[This article was originally published in Tales of the Reaching Moon #5 in Spring, 1991, after the RuneQuest trademark had been sold to Avalon Hill and the game re-released in Deluxe and Standard boxed sets. Its publication was a catalyst for Avalon Hill bringing Ken Rolston on board and kicking off what became known as the (short-lived) “RuneQuest Renaissance.”
This article was actually based on a report commissioned by Avalon Hill itself in 1990 (prior to the decision to publish Eldarad). The original report was written by an award-winning game designer.]
RuneQuest is a great game. We all know that. Unfortunately, things haven’t been going so good for the game for some time. We all know that too. We, the Tales of the Reaching Moon staff present here our thoughts about the history of the game, the hole RuneQuest is currently in, and what action we think Avalon Hill should take to dig its way out again.
[Click the images for high-resolution versions.]
We have no intention of pointing bones at either Avalon Hill or Chaosium; our intention is just to lay the facts as we see them on the table and suggest remedies. You will find our position is a conservative one. From our correspondence with Avalon Hill, we gain the impression that they’re eager to take the game to new places, to try to second-guess the market and provide what it seems to require. However, we believe it would be more useful for Avalon Hill to consolidate the present position before they try to expand.
Comment on this article is sought after and welcome. Perhaps you have ideas of your own. Let us know. More importantly, let Avalon Hill know what you think!
Chaosium’s Griffin Mountain (1981 Games Workshop edition)
Some Ancient History
The golden period for RuneQuest players was without doubt from 1982 – 1983, when the game won most of its fans. In that time Chaosium produced five excellent boxed sets: Questworld, Trollpak, Pavis, Borderlands and Big Rubble. The latter three boxes were a trilogy of adventures on the same geographical setting. (Pavis was cited by Ken Rolston in Dragon #156 as still one of the best all-time City supplements for roleplaying.)
Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest (Deluxe Third Edition)
The Avalon Hill Edition
After this frenetic publishing burst, RuneQuest went into hibernation while the Avalon Hill edition of the game was prepared. Players waited on the edge of their seats. The time delay was too long, and some started to drift off.
When the game did come out in 1984, it was bigger and better, but many were disappointed. The price was prohibitive; the physical quality could have been improved; and the rules had gained new complexities which some players were unable to cope with. But at any rate, RuneQuest was back. Some loved it, some decided to live with it, some deferred judgement, and some dropped it.
Glorantha was inseparable from RuneQuest in the earlier Chaosium editions; in the Avalon Hill edition it became optional. What was more important to gamers, the world or the rules? We are still finding out.
Those who stayed around looked eagerly for the first supplements, to get their hands on some new adventures to try out the revised rules. By and large they’re still waiting.
Four Kinds of RuneQuest
These days you can buy RuneQuest in four different flavours, and this has its own problems. In particular the advent of a watered-down version, Standard Edition, has created a number of extra hassles, although its principal aim — to make RuneQuest available at a lower price — has been realised.
The four types of RuneQuest are:
- Deluxe: The basic RuneQuest unit. Ideally, everyone should buy this one. The price has (we think) dropped from its initial publication. Even so, it is the most sound investment on the roleplaying market, at any price.
- Player’s Box: A fair idea, making available a small portion of the game to those with limited budget or interest. However, RuneQuest is not a game like Dungeons and Dragons which requires an imbalance of knowledge between players and the gamemaster; ideally, everyone should buy Deluxe instead. We know of one games shop in 1989 that took nine months to sell one copy of the Player’s version.
- Gamemaster’s Box: An odd set. By itself, it’s not only half a game, but it’s the wrong half. No Gamemaster would buy this without the Player’s box, unless he or she was an idiot; in other words, again it makes more sense to buy Deluxe and get it over with. The only consumers that the Gamemaster’s Set would be of real use to is those who bought Player’s first, and then wanted to go the whole hog. Alternately, there may be gaming groups out there who are so communal-minded that the players bought their box and the gamemaster bought theirs and they all lived happily ever after — but we doubt it.
