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Death at the Dragonrise: RQG Session 12

After a long-ish hiatus from the Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha duet, we jumped right to it when we started session 12 last weekend. And goddamn did we jump into the deep end. I’m going to relate the fictional events of play, then reflect on some questions of prep that the session raised.

I’m planning on laying off writing these in-depth reports for a month or two. I’ve found this practice incredibly valuable in developing my understanding of the game, and it’s been a pleasure participating in conversation with everyone in the comments. I like the idea of adding to the game’s presence online and—who knows—inspiring a fellow Gloranthan neophyte to give the game a shot.

However, as you’ll see below, I want to focus on sharpening my prep for the game, and I think not spending as much time looking back will assist in that process.

What Happened

The crew armored up in Marlesta Broo-Splitter’s tent, hastily preparing for a raid on the Temple of the Dragonrise and a confrontation with its Wind-Lord Lismelder Trueline. Narmeed used one of the Boons he’d rolled in character creation—a pot of 6-point enchanted woad—to provide his young charge Vernharl with 6 points of armor and magical protection. Marlesta cast a Bladesharp spell on Vernharl’s blade, and one of the Storm-Bulls gave Narmeed a couple of arrows enchanted with Multimissile.

Narmeed, Darrald and Vernharl made 8 warriors when combined with Marlesta and her four Storm-Bull companions. There was no question of loyalty among the Wood-Glory contingent—last session, an Opposed Passion roll led to Vernharl making the pivotal decision that his fate lay with Narmeed. Darrald has no Loyalty to the would-be nation-state of Sartar, only Love for his parents and Loyalty to his kin, a group in which Narmeed has more than earned his place. He expressed reluctance for Narmeed’s hastily-made plan, but there was no question of who he’d die for.

The Storm-Bulls took off on their horses shouting “Chaos!” and clanging their weapons, feinting southward toward the lowlands, then turning their steeds east and circling around through the woods to come at the Temple by stealth. Darrald was sent to the Hammer-and-Bellows Men to tell them Chaos monsters had been spotted to the south and try to draw them away from the Temple. 

Darrald’s attempted deception wasn’t entirely successful, resulting in only half of the Hammer-and-Bellows Men leaving camp, and Lismelder remaining behind (though of course Narmeed and his band were unaware of this).

At the edge of the woods west of the market and ceremonial ground, the Storm-Bulls sent Parzel, a wiry old man known for his stealth, to scout out the enemy warriors. He returned with news of Orlanthi warriors still stationed near their tents. Not wanting to risk the misled Hammer-and-Bellows Men returning, the Storm-Bulls decided to act quickly and cross the open ground on their horses, giving them a lead against the on-foot Orlanthi. Narmeed instructed Parzel and another Storm-Bull to delay in hopes that they could catch the enemy from behind with arrows from the shadows and take some pressure off the main body of warriors.

Narmeed cast Fanaticism on Vernharl who raised a tapering, inhuman howl and rode like a blue demon down on the temple, his barbaric companions on his heels.

At the foundation of the Temple, Narmeed peeled the tarp back by firing an arrow through it and pinning it to the side of the pit (on reflection, rather unlikely from a physics standpoint but a memorable image nonetheless). The floor and walls of the temple were lined with massive, roughly carved chunks of stone thrown up during the Dragonrise, some decorated with images of Orlanth entwined with a dragon. 

In the center was the altar and the Dragonbreath Rune, an iron mass vibrating with the ontological stress of two Runes smashed together, casting off small frissons of Chaos energy.

Vernharl leapt from his horse into the pit and struck wildly at the Rune, his blade biting into the metal and damaging it, but unleashing a wave of Chaos energy that blasted him back (thanks to Champions Now for the idea of rolling 1d6 Crushing damage twice—once for the initial blast wave, again for when he ker-thunked into the temple wall). Because of his magical armor, he was able to pick himself up and scream-charge the Rune again.

However, at this point Marlesta Trueline emerged from her tent and faced the blasphemers from across the pit. She’d donned her bronze armor and slung on her shield with her bound spirit Deathstop, but hadn’t cast Spirit Magics yet.

