Last night was my first time GMing Runequest. As a veteran GM of DND (all versions since 2) and Call of Cthulhu, the challenge for me was making sure that I effectively communicated just enough Glorantha lore, system feel, and fun all in one evening. I think it went well. I did a lot of prep for this game, with most it focusing on making sure I had blocks of text to introduce lore, and that my players had the resources to engage with the combat system. Example: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10uZrm72-Sd6_CAA0L8tWetBnomVZqw9Bw2QHuetI2zA/edit?usp=sharing I recognize that there are probably errors in that document. Feedback is appreciated. Try to see all the newness through a new player's lens!
Cattle Raid spoilers to follow.
My players chose from among a pre-selected sub set of the starters. I included the complete rules text of every one of their spirit and rune spells, including the stat for the rune they were associated with next to it. The goal being to not have to flip through a book or packet in order to know what they could do. I began by reading the "blurb" at the start of the QuickStart and added in some specific information about the Dragonrise. My players were really interested in the in media res aspect of starting with a cataclysmic event.
I began by just having them walking through Apple Lane and seeing a sign advertising the need for a group of heroquesters to protect local cattle. This was a good opportunity to emphasize some culture of Glorantha and I had them make some culture and homeland rolls. The fruits of these rolls were gaining some reasons as to why their characters would want to take risks to protect cows. I tied these reasons to their passions as well, particularly loyalty and devotion to temples. This provided a further opportunity to talk about passions and augmentation.
I introduced Brightflower, who served as a strong intro NPC to give them further reasons to help. I also used this as an opportunity for them to introduce their characters using the italic text on the sheets. Brightflower played off of each one after they gave their little speech and I used her as a vehicle to give the players some insights into the motivations of their characters, given how new everything was.
The big challenge of the first adventure of a brand new game is that players really don't even know what questions to ask. So, as GM, my job becomes finding creative ways to feed them information from the adventure text questions, without it seeming canned. I think I did a good job of bringing up some things to get them thinking. They took the job and suggesting bothering after Brightflower offered the 50 Lunar. They lead with room and board as an add-on, but Brightflower was so impressed with their Critical success roll on Bargain that she upped the sakkar fee to 100 Lunar.
She fetched Heotarl (who I nickname Tarl, because I find Heortarl awkward to pronounce) and they set off for the Gejay Hills!
I portrayed Heortarl as written in the text, being a bit overeager towards heroquesting. I went and had him express marriage interest in one of the Adventurers as a way to introduce the "forwardness" of Glorantha social custom. My players did a great job of playing off of what I was doing. I was able to include in the information that Heortarl is designed to give the players about ignorance of the ruins, as well as setting up the Orlevings as an antagonist.
Upon arrival at the herd, I used Jareena as a counterpoint to Heortarl, with her chiding him for his "frequent proposals" to young women. One of my player's played Nathem and asked if she could send her Shadowcat on a scouting mission. I wasn't sure how to play this, given that I don't know the extent to which trained Shadowcat's "follow orders" like familiars in DND. So, I had her roll Nathem's Beast Rune. She got a regular success, which I deemed as not good enough for the Cat to go wandering off away from the safety of the fire. I wasn't trying to say "no," so much as do what I thought was realistic. I also wasn't interested in her losing her shadowcat by it just being eaten by sakkars, although maybe that was the most exciting play. Let me know what you think about that?
The group followed the cattle the next day, as written. My players made judicious use of Scan and Search to find some sakkar scat. One of my players rolled Critical on Scan and noted a significant rustling in the grass right before the sakkars attacked.
Cattle Raid suggests that the sakkars don't want to fight humans. While I totally understand that from a Runequest flavor perspective, I was getting the impression that my group was ready for action, and it was starting to get late anyway. So, I elected to have them fight to the death. Here is the map I prepared for the encounter. Solid lines are increasing elevation and dashed lines are decreasing. The X is where the sakkar attack occurred, and the circled letters refer to the herders. T is HeorTarl.
I asked the players how they planned to move with the herd and they elected to spread out. I deliberately made the scale large to increase the tension. I also made a point to emphasize with them that the down slope towards the upper left of the diagram leads to Orleving farm lands. My players did discover that the Varmandi had been grazing within Orleving boarder stone boundaries prior to this. This close proximity made them appropriately nervous.
