Thursday, March 10, 2011

REVIEW: RuneQuest II

Let me begin this review by stating, for the record, how much I dislike the name "RuneQuest II" being applied to a rulebook other than the second edition of Chaosium's version of the game. It's a small point, to be sure, but I mention it to be honest about my frame of mind as I undertook the reading of Mongoose Publishing's updated version of this classic game, written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. There was something subtly annoying about this book with the Rune of Luck on its cover, but I just couldn't place my finger on it. Whatever it was, it egged me on in looking for anything that could I could seize upon to dislike in this 200-page hardcover rulebook. Sure enough, I did find a few things I disliked, but I also found even more that I liked, which is why my initial annoyance eventually turned to pleasure.

So let's start at the beginning. Mongoose's RuneQuest II (hereafter MRQII) is presented as "a fully revised and updated edition of the classic game system originally released in 1978 and republished by Mongoose Publishing in 2006." The Roman numeral in the title is a reference to the 2006 Mongoose book, which, by all accounts, was a mess very much in need of this revision. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it's also intended as a sly reminder of its Chaosium-published predecessor, which was probably the most successful version of RuneQuest ever published (particularly in the UK, where, during the 1980s, it rivaled and may have even surpassed D&D in popularity).

Like OpenQuest, MRQII is intended as a generic iteration of the RuneQuest rules, although, because Mongoose Publishing has the license to produce materials set in Glorantha (albeit in the Second Age), there are occasional references to and examples derived from it. In addition, the rulebook embeds the concept of runes into its presentation of magic, which, while not necessarily tying the game to a specific setting or cosmology, does at least imply one. I don't think it'd be difficult to ignore this or to re-imagine it, but it's worth noting that, much like D&D (and unlike OpenQuest), MRQII brings with it a number of assumptions about the world its rules describe.

MRQII lays claim to the heritage of the original RuneQuest in other ways as well, including those "fiddly" bits that I have kept me from fully embracing the original rules. For example, characters (as well as creatures) have hit points divided by hit location. Likewise, combat contains a great deal of detail, which probably makes it far more satisfying for players who enjoy tactical challenges but more off-putting to people like me who prefer their combat rules quick and abstract. On the other hand, MRQII's character creation is quite flavorful, giving important roles to a character's culture and previous profession to determine starting skill values. There are also some terrific random tables for determining details of the character's family, allies, enemies, contacts, rivals, and other background information.

Skills are nicely delineated, being neither as narrow and limited as those in the original RuneQuest nor as extensive as in some games. I personally think the list could have been pared down a bit more, but I imagine that we got as many skills as we did in order to ensure the rules were useful to a wide variety of fantasy settings. MRQII's advancement system is similar to that presented in OpenQuest, but with additional options for in-game training, which I prefer. As noted, combat is fairly complex, especially with the introduction of combat maneuvers -- opportunistic actions characters can take if they achieve a particularly noteworthy success on an attack or defense skill roll. With time and experience, I am sure combat can be run smoothly and enjoyably, but, as someone used to OD&D's more abstract approach, I found MRQII's combat rules somewhat intimidating.

Magic in the game is divided into Common Magic, Divine Magic, Spirit Magic, and Sorcery, all of which have antecedents in earlier versions of RuneQuest. The rules governing magic are quite straightforward and nicely differentiate the various types from one another, which is a strong point in their favor. There are also guidelines for the creation of cults, which is, to my mind, one of the key elements of what made old school RuneQuest such a unique game. I am glad to see they were included in MRQII. I was a little less enthusiastic about the introduction of feat-like powers called "heroic abilities." However, heroic abilities are explicitly presented as rewards for advancement within a cult and from undertaking HeroQuests, the latter of which was never adequately integrated into the Chaosium RQ rules, despite much talk of it. So, while I can't deny a certain degree of personal uncomfortability with abilities like these, there's a strong case to be made that their presence is fulfilling a decades-long promise Chaosium never made good on and thus needed to be included.

MRQII has a very weak bestiary, consisting of less than two dozen monsters, quite a few of which are intelligent species. There are no rules for magic items or indeed treasure of any kind beyond ordinary equipment. Neither are there any sample adventures or campaign outlines, though there are some potentially useful random encounter tables at the back of the book. For this reason, MRQII feels less complete than OpenQuest does.

I imagine that this is by design, since Mongoose uses MRQII as the "core rulebook" for several different RPGs, each of which no doubt includes its own bestiary, treasures, and other game/setting-specific rules additions/modifications. That's probably fine from a publishing point of view, but it does, I think, limit the utility of MRQII as a single-volume generic rulebook for fantasy roleplaying. On the other hand, if you're intending to purchase and use the supplementary material that Mongoose is putting out, the RuneQuest II rulebook is an excellent compendium. Its revision of the classic RQ rules is clearly and logically presented and is true to its origins, making it a worthy official successor to Steve Perrin and Ray Turney's groundbreaking 1970s game design.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a clear and well presented, if slightly complex, rules system for skill-based fantasy roleplaying.
Don't Buy This If: You've already got a version of BRP with which you're satisfied or don't care for even a moderate level of rules complexity in your fantasy gaming.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. Now you've looked at OpenQuest and MRQII, the last* of the readily available RuneQuest derivatives is the Big Gold Basic Roleplaying book. Will you be reviewing that next?

    * By this I mean commercially available. There are more freely available RQ-derived games, notably Ray Turney's Fire and Sword.

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  2. A nice review, thanks.

    I read the book a couple of weeks ago, and it's a nice ruleset - I could see buying this if I didn't already have enough RQ material (and if I were to run an RQ game...)

