Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why I Love RuneQuest/D100/Basic Roleplaying

It was the early 1980s. Dungeons and Dragons wasn't the only roleplaying system; there were already many, both commercially produced and home-brewed. But most systems used many of the conventions which had been laid down by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Levels. Character classes. Experience points. Concepts carried over from the wargaming roots of roleplaying.

We didn't know any better. It was the early days, the good days, and we took the rules and customized them over and over. We hoped we'd find good players and DMs to use them with.

I wasn't part of the beginning. Somehow I missed out. But I'd tried D&D back in 1978 or so. It was a poor experience - the DM may have succeeded in being the most biased referee in history, in part because he REALLY wanted to sleep with one of his players - so after I while I stopped playing.

When I got to college five years later, though, I tried it again. Once again I had the misfortune of playing under a bad DM. He secretly daisy-chained the players in an assassination circle, using incredibly contrived definitions of alignment. But one of the players had heard of another group, and the two of us went over to see if there were any openings.

There were. And they were playing some system called RuneQuest II.

I was dubious. A different roleplaying system? What was the point? Didn't AD&D cover it all? But I was desperate (college can be a lonely place, at first), so I tried it.

Have you ever had the sky rip open above you and a host of angelic beings rain down blinding light while singing hosannas? Neither have I. But the moment when I first started to understand RuneQuest II was something like that. Because it made sense.

The artificial, contrived, it-doesn't-make-sense-but-you-have-to-for-play-balance rules were gone. Classes? Gone. The game was skill-based, the first of its kind. Characters were defined by individual skills, not by some profession which limited your options in ridiculous ways. Yes, wearing heavy armor made it harder to sneak around or use some other skills - but you could certainly try to use those skills, often successfully. Want to use a sword and still cast spells? Why not!

Levels and experience? Gone. Instead characters improved by getting better at the skills they used, or by studying, or by being trained. They could also train to improve physical characteristics. And likewise magical power could be increased by use in meaningful situations. Getting better through actual experience, rather than by suddenly clicking upwards after you've killed a certain number of enemies? Much more realistic!

The system mapped beautifully to the real world. Rather than leafing through book after book to determine the right rule to apply, and arguing about which was the right interpretation, there were a few simple, logical concepts which allowed resolution of almost any situation without any need to resort to duelling rulebooks.

For example, the resistance roll. The concept was elegant, and devastatingly simple. When two equal and opposing forces came into play, the chance of either overcoming the other was 50%. Each incremental difference in those forces changed those odds proportionally. So if two characters of equal strength were arm-wrestling, there was a 50% chance of one or the other winning. If one of them was one point stronger than the other, that person would have a 55% chance of winning. If they were three points higher, their odds of winning increased by (3 x 5%) 15%, for a total chance of 65%. If the weaker character was the active one, their chance was correspondingly reduced.

And the concept applied to almost ANYTHING. In D&D, your chance to resist hostile magic was a saving throw based on your character class, with possible bonuses or penalties from exceptional characteristics. They changed slowly, in most campaigns. In RuneQuest, your chance to resist hostile magic or overcome someone with your own spells was a resistance roll. Compare your magical power with that of your opponent, roll the resistance roll, and see who wins. Each magical combat could be different, and not just because of the dice.

Once you got the hang of those basic concepts, the "physics" of the game were easy. We had far more time for roleplaying, instead of wasting time arguing about rules which had their source in a wargame  - an origin that wasn't intended for roleplaying!

Anyone could learn magic, and did. Healing spells were available to all. Some powerful magics required in-game accomplishments to acquire, but these actually made sense. The most powerful spells came from the gods, so if you wanted that Resurrection spell you had to be highly ranked in your church ("cult", in RQ) hierarchy. Because that was another breakthrough.

Up to that point, most published fantasy game-worlds were bland. Relatively shallow. Kind of vanilla. Basically mild Tolkien clones crossed with generic movie fantasy. If you didn't want to use one of the published worlds, you could make up your own - but you were on your own. RuneQuest could be used with any setting (it could be easily adapted to any genre, too, and would be over the years to come), but the default world was one with more depth than any world published to date. And new material kept coming out. Better than that: it was well-written. Huge reference works came out and won awards. And it was such a fun world! Elves were members of the Vegetable Kingdom, literally. They were plants in humanoid form. Trolls were warriors of darkness, but not monsters; they had culture, religion, history, and grief. Unlike D&D, which artificially elevated human beings above all other sapient races and used differing rules for PCs and NPCs, new species were available to be played.

And the same rules applied to all! Just like player characters, all NPCs could improve their skills and abilities with use and practice. Opponents were no longer cookie-cutter "monsters" to be assessed and destroyed; they could surprise you, have new skills, and even become friends or allies. Culture and personality mattered.

Of course they could matter in D&D, too. The difference was that in D&D, the primary value of "monsters" was as sources of experience and treasure. To negotiate with one was to give up most of its value (unless you killed it later, of course). By making the same rules apply to NPCs and PCs, and by giving those NPC creatures culture and depth, RuneQuest encouraged roleplaying rather than combat.

In 1984, Chaosium (the original publishers of RuneQuest) made an agreement with the Avalon Hill wargaming company. They'd write the game, and Avalon Hill would publish it. The system was called RuneQuest III. It incorporated a major breakthrough. Previous versions had been percentile-based, but used strict 5% increments. That system had mapped more easily to the D&D system, with each 5% increment equalling one number on a D20. But with RuneQuest III, the system became fully percentile. That allowed far more flexibility and granularity. A few awkward rules were also replaced with far more intuitive ones based on the system's core concepts.

