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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

RUNEQUEST: ROLEPLAYING IN GLORANTHA, THE REVIEW


The river mouth is the way of most journeys
But the sheath is the one of swords.
I took up the Runes with a loud cry...

Wardruna, Runaljod




INTRODUCTION

This is a long review.

There was never any chance that it would be an exercise in brevity.  It digs into a 448-page game system with a five-decade-long history, and is the latest incarnation of something this author has run, played, and loved for thirty-five years.  RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is a landmark, and was even before it was written.  Just the fact of its existence is worthy of comment.  It marks the return of one of the most influential and storied games in our hobby back to the house that built it, and to many of the same authors.  There was no rushing through this.

To make it easier for you, gentle reader, it is divided into sections (and they are easy to spot by the large font quotes just before each new section).  Take them a few at a time, like a heavy meal, and digest.  Or skip ahead to what interests you the most.          

I have tried, whenever possible, to bear in mind that HeroQuest players, Chaosium fans, 13th Age gamers, old school RuneQuest grognards, and complete novices to all things Gloranthan will be coming here.  That’s a lot of audience to speak to.  Hopefully you will all get what you need from the review.  If not, drop me a line!

Andrew Montgomery
Tokyo, Japan
June 1st, 2018





Myth is the means by which the traditional world expressed the ultimate significance of being.


Julius Evola, Eros and the Mysteries



A GAME COMES HOME

THERE WAS NEVER anything “generic” about RuneQuest.

It’s story began in 1966, when a young college freshman named Greg Stafford started to create a world.  “Glorantha” was Stafford’s personal exploration of myth; not as we understand the term—synonymous with lies and falsehoods—but as traditional societies did.  In an unstable, ever-changing world, myths provided definition and order.  They were timeless, transcendent truths that showed men and women how the world worked and how to live in it.  This was an age when cults and cultures—two words with the same etymological source—were one and the same.  Civilizations were defined by their gods.



As a setting, Glorantha embraced this mindset and never let go.  It was a flat world floating on a cosmic sea; a sky dome turned overhead and the black chasms of the underworld yawned below.  Her societies were Bronze Age, ruled by priest-kings and priestesses.  Beyond the borders of her empires and city-states monsters reigned.  Glorantha was not defined by chemistry or physics but by the epic deeds of her gods, spirits, and heroes.  Their actions in the primordial history of the world established the patterns of nature, and set the model for how the mortal races should live.

At the heart of this world were the Runes, the building blocks of Gloranthan reality.  Darkness, Storm, Sky.  Fertility, Harmony, Death.  The two-dozen or so Great Runes defined the pantheons and powers of the gods, explained the nature of spirits, and contained the transcendent essences of existence.  “Magic” was how you related to these Runes, and this in turn shaped how you saw the world.  

By 1975, Stafford was ready to share his myth cycles with the rest of us, and formed a gaming company, Chaosium, to do so.  Glorantha was the setting of White Bear and Red Moon, a boardgame that brought to life the Hero Wars at the close of Glorantha’s Third Age.  This was our first glimpse of Dragon Pass, where the barbarian nation of Sartar rose in rebellion against the occupying legions of the Lunar Empire.  That same year, however, something new emerged.  Dungeons & Dragons fused storytelling and gaming in a way not seen before, and Stafford saw the new art form as a better way to explore Glorantha.  He enlisted the aid of others, including Steve Perrin and Ray Turney, and in 1978 RuneQuest was born.

The game was the perfect fusion of system and setting.  Eschewing things like class and alignments, characters were defined by what cultures they belonged to and what cults they joined.  Combat was authentically ancient world, capturing the brutal, blow-by-blow feel of a gladiatorial arena.  And magic—whether through binding spirits or sacrificing to gods—was all about how your character reached out and accessed the Runes.  Even the creatures in the bestiary were world specific; Glorantha was up front and center on nearly every page.

Which brings me back to the point.  There was never anything generic about RuneQuest.  The game, even the company that published it, existed to share Glorantha with the world.  The idea of a Chaosium without RuneQuest, or a RuneQuest without Glorantha…well that was just absurd.

Then in 1983—the year after I started playing it—there was an unexpected twist in the plot.  Chaosium licensed RuneQuest to Avalon Hill, a major boardgame publisher looking for an RPG to field against D&D.  This was the start of a thirty-year-long Odyssey, in which like Odysseus RuneQuest got lost.  In part because it was shooting for a broader appeal, and in part because Chaosium still controlled the rights to Glorantha itself, Avalon Hill wanted RuneQuest as a more “generic” game.  Rurik Runespear, the example character whose exploits illustrated game concepts in the original RuneQuest, became Cormac the Pict.  The bestiary suddenly had orcs and halflings, and the assumed setting was something called “Fantasy Earth.”  Even the Runes were gone.  

The Runes.  In a game called RuneQuest.

Wrap your brain around that.

This set a pattern of sorts.  First with Avalon Hill and later with subsequent publishers Mongoose and The Design Mechanism, the next four editions of RuneQuest attempted to be generic systems that “could also” be played in Glorantha.  Most included Gloranthan supplements in some fashion, but with the exception of the work Ken Rolston oversaw in his tenure at Avalon Hill, none of it was particularly memorable.  Nor did these subsequent editions really improve RuneQuest itself. Each fiddled with and tweaked the system, more to justify the existence of publishing a new set of rules than anything else. Ultimately, the problem with RuneQuest during this period was never the mechanics; it was the fact the game had been separated from its very soul.  

