Thursday, April 15, 2010

Insight from RuneQuest

In reading the "Referee Notes" to the second edition of RuneQuest -- and, really, any RPG that uses the term "referee" is saying something about its heritage -- I came across a short section about building scenarios. According to this section, all adventure areas "should provide the player with the following opportunities:"
–experience in the use of skills
–opportunity to obtain treasure and thereby purchase training
–the chance to die in pursuit of the above
–enjoyment while doing all of the above.
Taken together, I found the last two items particularly interesting, as they suggest, as few RPGs have ever done, now or then, that a character's death can bring enjoyment. I know from experience that this is possible, but it's a truth rarely stated in the referee section of roleplaying games. It's something I certainly need to remind myself every now and again.


  1. I ran a Labyrinth Lord dungeon crawl with quite a bit of enjoyable player and hireling death just this week.

    In fact, I promoted the game by inviting people to come and die in my dungeon. And people did!

  2. I don't think Call of Cthulhu would work at all if players didn't enjoy occasionally seeing there PCs killed in interesting ways.

  3. Death is an important part t of the RPG experience. Without it, you don't actually appreciate it when your PC dose survive.

  4. Character death provides the contrast to truly enjoy those moments of success. Indeed, they can be part of the success, as, for example, when a PC sacrifices himself to save another. I like your approach, too: not protecting the players from the roll of the dice. It's something I became guilty of and need to prevent, should I ever run another game.

    security word: "tipperio," a dashing punching-bag clown in Renaissance Italy.

  5. I'm using "henchmen" for the first time in forever for my current campaign (not really hirelings but associates provided by the authorities for the current mission back before there were an adequate number of PCs to avoid trouble in even a small fight), and I'm finding it quite rewarding with regard to character death.

    The group started with three stock soldiers and one PC-style agent accompanying them, and after losing two of the soldiers in battle in previous sessions, last week, the last remaining soldier was carried off by a giant spider into its lair. There is a paladin in the group, and without a second thought he pursued the spider into a system of narrow, twisting tunnels. I shouldn't have been surprised at the paladin's actions, but I was amazed that everyone else followed suit immediately--not to keep the paladin safe (though he IS the toughest and strongest member of the party so far) but to try to save the soldier from the spider(s).

    The end result is that the agent-NPC ended up dead at the hands of the spiders, and a sort of throw-away encounter I had included just for laughs and extra loot placement in the original dungeon design turned into a pretty serious emotional session for my players.

    Of course, the real impact of the deaths of the two remaining henchmen (both emotional and strategic) has yet to hit the party, as they have lots of business still to attend to, but I was impressed at how fully they engaged it. All but two of the six players I had last session had never role-played before this campaign!

  6. One of my favorite memories of gaming over the years is a three round masterpiece of mishap that culminated with one of my favorite characters of all time, a wizard named Twiggy, accidentally polymorphing a teammate into a donkey (which effectively killed him), sex changing the BBEG with a Wand of Wonder, and then dying (along with the bad guy) the victim of some or other ice spell where the DM rolled on nearly every d6 a 6. We were all laughing gut buster style, and I couldn't have asked for a better way to retire that maniac character.

  7. Characters come and go, but the Game goes ever on.

  8. Goddamn it James, you're getting me from "I will probably never run RQ again" from a few weeks ago, to today having me at "I gotta run a campaign before the end of this year - I'll skip my planned Champions campaign for it!"

    I think my players, all unfamiliar with RQ, would love it just like my D&D players of the mid 80's loved taking a break to do some RQ. Having been raised on 2nd edition in my early teens at Aero Hobbies having my Dragonnewt get bigger and better (he died a couple of times, and you know what that means), and having my duck character humilated at every turn by the older players, I would have to have that edition. Too bad it's going for around 80 bucks on Ebay right now.

    Can anybody contact me and direct me to a PDF of that edition? I gotta run some! Gotta!

    Sheesh, thanks a lot James.

  9. P.S. the warrior woman on that cover was one of my first true game art loves. She's right up there with the cover of Eldritch Wizardry in my heart.

    WV: "Chuzle" - you don't wanna know what it means...

  10. @ Brunomac

    Check out OpenQuest. It's based on SRD version of the rules and very Gloranthaish.

    For myself, Ireally like the GORE system and am trying to find a to make it work with LL/AEC.

  11. I don't think Call of Cthulhu would work at all if players didn't enjoy occasionally seeing there PCs killed in interesting ways.

    That's certainly true. In fact, it's often a point of boastful pride amongst CoC players about how many characters they've lost over the course of a campaign. I just don't recall any edition of the CoC rulebook noting that "the chance to die" is an essential element of scenario design, but maybe I should check my copies sometimes to see.

  12. Sheesh, thanks a lot James.

    How do you think I feel? I'm in the midst of a longstanding campaign already and I'm not one to give into gamer ADD, so there's no easy way to indulge my newfound RQ love anytime soon.

  13. P.S. the warrior woman on that cover was one of my first true game art loves.

    I hear ya. Even though I never really played RQ back in the day, I always found the woman on the cover of the box and rulebook to be extremely ... evocative.

