Tuesday, March 8, 2011

REVIEW: OpenQuest

In the gaming circles in which I spent my formative years in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons and RuneQuest were like Coke and Pepsi or the White Sox and the Cubs -- you were for one or the other. As a partisan of D&D, I thus had very little direct experience with RQ, believing it to be a weird, "hippy" game and thus unworthy of my attention. Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- I was nevertheless quite fascinated by RuneQuest. I read articles about the game in the pages of White Dwarf (and Dragon, too, so I reasoned it that it couldn't be that bad, could it?). I saw descriptions of its products in the Chaosium catalogs I got in my copies of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer (and any company that made those games couldn't make a truly bad game, could they?). And I even played the occasional pick-up games at local games days, hoping to get a better sense of what was so bad -- or good -- about RuneQuest.

Over the years, particularly as my love affair with D&D waned during the 2e era, I looked again at RQ with fresh eyes and found a genuine appreciation for both its rules and its setting. I even picked many of the RuneQuest products Avalon Hill produced and attempted to start a campaign using them, but to no avail. I continued to acquire the occasional Avalon Hill offering during the early 90s, but I never managed to use any of them in actual play. Consequently, I consider RQ "the one that got away" -- a game I'd have liked to have played but, owing to circumstances and my own earlier stupidity, I never managed to do so. That situation hasn't much changed in the years since, but I have made a greater effort to understand RuneQuest on its own terms by immersing myself in its Chaosium era products. I've discovered, not entirely unsurprisingly, that I actually prefer the style and presentation of that era of RQ, which seems a lot more straightforward and accessible than the Avalon Hill stuff I bought almost two decades ago.

But, as highly as I regard the second edition of Chaosium's RuneQuest, I still doesn't quite click with me, both for reasons I can explain and for reasons I cannot. Consequently, I've been on the lookout for an alternative -- a game that would allow me to play in old school Glorantha but without all the rules bits I don't like. So, when I heard about D101 Games's OpenQuest, I was intrigued. Written by Newt Newport (with Graham Spearing, Tim Bancroft, Simon Bray, and Paul Mitchener), it's available for sale either as a 188-page softcover book for £15 (approximately $23 US) or a PDF of the same length for £6 (about $9 US). You can also get a free text-only version of the game from the D101 Games website. The softcover is an A4-sized book, which, after so many years of associating RuneQuest with White Dwarf, seems strangely right to me. It has a wonderfully evocative cover illustration by Jon Hodgson and is illustrated throughout by Simon Bray. The book uses a simple but straightforward two-column layout and its text is clearly written with no immediately noticeable editorial errors. All in all, it's a nicely put together book.

OpenQuest (hereafter OQ) uses an OGL iteration of Basic Roleplaying "based on the Mongoose RuneQuest SRD (MRQ SRD), with ideas from previous editions of Chaosium’s RuneQuest and Stormbringer 5th, mixed in with some common sense house rulings from the author’s twenty years of experience with the D100 system," according to the D101 Games website. What's immediately clear is that Newport and his co-authors consider simplicity a virtue. OQ is much simpler than either RuneQuest 2e or 3e, with far fewer "fiddly" bits, when it comes to both character generation and common actions, such as combat and magic use. The result is a game that feels (to me anyway) like a streamlined and updated version of Stormbringer with magic systems that call to mind those of RuneQuest shorn of their Gloranthan specificity.

I say this not as a criticism of OQ, because I actually believe this to be one of OQ's triumphs. Much as I love RuneQuest and Stormbringer, both games are closely tied to their settings in my mind, making it difficult for me to imagine using them as "generic" rulesets. OQ, on the other hand, is a genuinely generic ruleset, meaning that I'd have fewer mental reservations about using it for a game set neither in Glorantha nor the Young Kingdoms. Likewise, the fact that OQ's combat system retains the deadliness of its predecessors without their complexity (or RQ's in any case) means that I'd seriously consider such a possibility. Of course, simplification is a double edged sword. There are times when certain more complex systems that I liked, such as RQ's advancement system, are discarded and replaced by one for which I don't particularly care. It's not a deal-breaker by any means and the beauty of Basic Roleplaying-derived systems, like D&D-derived ones, is the ease with which rules from one can be ported into another. Still, it's worth noting that OQ is sometimes simpler than I would have preferred.

Far more noteworthy, though, is the admirable completeness of this book. Its 188 pages covers nearly everything you'll ever need to play. In addition to the expected character generation, combat, action, and magic rules, there's also a large bestiary, a sample setting, and two adventures suitable for use with beginning characters. About the only significant area where I felt OQ was lacking was in terms of magic items and artifacts, but then I felt the same way about RuneQuest, so take that as you will. It's rare to find a game that can truly be called "complete" without qualification and yet is so lean in its presentation. There's almost nothing in this book that I'd consider unworthy to have been included; it all serves to present and demonstrate its rules and the type of fantasy gaming they're intended to support. It's a superb package, all the more remarkable when one considers how rarely such a feat is achieved nowadays.

