Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Musings on RuneQuest Skills

For various reasons, my thoughts have been turning to RuneQuest a lot lately, particularly RQ II, which is the edition with which I have the most familiarity. RQ is a game that attracts a lot of attention from gamers dismissive of the concept of "old school gaming." I presume it's because RuneQuest has both a skill system and a highly detailed game world associated with it, which they mistakenly assume to be contrary to old school design principles -- but that's a topic for another post.

Anyway, while looking at my RQ II rulebook today and I paid careful attention to the skills it includes. If one leaves out combat-related skills, here is the standard complement of adventuring skills:
  • Camouflage
  • Climbing
  • Evaluate Treasure
  • Hide in Cover
  • Hide Item
  • Jumping
  • Listen
  • Lock Picking
  • Map Making
  • Move Silently
  • Oratory
  • Pick Pockets
  • Read/Write Foreign Language
  • Read/Write Own Language
  • Riding
  • Speak Foreign Language
  • Speak Own Language
  • Spot Hidden Item
  • Spot Trap
  • Swimming
  • Tracking
  • Trap Set/Disarm
There are also a handful of very specialized skills, mostly pertaining to crafting. Now, when I looked at the list above, what I immediately noticed is that, with very few exceptions, the skills are those I'd associate with D&D's Thief class (even Oratory, which is primary about swaying the emotions of others for one's own benefit), that is, physical/athletic skills and larcenous/"adventuresome" skills. That's not what I was expecting to find.

On the one hand, I suppose I shouldn't have been at all surprised. Despite its subsequent development, RuneQuest in its early days shared a lot with Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and other fantasy games, where characters were assumed to be ne'er-do-wells in search of fame, fortune, and power by delving into ancient ruins and contending with foul monsters. In that context, the skills make perfect sense. On the other hand, it's still striking to see how different one's perceptions of a game don't always match up to the reality of how the game is actually presented. When I think of RQ nowadays, I am almost always thinking not so much of the game itself but of the game world with which it is associated, Glorantha, and the full-bore Glorantha that only came to pass after many years and many supplements describing it -- the serious mythopoeic Glorantha that seems to have pushed aside the wild and woolly gaming Glorantha of yore.

I'm not sure there are any deep insights to be gleaned here, but I thought I'd share my thoughts nonetheless. I'll have more to say about RuneQuest and the role it plays in the old school renaissance in the days to come.


  1. Evaluate treasure reminds me of one of the two RQ characters I remember. "Thersamanbehinu" was my Dragonnewt, and he went from a fairly low Evaluate all the way up to around a 90% after a year of play. I can only assume he retired to start a money-changer business or pawnshop.

    The other character I remember was "Scotty Macquack," a character I came up with because I had a duck miniature with a kilt and a longword. I made him a bagpiper, but the other characters kept cutting his bag.

    Runequest (first edition) was only a part of my gaming life for a couple years, but we played the hell out of it during that time. Then Call of Cthulhu and and Champions became my alternates when we wanted a break from D&D.

    WV: "Duccias" - sounds like a good Runequest name.

  2. I believe that you are over thinking it. The reason you see so many "thief" skills in an RPG at this time is because, after combat, stealth is the simplest thing to give a concrete, formal set of rules for. It is much simpler than social abilities or crafting. And, at the time theses rules came out, it often provided much richer gameplay than straight combat.

    Indeed, if you look at modern video games, stealth games are on par with shooters. That is because you can make a fairly complex, compelling system that even a computer can understand.

    Social skills are typically lacking because it is hard to design such a system that complements role playing rather than hinders it. And crafting is really difficult because it leads to all sorts of economic instabilities in the game (and resource economics is the lynchpin of all formal rule systems).

  3. "... the skills are those I'd associate with D&D's Thief class"

    That's one way to look at it, James. I think it's also valid to say they are skills that every non-specialized adventurer could find useful.
    From that point of view, with no skill system and 3 specialized arch-typical classes in OD&D, the appearance of the "thief" class to fill in the gaps become an inevitability.

  4. How very different than the Swords and Glory rules for Tekumel - not sure how the original EPT rules addressed this point. Made up a character the other day with some skill in music and art.

  5. If i designed a skill system it would have no specific skills just sets, like Burglar that would covers picking locks, spoting hidden items, evaluating treasure, climbing, ect.