So like Penelope and Telemachus diehard fans waited, watching the horizon, and the years rolled by.  Glorantha flourished on its own in Stafford’s continued writings and games like Hero Wars, King of Dragon Pass, and HeroQuest.  Chaosium moved on to publish a string of meticulously crafted, deeply thoughtful games,  many of which used the same mechanics RuneQuest introduced.  Their games across the board embraced the same commitment to exploring mythologies;  Stormbringer, King Arthur Pendragon, Nephilim, Call of Cthulhu.  Chaosium mastered the art of immersive myth.  Yet RuneQuest remained conspicuous in its absence; the game that started it all seemed lost at sea.  

Then after thirty years—three times the length of Odysseus’s journeys—the stars began to align.  Whispers spread through the Glorantha Tribe; Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen were back at Chaosium.  Moon Design Publications, which held the publishing licenses to both HeroQuest and RuneQuest, was merging with Chaosium as well.  It wasn’t long before the announcement came...a ship’s mast was on the horizon.  RuneQuest was coming home.

There was never anything generic about RuneQuest, and to make that clear, the new edition had a new title—RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (hereafter RQG).  It was a signal that RuneQuest was not only coming back home to Chaosium, it was back home to the world it had been created for, the world where it belonged.

Glorantha.



down the dank mouldering paths and past the Ocean's streams they went



and past the White Rock and the Sun's Western Gates and past

the Land of Dreams, and soon they reached the fields of asphodel

where the dead, the burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home 

Homer, The Odyssey


FOR THE RQ FANS…WHAT HAS CHANGED

Long time fans of RuneQuest might be wondering what they can expect from RQG.  Before we examine the game in detail, here are four things to bear in mind.

  1. RQG is probably best viewed as a direct sequel to 1980’s RQ2 (the second edition of the game, recently rereleased by Chaosium).  This means if you are wondering “How does RQG handle x?” the answer is probably “The same way RQ2 did.”  Base skills, for example, are determined by adding the skill base and its skill category modifier, as opposed to, say, the way MRQ approached this by adding two characteristics.  Likewise, hit points are based on your CON modified by SIZ and POW, rather than RQ3’s averaging of SIZ and CON.  There are changes, of course, but in general RQG follows in RQ2’s footsteps.

  1. RQG benefits greatly from sister games like HeroQuest, King of Dragon Pass, and Chaosium products like King Arthur Pendragon and Nephilim, drawing on them to enrich the gameplay experience.  For example;

  • There is a system of Passions inspired by the work Stafford did in King Arthur Pendragon.
  • Characters are tied directly to Runes, and these affect characteristics, magic, behavior, and spiritual progress much as the “Ka elements” did in Nephilim.
  • Adventures are assumed to happen once a season, leaving characters time to attend to things like temple duties, families, and land management.  There is an end of the year system to handle all of this, as well as aging and improvement from experience, reminiscent of King Arthur Pendragon.
  • With a wink and a nod to King of Dragon Pass, this end of the year management happens during Sacred Time, and includes omens and harvest forecasts.
  • Characters have personal Runes, and may use these Runes—as well as Passions and other skills—to “augment” certain skill rolls, as in HeroQuest Glorantha.
  • The revised Sorcery system is far more Gloranthan, based directly on what we see in HeroQuest Glorantha.
  • Character creation involves picking a culture, a profession, and personal Runes, much like HeroQuest Glorantha.
  • Character creation also involves rolling life events for the character’s parents and grandparents, and their involvement in historical events.  This will affect the character.  This is much like the previous incarnations system in Nephilim.

  1. RQG is the most Gloranthan RuneQuest to date.  The Runes, cultures, historical events, and communities of Glorantha are all inextricably tied to your character, right from the start.  This is a bit different from RQ2, where the character didn’t really have solid Gloranthan ties until joining a cult.  In short, if you are looking for a generic RuneQuest, allow me to suggest the very fine Basic Roleplaying.

  1. This is also the most “epic” RuneQuest to dateChanges have been made to elements throughout the game—especially in magic—to turn up the power levels just a little.  For example, instead of using your current magic points to affect someone with a spell, you use your full POW (they resist with their full POW as well).  Characters will have access to more Rune magic,  and it is available much earlier than in RQ2 games.  And as mentioned, characters begin with personal attachments to the Runes that can be called upon to augment their actions.  Combat is still a gritty, dangerous affair (would it be RuneQuest if it wasn’t?), but the tweaks to RQG on the whole bring it more in line with the epic feel we find in other Gloranthan games.  

...read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth


RQG: THE BOOK IN BROAD STROKES

My review copy of RQG is a 448 page pdf, full color, brimming with art.  The layout, fonts, and art design all mirror The Glorantha Sourcebook in the same way that those in HeroQuest Glorantha mirrored The Guide to Glorantha.  It suggests that the Sourcebook, while system agnostic, is technically part of the new RQG line.

  

The art design makes some very interesting choices.  Flipping through the art in Hero Wars, for example, you got a very Northern European aesthetic.  You might be forgiven for thinking of the Orlanthi as Vikings.  Jeff Richard’s art direction in RQG, however, has a far more Indian subcontinent or ancient Near East feel.  There is, for an example, a stunning image of a Humakti on pg. 34 that looks like a Shaivite (worshipper of Shiva) at the cremation grounds, and several cosmological pieces that look almost like mandalas.  Personally I loved this new aesthetic; Stafford mentions the Bhagavad Gita as far back as White Bear and Red Moon, and there have always been shades of the Vedic mythology and the Indian epics in Glorantha.  In many ways Indra is a better model of Orlanth than Thor.  But for those with a different view of Glorantha in their mind’s eye, there are plenty of other pieces that have the more traditional Greek, Persian, or Roman looks.  There are also pieces of art included from original RuneQuest supplements.  This diversity of art styles suggests that Glorantha is a mythological world, and mythology spans continents and cultures.  It resists one-for-one pigeonholing (the Orlanthi are Germanic, the Lunar are Romans, etc).  This is altogether the most beautiful edition of RuneQuest I have seen.  I would be first in line for print editions of these rules and the Sourcebook.

