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Press Steve Perrin: Creating RuneQuest, A Personal Account

For the RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter in 2016 Steve Perrin generously provided a personal account of his role in the genesis of the RuneQuest roleplaying game. Although at the time of the Kickstarter we publicly featured an excerpt of Steve's recollections, the full account was only ever published a high level backer item (in the RuneQuest Playtest Manuscript) and so only received limited circulation.

In memory of Steve, here we present his account in full as a six part series, offering his fascinating insights into the development of RuneQuest, the rules that cemented Steve Perrin as one of the most influential game designers of all time.

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Part One: "The Chaosium’s role playing game”

STEVE PERRIN: I first met Greg Stafford through his board game, White Bear and Red Moon. Greg independently published it out of a small house near the Oakland Airport. It portrayed a fantastic world full of wonderful concepts like the Red Moon’s variable power, Cragspider, Sir Ethilrist’s Black Horse Troopers, Dragonewts, and many others. The game concerned the efforts of the Lunar Empire to conquer legendary Dragon Pass and the brave barbarian warriors of the Kingdom of Sartar.

The game’s format was similar to the war games put out by Avalon Hill and Strategic Simulations, with a hex map and cardboard pieces for the army groups (actually card stock for the first edition, which made for some fun storage and unit-stacking problems). But instead of the usual modern military designations for infantry and artillery and cavalry, each piece was decorated with Runes, each tied to the type of unit it was supposed to be. The runes were an interesting conflation of futhark, American Indian symbology, and a few from other sources.

Greg moved in the same science fiction fan circles I did, but our paths had not crossed. I was mostly involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, which was really just starting to go national at the time. Greg was not part of that group. So despite mutual friends and acquaintances we had not met.

Yet.

Greg and I met physically at a D&D game a few months later. My friend and fellow wargamer Clint Bigglestone ran into him at a fan party and invited him to be a guest at one of our regular Monday night D&D games. Greg invited our group to come help playtest his Nomad Gods game, a sequel to White Bear & Red Moon set in the neighboring desolate Plains of Prax. I began to appreciate just how much creative energy he had put into these games, and the world of Glorantha they were set in.

Various members of our group, significantly Steve Henderson and Clint Bigglestone, and I helped with the playtesting of Nomad Gods. When Jeff Pimper and I conceived of All the Worlds Monsters, we went to Greg for advice on how to publish it, and he offered to take care of publishing it – taking some of the burden off of us and giving him more items to put in his catalog.

Meantime, Greg thought he needed a role-playing version of Glorantha and looked about for someone to write it for him. For a while Dave Hargrave of Arduin fame attempted to fit Glorantha into his style of game, but the result was still too D&D-ish for Greg’s liking. A trio of gamers in the area, Art and Ray Turney and their friend Henrik Pfeifer offered to come up with a game for him and he gave the go-ahead. After a couple of months, he thought maybe another viewpoint might be useful and he asked me and Clint Bigglestone to take a look at how things were going.

On July 4, 1976, as the United States of America celebrated its 200th anniversary, we were introduced to the first stage of “The Chaosium’s role playing game.” It looked a lot like D&D, with classes and experience points and saving throws, but it had one feature that I immediately picked up on:

Any character can do anything.

All the Worlds Monsters
 
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Michael O'Brien

Adventurer
Publisher
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Part Two: Any character can do anything​

Any character can do anything.

STEVE PERRIN: Fired up by this concept, I started working with this group. I had spare time at work, access to electric typewriters, and can type 50 words a minute. No personal computers sitting on every desk in those days. Clint lived across the Bay in San Francisco and dropped out quickly. Art and Henrik dropped out as I developed concepts like no classes, no experience points, and direct attacks against attributes. Ray stuck with me and I added my old friend Steve Henderson and my housemate Warren James to the mix.

