Beach Reading RuneQuest Classic

I’m not writing anything these days, and noticing that I’m not I thought I should start. If you stumble across this, read this as a practice essay, a work in progress. Perhaps a review in progress, but I don’t feel qualified calling it a proper review. The point of all this is that I need to practice writing, and here is that practice. You luck bastards get to read it. Or not.

I accidentally left the hardcover fiction I was reading on the bedside stand, which I discovered as I browsed through the books I’d packed for our family vacation. We regularly stop at Harding’s Books and each of us picks up a title or two on the way from the cabin to the beach, but since our house is overflowing with unread books, I decided to bring books instead of buy books. But as I said, I forgot to bring Llana of Gathol. So instead of continuing ERB’s serialized pulp, I opened the hardbound classic edition of RuneQuest and settled into my folding chair on the windswept beach of Kennebunkport.

RuneQuest has been around since the late 70’s, but didn’t fall under my radar in those hyacinth days of dice-rolling, long high school summers, and buckets of sugary Kool-Aid. I was totally absorbed with TSR’s publishing efforts and how I was going to afford Steading of the Hill Giant Chief on my meager, near nonexistent budget. I was so thrilled with AD&D that I tried to buy their entire catalog. I failed, but the habit continues, and when I come across a game that I like I buy most (all) of the supplemental material. There are a couple games right now that I’m gobbling up, and RuneQuest is one of them.

This isn’t a review, don’t get your heckles up. This is more my impression of reading the thin, 146-page-long core game cover to cover. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a role-playing game book this way, starting at the first word on the first page and reading it all the way through like a novel. Generally, I jump around. I’m so anxious to play the damn thing that I read the bare minimum to play, and then search for the various rules that we need as they come up in a game session. I’m running Chaosium’s A Time to Harvest at my local comic book storeA Time to Harvest is an adventure supplement for the 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu, a long-standing, award-winning rpg classic. I own the rules, two beautiful, glossy-paged, hard cover volumes packaged in a nice looking slipcase, and haven’t read them. I’ve read the jump start guide, a handy free booklet explaining how to play, and usually just bring that to our game sessions. Another example: I read most of HeroQuest: Glorantha until I couldn’t take it anymore and wrote my own jump-start adventure, which once the stars alight will be available for purchase from d100 Games. There are still bits I don’t understand, but I don’t worry about it. If it comes up I’ll deal with the situation in-game and then read how I was supposed to handle it later.

(I’m not the best guy to lead a game if you are a rules lawyer and enjoy arguing the rules, because I haven’t read most of the rules. But I am the guy to go through the effort and work to get the game on the table and get your asses in the chair playing it and having the time of your life.)

So my ass was in a beach chair soaking up the sun and the salty air and reading RuneQuest from front to back. There were times when I wanted to dig into my backpack to find paper and pencil so I could use the rules, but I resisted that urge. What did reading the rule book tell me about the kind of game RuneQuest was? Much like other games of the late 70’s, its rules and charts heavy. There is a chart for this, a chart for that, rules for many different combat situations – I think all the rules cover combat situations – and many pools of points that you have to keep track off: POW (magical power), Hit Points (the amount damage a character can take), some ability scores, and many, many percentile-based skills. It’s not really that different from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, its direct competitor at the time. To put it in AD&D terms, a RuneQuest character is a first-level fighter for hit points, with combat and sneaking skills like a thief (percentile-based), with spells learned like a magic-user (so many memorized based on Intelligence) and spend by reducing POW. And spirit combat is kind of like psionic combat, for those who remember those few obscure pages from the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Masters Guide.

The difference is in how the character advances. No levels. With training, which the character pays for – hence the need to go rob monsters of their treasure – each skill ticks up a 5% notch. Characters still want to kill monsters and take their stuff, which is one of the most common criticisms of of AD&D, although since combat is so lethal, I guess characters really just want to take the monsters’ stuff and aren’t so concerned with slaying them. The big difference, really big, is the world. Where AD&D had the World of Greyhawk, RuneQuest has Glorantha, the huge artificial world with a cumbersome mythology and thousands upon thousands of pages of history. It can be boiled down to a few pages, and RuneQuest does this, or it can be expanded into two huge and heavy coffee table-sized volumes of Gloranthan lore that doesn’t contain a single sentence of game rules. There is Dragon Pass and Prax and all sorts of goodies that RuneQuest fans have memorized and drooled over for years. The love and attention that its creator(s) poured into the world is staggering and impressive, and if any fictitious place could seem real and not just imagined, Glorantha is that place. Where Greyhawk is generic medieval Europe mixed with Middle Earth, and Faerun is the same with sword-wielding superheroes that take center stage more often than the player characters, Glorantha is unique. Several bronze-age cultures mixed with some dark ages cultures mashed together in a unique vision of active god pantheons, struggling clans, and warring empires.

