It’s been several months, but we’ve managed to get my nascent RuneQuest campaign playtesting material in Esrolia running once again! “Real”-life scheduling complications forced us to go on a hiatus, but hopefully lives have settled back down, and we can return to gaming consistently.
This series of blog posts publicly records our campaign exploring ideas, notes, and other material I’ve been developing for the city of Sylthi. Sylthi is a minor city in the matrifocal land of Esrolia. I’ve chosen to explore it because it housesthe 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). You can find everything I’ve posted about this playtest archived on my Sylthi Playtest page.
Eventually, I plan to release this campaign on the Jonstown Compendium, Chaosium’s community content site for RuneQuest and QuestWorlds in Glorantha.
I’m collecting these two sessions in a single post, because we hadn’t met in a while and did a lot of non-game catching up. Together, these sessions included about one session of gameplay.
One player had to drop from the campaign (hopefully, temporarily). We generated two additional adventurers, so that for the moment each of my players is running two adventurers, for a total of four player characters:
- Avalon, a noble who was adopted from common squalor into the noble House Netha. She worships Ernalda the Earth Mother, and is a bold warrior. Any rumors about her parents selling Avalon to the Netha in order to pay off their debts are cruel and unsubstantiated.
- Gandas, a common herder who claims descent from a prodigal daughter of the noble House Lorel. He worships Yinkin the Shadowcat God, and is surprisingly sneaky.
- Sargon, a redsmith of the Gordavos Clan. The Gordavos are an insular clan of Esrolian fire-worshipers and metalworkers. Famous for their fine bronzeworking, the Gordavos are infamous in turn for cloistering their redsmiths, in order to maintain ritual purity. Sargon is dedicated to Gustbran the Bonesmith.
- Istar, a Sartarite expatriate making a new life for herself in Esrolia. This Amazonian farmer serves the Earth Mother, and currently heads a client household attached to the Netha Clan.
The adventurers are all familiar with one another because they fought together in the Siege of Nochet, during the Family History portion of adventurer creation. This gives me, as the gamemaster, a convenient way to describe why the player characters all know one another, and are friendly with one another, without needing to insist characters come from the same Homeland.
Our last session ended with the adventurers attending a fair hosted by the elves, or Aldryami, of the Old Woods (one of which I described in May’s issue of MOTM…). Their city was refused entry to the fair’s sacred ground, because Esrolian realpolitik led Sylthi’s nobles to name a dark troll, Dur-Gaddi Leadfoot, as king of the Temple of the Husband-Protectors. Distraught, the people of Sylthi have gained an opportunity to enter the fair’s heart and trade with the elves, if they can successfully hunt down an unknown creature. This monster has been hunting the runners, a small, cowardly subspecies of Aldryami. If the adventurers put a stop to this, Sylthi will have proved that the elves can still trust the community to be friendly toward the Old Woods.
INto the Woods
After finishing adventurer creation for Sargon and Istar, we recapped previous events during this adventure. I wrote Agnis out of the narrative, for now, by suggesting that someone had discovered her theft in Oakhall (during Session Three), and she had to flee the area. In addition, I reiterated that Gandas had sworn an oath by his god that no one under his command would harm Aldrya or her children during the hunt, in order to receive permission to enter the Old Woods. We agreed that the stakes for this oath would be Gandas’s access to Rune magic—if anyone harms the elves out of selfish interest, Gandas will lose use of his Rune magic until he atones for breaking the oath.
Once we were all agreed on the narrative, the adventurers entered the forest. Almost immediately, the path behind becomes obscured, and eerie mist covers the ground. Immediately, the adventurers recognize they “aren’t in Kansas” anymore.