Beyond the art, the writing is clear, concise, and up to the usual high Chaosium standards.  It is far more grounded (and less poetic) than the prose in the Sourcebook.   The book is meticulously indexed, making everything easy to find.


What does the game actually cover?  Following the lead of HeroQuest Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha, RQG focuses mainly on the lands, peoples, and gods of Dragon Pass and Prax.  This is where most Gloranthan products have traditionally focused, from White Bear and Red Moon foreword.  The core rules include the obligatory introduction to Glorantha, an overview of Dragon Pass and Prax, character creation, all rules covering skill use, magic, combat, etc, armor and weapons, and character development.  

Yet, in a departure from RQ2 (“An Entire Fantasy Role-Playing Game in One Book”) or her sister game HeroQuest Glorantha (“A Complete Roleplaying Game”), RQG is not the entire game.  There is no bestiary of any sort, no section on playing Elder Races, no guidelines on heroquesting, Rune metals, or running campaigns. 

Obviously, at 448 pages there wasn’t any more room to squeeze in the rest of the game, and we will be getting (D&D style) both the RuneQuest Gamemaster’s Guide and the RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary, but until we get those books, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha will have gaps that make it hard to play.  Long-time RQ players can use the high degree of backward compatibility to get around this problem, but it will be a roadblock for new players.  RQG is really more just a “player’s handbook” than a whole game.

Now for the book in detail.    
     


I've never heard anyone tell more of the story of the world. Make what use of it you can.


Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda



INTRODUCTION AND GLORANTHA

The first two chapters set the stage by describing the elements and themes that make RuneQuest and Glorantha unique.  

The world, we are reminded, is Bronze Age and mythic. RQG owes more to the Iliad, Mahābhārata, Eddas, and Kalevala than to Arthurian romance, Charlemagne, or Tolkien.  Gods and their cults are ubiquitous, with polytheism as the general rule.  If it exists in Glorantha, it has a god behind it.  Every city, every clan, every institution has a divine patron, and every Hero walks in the footsteps of his or her god.  Behind these gods are the Runes.  These are the building blocks of existence itself.  The goal of RuneQuest is described in the title; to master the primordial powers of these essences.

This means every character has magic.  In the beginning of Glorantha, gods and mortals walked side by side.  But when the gods fell to warring upon each other, the world was cracked and Chaos—the soul destroying essence of corruption and negation—bled into the world.  By the end of this Gods War, Glorantha, and nearly everything within it, was dead or dying.  

To save existence, the Great Compromise was forged.  Time, a dam against the tide of death and destruction, was created.  Mortals and gods were separated; the former dwelled inside of Time while the gods were locked outside of it.  From the mortal perspective, the gods eternally repeat the deeds they performed before Time;  these are the “myths.”  The Solar Emperor ascends to his throne in the heavens and is murdered, falling into the underworld, each day.  The young world, bursting with life and fertility, witnesses the rise of the Solar Emperor, the decline of his kingdom, and the death and desolation of the War in the yearly cycle of the seasons.  Time has locked the gods in the eternal cycles that give shape and meaning to the world.

Magic, then, is the act of reaching outside of Time to access the powers of the Mythic World.  Cults serve to communicate between the Mythic and Mundane Worlds, and characters join them to gain access to magic. 


Another key aspect of this game is community.  Characters are not “adventurers” in the traditional RPG sense of independent actors killing things for a living.  They are “Heroes,” in that they represent the ideals of a community.  This doesn’t make them “good” or “evil,” and there is no alignment system in RuneQuest.  It simply means that the character will be part of a family, clan, or tribe, and that his or her adventures will usually be in defense or service of that community. The characters’ motivations and ideals are likely shaped by their culture and their cult.

Finally, the game is set in a region of Glorantha called “Dragon Pass.”  Not unlike ancient Palestine, Dragon Pass is the crossroads of a continent and just as hotly contested.  The date is 1625, one thousand six hundred and twenty five years after Time was born and and the worlds divided.  This is the eve of a great struggle known as the Hero Wars.  The barbarian kingdom of Sartar is shaking off the yoke of the Lunar Empire, and the conflict between these two powers will draw the world into conflict.  The major cultures of the region, the storm-god worshipping Sartarites, the Lunar client state of Tarsh, the earth goddess worshipping and matriarchal Esrolians, the nomadic Grazelanders, and the animal-riding tribes of Prax are among those described.  These cultures will become an important part of the next section of the book, character creation.




Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.

Homer, The Iliad



CREATING CHARACTERS: ADVENTURERS AND HOMELANDS

RuneQuest has never had a deeper, richer, more connected character creation system than we find in RQG.  By the end of the process you won’t simply know what skills, spells, and characteristics characters have, but who their families are, what passions they have, what standing they hold in their communities.  The first few steps of character creation, in fact, are all about the world and your place in it.  

You start by selecting a Homeland from in and around Dragon Pass.  These provide you with cultural skills, Rune modifiers, suggested professions, and starting passions.  More importantly, they provide you with a culture, a context.  These Homelands are all extensively detailed, and should help even the greenest member of the Gloranthan Tribe get a sense of the world the character inhabits.

Family History comes next, and will help you establish who your grandparents and parents were, what historical events they participated it, and how their lives affected you.  Random d20 rolls, modified by Homeland and other factors walk you through this.  Was your grandparent in the Battle of Grizzly Peak?  Did your mother or father witness the Fall of Boldhome?  The answers might modify some of your skills, your reputation, or your passions.  Having your grandfather devoured by the Crimson Bat, for example, can gain you the passions Hate (Chaos) or Hate (Lunars) at 70%.       

