Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Runequest Adventure Review: Urvantan's Tower

It's been a few months since I ran Urvantan's Tower for my game group, the second adventure in the Smoking Ruins and Other Stories. The adventure takes place near the Smoking Ruins site and in the Beastlands in Lost Valley, which can be challenging to find. Most travelers are likely to trip over it when lost or never find it because they get killed or run off by wandering Chaos beasts.
The adventure overview is that the people of Long Home, in Lost Valley, have sent a messenger to Queen Lieka for help with foreign invaders. There are no alliances or ties between Long Home and the Colymar tribe, but the Queen is no fool and thinks of sending a handful of loyal Colymar tribespeople to act as her observers during the trip. 
The Queen's observers, the heroes, travel from Clearwine to the Beastlands as quickly as possible, with the messenger now acting as a guide. Though they were expecting to get there before the invading force, the party is not so fortunate and gets there many hours too late. The invading mercenary Company, made of humans and Bestmen, has successfully taken Long Home under their control and is now trying to put down the final embers of resistance.
Once the heroes reach the Lost Valley, they quickly see that they have arrived too late and that the army has already entered the valley and taken the village of True Ford. The only person who can help the lost valley and the Village of True Ford now is the Sorceror Urvantan, whose tower appears to have vanished. The heroes need to discover what happened to Urvantan while dodging the patrols of the invading mercenary Company. The heroes need to find Urvantan, a local sorcerer, and help him so that he can help save the valley. 

From here, the adventure gets into the meat of the story and has a lot of options available for the Gamemaster and players to decide how they want to proceed. The whole adventure can turn into a prolonged campaign of freedom fighters if need be or only take place over a few days. It all hangs on what choices the players make. Do they help or don't help the folk of Long Home is entirely up to the group. 
Once the adventurers have either failed and are captured or helped defeat the invading force, the adventure ends with the group's return to Clearwire. Possibly leaving further trips to Long Home open for the future if the citizens of Long Home become allied with the Colymar Tribe. 
I find running this adventure and the other adventures in the Smoking Ruins Adventure Book quite different from how GM's Adventure book is laid out and written. The main Smoking Ruins adventure and Urvantan's Tower require more work on the GM's part to run the adventure successfully compared to the GM's Adventure book's adventures. Urvantan's Tower suffers from the same layout issues that Smoking Ruins has. Information that is a bit scattered shoot throughout; Player info, GM info and advice, and other details are all mixed unhelpfully. I had difficulty keeping track of the various threads of this adventure due to layout issues in the book. I reread the adventure five times and still got parts confused and had difficulty finding information during the game. 
Around the middle of the adventure, I presented an NPC's plan to the players and completely misunderstood a sentence in the adventure, which led the players to make the wrong decisions. There is a part of Urvantan's plan where he needs the heroes to spread the enemy out in the open. The current deployment of the Company of the Manticore would make his task more difficult. Some of this is on me; I found the whole section somewhat oddly written, so I know it wasn't just me misreading the information. After reading this several times, I got it into my head that the heroes needed to get the army out of the village and spread thinly out in the open. I'm pretty sure it was that whole spread the enemy forces out into the open part that led me to portray the plan in this way. It wasn't for a few weeks until I realized my mistake when I was thinking about how all the action, in the end, happens inside the village. I kept thinking to myself. How do the heroes and villagers fight the enemy in the village if the enemy is no longer there? The enemy was drawn out of the village by the heroes. I reread the adventure for the 5th time and finally noticed what I messed up.
 It became clear that I needed to change how I made notes for these game sessions because my usual note-taking method wasn't cutting it. This one big mistake caused issues for the players and changed how the game would have played out in the end. I had to course-corrected, and everything worked out in the end. 
Yes, GMs can make mistakes. It happens. I was honest about this mistake with my players. They were having a hard time trying to find a way to make this all happen, and when I let them know that I messed up, it helped relieve some of the tension they were feeling. Also, as a bonus for my mistake, I gave them each a card from the Whimsy Deck that they could use at any time they wanted. This situation was the first time we have used the Whimsey Deck, so we'll see how it works out. But Generally, a player can play this card in a situation where it makes sense to use it to change the current story. These cards give the players more input and agency in the game. It doesn't always happen immediately either; sometimes, it sets into motion some event or person for a future situation.
As much as I had problems running this adventure, overall, it was a lot of fun, and my players had a great time with it. It did what every great Runequest adventure I have run so far does: expose your group to something new they may not know about or how it works. Until then, we hadn't done anything with sorcery, so this was a first for me to run Characters who used sorcery and the first time for my players to encounter it in combat. This adventure was also the first time my players came across anything to do with Arkat and discovered more in-game lore about the world. Most of my players haven't read the lore of the Glorantha, so being exposed to these small bite-size chunks of lore opens the world up for them.

