolls - all of these things I'm talking about didn't come from paragraphs in some sourcebook or my notes, but from exactly what happened using rules-and-rolls during pay.

No one could have scripted what happened next any better: when you did have Jynathon turn to help Binry after all, and rolled that outrageous fumble, and then the failed Luck (Power x 5) roll that put you in the fire ... and Yoreen's successful Stealth roll which, in addition to her Invisibility spell, let her position herself exactly as she pleased during the fight to stab Alkerton ... only to be so enraged by your betrayal that she decided to go after you instead. And then a head shot! The only one in the game so far. Even better, with you failing the Listen but succeeding in Scan, resulting in the lovely imagery of seeing her re-appear for her attack - to plant the dagger right into Jynathon's face. Again - all stated actions, rolls, consequences, more stated actions, more rolls.

After all that, Jynathon's "return" from evil was so clear and perfectly timed, and so thoroughly justified, presumably heartfelt and "feels just right, this is it" on your part. Such things are often forced and false in role-playing. Not this time, not a bit.

iancooper's picture

BTW Ron, yes, I had no plan for where Jynathon went. I was feeling my way through events, trying to see how his world view changed with events and as you say, the dice. I've found that playing to the moment is better than coming with a strong agenda, because my agenda tends to make me do the player equivalent of 'railroading' (is there a term for that) because I try to push the narrative my way, and not react to each development that happens.

So Binry's interaction with the travelers, and his enthusiasm played into my thinking, because I was motivated by fear not joy and I think Jynathon fet that difference.

iancooper's picture

I wonder what others experiences are of the lethal nature of Runequest combat. Does that fear factor, the graphic nature of its resolution make violence visceral in a way that impacts the fiction. I feel I was motivated partially by how real the violence felt, to make Jynathon change because of it. I don't know that would have happened in a system where combat was more abstract.

Jeff Richard's picture

Our own Chaosium house game includes several players who are new to RuneQuest. For them, they are painfully aware that every combat could be the last and thus they are much more willing to one of the following:

  • Negotiate with enemies and strike some kind of bargain. This tends to happen a lot when the players deal with other tribes, Lunar stragglers, trolls, aldryami, Praxians, bandits, or in fact most encounters. This seems to often start with the parties insulting each other until either someone screws up and throws a first blow or a compromise is made. Note: I think this is actually the optimal solution under the RQ rules, but takes 1. trust in the GM (that a compromise can be , and 2. deprogramming of video game/D&D assumptions.
  • Sucker punch foes as hard and unexpected as possible. Ambush, bushwhack, the surprise charge, the sniper attack - you name it. This tends to happen with Chaos, monsters, soldiers on the march - foes that the players think will give no quarter.
  • Arrange an equal fight between champions. Players and GM set the stakes and agree to accept the results. This tends to happen with hated rivals within the greater community (like a rival tribe) or religious rivals (my players did this to end a running feud with the Unicorn Riders of the Big Rubble).
  • Run away or otherwise avoid the confrontation completely. This happens a lot.
Ron Edwards's picture

Non-abstract, painful-seeming combat is one of my design-and-play specialties, such that people didn't like getting hit in our Champions games, even though so much of that game depends on taking enormous amounts of damage and liking it. Over the years I've come to think that systematic seriousness and what people call realism in damage systems (it's not really "realistic" but that's what they call it), don't automatically result in people taking violence more seriously as a feature of play.

Some of the games we played were pretty hard-core about it, including Rolemaster's infamous critical tables and Cyberpunk's brutal Friday Night Firefight gunfire rules, both of which dipped heavily into medical texts for their details. These make a useful comparison because I was playing them at about the same time, because they were superficially similar in the potential for utterly appalling clinical effects, and because the results at the table were entirely different.

