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The shape of the Circle

Here's a good example of what Actual Play posting here can be: reflections afterwards. I recommend it. Here the game author is involved and thus rules questions abound, but whoever and about whatever is totally OK too.

For Circle people, the rules questions included how order-of-action relates to groups, and some math concerning the components in a venture, both of which did require some clarification of the text.

We talked quite a bit about other features of the game, especially shared character ownership, pacing and control of ventures (i.e. none), and the distinction between Charm and influencing others' behavior. You'll also find some thoughts on splotches and unicorns.

Pretty, pretty unicorns.

Thanks to Giulia, Saverio, and Simone for talking with me about it!

Actual Play


I protest, at the end of the clip you underestimated the tactical perfection of my plan!

The summoned unicorn had to fly away to kill the ghouls, and THEN return to us to kill the knight (I wasn't playing the designated vict... target anyway, of course). All was part of the plan, we had to be seen by people as a target for the unicorn, not the summoners. And we had a lot of long-range spell.   And of course the plan worked perfectly, we did kill the unicorn without losing anyone! (In this way we did "save" the town - nobody saw me summoning the unicorn - and everybody was very grateful)

It was the perfect plan! Because my plans are always perfect! (insert Evil Laughter here...)

(and you should have heard the proposed plans from the other characters...  total party kill assured... I remember one of them as based on casting a series of black spell without being seen or heard (or smelled) from people less than 3 meters away...)

Love D's picture

Just wanted to chime in and say that this was a lot of fun to watch. Your celebratory exitement of your ventures/play was contagious. I broke out the Circle of Hands book again, you know, just to look up what was so bad about the unicorn (oh my..) and I lost the better part the night.

Moreno, that is absolutely awful. How many died because of that?

Nobody, as far as I can recall (the session was played last summer at Etruscon, more than 9 months ago, I don't remember every detail)

What I remember: It was a venture in a border village in the kingdom of Rolke, dominated by a total a**hole who as favorite entertainment loved to put prisoners in front of an audience to fight unarmed against a couple of ghouls he captured.

The... "problems" was that we did succeed in every charm roll. The a**hole welcomed the knights, pledged fealty to the king of Rolke,  assured us that he would have defended the border against the kingdom's enemies, and happily gave us a piece of tecnology (a particular ballista) that was the lowest component and our reason to be there. Not only that, but he was actually a good military leader that would have been very useful as an ally.

So we wanted to stop the "public dinners", but without harming an ally or endangering that alliance. And at this point the game stopped for a while, with all the players debating about the best course of action. I was the only one who had played the game before, I think, and a problem with the debate was that the other players I guess did not realize how different was this game and this setting from the usual "fantasy rpgs", and continued to propose plans that I think would have been disastrous. By the other hand they continued to shoot down my own plans, i don't know why (they were perfect, after all...)

I had played an Unicorn recently (as the GM in a venture with my usual group) and I remembered the precise killing order stated in the book (first, the undead, then whoever used Rbaja magic and got black points, then perpetrators of cruelty. So he would have attacked in order: the ghouls, the only one of us with black points, and only after that he would have attacked the a**hole.  So I proposed another plan, and this time the fact that they did not know very well the manual did work in my favor (they had never fought an Unicorn in CoH) devil

There was a miscommunication with Simone (the GM) at this point. I wanted to summon the unicorn far, very, very far from the village, to avoid being seen or heard. There was a mountain (or a cliff, i don't remember) near the village that would have allowed us (I thought) to have the unicorn in a clear line-of-sight from a long distance, before he could reach us, so all we had to do would have been to run the short distance between the summoning point (hidden from view) to the border of the cliff/mountain, and attack the unicorn from afar.

AFTER we had summoned the unicorn and he had killed the ghouls, Simone told us that we had misjudged the scale of the map, we were very near the ghouls cage, and we were engaged in combat right away without any "free rounds" of shooting. (I still think that my knight would have noticed something like that before the summoning...   angry).  From what I recall I shouted (in character) to the knight with black points something like "run away, fool!" and we did shoot down the unicorn from behind when he did pass us trying to skever the fleeing knight...

So, at the end, mission accomplished, the a**hole thanked us for having saved the village from the monster. My plan worked perfectly (of course it did! )  cool

Ron Edwards's picture

Both of the games discussed in the video and here in the comments allow me to follow up on a point I made in the video, concerning what’s probably the most important single rule in the game.

The venture will benefit the king in Rolke and strike a blow against the dualist magical war, unless all of the tripwires have been hit.

This doesn’t match any of the expectations one finds in RPGs which feature a group of relatively deadly, highly motivated, allied teammates whose exploits concern visiting new locations and meddling in their affairs.

