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Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Sessions 6 & 7

My duet buddy and I have played another two sessions of Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. We agree that last session constituted a huge step forward in our game.

This didn’t emerge ex nihilo. Dialog here at Adept Play laid the groundwork for it, and conversation with my fellow player helped us recognize it. But we accessed the “Whoa, where did THAT come from?” factor, unpremeditated, in the moment of play.

The process of reflecting on on our last two sessions has been really instructive for me, particularly in light of the discussion over at Claudio’s Seminar post “Should a guitar play itself?” I want to examine two specific scenes and what they taught us about ourselves as creators and RQG as an instrument in play.

Narmeed Dreams of a Demon-Dog

For those following along with the narrative, my last post left off with Narmeed escorting Petrada and Willandring Crag-Stamp down to the stead to stand accused of consorting with Chaos. Unbeknownst to anyone in-game, they also carried a Broo-tainted shearing knife down with them.

Long story short, with Narmeed and Darrald’s support, the Crag-Stamps were spared exile. They lost their right to the mountain pasture where they’d grazed sheep most of their lives, they lost the independence they valued so highly, but at least they were not cut off from their kinship network.

Cut to the beginning of Darkness Season, and the stead has been overtaken by a chaotically virulent strain of Thunder Lung. The family’s Rune Priest, Grandmother Farrangara, has been able to heal enough people to keep the stead functioning, but casting out disease spirits requires constant Spirit Combat and the expenditure of Rune magic. Every week sees more people fall ill and Farrangara brought closer to exhaustion.

Because Narmeed didn’t take a hardline Storm-Bull approach, and also because he failed to keep Chaos out of the stead, it made sense for me to narrate him being visited in a dream by Storm-Bull’s Spirit of Reprisal, One-Ear. With no physical description to go on from Cults of Prax, I narrated One-Ear as a bloody-muzzled hound, straining out unnatural human syllables from his canine mouth, one ear torn off and bleeding.

I decided Narmeed’s infringement only warranted a dream-warning, not full-blown Spirit Combat. One-Ear accused Narmeed of failing in his duties and warned him that Storm-Bull wouldn’t tolerate abandonment of the cult’s fearsome principles. We were both deliciously chilled by this scene. What I didn’t expect was how my fellow player would pick up this challenge and run with it.

Before this moment, my duet buddy had been playing somewhat tentatively. He hadn’t fully embraced Narmeed’s social role as a representative of Storm-Bull, but also seemed hesitant to push against those social expectations. We were both adjusting to Glorantha, hesitant lest we made a faux pas in this weird, new world.

One-Ear changed all that.

My buddy’s reaction was “Fuck if I’m going to piss off that spirit!” When Narmeed awoke, he rushed out to take the situation in hand. He separated the sick from the (for-the-moment) well and moved them out of the stead. He himself moved into this new encampment, as much to ensure no one broke quarantine as to care for the ill. Right or not (and almost certainly not), my buddy was taking the materials offered by the game and impacting them in a way that felt true to the stew of brutality and good intentions that is his player character.

And when he did this, something shifted on my side too: for the first time in the game, I didn’t feel the necessity to consult the steps of a subroutine or call for a skill check. I said “OK, yep, you do this.” 

It was clear to both of us that the leadership of the family would assent to Narmeed as the resident  expert on Chaos, and that those who grumbled would be too frightened to openly defy one of the two best warriors on the stead. We didn’t turn to the dice as oracles to adjudicate what would happen, and we weren’t flipping through the book to find a way to determine what would happen because we knew what was happening. After a good deal of practice, “our” Glorantha was coming clear.

In the Troll Woods, Narmeed Sings Like an Uz

I don’t mean to imply that improving at RQG means that we’re ‘getting away’ from the dice, just that we’re finding where best to engage with them. 

In our next session, Narmeed departed on his first Hero Quest to heal the stead, accompanied by Vernharl, Darrald and the Crag-Stamps. The text of RQG implies that, in this version of Glorantha, Hero Quests don’t require crossing over to the Other Side. They may instead involve taking strongly symbolic or ceremonial action in this world to call down the powers of myth from another. In our case, Narmeed escorting the Crag-Stamps through the Troll Woods to be ‘baptized’ in the pure and sacred winds that blow from the apocalyptic crater of the Dragonrise.

