Cover to Cover : RuneQuest 6th Edition

Author's Note: I have always loved when other bloggers do read-throughs, whether the material they're covering is brand new to me or utterly familiar. I always come away with something useful or interesting from the result.

I decided to start with RuneQuest, Sixth Edition. I acquired a copy of this as  review copy, and liked what I saw so much that I went out and bought a copy just to make sure they kept producing more like it. It spoke to my recollection of earlier editions of the game, and piqued my interest in gaming enough that I felt like I should share what I'd found.

So, without further ado, let's dive into RuneQuest 6th Edition!




First, let's talk about the initial physical impression you get from the book. At 456 pages, it's a monster, and promises to cover a lot of ground. Which makes sense when you consider the pedigree. RuneQuest was first introduced thirty-four years ago, and was one of the four big names in RPGs back in the '70s. There's a bit of D&D DNA in here, make no mistake, but it did take the game off in totally new directions at the time - directions that have shown up in many other games since.

The cover gives an immediate impression of the sort of game you're in for at a glance: A warrior, armed with a spear and shield, garbed in a sort of Greek or Roman style of gear; A giant creature of some sort that looks like it might be in parts bear, lizard and troll; and a fight that could be going poorly for both sides - the warrior's spear glows with a blue light, but the monster has managed to tear the warrior's shield off with a well-placed blow.

It isn't until we get inside the book, at the bottom of the Credits page, that we get a little insight into the story of the cover, and that, too, is gives a number of useful clues to move forward from: First, the warrior is Anathaym, whose story we'll follow throughout the book. It's heartwarming to see a female warrior depicted in something that doesn't look like a cheesecake shot. No chainmail bikinis here, friends, just a badass taking care of business - as it should be. Second, the creature is a Slargr. I did a Google check and it seems that it's a unique critter to RuneQuest 6th Edition (hereafter RQ6). You're going to have tough fights in your future in this game, and your rote memorization of the Monster Manual when you were 11 isn't going to save you this time! Finally, that blue glow is identified as a Bladesharp spell - a powerful touchstone for players of previous editions. Bladesharp has been present in RQ since the very beginning, and it gives us something to latch onto, a memory of how the magic worked back in those days, and the sort of things we can expect to find even now.

Once we get past the legalese and the table of contents, we're presented with a short note from Steve Perrin, the man that created, with help of course, the first edition of RQ. He speaks of briefly of the history of the game, and the games that were spawned from it (so many of which I played as a boy - Elfquest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer), but most importantly he gives his stamp of approval to this new version of his classic game.

Then we dive into the introduction, and I must say at just four pages, it's one that I can really appreciate. No time is invested in explaining what an RPG is (if you must know, they provide a pointer to an article at rpgamer.com for your edification) but do give you a bit more of the history of RuneQuest to go on.

It was a departure from the games that had gone before, casting aside classes and levels in exchange for a skill-based system of experience. Characters stayed more human, without the ever-expanding pile of hit points that D&D promised. It added a level of grit and realism that has been emulated by some branches of the gaming hobby ever since.

Four design goals are presented, and they tend towards the very broad: recapture the spirit of the old editions, play to the strengths of the new edition in creating a generic fantasy RPG, brining in a new audience while still providing service to the old fans, and streamlining the system while introducing some elements of more modern, 21st century game design. I'm a little leery of that last one, I won't lie - so many "modern" or "indie" games have design imperatives that leave me cold. But I'll leave that one aside and we can reflect, later, on whether my simulationist tendencies were offended or not.

On the second page of the introduction is a little note that deserves more than to be placed in italics: Your RuneQuest Will Vary. Like most RPGs, the assumption of the designers is that they'll never get it 100% perfect for everyone, and that your rulings will take your game in different directions than someone else's game. This is also a bit of foreshadowing of the sheer magnitude of the work ahead of you as a GM using RQ6. This is a setting-free game, and short of buying into an existing universe that someone else has done all the heavy lifting for, you're going to be doing a lot of really intense, really fun world-building.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Thankfully, for all that you're expected to do, you're presented with a pretty healthy set of tools. The chapters are broadly laid out in this introduction as well, with Character Creation (three chapters), Skills, Economics & Equipment, Game Mechanics, Combat, Magic (six chapters!), Cults & Brotherhoods, Creatures and finally a chapter on Games Mastery.

The rest of the introduction is a brief glossary, full of more foreshadowing of the system itself, and a short discussion of the types of dice used. Short form: the same dice you use for D&D, but with a greater emphasis on the d100, as that is how all skill checks, including combat, are made.

