jueves, 11 de abril de 2019

Review: Mythras, the roleplaying game (RuneQuest 6)

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There is a roleplaying game you can use to enjoy epic campaigns with a realistic style, especially for the sword & sorcery, genre, but also for many other genres thanks to its many supplements. It was first titled RuneQuest and now it is Mythras. The 6th edition of the RuneQuest RPG was published in 2012 by Pete Nash and Lawrence Whitaker, owners of the publishing company The Design Mechanism. In 2016, Chaosium did not renew their license to keep using the name "RuneQuest", so they republished the same rulebook with just a few additions and called it Mythras. This roleplaying game had quite a success right after its publication and it has produced a lot of hardcore fans of its rules system, as well as satisfied followers of this publishing company, but also some detractors who stay loyal to any of its previous editions. Be it as it may, this game is building online buzz, also due to its ever growing number of excellent supplements. So if you would like to know what it is all about, below you can read my review, written after some years of experience playing it.

<<Puedes leer esta reseña en español>>

Anathaym fights against a slarge on the cover of Mythras

A bit of history


Since Chaosium published RuneQuest 3rd edition in the late 1980s, there was no new edition of that game for many years until it was discontinued and forgotten by the general public. In 2006, the British publisher Mongoose Publishing got the rights and published the edition commonly known as MRQ. Check an explanatory diagram here. Later, Pete Nash and Lawrence Whitaker wrote Mongoose Publishing's second edition for RuneQuest (MRQII), which was much better received by fans. However, the two authors soon got tired of Mongoose's extravagant editorial policy. So one fine day they rolled up their sleeves and founded The Design Mechanism, got the rights to the name "RuneQuest" and published the 6th edition of this roleplaying game as they had always wanted it to be. The game was pretty successful and got translated into French, German and Spanish. Some of these editions in other languages even published their own materials, like the supplement Mediterráneo Mítico (read a review) for playing campaigns in the ancient Mediterranean cultures. However, on July 2016 all this positive inertia suddenly came to a halt.

RuneQuest 6 in Spanish came with dice, a map, the booklet with all the tables, character sheets and a GM screen.

Basically: Chaosium did not renew the license of the name "RuneQuest" to The Design Mechanism and became its owner again to publish its own edition of the game, but this time integrated in Glorantha. This edition is titled RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. That forced The Design Mechanism to cancel the publication of the supplement Adventures in Glorantha that it was preparing to allow play in this fantasy world with the rules of its RuneQuest 6th edition. That also forced them to change the name to their ruleset. And so, the 6th edition of RuneQuest was renamed Mythras. And this is the story, now for the review itself. First I will deal with the look and then with the contents:


The look of the book


RuneQuest 6 was a 446-page softcover book with everything necessary to play. The excellent cover art by Pascal Quidalt combines two key concepts in this RPG: the Bronze Age and epic fantasy. The first is shown through a warrior dressed with hoplite armor and the other through a scaly monster, a slarge, as well as the magic on the spear's edge. It is also a tribute to the cover of the 1st and 2nd editions of RuneQuest. The interior pages are black and white with the text in double columns, numerous notes and game examples on the margins. The interior art is somewhat scarce and of medium quality, and every chapter is headed by a different rune that is repeated on all corners.

Mythras is a hardcover book, but since they removed all reference to runes and the text was laid out differently, with thinner margins, it is only 306 pages long. They also included more art originally included in the Spanish edition and other publications, for example in the title background of every section. However, it includes the same content as RuneQuest 6th edition, albeit with some tweaks and small additions to the rules.

The hardcover RuneQuest 6 Spanish edition had a bound bookmark and some of its new art was later included in Mythras.

