This is the first of several reviews of out-of-print materials originally published by Chaosium for the1st and 2nd editions of Runequest. Several excellent reviews of the Runequest system (including these older editions) are available elsewhere on this RPG.NET and will not be repeated here. However, none of the supplements and adventures for Runequest have been previously reviewed on this site. While the game system is outstanding, these supplements are what made Runequest unique, so I have decided to try and fill this gap.
Before tucking into the first installment, I will comment on two broader issues that will be important to anyone trying to learn more:
All of the things reviewed here or in upcoming, related reviews are long (ca. 25 years) out of print and most were originally printed only as relatively perishable paper-backs. Therefore, it can be challenging to find copies still in good enough shape for regular use. In addition, mint copies of most are highly sought after by collectors and regularly command some of the highest auction prices of any game of similar vintage and type. Nevertheless, if you know where to look and what particular items you need, it is possible to get a set of solid copies at reasonable cost. Reprints of three of the best supplements (Griffin Mountain, Pavis, and The Big Rubble; these last two are reprinted in a single volume) and all of the cults (cults are the back-bone of character definition and advancement, the basis of Runequest magic, and contain much of the background for Glorantha) can be found through Issaries. This reprinted material is more than enough to run a long and satisfying campaign provided you also have an original copy of the core rules. Good copies of the rulebook are expensive (ca. $50-75) at on-line used game distributors. However, a lightly-scuffed or dingy paperback copy of the 2nd edition rules (the preferred version) can be had for ca. $15-25 on e-bay if you are patient (don’t let yourself get pulled into the irrational bidding wars that occasionally take place over these items). My recommended ‘starter pack’ for someone interested in play is: 2nd edition soft-cover core rules from auction, used but with intact binding; the Cult Compendium; and either the ‘Griffin Mountain’ or ‘Pavis and the Big Rubble’ reprints through Issaries. Total cost will be ca. $80. The reprints are in a new typesetting and added some B- and C-grade illustrations, so purists, collectors and rich people might want to go straight to the originals (I wont read or play anything else!). E-bay is the most well-stocked and fastest option here, but even here it will take some patience. There are legends of people finding rare Runequest items very cheap at used book stores, but the odds are you will burn $100 worth of gas looking for each such deal.
One can role-play in Glorantha using several game systems, including the 2nd edition Runequest I focus on (published by Chaosium; 1st edition is indistinguishable to all but collectors); 3rd edition Runequest (published by Avalon Hill and widely and cheaply available on e-bay or on-line used game distributors); HeroWars and/or the similar HeroQuest (in print and published by Issaries); and several home-brew or pre-publication systems available on the web, including Pendragon Pass and Runequest: Slayers.
2nd and 3rd edition Runequest are most notable for having mechanistically detailed combat systems and for being well-tuned for low to moderately high level adventure (equivalent to 1st to ca 10th-15th level D+D characters). At the highest levels of play, characters and NPCs can become overly complex and conflicts between them can be difficult to resolve . I have not played Hero Wars or Hero Quest, but by all reports they are simpler and more abstract in their handling of combat and other task resolution, and are more easily scaled to higher level campaigns. However, they lack the crunchiness many people loved about Runequest.
My prejudice is that 2nd edition Runequest remains the freshest and most enjoyable option available. The Avalon Hill (3rd) edition was well supported after some initial miss-steps, includes high-quality material and covers Glorantha broadly. Moreover, its handling of damage, injuries and armor is superior to other editions. Despite this, the 2nd edition describes its more limited playing field with more character, and includes several excellent supplements (Borderlands; Big Rubble; Cults of Chaos; Griffin Mountain) that lost much when translated into 3rd edition. In addition, cults and locations within the Dragon Pass area (the heart of the Gloranthan setting) are more fully described in 2nd edition materials. Finally, the 2nd edition rules are a remarkably brief, easy read given the detail and sophistication of the system—a masterpiece in compact, comprehensible game design.
