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Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Classic RuneQuest

2017 looks to be a good year for the seminal roleplaying game, RuneQuest. First published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1978, RuneQuest and its associated setting of Glorantha, remained the hobby’s second favourite fantasy RPG for many years to come. It introduced innovative mechanics that focused on character and skill use rather than Class and Level as per Dungeons & Dragons, it allowed everyone access to magic rather than just Clerics and Magic-users, it allowed progression through skill and attribute use and training rather than the accumulation of nebulous Experience Points, and it showed how character and mechanics could be integrated into a setting—in this case, Glorantha. In the form of Dragon Pass, this would remain the default setting for RuneQuest in all of its iterations, a Bronze Age setting in which the player characters aspired to join the great religious cults of the Lightbringers and become heroes in the war to come against the invading Lunar Empire. The inspirations for Glorantha came from the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan, and others rather than the Fellowship of the Ring—certainly more swords and sorcery than European fantasy in its inspirations. In the decades following it release, the mechanics in RuneQuest would go on to support numerous RPGs, classics and otherwise, such as Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, and Pendragon

After over three decades away, RuneQuest returned to Chaosium in 2016 and Chaosium brought back the classic second edition of the rules in a hardback volume following a successful Kickstarter campaign and not only that, but Chaosium is planning to release RuneQuest 7 in 2017 and Rob Heinsoo Games will be publishing 13th Age in Glorantha following its own successful Kickstarter campaign. This review though, is of RuneQuest: Classic Edition.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition is a reprint of the game’s second edition, originally published in 1980. It comes as a handsome hardback, with a clean layout, some fairly scrappy internal artwork versus a decent cover, and an excellent map of Dragon Pass. Indeed this map is still being used today. The reprint though, has been amended with queries and answers taken from Wyrm’s footnotes, the magazine that Chaosium published before Different Worlds, which was primarily devoted to Glorantha and RuneQuest.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition opens with an introduction to Glorantha and Dragon Pass, providing a description and a history as well as an explanation of the region’s technological, sociological, and monetary basis. The history covers both the mythology and history—some sixteen hundred years—in just under a page, but it sets everything up for the background and setting elements throughout the book, particularly faith and religion and how the player characters will engage in them as they rise from novice adventurers and join a cult to become Rune Lords and Rune Priests, and perhaps, participate in the Hero Wars. Creating a character in RuneQuest is a matter of rolling dice for the seven attributes and deriving various skill category bonuses and damage bonus from them. This is followed by two more rolls, one to determine a character’s social background, the other to determine how much money he starts with. 

STR 15 CON 13 SIZ 11 INT 15
POW 09 DEX 15 CHA 13

Attack Bonus +10% Parry Bonus +05%
Defence +10% Hit Point Bonus +0
Damage Bonus +1d4 Perception Bonus +05%
Stealth Bonus +10% Manipulation Bonus +10%
Knowledge Bonus +05%

Background: Townsman Money: 127L 

At this point the character is incomplete, but also at this point, there is no immediate idea of what to do about the character in terms of skills—combat, non-combat, and spells—and prior experience. RuneQuest: Classic Edition at this point starts talking about the game system rather than the next steps you would expect in terms of character generation. Yet reading on—and it takes some further reading because the options are spread out over the course of several chapters—what becomes clear is that characters are not necessarily meant to possess prior experience and that they should be going on adventures with just the basic skills as adjusted by their modifiers. After all, this is what you did back in the 1970s—you sent player characters out to undergo a baptism of fire in their first adventure and those who survived, well they earned experience and went out to adventure again.