A few hints from the glossary: combat rounds are 5 seconds long; dice can be changed, using a progression (1d2, 1d3, 1d4, 1d6, etc); there is a concept known as Strike Rank to determine initiative; there are magical disciplines and magical traditions, and spells have intensity and magnitude as part of their definition. Intrigued? Or if you're an old hand with RQ games, at least heartened by the presence of Strike Ranks? Let's move on.

We've reached page 9 of the book now, and we're ready to start making characters! The character design section of the book is three chapters long, broken down into Basic Character Creation, Culture & Community and Careers & Development.

The first chapter is really the core mechanics: determining your characteristics, calculating some figured attributes, and determining base values for the standard skills - skills in which everyone has a default level of proficiency. It's here where we first run into a standard refrain, that much of the decision making has to be done by the GM, and that you'll need to consult with him or her before you can proceed. How will characteristics be determined? What races are available? Both important, and both decisions fall on the shoulders of the GM.

RQ6 Characteristics will feel really familiar to many gamers, and are evidence of that D&D DNA I referenced earlier. There are seven instead of six, but five of them are identical in name and abbreviation to those found in D&D. Wisdom has been dropped, replaced by two characteristics that need a bit of explanation.

Size (SIZ) is a measure of gross size of the character, or mass of an object, and by extrapolation height and weight of your character. It'll play into things like hit points and melee damage bonuses

Power (POW) is a little more abstract, a measure of spirit, of magical potential, and of luck.

Other than SIZ and INT, you typically roll the standard 3d6 to determine your characteristics (though as a sop to more modern gamers, there's a system whereby you allocate 80 points across the seven characteristics instead). SIZ and INT start with 2d6+6, giving you a smaller range, but allowing for creatures that are significantly smaller than humans, or lacking sapience, to have scores in the 1-7 range.

Each of the seven characteristics is defined to some degree, with a discussion of how they influence the mechanics of the game, but an interesting note - each also indicates what happens if that characteristic is ever reduced to zero. If your STR is ever reduced to zero, you can lift nothing and are bedridden. CHA reduced to zero makes you so shy that you can't communicate with anyone in any way. CON at zero - you're dead. It's something you'd expect to see in the game mechanics chapter, and maybe it will be reiterated there (or at least refer one back to this early discussion). I wonder if putting the information here doesn't serve a couple purposes - one, to make it known that characteristics can be reduced during play, and two, to try to stave off the inevitable search for a convenient "dump stat" amongst the power gamer set.

We first encounter another important feature of the book in this chapter: "Anathaym's Saga." Remember her, the warrior from the cover? She's coming along on this journey through RQ6, and she and her friends will serve as a long-running example of how the rules are applied. It's a long-standing tradition in RQ, my first encounter with which was in RQ2, with Rurik the Restless. I find these examples to be almost essential to my understanding of a game's rules, and a game that lacks this sort of dedication to a continuing storyline is always a little disappointing to me. (Since I encountered this in 1983, I've been disappointed very, very often since then.)




Ten additional Attributes (figured characteristics if you will) are calculated next, based on the result of those first seven Characteristics.

The first, Action Points, is deceptively important. It's the number of actions an individual can undertake in a combat round. The granularity isn't terribly fine here, with values of 1 to 3 viable for humans (you add your INT and DEX and check a chart - it works out to (INT+DEX)/12, round up), so for a warrior to be as effective as possible in combat, they need to be both quick and smart - or sufficiently so in one area as to bolster a weakness in another.

Damage Modifier, self-explanatory really, is interesting because it adds dice to your combat results, not static numbers. It's based on STR+SIZ, so the strength of your muscles combined with the length of the lever you're using to wield your weapons comes into play. An average guy (STR 10, SIZ 13) gets no bonus, naturally, but even 15's in both characteristics only grants +1d2 to damage. This is more beneficial than you might think, however, and we'll see that when we get to Hit Points.

Experience Modifier is a bonus based solely on CHA, and it influences the number of rolls you get to improve your skills during play. Healing Rate is based on CON, and determines how quickly you can recover from wounds, with values in the range of 1-3 for normal humans, and the healing rate based on per day, per week or per month depending on the severity of the wound. Height and Weight are based solely on SIZ, and a determination (player's choice) of whether the character is lithe, medium or stocky.

Hit Points is another area where things get a little different. There are no levels, so no hit dice per level, and unlike even GURPS, it's not a single value. HP are instead assigned, based on CON+SIZ, to each location (each arm, each leg, abdomen, chest and head. Our average guy again gets 4 per arm, 5 for each leg and the head, 6 for the abdomen and 7 for the chest. Now a Healing Rate of 3 looks pretty good, and doing an extra 1-2 damage can obviously be pretty important. Scale matters, and now we have our scale in place. The beefiest of humans will have between 7 (arms) and 10 (chest) HP per location, so nobody will be soaking damage in RQ6.

