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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

"MY ORLANTH DOESN'T HAVE FOUR ARMS"

THE CIMBRI WERE a Germanic tribe, originating on a northern European peninsula the Romans called Cimbricus Chersonesus.  Today you will find Denmark there (well, the continental portion at least).  By 100 BC the Cimbri had, for whatever reason, migrated, and were raiding France, Germany, and northern Spain and Portugal. Eventually they made it to Italy and started tangling with the Roman Republic.  They lost.  The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (63 BCE - 23 CE) described Cimbri men as ferocious berserker warriors who did not fear death, and gave very detailed descriptions of how their priestesses slit the throats of prisoners in sacrifice to their gods.  It's tempting to dismiss this, but there is some archaeological evidence that bears this out.  

We don't know a tremendous amount about Cimbrian gods, but a later Roman cult complex near Heidelberg gives us a few hints.  The complex, which dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, contains inscriptions to Mercurius Cimbrianus, or "Mercury of the Cimbri."  Curiously this figure seems to have been the chief of their pantheon, something that could hardly be said of Mercury.  Yet Tacitus, writing a century before this cult complex was built, also identified Mercury as the chief god of the Germanic peoples.  He was called Mercurius Rex.  Even more strangely, he was a bearded patriarch rather than a lithe, pre-teen boy.


Do these look the same to you?  They did to the Greeks and Romans.

By now you see where I am going with this; they were calling the Germanic god Odin (Woden, Wotan, etc) by Mercury's name.

This was a very Roman--and even Hellenic--thing to do.  The Romans saw Mercury in the stooped, gray-bearded, one-eyed Odin the same way the Greeks had seen it in the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth.  In fact a bewildering panoply of diverse gods ended up associated with Mercury/Hermes, all across Europe and the Near East.  Nor was this limited to Mercury; the Romans and Hellenes did it with all their gods.  It didn't particular matter to them how a deity was depicted.  They were looking at something deeper.  They were looking at what the god meant.

Mercury, Thoth, Odin, Lugus, etc et al were gods associated with communication and language, and thus in the classical mind, they were one and the same.  It didn't really matter what the god was called, what his local myths were, or what he looked like.  They knew the identity of the god by his essence.  

Flash forward two thousand years.


Orlanth Kickassicus

In March of 2018 I reviewed The Glorantha Sourcebook, and something rather curious began to happen.  Not really even thinking about it, I had selected a few pieces of art from the book to show my audience, and started to receive some very irate comments about, well...Orlanth.  Now, for the one or two people who might have stumbled in here thinking it was a dissertation on ancient European religions, Orlanth is a fictional deity, a creation of the late Greg Stafford for his world "Glorantha."  He is very much the Indo-European thunder god we see in deities like Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor, both the king of the gods and the deity of storms.  He is the chief of his pantheon, and the central deity (with his wife the Earth goddess Ernalda) of a barbarian people.  The messages I was receiving basically told me that the deity depicted in these pictures was not Orlanth, could not be Orlanth, and were all wrong.  

The problem was the number of arms.


Orlanth's family tree.  He's the blue one with the four arms.

Somehow, in the intervening centuries between the classical period and the modern world, we had gone from looking at a bird-headed god and one that looked like a shepherd boy and recognizing the same deity--despite totally different names and mythologies--to getting bent out of shape that a fictional deity--with the same name and the same mythology--had the wrong number of arms.

 

Orlanth Unitardus

Now, to be fair, Orlanth generally had been depicted with two arms in older games.  He had also been depicted in a unitard. Call me crazy, but I will take super-cool multi-armed Orlanth over Slim Goodbody Orlanth any day of the week.  

Levity aside, however, what we are seeing is fifteen centuries of monotheism at work on the Western mind.  For nearly two millennia we have had institutions not only define deity for us, but teach us that any deviation from the authorized and sanctioned depiction of deity is wrong.  In many cases deviation was not just wrong, it was heresy.  Entire wars have been waged over the smallest details of mythological minutia, so it comes as little surprise that our reflex is to embrace what we have been taught about a deity initially, and reject anything that comes after which doesn't fall in line with that.  This knee-jerk orthoodoxy bleeds into new "religions" as well...how many Internet battles have been waged over how the new Star Wars movies are not Star Wars or how Discovery is not Star Trek.  We have gone a full 180 degrees from the classical impulse to see commonalities in deities to picking apart the differences.

The supreme irony, of course, is that this is a game about Bronze Age peoples.  Your typical Gloranthan would look at multi-armed Orlanth, two-armed Orlanth, shrug, and ask what Runes each was associated with.  Air, Motion, Mastery?  Yup.  Both Orlanth.

Subsequent conversations about these depictions of Orlanth--and certain other Gloranthan deities--reveals another layer of the issue.  There seems to be a certain feeling that these recent depictions of Orlanth look too...Indian.  This doesn't particularly bother me; really, if you are a student of comparative mythology, Orlanth reads far more like Indra than he ever has Thor.  This aside, though, it is clear that Stafford's deity is conceived of as a sort of proto-Indo-European chieftain god, so it is not wrong to see Zeus or Thor or Perun in there as well.  If, like me, you met Orlanth way back in the beginning, when Glorantha leaned more towards Conan and the Iliad than Celtic or Norse myth, you are probably more inclined to shrug recent depictions off.  Unfortunately, there was a long middle period of Glorantha were Orlanth was looking rather...Aryan.  And I don't mean the ancient India kind;


 

Orlanth Dolph Lundgrenus

Or being very clearly associated with Odin;



If you had first encountered Orlanth in this mid-stage, I can easily see why the more recent depictions might throw you (from an upcoming Chaosium publication);



Orlanth, King of the Gods (Andrey Fetisov)

Yet if we step back a moment and look at Fetisov's frankly stunning portrayal of Orlanth, what immediately comes clear is that this is not Indian, nor is it Aryan, Germanic, Celtic, or Greek.  Whereas the previous two illustrations seem to be telling us "Yes, this guy is called Orlanth but he is basically just Odin or Thor," the Fetisov depiction might be the first I have seen that visually expresses what Stafford's Orlanth was meant to be.  That shield design is very Celtic, like the famous Battersea Shield.  The greaves are very Greek.  That red beard immediately suggests Thor for people who prefer mythology to Marvel comics.  The dragon head could be Chinese, but looks suspiciously Persian.  The vajra he is holding suggests India.  In short, this is not an Orlanth that settles for being North European or Indian or Greek.  He is all of the above and more.

