Sylthi—Session Three

This weekend, we continued my RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha campaign exploring the city of Sylthi. Sylthi is a minor city in the matrifocal land of Esrolia. I’ve chosen to explore it because it homes the main temple of the Sword Sages of Lhankor Mhy, and I love the idea of ass-kicking kung fu sorcerers. I also find Sylthi interesting to write about because it’s fairly small, yet big enough for a variety of action. I want to create a detailed, comprehensive setting, in a way I feel is impractical with Glorantha’s larger cities (like Nochet, Boldhome, and Glamour).

This is a playtest campaign exploring the ideas, notes, and other material I’ve been developing about Sylthi over about the last year, for future publication on RuneQuest‘s community content program on DriveThruRPG, the Jonstown Compendium. To record the development process for myself—and hopefully to entertain some of you curious folks out there—I’m writing a series of blog posts collecting the game’s events. All session writeups and myths can be found collected over on my Sylthi Playtest page.

This session, we ran through the first iteration of downtime and began our second adventure, a trip to an elven autumn fair.


The Characters

Currently, we have three player characters in this campaign:

  • Avalon, a noblewoman of House Netha who worships the great Earth Mother and Queen of the Universe, Ernalda. She was adopted as a child by the Nethi from common squalor upon recognition of her sharp wit and blessings from Ernalda. Rumors about being sold to pay off her family’s debts are cruel and unsubstantiated.
  • Agnis, a shapeshifting thief from the city of Brol, downriver. She worships the river god of the turbulent Whitefall River, Hrell, and can take three of his shapes—baby croc, ram, and bull. Her family are high-ranked in the priesthood of the Twin Rivers cult, and don’t know that Agnis stole some family heirlooms when she fled town. Yet.
  • Gandas, the unclaimed son of a prodigal daughter of the noble House Lorel. He’s a common herder, and worships the god of shadowcats, Yinkin. (Shadowcats are similar to bobcats, but more intelligent—Gandas has one as a companion, which helps him herd sheep.)

The adventurers got to know one another fighting together during the Siege of Nochet. Last adventure, they helped a conspiracy led by House Netha throw out the corrupt Lunar-affiliated leadership, in order to install their own probably-not-corrupt leadership. This required a kidnapping, and triggered an impromptu heroquest starring the adventurers, which I wrote up last time.


Downtime

One of the elements of the gamemaster’s portion of my Sylthi material I’m trying to create is a cohesive and streamlined system for downtime between adventures, based upon the rules in the RuneQuest core rulebook.

Various elements of how adventurers improve, per the core rules, are structured using different measurements of time. This was something I struggled handling during the first RuneQuest campaign I ran, which lasted for about a year. Basically, some activities are framed with narrative time (like rolling for experience and training skills between adventures), while others are framed with specific time spent (like spending one week to learn a spirit magic or Rune magic spell). In my previous campaign, I focused on describing how much specific time was spent by the adventurers to try creating a narrative of the year. This grew difficult when it came to juggling training opportunities, spell learning, and accounting for time dedicated to an adventurer’s occupational or religious duties.

In the Sylthi campaign, I’m trying to take a more abstracted approach to adventurer downtime activities. Most of the time, the adventurers are assumed to be doing whatever their occupation or cult obligations require. I’m not tracking that (or making the players track it) anymore. Further, I’m conceptualizing downtime opportunities as making three choices:

  1. Are you training a skill or characteristic?
  2. Are you learning a spirit magic or Rune magic spell?
  3. Are you buying anything from the marketplace?

Every adventurer can make one choice within each of those options. The arbitrary “one thing” restriction represents all the time they have to spend doing other stuff to remain in the good graces of their families, temples, and other communities of supporters. You can’t spend days and days at the market finding the perfect suit of armor, or week after week learning new spells.

This cycle will take place between each adventure, as long as the specific time between adventures feels plausible to be doing downtime. If you’ve got a day between important missions, you probably don’t have time to commission a new sword. If you’ve got several seasons, maybe we’ll do multiple cycles of downtime.

Eventually, my goal is that the Adventurer’s Guide will have a list of adventurer services typically available in Sylthi. For example, it will list shamans which provide spirit magic, temples which provide training, whether those teachers only provide services to members of their community, and so on. The objective is that a player can sit down between sessions with their Adventurer’s Guide, work out what they want to do between adventures, and then share that with the gamemaster at the start of the next session. This way, downtime is less time consuming, and everyone can get back to the action.

Ideally.

Of course, the problem for me running this campaign is that I don’t have all that written up yet! Still, I’m using the conceptual framework, and I think it’s meaningful to share it, and playtest it, as we go.

After the adventurers account for experience, and make their training, magic, and marketplace choices, they each get an encounter roll within the city. I’m using the RuneQuest 3 book RuneQuest: Cities (originally by Midkemia Press, my version as part of the line published by Avalon Hill) to generate short scenes which occur to the adventurers between their major stories. These brief episodes are meant to color the goings-on within the city, and to eventually help the adventurers and the gamemaster generate sandbox intrigue and plots to play adventures from. For example, an adventurer witnesses a back-alley assassination, and the group decides to investigate that for their next adventure.

At the moment, I’m using the encounter tables in RuneQuest: Cities pretty much as they’re presented. Again, I intend to eventually create a similar system tailored specifically to Sylthi, which will be in the gamemaster’s section of the City Guide. For example, an adventurer will be able to say something like, “I’m spending some time in the seedier backstreets of the Reed District, down by the waterfront.” They can see on a map where this action might take place, and the gamemaster can make a few dice rolls to see what happens.

