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Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Sessions 1-3

Our third proper session was yesterday, and my and my duet buddy's Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha game is starting to heat up.

Backdrop and Situation

We settled on a backwater Orlanthi stead for setting, close to the road to Whitewall. 'Our' clan are the Maul-Mouths, Olontongi who stubbornly held onto their ways (and their rivalry with the Keen-Teeth clan across the road) against the Lunar invasion. They have fairly close ties to the Praxian horse-riders, so there’s a mixture of Praxian and Orlanthi customs. Farangara, the elder of ‘our’ longhouse (inhabited by the Wood-Glory family) is a Daka Fal Shaman, the last of her generation to survive the invasion.

My buddy’s PC, Narmeed, is a vet. An initiate of Storm-Bull, probably aiming for Rune-Lord status. His battle-scars scarified into cult Runes. His warrior mother left the Wood-Glories to marry a Praxian in the city of Pavis. Now her son is coming back to ancestral ground and (thanks to a successful Reputation roll) finding his place among the Wood-Glories.

Unfortunately, the Maul-Mouths are not prospering. They suffered many losses during the invasion. If a Maul-Mouth isn’t missing a hand or an eye, they’re missing a sibling or a spouse, and odds are they’re missing both. 

The Wood-Glories are further divided: They lost a champion, Hastur Dagger-Skull, a Storm-Bull Rune-Lord who took in a motley band of orphans, the Dagger-Skull Boys. He was not kind. In his absence, the Dagger-Skull Boys have been restless trouble, teenagers with spears and swords who idolize a brutal, abusive man.

A young Wood-Glory, Darrald Younger, fought with distinction in the war. He’s well on the path to Rune-Lord of Orlanth Adventurous. However, he and the Dagger-Skull Boys hate each other’s guts because Darrald’s mother is an ex-Lunar colonist. She converted to Orlanth when she married Darrald’s father, changed her name to Darralda. The Dagger-Skull Boys’ viewpoint is “Once a Lunar, always a Lunar.” In their eyes, it doesn’t matter how many imperial warriors Darrald Younger brought low: he and his still stink of Chaos. 

 

My duet buddy has entered this minefield and played Narmeed honestly, unafraid to have real consequences on the family’s social fabric. Long stretches of our first three sessions have been in conversation between characters, descriptions of living conditions, performing ceremonial acts. I think the setting demands this. We’re trying to enter a very alien, occasionally scary bronze-age headspace.

Two scenes have had serious, unpredictable impacts on the story. Neither of us have any idea where this will go.

Trial by Magic

The first (from last week) took place the morning after Narmeed’s arrival on the stead. The Dagger-Skull Boys, led by their just-barely-adult ringleader Vernharl, took Narmeed out to the pasture. Vernharl cast the only Rune spell he knows, Berserk, on his younger brother Olav, who commenced to defeat the other, stronger boys in practice combat. After this demonstration, Vernharl demanded to see Narmeed’s magic. 

Narmeed called upon Storm-Bull to go Berserk. 

This was our first time engaging RQG’s combat system. It was, to put it mildly, brutal. Narmeed put down three of the Dagger-Skull boys before the rest fled. Each young warrior went down in a single round. Even wielding a wooden sword, Narmeed hurt Vernharl badly enough that it later required Rune magic to mend. When the group scattered, he managed to run down one more and lay him out from behind.

For us as players, this scene drove home how dangerous violence is in RQG. A battle cannot be controlled. The scene highlighted, too, how the crossing of various sub-systems can impose unforeseen consequences. Narmeed failed his attempt to snap out of his Berserker battle-trance, and when he had no more enemies to defeat, he still had fourteen minutes before the spell wore off. He came to himself in the mountains north of the stead, unsure of whether or not he had unintentionally murdered a kinsman.

For Narmeed, this scene was key to him taking Hastur’s place at the head of the Dagger-Skull Boys, and also to him understanding his own capacity for violence. He aspires to lead the fledgling cult with a gentler hand than Hastur did, but this runs counter to the boys’ expectations and his god’s.

This tension within Narmeed’s personality drove the second pivotal scene (from yesterday's session). 

"Did you learn something today, Vernharl?" "Yes sir. I learned never to make a bet you can't win."

Narmeed had invited Vernharl, Oav and Darrald Younger to ride horses together into the mountains. The simmering tension between the Storm-Bull worshippers and Darrald boiled over quickly into an argument. Darrald blames Storm-Bull impetuousness for getting friends of his killed during the war. Narmeed followed his worst instincts and kept on needling.

Narmeed challenged Darrald to a hunting competition to see who’s cult gets bragging rights. Darrald agreed and suggested a bet—if he won, he got the enchanted dinosaur skull revered by the Dagger-Skull Boys as a last gift from Hastur. If Narmeed won, he’d get Balk-Sky, Darrald’s beloved warhorse. 

