Monday Lab: Gray Sage

I cannot as yet summarize or eulogize or otherwise “state” my response to Greg’s death. It wasn’t that much of a surprise, yet was as hard as they all have been. He was a grandmaster of this activity we do, and he was my friend.

This five-video discussion is more of a celebration of encountering his work, with a little bit of reminiscence occasionally. I don’t have much to add except for these:

  • The modern version of RuneQuest does ‘port in the Passions from Pendragon, which I’d forgotten about when I so-brilliantly suggested doing so. It’s a great fit.
  • I did not mention my critique of Pendragon as a play experience at the single-scenario level as far as the highly staged textual adventures are concerned. They are very nearly scripted plays or dinner theater. I could have contrasted them sharply with the highly character-driven qualities of Hero Wars/HeroQuest, with the proviso that I am not too sure that some of the handlers of the latter titles knew those qualities from experience.

I’d love to see anyone “join” the conversation in the comments, chiming in with titles, experiences, and observations – and crucially, what you’ll be playing soon.


9 responses to “Monday Lab: Gray Sage”

  1. Gray Sage 1

    I'm sorry I missed this seminar and wished I could have participated. Greg Stafford is a significant influence on all my work and Pendragon influenced a lot of my gaming. We were starting a Pendragon campaign the day Mr. Stafford died, so the game became a little more poignant.

    What I found brilliant about Pendragon is how the traits drive the story. And how story can hang on a large or small trait. Games that I run, I’m always looking for ways to exploit this aspect of the game and put characters in situations where they must make decisions using them. Either by being compelled to or by judging your personality using the traits.

    Have a Hatred of Saxons 17? Your lord wants you to escort a Saxon noblewoman to her group and ransom her.  

    Have a Love of Family 13 and Loyalty to your Lord of 18? Stay and defend your manor, or ride into a battle with your lord.

    I will say the game is what I call “A MEAN MISTREATER.” It doesn’t pull any punches and characters die are become disfigured all the time. There are no Hero/Fate points to mitigate damage or help with a roll. All you must rely on is your traits and your passions.

    The great thing is, it’s what the system is supposed to do because of the dynastic way the game is played. If you die or grow old, play the squire, brother, or friend of the knight in question.

    • The ongoing deaths and replacement characters are one of Pendragon's most compelling features. When I talked with Jake Norwood about playing it "all the way, in it until it's done," he mentioned the rather explicit breeding-project that a character becomes: "get an heir and a spare," because you know your current character will sooner or later be slain, or get too sick, or run off into the woods because he's insane

    • That brings up a really

      That brings up a really important point. Like you, my mind instantly jumps to how great contradictory Passions are. And yet, looking at all the behavioral mechanics at once, that gets really messy.

      Let me write that out piece by piece. The Traits are (i) binary/opposed and (ii) non-specific, i.e., strictly based on principles that will apply to many situations. They are primarily built for compelled behavior, either player-directed or GM-directed. The Passions are (i) one-way and (ii), mostly, pretty specific to situations (people, social groups). They are primarily built for a big bonus (Inspiration) and for big comedowns (Melancholy, et cetera).

      Unfortunately the design allows too much bleed between those categories, mainly due to the Passions, in two ways.

      • They include the “compel” feature like Traits, e.g., the GM can say, “Roll your Hatred for Saxons” to see if you assassinate the lady you’re escorting.
      • They include generalized phrasing like “Honor” rather than “Emotion-toward-Object” like “Amor toward Dame Danielle.”

      Therefore if you have contradictory Passions, they end up acting like two sides of a binary Trait, for which you already have a system in place, and if they’re general, then certainly redundant with the existing Traits’ content.

      I don’t see this overlap as a feature but as a bug. It would work much better if the Traits and Passions were on different mechanical and content vectors entirely. For example, your “Chaste” might get triggered as a Trait, and your “Amor for Dame Danielle” (which is consistent with Chaste) might get invoked for Inspiration, but those are independent issues, and you don’t have a “Passion for Chastity” which gums up when and how the Chaste/Lustful Trait system is supposed to work.

      If I play Pendragon one of these days, I think I’ll sand off the Passions a little so that they are only about Inspiration and the various comedowns, and must be very specific rather than widely applicable. Therefore they would represent a genuinely different vector into character behavior from the Traits, instead of overlapping as much as they do.

      Whereas if I play Prince Valiant or modern RuneQuest, which include Passions right out of Pendragon, but not binary Traits, then the positive effects of contradictions get a chance to sing by themselves, and getting/using/invoking them will be the first thing on my mind.

  2. Encore!

    Guys, what a wonderful (and wallet-destroying) conversation! As I was finishing up part 5, I was thinking it was too bad I never played any of his games, when all of a sudden — *Ghostbusters*?! I played that! I mean, it was in high school and it was mostly just screwing around, but I remember various standout details of the game. It was one of the cleanest, clearest and liveliest presentations and rulesets I had seen at that point in an RPG — I think only Marvel Super Heroes came close to it on that score.

