I seem to be chiming into “sell me on/off Runequest/Mythras” threads a lot on rpg.net a lot lately. So as my Runequest 6 (RQ6) campaign is winding down I thought I might post a summary of what I think of the system after almost three years of running a campaign for five players.
The Trivial Question – should you get Runequest 6 or Mythras?
The rules are almost identical. Both were published by The Design Mechanism. My copy of RQ6 is a 456 page softback. Mythras is a 304 page hardback. Mythras has stripped out the references to Runes, dropped a font size, reduced the white space in the margins, cleaned up the presentation of Animism magic and spirits, added a few more combat effects, traits, and incorporated errata. The character sheet in the Mythras rules is much improved on the RQ6 sheet.
I will not use Mythras at the game table, simply because the smaller font size is difficult for my ageing eyes to read. Hands down, no contest, RQ6 wins for ease of referencing mid-session.
What is Runequest 6 About?
Runequest 6 is about magic-wielding adventurers who go on missions to kill enemies and take their stuff, for reasons justified by the community they belong to. Your Runequest May Vary, but this is the default premise supported by the rules.
How Does Runequest 6 go About that?
The major elements of Runequest 6 are:
- 1970s style character attributes (Strength, hit points, etc) with a few modern touches (luck points, passions, culture, etc).
- A D100 roll under blackjack core mechanic, with an extensive skill system that governs almost all character actions.
- A gritty realistic feeling combat system, in which the player’s feel their characters are always vulnerable to harm.
- A toolkit of options for tailoring magic to your own campaign setting, and five different types of magic, but generally within competent mortal bounds, not mythic levels of power.
- Templates for building social organisations. Without these you might as well be playing D&D.
- Its a “Rule Zero” game system. You’re expected to ignore rules you do not like, or to add rules if the rules fail to support your preferred mode of game play.
What Does Runequest 6 Reward?
Runequest 6 gives rewards for sessions played, fumbles rolled, and for having the in-game wealth and time to purchase training for characters.
Lets Look at the Rewards a Little More Closely
Session based play rewards whatever the GM feels like rewarding, but in an egalitarian way. The suggestions are to base the reward on the length of time since the last reward (suggested range is two to four) AND how well the characters have performed (mission success) OR how well the characters have been played. It is recommended that everyone be given the same number of experience rolls (so you can ignore mission success or roleplaying prowess and just go straight to number of sessions since the last reward handout, multiplied by a number the GM likes).
Experience rolls can be spent on:
- Increasing existing skills – cost one experience roll, results in a gain of +1% to +5%.
- Increasing characteristics – by reducing all future experience gains by one OR by spending (1+current value -species minimum).
- Increasing or decreasing passions – cost one experience roll.
- Learning new skills – cost three experience rolls.
- Learning new magical abilities and spells – cost varies from three to five experience rolls for spells, more for creating new traditions .
Fumbles almost never occur in actual play, due to the luck point mechanic, but if they were to occur, then the character who fumbles a skill check (a roll of 99 or 100 on the d100 roll), gains a free +1% to the skill.
Training can improve skills you currently know (but not acquire new skills, you have to have spend three experience rolls for that), but you cannot train a skill more than twice in a row. Otherwise rich characters would never need to go adventuring again.
I think there was a missed opportunity to tie the Passion mechanic to the reward system. Its implied in the option for rewarding performance, but its not explicit so it can be ignored. Overall the reward system is one of small incremental improvement, making RQ6 ideal for campaigns intended to last for years of play.
In my campaign I originally only let players spend one experience roll on a skill increase each time they were awarded experience. Mid-campaign I reread the experience rules and decided this was not what was intended by the rules, and allowed any or all experience rolls to be spent on the same skill. Player behaviour instantly changed – the warriors focused on hitting foes with swords spent the majority of their experience on increasing Combat Style, while the sorcerers spent the majority of their experience on increasing their two magic skills. While 80% skill is good, 95% is better, and 105% is much better. Developing hobby skills or secondary interests feels like its making your character weak.
Is Runequest 6 Easy to Learn?
No its not.
If you have been playing roleplaying games since the 1970s and have used any previous d100 game system, than yes, YOU can pick up and learn to play or GM RQ6 easily. If you are used to modern games with a focused coherent design of rules and roleplaying practice, and a developed setting for play, then RQ6 presents you with an overwhelming number of choices, places most of the narrative authority burden on the GM, and then runs away and hides behind Rule Zero.
