Review of RuneQuest Second Edition

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

December 24, 2007

by: Lev Lafayette

Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

Whilst not without its flaws, it is easy to see why RuneQuest (2nd edition) was highly regarded, is considered a classic and still is being played seriously today. In terms of product quality, it is also evident why a new edition was made from 1st edition.

Lev Lafayette has written 135 reviews, with average style of 3.19 and average substance of 3.17 The reviewer's previous review was of Earthdawn Gamemaster's Compendium.

This review has been read 6083 times.


Review of RuneQuest Second Edition

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RuneQuest (1st and 2nd edition), The Chaosium, Steve Perrin, Ray Turney and friends. RuneQuest was once considered the great challenge to the almighty AD&D. Critically acclaimed, at least according to reviews here on, and another. By accident it was the first RPG I participated in, which was followed up with D&D, AD&D, Swordbearer, DragonQuest, Rolemaster, GURPS, the Hero System and dozens and dozens of other games. Even today however, I'm still playing in a RQ 2nd edition game and for the past two years at RetroCon I've run RQ2 games. You may think I like it or something; you might be right. Recently I was also fortunate enough to acquire, after many years, a copy of first edition RuneQuest. As is often remarked, it is very similiar to the second edition and therefore the two can be reviewed simultaneously.

Let's begin by defining the products. The game discussed here is the softback editions of RuneQuest (1st and 2nd edition) published by (The) Chaosium, with emphasis on the second edition which is much more well known and subject to significantly more actual play. There is another version second edition published by Games Workshop with a similiar piece of cover art (in colour, although with a silly 'chaimail bikini' outfit), another rare and very sturdy hardback edition published by Reston Publishing which is as rare as rocking horse manure, and a third edition published by Avalon Hill and written by Chaosium which I have previously reviewed (and ended up giving it roughly the same rating as everyone else who has reviewed it). There is also an oddity called RuneQuest: Slayers which apparently is quite good, but has very little to do with with the game reviewed here. There is also the recent edition known as Mongoose RuneQuest;, which has received a less glorious response, but is still a reasonably good game it its own right. Hidden in the deep underground of PDF distribution there's also an unpublished manuscript of what was to be RuneQuest IV: Adventures in Glorantha.

The softback edition of RQ II usually comes with monochrome art of various colours. The first edition and many of the second editions come in a light brown cover although some are colour; the second edition has somewhat more detail and a different date). There are also two-tone colour versions about and of course, the hardback version comes with colour dust jacket. The image however is the same, an armoured female confronting a DragonNewt (a humanoid draconic being), placing her shield in the way. A rather witty comment from an Ares/SPI review on its release was "a giant gila monster eating a tortilla". The same style of art, by Luise Perrin (who has a something to do with the author of the game of the same surname), is continued throughout. It's neither brilliant in technqiue or inspiration, but it's good enough and certainly compared well to many products of its time. The maps of the default setting Glorantha and the regions of Sartar and Prax are very evocative of a mythic world however this only applies for the second edition; the first edition maps leave a lot to be desired. In the second edition, two coloum justified text is used throughout with a good-sized serif font and a good use of white space, making it very readable, although in the appendicies the font - and readability - is reduced significantly. In the first edition, a sans-serif font, poor use of white space, and typed rather than typeset material is used for tables and the character sheets. In terms of layout, the first edition is not particularly attractive by any stretch of the imagination. The binding is quite strong in the second edition with harsh treatment over decades still resulting in workable copies (a positive note here must also be made of the hardback edition), although the same certainly cannot be said for the first edition which is 118pp with a light cardstock cover with two staples - handle with extreme care!

The organisation of the text includes five pages of useful introduction, six pages on character creation (eight pages in first edition), five pages of "mechanics and melee", twelve pages of "combat skills" (ten pages), thirteen pages of "basic magic", nine pages of "other skills" (ten pages), twenty pages of "rune magic" (eighteen pages), nineteen pages of "monsters" (twenty-five pages), six pages of "treasure hoards" (called "Monster Hoards" in the first edition), and twenty-two pages of appendicies (thirteen pages, entitled "Referees Notes). There is a good index (lacking in the first edition) and table of contents, along with eight pages in the middle of the book for the most important tables for in-play activity. The organisation of the text could certainly have done with some better consideration. The tables in the middle of the book are more a bane than a benefit, and some of the best material which should have been included in the main text is in the the Appendicies. Chapters II to VI could largely have been reordered as II, VI, III, IV and then VII (Rune magic); character advancement could have been better placed (i.e., not after combat skills).

