Perfection in A Box – A Review of the RuneQuest Starter Set

RuneQuest Starter Set

Author: Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, and Jason Durall
Publisher: Chaosium
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $14.99
Print – $29.99

The world of Glorantha is one made by the gods but shaped by the deeds of mortals. Magic is part of everyday life, and mythology is the basis of reality. People hold allegiance to tribe, city, and cult, not some paltry abstract ideological alignments. It’s a world where humanity is the dominant species but far from the only species with a claim to swaths of land. Welcome to the Bronze Age of Glorantha!

I didn’t play RuneQuest growing up in the 80s, and 90s like my UK-centric group of players did. It wasn’t on my radar until I received the core book as a Christmas gift and the opportunity to play. While I enjoyed the experience, I found the core book daunting, despite being well written. I simply struggled to comprehend some of the game’s basic elements. I could have really used a starter set to help break it all down into bite-sized bits. The question is, does the RuneQuest Start Set do that? Is it a good introduction to the game, the setting, and the broader world of Glorantha?

Note: Chaosium provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.

What’s In the Box?

The RuneQuest Start Set is loaded to the nines! The one-inch deep, heavy-duty box is so full there is barely space for air, let alone pencils or additional materials. It’s physically oversized; measuring slightly longer than other starter sets or roleplaying game books—something to keep in mind when placing it on the shelf. Unpacking the box, one will find the following:

  • Book 1: Rules
  • Book 2: The World of Glorantha
  • Book 3: SoloQuest
  • Book 4: Adventures
  • 14 Ready-made Adventurers
  • 2 Blank Adventurer Sheets (folios)
  • 3 Handouts/player aids
  • 3 Maps
  • 1 set of polyhedral dice

Everything in the box is bright and vibrantly colored; having lots of eye appeal. There are a variety of different weights (gsm) of paper used throughout. From heaviest to lightest: the strike rank tracker player aid is on cardstock, the maps are only slightly thinner, the adventurer folios are still of decent thickness, and finally, the two remaining player aids and the four softcover saddle-stitched books are all printed on a lightweight semi-gloss paper that feels durable, but does wrinkles and creases easily.

Book 1: Rules

The rules presented here in the Starter Set distill the rules from the core book. There are no new rules introduced. However, how the rules are presented, the clarity, and copious examples, set this rule book apart from the core book.

As a distillation, it’s a mere 61 pages covering various essential mechanical topics at differing levels of depth. The core book goes into far more depth and detail in each area in this booklet; the information presented here is far more elegantly concise and straight to the point. At the same time, much of it is supported by copious examples.

The rules cover all the core mechanics necessary to play everything included in this box set and beyond. It uses a d100 percentile system, so those familiar with other similar systems will find the transition to RuneQuest relatively easy. For those not familiar with d100 percentile systems at its core, you want to roll at or under your rating on percentile dice to be successful. The lower you roll, the more successful you are; roll low enough, and Special or Critical mechanical effects kick in, increasing the dramatic outcome of the roll.

However, RuneQuest is not identical to any other d100 game; as a result, it does have a few unique mechanical aspects that players new to the game may struggle with at first. Take, for example, the Strike Rank (SR) system. Everything a combatant does, whether it’s moving, casting, attacking, readying a weapon, etc., determines which SRs they act on. I found the core book a little confusing, but the rules presented here, with examples, are unambiguous and concise, making it easy to comprehend how SRs are used. The starter set presents far better than the core book—being much easier to understand and comprehend. In fact, I found all of the areas I struggled with previously resolved within these rules due to how the information is written and framed with examples.

So who are the heroes of the stories? Adventurers are more than just words and numbers on paper. They are made up of Characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma), Attributes derived from Characteristics (Hit Points, Move, Strike Ranks, Rune and Magic Points, Damage Bonus, and Healing Rate), Skills (fields of expertise), Runes (magical building blocks of Glorantha), and Passions (strong emotional responses like Love, Loyalty, Hate, and Fear). These aspects of an adventurer are concisely outlined with everything needed to get your hero into the story.

Rules and more in-depth information are given for the following areas: skills, how passions work, how to use runes, combat, rune magic, spirit magic, and spotting and chase rules. All of which are supported by wonderful examples, call-out boxes providing additional secondary information, and easy read charts and tables where needed. An Adventurer Sheet Overview diagram also provides summary information about each section of the adventurer folio, including the page(s) containing that section’s specific information.

