Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: Runequest II Core Rulebook (Mongoose)

First, apologies for the lack of updates. I've been afflicted with various health problems (I have something wrong with each of my heart, lungs and digestive system. Yay!) and haven't really felt like writing outside work.  However, the release of Mongoose's latest version of my favorite role-playing game is worth getting back in the saddle for.  Simply put, this is the best role-playing game ruleset I have ever seen.  Lawrence "Loz" Whitaker and Pete Nash have done an astounding job in fixing the problems with the system - many of them going back to the classic Runequest 2 (don't get me started on the numbering issues) of 1979. They have both simplified and enhanced the rules while remaining true to the central principles of RQ and, indeed, Glorantha. So let's take a look at the major features of the book.

Production Values. First of all, this book looks impressive.  It is leather-bound with gold lettering (runing?) although the rune is not the Magic rune as depicted above, but the Luck rune (looks like Pi). The typesetting is clear without the annoying borders Mongoose often uses.  Pull quotes are useful and tables make sense. There are a few typos and mistakes but an errata sheet is due soon.  The artwork is serviceable to good with only a few gratuitous scantily-clad women (not that there's anything wrong with that).  This is the sort of book you wouldn't mind leaving out in plain view, which sadly isn't often the case with RPG books.

Character Creation. The process is simple and straightforward, with a welcome return to "raw" 3d6 rolls rather than the power-gaming options of 4d6-drop-the-lowest and so on. This means that characters will be more average on, err, average and rather more thought will need to be put into exploiting a character's strengths and minimizing his/her weaknesses.  The previous experience system is simple to use and an intriguing addition is the introduction of community in the shape of family, contacts, rivals and allies, echoing a major theme in the development of Glorantha.

Skills and System. One of the problems with the Chaosium/Avalon Hill editions of RQ was a plethora of skills, leading to characters who could spot an ant from miles away being unable to find a slightly hidden keyhole right in front of them. Mongoose's first edition (MRQI) rationalized the number of skills and this edition refines them further.  A few anomalies in the system have been removed and things generally tidied up.  Fumbles should now be rarer (1 in 50 chance rather than 1 in 20), which my players will be grateful for.  Improving skills is slightly easier, and there is a bonus for high Charisma which makes that characteristic much more valuable than simple vanity (the explanation essentially translates to the golf pro paying more attention to helping the sexy girl with her swing).  Improving characteristics, on the other hand, is going to take much longer, and so the race to high Power that characterized (sorry) much of earlier RQ play is going to have to be rethought. Disease and poison are handled much better than in MRQI and should become an important part of play again (yes, even the Greg-hated Blade Venom).  Encumbrance and Fatigue are handled elegantly and playably, and there's even an abstract fatigue system for those who find the basic system too much bookkeeping.  All in all the system seems very simple, elegant and playable.

Armor and Combat.  One of the big problems with MRQI was the skill penalty for wearing armor which in some cases meant that in a fight between two evenly matched opponents, the one wearing armor was far less likely to win.  That has been fixed in what looks like a playable fashion, with the penalty being to timing in combat.  Armor types are also more diverse, with a real ancient world/ dark ages feel to them.  As for combat, in previous editions fights have been alternately deadly or long, neither of which is particularly attractive to players. Some very simple tweaks have seemingly made combat much quicker but also more likely to end in surrender or unconsciousness (leading to some interesting role playing situations, I imagine).  The system introduces Combat Maneuvers that can be used when someone gets a decisive advantage in a fight (one for a success versus a failure, two for a critical versus a failure or a success versus a fumble and three for a critical versus a fumble).  There are also penalties for using the same maneuvers too often.  Size and reach of weapons has become important and the number of combat actions each character has in a round cut down.  Finally, combat styles (such as Sword and Shield) have replaced individual weapon skills, making advancement quicker.  As one of the authors explains in an article in Signs and Portents, these styles could be much broader:

Games Masters who wish to de-emphasise combat so that their players spend more Improvement Rolls on non-combat skills, can bundle together a range of weapon forms under a single Combat Style. To be a proficient warrior throughout history required learning a large number of diverse weapons. So allowing a Combat Style to cover all of a profession’s expected weapon forms saves a lot of skill points! A Janissary character for example could be granted the Janissary Combat Style, covering the use of musket, bow, axe, sabre and shield.