Initially, the game had three character classes: Fighter, mage, and thief. The innovation was that any member of these classes could get training in the other professions at a premium compared to what they had to pay in their own profession. Percentile skills were already involved with the idea that when a fighter got to 100% in his skills he became a Rune Lord, a mage who got to 100% became a Rune Priest and gained access to Rune Magic, and a thief who got to 100% became – er- what would they become? Rune Merchant was suggested. This quandary was one of the incitements to conceiving that the classes were too restrictive. I was soon pushing to eliminate classes entirely. Perhaps too much of a modern American democratic model, but there you are.

Similarly Experience Points were equal to gold pieces, which you had to pay out for training. Dropping XP and just spending gold for advancement was actually a concept Jerry Jacks (another of the Monday gamers) and I had pioneered with a proposed D&D class we called Sages, published in the Alarums and Excursions APA. It seemed to fit Glorantha, so we adopted it.

I disliked the D&D concept of gaining competency by reaching some meta-game “level” that has no actual reality in the game. I conceived the idea of all abilities essentially being skills, and attaining greater skill through experience. I also conceived the idea of having to roll over one’s current skill to attain increase. This was actually something of an afterthought, as the original concept was simply to pay for training with treasure.

A factor of my game playing is that I have notoriously bad dice luck. In one of my regular games these days, the common knowledge is to never borrow my dice because the bad luck will rub off. In RuneQuest this means that I roll high (when I need low) to hit targets and roll low to do damage, or gain from experience. Several years later, George MacDonald, co-author of Champions, asked me why if I had such bad dice luck I came up with a game that depended on dice rolls to advance a character. All I could say then, and now, is “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It still seems like a good idea and several fans have reinforced my opinion. I think they all have better dice luck than I do.

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Michael O'Brien

Adventurer
Publisher
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Part Three: Ha Ha in the basement​

STEVE PERRIN: I started running playtest games of “The Chaosium Game” at my house in Oakland. Warren and I had this nice basement room to turn over to a large gaming table and a ragtag collection of discarded chairs for gamers to sit in. My wife Luise, not a gamer, liked to listen to the conversation and laughter coming through the heating vents. She called it the “Ha Ha in the basement.” When it came time to publish the game, which by this time had acquired the RuneQuest name, Luise contributed a cover and interior artwork that is still praised today.

RQ Classic cover art by Luise Perrine
When we started, AD&D was just getting going, and the main alternatives for those who were looking for something different from it were Tunnels and Trolls, Bunnies and Burrows, and Chivalry and Sorcery. Elements of the first two appear in RuneQuest, such as armor absorbing damage and the approach to some skills. Certain friends of mine call RuneQuest one of the best researched games of its time.

I suppose we can take credit for being the first role playing game that didn’t use a Frick & Frack style title. I came up with the RuneQuest name by combining the Runes created or adapted by Greg as background for his world of Glorantha with Quest, a nice heroic sounding noun.

A perennial question since the game debuted has been “What is a Rune Quest?” This question has been answered in several different ways in several different venues. All do a pretty good job. Sven Lugar, a Southern California gamer I knew from our SCA days who helped with play testing, suggested that you became a Rune Lord or Priest by “attaining a Rune.” Nice concept, just how it is done is still open to discussion.

By this time several of my gaming friends were active play testers of RuneQuest. Some of them have even been published by the Chaosium in early supplements to the game. Among them are Bill Keyes, Gordon Monson, Anders Swenson, Terry Jackson, T.O. Green, and Tony Hughes. If I remember correctly, the Chaosium play test group consisted of Ken Kaufer, Rory Root, and Greg himself – but I may be confusing the time between the first and second editions of the game. Most of the play testing took place in my basement, as I still had a day job at the time and was just contracting with Chaosium.

Our play testing campaign centered in the ancient city of Pavis, looming over the River of Cradles, the lonely river that meanders through the Plains of Prax – providing the only sure source of water. The ruins of Pavis provide several square miles of deserted city possibly hiding the treasures of earlier times. For an overall conflict to establish the background, we postulated that the Lunar Empire had conquered Dragon Pass and sent their legions into Prax. This is the actual prelude to the events of White Bear & Red Moon as established by Greg’s chronology, so we were on fairly solid ground.

