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Fantasy adventure emerges, bright and harsh

Session 4 of our RuneQuest game! I wrote up a summary handout for them this time – see attached. It was fun to write, and also to feel as if I’d nailed down “this is what we’re playing” in some ways.  

In thinking about this session, and riffing off the question Ross asked in the comments to the previous post about this game, I found myself writing an elaborate discourse on authorship and stories, especially the hard line between the experiences of contrivance vs. lacking contrivance, despite the fact that it’s always contrived. Then I took pity on anyone reading such blathering and decided to inflict it on my hapless patrons, who, if not precisely a captive audience, can at least sort of be like one as far as my own preferred delusions are concerned.

The bit that I’ll keep for this post is what I was driving at toward the end: that what this and games like it lack is situational framing in any way.

I feel that pinch particularly in terms of adjusting and sometimes misplaying the following:

  • Recovery of injury, which is especially tricky because NPCs would certainly have Healing as casual spells, so that pretty much determines that all but the most heinous wounds are routinely healed by magic, for everyone, all the time. It’s a very artificial counterweight to the clinical butcher-shop aspects of the damage itself. Laws’ text in Hero Wars calls this out specifically, and I mention it here because one is often tempted to minimize the effect in the moment and to aggravate it as longer-term game effect, in both cases against the textual mechanics.
  • Narrating for fumbles and criticals for noncombat skill rolls ... which glory be, and I knew this but forgot (or “forgot to remember it”) during play, do not exist in the rules. They’re just for attack rolls. But there you are, using them as extra-plot-power moments, frankly because you need mechanical cues for such things and the game doesn’t otherwise have them.

It’s also present, but somewhat easier, for the whole scenario or situation: “the adventure is located here, so here we are.” What’s wrong with that? Nothing with doing it as such, but rather, what it lacks in this case to make it genuinely satisfying as a prep for play device: any reason for the adventure to be “here.” The logic is backwards, based primarily on published adventure modules – since you bought the module, you’re playing this adventure, and since the adventure is “here,” well, “here” is where you are.

It was fine for this four-session bit, because the whole point was merely to flex our muscles and enjoy playing characters with to-hit rolls, hit points, and monsters to fight. But curse you, early RuneQuest, for stepping up and offering solid conceptual groundwork for actual mythic fantasy to ensue, and sure enough, protagonism sprang forth, and now we have freakin’ fantasy heroes in a freakin’ fantasy story.

Which means what adventure is next is actually a thing. I came to a conclusion, which you’ll see soon in the video for session 5.

[leading image is by Lee Smith from RQ: Adventures in Glorantha, by the Design Mechanism; this game is currently published as Mythras]

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
RuneQuest
Attachments: 
PDF icon Player reference.pdf

Comments

Ross's picture

Gee Ron, what game could you have been playing where critical and fumbles are driving the action, who has lead you astray?!

Actually I wonder if the bit with the critical architecture roll might be something worth talking about in relation to some of the discussions about prep / improv / gm's making stuff up.

Ron Edwards's picture

I've been thinking a lot about the tacit system that's occurring across many games:

  • Critical success: big insight, clue, revelation that completely gets past obfuscation, perhaps prompt to GM to create new "node" of material - interestingly, typically play struggles to accomodate this result with physical actions, e.g., "OMG, you climb so well," which is very un-fun compared to its counterpart with Investigate or similar.
  • Success: "bend" play where it needs to go, has a "next step on the path" quality, but treat it as above (critical success) when you feel like it
  • Failure: you do it but it takes a long time, minor inconvenience, "try again," interject with new information (you realize that her type of elf is partial to blah blah blah) so a another attempt of some kind is justified, you fail but it's not that bad as you get something (like this!) after all
  • Critical failure: well, I guess you really friggin' failed, BUT this happens, which as it turns out is a big insight, clue, revelation that completely gets past obfuscation, perhaps prompt to GMto create new "node" of material ... you just got there through dumb luck rather than through competent action

The game Hahlmabrea, which is kind of a sister to Legendary Lives, states this almost outright as how to use its resolution system, but I have seen many, many games with nominal task resolution played this way. Call of Cthulhu especially.

Some of you may recall Jay, posting as Silmenume, back at the Forge. He played (and still plays) in a rather intense, even frantic multi-multi-player group who said they were playing D&D, but who were using more or less a system of constant rolling-and-shouting, in which the GM sort of ... it's hard to describe ... kept up a fever pitch of action and crisis, and used each critical 20 as a cue for "OK, tide turns," or "OK, that did it" moments. We found ourselves leaning this way in our game of Legendary Lives, or were forced to in some fashion.

