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!

Star Stealers: My Fantasy Flight Edge of Empire Campaign

IMG_0021The game in my youth that brought me the most pleasure (next to, I suppose, MERP and Champions) was West End Games’s d6 Star Wars system. A quick reason why this was, I suppose, is that that system emulated quite well for me the feel of that first trilogy of movies. Moreover, the GM advice section brilliantly broke down a satisfying Star Wars adventure into a formula: every adventure should contain a Chase, a Blaster fight, a Starfight, and NPC interaction. This formula made Star Wars one of the most dynamic and entertaining games in my collection.

For this reason I was eager to try out the latest system by Fantasy Flight Games, particularly since I had been hearing intriguing things about it. Therefore, when a friend asked me to run a Fantasy Flight Star Wars game, I readily agreed. The rules set most in circulation among these friends is Edge of Empire, so I agreed to that one. At session 0 my players devised a number of ruffians — one freighter pilot, one Niktos brawler, one Mandalorian bounty hunter, and one self-modding droid. The players agreed that they wanted to steal a Star Destroyer and blow up the Hutt home planet of Nal Hutta. Why? Well, because one character in particular had a grudge against the Hutts, because of slavery. That was enough for me, and to the drawing board I went.

I structured the short campaign into three episodes and said that it would take about ten sessions to complete. I think my prediction has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. We got started sometime in January of 2017 and played, roughly, every two weeks. The campaign ended last night. Here’s how the episodes broke down.

Episode 1: The PCs arrive on the volcanic mining planet of Varok on the Outer Rim. They are here because the Niktos has received word from a former contact that something fishy is going on here, and he thinks the Niktos might be interested in it. The information is that a large amount of ore is being moved to a Hutt casino moon some systems away, and the moon can’t possibly be using all that ore. When the PCs cause trouble (which of course they do), they are surprised to encounter an Imperial presence. When the Mandalorian bounty hunter spies a bounty and captures her, she is surprised to learn that this bounty is the new apprentice of her former master whom she left for personal reasons. The bounty hunter still wants to learn the secret of forging Mandalorian armor, so, while evading Varokian security ships, the entire group ends up moving to the forge of the Mandalorian Vo Kess in the heart of a volcano.

After encountering Vo Kess, the bounty hunter learns that Kess now pursues an ideal of Good in the form of the Light Side of the Force. Kess says that he is willing to teach Kida how to finish her Mandalorian armor if she and her companions will provide him transport to the Hutt casino moon: he is convinced that the Empire is using that moon as a fence to occlude the trail of that much ore from the Rebel Alliance. He thinks all the ore is being used for some diabolical Imperial project.

TIE bombers start pounding the volcano, and the PCs decide to flee in their freighter with their new allies. There is a brief starfight before the PCs make the jump to hyperspace.

Episode 2: Arriving at the Hutt casino moon, the PCs bluff security over coms that they are bringing in supplies for a prominent wedding between two Hutt families that is about to take place. This bluff ends up causing problems later on. Disembarking, the PCs enter the casino, trying to gather information. The planet is a crazy jungle planet in the midst of a Pre-Cambrian explosion, except the giant animal life is insect-based. The main structure of the casino descends to the jungle floor, which itself serves as a kind of gladiator space for the Hutts and their gambling clients. Of course the PCs eventually find themselves in it, but not before making contact with an on-leave Imperial recruit who hates his job of sending refined ore that is left hidden in the rings of the moon’s planet on course for an anomaly in spacetime that swiftly transports the ore to that system’s Oort Cloud. While escaping the jungle floor, Vo Kess (who had been captured by the Hutts) sacrifices himself to create a distraction, and the PCs are off to the space time anomaly and Episode 3 of their story.

Episode 3: Rather than fly to the Oort Cloud and start the tedious business in all of that space of finding the location of the drifting ore, the PCs enter the space time anomaly directly. There is a chance of this causing spacial distortions and mutations to themselves or the ship, but this doesn’t happen. They come out into a region of space that has experienced some anomaly. There is some kind of residual energy here that appears conducive to what the PCs are beginning to suspect are Imperial experiments in creating a cloaking device that could operate on something as large as a Star Destroyer, particularly when they see the hulk of a dark-colored Star Destroyer and are drawn into it by tractor beam. Inside the Star Destroyer, they fight a number of droids and make their way to the bridge, where they encounter more droids and the PC droid’s creator, an Ugnaught named Gidget. Leading up to this time, the bounty hunter, who has been growing Force sensitive, has become aware of a chaotic, dark force in the center of the ship and a fierce personality that at one point reached out to her.

The PC droid, in attempting to destroy his creator, is knocked down by a missile from one of Gidget’s Assassin Droid bodyguards. In the ensuing battle with the rest of the party, Gidget collects his prodigal son and hides himself and his charge in an elevator descending to the center of the Destroyer. The PC droid comes to while Gidget is preparing a mind wipe. The droid skewers his creator.

Meanwhile, the other PCs have discovered that Gidget, before escaping, has moved operations of the Destroyer away from the bridge to elsewhere in the ship. They decide to hunt for the med bay to heal their wounds.

A skeletal-looking protocol droid comes to their temporary base in the med bay inviting them to dinner with his master Lord Quon-tik Theiz. The PCs accompany him on a floating skiff that descends through an open construction zone to a dark singularity in the center of the Destroyer. It is here where Theiz is using his Force mastery over subatomic particles and the proximity to tachyon emissions near a black hole to cause the ferrous material to phase with more accuracy, lending it a cloaking effect. The experiment is unstable, however.

The PCs befriend Theiz and, with the PC droid as Theiz’s new assistant, begin work on a sub-atomic bomb capable of disintegrating an entire planet. The implicit understanding, though, is that the droid is to remain with Theiz. Therefore, when the PCs rig the Destroyer to collapse into its dark heart and begin their escape on their freighter, Theiz phases into the freighter’s hold and battles the PCs until, grievously wounded, he phases off ship.

After this, the PCs make their way to Nal Hutta and, well, blow up the planet. The PCs fail to operate the bomb in a manner that leaves themselves unthreatened by the blast, however, so the ship is caught in a temporal rift and crash lands on an unknown planet.

I would finish the description of my campaign with more about Quon-tik Theiz. As a type of Forsaken Jedi, I think he’s pretty cool. He has an understanding of the Force that reaches beyond the organic cellular to the subatomic. As such, he is able to halve damage and teleport through spacetime. As flavor, his lightsaber glitches in and out of existence. During the Imperial pogroms against the Jedi, Theiz cowardly hid himself in the Void, losing much of his soul to nonbeing and destruction, until the Emperor drew him out.

Impressions of Game System

It was a fast moving game. I like the Light Side/Dark Side Force mechanic, and I almost exclusively used my points to add complications and structure to the plot rather than spend them on mechanical benefits for NPC actions. “Strain” as yet a second kind of damage was annoying to keep track of and it never came into play. As GM, after the first few sessions I felt empowered to direct formidable forces against my PCs, secure that they would feel challenged but get out of the situation more or less “okay.” My job as GM was fairly easy, but for the players I feel that the game has more crunch than I prefer. If I felt the urge to tell a Star Wars story again sometime soon, I probably wouldn’t use this system (without much cajoling) but try to talk everyone into using my beloved West End d6 system. Here is a great podcast on that one, and here is a great article.

May the Force of Others Be with You!