In my experience, RQ6 is not suited for modern convention play unless you play with a significantly cut-down version of the rules or with people who already know the game rules. Over the last few years I have had good experiences running Cortex Plus, Conan 2d20, Paranoia, and Blades in the Dark at conventions for players who had never encountered those game systems before. My one attempt at running RQ6 was a painful morass of player indecision (see my comments on death by a thousand options below).
The shorter (and free to download) Mythras Imperative rules might do better here. I note in passing that Chaosium are putting a lot of effort into designing a quickstart set of rules for their next edition of Runequest, and an adventure suitable for convention use.
The rules are about as logical as you can get in a linear text. There are a few things in the GM chapter I wish were more player facing, the animism and spirit information is a bit scattered (corrected in Mythras), and I thought the rules for bartering and haggling might have been better placed in the Skills chapter rather than the Economics chapter.
Can You Lose the Game in Character Generation?
Yes, you can lose the game in character generation by building a character with less than three action points. Action points govern how often you get to act in combat, so building a character with only one or two action points means you get less spotlight time than the other players AND your character’s chances of surviving combat plummet. This is because defensive actions consume one of your actions, and if you are attacked successfully and have no remaining actions, your foe gains a bonus special effect.
To be fair, the GM chapter does provide some advice on Skill selection and how to survive with only two Action Points, but if your GM does not pass on that advice, then you stand a pretty good chance of your first character being pretty woeful. The advice on how to play well with less than three action points … well it applies equally to anyone with three action points as well. I note that in Mythras Imperative, all characters get two Action Points.
In terms of ensuring character survival in combat, I believe the most important factors are:
- Action Points – because not giving away bonus special effects when hit is pretty much the most important thing in RQ6 combat.
- Luck Points – because it can be used to reroll a skill check, to gain an extra action, or to reduce a wound.
- Combat Style skill – you want this to be as high as possible because its used for both attack and defence.
- Evade or Acrobatics Skill – Evade is less useful than Combat Style for avoiding moderate amounts of damage because you end up prone (which costs an action to get up from). Acrobatics is more useful than Evade, because in most cases it can be substituted for Evade and a check allows falling damage to be reduced by 75%.
- Athletics Skill – because falling from a great height will inflict damage to multiple locations, and a luck point will only cancel one of them.
- Swim skill – because fatigue from drowning is a karmic death spiral on steroids.
- Endurance – ranked low as it is better to prevent damage through actions, skills use, or the passive effects of armour and shields, and it is better to prevent a critical hit by using a luck point to force an opponent to reroll. I will expand on this when I discuss the skill system below.
- Willpower – ranked low as only useful versus certain spells and social challenges.
This encourages a degree of homogeneity among characters. I would strongly encourage players to make sure their character has a minimum POW of 13 (for three luck points), and INT and DEX scores that sum to at least 35 (for three action points).
How Whiffy is the Skill System?
It is a very whiffy system. If you have a skill of 48%, then you will fail 52% of the time. There is an option buried in the GMs chapter to adapt the multistage crafting system to social encounters, which allows you to better handle tasks resolved over a period of time. Its not as detailed as say Burning Wheel’s debate system, but it does the job and I think it should have been up front in the main skill chapter.
One thing that is good, is that when opposed skill checks are being made, the higher successful roll beats the lower. So its more decisive than the early D100 games. If I were starting an RQ6 game again, I think I would try to incorporate fail forward by offering a “success with complications” to a player when both opposed rolls fail.
Another good thing is that a single Combat Style skill can incorporate as many weapons as you think is appropriate to your campaign. This avoids people tracking a dozen different skills. If I ran another RQ6 campaign I would look at bundling other skills together this way, e.g. a “College Skill” could incorporate a package of related Lore and Language skills.
My least favourite feature of the skill system is the incorporation of division into the process for calculating skill checks. A hard difficulty check requires you to reduce your skill level by 33%, which always elicits groans and eye rolls at my gaming table when I ask people to do the maths. Then you try augment your skill with another skill/passion or help from another character, which requires you to divide that skill by five and add it to the original skill. In the RAW your critical score remains at the unaugmented level, but I think its a common house rule to adjust it up to the augmented level for simplicity.
I have definitely encountered people who think this is a simple process, but I disagree. I note that RQ6 has an option alternative for flat +/- 20% to difficulty levels. If I ran RQ6 again, I would be very tempted to use the advantage/disadvantage die system used in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, simply to speed up play. I also note that in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, all three difficulty levels that reduce skills are pre-calculated and written for easy reference on the PC sheet.
System Mastery Shock
You might think an 80% skill is good. But its possible to run into a situation where you have little to no chance to succeed. This is because on many “survival” checks, such as Endurance, Evade, and Willpower, not only do you have to roll under your skill, but over your enemy’s roll as well. This is an all or nothing check.