Although my focus for this campaign is upon the city, Sylthi, the surrounding areas are very important. In particular, hinterlands, wildernesses, and other liminal spaces are in my opinion key to the feeling of adventure. The Old Woods provides a vital source of the unfamiliar and the undefined in how I dream about the Sylthi campaign. Esrolia is, in a certain sense, “safe.” It’s familiar, it’s defined, and it’s known. It’s the land of civilized life. The world of the Aldryami, on the other hand, provides a space where anything can happen. I feel that having both of these elements—the safe and the unknown—is key to designing a compelling setting.
Search rolls reveal hoofprints, and thin grey hairs caught in the forest’s bushes. The adventurers follow these signs for a few hours, and stumble into a clearing with several monuments. I tell Gandas that he recognizes this place—it’s a holy site of the forest’s Animal People, where he was initiated to Yinkin. Various deities are worshiped here, including the Lady of the Wilds, Grandmother Earth, and the ancestor deities of the Animal People. At the center is a gruesome altar, built over two meters high from sacrificial bones.
Gandas also knows that can be dangerous to be here when not his god’s holy day.
The adventurers tentatively explore the holy site, discovering the hoofprints lead to a large bush, where the mists gather heavily. Ultimately they choose not to engage with the site, and depart without incident.
As they continue through the forest, they encountered a swarm of angry runners—the small moss-covered species of Aldryami which are being hunted. Avalon and Istar successfully negotiate using the Speak Earthtongue, due to its closeness to the Aldryami language, and the runners calm down. One very old one, with a single eye, directs a runner to guide the players to where runners have gone missing.
With their new guide, the adventurers make good time. About mid-afternoon, however, a huge dark shadow grabs the runner. It screams momentarily, then goes eerily quiet. The adventurers ready arrows and spells, aiming at the monster lurking in the trees.
Then they’re greeted by a cheerful “Hello!” in broken Esrolian. An enormous spider leans out of the canopy while chewing on their guide’s corpse. Introducing herself as Yama-kisintha (just “Yama” to her friends), the anthropophilic arachnid has a lovely chat with the players, kindly explaining to them that plants can’t be people (“they don’t have blood, after all”) and that she’s a reformed spider who doesn’t even snack on trollkin any longer. Okay, once in a while—but no one’s perfect! Yama invites the players back to her cave to enjoy her cousin’s homespun spidersilk tapestries, and they generally have a lovely afternoon.
My goal with Yama-kisintha was to subvert expectations, in order to provide the players with increased agency and choice in how they pursued their objective—getting Sylthi permission to enter the Aldryami fair. I feel “the Hunt” is interesting as an adventure archetype, but it’s not something I’ve explored much. I knew I didn’t want it to simply be “kill the monster,” so I felt making the monster friendly might be an interesting twist.
In the end, my players made a very pragmatic decision—they failed to convince Yama to come along with them to chat with the Aldryami using Communication skill rolls, so they chose to inform the elves of her lair’s location, so they could dispose of the giant spider themselves. They chose not to fight, because they didn’t think they could win. While I tried ensuring Yama is a plausible fight for beginning RuneQuest adventurers, ours aren’t exactly a martial bunch, so backing off isn’t a surprise. They seemed to enjoy the interaction, but not enough to protect Yama and seek another solution to their problem. I suspect my continued narration of how Yama chewed on that runner helped creep the players out.
I haven’t decided how I’ll handle the off-screen resolution, but I suspect I shan’t kill off Yama, yet. She was fun to roleplay, so I bet she has a throwdown with the local Wood Lord, kills a few of his companions, then runs away. In general, I conceive of this adventure and these interactions as placing the adventurers into conflict between the Plant people and the Darkness people of the region. With both elf and troll strongholds in the surrounding lands, this feels like an interesting dynamic to explore as one facet of a Hero Wars campaign in Esrolia.
Back at Elfmeet, I ruled that this information was enough for Sylthi to be permitted entrance. The third day—with dying leaves upon the sacred market’s pillars, signifying the change to autumn—the adventurers could spend as they saw fit. Mostly shopping, with Istar and Gandas picking up some additional protective gear, Sargon some grown copper for the Gordavos’s redsmith guild, and Avalon a dancing white flower for her clan Grandmother. I ruled that with a successful Insight roll, Avalon’s gift would be well-received—she succeeded, and slightly improved her household’s position in the eyes of Grandmother Hazulda.