At this point, I decided to move into Strike Ranks and called for my buddy to start plotting out his moves. I told him he could hear the shouting of the Orlanthi warriors behind them. They had two Rounds, tops, before the enemy closed.

At SR 1, Lismelder breathed in air and let loose a blast of Dragonfire on Narmeed. With a mere 1 Rune Point dedicated to the dragon M-Gurud remaining, she could only muster 1d10 of damage (ignores armor) and rolled a 2, scorching Narmeed and his beloved mount Hearse but not roasting them as I’d hoped. 

As Narmeed shouted for Marlesta to cast Berserk upon him, Lismelder leapt into the foundation and sprinted for Vernharl, with Marlesta’s two Storm-Bulls leaping in and engaging her a moment later.

Narmeed loosed a Multimissile volley that rang off Lismelder’s armor. Improbably, Marlesta twice failed her roll against her Death Rune to make Narmeed go Berserk. Failed Rune Magic rolls are some of my favorite in the game. We described her coughing among the cloud of dragonsmoke, unable to call Storm-Bull’s attention in the miasma of magical energies.

In the foundation-pit, we were getting to see a Rune-Lord in action, and things were not looking good. Lismelder’s bound spirit Deathstop had sharpened her blade (Bladesharp 5), and made the Storm-Bulls’ weapons heavy in their hands (Dullblade 4). I described her shield and the affected weapons glowing with a neon lavender light. Combined with her 120% Mastery in her sword skill, she easily parried her three foes’ attacks, rendering Vernharl’s left arm useless with her counterstroke and damaging all their weapons with her blocks.

At this point, I was feeling good. Lismelder had the melee well in hand and plenty of Rune Points dedicated to Orlanth Adventurous. I figured if things turned against her she could roast an enemy or two with Lightning, then call upon Leap or Flight to get some distance, rejoin her warriors, and renew the assault with her allies behind her.

Alas, Narmeed’s next Multimissile volley brought my plans to naught. Two were turned by Lismelder’s armor, but the third scored a Special Success (double Piercing damage) and (if I recall correctly) rolled up 9 damage on 1d8+1d4+1 for a whopping 18 damage to Lismelder’s abdomen. 

After shouting some (I hope!) good-natured expletives and threats, I looked down at my sheet and realized Deathstop didn’t have access to healing magic. 

When the Hammer-and-Bellows Men pelted up a few moments later, they found their paragon  hacked to pieces by the Storm-Bulls, the energies of her bound spirit leaching away into blood-soaked earth.

A successful Intimidate check from Narmeed turned them in terror. 

The earth shook and the Dragonrise flared as M-Gurud thrashed in pain as its link with the physical plane was snapped. Inspired by Circle of Hands, I had prepped a Tripwire for the unlikely event of Lismelder’s death, and now I found myself using it. The mountain rocked. Visitors and worshippers fled south in confusion and terror. The Storm-Bulls hastily looted the Wind-Lord’s tent, and Narmeed hitched the Dragonbreath Rune to Hearse and cast it into the Dragonrise to ensure its destruction.

We handled the rest of the night with zoomed-out Skill and Resistance Rolls. 

The Dragonrise erupted again, destroying the Temple and raising alarums across Sartar. Those who didn’t escape fast enough were killed in the conflagration or trampled while trying to escape.

In the uproar, Narmeed was separated from his companions, costing him half a day finding them again in the lowlands. Vernharl’s lover Soran was killed in the tumult, while Willandring (improbably) survived and found her way back to the Storm-Bulls, still wearing that giant wasp carapace on her arm.

Rejoining his exhausted companions the next day, Narmeed realized that Darrald is missing. His fate is unknown to Narmeed but (after a couple of Skill checks) not to me. 