For a while things went well, but the relationship between Chaosium and Avalon Hill went downhill and eventually broke down completely. The system went out of print. And it stayed that way...for ten years.

But it wasn't entirely gone. There were other systems based on the original RuneQuest concepts, some of them quite successful games. Call of Cthulhu was probably the best-known one. Games such as SuperWorld, Stormbringer, Ringworld, and ElfQuest also had some success. And some of the key concepts were picked up by other systems...including D&D itself, which eventually added percentile skills.

As for me, I got older. I'd played many games using RQ, and ran still more. Even when it was out of print, I played and GMed it whenever I could, trying to spread the word of a game system that uniquely made sense. I created a website to support the system back in 1996, and nineteen years later it's still online.

But I've grown away from the system in some ways. The main setting of the system went downhill, in my opinion. I discovered that some of the people behind RuneQuest had feet of clay, although the primary author of the rules has always had my respect and admiration. There are many new versions of RuneQuest now, many of them under different names and published by different companies. I don't keep up with those versions any more. Game publishing is a dirty business, and I'm too old now to put up with nonsense.

But I still dig out my old RuneQuest III book when I want to play. It's a bit shabby and it's starting to fall apart, but if I have to I can use Chaosium's new Basic Roleplaying book instead - it's multi-genre now, and has a lot of optional rules, but it's quite faithful to the original concepts. Even now, it's fun to introduce D&D players to a system that makes sense.

And watch their eyes light up.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

This is only a test

Just a test to see if comments are now enabled. I just migrated my blog to the new platform.

"This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test."

"This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the Federal, State and local authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news or instructions. This station serves the (operational area name) area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System."

Just for the heck of it, here's a picture of my son.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Damn it!

Here I went to all the effort of reactivating this blog, and as far as I can tell there is no way to add people to my friends list. Why? THERE IS NO FRIENDS LIST!

Unless I just missed it?
I haven't written anything here for three years, since I moved to LiveJournal. So why am I posting now?

Because there are people on Blogger/Blogspot or whatever the hell this is who I want to read, that's why. I don't know if it's possible to have a "friends list" here, but if it is, there are at least two real and one fictional person that I'm going to add.

However, I don't expect I'll be doing much posting here, if any. If you want to read whatever crap I'm writing at the moment, go to

Hmm. I wonder if this site has improved in the last three years? It was really annoying, three years ago.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

He's in a happier place now...
Yeah, I've moved to LiveJournal - the comment function works well there, and it's just a whole lot easier to use. I've already put up a lot of new stuff there, as well as all of the posts from here. So bookmark the new, and delete the old!

See you there!

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The Shout Out thing seems to be broken most of the time, so if you want to reach me, email me. should do it.

Friday, July 18, 2003

An Immodest Proposal

The popularity of the National Do Not Call List (60 million Americans are expected to sign up) has led some telemarketing trade associations to point out that the resulting loss of tens of thousands of entry-level telemarketing jobs will be a body blow to the already staggering American economy.

Now, I have to admit that I signed up for that list myself. But I also have a lot of sympathy for low-income people who are struggling to make it; I'm one of them, basically. Come to think of it, I once interviewed for a telemarketing job myself when I was young. So here's my modest suggestion to alleviate the problem: why not start a national program to retrain all telemarketers as prostitutes?

It's almost Biblical: force the people who have irritated so many to instead bring pleasure to millions. Overall public health would probably improve as people gain the benefit of more easily available sex (less stress! More orgasms!). And prostitutes make more money than telemarketers, so the tax base would increase. At the same time, most prostitutes aren't in a high enough tax bracket to benefit much from the Bush Administration's tax cuts. Another savings.

Changing over the industry would be fairly straightforward. A set of local boards could be set up nationwide to judge the attractiveness and potential earning power of every worker. Deficient individuals would be sent for complete makeovers, with the cost to be deducted from their future earnings. Seriously unattractive workers could get low-interest government loans to pay for plastic surgery and body enhancement.

Since the ratio of males to females in the telemarketing industry may not match the need for female versus male prostitutes, some individuals would probably also need to undergo sex change operations. These operations would also be fundable via government loans (the money for this program could be diverted from something unimportant, like Head Start or the EPA).

Since some telemarketers are actually prisoners, converting them to prostitutes would alleviate unpleasant living conditions in jail; not that anyone in jail deserves less unpleasant conditions, but since they're all raping each other anyway, at least it would be less overtly homosexual if some of them were turned into women. Another advantage: the regendered prisoners couldn't possibly reproduce!

Another possible option...well, this may be too visionary. But down the road, once the rage of the American people against telemarketers has subsided, perhaps selling could be combined with prostitution. I can see it now. Get a blow job and change your long-distance company! Go around the world and get new aluminum siding! Have a hand job and refinance your house! The possibilities are endless.

Some may have noticed one key group which has been left out of my proposal: telemarketing company executives. But the answer is obvious with only a moment's thought.

They'd be the pimps, of course.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Damn. Maureen Dowd beat me to connecting the string of serial cat mutilations in the midwest and Senate majority leader Bill Frist's admission that he used to collect and vivisect stray cats while in medical school.

Oh well. Here's something even funnier: a mirror of the long-lost Dysfunctional Family Circus. Warning, it's almost as sick as the First Senator.