viernes, 11 de junio de 2021

RuneQuest Classic Edition review (RQ2)

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Sometimes it is interesting to have a deep look at the first editions of some long-running role-playing games. Doing so offers some insights into the evolution of the game and the trends that existed at the time they were published. For example, in recent years it has become fashionable to look at the first editions of D&D and many fans have joined the ranks of the Old-School Renaissance attracted by a sense of nostalgia, but often by a greater simplicity of rules as well. In my case, I have decided to look at the origins of the RuneQuest role-playing game. Below you can read a review of the RuneQuest Classic Edition, a remastered reprint of the second edition of RuneQuest (RQ2). Check out the list of RuneQuest editions by having a look at the second picture in this post.

The second edition of RuneQuest, like the first, is the work of Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James, although only the first two are mentioned on the cover. As for Greg Stafford, he wrote only the sections on the fantasy world that is the basic setting of the game: Glorantha. In fact, the aim of this fantasy role-playing game was to be able to play campaigns in this world, which had so far only been described in the wargame White Bear & Red Moon, published in 1976 and later renamed Dragon Pass. Interestingly, the fact that a role-playing game could be tied to a specific setting was quite innovative back in 1978, since until then, most fantasy role-playing games did not include a predetermined game world. Only Empire of the Petal Throne and very few others had done so before. Of course, back then, there weren't that many role-playing games to begin with.

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Brief background

RuneQuest 1st edition was published in June 1978. They rushed to have it finished by the Origins games con that was held in July that same year in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can tell it was a rush job because the words "Chaosium" and "Glorantha" were misspelled on the back cover (!). Around May 1979 Chaosium had sold out the 4000 copies they had printed. Then in October 1979, the second edition was published, also in stapled softcover format, but this time with a full-color cover and some minor tweaks to the rules. This edition had a larger print run and became so popular that for a time it was the second best-selling role-playing game. Later it was also published in a box, which included the rules booklet (with a two-color cover), character sheets, an introduction to the system for players, a booklet of NPCs, and the Apple Lane adventure booklet. Games Workshop also sold the boxed game in the UK, but with a different cover by Iain McCaig. Finally, the RuneQuest 2nd edition book was discontinued in 1983. As it usually happens, copies of RQ2 in any format ended up becoming collector's items and their price rose over the years as they became more and more inaccessible to the public.

RuneQuest 1st edition (1978), the second edition's first cover, and the British cover of the 2nd edition.

However, all that changed in 2015, when Moon Design took over the management of Chaosium. In November of that year, they started a crowdfunding campaign to reprint RuneQuest 2nd edition. The campaign was a total success and the stretch goals allowed backers to also get most of the reprinted supplements. Finally, in 2020 both the role-playing game and all its supplements became available in PDF and print-on-demand for the general public (see links further below). And that's when I bought it, taking advantage of a Christmas sale, for about 15€ plus shipping costs.

I got a copy of the rulebook mainly out of curiosity. On the one hand, I had read several fans claiming the second edition is the one they like the most. In their opinion, RQ3 incorporated rules that were too complicated in some cases. I guess the first RPG you play has such an impact that some people just stick to the rules they feel comfortable with and they shape their gaming preferences. On the other hand, I had heard RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha was to some extent a return to several aspects of the second edition. All in all, I wanted to do a bit of RPG archaeology and see what the second edition was like, since I have never played it or run it yet (I started with RQ3!).


This is a 144-pages-long softcover book. The color cover is by Luise Perrin (though she signed as Luise Perenne) and shows a warrior in bronze armor and shield fighting a green-scaled monster, perhaps a rock lizard as the one included in the bestiary. The bronze fits the world of Glorantha and the lizard makes it clear that this is a fantasy role-playing game. In addition, the warrior has the life rune engraved on her chest and the "R" for "RuneQuest" is also adorned with several runes. The cover style looks vintage nowadays, but it has an endearing, fairytale-like feel to it. A geeky detail: the very first cover of the game had a different Chaosium logo, with a wyrm about to eat its own tail instead of the dragon they would use shortly after and up to the present day (see image above).

