High Level Gaming
Send comments and/or criticism to Simon E. Phipp
Created On 6 June 1999
Last Updated On 6 June 1999
Copyright (c) Simon E. Phipp 1999
- See Also:
- High Level Gaming - The GamesMaster
- High Level Gaming - The Game
Many people have commented on high level campaigns in the past, their comments seem to indicate to me that they do not understand high level gaming in RuneQuest/Glorantha. As I have played and GMed in a high level campaign for the last 12 years or so, I have seen how a high level campaign differs from a "normal" campaign. Here are my thoughts on High Level Gaming in a RuneQuest/Gloranthan context which, I hope, will help people understand what high level gaming is about and perhaps make people think a little before they condemn high level campaigns.
What is High Level Gaming?
When a campaign has been developing for a time it will naturally change its form from the normal "hack and slash" game into a more reasoned and satisfying campaign. As characters become developed and deeper they take on certain characteristics which make them more interesting to run. As characters become more powerful their motives and emphases change so that the campaign is played along different lines.
These are all aspects of High Level Gaming.
However, before going into High Level Gaming in any great depth, we need first to look at normal gaming and also intermediate level gaming to see how they differ. Then we can examine High Level Gaming and develop its peculiarities.
Role Playing Games
In these articles, I am specifically looking at the RuneQuest and Gloranthan games. Although many of the points are valid for other games, and indeed I may well use illustrations from other games to make a point, my main focus is on the Prince of Roleplaying games and the Rolls Royce of gaming worlds. This is mainly because these are the games that I have had high level experience with.
What is a Role-Playing game? In my opinion it is a game with a certain rules set designed to allow the players to take a set of characters and to act out those characters’ roles in a game world. Thus, one may play gangsters in 1920s America, cowboys in the Wild West, Rebels in the far future, wizards and barbarians in a mediaeval setting or whatever. The important thing is that the characters must develop and must have a stable background with which to operate.
Role-playing games must, in my opinion, have a rules-set associated with them. This serves a number of purposes. First, it reduces the need for a GM to make arbitrary decisions. Second, it allows players to plan ahead and to anticipate what will happen. Third, it gives a structure to the game. Fourth, it prevents people doing excessive acts and cuts down on unconstructive arguments (as opposed to the extremely fun "constructive" ones which, as we all know, make roleplaying games special!).
The rules-set that I am dealing with here is RuneQuest. It does not matter whether it is RQ2, RQ3, RQ4 or a variant or hybrid. What matters is that the rules set reflects the game setting, in this case Glorantha.
How do we develop the characters in a role-playing game?
At low level, through a series of scenarios connected in a campaign. A scenario is, in its basic form, an adventure in which the characters participate. Think of it as a chapter in a book or an episode in a TV series. Most scenarios have a definite plot, a series of goals to be achieved and a set of actions which need to be fulfilled for the scenario to be completed. A campaign is a series of scenarios linked by a common locale, a common sub-plot or theme or even common characters within the campaign. As an example, look at the TV series Blakes Seven. At the start of the first series, the characters were fairly basic and one-dimensional. As the series progressed they became more fully fleshed out and developed their own characters. Each episode was a scenario or adventure in itself but the episodes were linked by opposition to Servalan and the Federation. Each series was in effect a campaign as the focus changed each time. At the end the characters were fully developed, had achieved a great deal and a good time was had by all.
OK, now we have quickly defined what is a role-playing game and what are scenarios and campaigns. Now we need to look at how a basic campaign works.
Low Level Campaigns
By Low Level, I mean inexperienced characters, characters with basic skills or powers, characters who are not important in the grand scheme of things. Admittedly, some campaigns could be described as "low level" when the skill base is fairly high, depending on the way the campaign is run, but we will come to that later.
In RuneQuest, "Low Level" characters are beginning characters, either rolled up without Previous Experience or rolled up with a little Previous Experience. Usually, although not always, they are played by players with little or no experience in RuneQuest/Glorantha, so the players are "low level" too.
We shall examine each of these statements in turn to see what I mean by the statement.
What are the characteristics of low level campaigns?
