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My Life as a Dog (in Glorantha)

WHO

Me (playing) & Tavis (GM’ing) & our gaming group from twelve years ago.  We’ve reconnected via video chat, and it’s really nice to see all these people after so long.  One of the group was 16 when we met and kind of living a messy life; now he's a licensed electrician and owns a house.

PLAYING WHAT

RuneQuest, Second Edition.  Chaosium republished this in a really beautiful, inexpensive hardback.  To avoid leaping fully into Glorantha Setting Craziness, we’re using the Griffin Mountain supplement.  Griffin Mountain involves a group of Stone Age hunter-gatherers, as opposed to the late Bronze Age pastoralists of Dragon Pass.  We're culturally and geographically separated from most of that Orlanthi cult stuff: the Orlanthi are all excited about iron weapons, whereas we're chuffed by our newest weapon of war: the newly domesticated dog.  Imagining life in the Mesolithic has been challenging for me, and maybe for others.

FOR HOW LONG

Maybe six two-hour sessions so far?  Some of that time is eaten up with socializing.  Several sessions were spent kind of wandering around a little bit aimlessly, but this past session we hit an inflection point and things kicked into gear.

WHAT’S THE PREMISE?  

Our characters are teenage Cro-Magnons undergoing our adulthood vision quests on the shore of a vast lake.  We are naked, defenseless, and have only our wits to survive.  Then the sky darkens, a mighty tempest stirs the water of the lake, the earth shakes, and when the storm clears there are stepping stones leading to an island, where there was no island before.  And from the island comes the faint whimpering of terrified dogs.  

HOW HAS IT DEVELOPED?  

There’s a giant, glowing, invisible bat who only speaks the Holy Language.  There are corpses of vegetable-elves who had drugged and kidnapped some of our tribal elders aboard a mushroom UFO.  (Side note: it is officially not cannibalism to eat vegetable-elves.)  One of the elves' domesticated thorn bush was imprisoning the dogs; we got them loose.  There is a ruin / dungeon complex carved out of cheese.   We thought a snapping turtle was a sea monster, and ran in terror of it for most of two sessions.

WHAT’S THE LATEST?  

My character, Naskia the Stubborn, had her skull crushed when part of the Cheese Dungeon collapsed.  (Naskia took 10 points of damage to her head, which only had 2 hit points to start with.)  She was barely saved from certain death—I think Tavis sorta gave me more lucky breaks than I was entitled to—because her teammate Kala had bathed in a holy fountain.  (For a little while I role-played Naskia’s dog, hence the post title.)

Desperately getting back to temporary camp, it turns out that one of our NPC elders knows the Rune spell, Summon Child of Votanki, which literally brought a demigod (in dog form) to hang out with us, heal our wounds, and converse with the Giant Invisible Bat. 

This was a pretty powerful moment in play.  Our characters are, to put it politely, fucking incompetent: starting characters in RuneQuest can barely break 10% in any skill, and all of us have below-average stats.  Simply moving around on this island has been difficult—poor Naskia failed five times to climb the same damn cliff—and we really were afraid of the snapping turtle (we didn’t know what it was; our characters had never seen one).  When we found out what the priestess could do, we hastily built her a shrine (a dog run and warren), shepherded up all of the dogs, hunted up some fermented honey and cream from the cheese-dungeon, and staged a ritual to get totally buzzed and ecstatic to summon our tribal god, the Black Dog of Votanki.  We kinda-sorta understood the Holy Language enough to figure out what the Giant Bat was concerned about, and now had a quest to track down the other elves and return a stolen relic.

Also, while playing the dog, I mated with the god.  

OBSERVATIONS ON THE GAME SYSTEM 

I wish this had been by entry point to fantasy role-playing, rather than Dungeons & Dragons.  

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

James_Nostack's picture

There's a lot of stuff in the RuneQuest rules we have not stumbled into yet, and as a result I have no idea how this thing shakes out in practice.

  • Still haven't been in any actual fights, which is good because all of us are godawful--I think I have a 15% chance to hit with a spear
  • None of us can cast Battle Magic, let alone Rune Magic.  
  • We haven't found any monetary treasure, and so can't afford to go to "Adventure College"

Looking at the published material, all of the NPC's have dozens of spells, and their attack skills look astronomical to Mr. Fifteen Percent over here.

Figuring out (a) what runes our NPC Priestess would know, and (b) how those spells are cast, and (c) what that means for us in concrete terms took up a lot of time at the virtual table, but it was time well spent because it set up a great scene.

Ron Edwards's picture

So I've been thinking about this and struggling a little, because I don't know which things are desired/chosen and which may be artifacts or less-understood aspects of the game. I don't want to treat something in the former as if it were the latter. But I can't write the whole thing full of qualifiers to emphasize that uncertainty, either, so I'll ask you and any of the group who's reading this to paint the whole thing with my acknowledgment that "but that's the way we want it" overrides anything I say.

The main thing is debt as it's presented in the text. As far as I can tell, the characters as rolled are not intended for play; one is supposed to get in hock to one or more groups and gain a solid few +5's in easy-to-learn weapons, a couple of spells, and a skill or two. In my experience the resulting characters are still a bit stumbly and miss a lot, by the standards of most RPGs, but a solid quantum better than what you're doing in this game. 

