Casting Runes 4: The Dance of Death

This post continues the exploration and implementation of RuneQuest 6th Edition for the creation of a sword and sorcery campaign setting. This installment focuses on combat in general and magic use in combat in particular.

Our Combatants

For my first few sample combats with RuneQuest 6, I picked pregenerated characters and creatures randomly and worked my way through the rules step by step. I was not expecting to find this too challenging in terms of complexity, but I was expecting to have to do a lot of mental gymnastics as I worked through action resolution and verified I hadn’t missed any options. After I felt comfortable with using the level of detail available and taking actions in combat, I moved on to using NPCs from early scenes from the campaign which will happen near PCs in the opening stages of the campaign. The two presented below are representative of this process, and their struggle in the glittering sands of the Desert of Screams may present puzzle pieces to the players if discovered.

I have created a pile of characters using the default method for RuneQuest and have been ‘recruiting’ them to fill various roles as the setting grows in my mind. For this stage of development, however, I have been using the first alternate method: roll and assign. For this encounter, I knew I needed two mercenaries. One was to be a simple man of action and combat, the other a more sophisticated man of violence representing the military arm of a cult I have been working on.

The character creation process inspired me to create a nomadic warrior and axe-wielder from the High Plains, and Ystral, an arrogant sorcerer and swordsman from the capital.

Allym, Nomadic Warrior

Allym has had a hard life, for all his youthfulness, and this last year has been all the harder. Never a strong or large boy, he knows he will not be the fighter he has always dreamed of being. Being forced off the High Plains after failing the tests a warrior of his people must pass, he drifted across the world as a day laborer and petty thief until he was able to sign on with a mercenary company given to guarding caravans on long journeys. Born to the saddle, and with a good head for tactics for such a young man, he was taken under the wing of one of the older mercs. If he could learn to cool his temper and let go of his insecurities, he had a chance to earn enough to get out of fighting for pay, and into  having others fight for him.

Age: 17   Gender: Male   Handedness: Right   Frame: Lithe  

Height: 164 cm   Weight 47Kg    Culture: Nomadic   Homeland: High Plains

Career: Mercenary    Social Class: Freeman

Luck Points: 1  Action Points: 2   Damage Modifier: -1D2  Strike Rank 11 (9)

Experience Modifier: 0   Healing Rate: 2   Movement Rate: 6m

Strength 9   Constitution 12  Size 10  Dexterity 6  Intelligence 15  Power 6  Charisma 8

Professional Skills: Survival 38%, Track 57%, Lore (Strategy 7 Tactics) 50%

Combat Styles: High Plains Axe 55%  (Weapons Included: Axe, Throwing Axe)

Hit Locations:  Hit Points / Armor Protection

Head 5 HP / 0 AP      Chest 7 HP / 3 AP      Abdomen 6 HP / 3 AP

Arms  4 HP / 0 AP    Legs 5 HP / 0 AP

Ystral, Mercenary Sorcerer

Ystral, despite the fortune of having been born in a good family, has always had to prove himself worthy in all things. The rigors and coldness of his youth have turned him into a rigid and unforgiving man with little room in his heart for anything but personal advancement and aggrandizement. As a teen he was recruited into an academy for well-bred youths and from there his progress into an active cult was assured. The Order of the Horizon became his home – the first one that focused on building him up, rather than tearing him down. Due to his hard edges and aggressive tendencies, his tutors steered him into the secretive and militaristic side of the order to serve a few years on the front lines. Rather than dissuading him from seeking a life of combat and confrontation, the experience awakened a hunger for such action in him, and he has never looked back. Now  a scarred man in his 30s, Ystral is content.

