Newbies, Glorantha, and Magic

It was Alter Ego’s weekly club night on Tuesday. They’re the Helsinki University RPG club, one of the two RPG clubs I hang out with (it’s not that one club isn’t enough for my geekiness, it’s that I basically live in two cities). One of the guys present had a HeroQuest one-shot set in Glorantha he wanted to run us. What followed was rather educational for me as a player.

I don’t know Glorantha. One of the great first games of the Finnish scene is the third edition of RuneQuest which everybody who didn’t start with Red Box D&D seems to have started out with, and which I’ve played a grand total of one time, where my character fell into an icy river and drowned. I’ve read some of the setting material, so I know about Chaos and the broo and the trolls and the ducks and so forth, but I can’t say that I really know the setting. The module he was using was set in the Grazelands, which rung no bells.

Apparently, the module was “Saddled with the Nightmare”, available online and originally written for Hero Wars. Not a bad module, I think, though I haven’t actually read it. There may yet be a second session of it and and though it’s exceedingly unlikely that I will be in town to play in it, it would be bad form to peek ahead. At the end of the session, we were just about to leave the village to see a man about a horse.

What Happened

We had six players, a couple of whom knew the setting and one was a veteran with the system as well. I never comprehended the rules, either, but they seemed fairly simple and open. This brought some problems of its own

The adventure comes with six pre-made characters with their relationship networks and their own secret plots. Basically, we had two heavy warrior types, two light warrior types, an insane berserker warrior type, and the female spirit talker. The characters were randomised between us, and I ended up with… the spirit talker.

This was, without doubt, the worst character I could’ve been saddled with, as I came to learn during the session.

Being a Glorantha newbie, I had no understanding of how this spirit magic stuff really works. I had no real comprehension of my capabilities or limits, what I could and could not do with my magic. The rest of the party was comprised of warrior types. How you use a spear is pretty intuitive regardless of setting or system, while a “Raise the Earth Charm” is… less so.

Additionally, since the Grazers are a tribal society with an apparently rigid system of taboos, I was a bit unclear on the role of my character in the social context, what she was and was not allowed to do as a young spirit talker and a woman. This also cramped my style. We were supplied with a short primer on the Grazers, but didn’t really have the time to read it all, and now that I look at it carefully, it wouldn’t really have been a lot of help.

Note that I am not blaming anybody. I am observing things even I didn’t really figure out until after three hours of staring at a character sheet and trying to figure out how to play Jan-Karen. This figuring out ate up time from actually playing her, and most of the time I was just going “umm”, sorta in a locked-down state and too timid to taking initiative (easy enough, since another character was designated as a group leader). Toward the end I sorta got over it and began to use the magic creatively, such as utilising the Raise the Earth Charm to have the earth spirits to tie a demon horse’s hooves to the ground.

I also had a horrible luck with the dice, which isn’t really an issue with the game, but did lower the morale, so to speak.

I think a part of the reason I locked down as I did was that I’d never played with any of the other players in the group, which, together with a strange ruleset and a strange setting created an unfamiliar social dynamic. That’s my own psychological hang-up, though, and probably not one to generalise on. My whole mentality about the game may have been wrong, for that matter.

What I Took Away from It

Bad sessions happen. It is inevitable. The thing to do is to figure out why they were bad and try to learn from it to avoid having bad sessions in the future.

As I’ve suggested above, I believe the crux of the matter lies in that I did not know the setting or the ruleset well enough to understand how I could act within their framework. The issue was compounded by having a spellcaster character, which is both mechanically complex and strongly influenced by the setting. This, I believe, is something that can be generalised upon. Since I am, myself, running a series of one-shots with a bunch of games I have no experience with to players who have even less, it’s something to consider. Also, I’m planning to write up some general advice for Ropecon GMs on how to prepare for a con game.

Spellcasters and their ilk tend to be the most mechanically complex character types in any given game, and if the group in a one-shot can survive without one, thought should be given for dropping the character type from the game or automatically assigning it to the player most experienced with the game.

Working out appropriate cheat sheets for powers is also handy. In my case, the character sheet just said “Raise the Earth Charm”, or “Healing Charm +3W”. I said “Durrr…” Simplicity is good, oversimplification is not. Explanations of what this stuff actually does are needed.

