"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.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

OSR, or "Old School RuneQuest"

Well. That was a long absence. Apologies to my readers. This year I was working on two different
RuneQuest projects for Chaosium, one for Call of Cthulhu, and finishing up the third and final book in the Six Seasons in Sartar series, The Seven Tailed Wolf. Wolf is now nearly there, so I will be trying to make up for lost time on the blog. I thank you for your forbearance and patience.

IS RUNEQUEST AN "OLD SCHOOL" RPG? It might seem an odd question to ask about a game which has been around since 1978, just four years shy of Dungeons & Dragons and contemporary with AD&D. By a chronological measure, it almost certainly is Old School.

But we are talking here about "Old School" from a game-play and game design perspective, and that has a more specific meaning. Just exactly what that meaning is is still being debated, but there are general criteria that can be pinned down.

The terms "Old School" and "OSR" (either "Old School Revival" or "Old School Renaissance") date back to the turn of the century (the 21st, not the 20th). When Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons and released their "third edition"*, they also instituted the OGL or "Open-Gaming License." The idea here was to allow third-party designers to make supplements that were compatible with the new edition of D&D. But the Wizards of the Coast third edition (hereafter just 3e) was a radical departure from all previous editions of the game, which were, by and large, all compatible with each other. There was a general sense that D&D needed to be "modernized" to make it more similar to contemporary RPGs. Not all the D&D community agreed, however. A movement started in which the OGL was used not to make products compatible with 3e, but to recreate out-of-print editions of the game. These "retro-clones" were faithful adaptations of the original game, the various Basic editions, and the advanced. Aside from bringing older editions back into print, this new "Old School Renaissance" also started fruitful conversations on what exactly Old School gaming was, and what made it different. 

Defining the Terms

As I said, opinions differ, but a general consensus exists on the following points.

SURVIVAL: Old School games, particularly for starting characters, were lethal. Modern games tend to define a "campaign" as a set of stories following the exploits of a specific cast of characters. They are the heroes, the protagonists, of the story. This was not the case with the earliest RPGs. The characters were inhabitants of the setting struggling to survive and carve out a name for themselves. They were not "heroes" and there was no "plot armor." Old School games embraced a kind of literary naturalism, the type best exemplified by Jack London and Stephen Crane, but which made its way into the hobby via pulp authors like Howard, Lieber, or Lovecraft. Naturalism was the attitude that the universe is impartial, uncaring. It does not favor the protagonists. It is neutral whether they succeed or fail. In game terms, this meant systems that were neutral, that did not favor the player characters over any other NPC. While modern games trend towards treating player characters like the Enterprise bridge crew, expected to return week after week, in Old School games everyone is a "red shirt."

IMBALANCED: This flows from the previous point, but Old School games were not particularly interested in "balance." These were games primarily about exploration, not combat. There was never any guarantee that a fight would be "fair." Ben Milton, author of games like Knave, Maze Rats, and co-author of the Labyrinth adventure game, emphasizes that Old School games treat combat like "war," not "sport." What he means of course is that modern RPG players expect combat to be fair, played out on a level playing field. It's a sport. Old School games saw combat as unfair, messy, and lethal, and you did whatever you had to to win. Better still, you avoided combat unless you were absolutely sure you could win it. Negotiation, surrender, and retreat were all viable options. Likewise, the ideal that all player characters should be equal was also absent. These games often focused on the setting, and in some of these, some species or professions were simply better than others. That was just a fact of life. This didn't mean a "weaker" character was a liability, however, because...

PLAYER OVER CHARACTER: To my mind the most critical difference between Old School and modern game design is that the former challenged the player, while the latter tests the characters. Early rule systems and character sheets were surprisingly sparse. There were not rules to cover every situation, by design. Instead, players were supposed to come up with creative solutions and the GM would then come up with a way to adjudicate them. While modern players just roll some sort of perception check to look for traps, Old School players had to come up with ways for finding them. This led to the "ten-foot pole" trope, with players poking and prodding the dungeon floor ahead of them as they went. Instead of rolling to see if your character persuaded the guard, you role-played out the situation and the group decided how you did. Some of this is to do the lethality. Character creation had to be fast, roll a few dice and you are done. In modern games, where characters are the assumed protagonists, a player can lavish hours building the "perfect" character, and this necessitates all sorts of skills, buffs, and options that simply did not exist in older games. In Old School gaming, a clever player, regardless of their character's attributes, stood a better chance or surviving than a careless player with higher stats.