The options in RuneQuest: Classic Edition—which are very much contained deep into the text—though, offer alternatives, the first of which is to approach a cult or guild and purchase training on credit. This leaves any character who takes this option indebted to the cult and needing to adventure in order to recover money to pay off this debt and have yet more funds to pay for further training. The second is actually to gain some prior experience, perhaps with the militia, in an apprenticeship, in a mercenary company, or riding with the tribe if you are a barbarian. This also ages the character five years. The problem with this option is that it is one hundred pages away from the chapter on character generation in the RPG’s appendix. What this means is that by modern standards, there is a very obvious disconnect in RuneQuest: Classic Edition in terms of character generation. Unfortunately it is not the only one, for even finding the skills is an impediment to character creation. The issue is that they are organised not in a skills section, listed skill by skill, but rather by the guilds that teach them. So Acid Making, Antidotes, Blade Venom, and so on is listed and explained under the Alchemists Guild; Evaluate Treasure, Map Making, Oratory, and so are listed and explained under the Sages Guild; and Climbing, Hide Item, Lock Picking, and so on are listed under Thieves Associations; and so on.

Overcoming both impediments allows us to return to Heidrik and present him in a more rounded fashion. Heidrik is a native of New Pavis, the son of jeweller who is wealthy enough to sponsor his son’s entry into the Sages Guild. Over the course of the five year apprenticeship, Heidrik gains much from his studies, specialising in the skills Evaluate Treasure and Map Making plus some languages; from prayer at the local sun temple (he gained +2 POW) and from becoming more personable (he gained +2 CHA); and from time spent in the militia training in the use of spear and shield. He also had to fight on occasion, so knows how to use his spear and shield, but not well. After completing his apprenticeship, Heidrik decides that he wants to go out and adventure like those that used to come into his father’s premises to have the gems, jewellery, and other items to have appraised and evaluated upon returning from their excursions. In order to prepare himself, he approaches a local cult and takes credit in order to train in the use of battle magic. He cannot learn much, but hopefully it will be enough to help him when he really needs it. Now Heidrek is ready to offer skills that most adventurers lack—appraisal of treasure and making maps. He spends the majority of his money on linen and cuirboilli armour.

STR 15 CON 13 SIZ 11 INT 15
POW 11 DEX 15 CHA 15

Attack Bonus +10% Parry Bonus +05%
Defence +10% Hit Point Bonus +0
Damage Bonus +1d4 Perception Bonus +05%
Stealth Bonus +10% Manipulation Bonus +10%
Knowledge Bonus +05%

Background: Townsman Money: 7L 

Knowledge Skills (+05% Bonus)
Evaluate Treasure 55%, Map Making 60%, Read Other Language (Lunar) 25%, Read Other Language (Old Pavic) 25%, Read Own Language (Sartarite) 65%, Speak Own Language (Sartarite) 80%, Speak Other Language (Draconic) 06%, Speak Other Language (Stormspeech) 08%, Other Language (Lunar) 25%, Other Language (Old Pavic) 25%

Manipulation Skills (+10% Bonus)
Climb 25%, Hide Item 20%, Jumping 25%, Lock Picking 15%, Map Making 20%, Riding 15%, Swimming 25%, Set Trap/Disarm 15%

Perception Skills (+10% Bonus)
Listen 35%, Spot Hidden Item 15%, Spot Trap 15%, Tracking 20%

Stealth Skills (+10% Bonus)
Camouflage 20%, Hide in Cover 15%, Move Silently 15%, Pick Pockets 15%

Oratory 10%

Attack Bonus +10%,  Parry Bonus +05%, Defence +10%, Base SR 4
Spear, One-Handed 30%, 1d6+1, HP 15, SR 5
Dagger 35%
Medium Shield 25%

Battle Magic
Healing (2), Detect Traps (1)

Hit Points 13
Hit Points/Armour per Location
Left Leg: 5/3, Right Leg: 5/3, Abdomen: 5/3, Chest: 6/3, Left Arm: 4/3, Right Arm: 4/3, Head: 5/3

In terms of rules and mechanics, RuneQuest: Classic Edition now looks very familiar. It uses a universal percentile mechanic that is used for nearly every roll—damage in particular is rolled on other dice, in particular skill and attack rolls. The game has multiple skills, including those for the various weapons, and essentially every character, player character or NPC, has access to them and can learn them. In effect this makes every character an individual and this is carried over into combat, where a fight between somebody wielding a broadsword and a shield versus someone with a maul will feel different to someone armed with a two-handed spear against an opponent with a flail. Every weapon is different, in terms of damage, speed, and the damage it can take, so that lighter weapons are faster, heavier weapons slower, and so on. Notably, the speed adjusts each combatant’s Strike Rank, this being when they attack in a round. It is determined by a character's attributes, choice of weapon, and encumbrance, rather than the roll of the dice. 