The sakkars attacked! My plan was to keep them near the kills and to feed on them, until anyone chose to intervene. With my players being spread our over the whole map, the challenge was getting them involved with combat and not be sidelined just because of positioning. Vostor was the only one close to the attack, and he elected to use his javelin as a melee weapon. A big part of this first combat was players figuring out "how this works" and I think they did a fine job given the newness and circumstances. They did a good job of attempting augments with skills like bargain, homeland, culture, etc, but really struggled with the idea of augmenting weapon attacks. This is my fault because I could have done a better job of emphasizing that weapons could be augmented too! The "it is whatever it says on my character sheet" mentality is potentially a barrier for people coming over from other games, because skill augmentation is pretty novel for most role-players.
Mobility was the most commonly used Spirit Magic and the player playing Yanioth was absolutely dead set on making the biggest Earth Elemental possible to deal with the threat of the sakkars and I couldn't blame them.
The beginning of the combat was a brief introduction to how Strike Rank works and the logic of it was well-received by my players. The first few rounds were largely positioning rounds and getting out of the way of cattle. I had the cattle split into three main groups, and having the map really helped here. Players really had a lot of positioning choice and many of them were adept at "finding the gaps" between the three groups to avoid being trampled. Everyone had to make at least one DEX roll and nobody was trampled! But the THREAT of the trample played out really well and definitely influenced the sense of threat.
Vostor immediately took a savage gut swipe to his abdomen from the big male sakkar. 17 points to that one location! I basically was fudgy on the movement rules during this section. I recognized that the scale I provided for the map was perhaps a little too much on the harsh side for the combat, as some players were starting hundreds of meters away from the battle. They used Mobility and full moves to get there as quickly as possible. On the other side of the coin, I recognized immediately that I had set it up risking a lot of players just being straight up irrelevant in the battle. Which is not a good thing. So, that resulted in some generous movement responses to player decisions. I didn't play it perfectly by the numbers, because if I did, it really would have punished some players who basically made the logical choice to protect on all sides.
That said, Harmast was close enough to Vostor to be able to get to him with a healing potion. We did the Strike Ranks accurately (Dropped weapon, 5 SR take out potion, 5 SR administer) but I did fudge the movement a little.
With mobility, Vasana and Yanioth were able to cross the field and get to the threat by the fourth round. Yanioth dropped all four of her Rune points to make a medium elemental and used it to engulf the female sakkar. Vasana trampled it's head with her Bison, killing it. Harmast made a special success sword attack against a failed parry of the male sakkar and it went to the head! It didn't quite do triple damage to the head, but given that it was at less than zero main hit points, I called it a beheading.
Where was Nameth this whole time? Nameth ran after Heortarl to guard against any shenanigans with the Orlevings. I had Nameth see two riders in the distance. She (the player) grappled Heortarl to prevent him from doing anything stupid. She wasn't able to wrestle him to the ground. Deseros and Erlanda approached and I played out the expected threats between them and Heortarl. Kari did a great job of rune and passion augments to bargain with them. With a great speech, a logical augment, and a good roll, she talked them into only taking half of the cattle from this sub herd!
So, all told, the group only lost 18 cattle and managed to eliminate the sakkar threat. Yes, I know that cuts across the "sakkar run" tactic of the scenario, but based upon the combination of time, table feel, and this being their first adventure, I felt that it was appropriate to have a longer fight. Even if that cuts against the "monsters and people flee" rule of Runequest. We did get the cultural thing in at the end with Nameth and the Orlevings and the negotiation.
Most importantly, they want to play again. So, the current plan is to play Defending Apple Lane for our next session!
1) What do you think about the Shadowcat situation above? Do Shadowcats "follow orders" like familiars? Whether they can or not, how would you have avoided an effective "no" under that situation?
2) Is an elemental's damage physical or magical damage? In other words, does Armor apply? I wasn't sure in the moment, so I made it physical, with the hope being that Yanioth would roll a 4, 5, or 6 on its damage to overcome armor. She rolled a five, and it was appropriately epic, but I'm wondering if I played it correctly. It just seems odd to me that you'd drop four rune points to control an elemental, roll a two for damage result when it engulfs, and have the elemental do no damage to a foe with armor. Seems a potentially huge waste of a large rune point investment.