What I Knew Before and Thoughts on Prep

I’ve been thinking about Love D’s comment over at “Conversation: Where little situations come from.” They divide prep into the following categories:

  1. Nailed down things
  2. Sketchy things
  3. Labile things (i.e., not defined things/history/allegiance, etc.)

This accurately describes one axis I’ve observed in my prep. Another axis is which elements get to ‘come alive’ in actual play. For instance, I’ve got lots of cult information nailed down for the Hammer-and-Bellows Men and the Wasp-Rider bandits that my buddy and I may never see in play. And this is OK, I don’t regret the hours of lonely fun spent imagining these off-screen aspects of the setting.

However, I do think this session is making me reconsider how I do my prep. Here’s how I’d classify my prep for this session:

  1. Nailed down things - I had my map and a fully detailed character sheet for Lismelder Trueline
  2. Sketchy things - I had a character sheet for Marlesta and stat blocks for the Hammer-and-Bellows Men, but both were buried in supplements (Rune Lords and the Game Master’s Screen Pack, respectively) and not as ready to hand
  3. Labile things - The identities and skills of the four Storm-Bulls under Marlesta, the exact procedures for handling the Tripwire of Lismelder’s death

The thing is that, in RQG, nailed down components behave significantly differently than labile components. 

Because of her level of detail, Lismelder had access to a bound Spirit, Rune and Spirit magic, Passions and Skills for augments. Actions against her were Opposed Skill rolls, at minimum, and often made within the rigorous context of Strike Ranks. (As context, attaching Lismelder’s character sheet below)

Because I didn’t have the Hammer-and-Bellows Men as sharply defined in my mind, I tended to default to unopposed Skill rolls to handle them (Parzel’s Stealth check to scout out their position, Narmeed’s Intimidate check after Lismdelder’s death). 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In conversation with Sean over at Characteristics vs Skills in RQG, I’m realizing that these more abstracted mechanics are useful methods for handling off-screen NPC actions without compromising the mechanical integrity of the system.

However! The Wasp-Rider combat in session 8 was more fun, dynamic and bouncy on my side of the conflict because my characters were fully fleshed out. In this session, the Hammer-and-Bellows Men ended up feeling more like furniture. Going forward, I want to be more diligent about determining my NPC’s primary skills and, most importantly, their driving Passions, before play.

(Frankly, I think I fucked up with Marlesta’s Storm-Bulls. I rather arbitrarily assigned them Ability scores as we went. With Parzel, my thought process was “Of course this squad would have a sniper/stealth guy in a tactical role.” Quite disappointingly generic compared to my weird and specific Wasp-Riders!)

Finally, I think I’ve learned some valuable lessons from playing Champions Now and Trollbabe. 
My first instinct as I reflected on this session was to leap to the cosmological and cultural implications of these events—What does Lismelder’s death mean for the stirring draconic powers that are such an important element of RQG’s backdrop? Is Narmeed fighting for an ancient, stifling order that doesn’t have room for Chaos—and therefore the New? Will his killing of Lismelder be handled by the tribal codes of weregild, or viewed as an attack on the person of the sovereign in Starbrow’s inchoate state?

However, when I look at our Glorantha Now, I see that Narmeed has no time to ponder these vast questions: He has 20 murderous Hammer-and-Bellows Men out for his blood somewhere nearby! He’s lost his cousin Darrald. He’s facing the consequences of murdering a Sartarite folk-hero. The materials for making the next Now, for framing subsequent scenes are right there in front of us.

Moving forward, I have no doubt we will explore those vast political and cosmological questions, but when we do, it will be in scene, in the grit and muscle of our characters’ immediate concerns.

Department: 
Actual Play
Tags: 
twosies
Attachments: 
PDF icon Lismelder Trueline.pdf

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I want to focus on the sudden takedown of Lismelder and how it relates to my experiences with RuneQuest. I ran into this a lot during play. The reason seems clear: I have a lot of experience with playing and GMing starting characters for RQ2, but not a lot with experienced initiate and runemaster characters. I am especially not good at thinking about the bound spirits and what they do before and during conflicts, and that turns out to be a huge deficit. Unlike many other games, RQ does not favor experienced (“high level”) characters with extra build-points padding – the key is instead to armor better, prepare better, magic-up better, and have lots of supporters with long pointy spears, but especially to add the layer of a determined, powerful, dangerous spirit who’s effectively your second self. I definitely recognize your lapse in providing that spirit with Healing 6, or whatever the RQG equivalent is, because I have done that, and kicked myself because no one in Glorantha as conceived by this game system would leave the damn house without such a spirit on hand, if they had any choice about it.