After these two steps connect your character to family and community, Rune Affinities are assigned to connect the character to the cosmos itself.  Runes have always been part of  RuneQuest, but it wasn’t until her sister game HeroQuest that the idea of personal Runes, as a character statistic, emerged.  When a character is initiated into adulthood, his or her Runes awaken and the individual can now perform magic.  In RQG, a character will have a percentage in certain Runes, just like skills or passions.  The cultivation of these Runes will affect character behavior, what cults he or she can join, and his or her progression through the ranks of that cult.

Basically, the Runes are divided on the character sheet into Elemental Runes and Power/Form Runes.  The Elemental Runes are discrete; the Power and Form Runes are grouped into opposing pairs in most cases.  Thus, you can have a rating of 80% in the Elemental Darkness Rune and 60% in Air/Storm, with no relation to each other.  On the other hand, Death and Fertility are in an opposing pair, meaning that the combined scores of the two must total 100%.  If you have Death at 75%, Fertility will be 25%.  Any increase to Death weakens Fertility, and so on.  

You must have 50% or higher in one of a god’s chosen Runes to join its cult.  To join the cult of Orlanth, for example, you must have 50% in one or more of Air, Motion, or Mastery.  To become a Rune Lord of that cult (see below), the Rune percentage must be 90%.

Runes are rolled against to cast Rune magic (see the section on Magic below), and are associated with different types of phenomena and personality effects.  Air, for example, is associated with STR, there sense of smell, Manipulation skills, swords, lungs and muscle, the color orange, the metal bronze, and mammals.  It’s personality is passionate, violent, proud, and unpredictable.  The Rune can be used to augment (see below) skills rolls that fall under its domain.  It could be used to boost Manipulation skills or sword attacks, or in any skill use on a mammal.  At the same time, the higher the percentage, the more the Rune dominates your personality.  With 90% in the Air Rune, you would be forced to be violent, passionate, and proud or else risk the percentage decreasing.

The mechanics on Runes and Rune Affinities highlight one of RQG’s most intriguing features; namely, how it draws on 40 years of Chaosium and Gloranthan gaming to enrich itself.  The idea of Rune Affinities and their power to augment other skills comes from HeroQuest; the broad association with various forms of phenomena, the ways in which Runes affect characteristics, personality, and spiritual development, all recalls the “Ka elements” in Nephilim; the opposing pairs of Runes works much like Personality Traits in King Arthur Pendragon.  RQG reaches back to draw on these and many other games that the original RuneQuest inspired.

Having first firmly grounded the character in the world of Glorantha, character creation now details his or her personal skills and attributes.  We begin by rolling Characteristics.  These are the same characteristics we find in the first two editions of RuneQuest; Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma (which of course became “Appearance” in RQ3). 3d6 are rolled for each of these save INT and SIZ, which are 2d6+6.  Both your Runes and your Homelands can affect modify these stats.  As in other Chaosium games, these form the core physical, mental, and spiritual qualities of the character.  Most should be familiar to gamers; SIZ is simply a measure of physical mass, while POW measures the innate strength of a character’s soul and his connection to the universe. 

Attributes are derived from these characteristics.  Magic Points, an expendable resource used to power Spirit Magic spells, begin equal to your POW characteristic.  Hit Points are determined—following RQ2 rather than RQ3—equal to your CON and modified by your SIZ and POW characteristics.  Also as in RQ2, separate Hit Locations are used in combat.  There will be more on this later, but for now the assignment of hit points to hit locations works exactly as in the earliest editions of RuneQuest.

Characters has a Healing Rate based on their CON.  This is the number of hit points recovered at each hit location following a week of rest and recuperation.  They also have two damage bonuses; the first, determined by adding STR and SIZ, is a bonus die added to all physical damage.  The second, determined by adding POW and CHA, is a “spirit damage” bonus, which comes into play in spirit combat against disembodied entities (more on this in Magic). Finally, SIZ and DEX help determine your base Strike Ranks, essentially how soon you can act in a round of combat.  

The last thing the characteristics determine are your Skill Category Modifiers.  Skills in RQG fall under the umbrella of one of these categories.  For example, Jump, Ride, and Swim are Agility skills.  Evaluate, Library Use, and Manage Household are all Knowledge skills.  Different categories have base skill modifiers added to all skills in that category, based on different characteristics.  Agility skills, then, are affected by STR, SIZ, DEX, and POW.  Knowledge skills are affected by INT and POW.  

This brings us to Skills.  Skills define what a character knows and is capable of.  They are rated on a scale of 0% to 100% or higher (a topic we will discuss under System).  Most skills have a base.  Everyone has a base of 40% in Climb and 25% in Listen.  These are modified by your skill category values.  The Homeland you selected will increase your proficiency in cultural skills.  A Bison Rider gets +35% to Ride (Bison) and +30% to Herd.  A Sartarite gets +20% to Farm, etc.  These add to the base skills. 

               

Now you choose your character’s Occupation. These are partially restricted by the Homeland you selected.  There are no Farmers, for example, amongst the animal nomads of Prax.  An occupation gives you additional bonuses to occupational skills, as well as determining your standard of living, base income, typical cults, and equipment.  It also determines your ransom; combat in RQG is deadly, and it is common practice not to kill a foe outright but ransom him or her.  Your profession determines how much you are worth.  A noble commands a higher ransom than a herder, for example.

The next thing to select is your Cult. In a slight departure from the earlier Chaosium editions of RuneQuest, RQG characters are expected to start as initiates of one of the Gloranthan cults.  This is part of the overall power level increase of the game.  Early RuneQuest characters started with very little, usually deep in debt to guilds and struggling to survive.  They worked there way upwards into joining a cult and then through that cult.  Subsequent Gloranthan games like HeroQuest and 13G featured much more epic, further advanced protagonists.  RQG splits the difference by moving its starting characters forwards a little.  A healthy selection of cults active in and around Dragon Pass is provided, with cultural and occupational guidelines on which ones are best for you.  Cults provide additional skill bonuses to cult approved skills, as well as access to deeper magic.  We will discuss cults in the Magic overview below.