3) I wasn't sure how creatures with natural weapons "parry," so I just used their claw statistic. Correct?
4) Any skill not in any NPCs list happens at base value, correct? The biggest aide that was missing was a list of skill base values, and I will have that for the next session.
Thanks for reading!
I've had the recent fortune of having a few Keeping Conversations with new Keepers. They always want advice, and I am normally happy to provide some, so long as the advice can actually do some good. Most advice given in the world is wrong. Not in of itself, but given with poor timing and without considering someone's improvement needs. Human experience is too varied for advice to do what it is intended to do. It isn't about "what worked for me." It is about what will work for the other person. I've been mentoring colleagues as an educator for many years, and the way we address this problem is by giving less advice and instead asking more questions that can help someone find what they need to be successful.
I do believe that there is some baseline advice that can be safely given to new Keepers.
1. MGF (Maximum Game Fun)
2. Work towards balanced involvement at the table. (Quieter people may want to stay quiet, and that's ok. But also, some people need to be invited to participate. You shut down a table hog by inviting others to be involved and using the phrase: "Great idea, I'll come back to you" for people who Bogart time.)
3. Communicate with players early and often. (topics that are off the table, are we at MGF? etc)
I think that is pretty safe advice and gives new Keepers actionable things to practice. Anybody can practice asking questions around a table so all are involved. Each of those has their own specific skills that need to develop, but it doesn't hurt to have them as axioms to aspire towards.
But what about advice that most Keepers wouldn't immediately think of? What is deeper advice that could make a big difference? I'm specifically thinking about scenario execution. This leads me to the title of this post. I also just want to give a disclaimer here that I am not a scenario designer, nor am I trying to unfairly criticize scenario designers. I don't have those skills, but at the same time, I know what I most frequently change about scenarios.
I think there is a generalized fallacy that is assumed in role-playing games that I'll call the "perfect timing fallacy." The idea is that many encounters are designed such that player characters are expected to be in the right place at exactly the right time. This classically manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Dungeons are all stocked full of monsters that, for some reason, stick to within the boundaries of their room despite their being open corridors between them. They are always awake. Investigators stumble upon a ritual exactly as it is being completed, or right before they can have an impact. The cop who saw something is on duty when the investigator's ask for them. Monsters in a room are always prepared to fight, or willing to fight.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those examples, so long as it is fun for the participants. Scenario designers frequently do a great job of proposing "alternatives outside the norm." And sometimes "the norm" is what produces MGF. And that's great. Perfect timing is arguably critical from a narrative standpoint. It moves the narrative along when it needs to move. That isn't lost on me. Managing the ebb and flow of the story at a table is another critical skill for Keepers to develop. But what advantages can be gained by breaking with perfect timing?
I think that it is also worth considering the potential benefits of imperfect timing for investigative horror role-playing (or role-playing in general). I think Jaws is a perfect example of using imperfect timing as a narrative tool. Brodie, Quint, and Hooper spend most of the movie too late to do something. And the shark is only barely on screen for the majority of the movie. Them always being late produces a frustration that drives the narrative because it just makes them work harder to engage the threat. Now, imperfect timing works until perfect timing is needed. The movie has a time cap and they gotta ramp it up, so the shark shows up. And when it does show up, the payoff for the audience is huge. They had to work to get the payoff, rather than the payoff just appearing immediately for all to see.
So how does this translate as a tool for gaming? Here are some examples:
1) Curating existential dread. Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest and most primal human emotions. This is why horror movies that work are those that don't show the threat ever or until as late as possible in the narrative. In the Jaws example above, the dread is created by the heroes arriving after the shark attacks and seeing the grisly aftermath. And the shark promptly sinks back into the waves and out of actionable distance. It is often better for the Investigators to arrive late to something happening, especially if violence is involved. The pendulum can swing the other way too. Don't underestimate the power of investigators arriving early and then having no idea how to prevent or engage with an issue. Being early and being late is often far more frightening to people than being "right on time." This also has the advantage of really selling the idea that "shooting your gun" or "swinging your club" isn't going to fix this situation. Taking that off the table forces investigators to use other means to address a threat. As always, know your group and what they like.