    Every charachter just picks two skill sets(or rolls on the secondary skill list) and you're set.

    or maybe just add a bunch of fun random table for things like swiming, reading, musical instruments, other languages ect
    1-7 no musical talent
    8-9 play an instrument (roll on sub table)
    10 great singing voice.

  6. Which is probably why my D&D campaign has "evolved" to only having three classes, those being the Warrior (who specialises in fighting), Sorcerer (who specialises in magic), and Adventurer (who specialises in something else).

    [Although I do have a much more relaxed policy towards multi-classing.]

  7. The common skills in Mongoose's Runequest II, is even more general:

    - Athletics
    - Brawn
    - Culture (Own)
    - Dance
    - Drive
    - Evade
    - Evaluate
    - First Aid
    - Influence
    - Insight
    - Lore (Regional)
    - Perception
    - Persistence
    - Resilience
    - Ride
    - Sing
    - Sleight
    - Stealth
    - Swim
    - Unarmed

  8. FWIW, Sandy Petersen released his adaptation of RQIII for Tekumel. It's online at http://www.tekumel.com/gaming_unofficialrules.html

    Direct download http://www.tekumel.com/downloads/RQtekumel.pdf

    It's not 100% complete, but still very playable and provides an alternate magic system for RQ and some more critters. I'm very tempted to use it for running Tekumel along with a few choice bits from MRQ's SRD and Openquest.

    As for Runequest and the OSR, I've found more that people dismiss RQ as being new school and not old school than what you described. Due to the skill system, no classes, detailed settings, detailed combat and the like. In other words, not D&D.

    Personally I don't give a flip what "school" it is in or out of. I like it.

  9. Hi,

    Re the comment by Gibbering Ghoul above, I'll mention that I'm working on an updated version of Sandy's RQ Tekumel rules (with his knowledge I should add!), trying to incorporate the missing elements e.g. spells, creatures, skills, items (eyes, amulets, books etc). When Sandy wrote his rules it was for a specific campaign, so he only detailed the bits he needed. It's taken a bit longer than I thought it would, with real life getting in the way, but I'm getting there, currently it's about 120 A4 pages plus.

    Once it's done it'll go somewhere for free download, and then I'll find out about all the bits that I've got wrong!



  10. One of the things I like about RQIII versus RQII is the more generalized and even skill system. In all my gaming experience, the mix of skills available in RQIII is perhaps my gold-standard for what a skill-based rolegame should contain (with perhaps the James Bond game as a close second-place).

    All the skills are genre appropriate, nicely spread across a wide array of "things characters might want to do" without getting too specific, and (most important) not too numerous in number.

    By contrast, Call of Cthulhu's skill list is, I think, just a wee bit too large (although if you ask me "which skills would you pare back", I'm not sure I could give a good answer: the expansion over RQ's list has a lot to do with the expected character roles).

    RQII's skill list is also nice, but is also (as you point out) a bit un-even in its activity coverage), and I feel also a bit unruly. This may have some old-school charm, but there are times when a bit of regularity can be a good thing in my experience, and RQIII's skill regularity is one of those things.

  11. I'm going to be interested in seeing your ongoing comments on Runequest James. I'm as interested in supporting Gore as I am the D&D retro-clones as I'm more interested in RQ in general.

  12. How interesting. Aside from the lack of lore-skills like Arcana or History, it's quite similar to D&D 4e's skill list.

    I believe there is significance to that fact.

  13. As for Runequest and the OSR, I've found more that people dismiss RQ as being new school and not old school than what you described. Due to the skill system, no classes, detailed settings, detailed combat and the like. In other words, not D&D.

    Anyone who does that has such a narrow definition of "old school," both historically and conceptually, that I'll personally kick them out of the clubhouse for saying such nonsense.

  14. By contrast, Call of Cthulhu's skill list is, I think, just a wee bit too large (although if you ask me "which skills would you pare back", I'm not sure I could give a good answer: the expansion over RQ's list has a lot to do with the expected character roles).

    No argument from me. The main flaw I find in CoC after all these years is its overly specific skills.

  15. I believe there is significance to that fact.

    In what way?

  16. Mysticmuskox, I would be very interested in your Tekumel rules! If you wouldn't mind adding me to your contact list, maybe you could let me know when it's done?
    Thanks so much,