Saturday, July 5, 2014

More Musings On Preferences

Earlier, I discussed what I like and dislike about D&D and closely related games. I offered some possible solutions, largely drawing on Fantasy Wargaming, to the problems that I have with the game, which is almost by definition the designing of a fantasy heartbreaker. This time, I will consider one of the first divergent variants of D&D, RuneQuest (I am not considering Tunnels & Trolls in the main because I have almost zero experience with that game, it being one of the very few early adventure games that I have not played much at all).

RuneQuest began, in part, as the Perrin Conventions for D&D combat (should that link go away, the Conventions are also available as part of All The World's Monsters Vol. 2 and as a .doc file here). This was a rules variant which provided a little less abstraction to combat, introducing ideas that would also be modified and incorporated into AD&D (segments, for instance, seem to develop from the "Melee Time" tracking system of the Perrin Conventions) as well as the rudiments of the RuneQuest combat system. RQ also attempted to alleviate the reliance on character classes, providing a new system, "skills", to allow one character to be mechanically differentiated from another. Skills in RQ were defined by their function and their skill level. Uniquely, RQ skills were rated by their percent chance of success (though in the first two editions, they might as well have been rated on a d20-scale, as all skill ratings were in 5% increments; as the basic game system has grown over time, some versions have indeed chosen to use d20s directly, such as Pendragon) rather than by an abstract level. RQ also introduced a magic system that was closely tied into the default game world presented in the rules, which allowed any character to learn some magic, but reserved the most powerful sorts of magic for characters who wanted to spend a lot of time and character resources on that pursuit. The combat system was further modified, as I said, to reduce the abstraction by introducing hit locations and limiting hit points severely, removing many of the functions of hit points in D&D to skills such as Parry and Dodge. Armor was changed so that it no longer provided an abstract protective value, but actually reduced the amount of damage that a successful, undefended strike would do to the character. Finally, the experience and improvement system for characters was tied to the use of skills in the adventure, so that a player would choose the direction of character advancement by the choices made in play, rather than by selecting a character class.

Those are some significant changes, but like D&D they are pretty straightforward and based in play at the table. Later games (GURPS, I am looking at you) would start more strictly with design, rather than being largely developed in play, and there are benefits and drawbacks to that approach. I will note that RQ does begin with such design considerations, but they seem to be developed from systems that were applied at the table and then refined.

Whatever, the point is that RQ offers a set of solutions to perceived problems in D&D, making it in many ways a fantasy heartbreaker in the classic mold. I like many of the solutions that RQ makes to D&D questions, but I dislike others. Skills, while a wonderful concept in theory, become, in practice, a bit unwieldy. They slow down character creation by forcing too many choices, extending the process of equipment buying (always the slowest part of character creation - which, by the way, is something that needs to be solved) to the character's abilities and, worse, doing so at a stage when the character should probably be just sketched out anyway. This may be less of a problem for generic NPCs, as their skills may be given default values based on the type of encounter, but that does require many more (or much longer) entries in the "monster book" portion of the game, as creatures vary by a lot more than just hit dice. I've already discussed other solutions to the problem of character abilities in my earlier discussion of D&D, so I'll leave that off now.

Combat, on the other hand… wow. What a revelation the RQ system was back when I first saw it. Even more because when I was younger I never really understood hit points and the abstractions of D&D-style combat. RQ's combat has the disadvantage over standard D&D style combat in that it is more involved and takes more time (what can be resolved in two rolls in D&D takes at least a full four in RQ, and there are more decisions for players to make which also add time). That said, I think that those tradeoffs are very much worth what they add to the game. Interestingly, the writers of Fantasy Wargaming seem to have looked at RQ at least in passing, as they apparently try to address the problem of multiplying dice rolls by combining the "to hit" and "hit location" rolls into one. Unfortunately, FW's method of calculating the column to use on their tables works against this. Speaking generally, I think that my ideal fantasy heartbreaker would draw its combat system from the Perrin Conventions and RQ to some degree or another.

Magic and religion in RuneQuest was similarly a revelation. It is one of a very few magic systems that I feel approaches the feel of what real-world people think that they are doing with magic and spirituality, to some extent. By giving most people access to minor magical abilities (increasing the damage their weapon does by a point or two, improving other characteristics by a point or two, minor healing, and the like), giving the option for more expansive magical abilities to specialists (a lightning strike or a burning ray of light from the heavens! breathing underwater! flight! and so forth), and tying access to these magical abilities to the religious sects to which the character can belong (which provide guidelines for behavior through emulation of the sect's ideals - a far better choice than the abstract "alignments" of D&D), RQ solves several D&D problems nicely. That said, there are other solutions to the magic and religion questions that I am interested in - again, I point to Fantasy Wargaming, which gives some excellent solutions to the matter of polytheistic religion that are not well covered by RQ's method, and which may be better than RQ at handling monotheistic religion as well. The other major magic/religion system that I want to consider (and will do so in more detail in due course) is the one currently called, clumsily, "Path/Book Magic" for GURPS 4E, which was previously called "Spirit Magic" in GURPS 3E and was introduced in C.J. Carella's GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War. Finally, I've been researching the claims of medieval and renaissance magicians to see what sort of abilities would be best to include in a fantasy game (not specifically for this project, but the information is definitely of value here). There's a surprisingly wide variety of effects to consider, many of which are valuable for an adventure game.

So, to summarize, there's a lot to love about RuneQuest, but the breadth and ubiquity of the skill list is too fiddly for a really robust game of the sort that I might find to be ideal. I'd previously suggested a middle ground that might work better, which retains levels for players who are not interested in messing with skills, and skill specialties for those who are.


  1. We never used the previous experience rules when playing Runequest. You'd roll your ability scores and pick up a stick to fight with ... character done.

    I don't really think that the Runequest magic system was designed after Glorantha, but that Glorantha's magicallyness comes from the Runequest magic system. I can't prove it but so much of Runequest comes from D&D variants, including both magic systems.

    1. That's fair, and of course the Referee could just set random values for the skills of monsters and NPCs, but it's still unwieldy.

      I don't know if it was designed after Glorantha or vice versa, but the magic is still tied to the cults, and so tied to the game world. One couldn't just pick up the game and run a different setting, as work would have to be done to write up at least abbreviated versions of the cults of the new setting. Quest World was a good product that gave a model for doing so (still have my copy!)