It takes a lot to get me to try a new role playing system. I’m fairly happy with the ones I already play — first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and Steve Jackson’s Melee and Wizards games — and I barely have time to devote to those at it is.
I’m not sure what it was that originally drew me to try RuneQuest. I think it might have been the promise of a wholly different flavor of fantasy. AD&D was medieval villages, magic users, and Gygax’s Against the Giants. RuneQuest was talking animals, bronze age warriors from strange ancient cultures, and Paul Jacquey’s enigmatic Duck Tower (“What? A tower of ducks? That’s so weird. What’s with all the ducks in armor? Seriously? Mike, come check this out.”)
So I dragged my brother Mike to a RuneQuest game on the campus at Carleton University in Ottawa, where we soon found ourselves in the thick of a fast-action melee. In our first exposure to critical hit tables, Mike’s grizzled dwarf fighter fumbled an epic axe hit at the height of the battle, and managed to slice off his own leg. To this day, I can’t mention the word “RuneQuest” without Mike growling, “Yeah. Best system in the world.”
Needless to say, Mike didn’t play much after that. But I kept up with the various incarnations. A big part of my fascination was the result of Chaosium’s support efforts, especially the amazing Pavis and Big Rubble boxed sets. I still consider them some of the finest gaming products ever created, and have been much impressed with the recent reprint editions from Moon Design Publications.
RuneQuest has something of a tortured history, changing owners multiple times over the decades. Adding to the confusion, the game’s setting has also changed several times, and the original setting has split off from the game and since been home to multiple different RPG systems.
I won’t try to unravel the complete history of the game here, but I will hit the highlights. Steve Perrin wrote the first edition for Chaosium in 1978, setting it in Greg Stafford’s legendary Glorantha, one of the most famous worlds in fantasy gaming (setting of, among other things, board games White Bear and Red Moon, Dragon Pass, the RPGs Hero Wars and HeroQuest, numerous novels short stories, and even the computer strategy game King of Dragon Pass.)
Chaosium updated the game with a second edition in a handsome boxed set in 1981, adding — among other things — a color cover, a copy of the Apple Lane adventure (more ducks!), and some dice.
Chaosium eventually sold RuneQuest to Avalon Hill in 1983, who made it their flagship to break into the lucrative RPG market. Stafford held on to the rights to Glorantha, however, forcing Avalon Hill to submit Glorantha material for approval and, eventually, to develop their own Fantasy Earth setting. Undaunted, the folks at Avalon Hill released a deluxe third edition and supported it with some terrific products, including a lot of non-Glorantha material like Lost City of Eldarad and Daughters of Darkness.
Some folks consider the Avalon Hill era the Golden Age of RuneQuest products… certainly they were able to get the game in front of more players than Chaosium had. Avalon Hill stopped publishing RuneQuest products in the late 80s, but retained rights to the name; in 2003 the rights were acquired by Issaries, Inc, who raised money from Glorantha fans around the world.
Issaries licensed the name to Mongoose Publishing, who released a new version of RuneQuest in August 2006. After that I kinda lost track of the editions (Mongoose released… um… two? Plus dozens of adventures and add-ons, including a lot of resources for Glorantha; here’s a quick sample), until Pete Nash and Lawrence Whitaker’s The Design Mechanism forged a partnership with Issaries in July, 2011 to produce a 6th edition.
James Maliszewski explored the sources for Steve Perrin’s original version of RuneQuest in his Black Gate post The Other Appendix N. In his article for us last October, Pete Nash examined the influences on his new edition, which leaned towards “darker, more mature Sword and Sorcery”:
For Gary Gygax, a man turned forty by the time he wrote the Dungeon Masters Guide, the early works of fantasy authors such as Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Fox Gardner, Andre Norton, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny were readily available in bookshops, hot off the press. Indeed, almost all of the books on his inspirational reading list would have been as easy to pick up as purchasing a copy of A Game of Thrones is today…
When Lawrence Whitaker and I set about refining and re-launching RuneQuest as a quality roleplaying game, we too were influenced by our own youthful reading. Firmly separating the core rules from Glorantha, we embraced the darker, more mature Sword and Sorcery genre… Our combined list was more akin to Gygax’s, based mainly in fantasy literature, but that contemporary to our teenage years.
Popular authors we read in the seventies and eighties had shifted from those who had gained fame earlier in the twentieth century. Although we also included the greats as mentioned by the original Appendix N, gone were — amongst others — John Bellairs, Fredric Brown, August Derleth, Abraham Merritt, Fletcher Pratt, and Jack Williamson, instead to be replaced by up-and-coming authors like Glen Cook, David Gemmell, Julian May, or the Thieves World anthologies.
Much intrigued, I got my hands on a copy of the new edition last year, and I’ve been fascinated with it ever since. Gone are the dreaded critical hits tables — crits are still a part of the game, but the consequences are left up to the game master.
Everything needed to play is contained in this one book. The new version devotes a chapter to Culture and Community as part of character generation, giving players a richer sense of where their characters come from, and the motivations that drive them.
There are also chapters on Mysticism, Cults and Brotherhoods, and a marvelous 102-page Creatures chapter, packed with loathsome monsters and opponents for the players, including Predator Spirits, the Restless Dead, and Winged Apes.
Here’s the text from the back of the book:
RuneQuest is one of the seminal fantasy roleplaying games with over 30 years of history. Now in a brand-new edition everything you need for exciting adventure in fantastic worlds is presented in one volume.
Who Will You Be?
A cunning warrior? A wily thief? A powerful sorcerer? An agent of the Gods? In RuneQuest you define your character. Its skill-based system allows for infinite combinations of talents and capabilities.
Who Are Your People?
Are you a nomad of the steppes, following the herd-trails? Perhaps you are a hardened barbarian used to the raids of your neighbours and the whims of the Gods. Maybe you are a city-dweller, used to the comforts and amenities of civilization. In RuneQuest where you come from is as important as who you are.
What Are Your Beliefs?
Do you worship the mighty Gods of Sun, Storm and War? Are you, perhaps, a follower of the Great Ancestor Spirits? Or is it that you shun the Gods and follow a more mystical path, seeking enlightenment and perfection? Maybe you prefer the dark and dire potency of sorcery! In RuneQuest your beliefs shape your magic and your destiny, and through them access to the cosmic powers of the Runes themselves.
Where Will You Go?
RuneQuest supports every kind of fantasy, from gritty Swords and Sorcery through to heroic fantasy adventure filled with magic and intrigue. Its blend of rules and mechanics are flexible and adaptable. With RuneQuest you can create the settings and stories that suit your style of play.
Everything You Need in One Book.
Complete character creation
An innovative combat system
Five different forms of magic
A wide selection of creatures and monsters from myth and legend
Comprehensive advice for Games Masters
All you need to bring are some friends, some dice and your imagination…
The interior art is terrific throughout, and the writing is crisp and clear. Like all the best role playing books, RuneQuest Sixth Edition is fascinating to flip through even if you’re not a fantasy gamer.
Just as happened 30 years ago, it’s the support material that really draws me towards RuneQuest — including the marvelous sandbox setting Monster Island (which Howard Andrew Jones reviewed for us last year).
RuneQuest Sixth Edition was written by Pete Nash and Lawrence Whitaker and published by The Design Mechanism. It is 456 pages in oversized trade paperback, priced at $55 Canadian for the print edition and $25 for the PDF.
See all of our recent New Treasures here.