2) Eliciting healthy struggle. If your players always arrive on time, there may not be as much brain work that they have to do to work out a situation. Speaking for myself, when I play, I love not knowing what is happening with a situation because it encourages me to turn the wheels in the head. This can be particularly useful when players arrive really early and the number of clues present in a location, right at that moment, is minimal. Or, they may stumble upon a total orgy of evidence but have no idea how it all relates to the current time at the current location! That in of itsekf can be frightening. Or, maybe they arrive early or late and what could have been a critical narrative location has now become a red herring. This last one is particularly useful when running games in which the players know the scenario and are struggling not to metagame it!
3) Keeping investigators alive in campaigns. If you play mostly one-offs at conventions, it is understood that the gloves are pretty much off for lethality. People who play CoC at Cons know that their characters aren't likely to live, even if they make a string of good decisions. There is also the "Sandy Petersen killed me" dream of a lot of gamers. But when you do campaign play, it is a completely different ball game. This is an area where communication is key. And while some players are perfectly ok with their character getting slaughtered or going insane at any turn, many players get attached to their characters. If we could criticize one aspect of early (1970s) scenario design, it is that a lot of early scenario work featured "gotcha" deaths that were nearly impossible to avoid if ran as written. That does not contribute to a positive table feel unless it is known in advance to expect that.
People often ask me how I am able to Keep (capitalization intended, he he) characters alive when playing campaigns with a reputation for lethality. The answer to that question is that players often arrive early or late to situations that would just end the narrative unnecessarily prematurely. in thinking about MGF for my group, they are very attached to their characters. I think it is incumbent upon CoC Keepers to consider that scoffing at that attitude in players isn't the most productive way to get to MGF, even if you think that "frequent character death and insanity is how CoC should work." This is less about how a game works, and more about how your table works. If you play a game the way it "should work" and your players aren't into that, then you've failed.
You can have your cake and eat it too in campaign play. It just takes considering having characters arriving early or late to encounters that are designed to be "right on time."
These techniques are not new to horror role-playing. Many published works emphasize rigid or flexible timelines for events. The key is simply to consider the possibility that "right on time" may not be the best decision for maintaining a slow descent into madness. I'm prepared to venture that going extended periods being alive and sane is far more frightening than just dying and going insane instantaneously. Your game will vary, of course. There is a sprawling continuum of what different people find fun.
The key is to consider: How can you avoid being trapped by perfect timing as a Keeper?
Here’s my report! Note that it gets progressively more positive as the day goes on, so stick with it!
My Free RPG Day began by going to my FLGS to find that they didn’t get in any product. So, off to a rough start. The worker told me that that they tried to order but weren’t allowed to use a credit card this year because the endeavor is under new management. So, by the time they got to doing Paypal, the FRPG people were out of boxes. So, kind of a sour start, but I had plans for later in the day and I’m fortunate that Omaha has a ton of game stores, so I knew that somebody had to have gotten a shipment.
Perusing online I found that, sure enough, another FLGS got product. So, I went in and found that they were giving away any two choice items for free. I got what I came for: The Kids On Bikes Mini-Campaign. Yay! I thought about taking a second item, since it was allowed at this store, but I just wasn’t keen on any of the other offerings (even the dice). This Day was pretty Paizo-heavy, and I don’t play Starfinder or Pathfinder. So, I just decided to leave a second item to a gamer who’d really get some use out of it. I will say that the scenario on the table for Starfinder did look cool. Nice production, art, and a funny alien.
Now to the Main Event (cue arena music). The sibling store of the first store I mentioned had a person running Call of Cthulhu in the evening! The store policy (and rightly so, in my opinion) is that priority is given to new players. So, I figured I’d show up, and if it was full I’d just watch/help with rules questions. I wore the arcane symbol Cthulhu-themed shirt one of my players gave me last year. OBVIOUSLY.
I arrived on time and found an experienced gamer (Len-Keeper) and a much younger guy (Brandon) at the back table. Plenty of open slots. Honestly, for this area, I was excited that we got to play. The area is dominated by combat RPGs (no offense intended) but that just isn’t my thing. Well, here was an older gent who it wasn’t his thing (he was very interested when I mentioned Runequest) and a younger kid who was “sick of” Adventurer’s League-style DND and wanted to try something new. Bless his heart, and as soon as we heard that, Len and I were extra determined to give him a great experience with Call of Cthulhu!