The rules


The RuneQuest 6 and Mythras rules system is an evolution of the previous editions of RuneQuest. As an heir of RuneQuest, it uses the percentile system or the basic dice roll with a 100-sided dice. To achieve a success in the roll you need to score a result equal or under the percentage your character has in the skill you are using. Skills are measured with scores from 1 to 100 and even higher. The rolls can generate four kinds of result: critical, normal success, failure and fumble. Moreover, there is a fixed list of skills characters may possess which depend on their cultural background (primitive, nomadic, barbarian or civilized) and their career. Characters are also defined by the same 7 characteristics as in RuneQuest: Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Size, Dexterity, Power and Charisma (which was Appearance in RQ3), as well as attributes derived from these such as hit points divided into locations and magic points, to name a few. All in all, it still is a classic and simulationist roleplaying game, that is, the kind that focuses on offering a feeling of crude realism, above all in combat. Not for nothing Pete Nash, one of the authors, has participated in medieval combat reenactments and has experience in melee combat weapons.

On the other hand, RuneQuest 6 or Mythras brings to the RuneQuest rules system a series of new mechanics that make this edition special and unique. These include combat, magic and the soul of characters (see further below). Aside from that, the book includes a whole chapter dealing with advice about the best way to use the rules and to personalize them to your taste.



Combat: detailed, tough and strategic


The rules for combat are one of the key aspects of Mythras. Already in previous editions, RuneQuest was known for being realistic, dangerous and visceral, with rolls for attacking, parrying and watching how the spear goes through your stomach, the arrow pierces the enemy's skull between the eyes or you behead the enemy with a single blow. All this is still present in this edition, but with important changes.

1. Detailed:
For example, there are rules for including the reach of melee weapons as a factor in combat, which help understand why longer weapons such as spears and staves were the most used in Antiquity (besides being cheap). The reason is these rules let you keep your enemy at bay with these weapons. Another example of detail is the rules for attacking with ranged weapons, which include the strength of the wind, the distance to the target and its size. Another are hit locations, which let you determine where exactly the blow lands. Finally, there are 3 kinds of wounds: minor, serious and major, each of them with increasingly adverse effects for your character's life. For example, if you suffer a major wound and survive, you can still get a permanent injury, which means you lost an eye, an ear... or even part of your leg or your arm! Because combat is...

2. Tough, but not necessarily lethal:
Classic RuneQuest has sometimes been criticized for its extreme lethality, above all the fact that it is fairly easy to end up with a maimed limb or losing an arm when cut off with a single powerful blow. Magic compensates this a little, but if you play a campaign in historical settings or with a low level of magic, this level of realism could sometimes ruin the fun for some people. That's why the authors of the 6th edition made an effort to address this. Nonetheless, it is still possible for an axe blow to render you unconscious and dying. But there lies the first difference: most major wounds leave you dying, but it is more difficult to kill someone outright. In fact, not only in the combat section, but also in the section titled "Running the Game", there is a box that reminds the reader that combat should always be the last resource (if you are smart, that is). And when it does happen, it doesn't need to be to the death. Moreover, player characters have luck points they can spend to get rerolls and save them from a certain death. Lastly, the rules include several ways of ending combat without killing, such as by disarming the enemy or compelling him to surrender. You can achieve this by using combat special effects, which in turn make combat very...

3. Strategic:
I have run combats with Mythras that were as tense as a game of chess, where every little decision was strategically crucial and with many factors to consider. This is thanks to the level of granularity I just mentioned and also through 2 very characteristic elements in this edition: action points and special effects. The former determine how many times you can do an action or reaction in combat. As for special effects, they come into play whenever a character successfully attacks or parries and achieves a better level of success than her opponent's attack or parry. In other words, a critical against any other kind of result or a normal success against a failure or fumble. For example, if your Spartan hoplite gets a normal success when attacking, and the Persian spearman also gets a normal success when parrying, then their weapons just clash and nothing happens (although, if the attacking weapon is much larger than the defending weapon, some damage may still get through). However, if the Spartan gets a normal success and his opponent parries with a failure, on top of dealing damage, the Spartan gets to choose a special effect. This is an effect on top of damage, which you choose among a range of options, making combat more dynamic and cinematic. For example, you can choose to trip the opponent, strike the least armored body location, cause a bleeding wound, disarm him, compel him to surrender, etc. Additionally, each of these effects is more beneficial than others depending on the particular situation, and all these variables allow for more strategy and depth of play.