Review #1: The early adventures:
In 1978 and 1979 Chaosium published a series of three adventures for 1st and 2nd edition Runequest: Apple Lane, Balastor’s Baracks, and Snake Pipe Hollow. These are similarly short (ca. 30 pages each) and have similar strengths and weaknesses, so I consider them together. Only one of these three (Snake Pipe Hollow) shows the creativity and flair that marked the best Runequest supplements and adventures published in the following years. In fact, if you only saw the first printing of Apple Lane, you would guess the game sucks. Perhaps this explains why Runequest did not compete well with AD+D, despite the great merits of its system and later supplements (“hmmm, should I buy these beautiful hard cover books for the game everyone is playing, or this cheesy paperback dungeon with a stick-figure drawing of a pig on the cover ?….”). I have given these modules rankings of ‘average’ because they are, in fact, mixed in quality, and I must leave myself room at the top when rating the better things subsequently published for Runequest.
Apple Lane: This has been described as the ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ of Runequest . It covers a small settlement (the village of Apple Lane) that can serve as a home-base for low-level adventurers, and a nearby dungeon crawl where they can cut their teeth. The settlement is contrived to provide resources and small adventure opportunities for beginning players, and includes non-player characters that can serve as patrons, adventure hooks, and protectors. The key non-player character is an over-powered patron who guides the adventurers to their various tasks and supplies their various needs. His side kick is a tempermental anthropomorphic duck who provides a litmus test for all potential Runequest players: either you will like the idea of such a goofy NPC and should proceed to a full campaign, or you will feel insulted by the idea of role playing with daffy duck and should walk away. “Ducks—love ‘em or leave ‘em” is arguably the central debate between Runequest advocates and haters.
The initial adventure that takes place within Apple Lane is effectively an extended battle in a well-defined, restricted space. This provides limited opportunity for role-playing and exploration, but is a serviceable mechanism for beginning players to learn the combat and task resolution systems, and introduces players to a variety of character types unique to Runequest (big, talking baboons; ducks; dragonewts).
The suggested adventure outside Apple Lane is simply framed (muck bad guys out of their cave hide-out), and is in most respects a conventional dungeon crawl. However, the caves are more engaging and ‘natural’ feeling than most dungeons written in this era, and many of the monsters, NPC’s and tasks that face the players are enjoyable and carry Gloranthan flavor.
The principle weakness of the module is that the village of Apple Lane itself is quite contrived; it feels cartoonish and fake rather than like a real settlement in Sartar (the part of Glorantha where it sits) should. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the purpose of the module as a sort of teaching device. Also, the production quality of the first edition of this module is poor. It most resembles a Judges Guild paperback, but with cover art prepared by your 10 year old little brother. I hope that somewhere the artist is quivering with shame for having foisted the cover drawing on the gaming world.
Despite its weaknesses, Apple Lane has its charms and provides a common first adventure experience shared by most old Runequest players . For those looking for familiar comparisons, it has more character and better feel for setting than does Keep on the Borderlands, but is significantly inferior in scope, production quality and story design to The Village of Homlet—a contemporary AD+D module to which it is similar. On the whole, this is the least interesting of the 2nd edition Runequest modules. It is quite common because it was included in the boxed set of the 2nd edition rules. A good copy can be found cheap with minimal effort.
Balastor’s Barracks: Balastor’s barracks is a monster-filled ancient ruin found within the larger, cyclopean ruined city called The Big Rubble. That city is not described in the initial printing of Balastor’s Barracks, in which the Rubble is only referred to and a small portion sketchily mapped out. To the best of my knowledge, Balastor’s Barracks was never published in a revised second edition as a stand-alone module, but appeares in a significantly improved version within ‘The Big Rubble’ (to be reviewed in its entirety in the future).
The purpose of the adventure is to find your way into the basement of a large ruined building that was the site of a long-dead hero’s last stand against invading trolls. The adventurers are supposed to crawl through the now monster-filled dungeon and recover the ancient relic axe of the dead hero Balastor. The dungeon is neither particularly large nor cleverly laid out, but is of a scope that fits Runequest adventures well. Fights and other conflicts tend to be gritty and detailed in this game, so small, ‘punchy’ adventures tend to be more interesting and dramatic than the wider wandering and innumerable fights found in larger D+D dungeons published at this time. The authors weave character and quirky imagination into most of the places and NPCs the adventurers encounter. The central item the characters are seeking (the axe) is a unique item with powers and personality closely tied to the Gloranthan setting. This is perhaps the first hint of things to come in later Runequest modules.
