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Fast fun adventure with swords and magic underground

Would you believe more freakin’ original RuneQuest? And this time, not that teenfic evilmurk setting that I worked on so hard. (Yes, that’s still in active development; patrons know about it.) This time, it resulted from a request for a “proper” role-playing game at Spelens Hus, you know, with beweaponed adventurers and adventures in a rugged place. I could have chosen any of a zillion games for it off my shelves, but time & other considerations led me to this one.

We’ve played three sessions, and I’m posting the first two as I edit the third. Point #1 is that you don’t “do RuneQuest” without either abandoning its potential or developing it, so we seem to be doing the latter after starting with a treasure-hunt fight.

Point #2 is more social. We began with me and two players, then added two more players for session 2 – and one of them didn’t mesh with what we’d developed so far. You can assess that for yourself in the recordings. So you know, the two of us got together afterwards and talked it over, and you can look forward to a third session that broke all land-speed records for engaged, exciting, social, mystic, and violent fantasy adventure.

I’d like to run through a bit more about my exact procedures in setting this thing up: what I provided at first, what I did with it or found in it during play, then what I did or provided or changed for the next session, and now, after three sessions, what I’m setting down as a partially retroactive and partially forward-looking minor text to be our “rules.” It’s a very interesting sequence which strikes me as a useful set of instructions in a game book some time.

Despite all the play for this rules-set, I have realized just what I’ve been leaving out or doing poorly for a while, including but limited to the parrying rules. I’ll be happy to talk about that in the comments if anyone’s interested.

Actual Play


Ron Edwards's picture

This is turning into something. I think you'll be impressed by what I guess, if anything, qualifies as "real role-playing," allowing for the rules I keep screwing up. I've put it into the same playlist but the direct link is here; the latest two videos in it are my reflections.

Ross's picture

Hi Ron,

I've enjoyed watching the videos. Having decided on Runequest for some "proper" roleplaying what have you found working well and less well to deliver that, perhaps compared to other systems, e.g. D&D  3rd edition? I'm recalling you described the teen-fic evil murk games playing into the systems strengths and maybe that's somewhat less the case here?

Ron Edwards's picture

I had to wrap my head around the question a little and realized more information is necessary. First, that I prewrote the characters without any dice rolling and extremely arbitrarily. They don’t look rolled-up at all; they look prefabricated. The small person was also the quickest, one of them had straight 12’s all through the characteristics, they have a nice range of Intelligence, Charisma, and Power across them, et cetera. Second, that I used the briefest possible skill list, from the core book only and even collapsed them a little, and treated everything else as characteristic-multiple based rolls. Third, that I extremely arbitrarily assigned higher skill levels for everyone, thinking in terms of 45-50% as a baseline and giving everyone some competence with outdoor stuff like Hide and Ride as well as pretty good weapon skills.

This has system-dampening effects that may be ideological rather than anti-function. I never feel great about increasing a RuneQuest character’s skills from the default beginner levels, because one of the system’s unique charms is that you build a character completely through use – if anything is above its beginner value, it’s because you made it go there and can point to a very specific instance of play that bumped it up. Oh, and the only framing device for play is for the character to be in hock to a temple and/or a guild in order to have skill training and some spells, so the point is, you have slightly higher capabilities than just being rolled out of the box, and to have those, you now have some social positions and obligations to collect some loot.

Now, given that convention play and probably a lot of other play prefers not to be bumbling around with 25% attack skills, and given that showcasing the setting requires characters who are good at what they do in it, and finally, considering that at least to some people it’s important to experience that BRP as a genre-customizable system, that also requires characters who are already good at genre stuff, I doubt that this RuneQuest-specific ideal of “build it from scratch through play” was very commonly observed, even way back at the time of publication. The rules in the appendix for aging and bumping up characters are probably there for these reasons. I think the only published adventure material I’ve seen that assumes absolutely starting-out player-characters is Apple Lane.

I may just be a purist but I get itchy when I arbitrarily set Attack and Parry percentages. How are those reasonably expected to look if you really built them through use? I can tell you, if I’m playing an RQ character at any level, you can bet that I’m parrying all the time. Shit, I bet I’d parry when told to make Hide, Ride, Oratory, language, or Scan check, let alone when someone was attacking me. I’d be a parryologist. Yet when I see the for-use and opponent characters in all the published adventure scenarios, Parry is always lower than Attack. Why is that? Is that really how they turn out from use? I bet not.

None of that is really answering your question but it’s important for getting there. If I’m to compare this experience with playing D&D 3/3.5 and to D&D 5, then we start with the point that I’ve already adjusted (or possibly borked) what the system does by ramping the characters into ... oh, say 3rd or 4th level equivalents. So take that as you will, I’m not sure entirely what it means.