In return, this level of detail entails a steep learning curve. However, it is actually worth it, as combats just narrate themselves. On top of that, they are generally over quick, since they usually take at the most four or five assaults. This mostly eliminates the boring "attack-parry-attack-parry" sequence that plagued previous editions. And if you ever want quicker combats, the rules for rabble and underlings can help you out. Without a doubt, the best part of combat in RuneQuest 6 and Mythras is the fact the rules create dynamic combats you don't need to fill in with details in order to make them awesome, because the rules already tell you exactly everything that happens. If you want to read an example, use the translator gadget on the right margin to read this duel between two samurai. Or just read this combat against a cave bear or this gladiatorial fight and judge the rules for yourself.

To finish with, every games master and every group of players sees things differently and will use or modify the rules as they see fit. This approach is recommended and repeated all along the book. For example, in our samurai campaign we found out we didn't quite like that an arrowshot could dismount a rider in certain circumstances, so we houseruled it and kept going. And so far for the sword, now it's the turn of sorcery.


A great deal of magic


Not one, not two, not three: this roleplaying game includes 5 magic systems, each of them with its own different effects and style: folk magic, animism, theism, sorcery and mysticism. If that were not enough, the authors offer a lot of advice so you can adjust these types of magic to fit your campaign world.

Folk magic consists of small scale magic, mostly useful tricks and bluffs, such as Alarm, Light, Befuddle o Demoralize. It can represent the magic of superstition or prayers, since almost everyone can use it and it is perfect for low-magic fantasy worlds. For example, that rabbit's tail you rub before doing something risky or banging the shield with your sword in order to "awaken the iron". Contrary to this, the other four kinds of magic are advanced, more powerful styles and each of them requires the use of two different skills.

Animism is the magic of spirits. For example, the shaman of the tribe can make a deal with one of his ancestor spirits, bear him in a fetish and call him to help with a magic advantage. There are a great variety of spirits, from wraiths to healing spirits, and each of them can grant you different powers. These rules are perfect for representing the myriad of animist believes that have ever existed and still exist. For example, in my samurai campaign I toggled these rules to create rules for Shinto magic. In our games, Togama often summons a tree spirit so his skin turns hard as birch bark. What I like the most about this magic is its high flexibility. Everything has a spirit according to animist societies, so while the animist character manages to satisfy what the spirit asks in return for its help, she will be able to get the help of a nature spirit almost anywhere. For example, Togama once asked a crossroads spirit for help, and the spirit of a river saved them all in another occasion. They are a big improvement over the spirit magic rules in RuneQuest 3rd ed. and my favorite kind of magic in Mythras.


Theism describes the magic gods and goddesses share with their priests and initiates: miracles. Followers of a theist cult dedicate part of their magic points to a deity and in return they can make powerful miracles happen, such as causing earthquakes, shooting bolts of lightning or resurrecting the dead. A big change over previous editions is that you no longer need to sacrifice points of Power permanently in exchange for theist magic, a mechanic I have never liked.

Sorcery is the magic of study and research. It is very powerful for two reasons. First, you only depend on yourself. While animists must close deals with spirits and these can sometimes go rogue, and theists must go back to their temples to pray in order to regain their miracles, sorcerers only need themselves and their magic points. Secondly, you can manipulate the basic parameters of spells. In this way, a powerful sorceress can decide to cast Palsy against 5 targets from 500 m and make the effect last a whole week! Among the 50 spells described you can find Wrack, Enslave, Damage Resistance, Teleport or Fly. Although this magic is perfect for evil warlocks and wizards ala Conan the Barbarian, you can also use it for white magic practitioners.