Therefore although the game does permit a lucky shot against such a character, my consistent misplay for them means a lot of the good roll results for the player-characters become much luckier than they really should have been. This totally happens all the time when I play this game, and I have resigned myself to the fact that I simply have to be a long-term player with significant time and many crisis situations before, during, and after runemaster status, sooner or later.

But it also applies to other games, especially those with strong “bounce” which I trust not to offer nonsensical results, and which I know well enough not to have any excuse. It happens when I very obviously get too tired during play. I simply forget important things about the NPCs’ builds and options, and play them as bulking lumps who roll to hit and soak up damage until they drop. It’s very much kick-myself territory afterwards, most recently in the D&D 4E game that I’m posting about soon, and most painfully in recent memory in the Göteborg Depths Champions Now game.

noah's picture

I am especially not good at thinking about the bound spirits and what they do before and during conflicts, and that turns out to be a huge deficit….the key is instead to armor better, prepare better, magic-up better, and have lots of supporters with long pointy spears, but especially to add the layer of a determined, powerful, dangerous spirit who’s effectively your second self.

This is a great point. I got a taste of this early in the battle. With Deathstop augmenting Lismelder’s sword abilities with Bladesharp and hampering her foes with Dullblade, the dynamics of the battle felt very different: her hits were guaranteed to do tissue damage, and even her parries were notching her enemies’ blades. If I’d recognized the risk of Narmeed’s Multimissile attacks, I would have sic’d Deathstop on him and kept him tied up in Spirit Combat. 

Therefore although the game does permit a lucky shot against such a character, my consistent misplay for them means a lot of the good roll results for the player-characters become much luckier than they really should have been.

In this particular scene, I do want to emphasize that Narmeed’s lucky hit was fun for all involved (for me, it as reminiscent of going bust in a push-your-luck game). In this case, it felt like there were layers of randomness that kept the hit from feeling overdetermined—my buddy rolled a Special Success, targeted a vital area, made a shockingly effective damage roll, and even then didn’t have any extra damage points to spare. If he had rolled a couple of points lower, Lismelder would have still been standing (and, a few SRs later, Leaping).

However, I think the conflict made both of us feel how much learning we still have to do. We’re to the point where we enjoy combat and can identify meaningful decisions, but not to where we can nudge the odds in our favor, or have favored tactics. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes and no. Regarding Lismelder's general statistical superiority plus the many contingencies allowing for extreme results - yes, that scans, I get it well, and it matches nicely to the original source material, in which champions and bad-asses can be defeated and slain unexpectedly. However, one paltry Multimissile doing what it did, whereas a setting-significant, situation significant Rune spell does ... 2 points of damage? Hell no.

I'll say it outright: that's bad game design. One of the biggest flaws in the RuneQuest trajectory of game design is forgetting that dice rolls have a range, i.e., they don't skew either to the middle, for single-dice, or to their maxima, ever. (Many designers clearly think they do.). Another - as I described in some detail regarding RQ2 during the Spelens Hus game - is isolating the damage roll from other aspects of striking one's opponent. This problem has several solutions, but the only systemic/textual one concerns critical hits in physical combat, not magic.

Therefore I say again: a Rune spell hits a character between the eyes and ... basically, nothing. There's no excuse for that. HeroQuest's "quantum" type resolution system (masteries) works much better regarding the plain old impact of powerful things - I could talk more about this especially in relation to Hero Points - and D&D 4E gets it right with its Daily powers, which always do something, hit or miss.

Sean_RDP's picture

I ran across an interesting conversation years ago on some forums, the Chaosium official forums I think, but not sure. In that conversation I noted that the prevailing thought process was that combat in BRP, but Runequest in particular, was about getting those specials and criticals. They were the meat and potatoes of any given fight. Which was strange for me. I suspect there are two reasons for this; one I came to RQ from mostly D&D and Cyberpunk and to some degree Marvel Supers ('84), which rely on attacks being damaging in and of themselves. Criticals certainly were fun, but they were not something you planned for. The second reason being my first few RQ games were not about planning around those big moments, crits or specials. 