The principle weakness to the first published edition of this adventure is that it tightly packs together groups of bad guys who are each other’s natural enemies and who would undoubtedly fight it out for turf if put in such close proximity. This makes the whole thing less believable; an uncharitable reviewer would say it crosses the line into the realm of monty-haul dungeon crawls. This error was fixed in the second version published as part of The Big Rubble, where a major portion of the dungeon is emptied of out-of-place bad guys and filled with challenges that better fit the setting and rest of the adventure. A clever extra way into the dungeon was also added in this second version, making the physical layout more interesting and adding an opportunity for problem-solving beyond simply skewering monsters.
This is a deceptively tough adventure. Any band of fools could find their way to the entrance and drag themselves part way into the interior, but the barracks basement contains at least three very deadly sets of foes, as well as two groups of bad-guy rabble that will put dents in the hoods of inexperienced characters. Despite being only the second module available for this game, it is really best left for players having rune-level characters (i.e., experienced, and generally well equipped).
The production quality is little different from the first edition of Apple Lane (above), although the cover art is far less embarrassing (it is actually among my favorite line drawings from old module covers). A first edition of Balastor’s Barracks in mint condition is a very rare find; I saw perhaps two worth purchasing on e-bay over the last year. Highly collectable and historic for those with such nerdy interests (including me); pass it by if you simply want to play the game and own or intend to buy The Big Rubble.
Snake-Pipe hollow: This third of the 2nd edition short adventures is by far the best and most ambitious. While a sober assessment will find it inferior in some respects to contemporary modules for other systems, it is among the funnest adventures I have played in any game and is inevitably one of the most memorable stops in a Runequest campaign. Snake-pipe hollow exists in four distinct printings and three distinct editions (two of them quite similar). The cover of the oldest print has a terrible line drawing of a bunch of adventurers running around in a large room in which a giant battles a big snake. The second oldest (my favorite) has a two-tone drawing of a walktapus (a chaotic and very tough man-octapus hybrid) on the cover. The interior of this one is slightly modified in layout from the first. The third has a mediocre drawing of a broo (a goat-headed man) on its very dark color cover. I have never seen the inside of this one, but believe it to be identical to the second. The last version is written for 3rd edition Runequest and was published by Avalon Hill. It has a close-up of a broo with a spear on the cover.
Snake Pipe hollow is a valley lying off to the side of Dragon pass—the central geographic feature of Gloranthan role playing. The valley itself contains several interesting things, including a giant stone table where giants meet, tracks and trails used by dragonewts and other things, wandering monsters and bad guys. In addition, the high country surrounding the hollow has opportunities for adventure in lands controlled by trolls, tusk riders (think orcs riding giant pigs), and mean, secretive elves. However, the real reason to go here is the rats-nest of caves dug into the head of the valley. Within, one finds an assortment of more or less standard dungeon fare (bad guys, giant gooey monsters) as well as abundant ghosts and hostile spirits, a self-obsessed giant, two gigantic dis-embodied hands, natural hazards and a weird, buried and half ruined temple. It is difficult to say what the purpose or structure of it all is; but there is much to explore here, all of it warped by chaos and much of it very dangerous to moderately experienced characters. The fun of Snakepipe hollow is in sampling the strange grossness of Gloranthan chaos, and of course killing stuff and taking whatever they might have in their pocketses.
Snake pipe hollow has no significant weaknesses, other than that inexperienced parties are certain to be killed to the last man/woman/duck/whatever if they do more than dash across the floor of the valley during daylight. Compared to similar sorts of adventures in other games (most notably AD+D), Snake Pipe hollow might seem too small to be the premier dungeon crawl of published Gloranthan adventures. This might be fair; it can be a little anti-climactic when a tough party strips this supposedly legendary chaos nest back to the wall studs. However, it provides many hours of fun and is challenging and mysterious to a party with just the right level of experience. This is the must-buy item from the 2nd edition Runequest short adventures.