[Runeslayers] Pirates of Naples

Started by Eero Tuovinen, January 15, 2008, 02:02:51 PM

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Eero Tuovinen

It seems that my friendship with Sami Koponen inspires me to play all kinds of games that my lethargic nature would have me postpone indefinitely. The last time we met in Oulu I got to play Dead of Night, which I've been meaning to take out for a ride since summer. Now Sami came to visit us for a week here in Upper Savo, so we arranged for some gaming despite my busy schedule; one of the more interesting results was that we played, out of all possible things, Runeslayers, a game I've wanted to play ever since 2001 or so. It was a 5 hour session with Sami and Pyry, one of the local teenagers, during which we got to do a character generation and a satisfying sequence of adventure gaming. The way we ended up doing this was mostly that Sami, who has also been working with adventure gaming lately, discoursed so extensively on Shadowrun that I got inspired to introduce him to an adventure game I myself consider intriguing. I had to whine at the guys a bit to get them to try the game; luckily it was well worth the effort.

Runeslayers by Christopher Lawrence and J.C. Connors, for those who might not know, is the second Avalon Hill Runequest edition that never got published at the end of the '90s. Now it's available for free, which makes it an astounding value proposition for anybody. It's absolutely fascinating, with an extremely nuanced and streamlined system! The way the game deals with Setting is just slightly short of revolutionary, and the game is on par with Greg Stafford games as vanilla narrativism. Talking of adventure gaming solely, and traditional adventure gaming in particular, I consider Runeslayers superior to anything else from the same era (perhaps excepting Praedor, an excellent Finnish adventure game by Ville Vuorela), ranking very high overall. An interesting prior actual play report at the Forge by Ron Edwards is something I also remember fondly, because at the time I was rather chargrined that I hadn't managed to actually play the game, even while having slavered over it for a couple of years.

Before going any further: I also wrote about this at my blog, which the interested audience might also check out. I'm splitting my discourse in two parts because I have two main topics I want to discuss about Runeslayers:

  • At my blog I'm writing about the point-based character generation system and how and why it's bunk. This relates to my own recent ponderings on challengeful fantasy adventure gaming, so I wanted to keep that part there.
  • Here I have a rather Forgean topic, the Creative Agenda of our session and Runeslayers in general: the game is strung incoherently between absolutely fascinating possibilities as vanilla narrativism or crunchy gamism, which was evident in our session as well.

So, I'm not going to describe the rules of the game. It's freely available, and Ron already does a good job in that actual play from -04. Instead, here's a top-down view of something:

A land of mystery cults and shattered civilizations

We have here a game where player characters are assumed to initiate into mystery cults called WarClans. I use the term "mystery cult" here with full intent: these "clans" have for the most part open admission, or at least elite status within a larger community. They have secret rituals and knowledge. They have initiation and internal ranks. They have in-built ideology and philosophical ideas they impart on adherents. They can, at least by implication, be abandoned. They imply a full-body commitment to a related lifestyle.

Meanwhile, we have a game with no setting, only the implication that the WarClans all have central roles in it. Or rather, the WarClans played by the players; there are a couple of dozen different WarClans split into three sources (the main rulebook and two supplements), so trying make them all relevant for the game would be a fruitless job. Even two or three WarClans have enough interrelated implications to fuel a game a long, long time. Also, the WarClans do not and cannot, generally speaking, be modern religious institutions with no community ties or political agenda: any given WarClan will be composed of individuals with social positions, and those positions seem to be highly idiosycratic and dependant on the WarClan: for example, the Calloglaigh WarClan members consist mostly of farmers, while Red Serpents are all pirates. Martyrs of War as a WarClan do not have anti-civilization tendencies, which makes it fit for policemen and guards, while the Beastmasters have an explicit agenda against all civilized people.

