This is an attempt to clarify my thoughts on the scenario The Smoking Ruin (TSR), within the publication The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories (TSROS) and as such it is jam-packed with major spoilers. Please do not read any further if you intend to play this scenario, and note that I will not be covering the other scenarios or content in TSROS in this discussion.
After an initial read-through of TSR I was enthused by its contents and ideas, yet also confused: threads of the scenario seemed to escape me or remain unclear.
After preparing and running it on Roll20 for my three players, I felt the need to give some feedback. I’ve decided to divide this discussion into the good and the bad and, as I’m trying to offer constructive criticism as a consumer, I’ll go through the problematic stuff first.
There are three main problems I found with the scenario: it is underwritten in parts, linear in others, and it desperately needs editing.
One of the main protagonists in TSR, and the character at the inception of the adventure, is Treya of Ezel, a dancer and performer that the adventurers interact with and befriend. The main motivation of Treya is her adoration of her late grandmother, Thinala, a warrior matriarch who died when Treya was a young girl.
The first issue arises from the gamemaster being instructed to have Treya repeat her story of her grandmother at various points throughout the scenario. The problem with this is that TSR does not provide a substantial version of this story at any point. On p.43 we have a rumour believed by Leika that Thinala betrayed the Feathered Horse Queen. On p.54 Treya tells the adventurers that Thinala was “Bane of Tuskers, member of the Feathered Horse Queen’s Honor Guard”, and then some text about her battling Tusk Riders and that Treya falsely believes Tusk Riders brutally killed Thinala.
That is almost the entire body of information that the gamemaster has to work with in understanding Treya’s beliefs about Thinala and her death. It’s incredibly skimpy given that the main NPC’s motivation (and the driver for getting the adventurers to participate in the adventure) hangs off of this. Yes, there is a little more factual information about Thinala under her write-up on p.93, but there is no reference to the stories of Tusk Riders, rumours about betrayal, or anything else that Treya or Leika supposedly believe about her. The gamemaster is left adrift, with enormous questions unanswered about the beliefs of a central character (beliefs the gamemaster is expected to depict), and with no material to use when asked to have Treya regularly repeat the story of her grandmother.
There are a few other areas where the scenario is underwritten, particularly in the dearth of description provided for the general construction of the Smoking Ruin itself. There are notes on a few specific locations such as entry gates and courtyards, but nothing to describe the architecture and art of the ruins themselves. Given the history of the site there should have been notes on Dawn Age murals, troll graffiti or debris, or even some signs of dragonewt activity. This felt like a missed opportunity, as well as another imposition upon the gamemaster’s resources.
The next issue arises in both Act One and Act Five, which are the call to adventure and the resolution respectively. I felt that Act One was overly protracted, with an extended set of dance performances, followed by various conversations at dinner, followed by introductions to a patron, then research into the destination, before finally agreeing to start the journey to the Smoking Ruin itself. There are also some sub-plots set up at the beginning with Asborn Thriceborn and Hastur Lawspeaker which never pay off, and others (Sora Goodseller) that seem inconsequential in the scheme of things. Given how much is going on at the beginning of this scenario, and in later Acts, it seems odd to have these hanging plot points.
Act Five, meanwhile, suffers from essentially being a long ceremony that players have described to them, with very little opportunity for interaction. When I ran the scenario, I ended up abbreviating this section considerably and did my best to add some elements of decision-making. Yes, adventurers should see the consequences of their decisions from earlier in the adventure, but these consequences should not take the form of long gamemaster monologues about the actions of NPCs.
Another big issue I have with TSR is the layout. Some RuneQuest scenarios seem to be written in quite an old-school fashion, seemingly designed to be read rather than played, but TSR suffers from this more than most. An example of this is at the end of Act 3 and into Act 4, covering the adventurers’ entry into the Smoking Ruin. This is not laid out in a logical order for play.
For the gamemaster, who needs to describe what the adventurers see, hear and smell as they enter the ruins, this information is spread over far too many pages and interspersed between bits of history (that the adventurers may never learn), notes about Treya’s behaviour, statistics for elementals and a description of a shrine to Orlanth outside the ruins.