Finally, the magic of mysticism allows mystics to have talents and perform extraordinary feats through meditation and their force of will. Unlike the other kinds of magic, this one focuses on wildly improving the user skills and attributes. It is, however, less flexible than sorcery and animism, and less flashy than theism, but the mystic's talents can make her a formidable opponent. For example, a mystic may be able to obtain a big bonus to his Athletics skill so they can perform impossible feats of agility or ignore the effects of pain, gain immunity to fire or even move like lightning during combat. It is well suited to represent warrior monks, martial artists or Jedi masters. For instance, I have adapted it to model some Buddhist magic schools. Nonetheless, if the games master does not limit it well, player characters may well easily overshadow the rest of the party.

The rules actually encourage you to limit power hungry characters. The section "Cults & brotherhoods" describes how to create hierarchical organizations of magic users, for example: theist religious cults, animist shamanic traditions, sorcery schools and mystical orders. Each of these teaches a given kind or range of powers and defines a set of ranks which allow for more magic in exchange for a bigger implication and fidelity towards the organization. You can still have your lonely crazy warlocks who have learnt it all by themselves, but everything is easier if you belong to a cult or order that helps you to learn more (and to control their most ambitious disciples). This has always been one of the great concepts in RuneQuest, because it allows characters to progress in their skills not just because, but backing it up with the community that teaches those powers. It is actually a heritage of religious cults from the world of Glorantha, present in the game since the very first edition of RuneQuest. However, these have a broader scope in this edition, as the same structure can be used to create all kinds of organizations, not just religious ones. The book includes examples of cults and orders for each type of magic, and if you want to see more, check out the supplement Mediterráneo Mítico or Monster Island. Aside from acting as sources for character advancement and power, they can also be a source of adventures. So, in order to make the most of this rulebook, it is recommendable for the games master to design several of them so her players' characters can belong to some of them. And all this has to do with the following point...


Characters with a soul of their own


Even though you can play characters who are foreigners in a new place, the character creation rules in RuneQuest or Mythras encourage you to create well-rounded characters that are part of the world they live in. Starting with their cultural background, and up to the family rolls, the above mentioned rules for cults and brotherhoods, contacts, background events and, of course, passions, all contributes to make your character be unique beyond what numbers are written in your character sheet.

Passions in particular are something I love about this ruleset. They have percentage scores just as skills, but they define the intensity level of a relationship or a belief in an idea, goal or simply a defining personality trait. For example, Okura has the following passions: Loyalty to Daimyo, Love Family, Hate Ishizaki Clan, Kill Ishizaki Akira and Devoted to Bushido. It could be argued these passions tell us more about the character than the rest of his stats. Moreover, they not only help players remember how to play their characters, they also have game effects as in games like Pendragon and later also RuneQuest Glorantha. For example, when he fights against samurai from the Ishizaki clan, the character can add a fifth of his Hate Ishizaki Clan passion to his combat style skill. These advantages encourage players to use these passions, but the games master can also use them to make characters face interesting dilemmas. This has often happened in my samurai campaign, for example when Okura had to choose between his love for his spouse or his duty to his lord. And when Togama had to weigh what moved him the most in an important diplomatic mission: his peaceful nature or his visceral wish to avenge the recent murder of his cousin?



The toolkit approach


On top of strategic combat, diverse magic and characters with soul, the rules in Mythras include many other smaller details that add an extra layer of quality to the whole package. One of them is the clear emphasis on encouraging games masters to use the rules as a toolkit they need to adapt to their own style of play and that of their fellow players. I have already mentioned how adjustable magic and cults and brotherhoods are, but there's also a degree of that even in the combat rules. For instance, combat styles are the skill you use to attack and parry with several weapons. Exactly what weapons does every style include is up to you to decide according to the needs and the background of your campaign world. For example, in my samurai campaign I decided the general samurai combat style includes katana, wakizashi (short sword), long spear and long bow. Further, some rules are considered optional, so you can choose your preferred degree of granularity. Finally, the Creatures chapter, including 60 monsters or animals, on top of spirits, includes ways to create your own.