There were never any real pictures of Orlanth back when I started playing in 1983, and in retrospect that might have been a good thing.  I always had a fixed image of the Orlanthi as Howard's Cimmerians with Orlanth as a sort of brooding Crom.  By the time game lines like Hero Wars were making very clear Celtic and Germanic references, I had already gone through graduate school, where I discovered the Indo-Europeans and formed my own image of Orlanth and Dragon Pass. In fact I can specifically recall a rant of mine circa the early 00s that the Orlanthi were NOT land bound Vikings (I have mellowed since then).  In the end what I suppose I am suggesting here is that we take a cue from the setting we are playing and the time period it is set in.  In some ways, the people of the ancient world were far less silly than we are.  I have this mental image in my head of a 21st century student sitting on the floor of the Library of Alexandria with his tutor; "But Hermes doesn't look like a baboon, they can't be the same god."  

It ends with the tutor smacking the student over the head.

  


    

Friday, February 21, 2020

CTHULHU: THE DARK AGES (3RD EDITION) - A REVIEW

SO FIRMLY ASSOCIATED with the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression--the periods in which H.P. Lovecraft set the majority of his tales of cosmic horror--we forget that Call of Cthulhu has included a wide variety of time periods and settings over the years.  As early as 1986, just five years after the game's initial release, there was Cthulhu by Gaslight, moving the scene from the 1920s to the 1890s of Victorian England.  A year later was Cthulhu Now, which brought the game to the now quaint and archaic world of the 1980s.  In the wake of the X-FilesDelta Green (1997) edged the setting up to the end of the millennium.  Just over a decade later, Cthulhu Invictus (2009) set the story in ancient Rome.



We'll come back to Invictus--and its authors Chad J. Bowser and Andi Newton--in a moment, but we would be remiss to forget Stéphane Gesbert's Cthulhu Dark Ages.  Originally published in German by Pegasus Spiele, under the title Cthulhu 1000 A.D., Chaosium's English edition came soon after in 2004.  The book was at once familiar and horrifyingly alien; it took a milieu (medieval Europe) we had seen in literally hundreds of games and a mythos (Cthulhu) almost equally recognizable and made them, somehow, more than the sum of these parts.  It wasn't even remotely similar to the fantasy settings we came to expect to see monks and clerics and warriors in, but a realm of brooding, investigative horror against inhuman and incomprehensible forces.  For me, it is in those forces that Gesbert outdid himself.  The Bestiary chapter introduced both new creatures and reskinned old ones (see what I did there) to look like they had been lurking behind medieval folklore all along.  Dwarves, goblins, Elves, vampires, even Satan all became masks of alien terrors.  Sticking out in my memory are the Old Ones, servants of Yog-Sothoth who inspired legends of the Fae, angels, even valkyries.  The effect was really something quite singular in a Call of Cthulhu supplement; as players and their Investigators worked to get to the center of the mystery, it would often end up that the players finally recognized the horror they were up against while the Investigators saw it as something entirely else.  The disappearing children?  The Investigators discover they are being taken away by gossamer-winged fairies associated with hollow hills and curious mushrooms...but the players see them as Mi-Go.

Cthulhu Dark Ages was a success, enough of one that the newly invigorated post-2015 Chaosium decided to bring it back (before even a new edition of Gaslight, this author notes, glaring at Chaosium demandingly and tapping his fingers on the table).  A sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper Rulebook (it is not a stand-alone game), Cthulhu Dark Ages 3rd Edition follows in the footsteps of 2018's Masks of Nyarlathotep in that it does not merely update the previous edition to be compatible with 7e, but instead is a major revision packed with all sorts of new material that the devious cultists operating the Chaosium know you will not be able to resist.  Going forward then, I will summarize the contents of the new edition for readers altogether new to Dark Ages, but point out the changes and additions for those returning to it.


The Cthulhu Dark Ages I am reviewing is a 274-page PDF, written by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton (the team responsible for Cthulhu Invictus), with James Holloway and Mike Mason. It is based on Stéphane Gesbert's original. Visually, it is everything we have come to expect from the Call of Cthulhu 7e game line. The parchment colored pages, the layout, typefaces, etc are all identical to Masks of Nyarlathotep, The Grand Grimoire of Mythos Magic, Berlin: The Wicked City, and so on. The art is largely black and white, with a liberal amount of full-page color pieces as well.


Before jumping in I think credit has to be given to line editor Mark Mason for the surprising thoroughness of the 7e setting books. Berlin was astounding in the depth and breadth of detail it gave the "Wicked City," to the extent that someone such as myself--who has visited Berlin but is largely unfamiliar with the city--could comfortably and confidently run a Cthulhu campaign it its Weimar era. Dark Ages is no less exhaustive, not just with maps and histories, but in depth sections on Dark Ages society, literacy, language, and culture. You get a very complete picture here, from taxes and the justice system to the games children play. In my first read through I kept forgetting--until later chapters--that I was reading a Call of Cthulhu book. It felt like a fascinating and immersive history. None of us are going to walk out of Cthulhu Dark Ages with a PhD in the period, but any of us could run a campaign without constantly having to run to the Internet for research. It is really that complete.




To get this kind of depth though required this edition of Cthulhu Dark Ages to narrow its focus somewhat. While the previous editions were a more general overview of the period, focused primarily on the Continent, this new edition concentrates squarely on Anglo-Saxon England in the century running from 950 to 1050 CE. The first chapter, Anglo-Saxon England, is 34 pages detailing the region, and the eighth, Totburh, presents a fully realized Anglo-Saxon community as the Investigators' base of operations. The choice of Anglo-Saxon England seems a bit of a no-brainer given the tastes and obsessions of Lovecraft himself, and by selecting a single region to focus on, it allows this edition to do what previous ones couldn't...namely give you a living, breathing macrocosm of the period.


Chapter two, however, gives us a much broader look at the period with A - Z of the Dark Ages. The role here is to make it clear to the reader what the "Dark Ages" is, how it differs from the High Middle Ages (the period most gamers, after 40 years of conditioning, are more accustomed to). This was one of my favorite sections, and the one I feel most likely to periodically revisit. The section on "Magic" alone is worth the price of admission, right down to sample folk charms.