This is certainly NOT shaping up to be an Avengers-style story of teamwork and overcoming. Narmeed’s rag-tag Hero Band is riven by differences and animosities, and one of the best parts of the session was seeing the characters’ divergent responses to the events of play.

There was a powerful moment during the first night of camp where my buddy called for, and made a successful Sing roll. We narrated Narmeed softly humming an old Praxian tune, “The Grazer’s Gamble,” with the Crag-Stamps joining in and Darrald and Vernharl listening on. Will this roll prove consequential to the outcome of the Hero Quest? Probably not. But it was a memorable image that would have been very different if the dice had gone the other way.

On watch later that night, Narmeed made his Listen roll and heard another party approaching their campsite. With a few moments to plan, he decided to try for another Sing roll, this time aiming to sound like an Uz and frighten them away. This roll is a great example of how we’ve internalized RQG’s systems.

First, my buddy called for the roll and drove the procedure, instead of waiting for me to put on my GM hat and engage the system. Second, we knew right away that the roll was plausible because Narmeed was calling on an augment from his Darkness  Rune and a +20% augment to his Communication skills (my ad hoc version of Hero Wars’ “Community Support”), the result of a blessing given by the clan Wyter, a spirit closely allied to Eurmal. With the trickster god’s energy in the mix, Narmeed singing like a Troll seemed thematically inevitable.

Finally, this roll resulted in a moment that neither of us could have engineered even if we’d been trying. No part of it was ‘prepped,’ it was all flowing from past or present elements of play. What my buddy didn’t know is that the party of travelers he was trying to scare away was, in fact, a group of Trolls. When he succeeded in his Sing check, I narrated a moment of silence, then a booming voice heartily singing the next stave of the song, then falling silent and waiting for him to sing back.

It was a confluence of shared imagination, fictional material and mechanical instrumentation that affected me as deeply as any novel, poem or movie—Narmeed Wood-Glory jolting awake in the Troll-haunted forest, then singing a group of strange, inhuman folk in for palaver in the dark.

Department: 
Actual Play
Tags: 
twosies

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

This is a little off-topic for your specific post, more of a bigger question that I've been reflecting on since I've been playing Glorantha material. How bad is it / are things?

Looking back on play, in terms of how I've done my GM stuff, I think that I've waffled a lot. When can a problem be solved with a group hug? And if someone tries a group hug and rolls well, does that mean it must work? When does a failed roll for some action of this kind close the door on further attempts, and when does it merely bend things so they can try again in a different way?

When I was playing a lot of Hero Wars, the players enjoyed the Heortling cultural phrases Violence is always an option and There is always another way, partly because it was kind of self-indulgent to "do whatever you want and call it principled," or less cynically, pragmatic. But now I'm thinking back on my GMing and asking myself, when did I practice hard situational constraint? Did I employ much or any adversity which says NO, e.g., when a chosen course of action is plain crap and no roll is going to change that? Or when a failed roll blows your goals to hell and gone?

Maybe I did all right, but also maybe I became invested in specific thematic content that softened some goals and hardened some others. I do know that I set my RuneQuest 2 games in 2018-2019 in a particularly grim, evil setting partly so that I would not have "a way" in mind as a GM when I brought adversity into play, which was pretty much all the time.

[Side point: speaking now of the modern HeroQuest, I know I find it to be skewed, more so than Hero Wars was, toward the notion that as long as the players keep rolling, rolling, rolling, the story will play out nicely eventually, because, you know, "story," and (per my reading) the Narrator will selectively privilege their critical successes as plot elements.]

Anyway ... I don't know if any of this is relevant or interesting to you, but it's what I'm thinking about lately when anyone writes about playing Glorantha material. I hope that you've played a session or two beyond this post by the time you're reading this so I don't infect your GMing: the relevant application as I see it is the trolls. For example, are they or are they not inclined to eat the player-characters, song or no song? Is jolly troll-friending just a roll away? Or is this a deadly encounter which makes the broo fight look tame? What is the role of the GM in deciding this, and is "leaving it up to the dice" actually wussing out rather than doing one's job?

I'm not saying there's a right answer or even a recommended answer by me. My point is that this question is serious business for GMing Glorantha - to the point that even the famous "will vary" phrase may be inadequate to appreciate it.

noah's picture

I love this question, Ron. It actually goes right to an aspect of play that, in the interest of highlighting other aspects, I didn’t address in my post. Because my play experience is relatively narrow and I don’t have the distance required for abstraction, my response is going to be grounded in the fiction. I hope it adds up into a full answer to your question, and that I don’t come across as a babbling fanboy who can’t distinguish breathless summary from genuine analysis. 

