18 September 2018
Adventure in a Bronze-Age world of magic and mysticism
In a market stuffed to the gills with fantasy RPGs, RuneQuest offers something a little different from the heroic norm – something a little deadlier, rooted in a time of bronze and barbarians, where historic realism mixes with raw, primitive magic that hangs in the air like early morning mist.
This creates a weird and wonderful mix of simulation and wild fantasy that captures the feeling of ancient myths and legends. Virtually every hero draws at least some power from arcane runes, but none of them are so mighty that they can shrug off a determined hack with a broadsword. One moment a shaman will be communing with a spirit; the next, the heroes will be forming themselves into a phalanx.
As the subtitle suggests, the setting is an utterly vital part of the game. The world of Glorantha has served as the background to RuneQuest since the first edition made its way onto shelves in 1978, but the latest iteration is so closely woven in with the game system itself that separating the two seems like a near-impossible task.
This brings a whole stack of benefits, as you can virtually guarantee that every character at the table will have some kind of solid tie to the game world once you run through the creation process, but it also makes a truly homebrewed world tricky to run without substantial effort from the GM. For better or for worse, if you want to get the full experience you’re probably going to be playing in Glorantha.
The tight relationship between the game and the world becomes clear when you create a character. This is a lengthy process that not only builds up the character’s stats and abilities, but also links them to major events in recent history, provides them with passions and hatreds that can influence future dice rolls, and ties them into a cult that demands tithes and sacrifices in return for power and aid.
Simply making a character with someone will probably be enough to decide whether or not RuneQuest is the game for them. On top of the commitment to setting and creating a hero at least somewhat grounded in reality – you’re unlikely to be running into any lone-wolf half-vampires with a mysterious past – it prepares them for dealing with the ruleset.
In both cases, while there’s nothing particularly complex to work out, there is an awful lot to keep track of and understand. The core mechanic is incredibly simple, with percentage-based skills that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu or any one of the other Basic Roleplaying games drawn from Chaosium’s catalogue, but simplicity doesn’t always mean straightforward.
In character creations this translates to a specific choice of clan providing a 35% bonus to the llama-riding skill, while in combat it means tracking how badly your spear was damaged by a parry or determining if the wind is strong enough to reduce the accuracy of the arrow you just fired. No individual part of the game is particularly difficult to grasp, but the sheer breadth of systems that span from maimed limbs to the results of the annual harvest can be overwhelming.
Sometimes it feels as through RuneQuest relies on not only having a GM that that is incredibly familiar with the book, but also one that is confident enough to know when to ignore it and simply handwave minor rules issues.
The character creation process, for example, relies on rolled stats and, while the book suggests a few situations where it’s acceptable to re-roll bad results, it’s unclear whether these are actually rules or simply guidelines, leaving the decision squarely in the GM’s lap. There’s nothing wrong with giving confident GMs the power to make decisions in the interest of having fun, but relying on it can be dangerous.
Ultimately, RuneQuest succeeds in carving out a powerful niche in the crowded world of fantasy roleplaying, building something that is truly unique. The world of Glorantha won’t be for everybody, but those who give it a chance may find its blend of earthy realism and heady mysticism utterly intoxicating.
A game steeped in both real-world and fictional history, where wild myths meld with a realistic approach to rules.
Designer: Greg Stafford, Steve Perrin, Jeff Richard, Jason Durall et al.
This review originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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