Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Retrospective: RuneQuest Companion

About a year after the publication of original Dungeons & Dragons, its first supplement appeared. Subtitled Greyhawk, Supplement I offered up a grab bag of "new characters, new abilities, more spells to use, a horde of new monsters, heaps of new magical treasure, and various additions to the suggestions and rules for adventuring above and below the ground," most of which were drawn from Gary Gygax's D&D campaign of the same name. Two more supplements of a similar sort followed (Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry), thereby establishing a pattern for the way rules additions and suggestions were published in the hobby.

Chaosium was particularly prolific in producing supplements of this sort, though, rather than calling them "supplements," they called them "companions." Companions were published to support most of their RPGs, from Call of Cthulhu to Stormbringer to Ringworld, among others. Each of these companions presented a selection of rules and setting additions, expansions, options, and corrections. I've always appreciated this approach, since it both obviates the need for a new edition and gave the referee the choice of whether or not to include any of the new material printed in its pages.

The RuneQuest Companion, first published in 1983, is a good example of what I mean. Over the course of 72 pages, the Companion presents nineteen articles by a wide variety of authors, each of which offers new insight into some aspect of RQ and its setting, Glorantha. As explained by Charlie Krank in his introduction to the book, the Companion was published in the wake of the cancelation of Wyrms Footnotesm the semi-regular 'zine that had previously provided RQ fans with more information about Glorantha and its history, cultures, and denizens. (It's interesting to note that Krank's explanation for the demise of Wyrms Footnotes is quite simple: "it costs too much money." As the publisher of a fanzine myself, I am deeply sympathetic with Krank's perspective.) The Companion, then, was intended to fill this particular gap, with the promise – unfulfilled, as it turned out, but then that's nothing new in the history of RuneQuest – of a new volume of the Companion "whenever we have accumulated 64–96 pages of top-notch articles."

The articles are quite varied. There's Sherman Kahn's "An Index to RuneQuest Cults," Alan LaVergne's solo adventure, "The Maze of Shaxry Oborok," and Greg Stafford's "Holy Country" (complete with a remarkable map). Meanwhile, Sandy Petersen presents his "Species Spotlight: Unicorns," which gives a unique Gloranthan spin on the legendary beasts and "More on Trolls," expanding on the information in Trollpak. There's also a fair bit of fiction (and poetry) set in Glorantha and few rules additions. What makes the Companion remarkable, though, is its diversity. Its pages aren't devoted to a single theme or topic. Instead, we're provided with articles and essays on many aspects of the game and its setting, with a particular emphasis on the latter. Indeed, looking back on it now, what really strikes me about the RuneQuest Companion is how few of its pages are devoted to new rules. Chaosium clearly understood the main draw of RQ was its setting of Glorantha. That's probably why I look on this book so favorably even now.


  1. " I've always appreciated this approach, since it both obviates the need for a new edition and gave the referee the choice of whether or not to include any of the new material printed in its pages."

    Well said. I think I bought every Companion Chaosium released, and enjoyed them all.

  2. The two Stormbringer Companions are pretty good indeed

  3. [part 1 of 2]
    My first exposure to RPG gaming materials were a random selection of two Top Secret modules; Chaosium's All the World's Monsters; a couple of the RuneQuest Borderlands books; and the RuneQuest Companion, given to me in 1987 at age 9 by chance one day by the son of a friend of my mother who was off to college and in a stunning act of kindness and generosity gave me the above. I wish I could thank the hell out of him because I'm sure he regrets it to this day.

    All the Worlds' Monsters I read first, cover to cover, intoxicated by the possibilities and mysteries of monstrous mayhem. I only just discovered what in hell a “Vance dragon” might be in the last few years or so, for example.

    Borderlands and the RuneQuest Companion were impenetrable mysteries that never stopped fascinating me and which I returned to read and use parts of again and again.

    I was a child and did not understand these books or Glorantha but obviously something rich and amazing had been created here and I kept coming back, as with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, of which my father gave me his 1960s paperbacks to read at the same time— my first books without pictures and damn were they a slog at that age! It took me over a year but I did it, with a break in the middle to read Herbert’s Dune— serious masochism there! I only made it through because for me, David Lynch’s Dune was the fifth Star Wars film, after the canonical Star Wars, The Black Hole, and the others. Dad would have started me with the infinitely more suitable Hobbit but his copy had disappeared!

