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Expanding a setting

We're two more sessions into the RuneQuest game since the last time, and as I'd feared, the material is demanding a further effort to live up to its tantalizing hints. I find myself creating things, especially cult writeups. One of them was completed for session 6, for the Cult of the Buried Dead, so it's attached.

Session 5 is defined by a significant hard cut to some time and some distance away from the previous events, as well as a relatively self-contained adventure that only took one session to complete. It's also one of my often-desired shipboard moments, as I've been a nut for them ever since being seduced by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a child. I provide most of my thoughts about the session and the game as a whole in some reflections in the final video (part 9) of the session.

Some topics of interest include:

  • What is it about a play-experience that implies so strongly that a setting is in place, when in fact it isn't beyond a few details, and for which making the setting is very easy given what's been experienced in play?
  • What might others do with RuneQuest (specifically "RQ2," the Chaosium publications from 1979-1983) as a non-generic but non-Glorantha mythic-fantasy toolkit?
  • What degree of tuning does session/adventure framing require in the current phase of play, as compared to the incredibly assertive "you are here, doing this thing, this is what you see, go" method I've been using.

As of this posting, session 6 is still being edited, but I'll add it onto the end of the playlist as soon as I'm done. [finished! check it out; the direct link to it within the playlist is posted in the comments] [and session 7 now, too!]

Actual Play


Ross's picture

I enjoyed following these thrilling adventures on the high seas and seeing the players really start to get into player their characters. I can see why this game is forcing you to commit and keep playing Ron!

Interesting given the discussion previously about the combat system struggling as it scales up into big monsters with big attacks to then sea huge sea monsters. Was it a concious plan on your part to steer away from trading melee attacks with a giant octopus or did it just work out that way given the events in the fiction?

On your other points for discussion it does seem like Cults are the beating heart of the game - for example even the simplest spells  that the characters have gain a fictional weight from being granted / given by one cult or another, thus coming freighted with obligations and expectations. In the short term it's fine for that cult to be mostly implied, an evocative name doing plenty of work, but as you all want to shift from Seamonsters Attack to situations driven by the characters wants / needs / goals then the cults need fleshing out  and that info needs to be available in some form to the players. The question then occurs as to whether that detail all has to spring from the GM, or if there's scope for collaboration across the group? Watching I'm not sure how much of the fun in play depends on "believing" there's a setting in place, even while on another level knowing it's emergent, and whether there are creative lines which, if the players crossed, e.g. by writing some or all of a woods woman cult write-up, would interfer with that fun?

Equally in terms of using the system for something else cult write-up seem like the logical place to start, even if it's just one or two and then allowing play to point to where more need filling in, but that seems like an intimidating challenge. Especially the higher level stuff which provides a lot of the flavour (slowly petrifying rune preists) but which might not see direct play and similarly is only going to be rarely modelled watching other people's play. Still might go away and have a go.

Ron Edwards's picture

Fantastic comment! You're right on top of the next session to be posted (which was played before my reflection piece). For example, the petrifying priest was prep for a character who was introduced and played in that session, so "imagining more setting" and rather straightforward practical play were the same thing.

That's why cult writeups for this game are daunting if you look at them as "world prep" for someone to use some day, but seem to spring out of nowhere and seem so perfect if you're simply in the thick of play with people who are engaged. In the other non-Glorantha RuneQuest game, the cults of Oome, Vrisha Himla, Nea, and Ord Lindas are written up to Cults of Prax standards strictly because those are the ones my games in that setting have used. The others have a sketchy, forced quality and I know they all need the same in-play treatment with other humans involved, even if those other humans might perceive the in-play material as existing as hard-in-stone gazetteer-level encyclopedic entries somewhere in my notes or head.