Wanting to monopolize the treasures of Pavis, the Lunars forbade independent adventurers to enter the ruins. And so the tunnels were dug and adventurers had to sneak into the ruins, occasionally engaging Lunar patrols as well as the resident monsters among the trolls and Broo of the ruins.

These play test sessions found some problems that got fixed. The main problem was that it was difficult to build a character up to Rune Lord or Rune Priest, so some of the problems with skills over 100% did not get fixed immediately. To test what rules we had for the conditions, I created a Rune Lord named Rurik, whose adventures in the rule book are essentially fiction. He sprang as the sun at sunrise over a Sun Dome temple, whole and Rune bound upon the play test scene. He also died ignominiously on a Trollkin’s spear on his 3rd or 4th adventure.

When we started, the Attributes had already been fixed – essentially the D&D Attributes with Power substituted for Wisdom - and characters had a very small number of “mana points” to power their spells. For the most part magic was Ray’s bailiwick but I felt that the very few mana points were a definite hindrance to the survival of adventurers. I suggested that a spell slinger would be using his actual Power for spells. Since Power was already the defense against magic, this meant the mage would have more power for spells, but his defense would slowly decline. A nice concept but it got too deadly for magic users – so now characters use mana that is equal to their Power.

Of course, the “spend Power for Magic results” concept still survives in the sacrifices a Rune Priest must make to gain use of Rune Magic.

As part of my D&D play I had conceived of Strike Ranks to determine who had the first strike in a combat. It is based somewhat on my experience in the SCA. I ported this concept over to RuneQuest and it has gone through several mutations since then. It was not originally meant to control every little action in a combat round. The later implementation of this idea was clumsy (my fault as much as anyone’s, I was working on it) and I personally have gone away from it, though some players consider it central to play.

Sven Lugar created and pioneered the use of the Resistance Table, which is almost an entirely different game system. It is very useful for magic duels, perhaps less useful for other procedures. Particularly when applied to percentile skills it has a limited utility. But it became a feature of all Basic Role Playing – based games.

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Michael O'Brien

Adventurer
Publisher
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Part Four: Came the Ducks​

STEVE PERRIN: Creation of creatures for Glorantha occupied a fair amount of our attention, particularly when trying to figure out what to toss at play testers this week. Many had already been created by Greg either in his board games or in Wyrms Footnotes, which started as a fanzine supplement to White Bear and became the voice of Glorantha. Creatures like the Walktapus and Dragon Snails and Pumpkin Jack (appearing in RQ as Jack O’Bears – Pumpkin Jack’s spawn) first appeared in the pages of Wyrm’s Footnotes,along with character pieces so they could be added to the game(s). We rapidly realized that we had a multitude of very nasty creatures but not many run of the mill critters for beginning adventurers to deal with before they ran into the big guns.

I am not sure whether Greg Stafford came up with the Troll curse at this point, or it had been brewing back in his very creative mind from the first time he decided to put trolls into White Bear, or before. So now we had Trollkin (another name I came up with, though there might be parallel development in other areas).

We were also lacking some kind of Hobbit equivalent for those players who really insist on a challenge. Came the Ducks.

From the time White Bear & Red Moon came out, and perhaps before, Greg had a friendship with a talented miniatures sculptor named Neville Stocken. Neville may have created some of the prominent monsters of Glorantha by first dreaming up (literally in some cases) something like the Dragon Snail and then Greg including it into the bestiary. Neville’s company, Archive Miniatures, created many Gloranthan miniatures that Greg used to promote his board games at conventions.