Age: 30   Gender: Male    Handedness: Left    Frame: Lithe  

Height: 192 cm   Weight 78Kg    Culture: Civilized      Homeland: Southern Coast

Career: Mercenary    Social Class: Gentile

Luck Points: 2  Action Points: 3   Damage Modifier: 0  Strike Rank 16

Experience Modifier:   Healing Rate: 2   Movement Rate: 6m

Strength 8   Constitution 11 Size 16  Dexterity 14  Intelligence 15  Power 12  Charisma 12

Professional Skills:  Invoke (Spellsword) 79%, Shaping 74%, Literacy (Native) 49%

Combat Styles: Spell & Sword 67%  (Weapons Included: Sword, Dagger), Light Skirmisher 22% (Spear, Shield)

Hit Locations:  Hit Points / Armor Protection

Head 6 HP / 0 AP      Chest 8 HP / 0 AP      Abdomen 7 HP / 0 AP

Arms  5 HP / 0 AP    Legs 6 HP / 0 AP

Engagement

Any tracker who stumbles across this scene after the fact will easily be able to determine from the state of the sands and the condition of the camp equipment that some sort of argument took place here (it ranged all over). When the fight began, the two men were within a few short meters of each other. When it ended, one man was left to die of his wounds, the other calmly left the scene headed deeper into the diamond sands of the desert.

Behind the Scenes

During a heated argument, Ystral and Allym have a short argument which Allym ends by retrieving his axe from where it hangs from his horse’s saddle horn. Ystral has had more than he can stand of the stubborn and poorly educated smart ass from the plains and warns him not to take things any further. Allym continues to close on him, brandishing the axe and mouthing off, so Ystral frees himself of any further obligation to the youth and calls forth the signature combat power of his sorcerous order. Uttering the short, guttural words which focus his mind and send it arching through the convoluted mental spaces wherein his art can untie the knots of magic and loose energies upon the world, Ystral gestures violently and selects the young nomad as his target. The spell, known colloquially in the order as the Crone’s Grasp, has a name no one but those like Ystral ever remember; Invocation for the Reclamation of Youth Wasted on the Foolhardy and Violently Opposed. According to the annals of the order, this spell withers the flesh of its chosen targets and sends the vitality it steals to one of the three revered deific patrons which guard and guide members in their duties in the material realm. Its use in this situation strikes Ystral as being ideally suited. For Allym, the invocation passes unnoticed, as the hot-headed warrior assumes the arrogant mercenary is just speaking oaths in one of his many tongues. When he learns the truth, it will be like walking from sunshine into utter horror.

In combat Ystral’s spell would take 3 Turns to cast as the sorcerer intends to enhance the parameters of its base effect to include increased range and duration. A Round comprises roughly 5 seconds, with Turns filling an elastic component within that time frame depending on how many Turns are needed to cycle through all the actions allowed within that Turn. Without enhancement it would only take 1 Turn to cast. Ystral has 3 Action Points (or three Turns wherein he can initiate something proactively) so this spell can be cast within one combat Round provided he is not interrupted. This scene is occurring outside of combat and so gives Allym  a fairly short moment to assess if Ystral is speaking in a foreign language or realize he is doing something more profound. He is, until the spell effect is finally launched, unaware that Ystral is a sorcerer, but well aware the man is skilled in several languages.  How things play out for this combat scene is that aggression begins with the Sorcerer.

The two combatants are within 6m of each other and can easily close to melee combat range. Allym’s weapon is free and ready to use. Ystral’s spell is cast and ready to use. Allym may come to regret going for his hand axe and seek to change weapons to his throwing axes which dangle from straps on his belt. Likewise, Ystral may discover that his life depends on drawing his sword and defending himself with steel instead of spell.

How does the blow-by-blow combat system of RuneQuest handle this and bring it to life in the story of the conflict between these two men?

Dice

For a combat in RuneQuest 6, players will need percentile dice for making attacks and using other skills or abilities as they come up. A D20 will be needed to determine the hit location struck by an attack. Damage dice tend to be D6 or D8, but run the range common to fantasy games.

In this encounter, each combatant had 2D10, and 1 D20. The GM as Allym had a D6 for damage rolls, and the Player as Ystral had a D8 for his combat spell, and a D6 for his sword should he have chosen to switch to melee combat.

