Sunday, September 4, 2011

RuneQuest, Second Edition

In the mid 70's, a small games company called Chaosium Inc was founded, for the sole purpose of publishing a fantasy-warfare boardgame called White Bear and Red Moon, set in the fictional world of Glorantha.  Unlike miniature wargames, such as the phenomenally popular Warhammer franchises, White Bear and Red Moon was essentially a self-contained box set.  There were no miniatures to buy or paint or convert, no terrain to build, no additional rulebooks to buy; all the rules, a playable map of the entire known world, and a pile of cardboard unit counters all came in the box.  Like Warhammer, the game was complex, unbalanced, and missing a sizeable portion of the rules at its first printing.  From this humble beginning, however, Chaosium would expand its interest and eventually gain hold of some of the biggest licenses in the roleplaying game industry, including Call of Cthulhu, a game based on the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, along with Stormbringer, based on the dark fantasy works of Michael Moorecock.  Most of Chaosium's RPG titles are powered by a roll-under percentile system known as Basic Role Playing, or BRP, which has its origins in 1978, with a black-and-white sourcebook that revisits the low-fantasy, wartorn world of Glorantha.

With RuneQuest, Chaosium attempted to expand upon the history and mythology of Glorantha, detailing a long and storied path in which empires rose and fell, and wars were waged on which the fate of entire civilizations hinged.  Unfortunately, most of this history unfolds in a very distinct "tell, but don't show" fashion.  Events like the Dragonkill War ("named," the book says, "for what the dragons did.") and concepts such as the Lunar Empire's need to extend something called the Glowline are mentioned for a few brief sentences, but never explored or explained in any detail.  1600 years of Gloranthan history is crammed into three pages, with the first thousand or so taking up just about a half page.  The result resembles a modern Wikipedia stub, with almost no time spend developing an atmosphere or tone for the world, except for a brief mention that Glorantha is a Bronze Age society, similar to Robert Howard's Hyboria or Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar (which are both, technically, Iron or even Dark Age societies).

What RuneQuest does bring to the table, however, is the Basic Role Playing system, which Chaosium claimed was the most flexible, adaptable, and universal system of the time.  According to the book, BRP can be easily adapted to any setting or time period.  Players were invited, indeed encouraged, to create their own expansions, monsters, and spells for use with the system, and even to submit their creations to Chaosium for publication, in exchange for free copies of whatever splat books were produced from their submissions.  This open and accepting attitude towards fan submissions and fan-developed material crops up very rarely in pen-and-paper gaming, and I don't believe it ever took off on any sort of appreciable scale until Wizards of the Coast published OGL D20 in 2000.  In this respect, at least, Chaosium was ahead of its time with BRP.

"Have fun," it says.  We'll see about that.

Player-characters in RuneQuest have seven primary Characteristics, and nine derrived Abilities.  The Characteristics are randomly rolled, and include RPG mainstays like Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Charisma, while also adding in two new stats: Size and Power.  Size is exactly what it sounds like, indicating the character's height, weight, and/or physical mass.  Characters with high Size can take more damage, while characters with low Size are stealthier and harder to hit.  Power, meanwhile, determines the character's magical ability and his or her in-tuned-ness with the mystical world.  Each of RuneQuest's characteristics advance in slightly different ways: Strength and/or Constitution can be raised up to match the highest rolled value assigned to either Strength, Constitution, or Size.  If either Strength or Constitution has the highest rating of the three, then that Characteristic cannot be raised at all, except by magic.  Similiary, Size can never be increased through non-magical or non-divine means, as a character is assumed to have finished growing by the time he begins adventuring.  Dexterity can be increased as the campaign goes along, up to a predefined, racial maximum.  Intelligence, like Size, can never be altered through non-magical means, while Charisma can rise and fall based on the character's success or failure in adventures.  Finally, a character's Power score is spent whenever he casts spells, while also influencing his starting hit points, as well as modifying various derrived combat abilities.  As all of these scores are randomly generated, it is possible to create characters who are multitalented and versatile, though it's just as easy to wind up with a character who is mild to moderately incompetent across the board.

As noted earlier, each Characteristic is determined by a random dice roll.  For humans, we roll 3d6 on every Characteristic, resulting in a starting score from 3 - 18.  As RuneQuest is a percentile based game, these values are largely meaningless for making tests.  In order to generate useful target numbers, the system relies on nine Abilities, whose scores are determined by a series of tables converting Characteristic ranges into percentages.  Each Ability is modified by several characteristics, with Intelligence and Power showing up in almost everything.  As an example, a character's Attack Ability is based on Strength (his ability to swing a weapon), Dexterity (his ability to aim the swing), Intelligence (his knowledge of fighting techniques), and Power ("A Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.").  In this case, higher Characteristic scores provide a 5 to 10 percent increase to the target number, while lower scores lower the target number.  Remember, because we're using a roll-under system, higher targets are better.  Now, let's start rolling some numbers so we can see this in action.