Overall the rewards for this adventure were few, because the adventurers handed off the final resolution to the elves. In general it was a positive outcome for them, and for their communities, with experience gained, and a potential relationship with Yama still on the table.
We returned to Sylthi, and did a round of downtime. I’m still working on exactly how I want to handle this, but presently it basically boils down to:
- Worship to restore Rune points, depending on the holy days and the temples available
- Mark down four occupational experience checks from cult or occupational skills. Although I’m trying to play this campaign mostly “Rules as Intended” in order to grow more familiar with the RuneQuest core rules, I’ve retained my house rule from a previous campaign that occupational experience may be marked for skills without a box for normal experience. This is because while a Lore skill might not improve from experience in the moment, it feels like the sort of skill which does improve from day-to-day use.
- Roll for experience, then erase all experience checks
- Make a marketplace purchase, and determine where your new object came from
- Learn a spell, whether spirit or Rune magic, and determine who taught you (usually your cult)
- Train or Research a skill, and determine who is teaching you
- Heal up, fill up on magic points, and you’re ready to adventure!
After this preparation, I generated one Downtime Encounter for each adventurer from RuneQuest Cities, published by Avalon Hill back in the 90’s. My overall plan is to write my own encounter tables in this style, for different districts of Sylthi, customized to my setting. At the moment, I’m just using the tables as written, with improvised editing as we go. I want to get a feel for how this works, before drafting my own version.
My goal with Downtime Encounters (or vignettes or whatever) is to help illustrate what’s happening to each adventurer when they aren’t doing heroic activities. This is supposed to represent the most interesting thing which happened during the weeks between adventures. Eventually, these sorts of events, in combination with growing player agency, are intended to help the gamemaster create a sandbox, improvisational narrative, based on what engages the players.
Currently, I’m framing these vignettes as low risk, and low reward. They are explicitly meant to not have huge consequences, and that the adventurers won’t get special rewards out of them. Treasure and magic is the result of adventures, not short scenes. Generally, I try restricting the players to three ability rolls, which they can augment if they wish. Any augments they use during these vignettes, count toward whether or not they can use an augment during the following adventure. Likewise with Rune magic! Each scene played out fairly quickly, probably no more than ten minutes, although sometimes that required me directly cutting down on player options in order to indicate the purpose of these scenes.
Gandas bumped into some Babeester Gorite mercenaries while drinking down by the docks. He got roughed up (failing a Battle or Fist roll, can’t recall which), and dumped in the river.
Avalon spotted, then cut down an assassin posing as a snake dancer during a feast at Netha Manor, with a successful Battleaxe roll to the chest (I had her roll location, but not damage, handling this in a “narrative” not “specific” way).
Istar witnessed a clamor as local farmers complained to Netha warriors about raised taxes, and argued to be let into Netha Manor. She simply went to a different entrance, choosing not to interact with the conflict.
Sargon saw an odd priest working Fire/Sky magic outside his clan’s guild hall. When he tried to investigate, the man fled. Sargon pursued, successfully using a Communication skill to order people in the street out of his way, but his Grapple failed to seize the interloper.
If I were to turn this into improvised narrative for an adventure, it would look something like: a rival house, or a secretive cult, is instigating against House Netha, because the adventurers’ faction is currently dominant in Sylthi. If the Netha are to retain their supremacy, the adventurers must discover who their enemy is, and find a way to make them back off. Violence, blackmail, seduction—whatever they choose. I don’t see these sorts of vignettes as writing a whole adventure themselves, but as giving clues. Angry farmers, a snake-wielding assassin, a mysterious priest, mercenaries looking for employment, all pointing to ongoing civil unrest.
After playing out these downtime encounters, we are ready to start the next adventure.
Until next time, then.
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