Ideally, such vignettes won’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes of time at the table—that’s about how long it took us playing them during our session. Hopefully, I can create a system which will work for other gamemasters so that the final City Guide book is useful for both short and long campaigns.


The Session

After our previous prequel adventure, we jumped forward a few seasons to the autumn, Earth Season of 1625 ST. I commented that the city queen was from House Netha—the faction the adventurers supported—and that the city king (more an honorary and religious position than a political one, in Esrolia) was an unusual compromise candidate between the factions: Dur-Gaddi Leadfoot, a troll adventurer who helped the Netha evict the former rulers.

This is relevant because each Earth Season, the cities of North Esrolia and eastern Longsi Land gather for a fair with the Aldryami—Glorantha’s plant-people elves. Think Tolkien ents, but more varied in size and shape. The elves and the trolls hate one another viciously, so the fact that Sylthi has just installed a troll as one of their ceremonial leaders shares the … negative connotations of realpolitik.

This fair, called Elfmeet, takes place at the same hill each year, which shares its name. Each participating city can send a number of attendants, with the total number of elven and human participants about equal. In turn, each of the major factions in Sylthi gets to nominate a small number of candidates to attend the fair, up to the city’s allotment. The adventurers are invited to attend Elfmeet on behalf of House Netha. This is meant to come across as part work, part play. Only a small number of residents get to visit the fair each year due to the elves quotas. However, they’re each expected to find ways for their communities within the city to profit.

In particular, Avalon is asked by her mother Hanalda—the adventurers’ patron among the Netha elders—to find a birthday present at the fair for her “precious little sister,” Grandmother Hazulda. As the reigning Grandmother of a noble Esrolian clan, this is somewhat like being asked to please a Mafia don. Sure, but she’s a relative. How hard could it be?

The trip from Sylthi is fairly quick. They travel to a town near the forest border named Oakhall, we improv a short feast in the town’s eponymous meadhall, Agnis immediately scopes out the wealthy folks for a bit of light-fingered fun (scoring herself a simple silver ring, and probable future consequences). Everyone else just drinks and chats about sheep and the harvest.

However, the journey gets more tense once the Sylthelan travelers reach Elfmeet Hill. Around the hill is a variety of colored tents housing the human attendants, and at the top of the hill is a grand pavilion. I explain that this is the first day of the three-day fair. The pavilion has four great permanent posts with the faces of Issaries, the Merchant God, Ernalda the Earth Mother, and Aldrya the Forest Mother tangled together. As this is the first day of the fair, green, lush vines spread between the posts, forming a beautiful canopy. On the second day, they will grow dried and wilt like under the summer sun, and on the third, they change to many colors before falling away at sunset. The dead leaves signal the end of Elfmeet.

When the nobles begin climbing the hill to pay their respects to the Aldryami of the woods, and the three gods hosting the fair, they’re stopped by a warrior elf carrying a spear made of pure copper. He turns them away, angrily. Once Avalon and the other nobles return, the adventurers discover that—perhaps predictably—the elves want proof they can still trust the people of Sylthi after the insult of naming a troll, king.

This leaves the travelers generally despondent, but the adventurers still excited to explore the fair. They’re not yet allowed to visit the central pavilion, but instead can explore the human encampments sponsored by the nearby cities of Brol and Kosh.

Agnis spends her time browsing the marketplace. I determine that she can find any one object she wants, provided it passes a plausibility test that either A) humans would sell it to the human attendants, or B) humans would try selling it to elves. She adds another piece of armor to her set. (Her player’s anxious about combat, because as a Thief, Agnis didn’t begin play with any protective equipment.)

Gandas meanwhile spent his afternoon exploring the various games of skill and chance, and chatting with Bronze Age merchants and carnies from the other cities. He wins a few silvers at dice, and hears a rumor that the elves have announced a hunt will take place the following day. The purpose, quarry, and number of participants remains undetermined.

We set aside Avalon’s activities that afternoon, because her player wasn’t able to attend the session.

The following morning, various human and elven hunt-bands gather by a large boulder a hundred meters north of Elfmeet. The same warrior elf is there, and another leader, probably his companion or lieutenant. Gandas has been asked by the Sylthi nobility to lead one of the hunt-bands, because he worships the shadowcat god Yinkin. Although Gandas is a shepherd, not a hunter, he’s still initiated into the secrets of a god of the forests and wild places. Plus, he recently helped a major plot to save the city from Lunar invaders, so he’s got a bit of prestige in the minds of the leaders.

The elves challenge why they should trust the Sylthi hunt-bands. Gandas steps forward, and swears in the Tongue of Beasts that, by the Claw of Yinkin, no hunter under his command will act to wound the woods. Grudgingly, the Aldryami accept this sacred oath. Out of character, we agree that the stakes for Gandas if someone else’s actions break this oath—for example, Agnis or Avalon acting against the Aldryami for some reason—is a loss of Gandas’s Rune magic until he atones in some manner deemed suitable to the god.

After swearing the oath, the elves reveal that someone or something has been “over-harvesting” the forest’s population of runners. Runners are an elven subspecies, small, cowardly, and covered in moss. They live in trees, and being mobile plants, are, along with most Aldryami, not commonly hunted or preyed-upon.

The hunters walk into the wood, to track down what has damaged the forest’s balance, and set things aright. We decided that was a solid breaking point to stop on.

This adventure will continue, next time.

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