Friday, February 8, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 3--Heroquest Glorantha

I think Heroquest Glorantha (not to be confused with the RPG-ish board game from the 80s called HeroQuest) is the purest example of a narratively-focused tabletop RPG out there that still plays more-or-less like a traditional tabletop RPG (so, excluding GM-less games like Microscope or Fiasco).  To be clear, that's not the same thing as the best narratively-focused ttrpg; though I think HQG is very good, what the "best" game is will always depend on circumstances and preferences of the people playing.  No, my claim is that HQG does the best job of focusing in on, and equally importantly making explicit, the basic assumptions and concepts of narratively-focused play.  HQG is very clear about what it is doing and why it is doing what it is doing, in a way that other games that have similar goals often obscure.

But what do I mean by "narratively-focused"?  The core mechanics of HQG were designed by Robin Laws, who I think has to be considered one of the top five or so living ttrpg designers.  In addition to HQG and its predecessors (HQG is the 3rd edition of Heroquest, which in turn was derived from the earlier HeroWars, all by Laws), Laws is best known for the core engine running the GUMSHOE series of games, as well as Feng Shui.  Both GUMSHOE and Feng Shui are all about genre emulation--mysteries and Hong Kong-style action movies, respectively.  HQG, though, goes deeper than that, and explicitly tries to emulate the structure of stories themselves.  Key game components function off of "story logic," as opposed to "world logic" or "game logic."

Mechanically, characters in HQG have a list of abilities, with an associated rating.  Unlike most other games, there is no set list of abilities, but instead are entirely open-ended and player defined.  For example, the sample HQG character "Vargast the Thunderer" has the ability "Lunars Killed my Wife."  Much like with the Backgrounds in 13th Age, any time an ability is relevant to the story, it can be used to accomplish some action.  So, when faced with a Lunar soldier, Vargast might use his "Lunars Killed my Wife" ability as the basis for attacking the soldier, as his rage and hatred of the Lunars powers his blows.  Abilities can be "break outs" of other abilities, acting like a specialization.  So, returning to Vargast, he can use the Air Rune to do Air Rune things (fly, fight, be boastful, etc.), but when he uses the "Lightning Spear" break-out of the Air Rune, he gets additional bonuses.

Abilities are rated from 1 to 20, with the additional concept of "masteries" (signified by the "Mastery Rune," which looks like a flat W).  If an ability goes over 20, it is converted to a "mastery" and 20 is subtracted from the ability.  So, an ability of 27 is expressed as 7W (i.e. "7 and one mastery"); an ability of 48 is expressed as 8W2 ("8 and two masteries).  It's a little bit of a code, but you pick it up rather quickly.  To use an ability, the GM assigns a difficulty (more on that in a bit) that is rated on the same scale as abilities.  Next, masteries are compared and cancel out--if the player ability is 8W2 and the difficulty is 7W, then the player ability becomes 8W and the difficulty becomes 7.  Both the GM and the player roll a d20 and try to roll under the numerical component of the ability rating.  Rolling under the number is a success, rolling a 1 is a critical; rolling over the number is a failure, rolling a 20 is a fumble.  Now, the side with masteries remaining can "bump" their result up by one level per mastery (fumble to failure to success to critical); any remaining "bumps" bump down the opposing roll.  You can also spend Hero Points to bump rolls in an emergency.  The player and GM results are then read on a simple chart to determine the outcome--anything from Complete Victory to Complete Defeat.

For more dramatic situations, these rules can be expanded into extended contests.  Extended contests are a series of rolls where the outcome of a particular roll is converted into points, and the goal for the player is to inflict five points on an opponent before he or she suffers five points.  There are also rules for using one ability to augment another prior to a conflict, and some more noodly rules for using Rune abilities, having companions or followers, and a couple of other smaller things.  But, basically, that's the whole game.