How bad is it? From the standpoint of backdrop, it’s pretty dire. The ‘safe zone’ of the Wood-Glory is defined by precarity. Resource- and manpower-wise, they’re reliant on a few highly skilled individuals whose loss would pose serious problems for their ability to farm and herd. Magic- and Clan-wise, the stead is entirely reliant for its political standing upon Farrangara, an aging shaman who, because of the war with the Lunars, hasn’t been able to train up a replacement. The outbreak of Chaotic disease represents the risk of losing any or all of these individuals. 

How bad is it? From the standpoint of the immediate situation, it could have been worse. The Uz who stumbled upon the Hero Band were merchants, not warriors. The Hero Band had resources (horseflesh and manflesh) that the Uz were quite interested in trading for. The Hero Band is in no mood for violence if it can be avoided, and the successful Listen and Sing rolls indicated violence wasn’t a given.

In defense of my pride, that mysterious moment of song and harmony didn’t result in a Kumbaya group hug-along, but a cutthroat round of barter and trade, and the loss of one of the Band’s horses. My buddy said it was like “being in a magical forest and stumbling on a Best Buy.” 

Nonetheless, the presence of an Enlo/Trollkin and an Uzdo/Great Troll brought Narmeed’s hatred of Chaos into play. (A Hate passion with low Lore skills is a dangerous cocktail) It didn’t break out into combat, but did result in the Troll Woods themselves attacking Narmeed in Spirit Combat while he slept and, the next day, in the Uz attempting to misdirect the Hero Band into dangerous Wasp-Rider territory.

The tensions and outcomes resulting from the interplay of Passions, perception/communication checks and criss-crossing cult allegiances really was a thing to behold.

With that being said, the prep that informed these rolls was my own creation. And I prepped trolls that I looked forward to characterizing to the hilt. In the hands of a different player with different artistic aims, the whole context would have been different and the Hero Band might well have found themselves blindly fighting a screaming band of Uz warriors. 

How bad is it? In terms of the situation that resulted, it is disastrous. In spite of Narmeed seeing through the Uz’s deception, and intelligent use of Mountain Lore augments, the Hero Band failed their Survival roll to slip through Wasp Rider territory and the Listen check that would have given them a few vital seconds of warning. We ended our last session with marauding Wasp-Riders ambushing the band from the sky. Both sides are now at the mercy of the Strike Rank system.

For me, this is a testament to the strength of the core system and evidence of our little duo’s commitment to “authentic play,” “story now” or what have you.

Even with the “softening” effects of my own aesthetic interests taken into account, the binary Skills results, the brutal percentile curve and the design of subroutines like combat and disease mean the dice have uncontrollable outcomes that demand to be honored in play. I don’t feel the need to “enforce” the danger of Glorantha because there is no way for a player to guarantee success or for me to impose an outcome. There isn’t a way to select a convenient result from a series of checks and arbitrarily designate that roll as the decisive one, as you describe crits functioning in later HeroQuest. Each roll is its own 'unit of change,' independent of any other roll.

We have explicitly discussed how character death, Hero Quest failure, even the dissolution of the stead are on the table, and any of these could result from the next session. 

Ron Edwards's picture

[Qualifier: completely personal peer response] This is great! I know that I like to think of the Hero Wars and their preceding events as littered with failures, tragedies, and catastrophes, and I don't favor the idea that one's own game, "our heroes," happen to be blessed with the status of threading their way successfully through these threatened-but-fake outcomes which only happen to someone else.

... or rather, that's what I think and would like to do now. Whether I represented this point of view when I actually played Gloranthan material isn't possible to assess in retrospect.

noah's picture

I'm glad you found so much to like in the post, Ron! This approach to play has been freeing and terrifying. On the one hand, the space of possibility for events (and hence characterization, growth, exploration, relationship-building, etc.) is radically open. All the precarities I've mentioned were not 'built' as sources of adversity. We started by building a stead that compelled us, then discovered these adversities in play. On the other hand, this openness exposes our beloved character to a whole range of unpleasant outcomes. Both the stereotypical "total party kill" and any number of worse, more "Gloranthan" fates.

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