I value the solidity of the fictional material as we experience it, but I am not sympathetic to the idea - most articulated by Mike Holmes - that it represents an ideal or goal of play. I even harbor unpleasant thoughts that it is an aesthetic to be pronounced and idealized but is never particularly evident or important in reality. I know that if the GM, for example, tries to improvise and control the events of play, people get pissed-off that "you're just making it up," but I think that's due to the attempt at control rather than the origin of the material. Or it can also happen - and you can see it with me in a fair number of videos - that I've simply hit my limits of what can be played, just as a musician may get tired enough that the group should take a break, or close it out for the session. A core concept to that one is that the same limits may be met in between-session prep, so "running out" like that has nothing to do with improvisation but simply with the imaginative effort (tricky word, because it only feels like "effort" when you hit the limit) as such.

Sean_RDP's picture

I think this is very interesting and explains some of my own cognative dissonance between my earliest play (RQ2/3) and the recent Runequest Glorantha.

On your other points for discussion it does seem like Cults are the beating heart of the game - for example even the simplest spells  that the characters have gain a fictional weight from being granted / given by one cult or another, thus coming freighted with obligations and expectations

In my play, while cults are important they are mostly of personal importance to the character, not necassarily to play over all. In my own play, politics are the beating heart of the game. Lunar vs. Non Lunar. And in writing that I think about how Runequest, especially RQ2 is an adventure game as well. Could it be that cults and politics and adventure are all the heart? Or is just a matter of style. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm fizzing out on this one. As I see it, religious language and ritual participation are the medium of politics in this setting, at all levels from a minor village council session about cabbages to a land-wide mobilization for a desperate war effort. Perhaps you are identifying "religion" with doctrine? I am talking about it in a much more diffuse sense.

Sean_RDP's picture

I am going to break my comments on the three discussion points up into comments for each. I will just mention, briefly, that I enjoyed listening to the actual play. I found it useful as an example mythological informing the real world. Or maybe vice-versa. 

Framing an adventure is an opportunity to get the players engaged in a lived in world. I suppose it could also be useful for a world that the characters know is artifical, but that is not what is going on here. My thinking is that here is a great opportunity to let the players inform one another of important details. 

As an aside, I have been using 4x6 cards as character sheets for minimalist games, but also as information cards for games that have a sophisticated setting attached. In this case what I might suggest is at the beginning of each new session or each new location, however you break it down, that you hand out a 4x6 card to each character. It would have two bullet points. The first would be common known.

Corflu has been under the thumb of the Lunar Empire for two years. It has many large insects and a terrible reputation for being the arse end of the Wastes and The Empire. 

But the second bullet point is specific for that character and player. OR The second piece of information is unique for each card. Maybe put a Rune on the back of each card that somehow relates to the unique information. Then put them face down and let the players draw them at random or, if they know the meaning of the runes, draw the ones that they find interesting or relevant to their character.

Then let them share that information if they want either as an info dump or in the course of play. Each piece of information doesn't have to be explicitly useful either as that might lead to goose chases. But the right information can lead to fun or character (and player) engagement. It could be useful one session but useless rumor the next. 

Think of it as a Xena Opening. Xena and Gabrielle go into Hommlet. Xena mentions an old druid who retired here and Gabrielle says she knows of rumors that a cult is in the town. Both may be true or false and may or may not be relevant to the current adventure. But they have these cards and they can keep them from adventure to adventure and that builds the mythology of their player experiences. 

And the spirit magic tattoo, I would have just shown one of the other sailors getting one before stepping on the boat. Hopefully elciting an inquiry from the players. 

Ron Edwards's picture

We may have a slight style difference. Although the card technique is a good one, and I have been especially aggressive with “two pieces of info” methods for both Sorcerer and Champions Now, it’s not suited – at least not for me – for this game. I’m really not invested in teaching them a setting, or defining/familiarizing it through instruction, but having the setting settle and snap into place via the experience of play, and with only its identity in play being of any importance.

Well ... almost. Now that we’re significantly under way (i.e. if I say “we’re done,” I’ll lose a limb), I’m developing “instructed” setting via cult writeups. It’s slower than I’d like, but I also know that slower is better, back-and-forth with play is better, and the urge to arrive with an entire Cults of Prax equivalent between one session and the next is counter-productive.

I also agree with you regarding the value of “show” in getting setting content into place, but I don’t regard the absence (“failure”) to do so as a misstep or bad play. I think role-playing has often fallen into the rhetorical traps of cinema, i.e., “show don’t tell,” which incidentally cinema breaks all the time, and even when/if it does apply, it’s not best-practices but merely one way out of many for content to get embedded in the experience.

