ONCE UPON A TIME, in a magical land called "the Early Eighties," RuneQuest looked something like this;
You are gazing there upon a typical page from William Keyes's Runemasters, which for 12-year-old version of me was akin to religious scripture, or, if you prefer a more profane metaphor, porn. You see, this was an age when percentiles were narrative, stat blocks poetry, and statistics thick description. To the untrained--no, scratch that, the word we want to use here is uninitiated--eye, there is an impenetrable scrawl of data there, a gibberish of cramped numerals, cryptic words, and questionable use of punctuation. To me however, 37 years ago, this was Borek Longtooth, a sentient baboon from the plains of Prax. In his mid-20s, he was already a badass, a Rune Lord of Daka Fal, judge of the dead. He was deadly with a spear, had a number of animal spirits bound to his will, and was in possession of formidable magics. He was a master of stealth, a deadly hunter who could track you unerringly, unseen, unheard. Looking at those numbers, I could see him, his painted muzzle, the dull iron armor covering parts of his fur, a few flies buzzing around him in the baking heat of the chaparral. This was, ladies and gentlemen, how we rolled. In early roleplaying games like RuneQuest, the entire story was buried in statistics.
Four decades later, though, we exist in a reality of high-def television, emojis, and Instagram. We don't converse, we tweet. Everything is faster, briefer, louder, and more vivid. We exist in perpetual sensory overload, and if you want an audience, you need to catch their eye. Attention, frankly, has never been harder to hold. A book like Runemasters would be dead on arrival. We don't want to sift data to find the story, we want it now. NOW.
All of this means that bringing a game like RuneQuest into the 21st century is something of a tightrope act. The game had to change, had to adapt, but if you lean too far to the right you plunge into appealing only to hardcore grognards such as myself, lean too far to the left, and you fall into not being recognizable as RuneQuest anymore. The design team of The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (I will be calling it Pegasus from here on in because PP makes my inner five-year-old giggle), has navigated this particular Scylla and Charybdis remarkably well. Pegasus is modern RuneQuest, easily the most modern product Chaosium has produced for it yet, but its roots run deep and it is undeniably aware of its ancestry.
Now I know what you are thinking; "for Pete's sake Montgomery, just get to the bloody point." So, dear reader, I shall.
One reason I call Pegasus the most modern RQ product is because it is the most visually adept thus far at getting information across. We have to congratulate art director Kalin Kadiev and his team (Dimitrina Angelska, Dominik Derow, Antonia Doncheva, Andrey Fetisov, Elena Herrero, Jennifer Lange, Michelle Lockamy, Eli Maffei, Sarah Miller, Naomi Robinson, Valentina Romagnoli, Simon Roy, and Cory Trego-Erdner) for pieces that tell stories about the people in them. They are at turns dramatic, human, and arresting. The art here didn't spring fully formed from the brow of Zeus--we've seen it evolving over the last several Chaosium products--but it's reached its stride here. These Sartarites look like Sartarites, not pseudo-Celts or Vikings. The Lunars could be Romans, but there is a something of Assyria in that beard. These characters finally have their own cultures and ethnologies, rather than looking plucked from a historical Osprey book.
They also have personality. You could glance at "Kana" on page 13 and pretty much predict what her personality description on page 14 would say; it's not just the upturned nose, the look in her eyes says I think I am better than you. "Jongor" and "Delenda" on page 136 are very clearly...er, sorry, let me stop myself there with another annoying artifact of the modern media age and just say "spoilers." In any case, the picture of the two together is worth a a thousand loud and clear words. That the two look like they have handed their smartphone to a passerby and asked him or her to take a picture of them is a bonus; I like it when Glorantha winks at me, and I wink right back. Also, there is a depiction of an Earth temple on page 7 that might be the single most Gloranthan image I have ever seen. No "Fantasy Europe" there, no clinging whiff of medievalism. It's not quite Minoan Crete or Babylon, not entirely India or ancient Cambodia, but it suggests some far older culture, the kind of ruin Sinbad would stumble across in a Ray Harryhausen movie.1
So with the art we have arrived at pictures that are information laden, not just space-fillers, and the world they depict feels entirely its own. I have been imagining this Glorantha for four decades, so to finally see it is gratifying indeed. Pegasus understands we are living in a visual society, where nothing is "real" unless you've uploaded an image of it. It applies this to Glorantha through images that make that world real too. How do we know Glorantha is real? Because now we can see it.
