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Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Sessions 4 & 5

Another two sessions of Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, and things are getting bloody and wild.

We spent a good amount of time going through the game’s seasonal experience system. I appreciate how the “Between Adventures” procedures require zooming out, letting the wheel of the seasons turn forward, and watching the characters in lower-stakes situations like work, meals and worship. It also gave my duet partner an opportunity to develop Narmeed in a more measured way.

We zoomed back in on Sora, a worried young initiate of the Herd-Mother, who asked Darrald Wood-Glory, in strict confidence, to go and check on her grandmothers, Petrada and Willandring Crag-Stamp. The Crag-Stamps are members of a client family of the Wood-Glories who tend a small herd of sheep in the mountains to the north. Olav, an aspiring initiate to Eiritha who Narmeed adopted in an earlier session, brought this news to his mentor, who insisted on accompanying Darrald north.

The latter half of the first session and a good chunk of the second were spent with Narmeed and Darrald interacting with Petrada and Willandring. The situation I cooked up was fairly straightforward. The Crag-Stamps are two wiry, rather eccentric old women determined to maintain their independence. In solitude, they’ve become initiates of Waha. Though this crosses gender boundaries, Petrada likes to say, “If the god of knowledge can be fooled by a woman in a beard, we figure the Butcher wouldn’t mind a few crazy old women using his magic to watch over a herd.”

They’ve had a run of hard luck, and the Olontongi clan ring has given them fewer and fewer sheep to herd each year. Unless things turn around, this will be their last year living on their own in the mountains.

This season, however, a solitary broo, Chancre, driven from his clan, has taken up residence nearby. In addition to eviscerating the local deer, he’s impregnated the herd’s ewes. Desperate for good news, Petrada and Willandring have ignored the warning signs and taken their swelling herd-beasts as a sign that their luck is about to change.

There were moments when I felt that the social interactions between Narmeed, Darrald and the Crag-Stamps felt aimless. However, looking back, I’m pleasantly surprised by how honoring Passions, communications Ability rolls and cult identities created a shifting landscape of trust, mistrust and power. The Crag-Stamps, with their Praxian background, had an inherent respect for Narmeed. However, this trust faded over the course of the day as Narmeed and Darrald tried to convince Petrada and Willandring to return to the stead for a visit and Narmeed’s suspicions increased.

The events drove toward two climactic events. In the first, Willandring caved to Narmeed and using her single Rune spell, Speak Beast, to speak to one of the ewes and ask her to give birth early. The results of giving birth to an infant broo were horrific, to say the least. 

Narmeed sent his shaken kin to the Crag-Stamp’s hut and attempted (in three out of four cases, unsuccessfully) to send the animals’ souls into the afterlife properly with the Peaceful Cut. We lifted a page from Imp of the Perverse and ‘filmed’ this stomach-turning scene from inside the Crag-Stamps’ hut, where Darrald and the Crag-Stamp listened in shock to Narmeed’s gruesome work outside.   

The second was Narmeed and Darrald’s hunt for Chancre the broo. The set-up to the battle was an INT v INT roll between Narmeed and the very wily Chancre. Narmeed used the carnage in the meadow as bait, trusting the broo couldn’t resist such a grisly buffet. This was a moment where the Augmentation rules really clicked for us. Narmeed attempted to buff his INT vs INT roll with Battle, failed the augment, but succeeded on his INT. It was entirely natural, upon asking my buddy for details, to say that Narmeed’s strategem succeeded, but his tactical decision to seek higher ground put the wind against him, imposing a -10% on bow attacks.

The ensuing battle was intense, with all three combatants summoning spirits and Chancre almost slipping away from Narmeed’s trap. It required engaging ranged combat, summoning, Spirit Combat, and almost the Chase rules.

A pivotal moment occurred when Chancre sent his formidable Disease Spirit rushing toward Darrald to cover his retreat. Only Narmeed had a spirit—a small air elemental—in play, and my buddy and I both expected him to be tossed aside like a rag doll. Instead, my buddy rolled the first crit of the game and his air elemental tore out half of the spirit’s Magic Points, giving Darrald time to summon his own elemental and Narmeed time to fire a fatal bowshot.

We ended with the burning of the Chaos corpses and Willandring and Petrada driving the remainder of their herd down the mountain to face accusations of harboring Chaos. I described the camera zooming in on Willandring’s pack, where a shearing-knife was stained with infected blood. They’re carrying a virulent form of Thunder Lung back to the stead with them.

