Reading the Runes: In Praise of RPG GM Mechanics

IMG_0031If you have been following me at all, more than once you have heard me whine about all the rules crunch in games like Pathfinder. You’ve heard me complain about how some rules and too many rules tend to allow minmaxing players to ruin games. But today I’m singing a different tune. Today I’m praising game mechanics, and I’m lauding the type of game mechanics that are made available to gamemasters.

What got me thinking about it was my last session of Yggdrasill during my return to the GM chair (my I had missed it!), and how something I had done had felt a little bit off. I need to foreground some of the following considerations by giving some background about just how much, for a Norse-themed game such as Yggdrasill, I have made Runes a mechanical aspect of my game. Well, let’s start with how Yggdrasill, rules as written, uses the runes. At character creation, players roll three times on three tables that each contain a set of eight runes. These results are recorded on the player’s character sheet and serve two functions. The first function is for roleplaying: the runes help the player determine a background story and personality for her character. The second function is for mechanics: during gameplay, if the player ever apprehends a moment wherein a particular rune attached to his character might serve as a benefit for that character, the rune translates into a mechanical bonus to a skill test or action; likewise, the GM might invoke a negative rune as a penalty to a character’s test. That’s about it for Yggdrasill’s rules as written. I expanded this aspect by introducing a bag of actual runestones to my table. When the Seidr-using character (a type of magic-user) “throws down the bones,” she draws three runes from the bag and interprets the results in any way she wants, and, depending on her skill test roll, this might influence game narrative. For my very first adventure using the system, the adventure called “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” I decided to draw runes out of the bag, one by one, at significant “beats” during the story. If the rune Thurisaz ever was drawn, the undead giant in the cave complex would make his appearance. I decided to expand on this principle during later free-form sandbox campaign play. At the beginning of each session I drew three runes, and I “interpreted” these runes to aid me in determining what elements should be involved in that night’s session. Finally, I have incorporated the runes into random tables and even a mass combat rules system, which, for the curious, can be reviewed here.

Last session I had decided to skip the custom of drawing runes for narrative beats or elements, even as one of my players, by now habituated to the custom, offered me the bag. Perhaps that should have been a clue that I was neglecting a worthwhile ritual. Now, after the session, I think I should have been thinking about the runes more as I plunged my characters directly into the action.

Having been away from the campaign for so long, I started the adventure in media res. Thunder boomed. Lightning sizzled. The PCs were trying to rescue their jarl from being the victim of human sacrifice to a land spirit. They had to battle a necromancer who was being assisted by a fair number of hirdmen. The PCs chose, for the most part, to focus on the “Extras,” the “henchmen,” who were screening the necromancer from the PCs. This went on for a bit, and, in time, I decided that the villain should plunge his knife into the jarl’s breast.

I made my NPC make a Very Difficult Seidr test, and he succeeded. A major, recurring NPC, an ally of the PCs, was abruptly and spectacularly dead. In fact, this was the third major NPC to die during this fittingly brutal Norse campaign. But, unlike the other deaths I had impelled, something about how I had conducted this one felt “unfair,” not quite right. And it wasn’t until the calm reflection of postgame analysis that I understood why this was.

My action hadn’t been determined in any way mechanically. Now, there are many gamers in the OSR community who argue for a concept referred to as “GM trust” and that these kinds of arbitrary decisions are entirely fair. In many cases, I presume, they are. If PCs don’t manage to do something, then a consequence should result. And in this case my PCs hadn’t managed to get to the most threatening target in a suitable number of rounds. Nonetheless, it was me who had determined how many “thugs” the most dangerous NPC would have on hand to function as shields. And I hadn’t even concretely decided beforehand how many rounds this NPC would need to complete his dire ritual. My rulings all were quite arbitrary, and I wondered if I had unwittingly set up my PCs for failure, if I had in fact “railroaded” the situation.

In hindsight I realized that I had had a device — a very fitting device — for playing this scene out better: the Runes. As with the undead giant in a previous adventure, I should have begun drawing runes out of the bag and interpreting them in light of the ritual being performed and the PC actions. Yggdrasill considers many Runes indisputably negative in relation to the PCs, some positive, and others ambiguous. This would have seemed more fair, even more dynamic. Now I wish I had remembered it in time, and I’ll purpose to keep it in mind going forward.

One of the games I’m very much looking forward to running has a similar mechanic baked right into its core rules system. This is Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. In that game the GM has a resource called Doom, and these points can be used to complicate the narrative and buff NPCs. Now, the PCs also have their own resources — Momentum and Fate. Having recently run Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rpg, which is designed by the same person who crafted Modiphius’s 2d20 system, I experienced a bit of the interplay between these kinds of GM resources vs. PC resources. In the case of Star Wars, these resources were Light Side Points (for the PCs) and Dark Side Points (for the GM). As I’ve indicated above, I think I tend to enjoy these kinds of mechanics because it gives the GM some justification for bringing the hurt to the players. The dual resources are part of the game. They make the storytelling appear much less arbitrary or mean-spirited.

So next time I’m at the Yggdrasill table, I’ll be sure to be drawing more often from the rune bag. Skol!