In the final steps of character creation, the player gets to assign a few Personal Skill Bonuses, and selects gender, handedness, name, family, tribe, and clan.  It is possible to inherit a Family Heirloom.  Also, the player now determines the character’s starting Reputation.  Not unlike Glory in King Arthur Pendragon, Reputation measures how famous or infamous a character is, how well known, and how recognizable.         
      



In playing dice, the stronger player tries

to defeat the weaker--that is the game.

If you are afraid, refuse the challenge...

The Mahābhārata





SYSTEMS: GAME SYSTEM, SKILLS, PASSIONS & REPUTATION

The engine of RQG, as with previous editions of RuneQuest and the many Chaosium games that spun off that system, is the d00 percentile roll.  Skills all have percentile ratings, as do Runes, Passions, and Reputation.  Raw characteristic rolls can be made by multiplying the characteristic by a difficulty factor and reading it as a percent; a Hard STR roll might be STR x 2, while Easy might be STR x 4.  The basic mechanic is thus universal; roll a d00, if you roll your target number or less, you succeed.

There are four complications.

The first is the fact that a roll of 96-00 is ALWAYS a failure, no matter how high your skill. 

The second is the “Fumble.”  this is a roll of 00, or 5% of the character’s failure chance.  For example, if your skill is 25%, you Fumble on a 97, 98, 99, or 00.  If your skill is 70%, you Fumble on a 99 or 00 alone.

The third is a Special Success, a roll that is 20% (1/5th) or less of your base chance.  This unlocks special benefits of success.

The fourth is the Critical Success, a roll of 5% (1/20th) your base chance or less.  It always occurs on a roll of 01 and triggers spectacular success bonuses.

These levels take on extra importance in Opposed Rolls, where one skill or trait is rolled against another.  A special success always trumps a normal success, a critical trumps a special.          

One of the new additions to RuneQuest is the Augment mechanic, borrowed from RQG’s sister game HeroQuest.  Here, a player can try to use a Rune, Passion, or another skill to generate a bonus for a target skill roll.  For example, a warrior could call upon the Air Rune—connected to swords—to generate a bonus to his sword skill for the duration of a single combat.  Or a character could use his Devotion (Orlanth) passion to augment a stirring Orate roll persuading Orlanthi warriors to fight for the local temple.  The mechanic is simple.  The augmenting skill is rolled; a critical success adds +50% to the target skill, a special success adds +30%, and a success adds +20%.  Failure, on the other hand, subtracts -20% and a fumble subtracts -50%.        

As the augment rules suggest, skills in RQG can go above 100%.  Since any roll of 96-00 is still a failure, the game handles this by lowering the skill to 100% and subtracting the difference from any opposing rolls.  For example, a character with 70% skill is trying to parry an attack from someone with 140%.  The attacking character’s effective skill becomes 100%, and 40% is subtracted from the opponent’s parry (lowering it to 3o%).

A final key element of the system is the Resistance Table. This is used to test a characteristic against some obstacle.  The most common use of it is probably POW vs. POW, when a character is trying to overcome another with spirit magic (see below).  This works as it always has; subtract the passive attribute from the active, multiply by 5%, and add to 50%.  In other words, is a character with a STR of 18 is trying to lift a SIZ 14 object, 18 - 14 = 4, 4 x 5% = 20%, 20% + 50% = a 70% chance of success.  

Like augmentation, Passions and Reputation are new features, both of which can be traced back to Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon (though Passions have an analogue in HeroQuest as well).  Passions represent driving emotions with a percentage, while reputation measures social standing and recognition with the same.

Passions include Devotion, Love, Hate, Fear, and Honor.  Their main uses are augmenting other skills or in testing character behavior.  For example, a character who Hates (Lunars) 75% might roll the be inspired by the Passion while fighting a Lunar centurion.  This could gain him a bonus to his combat rolls.  Passions can also help guide a character’s choices.  For example, a character who Fears (Trolls) and Loves (Family) might make an opposed roll between the two Passions to decide what to do when her sister is abducted by Dark Trolls.

Reputation is gained in play by performing deeds or having achievements.  Smaller deeds earn 1d3%, larger ones 1d6%.  A marriage, negotiating an alliance, defeating a foe, or breaking an oath can all earn you a reputation.  This can be used by NPCs to recognize the character, or reputation can be used to augment rolls to impress or intimidate others.

  
   




Gold is tested by fire…a brave man is tested during a season of panic…

The Mahābhārata


COMBAT

Combat was always the heart of RuneQuest’s mechanics.  It is an immersive experience, based on the original author’s experience with armored melee combat in medieval recreation societies.  RQG characters do not have large pools of hit points; staying alive means not getting hit.  As characters advance, they get better at evading and blocking their opponent’s blows.  Because it is such a deadly affair, players and GMs are urged to not enter combat lightly.  Even NPCs value their lives.  Outright killing is thus comparatively rarer than in other RPGs.  You are more likely to ransom a defeated foe than slay him.


Combat is broken into melee rounds of about 12 seconds.  These are divided into four phases; stating intent, movement for non-engaged combatants, resolution of attacks and defenses, and bookkeeping.  The order of action is determined by strike rank.  There are twelve of these in a round, counted down from 1 to 12.  Your strike rank is predetermined by your DEX, SIZ, and length of your weapon; essentially, your reaction time and your reach.  Lower strike ranks act before higher.