Some notes and things to remember when running Urvantan's Tower:

  • The Gamemaster should figure out how many square miles the Lost Valley covers. In Roll20, I set the Lost valley map up with a hex grid, where each hex was 1 mile, with 16 Hex crossing the map from east to west. Looking back, though, I should have made it smaller since, at one point, the enemy has to travel from the fort to the village in a short time. On my map, that was 5 miles, and I think it probably would have been better, so those two locations were more like 2 miles from each other.
  • To get the best impact out of this adventure, I suggest having the heroes travel to this valley at least once before, if not more. The Gamemaster can have the Heroes defend the valley against a Talmori Wolf brothers raid. This way, the players can meet all the main NPCs beforehand, develop ties to the community, and establish relationships and history with the local NPCs. This way, when the call arrives for help, the players have those emotional stakes that Robin Law often talks about as crucial motivators for adventure. There is a lot of information about the Lost Valley and the important NPCs that the players will not get into or meet if the Urvantan's Tower adventure is the first time they have visited Long Home. I wish I had done this just so the heroes/players would understand and feel the loss of life involved with this invasion. Before the heroes arrive in the valley, about half the Village Elders die in the Company of the Manticore opening attack. The knowledge of these deaths has zero impact on the players since they don't have any pre-established history or connection with these NPCs. Hell, my players killed one of the Elders because they didn't know she was an elder in the village. They only saw a Seven Mother's Priestess with the enemy at the time. The best way is to have them visit Long Home for supplies while at the Smoking Ruins or after they finish going to the Smoking Ruins for the first time. Maybe a Merchant meets them on the road, the number of guards he has hired have been killed off or wounded by some wild beast(s), and he engages them to help get his wares the rest of the way to Long Home.
  • Captain Danbar, the Warden, sent to seek the help of the Colymar, doesn't travel alone. When I ran the adventure, I had Captain Danbar travel to the lands of Colymar alone. It wasn't until later after the captain and the Heroes had entered the Lost Valley, that I noticed that the Captian was traveling with two other Wardens. Having Captain Danbar travel alone was a mistake at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he might travel independently. The Valley only has so many defenders and only so many Wardens. The number of people the village would send on this mission meant fewer defenders to protect the valley. 
  • Work out the numbers before you start the adventure. I should have tracked the numbers a little better than I did at the start of running this adventure. The adventure gives you specific numbers for the number of locals to the valley and village and the mercenary Company. Keep track of them so you can readjust those numbers as characters die or are held captive. 
  • The players might feel they won't be able to do much against an army. But it's essential to describe how worn-out and ill-equipped the Company of the Manticore is. Letting the players know that the Mercenaries appear to be a fighting force that is not at their best or in the best condition - that they most likely have used up their Rune Spells and may be easier to fight than a well-prepared and well-rested army would be.
  • I had a lot of leftover questions about the Black Arkat. The main one that still bothers me is how the Black Arkat got into the tower. The Black Arkat didn't come through the tower's front door since the spirits on the first or second floor did not know that the Black Arkats were inside the tower. As far as they know, Urvantan is in the Tower alone, but the Black Arkat entered at least the 3rd floor because they destroyed the Guardian Spirit on that floor.
  • It confused my players that the Black Arkat and the Company of the Manticore weren't linked together; it was just a coincidence that both events were happening around the same time. Though I did point out to them that they don't know how long the Black Arkat has been in the tower. According to the spirits, they hadn't seen Urvantan for weeks; the Black Arkat may have been in the tower that whole time. I think I figured that the Black Arkat had been in the tower for five days. One way that has been suggested for the Arkat to enter the tower is through the magic gateway on the fifth floor. I question this since the leader of these Black Arkat is trying to figure out how to use the chamber on the other side of the gateway. His action suggests that they didn't enter through the hero World by the gateway since they don't know how to use the room beyond it. One thought I did have about how the Black Arkat gets inside is that they know of other secret ways into the tower that Uravantan has not yet discovered in over a hundred years. After my group killed most of the Black Arkat, the leader bargained with them for his life with treasure and a promise to leave. He gave them a Serpent Staff from the old Runequest Plunder book, one he pulls from a hidden storage space in the towers. Sorcery was the only way to open the secret hidey-hole, only if you knew it was there.
  • The rewards for this adventure. I used this adventure as a teaching moment in order game to remind the players that this wasn't Dungeons and Dragons. When rewarded with treasure and trade goods, the heroes should give these to their leaders (in this case, the Queen) when the heroes return home. Their leaders will reward them, though they won't receive all the treasure and trade goods. As much as the heroes should receive a reward, their actions help and benefit the community as a whole. It's the leader's duty to the community to use the wealth these heroes have brought back for the betterment of the whole group. It's an excellent way to help shift their thinking from being individualistic and more about the community.

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