Luise Perrin was also in charge of the interior art, all in black and white like the rest of the book, with a somewhat sketchy style. Even so, and like other role-playing games of the time, the art is scarce, about 20 pieces in the whole book. Like the cover, the interior art shows men and women in ancient armor, reminiscent of the Greek hoplites. On the other hand, the elves and trolls have a generic fantasy look, but I'm glad to also find an Aldryami runner in there, as this creature hasn't been depicted much. This artist contributed to many other Chaosium books, such as the cover of the Runemasters supplement. However, the map of Dragon Pass and Prax is by William Church, a friend of Greg Stafford.

In this piece by Luise Perenne, Oshkosh the Smelly faces a manticore to show how the poison rules work

As for the layout, RuneQuest Classic Edition is an improved version of the original RuneQuest second edition. They have mostly kept to the same layout, with double-columns and grey text boxes, but with less errata and cramming in some rules clarifications and "runequestions" originally published in various magazines such as Wyrms Footnotes. Therefore, the end result is more complete and rounded than the original book.


RuneQuest Classic Edition contains all you need to start playing adventures in the world of Glorantha: a bit of background information, character creation, skills, combat rules, two magic systems, bestiary and treasures, and so on. Let's have a closer look at each section.

In the very first sentence, Gygax and Arneson are acknowledged for having opened Pandora's box, and Ken St Andre for finding out it could be opened again. Click on the image to enlarge.

The introduction defines a role-playing game as "a game of character development, simulating the process of personal development commonly called 'life'". That is, the author's goal is to produce a simulation of reality. The fact is Steve Perrin and his friends started playing D&D but quickly developed lots of additional rules to fill the gaps they saw in the rulebook. Their aim was to mirror reality more closely. So the search for more realistic gaming, together with Greg Stafford's proposal of creating an RPG for his fantasy world were the main drives behind the creation of RuneQuest.

A RuneQuest ad in a magazine of its time emphasizing its more realistic approach

It's funny how the authors claim that you don't have to stick to the world of Glorantha when using these rules. Right when Steve Perrin wrote that, he couldn't yet know that his rules system would later be used for plenty of other games, and RuneQuest would become the basis for the BRP system. Games such as Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu adopted this set of rules, and later other publishing companies would also use it for games like James BondAquelarre and even Eclipse Phase, and let's not forget Unknown Armies. Actually, a long list of games are derived from RuneQuest.

I also found it surprising that the purpose of RuneQuest is clearly laid out here: Adventurers gain experience, magic, and treasure by overcoming the scenarios the GM creates for them. Then they use that treasure to purchase training to further develop their skills until they become proficient enough to meet the requirements to join a rune cult. Acquiring rune magic seems to be, then, the quest referred to in the name of the game. Once this is achieved, it is possible to keep progressing and become a Hero, and perhaps a Superhero. Of course, these two last categories refer to the highest level of heroes as described in the seminal Gloranthan wargame White Bear & Red Moon, later renamed as Dragon Pass, where the different "Hero" counters stand for incredibly powerful individuals and their companions, who are able to face entire regiments (and "Superheroes" even more so). However, the designers did not offer any rules for becoming a "Hero". The highest position described in the game is becoming a rune lord or priest, the people who are in charge of leading the rune cults.

After this statement of intent, the main traits of the world of Glorantha are briefly described. A bit about its creation and the different ages, the technological level equivalent to our Bronze Age, societies similar to the ones found in ancient Mesopotamia or Hyboria, and characters more akin to Conan or the Grey Mouser than to the Arthurian heroes, with no abstract alignments, but only loyalty towards a city, a tribe or a religion. Finally, we get a bit of geography with the map of the world and a chronology of the main events in the Lunar Empire and Dragon Pass, from the Dragonkill War in 1120 until the year 1627.

Background information about Glorantha in the introduction to RuneQuest second edition

Let's look now at character creation, a section that kicks off by generating the seven characteristics every RuneQuest fan is familiar with. These were common in all the games of that time with few changes: Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Size, Power, Dexterity, and Charisma. You roll 3D6 for each but don't worry if you get low results in any of them: you will get the chance to train them (when you gain enough treasure). The book provides a character that is created as an example: Rurik the Restless. Then the same character and some of his friends are used as play examples throughout the book to show how the rules work. As far as I know, RuneQuest was one of the first role-playing games to do this (if not the first), and it was repeated in many subsequent Chaosium books, like Cormac the Pict in 3rd edition or Harvey Walters in Call of Cthulhu.