On the other hand, the writing style is very commendable; concise, evocative and clear. From the very outset one has a clear idea of the recommended setting and the justifications for game decisions. The game is about questing for runes. Different metals are aligned to different runes. Bronze is the bones of dead Gods. Silver is the basic unit of currency and gold is very rare. It is a bronze age and early Dark Ages world with more in common with ancient Mesopotamia and Hyborea than medieval Europe.People have allegiances to cities, nations, religions and tribes, not to abstract qualities of law and chaos or even good and evil. A high POW characteristic weakens your ability to hide, because it builds an aura; and so forth. Throughout the text one learns from the experiences of Rurik The Restless, clever and resilient, but always tripping over himself from his first drink at Gimpy's Tavern (at the tender age of 16) to becoming a Runelord of the Sun Dome Temple.

Character generation starts with a familiar 3d6 for Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity and Charisma with alternative methods of characteristic generation are provided, including a point-buy system. The most exotic is Power, representing the measure of soul and is requisite for casting spells. Maximum characteristics is based on the maximum roll-able amount plus the number of dice; so the highest DEX a human could have would be 21 - 18 + 3 dice, with the exception of STR, SIZ or CON which is limited to whatever the highest of those three are - and further, SIZ cannot be normally altered (there is no dieting in the RuneQuest world). POW is improved by the experience of casting magic, whilst CHA can be increased by high weapon skills (!), oratory, possession of showy items, and reputation. Characteristic modify abilities, which groups of skills, knowledges and so forth broken up into Attack, Parry, Defense, Hit Points, Damage Bonus, Perception, Stealth, Manipulation and Knowledge. The significant influence of INT in attack, defense, manipulation and stealth should raise an eyebrow, as will Hit Points, which are based on CON but modified (slightly) by SIZ and (even less) POW. The effect of this becomes quite notable in the "Monster" chapter; because most creatures have a CON of the 3-18 range, something as mighty as a (Dream) Dragon merely has an average 19 hit points, despite having an average SIZ of 50. Starting equipment is based on randomly determined character class background; either Peasant, Townsman, Barbarian, Poor Noble or Rich Noble.

The third chapter, "Mechanics & Melee" deal with time and movement, Encumbrance, the Melee Round sequence, hit locations and wounds. An perhaps overlooked element is the recommended game-world to real-world time scale; one real day equating with one game week. In other words, RuneQuest was explicitly designed from the start for saga-like play. A campaign spread over two years or so, would cover roughly fifteen years of an adventurer's life, assuming they survived. The rest of the movement rules are basically realist-simulationist, but with the unfortunate oddity that all beings of the same species have the same base movement. The Encumbrance system is simple and workable; character's are limited by "things" of bulk and weight, limited by STR and CON. A nice addition was "The Adventurer's Pack"; an easy game convention of basics. The Melee Round is broken into phases; (a) Statement of Intent (b) Movement of Non-Engaged (3) Melee, Missiles and Spells (4) Bookkeeping. "Initiative" is determined by "Strike Rank". In a nutshell, a tall, fast character with a spear will strike before a short, slow character with a dagger. The quantity of POW points used in a spell also determines the spell's SR. The higher a character's SR, the latter they strike in the round, which does mean absolute minimums (SIZ 22+, DEX 19+, Weapon Length 2+ metres) and thus a limit on scalability. With regards to wounds, characters have general and locational (head, arms, chest, abdomen, legs) hit points. Damage that exceeds locations will effectively disable the location; a minor problem with the arm, a more serious one with the leg, and very dangerous if it's the head. Damage that exceed a limb's location by more than 6 points is "severed or irrevocably maimed", which means instant death for the head, chest and abdomen. Note again, the absolute value which does not scale well. The chapter on combat skills outlines the basic percentile attack, and the parry used to defend such oncoming blows. There are special hits (1/5 of base chance) with impaling weapons can do savage damage, which are rather oddly applied before armour and criticals (1/20 of base chance) which ignore armour. There are also comically dangerous effects of fumbles and critical parries and parry fumbles. A successful parry against a successful attack means the defender's weapon takes damage, and a successful parry against a failed attack means the attacker's weapon takes damage. Rather strangely, skill advancement is discussed at this point referring to both training by guilds and the expenditure of hard-earned coin (modified by CHA), or by experience which requires a successful roll underneath 100 minus the current skill (modified by INT). After this is various melee and missile weapons tables, with some slight differences between 1st and 2nd edition. A newcomer to the game can quickly estimate the deadliness of RuneQuest and especially the necessity of armour, which immediately follows with values from 1 (leather, padding, cloth, quilt) to 6 (plate) according to location and shields (small, medium and large). One can make an argument that armour is ever-so slightly underpowered. In both editions the base chance of parrying for shields is missing, a rather annoying oversight corrected by an errata sheet.