  14. Thanks Crow, checking it out!

    >always found the woman on the cover of the box and rulebook to be extremely ... evocative<

    And the cover sums up so much of the game as well. The armor and shield, the fighting stance, and a nice big rock lizard, one of the standard beasts of the game (I loved Gringle's Pawnshop, and the Rainbow Mounds were full of 'em!).

    Oh yeah, the cover also reminds you of how in RQ a shield was actually useful and worth lugging around!

  15. I think "Will it give you an awesome PC death story?" should be article one of any monster design process.


    Here's Eremon, a free & complete Bronze Age Ireland fantasy fork of Runequest. Has a different magic system and is not a Gloranthan Runequest. Might be worth a look for those who want to lookover / play MRQ but aren't keen on Glorantha or buying the MRQI books.

    Campaign's currently on hiatus (IRC Chat) but contact the author if you like it and if you're interested in playing when he resumes running it.

  17. IT destroys the whole theme of dungeoneering games (and this is dungeoneering/ruin advice) if there is no risk of death to keep you on your toes. "Boy meets dungeom, boy woes dungeon, dungeon tries to kill boy."

    Whn you move outside the dungeoneering paradigm, death becomes less important. For example, in superhero games death (of either heroes or villians) should always be an incredibly rare occurrence.

    As for CoC, there was always the understated warning in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth of "The players should be prepared to lose some of their party members – this, even more than most Call of Cthulhu adventures, is deadly."

    If I believe correctly (I'd have to find my 1st ed rules to be sure), I believe the philosophy of early CoC was that investigators weren't meant to survive more than one or two adventures before either facing a messy death or going totally insane, as that was the genre. Although later editions (and adventures) relaxed this quite a lot, as people found themselves quite attached to their characters and wanted them to survive.

    Sheesh! Next, someone will be expecting Paranoia characters to survive their mission debriefing.

    What do you mean, they do?

  18. "What do you mean, they do?"

    Obviously, they're Commie mutant traitors.

    The fact that I recognized that means I'm a traitor, too.

  19. It's become even more common among live roleplayers in the UK than tabletoppers to talk openly & extensively about the joys of a good death, preferably dying while doing something very much in keeping with the character.

    From Gemmell -- "Death holds no terror for me, boy. It comes to all men. The lucky ones die heroically, and their names are remembered. The unlucky ones die slowly, their hair turning white, their limbs becoming frail."

    As a gamer, playing an RPG, my risk of death is extremely small. I want my character's risk of death -- particularly heroic death -- to be quite significant. I play games partly because I don't want to risk my own death doing something risky & adventurous. Risking my character's death is a vital substitute. Given that campaigns end, leaving surviving characters in a limbo they may never leave, worse than old age -- I would far rather have an heroic death.

  20. Paranoia sure comes to mind when talking about character's death. I think this is the only game where you expect to die in the most spectacular way when you activate a new clone.

    My players deliberately tried to be disingtegrated anytime someone used a plasma gun. And if one succeeded, he would brag for months...

    But can Paranoia be considered as an "Old School Game"?

  21. so there's no easy way to indulge my newfound RQ love anytime soon.

    AD&D leads to Rolemaster, Rolemaster leads to Runequest, Runequest leads to GURPS.

    Soon you will complete your journey to the GURPSside! ;)

    On a more serious I just scored a copy of Runequest 2nd Edition and having a lot of fun reading it and rolling up characters. It fun to play around with a system has the elements of GURPS I like (skills, detailed combat, etc) but feels closer to the roots of the hobby (random rolls, death looms, etc).

  22. I agree with Anthony's first comment, character death can provide the contrast that makes success in the game enjoyable. I've seen sessions of games where the PCs are never truly put at risk and the DM coddles and protects them, and to me it's just plain boring. As that old Aerosmith song goes, "You've got to lose to know how to win."

    Also, there's times where players just get cocky and stupid, and to preserve the integrity of the campaign. Sometimes, the DM just needs to stand her ground and let a PC die, to keep things on track later in the game.

  23. A DM should never be afraid of throwing situations at the party that may kill characters off. It is when player's backs are really against the walls that the most innovative, desperate solutions reveal themselves and the most drama is had at the gaming table. Trust me, I'm a DM too ;-)

  24. I think "Will it give you an awesome PC death story?" should be article one of any monster design process.

    I absolutely agree.

  25. But can Paranoia be considered as an "Old School Game"?

    I'd say so but I may be biased because I'm so fond of it. At the very least, I think Paranoia can be easily run in an old school fashion. Its easy PC death and concomitant lack of "story" make it quite consonant with old school principles. Plus, it doesn't take itself very seriously, which, to my mind anyway, is a big part of the ethos of the hobby's early days.

  26. "I think "Will it give you an awesome PC death story?" should be article one of any monster design process."

    "I absolutely agree."

    I kind of disagree. That comes in the playing. I mean, my players' characters have died from giant wolverines, giant snapping turtles, monkeys, one another, arrows turned into snakes, snakes, nagas, deer-men, assassins, dragons, one another, clerics, MUs, fighters, one another, assassination by one another, wands of wonder, wands of frost, wands of wonder, fireball, fireball, fireball, and giants. Who needs designers? You just need players!