In this case, it’s easy to idealize a cloying parent-child model in which the GM “shows” something shiny, the player “asks” because they’re intrigued or simply had something shiny waved under their nose, and the GM “rewards” the inquiry with more content information. This model overlooks all kinds of things: that the initial depiction may be an enjoyable experience all by itself with no immediate need to clarify it, that the information may be retrospective (“by the way, you saw some of those getting inked back at the dock”), that the player may have prompted the whole thing by seeking some spirit mojo and the GM had no such content in mind but spitballed it with gratitude ...

Sean_RDP's picture

A question on this, and if I have not noted it in the videos so far, it could be just me not picking up on it.

Well ... almost. Now that we’re significantly under way (i.e. if I say “we’re done,” I’ll lose a limb), I’m developing “instructed” setting via cult writeups. 

One of the resons I use the cards is to delpoy secrets or information that is not common knowledge and then let the players share or not, as the case need be. This lets them, I won't say have agency as that is not exactly it, but take an active role in what the group is exposed to. If they never reveal, I do my best never to "spoil" that for them or pre-empt. Unless it is a major part of the plot for that session.

In the cult write ups, do you deliver these writeups to each player personally or are they available to the group at once? Or is sometimes a little of both? Or not really a relevant consideration for this game? I may be missing a piece or two here so the question may not be helpful to the discussion. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I can understand the question although not necessarily its purpose.

In the cult write ups, do you deliver these writeups to each player personally or are they available to the group at once? Or is sometimes a little of both?

Remember that I'm answering for this single game and single group of people, not for any others. So this isn't personal policy or style, it's merely what's happening this time.

I gave a copy of the general handout, the one with the world map, to everyone. For the session that I'm just finishing editing now, I gave a copy of the Buried Dead cult to Sandra. I did the same with the Merciful Dawn for Nate in the next session, and in the upcoming one, I hope to get the others to Helma and William.

I'm struggling to match this answer with your implications about group vs. private information, which I think is irrelevant to us. For one thing, the player in question isn't required to read and absorb the handout right there in play, but whenever and wherever they want. For another, this isn't a conceived and dedicated tactic of mine, but an artifact of being terribly squeezed for time and getting this material (i) written and (ii) provided as fast as I can. For the third, one of my replies to Lorenzo below talks about engaging with and even integrating with the setting as a process rather than an idealized behavior, and that's important to anything I'm saying here.

I think it'll make more sense - or at least you can see what we're doing - when you see those sessions, including some aspects of "making this work" (whatever we call this mess of people, players, setting, characters, GMs, situations, and information) that were laborious or that I'd do differently for another game.


Sean_RDP's picture

If I am reading that point correctly, my answer is senses. Unique sensations that nonetheless seem familiar enough to give context of the setting. 

I might describe two nuns eating Fish Fillet's at McDonalds on a Friday evening while discussing the upcoming Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. What can we infer from this? Well it could be Lent, which explains two Catholics eating fish on a Friday evening. Its the 80s, and specifically 1984. I dare say 1984 is something of a mythological time for some. Things are inferred, but not explicit.

In Glorantha there is always the juxtaposition of fantasy, with a taste of weird. Two priestesses eating fish on Fireday of the third week in Sea Season while discussing the latest Lunar construction in Dragon Pass might tell the players something or entice them to ask. What is seen and smelled and heard and barely glimpsed offers a certain verisimillitude. And with minimal work on the part of GM framing the scene. 

And then the characters act on those senses and perceptions. Or we hope they do. 

The discussion on sea serpents is relevant, I think. Sea Serpents are real is a simple phrase to write down and then impart to the player, but when the character sees one, it provides a sense of place. Also, possibly terror.

Ron Edwards's picture

I completely agree. One of my joys in role-playing is that perceptions and the experience of the environment is not limited to the medium of film. We are so accustomed to the vocabulary of film that I think we - everyone! - forget that it's not actually the be-all of sensory media; indeed, it's quite limited relative to spoken prose. I confess that I slip a bit into stealth beat poetry during play, on purpose.