One thing the starter set is missing is adventurer creation rules. Those rules take up many pages in the core book, and I assume, were purposefully left out. Luckily there are many pre-generated adventurer folios included.

I have purposely presented my overview of the rules as “high-level.” I hope you have taken away what you’re getting in the book, that being the brevity and clarity in which it is written and the lowering of the learning curve, which will make transitioning to the core rules so much smoother and more manageable. If you’d like a deeper look at the RuneQuest – Roleplaying in Glorantha, please have a look at Dan’s review – RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Review.

“Your Glorantha may vary”

~ Greg Stafford

Book 2: The World of Glorantha

The world of Glorantha is a Bronze Age setting not unlike our own at a fundamental level; beyond that, it is very different. It’s a world where magic is part of everyday life and mythology is the basis of reality. Fantastical beings like trolls, Runequest ducks, and those twisted by chaos, to name a few, coexist in a world presently dominated by humans.

The second book provides readers with a high-level overview of Glorantha and how the gods, their magic, and runes permeate every facet of life. Each of the major gods is given a short write-up highlighting who they are and why they are important. Unlike many roleplaying games, RuneQuest’s Glorantha setting has many unique aspects. Its emphasis on kinship, community, Rune Affinities, and Passions set it apart from other games’ settings. This and more are briefly outlined in this booklet. Mechanical elements like the Runes and Passions introduced in the rules booklet are given more contextual detail here.

The world of Glorantha is quite large and more thoroughly explored in the RuneQuest – Roleplaying in Glorantha core book and The Gloranthan Sourcebook. However, the Starter Set solely focuses on the Dragon Pass region. The Dragon Pass is one of the most militarily significant regions in all of Genertela. It is a mountainous region centered on the 12-kilometer-high mountain of Kero Fin, the highest peak in Glorantha and the birthplace of the major god Orlanth. Six countries or regions comprise the Dragon Pass: Sartar, Esrolia, Grazelands, Prax, Lunar Tarsh, and Old Tarsh. Dragon Pass is also home to trolls, dragonewts, dwarves, and other species. An exceptionally brief history of the broader world and Dragon Pass helps to put the people, places, and gods into context.

The Starter Set uses the City of Jonstown as its central focus. Although Jonstown is typical of larger settlements in the Dragon Pass, it is the Starter Set’s base of operations. As a result, the majority of the booklet, 39 pages, provides in-depth details about the city’s history, tribes, politics, life in the city, influential people (with stat blocks), descriptions of the city’s quarters and buildings therein, several generic inhabitant stat blocks, and short descriptions of locations near Jonstown.

Book 3: SoloQuest

The Starter Set includes a SoloQuest entitled “The Battle of Dangerford.” It is explicitly written to teach the rules in a controlled environment while also providing cultural context. Although not required, the authors recommend new players and Gamemasters play through “The Battle of Dangerford” before playing any of the adventures in Book 4.  As a learning game, it helps teach the game’s system and provides a firsthand look at Gloranthan cultures and customs in action.

Throughout “The Battle of Dangerford,” the rules are explained with just the right level of detail. Passages are often framed by cultural information, customs, and rites that are difficult for new RuneQuest players to tease out of the core book. Their use is on point, driving home specific rules while teaching about Glorathan culture.

“The Battle of Dangerford” is modeled after Chaosium’s Call of Chtulhu solo adventures series. It utilizes a navigation system reminiscent of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series of the 1980s, whereby you read a narrative passage and turn to a specific numbered passage, depending on the choices you make or the results of your dice rolls.

In this scenario, you take on the role of Vasana, Daughter of Farnan (one of the pre-generated adventurers)*. She’s a formidable hero, capable warrior, trusted leader, and dedicated initiate of the Orlanth Adventurous cult. Vasana has allied herself with Kallyr Starbrow, leader of the Sartarite rebellion against the Lunar Empire. Kallyr is about to lead her troops against the Lunar Empire’s war leader, Fazzur Wideread, at Dangerford. Dangerford is a critical crossing on the strategically important river known as “The Creek.” With sides evenly matched, even a single stone could tip the scales one way or the other. Depending on how Vasana carries herself, she alone could sway the battle and change the fate of Dragon Pass.

* The adventure was specifically written for Vasana, but the other pre-generated adventurers may be substituted.

