Fearshock, decapitation, village insurrection, gaining a fetch

Thinking about what-next per session is pretty hard for this sort of naturalistic play, especially when circumstances don’t lend themselves to substantial cuts. I’d have to think for a while to understand why that’s not a problem in playing Sorcerer, for example. (It doesn’t have explicit scene-type mechanics either.)

In this case, I put some work into the back-story for the characters’ village, expanding the geography of “the world we’ve seen” a little bit, and looting a few of the wonderful RuneQuest materials I have. I could be using any game which offered relevant, adaptable stuff, but I always got a nice little charge from using RQ material when I was playing Hero Wars set in Glorantha, and I find it’s just as nice to do so now, while not in Glorantha but using what I think of as “my” edition of RuneQuest. But the trouble is, this is not the sort of material which lends itself to such prep. Play is not really about encountering, uh, encounters.

This applies especially to NPCs with some weight and heft. In this game, characters are so shaped by use that making a logical NPC, or rather in the same “language” as the way a player-character would develop through time, is tough without the play-experience to back it up. When making up a character like Vakia, or worse, Karva, the priestess who appeared briefly at the start of the first session, I’m guessing most of the time.

Anyway, I prepared a fairly thorough modification of a certain famous scary-ass cave system, reimagining it as tangled thickets, substantial mounds, and bogs rather than caves. Its textual contents were pretty well-suited to what I had in mind, but I did have to go through it and re-interpret and sometimes replace things.

Of course, play never got there, and as it happened, one of the other maps I’d reserved turned out to be just what I needed instead. And I’m OK with the work done, including conceptual back-story as well as bogs and thickets, because it fully informed how four or five NPCs dealt with the events during play. You’ll see that our play became very … well, I hope it’s not boring, but the final third is definitely slower-paced, thought-heavy, almost deliberate character interactions rather than action.

Now I want to talk about RuneQuest character development and (yay!) a rules diagram, for this edition.

Take a look at that cycle at the top left, with the blue arrows: it is, pretty much, the bulk of the rules, defining the situation and activities for beginning characters and a fair piece of following play. Briefly: by using skills and attributes, you increase them. You also increase them through scrolls you may find. Otherwise, you pay for training in them too with the money and treasure you get, presumably at the same time you are using (and increasing) the skills and attributes.

The rules are super-explicit that this is the point. Characters even start in hock to various guilds and cults, so they pretty much have to run off and find loot somewhere. And once embarked, the cycle is self-reinforcing and satisfying (if you don’t get eaten or lose a limb).

And then there comes this other thing, indicated by the red arrows: first encountering, then beginning, and with any luck, achieving a fully different plateau of play. Once fully there, your magic is based mainly on maintaining a high Power, but regularly sacrificing some to entities such that you are yourself a semi-divine and/or spirit being.

The mechanical link is real; participating in rune-level magic requires various attributes and skills to be high (hence the red plusses), and often has percentages for being accepted which imply you ought not to try until you’re bulked up some. But it also has social context which necessarily comes straight from play history: do you even know a shaman? Do you want to apprentice yourself to him or her? Why? Want to get initiated into a cult? Which one? Why? All of these people (shamans, priests) are fully integrated into the setting, especially the immediate geography with its history, opportunities, threats, and social problems, especially wars. Getting involved in such things means you must definitely stop being “a wandering adventurer, living by my wits and my sword,” and start being someone who cares about this exact spot at this exact moment.

In our game, I’m deliberately removing the debt-and-money arrows from the initial cycle, and using the training and scroll rules as pretty-much ongoing processes in the lives of these young adults. I guess it’s not too surprising, given my relentless focus on the pantheon and its social expression, that the characters are coming up on their comprehension of the next step pretty fast. For my part, it seems sudden; I’m still working out what the textual standards for initiation mean for this setting, both in literal requirements and in relation to other skills and general competence. So I guess we’re getting to that stuff soon.

One character, Alkerton, provides a relatively easy procedural case, as he began apprenticed to a shaman and events of play have very logically carried him to the point of going for the “become a real shaman” step. He succeeded in acquiring a fetch, and that’s that. This is perfectly excellent because now we can have events and information in terms of the spirit plane.

