RuneQuest, is a child of the Carter administration. It’s a fantasy game set in the world of Glorantha, where characters do not just become heroes, but may become gods. While most other 70s RPGs lie rotting in landfills next to mob snitches and ET: The Video Game cartridges, RuneQuest still inspires devotion. So much so that a Kickstarter to reprint the second edition of the game (which went out of print in 1983) raised over $200,000.
So why is a game written when bell-bottoms were cool still so popular?
The RuneQuest system was significantly different from that of Dungeons & Dragons, which was and still is the most popular RPG on the block. But for players tired of rolling D20s and looking for a few more kobolds to kill to get to 2nd level, RuneQuest offered some unique advantages.
Dungeons & Dragons brought the idea of a character class into existence, and it has persisted well over time. Even a lot of video games have character classes, or something like them. RuneQuest rejected the structure of the character class entirely.
Giant of RPG design, Call of Cthulhu creator Sandy Petersen, had this to say on the subject:
Frodo is Frodo–not a “thief” or a “rogue” or a “warrior” or whatever. He is an individual. RuneQuest was the first game I’d seen which let my character be himself, instead of trying to fit into some mold. Even the more-flexible molds that modern Pathfinder and D&D 5e have developed are, to me, just larger prisons. In RuneQuest, I can just do things, and get better at those things over time. I don’t worry about what Feat is next in line, or what weapon specializations are best.
Doubtless, one of the primary features of rejecting the model of character classes was that any character could use magic. What 13 year-old nursed on D&D wouldn’t think that was beyond cool?
Combat in RuneQuest is brutal and informed by real-world medieval fighting. Designer Steve Perrin was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and learned first-hand about the slicing, slashing, breaking, and bashing swords and spears could do. He brought this knowledge to the game. This is not combat as theory, but metal-grinds-meat experience. It’s messy as the floor of a butcher shop, and gives the player faith that the rules represent some grim reality. Sandy Petersen said of RuneQuest combat:
“In RuneQuest I feel like weapon skills matter. I pray for my parry to block the lion’s claw, and hope my arrow strikes home. A single blow could take me out at the knee, and I have to fight from the ground. Combat seems grittier and more dangerous and (most important) more exciting. RuneQuest fights aren’t just running up to the enemy and hammering away–they are almost more like guerrilla combat. Shooting arrows from behind trees, running and blocking, and dropping and rolling.”
And more exciting is always something players and GMs both want to see at the table.
Dungeons & Dragons introduced the world to experience points, and like character classes, they have become a convention which has bled over into almost every role-playing game, whether tabletop or video game.
But RuneQuest does not advance characters through experience points. Instead, if a character successfully used a skill in a session, she has a chance to improve that skill. There’s no spend, and no accounting. Instead, your character naturally grows as a consequence of her actions.
A Whole New World
The cover of the 1974 White Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons promised rules for “Fantastic Medieval Wargames,” and while the game quickly grew beyond that, it would be some years before proper expansive settings would appear for the game. When they did arrive, they often worked backward from the rules to the setting. There are rules in D&D for paladins, therefore paladins must exist in the Forgotten Realms.
RuneQuest worked the other way. It took a pre-existing world, Glorantha, and made rules to fit it.
Glorantha was the creation of Greg Stafford, and had been created by him as a way of better understanding the mythological theories of Joseph Campbell. The setting puts myth and magic first. For example, Glorantha is not a planet. Rather, it is:
a cube of earth some 5000 miles wide surrounded by the limitless Sramak’s River. Above the world is the Sky Dome, where the stars and planets nightly dance across the heavens. Each morning the Sun emerges from the Gates of Dawn, and travels across the Sky Dome until it reaches the Gates of Dusk. The Sun then travels through the Underworld during the Night before remerging from the Gates of Dawn to begin a new Day.
It is a setting utterly unmoored from science and the everyday. It truly is a world unto itself.
It is also one of the earliest games to look at clerics and druids, and consider them beyond mere game effects. “[RuneQuest offered] the earliest serious look at religion in RPGs. Before that, clerics had been present, but their religion was mostly glossed over. Even Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes (1976) treated deities more as monsters than as important cultural forces,” wrote RPG historian Shannon Applecline in Designers & Dragons: The 70s.
There is also going to be a version of Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age set in Glorantha. Pelgrane writer Wade Rockett said, “13th Age in Glorantha isn’t just a good entry point for D20-rolling players to get into the world, it’s a great place to start for people who are intimidated by the setting’s massive background and many supplements. You’re given a few pillars of key Gloranthan lore to build your adventures on, and make the world your own.”
Would you try out a game from the 70s? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature image courtesy Moon Design Publications.
Other images courtesy Moon Design & Joe Mabel.