Regarding the critical success on Erko's Cult Lore skill regarding architecture, that's a really good example. The idea is that if someone rolls a crit, well, something has to be important, they did something awesomely, right? So if there's not too much something available, the GM better get with it. In my case, at least, we had enough already-existing content for the roll to make sense in the first place, but not enough for me to pop in with a ready answer of the caliber demanded by the critical success.

All in the context, of course, that the game we're playing doesn't freakin' have critical successes for any roll except combat!

LorenzoC's picture

Very interesting subject.

I think Ron's mention of introducing criticals and fumbles even if they were not present in the ruleset particularly relevant.

I find it particularly ironic (expecially in the light of this particular discussion) that most games seem to obsess about instrumentation for handling critical hits in that aspect (combat) where it would probably be less needed. Critical hits in combat tend to contribute with that overflow of conflicting information that is typical of so many games - you make a bunch of rolls that you can't really parse until the end, leading to situations where you made an excellent attack roll (so it's a poweful attack!) followed by a very mediocre damage roll (so it was actually a pretty limp blow). Criticals add to this: if they only translate in higher damage, you still risk of having critical hits that do less damage than normal attacks (case in point, one of the characters in our Pathfinder 2 game hitting twice on his flurry of blows, rolling an 8 on the normal attack and a a double 1 on the critical). If they have hit tables, randomized effects and similar this can again lead to a situation that remains confused until the very last roll and possibly after - I remember a particularly hilarous situation during a MERP game in my youth were the GM spent a conspicuous amount of time introducing a particularly powerful troll attack that led to a punctured eye on an hobbit target. The rollercoaster of describing that outcome remained memorable to our group.

Now, this isn't about combat but what led me to think of combat is the fact that my impression has always been that all that confusion is due to having a clear, specific situation in the fiction ("I'm attacking this one goblin with my short sword") and wanting to model the same event from several different angles at different stages (and here I'm leaving out games that use a different level of zoom on the action such as Tunnels & Trolls). And this is all very clear and measurable: I've beated the enemy's defence by 11 points, I rolled 15 and I needed to roll under 72%, I've dealt 20 points of damage... it's all very numerical and measurable. Hence the confusion: the fiction is informed by the numbers, but the numbers are coming in from 5 different directions and they're all different. But the points say and mean something: more points, bigger numbers, bigger offsets mean "better" in a way that has some feedback at some point in the game (usually).

Move to the kind of situation we're talking about, and we generally have nothing that is really measurable: as you said, you could say "you climb really fast" is rather immaterial if there's no prevision in the system for duration or strain. I've never been completely onboard with the entire task vs conflict divide, but I guess in a very zoomed-in, task oriented resolution system you could have this kind of prevision, which would then need to be specific to every type of roll or skill or attribute or task. I can't really think of a system that does this, however, at least at the moment. 

This kind of un-measurable, binary result extends to the more complex situations you speak of (investigation, stealth, diplomacy and so on). There's a plethora of further thoughts that I want to leave out for now, so the question right now for me is: what is this need for the critical success to mean something? If criticals in combat can feel almost redundant (we already have systems in place that tell us how good the attack was, if we need to know), what do we want them to do outside of it? Why is important to quantify how well an action went, and how relevant is the premise in this regard? What I mean is, was the outcome binary from the get go, in a setting stakes kind of way ("I want to get past the wall, and I'm rolling to see if I make it past") or there was already room for success and greater success (I stick on success because I feel failure is easier, we can always imagine how things could go worse) in the fiction? The prevision of the possibility of critical success could become a trap for the GM who needs to step in and bring it, because the temptation is chipping away some part of the normal success or even making the critical success the actually good outcome, and the "normal success" a compromised victory. The last sentence is specific to this type of game, as there's an entire literature of games that made this a standard and I think we're not really discussing those right now.

I think the crux of the matter rests in how you described those successes and failures and criticals in terms of affecting the story. In combat, a critical hit is something that accellerates things: we're in conflict, someone has to die or give up. We stack points and my really good roll means I stack more points, but we're racing towards an outcome. Outside of combat, we don't have this process, we tend to just say "does this happen or not?", and since we can't accellerate something that either never started moving or has already arrived, we look at ways to complicate or enrich the situation.