The others are a little trickier. Their sense of “next step” is more tightly intertwined with the opportunities and compelling circumstances that are wholly on me to present, and I want to avoid simply scripting “well, now Binry gets initiated to Nea,” for example. Characters of this experience level are very often observed to accompany more powerful characters into danger, and it would have been entirely in the spirit and practice of the historical game for them to go with Vakia to confront Karva at Green Rock. You can see me struggle a little bit – in-character, as it happens – when Vakia decided to have them stay behind while she went to find Karva alone, knowing that she was basically writing a death-sentence on herself. I mean, if they want to run after her anyway, they can, but I didn’t want to direct them in the fashion that such NPCs’ presence and priorities typically imply.


6 responses to “Fearshock, decapitation, village insurrection, gaining a fetch”

  1. compared to Pendragon?

    Ron, what's the competency of RQ 80 characters vis-a-vis starting knights in Pendragon, which as I understand it is based on a somewhat similar core loop of rules?  In our games of Pendragon, we were laughably inept at almost everything, except perhaps one or two skills (mainly due to family heritage bonuses, determined randomly during character generation).

    What I found in play is that, yeah, my guy COULD try to impress these people who are totally into falconry with his pitiful Falconry 3 score, but if I could somehow manipulate the situation so that I could bring in my pretty buff Singing 15 skill, that'd be much better.  (This wasn't always possible, but sometimes you could get away with it.)  Which led to this spiral of, "Okay, I'm singing, so I'm getting a lot better at singing.  Meanwhile, I still suck at falconry."

    This was, possibly, a GM-ing style issue, since we were thrown into situations that were both important to us but also could be resolved in a lot of different fashions. 

    I'm wondering if RuneQuest kind of fosters the same approach.  After 20 or so adventures, I was pretty good at a number of skills, but there was some stuff I just prayed would never matter.

    • I have found us to be

      I have found us to be relatively incompetent with a lot of abilities in the 20-40% range and nothing over 50%, and just a little bit of magic. Now, in game that has been reasonably explained away — we're young adults, just starting out on the journey of life, and the more competent adults around us are beacons for who we might want to be.

      That is part of the schtik of RQ in my memory – deadly, scary and tough to survive long enough to get competent. It makes a different dynamic to play from HeroQuest Glorantha.

      It's certainly easier to do 'scary' with those numbers too. It's clear there are a lot of 'more competent' opponents out there. Of course, as ever with RQ, we can get flattered by a couple of lucky rolls that put an opponent down fast. Still, I would expect that to happen to a PC sooner or later. Fights are brutal, and we have no armor. A PC death can't be far out IMO.



    • Sorry about the delay – most of my games are now out of boxes and shelved (albeit not yet organized), and Pendragon happened to be one of the exceptions. But the search led me to discover a cache of games I'd otherwise be stressing about, so that's good.

      Pendragon 3rd

      I’m not familiar with all the editions of the game; mine is the one pictured here. Starting characters are actually a fair piece better than in our game, if you can believe it, as they get a handful of skills at 50% or so. In RuneQuest 1980, you're lucky to get 35% in one or two – keeping in mind though that the starting player-characters are 16 years old and presumed to be hicks.

      Furthermore, Pendragon includes a number of orthogonal or modifying features like the Traits and Passions, which feed into effectiveness in different ways. (Not that I've ever seen any two gamers agree on how they work, but never mind that.) There's emphatically nothing of the sort in RuneQuest.

      Anyway, I guess I see what you're describing as a feature rather than a bug. If my knight (unlike yours) can't sing, and doesn't get a lucky roll in the beginning to maybe kickstart some increases, then well, he can't, and that might even become a useful and fun thing about him. "Can you not join us in our wassail, Sir Thom?" "Ummm …" cue one of those gaudy Malory-style disasters in which a nice dinner turns into a massacre and a feud that winds up in front of Arthur's judgment, the poor bastard. Goddamit Lancelot, you slaughtered everyone in a pavilion again?

      I typically don't go with realism as a justification, but to a small extent, I will – after all, there are a lot of things on that character sheet that I personally am no good at. But that aside, and on safer ground, it's definitely part of this setting and literary influence to see exactly those things pop up as sources of trouble, even for experienced and formidable knights. Maybe even especially for them.

