Publisher: The Avalon Hill Game Company (www.avalonhill.com)
Orig. Copyright: (c) 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984 Chaosium Inc. (www.chaosium.com/index.php)
Current Publisher: Mongoose Publishing (www.mongoosepublishing.com/index.php)
Advancement: Skills, percentile based, usage-based
Features: hit locations, initial character skills based on years per “occupation”, varied magic systems
RuneQuest was one of the titles that became available during the first major burst of releases in pen-and-paper RPGs, in the mid-to-late 70s. It was one of the games that succeeded in working it’s way into a limited number of mainstream outlets, toy stores and the like, mainly through the publishing agreement with Avalon Hill, I imagine. While it never became quite as well known as D&D, it was definitely a title you were aware of if you were at all involved in the gaming scene of the time.
In particular, the hit location chart and associated system borders on iconic in my opinion: simple enough to be manageable in pen-and-paper, detailed enough to create situations in play without excessive effort. Chaosium only re-used this hit location paradigm in one of its other titles that I am aware of, oddly enough (Ringworld)… but I’m sure several “home-brew” variants of their other titles (Call of Cthulhu, Superworld, Pendragon, Elric, Hawkmoon, etc) borrowed the concept shamelessly (I know I did…)
The attributes of RuneQuest are hardly surprising to anyone familiar with Chaosium titles: STR, CON, SIZ, INT, POW, DEX, and APP, the stalwart seven. Like many titles borne of that era, the influence of D+D was obvious: base scores for new characters are generally determined by a roll of 3d6 (or 2d6+6).
Determining starting skills
One arena in which RuneQuest was very different than most games, past or present, was in how a character’s starting skills were determined. In essence, skill percentages were determined by establishing a character’s occupation in the years before play (starting at age 15 for human characters, for example).
In general, a character’s age at the start of play was determined randomly, as was starting occupation (rationalized as being the occupation of the character’s parents). A 23-year old son of a primitive fisherman would thus receive 8 years worth of skill percentiles based on that occupation: Boatx5 means (8×5=) 40 percent in the Boat skill, Swimx4 meant 32 percent in Swim, and so on. An additional number of points based on specific attribute scores might also apply, as well as base scores, sometimes determined by race, for example.
Optional rules included an ability to change occupations, potentially based on certain acceptance requirements. So the 23-year old above might be able to become an apprentice Shaman at some point, for example, if he could somehow work the required skills (Animal Lore, Plant Lore, Ceremony, etc.) up to the minimum required values.
I found that many players enjoyed building a character through this kind of system, despite the extra time and effort required, at least in an extended campaign situation. It helped them establish a mental model for the character, and gave them hooks to help them identify with it. It didn’t work quite as well for one-shot adventures, of course.
Hit Locations and Damage
RuneQuest uses a variation on the typical hit point model, diverging from D+D/D20 in that hit point totals are based entirely on attribute scores (the average of CON and SIZ, in this case, 3-18 or so), with no automatic increase for gaining levels or other such mechanism.
In addition, hit points are allocated based on this core number to seven basic hit locations: Head, Chest, Abdomen, Right and Left Arms, and Right and Left Legs (for humans and similar bipeds). The chest’s hit points was pegged to 40% of maximum hit points, for example. Characters could then be incapacitated either through elimination of total hit points, or through loss of hit points in specific locations. Reduction of an arm to zero simply meant that arm could not be used, but reduction of the chest to zero was a different matter.
Skills and skill advancement are handled on a per-session basis: if a skill is used during the session, it is flagged. Then, at the end of play (or as determined by the GM), each flagged skill is rolled against using d100: if the d100 result is higher than the skill score, the skill score is advanced by 1d6. (A very typical advancement system for Chaosium titles.)
Characteristic scores could also be advanced by a similar mechanic.
One of the most intriguing parts of the RuneQuest system is the very different type of magic system developed for it. There are actually three largely independent magic systems built into the game: Spirit magic, Divine magic, and Sorcery, as well as a Ritual Magic game mechanic.
Spirit magic is meant to be the simplest to use. Spells are gained by defeating “spirits” in “spirit combat” and learning the ability/spell of that entity as a result. That knowledge can then be used through expenditure of Magic Points (related to POW). The actual process is more involved than that: the concept of a “fetch”, capturing spirits, spell foci, and other elements are incorporated as well.
Divine magic is about as straightforward in terms of casting, but a different system of rules for how to obtain the spells, and how often they can be used, is applied. In summary, the acquisition of divine spells requires the sacrifice of a point of the POW attribute to the deity. Priests generally get to reuse the spells so “purchased”, while for mere worshippers, it’s a one-time casting. There are many other rules related to the dogmas and rituals of the various deity entities postulated as well, of course.
Sorcery is the most “skill-based” of the magic types. Sorcerors develop skill in each spell, as well as modifier skills such as Intensity, Duration, and Range which allow some manipulation of the basic spell parameters at casting time. INT and POW both come heavily into play as well, of course.
Ritual magic rules for summoning entities, enchanting items, and the like are also given some detailed attention. All in all, the various combinations make for some interesting options during play.
I’ve always found RuneQuest and it’s various components to be rather inspiring, just in terms of how a few very simple and familiar elements can be combined in different ways to create brand new styles of play. There is a fair amount of creative detail to be found in the rulebooks and supplements… if you have access to a copy of these rules, they can make for an interesting and inspiring read.
Of course, getting access was a bit problematic for some time. Avalon Hill apparently gained control and ownership of the system at some point, and when Hasbro bought AH up, a lot of AH properties went the way of the dodo, including RuneQuest (for example, try doing a search on the Hasbro site, despite the fact that runequest.com will take you directly to it.) Chaosium no longer even indicates that the game was ever in it’s catalog, at least that I can find.
However, all is not lost! Mongoose Publishing recently released a re-worked version of the rules. While not precisely identical to the version from the 70s/80s, it looks to me like the vast majority of the original material was retained. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy yet (but I will very soon…)
There are also some decent fan sites on RuneQuest and it’s Glorantha setting. One of the ones I ran across during a quick Google search was RuneQuest Realms. If you’re interested in more detail on RQ, I’d definitely suggest checking this one out.