Among Neville’s creations was a two figure miniature set of Barbarian Duck and His Old Lady, taken rather closely from the cover of Howard the Duck #1. Marvel objected strenuously and immediately. Neville asked Greg to justify the Duck (anyone can do barbarian girls in chain mail bikinis) and now we had Ducks to essentially fill the hobbit niche in the Gloranthan mythological ecology.

The concept got a boost because one of the cities of Dragon Pass is called Duck Point. It got that name because when Greg was readying White Bear for initial release, he needed names for the cities he had been calling “City Number One,” etc. He asked each of the talented artists who had worked on the project with him to name a city. One of the artists, a definite fan of Carl Barks, pointed to one of the cities and said “That one is Duckburg.” Greg, not wanting Disney on his case, changed it to Duck Point.

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But where did the ducks actually come from? An ancient curse is the accepted reason, but I always favored the story that I heard from Steve Lortz, Neville’ s assistant in the latter days of Archive Miniatures.

In ancient days, a cabal of sorcerers wanted to call up a giant fire-breathing Dragon to assist them in their conquests. However, they slipped a couple of decimal points and instead got 5,000 cigar-smoking male ducks, otherwise known as drakes.

One wonders how the race perpetuated itself, but maybe that’s where the barbarian girls in chain mail bikinis come in.

Another monster was based on an artistic creation, but this time the artist was my wife, Luise Perenne. She created a dynamic monochromatic cover for the first edition with an armored warrior woman dealing with a lizardy creature hanging on to her shield. For the second edition, she recreated the cover in color.

But we didn’t have lizard monsters. We had Dragonewts and Newtlings, but no dangerous just plain lizards. So Rock Lizards were born. We populated them in the ruins of Pavis and then came up with Cliff Toads to give them some challenge in their ecological niche.

Warren James helped with these critters and then came up with the Stake Snakes and their kin. Our Bestiary was unique for most games (though Tunnels and Trolls: Monsters, Monsters supplement had some of this) in that full characteristics were presented for each critter. A player could actually play a troll, or a broo, or a scorpion man, or an intelligent baboon, etc. Strictly speaking players could play dragon snails, though I have not heard of anyone trying it. More than one player has told me of campaigns that included no humans at all.

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Michael O'Brien

Adventurer
Publisher
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Part Five: An Ancient World fantasy​

STEVE PERRIN: One important aspect of RuneQuest and Glorantha was implied in Greg’s board games, but we decided to emphasize it. Dragon Pass is essentially an Ancient World fantasy, not a medieval fantasy as generally portrayed in most D&D games and their ilk. There are many gods and they have a more personal influence on the people and events of Glorantha, just as the early myths say they do. The Lunar Empire and the largely tribal Kingdom of Sartar have analogs in Imperial Rome and the Gauls, or perhaps the Goths of Germany, rather than medieval England and France.

This is why the warrior woman on the cover is armored like a Greek hoplite. It gives a different feel to a fantasy game, and we exploited it mercilessly. We decided to make the game reflect the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. But one of the reasons bronze gave way to iron is that iron is very easy to find and work and turn into steel, while bronze must be alloyed copper and tin. Tin, at least, can be hard to find.

So we played the fantasy card and declared bronze the bones of the giants whose bodies formed the mountains of Dragon Pass. So bronze was plentiful, malleable to magical enchantment, and did not interfere with the special rune metals of the various godly pantheons (which we also created to justify the bronze use). Iron became a Rune Metal for Rune Lords. Very powerful, but unless properly treated it dampened magic. Anyone detecting something of L. Sprague de Camp’s work in this will not be surprised to learn he is one of my favorite authors of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Of course there are anachronisms. The halberd, for instance, is a late medieval weapon. Why is it being used in an ancient world?

Two words: Great Trolls.

When you have constant enemies who are much bigger and stronger than you are, you want the biggest weapon you can handle to deal with them. The only problem? Great Trolls use them too.