All player characters are warriors. They live in a world where the only substantial magic is that of the WarClans and the mysterious Runecarvers (a status reached by super-specialization in a given weapon form), who are almost always closely allied with given WarClans. WarClan magic is personal and non-related to Clan status: you gain the magic by emulating the ideal form of humanity as conceived by that WarClan and expressed by the ten virtues outlined for that WarClan. The closer you are to the ideal in your nature, the more powerful your WarClan magic is. Meanwhile, the even more significant fact is that the WarClans are all composed of fighting men, representing enormous power directed by the leaders of each WarClan to do their bidding. Each WarClan has a different composition and size, ranging from a cult centered on a single city to entire far-off civilizations to mostly forgotten religions or anything else imaginable in the series of human social structures. The strength of your character in the setting is pretty much dependent on his position within his WarClan, if for no other reason then because his superiors have ample opportunity to slay him, especially in the more insane WarClans (and they all are that to some degree, you know; at last count 40% were pure batshit, while the rest are just fanatical).

Most WarClans do not actually initiate a character before he has won two glyphs related to that WarClan; a beginning character starts with zero glyphs. Consequently, most characters are not actually WarClan members at the beginning of the game. However, as the game instructs, the characters certainly want to be, which is an immediate campaign hook: this character has some reason to want to be a Guidesman, this one is born into the Beastmasters, and so on. When the game begins, the player is presented with random glyphs from his chosen WarClan, which he has an opportunity to gain with purposeful and directed roleplaying. A character who establishes the glyph as part of his nature grows closer to the ideals of his WarClan, which makes other members of the clan respect him, opens up advancement in the clan social structure and gives opportunity for gaining the rune magic of the clan. This might prove rather distressing when your clan proffers such ideals as "revenge", "hatred", "insanity" or "greed", to mention a few from the cavalcade of "virtues" of these twisted sword & sorcery social scenes.

Now, is this, or is this not, a setting rife for narrativist play? The rules of the game resist a bit: characters find it difficult to switch clans mid-stride, for example. But these are minor issues compared to the interesting premise: the world is dominated by these WarClans with inhumane ideologies, half of which are utterly insane, most of which band into these masculine warmachines that roam the land for plunder and perceived ideological gains related to ancient empires, nationalism or religious fervor. All free men and slaves dream of membership, as WarClans are, although utterly lethal for most disciples, also a way to gain social position undreamed of inside common society. All characters in this situation need to choose between the clans as presented in their own situation, fight for influence within their own clan and try to craft a life out of their responsibilities to the WarClan of their choise. Did I already mention that half of those clans are utterly mad? What happens when your character has no choice except to join the utterly mad skull-hunters and initiate into their mysteries, or be enslaved by them and sold to the Arabs? What happens when he gets to betray them to support the Medean Guard, who are like a shining light in comparison to most of these mad and power-hugry WarClans?

So OK, that's a pretty foregone conclusion, I think. It's not the full story, however...

No-one sings the glories of those who die

All characters have this statistic called Agility. The one with the higher Agility in combat gets a +1 die to his attack roll. This is a flat 11% increase to chance-to-hit, more or less, and you get it whether you're up on your foe by just one point or ten. Meanwhile, attack strength is determined by another statistic called Might, which gives an average of 1-1.5 points of more damage per point. A typical weakling does around 8 points of damage per hit and takes around 20 to kill. Considering these, how low can you afford to leave your Agility, when increasing Might has an exponential cost curve?

Meanwhile, Initiative is rolled d6+Perception. If a character has a higher roll than his opponent at the beginning of combat, he gets to strike first. Also, if he has double the opposing Initiative, he gets another d6 to attack, which means another 11% to his hit chance. Optimal Perception? Considering that the GM will shaft you with Perception rolls for everything social as well as all dangers?

