RPG Spotlight: Runequest’s extended family
I thought about writing a retrospective of Runequest, and then noticed someone else did a few years ago.
The author of the Grognardia blog, James Maliszewski is probably around my age – maybe a bit older. His first game was the D&D basic set (my second; the first was the Traveller “starter edition”). It’s clear he’s stuck with AD&D while I never took to that system. In fact the longer I play, the less tolerance I have for rules. I know that old school gaming is so trendy it hurts right now, and if the hipsters from Shoreditch want to pedal their fixies over to their chums for an evening of Tunnels and Trolls à la Dubstep, more power to them. But it’s not for me.
Where was I? Ah yes, Runequest.
The first game I played in was (old) Runequest 2nd edition (with its shameful but evocative cover art), steeped in the Gloranthan mythos. We wandered around a cave system for a while, got bored and got into a bar fight, where we inadvertently decapitated each other. THE END.
It’s a brutal system that shares its roots with D&D’s wargaming past, but it also distances itself from those roots with its skill system – something we take for granted now. If D&D is a “skirmish wargame” then this is a “personal wargame”. It has hit points and hit locations, and armour just soaks up damage rather than granting an armour class. At the same time it’s still got seven attributes that are very much like D&D.
Surprisingly it’s really quick to learn and administrate for a (relatively) complex game. Yes, there’s a ton of magic and cults and stuff, but those are all flavour. You have to derive a few stats from your PC’s attributes (mostly wargame-y stuff like your “damage bonus”) but that’s about it. The rest comes down to skill percentages. Contests (strength, magic) use a “resistance table”.
It’s frankly a bit broken as well. The probability is that if you run a lot of fights, someone is going to lose a limb each session unless the PCs are tanked up on armour. (Stormbringer ditches hit locations which is a good thing IMHO). There are some really abusive low-level spells also – anything that approaches mind control (like Befuddle and Demoralize) is going to be seriously disruptive, which is why D&D keeps those kinds of spells in the high levels.
What blew me away was the setting and mythos. The 3rd edition did away with Glorantha in favour of an alternate earth, but it still kept the Primitive/Barbarian/Civilised population split with the incumbent differences in philosophy. The magic section included three creation myths/theories for the Shaman (Spirit Magic), Priestess (Divine Magic) and Sorcerer (Sorcery).
It tried to apply mechanics to underlying metaphysics too. It dealt with possession by spirits in a battle of magical Power. It allowed Sorcerers to manipulate all of their spells based on their Free INT. It scaled low level spells into high level ones and let the caster boost the spells to get through magical defences. It was still broken, but it was cool.
Also, monsters used the same stats as people, which made them more alive and threatening. Not to mention the presence of Jabberwocks, Bandersnatches, Jack-o-Bears and Scorpion men alongside the elves and orcs.
One thing 3rd edition did very nicely was the poorly titled Land of Ninja:
Co-authored by Sandy Petersen and Bob Charrette (who co-wrote the Bushido rpg), this book covers the culture and mythology in depth, introduces a system of Honour to the game as well as “Ki Skills”. The latter were obtainable on mastering a skill; if you spent a magic point before you tried your skill and managed to roll under your Ki skill, it would count as a critical. A very neat mechanic for upping the power level for characters who were already masters of basic skills, without recourse to lots of stupid power trees.
I heartily recommend getting a copy, even if you never plan to run Runequest. Heck, even if you never plan to run an oriental mythic game. It’s that good.
Its present-day equivalent is (I suppose) Mongoose’s Land of the Samurai which someone else has blogged about (and name-checked RQ:LON). I don’t own a copy. The author of LotS is Lawrence Whitaker, he of Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone series.
Mongoose Publishing no longer make Runequest products.
It’s all very confusing. Mongoose RQ isn’t the RQ I played as a teenager. It’s not better or worse, just different – things like location-only hit points, starting skill % being the combination of two stats, the concept of Common and Advanced skills, and so on. It does include Hero Points, making it less deadly. 1e MRQ was broken for weapon parries, but that was plugged in 2e MRQ:
Contrary to my previous misgivings this is a fine book, well laid out and with a lovely hardback faux leather cover. It feels really nice and reads well.
The content is exactly the same as Legend, which you can get for a dollar on DTRPG. The only difference (aside from expunging all Glorantha content – so no monsters) is the digest format that fits my iPad nicely. It looks like Mongoose are flogging off the RQII books cheaply following the name change.
From what I hear the core book and the Monster Coliseum were well done but some of the others suffered from Mongoose’s sloppy presentation. If Legend is just a reprint of those books then maybe they’ll have taken the time to tidy up the content. Maybe.
Just to muddy the waters further, Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system – the heart of “classic” Runequest and also Call of Cthulhu – was published in 2008.
Interestingly Chaosium’s business model isn’t a million miles from Mongoose’s – sell the core book and offer supplements for setting and extra rules. Whereas Mongoose has gone after some big names like Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber, Chaosium’s products are in-house supplements. Although The Chronicles of Future Earth is doing a damn good impression of Gene Wolfe’s Urth.
Chaosium supplies a Classic Fantasy book as well as some books on magic, a bestiary and a few others – many of which are reprints of old RQ material. So if you really wanted to run a properly old school Runequest, you could. If you could get past the nasty beige covers that make all the BRP merchandise look so cheap.
p>So Mongoose got the rules in the Runequest divorce, and Moon Design kept the setting. I guess HeroQuest is now the official setting for Glorantha. I couldn’t really care since I never invested anything in the setting, but the rules look quite interesting (you can download a preview at the link above). From the character sheet it’s clearly a lot lighter than BRP/MRQ, and it explicitly favours a narrative style with its take on character generation and creating “dramatic rhythm”.
I do wonder what this would do to the feel of Runequest. RQ is a punishing simulation game, and whilst that isn’t my bag it did impart a particular pragmatism to the feel of the game. In any case, if I were running a narrative style game in Glorantha, learning the HeroQuest system would not be my first choice. Oh, look.