Most low level campaigns have simple scenarios which are quickly finished. This is for several reasons. First, low level characters are limited in what they can do and so the scenarios tend to be focused on the areas of expertise of the characters. Focused scenarios are generally fast. Second, beginning players may well become bored with a long, wide ranging scenario, so scenarios tend to be short and to the point.
When I first started playing RuneQuest, the scenarios tended to last for one session only. It was only after playing for a while that scenarios began to become a little deeper and take two or three sessions to complete. The longest scenario I played in took 5 sessions to complete, a session being some 8 hours.
When you have a low level character, small increases in abilities are important, so progression is relatively fast. There comes a time when progression slows down as there is not much difference between what you have now and what you had last session. This is when the campaign reaches intermediate level.
Many players may become disheartened if their character’s abilities are not showing signs of improving. Therefore, positive signs of improvement must be given to all characters.
In the beginning, a RuneQuest campaign will be skill based as that is the simplest and cheapest way to quickly advance a character’s physical nature. Skills may be increased by a single roll at the end of an adventure if the skill was successfully used during the adventure. Sometimes, several experience gains may be made in a single session giving rapid advancement. This is good as it gives a concrete measure that the character is improving in at least one aspect.
Low level gaming is only going to have a micro-effect on the world not a macro-effect. So, the party kill a group of broos that were bothering the local farms, how will that affect the King of the country or the Red Emperor? Not a jot.
Very few things which a low level party will do can have an effect outside the scenario in which they were done.
Most low level campaigns have little or no political manoeuvring. This is because the low level characters will not have had the chance to establish themselves as being important enough for political acts. Obviously, a character who is the heir to a kingdom may generate political scenarios, but such a case is rare.
Sometimes, GMs may wish for the low level characters to become involved in the local politics, perhaps as part of a tribal moot or council. This should be encouraged as it allows the campaign to quickly progress to a higher level.
Most low level campaigns will introduce Glorantha slowly, by describing a few cults or by describing a particular area or town. As the campaign progresses more and more of Glorantha is slowly described until the players know about a whole country or pantheon. Thus, their interest is awakened and they may want to know more about Glorantha as a whole.
One of the mistakes that can be easily made (I know, I have done it myself) is to ram Glorantha down people’s throats during the game. Grab their attention with a few choice snippets of information and then drip feed the rest as the campaign progresses.
At low level, characters do not have much interaction with Gloranthan Mysticism. They rarely HeroQuest and are only lay members or initiates in cults. Having said this, one of the best ways to become interested in Gloranthan mythoogy is by HeroQuesting at low level. This should always be encouraged by the GM.
When low level characters fight there is a good chance that they may die. After all, they do not have access to much Healing, they do not have the skills or armour to guarantee protection and RuneQuest always allows a lucky shot to kill a low level character. Once the character is dead there is no guaranteed Divine Intervention and Resurrection may be expensive and/or unavailable. Low level characters who die may well stay dead.
Because of this, low level characters tend to take fewer risks and are far more cautious than higher level characters. The GM will also produce scenarios which are far less dangerous than for higher level characters.
At low level, the scenario is the important thing. The players turn up to do a scenario. They play for several hours and the scenario is completed. They roll their experience, divide up any loot and finish. Little thought is given as to how the scenario links in with the rest of the campaign until the campaign matures slightly.
The GM brings a scenario, the players then play that scenario. Very rarely will the players have the chance to do something that they want to do. Fairly often, when I was playing, we did scenarios because they were there, even though we did not think that we should be doing them.
Each scenario may take a few days or maybe a week to complete in Gloranthan Time. Experience rolls take another week and then the next scenario occurs. So, we can get four scenarios in a season, 20 in a year. Assuming that we play once a week, we have 2.5 Gloranthan years in a real year.
Low Level Campaigns tend to be light on the amount of rules that are used. This is for several reasons. Firstly, Low Level Campaigns are often played by RuneQuest beginners who do not know the rules and are still learning them. A good GM will only introduce rules that are necessary so as not to drown the new players in rules and sub-rules. Secondly, Low Level characters may not need to use many of the rules - what is the point of using rules for Divine Magic for laymembers or for using rules about splitting attacks with PCs of skill 40%? Thirdly, Low Level Campaigns are fast and the over-use of rules will slow them down far too much.
