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.  

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to here more explanation of the Sorcery and "verbs" things. My GM has a world that is somewhat of a Hybrid of RuneQuest and Harnmaster, and I'm in the process of writing up some ideas on the magic system to get it sorted in my head.