The seven characteristics determine the characters' hit points and damage modifier, and provide initial percentages in their skills. Why each characteristic influences a particular skill group is explained, but that is hardly any surprise, because it is still like this in modern iterations like Mythras and above all, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha.

The final touch to have your character ready is to roll on a table to determine the background, which is limited to peasant, townsman, barbarian or noble. Each one of these offers some basic equipment and a certain amount of silver coins to start with, which you can immediately spend to train your skills or characteristics. Obviously, this can create random differences in beginning characters, although most of them are going to be either townspeople or barbarians. In the 3rd edition, these cultural backgrounds would be clarified as primitive, nomad, barbarian and civilized, and occupations clearly defined, but here in the 2nd edition there only seems to be a somewhat vague distinction between agrarian civilization and tribal barbarian groups.

The final part of character creation, and one side of the character sheet

In this game characters start their adventures right after attaining adulthood at the age of 16! Therefore, their initial skill values are the base percentages plus the skill modifiers, so they typically have skills around 30% at the most. From here on, advancement is up to you, which actually means: go on adventures to find treasure you can then use to pay for training skills and characteristics. Exactly what you are told in the introduction. However, this can prove to be a tad frustrating when you keep failing your rolls 70% of the time. Luckily, you can also join a guild, as they can loan you money so you can train the skills they teach. Depending on what your characteristics are, guilds will loan you more or less coin. For example, if your character has a high Strength, the warrior guild will offer you more credit because they see promise in you. If you have high Dexterity, the thieves' guild will be your friend, and so on. Aside from that, having a high Charisma helps in getting better training rates, so it is not a dump stat. Of course, you have to repay your debt as soon as you earn (or steal) any cash, which adds to your motivation to go on adventures. Also, this way characters can begin with skills higher than the base chances, but the game clearly focuses on the "from zero to hero" approach.

That being said, if you don't like the default approach, the appendices include rules to create 21-year-olds that start with a bit of previous experience. In this manner, characters can begin play with at least 50% in their best skills.

This is how Rurik started out: no armor, a mere 25% in Attack with Cudgel, and a duel in a tavern!!!

This system was quite innovative at the time because it got rid of character classes so typical in other fantasy RPGs. Unlike those RPGs, RuneQuest offers total freedom to choose the skills you want your character to be good at, with no artificial limits. At the same time, it explains, for example, why physically strong characters are probably going to end up making good warriors anyway. This focus on freedom of choice is such that there aren't even occupations, so characters are expected to be just young and inexperienced adventurers. Another new aspect was the realistic way in which characters can improve with experience since they can only do so in those skills they use or train. This made RuneQuest the first game to include a complete skill system. Although by then the Traveller RPG had already included lists of skills, these were limited by the characters' careers and they didn't include an experience system.

Despite that, it surprised me to find that RQ2 has only a few skills compared to the following editions (only about 20). I guess that is because the main adventuring activities in the fantasy worlds of the 70s were basically: exploring, fighting, and finding treasure. That is why there are no skills that would later become standard such as Sing, Boat, or Ship handling, but others were there from the start, like Map Drawing, Trap Set/Disarm, and Evaluate Treasure. The Dodge skill was not included yet, but was called "Defense", a low percentage that is subtracted from the attacking chances of your adversary. I find this one a little bit jarring since, unlike the rest of skills, it does not require rolling a D100 to determine success or failure. It can't be trained directly either. Maybe the reason behind this was to make sure it would not end up outshining the Parry skill. Even so, it is weird compared to the more homogeneous rest of the game, and probably that explains why it was dropped in every subsequent edition. (Or maybe I'm just biased by RQ3!).