The text doesn't help too much with understanding this because it's not in the character creation chapter, but in separate short sections per chapter, e.g., fighting training, battle magic, et cetera.

Most importantly, for characters who've done this, they now have relationships with organizations, vaguely described in the text as guilds and temples. At present the relationship is mainly monetary, especially if you're not using Cults of Prax as a model which includes and encourages more specific rules for cult status, but it does go a long way toward incorporating and reincorporating a distinctive community and culture. The monetary side is important though, because "go find loose coin out there in monster places" is now established as something you very well ought to do.

So how does this fit with the neolithic context you're described here? Can it? I think it can, quite easily. The literal money/coins can be abstracted to social obligations to shamans or priests or chiefs or even just knowledgeable people ("the sages"), and again, the details might start as kind of vague at first and get fleshed out in play as debts are discharged or fail to do so.

Anyway, here are a couple of other related things I learned from playing with starting characters in that scary-brambles setting that I worked up a few years ago.

  • Training scrolls are very important, granting 5-20% in skills with no strings attached. It seems reasonable to me to include such things on purpose as well as the treasure tables results, if the latter are being used. Obviously they wouldn't be scrolls in this case, but such things as a meditative or mystic moment could be substituted.
  • Shamans are also an important feature in terms of controlled spirits (not bound), which are basically little in-service pacted critters, often with spells of their own. Telling them to help or obey someone else is a valid service. Arguably such services might reserved for higher-status tribe members, but if the snotnose kid is doing something the shaman approves of, that's a pretty good justification for having a non-problematic semi-obedient spirit buddy around, who probably disappears after using the spell it knows. 

I really don't want to imply any degree of "you're doing it wrong." I'm writing this because it is possible not to have spotted how this feature is tied so strongly to so many aspects of the rules and the group's developing setting. If instead you or the primary game organizer already know all this and decided to strip everything down to the bedrock, that's fine too.

James_Nostack's picture

The teenage barbarians of Griffin Mountain have pretty good outdoorsy skills as a baseline.  But when a problem can't be solved by Climbing, Jumping, or Swimming, we're often at a loss.

This was a deliberate choice, encouraged by the Griffin Mountain text: char-gen tells you to stop before you hit the "Improving Characteristics" stage.  None of us have any prior experience with RQ, so we're relying on Kraft and Jaquays to steer us right.  

So far, the experience is fascinating due to what it isn't.  We are very definitely NOT adventurers, and we're also very much NOT on your standard Fantasy Role-Playing Game Adventure.  We're dumb kids wandering around almost naked in the woods, alternately exploiting and avoiding supernatural threats.  It's an unusual fantasy to have, but we're definitely having it. 

When we started, part of me felt slightly disappointed that we'd be missing out on all the Glorantha Lore that's been built up around Orlanthi society and its conflicts.  That's cool stuff, at least in modest doses.  Griffin Mountain doesn't give you a lot to work with in that regard--"You're cave men--ready, set, go!"--but it's been working out okay in practice.  At some point we'll end up plugged into clan rivalries, I expect, and we'll get training that way.  My character has a family grudge against the Dog-God Priestess, but I'm really tempted to bury the hatchet so I can summon a demigod, for example!

...both in terms of what you are doing with Runequest but also that this group got back together to do it! (Say hi for me!)

I agree with your observation that a lot of the published material seems to be aimed at a significantly higher power level than that of most starting characters. I do wonder about things like how many players and player characters were in those original Runequest groups and how often characters were killed off or otherwise taken out of play due to critical injuries.

Rod, Sean, and I were fooling around with Runequest 2nd ed. character creation a few weeks ago and we made use of the rules in the appendix for more experienced characters: the two characters Rod and Sean ended up with were still both very fragile-seeming despite having that "extra experience". Despite that, by looking at both characters, a very clear sense of a starting situation began to emerge, due to the context implied by the characters' respective guild and cult relationships.

 

Sean_RDP's picture

Character generation for those RuneQuest characters and to a lesser extent the Stormbringer ones has been a trip down the "how did we survive?" memory lane. 

James_Nostack's picture

Jon, I'm really glad to see this group too.  I need to post about the White Sandbox one of these days, and how I have been envious of your big Featherfall spell for literally ten years.  Everybody seems to be doing well.  (You should come by!)

RuneQuest seems to have 3 different stages (levels?) of starting characters:

  1. Absolute baseline 16 year olds, modified by stats.  Everyone starts here.
  2. You can choose to get professional training for five years.
  3. You can choose to go into debt to a cult or guild for extra training.

Items (2) and (3) are optional, and may be combined.  It looks like 1+2+3 = fragile adventurer who can succeed with a bit of luck, but (1) alone seems really rough, especially since any training you can buy after play begins can only raise a skill by 5% in between successful uses.  That's a real long climb to competence.

Griffin Mountain uses (1) alone, but by significantly changing the baseline so that we're all pretty althetic and stealthy.  How anyone gets to 90% in five skills to become a Rune Lord is a mystery to me.

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