Intermediate Level Gaming
So much for Low Level Gaming. Eventually, a campaign will reach a point where the characters are that much more powerful and can do that much more than before. The campaign then becomes Intermediate Level and consequently more interesting.
In my opinion, Intermediate Level campaigns involve characters which are near Rune Level status or have achieved Rune Level status but are not near Hero Status. A skill range of 80% - 300% is a very rough guide to Intermediate Level campaigns.
Intermediate Level Scenarios are often long, drawn-out affairs with a great deal of combat and interconnected stages. These take a long time to run and a scenario may last for several sessions before any benefits are gained.
- What are the characteristics of intermediate level campaigns?
Intermediate Level Campaigns produce visible progression in that the characters gain skills and spells, advance in their cults and become more powerful both personally and socially.
Any Intermediate Level campaign where the players feel that their characters are not progressing in some way should be carefully examined as to the cause. Nothing destroys a campaign like players feeling they are being bogged down.
Intermediate Level characters are normally initiates or Rune Levels of one or more cults, have to perform cult missions and have to interact with people from other cults. In my experience, the easiest way to produce an Intermediate Level scenario is to have a cult mission or a cult duty involved.
Where several cults figure in the PCs, some interesting situations may occur. There may be rivalry, plotting against other PCs, active deeds against other PCs, betrayals or alliances made. These should all be encouraged as they add depth and character to the campaign.
Once again, destroying a Chaos Temple is going to have a local effect but not a global effect. Similarly, HeroQuesting will give personal power but rarely power to a cultural group as the characters will not be focused that far ahead, just yet.
As characters become more powerful, they will be forced into political manoeuvring. This may come through being Sartarite rebels who have to keep the clans sweet as well as plotting against the Lunars, or Praxian nimads who have to interact with the Khans and Priestesses of the tribes or whatever. The level of political activity should be relatively slight, unless of course the characters decide to arrange a coup or to take over an area themselves.
Intermediate Level campaigns will stretch across more and more of Glorantha. Very few campaigns of this level will remain in the same place as there is only so much that can be done in a single area. Thus, characters may move from Pavis to Prax to Balazar, back to Prax, into Dagori Inkarth and Sartar, then to the Lunar Empire as the campaign progresses. Each new area will provide more information for the players to digest and act upon. If carried out sensitively this can get the players hooked on Glorantha and can even make them inquisitive, asking for more information.
Intermediate Level campaigns include cult advancement and HeroQuests. Cult advancement means that the players and characters learn more of the myths of Glorantha, how different cult interact and interconnect, what penalties there may be in belonging to a certain cult within a particular culture and so on. Characters who perform HeroQuests will be able to learn more about the myths and practices of their cults and may feel more a part of the cult, rather than just a member.
Intermediate Level Campaigns have Rune Level characters who often, but not always, have access to Rune Lord Divine Intervention. They also have access to high levels of Healing, unless they are particularly stupid, of course. They will have access to more funds and hence can afford to pay for Resurrection spells. The characters will also be more skilled in combat and have more combat oriented spells, so will prove harder to kill.
So, characters are harder to kill and if dead can fairly easily return. This means that scenarios may be made tougher, with a higher kill rate as death is only a temporary, transitory thing. In the Intermediate Level campaign that I played and GMed in, this went too far and if a scenario did not result in at least three deaths it was considered too tame and not thought out. A careful balance should be made between challenging scenarios and auto-kill scenarios, going too far in either direction will take the gloss off the campaign.
An Intermediate Level campaign is still scenario driven to an extent. However, the GM can spice things up a bit by ensuring that plots and themes run through the campaign, perhaps by having major NPCs interact with the PCs on a semi-regular basis, or having an established timeline in which things are scheduled to occur and which the PCs can interact with. These methods can turn a scenario-driven campaign into a campaign-driven one.
For the most part, in an Intermediate Level campaign the GM comes in with his prepared scenario and the players play. Occasionally, a player may ask for a scenario where his character may do something important, but it is the GM who devises the scenario and controls what happens.
I do not think that an Intermediate Level campaign will become PC-driven unless the GM is very flexible. After all, the PCs are not powerful enough to drive global events as yet and can react to rather than initiate events. Of course, it is possible for the GM to make a conscious decision to give the players and PCs more input into what is going to happen, and this is a good thing as it broadens the campaign enormously. No longer is the campaign directed by a single mind but has a number of creative inputs.