The individualism is furthered by the breakdown of every character’s Hit Points—player character, NPC, or monster—into hit locations in addition to a character's main Hit Point total. The only time that ever increases is through physical training or the odd spell—there is no automatic acquisition of Hit Points as a character gains experience. To protect himself, a character improves his weapon and shield skills, buys better armour, learns protective spells, and so on. Yet however good a character gets, combat in RuneQuest never stops being personal and dangerous, like no other fantasy RPG before and there is no abstraction to combat as there is in Class and Level games.

So for example Heidrik and his companions are returning from their first expedition, having found some decent plunder. Unfortunately a band of Trolkin has decided to take its chances and prove its worth by taking back this plunder to the other trolls. The Trolkin ambush the adventurers with a hail of stones before charging. Heidrik heard the warning and not only managed to raise his shield to ward off the stones, but ready his spear as one of the attacking Trolkin singles him, thinking him an easy mark. This is Deg, who besides being armed with a sling, carries a light mace and a small shield. As the two maneuvre around each other, the GM compares their respective Strike Ranks. With his spear, Heidrik’s Strike Rank is five, but because Deg decides to attack with his mace, his Strike Rank is seven. In this situation, Heidrik’s spear is longer and faster. Heidrik has a skill of 40%, but Deg has a natural Defence of 5%, so his skill is reduced to 35%. (Defence can be best described as the equivalent of a Dodge skill that does not need to be rolled.) Fortunately, he rolls a 32 for a hit. Intent on smashing Heidrik with his mace, Deg tries to parry the attack with this shield. This requires a roll of 30% and Deg rolls 23, so the attack is parried. However, the shield can only block so much damage, just eight points, so Heidrik still needs to roll his damage. This 1d6+1 for the spear and 1d4 for Heidrik’s damage bonus. Heidrik rolls six for the spear and a maximum of four for the damage bonus for a total of ten. This is a good hit that would probably seriously injure Deg. Fortunately for the Trolkin, eight points are stopped by the shield and another one by his thick skin. Still, one point gets through to location ten, his abdomen. 

Now it is Deg’s turn to attack. Deg has a skill of 30% with his light mace, but Heidrik’s Defence is 10%, so Deg’s attack is actually 20%!. Unfortunately for Heidrik, Deg rolls 12 and hits. Worse when Heidrik tries to parry with his shield, he rolls 100—a fumble! A roll on the Fumble Table determines that Heidrik falls to the ground and loses his next parry. Plus it will take between one and three rounds for him to get up. Deg smiles toothily as his mace catches Heidrik’s leg and inflicts 1d6+2 damage or six points of damage. Fortunately, three of those points will be stopped by Heidrik’s armour, but that is still a good thwack to the shin.

From where he is on the ground with a Trolkin looming over him, Heidrik needs to act fast. He rolls over and grasping his spear firmly he thrusts up at Deg. The GM rules that this is equal to moving around, increasing Heidrik’s Strike Rank by one. He also rules that Deg is harder to hit and doubles the Trolkin’s Defence to 10%. So Heidrik needs to roll 30% or less. He rolls 15% and hits. Deg tries to parry it and with a roll of 42%, fails. Heidrik rolls 12 for the Location, the abdomen, and inflicts another seven points of damage! One point is stopped by Deg’s thick skin, but the remaining six points get through and this is very bad news for Deg. This exceeds the number of Hit Points he has in the abdomen and is more than enough to floor Deg, his legs useless and his wound bleeding out heavily. Unless Deg gets some healing, he is going to be dead in a turn or two… In the meantime, Heidrik scuttles back and watches in surprise as the first enemy he has killed dies before his eyes.