Common rolls in combat might be to roll under the percentile score (plus or minus any situational modifiers) of their Combat Style, or to roll under their Evade or Endurance score. A roll of 01-05 is always a success and a roll of 96-00 is always a failure. Critical success is based on rolling below 1/10 of your score, while a roll of 99 or 00 is a fumble. Suggestions are given for Criticals and Fumbles but are sanely left up to adjudication on the spot. Combat itself is conducted as what the game calls a Differential roll, wherein the relative level of success of a roll is compared to that of the opponent to determine if any Special Effects have been earned.

Actual Play

You can watch a YouTube Clip describing the combat and the rules here.

Overview of the Melee Combat Rules:

Combat in RuneQuest occurs in Rounds. Rounds are divided into Turns. Turns comprise the complete cycle through each character which can act. Each Round has a number of Turns equivalent to the number of Action Points spent on Proactive engagement with the scene.

There are two types of action in a RuneQuest combat: proactive and reactive. A combatant is allowed to act proactively once per Turn and only on their Turn. Reactions are allowed at any time in the Cycle of  a Turn. All actions (except free actions) cost an Action Point.

A classic hammer and tongs style combat with warriors in heavy armour choosing to attack but not actively defend will have as many Turns as the combatants have Action Points. One in which the combatants spend APs on attack and defense will have fewer Turns.

Initiative is determined once for the engagement, but may change if circumstances warrant. A fighter knocked down, dazed, or otherwise significantly interrupted, may be cause for the GM to call for initiative to be determined again. Initiative is determined by the roll of a D10. The rolled result is added to the combatant’s Strike Rank, which is a modifier derived from their Characteristics (the average of Int and Dex).

For speed, all the dice can be rolled by each participant at once (percentile to attack, D20 for Hit Location, damage dice).

Overview of the Sorcery Rules:

Ystral has invoked the Crone’s Grasp (Wrack, p256, RQ6) spell at an Intensity of 8 (allowing 1D8 for damage) due to his skill in the art. For this encounter, he has Shaped the spell to extend its Duration and increase its Range from touch to 12m. He has not modified the other parameters of the spell (number of targets, magnitude, or combining it with other spells). Once cast, the spell remains active until its Duration (24 minutes) has elapsed or it is Dispelled or Released. During that time, the sorcerer may attack their opponent by spending their attack action (1AP) to direct the effect at their target. The cost of this spell was 3 Magic Points. 1 for the base spell, 1 for extending the Range, and 1 for extending the Duration. Interestingly, a Critical Success was gained in the act of Invoking the spell, which halves the casting cost.

In this campaign, Magic Points can be regained by resting in mystically charged sites, being the recipient of a ritual wherein energy is channeled from fellow cultists, and from the ritual sacrifice of living beings. Without these means, they recover naturally at a rate of 1 per week. If spells of long duration are being maintained, the MPs expended on crafting those spells may not be recovered by any means. Sorcerers have access to great power, but at great personal cost and dedication. Ystral has 12 MPs and so can cast 4 iterations of a spell like this during a journey, or fewer spells with more complications and then would need to spend months restoring his strength unless he had access to other means of mystical replenishment. Many sorcerers resort to animal (and other) sacrifice.

ROUND ONE:

The initiative goes to Ystral.

  • Allym’s roll on 1D10 is 1 to which his Strike Rank of 9 (11 – 2 for his Armour) is added
  • Allym has 2 Action Points
  • Ystral’s roll is 6 + his SR of 16
  • Ystral has 3 Action Points

Turn 1

Ystral concentrates and unleashes his first attack with Wrack (-1 AP).