Further, disjoined thought: perhaps this desire of having critical effects is in part based on the fact that in this kind of game we tend to put decisions and emotional investments in the discussion of the estabilished fiction and desired outcomes, tasking the roll to simply confirm or deny that evolution in the story. Could this potential for the unforseen be a reflection of what you mention (that success is simply meant to unlock pre-estabilished content, either the one prepared from the GM or the one estabilished by the player making the roll, or "steering" the story towards something that someone has already foreseen), a specific need of knowing that something actually new can happen, that a particularly good or bad roll requires the game to stop for a second and bring things off the tracks? I often feel this is the case, that we task "critical" effects with provide us with unforeseen consequences.

LorenzoC's picture

My bad, this was meant to go under the other thread of answers. Sorry.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Lorenzo! I’m taking this a little bit out of order from your post. I think you are completely on target.

For skills – you totally hit it, that when you extrapolate the “great hit, story-affecting blow” result in combat to non-combat situations, you get “plot moment” mechanics. Someone ought to trace the textual path of explicit rules for this throughout RPG history, especially since we know the texts trail after practical table-use.

I agree with your point that doing this tends to make ordinary success boring unless the GM decides to upgrade it anyway. It might have occurred historically the other way around, i.e., that ordinary success was already boring, so adopting this technique meets a desperate need for the GM to get some Bounce into their experience of play, when success at designated tasks X and Y just aren’t going to do it.

With this in play, conceivably, the same prepared situation plays differently (i.e., is less predictable), and may even have different content, and certainly sets up different resulting situations, or unforeseen consequences, depending on where the criticals arrive in the otherwise pretty predictable set of rolls. That’s exactly what I’m doing in this RuneQuest game, again, partly out of desperation because otherwise I’d have to devise the ongoing story entirely from scratch and carry it on my shoulders with no Bounce at all.

Here’s a secondary point: considering that one can covertly upgrade ordinary success into an effective critical through narration authority, and if you do so, now critical success, ordinary success, and critical failure all become the same thing, as far as “GM introduces significant shift to situation” is concerned. This is all about converting outcome authority into situational authority (i.e. the new situation, here in play). My video Authorities and The Pool seems relevant.

Ron Edwards's picture

I guess in a very zoomed-in, task oriented resolution system you could have this kind of prevision [for the special meanings of critical successes and critical failures], which would then need to be specific to every type of roll or skill or attribute or task. I can't really think of a system that does this, however, at least at the moment. 

I can. My God, I can. Most recently we ran into this with Legendary Lives, which imposes no less than ten specific outcomes graded from Catastrophe to Awesome for every single use of any named skill or attribute in play. I have many game manuals on my shelves which either include a special success category you’re supposed to apply to any skill use (like Legendary Lives does, just not to that level of detail), or include the special properties of a critical success with every skill description.

Ron Edwards's picture

So let’s go back to the original technique, criticals in combat. I think as introduced to D&D-esque play by The Arduin Grimoire (technically 1977 but not widely-known until the early 1980s), it’s pretty clearly a way to get past the chipping, chipping-away experience of fighting, when merely hitting your opponent is a “success,” sure, but not a whole lot of it since you’re whittling away at a mountain of hit points. Now, with the chance for a critical, you can whammy your target.

Specifically, and to bring it to one of your favorite topics, considering that hit points can’t possibly be taken literally as tissue damage, this whammy-hit’s actual effect is to reduce the number of times that they can hit back in the back-and-forth exchange as the sides work each other down – it is, in effect, a “lose one turn” result for the foe.

As you say, whammying like this can be compromised by two ways to get there. You can do it through a really good to-hit roll (which makes more sense in the moment) vs. a really good ordinary damage roll (pretty much the legacy from wargaming, which requires retconning “what you did”).

For combat mechanics which are far more focused in time, into very specific actions with very specific tissue trauma effects, you can see independent designs. Melee (1977) ran head-first into the problem, such that a critical hit with a dagger or shortsword might be no big deal, whereas an ordinary hit with a big weapon is often an instant kill. RuneQuest (1978) fixes this to a large if not total extent by defining an impale as maximum possible damage plus rolled damage, so it will always do more than an ordinary success, modified by the “true” critical which ignores armor. As long as you keep damage rolls within nearly the same range, this solves the two-angle problem.