If it were just that, then HQG would be "rules light" and free form-ish, but otherwise pretty conventional.  The secret sauce, though, is in the way the game instructs the GM to set difficulties.  Rather than setting difficulties based on some sense of how tough something would be in the "real world," HQG encourages GMs to set the difficulty in a way that makes sense from, and advances, the story and the story-goals the GM has.  There are base difficulties that are tied into an approximation of character power, but otherwise there are no fixed difficulties for any particular challenge or opponent.  If the encounter is the climax of the story, then it should be harder; if it is early on and the players are just getting into things, you can make it easier.

Now, GMs do this sort of thing all the time.  If a GM builds an adventure session around a progressively tougher series of encounters, culminating in a "boss fight," then he or she is already incorporating story-based thinking into the design of the session.  But that story-based thinking is camouflaged by, or at least channeled through, a set of "objective" mechanics.  To implement the story-based thinking of progressively more challenging encounters, in most games the GM will select monsters or other antagonists based on their pre-determined stats, "slotting" them into the adventure in a way that progressively ratchets up the difficulty.  So, you might start with some weak monsters like goblins (or, to be Gloranthan, broo), then follow with ogres, then trolls, culminating with a dragon fight at the end.  The GM needs to go in that order to maintain the difficulty curve--if you flipped the dragon and the goblins, you wouldn't have an steadily increasing difficulty progression.

In HQG, by contrast, opponents have no fixed stats, only the difficulties the GM assigns according to whatever narrative arc he or she is trying to establish.  In a way, it's just "cutting out the middle man"--you are functionally doing the same thing GMs do in other games, but without the constraints of messing with predetermined stats.  If for some reason you wanted the dragon to be the easiest antagonist and the broo the most difficult, in HQG you set difficulties a higher difficulty for the broo and a lower one for the dragon.

If you are the sort of person who thinks that tabletop RPGs are or should be about trying to simulate on some level the way the fictional world would "really work," then all of this probably sounds like dangerous nonsense.  Broo are "objectively" less powerful than dragons, and thus should always have lower stats, according to this view.  But HQG explicitly disclaims simulating Glorantha according to any sort of "objective" criteria.  By not having any fixed stats for anything, including antagonists, you would have a hard time running the game according to some sort of  simulationist logic.  Removing fixed stats for opponents is to some extent taking away the net that can catch the GM if he or she is tempted to go down a simulationist road.

Instead of fixed stats as a net, HQG gives you the "pass/fail cycle."  The basic idea is that the GM should track whether the PCs are succeeding and failing at whatever it is they are doing.  If they are on a hot streak of success, then the GM should jack up the difficulty level; if they have failed several times in a row, then the difficulty should be reduced.  The end goal is to create a balance of successes and failures to make a compelling story--you don't want your heroes breezing their way through challenges nor constantly falling on their faces.

Again, many GMs do this in an informal way all the time.  And HQG goes out of its way to present the pass/fail cycle as truly a net for GMs, something to fall back on if the GM isn't sure what difficulty to set (I seem to remember the pass/fail cycle being more prominent and without the qualifiers in the previous edition of Heroquest, but I don't have it in front of me to check).  But there are going to be people that are going to have big problems with this sort of thing.  If getting rid of the fixed difficulties tied to some "objective" criteria severely limits the simulationist dimension of HQG, extensive use of the pass/fail cycle arguably undercuts the "gamist" dimension.  If a run of success is going to cause the GM to crank up the difficulty until you fail, and a run of failure will reward you with an easy one, then people who like the idea that they are accomplishing things and overcoming challenges through their own moxie are going to feel a little cheated.

But, again, this is a narrative game, and it sells out along that dimension.  The fun of the game is in the story that the GM and the players collaboratively create.  HQG strips out elements that support other kinds of play.  This is why I think HQG is the most pure narrative game, because you basically have no choice as a GM to run it according to anything other than story-logic.  If you don't want that sort of play-style, then obviously this game is not for you.  It's very clear about what it is doing.

