Delving Beneath the Surface of Runequest: Glorantha
  • Delving Beneath the Surface of Runequest: Glorantha


    At first glance it would be easy to dismiss Runequest: Glorantha as just another addition to the pile of fantasy RPGs clogging up the shelves of your local store, but if you delve beneath the surface you’ll find a fascinating blend of wild heroism and ruthless simulation that goes to create a game that offers something utterly unique – so long as the players are willing to put in the effort, that is.


    Much of this comes from the way that the game is so strongly tied into the world of Glorantha itself. The bronze-age setting has played host to Runequest games for decades but this time around it feels like much more than just the standard template for GMs to bounce off, to the point where it’s almost impossible to completely separate the two. Major events in the world’s recent history play a vital role in character creation, different factions offer different abilities and the tone it sets feeds into almost every part of the gameplay.

    It breaks away from the core tropes of gleaming armour and codified magic that have come to dominate fantasy in recent decades and replaces it with something that feels closer to ancient myths and legends – more The Odyssey than Lord of the Rings. It’s a world where every character can draw on magical powers but very few truly understand them; where the party can be communing with the gods one moment and fleeing from a well-planned bandit ambush the next.

    The core ruleset also enforces an idea of downtime between adventures, in which the party are expected to ply their trade, build families and pay their taxes. This all comes with mechanics and rules, and while some may find it a little tedious it helps to build the wider world and enforce the idea that adventures and quests are exceptional events, carried out by exceptional heroes.

    On the subject of rules, the foundations of the system are still based on the D100 mechanic that anyone who’s played earlier version of Runequest or its successors, such as Call of Cthulhu, will instantly find familiar. Each character has their skills rated by a percentage, so if you have the Ride (High Llama) skill at 70% and want to chase down an enemy fleeing across rough terrain you need to roll a 70 or under to successfully catch them.

    While these core mechanics may be simple enough, Runequest: Glorantha focuses much more on simulation than modern incarnations of D&D and other mainstream titles. Every cut and thrust in battle requires a roll to see if it’s parried or blocked, where it strikes and if your weapon takes any damage in the process. The system does a great job of making combat encounters feel truly dangerous, and while this is great for encouraging clever solutions for avoiding battle it can sometimes drag down the pace of the game to a crawl.

    In fact, Runequest: Glorantha is a game that requires a lot from the GM and the players if it’s to run smoothly.

    On the player’s side it demands that people properly learn the rules and commit to the world that they’re playing in. If your table regularly plays host to folks who forget what their rogue can actually do every other session, you’re probably going to have a frustrating time when they stare goggle-eyed at your request for a POW x 4 check.

    Likewise, if you’re GMing a campaign you need to either be happy committing a vast array of rules about how likely it is that a lantern’s candle will blow out in strong wind – it’s a 26% chance, by the way – to memory, or be comfortable and confident enough to know when to wave things off improvise, and when to commit to a ruling from the book.

    Runequest: Glorantha isn’t a game for everyone, but if you’re more interested in the Epic of Gilgamesh than epic loot, it might just be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

    This article was contributed by Richard Jansen-Parkes (Winghorn) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. Caliburn101's Avatar
      Caliburn101 -
      Some useful stuff here, but in parts a little too flippant, overly simplified and misleading, usually to the negative.

      No-one for instance will ever really have to commit to memory a "vast array" of rules or the percentage chance of a candle blowing out - in the one campaign in their lifetime they really need to know, they'll look it up.

      Likewise, it has rarely been my experience that d100 (including all 7 editions of RuneQuest) can "slow to a crawl", it has a simple core system as pointed out, but what is not mentioned is that this counterbalances the detailed approach to the phases of an attack and the responding defence.

      'Delving beneath the surface of RuneQuest: Glorantha' actually takes a little more than reading the above article, and there are some useful reviews already around. I myself am not going to run it, Glorantha itself is where the vast array of effort needs to go to get into running this system in that world, and I am not as keen on the world as some.

      But if the world or the system do intrigue you, look at a deeper-dive review. RuneQuest was the first 'armour absorbs damage' and skills-based rpg ever released (at least as far as I recollect from the time) and it has lasted this long because it is versatile and relatively simple for a simulationist 'game engine'.
    1. PabloM's Avatar
      PabloM -
      Nice article, but that boat is gone for me. I runned a long campaign using Mongoose RuneQuest II (the 5th edition released) but, although I enjoyed it, I look for something less complex for my games (and, by the way, the RQ6 release followed by the RQ: Glorantha release by two diferent companies lost me).
    1. Joerg Baumgartner's Avatar
      Joerg Baumgartner -
      I switched to RuneQuest when AD&D 1st ed still was alive and kicking, because the rules were so much less complicated. And there are no levels, no character classes, with the cults offering magic and a few specialist skills much like prestige classes used to do in those handbooks for fighters, clerics etc.