“The Battle of Dangerford” has many possible endings. The one you get depends on how you navigate the battle. With multiple endings and several “hidden secrets,” this scenario has a moderate amount of replayability. The “The Battle of Dangerford” shines brightest in how it provides new players and Gamemasters with a firm grounding of the rules, Gloranthan cultures, and customs!

Book 4: Adventures

Book 4, the final book of the Start Set, is the biggest of the four booklets. It contains three adventures, each written with new Gamemasters and players in mind. The scenarios feature isolated locations and environments, a limited number of non-player characters and monsters to interact with and manage, and relatively straightforward and linear plots. The authors recommend playing the scenarios in order, but Gamemasters may always run them in any order.

Following the three scenarios are several pages of Adventure Seeds. They provide budding Gamemasters with narrative descriptions for future scenarios using only the Starter Set. Adventures beyond the scope of the Starter Set will require the RuneQuest – Roleplaying in Glorantha core book, RuneQuest Bestiary, and possibly the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen & Pack which contains three more linked scenarios set roughly in this same area.

A Rough Landing

“A Rough Landing” is another learning scenario. It is written for 3-6 players and playable in one session, putting it in the pole position. This scenario takes place shortly after “The Battle of Dangerford” and, like the SoloQuest, serves as a great way to teach the rules, Glorantha, and other game elements.

Newly arrived in Jonstown, the adventurers enter the city just as the gates close for the night and quickly run afoul of several aggressive dark trolls and quite possibly the law. The following day they are hauled before the City Rex to account for their actions. When the accounting ends, the adventurers are engaged to resolve a problem in a nearby farming community.

The scenario is set several years later in a different political landscape than previous editions. Experienced players should still find this adventure refreshing and fun.

Being the first scenario, its design reinforces several key RuneQuest concepts.

  • Combat is not something to be rushed into lightly; violence has consequences.
  • Passions such as Honor and Loyalty are important guides to behavior.
  • Social commitment and connections are critical to survival.
  • Not everything is as straightforward as it seems.

“A Rough Landing” is a fantastic beginner scenario! Its linear structure offers players little room to explore, but they are unlikely to notice the rails under their feet—it’s that well written and engaging. New players will quickly learn the key concepts noted above. The adventure is well written, full of opportunities to teach or reinforce the rules, and it amply prepares players and Gamemasters for future scenarios.

A Fire in the Darkness

“A Fire in the Darkness” takes the gameplay to the next level. Unlike “A Rough Landing,” “A Fire in the Darkness” is far less linear, and players have more opportunities to explore. The adventurers are called in to investigate a series of mysterious fires plaguing Jonstown. Clues point to a reclusive remnant of a Lunar cult, hinting at a potentially explosive political situation. Digging deeper sends the adventures into the ruins beneath a fallen Lunar temple. There, they must defeat a powerful foe and restore peace to Jonstown.

It is very much an investigation scenario in the style I like. Clues lead to each other logically; none leads players too far astray. The clues continually propel the story forward. Players get to explore more of Jonstown and interact with some of its inhabitants. Sidebar callouts provide specific information like tips and the moon’s phases, which I really appreciate. Additionally, the scenario provides ample opportunity for players to further their understanding of the rules and Gloranthan culture while also widening their overall breadth of knowledge.

The Rainbow Mounds

Originally published in 1978/9 and again in 1980 in Apple Lane, this version of “The Rainbow Mounds” is not merely a modern reprinting of the old classic, but rather a wholly new scenario unto itself that furthers the original story. The nearby village of Apple Lane is again threatened by trollkin, and this time they have brought along friends—newtlings. The attacks are reminiscent of those that plagued the village many years ago. With no Thane, Apple Lane seeks assistance from adventurers in Jonstown to act as temporary law-keepers. Once they arrive at the Rainbow Mounds, so named for the different colored limestone through the complex, they quickly realize the situation is not simply a matter.

As the largest scenario in the booklet, “The Rainbow Mounds” is a far more challenging scenario than the previous two. It builds upon the Gamemaster’s and players’ earlier experiences in “A Rough Landing” and “A Fire in the Darkness.” The original iteration of “The Rainbow Mounds” is often said to be Greg Stafford’s Gloranthan version of the Caves of Chaos featured in TSR’s B2: Keep on the Borderlands. While this is not a reprinting of the original, it retains the premise and dials it up—creating a new, far more refined, and developed adventure that even experienced players who have played through the original will enjoy. One, I’m sure Greg Stafford would be proud of it!