A scenario may cover several weeks in Game Time, but may take 4 or 5 sessions to play. Rune Level characters have "down time" for repraying spells, gaining experience and for training, but in a carefully controlled campaign this should not amount to a great deal of time.
If you consider that an Intermediate Level scenario may cover a couple of weeks yet may take 3 or 4 sessions to play, real time moves faster than game time. However, even given down time, the campaign could have two scenarios per season, each scenario taking 3 sessions to complete, so we are looking at 6 sessions per season, 30 sessions per game year, so approximately 1.5 Gloranthan years pass in a real year.
When you have a combat involving 8 Rune Lord-Priest PCs, a dozen Rune Lords or Priests as NPC opponents, 20 or 30 Chaos Monsters and a couple of demons, you need to keep a careful track of what is going on in order to maintain a game flow. This is where a good knowledge and application of the rules is vital and necessary.
Intermediate Level Campaigns have so much that depends on succesful use of skills and spells that a heavy rules emphasis is essential. Also, players in Intermediate Level Campaigns tend to know the rules inside out and can quote 1D3 Sub Rules at the GM to prove their point. Of course, a good GM can also dig out rules from obscure journals and quote them back to the players - our favourite was attributing a possibly spurious rules quote to "Wyrms Footnotes 15".
After some time, an Intermediate Level campaign will become High Level, which is where the fun really starts. There is no real skill or ability level at which this occurs, since High Level Gaming largely ignore skills and individual ability and concentrates on the larger issues. I would say that characters become High Level when beginning Rune Levels are not seen as a threat, so they can be ignored in terms of combat, magical attack or Spirit manipulation.
High Level campaigns have a different focus than Low or Intermediate level ones. Many of the things that are staples in lower level campaigns can be ignored in High Level campaigns. This tends to speed up the game. For instance, in a Low or Intermediate Level campaign, random encounters, the so-called "wandering monsters" of D&D, may well be dangerous and produce combat which may last for 30 minutes real time. In a High Level campaign, unless the encounters are very dangerous they can be roleplayed within a few minutes and any combat abstracted to "we kill them all".
What are the characteristics of High Level Gaming?
What is the point of playing out a combat where the encounter cannot in a single blow penetrate the armour of any PC, where even a critical hit will not kill the PC and can be healed with spirit magic accessed by one or more bound spirits/allies, where each PC can almost guarantee taking out 2 or 3 NPCs each round without using offensive magic, and where they can take the same out by using offensive magic? The combat becomes boring, routine and just wastes time.
Of course, the GM can always beef up the encounter, but where is the logic that all broos encountered in Prax have Cwim with them or are HeroQuestors, or that any Lunar encounter is made up of Rune Lords or Priests? In my opinion, random encounters such as these will not be of a high level kind. Pity the NPCs who encounter Derak the Dark Troll as their random encounter.
Progression in High Level campaigns is not measured by the skills of the PCs or by the number of spells they have, or even by their characteristic scores. What does it matter that Derak’s Maul Attack has increased from 450% to 453% or that he has gained his 30th point of Shield or even that his fetch has increased POW from 130 to 132? These are relatively minor improvements which have no real effect on the game.
What is important is that Derak has been made the Count of Alda Chur and the Hollow and also Count of Dagori Inkarth by the Red Emperor, thus strengthening his claims of authority over Dagori Inkarth and putting him as an enemy of the Duke of Alda Chur. It is also important that he has completed another HeroQuest or has increased the size of his Hero Cult or has befriended another deity or has made an enemy of a Lunar Hero. These are the way that High Level characters progress, by increasing their status and standing in the political, magical and mythological spheres, not by increasing another skill by 1D6%.
Even though the Player Characters are still individuals, they tend to act as drivers of their society. Thus the campaign becomes society based. So, Solarus Skywatch spends most of his time HeroQuesting for the land of Balazar or playing politics in the Imperial Court to strengthen Balazar, or by participating in the Dart Wars to defeat Balazar’s enemies. He does this not for himself, but for the society which he represents.
Similarly, Derak tries to cure the Curse of Kin and needs various HeroQuests to do this. Although the Quests give him personal power and abilities, he is doing them ultimately to improve his society.