    • With these participants, I can always count on learning something. Moreno gets all the credit for that one.

  3. Gray Sage 2

    I was hipped to Runequest in the late ’80s. I had a vague awareness of it, and one of the groups I was involved in started a game and invited me. I knew the system as I had played Stormbringer for years but for some reason, I mentally placed Runequest in the same category as Harn (not sure why).

    • I played an Elf.
    • I fumbled in a fight, lopped off my leg and was eaten by the friend playing a troll.
    • I then went upstairs, listened to The The and didn’t return to Runequest for several years.

    Deluxe Hero Wars was what I considered my first true dive into the oddly askew world of Glorantha. I found it hard to pars and some I blame on the text, but a majority I blame on my approach and consumption of the game. I knew there was something I liked there but couldn’t put my finger on it.

    When the game finally clicked, I had a small cosmic awakening as to what I was holding. It was big; I mean REALLY BIG. Not only was the world big, but it was also realized and informed by Greg’s sensibilities. If you pulled on the fabric of the game, there was a tugging in another part of the game. It made sense, and the holistic approach at building the game’s themes gave a lot of weight to the general play style of the game.

    All of Greg Staffords games require you to engage. You can’t halfway play Runequest or Pendragon. To some, this may be a turn-off, but casual play of the games are a waste of time in my opinion. I’m not saying you have to read every book and have a doctorate level of understanding; just the games compel you to play them and be involved. Both games make you answer the questions

    • Who am I?
    • What do I want?
    • How will I get it?

    The answers will be very different depending on whether you’re playing Pendragon or Runequest, but you are compelled to answer them in some fashion.

    • The comment about not being able to halfplay Pendragon is very true.I've been reviewing the trait system again, and the architecture of it is so complex that I would imagine that beginners to the system would find game play to be interrupted by frequent rereading of rules. One would need a hearty group of gamers to work through the gauntlet.There are a number of additional turns to the Pendragon screw beyond those already mentioned. Here are a few:Conflicting traits: In addition to having the naturally paired opposing traits warring with each other, Stafford also realizes that unrelated and non-opposed traits can also come into conflict! For example, my character might face a situation where the "Valorous" trait comes into conflict with the "Modest" trait. Here's what the rules then state: "By making an opposed roll between two unrelated Traits, you may play your character’s emotions off against each other, emulating the deep introspection of someone tortured by internal doubts. You or your Gamemaster may also set opposed tests of conflicting emotions, requiring you to make several separate unopposed Trait rolls, with varying results depending on which of them was successful and which failed." I see what Stafford is driving at, but it's still hard to wrap your head around, and it would demand some expert players (and a clear-headed GM) to effectively pull off this type of thing in game play.Trait Disputes: Characters can enter into competition with each other using their traits, and these disputes can either involve the characters squaring off with the same trait (such as when the two characters are in some endurance contest requiring the "Energetic" trait) or with opposed traits (such as when one character is asserting his "Proud" trait against another's "Modest" trait. I imagine there could also be yet other disputes between characters where they might pit nonrelated, unopposed traits against each other.Passions: Ron is correct that there is some ambiguity/slippage in the relationship of the passions to the traits. The idea of putting passions and traits on separate vectors is appealing from the standpoint of rules clarity and game play. However, in terms of human psychology (which this system is trying to emulate) passions and traits are not so easily separable. For example, in the "real world," Fear (which Pendragon defines as a possible Passion) could clearly come into conflict with Valour (which it defines as a trait whose opposed trait is cowardice). I'm not sure exactly how I would unravel the trait-passion knot for the game.

  4. Apologies for following a tangent, but you mentioned in the third part later readers of fantasy picking up Elric and it not making sense to them.

    With neither shame nor pride, I have to raise my hand on this one. Tried in adolescence and then twice as an adult and I just couldn’t find a way into the material. Elric as a character failed to capture me. So! Since I’m reading it wrong, consider this an invitation to educate, when, where, how, and if desired.

    • One man’s answer, all generational and personal caveats included.

      I think a person does best to read these three short books (here I’m using the titles of the DAW publications in the 70s): Elric of Melniboné [originally titled “The Dreaming City”], The Weird of the White Wolf [specifically the part called “The Stealer of Souls”], and Stormbringer. Those are the original mid-1960s stories in fictional order, slightly-massaged and not quite the same as order of publication. They include little or no Eternal Champion content and have no maps or need for any. Every scrap of thematic power or sympathy regarding the characters is found in them.

      Forty years ago, I would have died on the hill for the six DAW books as a whole, but frequent re-readings over the years led me to admit that almost all of the additional material in them is filler, whether for playful addition, brand-building, or careless disregard is hard to tell. I haven’t found anything written afterwards featuring Elric to be anything but an arrant waste of time.

      It may be helpful and enjoyable to include listening to contemporary rock albums from the band Hawkwind.

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