Qualitatively, this is much meatier that either. The combat is way more in-the-moment, the risks are higher, the battle magic has a “rip my energy out” feel, the spirit interactions are appropriately primitive-feeling and spooky, and the rune magic is earth-shakingly divine.

I’m very interested in damage as a play-experience, since this features a lot more fighting than the other RQ games I’ve been playing. One thing that jumps out in comparison to the other fantasy games of 1975-1981, is that you can faint and collapse without dying. You need to be tended to, but there’s a pretty reasonable buffer between “fall down, out of fight” and “you die.” This has happened to two characters so far and seems like an expected conclusion for many combatants, especially if they have enough armor to ensure that they aren’t decapitated or horribly maimed. It prefigures the later Cyberpunk in that you’re more concerned about what happened to that body part than you are about running out of hit points – kind of on the principle that if you’re worried about running out of your total hit points, then you probably have lost something important along the way already anyway, if not simply run through the lungs.

Another point has been mentioned to me by the current Chaosium staff, in reference to play, which is that people get very practical, in a fashion I associate with Circle of Hands. You fight only when you really, really want to, or if you have been bushwhacked, and frankly, you become quite ruthless, setting up bushwhacks of your own and ganging up on people if you can. The current players have found that “Gee, let’s go into the tomb and see what the GM has set up for us to fight, how bad could it be,” resulted swiftly in, “You know, let’s come back here with a whole lot of people helping us out.” And that’s for a fight in which they did pretty well, meaning, “Oh fuck, we almost died,” but no one really went down hard.

Well, those are my thoughts at the moment. I’m not sure how strong they are.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's another thought: that weapon-specific damage is probably the most wildly variant element of the system, and not necessarily enjoyably. That's because it's independent of how well you hit, whereas most of the rest of the fight mechanics are absolutely about how well you hit: hit location, impales (and their optional equivalents like slash and crush) and criticals.

All of those makes a lot of sense when weapon-specific damage is not too variable. This is typically the case man-to-man, with pretty ordinary armor, with weapons whose damage is restricted to a couple of dice, and with reasonable chances to attack and parry. You'll get most-likely outcomes of one or the other combatant fainting in shock from a badly hurt body part, or killed by an extreme shot, with most of the literal actions to that point dictated by the rolls' outcomes, especially when you add fumbles into the mix. You can almost just roll your way through a fight and enjoy what the "choreographer" comes up with via the dice. Even the justification for hit location makes sense if you define it as the opening you spotted.

Then, in man-to-man combat, it is a reasonable role-playing experience, in this highly randomized/risky sense of fighting, to hope for a "good hit" through the above variables and to fear receiving one. That seems sensible and dramatic especially because grinding one another into low total hit points through dinks and dabs is a very risky proposition; RQ characters do not bulk up on total hit points and even a super-Rune-hoo-ha person is about as tough, on this level, as anyone else.

However, adding the weapon damage roll, or rather, a widely-varying one, to this gets confusing - even annoying. It's a whole 'nother angle or way to get in a really shitty or really good hit, and it's numerically disconnected from all the other ways, which are themselves nested as probabilities and causes. There's no way to explain or understand what this roll even means.

The same topic is also aggravating in terms of scaling that roll up, i.e., when the given weapon gets some ridiculous damage roll just because it's "big and cool." That means it will deliver so much damage that all those other variables get washed out; all the choreography and "how well you hit" are simply bypassed as any hit will basically deliver a critical. This is less likely for people using practical weaponry in the context of travel and weight considerations, but it's very, very likely when fighting almost any of the nonhuman opponents, who are extremely well-equipped with damage dice. 

Ross's picture

Thanks for such detailed responses, really interesting although they do make classic runequest sound a bit intimidating to try and run. The bit about damage and how it scales, or rather doesn't scale well, is interesting. It strikes me this is something that lots of systems struggle with and try to fix in different ways, with the emphasis on try!

Having watched the actual plays the other thing that jumps out about these "leveled up" characters is that they seem less emeshed in the cult context that equivalent characters who had been through play cycles would be - inevitably since that's where lots of the fun of play seems to be and that really has to come from decisions and evolving relationships in actual play.

Ron Edwards's picture

I've had to be sort of "inside" each player-character's head regarding cult status and relevant actions or knowledge. "You belong to a Chaos cult, so you get a roll to notice XYZ," as opposed to the player having internalized this material so much that they are properly the person to know about this capacity and to act upon it in play. Since all of them have welcomed this activity and are at least starting to feel close to their characters at this degree, I expect them to become more proactive about it. Certainly Helma has no problem arriving at the look and feel for the Woods Woman cult, and Sandra is positively gleeful (as you'll see in the upcoming video) about Erko's religious license to be insanely curious.

I've also started to make cult writeups using the template in Cults of Prax for their cults, starting with the Buried Dead. If past experience with RuneQuest applies, then the players will get pretty assertive with their cult interactions and the related character improvements.

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