      In RuneQuest, it's a little different, as there's no equivalent literary grounding, either for what conflict-heavy situations are supposed to look like, or for any comprehensible profile for a "solid" experienced player-character. It pretty much comes down to, well, try anything and everything, a hell of a lot, don't give up and keep doing it, and see what sticks … and presuming you keep your arms and legs long enough, you'll hook up with a cult and get a ton of training in their skills, which will probably become your profile in addition to anything you happen to have beefed up. The latter, statistically, will be a subset of all the stuff you've tried repeatedly, rather than its full range.

      The similarity does seem to be that you just aren't going to end up with a "well-rounded" character. You're playing someone shaped very much by what they've tried and a relatively random outcome in terms of what they've succeeded at and made their improvement rolls for. Obviously it won't be entirely random as one will tend to stick with successful things to date, especially for fighting. There's a sweet spot of semi-reliable combat skill + semi-reliable improvement roll, starting lower than I'd expected, at about 35%, and I think it's during this time that the character gets "shaped" into his or her more adult, more cult-attention form.


    • Following along I think its

      Following along I think its been interesting how the relatively low skills and chance of success have combined with the initiative ssytem and the criticals / fumbles to deliver what seems like quite unpredictable combats, and with the potential to deliver interesting outcomes that impact the story beyond we won / we lost. It wouldn't take many rolls to go a bit differently to imagine Jhynathon going quite another way character choice wise in the previous session for example.

      On the otherhand as players I imagine it might be a bit frustrating to be flailing away and missing all the time and hoping that its your character who finally gets in the lucky blow, not the other guy.

  2. Thoughts on lethality

    It's amazing that none of the player-characters has been killed or at least maimed. Granted, I have not thrown the equivalent of a great troll or a half-dozen broo at them, but the opponents have been tough enough. In the fight at the campfire, one foe was similar to the player-characters but was aided by a Fanaticism spell, another was somewhat better than them, as well as aided by a Mobility spell, and the third was pretty good at knife and unarmed fighting, and aided by an Invisibility spell. When the melee was confused with lots of people stumbling around, I paid attention to where the player-characters were moving and chose them as targets whenever possible. Ian's character took a head wound, literally stabbed in the face, with a reasonably good damage roll which fully incapacitated him and with a superior damage roll would have been fatal; if Gordon's guy hadn't made that crucial shield parry roll, the Fanaticism-aided spear thrust would certainly have hurt him badly.

    None of the characters are wearing good armor, but they aren't entirely unarmored either; I'm taking into account the heavy robe/hood garment that's standard for the culture, and the limb wrappings. They just haven't really been hit in the protected areas enough to notice. If they decide to protect themselves more, the village has the resources to do it – not to the point of full ringmail or anything, but not too bad either.

    The closest call came in the last session, when they were attacked by the shade – those things are horrible, inflicting something called "fearshock" which can drop you dead in your tracks and indeed did that exact thing to an NPC. Gordon's character got hit by it and I followed the rules with some trepidation – he successfully rolled to "save vs. death" in the parlance of another game, and he might well not have.

    Matthew's character was also in more danger than events perhaps indicated, in combat with the enslaved shaman-spirit. They deadlocked with mutual failure a couple of times, indicating that they were in a spirit-plane mutual stranglehold with neither gaining advantage, but this was the first time that Alkerton was really in statistical danger at this kind of confrontation, and a good roll on its part could have bumped him into a 15% disadvantage – which in this edition is a real invitation to a death-spiral. It also helped that other circumstances, when Vakia killed Ebban, led that spirit to break away after a successful roll instead of capitalizing on it. But I didn't plan either event or time them to occur in a way that helped Alkerton; it just worked out that way.

    • Yeah, I feel like Binry –

      Yeah, I feel like Binry – Alkerton and Jhynathan too – have been pretty imperiled. I did choose to give Binry a large shield (he started at 40%, and is now 45%) intentionally as a "this may be the best way to preserve his life" option – but a coin flip to live or die isn't exactly comforting.

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