I don’t think I need to describe those expectations in too much detail. They include “finding out what’s wrong” and “figuring out what to do,” as well as many subroutines concerning what non-player-characters are for. They are based on the assumption, or understanding, that everything that will result from this experience of play will be taken as caused from the exact things they did.

Putting aside the tripwire(s) for the moment, except to remind everyone that the players don’t know what they are and therefore can’t try to avoid them, in Circle of Hands, that’s simply the case. The venture is going to work, almost all the time. Its results will benefit the king in Rolke and the Circle as an institution. Almost all the time, and there’s not much you can do about affecting the chances.

Therefore the characters are more or less motivated to, for instance, secure the knowledge or an alliance … but the players don’t have to be. Even if the events of the venture leave the knowledge destroyed and lost, or end with the local powerful individuals swearing hatred and vengeance against Rolke, or with the knights fleeing pell-mell ahead of an angry countryside, or hell, maybe someone cast Volcano and the place is a charred smoking ruin with refugees stragglingin all directions. Or the Circle knights are all killed and the freed lich-lord laughs in delight, stretching his blacked corpse-hands to the skies. … it’s probably going to work out well for Rolke, and ultimately against the disastrous binary war between the forces of light vs. darkness.

Think about that for the characters in the situation with the successful Charm rolls. They were able to pull off the diplomacy, with the unpleasant local chief and the ghoul-gladiator pits … and do you see why players who don’t understand that principle would feel a bit at sea? “Oh no, we can’t act on our preferences and kill this bastard, that would threaten the alliance!” No, it won’t. Kill him if you want.

This also goes with our discussion of most of the game as well, because many of the concerns that were brought up, like how information gets doled out, or what Charm roles achieve, are often embedded in the understanding that’s appropriate to other games and very much not to this one. The questions and answers were important on their own, as matter of understanding rules for their own sake/value, but I suspect my answers won’t be very satisfying if that inappropriate understanding is in place.

In Circle of Hands, you’re responsible for personal dramatic portraiture, and for developing it. Not for “saving the town,” although some of the characters may be invested in that, nor for “serving the king’s vision,” although all of them are invested in that.

Hi Ron!  I was wondering... why the rule you talk about at the end, about unnamed character, together with named character, always acting first? (I mean, I am not asking HOW the rule works, I am asking WHY, the reason)

I am wondering this now because, i realize now, I always avoided that rule. Playing as the GM, every time there was a fight, and there was a unnamed guy fighting together with Achilles and Hercules, at this point I considered him recognizable enough ("Ah, the guy who fight with Achilles and Hercules, what a guy!") to ascend him on the spot (leaving an eventual charm roll, if they are still alive at that point, to do after the fight).  So in every fight all the partecipants were named (keep in mind that I think I GM maybe 4-5 ventures, so I didn't have a lot of fights). I didn't even do it specifically to avoid that rule (i had even forgotten it existed), it semply seemed the thing to do.

Playing as a player (not a GM) in a CoH "saga" for the first time, I found myself for the first time having to use that rule, and that made my think about it, and wonder about the reason for it.

Second question, this time about HOW the rule works: how it works in this situation? Two group of people, half a dozen each, half of which are unamed on each side.  One group is charging with horses using ranged weapon until it can close the distance, the other scramble to get weapons, but if they are fast enough they can have ranged weapons too.

If the group with the Knights had only named characters, from my understanding of the rules, we would use the rule on page 102, meaning: the unamed people shoot at three, we can't attack them first when they are unarmed, and engage us in rangeed conflict, we roll on quickness and we get damage (if we roll under) or we remove one of them each from combat (if we roll higher), and in this case we could say retroactively they didn't reach the weapons in time, I don't know, then we fight the named people

(it seems easy enough, but it irks me not being able to cast spells to them before they act - they are only 2-3 persons, and I am not sure about the order following that: the knights are knocked to the bottom of the list or we still are arranged in quickness order if we didn''t get damage?]

But if we have unamed characters on both sides...  how it works? They fight among them before everybody else?

Ron Edwards's picture

Given your later comment, I think the basic rules question has been answered. Thanks for looking through the other posts.

For everything else, I have one thing to tell you: let Simone do it. Just close the book.

The rules work. I'm saying that they are not your personal responsibility. Is this because you're not "the GM?" No, it's because reading rules is exactly your way of ruining play for yourself, as you keep combing through the pages and wargaming scenarios in your head. Try playing the game without being the expert at the table for once.

Ron, don't you think that I am better qualified to know what ruin (or doesn't ruin) a game for me?

