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.


Joel BoardgameRpger said...

dragonnewts are still my favorite race type to emulate. I have made a dragonnewt race/class in almost every game ive played in. GO RUNEQUEST! :)

Quasit said...

I actually made up some additional rules for Dragonewts; they're on my RQ site, at

They were always a lot of fun to play, as long as the player A) had a good sense of humor, and B) wouldn't over-exploit some of the species abilities. Unfortunately the last time I allowed someone to play a Dragonewt, they abused the hell out of the privelege!

Anonymous said...

Go get yourself a copy of RuneQuest 6. Its glorious.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post, Peter! It echoed many of my own sentiments about the game. I've played a few of RQs iterations, but always return with fond memory to RQ3.