There are other common features, such as sandbox-style play and greater player agency in co-creating the setting, but these points are the Big Three. Now that we have them out there, we can return to the question of RuneQuest.

Is RuneQuest Old School?

RuneQuest easily matches two thirds of the description above. It is, famously, a system known for lethality. Unlike other RPGs, RQ characters do not really gain "hit points" as they adventure, and there is always a chance that a lucky blow or a failed defense roll could result in the death of the character. Particularly in the older editions, typified by RQ2, characters started with very low skills and barely any magic. Survival was a genuine struggle and at the heart of the game. In this way it captured perfectly the feel of the pulps referenced as inspiration in its "Appendix N." Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Smith all get their mentions here. Of course there are other inspirations mentioned here...The Saga of Grettir the Strong, Njal's Saga, Le Morte D'Arthur, King Harald's Saga, not to mention those referenced in its board game predecessor White Bear and Red Moon (the Iliad, the Mahabharata). These were ancient examples of epic literature, heroic literature, but notably not super-heroic literature. All of the sources mentioned above dealt with death as a grisly and ever-present possibility, and their protagonists become heroes by facing death, not benefiting from plot armor. 

Another way RuneQuest differed (though I would argue just slightly) is that its naturalism was Gloranthan naturalism. The player characters were not favored by the cosmos, and it was indeed indifferent to their survival, but the scientific or sometimes pseudo-scientific elements of naturalism were replaced here by a mythic and magic reality. I don't think this had a substantial effect on play, but it did contribute greatly to the sense of awe and wonder in the setting.

On the question of game balance--or the lack thereof--RQ was again decidedly Old School. The playable character species are not balanced against each other in any way. Dark Trolls are simply bigger and stronger than humans. The Agimori even moreso. Ducks are smaller and weaker. Likewise, not all cults are equal. Some offer more magic than others, or magic more conducive to adventuring. RQ is extremely Old School in the assumption that the game is about playing your characters, not about making certain it is fair. The game is prioritizing the setting, Glorantha, and trying to represent what life is really like there. Likewise, in RQ2 and today in the current edition, there is no interest in "balanced encounters." Again, the game is prioritizing the inherent realism of the setting. The Glorantha Bestiary clearly tells player characters that running away is a sound option, and that combat should never be entered into lightly. 

Now, where RQ differed from other "Old School" games is in the third criteria. While RQ cannot really be called "rules-heavy," even back in 1978 there was a lot happening on the character sheet. RuneQuest did have--then and now--a unified dice mechanic that reasonably covered most situations. GMs were not encouraged to improvise random die rolls, those are pretty much covered. Further it was RQ that really pioneered the skill system, so that a character rolled Orate or Spot Trap, putting less pressure on the player to come up with inventive ideas. What we are seeing here, I think, is a difference in design philosophy. Consider Gary Gygax in the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide;

"Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is surely an adherent of the latter school." (p.9)

Gygax goes on to defend at length his decisions, why he prefers the archetypical simplicity of class, the concept of levels, the lack of skills and the like. While I feel he was specifically addressing RQ (already well on its way to becoming D&D's only real rival at the time), what is clear is that it is a matter of taste. Steve Perrin leans squarely towards simulation and realism. His combat system exemplifies that. Greg Stafford was keen on simulation as well...if not of our reality than of Gloranthan reality. So in this third criteria, this is where RQ departs from the Old School. It was a game specifically designed to model Glorantha, not to be a free-wheeling-do-it-yourself fantasy game kit.  

What About The Modern Game?

In keeping pretty much the entire engine that drove RQ2, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is keeping it Old School. On the other hand, the new edition embraces many features that move it further away from Old School than ever before.

Personality: With the exception of "alignment," Old School games were loathe to put personality traits down on the character sheet. Gygax recommended that for NPCs, but never PCs. RQ2 shared this feature. There was nothing really on the sheet that told you how the character should act...that was left to pure roleplaying and the details of the setting. In drawing on Stafford's Pendragon, however, RQG has Passions and Rune affinities that suggest how the character should act.

More Heroic: The inclusion of augmenting in the game, as well as the much greater accessibility to powerful magic, definitely shifts RQ further from the gritty "survival" style of play and towards something more epic. That having been said, I think this can be justified in the thematic backdrop of the setting...the Hero Wars. RQG remains far more lethal than, say, 5e, but it is far more epic and heroic than RQ2 was.