Playing a game without knowing the rules is not a new experience for me. It happened many times. And each time is an horrible experience, frustrating for me and probably for the GM (I know I am frustrated with players who don't know the rules, I would really like NOT to the be the "expert" at the table, because when I am, and I am the GM too, it's usually a bland, flavorless experience. It's like playting Dogs in the Vineyard with players that only say "I shoot him" because they don't know how to play it, and I am tired of explaining it. Or playing CoH with players that play like it's D&D because they didn't even read the rundown, two ventures both with a total party kill by peasants, and they still don't get it. Both are things that happened, and this is the reason why with that group I only play The Pool. Being the only one who know the rules is crap. Having even a single player at the table that know the rules helps a lot, because he can at least show the others how the game works)

Playing a game without knowing the rules can work in two ways: the first, that I think it's the one you are pointing to, it's to drop all the hard work in the GM's lap, making him work for my fun. Probably I would like to do it, for revenge, with a lot of players that did it to me, before I stopped playing with them. But it would still not be fun for me, I would simply suffer if I can make them suffer more. The other (that for my enjoyiment of a game is the same one, it simply means that I don't already hate the GM) is to be totally paralized. It's like the first time I had to play volleyball at school and nobody bothered to explain me the rules. It's like being called to the blackboard by the teacher and you didn't study anything because it really wasn't your turn. It's like being told to play a character with passion and agency, but without giving you anything that could make him actually do something. It's like asking "mother, may I?" every time you play a character.  It's like the first session of this Circle of Hands campaign.

Having played the game before, more than once, both as a GM (not counting the playtests, two ventures, then I stopped because having the players not know the rules or the setting was making the experience frustrating and the lives of the knights really short) and as players (two single sessions game at conventions, the last one is the one with the Unicorn I talked about in the first comment that was halted for almost an hour of discussions because the other players didn't know the rules - and I don't mean that "I" halted the game debating rules, they debated even between themselves, trying to grope and guess what they could do, and come up with a plan in the fiction. Nobody knew what they could do) I thought that I only had to refresh my memory and I could play. When I had other things take that time and I had to play without refreshing my memory, I realized that after more than two years from the last time I barely remembered the rules, and not enough to play (I mean, really play, not asking "mother may I"). The first session I didn't remember any spell (and I played a wizard), botched some mechanical choices, and I played it really "Old-School". Meaning "trying to avoid the use of the system at any cost, talk to the GM and try to gey things that way".

It was really, really frustrating, so before the next session I made sure to take the time to read again the manual, top to bottom, to be able to play knowing what I was doing. And just for that the second session was way, way, way better, ending with my wizard throwing a spear, after making a black oath and with the advantage die, to a Rbaja wizard.
The previous week, I didn't even remember oath existed. And I had already seen it playing all the previous times: nobody ever use oaths, if they don't know the rules. Nobody uses spears, they think they are weak weapons. I used spells, how could I without knowing them? Ask the GM "there is a sort of magic missile in this game? Or a fireball?"

Ron, really, I was present at most of the hundreds of sessions (more than a thousand I think at this point) I played at dozens of different games. Believe me, what totally ruin a game for me is NOT knowing the rules...

(I thought that this clarification was necessary because it's not the first time that you answer me this way, and I wanted to clear this total misunderstanding of what really ruin games for me. I am leaving the actual play part to my next comment)

Ron Edwards's picture

We disagree and should not debate it. I won't argue with you about living your life.

But I'm not going to participate in what I think is self-destructive behavior. I've seen you pay for exactly this attitude with immense stress, more than anyone should have to. This is how I see it: that your determination to stave off dysfunction by knowing the rules perfectly - and indeed anticipating anything about upcoming play, that could ever happen, always - is not helping. Nor is casting yourself, or being cast, as the expert at the table. It hasn't helped, no matter how determined you've been.

It's important to me that you have fun role-playing, especially these recent games of Sorcerer and Circle of Hands. I am convinced that getting deep into the what-if rules-this-and-that discussions with you will run directly against it. If I'm wrong, then that's one more person who will just have to be wrong on the internet today.

Reading the other posts about CoH in AdeptPlay I found the answer to one of the questions above, and at the same time I discovered that I had misunderstood a rule (and played it wrong when I GM'd this game)

From here:
"[...]2. Regarding your Vine + Suck or any similar situation, the character does not lose his or her time-slot. We could go into why or why not, or try out this or that case study, but that is going to be the answer in all cases as long as the character isn't incapacitated in some way.[...]

I thought that ANY damage upon a partecipant in a fight would send him to the back of the queue...  I checked the book and only then realized that the text actually say that only inside the "clash" subroutine... ooops!