Be warned, however, that players can come up with the most original rationales to their actions so that they benefit society, for instance turning a Holy Country Crusade against the Lunars into an attack on Ralzakark and Fort Wrath because "it doesn’t matter as long as you are destroying Chaos" - one of Brankist’s finest arguments.
High Level campaigns by their very nature affect the macro-environment. If the PCs are insulted or attacked by a King, then they are quite likely to kill the King and install somebody else on the throne. This has effects outside the immediate scenario.
In my campaign, the PCs killed Harrek and Argrath, binding Harrek into a Lunar Hell and feeding Argrath to the Black Eater. This affects the whole Timeline for the Hero Wars.
Once players realise that they are allowed to change things, they will try small changes, then larger changes until finally they try to mould Glorantha into what they want it to be. This is a good thing, as long as their impulses are restrained by a cunning GM and as long as failures are severely punished.
Where the basic unit is a kingdom, politics is going to become important. No longer can you rely on your own force of arms when the Red Army is knocking at your door. Most of our last campaign was conducted over the telephone with politicking between PCs and NPCs and even PC and PC.
Most High Level campaigns have been going for a number of years. This means that the players are steeped in Gloranthan Lore. Even campaigns which start off at High Level (a concept which I do not really like) have a good amount of Glorantha involved. After all, how can you use politics if you don’t know the culture and background of the people you are dealing with?
My players, for instance, between them know pretty much all there is to know about standard Glorantha. Some know more than others about their own specialised areas, but the GM has to know more than each person about their specialised areas. This means that the GM has to study Glorantha, has to become intimate with current thought and new releases as well as knowing information on the old material. Having said that, it is quite permissible for the GM to let the players drive the action by them revealing their knowledge of Glorantha and the GM simply going along with them.
High Level characters in Gloranthan RuneQuest use HeroQuests in order to achieve certain things. The more HeroQuests they perform the bolder they become until they begin to change the Quests so that they do more for the characters. PCs will begin to manipulate the Gloranthan Myths and will begin to change cults and Quests. This is a good thing as it establishes a unique flavour of Glorantha and allows the GM to darkly hint of "God Learner abuses" and to mention what happened to Arkat, the God Learners, the EWF and others who messed about with Myths.
Although random scenarios can be laughed off, even with fairly strong Rune Levels involved, High Level gaming is dangerous. When you meet someone like Cacodemon, Cwim or the Crimson Bat in combat you are going to be worried no matter how good you are. When you meet a creature which howls and reduces POW, or someone hits you with a sword that does damage to characteristic stats then you will be concerned. When you are on a HeroQuest beyond the Veil and you die, you are trapped in Hell and you should be very worried indeed.
That is the main danger of High Level gaming - mythical death or capture. After all, even if Cacodemon vomits all over you, there is always DI to bring you back, unless he has done it on a HeroQuest in which case you are in big trouble. Characters who die on HeroQuests may go to Hell. Characters who are captured on HeroQuests will have to be rescued by PCs or NPCs and in a High Level campaign there is no guarantee that your comrades in arms will even attempt a rescue as they could be better off if you are out of the way for a while, or even permanently.
Whereas Low and Intermediate Level campaigns are scenario driven, High Level campaigns are PC driven. The PCs need to achieve certain things, so they decide how to do it and then carry out their plans. The GM can draw up a scenario to facilitate this or to squash it dead, depending on how he feels, but the driving force is what the PCs require.
Gone are the days when the GM says "I have this scenario and you are going to do it". In High Level campaigns, the Players are King. Quite often I ran a session by starting off with "Well, what do you want to do? Tell me and I’ll run it." When we played in Coventry we usually played on a Saturday or Sunday, once a month or at Bank Holidays as at that time we didn’t have lives. One Sunday I had gone to Church for an early morning meeting and received a phone call at around 11 o’clock asking me to go to Andrew’s house urgently (Andrew was a player in the campaign who lived near the church). I arrived a few minutes later to find the players in the campaign sat there with all the campaign books, dice, character sheets and everything needed to run a session. With a vague feeling of unease, I sat down. "We want you to run a scenario for us" they said. It turned out that over the past week they had hatched a plot to kill Harrek and Argrath, had refined it over the phone and had got everyone together, even those who lived hundreds of miles away. As all their plans were either political or could be PC-initiated they were on very strong ground. I ran the session for them, acting pretty much as a mediator, and watched them take apart the Wolf Pirates and the Holy Country Fleet, kill Harrek and Argrath, bind Harrek in a Lunar Hell and feed Argrath to the Black Eater, all in one afternoon/evening. It was very impressive and I admit to having been well and truly ambushed.