Just as RuneQuest makes combat more personal, it also makes magic personal. Although later versions of the RPG would add Sorcery, RuneQuest: Classic Edition offered three types of magic. Two are basic magic, Battle Magic and Spirit Contacts. The first type, Battle Magic, spells that can be quickly and as needed, can be learned by anyone, each type of spell being rated between one and six, the number reflecting its effectiveness. So when cast on a weapon, Bladesharp 2 means that it increases the attack by 10% and the weapon does two extra points of damage; Healing 3 heals three points of damage done to a location; and Protection 1 adds a point of armour to each location. Other spells have simple one-off cost, such as Detect Life, Light, and Silence. All of these spells can be learned, the only limitation being their cost and the caster’s capacity to learn them, represented by his POW. A character can go beyond this by finding spell matrices which contain spells and magic crystals, the latter usually containing either more POW or a spirit that will grant the owner its POW. The second type, Spirit Contacts, involves the locating and binding of spirits, usually to a crystal for its POW or a familiar. Spirit Contacts is also the province of shamans and they will often enter into pacts with multiple spirits.

The third type of magic in RuneQuest: Classic Edition is perhaps its signature magic—rune magic! This is the province of the various cults and each cult is associated with certain runes. These runes come in four types, the fundamental elements of Glorantha—like Darkness, Air, Earth, and Water—of Glorantha; the powers—like Harmony, Stasis, and Movement; the forms—such as Beast, Man, and Chaos; and the conditions, mastery, magic, and infinity. The type of rune magic learned depends upon the particular cult a character belongs to, each rune spell being more powerful than simple battle magic. Rune spells are just one benefit to joining a cult, the least of which is aid, board, and succour, but also links to associate cults, reduced training costs for certain skills and spells, and of course, being able to call upon your god for divine intervention when your life really is on the line. There are greater benefits to becoming a Rune Lord or a Rune Priest in a cult, but there are responsibilities too.

Now where these benefits and responsibilities come into play is in the descriptions of cults included in RuneQuest: Classic Edition. Three are described. These are of Orlanth Adventurous, the air and storm god widely worshipped throughout Dragon Pass; Kyger Litor, a Darkness god revered by the Trolls; and to a much lesser extent, the Black Fang Brotherhood, a reviled and feared if small cult of assassins and cutthroats. All three are described in detail and give flavour aplenty to the Glorantha setting and how the characters can both involve themselves in Dragon Pass culture and politics, in cult culture and politics, and advance themselves at the same time. Together with the responsibilities involved in belonging to a cult, these are good storytelling and roleplaying hooks. In both cases of Orlanth Adventurous and Kyger Litor, they also make you want to play characters in those cults, even in the case of the Kyger Litor cult, whose membership consists primarily of trolls. The upshot of that is that the write-up of the Kyger Litor cult makes the playing of trolls not only palatable, but also enticing. In comparison, the Black Fang Brotherhood is presented more as a threat than something that the player characters might join. Yet as good as the descriptions of both Orlanth Adventurous and Kyger Litor are, they are insufficient to really support getting characters involved in the Dragon Pass setting because just two cults do not provide enough options. This is the next disconnect in RuneQuest: Classic Edition, that there is not enough material, not enough options to pull the players and their characters into the Glorantha setting. What there is, is good, but there is just not enough of it.

