Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Retrospective: RuneQuest

I have a very complicated relationship with RuneQuest, whose first edition (which I never saw, let alone played) was released in 1978 by Chaosium. Like Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest was a game spoken of mostly in derisive whispers by the older gamers who initiated me into the hobby. Unlike T&T, which was mocked for being "too silly," RQ caught flak for being "too trippy." When I asked for elaboration on this point, I received a lot of different answers, most of which pointed out, in addition to other things, that, in RQ, "everyone could use magic" and "you can play a duck man." These two facts, along with sundry other crimes against good gaming taste, made it damnably hard for me to learn much more about RuneQuest firsthand, as my attempts to do so were regularly rebuffed and I, being a newcomer to the hobby, simply accepted the wisdom of my elders.

But then I discovered White Dwarf, which, as I've noted before, contained a surprisingly large amount of material for RQ. This made me think that maybe, just maybe, my feeling that it'd be worthwhile to investigate RuneQuest more fully was a good one. Unfortunately, finding players of the game was quite difficult and I wasn't prepared to blow any money on RQ products without having had a chance to play the game first, even if it was published by the same company that made my beloved Call of Cthulhu. As luck would have it, I chanced upon a group of guys who were playing RQ at a games day at a local library -- those were the days! -- and they took pity on me and let me join them.

I don't remember much about the adventure or my character, but what I do recall are the feelings the the game and its setting evoked in me. It was at once frightened and exhilarated -- frightened because RQ is a lethal, unforgiving game where any combat could kill or maim your character permanently and exhilarated because this was the first fantasy game I'd ever played that felt viscerally different than D&D on almost every level. A big part of that was the game's default setting of Glorantha, which, at this stage (1982 or thereabouts) had a powerfully "ancient world" feel to it, as opposed to D&D's pseudo-medievalism. Being a big fan of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history, I was hooked and simply could not understand how many could deem RQ "too trippy" or "too Californian" or whatever other derogatory comments I'd heard about it.

Glorantha has a reputation, like Tékumel, for being arcane and inaccessible to newcomers. I won't deny that there's more than kernel of truth in this reputation, but my experience has been that, also like Tékumel, it's often exaggerated. Certainly one can easily become obsessed with all the minutiae of Glorantha, treating it more as an exercise in fantasy sociology than as an imaginative RPG setting. But it's not required in order to enjoy the setting and I daresay that Glorantha (again, like Tékumel) is best enjoyed as an idea mine for making one's own setting that just happens to use the same maps and place names as those in published products. This not only makes it far less onerous to referee, it also saves one from having to deal with aspects or developments of the setting that simply don't appeal to one's sensibilities.

I have never played in or run a RuneQuest campaign that's last more than a couple of sessions. For one reason or other, the game has never managed to "click" with most of the groups I've been in and, nowadays, my limited gaming time is dedicated pretty solidly to D&D, as it has been for most of my years in the hobby. That's a shame, because RuneQuest really is something special and unique, which is difficult to say about most RPGs, especially fantasy ones. In RQ's case, though, it's true. The game nicely marries a brutally simulationist rules set -- which evolved out of the Perrin Conventions for OD&D -- with a genuinely mythic world and worldview. The result is sui generis, ensuring that, in the annals of our hobby, RuneQuest will forever be remembered as one of its greatest games.

32 comments:

  1. Because Runequest can feel so real is the reason people play it, and don't play it. I have run successful Runequest campaigns (and Its hard to say because I love D&D too) they have been far more memorable than any D&D game.

    Visceral is a good word for RQ.

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  2. We played Runequest in my group back in the early 80s. I was running it and we played for several sessions before the group moved on. I loved that any character could use any skill if they bought it up. One of the guys had a shaman type character called M'bala B'shanga and he role-played him to the hilt. I really enjoyed the games feel and gritty-ness. Thanks for reminding me of a cool system.

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  3. Yes, RQ always used metric, which made it an oddity for an American game that wasn't SF.