Chapter three is Dark Age Investigators, walking us through the process of making Call of Cthulhu characters for the setting. There are a host of occupations suited to the period, from beggars and clerics to free farmers, heretics, minstrels, and warriors, and a large table of "Life Events" that add background color. Perhaps you had the pox as a child, was raised in a monastery, or born under a gibbous moon. There are tons of colorful entries here along with the effects they have on your character. Additional tables present your character's Beliefs, Significant People, Meaningful Locations, Treasured Possessions, etc. All these may be selected or randomly determined. Naturally there are a broad selection of names offered as well. 


Then comes a long section of adapting Cthulhu skills to the setting, including new ones. To reflect the widespread illiteracy of the period, speaking a language and reading and writing it are separate things, for example. Melee combat skills are expanded, skills like Medicine more restricted. With a nod to Basic RolePlaying, "Status" replaces "Credit Rating." Investigator organizations also come in this chapter, giving the characters an in-world connection to each other. Finally we find weapons and equipment.


Chapter 4 is the Game System, with some interesting innovations here. Anyone has played Call of Cthulhu knows that at some point ponderous tomes of forbidden lore have to be consulted...but how does this work in a world where most Investigators cannot read? "The Oral Tradition" comes into play here, providing new ways for Investigators to discern critical Mythos secrets from folklore and oral accounts. Combat comes soon after, with a focus on the very familiar RPG tropes of sword, spear, and shield fighting, mounted combat, etc. There is an expanded section on disease.


Finally, as the centerpiece of Call of Cthulhu, "Sanity" is revisited. The more you think about it, the more obvious the need to adapt the concept to the period is. There is no psychoanalysis in the Dark Ages, and indeed in a world where acceptance of the supernatural is rampant, the stressors are very different. Thus we are introduced to the concepts of "Idiocy" and "Lunacy," the four humors and their imbalance, and of how "bouts of madness" might work in the setting.




Chapter 5 is Investigative Horror in the Dark Ages. This Keeper-oriented chapter gets under the hood of running a Dark Ages game, with special attention giving to using Oral Tradition in place of the more standard Cthulhu practice of heading to the library. There is also good advice on how not to run the game, to avoid it turning into a medieval fantasy RPG rather than weird horror. Chapter 6, The Cthulhu Mythos in the Dark Ages, broadens the scope well beyond Anglo-Saxon England to discuss centers of Mythos activity across the continent (and beyond). We are introduced to cults active during the period, and how the gods of the Mythos are viewed in the Dark Ages world. For characters who are literate, there is a selection of Mythos tomes around during the period, including occult tomes and poems (think "epic poem" here, the preferred narrative style in the days before novels). There is a long discussion on folk magic and witchcraft, and an extensive list of new spells. 


Then at last we come to Chapter 7, the Bestiary. This is where the third edition draws most heavily on the editions before it, with Stéphane Gesbert's terrific menagerie of Cthulhu horrors adapted to this setting, as well as an expanded selection new to this volume. Folkloric beings, such as the dragon from Beowulf or the pre-Dracula vampire, appear as well. I will not be spoiling the surprise, but the book provides its own vampire lord in the personage of a historical figure, a surprise that brought a wicked grin to my face.


As previously discussed, chapter 8 is the Totburh setting, populated by a ton of colorful NPCs. The book concludes with three scenarios, a Glossary, Timeline, Who's Who, and Bibliography.


The creative team here has delivered a terrific product. Both Bowser and Holloway bring academic credentials in the subject to Dark Ages, and the authenticity shows. Newton's storytelling skills give the characters and scenarios here depth, and Mason brings the same skills he did to the 7e rulebook. Call of Cthulhu has been Chaosium's flagship for decades now, and the work being done in its recent projects is as superb as it has ever been (the production values are the best we have seen). Cthulhu Dark Ages is a brilliant addition to the line, a book anyone who loves the game needs on their shelf...well, when it materializes in dead tree form. It has everything the previous edition has and more. 

Just buy it already.   



Tuesday, February 11, 2020

BASIC ROLEPLAYING: THE CHAOSIUM ROLEPLAYING SYSTEM

INTRODUCTION

This is not a review.


Think of it as a conversation instead.  There is a fair bit of history in here, and an overview of the game system for people new to it, but the author is painfully aware most readers will have played one or more incarnations of this legendary game system already.   The goal then isn't necessarily to sell you on the system, but rather to persuade you why it would be a very good idea to have a copy of Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium Role-playing System on your shelf or in your PDF collection.  Some of it will be addressed to newcomers, some to RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu players.  This book is a toolkit, a Rosetta Stone.  With it you can craft nearly any campaign you can imagine, but it also allows you to get under the hood of other Chaosium games and tinker with them, adjusting them to taste.

So grab some coffee, a nice cuppa, or whatever libation is your fancy and join me on a walk through this extraordinary piece of game design.
    

ORIGINS


IN NINETEEN SEVENTY-EIGHT, Dana Holm opined;

A lot of thought has gone into this game.  It shows.  It is playable yet realistic.  You don't need several supplement books to play it.  Even though it was designed to fit one particular world, it could easily be used for any world.  Since this game contains a logical system, almost anything could be added to the matrix it represents.  A gem of a game.  You won't be disappointed.

The Space Gamer, September-October 1978

Holm was reviewing RuneQuest, an RPG published by a new game studio called the Chaosium.  Designed by Steve Perrin and Ray Turney, with help from Steve Henderson and Warren James, RuneQuest had been written to bring Greg Stafford's Glorantha to the gaming table.  Yet as Holm pointed out, the system they created was flexible enough for any setting, and not just that, any genre.  Stafford, founder and president of Chaosium, clearly agreed.  Within two years, Basic Role-Playing, a "Gloranthaless" iteration of the rules was published, and the following year saw this system as the engine of both Michael Moorcock's baroque fantasy Stormbringer and H.P. Lovecraft's horror Call of Cthulhu (by Ken St. Andre and Sandy Petersen respectively).  Basic Role-Playing (BRP) became the in-house game system for most of Chaosium's subsequent games.  In 1982, with the release of Worlds of Wonder--a boxed set containing the BRP rules and three genre books for fantasy, science-fiction, and super-heroes--BRP officially became the first "universal system."


Two decades after that Space Gamer review, however, Chaosium hit its iceberg.  After a long string of critically acclaimed RPGs, the studio jumped on the collectible card game (CCG) bandwagon with Mythos.  It was a disaster.  As Shannon Appelcline writes in his terrific history of the RPG industry;


CCG losses usually run at a scale much higher than RPG losses. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory were tied up on the warehouse floor and the result was devastating for Chaosium... (By) 1998 there was no one remaining who was actually taking a paycheck. Again, Chaosium responded by shutting down several of its lines, this time Pendragon, Elric!, Nephilim, and Mythos itself. By 1997 Chaosium once more cut back to being solely a Call of Cthulhu publisher...