I like narrative-style play, so I have no problem with this.  My concern is a little more specific, and it relates to something I've noticed about narratively-focused games generally--they tend to have greater amounts of "genre drift" than the more mechanically-oriented games.  In a mechanically-oriented game (like, say, D&D, or Runequest), the game is defined by the mechanical pieces that are pre-made as part of the design of the game.  GMs are of course free, and often do, come up with their own classes, monsters, etc., but that is usually an appreciable amount of work and so most of the time you are going to be using the pre-made stuff.  And the designers are going to tend to pre-make stuff that fits into the themes and tropes of the setting, so the majority of the stuff that gets used in games is consistent with a particular feel.  If you run a game with characters using D&D classes fighting D&D monsters, you are going to end up with a game that feels like the particular high-ish medieval fantasy that is D&D.  In a narrative game, there isn't that barrier to making up a bunch of stuff, so there aren't those constraints that keep things within the genre boundaries.  One of the things I've noticed about Dungeon World streams is that most of them very quickly leave the confines of Tolkien-esque fantasy and spiral off into some sort of "weird fantasy" direction.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with weird fantasy that goes outside of genre boundaries--I love Friends at the Table's Hieron stuff, and it can definitely be described as "weird fantasy." But if the goal is to have a game that emulates a particular genre or captures the feel of a particular setting--and the explicit goal of HQG is to create a Glorantha game--drifting off into some other space should be considered at least a partial failure.  HQG requires that players and the GM be, for lack of a better term, "disciplined" about telling Glorantha stories, making Glorantha characters, and playing those characters in a way that is consistent with the feel of Glorantha.  And that requires the players and GM to bring to the table a bunch of pre-existing knowledge of Glorantha.  For example, the character creation process is really just "pick a clan, pick an occupation, pick three Runes, add some other relevant abilities, a few flaws, and then assign ratings."  That's great if the players and the GM know Glorantha and what sort of campaign they want to play, but if you are coming to this fresh there is not much in the way of hand-holds for newbies.

[On the other hand, you could just run Heroquest rules without Glorantha, in whatever setting your group wanted.  The 2nd edition of Heroquest was pitched as a generic game system, and I understand Chaosium will soon be releasing a d20-style System Reference Document for the underlying system.  But since Heroquest Glorantha is explicitly about Glorantha, I think evaluating it in terms of Glorantha alone is fair.]

By contrast, in the Runequest review I mentioned that the systems and the way they interlock do a great job of creating that Glorantha experience, even if the GM and players don't really have deep familiarity with the world.  If you follow along with the family generation system to create your character, that process will give you a bunch of Glorantha hooks and elements for your character, teaching you bits of the setting that you need to know as you go along.  The game helps you stay within the lines of the tone of Glorantha.  HQG requires the players and GM to do that work themselves.

To be fair, HQG does have a ton of Glorantha information--I would say at least 75% of the book is either pure setting information or a hybrid rules/setting material.  But where I wouldn't run Runequest without being confident that the players were going to dig in and learn the rules, I wouldn't run HQG without a similar confidence that the players were going to dig into the setting of Glorantha.  If you ran HQG for people with no prior knowledge of Glorantha, I think the game will tend to drift off into something that might very well be very fun, but not really recognizably Glorantha, or otherwise flop around like a fish out of water.

But, if you had a group that was all-in on doing the Glorantha thing and telling Gloranthan stories, and everyone was either was up on Gloranthan lore or willing to put in some reading time to get up to speed, then HQG is a great vehicle for telling those stories.  If you are looking for some pointers in that direction, I would be remiss not to mention the "Colymar Campaign" adventure path found in the HQG supplement Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes (reading S:KH, by the way, was when Glorantha first "clicked" for me) and the Eleven Lights Campaign in Eleven Lights.  I haven't gotten my hands on Eleven Lights yet, but the Colymar Campaign is great and weird in all of the best ways, most notably the big heroquest that is a centerpiece of the story.  Or, really, you can repurpose any published Glorantha material--one of the sneaky good features of HQG is that you can run any published module from any system without doing any conversion work by just using the text and ignoring all of the stats.  The system is so simple that even the most crunch-phobic group will pick it up quickly, and it brings just as much drama to tense negotiations or interactions as it does to combat or chases (or, more accurately, the same drama, since they use the same system).