My buddy and I both ended the session expressing our excitement at how beautifully the systems and color of RQG produced forward momentum, and our surprise at how thematically cohesive the plot felt, in spite of the fact that we were both just ‘playing our characters’ as truly as we could. I am beginning to feel that ‘cycle of inspiration and re-inspiration’ that Ron references in the “Curriculum” series. I don’t feel any need to ‘prep’ for the next session—just discover in the moment how the events in the mountains will affect the Wood-Glories in the lowlands.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Given that my own most extended play in this setting concerned montane, primal Sartarites, and quite a bit of broo, we have some common creative ground to examine.

For example, in our game, we also had a Lunar-influenced cultural crossover character or two, which conceivably could be a native son or daughter who had listened to some Seven Mothers missionary or a Rashoran wanderer and found a thing or two worth considering; or as you have it, a Lunar-raised person who has taken up Orlanthi ways due to personal ties, which of course, people do all the time.

This session brings up the broo, which are a big deal for me anyway, in the setting. As you may know, I tend to favor the earliest version, which were specifically goat-men rather than anything-men, and their horrid urges or cursed nature weren't random, but typically directed toward human communities. I think they've been ramped up in grot (ick, yuck, slimey) and down in grit. It's easier if they're madly-mutating sheepfuckers rather than, well, cursed representatives of a raped goddess' rage.

But enough about me. I'd like to know about you and the broo. Was Chancre a caricature, basically just a killable boogeyman? Or was he ... I don't say sympathetic because that's not what I mean, but rather, playable as a character, much as you played either of the two women? This may be asking too much, because broo are so genuinely awful, but it might evoke some discussion - if your answer leans to the negative, then by examining the outlines of what you did not enter or do.

Now for the ideas & discourse part of it all.

I greatly appreciate your observation that the apparently aimless interactions during some of play, which I venture to say would trip the alarm switch of "the good GM" to do something, to provide direction, to prompt activity, to point them the right way ... turned out to be absolutely necessary and pivotal, and not only that, were fun rather than boring and flailing.

... our surprise at how thematically cohesive the plot felt, in spite of the fact that we were both just ‘playing our characters’ as truly as we could.

A bit shocking, isn't it, to realize how deeply embedded this notion is, that "we get a great story or we play our characters" is binary, that play does or "is" one of these to the exclusion of the other. Once a person is past this notion, I've found, they look back on it as a horrid nightmare - how could they possibly have thought that, or played in its shadow? But until then it was True, wholly unexamined and too sacred to look at too closely.

"I don't care about the story, I just want to play my character." "You want me to play against my character for the sake of the story." These are just two among a host of other statements delivered as if they were referencing true things, acts, and principles ... yet founded in the most blatant nonsense.

As with so many other things I've been presenting and learning for the past few years, I don't try to teach or impose the insight or breakthrough on others. It seems only possible to play in ways which do not placate or repeat it (as a falsehood, play cannot validate it, ever), and eventually to see someone say, "Hey! Wait! I played my character, and you did too, we all did ... the story was great ... and that's why!"

I confess, though: I yearn for a rejoinder, an instant response that both defies the statement of the moment and provokes undeniable curiosity. The kind of response that leads a person to say, "hey, I never thought of it like that." Something so that I don't have to wait and wait. Not a quick fix or bolt of enlightenment, merely ... a true statement, a think-moment, at the very least, a patch of ground for curiosity to take root, if they have any.

noah_t's picture

Ron, reading your response helped me see what I found so surprising in the ultimate clarity and thematic inevitability that emerged from play.

My expression of surprise wasn't necessarily that "just playing our characters" led to a coherent story. I was lucky enough to encounter games early in my entry into the hobby (particularly Champions Now) that quickly cured me of that 'binary notion!'

However, what did surprise me was how the narrative emerged from radically unpremeditated play. There was a degree of murk in these scenes—it took a few interactions for Petrada and Willandring to become clear in my mind, and I believe I mixed up their names more than once. At moments, I felt the "good GM" breathing down my neck, telling me I'd prepped insufficiently, hadn't mapped potential zones of tension between the characters, etc.