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  4. Glorantha has a reputation, like Tékumel, for being arcane and inaccessible to newcomers. I won't deny that there's more than kernel of truth in this reputation, but my experience has been that, also like Tékumel, it's often exaggerated.

    To be fair, I think it's exaggerated if you're lucky enough to be able to get your hands on the old stuff. But if your introduction to Glorantha comes from products made after the early 80s, I don't think it's too exaggerated to say that it's a bit inaccessible. I tried to get into the Glorantha setting multiple times over the years before I finally stumbled upon an old RQ boxed set where I was finally able to cut down on the information overload to finally appreciate what everyone had been telling me about the setting.

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  5. Jer,

    Point taken. I speak as an owner of the RQ2 boxed set pictured along with this post, so my perspective may be a bit skewed.

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  6. I'm with Jer. Runequest was always the cool-sounding game advertised in Dragon that I could never find in local stores--and that was too expensive for me to mail-order. Post-1990 Gloranthan material was never presented effectively. Indeed, it always interested me that Dave Dunham's King of Dragon Pass computer game was a better intro to Glorantha and the conventions of Runequest than any of the actual tabletop products. I've never been able to figure out why Dunham's approach wasn't translated into tabletop terms.

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  7. I gamesmastered several RQ campaigns, and I began to play it in the '90s. I had both good and bad memories of the game. It was very important to me, because it was my first experience after D&D. I was used to play and to mastering D&D B/X boxed sets, and I moved to RQ before to give a try to AD&D. The reason was simple: I live in Italy, and at that time AD&D weren't translated into italian yet. So, having to choice between two games in english language, I choosed RQ, 'cause I was looking for a totally new experience.
    I love the easy-to-grasp system, but I think the combat system is a little too slow for my taste. I am not very interested in realism on a fantasy battle. And usually players doesn't like to see their beloved character being maimed or killed in just a blow.
    It was very hard for me, as a gamesmaster, to bookeeping everything during a fight, because in RQ each monster have its "Hit Location Table", Fatigue Points and so on. When the party had to fight against a huge beast it wasn't hard to run... but when they faced a gang of 6 or 7 broos... waaah...what a mess!
    BTW, I loved RQ until I had to play it as a player. When this happened, I felt it wasn't the kind of game I wanted to play as a player, and I gave up it.
    But I've to say that between my players there were very strong opinions: someone LOVED it, others HATED it: there's no in between.
    RQ was surely a milestone in RPG history, but I am much more interested in games with a very simple and quick combat system.

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  8. RQ seems very popular over here, which I'd imagine might have something to do with Games Workshop pushing it so heavily back in the day; they published their own version of third edition, for example. I would be surprised if it's the more popular fantasy rpg in Britain, as D&D still has its draw over here, but I'd imagine that it's a close second, unless WFRP has eclipsed it.

    I've only played it a handful of times, and I like it, but mainly because of the underlying Chaosium ruleset; I don't have much of an affinity for Glorantha, and the few times I did play it, it was in a more generic fantasy setting, which may or may not be missing the point of the game.

    I recently picked up the GW edition from eBay, mainly because of my fond memories of how lean it was; it's a very thin hardback, about half the size of Call of Cthulhu, and there's something pleasing about that being the whole of the game. I don't know if I'll ever run it though, as there are lots of fiddly, unnecessarily complicated bits in there; I've been thinking that the streamlined OpenQuest might be better, but then I wouldn't have that lovely slim hardback!

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  9. I picked up RQ way too late, somewhere in it's 3rd edition... and I didn't ever get that many sourcebooks on the game. Something that always has mystified me: how did the ducks fit into the setting? Has anybody ever played them?

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  10. Rob Barrett says: "I've never been able to figure out why Dunham's approach wasn't translated into tabletop terms."

    I think Robin Laws' Hero Wars, and then Greg Stafford's re-write, Hero Quest, and then Robin's re-re-write of HQv2 are, in large part, exactly that: an attempt to translate the feel of "King of Dragon Pass" into a paper-and-pencil. Whether that succeeds or not, is a valid question.

