My duet buddy and I have played another two sessions of Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. We agree that last session constituted a huge step forward in our game.
This didn’t emerge ex nihilo. Dialog here at Adept Play laid the groundwork for it, and conversation with my fellow player helped us recognize it. But we accessed the “Whoa, where did THAT come from?” factor, unpremeditated, in the moment of play.
The process of reflecting on on our last two sessions has been really instructive for me, particularly in light of the discussion over at Claudio’s Seminar post “Should a guitar play itself?” I want to examine two specific scenes and what they taught us about ourselves as creators and RQG as an instrument in play.
Narmeed Dreams of a Demon-Dog
For those following along with the narrative, my last post left off with Narmeed escorting Petrada and Willandring Crag-Stamp down to the stead to stand accused of consorting with Chaos. Unbeknownst to anyone in-game, they also carried a Broo-tainted shearing knife down with them.
Long story short, with Narmeed and Darrald’s support, the Crag-Stamps were spared exile. They lost their right to the mountain pasture where they’d grazed sheep most of their lives, they lost the independence they valued so highly, but at least they were not cut off from their kinship network.
Cut to the beginning of Darkness Season, and the stead has been overtaken by a chaotically virulent strain of Thunder Lung. The family’s Rune Priest, Grandmother Farrangara, has been able to heal enough people to keep the stead functioning, but casting out disease spirits requires constant Spirit Combat and the expenditure of Rune magic. Every week sees more people fall ill and Farrangara brought closer to exhaustion.
Because Narmeed didn’t take a hardline Storm-Bull approach, and also because he failed to keep Chaos out of the stead, it made sense for me to narrate him being visited in a dream by Storm-Bull’s Spirit of Reprisal, One-Ear. With no physical description to go on from Cults of Prax, I narrated One-Ear as a bloody-muzzled hound, straining out unnatural human syllables from his canine mouth, one ear torn off and bleeding.
I decided Narmeed’s infringement only warranted a dream-warning, not full-blown Spirit Combat. One-Ear accused Narmeed of failing in his duties and warned him that Storm-Bull wouldn’t tolerate abandonment of the cult’s fearsome principles. We were both deliciously chilled by this scene. What I didn’t expect was how my fellow player would pick up this challenge and run with it.
Before this moment, my duet buddy had been playing somewhat tentatively. He hadn’t fully embraced Narmeed’s social role as a representative of Storm-Bull, but also seemed hesitant to push against those social expectations. We were both adjusting to Glorantha, hesitant lest we made a faux pas in this weird, new world.
One-Ear changed all that.
My buddy’s reaction was “Fuck if I’m going to piss off that spirit!” When Narmeed awoke, he rushed out to take the situation in hand. He separated the sick from the (for-the-moment) well and moved them out of the stead. He himself moved into this new encampment, as much to ensure no one broke quarantine as to care for the ill. Right or not (and almost certainly not), my buddy was taking the materials offered by the game and impacting them in a way that felt true to the stew of brutality and good intentions that is his player character.
And when he did this, something shifted on my side too: for the first time in the game, I didn’t feel the necessity to consult the steps of a subroutine or call for a skill check. I said “OK, yep, you do this.”
It was clear to both of us that the leadership of the family would assent to Narmeed as the resident expert on Chaos, and that those who grumbled would be too frightened to openly defy one of the two best warriors on the stead. We didn’t turn to the dice as oracles to adjudicate what would happen, and we weren’t flipping through the book to find a way to determine what would happen because we knew what was happening. After a good deal of practice, “our” Glorantha was coming clear.
In the Troll Woods, Narmeed Sings Like an Uz
I don’t mean to imply that improving at RQG means that we’re ‘getting away’ from the dice, just that we’re finding where best to engage with them.
In our next session, Narmeed departed on his first Hero Quest to heal the stead, accompanied by Vernharl, Darrald and the Crag-Stamps. The text of RQG implies that, in this version of Glorantha, Hero Quests don’t require crossing over to the Other Side. They may instead involve taking strongly symbolic or ceremonial action in this world to call down the powers of myth from another. In our case, Narmeed escorting the Crag-Stamps through the Troll Woods to be ‘baptized’ in the pure and sacred winds that blow from the apocalyptic crater of the Dragonrise.
This is certainly NOT shaping up to be an Avengers-style story of teamwork and overcoming. Narmeed’s rag-tag Hero Band is riven by differences and animosities, and one of the best parts of the session was seeing the characters’ divergent responses to the events of play.
There was a powerful moment during the first night of camp where my buddy called for, and made a successful Sing roll. We narrated Narmeed softly humming an old Praxian tune, “The Grazer’s Gamble,” with the Crag-Stamps joining in and Darrald and Vernharl listening on. Will this roll prove consequential to the outcome of the Hero Quest? Probably not. But it was a memorable image that would have been very different if the dice had gone the other way.
On watch later that night, Narmeed made his Listen roll and heard another party approaching their campsite. With a few moments to plan, he decided to try for another Sing roll, this time aiming to sound like an Uz and frighten them away. This roll is a great example of how we’ve internalized RQG’s systems.
First, my buddy called for the roll and drove the procedure, instead of waiting for me to put on my GM hat and engage the system. Second, we knew right away that the roll was plausible because Narmeed was calling on an augment from his Darkness Rune and a +20% augment to his Communication skills (my ad hoc version of Hero Wars’ “Community Support”), the result of a blessing given by the clan Wyter, a spirit closely allied to Eurmal. With the trickster god’s energy in the mix, Narmeed singing like a Troll seemed thematically inevitable.
Finally, this roll resulted in a moment that neither of us could have engineered even if we’d been trying. No part of it was ‘prepped,’ it was all flowing from past or present elements of play. What my buddy didn’t know is that the party of travelers he was trying to scare away was, in fact, a group of Trolls. When he succeeded in his Sing check, I narrated a moment of silence, then a booming voice heartily singing the next stave of the song, then falling silent and waiting for him to sing back.
It was a confluence of shared imagination, fictional material and mechanical instrumentation that affected me as deeply as any novel, poem or movie—Narmeed Wood-Glory jolting awake in the Troll-haunted forest, then singing a group of strange, inhuman folk in for palaver in the dark.