Player rolls D100, 1D20, 1D8

  • Invocation (79%) results in a roll of 47 for a successful attack (1D8 potential damage, rolled 4 points. Hit Location is determined to be the Right Leg from the D20 result of 3)

Allym can either accept the incoming damage or try to Evade (-1AP)

GM rolls D100

  • Allym is unnerved by this use of magic and tries to Evade (22%). The rolled result is a failure at 94.
  • Allym’s Right Leg is affected by the damage of the spell. 4 points is a Minor Wound for the Nomad.
  • The GM assigns 4 points of damage to the Right Leg Hit Location
  • Allym is now Prone (-40% to be hit at Range) and the range has opened up to 8m. He must Regain his Footing if he wishes to attack
  • Allym needs a moment to gather his wits (opts not to act now) and starts screaming at Ystral to fight like a man

Turn 2

Ystral concentrates and unleashes his second spell attack (-1AP)

Player rolls D100, 1D20, 1D8

  • Invocation results in a roll of 71 which would be a success for casting the spell, but under the rules of Wrack the Invocation score is used as the attack action, thus the modifier to hit a prone target at range applies. This modifier is -40% in this situation which reduces Ystral’s effective skill to 31%. The directed damage effect of the spell misses Allym.

Allym is still prone and must get to his feet if he doesn’t want to die on his belly like a snake. Gathering his courage and fury, the young man decides to kill or be killed and rises to his feet

GM rolls D100 for Willpower (12%) resulting in a 02. Allym has screwed his courage to the sticking place and will not be daunted.

  • Regain Footing (-1 AP)

Turn 3

Ystral has 1 AP remaining, Allym has 0.

Ystral presses his advantage and concentrates to unleash another wave of withering energy at the Nomadic Axeman. (-1AP)

Player rolls D100, 1D20, 1D8

  • Invocation results in a roll of 84 which misses outright. Is there some curious effect of the diamond sands of the Desert of Screams which is working against him?

ROUND TWO:

Initiative is unchanged

Turn 1

Growing more angry that this upstart youth is still standing, still facing him, and still brandishing that cheap axe, Ystral focuses another wave of withering energy at the Nomad.

Player rolls D100, 1D20, 1D8

  • Invocation results in a roll of 36 which sends a wave of life-draining darkness to strike the young warrior in the belly (D20 roll of 8), bypassing the mundane armour which guards his torso, and chilling him for 5 point of damage. This is another Minor Wound for Allym. No mechanical penalties are applied, but the experience of seeing one’s leg withering from youthful vigor to wrinkled age, and feeling the frigid constriction of one’s guts as black energy seeps inside your armour must be kept in mind at all times. 
  • The GM assigns 5 points of damage to the Abdomen Hit Location

Allym is walking head on into what appears to be certain death knowing that he must end Ystral before Ystral ends him. The brutality and simplicity of his upbringing serve him well here as he accepts this natural condition of survival of the fittest without question. He closes the range to go toe to toe with the mercenary sorcerer and show him no fear and no quarter.

  • Close Range (-1 AP)

Turn 2

Regretting not drawing his sword as the young nomad got to his feet, Ystral tries to backpedal as he concentrates to unleash another wave of debilitating energy through his spell.

Player rolls D100, 1D20, 1D8

  • Invocation results in a roll of 89 which arcs past the warrior leaving him unharmed (-1AP)

Allym grins as he raises the axe to cleave into the arrogant merc.

GM rolls D100, 1D20, 1D6

  • Combat Style (High Plains Axe, 55%) results in a roll of 13 with a Hit Location result of 10 on the D20 indicating the Chest. (-1 AP)
  • Allym has a Damage Modifier of -1D2 so his damage result of 5 on 1D6 will be modified downward

GM rolls 1D6

  • The damage modifier result is another 5 indicating the loss of 2 points of damage from his attack (1-3 lose 1 point, 4-6 lose 2)

Ystral has the option to Parry (Unarmed) or try to Evade.