      A successful parry works similar to armor class, but absorbs damage - possibly to the amount of armor worn on the hit location affected, in which case nothing gets through. Other than shields, parrying weapons get damaged when parrying too much damage.
      Hit points remain the same.
      In a way, your armor class (the parry roll) rises with experience, while your hit points remain static. Armor and magic can absorb more damage, which is vital because your ability to parry additional attacks is at -20% for each subsequent attack. As long as they can penetrate the armor, crowds of weak attackers getting to attack in the same melee round will wear any RuneQuest fighter down. And that's before special or critical successes which increase the damage and (with criticals) ignore armor.

      And that's just the mechanical side.

      The world of Glorantha may appear daunting, and it may require your players to shift their mindset. You wouldn't play a Dothraki horse warrior or an Unsullied slave soldier like a modern member of western civilization. When playing a Gloranthan, your character's society and cult will have virtues that your real life may see as vices or socially unacceptable. But then, how many revenge-killings have your characters in other systems performed, and how many have you in your real life? (The latter, hopefully none...)

      Your Gloranthan characters will tie in with their society. The cults are a great source of magic and support, but they require adherence to their (and their deities') rules. There will be times when both cult and society may be far away, but the gods aren't as long as you characters don't mess up. (Actually, when the characters mess up with the tenets of their faith, the gods and their spirits of retribution may be all too present...)
      There is other magic, too. Spirit magic comes from interaction with the spirit world, and shamans can provide your characters with more magic without joining a cult, although they, too, may have cults.
      And then there are sorcerers. Most of them are tied to cults or schools that perform a similar resource, but their magic comes from themselves and their mastery over the world. Sorcery spells take some time to cast and may be expensive in the amount of magic points required, but they can be manipulated in various ways, including duration which may result in long lasting low-level blessings available to the sorcerers and their friends, or in big-effect magics.
      Spells are defined by runes and techniques, which the sorcerer must have mastered (directly or indirectly), and each spell has its own skill which must be improved separately (through experience in application). And they need to be fueled, which will require some help from enchantments, bound spirits and artifacts for big effects.

      Now about the setting. The world almost perished in the Gods War, and was rebuilt from the fragments of myth and mundane reality that survived annihilation. The normal world of Glorantha is what other systems may have as otherworlds they visit in planar travel - a flat, cracked cube of earth floating in the center of an endless ocean with only the top side breaking out of the water, under a sky dome under which the sun travels on the day, only to disappear into the bowl of the underworld during night to reappear in the morning.

      Survival of the universe depends on your culture supporting the myths of survival and existence in the two weeks of Sacred Time, as does survival of your community in the magics and rituals they perform over the year, securing harvests, keeping foes at bay etc. - and between all of those activities that happen mostly in the backstory, adventure or special challenges await your characters.

      These challenges may take your characters into familiar roleplaying environments like wilderness, caves, ancient tombs or ruins, or they may take you into even more magical otherworlds, to walk the paths of gods to learn their feats or to prevent bad things in the real world to come to fruition.

      The gods are divided in different pantheons, with at times diametrically different goals, but they (almost) all united in compromise to keep Chaos at bay. Some Chaos entities became part of that compromise, and some compromise it.

      The RQG rules push you into the conflict between the storm- and earth-worshipping hill barbarians and the too civilized Lunar Empire which is a contradiction between a radically liberating religion of mystics in an ancient and rigid patriarchalic empire of sun worshippers ruling over an earthy peasantry. Both sides have used great magics in the past, the Lunars to conquer the barbarians, then the barbarians to throw off the Lunar oppression of their gods. The Lunar side habitually uses Chaos, the Orlanthi side has awakened a several miles long dragon that had better been left to slumber.

      Many of the denizens of Glorantha are humans, but there are elder races and minor species, too. Some of them are - somewhat misleadingly - named elves, dwarves, trolls, or goblins, but they bear at best superficial similarity with the standard ones you will be used to. Elves, or aldryami, are walking humanoid plants, more ent-like than resembling the likes of Galadriel or Drizzt, and goblins aka slorifings are a fern-like variety of that who live in hot swamps. Dwarves, or clay mostali, are humanoid tools of the World Machine, endlessly trying to repair the Gods War damage done to the great mechanism as which they see the world, and trolls aka uz are humanoid beings of Darkness who had to flee their lightless Underworld paradise when the dead sun was imprisoned there and burnt everything.

      Besides these Elder Races, there are numerous forms of merfolk, beastfolk from known ones like centaurs, satyrs and minotaurs via fox-women, swan-maidens to anthropomorphic water fowl, and then there are the draconic beings.