The point is, a GM in a High Level campaign should act merely as a mediator to facilitate or oppose the PCs’ plans and to run sessions based on what the players decide. Of course, he can also advance his own timeline, throw in NPC actions and generally confuse and annoy the players, but those are only sidelines.
When players are not interested in gaining a few percentiles in a skill or in making another round of experience gain rolls, they do not try and squeeze in as much training as they can in between sessions. When a plan can take several seasons to come together, they do not want to be bothered with what happens in the meantime, unless external events become important to them. This means that Gloranthan Time moves very quickly in relation to real time. In my campaign, a session generally covered two or three seasons in a year. As we only played four or five times a year, this meant that for us, game time moved at between one and two game years per real year, but in a campaign with more sessions, say one a month, game time may move at 4 or 5 years in a single real year.
This has several effects. Firstly, people become dissociated from day to day events, so they focus on long term aims and goals. Secondly, Holy Days roll around very quickly and if you play that Priests and Rune Lords have a Test of Holiness to gain POW on a Holy Day, as I do, then PCs belonging to multiple cults can gain massive amounts of POW in a single session. I think the most one player gained was 30 POW in a session with 2 or 3 seasons and very lucky POW gain rolls - this was without actually gaining a POW gain roll in a scenario! This may seem like a give-away (or Monty Hall) but what did he do with the POW? 10 went into his Fetch and 20 went into "useless" rune magic in cults he had just joined (Spell Teaching, Divination, Worship), so the gain to him was minimal. After all, what is the point of increasing your Fetch’s POW from 110 to 120? All it does is add 1D6 to Spirit Combat damage in my Spirit Rules. Thirdly, the GM can move things along by pointing out, for instance, that it will soon be Sea Season when the Wolf Pirates are active again and gives the players a chance to plan revenge on Harrek et al.
High Level Campaigns tend not to be rules-intensive.
Combat is quick and dirty as most things to be fought fall into one of three categories:
- They are too weak to be harmful, so the combat is resolved without rolling dice.
- They are too dangerous to touch, so combat is resolved by one bite or a single swing with a sword.
- They are of equal stature, in which case the PCs gang up on them and make it an unfair fight (massed Thunderbolt/Sunspears/Heat Blasts, massed spirits/elementals etc. - if you are wondering how they can do Thunderbolts and Sunspears, one of the PCs acts as a Personal Storm and can always use Thunderbolt and another acts as a Personal Clear Sky and can always cast Sunspear.)
When a skill is above 200 or so, what is the use of demanding a skill roll each time it is used? It just takes up time, so I just assume that PCs can climb cliffs etc. unless they are on a HeroQuest where it becomes important again.
Much of the game is conducted over the telephone or via email, especially the political and social interaction of the PCs and major NPCs. This cannot be run with rules and dice rolls so why bother even trying?
I have managed to run a HeroQuest without resorting to a single dice roll, but there again there was little combat involved and that was with inferior beings.
High Level Gaming tends to lend itself very well to the "Story Telling" approach to roleplaying, although not to a silly extreme. Atmosphere is all very well unless it drowns the session and the players tell you to "get on with it!" I once ran a session based in Dorastor when the PCs were being escorted to the Tower of Lead for a clandestine meeting and the Vampire who was escorting them heard some wolves howling on Nangtali’s Plateau and opened his mouth to speak when all the players in unison cried "Ah! Ze Children of ze night, how sweetly they sing!" resulting in my sulking for the whole session and their negotiations going extremely badly. So much for storytelling and atmosphere, and one to the surly, nasty, biased GM - Ha!
Hopefully this gives an overview of the differences between High Level Gaming and gaming at other levels.
I do think that High Level Gaming has a distinctive flavour all of its own and has received a very bad press from many people, some of whom have never played a proper High Level game.