This classic RuneQuest reprint captures the individual feel of this massively fictitious world through the sample character of Rurik the Restless. He is a street-wise barbarian living in Prax, a plains city occupied by the conquering Lunar Empire and sitting next to the Big Rumble, a ruined city built by giants and now housing trolls, chaos monsters, and roving bands of criminals. In a sense Rurik seems like a criminal, and while early AD&D tries to capture a heroic feeling for the various created characters, RuneQuest feels more seedy, more gritty. Sometimes downright dirty. As the author guides us through the rules with his example characters, Rurik and his band of roving mercenaries wanders through the Big Rubble and tries to take money from other roving bands, more often than not trolls. In RuneQuest, trolls are not orcs, meaning that they are not the default evil minions that players can kill indiscriminately, but a much more detailed, comprehensive and motivationally complicated race. But essentially he’s stealing money from other people to pay for his training, all in the hopes that he will climb the ranks of the various religious/magical cults. He will eventually be noticed by his god and become a Rune-Lord, which gives him access to Rune Spells, more complicated magics than the regular Battle Spells that he already knows, but still essentially only cast in battle. And while he gets more dangerous, he doesn’t get any tougher; his attack skill with a spear climbs over 100%, but he still only has 7 hit points in his head and one good shot to the bean can kill him. In one example, when overwhelmed by more powerful troll opponents, Rurik screams out how high his ransom is if they capture him instead of kill him. It works and he survives to illustrate further examples of the rules.

In a way, RuneQuest reminds me of Melee, the basic combat fantasy rules written by Steve Jackson in 1977. Melee was all about combat and just about combat. Players made gladiator characters, which took five to ten minutes, then moved them around a hexagonal-patterned area and traded blows using a fairly simple six-sided dice mechanic. It was fun but didn’t have a lot of depth. RuneQuest seems to add the depth with Glorantha and religious cults and god magic and hero quests, but since I haven’t played it, I don’t know how well it works. I imagine it works really well, since the kickstarter to reprint the classic edition funded quickly and there is a thriving community snapping up RuneQuest products. Hell, I’m one of them. It’s popular enough that Chaosium is working on a new edition of the game, which I’m sure I’ll buy but don’t know if I’ll play.

Anyway, RuneQuest seems like a lot of complexity and bookkeeping for a fairly fragile character. Call of Cthulhu is the same thing, which isn’t surprising because both games use the same core mechanic, but the physical fragility of an investigator exploring the Cthulhu mythos fits that genre better than a RuneQuest adventurer traipsing around a sword and sorcery genre. Mostly. Maybe I’m thinking of a sword and sorcery setting based on Howard’s Conan stories. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were not as indestructible as the sullen-eyed barbarian, and I can more easily how RuneQuest fits the sword and sorcery genre by envisting Leiber’s pair of theives and their various antics.

Finishing the book, and by the way the sample character Rurik dies in the final pages, I’m glad I read the entire book. For many it was their first introduction to Glorantha, and I think its a good taste of the world to come. It certainly prompts me to read more RuneQuest supplements (don’t worry, I own many more) and perhaps even sit down and play the game with my group. It might be a little to rules dense for us, we’ll see. The Call of Cthulhu group is loving that game, which uses the same rules without the heavy emphasis on combat. Perhaps I’ll have more to report back in the months to come.

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One Response to Beach Reading RuneQuest Classic

  1. gonzohistory says:

    As I may have said before, I’m a huge Gloranthaphile, but I’ve never really engaged with Runequest, although I grew up playing CoC. I own a few RQ books, but mainly for Gloranthan info. I think “rules dense” is very much what people were looking for at the time — a lot of early attempts to replace D&D were frustrated by its simplicity — but I don’t know that it would go over well with people who didn’t start out with it. I could be wrong, though!

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