I feel like I am becoming predictable by saying this in every review, but not everyone is going to be into the narrative play model that you get from HQG.  In many ways, it's the opposite of the play experience that you get from Runequest, and it is very different from the vast majority of games out there, especially outside the indie world.  Picking up a tabletop RPG that gives you no stats for any antagonists is weird--the first time I encountered it, I flipped through the book to find the stats that I thought had to be there and couldn't find.  But I think it nails a very particular way of approaching tabletop RPGs, and more specifically a tabletop RPG about Glorantha.  Heroquest Glorantha is my favorite narratively-focused game, and it is something that I think anyone interested in that style of play should check out. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 2--Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha

Before we get into Runequest:  Roleplaying in Glorantha itself, I want to go off topic and praise Chaosium's business and pricing practices.  Digital distribution policies for tabletop RPG products are all over the map. Some companies, like Paizo, price many of their rules PDFs at rock-bottom prices and/or give discounts if you buy the hardcopy.  On the flip side, there are producers--most notably Wizards of the Coast, but not just them--that charge a premium for digital products and/or impose various sorts of barriers to access those products.

Chaosium takes what I believe to be the best and most fair approach, and the one I would love to see become uniform throughout the industry.  Chaosium PDFs, when purchased alone, are more or less at the median price for similar products or a bit higher.  I have no problem with this--the creators need to be compensated for their work, no matter the form that is ultimately delivered, and so the print price minus the cost of making the physical book is a fair price for a PDF alone.  However, if you buy the hardcover, you get the PDF for free with the purchase.  That also is fair--compensation to the creators is baked into the print price, and so there is no real justification for charging an additional $20+ for a digital copy that costs almost nothing to generate.  And even better, if the product is out on PDF and not in hardcover yet (which, as of this writing, is the situation with the Gloranthan Bestiary and Gamemaster Screen Pack), Chaosium credits the money you spent buying the PDF toward the purchase price of the hardcover when it is available.  This is great--you can try something out at a lower price point, and then if you like it and want the hardcover, you don't get punished on the back end by paying full price for the print version.  Chaosium is not the only publisher to do things this way (Pelgrane Press does a similar thing, though they make you pre-order the print product and pay the print price up front to get the PDF), but it should be applauded where it is found.  Good on Chaosium for structuring its pricing in a way that is fair to both creators and consumers.

Anyway, Runequest.  Runequest 1st Edition came out in 1978.  To put that in perspective, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook was released this year, while the iconic 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide (the definitive expression of the Gygax oeuvre) wouldn't come for another year.  Alongside Traveller, Runequest is one of the most important non-D&D games in the "first generation" of tabletop RPGs.  But, by the time I got into the hobby in the late 80s, Runequest's popularity and relevance had already peaked and was not a particularly relevant part of the tabletop RPG scene (at least where I was).  In the 90s, it was out-of-print; in the 00s and early 10s, it bounced around a couple of different third-party publishers.  But in 2015, Greg Stafford and the folks making up the primary flagship for Glorantha material, Moon Design Publications, more or less took over a struggling Chaosium, re-integrating Glorantha with its original publishing house.  As part of that integration, they announced that they would begin working on a new edition of Runequest.  So, I come to Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha with zero prior Runequest experience, and only the vaguest knowledge of the system stemming from having played Call of Cthulhu, which was originally derived from Runequest's basic game engine.

As the name implies, this edition of Runequest is heavily Glorantha-focused (which, I understand, was not necessarily the case with previous editions).  More than anything else, this can be seen in the character creation system.  The default approach is something that is like a life-path system, but is actually more accurately a "family path" system.  The first character creation decision is to select the culture your character comes from--a very Gloranthan place to begin.  Then you select the grandparent that is most significant to your character's story and life, and generate some basic facts about grandma or grandpa, like occupation.  You then work through the events of your grandparent's life, referencing the key markers in the history of Glorantha.  You then do the same for a key parent, and then for your character.  In doing so, you end up with not just a set of numbers on the character sheet, but a family with a family history that is tightly integrated into the world of Glorantha.  You could skip this part and get a pool of numbers to distribute, but that would be depriving yourself of the richness of the system.  The one negative is that you are limited to the six cultures in the Dragon Pass region in the core book.  One assumes that additional cultures will be forthcoming in future Runequest products, but because each culture brings with it a detailed set of life-path charts tied to Glorantha events, GMs who want to jump-start the process and add cultures are looking at a significant project.

