A Voiceless Song in an Ageless Night
RuneQuest, Second Edition
By Steve Perrin & Ray Turney
My first year at university, I encountered my first roleplaying games; two of those games I still remember fondly. Well, perhaps three, butI’ll explain that in a footnote1. The first game was Traveller, which I reviewed here. The second was Chaosium’s RuneQuest, 2nd Edition. Which is now in print again, thank Ghu.
LikeTraveller, RuneQuest is a skill-based system. Like Traveller, the skills that count are somewhat mundane. However, unlike Traveller, whose basic rule set was quite unspecific about the setting, RuneQuest was explicitly set in Greg Stafford’s Glorantha.
I should perhaps add that both games, unlike a lot of role-playing games then and now, are designed to put wandering murder hobos at a considerable disadvantage. Just in case you wondered.
The credits are somewhat fractal: the deeper you go, the more names they list. The cover lists Steve Perrin and Ray Turney, but if you look inside the book, the full list of writers also includes Steve Henderson and Warren James. Also listed on the title page are editors John Sapienza and Greg Stafford, with illustrations by Luise Perrin and maps by William Church. The dedication mentions Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Ken St. Andre. More than three dozen people are thanked for playtesting and advice. The second edition is munificent in its thankfulness.
The rules were initially available as a single perfect-bound 120-page volume. The book was short, but managed to contain more than one might expect (thanks to the wonder of small print).
To take this book section by section:
This was an introduction to role-playing games in general, RQ in particular, and to Stafford’s Bronze-Age secondary fantasy world Glorantha.
How to Create an Adventurer
This title is slightly misleading: this section explains how to create an adventurer without much in the way of previous experience or abilities, and only basic equipment. There are ancillary character creation rules mentioned later in the book; pretty much everyone took advantage of them.
The seven stats (strength, constitution, size, intelligence, power,dexterity and charisma) will be recognizable as familiar game tropes2. The stat that seemed to make the most difference in actual play was power, which was essentially a measure of how much the gods liked you. Higher values are almost always better, with one exception: it’s harder for people glowing with divine adoration to escape notice.
Although the default language of the guide implies that the adventurers would be men, the examples and the illustrations make it clear this was not the case: characters could be any gender. In reviewing the credits, I noticed that the play testers included both men and women.
Mechanics and Melee
This section is mainly indirectly or directly melee-related. Hit points, how many a character has (not many, either in total or by body part), and what happens when a body part loses all its hit points (bad things) are covered. How exactly one would lose hit points is left to the next chapter.
What was not immediately apparent when one started playing the game was that while characters started without many hit points, in the long run they would continue to have not many hit points by the standards of games like D&D or Champions. Normal people in RQ were comparatively fragile.
This is exactly what it says on the tin: combat rules. Skills were rated in percentiles. Players hoped to roll under their rating; rolls above the rating didn’t count. Combat was generally a dicey proposition. As pointed out earlier, characters were frail. Game rules meant that their chances of actually hitting anything were low. Even common weapons might only connect once in every four attempts. A novice wielding an exotic weapon might connect only once in twenty tries.
There was one compensation: many commonly available weapons did enough damage that one could kill an unarmoured character with one lucky blow, particularly if that blow was to the head. That was great if you were the character delivering the blow. It sucked if you were on the receiving end. Combat in RQ was often a series of misses that ended in sudden death.
Armour was the character’s friend. A fair-weather friend, all too often unable prevent death or dismemberment.
In this area RQ differed from most fantasy roleplaying games. Magic was not a specialist’s skill. Every character could wield a kind of utilitarian magic called battle magic. Not only was magic nearly universal, not all spells were combat-related. There were useful low-level spells for lighting fires, healing people, or repairing broken items.
(There was a character class of shamans, but they faced some significant restrictions. They belonged to a specific tribe and were obliged to help that tribe at all times. No vacations.)
The battle magic was a large part of what attracted me to RQ. It just made sense to me that a world with functional magic would have spells for daily chores. Sure, Evoke Dragon is flashy but it’s only occasionally useful. A spell to get the snow off a sidewalk? That’s everyday. I wish I had such a spell.
LikeTraveller, RQ was a skilled based system; players rolled dice, hoping for numbers under their skill rating. One could gain skills through training, which was not free: PCs paid in silver or obligations, or both.
Social obligations, because most RQ characters belonged to social networks. Which brings us to:
Virtually all characters in RQ belonged to cults. This is because the gods are real and will reward the faithful (such as by teaching them new battle magic).
None of my characters ever lasted long enough that the rune lord rules were relevant. But the writers described the cults, their customs, costumes, skills, etc. with such care that even humdrum characters such as mine were enticed to buy Glorantha source books with impoverishing regularity.
This was the usual list of entities who might want to kill the PCs, either for food or over a minor point of theology like “we still resent that thing your god did a thousand years ago.”
There were wild beasts, but were few real monsters (such as the creatures of chaos). Most of one’s adversaries were intelligent beings of races or species with customs and worldviews that made co-existence problematic or impossible. If one were to take the troll point of view, killing PCs is perfectly sensible; it’s for the greater good. If humans didn’t see it that way? Well, what could you expect from beings who worshiped the Lightbringers?
The rule supplements expanded this cursory description of Glorantha at GREAT length.
Too short, but at least there was one.
There were several reasons that RQ fascinated nineteen-year-old me.
- The rules were straightforward, reasonably well explained, and easy to learn.
- The setting was realistically mundane. Sure, there were gods and magic and all that, but the way that such things affected the PCs was ... realistic, if that makes sense.
- The game was well supported by the standards of the time. If there was an aspect of the world you wanted to explore (at least in the regions near Dragon Pass), odds were that there was a source book available.
RQ debuted some game rules that, although sometimes clunky, made for enthralling gameplay. Chaosium used tweaked versions of these in many of its later games, somein print to this day. RQ itself has gone through several editions. I didn’t like the focus of some of the later ones … so was delighted when I discovered that my fave, the second edition, is back in print.
RuneQuest, 2nd Edition is available here.
Feel free to comment here. At least once I remember to add the link. Have fun speculating how long that will take me.
(added later: until 9:37 AM the following day)
Please send corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com
Three if you count DragonQuest. However, I am not 100% sure I had encountered this game before I turned twenty, in 1981.
IIRC, RQ was the first RPG to have bothered with considerations of size. How big people are doesn’t matter all that much when everyone in the party is the same species and is exploring buildings built for aforesaid species. It does matter if your group holds both giants and centaurs and finds itself in a town built for puny humans.
The SF RPG Other Suns borrowed heavily from RQ. Larger species were at a disadvantage when boarding spaceships. The same life-support system that could support a dozen humans might support only a couple of large aliens.