We chatted for a bit about how Call of Cthulhu is a different style of game than DND and that getting into combat is generally a bad idea. Brandon understood this immediately (some people don’t). He picked Nevada Jones from the Starter as his character and I picked Jessie Williams. She seemed to be a good compliment to Nevada.
Len ran Deadlight. I hadn’t read it in a long time and the opening scene kind of reminded me of it, but I couldn’t remember any of the particulars. So, it was just like I was playing it fresh. Len was a good Keeper. He was especially good at description and evoking mood, which is something I’m continually working on as a Keeper. So, he was a good Keeper for me to learn from.
*Deadlight spoilers from here on-skip to after three asterisks for summary*
We were driving along the road on our way back to Arkham when we saw a shape on the road. Nevada clipped the figure with the car and nearly crashed it. Jessie ran out into the rain to see if the figure was ok to find a woman in a white dress raving about “the light” and how it had “taken my grandfather.” I got her back into the car and out of the elements while Nevada checked the car and found it to be ok, just a bit stuck. He pushed while I hit the gas and the three of us headed down the ride, driving much more slowly this time. I asked the woman her name (Amelia Bell) and about what she saw. She said that her grandfather was “attacked by the light” and that she had run away from the situation. All along the drive we saw a light in the woods a hundred or so yards off…
Up the road we found a semi-truck jackknifed across the road. This made it completely impassable due to the mud on either side, but there was a nearby diner/gas station that we took shelter in. We walked in to hear two men arguing with each other and Doreen, our waitress got us all set up with coffee. Jake, a huge guy with a truckers logo on his hat was also speaking about seeing lights. In this case, they caused him to jackknife his truck. Jake was pretty heightened and at one point grabbed Nevada by the scruff and got real intense. We managed to talk him down and set out to find out what could be done to get back to Arkham. Jessie’s character sheet says she is religious, so I played it as if she was in a bit of denial about the weird happenings around us (resisting the Mythos). I nonchalantly asked Doreen if she knew the people who lived nearby and through that conversation learned about Dr. Bell living back up the road on Orchard Road in the direction we had come from.
Doreen mentioned that the phone was down but I went to check on it to see if I could use Mechanical Repair to work on it. I failed my roll, but Pushed and got an Extreme success. There was nothing wrong with the phone and the wires leading out of the building seemed intact, so I resigned myself to the fact that there wasn’t anything I could do about that.
Nevada suggested we go check Jake’s truck to see if there was anything that could be done. Forging out into the rain, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, other than it being jack-knifed and in the mud. We asked about an adjacent repair bay since old gas stations frequently had repair stations attached. Sure enough, there was one, and we went out to see if we could find any tools or pulleys that could help us work on the truck, even though that seemed like a long shot. Jake went with us. The power went out when we were in there and Jake started to get agitated. He ran out into the rain desperate to get his truck going. We still hadn’t found any equipment so Brandon and I were very much in “what would our characters do?” moments. As players we knew the guy was probably doomed, but we both agreed that our characters would likely be focused on the task at hand so we just “waited for him to get back” (ha ha).
We saw a light near the truck and assumed that Jake found a useful tool and headed out to investigate. I waited on the other side of the truck while Nevada peered around the corner. He saw Jake flat on his back on the ground with a flashlight spinning slowly nearby. He snagged the flashlight and noted that Jake’s face looked distorted. Not burned. More melted. Jake sat bolt upright and screamed. We made SAN checks and Brandon passed. I failed it, but took less SAN because I didn’t see the full details of what was transpiring. As Jake stood up, bright light was emitted from his mouth and eyes and his whole upper body seemed to liquify. We ran and the light seemed to retreat back into the woods.
I tried to encourage everyone in the diner to get away from the windows and head into the back. Something was going on here and my religious upbringing caused my character to focus on keeping people safe. People were hesitant to follow such weird instructions but we did our best to explain and got people in the back. We searched for a fuse box and found all of the fuses intact!