      True Dragons can be many miles long and may resemble a hill range while they are sleeping/meditating. While doing so, they can manifest aspects of themselves as so-called Dream Dragons, which have the dimensions you would usually expect to encounter in dragons. There are lesser dragonkind, like the winged but otherwise limbless wyrm, the bipedal wyverns, and then there are the dragonewts - immortal or rather reincarnating neotenic dragons which come in various stages of development and which strive for full dragonhood, possibly several deaths and rebirths in the future. Or not, if they fail in their development and grow into grotesque caricatures of dragonhood - dinosaurs.

      Engaging with this world may let you encounter lethal danger, weird mysticism, walk and experience the myths from the perspective of your gods or ancestors, and just maybe save the world or at least the little bit of it where your community lives. Centuries-old plots are coming to their conclusions while unexpected as well as prophecied actors bring in their own schemes, and errors from the past that had been thought securely buried may be exposed again. But then, your ancestors had to deal with that, too, and more than once, so maybe you just do everything in your power to keep things as they were.
    1. Wrathamon -
      Seems a lot of games use Glorantha ... is that a public domain sorta world?
    1. Wolfpack48's Avatar
      Wolfpack48 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Wrathamon View Post
      Seems a lot of games use Glorantha ... is that a public domain sorta world?
      Glorantha is owned by Chaosium and was created by Greg Stafford. It's not public domain, but there are three Chaosium systems that use Glorantha for the world -- HeroQuest (Robin Laws narrative style play), 13th Age Glorantha (d20), and the original system, RuneQuest, which just launched the newest edition this week (and is reviewed here).
      Mythras is also a popular ruleset that can be used with Glorantha, and both Mythras and RuneQuest are based on the Basic Roleplaying System (BRP), same as what is used for Call of Cthulhu.
      RuneQuest and Glorantha have been around since the early days of 1st edition AD&D, but this RQ edition of the rules is the most tightly coupled BRP system with the world of Glorantha, hence RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.
    1. Jhaelen -
      Glorantha is weird. I like most aspects of the setting but don't care for others (ducks as a player race? Really?!). It was a nice fit for Runequest, though.

      I also recently bought the PDF for using Glorantha with 13th Age but haven't read it, yet. I think that might be a good match, as well, since 13th Age is by default at the higher end of High Fantasy.
    1. Wolfpack48's Avatar
      Wolfpack48 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      Glorantha is weird. I like most aspects of the setting but don't care for others (ducks as a player race? Really?!). It was a nice fit for Runequest, though.

      I also recently bought the PDF for using Glorantha with 13th Age but haven't read it, yet. I think that might be a good match, as well, since 13th Age is by default at the higher end of High Fantasy.
      I was wondering when the first mention of ducks would come out. It sure didn't take long lol. Ducks are a cursed race, and actually do have some interesting background, but they are only a small population within the greater Glorantha. You could play a long campaign and never run into a duck, so I would think not running Glorantha simply because there is a cursed race of ducks somewhere in the world is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    1. Joerg Baumgartner's Avatar
      Joerg Baumgartner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Wolfpack48 View Post
      I was wondering when the first mention of ducks would come out. It sure didn't take long lol.
      I claim first mention with my mention of "anthropomorphic waterfowl".

      Quote Originally Posted by Wolfpack48 View Post
      Ducks are a cursed race, and actually do have some interesting background, but they are only a small population within the greater Glorantha. You could play a long campaign and never run into a duck, so I would think not running Glorantha simply because there is a cursed race of ducks somewhere in the world is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
      I have run campaigns in Glorantha where nobody got exposed to any ducks, at least not in personal interaction. Hard to avoid if you are active near Beast Valley or the Upland Marsh, or riverine wetlands in general, but they can be just local color.

      And they can be inspirational (while silly):
      https://basicroleplaying.org/topic/4...the-hero-wars/
    1. Wolfpack48's Avatar
      Wolfpack48 -
      The problem with any game that is "not D&D" is that it will require a little bit of study to see how things work differently. But the learning curve for RuneQuest is simpler than the reviewer makes it out to be. Roll percentile dice, and roll equal to or under the skill level for success. Couldn't be much easier. If you've played Call of Cthulhu, it's easy to pick up RuneQuest. Sure, if you get hit, you also have a chance to parry, and so do the monsters, but one extra roll to avoid taking some damage? My players have absolutely no problem with this, and combats are streamlined and quick.