Attacks are made with the appropriate combat skill rolls.  A fumble can result in a random mishap, a failure is a miss, and a successful attack does damage.  A special success, depending on the weapons being used, can impale, slash, or crush, doing extra damage and nasty special effects.  A critical success does impaling, slashing, or crushing damage, and ALSO ignores the effects of armor.

Damage is based on the weapon, the character’s damage bonus, and whether the roll was a normal, special, or critical success.  The damage dice are rolled along with a d20 determine the hit location (right or left leg, abdomen, torso, right or left arm, head).  Armor reduces damage (subtract the armor’s rating from the damage rolled).  The hit locations help make RQG a deadly affair.  Enough damage to an arm or a leg can maim you; enough damage to the chest or head can kill you outright.

This makes avoiding damage all the more necessary.  RQG offers two main ways to do this; parry and dodge.  These defenses can be offered in response to any attack regardless of the defender’s strike rank.  Additional parries or dodges in the same round suffer a cumulative penalty of -20% after the first however.  A parry attempts to block the attack with a readied weapon of shield.  It deflects or absorbs the damage.  The results of the attack and the parry are compared, with a better result (a critical versus a special, a special versus a normal success) winning.  Depending on the results, weapons and shields can block the attack but take damage themselves...or the parry can damage the attacker’s weapon.  Dodges work the same but mostly just get you out of the way.


This is just the core of the combat system; rules are provided for ranged combat, mounted combat, chariots, broken weapons, even fighting in a phalanx.  It is a simple, yet detailed system, in which skill greatly turns the odds in your favor but even the greatest warrior can fall prey to a stroke of ill fortune.  RuneQuest has long been famous for this combat system, even among those who don’t care much for Glorantha.  RQG lives up to this reputation, building on its predecessors with more detail, but staying true to the blood and sand grit of the game.


The seeds of life - fiery is their force, divine their birth…

Virgil, The Aeneid

MAGIC

We come at last to the topic of magic.

If combat was the “heart” of the game, magic was without question its “soul.”  From the start this duality was both intentional and unique; intentional because it reflected the dual nature of Glorantha’s Mundane and Mythic worlds existing side by side, unique because in a genre characterized by warriors or wizards, the RuneQuest character was both.  

RQG has very specific ideas about what magic is.  “Gloranthan magic is the interaction of mortals existing within Time with the timeless and eternal powers of the God Time,” the Magic chapter begins.  To be a Hero means mastering both the physical and transcendent worlds.  You must stand with one foot in each.  Magic in Glorantha is inseparable from religion…or in the very least philosophy.  It is an expression of how you think the world works, and how you relate to the universe.

There are three main magic systems in RQG.  Each, ultimately, derives from the Runes.  These are the “seeds of life,” the powers defining and maintaining existence.  Spirit Magic approaches Runic energy currents by reaching out to and dealing with the spirits that reside in them.  Spirits embody Runic energy in the material world.  Rune Magic accesses Runic power by reaching out the the gods beyond the wall of Time.  The gods are embodiments of the Runes, or perhaps even the Runes themselves.  By forming a relationship with them, based on worship and sacrifice, the character becomes a vessel of divine power and channels it into the mundane world.  Finally there is Sorcery, a practice of the Atheistic cultures of western Glorantha.  This views Runes as impersonal forces operating by the rules of natural law.  The sorcerer learns these laws to access the forces to impose his or her will on the world.

Many characters will combine two of these approaches, or even all three.

RQG has an introductory chapter to magic in general, then devotes separate chapters to each of these approaches.  Sharp-eyed HeroQuest players, and old school RQ fans, will note that neither heroquesting nor Illumination—two other magical approaches—are not described in these rules.  Presumably they will appear in the gamemaster’s book.

Magic is ultimately “fueled” by the POW characteristic of the magician.  Spirit Magic and Sorcery draws on Magic Points.  These are a replenishable  resource, a pool of points equal to your POW.  You spend them to power your spells, and they regenerate at a rate of 1/4 your total POW every six hours.  Rune Magic draws on another resource…Rune Points.  These are permanent POW characteristic points you have sacrificed to a god, forming a pool dedicated to that deity.  In other words, a character with 18 POW could sacrifice 4 points and have a POW of 14 and a pool of 4 Rune Points.  Rune Points are expending to trigger the potent Rune magic of that deity.  They can be replenished only through using the day long use of the Worship skill, especially on days sacred to the deity.  As characters gain more and more characteristic POW, they may chose to sacrifice it into their Rune Point pools to increase them.

Worship has already been mentioned, but there are several other magical skills discussed in RQG.  Spellcasting chances can be augmented by skills like Dance, Sing, or speaking a magical language.  Meditation can be used to add to casting chances as well.  Also a Ritual mechanic now exists, where at the cost of time spell casting chances can be boosted considerably.  An hour long ritual, for example, adds +35%.  A day-long ritual adds +50%.  Spending everyday of a a season it ritual adds +75%, etc.

The Magic chapter also details the enchanting of objects and the binding of spirits into objects or animals. More on this comes in subsequent chapters.

Almost every culture and religion in Glorantha, in one form or another, practices Spirit Magic and thus it is the first chapter following Magic.  Spirit magic requires a focus of some kind, usually a carved or painted Rune.  This Rune is connected to a spirit.  By focusing on the Rune and sacrificing magic points, the spirit bends the energies of the Rune to create a magical effect.

Example: a warrior knows the spell Bladesharp.  This increases the chance to hit and the damage an edged weapon does.  He probably has the focus etched into or painted on the weapons he intends to cast it on.  Before charging into battle, he focuses, spends magic points, and activates the spell.

Spirit magic requires a POW x 5 percentile roll to activate the spell.  If the spell directly affects another being (for example, Befuddle, which confuses and clouds an opponent’s mind, a contest of POW vs POW on the resistance table is required instead.