STR: 14

CON: 16

SIZ: 8

INT: 12

POW: 7

DEX: 11

CHA: 12

Constitution is my top score, and will provide a handy little bonus to several Abilities.  Strength comes up next, also higher than average, and will help out with damage dealing. Strength can also be raised up to a maximum of 16 if I have the money for training.  Power comes in pretty low at 7, but not low enough to penalize me.  The Size score of 8 will penalize my damage output and hit points, while providing a bonus to stealth.  These Abilities will be shown in more detail below.

Attack: +0%

Parry: +0%

Defense: +0%

HP: 15

Damage: +1d4

Perception: +0%

Stealth: +05%

Manipulation: +0%

Knowledge: +0%

In other words, this character gets +5 to any Stealth target number, and deals an additional 1d4 damage when successfully hitting with any weapon.  He suffered a -1 penalty to HP but still came out higher than average, and everything else is squarely average.  At this point, the character is roughly mechanically complete, though depending on starting cash there's still room to improve certain Characteristics through training, as well as altering abilities through Equipment.  Starting cash is determined by the character's background, which like everything else in this creation process, is randomly rolled, this time on a d%.

Background: 54: Townsman

2d100 Starting Cash: 32 Lunas

32 L is not enough for training, unfortunately.  However, I do get the following generic starting equipment:

GENERIC CLOTHING: Tunic, breeches, boots, underwear, cloak, hat.

GENERIC EQUIPMENT: Belt knife, and tinderbox.

TOWNSMAN EQUIPMENT: Flasks, torches, lamps, rope, trade/craftsman tools.

Now, in order to survive a life of adventure, I'm going to need some weapons and protective gear.  32L isn't a whole lot of money, but it's enough for a pair of Leather Pants (10L, absorbs 1 damage), a Leather Vest (10L, absorbs 1 damage), and a Quarterstaff (1d8 Damage, 20% hit rate, 15HP).  You might notice that my staff has 15HP; that's the amount of damage the staff can parry before it breaks.  At this point, the character is ready to go out and adventure, and likely get himself killed.  To help improve his chances, RuneQuest offers a set of optional rules to allow for a certain amount of "pre-game" experience.  I've decided to have him join a mercenary company in order to get a leg up in life, allowing me to roll percentage for a chance to improve his STR, CON, DEX, POW, and CHA.  My results are listed below.

STR: 61: +0

CON: 64: +0

DEX: 72: +0

POW: 12: +1

CHA: 71: +0

So after some time on the march with a band of disparate mercenaries, our Townsman has increased his Power level by one point.  Not that impressive, but he does get other benefits.  Working with mercenaries provides access to better armor, weapons, and training, as well as a shot at looting some cash from sacked villages and such.  Rolling another d%, I wind up with a score of 91, putting him in the company's Light Cavalry.  This automatically gives him an 80% riding skill, 50% to another cavalry skill of his choice, and 30% to all other cavalry skills.  He also gets 2500L worth of spells, along with access to a level two "xenohealing" spell automatically.  For spells, I've purchased Healing at 2 points, Detect Enemies, one point of Bladesharp (+5% to hit, +1 damage), and Speedart (adding +15% to-hit and +3 damage to non-enchanted arrows).  Rolling a d6 for equipment, I find he gets access to a bow, a one-handed sword, and a small shield.  He also gets some additional armor: cuirboilli cuirass, greaves, and vambraces, leather skirt, and an open helm.  He also scores another 756L in spoils and pay.  Things are looking up!

For this week's sheet, I've actually left out a few things.  The character wound up with enough cash on hand to purchase some additional skill training, but to be entirely honest, I've written most of this with a bit of a hangover, and find the system to be too fiddly to deal with at the moment.  I've also left out a few places where I'm supposed to fill in equipment properties more than once.

A "Player's Edition" (excising the monsters and encounters) of RuneQuest Second Edition can be downloaded for free at this fansite. The cover of this edition is NSFW

Moon Design Publications publishes HeroQuest, a successor to RuneQuest using the same Glorantha setting, but with a new system.  HeroQuest can be purchased at the publisher's site, or at RPGNow.

Chaosium Inc, the original publishers of RuneQuest, have since released the Basic Role Playing system as a stand-alone, generic product, also available from RPGNow.

If you're just interested in seeing the NSFW RuneQuest cover, click here.

Now, it's time to call it a night.