The combat section details the strike ranks mechanic, which combines initiative (who strikes first) with movement in combat, all rolled into one. A combat turn of 12 seconds is divided into 12 strike ranks, and every action has a cost in strike ranks. The authors explain how their experience in combat reenactment made them take into account the weapon length as opposed to only Dexterity to determine action order. So if you have a long spear, and are fighting someone armed with a dagger, you will reach your opponent before he can reach you. This is great, but at times, the fact this system also tries to determine where every character is at every given moment can be problematic for GMs who expect a lot of precision. Many GMs just apply a bit of "theater of the mind" when dealing with movement in combat situations.

First page of the combat section

The main goal of these combat rules is to create a greater feeling of realism, with rolls for every attack and parry, spears and arrows that can get stuck when they impale, axe hits that can chop limbs, and bronze weapons that can be rendered unusable due to damage. Undoubtedly, the fact that Steve Perrin and his friends were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (Perrin was one of the founding members) influenced this search for realism. This leads inevitably to bloody, dangerous combat. For example, hit points do not increase with experience, so even a petty adversary can chop your head off if you are unlucky. However, the magic of Glorantha tempers a bit the devastating effects of weapons, as a powerful Heal spell will reattach a severed limb. Furthermore, RuneQuest was the first game in which armor and shields absorbed damage instead of just making it more difficult to be hit.

Another well-known trademark of RuneQuest, right there from the beginning, is that all characters can cast some magic. Initially, you only get access to battle magic spells, which last for two minutes and tend to have a low power level. These are such iconic spells as Bladesharp, Protection, Countermagic or Disruption. You don't even need to roll to cast them, only to determine if an offensive spell manages to harm its target. To do so, you use the good old resistance table that pits the caster's Power against that of the target. Aside from that, using these spells drains your Power points, which can be regained in just one day. As I am more used to the third edition, I was surprised to find the Heal spell has two versions, one for healing members of your own species, and another for other species.

Battle magic spells to the left and Rurik's Saga to the right: he has secured some armor and is now facing trolls on a bridge.

In RuneQuest you can also be attacked by spirits and so spirit combat is described, which in this edition was particularly dangerous, as it could decrease your POW to zero and eliminate you from existence! On the other hand, it might be that you are a shaman, a spirit dealer specialist, so you actively seek spirits to capture them into binding crystals or animals, so you can then use their magic. The maximum number of spirits you can bind in this way depends on your Charisma. You don't usually begin play as a shaman, but the steps to become one are described in the rules. Attaining this rank allows you access to other powers as well, like having Power beyond the normal human limits, making pacts with spirits, curing diseases and even coming back from the dead. I have always thought shamans are really cool in RuneQuest

The next section deals with a second magic system: rune magic. Here is where the runes of Glorantha are described, as well as how to become an initiate of a rune cult or religion. That allows characters to wield the more powerful rune magic, but it is one use, and requires the permanent sacrifice of points of Power. You can improve this magic by rising in the ranks and fulfilling the requirements to advance in the cult hierarchy to become a religious leader such as a rune priest or rune lord. They have greater powers like increased resistance to magic, allied spirits, iron weapons and reusable magic. However, it all comes with greater responsibilities. This way, initial characters are less powerful but more free, whereas ascending in the hierarchy gets you more powers but also more duties. The book includes a total of 25 rune spells such as Shield, Spirit Block, Warding, Dismiss Elemental or Divine Intervention.

The runes in RuneQuest, rune cults and how to become a rune lady or rune lord.

Three rune cults are provided as examples: Orlanth, god of storms and adventurers, Kyger Litor, mother goddess of trolls, and Black Fang, a minor god worshipped by a brotherhood of assassins. Each offers special rune spells such as Telekinesis or Teleport in the case of Orlanth. On top of that, cult descriptions go beyond being a mere source of magic, as they include the main myths and history of every deity, their holy places, the cult's political and social influence, its subcults or different facets of the god and its associate cults. In fact, this was another of the big draws of RuneQuest: a detailed approach to religion as a cultural force. The pattern for describing cults was established in the supplement Cults of Prax, which describes more Gloranthan cults with the same level of detail.