I'm going to invoke John Wick because with this book he has at last joined the Glorantha family. John is responsible for the eternally true Stafford Rule that states;
If you believe you've come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.
Pegasus is a variation of that rule, because now it has to be "Chaosium has already done it." In trying to square the circle in my own recent Glorantha book (shameless plug, cough cough), I thought I was being oh so clever in designing a simplified approach to NPC design. Lo and behold, O Montgomery you foolish mortal, Pegasus beat you to it.
Right on page 2 Pegasus talks about the "missing abilities" approach. Here is why I began with Borek the Baboon. In "classic" RuneQuest the default assumption was often "if it is not on the page it isn't real."2 A book like Runemasters, which contained just pages and pages of statistics for Rune Masters, existed because doing your own stats for them took longer than reading Tolstoy. Flash forward four decades later and in a game like HeroQuest Borek would simply be a difficulty. If RuneQuest took that approach, however, it wound be RQ in name only. Thus there has to be a way to satisfy the modern taste for information in light rapid doses that also feels RQ.
The surprisingly simple approach is to give NPCs only the stats they need in the story and omit the rest. You can quibble if this is an actual mechanic, but by putting it into writing, Pegasus makes it precedent for the rules lawyers amongst us. Anything else that comes up in play can be improvised. Sure, this seems a "no-brainer" today, but RQ is 42 years old and has a reputation for being--let's just say it--anal. But it doesn't have to be. There are ways to make it every bit as improvisational as a game like HeroQuest, and this turns a spotlight to it.
There are seven adventures, one tribe, and a village in the pages of Pegasus, but really to say too much about them would be to ruin them for you. I did save this part for last, however, because one of the most modern elements of Pegasus is in the variety and diversity of the stories told here.
It's probably a stereotype that classic RPG adventures were all dungeon crawls, but looking back many of them were. Even the RQ ones.3 "Sandbox" is the term we use these days and I still advocate it as a valid form of "emergent storytelling" (that is for another post), but Pegasus brings a hard focus to narrative storytelling, making RQ feel more in line with younger games. The range of stories is really one of the book's best features, but also one I suspect might bug some of the audience. The stories don't just differ in terms of tone and feel, but in structure, how stats are presented, etc. Again, this is a manifestation of YGWV, and Pegasus showcases more than any previous RQ product that there really isn't "one" style of play or "one" way of doing things. These are seven different visions of Glorantha, not a unified campaign. If one doesn't speak to you, the others very likely will.
You will find a story about a wedding ceremony gone wrong, a ghoul king in a forest of the undead (HeroQuest players might have seen this before...), a chance to tangle with Lunar soldiers, a murder mystery, a sort of Glorantha Olympics, Glorantha's answer to Stephen King's Christine, and a ruin where you have the chance to learn from one of Glorantha's more interesting features. These are all packed with surprises, memorable characters, and occasionally deadly dangers. Authors Jason Brick, Rachael Cruz, Steffie De Vaan, Jason Durall, Helena Nash, Steve Perrin, Diana Probst, Jeff Richard, Dom Twist, and John Wick have done an admirable job of providing a full palette of Gloranthas.
If you take nothing else away from this review, take at least this; RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha has all the DNA of its predecessors, but it is no more RQ2 than I am my father. If you are staying away from RQ because you feel it is too dated, too dense, too mechanical, take a look at this. The lesson is that rule systems do not age, presentation and application does. This is an RQ collection of adventures every bit as cutting edge as anything other system on the market.
1. If THAT doesn't put a picture of a dancing Kali statue in your head, nothing will.
2. I know some of you old timers will deny the game was ever played this way. Apparently you never had Bill gamemaster for you. I was once told I couldn't light a torch because I hadn't written "tinder" on may character sheet. No, after nearly four decades I am not still bitter. Not. At. All.
3. Looking at you, Snakepipe Hollow, looking at you.