I've been a little minimal in that range for this game, compared to some. For example, I pride myself that in playing Sorcerer, you cannot produce a film version of what we did and what the characters experienced. You can see it here a little in a few places, if I had to guess, when Skava and Zort went into "the realm of Law" in the lower levels of the tower of the first session, and I think you'll get a similar charge out of our later sessions (played but not yet posted).

One feature of role-playing which I hope is being observed and studied by now is called "re-incorporation," simply, using what's said as prompt and inspiration for what you say next. It usually refers to something tossed in as a detail which later balloons, through anyone's use of it, into a primary topic or component of the current action. My preferred methods, especially for this game with these people, is to provide lots of stuff available for such things, and not to push to get any of it re-incorporated, but rather to enjoy it when it happens. Therefore what "matters" in our setting and in fact in our sensory experience of play is very much a function of call-and-response, with no expectations about what exactly gets the responses.

Sean_RDP's picture

I think RQ2 would fit almost any mythology that, while relevant to people's lives, doesn't overly intrude on the lives of the people living in the world. At least not all the time. The Hero Wars have not begun so the rules are not weighed down with the effort of putting you in Glorantha. You can change a few names and run the game just fine.

Sword and Soul, Afrocentric sword and sorcery would fit well here. Ki Kanga is an rpg of this with its own rules, but I hear the developer is thinking of switching to OpenQuest, which is a distant releative of RQ2.

Wuxia would also fit with RQ2, though that is the opinion of someone who is no expert on the storytelling form in question. But Hero or Crouhing Tiger or House of Flying Daggers could all work well as RQ2 sessions.

Conan. Conan 2D20 and RQ: Glorantha have some similar language and pieces in place that RQ: Hyborean Age is something I have toyed with. But RQ2 could work as well or better.

Any world where the gods are just out of reach and the mythology of their antics and actions is front and center. 

Ron Edwards's picture

This is a big deal. I’ve been planning to bring this up for a while, because I’ve been hitting it very hard in the past couple of years: that RQ2 (so-called) is wonderfully suited for home-grown settings that buy into the mythic-fantasy yet highly-personal aesthetic.

It’s hard to talk about this way because I am a Gloranthaphile, noted as such by those who rank such things (apparently), and because my all too brief friendship with Greg Stafford is a cherished memory. So all potential discussion, potential publishable game development, and status opera re: Glorantha has to be put aside for us to talk about RuneQuest (specifically RQ2) as a non-Gloranthan play phenomenon.

OK – more context – needed because the interaction among RuneQuest 3rd editon, Avalon Hill’s specific interpretation, and BRP during the late 1980s pre-emptively ruined this discussion I’m trying to have with you right now. I'm specifically not talking about using the game (or BRP) as a generic template for any-and-all fantasy adventure.

So what do I mean? Picking up this version of the game, specifically, and constructing a setting that accords with my favored bit in the introduction (“Mesopotamian not medieval”) and draws upon the array of myths from Persia through Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the eastern third of the Mediterranean Sea as a model. The model is not itself the content – you build an original pantheon ranging from greater gods to minor spirits using the runes and their categories in whatever combination you want. Culture, geography, character options, and so on serve as either causes or results of this construct, as one goes along.

For example, in this setting, I have determined that the Element runes are Sky (which is specified in use to be either Sun or Stars), Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Darkness; the Form runes are Beast, Plant, Man, Spirit, and Chaos (which is not “unnatural”); and the Condition and Power runes are the same as in the rulebook. I combined runes to make cults/gods, with the proviso that each must have at least one Form or Element rune: e.g. the Merciful Dawn is Fate and Chaos, the Buried Dead is Death, Truth, and Earth. All of this was conceived in the context of making up fictional stuff, most obviously the names, rather than working only from abstract first-principles.

By “constructing a setting,” I do not mean world-building as its own isolated act in one person’s notes, but a core aesthetic notion that undergoes a feedback response with continued play. That core notion isn’t generic, but very specific to that text: the terms bronze age and pantheon matter a lot here, but the single most relevant term is cult.