RuneQuest Classic Edition also includes a bestiary, with around 50 creatures comprising beasts, non-human creatures and monsters. RuneQuest describes all these "monsters" in game terms with the same level of detail as the basic human character, so you can create player characters that are any of those creatures. It is recommended to only create player characters of sentient species, but if you want to play a dragon, you can! The bestiary includes Gloranthan elves, dwarves and trolls, but also mythical creatures such as centaurs and minotaurs, and an array of Glorantha-specific creatures such as jack o'bears, broos, dragonewts, shadowcats, scorpion men, ducks or walktapi. Here's where you will miss the most having more illustrations. Interestingly, the bestiary includes several shapechangers that never appeared again in subsequent editions, such as bearwalkers, tusk brothers (boar men), and tiger sons (weretigers), but perhaps they actually evolved into the several hsunchen tribes of Glorantha.

Art by Luise Perenne depicting a crested dragonewt

The next chapter is all about treasure, that little thing most adventurers are after. It includes some tables if you need to improvise a hoard and the "treasure factor" specified in the bestiary for every creature. Aside from coins and jewelry, other treasures can be scrolls, potions, magic crystals and spell matrixes.

The last section comprises the long Appendices, a hotchpotch of details and optional rules that should have been described in their own corresponding previous sections. For example, here you can find the stat times 5 rule, such as the DEXx5 roll to avoid being enveloped by a gorp. There are also combat rules like doing double damage with a slashing weapon if the roll is good enough (1/5 of your skill) or applying the maximum damage modifier as extra damage with bashing weapons. Also rules for darkness, rules for encumbrance, for falls and for throwing objects. There is a brief section on how to run campaigns, and it is endearing to find a comment about how it is perfectly possible to play games in which player characters just talk and gasp! don't cast a single spell or use a single weapon. I also find interesting that they recommend creating smaller and coherent dungeons as opposed to sprawling mazes populated by random monsters. Finally, you get some information about the languages and diseases of Glorantha, some encounter tables for the main regions Dragon Pass and Prax, and two full-page maps.

The appendices cover a big range of rules and extra details

The authors also included a list of their favorite fantasy and history books. For example, The Greek Armies by Peter Connolly, Icelandic sagas like Grettir's, the Conan tales, and classics such as The Lord of the Rings. It is also fun to read the list of "Other fantasy role-playing games", and see how short it is! The list of other Gloranthan material is not much longer, with their two Gloranthan wargames and the supplements they had published so far, like Apple Lane, Snake Pipe Hollow or Cults of Prax. Even better is the list of "sources to be published". Here you can find books that took years to publish or are yet unpublished. For example, a new fantasy game titled HeroQuest, is announced, "wherein the mighty of Glorantha may enter into the lands of legend and myth, penetrating the immortal stories to participate in the Gods War...". Who could have guessed that it would take Stafford merely 20 years to publish that book as Hero Wars in its first edition? I can't forget to mention the list of equipment and the character sheet with its plain old-school look. Chaosium wrapped up this RuneQuest Classic Edition adding several articles with additional rules and clarifications originally published in their Wyrms Footnotes magazine. You can have a look at Rurik's stats when he finally became a Yelmalio rune lord... and read how he died for the second time! Also of note is Greg Stafford's reply to the creator of Tekumel.

In the four years it was in print, from 1979 until 1983, RuneQuest second edition had many supplements and scenarios, some of which became classics such as Griffin Mountain or Borderlands. Here's a list of all supplements that were published for the 1st and 2nd editions of the game:

- Balastor's Barracks: the first ever official scenario is an unashamed dungeon bash in the ruins of Old Pavis, with at least one trap that could cause a TPK.

- Apple Lane: Three scenarios for beginning adventurers set in and around a small hamlet in the Kingdom of Sartar: Gringle's Pawnshop, The Rainbow Mounds and Tribal Initiation.

- Trolls and Trollkin, Creatures of Chaos 1 and Militia & Mercenaries: Only NPC stats, no background, no nothing, just stats.

- Snake Pipe Hollow: A harsh dungeon bash in the Chaos caves with a quite mythical side to it.

- Cults of Prax: Detailed description including myths and history of 15 Gloranthan cults. The first supplement with Gloranthan background ever published that opened the world to RuneQuest fans.

