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The Smoking Ruin Scenario – Some Thoughts & SPOILERS


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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.

The Bad

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.

The Good

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.

Conclusion

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).

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I did read many years ago, that the layout and writing of many gaming modules, is to create a pleasant read for the GM. More like a novel, as it was understood by publishers that many adventures never make the gaming table. So the idea is to produce a warm fuzzy feeling for the GM, but as a resource at the table, totally inadequate.

It’s something I have always looked at, as I read material. Few seem to obtain that bar, as I am forced to dissect, and take copious notes, then flick between to two. Cut out the fluff and just give me the bullet points.

Thanks for your review.

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I found it very difficult going and in fact I still haven't managed to read all the way through it - as you say too many NPC interactions at the start, and I felt too much vagueness about the actual site. I can't imagine running it as written. It felt too much of "Here are all these wonderful NPCs for you to portray having interactions with your PCs" and not enough of "Here's actual description of the situation for you to run it". 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I agree that Act 5 was a horrible horrible bore.

The Thinala Swap Dance also struck me as weird, as the grandmother should be distraught, yet wasn't.  Also the chance to kill PCs is too high with, at least how our GM ran it, little warning or explanation of what might happen 

Varmagic was a great villain!

(Added later) On rereading, the original tone is a bit curt and negative.  I did like the scenario.

Edited by Rodney Dangerduck
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My GM tried to warn us adequately that standing up to Vamargic directly would probably wreck us, but we ignored or discounted the evidence of how dangerous a confrontation would be and gave it a shot anyway.  Poor Thinala gave her second life covering our retreat, with my character unconscious and our Humakti's arm broken.  We saw Vamargic add her eye to his necklace as we fled.  We did recover the mirror fragment though!  Our subsequent effort to gather a Unity Army from around southern Dragon Pass to defeat Vamargic + allies in open battle ended up defining the rest of that campaign.  Our Humakti destroyed the enslaved revenant Vamargic made from Thinala's corpse in single combat, and my troll ate the Eye-necklace to dispose of it after the battle.

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56 minutes ago, creativehum said:

I'm confused by this. 

One should buy Duel at Dangerford to understand the Smoking Ruin scenario? It completes the Smoking Ruin scenario? Clarifies it?

It contains Nick's notes from when he ran it. For me, it served as a good overview, as have some of the posts in this thread.

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4 hours ago, creativehum said:

One should buy Duel at Dangerford to understand the Smoking Ruin scenario? It completes the Smoking Ruin scenario? Clarifies it?

It's descriptions of Nick's two playtests of the scenario.  Useful ideas of how various pieces might be staged, pieces that could readily be left out, ways that certain scenes and situations might be played out.  Very useful from a GM perspective.  

Overall, I'd say it helps you think about ways to clarify or refine the play of it.  (You don't need it to "complete" the scenario - there's plenty in the scenario as-is.)

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What do people feel about the location of RQ stats? Chaosium's policy is to place these wherever a character appears in the text. But again, I don't see how this assists in running the scenario.

The amount of space taken by RQ stats means they can't just fit in the space of a paragraph, like D&D monster stats do - they need considerable space and IMHO are better off indexed and collected in one place so the GM can photocopy them easily, or can easily refer to them at the back of the book when necessary.

This is especially true for when an NPC might appear in more than one part of an adventure, and the GM then has to remember on which page the stats were. 

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On 2/10/2021 at 10:10 PM, dumuzid said:

My GM tried to warn us adequately that standing up to Vamargic directly would probably wreck us, but we ignored or discounted the evidence of how dangerous a confrontation would be and gave it a shot anyway.  Poor Thinala gave her second life covering our retreat, with my character unconscious and our Humakti's arm broken.  We saw Vamargic add her eye to his necklace as we fled.  We did recover the mirror fragment though!  Our subsequent effort to gather a Unity Army from around southern Dragon Pass to defeat Vamargic + allies in open battle ended up defining the rest of that campaign.  Our Humakti destroyed the enslaved revenant Vamargic made from Thinala's corpse in single combat, and my troll ate the Eye-necklace to dispose of it after the battle.

Sounds like you handled it brilliantly. 

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18 hours ago, Sumath said:

What do people feel about the location of RQ stats? Chaosium's policy is to place these wherever a character appears in the text. But again, I don't see how this assists in running the scenario.

I like it, because I use pdf. no print, just the screen. Sometimes I have to open several instances of the same document, but I appreciate to have everything in the same location. For example It is a mess (for me), to find the characters I need when I read the old griffin mountain background. I want the main characters of one location, and I have to find their stats elsewhere, far from the location description.