Maps & Other Bits

As noted in the inventory above, several additional components are included in the box. The most notable is the fourteen ready-made “grab and go” adventurer folios. They are uniquely laid out and presented, unlike the regular RuneQuest character sheet. These freestanding table-topper folios with large character portraits, designed to face the other players, putting all pertinent information right at your fingertips—where you need it, when you need it. However, they are not quite rigid enough to stand up for long periods of time. Otherwise, they are fantastic.

The set includes two double-sided maps. One consists of North Sartar on one side and Jonstown on the reverse. The other includes a labeled map of The Rainbow Mounds and an unlabeled version on the reverse. In addition to these maps, on the rear cover of each of the four booklets is one quadrant of the North Sartar map with a slightly zoomed-in perspective and muted colors. The North Sartar map is beautiful and functional—if not busy—showing all the major roads, rivers, hills, points of interest, towns, settlements, and the like. The zoomed-in version is less busy and excellent if you need to reference a specific area. The maps for The Rainbow Mounds are equally as lovely, but it’s unclear why there are two. Ideally, the unlabelled version would be the one used as a table prop. A labeled version is already included in the scenario.

For players, there are three useful handouts. The first is a reprint of the Gloranthan Runes (Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions) on a double-sided sheet. The second is a two-page folio that reproduces frequently used referenced tables and charts from “Book 1: Rules.” The third handout is the Strike Rank Tracker. As a single-sided resource, it is printed on heavier stock and provides a visual aid for tracking who’s doing what on which Strike Rank during the combat round.

Last but not least is the set of seven bronze-colored polyhedral dice. The dice themselves are nothing special—the type often bought in bulk for cheap. That doesn’t make them bad, just not premier quality. But having said that, they do have decent weight and feel about them, and they roll well enough.

Final Thoughts

As a very new and inexperienced RuneQuest player, I felt weirdly lost after reading the core rulebook. However, the light has come on after reading the booklets and playing through “The Battle of Dangerford” SoloQuest. I now feel like I have a better sense of the rules, how things generally work, Gloranthan culture, and how to play within the world narratively. Had this Starter Set been around when I started my journey into RuneQuest this time last year (Christmas 2020), I would have had a completely different experience—one far less frustrating.

My actual quibbles with this starter set boil down to the paper stock used. Generally speaking, I wish the booklets, handouts, and Adventurer sheets were on slightly heavier paper stock and that the booklets had more rigid covers—all for long-term durability reasons. The first book could use another round of proofreading before any future reprint. That’s it!

Chaosium’s RuneQuest team has nailed it! Raising the bar to new heights, they have put together a Starter Set that other companies can only dream of emulating. One with concisely written and focused rules, in easy to understand language supported by copious examples and just the right amount of lore to whet your appetite, yet enough to give you a firm sense of the world in which you are about to embark. It’s further bolstered by a SoloQuest explicitly designed to teach new players the rules along with three adventures intended to gradually build a player’s knowledge through experiential learning. And we cannot forget all the other goodies you get in the box as well. All of this at an affordable price!

I was honestly on the verge of walking away from RuneQuest Glorantha until I received this Starter Set. It has absolutely changed my understanding of the basic rules and setting to where I feel far more grounded and ready to take on Glorantha! I am now absolutely smitten with RuneQuest Glorantha as a direct result of the RuneQuest Starter Set.

If that’s endorsement enough, how about—Go buy it! It’ll be the best $29.99 you’ve ever spent!

~ Modoc

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent write-up. RQ is a blind spot for me, and I would benefit from the Starter Set.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. modoc31 says:

      Wayne,

      Thank you. It really is a great starter set. Accomplishing what it sets out to do, teach the basic game while making it approachable, playable, and fun.

      ~ Modoc

      Liked by 2 people

  2. dracopticon says:

    A simply fantastic review, made with the gusto that comes from the feeling of taking part in a new, fresh look at something already discovered. Many thanks for this read. And I totally agree, this starter set sets a new bar for others to follow. I have already played through the soloquest, but made (winged it) it into a “multiplayer” version with two of my friends as the players. It was a nice experience! I heratily recommend buying this starter set. Kindest regards, Erik Brickman (in Sweden).

    Liked by 1 person

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