Runequest 6th Edition

The sixth edition of Runequest is a comprehensive successor to previous editions, and for me, comes the closest to capturing the look and feel of the second edition that was one of my favourite roleplaying games.  As well as looking at this new edition, I will also present my thoughts about the supplements and supporting material released so far.  I have played and run games with the second and third editions, looked at the fourth edition drafts that never went anywhere, and had the Mongoose edition – but for some reason I just never liked the they way they put the game together so I did not run any games with it.

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Runequest VI is a hefty 456 page all-in-one tome.  Its available as a softcover & pdf bundle from http://www.glorantha.com/product/runequest-6th-edition/ or http://www.thedesignmechanism.com/products.php ($62), and in pdf format from http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/index.php?&manufacturers_id=4057 ($25).

A hardcover version has been funded through Indiegogo and should be out soon for backers and direct sales.  Runequest VI is primarily a set of rules, but provides examples of game mechanics through a backstory set in the bronze age city state of  Meeros and the aspiring female warrior Anathaym.  This is kept in the sidebars, and I found the story entertaining, like Rurik’s story in RQ II, but not too distracting from the main text.  Apart from the cover, which is a colourful homage to the RQ II cover, the interior art is black and white illustrations, and largely complements the overall mood and themes of the text.  More setting specific supplements are due for publication in the future, including:

  • Luther Arkwright (based on a time travelling secret agent character, apparently a big UK comic in the 1970s-80s)
  • Mythic Briton (after the Romans have left)
  • Shores of Korantia (based on Age of Treason, a fantasy setting that tries to capture the feel of a rising new Empire, where internal threats may outweigh external threats).

A number of free pdf downloads are available for Runequest VI at the Design Mechanism website, including:

  • A supplement for Firearms (and futuristic weapons)
  • A GM pack
  • Character sheets.

Two generic, setting free, game supplements are already available:

  • Monster Island (a “sandpit” jungle island)
  • Book of Quests (seven loosely connected scenarios).

Organisation and Layout

There are sixteen chapters, plus reference sheets and an index.  While the material is in a logical order, there will be a bit of page turning in character creation as people start with the process in chapter one, but may need to dive into the skills, equipment and magic chapters to figure out what they want their character to be like.  I had some confusion on first reading the rules, in that while skills are mostly explained in chapter four, some specific parts of skill use, such as haggling, are dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere in the text.  If I were running a game, I would want prepared material for the players with example combat styles, magic traditions, cults and brotherhoods for them to join.

  • Chapters 1-3, character creation, culture, community, careers and development
  • Chapters 4-7, skills, economics & equipment, game mechanics, combat
  • Chapters 8-13, magic systems
  • Chapter 14, cults and brotherhoods
  • Chapter 15, creatures
  • Chapter 16, games master.

Character Creation

Basic character creation involves the seven traditional characteristics: Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma.  These can be rolled for randomly, or purchased with a point buy system.  Secondary attributes are calculated based on the characteristics: Action Points (number of actions per combat round), Damage Modifier, Experience Modifier (bonus improvement rolls, based on Charisma not intelligence, as you smile sweetly at your instructor…), Healing Rate, Height & Weight, Hit Points, Luck Points (one use per game session), Magic Points, Movement Rate and Strike Rank (initiative in combat).  There are some fairly significant break points in these attributes, for example your Action Points are determined by combining Intelligence and Dexterity, 12 or less is one action, 13-24 two actions, 25-36 three actions.  If using a point buy system, I suspect the temptation for players to have intelligence and dexterity summing to 25 will be strong.

Standard skills are available to all characters, most are self-explanatory (Dance, Perception) but Customs (of your community), Evade, Influence (persuasion) and Insight (into motives) will need a look at the rules to figure out what they are about. Evade is not quite the old Dodge skill, its more a throw yourself to the ground that leaves you prone to vulnerable to whatever happens next.

Combat styles represent a major design choice for the individual game master.  For a combat light campaign you could decide to just have two styles, one for melee weapons and one for ranged weapons.  For a detail rich gladiators in the arena campaign, you might have a dozen or more combat styles (spear and net, spear and shield, etc).  Deeper in the book (page 135) its explained how combat styles can have special traits, such as Formation Fighting, where a group of soldiers work together to reduce their opponents action points by one.  Quite nifty, and an obvious place for house rules for campaign specific chrome.