The Rolemaster effect tended to make play less serious - what happened to a foe was gaudy and vile, creating a cartoonish separation from anything empathic, and since the GM really wanted us to be protagonists in his saga, we knew we were pretty much insulated from anything happening to us ("good GMing" means "ignore the rules," that kind of thinking). Whereas the Cyberpunk rules inspired us to get more gritty in a more-human, less-ooh-gross way ... this was before cyberpunk got all anime, especially for our age group ... and things like the pathos of a gunshot victim's grotesque posture or expression, or the generally unromantic stinks and spastic nature of combat, entered our narrations and descriptions. So how we used the superficially-similar extreme-damage rules mattered a lot. There's something else about playing RuneQuest that facilitates this feature, over and above the simple statistical effect of whether you'll lose that limb.

In designing Sorcerer, I went a different way, which is significant because early drafts of the game included hacks of both of those two I just mentioned. Instead, I ultimately focused a lot on the seeming disaster of sudden injury even if it wasn't clinical tissue trauma, working off Robin Laws' design work in Over the Edge and Hero Wars. In these games, you tend to be hurt a lot less worse than you thought right at the moment, but in that moment, jeez, it really hurt. People lose fights in these games not because they can't move their broken limbs and are bleeding out from a major artery, but because they're momentarily shattered from wanting to continue.

Circle of Hands represents perhaps my personally-perfect middle ground between these two general approaches (tissue traums vs. stress/pain psychology). Although its most obvious old-game inspiration is The Fantasy Trip with a strong dose of Magic: the Gathering, after even just one fight, you'll see its real bones come from RuneQuest. For some reason, another factor in this is that in both games, or rather their implicit settings, people live extensive ordinary lives and don't walk around in armor most of the time. So when someone says, "We're putting on our armor," it's no joke. It's time to wear this specialized gear because it's time to kill someone. And acknowledging that "a fair fight" is a euphemism for utter stupidity, there's a real push to find the advantage in everything, terrain, timing of the attack, surprise, some purpose to accomplish that's not just "clear the area," and more.

Sorry for not having posted sooner.

Thanks for the helpful discussion re: shamanism and spirits.  I'm not an expert on RQ2 so I'm afraid will rely on guidance!  Personally, very grateful Alkerton's spirit was able to act as it did as I think the fight would have been very nasty - he fluked one hit with a hatchet, but doubt he woud have got another.  Happy for the effect to be one-fight only or to sacrifice POW as part of initiation.

I'm really enjoying how the setting is developing and getting darker.  Starting from a safe-seeming village, to one where no one can be trusted and threat is everywhere, and those close to the Alkerton have been taken.  The characters are faced with moral and existential choices.  Made think of Gareth Hanrahan's Cthulhu City - we may be the small nidus of resistance.

Thanks for the tips re: RQ combat Jeff

 

Ron Edwards's picture

It's great to be playing with you! All three characters have become extremely real to me in their admirable or flawed features. Alkerton's very much in the position of being thrust into the demands of adulthood just a bit sooner than he should, and so far he's been fortunate due to a high Power score and a few lucky breaks in play. I'm really interested in seeing what happens as the pressure increases.

The setting is intended to be a work in progress but I am really astounded at how well it's developing in a weird tandem among my preparation, what happens in play, and my continuing write-up. Each feeds the other two. At the moment I need to beef up the shaman and spirit material - it's way more important in play and the other two components are running behind. Each of the main deities has one or more subordinate cults which are really enslaved gods; you can think of it as a well-balanced runic pantheon which has been usurped and distorted by a few members. I've realized that Vrisha Himlá actually needs two write-ups, both of them fractured - one for the subordinated and exploited worship by the Oome cultists who specialize in spirits, and one for the frustrated and incomplete worship by the few free shamans and naturalists who preserve her memory. (Note that Ruduver is more fervent about this than Ebban, partly because the latter knows that if he were to get too activist about it, he would be instantly targeted.)

This is actually sort of urgent in our game so that we have some cool rules applications to work with, for Alkerton's next choices that will call on game mechanics.

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