Runequest's stock-in-trade, and the the thing that made it originally innovative in 1978, is that it is a skill-based, percentile system, with no classes.  You have a list of skills that are rated from 0 to 100 (and in some cases higher), and you have to roll under the skill rating on a percentile die.  In other words, if your sneak rating is 70, you have a 70% chance to succeed on a normal sneak roll.  What's great about this system is that it is probably the most transparent way of communicating character capability--you have do some math to figure out the probability difference between a +3 and a +5 in a d20 game, while the difference between 50% and 70% is right there on the tin.  There are also critical success and fumble mechanics for very low (success--remember, you want to roll low) and very high rolls.  Again, the percentages make everything very transparent and intuitive.

Like many skill-based systems, though, there are a lot of skills--the character sheet has 95 different skills, and Listen, Scan, Search, and Track are all separate skills, for example.  Each skill has a paragraph of description, including a set of discrete situational modifiers for each skill.  Reading through the skills chapter, my first thought was "I hope the GM screen is good"--there is no way I will remember those kinds of things, and so I need to have them presented to me to reference during play.  There are also seven very old-school attributes (Strength, Constitution, Size [literally how big you are], Dexterity, Intelligence, Power [as in spiritual power], and Charisma), rated on an equally old school 3-18 scale.  I wonder why they didn't repeat the move they made in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and convert the attributes to a percentile scale like everything else in the game, removing the need to resolve attribute vs. attribute contests using the Resistance Chart that I vaguely remember from older editions of CoC.  But, the Resistance Chart is not really all that complicated, and it is not a problem so much as a little bit of a surprising choice.

One of the best mechanics in the game is the augment system.  Basically, a roll using one skill or other character ability can be "augmented" by a successful roll using another skill or character ability.  So, if you are Tracking a foe through your clan's lands, you might roll Homeland Lore first, and if successful you get a temporary bonus to your Tracking skill.  But, correspondingly, if you fail the augment roll you get a penalty to the underlying skill, so discretion is necessary.  And you can only use a particular character ability once per session as an augment, so players don't get stuck in a boring rut of using their best skill or ability as an augment time after time.  This system, which is similar conceptually to the one in Heroquest (I'm not sure which comes from which), is good because it rewards player creativity and engagement, allowing the players to weave together connections between abilities without requiring the GM to monitor possible connections and bonuses.  And there is a risk/reward dynamic, where the player has to weigh the possibility of a big bonus against the risk of a crippling penalty.

Besides skills and attributes, the other three dimensions of a Runequest character are Runes, Passions, and Magic.  The Runes are a core concept in Glorantha, representing the basic building blocks of the world and are embodied by the various gods.  You have percentile ratings in a couple of the six elemental Runes (Darkness, Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Moon).  In addition, you have a "sliding scale" rating in the power Runes--if you have a rating of 80 in the Fertility Rune, then you have a 20 in its paired opposite, the Death Rune.  These Runes determine what cults you have access to and how good your big magic is going to be, but it also is a metric of personality traits.  For example, if your Fertility Rune is 80 and your Death Rune is 20, you are probably going to be more interested in seducing opponents rather than running them through with a spear.  In fact, high levels of the power Runes force rolls if you want to act in a manner contrary to your Rune affinity.

The other big personality mechanic are Passions.  Passions are things like love, hate, fear, or loyalty to some particular group or person, rated as a percentage.  Unlike in many systems that have you put things like this on the character sheet as "guides to role-playing" and leave it at that, the augment system gives these things mechanical weight, as you can use Passions to augment your skill rolls--if you are swinging your sword at a Lunar solider, you can use "Hate (Lunars)" as an augment.  The lack of mechanical support for role-playing elements is probably the biggest failing of D&D 5th Edition, and Runequest shows how significant a failing it is.