Four generic human cultures are presented: Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic and Primitive.  Each culture comes with a set of standard skills, combat styles, and professional skills.  Of these, I think the primitives are the weakest, but I just don’t find the stone age all that interesting.

A 1d100 random background event table is included. If choosing an older character, its suggested that you roll more than once.  I quite like 13 “You believe yourself to be suffering a divine or magical curse. Moan, groan and whinge at every opportunity, or remain completely stoic at every misfortune that befalls you in the future.”

Social class is an option, with as usual, the lucky nobles getting wealth, land, horses, weapons and armour. Personally, I like the idea of starting a campaign where the nobles start with equipment and hideously huge piles of debt.  One can keep rolling randomly for family, but for contacts, allies and adversaries you’re expected to use your brain and think of something.  The rules do provide a major incentive for the players to come up with a reason for hanging out together – Group Luck Points (tucked away on page 124) a pool of shared luck points anyone in the group can use, and you get one per player who has a good reason for being in the party.

The last section of culture and community is the most important from a roleplaying perspective: passions.  Passions are cool! Passions represent:

  • loyalties and allegiances
  • strongly held beliefs or ideals
  • emotion felt towards someone or something.

Passions are rated 1-100, can change over time, and be created or discarded in play.  Passions are described by a verb such as: comfort, desire, despise, destroy, espouse, fear, flee, forswear, hate, love, loyalty, protect, repudiate, respect, seek, subvert, torment, or uphold.

Over 20 generic careers are provided, offering a package of standard and professional skills for the player to spend points on for their character.  The careers are fairly broad, the Agent for example, is intended to include Agitators, Assassins, Detectives, Informers, and Spies.

An older character gets more skill points, and can spend them to a higher starting level.  Age penalties don’t kick in until 40+, so I see players being strongly incentivised to choose middle aged (200 bonus points) over young (100 bonus points).

Game Mechanics

Its the old 1d100, roll against skill level system, but with some developments:

  • 01-05 always succeeds
  • 96-00 always fails
  • A roll of 1/10 of skill is a critical success
  • A roll of 99-00 is a fumble.

Rather than providing an exhaustive list of modifiers to skill checks, the approach taken in Runequest VI is to adjust the skill level by fractions, e.g. for an Easy task, add half again to the skill value, for a Formidable task, reduce the skill by half.  Characters can augment a skill with one other skill, e.g. using local area knowledge to improve drive skill checks, equal to twice the critical success value of the augmenting skill.

For contested rolls, critical beats normal beats failure, but if two people have the same result, e.g. critical perception versus critical stealth, the character with the highest roll on the dice wins (i.e. a 13 beats a 7). Pro tip: because of the need to compare rolls you need to train your players to leave their dice on the table, untouched, until the roll is fully resolved.

Equipment

After that mechanic introduction the rules take off on a tangent for equipment, before going back for more mechanics.  Mostly familiar stuff with the traditional kitchen sink lists of ancient to renaissance era armour and weaponry. What I noted here was the armour penalty to Strike Rank (the average of Dexterity & Intelligence), which is determined by total armour encumbrance value divided by 5.  For a full set of plate mail this works out to a hefty -9 penalty.  This is also applied to the the characters movement.  I grumble about this, a custom fit set of plate armour can be easier to run in than a maille hauberk, but I can put aside the stickler for accuracy and recognise it for a game balance device that ensures some niche protection for those leather clad (or skyclad) character concepts out there.

Weapons have a list of combat effects they can do, for example the Glaive can inflict Bleed and Sunder (smash armour) effects, while the Rapier can Impale.

More Game Mechanics

Specific rules are given to handle: Acid, Ageing, Asphyxiation, Blood loss, Character improvement, disease, poison, encumbrance, falling, fatigue, fires, healing, luck, passions, wilderness survival, traps, visibility and weather. Phew!