For that term, I’ll quibble with your phrasing:

almost any mythology that, while relevant to people's lives, doesn't overly intrude on the lives of the people living in the world. At least not all the time.

“Yes and no.” It is deeply part of any person’s life, and any “people’s” life in the anthropological sense, to the extent that what you and I call politics, policy, ethics, and metaphysics are expressed in religious/mythic terms and not separable from them. I speculate that by “intrude” you are referring to an institution that arches over multiple locations in a distinctly doctrinal, authoritative, and imposed sense. In that, I agree that the cults are not like this and are far more localized in their specific claims, and I’ll take that one step farther and say the “doctrine” and “custom” are indistinguishable – and often subject to change, so that whatever just changed is uncritically adopted into “the way we do it” without much turmoil.

I like this phrasing though:

Any world where the gods are just out of reach and the mythology of their antics and actions is front and center. 

Which fits much better, but only in terms of this particular understanding of “cult.”

LorenzoC's picture

The discussion on cults is extremely interesting as it highlights an element of worldbuilding that I've always struggled with - setting as places vs setting as people.
There's a moment (I think at the beginning of the second session) where Ron goes a long way explaining and detailing how the community of the local villagers is reacting to the player's actions and their presence, and I was juxtaposing that with what I've been doing in my recent Pathfinder 2 game, and I realize that despite having a probably richer cast of name NPC with portraits and what not, we often glossed on what the things that were happening (surprisingly similar things, too, replace "ruins" with "abandoned castle" but it's a very similar situation) meant for the community, even when they had a much more devastating effect. And I feel the crux of the matter here is that "setting as people" is more usable by the players, expecially in more emergent moments of storytelling.

That brings up another thing that came to my mind reading the discussion in the comments and thinking of Ron's reflections, which is that running a situation-focused game and letting the worldbuilding happen at the table through play is something I've done a lot in recent years, and my observation is that while it works well (expecially on the DM's part), it risks not giving players much in the way of usable informations on how to interacts with the world or inform it. And the most immediate consequence is that having very little pre-existing information they tend to focus a lot on their characters and on the pre-programmed goals an aesthetics. It's one of those cases where you have something that on paper should invite exploration of the here and now but in practice has often proved, at least for me, to cause players to entrench in their own, insulated vision of what their character is and is meant to be. I don't know if others had the same experience. I've often stumbled in situations where new places and people and customs where introduced and players had very little ways to engage them if not as outsiders.

LorenzoC's picture

Gah, apologies for the terrible english and the long streak of spelling mistakes.

Ron Edwards's picture

running a situation-focused game and letting the worldbuilding happen at the table through play is something I've done a lot in recent years, and my observation is that while it works well (expecially on the DM's part), it risks not giving players much in the way of usable informations on how to interacts with the world or inform it

I think I know what you mean, but I also think it's easy to fall into the trap of seeking the ideal role-playing experience, and even worse, seeking to give (from GM to players) the ideal role-playing experience. In such an experience, the player is literally transported into the imagined world and not only that, looks through the eyes of a person in that world and knows what to do as a member of it, yet retains their real-world modern-day capacity for choosing exactly the right thing to do.

There is so much wrong with that I cannot even begin. You can see that it contains inside its wrong envelope, the inner wrongness of wanting the character to do "exactly the right thing," and within that, the contradiction of needing it to be both and yet separately what the character would do and what the player would do (in the language of the delusion; not my words). But it is dearly held among global GM-solidarity culture, producing self-criticism that one isn't good enough and toward-player-criticism that they are too stupid or uncommitted.

I know this trap very well, and I also know that even when avoiding it, I still over-idealized how much and how fast "it all gets real" in terms of players' characters interacting as people in that place, and yet very much as fun and functional authored entities. Because they do, or more accurately, we can all do this, and most of the angst comes from impatience, distrust, and over-compensation.