Spirit magic is of limited duration (seldom more than 2 minutes) and range.  Many spells have stronger effects the more magic points you spend.  For example Bladesharp adds +05% to hit and +1 point of damage for each magic point spent.

Spirit magic is taught by most Rune cults, and can also be learned from a shaman.  Shamans are specialists in spirit magic, spirits, and the spirit world.  RQG dedicates two additional chapters to spirits and shamans, in more depth than we can go into here.  In essence, spirits are disembodied beings who, unlike gods, exist in the Mundane World despite their immaterial natures.  They inhabit a shadowy halfworld between the Mundane and Mythic planes.  Shamans are experts in dealing with this spirits, in negotiating with and binding them into service.  Much as priests serve to bridge their communities and the gods, shamans bridge communities and the spirits.  


Becoming a shaman involves a year of training followed by attempting to awaken a Fetch...a personal spirit guide that greatly enhances a shaman’s powers.  Shamans excel at spirit combat, a contest of POW between living embodied beings and disembodied spirits.  Damage in spirit combat reduces magic points rather than hit points, and can end in the spirit possessing the embodied creature, or in the spirit being bound to the embodied creature’s will.  Shamans also discorporate, sending their spirits out into the spirit world while the Fetch remains behind to guard the shaman’s body.

Rune cults are priestly hierarchies that exist to bridge the gulf between the world inside of Time and the Mythic.  While shamans work with entities of this world, priests deal with those of the next.  Most of Glorantha’s myriad gods and mythic beings have cults, though the power and scope of the institution can vary considerably.  Characters can become initiates of a cult by being accepted and sacrificing a permanent point of POW to the deity.  As they rise through the cult, they can accept priestly rank and responsibilities or—if the cult offers it—the position of cult champion or Rune Lord.  

The main advantage of cult membership (at least in game terms) is access to powerful Rune magic.  There are other benefits, such as social standing, assurances of life after death, and Divine Intervention (the rare chance that your god will intervene to save you from danger...it requires a roll below your POW x 1 on a d00, and if it succeeds you lose an amount of POW equal to the number you rolled), but magic is what the players will want.  

Sacrificing a point of POW to become an initiate starts you with three Rune magic points.  After that, the Rune magic point pool is increased by additional POW sacrifices on a one for one basis.  You immediately gain access to all the “common” Rune magic spells possessed by all cults, spells like Divination, Sanctify, or Warding.  You can also select one of the cult’s special, cult-specific Rune spells.  Rune spells will all be tied to one of more Runes, and to use them, you will need to roll against your percentage in that Rune.  

Additional POW sacrifices, later on in play, will increase your Rune magic points, and let you select more of the cult specific Rune spells to know.

Example: a character is initiated into the cult of Humakt, the god of war and death.  He sacrifices a point of POW and gains 3 Rune magic points. He also gains the ability to cast all common Rune spells, as well as one special Rune spell of Humakt.  He chooses Sever Spirit.  Later, he sacrifices another point of POW.  He now has 4 Rune magic points in his pool, and may select another Humakt specific Rune spell.  He chooses Oath.

Long time RQ fans take note: following the trend Greg Stafford started in HeroQuest, priesthood in RQG is really more of an “occupation” than an elevated spiritual status parallel to Rune Lords.  The big advantage Rune Priests had in older editions—that their Rune magic was reusable rather than one use, is gone.  Any character with Rune Magic can cast any spell he or she knows so long as he or she has the Rune magic points for them.  They can then replenish those Rune magic points in worship on holy days.  Everyone’s Rune Magic is reusable.  This is an elegant compromise between older RQ editions and HeroQuest, where Rune Magic is much more prevalent.  There are advantages to becoming a Rune Priest however...

Initiates who qualify may eventually become priests of their cults.  Rune Priests gain characteristic POW more easily and can recharge depleted Rune magic points with far less effort than initiates.  They also gain an allied spirit, a spirit ally or companion sent by the god and embodied in an animal or weapon.  

A character may also become a Rune Lord.  This is a sort of cult champion who carries out the will of the god in the world.  Rune Lords correspond to the HeroQuest “devotee.”  It is harder to become one than a Rune Priest, and they more perfectly embody their gods (you must, for example, have a rating of 90% in one or more of the cult's Runes).  Rune Lords gain guaranteed Divine Intervention by just rolling a d10, and the cost comes from Rune magic points first.  They are valued tools of their gods, and the god will work harder for them than for priests or initiates.  They have an allied spirit, like a Rune Priest, and are able to use Rune Metals.  Metals, in Glorantha, are deposits from the bones of dead gods.  Bronze is the most common.  Iron, created by the Dwarves, is much stronger and more durable, inflicting more damage and taking more before breaking.  Cults are able to enchant Rune Metals to be as durable as bronze, with magical properties.  An Earth Rune cult could make weapons of copper, for example, or a Darkness cult from lead.  Rune Lords can use these. Long time players will be able to guess the properties of Rune Metals...but this is another topic missing from this core rulebook (it will be in the GM’s guide).  Rune Lords also always defend against magical attack with their full species POW (21 for humans) regardless of what their current POW is.  There are other benefits, but these are the main ones.

RQG contains an extensive number of Rune cults from in and around the Dragon Pass region, far more than previous editions of the game.  It also contains rules for temples, performing sacrifices, and a broad range of other mechanics to bring the Rune cults to life.  

Finally, RQG turns its eye towards Sorcery.  First introduced in the Avalon Hill third edition of RuneQuest, sorcery is the cultural magic system of the Western Malkioni cultures.  The Malkioni believe in an “Invisible God,” distant creator deity who fashioned the Runes and created a clockwork universe.  Sorcery does not appeal to gods or spirits; the practitioner attunes to certain Runes and manipulates their energies through the expenditure of magic points and certain techniques.  The system created for RQG draws heavily on HeroQuest, and is a far more Gloranthan sorcery than previous editions have described.