A great mechanic pervading the whole system is the opposed roll. Take for example a guy who wants to Deceive someone and rolls under his skill successfully, so this other guy then rolls for Insight and if he scores a better degree of success or a higher successful result, he will see through the lie. It is a nifty rule, inspired by Pendragon. The rules for fatigue are also well thought, and are an improvement over the rules in RQ3. The rules for sickness and poison are very detailed and realistic. As for the experience system, it is very similar to RQ3 and Call of Cthulhu, except at the end of an adventure the GM gives out several improvement points players can spend to improve their characters' skills. They can also be spent to acquire new skills or spells. Finally, I find it cool there is also a mechanic for social conflicts. It is a simple way of dealing with important debates, but in my games I have also used it to run short and long negotiations, and even several chases. Lastly, it is great the authors dedicate a long juicy chapter offering advice on how to run the game. I wish all roleplaying games included something like that.

Following this approach, it must be mentioned The Design Mechanism keeps expanding Mythras with modular rules. For example, perhaps you miss some good rules for mass combat to run epic clashes. Or maybe you want some rules for ships. Then you just need to purchase a copy of Ships & Shieldwalls and problem solved! These mini expansions are often created for particular supplements dealing with specific settings, but afterwards they publish them apart in case you are not interested in that setting but only in those particular additions to the rules. That is a very nice gesture. Other supplements that broaden the scope of the rulebook are Firearms, where you can find rules for muskets, machine guns or blasters, together with their own special effects, and Mythras Companion, which includes rules for vehicle chases and combat (first published in supplements like After the Vampire Wars) and even expanded rules for social combat. I think this is a great idea, because the tense conflicts your characters face in games should be more varied than just combat.



Not everything is good though...


Whenever you play a game a lot, you end up noticing some aspects that could be improved. This is my list in the case of Mythras:
   - Movement in combat is a headache. Therefore, when I run games I just roughly determine whether a character manages to reach an opponent or a certain place, but that has caused some arguments. As a solution, some people recommend the rules in the supplement Classic Fantasy.
   - The level of detail of combat can be overwhelming, especially during your first games. The learning curve is steep, but that's the price to pay for a good level of realism. Despite that, there are ways to handle this. My first piece of advice is to use only the basic rules at the beginning and add more little by little. For example, you don't need to use the rules for weapon reach right from the start. My second recommendation is limiting the special effects characters can use and only add more gradually. Finally, use game aids. For instance, in my games every player and the GM have their own cheat sheet with all special effects perfectly ordered and summarized. We have also ended up using tokens to track action points. You can also purchase the combat cards The Design Mechanism sells or make your own. And for generating NPCs, this site is your friend.
   - The rules do not handle well skills well over 100%. This means you have to plan your campaigns and the improvement points you give after each adventure so player characters do not advance too much. Getting skills up to 200% is really hard, but not impossible, and I think combat rules just break past that point.
   - The division of skills between standard and professional helps have a clearer and more manageable character sheet. However, in some cases this division does not work properly. For example, the Seduction skill ought to be available to anyone. Fortunately, this can be solved by using a skill that is close enough to that, but with a penalization (Influence, for example).
   - The rules for animism in RQ6 are a bit confusing, and spirits are described in a different chapter. However, this was addressed in Mythras, where these rules are much clearer and there is much more flexibility to create your own spirits. Furthermore, it includes rules to make spirit combat more interesting.
   - Finally, having an action point more than your adversary is a factor too decisive in combat, and it only depends on your character beating some fixed thresholds in Dexterity or Intelligence. The book suggests some ways to alleviate this. But if you want to avoid it altogether, you can rule all characters have only 2 points irrespective of their stats. Although this removes some strategy from combat, it is the option chosen by default in Mythras Imperative and it was also later included as an option in the third printing of the Mythras Core Rules.


Mythras Imperative and the Mythras Gateway License


Shortly before they renamed the game as Mythras, a free primer was published in PDF which includes all the basics you need to start playing (except for magic) in 30 pages. It is titled Mythras Imperative and you can download it, try it out and judge for yourself if you like this roleplaying game before you buy it. Isn't it great?

