I have been running my Runequest campaign for a bit over a year now, and it occurs to me I could take the session notes I have been posting over at the Design Mechanism forums and repost them here.
The overarching theme I had in planning these sessions was to focus on the social side of the story, drawing in as many of the NPCs that the players had established connections with as possible. I also wanted to spend spotlight time on various background elements for each PC, as I have been finding it easier to spark ideas for some of the PCs and not others (especially for the quieter players). So its a week in the harvest ball season, with the party assigned to protect the Empress Alexandra, younger sister of the reigning Emperor Julian.
Session 1 Five go slumming with an Empress
Started by spending some time discussing Hill folk, Apocalypse World and Luther Arkwright. I have been reading a lot of different sets of RPG rules recently. Possibly too much, as I started dreaming in GURPS mechanics.
The first day the party spent as bodyguards for Empress Alexandra was spent on a mix of civic religious functions, and formal receptions for VIPs wanting to hobnob with the Empress. This was an opportunity for me to introduce many members of the Imperial court in passing.
Talia’s background of a dispute with her father over an arranged marriage came into play, when he turned up with news that her brother, a POW in Covenant hands (another background point), had converted to the enemy. So her father asked for a reconciliation, as otherwise the family estate would be going to her dissolute younger brother. Talia did some hard bargaining (roll of 52 with an Influence skill of 52, versus a failed Willpower check by her father) and agreed.
The second day is one of more public functions and duties.
The morning starts badly, with an inspection of the naval shipyards leading to an stand up shouting argument with bonus insults between Empress Alexandra and the commander of the Navy (both rolled 57 on an opposed Willpower check to see who would give way first). The party spends a couple of luck points extricating the Empress form the scene, and calming her down.
The party attends the opening of some new public gardens, and a private visit to the Imperial vault without incident. After lunch the visit several orphanages and veterans homes. Its like being bodyguards for Princess Diana. Eventually they end up at an art gallery, where they met some of the Covenant embassy staff. The Empress is impressed by a painting of the climax of the battle at runescar, and rewards the artist Miranda Larson with patronage. Pyrias makes a good impression with Miranda.
The party then prepared to go out partying with the Empress. As its ball season, everyone is wearing masks. I awarded a bonus luck point to anyone who managed to guess which mask the Empress was going to choose. Everyone then changes into mufti, and Cain issues the PCs with a concealable muff pistol. Then the party heads off slumming, with everyone told to refer to the Empress as “Servalan”.
Servalan takes them to the “Witch and Axe” tavern on the underside of the city. A lot of carousing takes place, and then several of the PCs volunteer to take part in the pit fights. This was an opportunity for me to play around with the combat challenges, without it being a matter of life or death for the PCs. Everyone taking part had to choose a “pit fighter” name.
Secundus, as the “Masked Mantis” faced off against another Vordar, the “Black Needle”. I gave the Black Needle a combat style of 89%, which was much higher than what Secundus had (low 70% range). It started badly for Secundus, with the Black Needle getting a 09% critical hit and immediately disarming Secundus. Then she tripped him on her next attack. Secundus managed to get up while the Black Needle was hamming it up with the crowd, but even with some luck point use the Black Needle proceeded to outfight Secundus and quickly inflict three light wounds on him.
A few of the PCs lost some coin in the side betting.
Crozane then fought the novelty act, two goblins connected by a length of chain. Crozane plays up the role of being a foreign sun-worshiping heel for the crowd, almost to the point where people want to throw objects at him. Early on in the fight against the goblins he impales one with a dagger, and then exploits its reduced skill using Brawn augmented with Acrobatics to tumble the goblins into the pit (which has a safety net below it rather than a mile drop to the ground, not that I told the players that before the fights started).
Session 2 Rapiers at dawn
Continuing with the third and final PC pit fight, Pyrias “the sleeping lion” faced off against the reigning champion, a Minotaur who was also an Imperial official. The opponents are connected by a length of chain manacled to their arms, the floor is greased, apart from log stumps that can be stood on.
We started with a long discussion about what can be accomplished with a Charge action, and if a skill check is needed for the crossing the greasy floor. Eventually I allowed the combination of acrobatics and a combat style trait that helped movement to more or less ignore the slippery floor.