I’m not sure if you are familiar with Rolemaster, appearing orginally as Arms Law (1980), which applies detailed anatomical outcomes, similar to the gory list from Arduin, but a hundred times more detailed. It’s based strictly on how well you roll to hit, and then shifts into secondary tables which themselves depend on how well you roll again. This shows up again in more fictionally-coherent and less unintentionally comedic form in The Riddle of Steel (2002).

I’m sure you’ve noticed that later D&D adopts the RuneQuest impale for their definition of critical. Since you’re perusing and playing Circle of Hands, I’ll mention that it takes the opposite approach and has no damage roll – so the critical is nothing more than the high-damage result of a big successful attack vs. a crappy defense. It also includes the special role of doubled values within the roll in some cases, which is more like an accident than a really skilled or well-timed attack.

LorenzoC's picture

I'll briefly go over what you mentioned on combat before tackling the really meaty bit (authorities, yes! I think that is where the discussion really becomes interesting).

I did play Rolemaster, pretty much at the same time I played Middle Earth Roleplaying game - I guess we could add the long tradition of Warhammer games (pre-FFG, at least, I've not played 4th edition by Cubicle 7 yet) to the list of games featuring extremely detailed lists of possible, anatomical outcomes for injury. As a side note, I think both MERP and Warhammer absolutely leaned into the intentionally comedic - I remember several entries (expecially for the high consequence results) being pretty tongue-in-cheek. I once got hit with some bludgeoning effect that read something like "Your entire skeleton gets disintegrated, turning you into pudding. Try a spatula". 

You're of course right about my current obsession for fictional consistency and tissue damage (and I won't get over it until I'm done with this project, I guess), but allow me to go over a small something that will touch on CoH. What I appreciate about CoH not having critical hit effects (as in, there's no "this attack/damage roll is super special" prevision, from what I can see - the game does model more effective and dangerous hits through the standard mechanics but there's no "ding ding ding we got a special moment here!" mechanic) is that it makes it, in my own personal opinion, fictionally-coherent. It's a spectrum, really: on one hand you have bombastic, larger than life combat where standard hits are simply assumed to happen, and critical hits are welcome if not even necessary to break the routine; on the other, you have games that imply that every time people get hurt, it's a moment. What I mean is, if I close my eyes thinking of combat in Warhammer's world I have angry, barechested dwarves hurling twin-bladed axes at ironclad orcs and elves dodging arrows from repeating crossbows. Violence is cartoonish enough that "you've been hit with a short sword" does little to excite the imagination, hence you need to possibility to know that it may happen that the roll will be so exceptional (in a literal sense, as an exception to the routine of trading blows) that the game will tell you that the blade cuts armor and skin, and you guts spill out, fuming in the cold winter air. Try a spatula. You need to know there's an arrow-slit in the plot armor where drama could slip in, because the rest of the time you need the cartoonish pacing for things to work.
If I close my eyes and think Circle of Hands (again, very limited experience so far but the text is vivid) what I see is a dark room, and a guest being stabbed close to the collar bone, from behind, by someone that was previously trusted. The blade is small and rusty, something that would be just decoration in the other game, the blow isn't really martial but the offender is leaning in with all her weight, like she was using a tool rather than a weapon. In this situation, there's no need (for me) for critical hits: every time blood is drawn, drama is already there. And in fact the situation is flipped: lethal consequences are assumed, and in fact a lower, survivable roll becomes the more fictionally-interesting situation. That attack did not kill me, so what happened? Maybe I grabbed the attacker's wrist just in time, we struggled, I grasped for air. Survival, rather than explosive violence, becomes the exceptional, interesting moment. 
I'm sure you anticipate where I would go now based on our previous discussions, but the point should be clear. There's a strong tie between what you want the fiction to be and where to place the exceptionality, and this feeds into that process that tells us "do we need critical events or not?". I find this tie strong enough to consider it a spectrum, really.

Going to the "plot moment" part, the only thing I have to add (and it's something that struck me and caused some self reflection reading your answer) is that I'm under the impression that there's a rather inescapable truth to non-combat tests and conflicts: if we place the next story bit behind a wall, we'll want the player to get past the wall.
He may try climbing, he may try the door, he may convince someone to haul him over, he may summon a dragon to fly him over it, but at some point we'll need to see if he gets past the wall. In fact, most of the time modeling failure becomes expecially hard, because we never really considered the option of not getting over the wall. That's where the next plot beat is. But say we accept failure: we move over to another wall, another roll. And the story is past the roll, again. Even when we model failure, it needs to produce a new reward, a new starting point, a complication. So every roll we make brings us towards a point where we will gets past one of those walls.
This conversation is often obfuscated by social dynamics and the concern that the game may be railroaded or pre-programmed by one of the players (usually the DM or GM figure), but there the concern seems to me like it's focused more on the idea that the story is in the hands of one person rather than in how tests and rolls are handled. In fact, a lot of the instrumentation that hinges on concepts like "failing forward" or "success with compromise" fundamentally seem to confirm this impression - failure isn't really an option.  