Yet that seemed to be the thing most other people did and maybe I was just naive or did not see the potential there. Even though everyone was wary of trollkin and critical head shots. Even without the criticals and specials I still felt as if my charcters were effective. But when we cross over into magic, and I am talking Battle/Spirit Magic, Divine/Rune Magic, and Sorcery, the offensive big boom is replaced by a ton of utility. 

It always felt like a lot of setup for little gain or excitement. And in GM prep I (still) do not plan for the big moment or the big spell or even the big crit or special, because I could roll a 98 and all that work blows up. And there is no way to situation proof a given encounter so that it has the proper tension. Yet more and more I feel like I have been doing a poor job over the years of utilizing what is in front of me and being more tactical and exciting with choices. 

noah's picture

Sean, the below doesn't directly reply to what you're saying (wrote it up before I saw your comment), but I think we're resonating when it comes to battle and Rune Magic.

Therefore I say again: a Rune spell hits a character between the eyes and ... basically, nothing. There's no excuse for that. 

I am putting this first so you can skim it and move on, Ron.

<excuse yammering>

Playing Champions Now alongside RQG, I’ve become painfully aware of the difference between bell curves and flat distributions. The d100’s flat distribution can, cudgel-like, smack a character right between the eyes with uncertainty. I love it. But as you note, when a d8 damage die comes up a 1, it renders both the attacker’s and defender’s rolls invalid in a particularly galling way.

I also had that in mind while designing Lismelder, but not, unfortunately, while playing her. She only had 4 Rune Points dedicated to the dragon M-Gurud, and had expended 3 of them an hour earlier roasting the Lunar prisoners. (There is also esoteric only-for-me cult prep in the background about how the Dragonrise worship ceremonies didn’t recharge Rune Magic for her.) I wish I had gone for Lightning, where I could have dropped several Orlanth Adventurous Rune Points to get a pool of damage dice.

</excuse yammering>

One of the biggest flaws in the RuneQuest trajectory of game design is forgetting that dice rolls have a range, i.e., they don't skew either to the middle, for single-dice, or to their maxima, ever. (Many designers clearly think they do.)...HeroQuest's "quantum" type resolution system (masteries) works much better regarding the plain old impact of powerful things.

I’ve been amusing myself the last couple of evenings by running solitaire combats between the Humakti Rune-Lord “Nameless” (from the RQG GM Pack) and increasingly more difficult enemies. Being able to isolate the dynamics of combat has been really instructive. Even more so is piloting a Rune-Lord as envisioned by someone who knows the system well.

The first thing I notice is an attempted solution for the issues identified above. Nameless’ spirit-bound iron sword, Head-Chopper, has a magical special ability that doubles damage after penetrating armor. I haven’t actually played with this yet because it struck me as something of a kluge, but looking at the name and effect again I am actually drawn to a bloodthirsty sword with a love for amputation. One wonders what Nameless did to earn the power on HeroQuest.

The second is that Nameless is formidable without preparation. With a bit of luck and the tactical deployment of Demoralize magic by her and Head-Chopper, she was able to turn the tables on three Orlanthi farmer-militia members who ambushed her with Rune Magic. She almost died in the first 6 SRs, but was able to come back and kill all three militia members.

When she and Head-Chopper have time to prepare, she is fucking terrifying. This doesn’t come down to a single ability, but the layering of multiple abilities and Spirit Magic spells - a Rune inspiration, plus Bladesharp 6, plus the additional weapons buff granted by Strength push her broadsword skill up to 180% Mastery, nearly guaranteeing that non-master parries fail. Bladesharp with Strength ensure her Damage Die increases to 1d10 and that she’s inflicting +7 damage minimum.