Deciding how to run the hunt took riffling through the book and looking at Skill descriptions. After settling on a procedure, Narmeed went for a Rune augment to supplement his hunting skill. Darrald called upon Orlanth for the Rune spell Raise Wind, hoping to decrease Narmeed's odds with his bow.

Both rolls failed. RQG does a great job at adding texture to failure with Rune augments: The character is out of tune with their Rune and loses a % from their score. I rushed over Darrald's failure in the moment—his casting was happening off-screen, and my buddy was eager to roll. However, in hindsight, I'm curious to explore what that failure means to the NPC: does he interpret it as a sign of Orlanth's will or displeasure? Will it have consequences for his relationship to his cult or his god?

A couple of Ability checks covered the day-long hunt. Narmeed returned with a scrawny stag. Darrald returned late and empty-handed. He gave a tearful farewell to Balk-Sky before walking off alone, murder in his eyes.

Narmeed gifted Balk-Sky to Vernharl’s younger brother Olav. 

Narmeed and Darrald are the Wood-Glories’ most capable warriors. Their rivalry has the potential to tear the frayed webs of kinship apart. Neither of us have any capability (or desire) to predict where this will go.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

First, the influence of the King of Sartar video game on the new RuneQuest is evident, including the core influences of Norse and Celtic sagas. This is like the start of Njal's Saga, which ends up breaking apart a whole way of life and taking many dozens of lives in a horrible, three-generations feud.

I confess I kinda think Narmeed's an asshole - although that is certainly fine when it comes to this sort of story, or nascent-story. One thing about this game, and as I've found based on its most important influences, earliest-RuneQuest and Pendragon, is a freeing quality of being able to play as widely as one pleases, per person. Also, characters can change, or hey, one might even simply be playing the bad guy or partly-bad guy, when the dust clears enough for judgments. At this point, does he have likeable qualities, or perhaps a better question is, what does Fano like about him?

Speaking of Pendragon, what sort of Passions and Rune mechanics are coming into play, if any?

noah_t's picture

Yes! Our situation emerged from reading the descriptions of Orlanthi society in HeroQuest: Thunder Rebels, then imagining those structures bending and breaking under Lunar occupation, then that pressure suddenly disappearing in the Dragonrise. I think the core question RQG poses to its characters is "What will you do with your freedom?" With the real possibility that exercising that freedom will mean the traditions the Orlanthi fought to preserve will vanish or be irrevocably changed.

I agree that Narmeed isn't a very nice person, though I've also witnessed him acting in more positive ways. I admire my buddy's commitment to exploring characters' least admirable impulses. Their nobility is often hard-won. I think my buddy is drawn to Narmeed's protectiveness of the Dagger-Skull Boys—we'll see if he's up to the challenge of raising them with more care than Hastur. Narmeed also wants to be of use. He wants to find a purpose that will benefit his new family. I believe my buddy's compelled by those possibilities, and genuinely interested in discovering if Narmeed can live up to them.

And to be fair, I've been taking what Cults of Prax has to say about the Storm-Bulls pretty seriously, so it's also been interesting to see characters be surprised that Narmeed isn't more uncouth and unrestrained!

(Oh, and quick note, I believe Fano is James's duet buddy for Marvel Heroic. I haven't posted my partner's name yet, though I'm hoping they'll get involved with Adept Play in the near future)

The Runes and Passions have been coming into play quite often. Narmeed's been reaching for augments quite often, generally more for Passions because we're both still internalizing the Runes. The game ensures that, even with scores of 75 or 80%, going for an augment feels risky. They create a space for intensely emotive moments. Roll a crit and an apprentice has a shot at standing up to a master. Roll a fumble and you're looking at the scene in The Iliad when Hector's courage fails him and Achilles pursues him around the walls of Troy.

The GM offering Checks works well to highlight how a character's choices sculpt their personality. I really like using the Passions as a prep tool. All my NPCs have 3-4. There are no abstract Passions. Pointing a Love or Hate Passion at another character implies action.

After lots of Imp of the Perverse, I do feel that Runes and Passions could fluctuate more rapidly. Unless you fumble, a roll won't lead to a permanent change in the percentage, and it may only be a few points. However, the game is geared to dedicated long-term play. I'm curious to see how radically these drips and drops sculpt a character sheet over time.

Ron Edwards's picture

Damn. Sorry about the name. I know some anonymity is necessary when people don't want their names used, or if the posting person doesn't know whether they do, but it's always disastrous for me during multiple discussions.