The fifth chapter is Basic Magic, which consists of "Battle Magic" and "Spirit Contacts". In RuneQuest most sentient being have at least one or two spells to help them through the day. These are powered by their spiritual Power and are taught by religious cults who will provide credit to loyal members to provide knowledge in such matters. Character's are limited to the number of spells in POW according to their INT. Battle Magic spells usually have a range of between 40 and 80 metres, a focus (a carved rune on some implement, or even tatoo), and are either instant or temporal (ten mellee rounds), although the effects of attack spells obviously are permanent. Some spells have more powerful versions of a basic type (e.g., Bladesharp 1, Bladesharp 2 etc) whereas others do not (e.g., Silence). Spell resolution requires a roll of the caster's temporary POW at the time of casting referenced against the target's POW on a resistance table (it is worth noting here that the distinction between temporary and permanent POW was often not as clear as it could be). An equation equivalent is ((Attacking POW - Defending POW)*5)+50)%. Assuming sufficient stress (less than 95% chance of success), successful casting spells against opponents allows a "POW gain roll" like an experience check. POW, representing the character's emotional state and spiritual confidence, is one of the most fluid characteristics in the game. The fifty plus spells themselves are quite simple and to the point, although one can be a little annoyed at the small run of Detect 'X' spells. In contrast to Battle Magic, Spirit Contacts requires perceiving usually indifferent partial beings of INT and POW only and challenging said beings to spirit combat. It is simply a POW vs POW contest like spell-casting with damage of 1-3 points of temporary POW and the possibility of possession (for the spirit) or binding (for the attacker). With a bound spirit (trapped in either a crystal or an animal familiar) the character may use the spirit's INT to store spells and its POW to fuel spells. A character may only bind a number of Spirits equal to their CHA/3 if they want to avoid "rebellious spirits". A particularly expert individual at Spirit Contacts may wish to become a shaman, which includes a fetch, a special spiritual ally, the capacity to store POW in the spirit world itself, the ability to cure disease, the ability to raise oneself from the dead with sufficient healing magics and additional spiritual controls. In a fairly significant difference, shaman do not make an appearance in the first edition.

The sixth chapter is entitled "Other Skills" which is what moves the game away from being just "swords and sorcery" to other lifestyles. This is broken up into the various guilds that provide the training for the differing skills and skill groups (stealth, manipulation, perception and knowledge) which are almost invariably learnt as percentile values, with basic values, skill modifiers and training costs for the 0-25%/26-50%/51-75%/75-100% ratings. A notable exception to this is the Alchemists Guild who provide training in the skills of Acid Making, Antidotes, Blade Venom, Systematic Poison and Magic Potions (Healing, POW restoration and, in first edition, "Skill Raisiing"!) which are in ratings of potency (POT) which, if applicable, are rated against a character's CON, for example, causing either full or half effect whether they resist in the same manner as spell casting. Other Guilds include the Free Sages, who teaching Evaluate Treasure, Map Making, Oratory, Languages, and Writing; Thieve's Guilds which teach a variety of manipulation, perception and steal skills; Players and Minsterels; the Maritime Brotherhood (only swimming listed); Foresters; Amorers; Horsemasters etc. On gets the general feeling, and indeed this would confirmed by subsequent publications, that the skill selection was only a hint of what was possible.

In the seventh chapter the game moves into an entirely different scale: Rune Magic. Runes are described as symbols that hold inherent power. They are differentiated into the Elements (what the world is mad of), the Forms (how an Elemental or Power force is expressed), the Powers (opposite-pairs) and Conditions (levels). The Elements are Darkness, Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Moon; the Forms are Plant, Beast, Man, Dragonewt, Spirit, Chaos; the Powers arer Harmony-Disorder, Fertility-Death; Stasis-Movement; Truth-Illusion and Luck-Fate. The Conditions are Magic, Mastery and Infinity. The runes themselves have a nice symbolic aesthetic and are often delightful in their metaphor. The Plant rune is clearly derived from the Aztecs for the same, the cross represents Death in the form of the first sword, Harmony appears ias a harp and Chaos has a pair of devil horns so on. Characters may start off as Initiates of a Cult which provides them one-off access to Rune magics which require a permanent sacrifice of POW (seriously cool) and possibly Divine Intervention from their God. Note that Initiate status was not available in first edition. The real prestige level is becoming a Rune Lord, Rune Priest or even both! With a requisite benchmarks for acceptance, these levels provide one with teh capacity to extend skills beyond 100%, receive allied spirits, use iron weapons, have better Divine Intervention and better (read, often reusable) access to Rune magics. Rune magics are faster, require no loss in temporary POW (that's already been paid for), have a longer range (160m), can be "stacked" and are generally twice as powerful in all respects to Battle Magic. About 25 Rune magic spells are described, including the summoning and dismissing of Elementals. Three sample cults (Orlanth, the Storm God; Kyger Litor, the Troll God; and the Black Fang Brotherhood, an assasins cult) round out the chapter.