Skill increase is familar, roll 1d100 and add 2-5% if you roll equal or greater than the skill, or 1% if not.  As a freebie, if you fumble, you get to add 1% as well.  Increasing characteristics is not easy at all, essentially you sacrifice experience rolls, both now and in the future, to boost a characteristic.  Stop making the sacrifice, and your characteristic goes back down to its natural level.  I think this is fine with a point buy system, but if using 3d6 rolls in the old school style, its very hard on the unlucky player.  An optional rule is provided for people like me who prefer something a bit more like RQ II.  FOr those with time and money, training is an option, allowing skill increases of anywhere from 1-2% to 5-10% depending on how much better than you your trainer is.  You can’t stay at school forever though, you have to spend an experience roll on a skill before you can work with a trainer again.

Encumbrance remains the rule most likely to be ignored by both players and game masters.

Healing serious/major wounds takes a very long time unless you have magic.

Luck points can be used to:

  • reroll dice
  • gain an Action Point
  • downgrade a Major wound to a Serious Wound (this is how player characters survive the brutal, gritty, Runequest combat system).

Combat

This is comprehensive enough for my re-enactor background, and complex enough to be intimidating – there is even an Android App for helping sort out combat effects!

Actions can be spent on proactive actions or reactive actions.  When you run out of actions you just have to suck up whatever hurt the bad guys are throwing your way. You probably want some tokens/counters to track this around the game table (and that might help with luck points as well).

Proactive actions include:

  • attack
  • brace
  • cast magic
  • change range (moving in closer or further away)
  • delay
  • dither
  • hold magic
  • mount
  • move
  • outmaneuver (make an opposed Evade check against a group of foes, those who fail cannot attack you)
  • ready weapon
  • regain footing
  • struggle.

Reactive actions include:

  • counter spell
  • evade (dive or roll clear, ending up prone – this is not the dodge of RQ II)
  • interrupt
  • parry (combining parrying, blocking, leaning and footwork to avoid the blow)

The detail about evade/parry is included as that seems to be one of the most common misapprehensions about how the combat system is supposed to work.  How effective your parry is depends on the size of the weapons/shields involved.  Equal or greater size mitigates all damage, one size less mitigates half damage. Two sizes down mitigates nothing. So if the giant is swinging a tree trunk at you, throw the buckler shield away and evade!

In addition to damage, you get special effects, potentially as many as three, if one side fumbles when the other criticals.  There are a LOT of special effects, too many to sum up, but I think its likely that players will choose things like Select Target (head) and Maximise Damage (instead of rolling one of the damage dice its treated as being at full value, so a 2d6 weapon becomes 6+1d6).  For those who want it though, you can do a lot more to your opponents than “whack, and I whack it again” which is where RQ II was it in 1980.

Shields are a passive block, not an active block, so you need to pick the locations being warded. A bigger shield can ward more locations.  As in past editions, weapon damage minus armour = hit points lost to a body location.  Damage and wounds are pretty horrific:

  • minor wound: location has HP left
  • serious wound: location has zero or less HP (this will put most people out of the fight very quickly)
  • major wound: location reduced to negative starting HP (this will kill most people without first aid or healing magic).

Magic

It is a joy to see all of the magic traditions in one rule book.  Each of them is quite different, and a game world might not have all of them present.  We get a primer on the runes too, as this is Runequest. What I would really like is a set of the runequest runes on some small tokens I could draw randomly from a bag for oracle type stuff in game sessions.  A quick web search did not find anyone with something like this for sale.  Maybe I’ll track something down later on.

Folk Magic – this is what we called Battle Magic or Spirit Magic back in RQ II, its fairly low power community magic.

Animism – dealing with the spirit world and its monsters, Shamanistic traditions.

Mysticism – warrior monk/Jedi enlightenment aiming for transcendence.  Potentially the most overpowered of the magic traditions as a skilled mystic can be very hard to kill and very dangerous in combat, not at all the glass cannon of your traditional RPG mage. Beware of little old men with brooms!

Sorcery – a complex system, potentially powerful but often very narrow in focus and difficult to use (but good for villains who need long rituals to be interrupted)

Theism – religious cult based magic and power.

Off-hand, not too different from past editions, but the GM should decide for the campaign how common magic is, how long it takes to cast a magic spell or ritual, and how quickly magic points can be regenerated and by what means.  A world where you only regenerate magic on the night of the full moon is very different from one where you get new magic points every sunrise.