    Also, it might interest people to know that Moon Design (the publisher currently handling Gloranthan/HQ material) started out, more or less, as a way to Rick Meints re-publish and bring back into print the "core" of RQv2 material. There were four volumes, not the rules (but you can probably still find copies of the red-book on ebay at reasonable prices), and you can probably still get ahold of some or all of them.

    I'd suggest that those four reprint volumes probably contain everything that one might possibly want in an "old school RuneQuest" type venture. The amount of detail in those materials is comfortably pitched, with some nice holes and contradictions, and about reminiscent of the level of "background" you might traditionally have found in CoC.

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  11. Oh, and it might interest people to know that David Dunham himself wrote in a fanzine called "Enclosures" an extensive article called "Pendragon Pass" that published his house rules for using the Pendragon game rules for playing in the Dragon Pass area of Glorantha. I suspect that this might have been rather close to Dunham's take in his computer game as well.

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  12. @Viktor: I bounced off of Hero Wars hard enough that I actually returned the game to the store. I've looked at the subsequent Heroquest versions (admittedly not as closely as I might have done), and I still felt that their presentation of Glorantha was too broad. IIRC, Heortlings were explicitly set up as only one choice among many options in the Dragon Pass area that HQ used as its Gloranthan base--whereas my preference would have been for the basic game to only allow for Heortlings as PCs.

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  13. RuneQuest has always been "my OD&D." My first gaming experience was the 1977 Holmes Basic D&D, but I played RQ soon after and it rapidly became the center of my gaming. I've played hundreds of games since, but RQ is the one I go back to again and again.

    One of the things I loved was the setting. For whatever reasons, most fantasy worlds end up like ours--planets orbiting suns--with a dash of magic added. Glorantha is flat, floating on a an immense ocean, with a sky dome over head. Worse, outside the fragile walls enclosing this cosmos, there is nothing but Chaos howling to get in. Myth, and not physics, govern reality here. The sun rises and sets because Yelm the Solar Emperor was slain, fell into the underworld, and later brought back. Now the gods are doomed to repeat those actions eternally.

    The Ducks get too much attention, in my opinion. Being a Bronze Age, mythic setting, Glorantha is full of sentient animals, baboons, beast men, etc. There is even an adventure where the party is hired by a talking fish. I admit, there is a comic element in the Ducks, but since they are a very minor race, you could play an RQ campaign for years and never bump into them. When they do get played there is something "Yoda-esque" about them ("Judge me by my size, do you?"), as they can be a whole can of nasty in a funny little package.

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  14. Kelvin,

    GW produced a lot of truly awesome single-volume hardcover editions of various US games back in the day. I own a GW 3rd edition CoC thanks to the kindness of a friend and periodically go searching for GW editions of other games. Many of them are masterpieces of the RPG form.

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  15. I think Robin Laws' Hero Wars, and then Greg Stafford's re-write, Hero Quest, and then Robin's re-re-write of HQv2 are, in large part, exactly that: an attempt to translate the feel of "King of Dragon Pass" into a paper-and-pencil. Whether that succeeds or not, is a valid question.

    I'm personally not a huge fan of the non-RQ Gloranthan games, even though I readily acknowledge that they're probably closer to Greg Stafford's vision than was the original game. For me, Glorantha will always have this wonderful dichotomy between the "nasty, brutish, and short" existence implied by the combat system and mythic, even mystical existence implied by its religions, cults, and magical systems. It's heady stuff.

    Also, it might interest people to know that Moon Design (the publisher currently handling Gloranthan/HQ material) started out, more or less, as a way to Rick Meints re-publish and bring back into print the "core" of RQv2 material. There were four volumes, not the rules (but you can probably still find copies of the red-book on ebay at reasonable prices), and you can probably still get ahold of some or all of them.

    I should probably try to pick these up before they're as hard to find as the originals.

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  16. The Ducks get too much attention, in my opinion.

    Indubitably. It's just that they're a "gimme" for gamers looking to dismiss RQ and Glorantha without thinking. Enough gamers will immediately think a game with anthropomorphic ducks is ludicrous that merely mentioning their existence counts as a black mark against RQ, which is why they come up so often in these discussions.