Designers & Dragons: The 70s, p. 274


In the wake of this, Greg Stafford left the house he had built, along with Sandy Petersen.  Charlie Krank and Lynn Willis were left struggling to pull the company back from the brink. Stafford had taken Glorantha with him, and all the licensed games--Stormbringer, Elfquest, Ringworld, Hawkmoon--were long gone or about to be lost.  Green Knight gained the rights to King Arthur Pendragon as the result of a defaulted loan.  Call of Cthulhu was the lifeboat keeping Chaosium afloat.  Yet in this very dark period one of my favorite Chaosium products appeared.

Even though they had lost all the licenses and settings, the one thing Chaosium retained was BRP, the engine that had driven most of them.  More to the point, they had two decades of variations, sub-systems, options, and add-ons to BRP.  The decision was made to gather all of this into one book (by way, first, of a long string of monographs).  Jason Durall and Sam Johnson joined Krank and Willis to produce the definitive incarnation of BRP, Basic RolePlaying: The Chaosium RolePlaying System (2008).

THE BOOK(S)

Currently available in PDF or softcover (I have a hardcover edition as well that appears to be out of print), BRP (italicized I am specifically referring to the 2008 book, as "BRP" I refer to the game system) weighs in at 400 pages with black and white illustrations.  The layout is clean, double-columned, with very few typos.  The hardcover is beautifully bound with glossy pages, and the softcover has an equally durable binding.  I've used both for over ten years now and they still look like new.  The cover is a parchment-colored rendition of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man with a twist; different parts of his body are suggestive of the various genres you might game in.   Whil we are not talking the stunning production values of more recent Chaosium lines, BRP is still a very attractive product.


Chapters one through eight are for both players and gamemasters.  They cover in order; an Introduction to BRP and its history, Character Creation, Skills, Powers (Magic, Mutations, Psychic Abilities, Sorcery, and Super Powers), the game System, Combat, Spot Rules (covering a number of specific events not covered in the general rules), and Equipment.  Chapters nine through twelve are for the gamemaster alone.  There is a chapter on how to GM the game, a terrific chapter on Settings (from Prehistoric to Space Opera, arranged in roughly chronological order and with sections on things like Noir, Pulp Era, Westerns, Age of Sail, etc), a Bestiary covering monsters and NPCs from various genres, and the Appendices that include conversion notes, charts and tables, character and NPC forms, and an extensive index.

THE SYSTEM

What Durall and the Chaosium team managed to do was to synthesize a "core" version of BRP from almost three decades of versions, and then to collect all the various sub-systems and variations to present them as options.

Characters--and by this I mean also animals, monsters, and NPCs--are represented by Characteristics and Skills.  There are seven core Characteristics--Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity and Intelligence, Power, Appearance.  The first four are physical traits (and in humans have a maximum of 21) while the second three are mental (with no upper limits).  Obviously nonhumans and superhumans have different minimums and maximums.  The Characteristics represent in order how strong, hardy, big, agile, intelligent, powerful, and charismatic a being is.  "Power" is a tricky attribute, representing willpower and mental fortitude, as well as magical potency in fantasy settings, psychic power in science fiction, or "energy" in a superhero setting.

Options come into play here in how Characteristics are generated, either by dice rolls or point-buy systems, depending on your tastes.  Another option is an eighth Characteristic, Education, suitable for more modern and futuristic settings with widespread educational systems.

These core Characteristics determine both Derived Characteristics and Characteristic Rolls.  Derived characteristics include your damage bonus, determined by your Strength and Size; your hit points, determined by Size and Constitution; your Power Points, equal to your Power Characteristic, and an experience bonus equal to one half your Intelligence.  These are all measures of how much damage you dish out in unarmed or melee combat, how much damage you can take, how much "magic" or "psychic" energy at your disposal, and how well you learn from exercising your skills.

On the subject of Skills, the Characteristic Rolls are determined by multiplying your base Characteristic by 5 percentiles.  So if your Appearance is 13, you have a Characteristic Roll of 65% in that.  As a side note, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (the first post-BRP edition of the venerable game) adopts the Characteristic Roll by just making all the Characteristics percentiles.

As you might have surmised from this segue, in BRP "Skills" are all rated in percentiles.  Unlike Characteristics, which are common to all characters, Skills are learned abilities and vary tremendously from character to character.  They are divided into six broad groupings, each optionally connected to Primary and Secondary Characteristics.  These groups are Combat, Communication, Manipulation, Mental, Perception, and Physical Skills.  For example, for Communication Skills, Intelligence is primary with Power and Appearance as secondary characteristics.  Again, and this is an optional system for those who like depth and realism, skill modifiers are generated from the applicable Characteristics and applied to all Skills in that group.  For example, a character is an INT of 15, a POW of 13, and an APP of 12 would apply a bonus of +5 to all Communication Skills.  For play groups who prioritize speed and simplicity of play, this option is skipped.

The number of percentiles you receive to distribute to your Skills depends on the "power level" of the campaign.  These levels are Normal, Heroic, Epic, and Superhuman and will also affect Powers (see below).

In the end, your Skills will be rated from 0 to 100, though again as another option Skills can actually go above 100.  In a Superhuman campaign, Skills of 150%, 200%, or higher would not be uncommon.  To test each Skill, the GM first determines the difficulty. Automatic means no roll is required, you simply succeed; Easy means your base percentage is doubled; Average means your percentage remains as if; Difficult means your percentage is halved; and Impossible requires a roll of 01% or none at all.  The player then rolls percentile dice against this percentage.  Note that in campaigns and play styles more simulationist in nature, the GM might assign these difficulties based on circumstance and complicating factors, but for groups with more narrative-driven tastes, the difficulties could just as easily be assigned based on the needs of the story,

After difficulties are assigned, you roll under this percentage to succeed, and if you roll over and you fail.  Note, however, there are three other "levels" of results; a Critical, a Special, and a Fumble.  A critical is the best possible result, a special is a particularly good result, and a fumble is a disaster.  Depending on your skill rating, chances of these special results fluctuate.  If you have a skill rating of 50%, a roll of 01 to 03 is critical, 01 to 10 is special, and 98 to 00 is a fumble.  If your skill rating is 100%, criticals result on 01 to 05, specials on 01 to 20, and fumbles on 00 alone.  This is why in more Epic and Superhuman campaigns, skills above 100% remain useful.