So if you have 80% Endurance skill, and your foe rolled a 70% attack against you that dealt you a horrible wound, you need to roll either a critical (01-08%) or a success better than 70% (71-80%). While it fits elegantly with the rest of the RQ6 system, it feels like your survival skills need to be about twice as high as your attack skills to be at a similar level of effectiveness. Now imagine your opponent lucked out and rolled a 07% critical, now your 80% Endurance Skill gives you a 1% chance of success, only a roll of 08 will help you.
This is the reason why if my players had to choose between increasing Combat Style or increasing Endurance, they chose to increase Combat Style. Point for point its a better investment for character survival. It took quite a few sessions of play before we really picked up on this feature of RQ6. After a longer period of time we realised that you could spend Luck Points to force the enemy to reroll their critical successes, and that this was a much better way of ensuring survival than rerolling your own Endurance check.
With Luck, Fumbles Never Happen
One feature of the system is that I found that in play, fumbles almost never happen. My players would see the 99 or 00 on their dice, and spend the luck point to reroll. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, as fumbling in combat both increases the number of Special Effects gained against you, and opens up more severe special effects to be applied. A fumble only happened if luck points were exhausted, if it was in a relatively safe situation with healers on hand, or in the rare situations where a second 99 or 00 was rolled (so about one chance in 2,500 rolls). I think that happened once during the entire campaign.
As a GM, I felt frustrated by the lack of opportunities generated by the game system to take scenes in unexpected directions. I took this lesson into running Conan 2d20 where I told players that my job in using “Doom” generated by the players was to make the game more interesting for them, not to slaughter their characters with it. In a similar way, I was groping for something to handle long term story arcs, like Fronts in Apocalypse World. But that might be a house rule for another day in the future.
Combat – Death by a Thousand Options!
One of my reasons for starting an RQ6 campaign, was that I was looking for a system with a bit more meat on the bones than the Dragon Age system I had been using for the previous three years. RQ6 certainly delivers on this point with a rich system for conflict that can be tailored to either realistically grim or lighter cinematic heroism. My campaign involved musketeers, so it had some important rule decisions:
- the players had access to musket pistols, which do 1d8 damage and ignore four points of armour
- the main melee weapon is the rapier, which does 1d8 damage, and in an interesting quirk, has the same engagement range as a spear
- only primitive cultures still used shields.
- the PCs ( and many foes) had access to a combat trait that let them Evade without going prone
- I allowed Luck Points to be spent to reduce a Serious Wound to a Minor Wound.
Initiative ignores your skill in fighting, and is based on a 1d10 roll plus the average of DEX+INT, minus worn armour. This was pretty much the only step in the game for us where Encumbrance mattered. I have never seen players who enjoy tracking encumbrance or fatigue, and RQ6 doesn’t really change the world on that point.
The key tactical feature of RQ6 combat is to concentrate efforts so your opponents run out out of Actions, so that you start gaining a bonus Special Effects when you hit them.
When my players first consulted the Special Effects table they were overwhelmed by the options. There are just too many of them. Humans stop being able to make good decisions when presented with more than about five options to choose from. Instead of making a choice, the brain just adopts a short cut. So our experience was this:
- in the first few game sessions, after several minutes of agonising about the choice, the players would finally choose “target head”
- after a few months the players just started choosing “target head” after a few seconds, and I got to put away the one minute sand timer I had been using to encourage them to make a quick decision
- after a couple of years the players just said “target head” automatically. About once per game session one of the players would choose a different effect.
- the only interesting decision was when people got a critical effect and had to choose between target head, maximise damage, and bypass armour.
So for me, one of the big selling points of “why play RQ6 and not another d100 game” ultimately proved to be a bug and not a feature. In a similar vein, I found the combination of a chart of situational difficulty modifiers for ranged weapons, and a second chart of penalties based on range and target size to be so complex as to be junked after one session of use.
One thing we had a lot of trouble with early on was charging into combat. While almost everything else happens in actions, a charge takes an entire five second combat round. This was frustrating to my players, who invariably wanted to exploit a moment of surprise to get into contact with the enemy right now.
Out of all the combats I ran, only one lasted long enough for the fatigue rules to really kick in meaningfully (most of my combats were over in four combat rounds or less, probably due to the lack of shields and the use of musket pistols or sorcery). So I stopped bothering about encumbrance and fatigue, as the handling time did not pay any dividends in game play.
