Part Ten: And Now For Something Completely Different, Runequest. A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

The “Classic” 2nd edition of Runequest

This is the hundredth post I’ve made to this blog! Thanks very much for reading.

And now we’re up to about 1983. I’d been in a few different groups and had settled into a regular routine. At this point I’d say we had at least two very regular game days, sometimes more, and played 1st ed AD&D, Gamma World, Traveller and Call of Cthulhu, rotating Game Masters and systems. The personnel who participated in each particular group varied somewhat, but I’d say we had about eight players and one Game Master per session. Depending on the game, we may have had NPCs in the party as well.

We had some friends participating in peripheral groups that were sometimes playing other things. There were a few game systems out there that we knew something about from these friends or from magazines, and that we might’ve seen in a store. And a few members of our group had shown some interest in giving one or more of these new games a try. In the gaming culture of the time, if someone was interested in a particular game he would be the one to buy a copy. He’d look it over and then drag it along to show to his group. Hopefully there’d be some interest, and if he really wanted the group to play he’d have to volunteer to learn the rules and run it. Then we’d have to work it into our gaming schedule somehow to give it a try. If there wasn’t enough interest, then it would get shelved (at least for a while), or perhaps he’d take it to one of the peripheral groups on another night.

If there was enough interest to give it a try, then he would remain the only one who owned the game. He’d be the only one to read it. We’d get together and he’d guide us through character generation. We already had the concept of RPGs down, and we were good. But we didn’t try to learn the rules of every new game ourselves. We depended on the new Game Master to steer us in the right direction. We’d talk about what our aims were, and what worked well within the rules. And we’d end up with a sheet of paper that had all the details of our character, and maybe some notes as to how to accomplish a task within the system. Nothing fancy, nothing official, just the very basics. (As an aside, it was our custom to turn in our characters to the Game Master after every session. Made it easier for him to plan ahead.) As we invested hours in playing the game, we might ask for more detailed information about one or another aspect. But at this point we’d only really agreed to play one adventure with that game. We might never play it again, so there was no reason to spend any money on multiple copies of the rules. Also, remember what I wrote before. Games that were similar to what we already knew how to play were an easier sell than something with completely new rules. Gamma World was easier because it wasn’t too far off from D&D. Traveller was more difficult because it was different; but it was to science fiction RPGs what D&D was to fantasy, so that trumped and it wasn’t that hard a sell.

One day the other main Game Master in our group dragged in a copy of Chaosium’s Runequest RPG. I’d heard of it but never seen the inside of the books. He talked about it a little, passed some stuff around for us to look at, and tried to pique our interest. He had a degree in anthropology and was very much into historical cultures. It didn’t take long before I got enthusiastic and pushed the others to give it a try, and before you knew it my friend was gearing up to run it.

Let me tell you a little about Runequest (RQ). At this point in time, it was still pretty much game as setting. The head of Chaosium was Greg Stafford. He had created a world called Glorantha. He’d already released two board games set in that world, and then he published these RPG rules in the same setting. RQ was very explicitly set in its own quirky fantasy world, although there was a note that you should feel free to adapt the rules to other settings.

The world of Glorantha was pretty gonzo. There were these tribes of animal rider nomads, and they each had their own particular type of mount. Here are a few off the top of my head: Bison, Rhino, Unicorn, Zebra, Impala, Ostrich, Bolo Lizard, Llama, there was some crazy stuff there. They roamed the plains and fought against each other.

There was also a big walled city called Pavis, stuffed full of city-dwellers. It was on a river that ran alongside the crazy nomad wasteland. Pavis was butted up against another huge city that had been built by giants in ages past. The walls around that city were humongous.

It was called The Big Rubble now because it was mostly supposed to be ruins inside, but filled with riches, artifacts, magic, treasure, and all sorts of fearsome creatures. In other words, it was an outdoor “dungeon.” The people of Pavis even controlled admission into the place, but you could hang around and try to get hired to perform a mission in there if you tried. Are we excited yet? And oh yes, it was specifically a Bronze Age world, with technology following accordingly. There was an empire of conquerors that were depicted as a counterpart to the Romans. The plains nomads were drawn as Native Americans, although they had khans. The depictions of Pavis natives varied somewhat depending on the source. But overall a very different feel from D&D or Tolkien, just in the setting.

And let’s go on. Yes there were elves, but they’re really stand-offish and rare. There were dwarves, but they’re mysterious and extremely rare. There were trolls, but they’re intelligent and seemed to have a society of their own. There were intelligent baboons, anthropomorphic ducks, and the unknowable dragonewts. Plenty of lycanthropes, undead and creatures of chaos. There was even more gonzo to be found in the two board games, but those were rare and hard to find, and we never saw them anyway.