Famously, BRP has always eschewed class, experience points, and levels.  When you use a skill successfully, you check it.  After play, your character has a chance to learn from experience and increase that skill.  Depending on the setting, it is also possible to purchase skill or characteristic training in-world.  This makes BRP games organic.  They feel natural. The characters grow in logical and sometimes surprising ways.

Note too it does not use systems of advantages or disadvantages.  Being poor, or sickly, or having some disability are all covered in the skill and characteristic systems, as are their opposites.  Again this reduces the "mechanistic" aspects of the role-play experience for something more intuitive.

COMBAT

Combat in various BRP games has varied considerably, from the gritty and detailed RuneQuest to the more cinematic Stormbringer or four-color comic Superworld.  BRP allows you to tailor combat for your campaign then through its system of checking options.

At the core, however, the attacker makes a Combat skill roll, the defender either rolls to parry (block the attack) or dodge (evade the attack).  The better roll wins (a critical beats a special, a special beats a success, a success beats a failure, a failure beats a fumble).  The degree of success also matters; an attacker who gets a critical against a defender who gets a fumble will end with the defender in a world of hurt.  Once the attacker lands a successful blow, he or she rolls damage based on the weapon used and the character's damage bonus.  The defender checks his or her armor (if any) and subtracts that from the damage total, applying the rest to his or her hit points.

Everything else depends on what options you have chosen to play by.

For example, for a detailed, gritty, simulation-heavy play style the order of combat (who goes first) might be determined by Strike Ranks, calculated by DEX and SIZ and the reach of your weapon.  You might employ the Hit Location system, in which hit points are listed for each arm, leg, your head, chest, and abdomen.  A d20 roll determines where each blow lands.  Unrealistic rules, like dodging missile fire, are not employed.

In a superhero campaign, however, you might go in order of highest DEX down, or even roll for initiative.  You would ignore Hit Locations (in fact, you probably use the option where hit points are calculated by adding CON and SIZ instead of averaging them).  You would likely use the dodging missile fire option, so your characters can roll and tumble out of the way of gunfire, and you might even want to use the Fate Points option where you can spend some of your Power Points for re-rolls or the lessen damage.

In short, how combat plays depends entirely on what options you have chosen to sculpt the play style you want.

POWERS

Most campaigns feature some sort of paranormal, superhuman abilities, and BRP offers a host of them.  Again, the number of these you start with, and their beginning strength, depends on the power level of the campaign (Normal, Heroic, Epic, Superhuman).

Instead of a single system that models all possibilities, BRP offers 5 distinct Power sets, all that feel and operate differently.  Supplements offer even more systems.  The ones included are Magic, the most typical fantasy RPG sort of spell system, Mutations both beneficial and negative, useful in grim fantasy for the touch of Chaos or in radioactive futures, Psychic Abilities good for the superhero and horror genres, Sorcery, a more baroque magic system including the conjuration of elementals, gods, and demons, and Super Powers perfect for comic book games or mythic ones.  Depending on your campaign, one or more of these might be used.  In most cases (though not all) use of a Power requires a skill roll and the expenditure of Power Points.  This is not always the case, however.  For example, the Super Characteristic "Super Power" enables you to increase your STR Characteristic permanently and far beyond mortal levels.  This works automatically, is always active, and costs no Power Points to use.

This is a different approach from many other universal systems, such as Cypher or Savage Worlds, but the advantage is--as with all options in the game--that each BRP campaign will feel unique.

USING BASIC ROLPLAYING

Newcomers.  If you are new to gaming, or even just new to this particular system, you are never going to find a game system this organic, this logical, this easy to grasp.  Don't take my word on that; just go back over the three decades of accolades and awards the system has garnered.  This is a storied game system whose influence upon the entire industry can barely be measured.  There are reasons for that. The rules are a bit like a fine Napoleon brandy.

Wait...stop rolling your eyes.  That wasn't hyperbole, I am going somewhere with it.  Many, many years ago a friend who bartended in an upscale hotel poured me a glass of a Napoleon brandy too expensive for mere mortals such as myself to ever dream of purchasing.  I will never forget the experience; I do not recall swallowing...the stuff just seemed to evaporate in my mouth.

And this brings me to the point.  BRP has always been a system that just "evaporates" in play, leaving the taste and the warmth behind.  The mechanics fade into the background allowing the play experience, the characters and the story, to come first.  There are no time-stopping calculations, no head-scratching.  The system makes sense and it is very easy to make rulings everyone can agree on without pouring through the rulebook.

Finally, its modular nature really does allow you to experiment, to design exactly the tone and feel of the campaign you want.  The core rules are so simply they once were squeezed into a 16-page rulebook, so the 400 pages of BRP are really just a giant buffet of picking and choosing what your game needs to be the game you want.

Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and Other BRP Players.  For the rest of you then the core issue here is compatibility.

You already know how well Chaosium games "play nice" with each other.  In college, for example, I ran a Stormbringer campaign that sailed the player characters into the Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands.  Earlier in high school, my Superworld players defended San Francisco against the rise of Great Cthulhu.  This is what I meant by BRP being a Rosetta Stone; it's a terrific tool for translation.

Let's say you want your Call of Cthulhu campaign to feature the psychic vampires of the True Knot feeding on child psychics (a la Doctor Sleep), or you want your Investigators to be psychics themselves.  There is a complete system waiting for you in BRP ready to be popped right into your campaign.  Let's say you want things a bit more Gothic horror; the demon summoning rules in the Sorcery section can help.

RuneQuest Glorantha players, how are you handling powers gained during "heroquests?"  Back in college I used the Super Powers from Superworld to design them for my RQ2 campaign, and it is even easier to do now with BRP.  Has your Orlanthi gotten the ability to throw bolts of lightning?  Easily done!  Have your characters become champions of their clans, their cities, their nations?  Do they have supporters and worshippers sacrificing POW to them?  Adapt the "Extra Energy" Super Power to model a growing pool of Magic Points available to them.  Or what if you want to run a campaign that is just a bit less RuneQuest and a bit more HeroQuest or even White Bear & Red Moon?  Drop the hit locations and use some of the more cinematic options in BRP to create an RQ game just a bit more "juiced."  Heck, why not run a full on campaign at the power level of Jar-Eel or Harrek?  Easy to do with BRP.