Finally, there is the magic system.  In Runequest, magic is divided into four basic categories.  Spirit magic consists of basic spells, accessible to all characters and cast using a pool of magic points.  Other than the spending of magic points, Spirit magic fills a similar conceptual and game-play space to cantrips from 5e.  Rune magic is tied to which cult your character belongs to (i.e. which god or goddess you worship), and in turn ties to your Rune affinities.  While Runequest has no classes in the D&D sense, the cult your character belongs to fills some of that space--if you are part of the Humakt cult (the god of death), you are going to be some variation of a "dark avenger," if you worship Chalana Arroy, then you will be healing-focused, etc.  Rune spells are generally more powerful, but draw from a more limited pool of "rune points."  Next, there is shamanism, which focuses on spirits and developing skills to deal with spirits, including spirit combat.  Finally, there is sorcery where you master a series of "verbs" that allow you to manipulate the Runes in more free-form ways.

The key thing with Runequest is that every character engages with the magic system.  All characters have Spirit magic, and you begin as a member of a Rune cult.  In a sense, every Runequest character is a "cleric" in D&D terms.  If you are looking for an "easy," low mechanically-engaged character type to play (the "generic fighter" of D&D), you basically aren't going to find it in Runequest.  To be fair, the number of options never scales up to the golf bag (or bags) of options to juggle that a mid-to-high level D&D wizard has, so there is a ceiling as well as a floor.

This speaks to a general comment that jumps out at me about the game--this is a game that seems to demand a high level of mechanical engagement and "heavy lifting" from the players.  It's not just that the game is "crunchy" (though it is), but that the crunch is very player-facing.  There is a culture of play that has emerged, spurred on by the trend toward more rules-light games, which tries to get people to the table by promising them that the don't have to do much work to learn the game or dive into deep mechanical systems.  That culture is going to run head-long into the structure of Runequest.  I wouldn't run Runequest with a new group unless I was pretty confident that they were going to take the time on the front end to learn the rules; otherwise, I think trying to play the game the first time would slow to a crawl.  To be clear, I think there is nothing whatsoever wrong with asking players to put in the work (not to go full Old Man here, but I think some of the modern design trends in tabletop RPGs have made players a little lazy), but you should know what the deal is on the front end, and keep in mind the attitudes and track record of your group.

That trend is also on full display with combat.  Runequest combat is very simulationist and very deadly.  During your character's combat round, you have 12 "strike ranks," during which you can take actions.  Different things you might do in a round take up a certain number of strike ranks, and so long as you have enough strike ranks you can do multiple things in a round.  For example, if firing an arrow takes 3 strike ranks, and notching an arrow takes 5, you can fire, notch, and fire in a single round (arrow #1 on rank 3, notch on rank 8, fire again on rank 11).  It's a clever mechanic and one that allows for a ton of flexibility during your turn.  The actual act of attacking is a skill roll (each weapon type has a separate skill, so there is a Broadsword skill, a Shortsword skill, etc.), which is opposed by either a Dodge or Parry by the target.  If the attack hits, you roll a d20 to determine hit location, and you have a certain number of hit points at each location.  Armor absorbs damage, which is good, because you don't have many HP and the consequences for going to zero in a location are bad--arm wounds cause you drop weapons or shields, leg wounds make you fall prone, chest and head wounds bleed and cause other penalties.  Parrying with a weapon causes damage to your weapon, raising the possibility of weapon breakage.

Combat in Runequest ends up reminding me of The Dark Eye that I reviewed before.  There is no slowly whittling down HP with no real effects until one side is dead.  Getting hit is bad, and has immediate effects; preparation, especially magical preparation, is essential, and the risks are always very high.  The hit location rules, while adding a complexity layer, definitely make combat feel visceral.  But it's not low-fantasy visceral, since magic is ubiquitous, at least for PCs, but something else.  And, compared to something like The Dark Eye, it feels fun and directed toward a particular narrative purpose as opposed to complexity for the sake of complexity.  It would likely be a slow grind the first couple times it is run as the players and GM get used to the interactions of the different systems.  But I think it has a weight and a tension to it that would make it engaging and appealing once the group (again, especially the players) became familiar with the systems and how they interacted.