Head-Chopper, a relatively weak Bound Spirit with POW 10, gives her lots of options for controlling the magical factors at play. With the Multispell Rune Spell, 15 Rune Points to Humakt, 28 total Magic Points, and the Demoralize spell, fighting is almost optional—with a few melee rounds to concentrate, she could break the charge of fourteen warriors just by terrifying them. (Or, shit, why not just pump a bunch of points into Extending a Demoralize and leave her sworn enemy cowering away from violence for a year?)

This exercise is really opening my mind to what is possible for a Rune-Lord. And honestly, it makes me appreciate how clumsy and ugly violence at lower levels is in comparison, where farmer teens poke at each other with pointy sticks until someone, almost by accident, gets impaled.  

This problem has several solutions, but the only systemic/textual one concerns critical hits in physical combat, not magic...I could talk more about this especially in relation to Hero Points - and D&D 4E gets it right with its Daily powers, which always do something, hit or miss.

I’d be very interested to hear more about both these points. Have you hit upon ‘design-at-the-table’ solutions that solve for some of these issues?

Ron Edwards's picture

I appreciate your exercises with Nameless (whom I recall being called "Naimless" in Cults of Prax), and I'd like to gain some skill at that level. Right now I know a lot more about getting to Rune status than I do about playing it. Without any criticism for you as player/GM, I grieve for Lismelder who seems to have been sacrificed to the learning curve, much as my Young White Dragon recently "taught" me more about Action Points for monsters.

Your point about the different sorts of violence is excellent and keenly felt: see the gross, terrible fight in How to feel bad about killing a really unlikeable jerk. In fact, I really hope you check out the games played using this setting (my own very intense wrench using RQ2 mechanics and concepts), and I'd like to get back to playing it.

I talked about some system tweaks during the Spelens Hus game (also RQ2 for a casually-implemented but eventually quite detailed fantasy setting), in which I opened up to a designer-ish, tweaking, table-rules approach. Some relevant discussions are at Fantasy adventure emerges, bright and harsh and The headwaters at the continental divide. Unfortunately, my page-scanning isn't turning up one detailed exchange I remember, in which I specifically talked about damage and stated that I thought the system worked much better if all weapons' damage was very similar - maybe a little bit different to satisfy the original game's Freudian inclinations, but not much. Today, I find myself thinking that two dice is a nice idea to try: so, daggers at 2d4, swords at 2d6, big-ass scary things at 2d8, and done. Or maybe 1d4+2, 1d6+2, 1d8+2, for a different spin on the same idea.

Love D's picture

https://adeptplay.com/comment/1999#comment-1999
 

There's the discussion of the variable weapon damage in RQ2. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks Love!

noah's picture

Without any criticism for you as player/GM, I grieve for Lismelder who seems to have been sacrificed to the learning curve, much as my Young White Dragon recently "taught" me more about Action Points for monsters.

“Grieve” is the proper word for it. I was very excited to discover more about Lismelder in play. Her religious practice offered a deep philosophical challenge to Narmeed’s Storm Bull beliefs, and I was very excited by the aesthetic features she and her Hammer-and-Bellows Men brought into the game.

I am going to pitch a session of practice combat to my duet buddy. The strategy of RQ’s combat is pretty opaque if you’ve just read the book, or only seen a few fights where attention is divided across multiple system features. So much of the strategy seems to emerge between the explicit systems of play (for instance, having a canny spirit to fire off the right spell on a critical Strike Rank). Might also be an opportunity to try the 2-dice damage scheme as well.

(As an aside: I’m suspicious of how the concept of ‘system mastery’ is employed in certain contexts. It sometimes reminds me of ‘wait-for-Jesus’ style play. “Oh, you’re not having fun with this game? Well, you have to do it this way, this way and this way,” with pseudo-problems and pseudo-solutions elaborated ad infinitum. However, RQG’s system seems like it would genuinely reward a bit of practice.)

I really hope you check out the games played using this setting (my own very intense wrench using RQ2 mechanics and concepts), and I'd like to get back to playing it.

Thank you both for sharing the links! I will certainly check out these games. I’ve been meaning to for some time, but I’ve found their sheer volume a bit intimidating.

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