I think I get what you mean about Narmeed as a person, or character, or agent. The RuneQuest game I played and presented here beginning with RuneQuest 1980: Brambly hick coming-of-age fantasy also includes the troubled youngsters, toxic adults, taboo/difficult cultural context, and - the reason I'm bringing it up - at least one player-character who by simple story-models veered close to being a villain, at least inadvertently so.

The rules version we were using was surprisingly supportive of moral choices of this kind, despite lacking specific mechanics. I think that's because we were using and playing cults intensively, as well as paying a lot of attention to every possible application of Charisma and Power. I can definitely see the new rules (augments and the concept of affinities from HeroQuest, Passions and the equivalent of Traits from Pendragon) jumping right into position, as if there were a niche waiting for them.

noah_t's picture

No worries on the name. I haven't yet had a chance to listen to those actual plays, but they are on my list. I'd be curious to see how POW and CHA are put to use in them. This question regarding morality is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the backdrop of our setting implies that Narmeed and the Dagger-Skull Boys are coming from a uniquely toxic background. A lot of Wood-Glories are carrying around trauma from the invasion, but it feels like our Storm-Bull characters are especially conditioned to seek catharsis in violence.

Second, the Passion mechanics give a view of the internal psychology of a character. To the two of us at the table, Narmeed didn't come off quite as badly in the Trial by Magic scene because he successfully Augmented his chances of snapping out of his Berserker state with his Love (Wood-Glory) Passion. He missed the subsequent INTx5 roll by a close margin. We could see his better instincts warring and aaaaaalmost winning against his worst ones.

Ron Edwards's picture

That is a really good point about perceiving a given conflict differently based on the known odds or the knowledge of "almost" regarding the outcome. Giving some sympathy or some moral credit on that basis to Narmeed makes a lot of sense and is very familiar to me from play.

It raises a lot of important points about role-playing in general, for example, that an "outcome" is not unaffected by how it came about, numerically speaking.

Here's an example which adds a third vector of dramatic intention as well, especially for some kind of induced state rather than a physical act.When character A falls into a berserker rage vs. when character B falls into a berserker rage may refer both cases to the same "box" of text in the rules, but if character A only had a 10% chance and really wanted to, and character B had a 90% chance and really didn't want to ... well, all of a sudden, there's a big difference in "what happened" despite using that same rules-box that describes the effects and rules of being berserk.

I used the word "numerical" rather than "probability" on purpose, because the latter is a subset of the former, and the former includes more than quantities or percentages. It includes ordering, for example, so in some systems with no dice or any similar devices, the ordering of speaking (who says what, when) will play the same experiential role in adding meaning to what happened.

noah_t's picture

It's a feature of dice procedures that I haven't heard discussed very much, but in the right applications, I've seen it add a lot of texture to play. Near misses or almost but not-quite failures in tense situations have a way of heightening the drama. They practically beg for the slo-mo camera treatment. And I'll also be curious to ask my fellow player how this moment with Narmeed influenced his later characterization...if he'd fumbled his Meditation roll, instead of missing by a hair, I wonder if it would have led to Narmeed indulging more deeply in the violent side of his personality.

James_Nostack's picture

I have zero knowledge of Glorantha, but I just want to say how much I like the initial conditions here.   

One question: WHY does Narveed want to lead these guys?  Aside from glory and prestige, is there something he wants to accomplish with them?

Ron Edwards's picture

I made a little video that may factor into the topic: Storm Bull thoughts.

noah_t's picture

That's a great question, James! As we're still finding out feet in Glorantha, my buddy hasn't much articulated or explored what his long-term goals are. In fact, he wanted to start his character as lost, as looking for a purpose.

I think his reaction to the Dagger-Skull Boys is strongly emotional. I certainly didn't prep them with the intention of them being Narmeed's retinue, and (depending on how Narmeed's actions) they could just as easily have turned hostile. Hell, they still could.

I wanted to explore some of the loss the Wood-Glory family has suffered, and how that might affect these young characters, particularly if they were brought up in a toxic environment. My buddy perceived this (rightly) as an opportunity to step into the vacuum left by Hastur. So far he's been working to set a more circumspect, less violent example for the Boys. I'd guess that right now his long-term goal is to train and nurture these children in a way that prepares them for adulthood, and possibly find a way for the band to serve the community.

Ron, it was quite exciting to wake up and see Storm Bull in my video feed this morning. I whole-heartedly concur with your reading of our game—in fact, I can't really imagine running the game just based on the RQG book. The two Cults books and some HQ material seem like required reading. I haven't read Cults of Terror very closely, but I'm excited to see the further nuance it adds.

One thing your post helped me notice is that, RAW, PCs start with 75% in a Rune and a Passion. They can't be 'overtaken' by a Passion or a god until the score is at 80%. An emergent property of this is that it lets players explore their characters (and possibly even shift cult membership) before they have to reckon with the more intrusive aspects of these Abilities.

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