But the best chapter in the book, for my money, is the last chapter, entitled "Between Adventures."  First, we have the character advancement rules.  If you succeed on a skill, passion, or Rune during an adventure, you mark a check; after the session, if you roll above your rating, then your rating goes up.  Did you know this system is also in Call of Cthulhu?  Of course you didn't--Call of Cthulhu characters don't survive long enough to "level up"!  Anyway, you can also dedicate time (and money) to training or spiritual enlightenment to advance traits.  It's a clean and logical system--you get better at things you work on during the session, you can focus on getting better on certain targeted skills or traits, and you get better faster at things you are not all that good at.

The really cool stuff is in the Sacred Time section.  See, Runequest characters are not, at least by default, "professional adventurers," but are instead assumed to have "day jobs" back with their community.  For this reason, the time between adventures in a campaign is one "season," and Glorantha has five seasons.  So, after five adventures, it's the end of the year Sacred Time.  During Sacred Time, there are a series of rolls to determine the omens for the next year, how the harvest went, how each individual character did economically with his or her day job, etc.  There are also rules for characters getting married and having children.  The Sacred Time rules ground characters to a place and to a community of people, and thus to the world.  It also makes choices by the players for their characters have meaningful impact on the world--if the group decides to spend a more-than-usual amount of time adventuring, it will negatively effect their day jobs, for example.  And of course GMs would be fools not to use events in the community and to the players as material for future adventures.

Runequest as a whole, but especially the Sacred Time rules and the related character generation system, dispels the simplistic dichotomy that "rules heavy games" and "character focused games" are necessarily on opposite sides of the tabletop RPG spectrum.  Previously, Burning Wheel has been the poster-child for a game bringing both a mechanically-focused and a character focused experience, but Runequest gets to a similar place from a different direction.  I have not played Burning Wheel, but from watching streams of Burning Wheel (notably Adam Koebel's stuff on "Roll20 Presents") it seems that the focus is very squarely on internal character motivations, goals, and plans; Runequest, by contrast, is going to focus more on situating the characters into a community context and play off those interactions.  But the point is that I can see the same kinds of deep role-playing experiences coming out of Runequest that Burning Wheel is famous for.  And, if you like Burning Wheel and are looking for something similar, you might want to check Runequest out.

To me, the decision matrix for whether you want to dive into Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is pretty simple.  Are you OK with the level of mechanical complexity that Runequest brings with it?  Are your players going to take the time to learn the rules--really learn the rules?  Can you look at that character sheet and not panic?  If the honest answer is "no," then you are going to be banging your head against the wall with Runequest (might I suggest, however, the next game I'm going to review in this series?)  But if you and your group knows what they are getting into and is OK with that, then Runequest is an extremely compelling product.  It's logical and sensible as a game system, producing interesting and dynamic results.  And, while it is crunchy and has many interlocking systems, the presentation is clear.  You can learn it if you put in the work--it's not intentionally opaque.

But, more than anything else, Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha delivers on the "Roleplaying in Glorantha" part of the pitch.  It is one of the best examples of using mechanics in a tabletop RPG to create and reinforce setting and tone.  That difficult-to-pinpoint "Glorantha" thing is present in spades in this new edition of the game.  If a group plays the game in the way it is set forth in the book, you are almost guaranteed to have a Gloranthan-ass-Glorantha experience.  And if the GM is just getting into Glorantha, the density of systems is an advantage in recreating that experience--just let the game carry you along into the high-magic, mythology-focused, Bronze Age fantasy game you never knew you wanted to play.

If any of this seems interesting or exciting to you, you should jump on Runequest right away.   I'm really itching to try it out--I've made a couple of characters that I can't wait to run.  It's a beautiful product and the beginning of a very promising re-birth or reinvigoration of a tabletop RPG classic.