Friday, August 28, 2009

Food for Thought via RuneQuest

Between Stormbringer and Ringworld, it was inevitable that I'd be plowing my way through RuneQuest (2e, which I've been reliably told is the "best" edition by those who have an opinion on such matters). I'm only just delving into its mysteries, but I've already been struck by several things in the character generation chapter:
  1. Though ability scores can be increased through training, there are limits to high how they can be increased, said limits based on the results of the initial random rolls for the initial scores.
  2. Some ability scores simply cannot be improved through training, such as SIZ and INT. CHA is variable based on the success or failure of one's previous adventures, since successful adventurers are more likely to be perceived as good leaders than those who fail.
  3. Beginning characters start with very few skills and most at fairly low percentages. You can get higher skills only be spending starting cash to train or, more likely, accepting credit from various guilds and organizations to acquire the training.
I have to say that I'm finding all three of these ideas rather interesting, particularly the third one. By giving the characters a reason to go into debt early on, it provides them with both a reason to adventure and, more importantly, connections to the wider world. That's one of the things I'm finding I appreciate about RQ: its ability to place player characters within a wider context that seems organic rather than merely a game artifact. That's something D&D has always lacked out of the box and that I find is one of the reasons why many D&D campaigns ultimately falter. That's why I'm happy that the Dwimmermount PCs have forged their own connections. Without them, I suspect the campaign wouldn't have lasted as long as it has or have as many prospects for further development outside the megadungeon.

In any case, I'm enjoying my latest bit of gaming archeology. Much like OD&D, which I never played back in the day, I missed out on several Chaosium classics the first time around. So it's a real joy to "discover" them now. Reading them more than two decades after the fact is a pretty enlightening experience and I suspect that, in some ways, I probably can appreciate them more now than I could ever have done when they were newly released.

More on this in future posts.

17 comments:

  1. I always felt RQ's character advancement was the best system. Use a skill, get a chance to improve it. The better you are the harder it is to improve. Made so much sense to me.

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  2. Point #3 is certainly a good story-entry mechanism. But this one -

    Though ability scores can be increased through training, there are limits to high how they can be increased, said limits based on the results of the initial random rolls for the initial scores.

    - leaves me scratching my head. Why is this appealing, exactly? Or rather, what do you take the point of a roleplaying game experience to be, that this should be a means to that desired end? I'm having trouble identifying the logic here.

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  3. The RQ2 rulebook is more evocatively written (and has those great maps that you posted a couple weks back), but IMO the RQ3 rules represent a substantial improvement (leaving aside the wonky new/undertested rules -- fatigue and sorcery (both of which I eventually found good replacements for online)). RQ3 rules with RQ2 flavor was my mantra for many years.

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  4. "Some ability scores simply cannot be improved through training, such as ...INT."

    I guess Runequest doesn't hold with 'No Child Left Behind'. :p

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  5. Wally:
    "- leaves me scratching my head. Why is this appealing, exactly? Or rather, what do you take the point of a roleplaying game experience to be, that this should be a means to that desired end? I'm having trouble identifying the logic here."

    It's simulationist, designed to promote immersion. Runequest is highly simulationist (of its fantasy milieu), including 'sucks to be you' stuff.

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  6. "In any case, I'm enjoying my latest bit of gaming archeology. Much like OD&D, which I never played back in the day, I missed out on several Chaosium classics the first time around. So it's a real joy to "discover" them now. Reading them more than two decades after the fact is a pretty enlightening experience and I suspect that, in some ways, I probably can appreciate them more now than I could ever have done when they were newly released."

    I felt that way about Moldvay B/X D&D, I was given a copy in the early '90s but I only really started looking at it a few years back; now it/Labyrinth Lord is my go-to game.

    I bought a copy of pulp '30s RPG Daredevil Adventures (FGU, 1982) at Leisure Games a couple days ago, and looking at it is bringing up the same sensations. Whereas the 1990s Cyberpunk stuff I bought at the same time is leaving me cold. There was a huge shift in RPG writing style and goals around 1990, the '90s stuff seems turgid and self-indulgent. The '80s Gold-to-Silver age stuff gets to the chase and has tons of play value packed into a small page count.

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  7. RQ was started by folks who used to dress up in armor and swing swords at each other at the society for cretive anachronism. Perhaps that explains their perpective on character development and blow by blow approach to combat. I like the Shamanistic magic in RQ, but prefer the AD&D Vancian magic as "sorcery".

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  8. RQ 2 was my introduction to role-playing, and I can't help but think it shaped my perceptions of what gaming was in a way that is substantially different from those who started with D&D. Don't get me wrong, over the years my appreciation of OD&D in particular has grown, but I still scratch my head over how many seem to prefer needless complexity to the elegance and simplicity of games like RQ. An extraordinary system, monsters, and a setting all in a very slim book. What more could anyone ask for?

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  9. It's simulationist, designed to promote immersion. Runequest is highly simulationist (of its fantasy milieu), including 'sucks to be you' stuff.

