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Mar 06

I Was A Goblin: Reading The Runes

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Dungeons and Dragons is the game most identified with roleplaying, but it certainly wasn’t the only option. In fact, once you’d got into the hobby you quickly realised that most vocal gamers had a certain disdain for D&D, seeing it in very much the same ways Mac owners or Linux users see Windows: a horribly flawed system plagued by rotten design choices, inconsistencies and glaring holes – but one which dominated the market nonetheless.

So what was the Mac in this analogy? The RPG scene teemed with games, but when I started playing probably the biggest alternative was RuneQuest, a fantasy game like D&D but with several core differences. I happened to come into possession of a .pdf of the RuneQuest core rulebook the other evening and skimming through it was reminded of what an elegant game it could be.

RuneQuest and D&D differed starkly in ethos and approach. In D&D a character was little more than a point-scoring machine – his background and personality practically irrelevant to gameplay. RuneQuest offered players a proprietary setting, the bronze age fantasy world of Glorantha, and stressed a character’s role within its (relatively) complex society. The fantastic elements were tied into the world, all deriving from its various religions (“cults”), which were in turn based around a series of runes, each cult drawing its power from some runic combination.

The backdrop of RuneQuest was a series of wars between a Romanesque empire and the barbarian kingdoms it was seeking to conquer. Characters would generally be mercenaries on one or other side – the game was progressive (in fantasy terms) in that it didn’t present either Empire or barbarians as ‘good guys’. Fans of RuneQuest became passionately involved in the Gloranthan setting and when the game was eventually redesigned and it was ditched the core following swiftly dissipated. But for entry-level gamers the Gloranthan elements could be limiting, and the game’s key flaw was that it was rubbish at explaining exactly how the runic system worked. To become a Rune Lord, you were told, a player would have to go on a Rune Quest – and that was it, no more detail given on a presumably pretty important element of the game.

What this meant in practise was an emphasis on less powerful characters: every RuneQuest game I ever took part in, Gloranthan or not, involved weak characters grubbing out an adventurous living. Since RuneQuest rules meant that combat was dangerous and often fatal, encounters that would have been bread-and-butter stuff in D&D took on huge significance, and talking your way our of a fight was often as important as winning one.

This was RuneQuest’s great problem – it made for hugely immersive games almost entirely lacking in instant thrills. Aged 10 I admired the rules and the fleshy warrior lady on the front cover, and never played it – when I did actually run a game, in my mid teens, it was a massively satisfying experience because of the subtle ways the rules encouraged character play, teamwork and so on. In the next I Was A Goblin I’ll talk about the different rules approaches and explain exactly why D&D was such a massive success and so influential.

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