Moreover, it forms the base of the Gateway License: a license The Design Mechanism offers so third parties can publish and sell their own games and supplements based on the rules included in Mythras Imperative. Always after getting the express permission by The Design Mechanism, some of the books published this way are the science-fiction game M-Space (read a review) or Odd Soot (read a review), or the brief adventures and supplements by Old Bones Publishing.

The free to download Mythras Imperative and some games or supplements published through the Mythras Gateway License


Much more than sword & sorcery...


This book is so complete than you just need a bit of imagination to create your own fantasy worlds and keep playing for ages. Another option is checking out some of the excellent supplements like Shores of Korantia or Monster Island, or a growing range of short modules such as Xamoxis' Cleansing. There are also historical settings with a bit of magic tossed in, so you can play Celts in Mythic Britain, the civilized inhabitants of Mythic Rome or Mythic Constantinople or epic heroes in Mythic Greece. Or why not? Even Sengoku samurai with my own rules! ;^)

Furthermore, The Design Mechanism loves expanding the scope of the game. To achieve that, they publish supplements with rules expansions that allow you to play in settings of other different genres. If you like classic fantasy, you can model that with Classic Fantasy and its old-school scenarios.

You can also play in the urban fantasy genre and be a private investigator or a werewolf in New York with After the Vampire Wars, or just use those rules to play campaigns set in our current world. Or play in science fiction settings with M-Space, Worlds United, Odd Soot and the scenario A Gift from Shamash. The Design Mechanism strives to publish a scenario every month. There is one where you can play superheroes (Agony & Ecstasy). Or you can just mix it all together and go dimension-jumping with Luther Arkwright. Finally, you can also try to use other D100 settings (see a list).

Just some of the settings available for Mythras / RuneQuest 6

Summing up


RuneQuest 6 or Mythras is a solid roleplaying game. A sound evolution of the D100 system, adjustable to your tastes, complete and with lots of supplements and adventures available, some of them free to download, such as Sariniya's Curse. The art is not extraordinary, and at first it takes some time to learn all its mechanics, but if you like its best qualities, you will love its crunchiness and its gaming possibilities. Besides, the negative aspects of the rules I mentioned above are solvable just by toggling the rules to your taste, and any D100 game is very easy to modify anyway. In spite of that, at the beginning I would recommend to play the rules as written and see how they all fit together, only not all of them from the start.

Aside from the rules, the high quality of the supplements may be reason enough to want to try this game. There is so much to choose from, and the list keeps growing. And of course, the great compatibility between the different D100 games makes it possible to use campaigns and modules from other systems. For example, with Firearms and the sanity rules in White Death you could play all the Delta Green adventures. This works both ways: you could also want to use any other D100 system to run Monster Island or any other campaign. So, all in all...


Mythras is your game if...

- You are looking for a roleplaying game with a strong feeling of realism and strategic combat.
- You prefer detailed games with specific rules for almost every situation.
- The toolkit approach appeals to your creative instincts.
- You just want one system to play in many different settings.

On the contrary, you may not like it if...

- You love RQ2 or RQ3 and do not see 10 ways it could be improved.
- You prefer easier and lighter rules, with less detail.
- You want to play RuneQuest in the fantasy world of Glorantha. The supplement Adventures in Glorantha for RQ6/Mythras was left unpublished, so it is now hard to find and it is incomplete anyway. Perhaps it is best to just use RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha in this case. I actually think it ended up being positive for fans that Chaosium regained the license of RuneQuest and Glorantha. This way, The Design Mechanism can focus on publishing supplements for other settings and so far they seem to be doing well.


Further information:

The book is available for from Drivethru RPG or the publisher's website. Check also their forum. The Mythras Core Rules hardcover book is 35$ and the PDF 15$. There are also POD options from Lulu. If you have already played or run games with RuneQuest 6 or Mythras, let me know your opinion below! ;-)

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