- Standard Edition: Aha. A kettle of worms, this. A valiant attempt to bring the price down; this is RuneQuest lite. But the same problem exists, that is, once they’ve bought Standard, if they like it then sooner or later they’re going to have to spring for Deluxe anyway. To ward this off, RuneQuest supplements have included Deluxe rules sections for Standard players, but this frustrating for those who already own Deluxe (and are thus paying for pages they don’t need).
RuneQuest Gamemaster’s Box
Here are four possible solutions to the Standard Edition bottleneck:
(a) Continue on including Deluxe rules sections. As we’ve said, we think this is annoying for Deluxe owners.
(b) Let the Standard players suffer. Give no ground, let them sink or swim. This is unsatisfactory, as it betrays the trust of those who took the carrot and bought Standard in the first place.
(c) Produce a Standard Edition Update, much like the Games Workshop Advanced RuneQuest book. It will be annoying to use, because players will find themselves needing two sources to look up the same information; but no more inconvenient than the current situation for Standard Edition users. However, it would be cheaper than having to start all over again by purchasing Deluxe.
(d) Continue to do the Deluxe rules sections for each new supplement but, instead of making them part of the text, make them available for free by having the consumer send in a stamped self-addressed envelope. Standard users don’t miss out, and Deluxe users don’t find themselves with material they don’t need. Of the four, we think this is the preferred option.
The Supplements: Overview
Discounting the different versions of the rules, from 1985 – 1990 Avalon Hill has published 19 supplements for RuneQuest. Averaged out, that’s about three per year. In fact, in the last two years, the rate has dropped to two per year. That hasn’t been enough.
Many of the supplements have failed to catch the imagination of the original RuneQuest players, who have seen them before.
Looking at the contents of the published supplements:
New Material — 6 box, 1 book
Reprinted Material — 2 box, 5 book
Useless Material — 3 box, 1 book
New and Reprint are blurry categories; some of the New products contain old content, some of the Reprint products contain new information. Our rule-of-thumb for the distinction between New and Reprint is whether or not an old RuneQuester would feel compelled to buy it. By useless material, we callously mean products of little use or value.
By our reckoning then, only 5 supplements have contained substantially new material, less than one third of the total output, or less than one per year. If we further differentiate between Glorantha and Alternate Earth, there has been only one brand new Gloranthan supplement out for every two years.
We think you may start to see why RuneQuest has failed to charge ahead.
The Supplements in Detail
Here are our thoughts on the 18 things thus far released. We think that the ones marked with an asterisk (*) have been strongest sellers. We do not have access to full records of RuneQuest sales, although we do know which ones have gone well in shops we have worked in or are familiar with. Still, we are fairly confident that our assessments are close to the mark.
A general comment applies to all the boxed sets. Paper-covered books are not sturdy enough for roleplaying use, which is more vigorous than that of a set of boardgame rules. This has been a constant problem and complaint.
Here we go. We use the copyright dates, even though they are not necessarily the year the item came out:
Monster Coliseum (box, useless, 1985)
An arena combat supplement. The maps and components were handsome, but players were simply unlikely to get a lot of use out of it. The monsters had lasting use, but at US$16.00, the set just wasn’t worth it.
Adventurer Sheets [Human] (box, useless, 1985)
The game itself provides you with character sheets to photocopy. This was simply unnecessary, and Avalon Hill had the gall to call a pad of character sheets “Supplement #2”!
Adventurer Sheets [Nonhuman] (box, useless, 1985)
Of marginally more use than the Human set, but still not really value for money.
Vikings* (box, new, 1985)
The first Alternate Earth supplement, a great set. Many hours of solid play was available from it. We know of one Vikings campaign which now five years old, and still going strong (a saga in the making!).
Gods of Glorantha* (box, new, 1985)
The first Glorantha supplement. Indispensable background material.
Griffin Island (box, reprint, 1986)
Old adventures transplanted to a new setting; even so, people who had played Griffin Mountain were unlikely to get use out of this.