The point is, of course, that despite not having Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest in the title, BRP is a terrific sourcebook for both games.  Decades of options are in there, from Pendragon's personality traits to Stormbringer's Allegiance and Cthulhu's Sanity.

Friday, January 10, 2020

THE SMOKING RUIN & OTHER STORIES: A REVIEW (okay not a review so much as a love letter because I couldn't find a damn thing wrong with it)

THERE IS A LINE on the dust jacket of the Guide to Glorantha that reads; "Glorantha is the technicolor cure for bland, pseudo-medieval generic fantasy."  Normally when you read something like this, you can be forgiven for thinking it is self-aggrandizing, pretentious crap.  Not in this case.  If you have any doubts, all you need do is look at exhibit A, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories.  Seriously.  You can open to any random page and find proof that--yes Toto--you aren't in Thedas, or Middle-earth, or Faerûn any more.


Written by Christopher Klug, Steve Perrin, Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, and Jason Durall, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories (hereafter just TSR) is a collection of adventures for Chaosium's RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Set in the South Wilds of Dragon Pass, the book details that region and contains three--no, I am not going to use the word "scenarios" here, they deserve better than that--three fables which unfold there. We are not talking about stories where you sit in a tavern and overhear dwarves talking about a dungeon filled with orcs and treasure here. We are talking about stories in which your priestess of the Earth Mother sends you to recover artifacts in a ruin where the cursed bodies of massacred trolls have been damned to burn for centuries, their spirits trapped agonizingly within. We are talking about stories in which you find yourself in a hidden valley besieged by mercenary Beast Men, a valley whose ancient guardian has gone missing and needs you to find him. We are talking about about Elves--oh no, my friend, not those Elves...I mean a race of animated dryads with wood for bones and sap for blood--attempting to plant a sacred tree that will bless and spawn a new Elf Wood. In short, we are talking about stories that really could only happen on a flat world under a sky dome, a Bronze Age world that eschews physics for mythology. These are stories that could only happen in Greg Stafford's Glorantha.


Coming in at about 192 pages TSR is a bold attempt to remind you why RuneQuest is a gaming legend.  The South Wilds, the Lost Valley, the Wild Temple are all settings as exotic as they come, settings in which the mountains can casually be described as "the backbone of the dragon Sh’harkazeel, covered in earth and vegetation."  Here the Pure Horse People graze their herds and defend them against dinosaurs and smilodons.  Here the numerous types of Beast Men--centaurs, satyrs, and far stranger--gather at a spiraling network of megalithic standing stones to worship the Mother of Nature.  Here there is a valley shrouded from the rest of the world.  The locations and their denizens are all richly detailed with full statistics in grand Chaosium style (the company has several decades of reviews praising them for meticulous craftsmanship and hardly needs me to join that chorus).  What I will say instead is that Chaosium products have never looked as stunning as they have in the last couple of years, and that Olivier Sanfilippo has my blessing to continue doing Gloranthan maps for the rest of eternity.  The talents of Dimitrina Angelska, Antonia Doncheva, Jon Hodgson, Jennifer Lange, Pat Loboyko, Eli Maffei, Magdalena Mieszczak, Sara Otterstätter, Scott Purdy, Corey Trego-Erdner, and Chris Waller make this a beautiful book to look at as well as play.


On the subject of shout-outs to contributors, I would be failing miserably at my job if I didn't single out industry legend Christopher Klug.  Author of The Smoking Ruin, the longest and central fable in this collection, Klug really should need no introduction, but for my younger audience, Christopher Klug is the man responsible (amidst a great many other achievements) for 1983's James Bond 007 RPG, a game design so brilliant you can pull it off your shelf today and play it and think it was cutting edge.  If you have ever played an RPG with the concept of hero points in it, write a thank you letter to Klug right now.   


Now look, gentle reader, I know what you are thinking; "is this a review or a love letter?"  But the fact remains that I struggled long and hard to come up with flaws--spelling mistakes, typos, botched index references, anything--so that I didn't come off as a lovesick school boy, but alas, here we are.  The worst I can say of TSR is that if you like your fantasy medieval, with knights and goblins and trap doors, ignore the book and go play Pathfinder.

Otherwise, just buy the damn thing.  
  


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

THE SASSOON FILES: A "CTHULHU" REVIEW

A BOOK BANNED

When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists...

Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations”

THE FORBIDDEN TOME—and establishment attempts to ban, burn, or blot it out of existence—is a staple so common in what has come to be known as Cthulhu Mythos fiction that it runs the risk of being cliche.  Yet in an example of life imitating art that is exactly what happened to The Sassoon Files, a sourcebook by Sons of the Singularity for Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu being he likeliest suspect).  Sassoon is a collection of scenarios and campaign resources set in 1920s Shanghai, and when Chinese censors got wind of it, they ordered every copy of it burned.  Not that Sassoon was driving hordes of innocent gamers mad—the book was ordered destroyed while it was still at the publisher—but in a nation where the government has ordered a ban on time travel fiction because it “disrespects history,” one must imagine that an alternate Chinese history crawling with nameless cosmic powers would also be verboten.   It’s hard not to be reminded of the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, when the American government mistook GURPS Cyberpunk for a manual on hacking.  No one seemed to explain to the Chinese government however that in the age of PDFs burning books is archaic enough to be quaint, and fortunately Sons of the Singularity found publishers for print copies elsewhere.

I say “fortunately” because The Sassoon Files is a gritty, evocative take on a setting we have seen before in Cthulhu gaming, but never in such detail or with such awareness.  What is immediately clear here is that the writing team knows their subject matter intimately; in fact the project began as campaigns played by gamers living in the People’s Republic of China.  This insider’s take on the setting is one of the book’s strongest features.  Instead of overwhelming you with facts and figures, the writers have cherry picked the juiciest bits.  They know what makes this a unique setting, and concentrate on bringing you those elements.  The result is a campaign book that is primarily ethos, with just enough support to evoke that ethos at your gaming table.