Luck Points and Magic Points are both based on POW, the former POW/6, round up, the latter equal to your POW characteristic. Luck Points are used throughout the game to reroll the dice, mitigate damage or other unfortunate results, or to gain an edge in combat at a crucial moment. The why isn't relevant - the gods looking out for you, you being spectacularly lucky, or simple fate - but they are ways that you can influence the world outside of your character's actions. I'm not usually a fan of such mechanics, but this game looks to be grittily deadly enough that maybe they're warranted. Magic points get covered in much detail in the later chapters on magic, but generally serve as the reserve of energy that you use to power your spellcasting. Don't star thinking of this as a dump stat - some world have warriors buffing themselves, after all.

Movement Rate isn't really calculated - every human gets six meters of base movement, and a pointer to later in the book on how that's relevant to play.

The last attribute is Strike Rank. It determines when you go in the turn - your initiative. And like Action Points, it's based on INT and DEX, this time INT+DEX/2, up. This will be reduced by your armor choices (though not necessarily by encumbrance in general), but obviously higher is better.

Everything feels pretty standard here so far. A few nods to modern game design (Luck Points), a few callbacks to early RQ (Strike Rank, 7 Characteristics, HP by location) and a few standard, expected game conventions.

The chapter rounds out with the list of standard skills, including such standards as Perception, First Aid, Insight and Swim, and some notable RQ-specifics like Willpower and Endurance, Locale and Customs. They include all of the usual things you'd expect anyone to be able to do, but only give a brief nod to combat skills. In that area, the chapter does close with a brief discussion about Combat Styles, and very vaguely touches on how this is going to be different than most systems you encounter - and that it'll also depend on the type of game you're playing. If it's very combat focused (gladiatorials, for example), you might see specific weapon and shield combos, while a more even game might have combat styles like Berserker, Horse Nomad, Levied Archer, City Watch, or Jungle Savage that include a handful of melee weapons, shields where appropriate and even some missile weapons, as well as other specializations.

I'll break ahead here a little to say that a whole chapter, or perhaps even a whole book, could be dedicated to Combat Styles, so don't worry if they seem a little vague at this point. Suffice to say they're akin to a wildcard skill for all of the kinds of weapons, and their typical usages, for a subset of your culture.

But that's the next chapter, and thus, to be discussed next week.


Comments

  1. That seems like an awful lot of book, especially for one with no setting information. Yes, all right, GURPS 4th edition is longer... but that gives you the basics not just for fantasy role-playing but for modern and futuristic games too.

    (Back in the RQII days, you died if any stat hit zero. Yes, you could be uglied to death.)

    Having luck points as part of the standard mechanics feels like something that constrains the sort of world you can build with this game.

    Looking forward to further comments.

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  2. Well, one thing I didn't speak to in this post is the typesetting and page layout. The pages have some pretty significant outside gutter space that is used, sometimes, for sidebars, but not always. The whole document could easily fit in under 400 pages with a little more draconian use of space. Referring back to the chapter list, everything through Combat is 164 pages, and Magic is another 117 pages on top of that - there are five distinct schools of magic presented, and each one is pretty broadly customizable.

    I suspect that you could live without luck points - it would be a little less "heroic" I imagine, but would go a long way towards not ever having to break character to manipulate fate.

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  3. Slarg date back to the 3rd edition Elder Secrets book. Big Pamaltan lizard men with better metal working than the primitive Dorradi. All IIRC, it's been years.

    The option to allocate attributes instead of rolling was also in 3rd edition, not "a sop to more modern gamers". RQ was way ahead of it's time!

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    1. Never had the Elder Secrets book, just the AH boxed set, with very limited info on Glorantha, all things considered. I know the picture I posted is fairly small, but were they supposed to be so bestial as depicted here?

      As for the allocation of characteristics, I was thinking in comparison to the earliest D&D games. I'm an old man, after all - everything newer than about 1982 in gaming qualifies as "newer" for me. :)

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  4. No, they were nomads, and not the friendly sort of civilized, but they were materially more advanced than the local (aboriginal) humans. Meeting one with no equipment means he's been having a Really Bad Day(TM).

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    1. Interesting. As this material is 100% Glorantha-free, I'm surprised they went with a name and creature that were similar without being the same. These guys are intelligent, but not as bright at humans, but "their vast, clawed hands make all but the simplest brute tools difficult to use."

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  5. "SIZ and INT start with 2d6+6"? 1d2? This mechanic flaw stays with the 6th edition? In 2013??? Nostalgy is not always good...

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    1. I'm not sure many see it as a mechanical flaw - what's your beef with those variances from 3d6? And the inclusion of the d2?

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