Examples for other settings could be:
Ubiquitous City Militia – Halberd, Club, Dirk, Crossbow
Rightness Army Hoplite – Two-Handed Spear, One-handed Spear, Hoplite Shield, Short Sword
Pictland Savage – Bow, Buckler, Handaxe, Club
Mouser’s Sailor thieves – Sling, Sword, Dagger, Thrown Dagger
Sengoku Period Samurai – Yumi (bow), Yari (spear), Katana, Naginata, Musket
Granbretanian Beast Mask warrior – Flamelance, Sword, Shield

This makes a lot of sense to me and I've already designed a bunch of such packages.  All in all, the changes, while radical, are very much in keeping with the traditional RQ system and should make it much more fun.

Magic. In the 1979 RQ2, there was a simple and workable two-tier magic system.  There was Battle Magic, which everyone possessed to some degree, and the more powerful Rune Magic, obtained from the Gods in return for the sacrifice of Power.  There were also Shamans who could control and bind spirits.  In RQ3, Battle Magic was renamed Spirit Magic and associated primarily with Shamans, Rune Magic became Divine Magic but little else changed and a third magic system, Sorcery, was introduced which was complicated to learn but flexible and potentially extremely powerful (there was an, in my opinion, over-complicated Gloranthan justification for this based around the idea of there being different supernatural planes associated with each system).  In MRQI, Spirit Magic was renamed Rune Magic and was learned and cast via the possession of physical magic runes, with different skills for different runes. Shamanism became confused, Divine Magic required the sequestration, as it were, of magical ability to power it, making it just not worthwhile in most cases, and Sorcery was stripped of many of its advantages while remaining complicated and a challenge to learn to its full extent.  The result of all these changes was that magic had, well, lost its magic.  Thankfully, the same philosophy that fixed the combat system has fixed the magic system(s) too.  Rune Magic is now Common Magic, with one skill used for all spells, and the silly physical runes have gone (although the commendable idea of 'rune integration' remains, appropriately in a game where a character's relationship with runes is central to his/her worldview).  Divine Magic has a new system involving a Pact with a deity, making it more powerful depending on how devoted you are to your deity.  Sorcery has been simplified, with far fewer skills required, and buffed up (although the extremely long duration spells of RQ3 are still gone, and I think I'd like to see them back); there are even effective offensive sorcery spells, which there just weren't in MRQI.  Finally, Spirit Magic has been reinvented, with this animist form of magic being all about locating, capturing and commanding spirits.  It seems like an exciting and, again, playable form of magic that should add new dimensions to games. Finally, the importance of myth to animist, sorcerous and divine cults has been reinforced, with understanding and emulation of myth central to advancement, and the resonance of myths having its own, potentially inconvenient, effects on the player characters.  RQ magic is back, in a big way.

Monsters etc.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the book.  Only 18 "monsters" are described (21 if you count elementals separately), and such basics as Vampires, Baboons and Minotaurs are not present.  I understand that Monster Coliseum is the first planned supplement, but those without access to the MRQI monster books will find this depressingly thin fare.

The book rounds off with a helpful section on gamesmastering RQ, stressing themes like community and (of course) the HeroQuest.  There are also some splendidly old-school random encounter tables.

So, looking back at my post about the good and bad of MRQI you can see they've kept and built on the good, and fixed the bad.  This is probably the best version of RQ ever and one that emphasizes playability while retaining the thematic elements that make RQ so distinctive.  I just wish that its commercial use was not restricted to Second Age Glorantha as I'd love to see Dorastor and Balazar, never mind Prax and Dragon Pass, brought to life with this system.