There is also the encounter with One-Eye Bugleg, the beginning of which is described in Act 3 on p.78, but is then not fully explained until Act 4, p.88. This whole section needs to be edited for use at the table – I ended up copying and pasting a lot of the text into a Word document and placing it in the right order.
There are some small inconsistencies in some of the NPC stats as well, such as Treya having the spell Switch Places, which she can’t use as she lacks Illusory Sight, or Vamargic and his necklace possessing spirit magic, but no POW with which to cast it or overcome the POW of others. Also. given how much space is required for RQ stats, I firmly believe they should go at the end of a scenario, or Act, so they don’t disrupt the flow of text and can be found easily when needed.
My final gripe is with Treya’s sacrifice for her grandmother. This is understandable from Treya’s viewpoint, but not from Thinala’s (what grandmother would selfishly take their granddaughter’s life?), and leaves the gamemaster with no explanation/motivation for the callous actions of someone who has been venerated throughout by the central character. To get around this, I changed the scene so that Thinala had no choice in her resurrection.
So why did I bother running this scenario? Firstly, I can admire the ambition of TSR – it sends the adventurers off to a legendary site in Glorantha, important to the cults of Orlanth and Ernalda, but also in Orlanthi, troll and dragonewt history. It is epic in both the scope of its mythical backstory and the high magic employed in the creation of the Smoking Ruin locale, and players will be genuinely dumbfounded and challenged by what they find there.
It also attempts to ground the mythic events within a relatable story of familial devotion (even if it is not entirely successful in this), providing the central character of Treya with the potential to get players emotionally invested in the scenario’s outcome. In One-Eye Bugleg, the scenario provides a sympathetic figure who can act as a kind of Greek chorus or fill in gaps in the players’ understanding of the ruins’ convoluted history.
The encounters on the way to the ruin are well-drawn, and provide opportunities to foreshadow the tale of what happened to the troll factions. The Smoking Ruin itself also provides the basis for at least one more scenario, with a hidden tomb and temple ready to be developed by the gamemaster.
However, I think one of the scenario’s greatest strengths is the inclusion of the most iconic and horrific villain in any RuneQuest scenario I’ve read, the zealously undead Vamargic Eye Necklace. Channelling elements of old-school troll rune lords, Jack Vance’s Chun the Unavoidable and special effects from 1980’s video nasties, Vamargic is a truly memorable opponent, whose screaming, flesh-creeping, infernal introduction in Act 4 is bound to make an impression upon even the most jaded of role-players. That he is the immensely powerful commander of spirits and undead, and wants something very specific from the adventurers, provides a lot of options for how the gamemaster might run the encounter, and adds to the replayability of the Smoking Ruin as an adventure location.
There is the definite possibility of a TPK from this encounter, but if the gamemaster deploys Vamargic as described, the players can’t say they weren’t warned. Should the adventurers (sensibly) flee from Vamargic, they will have the opportunity to run into him in future if they return to seek Korol Kandoros’ tomb or Ernalda’s temple.
There is also the opportunity for adventurers to significantly alter the composition of the Smoking Ruins by undertaking the Hombadaka Boko ritual with One-Eye, and freeing up to half the troll spirits. One of my players, an experienced role-player, admitted it was the first time he’d solved a major plot point in a scenario through the medium of dance.
Finally, the discovery of Ernalda’s mirror (something of a McGuffin in the scenario) offers the chance to significantly affect Orlanthi politics in future, as well as the reputation of the adventurers, and could also be a platform for future heroquests.
This is a very personal view and I felt the need to write it in order to air some frustrations I have about the format in which RuneQuest scenarios are sometimes written. The RQG material has great art and art direction, and the products are beautifully produced, but in this instance I feel that the utility of the scenario isn’t what it could be.
These days there are plenty of RPG critics, e.g. Bryce Lynch, that maintain that commercial scenarios must be capable of being run at the table after one read-through, and that format and layout should be all about their utility in presenting an experience to the players. I’m probably a little more forgiving than that, but I do feel that TSR asks too much of the gamemaster.
It would be great to see any future editions of this publication address some of these issues.
Nonetheless, there is a lot within this scenario for an enterprising gamemaster to develop into further adventures, without even mentioning the rest of the contents of TSROS (which I also intend to make use of in future).