Even after a year of play I still find the terminology of Combat Actions, Combat Rounds, Turn and Charge to be not as intuitive as I would like. For example, players keep expecting to execute a charge in a single combat action, but the rules specify one full combat round of movement. I have been letting them execute the charge in a single action, not the 3-4 actions the RAW imply.
I am still constantly pausing to double check that we have the correct number of special effects from combat rolls, and that we are applying the effect of a Parry successfully.
Trying to find how much damage an unarmed attack was something else I failed to quickly figure out after checking several sections of the rulebook. I ruled it was 1d3 damage and we played on.
But back to the fight … Pyrias charged, the Minotaur counterattacked, hit for 8 points, reduced by luck point. Pyrias used his special effect to entangle the chain around the Minotaur’s neck (improvising on the fly, no damage, makes next attack Easy). The next few actions are a struggle between the Minotaur trying to get the chain off, and Pyrias to do some damage. In the fourth action, because Pyrias has 4 AP and the Minotuar only has 3 AP, Pyrias hits and gets a bonus special effect, hitting te Minotaur for nine damage in the right leg, and the Minotaur rolls 100% for the Endurance check and falls into the safety net (which remains intact).
The bookies had offered 7:1 odds on Pyrias, and Talia had bet 1,000 silver, so now she has 7,000 coins to go shopping with. Pyrias also gained a lot of social status, and was surrounded by adoring fans. The party spends some more time socialising, the Black Needle turns out to be Stitch, an NPC from a previous session, who gets friendly with Secundus. This allows me to introduce an aside about the Emperor recruiting heavily from the orphanages, a factor of his paranoia. Talia flirts with Karen Ivanovich, who is in town for business, and comes to the Axe because she used to work here and still gets a staff discount. Vitus the fire mage plays with flammable cocktails.
The next scene is in a luxurious Salon hidden in the back of the Witch and Axe. A couple of Cain’s assistants deposit an Imperial officer by the name of Titus Crow for questioning by the Empress Alexandra. Turns out Alexandra had paid Titus a lot of money to try and expedite warship construction for escorts for her Battleship, which has not happened (hence the argument in the naval yard). Plus he used to be her lover, and uses very familiar language. She has just started asking him about smuggling spirit jars into the city, when the party is warned that the Imperial Guard are raiding the establishment.
I let the PCs advise the Empress about what she should do, mostly they keep quiet. So I stick with plan A, and the angry/upset Empress throws Titus off the Salon balcony (he is tied to a chair, its a mile down) rather than get into trouble with Julian. A runner is then sent upstairs to invite more people to the “party” in the Salon. By the time the guard finally reach the Salon its a very drunken scene that greets them. Stitch gets into trouble with the guard, even though its her night off. Karen offers her services as a magistrate, she scans “Servalan’s” surface thoughts, blanches, and proceeds to make a successful deceit check and the guard is successfully persuaded to go elsewhere.
Nothing else too interesting happens at the party. Later that night Talia gets to perform “holding the hair out of the vomit” duties for a tearful Empress.
The next day is filled with dull military parades. The evening’s main event is presentations of tribute tokens (and reports of the actual taxes to be paid) from the various governors within the Empire. This is to be followed by heavy drinking among the governors and their retainers.
Governor Tenny from Runescar is here, and after delivering her tribute she bumps into Crozane, a 01 success is rolled and they vanish for the rest of the night.
Karen Ivanovich presents for Governor Kev of the Lars, who is confirmed as Governor of the Island of Monsters, and the Emperor does a short speech about how the gold hoard (found by the PCs but credit now claimed by Kev) is sufficient to fund the entire Imperial budget next year, plus a military expansion programme. Emperor Julian then announces that the position of Grand Domestic (the vacant five star general slot) will be filled by Ventarch – an elderly general of good reputation, who also happened to turn up with Sabrina Gilligan on his arm (she was the sea witch from Whitemouth in an earlier session).