Three things I struggled with as a GM were the Counter Spell and Ward Location actions. Counter Spell allows an incoming spell to be dismissed. Because it took the sorcerer PCs several actions to cast a spell, the game would have been rendered excruciatingly frustrating for them if I had NPCs countering their spells. So I almost never did it. Ward Location is a free action, allowing you to change the hit locations being guarded by a weapon or shield. The damage reduction from passive blocking is usually sufficient to negate an attack, and it does not cost an action. As with Counter Spell, I felt reluctant to use my knowledge of the player’s choices to block their actions. Outmaneuvering was another action in game that I never dared using against the players – if I had an NPC spending one action and making an Evade check to effectively negate the actions of all the PCs facing them, I would have had very unhappy players.
In play I found two activities more threatening than combat. One is climbing, the other is drowning. Climbing involves a risk of falls, and falling damage is realistically lethal and can strike multiple locations. Drowning is dangerous because it inflicts fatigue damage – which rapidly reduces your Swim skill making it more likely to fail the next Swim check.
The price of realism is time. RQ6 combats take a lot of time to resolve – make an attack roll, make a defence roll, choose special effects, determine hit location, roll damage dice, make endurance tests). In a faster playing system, like D&D, the whiff is forgivable as you get another action quickly. In RQ6 when you miss it takes a while to get back to you. So there is a lot of time where players are passively watching the action.
Linear Warrior, Quadratic Mage!
Sorcerers are better than other character concepts in RQ6 because they are more effective in combat. This is because a Sorcerer’s spells can be cast against multiple opponents, and the effect is continuing. This makes Sorcery incredibly disruptive to the action point economy of the RQ6 combat system.
A combatant with 100% combat style and a Longsword used in a two-handed style will inflict 1d10 damage on a hit, assuming it is not parried or evaded. On a critical, the weapon could do 10 points of damage. It still has to penetrate any worn armour. This costs one action to do, and might use up one enemy action on a defensive counter.
A Sorcerer with 100% Skill in Shaping and Invocation casts a Magnitude 1, Range POW, Targets nine Wrack spell. This strikes nine opponents for 1d10 damage to a random location every time the sorcerer takes an action and concentrates on the Wrack spell rather than doing something else. This damage ignores worn armour and can only be resisted with an Evade check (which costs an action point). Spending one action to inflict 9d10 damage, or possibly exhausting nine enemy actions – its hard for the characters who choose not to use magic to feel that their character concepts were a good idea.
Towards the end of my campaign, I attacked my five PCs and three NPC allies with upwards of 30 opponents. The party was camped for the night on a rise of stone in a swamp, and managed to spot the approaching attackers in time to prepare defences. One sorcerer boosted the damage resistance of the party and then locked down nine of the enemies with a crowd control spell, the other sorcerer let loose a fire elemental to disrupt the attack and then wracked another ten of the foes to death. The remaining 11 enemies were dealt with by the other six characters. The dozen odd enemy archers not in the main assault force did manage the odd effective hit (range and darkness reduced their effective skill to around 10%) but if they had stuck around after the main assault was defeated the sorcerers would have pinned and burned them in short order.
Monsters are not Scary but a Heavy Infantry Shield Wall is Terrifying
A single monster lacks the Action points to be an intimidating opponent. Even a Dragon has a mere four action points. Two combat rounds of “target head” special effects should be more than enough to take care of it. The only monsters my players found intimidating in the game were opponents with > 100% combat skill (because every point over 100 reduces a PCs skill by a matching amount), immunity to damage or armour greater than weapon damage, or mystics with the ability to grant themselves bonus actions for parrying/evade actions (suddenly finding out that your opponent has six actions, not three, is a great discomfort to a player).
Groups using the Formation Fighting trait on the other hand … your action points are reduced by one just by engaging them! Now if they are also using overlapping large shields to passively block five of the seven possible hit locations, you can get a long extended sitzkrieg where those fatigue rules start being a deciding factor. In my campaign, when the PCs ran into a formation of shield and spear troops their reaction was to nuke it from range with spells.
Social Stuff – A Strength and a Weakness
I have an issue with with the Seduction skill. As a professional skill its restricted to the Courtesan and Entertainer professions, and its the only way a character can romantically or sexually persuade another character – its explicitly different to the Influence skill all characters have. While its true that you could take the seduction skill as your one elective “hobby” skill option, or Rule Zero it, I just found this weird.
One thing I noticed about RQ6 only after getting into the middle of the campaign was that the light touch for “social effects”. Where combat has 50+ options for extra detail, most social skills have at best four options (for fumble, fail, success and critical success). This does make social interactions play much faster than combat, but its also another reason why I think the default premise of RQ6 is social justified killing with magic, because that is what most of the rules focus on.