The Rest of the Sixth Edition

The creatures, cults and brotherhoods and game master sections are all fairly straightforward stuff for world and adventure building.  On a second reading of the GM advice, it was better than the first time, and gives some good tips for using the preceding material.

How does it play?

This is not a convention friendly game, its just too rich and complex for people unfamiliar with the rules to get a lot done with it on the three-four hours you get.  The combat and magic systems, while powerful tools, are likely to confuse people at first.  It is much more a game system for running a long campaign with, and for people who love detailed world building … because you can always write up one more cult!  I am very much looking forward to running a campaign with it when my Dragon Age game wraps up.

The GM Pack

This 78 page free supplement contains two scenarios and charts and reference sheets for use with Runequest games.  Meeros Falling is a “prove the hero is innocent” scenario, and involves finding the conspirators/evidence and bringing this back to the authorities, with a potential earthquake to complicate things.  Has a deceased NPC called Mysoginistes!  The Exodus Matrix involves more action, monsters and magic and the plot involves stopping the bad gal from activating the matrix to do bad things in a temple in some post-apocalyptic post elder god intervention Earth.

The Firearms Supplement

Short, to the point, and free.  A few notes on myths about firearms accuracy and lethality, it has the tables you need for primitive and mdoern firearms, as well as blasters, flamethrowers, laser weapons and other far future oddities.  Does the job well.

The Star Wars Supplement

This free 47 page supplement was only available online for a short period of time before it was pulled.  If you search carefully, you may find it online somewhere.  The skills, equipment, vehicle combat, and homeworlds sections would be useful for any science fiction setting.  I quite liked the rule whereby the number of “magic points” spent in a session by a Jedi was the chance of the Emperor detecting them and sending off some assassins to hunt them down.  A useful mechanic for any setting with a Dark Lord and player characters who have special secret powers that can get them killed.

The Book of Quests

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I found this a bit disappointing.  Its generic and flavourless, which is not like the epic RQ supplements of yore.  In particular the opening scenario Caravan is weak, in that at its conclusion the players may feel like they have failed, as the merchant they are escorting will most likely scarper for safety rather than see their caravan through to its intended destination.  I also think players would struggle with the monster, which prior to their arrival had essentially acted as brute force deliver of a massacre, but now the players are present becomes a sneaky skulduggery murder in the dark.  The Curse of the Contessa is the diamond that makes this book worthwhile, an excellent city intrigue game with multiple factions, including a well portrayed demon.  Most of the other scenarios just felt a bit too linear, but this is one you could have a lot of chaos and fun with as the outcome is very open.

Monster Island

Wow. After the Book of the Quests, this is the sandbox pack to make you want more from the Design Mechanism!

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The main supplement is 298 pages, plus another 17 pages of companion material and maps.  It details a huge volcanic/jungle island, with mountains, ocean, highlands and ancient ruins and tombs.  It has a strong pulp theme, with shades of Mu, Lemuria, Skull Island, E. R. Burroughs, R. E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft coming through.  The main protagonists on the island are the serpent folk, found in both degenerate lowland villages, and the vestigial remnants of the sorcerous priest-kings who once ruled the island.  Other foes can be found in the bestiary. The rationale for packing lots of apex predators into the island is that there are magic gates which drag them here from other dimensions.  So you can mix dinosaurs, werewolves and tentacled aliens in powered armour if you wish.  Humans have a colony struggling to establish itself on the island, with the natives preferring the obsidian weapons over the rusty iron the traders have.  Everything is detailed to the level you would expect from the great RQ adventure supplements of the past, a good bestiary, some magic and cults, ancient gods and lore, some nice tombs and traps and a world with shades of grey that leaves the players free to decide who they will ally with and who they will work against. While this is not something I will run out of the book anytime soon, I will be pillaging its pages for a lot of its ideas in a future campaign setting.

Summing Up

I am very happy to have these game books sitting on my shelf and in my hard drive. While there are some bits I disagree with here and there, on the whole the Runequest Sixth Edition rules are clear and comprehensive and I look forward to sharing them with a gaming group in the not too distant future.  I’m torn between some kind of Star Wars/Lovecraft mash up, or a Byzantium/Spider Oracle fantasy setting.  Its good when a set of game rules unlocks my imagination like this.

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