I learned it from both Sorcerer and Hero Wars. Consistently, for each game - and that's thousands of hours, easily - I sincerely felt that we were ruining play because we did not utterly experience the setting's richness, the philosophical concepts' depth, the characters' authenticity as members of the setting, and pure imagination in the moment. Only later did I realize that the players were experiencing these things more than any ideal of mine, that to them, the experience of that session and their character-identification was remarkably vivid. Furthermore, that this positive experience was not merely during play, but processed through a sequence of sessions.

In other words, my "sincerity" was only a measure of my own anxiety and not any kind of authenticity.

It reminded me greatly of something I knew well from teaching (and was frustrated that colleagues couldn't seem to grasp), that learning was often not expressed in an immediate "I get it" moment during the same session you present the content, but instead as a process of receiving it in one session, chewing it over (not necessarily consciously) between sessions, and then revisiting it in some application or an example from a different angle in a later session. It's not like teaching and learning in TV shows and movies at all, and in fact, follow-up student surveys a few months later will give very different, much more generally positive and helpfully critical results from surveys given at the high-stress points of the term.

That said, there are people who don't want it, won't do it, and even sabotage it. That's the same as in the classroom too. But I maintain that they are not common and are easily distinguished from those who are going through the positive process, no matter how messy or even failed some steps may be (hint: it's helpful to count oneself as one of the latter).

Ron Edwards's picture

I've added it to the playlist, but you can go directly to it with this link.

A lot of the discussion in this post's comments and also at the Patreon, about developing a setting through play, needs this particular session in hand. You can see all the benefits and all the problems. The good stuff is apparent in the players' eagerness and willingness to incorporate what I'm saying, and to return it into play shaped by themselves specifically. All of them do it repeatedly, in slightly different ways based on personality.

The bad stuff is incredibly obvious: the insane and disproportionate amount that I personally talk during the session.

In between, or perhaps neither good nor bad, is the care that I took, or tried to, to maintain player agency and open options relative to the info dump. I didn't want anything I said to be interpretable as "and now you must do this" - for example, I was OK with either Skava or Jovahn going elsewhere instead of staying at the temple. But sometimes it's hard to get that across.

As a special investigation of my competence, you will see that I am completely inexperienced when it comes to playing rune-level action. Everything I did regarding Rohir was OK by the book, except that I completely forgot about his allied spirit - who would certainly have sacrificed itself to protect him from the Infinity rune.

Working on editing session 7 now!

Sean_RDP's picture

I enjoyed this episode. I felt the players were invested and their reactions genuine. The fight with the rune lord had an epic feel, with it lasting just one round a bit surprising, but not a bad thing at all. There was no whiff or disappointment, except perhaps on the part of the Rune Lord's followers. 

The bad stuff is incredibly obvious: the insane and disproportionate amount that I personally talk during the session.

Perhaps. There is a lot of information that is being imparted. I see now some of my thoughts about how to impart information to this group would not be effective. You did give them a lot to chew on, but the information felt pertinent. It was not the weather for the next four days and the price of fish. There was also a point and I am not sure where it begins, where it takes on the tone of initiation into mysteries. I am not sure if this was intentional or not, or just my imagination. But the change in tone moved the session forward. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm writing this just after finishing playing session 8, and I've discovered the players are extraordinarily invested in the setting and in continuing to play. The funny thing - and I stress this - is that they spoke in terms you'd expect of a current, surprise Netflix or HBO hit, in the sense that they want to see more setting, to learn more about it, for their characters to encounter it and thereby to grow in effectiveness and influence. And yet, they are fully aware, exquisitely aware, that I am making this shit up one stumbling step ahead of them, that the cult writeups are being hurriedly printed just before I run off to the tram on game night, and that nearly all of the very same culture, geogaphy, history, and metaphysics of play are de novo for this game. I don't have my immense vision and plan and epic all set for them, and they know it.

Something about this whole experience has established that they like how I'm making up what I bring very much the same way that I like how they make up what their characters do doing play ... and both are accepted as rock-solid content. There's no romantic notions of anything's pre-game objectivity.

Ron Edwards's picture

Available via direct link to it within the playlist. I've also attached the Cult of the Merciful Dawn to the main post, which I gave to Nate at the start of this session.

I'd love to discuss this, so will edit this comment soon for my list of self-critique and game observations.

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