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  17. From a gameplay perspective, Runequest suffers from having a what is quite one of the worst skill mechanics ever designed. The mathematics behind opposed skills checks (e.g. stealth versus detection) are horribly broken when the two sides are equally matched but very high level. Essentially, at high levels, probability guarantees that the passive skill will disproportionately win no matter how the characters are built.

    Cthulhu unfortunately preserves this broken skill system. However, characters typically do not level very far in that game, which is why it is less of an issue.

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  18. By the way, when I say "level" I mean, skill levels. I know RQ doesn't have level-levels, but maybe what I said was confusing.

    The positive feedback loop involved in skill progression is also a pretty horrendous design IMHO, but that is less objectively true than opposed checks.

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  19. RQ came with such a good reputation that I tried to get into it as soon as I heard about it. Unfortunately, this coincided with the Avalon Hill 3rd edition, in retrospect a terrible introduction to the game. I struggled through as much of that dry text as I could stand, labored for the better part of an afternoon through the tedious process of making a single character, and never ran a game. But I kept it on my shelf for years, even acquired most of the 3rd ed. Glorantha books to put next to it, because I thought of RQ as something to aspire to, the graduate-level rpg I would one day come back to after my GM'ing skills had advanced past less sophisticated trifles like T&T and TWERPS. Its amazing how serious you think everything is when you're young.

    Finally admitted that RQ just wasn't too my taste and sold of that collection, but I still think of it as something refined and exceptional. Partly its the peculiar complexities, ones that didn't suffuse into wider game-media the way those of D&D, Traveller or even CoC did, and so still seem singular. Another is the tight community that surrounds Glorantha lore, dedicated people whose thought on that world is decades old and play with nuances that can't be picked up on without such standing investment. To me, RQ is the Italian Opera of rpg's: sophisticated, drenched in lore, but also inaccessible and baroquely bizarre.

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  20. I too have a long love/hate relationship with Runequest. Its skill based charecter system without classes and armor asorbing damage always seemed much more organic than D&Ds aproach. Unfortunately both the skill advancement and who wins combat are much more luck driven than D&D. Get lucky and your skills go up quickly, get the first critical in and ounch through all that armor to sever your opponents head, get your dodge up to something horrendous and you are unstoppable. All the parry and armor made the fights last much longer so we only got one fight an evening. However the thing that finaly stopped me was the dificultly of rolling encounters, OD&D once you knew the hit dice and AC you were 90% done, Runequest you had to roll up the skill set for every trollkin. Made for a good aftermarket for pregenerated monsters, but not fun for those who like to imporvise (like me). I am still very fond of the Gloranthain world (Greg Stafford being wildly imaginative). I have been buying Herowars/quest(I'll save my skreed against that game system for another post) supplements just for the background information and King of Dragon pass is still one of my favorite computer games. Overall Runequest still ranks as one of the great innovations roleplaying and certainly worth looking at if perhaps not playing more than a couple times. Its tendancy to maim characters into unplayabilty didn't help to prolong campaign play either.

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  21. @Rob. I agree with you over Heroquest. Being a narrative game it's a totally different kettle of newtlings from a simulationist game such as Runequest. You might find Mongoose's Runequest II to be a better fit. It's been extensively rewritten to conform to the new standards of Glorantha. Well, at least they will be standard until they are Gregged again.

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  22. Walker wrote;

    From a gameplay perspective, Runequest suffers from having a what is quite one of the worst skill mechanics ever designed. The mathematics behind opposed skills checks (e.g. stealth versus detection) are horribly broken when the two sides are equally matched but very high level. Essentially, at high levels, probability guarantees that the passive skill will disproportionately win no matter how the characters are built.

    I was wondering if you could clarify this. It always seemed to me the game favored the active rolls;

    "...as has been noted in the descriptions, Perception skills take precedence over other skills. A successful roll with the appropriate Perception skill will always spot what was hidden, camouflaged, etc." (RQ2, p. 50)

    Likewise, is you made a successful Move Quietly roll you could sneak up on your opponent unless he made a successful Listen. The price of these skills of course was that you could take no other actions that turn.