BETWEEN THE COVERS

…At Shanghai’s Great World Amusement Arcade, across from the horse tracks, prostitutes sought out high-rollers while politicians made deals with gangsters. One-armed bandits cranked and whirled, occasionally vomiting just enough coin to keep players hooked. Ghosts, Spiders, and Phantoms lined up outside the casino in a makeshift parking lot. Those who braved the alley behind the casino may have noticed the rickety metal stairwell precariously hanging off the five-story building that housed the Great World Amusement Arcade. Residents called these stairs the “stairs to heaven”, and told tales of men jumping to their deaths. This is Shanghai; Victor Sassoon’s Shanghai. 
Introduction, p. 1

As mentioned, The Sassoon Files takes Mythos roleplaying back to Shanghai, a setting first visited in 1984’s Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Yet like Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), the hotelier and real estate tycoon who for all intents and purposes built modern Shanghai, The Sassoon Files isn’t just visiting the city, it has moved into Shanghai and made it home.  The book provides everything a Keeper might need to run a Shanghai-based campaign, including four scenarios (“Strange Gates, Hidden Demons,” “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” “There is This One Girl,” and the scenario that probably got the sourcebook banned, “Curse of the Peacock’s Eye”).  All of the materials are modular; you could use the setting and characters in the book and never run the scenarios, or so could run one or more of the scenarios and skip the others.  Nor are you required to play them in any given order.  To help you expand on these scenarios there are “campaign drivers,” suggested lists of events which arise as a consequence of the characters’ choices and actions, and an extensive and colorful cast of NPCs that help bring the setting alive.  Depending on your tastes, the campaign is designed to fit both “pulp” and Lovecraft “purist” styles.  

I am reviewing here the 209-page PDF, which retails at $19.99 US.

Victor Sassoon is the default organizing principle in the campaign.  Here, this colorful historical figure is a correspondent of one Dr. Henry Armitage, and the two share a common goal of opposing the Mythos.  Sassoon is primarily concerned with keeping its baleful influence out of “his” city, and to that end has assembled “professors, detectives, debunkers, muscles, guns, criminals and other problem solvers,” including the player characters, to fight it.  However, if you want a more exotic spin on your campaign, two other lenses are provided.  Player characters could instead be part of the Green Gang, a Triad controlling the city’s opium trade, or underground members of the Communist Party, just one of many factions vying for the soul of the nation.  The default “Sassoon” option leads to a far more familiar Cthulhu campaign, the other lenses are far more setting-specific.


The book hits the ground running with “The Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese designation for the 110 years between 1839 and 1949, characterized by a China abused by Western powers and finally Japan.  These three pages set the stage for the campaign in a concise, very readable history told in a prose style that manages to be factual without ever getting dry.  This history is followed by a biography of the titular character, Victor Sassoon.  Sassoon’s presence in the book is emblematic of what makes The Sassoon Files as good as it is, blending historicity with fiction in equal measures.  It would be impossible to really do justice to Shanghai in the 20s without his presence; he invested millions in creating the modern city, owning nearly 2000 properties in it.  Employing the fiction of having him aware of the Mythos, and employing the player characters to stave it off, makes terrific sense (more in the archaic sense!).

After this discussion of Victor follows a collection of Mythos story hooks you can use to develop your own stories in the greater campaign, and a concise timeline.  This is followed by sections on pronunciation, playing Chinese characters, and a note on the colonialism and racism of the period. 

The table is thus set for “Shanghai: The Pearl of the East,” a chapter that goes neighborhood by neighborhood in giving an overview of the city, and then a listing of historical personages as well as the fictional characters introduced in the campaign.  The latter are organized by which scenario in which they first appear, making it easier for the GM to keep track of when they were introduced.  A little over 40 important locations are described here, their descriptions never more than a paragraph in length, as well as a general description of the area of the city itself.  Much like in the historical and setting details, The Sassoon Files is very efficient here, focusing on what you need to know to game the location, rather than overloading you with extraneous details.  Some GMs might prefer a shade more information—for example, maps—but these have rarely been essential to a Cthulhu campaign.  

THE SCENARIOS

The bulk of the book, from page 21 to 180, is given over to the four scenarios that form the core of the campaign.  Ironically, this is the section I will be talking about the least, as to not give the plots away.  

Strange Gates, Hidden Demons is chronologically the earliest of the episodes and tells the story of a Jesuit priest who unwittingly unleashes a Mythos terror.  This is concealed by the authorities under the fiction of a cholera outbreak, and forces the player characters to deal both with the horror summoned into this world and the gate through which it passed.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie begins with a Chinese general who pillages the tomb of a Chinese empress.  The player characters descend into the criminal underworld in search of a relic from that tomb, and come face to face with a Triad run by a woman who claims to be that dead empress.  Is she?

There is this One Girl starts off with the Investigators asked to look into cheating at the casinos and dog races.  A Triad is behind the scam, but what is the source of their uncanny foresight?  

Curse of the Peacock’s Eye is probably the most ambitious and epic of the tales, and as mentioned before the one I suspect got the book banned in China (make of that what you will).  Mythos mastermind Lao Che seeks the Peacock’s Eye in the Lost City of Golden Sands.  This story serves up black lotus, a hideous curse, and the chance to leave the realm of 1920s Shanghai for somewhere a bit…different.


These scenarios all work perfectly in the overall feel of the campaign, one of a crowded and bustling city overlaying a criminal underworld of gambling, opium, and Mythos horror.  The Sassoon Files is very noir in its approach, leaning at times perhaps more towards pulp than purist but never so far that it can’t be run as a very straight, deadly, Lovecraftian campaign.  It does what Cthulhu has always done well, using the period setting to spice up the horrors.  It mixes both the exotic and the familiar, the glittering and the grotesque.

As mentioned at the start, this campaign is written both for GUMSHOE and for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.  As one would expect, key antagonists and NPCs are given stats for both game systems.  The scenarios are very clearly laid out, with a core spine of clues to follow and plenty of detail.  With just a little work, some of them could even be adapted to other settings, though really the star of the show here is Shanghai itself.

CLOSING THOUGHTS


“Write what you know” is what they tell aspiring authors, and this is what makes The Sassoon Files such an interesting product.  Not that the creative team behind it necessarily deals with Mythos horrors or recalls the 1920s, but it is clear they know the setting well enough to boil it down to what will best serve your gaming table.  The Shanghai in these pages is a superb mixture of stereotype and reality, history and horror.  It’s a polished, good looking product as well.  The layout is clear and readable, the art an excellent mix of photography and original works.  If you are looking for something a bit different for your Cthulhu campaign, you really can’t go wrong with this one.   

Monday, January 6, 2020

RUNE MAGIC AND WORTHINESS: THOUGHTS ON CREDIBILITY IN HEROQUEST GLORANTHA

The following is a "rethink" on the previous blog post and how I plan on going forward in my campaign.