The evening is somewhat strained by insults from the Imperial guard (they call the PCs “wrigglers”, a distortion of the “Vigla” name of their regiment), and Pyrias gets into a duel with Kevin Larson (son of Governor Kev and husband of Miranda Larson, the artist who was quite taken with Pyrias the hero of Runescar earlier on). Of course, everyone knows this part of the argument Julian and Alexandra have been having, extended to proxies.
Pyrais does have a short conversation with Ventarch, where the General points out that his lack of magical talent means he will not be considered for further promotion at the capital, but a transfer can be arranged to a border garrison on the Enmity front, where promotion is assured (this is about the equivalent of being sent to Afghanistan in the days of the Raj).
For the duel I let Pyrais augment his combat style wit the Customs skill, fighting in the traditional old school formal approach. Both combatants had high combat skills, around 85%, so much of the combat consisted of successful parries. Pyrias had an edge with 4 AP to Kevin’s 3 AP, although it did not help in the first round (a 99 rerolled with a luck point to 97).
Over the course of the fight, Pyrias managed to stab Kevin about five times for light wounds, using special actions to avoid any potentially mortal wounds. The player kept asking for a surrender, but Kevin kept fighting until the player actually chose to use a special effect on a Compel Surrender check.
…and there we ended the session, with one Empress happy with her champion, and one Emperor unhappy with his champion.
Session 3 Summary – Bazaar and Ball
This session had three minor encounters while shopping with Empress Alexandra in the Grand Bazaar, a brief interlude, then a couple of scenes at the Ball, concluding with a showdown with some assassins, traitors and enemy agents. After all, the party would have had every right to be grumpy with me if I had them as bodyguards for three game sessions without at least one serious assassination attempt.
During this session, I tried a group skill check mechanic for party perception over long periods of time. This is where the party as a whole requires four successes to pass the check (critical success counts double, fumble is minus one success). This seemed to work well, and makes everyone’s perception skill important, rather than relying on Crozane’s high perception (>100% if mystic talents are active).
A young urchin filched Vitus’ pouch, was just spotted, and then Secundus gave chase. Again I tried this as an extended Athletics skill check, first side to four successes won. Despite having a lower Athletics skill than the Urchin, Secundus easily caught up to the nipper (who had a fumble mid-escape). The urchin threw the pouch away and Secundus retrieved it rather than give chase any further.
Later, as the Empress is trying on shoes, Crozane makes a critical success on his perception to spot that the slimy sales rep is none other than his hated enemy, Sillicus Ruval, a Covenant agent. Crozane immediately kicks Sillicus in the head (a 04% critical hit), draws his weapons, and Sillicus barely has time to stammer “diplomatic immunity” before something unfortunate occurs. Crozane manages to not give in to his passion to kill Sillicus, and Sillicus delivers his diplomatic note to the Empress.
Later, as the Empress is going to look at hats, the party spots a woman they know, Margarette, being dragged off by two thugs. When the party goes to intervene, the thugs display the spider emblem of Valens, the retired Emperor. SO while Margarette begs for mercy, the players let Valens’ men drag her away for questioning.
As an aside, usually PCs get placed in an investigative role when it comes to plots. But the party is tied to the Empress as bodyguards, so they cannot go chasing off after clues relating to Titus and smuggling. This does show other Imperial agents are working on the case.
Shopping finished, the party mostly rests before the evening ball, with a couple of characters having disturbing dreams about ravens and assassins.
The first half of the ball is mainly talking and dancing. Emperor Julian does announce the adoption of Bernadette Gilligan (the young girl the party retrieved from Whitemouth a few adventures back) into the Taran family. There is a lot of maneuvering to see who gets to dance with whom.
I split the party up, by having Emperor Julian send Crozane and Pyrias elsewhere. The party have a mindspeech spell up to try and aid communication, but the ballroom and surrounding rooms are big enough for this to not work all the time.
Out on patrol Crozane and Pyrias hear suspicious noises and burst into a room, finding Emperor Julian in flagrante with a lady, and two of his guards. Pyrias makes a successful Customs check, apologising and closing the door.
The players move to get in comms range of the ballroom and try and put two and two together, and suspect a double. But which one is the real Julian? Crozane had noticed that the guards had matchlock pistols, not the modern wheelocks used in the guards regiments.