Player rolls D100

  • Unarmed (24%) results in a 56 allowing the Axe to slice into his unarmoured chest as the sorcerer tries to step back (-1 AP)
  • Ystral’s Player assigns 3 points of damage to the Chest location. This is a Minor Wound for the sorcerer.
  • The difference between Allym’s attack (Success) and Ystral’s defense (Failure) produces 1 Special Effect which the Player can choose from appropriate items on the Special Effect List (p144, RQ6)
  • A very handy app for Android has been released which allows RuneQuest Players to enter the differential results, and be shown the number of earned Special Effects and their results
  • The GM quickly scans the appropriate effects (melee combat, cutting weapon) and finds three to be of interest: choose location, compel surrender, and bleed. The chest is a good location and the mood of the encounter is now one of blood and death, not injury and defeat so the GM selects the Bleed special effect which will cause an Endurance roll each Round for the accrual of Fatigue points and the requirement for First Aid to staunch the blood flow, with rest to follow to ensure the wound does not reopen. This sort of effect is cruel and deadly in the desert.

Both combatants have expended all of their Action Points for this Round.

ROUND THREE

Initiative remains unchanged

Turn 1

Ystral commits to ending the encounter with magic and so concentrates on his spell attack once more

Player rolls D100, D20, 1D8

  • Invocation results in a 30 which will deliver 7 points of damage (1D8) to a Hit Location of the already damaged Right Leg (1 on D20)

Allym once again must choose between accepting the cruel damage, or trying to Evade. This time he opts to hold his ground.

  • Player reveals damage to the GM who assigns 7 points to the Right Leg. This takes it from the pre-existing Minor Wound below 0 Hit Points for a Serious Wound and further on to a Major Wound by entering the negatives lower than the natural value for the location. (5 points when healthy reduced to -6). A Major Wound comes with significant effects such as the loss of or the loss of the use of a limb so affected. In this case the limb is withered away to uselessness. This type of wound also requires an immediate Endurance Check to avoid passing out from pain and shock. 

GM rolls D100

  • A result of 78 for Endurance indicates that Allym collapses in agony and soon loses consciousness as his leg withers to a skeletal remnant of what it once was.

Ystral sneers with contempt and prepares to leave the area

Player ends the engagement.

Bleeding effect is dealt with.

A tale of two fighters

Stripping the mechanics out of the tale we get a story that might go something like this…

Allym, blood boiling, snatches his well-used axe from where it hangs by its leather loop from his saddle horn. His exhausted horse barely moves in response to the savagery of the action, but the well-dressed mercenary for whom the weapon is intended stiffens and raises his hands.

Ystral had had more than enough of the insinuations and accusations of the unlettered youth in front of him and made up his mind to show him his place under heaven. Inhaling slowly to turn his frustration into fuel for his casting, he choked out the throat twisting words that shape the magics he knows lurk behind the thin veil human eyes perceive as the world around them. With his mind rising into the convoluted chambers of logic and illogic that allow him to shape and control the forces his art has taught him to reach, he gestures forcefully with hooked and crooked fingers at the leering nomad mouthing obscenities before him, marking him as target. 

As the cool sensation of power fills him, he gives the youth one last chance to see reason, saying, “Allym, you are being a fool. You and I were together, more than a league away. How could I have possibly caused the complete disappearance of our entire caravan? See reason, or I will make you regret this idiocy!”

The warrior’s ears are blocked with his outrage at Ystral’s repeated use of the word fool, and he brandishes the axe as a prelude to another passionate speech. His words are cut off as Ystral barks a strange word and suddenly thrusts out his left hand with his fingers splayed in peculiar fashion causing a glimmering wave of darkness to wash out from it, much like night crashes hungrily on the shores of day. Unnerved, Allym throws himself face first into the diamond dirt of the desert. With limbs flailing, he gasps in shock and pain as the flesh of his right leg constricts and crackles with the thin voice of frost on a winter lake. Looking backward, toward the merc he now knows is a sorcerer for certain, he catches sight of his leg, withered from youthful vigor to wrinkled age in a heartbeat.

Screaming, Allym hears himself exhort the cruel man from the capital to fight like a man, but his anger and fear fall on deaf ears another wave of black, withering energy coruscate around him where he lies in the glittering sand. Refusing to die like a snake on its belly in the dirt, he reigns in his fear and gets his feet under him to rise and face his attacker. 

“You or me,” he grates as his right leg quivers and another wave of crippling blackness flows around him leaving him unharmed.