In the end, most of my criticisms of OpenQuest are nitpicks -- little rules choices here or there that I felt weakened or eliminated some element of earlier games that I particularly enjoyed. But I know well that those aspects of earlier games that I like are not held in the same regard by all, so it's inevitable that there'd be these areas of polite disagreement. As I said, I don't like the rather banal advancement rules in OpenQuest nor am I all that keen on the introduction of meta-game-y "hero points," but both are easily changed. Meanwhile, I think the combat system offers a good balance between the grittiness I associate with BRP-style battles and the mechanical complexity often needed to support it. All and all, Newt Newport and his compatriots have done a fine job of presenting a clean, complete, and easy to use ruleset that I'd seriously consider using for fantasy roleplaying in the future. That's about as high praise as I can give any game.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a straightforward, complete, and easy-to-use percentile-based fantasy roleplaying game.
Don't Buy This If: You've got no need for another fantasy RPG or prefer your BRP-derived games to err on the side of complexity.


  1. It's a good game, but how I do wish though someone would make a good D&D'ish clone out of BRP.

  2. I'm a pretty big fan of Openquest. I definitely prefer it to the heavier Runequest. I love that it's not shackled to Glorantha, which is my only beef with the various Runequest games.

  3. Nice review! Although given your comments, I was a bit surprised by the '7' for presentation (I was expecting an '8').

    I'm a big fan of both OpenQuest and Mongoose's RuneQuest II. (For my comparison of both games, see: http://akraticwizardry.blogspot.com/2010/03/runequest-ii-versus-openquest.html).

  4. @iron: You may want to look at 'Classic Fantasy', which is monograph from Chaosium designed to emulate 1e AD&D with BRP.

    See: http://catalog.chaosium.com/product_info.php?cPath=37&products_id=5045

  5. @Dan: Mongoose's RuneQuest II is not tied to Glorantha (i.e., the core rulebook is 'generic' in nature).

  6. Does Openquest not use the old tick-the-boxes-and-roll-them-at-the-end advancement system from the Chaosium games? I know Mongoose did away with it in their versions of Runequest, and there's the perennial but unfounded "golf bag syndrome" criticism, but I've never had a problem with it.

  7. In my country, Spain, before AD&D and MERP was RQ (and Stormbringer, of course). The first important RPG publisher imported Chaousium rules, and they were very popular in late 80s and early 90s. I had great memories about Glorantha and the Young Kingdoms, D100 and demons invocation system.

    Obviously, MERP and AD&D arrived sometime later and they were very popular. But, to many players, RQ and Stormbringer were THE fantasy roleplaying games.

  8. Back in the 80's Runequest was played more by a group of my friends than by myself. They dropped the Glorantha magic system and hacked the D&D-like level-based spells from Bard Games' Arcanum; spell casting was a skill, spells cost 1 POW per level and spell level also figured into the casting roll. The game was colloquially known to us as "Ruin Quest" due to the high rate of mortality and maiming the combat system allowed...

  9. @kelvingreen: OQ uses the MRQ system, viz., characters are awarded 'improvement points' which they can use to improve skills, learn spells, etc.

  10. I've been tempted to get this, but, given I already own the BRP core rulebook and can customize it as needed*, I haven't been able to justify the purchase. (Call me old-fashioned; I'd prefer getting the paperback.) I assume it's as possible to write cross-compatible "D100" adventures that work with BRP, MRQ, and OQ, as it is to do so for the various D&D retroclones, so I hope this will lead to a wave of new products.

    *(In other words, no hitpoints divided by location, and the hit-location and major wounds rules replaced by some kit-bashed from WFRP 1E.)

  11. I picked up OQ out of curiousity, and thought it was pretty worthwhile - a kind of mash-up between BRP Gold Book and Runequest. (I'm a big BRP/RQ/d100 fan, so I'm always interested in seeing different permutations of the rules set).

    There are a few things that I found quirky - for example, I don't really like skill point spending broken down by category. I prefer either the MRQ2 approach, where culture/profession provide skill bonuses and then a free point pool is allocated. Or, CoC's approach which is looser.

    Otherwise, OQ seems like a solid system. I'm not sure if I'd use it over MRQ2, but maybe one day if I get tired of tracking combat actions.

  12. Iron - check out Chaosium's BRP supplement "Classic Fantasy". It's an unabashed translation of D&D into the BRP system.

  13. Akrasia thanks for clarifying that.