One last though: what's important to estabilish is what we're rolling for. Are we ever actually really rolling to see if I'm strong and trained enough to climb the tower's wall and enter from a window, according to how the game models those characteristics or abilities, or are we actually rolling to see if climbing is the way I'll get into the tower, or I'll have to try something else?
More and more I get persuaded that these rolls ultimately provide currency for drama; the story keeps moving, and the consequence of the roll informs how, but the relationship between the stakes of the roll (where I want my character to go, what I'm rolling for, where I want to bring the story next) and the precise, situational event I'm rolling for is not as strong as it may seem. "I roll to search for secret doors" is an apparently simple and very objective activity; but the implication of why I'm rolling it, of my expectations, of what sort of answer I expect is not. That's what makes a failure (or critical failure) particularly problematic for this kind of roll: the story didn't move. I don't know if the secret door is there or not. Worse still, I may know it's there but I can't find it. Now, I need the possibility for this to happen (perhaps in the form of a disasterous, critical failure, but still) or things stop making sense, no? But at the same time, am I ready to face the consequences of failing that roll, of giving up on all the expectations riding on it? Do I want it?

Having 4 different possible outcomes (critical failure, failure, success, critical success - by the way, Pathfinder 2nd edition does exactly this, with a "roll a 20/1 or beat/fail the test by 10 or more" model) doesn't feel useful when there's not someone providing all these layers with context (like you say in reference with your Runequest game, trying to introduce something significant in terms of changing the situation) or if the process of answering the question "does this happen or not?" is burdened with the thought that I really need something to happen for this to go somewhere.
So looking at rolls as something that provides currency for drama (outside of combat, in this case), the natural consequence seems to be that degrees of success or criticals can help shifting the question from "did you make it?" to "how did it go?". We need Bounce or "noise" to make the situation interesting despite the fact that the actual objective of the roll (do I climb this? do I know this? do I persuade him?) risks being just a stopgap toward a goal we can't completely avoid. And my point is that there's really nothing wrong with that - we want the story to go somewhere, and when we zoom in on a plot point, on an in-or-out moment, we rarely mean it, and for a good reason. We're not playing Sorcery! and we don't have the luxury to move back a few pages and try again. 
Who gets to spend this currency, and with which authority, and with which limitations is where things get interesting. I think in examining this aspect it's critical to consider how much fiction and what expectations we create before we do get to that roll, because I think those factors are quantitatively and directly proportional to the need of introducing the type of bounce critical results provide. It's the usual issue: "we said all this stuff, now let's see if it happens". If it doesn't, it's one problem. If it does, it's unexciting, hence the need for criticals. Contrast this with mechanics like (sorry) the Charm roll of CoH or even the Engagement roll of Blades in the Dark put the roll ahead of the construction of the situation, and not at the resolution point. I feel that placement is central to this problem. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I don't have much to add beyond "yes," but I will break out one of my divergent points into its own thread.

Greg's picture

I agree with your point that doing this tends to make ordinary success boring unless the GM decides to upgrade it anyway. It might have occurred historically the other way around, i.e., that ordinary success was already boring, so adopting this technique meets a desperate need for the GM to get some Bounce into their experience of play, when success at designated tasks X and Y just aren’t going to do it.

Ron, you seem to use "Bounce" as a concept, may you expand what you mean?

Ron Edwards's picture

It's one of the very few customized vocabulary terms that I currently use. Briefly, it is any or all of the contingent properties of the procedures of play, for a given experience. Randomization is a subset, for example, but that is not its defining property.

I discuss in its proper context during my Phenomenology presentations, for which I apologize insofar as it's a lot of viewing, but on the other hand, I don't think you and I will get any further in our discussions here until you review them.

I develop it in more detail as a design concern in the course of my Design Curriculum discussions here with Justin, but those discussions presume knowledge of the Phenomenology material.

 

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