The eigth and ninth chapters are monsters and treasures respectively, where it is noted that intelligent humanoids can be player characters. All "monsters" are provided a full set of characteristics, common skills, spells, and weapon abilities. Descriptions tend strongly toward combat abilities and tactics, with often only merely a sentence or two describing their ecological niche or social organisation. Some of the more exotic creatures include intelligent Baboons; the philosophical and reincarnating Dragonwets; the goat-headed, chaotic and disease ridden humanoids, Broos; the various "Beast Men", like Centaus, Minatours and Manticores; the intelligent man-herding tapirs, Morokanth; the cursed Trolls (and their dimunitive progeny, the Trollkin). Mention must also be made of the intelligent, humanoid Ducks and Dream Dragons - that is, the physical manifestation of the dreams of real dragons. Another group which receives some attention are the various riding animals of Prax and to a lesser extent, Dragon Pass. In the first edition, the various Diseases are listed in the Monster's chapter ("perhaps the deadliest monster in Glorontha"), whereas in the second edition they are listed in the Appendicies A calculation of various combative abilities leads to each monster having a "Treasure Factor", which usually consist of various amounts of coin (a few hundred silver coins is typical), the occassional item of jewellarly or gems and even more rearely, a special item (scroll,potion, battle spell matrix, magic crystals). A spell matrix simply allows a character access to a spell fueled by their own POW. Magic crystals however, are the congealed blood of dead Gods; industructible they can be used to hold bound spirits or store Power.

The final chapter in both editions are referees notes (first edition title) and appendicies (second edition). Alternative character generation systems are provided, along with characteristic rolls, previous experience (an additional five years added to character generation in militia, mercenary groups or even a apprenticeship). One particular oddity is the suggestion of the Alchemy guild's training an apprentice to certain percentages of their skills; when it has already been noted that the Alchemy skills do not follow the standard percentage system. Also included in this section are rune identites, regional encounter tables, various weapon descriptions, optional combat rules, such as aimed blows, and in second edition, knockbacks, shield attacks, 'slashing' and 'crushing' (to balance with impales) and the random chaotic features table, which can often amuse and terrify.

It is easy to see why RuneQuest II was very highly regarded by gamers when it was released and why it still has many supporters today and is largely considered a classic in the field. The game system placed great emphasis on "playable realism", flexibility and a high degree of intuitive consistency. The magic system, both the basic and runic variety, was highly evocative. The combat system, despite being very "crunchy" was quick and deadly in practise. The ties to the exotic and magic gameworld of Glorantha (or Glorontha in the first edition) were moderate but provided a great campaign base - indeed there was a not-significant split between those who wanted to play in Glorantha and those who wanted to play with RuneQuest. The game however, was not without its flaws. Apart from those already mentioned in this review, most notable is the downside of the flexibility and lack of character classes; character generation could be quite time-consuming. The financial system sometimes came across quite poorly; costs of various forms of training (especially the Alchemist's Guild) was quite disproportionate. Also notable, is with the exceptions of criticals and impales, it was not really a true percentage system, but rather effectively a d20 system with 5-percent increments. Overall however, RuneQuest 1st and 2nd editions are good products which set a high standard for game design.

Thus, with each factor with a possible score of 0-1 (and my additions of 'product' for style and 'system' for substance) and noting that this is primarily a review of RQ II for the overall rating.

RuneQuest I Style: layout (0.1), art (0.4), coolness (0.8), readability (0.5), product (0.1) = 1 + 1.9 = 2.9

Substance: content (0.5), text (0.8), fun (0.6), workmanship (0.8), system (0.6) = 1 + 3.3 = 4.3

RuneQuest II Style: layout (0.4), art (0.4), coolness (0.8), readability (0.7), product (0.5) = 1 + 2.8 = 3.8

Substance: content (0.6), text (0.8), fun (0.6), workmanship (0.8), system (0.7) = 1 + 3.5 = 4.5

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