At this point, Mary the waitress started to get really agitated. I asked her why she was so upset and she pulled a gun on me! She said that she wasn’t going to wait any longer for her boyfriend to show up for the robbery they were committing. I gave a little speech to try to calm her down and the Keeper gave me a 10 percent bonus on a dismal Persuade skill level, given my speech. I critically failed and immediately requested a Push, leaning on how I just wanted to get all of us to safety and the future mattered more than her past. My Pushed roll succeeded, and I spent Luck to turn it into a Hard Success. This calmed Mary down and she put the gun away.
Realizing that agitation seemed to attract “the light” I hatched a plan to get Doreen to get everyone some marshmallows to try to lighten the mood around the fire. While doing this, Mary disappeared. We saw her running out to a car behind the repair bay! Knowing that may be our only option for helping others escape, we ran out into the rain after her. When we arrived, Mary was being consumed by “the light” and both Nevada and I took SAN hits before we fled back.
Piecing the bits of the puzzle together, Nevada and I agreed that we weren’t likely to make any headway at our current location. It wasn’t safe to be outside on foot and the power and phone options were dead ends. So, I made the audacious suggestion that we go try to help Amelia’s grandfather.
We headed back up the road with the light trailing us the whole way. We found Amelia’s grandfather’s place. We brought her inside and immediately found a sitting room with a ghastly sight (in retrospect we could have done a better job of protecting her from any imagery). Amelia’s grandfather and her two robbers were laying dead on the floor in various stages of “melting.” There was also a metal box/chest that was opened in the room. It looked like the seam had been sealed with wax in the past. (Seems to be the source of an imprisoned entity of some kind? Hmm.)
Amelia went catatonic. We found a working oil lamp and decided to explore the rest of the house. I stayed with her while Nevada explored the kitchen and an adjoining room. No clues. We switched off “custody” of Amelia and I found a crowbar and the study. Nevada searched the pockets of the grandfather and found a small key and a pocket watch. He also stoked the fire.
The study was a Call of Cthulhu player’s DREAM! A bookcase! A desk! 😜 With no Locksmith skill, I went to my Crudely Use Crowbar skill and forced open the desk drawer. Sorry Nevada, your key is useless now. 😉 My Spot Hidden roll was a fail. I Pushed it, with the aim of trying to categorize the desk material into piles to make it easier to search. I critically failed my Pushed roll (!) and my kind Keeper just made my light run out of oil (rather than setting the desk on fire). I resigned myself to being a failure in that room and traded off with Nevada again.
Nevada found an accounting book (neither of us have Accounting), but more critically also an old leather-bound journal with strange writings (squeal). In perusing it he found references to a set of detailed steps related to the wax-sealed box. It explained how to imprison “the light” within the box with a sacrifice. Given that it was just Nevada, Amelia, and I, the “sacrifice” option was particularly maddening to consider. Thankfully, it also mentioned that extreme heat, electricity, or daylight could potentially “kill” the entity, but that if it hid during daylight it would just return the next night.
Nevada gained 1 Cthulhu Mythos and took 3 SAN.
Our last investigative push was to try to see if we could get the lights of the house back on. The Keeper mentioned that there were no wires that seemed to lead into the house. I suggested we try to find a basement. We found the door leading into the blackness and made our way down some dangerous steps, making our DEX rolls. Sure enough, there was a generator in the basement. We tried to pick it up to carry it upstairs with the intent of taking it to the people stranded at the diner. We failed our Strength rolls. Amelia screamed. I yelled to Nevada to get the generator running and I went to grab Amelia. “The Light” was moving through the house towards us. I succeeded on a Fighting Maneuver to grapple her and began to drag her to the basement door. Nevada got the generator running after several failed attempts.
We got down into the basement and the entity followed us. Without a ground state, Nevada plunged the business ends of the generator wires into the entity, killing it, and himself, but saving Amelia and I. His hat rolled towards me and I put it on. Jessie will wear that hat every day from that moment on as a reminder of her friend, Nevada.
What a blast! I had been Keeping for so long that it had been years since I got to actually play Call of Cthulhu myself. I was fortunate to have enthusiastic people at the table and an experienced Keeper. We rounded out the evening with some “war stories” of our various gaming groups, the challenges of trying to bring Call of Cthulhu to a general audience very much focused on combat gaming, and some potential plans for future games! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
Enjoy this? Consider subscribing to RPG Imaginings on YouTube. Lots of CoC unboxings, reviews, etc.