      But apply this to any game. What happens if no one reads the rules? You guessed it. Things "slow to a crawl" as someone looks up the rules. I find it unfair to say combat is slow simply because it's not a game everyone has played before, and hasn't learned the rules by heart. Basically, you're saying if it's "not D&D," and no one has read the rules, combat will "slow to a crawl." Well...duh.
    1. Xaelvaen's Avatar
      Xaelvaen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Wolfpack48 View Post
      The problem with any game that is "not D&D" is that it will require a little bit of study to see how things work differently. But the learning curve for RuneQuest is simpler than the reviewer makes it out to be. Roll percentile dice, and roll equal to or under the skill level for success. Couldn't be much easier. If you've played Call of Cthulhu, it's easy to pick up RuneQuest. Sure, if you get hit, you also have a chance to parry, and so do the monsters, but one extra roll to avoid taking some damage? My players have absolutely no problem with this, and combats are streamlined and quick.

      But apply this to any game. What happens if no one reads the rules? You guessed it. Things "slow to a crawl" as someone looks up the rules. I find it unfair to say combat is slow simply because it's not a game everyone has played before, and hasn't learned the rules by heart. Basically, you're saying if it's "not D&D," and no one has read the rules, combat will "slow to a crawl." Well...duh.
      I'm actually quite fond of the first two iterations of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which of course uses percentile in a similar way as indicated here, armor as absorb, roll to parry, etc - with a few other detailed mechanisms where needed here and there. If you know, how similar would you say the mechanics work? Consider my interest piqued.
    1. Joerg Baumgartner's Avatar
      Joerg Baumgartner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Xaelvaen View Post
      I'm actually quite fond of the first two iterations of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which of course uses percentile in a similar way as indicated here, armor as absorb, roll to parry, etc - with a few other detailed mechanisms where needed here and there. If you know, how similar would you say the mechanics work? Consider my interest piqued.
      There was recently a debate on basic-roleplaing.org whether Warhammer Fantasy should be counted as part of the D100/BRP/RQ family, and from my recollections of the game, there isn't much of a learning curve switching between this system and RQ. The Strike Rank system needs a short introduction, experience still is tied to checks or in-between-sessions training or research rather than experience points, and ability-derived rolls and the resistance table may take half a minute or so to memorize (it's a simple formula, really).
    1. Xaelvaen's Avatar
      Xaelvaen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Joerg Baumgartner View Post
      There was recently a debate on basic-roleplaing.org whether Warhammer Fantasy should be counted as part of the D100/BRP/RQ family, and from my recollections of the game, there isn't much of a learning curve switching between this system and RQ. The Strike Rank system needs a short introduction, experience still is tied to checks or in-between-sessions training or research rather than experience points, and ability-derived rolls and the resistance table may take half a minute or so to memorize (it's a simple formula, really).
      So not too far a stretch to read into - thank you!
    1. Wolfpack48's Avatar
      Wolfpack48 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Joerg Baumgartner View Post
      There was recently a debate on basic-roleplaing.org whether Warhammer Fantasy should be counted as part of the D100/BRP/RQ family, and from my recollections of the game, there isn't much of a learning curve switching between this system and RQ. The Strike Rank system needs a short introduction, experience still is tied to checks or in-between-sessions training or research rather than experience points, and ability-derived rolls and the resistance table may take half a minute or so to memorize (it's a simple formula, really).
      I find the BRP system to be about as elegant a system as can be. Simple percentile roll-under mechanics, hit points based on CON and SIZ and extendable to just about any genre you can think of. You can even ramp up the epic scale pretty easily with some simple adjustments, or tailor/adjust certain rules to make them custom to a specific setting. Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer/Elric, Superworld, Ringworld and RuneQuest are all systems that use the BRP core mechanics.

      What I really like about this latest version of RuneQuest (which, oddly has never been done before, even with RQ2) is so tightly couple the BRP engine to the wonder and strangeness of Glorantha that the system and setting are inseparable. For the first time, Runes are a core element of the game, and everything is tailored to a world embedded with strong myth and magic.

      One word of caution to new players of RuneQuest: combat is deadly. A critical hit can end a character quickly. That said, there are also many powerful healing magics as well, so there are many ways to recover. We have found that real danger in combat has lead to more roleplaying, but also makes combat, when it does occur, exciting.
    1. Caliburn101's Avatar
      Caliburn101 -
      Actually if you want the d100 system optimised and don't require the Gloranthan stuff intermixed with it; MYTHRAS is the way to go. I ran two campaigns with it and it's excellent.

      Design Mechanism produce it;

      http://thedesignmechanism.com/
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Wolfpack48 View Post
      But the learning curve for RuneQuest is simpler than the reviewer makes it out to be. Roll percentile dice, and roll equal to or under the skill level for success.
      Well, there is a bit more to it. You have to check for special and critical hits as well which depending on your weapon could result in an impale or knockback result. Also, there's hit locations, each with its own hit points in addition to the total hit points.
      The spellcasting systems are also a bit more complicated than in D&D.

      Still, I've always considered the Runequest RPG system to offer the best compromise between realism and playability. It succeeds where RPGs like Rolemaster or Harnmaster fail.
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