Classic RPG Review #3: RuneQuest

First Edition Boxed Set, Games Workshop version (UK market)
by Steve Perrin, Ray Turney and friends
1980 The Chaosium

Certainly in the days the game was published, its cover was sure to draw a boy's attention. And a girl's attention too, maybe. The lady on the cover is not only beautiful and fighting a vicious lizard, she is also hardly wearing anything. Yes, she does wear a helmet and some scant armour, but I would not want to go into combat in her clothes. Then again, she is very nice to look at. I see now she even wears make up. Hm.

The rules are boxed, with classy dice of all sorts, a rules booklet, a prerolled monster booklet, a sample adventure and a small booklet called Basic Role Playing. And this last booklet may be the best deal in the package. Aside from that cover of course. Basic Role Playing is a simple role playing system, loosely based on Runequest but without the frills and without the complicating details. It's a well written, clear and enticing introduction to role playing. So it's a shame it is “Not to be sold separately”. It's still one of the best introductions to the game I know. For game masters too.

Runequest itself is a bit more complicated, but it is also well written and easy to understand. And if you should fail to understand anyway there are many examples featuring “Rurik the Restless”. He is the type of young adventurer you are obviously supposed to play. Not always too smart, but very willing to learn. There even is humour in most examples, and some nice black and white artwork.

Runequest is still one of the most realistic games around. That was also its selling point. But there is realism and realism. Among my friends it became known as “the limb chopping game”. You can actually hit a specific arm, leg or head in this game, and without armour a bit of a sword will most certainly severe the extremity from the body. So everyone in this game wears a lot of armour. Not like the lady on the cover.

Tasks in the game are resolved rolling percentile dice. One ten-sided die for the tens, another for the single figures. To succeed, you have to roll lower or equal to your skill percentage. And if you roll very low you may have a critical success. Double 0 is one hundred, and means a fumble or botch up – you break your sword, hit yourself, or stumble and fall. This sometimes unnerving, but very funny innovation is one of Runequest's gifts to many later games. If you used a skill during a game, you may try to increase it by rolling a percentage above your skill. So after a typical session the dice are shaken like it's a regular casino.

There is battle magic too, and as everyone can learn spells, everyone does learn spells. And everyone may eventually become a Rune Lord or Lady. There are no clear classes or professions either, making everyone a generic adventurer. Everyone plays a Rurik or Rurka the Restless, it seems, the only difference being the number of limbs you have left.

There the beautifully crafted Runequest game goes a bit awry. It gets worse once you try to play the provided “Apple Lane” adventure. To me it felt like stepping into a kiddie cartoon, not into an exciting fantasy novel. And then there are non-human races like “ducks”, humanoids with heads of ... ducks. A crafty game master could still make a scary game out of the given ingredients. But in most people's hands, certainly if they are beginners, at best it will become silly.

Yet I have the impression that Glorantha, the original fantasy world which Runequest uses, is a very inspiring and magical place. Greg Stafford, who also wrote the Basic Role Playing booklet, thought the place up for a different goal. Maybe for unwritten novels or just as an exercise in fantasy. But Runequest does not seem to fit in completely, and most of Glorantha remains shrouded in mystery. Maybe the Runequest politically correct, emancipated unisex approach to adventure hid it away.

(rules are innovative, logical, elegant, flexible and sometimes painfully realistic. Low damage is however hardly possible, making the game often too deadly. As an added minus, a fair amount of bookkeeping is involved.)
(Glorantha may be a very inspiring world, but what's left of it in Runequest is alas a bit stale)
(playing the game is fairly easy, keeping it exciting is harder because the backdrop is so unclear)
(ancient world fantasy, in the tradition of Conan or ancient Persia, human centred but with elves, dwarves, dragonnewts, trolls and ducks, skill based with virtually no differing professions, percentile based combat and tasks, separate roll for damage, separate hit locations each with their own armour, magic accessible to all)


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