RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Review

Chaosium’s newest incarnation receives a lot of well-deserved praise. However, I’m a little surprised to be writing a playtest review where I indicate it didn’t quite work for my group. To be fair I think there’s a lot of groups it will work for and I’d love to give it another chance. In this review, I’m going to give you a brief overview of the game and then I’m going to talk about my experiences with it.

RuneQuest is a fantasy game that has been around since the late 1970s. When introduced, it was closely tied in with Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha. That level of tie-in has waxed and waned through the different editions. In the late 1980s, Avalon Hill acquired the publishing rights to RuneQuest, though Chaosium still produced the game. In that edition, the 3rd, the default setting moved from Glorantha to a fantasy version of Earth, with Glorantha as an option. The rights to RuneQuest wandered a bit. Mongoose produced two editions of it. The first was, in my opinion, fairly mediocre. The second was far more refined and I ran an enjoyable fantasy Vikings and Lenape game with it set in a fictionalized North America. These versions had Glorantha as an option as well, but not a default. A new company, The Design Mechanism, further refined the 2nd Mongoose version (The Design Mechanism was made up of the creatures of the 2nd Mongoose edition). This version was fairly short-lived, as when Greg Stafford returned to Chaosium, Chaosium chose to make a new version of RuneQuest, using the 2nd edition as a starting point (the last version done solely by Chaosium). The Design Mechanism’s RuneQuest has been rebranded as Mythras – a fine game in its own right.

With the history lesson out of the way, let’s give a brief overview of the rules. If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu you’ll recognize the game mechanics right away. Your character is based around skills, skills with a range from 0 to 100 (or beyond) in rating. To succeed in skill checks you need to make percentile dice roles below your skill rating (modified by difficulty). If you roll a fifth of your success chance you get a “special” success and if you roll a twentieth you get a “critical” success. In opposed actions critical between special which beats regular which beats failures.

Unlike 7th edition Call of Cthulhu (but like every edition before it), ability scores are not on a percentile ranking but use a 3 to 18 range, like D&D. (And Call of Cthulhu 7th edition essentially does as well – in both CoC 7e and RQ you roll either 3d6 or 2d6+6 for abilities, depending on the ability. In Call of Cthulhu 7th edition you multiply that result by 5).

Your starting skills are determined by a combination of your culture and profession.

So far this sounds a lot like Call of Cthulhu, which is one of my baselines in gaming. However, there’s a number of differences, some subtle, some obvious.

  • RuneQuest characters do not use sanity,
  • If characters wear armor, it protects them by hit location. When you hit in combat, you determine where you hit.
  • Hit points are divided into hit locations.
  • There are no initiative rolls nor do characters act on their Dex ranking (as they do in Call of Cthulhu). Rather they use strike ranks, which are calculated based on weapon types, character size, and character dexterity.
  • Characters have passions ranging from 0 to 100, measuring loyalties, hatreds, loves, etc. If you successfully test a passion you get bonuses related to that passion – but a failure delivers a penalty.
  • Characters also have rune affinities, measuring the connections to the elemental forces of the universe. These are used to test how well characters use rune magic, sorcery, and can be used like passions to get bonuses or penalties.
  • Every intelligent character uses magic. Every PC. The bandits they fight. The high priestess. The farmer tending his crops.
  • There are multiple types of magic:
    • Spirit magic is basic magic that most characters have (unless they know sorcery). It can sharpen blades, perform minor healing, etc. It uses magic points which regenerate quickly.
    • Rune magic comes from the gods. It is more powerful (restoring the dead, controlling weather) but regenerates more slowly – you need access to a worship service at a shrine or temple dedicated to (or at least aligned with) the deity you received that rune from.
    • Sorcery takes the place of spirit magic for some characters. It is a more “scientific” form of magic, capable of being much more customized.
    • Shamanism is an advanced form of spirit magic, specializing in spirits and travel to other planes.

Glorantha is a “Bronze Age fantasy world”. The gods are close and accessible. The default starting location in Glorantha is Dragon Pass, where the Lunar Empire (the “evil empire”) is trying to further expand, at the expense of the Kingdom of Sartar (the default “good guys”). The Lunars worship a pantheon centered on their Red Goddess of the moon while the people of Sartar’s primary god is Orlanth, the god of the storm. Sartar has just been liberated from Lunar control. Character generation includes the option of rolling your character’s family history, including a grandparent and a parent, similar to how it is done in Pendragon – as well as three years of your own adventuring.

This all sounds pretty grand. It is a fantastically made game, with wonderful graphics, a compelling world, and what seems to be simple rules – roll low on percentile dice.

I was a bit surprised when I found it didn’t quite click for my group. I’ve had some time to think why and I think I have a bit of an idea. I recently wrote about the importance of introductory adventures and starter sets. I think for RuneQuest, an entire book set should be dedicated for the purpose of introducing the rules and the setting. A sort of “veterans need not apply, newbies strongly recommended to start here” sort of set. There is a free QuickStart rules but that’s more designed as a quick overview and then get going with a full-fledged adventure. What I think is needed is something which introduces everything slowly, one step at a time. As it stands now, it was really just too much for us to take in all at once. Armed with a new character, you need to deal with a fairly intricate set of combat rules, magic rules, rules for passions, rules for rune affinities, etc. Adding to this, the GM has the challenge of running NPCs with all of these traits. When we played, it was extremely easy for the players to forget all the tools they had at their disposal, to say nothing of the GM constantly forgetting all the magic, rune affinities, passions, etc, the NPCs had available to them.

What would I put in this starter set? I mentioned how your starting character is assumed to have three years of adventuring under his or her belt. I’d make the starter set a campaign which walks players and GMs through those three years in baby-steps. A scenario which starts with characters needing to roll a passion. A scenario centered around the magic that everyone has. A scenario centered around walking through combat. Perhaps most importantly, I’d build things up – make it a learn-by-doing sort of campaign that starts off with the assumption you know nothing.

Why do I want this? Because despite the fact that our own play experience was a bit frustrating, I loved what I saw and I was frustrated with our inability to make it work. I suppose the burden can be on us for being “bad gamers”, but with two of us having gaming experience stretching back to the 1980s, and another who has gamed since the 1990s, we’re not talking a bunch of novices. Chaosium, if you’re listening, I have a group right here that would love to test out any such starter set you might be working on…

I’d say that this is a great game for the right group. In my opinion it really requires all players having a good understanding of what their characters are able to do – and the GM being very familiar with all the NPCs. Physically it’s a gorgeous book. The setting is compelling – and, after years of being terrified of Glorantha, was far more approachable than I’d thought it would be. The major caveat I’d state is there’s a lot of “moving parts” to be aware of and it behooves you to be ready for that.

~ Dan Stack

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