A weird thing in my campaign was that my players did not trust their Insight checks. I could tell them after a successful roll that the NPC they were interacting with wanted to help them, and the players would still choose not to trust them. I think that is on them and not the game system.
Supplements for the Game
With a toolkit system like RQ6 a lot of GMs are going to be running home brew campaigns. What follows is my short summary on the available settings and supplements:
- Mythic Britain: Dark Ages Britain with a potential King Arthur. Its really hard to compete in this space with Pendragon, and while the Winter Council scenario showed promise, the rest of the adventures in the book underwhelmed me.
- Mythic Rome: reads like a history textbook. I’m yet to reach the point in the book where they start discussing how its a game.
- M-Space: a homage to 1970s sci-fi roleplaying. I found it uninspiring, except for its explanation of Revolution D100’s extended conflict system, which it does better than the source.
- Classic Fantasy: a homage to 1970s fantasy roleplaying, its a skinning of Basic D&D into a D100 system. Rather than extra hit points, you get a lot more Luck Points.
- Korantia: a traditional bronze age fantasy setting. I quite liked some of the background elements, but again, the published scenario I had for it did not enthuse me.
- Luther Arkwright: a homage to a 1970s comic about a multiverse hopping agent of order. Good, but you may have noticed a retro theme to the RQ6 settings, and this one really nails that classic random generation feel by restricting psionic powers to people who make a lucky random roll.
- Monster Island: a superb sandbox setting on a jungle island. This was my first RQ6 supplement, and almost everything else from the Design Mechanism has left me disappointed in comparison to this gem.
- Hessaret’s treasure: a good one shot adventure mixing some urban social interaction, overland journey, and a cave crawl at the end.
- Ships and Shield Walls: Rules for ships and mass battles. I had to adapt the battle rules for gunpowder but they worked well enough. The second time we had a mass battle, I did not use the mass battle system, as the PCs side would have been wiped out in it (they had 1,000 conscript spears versus 1,000 trained musketeers).
- The Book of Quests: seven roughly linked scenarios. I found the best of these to be The Curse of the Contessa, with its competing sets of NPCs, while the worst was the introductory scenario Caravan, where all the clues for the behaviour of the big bad monster at the end misdirect the players.
My main creative tools: Silent Legions, which was invaluable for generating cults and great old ones (because nothing from Call of Cthulhu surprises anyone anymore – the moment I told my players they were going to a coastal town, they all collectively muttered “Deep Ones” at the same time), and The Harrowing Deck, which I used for quick generation of NPC motivations, or pulling three cards for a past/present/future structure for a scenario or in game event.
Invaluable for any RQ6 campaign is the Mythras Encounter generator. This allows you to quickly generate any number of NPCs and print them off for use in combat. With the other creative tools I could generate enough material for up to five sessions of play in around two hours.
So you Obviously Hated this Game System?
No. I had a really good time planing and running the game, and my players enjoyed it. Towards the end of the campaign, however, all the players agreed that they did not want to play RQ6 again. Their request was for a simpler and more flexible game system, and I have one player who is dead keen on the Conan 2d20 game – which I backed on Kickstarter and should be getting a pile of supplements for in the middle of the year.
My own ideas about what I want in a game have also evolved. Over the last three years I have probably read more roleplaying game systems than in the previous 30 years. While I was able to bring insights from this reading to bear fruit in the RQ6 campaign, towards the end of the campaign I had reached a point where the RQ6 rules were hindering me more than helping me.
If I did it all over again I would do a lot of things differently based on my improved understanding of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, and by the time I finished adding that layer of adjustments on, the game would only barely be recogniseable as RQ6. I did read through the Mythras Gateway license for people who want to write game supplements using the Mythras rules, and almost everything singled out as a feature of the game system not to be changed, is something I want to change!
I think they key lesson for me, is that I am no longer looking for a simulationist roleplaying game system for running long campaigns with. I checked out the beta for a recent Kickstarter for a realistic combat system, and stopped reading at the point where it said “Roll 14d10 to climb the wall”. My own knowledge of martial arts and history means I just find too many edge cases in the rules that bug me, whereas a game that adheres to emulating a specific fiction or collection of tropes is probably going to be better for me as a GM now. For example, if I want to do a samurai game, then Usagi Yojimbo will do a better job out of the box than me spending three months rewriting RQ6.
But, there is that new edition of Runequest (no edition number) from Chaosium later this year. And the draft rules at GECON last year looked so good … so I am sure I will run some kind of d100 game again in the future.