But going through this slightly nerve-wracking process was a small breakthrough. It made me realize that I often prep to start play "hot," in CN terms. I throw a premeditated occurrence or challenge at a player at the start of the session then let the story go—it's not quite a railroad track, more a launching-pad, and any plans I have only extend a few minutes into the session. But the habit is quite ingrained. This session showed me a very different method. It occurs to me this method requires trust in my fellow player to discover the story along with me, and I am excited to explore it further.

It's a hard and insightful question you ask about Chancre. I didn't get a chance to characterize him much. The events of play gave him little opportunity to make expressive choices: he appeared in the story after being successfully lured into Narmeed's trap, and spent the remainder of his existence desperately trying to escape with an arrow in his guts.

As a result, I have to answer many questions you pose about the Broo with "I don't know yet." However, I will say: Chancre was in the story for his own reasons (having been exiled from his clan, possibly for being too clever for his own good). He had a religious identity, a Passion or two, reasons for what he did. And I did my level best to have him escape Narmeed's trap, though the dice and the uncompromising features of RQG's combat system made that impossible. This is about as much information as I have about any of the NPCs in the game, and I must say I'm disappointed Chancre didn't live to fight another day and become something more than a monstrous silhouette in a high mountain meadow. I'd love to discuss the Broo further when we get the chance.

Ron Edwards's picture

Over in Discord, I asked Noah if he’d seen my 2003 essay about Thed, titled “Goddess of rape,” so he took a look at it.

Noah: ... the essay opened up a lot of possibility in the game that, because we're so new to it, we haven't had a chance to even consider.

It's still up in the air how prominent a factor the Broo are even going to be in our game. ... your literary reading of the lore (the Milton connection is great) ... made me realize how deep we can go in play--how much exploration and creation my fellow player and I have ahead of us.

One thing I really appreciated about the essay, which puts the activity of critical reading next to the activity of play, is that it highlights how these fraught, challenging elements of the setting can't be resolved by reading. They also can't be resolved by playing casually. The Broo (as with so much of this weird and wonderful imaginary world) are like a gauntlet thrown in the front of the players. They feel morally corrupt and disturbing in a way that "evil" races in other worlds don't, and players can't resolve the challenge they pose by merely killing them and burning their bodies. The lore that you discuss heightens this. I think players can, fairly, read the lore and say "I don't care to invest the play required to resolve these questions." I wouldn't judge someone for making that decision. This is deep, traumatic stuff. However, I think the game (RQG in my case) does give you tools to meaningfully explore the questions. It doesn't expect you to resolve them through a dungeon crawl. And my first instinct reading the essay was to shoot you a message and ask "How did you and your players do it?" But then it occurred to me that there's not really a way for you to communicate the process that would be helpful for us. Your Glorantha isn't our Glorantha. And we're going to have to confront these questions and give our own answers through play.

We also talked about Storm Bull.

Noah: I'm interested to think with my fellow player about how your reading of the lore (which feels true to me) interacts with having a character in Storm-Bull, whose own lore may not include, or even reject this reading.

Me: I kind of hate Storm Bull. I played a relatively sympathetic NPC initiate in our game during a couple of sessions, but he was a roving wanderer and play did not include community or generally-present Storm Bull adherents. A lot of Storm Bull love comes from its over-powered features in the early game, and that probably arose from Stafford's over-privileging of events in the two board games, which I think have always played too large a role in the development of Glorantha as a role-playing setting. Specifically, we are to accept that Harrek the Berserk is some kind of demigod hero, very much in the Conan pastiche scheme of things, despite having no particular character or aim except to be a fun tactical option among the others - moving that into fiction just gives you a Mary Sue who goes berserk all the time, a precursor to later versions of Wolverine in comics. Then if you go into true Stafford territory, apparently the Hero Wars are all about this person called Argrath, who is a Storm Bull worshipper. In other words, this vile and bigoted cult is placed at the heroic bad-ass forefront of the whole damn setting and saga, largely through a designated hero as opposed to people who do anything heroic.

Noah: I am in total agreement on Storm-Bull. I don't want to pre-play, but based on what I've seen so far, I suspect that as we approach the level of HeroQuesting, my fellow player may be drawn to rewriting his cult's belief structure. Particularly in RQG, where the Orlanthi are out from under the Lunar boot and it's harder to make the ends-justify-the-means arguments for military actions, Storm-Bull true believers come off, quite clearly, as xenophobic fascist strongmen.

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