Bottom line: Best RPG core rules I've ever seen.  More monsters needed, though.

Coming soon: reviews of Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, James Raggi's old school adventures and the magnificent old school dungeon Stonehell.


  1. As an old-time RQ3 fan, I'm still sceptic. I did not buy MRQI and although MRQII looks far better, the fact that if I attack successfully and you don't parry I get to hit you in the head is too much for me. Maybe I'll just incorporate some of the rules innovations, but certainly neither Combat Actions nor Combat Maneuvers. I'm eagerly awaiting the Pavis book, though.

  2. Great review! I'm still working my way through the book, but so far I'm *very* impressed.

  3. This must be the ugliest roleplaying book I've seen in recent history. And people claim it's an improvement artistically than the previous edition? Makes me shudder to think what that was. Very amateurish art and printing problems. The Zombie and Trollkin pictures, for examples, have streaks of white running on their sides, as if there was a printing problem. The paper feels really cheap too. The "leather" is not leather at all but some kind of plastic that arrived from Amazon scratch as hell and very unappealing.

  4. It is proper 'dead cow' leather. The 'streaks of white' is clearly a design thing - a border style used for most of the monster pictures. I think you need to look at the book again with a little less prejudice, and more to the point actually try using some of the systems. This is an game engine with real depth and elegance. They don't come around all that often.

  5. I will try, ping, and try to actually read the rules (although I'm really enjoying Savage Worlds right now to actually want to play another system)... though I still don't see how the streaks of white in the sides of the pictures (actually cutting into them) are a design thing; it looks like a printing problem to me.

  6. Chaosium's RQ2 rules are gold. Mongoose claims their RQ2 to be a re-write of the 1978 rules. Really? I have yet to thoroughly examine the rules, but I noticed it is set in the Second Age (YUCK!).
    BTW, What did they do with Defence in the new version?

  7. I agree with the review. Restarted my 30 year old Glorantha campaign now with MRQII rules but with original players. Everybody seems to enjoy the new rules after 3 sessions. Only tweaks I have done is fix the high prices of equipment and high money rewards in scenarios but this is a nitpick. One thing we have encountered is that in combat maneuvers the select location seems to be chosen too often ("HeadShot"). We will experiment with having the select location only as a result of critical hit if that will help. Combat definitely feels very good, much better than in old Runequest. This feels like old RQ2 but better - says all players.

  8. I have some old Runequest books of my brother who loves historical miniatures wargaming by Clash rules. The cult of Mithras has abundant material of historical nature on the internet due to it being the national religion of the Parthian Empire whose King of Kings was the current emperor, a tradition since Babylon.
    Marduk vs Tiamat becomes Bel and the Dragon, then Saint Michael the Archangel fighting the seven-headed dragon in the Book of Revelation. Divine Rights of King Louis XVI is due to priests of Mithras making a paladin on a horse their Runner in the Sun, who slays the Dragon as St George. The royal astrologer enjoys his origin in Mithras.
    As a half-insect half-reptile soul collector, the dragon Tiamat collects heads to make seven, and other Babylonian dragons have multiple heads. The drained head falling off the hanger gets to be Tiamat's dragon egg for a new evil dragon that a knight gets to slay later. This would replace eternal death with a very long delay for a dragon to get as powerful and as greedy as the original victim.
    Degrees of Mithras are The Crow, Mercury; The Secret, Venus; The Soldier, Mars; The Lion, Jupiter; The Persian, Moon; The Runner in the Sun, Sun; The Father, Saturn; The Father of Fathers; The King; and The King of Kings. Mithras imagery in The Book of Revelation with Jesus the King of Kings is how Jews hunted and killed St. John for heresy as the emperor of the Parthian Empire did not get his degree.

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