So, when the unnamed people attacks the knights at 3:00, if the knights are not killed or incapacitated (in which case they are out of the immediate conflict, apart as possible helpless target of more attacks) they STAY in their position in the queue...  well, this makes the 3:00 o'clock attacks from the nameless less problematic, but if it affect the use of spells too...  So, if I blast a guy running toward someone with a lance, if I don't incapacitate him with the spell (reducing BOTH his Q and B to zero), he doesn't drop back in the queue and will still attack in the same "slot" as before?

I have another questions about unnamed characters too...  in the game text, the group rules are used when the knights are against "four or more people per knight, perhaps adjusted up or down a bit depending on circumstances.". So, for example,  three knights together could fight up to 9 unnamed characters without activating the group rules...  or it's up to 11? We round up or we round down? (that "perhaps adjusted up or down a bit depending on circumstances" make me think that it would be decided by the GM depending on the situation, but I am not sure, and knowing how to round up or down would still be useful for the next question)

If more than one Knights are fighting against more than 1 unnamed person with held weapons I think that (if it's not a scrum) the GM should assign each unnamed as an attacker to one of the knights, and each knight would roll his "Quickness vs 12" roll only against his own attackers, so for example he fail his roll, but only 2 or the 4 unnamed people attacked specifically him, the bonus to the damage is only +6, not +12 , am I right?

But what happen when the two groups are shooting arrows at each other, and the unnamed are targeting the group of knights, not an individual? The GM should divide the attackers as in the previous case? The rules say "if you fail, then the difference is Damage to you, +3 per character who’s attacking", but counting the entire group of unnamed in this case seems a little too harsh. By the other hand if we divide the number of attackers by the number of Knights, the result could be something like 1.5 or 1.33 attacker each...

Ron Edwards's picture

"What happens when," "What happens when." Also, "Why, why, why." Please stop. It's not helping you enjoy the game. Let someone else read the rules and apply them.

I'm much more interested in the characters you play, and how the other people at the table play them too.

The question was not a "what if", it's a "this really happened and caused problems in the game" question.

And the GM asked me to ask you about it.

One of the two charging knights was my Gentry Wizard from Rolke, in full armor (we did know that it would have been probably a fight - we were going to ask a Rbaja wizard to give us a Rbaja artifact to destroy it, after all). The other was a Outdoorswoman from Tamaryon (the third knight was not with us). Charging with us was a local (Famberge) chief (gentry) with half a dozen of his men, all fully armed and ready for a raid. We caught the wizard's men during a black ceremony so foul that my character called for a surprise attack without even trying to negotiate, the local chief agreed and we charged the enemy, that was probably under some sort of inflence by the way they were disorganized and with no sentinels. They were two named characters and their unnamed men, around a dozen total.

And at this point... we didn't know how to play it. Before making a ruling Simone checked the rules, I checked the rules, but we didn't find how to play. So Simone's ruling was that our charge was in different directions, and "just by chance" all the named characters on our side went the same way, with no unnamed character with them.

The battle is still raging on. I proclamed my oath (destroy the artifact), pumped B to go first and then I threw my spear at the wizard, hitting him with a total of 12 points of damage (why so little damege? At this point, seeing that the wizard was trying to cast a spell but not to attack me with weapons, he declared it a roll of Quickness vs 12 and not a clash. After the game he realized it was an error - we are both trying to understand and remember the game after having played it years ago, so there are a lot of mistake until we are used to the rules).

The other knight tried to guide his horse to trample and attack the other named enemy, that was trying to shoot my character with an arrow (I don't know why the trample, we didn't talk about his reasons afterwards, after the session thinking about some dialogue I suspect that he didn't remember that his almost weaponless - by background - outdoorswoman was equipped and trained by the circle, he didn't read the manual at all), and Simone at this point closed the sessions because we were clearly out of our dephts with the rules, after two ruling he wasn't sure about and another move he didn't know how to play he said that if was better to stop it there and play the rest of the battle the next week, after checking the rules.

And he specifically asked me to ask you. Should I go back and say to him "Ron told me to ask you"? What if he tells me "no, really, ask Ron"?  (no, wait, this is an hypothetical question. The only one until now, all the other were about actual play situation we encountered in the game...)

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes, Simone should ask me.

Years ago I created a corrected spell list for personal use. It's not pretty, I don't have professional pdf editing tools and I don't really know how to use what I have, but I was able to take the page from the site ( ) and change the names and positions of the spells (the list in the book and the site contains spells that no longer exist with that name, like "Healing", spells listed with the wrong cost like Absorb or with the wrong duration like Sacrifice)

You can download the corrected list from here:

The link will expire in one week, I hope that someone will put it (or a better version of it) in a more permanent storage

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