Now let’s talk about the system for a bit. As we’ve mentioned, Runequest was developed specifically for role-play in Chaosium’s world of Glorantha, using a system designed to be different from D&D. Years later this system in a more generic form came to be called BRP, Basic Role-Play, and would be used for any other Chaosium RPGs coming down the line (such as Call of Cthulhu). Instead of D&D’s complete suits of armor, RQ used exotic armor in pieces. And unlike D&D, in RQ your armor didn’t make you harder to hit; it absorbed damage. Further, you had unchanging hit points that never went up because you didn’t go up in levels. However, your body parts had individual hit point totals. When a hit was scored, you determined what part of the body was hit, what type of armor covered that part, how much it absorbed, and then applied the remaining damage to that body part. Too much damage and the body part became useless. Even more than that and the body part was cut off (or smashed flat). Ouch.

The Proprietors of Gimpy’s tavern in Pavis

This became a hallmark of the game, characters who had lost limbs. There was even a tavern in Pavis called Gimpy’s, run by three retired adventurer amputees. In any case you also had different chances to Parry, or to defend with your Shield. It was a much more detailed combat system than D&D’s rather abstract procedure. Again, inspired by Steve Perrin’s experiences with the SCA.

There were skills and they were used as described in my prior post about Call of Cthulhu (d100 ratings that can be improved through use). Runequest also allowed spells, it was after all a fantasy game, but the twist was that almost anyone could learn at least a couple of spells. The effects were also different from what we were used to in D&D, so there was a very different overall feel to the game. Finally, D&D spells worked on what is called the “Vancian” system, IE inspired by the Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance. In that system you stuffed your head with specific spells at the beginning of the day. As you uttered them, they vanished from your memory. Finally, you rested to repeat the process. There was no variance once you’d stuffed the spells into your head for the day. You’re stuck with what you had.

However in Runequest you had a certain number of magic points. The spells you learned had a casting cost measured in points. You could cast spells you knew in any combination by burning those points, which would eventually regenerate. This is often called a “point-based system,” and meant you were more flexible in capabilities. If you needed defense more than offense, you could cast accordingly. You didn’t have to be prescient enough to have guessed correctly in the morning, as you needed to be in D&D.

In Runequest’s Glorantha there were institutions where you learned and trained skills and spells. Here in RQ you have even more control over your character, because you can choose (within limits) to train when you have the money for it; even training up some of your basic stats! There were even ways to take out a loan for training. The secular options for training were guilds and schools; and there were also temples to various gods.

According to the examples in the core book, you weren’t really going to get involved with temples until you had been adventuring for a long time. The Game Master was encouraged to just make up a few gods, and there were two or three examples.

But by the time our group gave the game a try there had been two more books published, Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror. They detailed various gods and what spells or skills their temples had available to teach to their followers.

In addition those books were ridiculously detailed with imaginary beliefs, and gave those who wanted it a deeper knowledge of the supposed history of the land. Honestly I just skimmed over the very surface, paying more attention to the issues that would affect my character. But you know how it goes; everything looks like a nail to a hammer. Once these details were published, everyone wanted to milk the religions for whatever they could get.

In D&D you were supposed to grow powerful and establish a domain. In Runequest, once you became a person of renown you could join a temple and become a Rune Lord or Rune Priest. This unlocked more magic and combat powers. Fans were promised a follow-up game, Heroquest, wherein your “Rune-Level” character could have adventures on other planes. But this game never arrived. (Almost forty years later I believe a new generation of designers created an official process, but their work is so far afield from the original game that I’m not at all interested in what those new folks have written.)

Anyway, back to our gaming group. We made our characters with our Game Master’s assistance, and gave Runequest a try. Some of us liked it very much, others not so much. Perhaps it was a little too “different,” either in setting or system. Perhaps there were just other games out there that our players enjoyed more; as I always say, there are only so many hours in a day. But we played several adventures, RQ got into the rotation irregularly, and I was one of the folks who really enjoyed it. This was the 2nd edition of the game, generally referred to as “Classic Runequest” these days. Given the opportunity, I play Classic Runequest at the drop of a hat. I’ve never run it, but someday I might.

So what have we learned?

Runequest was an example of game as setting. Not too much further along the timeline and it would also fit into the game as system family, but we weren’t quite there yet. As a setting, it was a gonzo fantasy Bronze Age. As a system, it was very different. Combat was more complicated than in D&D, its magic system was flexible but also different. There were no levels, but there was a method for increasing in power. And of course as I’ve said, D&D *was* fantasy role-playing. RQ was an upstart.

Most of my friends lost interest in RQ (or were never that enthused to start with), so after a while we stopped playing. By contrast, we continued to play Call of Cthulhu. And we liked Cthulhu so much that I wasn’t the only one who took a turn running it. Why did it last in our group, where RQ didn’t? (A) CoC is game as setting, and we were all Lovecraft fans. Glorantha was a bit of a stretch. (B) While CoC is based on the same BRP system, its a much simpler rules set than RQ; combat is streamlined and isn’t even a focus in CoC.

Runequest was a very popular game for a time (especially in England), rivaled only by D&D in sales back then. But since one of the folks who lost interest in our group was our RQ Game Master, that pretty much put an end to it for us. As I’ve already written, I just had no time to run another game system. That left me dependent on someone else if I were going to play RQ again.

Being a Game Master is a major investment in time.

to be continued

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