Ultimately: this game is about combat and characters only have combat statistics. Your statistics are Might (used for damage), Courage (used for hit points and fatigue points), Intellect (used for nothing important, it seems; good for making an useless fop of a character, although I recommend wealth if you're into that), Agility (used for that nice +d6) and Perception (avoid ambushes, strike first). The combat mechanics are simple and to the point, meant to be used. Skill checks are built over the combat statistics with rerolls afforded to the skillfull in tests of the main Abilities (which is presumably where Intelligence is used, apart from some WarClan abilities). Characters can die when played foolishly, but also have ample opportunity to flee combat when it turns against them. Fatigue is tracked, which also helps in ending combat sooner rather than later. The whiff factor is pretty significant, and a modern gamer might be put off by a combat round "only a few seconds long", as that literally means a minimum of a dozen rounds or so for a combat to finish.

There's also long lists of weapons and other arms, not to speak of combat feats usable with different weapons. Lots of details that affect character success in combat.

But: looking at the various powers the WarClans have, the game is fascinatingly well-rounded in its adventuring focus. You'd imagine that all the powers would be about combat, but for some undiscernible reason they're full of everything but. There are abilities for discerning lies, recovering from injury even when travelling, becoming attractive to the opposite sex (requires a runic power, apparently) and all kinds of stuff that doesn't actually resolve combats. This is great, because it implies that these areas of experience can become issues in the game as well.

Meanwhile, players gain experience points by progressing on fulfilling their goals, beating opponents on the way and finally fulfilling the goal. Pretty straightforward.

So, why do I see a gamist game here? The Abilities proffer an interesting balancing challenge, as the relative Ability supremacy of fighters affects the fight rather more significantly than pure badassitudeness; all the character abilities are designed for overcoming obstacles, but not necessarily through fighting. Meanwhile, all characters are proficient warriors, and combat is an expected and central part of play. Therefore there is a constant tension in the game pertaining to the violent solution: can my character take that guy? Is there some other way to proceed? Meanwhile, the cults: they provide an immediate character motivation as a source of goals both external ("my sifu wants me to do this") and internal ("our beliefs require me to act this way"), all of which forces the character to priorize both his goals and means.

In effect what we have here is a structure of a central balancing puzzle between main character Abilities and a secondary opportunity concerning ancillary resources (many runic powers, skills, social status), wherein each player needs to choose between committing their resources to the Ability puzzle (which in turn includes many strategic breakpoints diffcult to predict) or the non-combat solutions. Paradoxically, this makes the issue of combat initiation rather important and makes the characters who are able to pursue alternative solutions dangerous in all kinds of non-numerical ways. When everybody is a warrior, combat is not so obvious anymore.

There's all kinds of useless trash here, too

Not everything in the game is perfect, of course. There are things learned from other games that might have been best left out:

  • As I describe in my blog, the point-based chargen and experience system sucks big-time. It connects nowhere in the fiction or the rules, it's just points you use to arbitrarily improve the statistics of your character. Even D&D levels have more of a sense of accomplishment and fictional implication in them. In this regard Runeslayers is a child of its time; at the latter end of the '90s this kind of game design was considered the best there is, probably mostly because players were encouraged to craft and substantiate with rules all kinds of character visions; a game was considered flawed if it failed in supporting an arbitrary character vision a player might have ("But what if I want to play a gimp chimpanzee journalist?!?"), so a point-based system that allowed one to simulate "anything" (as long as you had enough points) was considered the best thing since sliced bread.
  • The races are absolutely useless, I find no redeeming qualities there at all. After the insane sword & sorcery wibe of the WarClans (the closest thing to character class this game has) they're like being hit with the nerd-hammer. I have better things to do than play an "elf", thank-you-very-much.
  • I hold not much preference for the classical adventure rpg cliches that are evident here and there in how the game sees the world. Simply put, there are these... assumptions, cultural fallacies that are repeated from game to game, and Runeslayers has many of them as well. For example, the game makes a point of having characters hyper-specialize in given weapon classes, with things like "warhammer" and "hammer" separated into different classes. It also features
  • The GMing instructions are stock stuff, I don't see how they can work for a game where the characters each belong to a different fanatical cult. I imagine it's like herding cats when you try to run a prepped adventure predicated on a cooperating adventurer group. The details are outright amusing, there's stuff like "after describing the first scene you have to wait, and sooner or later the players will declare what their characters will do". This got us a good one-time laugh when, after I'd framed the first scene, the players actually did just sit there dumb... and then somebody asked whether it was now OK to state what their character was going to do.
  • Frankly, I don't know what I'd do with the settings of the game (there are two). They're not that bad, and there are some WarClans that utilize them, but really, those things should be described as part of the pertinent WarClans, not as an unified setting. As I describe below, one of the core brilliances of the game is how the different WarClans by their interaction imply not just a situation, but also a setting. Having all this trash in the way just makes it more difficult for the GM to see what he really needs to focus on.
  • Finally, perhaps the most fatal of inclinations in the book: at some level (surface, I think) the designers have conceived of the WarClans as the equivalent of Whitewolf splats, character classes intented for tendency acting of cliched stereotypes. Some WarClans suffer slightly of a clash between a desire to "provide a WarClan for players wanting to play pirates" (as if a character needed a WarClan for that) and a desire to paint this awful, colorful and idiosyncratic world through the eyes of crazy, desperate and religious cultists. This makes some WarClans slightly too generic, even if they are quick to gain color in application.
If it didn't already become clear, I rave about these personally perceived faults because I like the game so much. It's easy to throw away most of the above (except the character generation, which is non-trivial) and run the game as I believe it most fun, but it'd also be nice if the game didn't have these faults.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Eero Tuovinen

So, is it narrativist or gamist?

We discussed this issue explicitly before going into play at our session. Our solution was the less-than-inspired "let's create characters and see what comes up". Half-way through the 3-hour character generation (yes, point-based chargen sucks for slowness as well) it was pretty clear that we'd be playing the gamist version (under the "nobody sings for the dead" up above), which suited me just fine: I had a very clear sense of how that would go, as opposed to the narrativist angle, which I'd just realized the day before from rereading the materials of the game.

Note: the game is pdf only and this is the first time ever that I ran a pdf game that I hadn't memorized beforehand. (A bit difficult to memorize 200+ pages of stuff.) In practice this worked by scaring up a laptop for each player, so that everybody could work with the book separately. Worked well enough, although I still consider a paper book a superior solution as long as I'm not investing in some heavy hardware.

The game practically runs itself: we decided to have the players choose their WarClans first, after which we'd figure out a setting around those WarClans. The players chose Red Serpents, a WarClan of pirates organized on an at-most per fleet level and the Martyrs of War, a clan of vanilla warriors dedicated to warriorhood, simply enough. The former's shtick is that they're free and independent while also tied to their ships; the latter's is that they're just about the only sane WarClan with no appreciable integrated political ambitions, so they're usable an stable enough for employment as guards, say.

For setting, we'd be discussing the issue from the angle of "what kind of world is it if all these WarClans can coinhabit it?" There was a strong mediterranean flavor in the material for us all, but there were also competing visions for the ancient or the renaissance eras. Sami wanted the former, while Pyry preferred the latter, in accordance to their familiarity with the eras. I could take either. Finally we opted for the renaissance, which allowed me to do some setting generation.

What I had going in:

  • The Red Serpents would need the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The Martyrs of War wanted a city. Or rather, I wanted to feature them as paid guards for a city.
  • Sami's character was a "pygmy" from the darkest Africa, which was the compromise solution we arrived to when Sami wanted to create a non-human character per the rules, while I was totally stumped on why anybody would want to do something so disinteresting. Our compromise was to simply call a "gnome" from the rules a "pygmy", with all the attendant cultural implications. Sami said he wanted an inhuman character for the statistics involved, so this was a fine compromise; I have no idea if Sami expected the consequence of having to struggle with cultural differences during the game, but apparently he took those differences as the challenge they were intented to be.
What I had going out: the game would be set in Naples in "fantasy Europe". The city had just been liberated five years ago from the king of Sicily's domain, now standing as a free city. Because pirates and other non-affiliated crews supplied the city during the long siege, they had now been granted a free port at Naples. Consequently Naples tends to be full of pirates and Red Serpents nowadays. Meanwhile, the Martyrs of War are influential with the city guard, yet separate in organization. They have huge numbers of riff-raff and low-level conscripts in their WarClan due to the long siege, during which many poor people and even women joined the WarClan. The highest level Martyr of War in the city would be a commander with 8 glyphs, while I decided that there'd be 1d8 Red Serpent ships at the harbour at any given time, with captains (8 glyphs). The Red Serpents would be predominantly Arab, originating in North Africa, while the Martyrs would have a strong condottieri wibe.

The above was our Setting when we set out. Later on I also figured out and brought into play that the Red Serpents actually have an Islamic, sufi-style religious core in their bolsterous and carefree activities. I also figured out, as a backstory secret, that the Bey of Tunis was funding the raising of a pirate fleet for nefarious purposes, for which purpose the newly pirate-tolerant Naples would play a key role. The former realization came about by simply roleplaying a couple of Red Serpent statists, while the latter was a necessary motivation for an important NPC. Absolute gold as far as I was concerned at the time, the setting was very appealing.

As for situation, we did something I'm very, very good at: after the players created their characters and I explained the above setting, improvised at the time, I found out via discussion why the characters were in Naples: one was a long-term resident from a mid-class merchant family, an officer of the merchant's guild private guard force, while the other had been kidnapped by Red Serpent pirates in Africa and brought here before being freed. The former wanted / was destined to become a Martyr of War, while the latter was to be a Red Serpent. I gave the players a choice of either defining their own initial goal, or letting me do it if they preferred to start their character at rest. Sami had his pygmy develop an ardent wish to go home and perhaps see the sea, for which purpose he would need to get the Red Serpents, the only real long-distance sailors in Naples, to give him a lift (and perhaps initiate him into redserpenthood). Pyry opted for GM-initiated situation, which I responded by having the character go into a meeting where he was supposed to arrange a smuggling operation with one of the Red Serpent captains; we'd determined in character backstory that the character was corrupt and willing to work with smugglers.

So those were the initial situations. I rolled my d8 to find out how many Red Serpent captains were in the city, got 2, and spent a minute or two consciousness-streaming a situation for Naples:

  • One of the captains, named Tahar Hadji, was mysterious. He was mysterious because he had... he was an agent of the Bey (which I invented here), sent to scout the city and align other captains to his side. He would have 9 glyphs, so he was just short of becoming a Sea-Lord, the highest rank Red Serpent, one capable of leading a fleet.
  • The other captain would be... a nasty and brutish guy, he'd be called Said. He would smuggle drugs and stuff, but also worse; he would be antagonistic towards Tahar Hadji and willing to pillage his riches if the opportunity came. He would also smuggle something really immoral into the city, bad drugs or perhaps weapons of some kind.
  • Tahar Hadji would have a magic sword detailed in the book, one that causes blindness but also is very lethal. I just noticed it before play and wanted to include it, and it was also something that Said could want, if I needed to have Said make use of the PCs.

So my situation was entirely Red Serpent -based, which was OK, as the city itself was firmly Italian, and both characters had initial motivations entangled with the Red Serpents. I was totally ready to bring in some challengeful Martyrs or other characters, too; it developed that Pyry's character Bernard had a dangerously smart adjutant called Brackio, who happened to be a Conscript in the Martyrs. If we'd played more, I'm sure young, uncorruptible Brackio would have gotten involved in our events of much corruption and more violence.