    Sorry if I misunderstood. If this what you meant?

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  23. James, I also have that GW edition of Cthulhu, and while I never game with it, preferring the layout of the fifth edition, it is lovely to look at.

    Walker, having played Call of Cthulhu for almost twenty years, I can safely say that I have no idea what you're talking about. As I mentioned earlier, I don't have much experience with RuneQuest's version of the system, but I've not noticed anything particularly "broken" in CoC's implementation.

    Unless you're talking about the infamous "golf bag syndrome" effect, which is a case of slack GMing, rather than a problem with the rules.

    imredave, you don't have to roll up every monster. There are "average" examples of each type in the monster section. At least in the edition I have.

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  24. > RQ seems very popular over here, which I'd imagine might have something to do with Games Workshop pushing it so heavily back in the day... I would be surprised if it's the more popular fantasy rpg in Britain, as D&D still has its draw over here, but I'd imagine that it's a close second, unless WFRP has eclipsed it.

    Surprised to hear RQ is still a popular choice that much over here since it was a long way shy of (A)D&D and behind the likes of the Judge Dredd RPG (remember that?), even, before GW killed the market. Admittedly the survival of RQ, CoC and WHFRP was aided by a strong fanbase but I didn't understand that to be particularly numerous.

    @James: Yeah, the ducks are way too easy a target but had their logical place. Was easy enough to counter any general scoffing by asking people why their idea of a /fantasy/ game was restricted to a party of human/demi-human adventurers.
    Rather sad when SF is accepted to be more "fantastic" than fantasy in that regard...

    Agreed with the general trend for fewer long-term campaigns in RQ. Difficult to put a finger on just one reason for that, though.

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  25. irbyz, it's not a scientific survey of British gamer habits or anything like that, just a feeling I have based on conversations I've had, following blogs and forum discussions, and so on. I am often wrong, and may be here too!

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  26. For those interested in the RuneQuest system, but can't find their way to a copy of the 2nd edition, you might want to check out the "Gore" RPG. This is a retro-clone of the RuneQuest system placed under the OGL.

    You can get it at RPGNow, and possibly other places.

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  27. Would be good if the fanbase was still that strong despite all the setbacks, Kelvin.
    Even in the past RQ was more talked about than played but interested to know where the player support (/OSR equivalent) is these days.

    =
    Might as well add some ducks for good measure - and why restrict 'em to RQ? :) http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4066/4389347312_79285ef158.jpg

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  28. Man, do I love RuneQuest. I came to it through a friend who had a lot of 2nd Ed materials. He used to show me his maps of the Big Rubble. He had some of the rarer variant BRP games, such as ElfQuest and Ringworld.

    When 3rd Ed came out, we each saved our allowances to buy matching copies of the Deluxe box. Some didn't like that edition, but I loved it. The main drawback was its poor Glorantha integration, but from that we got some amazing stuff like the Vikings boxed set which I still adore.

    And everyone in my gaming group loved Ducks!

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  29. CC, there's also the aforementioned Openquest, for those wanting to give the game a try; the text-only version is free.

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  30. RuneQuest has always been big in the UK, and indeed in many European countries. It wasn't hard or difficult to get into in RQ2 days, maybe a lot more so in the 90s when it went uber deep (see recent Ken Hite blogs for more on this) but by then AD&D had also gone uber deep in Forgotten Realms. Many people actually play both D&D and RQ, and the latest edition (MRQII, actually RQ6) or OpenQuest are great games with a simple lean feel that can feel very much like your first Orlanthi character battling trolls or fighting the mad Lunar invaders.

    Such a shame you never got a long campaign..

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  31. Viktor Haag mentioned the Moon Design reprints above. All four (Pavis/Big Rubble, Griffin Mountain, Cult Compendium, Borderland & Beyond) are available in a pdf format bundle from DrivthruRPG for $60.

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