Rushing forward, the former nomad – now mercenary serving as guard for fat merchants and priests from the capital – focuses solely on burying his weapon in the body of his tormentor. As he closes, another shock of deathly cold rips into his young flesh, this time seeping and coiling its way inside the armour he had looted from the bodies of one of the guardsmen they had found broken and partially eaten on the edges of the desert. Knowing survival rests in his commitment and ferocity, Allym slammed downward with the axe as the too-arrogant Ystral’s finely-shaped eyebrows rose in surprise as futilely as his hands batted at the descending stroke of the weapon. The sharp edge tore through the heavy cloth of the sorcerer’s expensive travel clothes, undergarments, and into his pale flesh but did not sink deeply into the meat beneath. A dark red line, with a heavy spreading stain was Allym’s only reward for his all-out attack. 

He did not get to enjoy it long.

With a sharp, downward thrust of his left hand Ystral’s voice once more brought forth the dark wave of life-stealing darkness and it once more tore into Allym’s right leg. Staggering, the youth barely had time to groan in response to the mind-blanking agony as he lost his footing, and consciousness soon after.

Sneering, the adherent of the Order of the Horizon, turned on his heel and prepared to journey deeper into the desert on his own. First thing would be to head back to the last pool of clean water they’d passed, in order to properly dress his wound…

 

Stay tuned~

Comments
4 Responses to “Casting Runes 4: The Dance of Death”
  1. anarkeith says:

    I enjoy the detail of RuneQuest combat, and the tension it provides, but the damage calculations feel too convoluted to me. Thanks for the link to the Android app! I’ll experiment with that for sure.

    My current homebrew acts a bit like 4e D&D until the character is bloodied, at which point we switch to RuneQuest location-specific wounds. So far my players have enjoyed the detail provided by wounds and the tension of knowing that a few hits can take a combatant out.

    Thanks again for your detailed reports! Love the flavor.

    • Runeslinger says:

      You are talking about weapon length and parries, right? I am thinking about how to introduce that whole concept simply right now. I think I will explain it during character generation as players select/receive equipment, then demonstrate it in a fight they can observe before they have to enter one themselves. The app takes care of the differential roll comparison nicely, so the special effect determination just takes two taps: one to enter the attacker’s level of success, and one to enter the defender’s.

      • My reading of anarkeith is that the way you describe hit point damage totals to locations seems clumsy. Basically, each location has a hp value, and yyou track each value individually, reducing the current hp value as you take damage, same as in D&D etc. When the location reaches 0HP, thats a serious wound, when it reaches negative starting hp (say from 5 down to -5) thats a major wound and triggers endurance rolls as described.

        Also, I am surprised you didn’t appear to consider Press Advantage as the Nomad’s special effect, as it would preclude the sorcerer attacking next action which could reasonably be ruled to include the Wrack attack. that would be a ruling beyond the strict rules but would have given the completely outclassed nomad a fighting chance and would be believable with the axe swinging back and forth preventing the sorcerer from making the appropriate hand gestures

        • Runeslinger says:

          Thanks for your response, Vaughan. Anarkeith is not going off of my description in this video when he describes damage feeling convoluted, he is going off of actually playing the game himself. We’ve already gone over damage twice before, so this installment was just a reminder. For some, not having a single pool of hit points to deduct and monitor is convoluted. For others the process of determining how much damage, if any, is actually applied in any given encounter once hit rolls, location rolls, evade or parry rolls, and weapon differentials and armor are factored in can seem a touch more complicated than rolling a D20 vs an Armour Class and deducting damage from a pool of points. I am not among them, but I understand.

          You are right, however, in suggesting that Press Advantage would have been a good and scene-appropriate Special Effect for the Nomad to have employed. Such a selection would have been ideal. I do not agree that to rule it precludes spell casting in combat would require a looser interpretation of the rules, but each group’s interpretation is bound to vary. That it was not chosen, or discussed in the video is due to that it didn’t catch our attention. It certainly will next time!

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