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Just Lots of Little Frames

The Runequest Starter Set

By Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard & Jason Durall 

21 Dec, 2021

Roleplaying Games


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Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, and Jason Durall’s 2021 The Runequest Starter Set is a starter set for Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. It’s the latest edition of the venerable table-top fantasy roleplaying game Runequest. It thus simultaneously embraces both the very new and the very old, so I thought it was particularly suitable for this, the two thousandth review on James Nicoll Reviews.

The box is very pretty1, depicting a scene that could very well occur in a Runequest adventure. The box is decently heavy, about 1.35 kilograms. Within one finds 

  • Read Me First leaf2
  • Book 1: Rules
  • Book 2: Glorantha
  • Book 3: Soloquest
  • Book 4: Adventures
  • Fourteen ready-made adventurers
  • Two blank adventurer sheets
  • Handouts: a collection of handy references
  • Map of the Jonstown area
  • Map of Jonstown itself
  • Map of the Rainbow mounds
  • A set of polyhedral dice

Chaosium also provides PDFs of the above (minus the dice) with purchase.

The purpose of the box is to provide sufficient material for Runequest-curious players to start playing (as hinted in the title). What it isn’t, however, is a streamlined but complete version of the game that could cannibalize sales of the Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha main rule book. To this end, the Read Me First! Leaf, which details what is in the box, also very helpfully explains what is not in the box. To wit:

  • Adventurer character generation
  • Equipment (beyond those used by the ready-to-play characters)
  • Advanced combat options (like phalanx fighting, chariots, etc.)
  • Rune Masters
  • Sorcery and advanced Spirit World information
  • Sacred Time and other campaign-oriented events

These are not included in the box. If you want those, you will need to acquire the main rule book. 

What is in the box is very concise introduction of the rules and the setting in which they are intended to be used, sufficient to confer a functional grasp of the game. 

It’s enough and not too much. Stafford has been expanding the Glorantha setting since the 1960s. Presenting newbies with the full weight of the available material (which includes but is not restricted to a two-volume, six-plus kilogram, eight-hundred-page encyclopedia) could cause lore paralysis. This box provides a taste, which is probably the right approach. 

There is enough material in the box to actually play Runequest with one of the fourteen pre-generated characters. The Soloquest enables the buyer to sample the rules without needing a gamemaster. In fact, I came away from the starter box with more confidence in my grasp of the game than I felt after reading the main rule book. As long as buyers understand what they are buying (and what they are not buying) with this box set, this is an excellent introduction to the game.

The Runequest Starter Set is available here.

Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is available here.

Voluminous details follow!

First glance: the books are saddle-stitched with paper covers, not perfect bound with thicker covers. This surprised me. I wonder how they will stand up to wear and tear. As well, there are no indexes. The text itself is highly cross-referenced and I did get the PDFs so that should not be an issue. Still, no indexes? Lhankor Mhy stares at you judgmentally. 

Book 1: Rules

This is a sixty-one-page booklet detailing the rules needed to play a simple game. It’s not all the rules. For example, I don’t think it covers stat-bonuses, for example, because you are not generating characters. Bonuses have already been calculated for the pre-gen characters. 

Subjects covered include basic game mechanics, skills, experience, passions (things about which the character feels strongly, like love, hate, duty and all that jazz), runes (cosmic forces with which everything in Glorantha is aligned), combat, and magic of various flavours. There are no character classes in RQ. Everyone can try anything. Everyone can fight. Everyone has access to some level of magic. Everyone has useful skills. 

As anyone experience with Runequest or the related Basic Roleplaying Games would expect, characters are fragile and combat is potentially extremely deadly. Perhaps because of this, the rules make it clear that everyone, NPC and PC, has a strong desire to live and generally do not fight to the death like video-game characters. The cultures covered in the box have a formal system of surrender and ransom to minimize fatality — not that this helps people who were decapitated in round one.

I didn’t properly appreciate the augment-ability rule when I read the main rulebook. If a character is attempting a task and they have a secondary skill, a passion, or a rune that is relevant to the task, they can try to buff their odds of success by with a roll on the percentile rating of the skill, passion, or rune. For example, someone might call on Passion: Hates Lunars while trying to stab a Lunar. Characters are just better at stuff they care about!

There is always a catch. In this case, it’s that the higher the rating with a passion or rune, the better odds of success come with a reduced chance to resist the passion or rune. Rurik Lunar-Killer, for example, may benefit from Hates Lunars when he fights Lunars but do not hire Rurik Lunar-Killer to run a Lunar daycare because he may not be able to resist seeing what the children’s heads would look like on spears. 

I’ve been on the fence about passions since they first turned up in Pendragon (I think) since they seem to mechanize that which should be roleplaying, but this detail endears them to me.

Book 2: Glorantha

This is a brief introduction to the Bronze Age world of myth and magic in which the characters live. Player characters cannot treat the world as a painted backdrop in front of which they pose heroically. Rather, what they can do and what they choose to do is influenced by details such as the character’s homeland, culture, history, religion, and the magic with which everything and everyone in Glorantha is imbued. Players will want to read this book. If they had read this book, they would not be wondering who the Lhankor Mhy I mentioned earlier is. Not to mention Daka Fal and Chalana Arroy.

