Monday, 10 January 2011

RuneQuest Samurai

Well, Christmas and New Year are over, and it's time to get started with some serious work in January. The festive period was so busy for me that, while I got some board gaming done, of which more later, I really did not get a chance to post anything to the blog, which is a shame. Still, there is a substantial backlog of gaming related activity on which to comment.

First off, and while it is still fresh in my memory, we finally convened BenCon last weekend. This is our informal Brighton-based RPG convention, small, but perfectly formed. Who knows, maybe it will develop into something larger in the future? At the moment it is an excuse to play one-shot RPGs over the weekend, and a break from our weekly campaign sessions of Pathfinder.

So, Winter BenCon as it has been termed, was originally meant to be a one day, three game affair, but Irish Dave, who was going to be running Trail of Cthulhu, announced he was moving to Canada and consequently unable to prep his adventure. This left myself and Kelvin to run our games, which in the event turned out quite well. Kelvin's Savage Eberron game is detailed on the Brighton Roleplayers blog, while my own game was a RuneQuest game using the Land of Samurai setting from Mongoose Publishing.

I've been interested in playing RQ ever since days of yore when it was regularly featured in White Dwarf. It seemed a grittier and more mature alternative to the slash fest that was AD&D. It was good to see its re-birth under Mongoose, and as someone already familiar with the Basic Roleplaying rules engine that RQ uses thanks to a decade's worth of running Call of Cthulhu games, I decided to give it a go. I chose the Land of Samurai setting because it was going cheap on the Mongoose website, and I've got a degree in Japanese history and culture, making it an easy one to ref.

I chose a scenario from White Dwarf, called the Beast of Kozamura, originally written by the legendary Graeme Davis for the old RQ Land of Ninja supplement, which Games Workshop published in the late 1980s. AS it had already been written for RQ, it was relatively easy to convert, although Land of Samurai does treat Shinto and Buddhist divine magic a bit differently from Land of Ninja.

I let the players generate their own characters where they wanted to, and rolled up others for those with no time or inclination. As it happened, Ric ended up taking the ninja character Manoj had ordered (Manoj sadly missed Winter BenCon due to illness), while Sebastian played the two sohei (warrior monk) characters and Dave an ashigaru bodyguard. Kelvin and Ben both rolled up noble characters, an investigating magistrate and a samurai, both from the Miyamoto family. We decided that they would be spearheading the investigation, with the aid of the ninja spy Arasaka Shubichi. Dave's ashigaru, Runabu, would serve as the bodyguard of Kelvin's nobleman. The two warrior monks would be scouting for a new temple location in the province on behalf of their order.

One problem with some games where social caste is important is that you end up running a bit of an 'upstairs, downstairs' game, and to a certain extent this is true of samurai Japan, with commoner characters not being able to participate in high level talks with noble NPCs, while at the same time an all-noble party would have found it hard to uncover many of the rumours amongst the peasant farmers in this scenario. The local jizamurai was largely oblivious to events in the village, and the real plot was uncovered thanks to some intensive roleplaying from David and Ric, sharing a flask of sake with the villagers. Having said that, Kelvin seemed to enjoy getting into the role of his magistrate, and Ben player his samurai to the hilt. At the end of the session I felt all the characters had contributed, and all the players had been actively involved.

Overall, I like feudal Japan as a setting. I felt the On (honour) mechanic worked well here. It was interesting that Mongoose has chosen the Heian period rather than the usual Sengoku period for LoS, but it worked well. Social attitudes had not yet ossified to the degree they did later, and the nobility still enjoyed a level of political power, something that would be taken from them by the Minamoto bakufu in the 12th century. Nominally, our game was taking place in the back end of the 10th century. Ultimately, the setting can give players a broad range or roles, and I felt our party was pretty diverse, with a good range of social skills, castes and combat capability on offer. They were probably a little light on magic, although both Sohei had access to divine magic, but did not make use of it.

RQ itself I felt was a bit clunky. We were using the first Mongoose edition, not the newer second edition, and I will be looking at this latter version to see if some of my reservations have been addressed. My big beef is with the combat system. I accept I was still a bit unfamiliar with it, and may run a dungeon bash using it at home to see how it plays out. We had one fight in this game, and there was scope for a second, but I decided that given the time constraints I'd only keep the critical, plot-resolving battle in the game. Part of my problem is with the hit locations, which I think would become quite tough to keep track of in a battle with 10-15 participants. Was it Goblin C or D which just took a three hit point wound to the right arm? I can see Excel coming into play here. Ouch!

Secondly, each combatant has a number of combat actions per round, which can be used to parry, attack, take other actions, or dodge. In effect, a character with three combat actions gets three dodges and three parries in a round, making him able to respond to up to six attacks on his person. While other systems tend to abstract this via Armour Class or Savage World's 'Parry' attribute, RQ lets individuals try to stop attacks against them using dice rolls. This makes for a slower battle by far, and would make me cautious as a GM of including big combats in a game.

Also, there are some strange situations which occur and would have to be addressed by house rules: for example, you can parry ranged attacks, but this allowed a fleeing monster in our game to have the option to parry an arrow shot at it by a pursuer - okay, in this case the shot missed, but would the monster have been able to even be aware of it as it fled for the treeline? I don't think so.

Overall, I enjoyed running the game. Given my huge work commitments this year, I'm unsure how many games I will realistically be able to referee in 2011. There just seems so much to do all of a sudden. I'll give RQ2 a look and see how that fares in a combat intensive environment like a dungeon (I might use another old White Dwarf adventure for this). Hopefully we can look forwards to BenCon II this summer, and a chance to air some more RQ then. Glorantha next time, perhaps?


  1. I was worried that the social ranks might prove a problem, but I think everyone tried hard to make sure that everyone else got something to do.

    I hadn't realised you were using a published scenario; I must have read the adventure back in my younger days, but I did't recognise it in play.

    Regarding hit locations, one solution is to have that be a mechanic that separates wild cards -- to use a Savage Worlds term -- from the average mook. So the ogre boss might have hit locations, but his goblin minions would have a flat 8HP or whatever.

    I do know that my school-era group did experiment with importing hit locations into our Call of Cthulhu games, but they were swiftly abandoned.

  2. I've since had a look at the 5th ed Stormbringer rules and the new edition of the Mongoose RQ book. In the first case, there are no hit locations used, and combat priority is simply determined by DEX score. Armour is abstracted by rolling a dice based on the quality of your armour - e.g. 1d6-1 for bog standard leather armour. With RQ2 they have kept the hit locations in, but recommend them only for 'bosses' and other important enclounters, and the PCs of course. Plus, there is a 'mook' encounter category where they have no hit locations, and their HPs are = to their CON score, which is funky. Also, the number of combat actions are reduced; you don't get three Parries and three Dodges anymore, radically reducing the number of actions available to characters in a fight. I think the game needed it.