Land of Ninja (box, new, 1986)
Second and perhaps last of the Alternate Earth supplements. Despite its somewhat misleading title (the ninja are only a peripheral element in the game), a fine set. As the majority of roleplayers are more accustomed to Eurocentric adventuring, Land of Ninja was perhaps of less universal appeal than Vikings. This makes us wonder about the commercial viability of Aztecs, a manuscript currently in the hands of Avalon Hill.
Apple Lane (book, reprint, 1988)
A classic adventure, but an old one. The first of the book releases, bringing the price of the average RuneQuest item a little closer to the pocketmoney budget.
Snakepipe Hollow (book, reprint, 1988)
Into the Troll Realms (book, reprint, 1988)
The first of the trolls. Somehow the single 1982 boxed set Trollpak was turned into four separate reprints. Owners of the original were usually unlikely to buy any of them.
RuneQuest Cities (book, reprint, 1988)
Unlike the other reprints, this supplement was not a RuneQuest one in its original publication. It’s a useful book, but not one that everyone would feel compelled to purchase.
Gloranthan Bestiary* (book, new, 1988)
New monsters for Glorantha. A must for all Gloranthan RuneQuesters.
Glorantha – Genertela* (box, new, 1988)
The one everyone was waiting for, the strong launch that Gloranthan fans had been looking for since 1983. A great pack, rich in background details.
Trollpak (box, reprint, 1988)
Troll Gods (box, new, 1988)
And more trolls. This one is significant because of the poor quality of the artwork. Prior to this, although much of the material was familiar to them, players and collectors had been enjoying a sound aesthetic feel in all RuneQuest products in both layout and art — you might buy them just to have them. Troll Gods eroded confidence in new product.
Elder Secrets* (box, new, 1989)
Like Glorantha, a box that Glorantha fans were waiting for. Like Troll Gods, it was marred by unforgivably bad artwork. Still, it did sell well. Only the first release of the AD&D 2nd Edition hardbacks sold quicker than Elder Secrets in several games shops we know of.
Haunted Ruins (book, reprint, 1989)
The last of the trolls. Thankfully, the artwork this time was greatly improved.
The Lost City of Eldarad (books in card wallet, useless, 1990)
A total turkey, this non-Gloranthan supplement fails on almost every level. Unoriginal concept, execrable writing, uninspired layout and poor artwork. A real blow to the confidence of RuneQuesters in Avalon Hill’s ability to produce RuneQuest effectively. It is not unfair to question Avalon Hill’s lack of discernment to ever accept this manuscript, let alone go to the trouble of printing and marketing it.
The Supplements: Summary
Background material enriches a game, and it is the quality of the background material on which the fame of RuneQuest is based. Nevertheless, players also have a need of something they can buy off the shelves, flip open the cover, and start running on a Friday night. Avalon Hill RuneQuest has had some releases of this type, but it has all been reprints. A common lament amongst former RuneQuest players is “We want to play RuneQuest, but there’s nothing to play.”
As gamemasters, we have a need of things we can use with minimum effort. Over the last eight years we have had no new commercial campaigns to use (excepting Eldarad and Daughters of Darkness). Those of us who can, have had to use the background in the 1982-1983 material, or have written our own.
So What Should be Done?
RuneQuest as it stands is a great fantasy roleplaying game. It is as good as and better than Rolemaster, AD&D, Middle Earth and the rest of them. What those games have that RuneQuest doesn’t is a torrent of new support material, on a regular basis.
We don’t propose any radical in direction. We believe that solid work is all that it will take to get those gamers looking RuneQuest‘s way again. To the players, the format is fine, the look is fine (some artwork notwithstanding), there just isn’t enough of it.
Michael O’Brien became vice president of Chaosium in August 2015. The 1992 RuneQuest-Glorantha release Sun County, which he wrote for Avalon Hill working with editor Ken “The Rune Czar” Rolston, kicked off the relatively brief but creatively fertile period which later became known as the “RQ Renaissance”. Although based in Australia, at the time O’Brien was associate editor of Tales of the Reaching Moon, the influential British fanzine that helped sustain Gloranthan fandom through the 1990s and early 2000s.