Book 3: Soloquest

This is an adventure which doesn’t require a gamemaster. Someone playing the character of Vasana Farnan’s Daughter experiences the Battle of Dangerford. Players are presented with a number of options, each option sending them to a different part of the text where new options await. If you’ve played Fighting Fantasy or Choose Your Own Adventure, it’s very much like that.

My experience with the Soloquest was a marvelous example of the delights of Runequest combat. Early in the battle, my Vasana, having fired a few arrows at the approaching Lunar soldiers, had to wend her way through the Lunars’ return volley as she made her way to her waiting bison mount. This did not go well. Of the three arrows loosed at her, two hit. Both were critical hits, which meant not only did they do extra damage, but they also ignored her armour. Total damage done: 36 points. Vasana only has 12 Hit Points (the measure of bodily robustness). Even novice players should suspect losing 36 of 12 Hit Points is not good. However, Runequest has hit locations, each of which has its own (smaller than the total) number of hit points. It happens both arrows hit her head, which only had 4 HP. Instead of being very dead, my Vasana was very very very it’s a good thing she has tattoos or they may not have been able to identify the body dead.

In Runequest, cares and woes do not end when one’s head is reduced to widely scattered goo. Vasana found herself facing Daka Fal, Judge of the Dead. Before she could learn her fate, an excessively diligent Chalana Arroy healer clawed Vasana back from the afterlife, slapped her around spiritually until Vasana submitted to resurrection, then crammed her spirit back into Vasana’s magically repaired body. Having embraced life and duty once more, Vasana headed off to confront another Lunar soldier, who promptly ran Vasana through with his lance, killing her on the spot. At which point that fucking priestess raised Vasana yet again.

I had thought it was possible to get caught in an infinite death/resurrection/death/resurrection loop … but I misread the rules. Still, dying twice and being raised twice without making a useful contribution to the battle is plenty humiliating. My version of Vasana probably acquired the passion Hates Chalana Arroy Priestesses: 60%.” 

Book 4: Adventures

This provides three adventures through which a Runequest gamemaster can run players using the ready-made character. The scene shown on the box cover could well occur in one of the adventures. There are also details on the local background, plus adventure seeds for GMs who want to try their hand at creating their own adventures. 

One of the non-player characters has a bound spirit with a spell (lightwall) that was left off the master list of spells provided in this box set. Another reason to buy the main rulebook and/or The Red Book of Magic. Alternatively, you can ignore that detail or replace lightwall with a spell that is listed. 

Fourteen ready-made adventurers

What it says on the tin. Chaosium has done the heavy lifting of character generation, providing a diverse set of characters with unique strengths and weakness. 

Two blank adventurer sheets

What it says on the tin. Not entirely sure what one would use them for without a full character generation system, but nice to have.

Handouts: a collection of handy references

While Runequest isn’t as chart-happy as, say, Rolemaster3, task resolution in this game often involves charts. These handouts will be very handy. 

Map of the Jonstown area

What it says on the tin.

Map of Jonstown itself

A map of the community of Jonstown, a sample town setting. 

When I first looked at this, I thought that the town had impressive walls given the available technology and population4. At which point I started wondering how sanitation works in Jonstown. Are we talking Western-style crapping in the streets or Mohenjo Daro-style drainage systems? The streets in various illustrations look very clean so probably the second. After all, the walls show that Jonstowners understand civil engineering. 

Map of the Rainbow mounds

What it says. The mounds feature in an adventure. 

A set of polyhedral dice

Specifically, a four-sided die, a six-sided die, an eight-sided die, a ten-sided die marked one to ten, a ten-sided die marked 10 to 100 in increments of ten, a twelve-sided die, and a twenty-sided die. All are opaque plastic (mine are gold-coloured) and all have their numbers already inked in5. Aside from their alarming habit of rolling criticals for the enemy and fumbles for me, they are decent quality dice rather than the ultra-cheap soft plastic sets that were all the rage in the early days of roleplaying games. 

1: One of characters on the cover has boob armour, but interior illustrations depict women in more sensible armour. 

2: Because I am an enormous numpty, I opened the box when I got it weeks ago but failed to take note of the order of the items in the box. This means I am not sure whether the Read Me First! sheet was at the top of the stack of documents (in which case it’s the first thing a reader see on opening it) or on the back of the box between the box and the shrink wrap (in which case the buyer could see it before purchasing, in the unlikely event they ventured into a store in this age of covid). 

3: I assure you this is hilarious, as you can tell from the fact I felt the need to footnote it. But if you’ve never played Rolemaster, well, I guess this joke wasn’t for you. 

4: Given how common war and wandering monsters are, cultures are highly motivated to master stone walls. 

5: The fact I noticed the dice that hints at how long I have been playing RPGs. In the early days, people had to hand-ink their own dice.