    I'd probably drop the heroic abilities in my game. I don't feel they add much to the game, and in my view RQ is very much a low-level game, even with magic. I know it can be played otherwise, too, but I liked it without that much magic.

    The lack of creatures could be a problem using just this book.

    In a couple of places you have written 'MRQIII' instead of 'MRQII'.

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  3. Another fine review! I agree with most of your points, both positive and negative, although I think that I'm more positive in my opinion of MRQII overall. (I would probably give the book a 'utility' score of '8'.)

    As for 'completeness', I think that only the Monster Coliseum, along with the corebook, is essential for running a proper fantasy campaign.

    In case anyone is curious, I'm playing in a 'Young Kingdoms' (Elric) campaign right now with one of the authors of MRQII (Lawrence Whitaker). An index for the campaign (with links updated semi-regularly) is here: http://akraticwizardry.blogspot.com/2011/02/young-kingdoms-campaign-index.html

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  4. Thanks for this review.

    MRQ2 is a pretty solid system, though it nearly reaches the complexity of RQ3. Combat was a bit of a challenge to GM, for me - definitely the most daunting part of the system - but, in my campaign, it led to some very cinematic, swashbuckling conflicts. The extra effort led to a great payoff.

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  5. Interesting reviews of this and OQ. It does show some interesting differences in mind set and 'treasure' is an interesting case in point. MRQII works very hard to ensure that you can play and never need a magic item. As someone who started gaming with the original RQ2 in 1982 and who has not played D&D, I find magic items to be something of a foreign country.

    On the other hand, somewhat like you, when I first got MRQ1 and now MRQII I was highly sceptical of heroic abilities and it's patently obvious that the RQII authors don't think highly of them. However they turn it to be quite useful both to help emulate the heroic type who doesn't rely on magic (note that heroic abilities require Magic Points and have no 'casting roll') and also for settings where magic is rare.

    All in all, where the detail is in the book is a good guideline as to the game's focus. Combat is more detailed while there's not much support for exploration. The level of detail reminds me of A Game of Thrones (re-reading for obvious reasons). When GRRM describes combat it is a big deal and quite detailed. Same is generally true in RQ.

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  6. In RuneQuest (at least in the Chaosium version of the game, which was set in Glorantha), magic items were supposed to be unique. There was a book of magic items, called Plunder (1980), which gave the rationale and the history of each item.

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  7. Also, since everyone could wield magic in Glorantha, a fighting-type character would rather have a magic crystal storing POW and enabling him to cast a Bladesharp on his sword before each combat than the equivalent of a "+1 magic sword" à la AD&D.

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  8. So, no (or few) editing or other production related problems?

    You know, even companies themselves end up having to find ways to refer to different editions of games. Would it really be so bad to actually think through these things and make sure there was enough information on the cover to make the distinctions clear to anyone? If we’re all—including Mongoose and Chaosium—are going to call this “Mongoose RuneQuest II” or “MRQ2”, why not put that full term or abbreviation actually on the cover?

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  9. People probably don't know that RuneQuest 2, the Chaosium version, was never actually called RuneQuest 2. It was called RuneQuest. You had to search far and wide to discover that it was second edition. Once Avalon Hill produced the new edition, fans started calling the game RQ2 to distinguish it from the new edition.

    For better or worse, when Mongoose produced their first edition of the rules they simply called it RuneQuest with no edition number. If they had called it "Mongoose RuneQuest" they would have been slated for trying to associate their name with the brand.

    Given that this is their second edition of the game and that it was close enough in time to the previous edition they were going to have to call it something. Personally I would stuck to the tradition and called it RuneQuest and left any edition marker off.

    Interestingly, the only company to put a pronounced edition marker on RQ products was Games Workshop for the UK versions. I'm sure part of Mongoose's hope is to capture an echo of the lightning in the bottle that was RQ2 in the UK in the early 80s by echoing the name.

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  10. @Robert Fisher: There are a few editing issues with the MRQ2 core book, but, by and large, it's an improvement over a lot of other Mongoose releases. A 3-page errata document is available to fill in the gaps, and provide clarification).

    The real editing problems occur when you get into some of the MRQ2 supplements. The Arms & Equipment guide and Necromantic Arts were poorly upgraded from MRQ1 to MRQ2, for example.

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  11. One good thing about MRQ2 is that Lawrence Whitaker has done an excellent job with the rules is maintaining compatibility with what the current ideas about Glorantha are whilst still producing something that is recognizably Runequest. Much of the official Glorantha setting (especially in the mechanics of how the universe works) changed markedly when Hero Wars and Heroquest came out.

    Unfortunately Mongoose went into their first edition of Runequest with the same reflexes and attitudes they they had with their 3rd Ed products (after all, it had worked there), only to discover that most of the RQ consumers were far more discerning individuals, especially after the Avalon Hill years.

    Also, the fact that they had the rights to the name "Runequest" and had not licensed the actual BRP game system from Chaosium, meant that they had to produce a fascimile edition of the rules (using the argument that they had the right to produce a game of Runequest, and that you can't protect a game system [unless you patent it]). Which meant that all the other games had to subsets of the Runequest core book, rather than adaptions of the basic game system (as Chaosium could do with BRP). Which means that the game was rather confused between being a Gloranthan role-playing emulator and a generic fantasy gaming system.

    MRQ1 was really a bit of a mess. Still, it wasn't as bad as the height of Avalon Hill mismanagement of the brand.

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  12. Thanks for the reviews of MRQ II and OQ. Still hoping to see you review BRP's Classic Role Playing at some point!

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