Crozane and Pyrias head back to the room where they saw “Julian”. Crozane activates a silence spell (a gift from his devotion for a forbidden god) and they burst into the room. The Silence means they cannot hear the tied up young lady mouthing the word “bomb” or hear the hissing of the spluttering grenade.
One of the characters in the Ballroom makes a critical success on perception and spots Misha, an old adversary, in position in a high up balcony box. As the Empress is out on the dancefloor, Talia moves to make her safe. At which point the ballroom erupts into panic and chaos as first all light vanishes, and then several explosions happen.
The Ballroom attack is resolved with the party escaping into one of the secret passages reserved for the Imperial family. They also drag Bernadette Taran with them, as the old seer Maria Taran and the Grand Domestic Ventarch were both shot by Misha (bullets with a nasty spirit bound to the bullet, released on impact to devour the mind of the victim, in part because I’m using the Apocalypse World principle of putting people the NPCs care about in cross hairs).
Meanwhile Crozane and Pyrias have managed to spot the bomb and throw it away before it explodes, and then set off in pursuit (going the right way as they did first aid on the lady and got a clue from her). So they emerge into the side end of the ambush that is really intended to kill Empress Alexandra, with six false guardsmen with matchlock pistols, the false Julian, and a traitor from the Palace staff. Outnumbered 4:1, they immediately charge.
Crozane and Pyrias survive the first round, killing one guardsman and wounding another. Cane appears, fires a pistol, wounding another guardsman. The remaining guards then shoot Cane (and miss the PCs). The combat then becomes more of a general melee with Rapiers.
The party is then reunited at this suitably dramatic point, with the other PCs and NPCs entering the room. Having heard the noise of the encounter, the mages have spells ready to cast, one of which is immediately neutralized by the False Julian. The palace traitor then starts wracking Cane, Pyrias and Crozane for 1d8 damage a round.
There is a long fight, and nearly every luck point the PCs and party have is burned to ensure that wounds do not knock people out or kill them. The players defeat most of the false guards, but are still having trouble with the mages when I ruled that Alexandra turned the traitor’s wrack against himself (she is of the Imperial blood, inside her family palace, and carries half a dozen or so major artifacts, so this was a handwave rather than a specific spell). At which point the false Julian flees, just as Uncle Valens’ giant spiders turn up.
Cane did not survive (several rapier strikes, and a couple of wrack strikes to the head). The False Julian escaped to live another day. Some NPC exposition takes place, revealing that some of the children of the Black Emperor’s bloodline still survive, which is how the assassins got itno the Palace so easily. The players manage not to offend Senior Emperor Valens, and because they have learned too much to keep running around in the “Wrigglers” he has a job offer for them. Meanwhile Uncle Valens tells Alexandra to go and make up with Emperor Julian, because if she runs for her Battleship, that will likely trigger Julian’s paranoia and a civil war…
Our observation on the impact of Magic in combat is that it feels very paper-scissors-nuke. Wrack is a decisive spell, if cast, and the caster is not neutralised, its pretty much impossible for the opponents to win. 1d8 penetrating damage to multiple targets every action round is hideous. The two PCs only survived upright because I rolled a large number of 1s on the d8 damage die. On the other side of things, the six points of damage protection the False Julian had was almost enough to deflect any incoming damage from melee attacks.
At some point in the session we had a discussion about the Size and Distance Difficulty Adjustment Table for ranged weapons, and the players all agreed with me that it was a silly table and we wouldn’t be using it at our gaming table. The Ranged Combat Situational Modifiers list was more than sufficient.
We ran a bit overtime for this session, but that felt like the right call. People had a lot of fun.
End of Act I
XP will wait until next session, but I signaled that the focus of the game will change. The party can choose between an assignment in the border marches (with likely promotion), assignment to Empress Alexandra’s regiment (with many social opportunities), or assignment to Emperor Valen’s couriers (with a lot of opportunity for accessing forbidden lore).
Then I plan to scroll the game forward two years, which will allow for a fair bit of training, and lets Secundus the young cadet grow up into somewhat less of an awkward teenager.