- Foes: 112 pages of NPC stats of all non human creatures in RQ2, plus human NPC stats such as thieves, farmers, citizens, travelers, nomads, etc.

- The Gateway Bestiary: A young Sandy Petersen wrote this bestiary including creatures from several mythologies and universes: lamiae, sphinxes, kelpies, voughs, giant insects, dinosaurs, and Lovecraftian horrors! (yes, even before Call of Cthulhu was published).

- Plunder: 43 magic items complete with their legends and history, as well as 640 treasure hoards.

- Runemasters: Stats and background for 45 powerful NPCs: rune priests ad rune lords of the 15 cults described in Cults of Prax.

- Griffin Mountain: The first ever Gloranthan campaign for RuneQuest. Years later, Avalon Hill would turn it into Griffin Island for RQ3.

- Cults of Terror: Following Cults of Prax, it describes 9 cults for the baddies: Primal Chaos, Mallia, Bagog, Vivamort, Thanatar, etc.

- Borderlands: This campaign in 7 scenarios is set in Prax, in the Zola Fel valley. One of my favorite campaigns. I ran it with RQ3 and it can be easily linked with Griffin Mountain and Pavis.

- Trollpak: A thorough study about trolls: their myths, history, anatomy, society, map and scenario.

- Questworld: An alternative fantasy world, with 9 scenarios.

- SoloQuest, Scorpion Hall and The Snow King's Bride: these booklets contain scenarios to be played alone.

- Pavis: Threshold to Danger: Description and background of Pavis city, the city of thieves, set in Prax next to huge ruins. It includes 5 scenarios.

- Big Rubble: The Deadly City: Description of the ruins next to Pavis city where many adventurers go to find fortune and forgotten treasures. It includes 9 scenarios.

- RuneQuest Companion: A compilation of several articles about Glorantha: learn about the Black Horse Troop and how to cook a walktapus.

Covers of all published supplements for the first and second editions of RuneQuest

Wrapping up

Reading RuneQuest second edition has been fun. Firstly, I have been able to ascertain that many of the rules in RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha stem from this classic edition, skipping many of the additions or changes of the third edition. Secondly, I have found other mechanics that I may use in my RuneQuest games. Lastly, it is interesting as an exercise of RPG archaeology, to see how this second edition was a product of its time, innovative in so many fronts, but also influenced by the roleplaying games that came before it. It surprised me to find in it so little information about Glorantha, even though the example cults are so detailed. Finally, reading it has encouraged me to try these rules as they stand, just to experience how it was, back then, to play a game of RuneQuest. I hope to find soon some friends to play through one of the first scenarios ever published.

RuneQuest Classic Edition is worth your money...

  • Just to see the previous rulebook to the 3rd edition published by Avalon Hill.
  • To play a "retro" game or campaign with these rules.
  • If you want to check out all the material that made it into RQG.
  • To look for other ways to applying some of the rules of your favorite D100 ruleset.
  • To satisfy your completionist desires.

RuneQuest Classic Edition is not worth it because...
  • Rules about one topic are dispersed along several sections.
  • It is frustrating to play initial characters with low skills.
  • Initial characters look very much alike unless you choose a different species.
  • It is difficult to play a magic specialist right from the start.

In the following video I flip through the book in a minute and a half:

RuneQuest Classic Edition is available from Chaosium in hardcover (25$), softcover through POD (25$), and PDF (15$). There is a special edition in leatherette covers including a GM screen for 50$. You can also buy the PDF at DrivethruRPG. The 1st edition is also available in PDF for 10$. If you want even more, there are tables and a reference sheet from Chaosium's website as a free download, as well as a long list of NPC and monster stats. Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this review. Have you played RQ2? Do you like it? 

4 comentarios:

  1. Respuestas
    1. Hahaha! I guess that means you liked the review, Bill! ;-D

  2. Great review my friend.
    Hope to see you again someday maybe.
    The sky is blue and the flowers yellow, or not.
    PD: En el comentario anterior habían faltas.

    1. Thank you very much for leaving a comment, Capdemut. :-)
      I hope we can meet again at some convention or online game!


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