CREDIBILITY

PROBABLY THE SINGLE most important rule in HeroQuest is the "credibility test" (HQ p. 74, HQG p. 113). On this subject, author Robin Laws writes;

In works of fiction, it is the author’s job to maintain the illusion of fictional reality by presenting the reader only with events that seem credible within the rules of reality they’ve established for their world. ...(a)s Narrator, you are never obligated to allow a contest just because two characters have abilities that can be brought into conflict.  If the character’s proposed result would seem absurd, you disallow the contest, period...(d)on’t make the mistake of assigning a high resistance to avoid an impossible outcome—lucky rolls and hero points can make your world seem suddenly ridiculous.  (HQ, p. 74)

The credibility test is vital because of the essential relativity of the system.  Assume two characters both operate in the same four-color comic book city of Metropolis.  There is no way that the first one, a "Professional Bodybuilder 7W2,” could use his Ability to stop a runaway locomotive, but the Daily Planet’s newest reporter could use his “Last Son of Krypton 17” to try.  It doesn’t matter that the bodybuilder’s Ability is far higher than the reporter’s; what matters is that by the rules of the setting Kryptonians are superhumanly strong.  Their comparative strength ratings have nothing to do with it.

The importance of the credibility test cannot be overstated, because it is often the only tool the rules give you to define your game.  

I ran afoul of this recently in my current HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  I’ve been running Gloranthan games for 37 years, including three editions of RuneQuest, Hero Wars, HeroQuest, and even a GURPS conversion, but this was my first lengthy HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  The error I made was in assuming it operated more or less along the same lines as Hero Wars and first edition HeroQuest, which of course it does not.  

The first six sessions of the campaign featured the player characters as un-initiated youths, without magic of any kind.  The next few sessions after that, they were using Basic Magic to augment their abilities.  The trouble began only after they started getting initiated, and getting access to Rune Magic.  This is how I learned the value of the credibility test.

THE PROBLEM

As the rules are written, once your HeroQuest Glorantha character becomes a cult initiate;

You may now use all the Runes you share with your god directly, as you would any other ability…you may describe actions and contest results as overtly supernatural…credibility tests do not apply to them as long as your use is within the scope of the Rune…
(HQG p. 144) 

Now, in other Gloranthan games, two central themes defined Rune magic; its immense power and its scarcity.  Everyone used magic in Glorantha, but Rune Magic was your Big Gun, the thing you held on to and unleashed only at your most desperate moment.  In the days of RQ2, cult initiates paid dearly for Rune magic with permanent sacrifices of personal Power, and once they used it, it was gone for good.  Even then, “(m)ost cults restrict this to initiates going on cult missions, or as a rewards to trusted and long-standing members” (RQ2 p. 59).  Even Rune Priests—masters of this sort of magic and the emissaries of the gods—had to spend entire days in worship at a temple or shrine before they could use any Rune magic again, deterring them “from casting Rune magic frivolously (RQ2 p. 64). The latest edition of the game, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, was considerably more generous with Rune magic, but still the rules required you to replenish your magic in worship and sacrifice on holy days.

There is no mechanic for scarcity in HQG, however.  While RuneQuest counts every hit point lost, every coin spent, every arrow fired, in HQG you don’t run out of these things unless you are defeated in a Contest and the Narrator decides the consequence of defeat is losing one of these resources.  The same applies for Rune magic.  There really is no reason for an Orlanth initiate to ever use a spear, when he can hurl lightning bolts instead.  There is no reason to walk home after a day of farming out in the fields when he can just teleport.  Mechanically, the only risk is that his player might fail the roll and the Ability is compromised.

Most players—even those drawn to more narrative-driven games like HQG—love to game the system.  It’s a natural instinct.  Given the way Difficulty works in HQG, the higher an Ability the increasingly less likely the character will fail and ever lose it…even for Nearly Impossible tasks. So what I began to see in my campaign then was other Abilities languishing while the players poured all their Hero Points into improving their Runes.  Rune magic increasingly became the answer to every problem.  All this might have been fine—resorting to powerful magic might have made perfect sense if these characters were Heroes or even Rune masters—but these were brand new initiates.  The internal logic of the setting began to fall apart.

WORTHINESS

What constitutes a credible action may vary from one campaign to the next.  A campaign centered around a group of desperate treasure hunters in the Big Rubble may have a very different definition of credible than a campaign centered on the eschatological conflicts of the Hero Wars…  (HQG, p. 114)

It was this single passage above that provided the answer I was looking for.  Unlike most game systems, the solution wasn’t in what the rules allow, but what is credible for your campaign.  The Rune magic rules are a generalization meant to model how this type of magic works for all levels of play—from new initiates to Heroes like Argrath.  The only way to create a distinction between a Hero and an initiate then is the credibility test.  

As a Game Master though I was still needed the conceptual architecture to justify this distinction. How much magic could an initiate use before credibility comes into play?  What is the limiting factor within the setting itself?  In RuneQuest, the question had always been “how much have you sacrificed?”  It is a very transactional relationship between the worshipper and the god; you give this much and get that much in return.  Yet in HeroQuest there was no way to effectively model this, you don’t acquire the spell first and then use it, you are asking for the spell right then and there.  So it occurred to me the new question the god had to be asking was “is this a worthy use of my power?”

In English, the word “worship” comes from the Old English weorð and -scipe, meaning together “the condition of being worthy.”  This struck me as the credibility test that I needed.  When attempting to perform Rune magic, if the deity finds the character unworthy of the magic, or doesn’t find this particular use of its power worthy, it doesn’t have to happen.  The deity can simply say “no.”

To determine if a use of Rune magic is worthy, then, we needed some criteria.  After some thought, I boiled it down to three;

  1. Does this use of magic further the aims of the deity, expand its influence, or protect its cult in the world?  Remember always that the character serves the deity, not the other way around.
  2. Is there another way for the same effect to be accomplished that doesn’t involve the deity expending its power?  Keep in mind that gods are “fueled” by worship and sacrifice, and that every expenditure of power diminishes them. 
  3. Is the worshipper worthy of this magic; i.e. does the character behave consistently according to its divine Rune affinity, does the character regularly worship and sacrifice, does the character hold any position in the cult (priest? Rune master?  Devotee?)?  The more important an instrument the character is, the more likely a deity will be to act. 


If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” GMs are well within their rights to impose a stretch penalty or to simply say the magic does not work.