More Skills, More Background: If you compare the skill lists on an RQ2 character sheet and RQG, it is clear that skills have proliferated and become even more integral to the game. Instead of just Oratory, for example, we now have Bargain, Charm, Fast Talk, Intimidate, and Orate. Skills are easier to get in character creation and start at higher levels as well. Couple this with the detailed Family History phase of play, and it is clear that players are investing a lot more time into character creation than before, and far more than would be considered desirable from the point of view of Old School play. I think this is again RQG leaning into "simulation." The skill proliferation deepens the understanding of the setting, what characters do there. The Family History (and personality traits mentioned early) better integrate the character into the setting as well. This is very clearly a game about living in Glorantha rather than exploring ruins in search of glory and treasure. That is is a feature of the game too, but more than ever RQG prioritizes the setting.

In the final analysis I would say that RQG is still deeply Old School, but was never totally a part of it. The ways that RQ differed in 1978 are still the ways it differs now, though RQG doubles down on them. Having said this, I think there is still tremendous crossover between RQ fans and Old School gaming fans (or vice versa...I have never been a committed D&D player but I would readily play AD&D or the Rules Cyclopedia over the current incarnation of the game). And with that in mind, I offer the following little "hack"...

An RQ Old School Hack

The following is actually a sidebar in an up-coming adventure I am writing for the Jonstown Compendium, but why not add it here?

Basically, it is a rules hack ideal for those times when you want to run a mindless Gloranthan dungeon crawl (or ruins crawl, or Big Rubble crawl). It doesn't change the system in any way, it just cheats a little so you can spit out brand new characters faster for the meat-grinder. It is by no means a substitute for RQ campaigning! Try it on a beer n' pretzels night.

Here is the hack. To create a character;

1. Roll your Characteristics up normally, based on species.

2. Figure Hit Points, Magic Points, and Spirit Combat Damage normally.

3. Now we get funky. Average your STR and DEX for a "Combat Value." Write that down on your sheet.

4. Pick a Homeland and an Occupation.

5. Pick a Cult.

6. Rune Affinities and Passions are optional.

7. Grab spells and equipment.

Great Orlanth! Where are my skills?!?!

Breathe. We are deviating a bit from the realism-simulation part of the game. For the hack, when your character wants to attempt to do something, explain to your GM what it is and how you are trying to pull it off. The GM will then decide that Characteristic you are testing.

The standard roll is your Characteristic x 2. However, if you have an applicable Homeland, Cult, or Occupation, bump the roll up a "step" (x 1) for each.

Let's say you want to barter with a merchant. The standard test might be CHA x 2. If you are a Merchant, that becomes CHA x 3. If you are an Issaries as well, CHA x 4.

Same logic applies to your Combat Value. Let say the average of your STR and DEX is 14. basic combat rolls then would be 28% (x 2). But wait! Let's say you are using a sword. Are you from Sartar? Broadsword is a Homeland skill so now your chance is 42% (x 3). Are you a Warrior (x 4 or 56%)? Orlanth Adventurous or Humakt (x 5 or 70%).  

Once you get the hang of it, you will figure out most values fairly quickly. The GM always has final say in how many bumps you get.

While we intended this hack for only a few sessions, if you do get attached to your character and continue on, roll 1D4+1 at the end of every season. These don't change your characteristics, but they are skill bumps. Each is equal to 5%.

For example, you spend 3 or them on Broadsword. Make a note on your character sheet, Broadsword +3 (+15%). Add that to your Characteristic whenever you make a specific roll. essentially we are removing skills from the character creation process and easing them in as you go. To keep things at a slower pace, limit skill increases by +1 a Season.

Note that nothing else changes. You are just freewheeling things a bit with the whole skill use. 

* The "third edition" designation has always been a bit confusing. TSR published two parallel D&D games, the basic line which consists of the original game (1974), the Holmes boxed set (1977), the Moldvay/Cook boxed sets (1981), and the Mentzer boxed sets (1983) culminating in the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia. By this reckoning, the Wizards of the Coast "third" edition would have to actually be the fifth or possibly sixth. But starting in 1977, TSR also published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which saw two editions. So technically the Wizards game was a sequel to AD&D, they just dropped the "A" from the title.