Sorcerers must first attune themselves to Runes and to techniques.  There are six of these techniques; Command, Combine, Separate, Summon, Dispel, and Tap.  A sorcerer must have an INT of 13, allowing him to attune to one Rune and one of these techniques.  After that, he or she may attune to one more Rune or technique for each point of INT over 13.  

The process of attuning requires the sorcerer to achieve intellectual union with whatever the sorcerer views as the “source” (the Invisible God, Pure Logic, etc).  This amounts to rolling under INT+POW roll on d00, but the roll can be boosted and augmented by ritual practices.  If successful, a point of POW must be sacrificed to master the new Rune or technique.

Once mastered, they can’t be “unmastered.”

To cast spells, a sorcerer uses a combination of Runes and techniques and fuels them with magic points to increase the spell’s “intensity.”  Each spell is a skill that must be learned.  

Example: A sorcerer wishes to cast the spell “Conflagration.”  This requires being attuned to the Fire/Sky Rune and the Summon technique.  The spell conjures fire.  Spending 1-3 magic points could light a candle, 12-15 points could melt lead, and 20 or more could melt iron.  To cast the spell she rolls under her percentage in it, and spends the appropriate number of magic points for the effect she desires.

Sympathetic magic can increase or decrease spell casting chances.  Certain days of the week, weeks in a season, or seasons in a year add bonuses to some spells and inflict penalties on others.  Certain places and ritual components can modify roles as well.  For example, casting a Water Rune spell on Waterday, during Sea Season, beside the ocean would add +35% to the spell.

The result of all of this is a sorcery system that resembles the one introduced in RQ3, but tied strongly to Glorantha and with shades of the sorcery from Nephilim’s Liber Ka.   It keeps the Runes front and center, as they must be in Gloranthan magic, but brings to the setting a more Neo-Platonic, philosophical path towards them.  



What hast thou to ask?

Why comest thou hither? Othin, I know

Where thine eye is hidden

The Poetic Edda


CONCLUSIONS   

LET’S NOT MINCE WORDS HERE; a roleplaying game is essentially about fun.  It is a group of people sitting down to enter a story together.  The same thing happens in theaters.  The same thing happened around ancient campfires.  Everyone loves a good story.

But there are stories and there are myths.

To my mind one of the most evocative recognitions of this came in another Chaosium game, Nephilim.  There is a passage in the forward that reads;

Despite the fact that most of us humans hide from this realization, either consciously or not, the world around us is full of signs that enlighten those who can but read them.  Mars is red like blood; the sun shines like gold; the moon follows a cycle like that of women.  We can ask ourselves if the “likeness” indicates a hollow comparison or reveals something that runs strong and deep within us all...

Anyone who has ever met in a tavern, only to later crawl into a dungeon and face monsters to win treasure, has heroquested.  They have participated in myth.  D&D can be just as much “The Hero’s Journey” as anything else.  But the difference between a story and a myth is that whiff of suggestion, that glimpse of hint, that something bigger and deeper and more connected is happening behind the scenes.  You play, you have fun, but the story you weave resonates on a another level, a reflection of something archetypical.  It small and quiet ways it changes you.

Any game can give you that experience, but Glorantha, and RQG, are consciously trying to trigger it.

When your Storm Bull worshipping Rune Lord is fighting the Chaos-blighted beast men known as the Broo, he is embodying the mythic struggle between his god and the Devil.  Your fight is the localized and temporal recreation of a timeless and transcendent event.  It isn’t just the player who knows this is a mythic reflection, the character is aware of it as well.  And the Storm Bull—whose boorish and often viscous behavior hurts those around him—is himself a reflection of something greater; the necessary evil that must be tolerated to stave off something worse...the compromises we all make for safety.  

Gloranthan gaming is always about myth.  HeroQuest is about narrative and the art of storytelling; 13G is about thrills and cinematic action; RQG is about realism...about the blow by blow struggle to survive, the taste of blood in your mouth, the sweat running down your skin; but all three are ultimately about myth.  Even a dungeon crawl in Glorantha has a way of representing something else.

No other RuneQuest—and this is coming from a guy from whom you’d have to pry his Cults of Prax or Cults of Terror from his cold, dead hands—does Glorantha as well as RQG.  As much as I love HeroQuest (I backed both Hero Wars and HeroQuest way back when), this is the game I was waiting for, a RuneQuest that delivered the mythic experience just as well as HeroQuest, but still had the realism, the detail, that made RQ legendary.  

For HeroQuest players, RQG is a marvelous way to access Glorantha in a different way.  It thrusts you not in the middle of a story, but in the middle of a simulated world13G players who want to try something more detailed—and deadly—will find that here.  Old school RQ players will find the deepest and richest exploration of Glorantha yet.  RQG is the “heroquest” version of RQ2; like Kallyr or Harrek it vanished for awhile and came back with new, mythic powers.  And any of you who have played Call of Cthulhu, King Arthur Pendragon, Nephilim, or any other Chaosium game, this is a chance to experience the game that started it all.  

As a reviewer I am cautious...without seeing the Bestiary or Gamemaster’s Guide I don’t yet have a complete picture of the game.  However, if they live up to the standards in this volume, we might well be looking at the new standard in Gloranthan gaming.


RQG will be available June 1st, 2018, from the Chaosium website.  The PDF retails at $27.95, the price of which is deductible from the eventual print version.

3 comments:

  1. Very nicely written, deep review. Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for this great review. sounds fantastic. my only concern is the handling of skills > 100%. I wonder if this will cause computational grief. Nevertheless, sounds like a must buy. Mel

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  3. Excellent in-depth review. Greatly appreciated!

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