    When I finally found RPGs and started buying them myself, the Chaosium party was over and all this wonder had been reduced to the seemingly sparse offerings of Avalon Hill's 3rd Edition, though many years later I did eventually pick up the beautiful deluxe 3rd Edition paperback of the rules from them (I think with the same brilliant artist doing the cover of both that and the Companion). Dungeons & Dragons had won the Rune Wars and the world of the imagination was poorer for it.

    Thankfully in 1993 Chaosium released the Elric! iteration of the Stormbringer rules and I finally got to grasp that Chaosium richness in a game with a background I understood which I could grow to GM with finesse. My old gaming group was still occasionally begging me to run another adventure until I moved to Europe in 2008, and when I visit again I'll try to get the old band together for another voyage in the savage Young Kingdoms.

  4. [part 2 of 2]
    I was happy to come full circle at the 2018 release party for RuneQuest Glorantha in Berlin with Jason Durall and Jeff Richard. I bought the new materials they were selling— RQ Glorantha; the abbreviated but still weighty new Guide to Glorantha; King of Sartar— but now I have the same problem that I had at age 9! Glorantha is still the most intimidating setting I have ever considered gaming in due to its endless richness and detail... an aspiration I may never get to game in but will always absolutely love and admire! The closest I've gotten to actually gaming in Glorantha are The King of Dragon Pass computer game and my endless childhood runs through the RuneQuest Companion's "The Maze of Shaxry Oborok”, crudely modified for my D&D characters. Plus I used part of the Borderlands for a simple self-made RPG I ran with just my amazing younger brother playing.

    Maybe I’d better finally take up Durall and Richard’s kind offer to play in one of their games when I’m in Berlin and have the time.

    In the meantime, instead I’m considering running Prince Valiant to test the waters with some of the non-gaming people and kids in my life, with the possibility of advancing to Pendragon if they dig it. Those are other games from Chaosium that are new to me but it seems to me the bar of knowledge and temporal commitment needed to GM in our own mythic past is much lower than that needed to GM in Glorantha.

    I wish it were not so but this is surely both the blessing and the curse of the Glorantha setting.

    Thank you for your amazing blog, James Maliszewski; I’ve stumbled on your blog a few times over the years and have been reading it a lot the last couple days to educate myself further and to ponder these weighty matters.

    Hence this recounting, for your pleasure, by way of thanks.

    I’m mightily drawn to the old D&D dungeon crawling modules and the old school dungeon crawl approach you and your compatriots have been espousing here on your blog for over a decade (a possible alternative to running Prince Valiant to test the waters!), but once I was able to grasp the differences I’ve always disliked the video game-like D20 system compared to the realism of the Chaosium approach.

    The only problem is the combats in Stormbringer could run very long but I understand that’s the case at higher level D&D as well. The payoff is you have many more options in combat in Stormbringer, and more incentive to use your wits to avoid those combats.

    Hmmm maybe the West End Games Star Wars RPG has a good balance between the virtues of the two….

    In closing— those Chaosium books started it all for me, and even though I’ve never understood them I will always be in love with them, and the fine people and books of Chaosium will always be dear to my heart.

    And can we please, please get some love for the cover of the RuneQuest Companion? I didn’t appreciate it in 1987 probably because I hadn’t yet made the leap of adventurer intelligence needed to fall in love with the Western (a leap that, alas for my poor father, did not occur until after his death, barring the brilliant The Searchers by John Ford, the power and passion of which penetrated even in my youthful density), but this cover is probably the greatest fantastic depiction of a mythic Native American warrior that I have ever seen, probably you have ever seen… probably the greatest in the world, no? This painting should be a poster, aimed at Plains Native American reservations and people and all who love the weird Wild West!

    Thank you, James Maliszewski. May the gods and spirits bless you and your life and work.

  5. Chaosium wastes no time: saw a part of this article quoted this morning in Ab Chaos #165 blurbing the Companion.

    Also, "Dungeons & Dragons had won the Rune Wars and the world of the imagination was poorer for it."

    Ahem . . . .

    'Scuse me.

    Got something stuck in my throat . . . .