This also applies on the setting side of things, and settings like Glorantha seem more vulnerable to it than others. Glorantha is very detailed, very nuanced, and not just a D&D-style patchwork setting. In Golarion, when the characters go to Osirion, I can say “think Ancient Egypt”, and the players can immediately visualise the architecture, the bustle of the cities, how people dress, what kind of weapons they wield, and make relatively safe assumptions about the political system, law, and codes of behaviour. Real-world analogues are a useful shorthand, but Glorantha, to my admittedly untrained eye, eschews the more direct analogues and takes its inspirations far enough from the originals to make this less useful. I think the Grazers are a sort of a Mongol/Plains Indian mix, which is already harder for me to figure out. While such a detailed and rich setting is a joy to play in for someone who really groks it, it does make it less accessible to an outsider.

Those “what you know” sheets were a good idea, but could’ve been more concise and focused. There was superfluous data and important stuff such as details of the tribal hierarchy was glossed over, which is critical information when the player characters occupy different positions within it. This, of course, would require some tailoring and thus more work.

Anyway, the game was a valuable lesson. I will apply what I’ve learned when preparing for and running Dark Heresy in a couple of weeks.

6 thoughts on “Newbies, Glorantha, and Magic

  1. Ah, basically, you make stuff up when you play these games. There’s no huge manual that tells you what the powers do, unlike in many games. In fact, the name of the power is all that there is. Likewise with Grazelander culture and the spirit-talker’s taboos – there’s not much written down, so make stuff up that fits the theme. I do concede that if you know little about folklore, comparative mythology, archaeology, social anthropology, and classical literature, then it gets harder. On the other hand, if you’re playing in a group like that, then who’s to say you’re wrong?

  2. I’m not familiar with HeroQuest either, but my guideline for one-shots is “you make stuff up when you play these games”. Setting canon doesn’t mean a thing, since we are there just to have a fun night. So things like “how does a woman act in this culture” is solved during the game: my female character does this and your characters react to it like that and there we have it. A few hours is too short time to read this stuff from a rulebook and acting them out. (That is, supposing that the woman’s role or whatever is not the core of the game.)

    Good reflection, though. I totally agree that the best way to hone one’s roleplaying skills is to figure out why the playing was like it was and trying to learn from it to maximise the fun in the future.

  3. Yeah, that’s usually how I play in one-shots. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t do it in this one. I think it’s because there was pretty much nothing in the session that was not strange to me. I’d never played with any of the other players except the GM, who I’d previously played with under another GM, and had no idea of their playing styles, was not even superficially familiar with the system (and apparently made a false assumption about its style) and had no idea about the setting. My own psychological hang-ups, like I said.

  4. Thanks to NiTessine for attending the game and providing a good analysis. From my point of view as the GM of the game I’d agree that the players already familiar with each other and Glorantha as a setting seemed to be enjoying the game more. For me there would be two things to be learned from the game:

    First, there should have been a clearly devoted time for the introduction of the setting and the system. The “make your abilities up while using them” -approach was quite new to several players, especially when using very open keyword abilities. For club nights like this it would mean assembling the group in advance to get everyone in the same place early enough to have time for a good introduction.

    Second, six players might be a bit too much for a game that has lot of interaction between PCs, especially when most of the players don’t know each other. In case I end up running the whole scenario again, I would cap the number of players to four unless the group has played together before. With less players there’s a smaller chance that part of the group gets stuck in the background and it’s easier for the GM to spot situations when players aren’t having fun.

    I really liked the scenario as the setting is quite original and the plot provides excellent role playing opportunities. I also enjoyed the session a lot as players invented very creative ways to interpret their abilities during the game, the Raise Earth -charm being only one example. This was my first experience with HeroQuest or any similar system, too, so the loosely defined game mechanics appeared to me as novel and delightful.

    I’m planning to run the rest of the scenario next Tuesday with a bit less people as everybody from last time won’t be able to attend. In case you won’t be in town, I’ll let you know how it ends up. Thanks again for the constructive analysis and let’s make things go better in case we end up around the same table again!

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