In terms of monsters, RuneQuest: Classic Edition provides a good mix of fantasy classics—basilisks, centaurs, ghouls, minotaurs, skeletons, and so on, adding to them a range of creatures and monsters particular to RuneQuest. These include the goat-headed Broo, the weird Ducks, and the various types of Trolls that are more interesting than presented in other RPGs. In each case, the monsters are, like all NPCs, treated as individuals and in that, they are both more dangerous and more vulnerable. They have skills like the player characters, and should the GM choose to all it and they survive long enough, they too will be able to progress much like the player characters. In comparison to the weirdness in some of these creatures and to other fantasy RPGs, treasure in RuneQuest feels constrained in nature, being primarily coinage, jewellry, and gems, plus potions and magic crystals. Magic items in the traditional fantasy sense are rare, powerful, and not detailed here, but their absence and the prevalence of coinage, jewellry, and gems further underpins the need to support each character’s need for training for their skills and spells and the importance of both versus owning a handful of magical items.

Lastly, RuneQuest: Classic Edition covers a myriad of subjects in an extensive set of appendices. These include weapon descriptions, optional combat rules, rules for handling fire, goods lists and prices, rules for handling prior experience, and so on, as well as referee advice. Other appendices cover elements specific to Glorantha and Dragon Pass—rune identities, languages, and encounter charts. A number of short essays detail minotaurs, divine intervention and divining, ghosts and spirit combat, and so on more deeply. These are taken, as the new notes are elsewhere, from Wyrms Footnotes.

Physically, RuneQuest: Classic Edition comes as handsome hardback, and whilst the artwork can at best be described as being somewhat scrappy, the layout is clean and tidy. The writing is clear and readable, with the gaming examples of Rurik Runespear and his colleagues that run throughout the book a delight. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the organisation. In fact, RuneQuest: Classic Edition is poorly organised in parts, in particular with regard to skills and creating characters. Finding certain rules and aspects of the rules in RuneQuest: Classic Edition is awkward and counterintuitive. Once you get used to it, it is less of an issue, but upon first read through and first useage, this rulebook is unhelpful.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition is a reprint of a seminal RPG and a reprint of a revered classic. There is no denying that. Yet, RuneQuest: Classic Edition is also a reprint of a flawed rulebook—flawed in a number of the ways. The first flaw is the disconnect in terms of skills and prior experience for character creation. There is no easy connection between them in the rules and they could have been better laid out and organised. The second flaw is the lack of a next step from character generation into play and this feeds into the third flaw, the lack of a step into Glorantha and Dragon Pass. Taking either step requires more information than is given in the book and this in the face of decent background about Glorantha and Dragon Pass that is in the book (though it is not enough). In particular, the details of the three given cults—Orlanth Adventurous, Kyger Litor, and even the Black Fang Brotherhood—are tantalisingly playable and really leave both player and GM wanting more. In fact, there should have been more of these cults described in RuneQuest: Classic Edition.

Obviously this review was written with the benefit of hindsight and with the benefit of hindsight and the benefit of another thirty years’ worth of designing RPGs and rulebooks, these flaws do look bad and they are bad. Yet in 1980 when this version of RuneQuest was originally released, they were not so obvious and whilst creating a character with experience was clumsily done, in fact, the amount of background in this version of RuneQuest was good for the time. Nevertheless, the fault was still present and it would take additional supplements like Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror to really address the problem. (Let us hope that this is not the case when Chaosium publishes RuneQuest 7.)

The rules though, in RuneQuest: Classic Edition, are great. They focus on character without the abstraction of other RPGs of its time and without the wargaming heritage of other games. They encourage character engagement and growth because there are no limitations on how a character and what a character can do, whether that is training in a particular weapon, learning a skill, or casting a spell. At the same time, they make combat personal and deadly and thus more involving. It is not surprising that through the derived Basic Roleplaying that so many RPGs would go on to use these mechanics.

Ultimately—and despite its flaws—RuneQuest: Classic Edition is still playable after thirty-five years. It is not perfect, but the rules are solid and the background information is enticing enough to want to play the RPG and play in Dragon Pass. RuneQuest: Classic Edition is proof, despite its imperfections, of how seminal a design it was in 1978 and 1980.