    I think you need to doublecheck your definition of 'simulationist,' and swing by the entry for 'immersion' while you're at it. In any case this doesn't answer my question. Why is a cap on ability scores a good 'simulation' of anything? How do old-school types balance their cod-simulationist practices (legacy of the hobby's wargaming roots) with their claims to storytelling complexity and such? And how exactly do such limitations aid in immersion? Doesn't the opposite effect also occur, being reminded of the story-generating apparatus at all times?

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  10. Wally,

    I'm sure this answer will be utterly inadequate, but here's the simple truth of it: I find games where there are things you cannot do more interesting to me than games where there are fewer such restrictions. For me, finding ways to succeed within a restrictive system, where there are game mechanical hard limits in place, is fun. It inspires my ingenuity and cleverness and it's that, rather than "story," that's what I crave in RPGs, probably because, for me anyway, they will always remain games, first and foremost. "Story" isn't my game, but then neither is "simulation" or "immersion."

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  11. James,
    there are games and then there are GAMES. Bohr and Einstein argued about it once a long time ago. Einstein believed that God was more like a Law beind Creation, while Bohr argued that God created the universe by rolling a pair of dice! Anybody who DMs with a passion simply has to read Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game to get a perspective on the art of DMing.

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  12. Wally - I don't play Runequest (though it looks like a good game), I'm not much for mechanical simulation myself, and I don't make any claims about 'storytelling complexity', so I don't see much point trying to answer your questions.

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  13. Wally, D&D style role-playing (unlike other styles not mentioned here at all) is about shared overcoming of obstacles. Character is defined by limitation and how those were overcome. In life and in D&D. Contrary to what Simon might claim, Maliszewski' s OD&D Dwimmermount is quite sophisticated, mo so than most AD&D and subsequent games. The devil is in the improvisation. That part of game that he makes up between the few rulesbooklets and the rest of the rules that he designs to bring his game to the table. In that sense OD&D is like Jazz. The devil is in the themes, houserules and interpretations of the few guilelines which are left unsaid.

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  14. I'm sure this answer will be utterly inadequate...

    Not at all, James. That was quite clear and helpful - thanks. (As usual I now want to talk about the psychology of the 'old school'; as usual This Is Not the Place Nor Time. :)

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  15. Brooze:
    "Contrary to what Simon might claim, Maliszewski' s OD&D Dwimmermount is quite sophisticated, mo so than most AD&D and subsequent games..."

    I wouldn't dispute that. :) The sandbox campaign is certainly much more sophisticated than the series-of-modules campaign, IME.

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  16. Brooze:
    "In that sense OD&D is like Jazz. The devil is in the themes, houserules and interpretations of the few guilelines which are left unsaid."

    Good analogy - I think it works for the BX/LL games I run also; I do a lot of riffing off players' ideas. And it's a lot easier to say "yes" or "yes, but" when there are no rules getting in the way.

    BTW I find that compared to 3e, 4e D&D allows for a more flexible approach to GMing, also. The 4e GM doesn't need to be a mechanistic rules-applier and number-cruncher to anything like the extent 3e expects. Despite all the very constraining 4e DMG advice about 10 balanced encounters with these 10 treasure packets to level, and no monsters more than +/- 5 levels, if that stuff is taken with a pinch of salt it can be a much more flexible game. I'm running a 4e sandbox right now (conversion of 3e Vault of Larin Karr), the players are aware they need to run away from time to time (just like in the LL sandboxes I'm running online), and it seems to work fine.

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  17. One question: Where did you manage to dig up some RQ2 rules? Are they available in PDF form anywhere, or are you using a pulp edition you acquired? I ask because while I still have my RQ2, none of my gaming group friends do, and my copy is well-worn.

    Also, to add another response to Wally, the reason for the caps on stats is because RQ tries to be more realistic, I think. Not everyone is born with the capacity to gain Arnold's physique, for instance. Yes, they can train and get stronger, but there is an upper limit to what you can do, and different people have different upper limits. This is what that mechanic models, and I think it's a good one.

    Keep in mind, too, that the stats do not play nearly as large a role in RQ as they do in, say, D&D. RuneQuest, rightly I think, focuses on skills rather than abilities granted through attributes. Your ability to slash your opponent is much more heavily dependent on how much experience you have fighting, rather than on your stats.

    Besides which, the stat increases in RQ are actually larger than in D&D (which may be why they are so rare in D&D). I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a stat increase in D&D, and it was always magical in nature. (A stat decrease in charisma was due to physical causes, however.) In RQ, there is a codified way of raising stats through mundane training, and it makes sense to cap that. Otherwise, you'd just get outrageous level-ups of stats.

    And to S'mon, with regard to not being able to raise INT, I seem to recall that the Chaosium systems tracked EDU separately, although I can't remember whether RQ2 used it - maybe it was just CoC? Anyway, if it did, your raw intelligence would not be raised by going to school; your EDU would be. I suspect INT is viewed as your "raw intellectual capability," not "amount of booklearnin'," and hence, is why it cannot be increased. Even so, it may also be a game balance issue; since INT can increase the rate at which you learn skills, the designers probably wanted some tight control on it moving.

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