But it depends on people taste and application. For rune magic, my way would be to have a multidimmensional solution. What are the spells of a god ? Wo are the gods able to teach this spell ? Where can I find a temple of this god ? Who are the gods who are worshipped in this location ? What are te spells in this location ?

etc etc etc

And that is not a book I need then.. but the alien machine. So I take the pdf as they are, sometimes it is easy for me, sometimes it is difficult 😛

 

 

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52 minutes ago, French Desperate WindChild said:

And that is not a book I need then.. but the alien machine. So I take the pdf as they are, sometimes it is easy for me, sometimes it is difficult

You might want to consider adding bookmarks and reference sheets to your PDF to aid in this. For example

52 minutes ago, French Desperate WindChild said:

Who are the gods who are worshipped in this location ?

In the Adventure book, I made a list of from the temples selection, added the PDF at the back and then bookmarked it.

1921920926_Screenshot2021-02-20at11_29_13.png.0237c00fe6a378c1f9186d973ac9977f.png577667978_Screenshot2021-02-20at11_29_32.png.1aed2a5e86f62f1a46a844bf0693c6cf.png

 

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On 2/19/2021 at 4:12 PM, Sumath said:

What do people feel about the location of RQ stats?

When I was laying out Ruins of Bonn Kanach for JC I felt having the RQ Stats inline made the document too long and a royal pain. I had 35 pages of scenario plus 30 pages of stat blocks! Having them as a separate pdf not only made layout much easier, but dramatically improved readability. 

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On 2/19/2021 at 10:12 AM, Sumath said:

What do people feel about the location of RQ stats? Chaosium's policy is to place these wherever a character appears in the text. But again, I don't see how this assists in running the scenario.

This is something I'm still a bit torn on, myself. I've put the stats mostly at the back of the two scenarios I published for the JC (The Throat of Winter and Clash with the Quacken, in MOTM #12), and that felt mostly right. I think that it'd be worth developing a limited statblock of some sort for use in-line. This is fairly easy with spirits since it's basically just Spirit Combat skill & damage, but it's more difficult with basically anything else. Maybe just HP, spell list, and important abilities?

Various JC authors have been tinkering with ways to handle abridged/improvised stats (for example, Six Seasons in Sartar), and I think that's something worth continuing to explore as a community.

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On 2/19/2021 at 11:20 AM, Jeff said:

Sounds like you handled it brilliantly. 

I'm pretty pleased with how it worked out.  The survivors of our Unity Army resettled the no-longer-Smoking Ruins, creating a community of Old Tarsh humans, trolls and trollkin, green elves, and even Beast Valley folk who made it part of their seasonal round.  The earth temple became a great worship center, sharing custody of the mirror fragment with the Clearwine temple over the course of the year, with our player character Ernaldan as its high priestess.  She accepted the courtship of Asborn Thrice-Born, solidifying our alliance with the Colymar and opening the way for Sartarite settlers.  My Argan Argar troll was acclaimed the settlement's first king and the first priest of its new wyter, which bound itself to his lance.  He married a daughter of Oxus, the chief of the Four Gifts who'd led riders to the battle against Vamargic, solidifying our alliance to the west with the Grazers.  With good relations to east, west and south our little settlement became a growing trade hub, with travel through the pathless places facilitated by insect caravans owned by my chacter's mother, an Argan Argar trade mistress from the Blackwell.  Our first big Sacred Time heroquest was a version of The Wooing of Esrola where Ernalda and Maran Gor schemed with Argan Argar to free their sister Esrola from an increasingly unhappy marriage to Lodril; when we returned from the Gods World much of the ruined architecture of old Korolstead was magically restored, but all in obsidian, thanks to the compelled labor of Lodril.  The magic of the quest, the mirror, and the restored Ernalda temple and Flamal grove transformed the valley beneath the settlement into a profoundly lush and fertile land.  With a troll king and an earth priestess sharing rule over this fecund prosperity from a great temple and a palace complex of black glass, it all started to feel like Silver Age Esrolia come again.

Afterwards we marched to war in Tarsh with the Grazers, rediscovered Golden Age myths using Ernalda's mirror fragment, wakened long-sleeping spirits and demigods to become protectors of our new community, defended our home against the invasion of Lunar and Chaos-worshiping mercenaries sent by the king of Tarsh, and fundamentally altered the course of the Hero Wars through our intervention at the unfolding Battle of Dunstop.  All because Thinala gave her second life to save us from Vamargic, and we refused to simply let it lie.

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