Anyway, play itself went rather well, or at least I liked it. I took the experience rules from the book rather literally, but I let the players define their own goals, so they could gain experience points as instructed in the book. We got the gamist cycles going rather easily: the players had their goals, with one trying to play the dangerous pirate captain and perhaps capture him (proved that Bernard wasn't as corrupted as we imagined), while the other tried to overcome his strangeness to the city and to gain an audience with one of the Serpent captains. We had some rather pure and fun adventure roleplaying in there. Some favourite moments:

  • Sami's character Moke found out after a tricky meeting with some Red Serpents that they'd be willing to introduce him to their captain Tahar Hadji for the price of 50 silver; they told him that they'd be in danger themselves if they gave a favourable word on a stranger who proved false. Moke was broke at this point, so this was no laughing matter. Moke had the glyph of Daring, so I was delighted with his solution: he would steal into the captain's ship, steal something from him, and return it, thus proving his worthiness. Real Red Serpent solution!
  • Pyry's Bernard, on the other hand, found out that captain Said was offering him a deeper, more profitable and trustful relationship. There was even some question of whether Bernard would switch WarClans to take advantage of the opportunity. However, Bernard also antagonized first mate Adil, the go-between, who thought that Said was looking for a successor to his position. Later on Bernard met with Adil and found out via a social check that Adil was trying to lure him to a trap, therein to dispose of him. Bernard did not reveal his understanding, but he also refused to go; Sami was on the edge of his seat at this point, pointing out how Bernard was a fool to let his enemy walk away. This was amply demonstrated in Bernard's next scene, wherein I had him awaken (after a failed perception check) in a room filling with smoke, only to be ambushed outside (after another failed check) naked and unarmed by Adil, keen to assassinate him. While I feared for a bit that this was too much for Pyry to swallow, this was a very tension-filled scene with some very large bonuses to combat checks on Adil's side.
  • Moke was rather successful in his endeavour, as he got in and out of the ship with a string of amazingly lucky ability checks. He even managed to not make a faux pas in his stealing that would make him a lethal enemy of the pirate prince, as I'd hoped he would. Instead, he jus stole the sword and some coins, only to appear with the sword the next day, triumphantly. The weird small black man even managed to deliver the sword back with the appropriate panache, winning favour and attention from the pirate prince in a rathe swashbuckling manner.
  • Bernard, meanwhile, managed to escape Adil's not so tender attack, but lost his home and dignity. We had to end the session before finding out how Bernard would fare, but I loved the situation: a pirate captain willing to trust the guy and even initiative him into his crew, a jealous first mate, a too smart and uncorruptible adjutant... lots of room for anything to happen.

So that's most of it, really... my main point was to point out how the game would do both gamist and narrativist play in a very enticing manner, and how this was my first experience where I genuinely couldn't choose which to play outright. I could well have fun either way with almost the same rules. Also, an interesting question: the game doesn't appeal to me from a simulationistic point of view at all (the Situation doesn't cohere for that purpose), but if it did, would any of those mechanics I find indefensible make sense then? Especially, the question I skirt at my blog: would the point-based character generation make any sense as a simulationistic tool? Somebody somewhere (can't remember who) said that Runeslayers supports simulationism, so perhaps the character generation makes sense in that frame.

All in all, this is a game full of interesting stuff, but it's also humongously incoherent (to the degree that I could almost imagine somebody playing it in a simulationistic manner, ignoring the other stuff). It was quite fun to take my Forge powerz and turn it into a playable and fun experience, and do it effortlessly, even. Perhaps I should continue down the historical track and play Earthdawn next, on the principle that I can apparently turn any of these old adventure games into a fun experience, fully utilizing their setting and rules, by following the principles of challengeful adventure gaming...
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eero,

I'm quite fond of this game, actually. Here's my actual play posting from a few years ago: [Runequest Slayers] Skulls, blood, other bodily fluids.

My summary of the publishing history should be taken as a personal impression. I do not think it's accurate.

I'll post some specific thoughts about the GNS stuff later.

Best, Ron