The four of us, me, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James, slowly hammered the rules together and tested them in play tests. I handled most of the basic rules, Ray was the magic guy, and Steve H and Warren contributed their skills, including conducting a lot of the play testing. Warren’s Blind King’s Palace was the scene of many adventures, and Steve H took us out of Pavis on adventures throughout the world known to us at the time.

Steve H also had a good ear for dramatic language and he came up with the back cover copy. Too bad whoever set it up on the typesetter misspelled “Chaosium”.

Terry Jackson contributed some very good material on horses and horse combat. Anders Swenson came up with the idea of Power Crystals. And of course Greg answered many Glorantha-based questions. When we handed him a first draft manuscript, he accepted it and said he enjoyed reading it.

One of the first decisions to be made was who got the cover credit for the game. We settled on Steve Perrin and Friends because I had done the lion’s share of the organizing and rules concepts (and typed the final draft), and too many friends had helped (as can be seen above) to get them all on the cover.

Putting that first draft into something like presentable form was mostly my job. I took all my vacation time accrued from my day job, rented an electric typewriter, and hammered out all of our playtest notes and occasional items I suddenly realized we needed, such as the shaman rules, and put them into a semi-coherent whole. There was a lot of pressure, because we wanted to have it for Origins 1978, and the date for getting the manuscript to the printer in time was looming in the not-too-distant future. There were no personal computers. No handy internet to ship stuff from one desk to another and off to the printer. There was just an IBM Selectric typewriter and piles of paper and pints of white out. Does anyone remember white out?

From my typewriter, the manuscript had to go to Lynn Willis, the production marvel at Chaosium for decades until only a few years ago. In those days he had only recently taken up this position, learning how to use the typesetting machine in the process, and I made things hard for him by single spacing the document, but there was no time to correct it. It would take too long to typeset the various tables and columns, so those were just extracted from the manuscript and pasted onto the copy going to the printer, which is why all the tables are in a different font from the rest of the book.

We were late enough that getting the books in time to go to Origins was tricky. We had to bring them as luggage on the airplane – the truck carrying merchandise to the convention had been gone for a week.

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Michael O'Brien

Adventurer
Publisher
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Steve Perrin: Creating RuneQuest – Part Six: Debut at Origins '78​

STEVE PERRIN: By the time Origins came around, I had enough leave time from my day job to go along with Greg, Tadashi Ehara, and Lynn to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where the convention was being held while the students were away for the summer. We arranged for Warren to go with the crew to Gen Con the next month. Steve H and Ray Turney were too busy with their own lives to carve out the time, and Chaosium only had so much money for plane tickets.

At Origins I got to meet a bunch of people I had only known through correspondence and by reputation. Greg had one of his better marketing brilliancies and asked me to make up a list of people who should get review copies of the game. I put together a list of folks like John Sapienza, who later contributed so much to further editions of RQ, and Mark Swanson, the publisher of the Wild Hunt APA (Amateur Press Association), and Lee Gold of Alarums and Excursions APA, all of whom seemed like good and honest folk who would give a thoughtful review and hopefully generate some interest. And they were and they did.

RQ1
At Origins, I had to give some people back their money because they bought the book first, then introduced themselves as someone who was on the list.

Game demos were scheduled in the lounge areas of various dormitories at the University, and navigating to them to run the demo game was sometimes confusing. Neither the dormitories nor the lounges were very well marked. Thus was born the first RuneQuest spinoff game – RoomQuest.

The next anecdote needs a bit of backstory. Back in 1975, when we were getting ready to hold the first DunDraCon, when D&D was just three books in a box and some supplements, I wrote up a bunch of house rules for play in the official house dungeon for the convention. Since, once again, I was the person typing them up, I called them the Perrin Conventions. In theory they were only for local consumption, but several attendees at the first DunDraCon were from out of town.

While at Origins ’78, I took time off from the Chaosium table to go see the seminars. I sat down to watch one that included folks like Marc Miller, Dave Arneson, and others discussing RPGs. One of the organizers of the convention that I had met earlier, saw me and asked me to come on stage. I am not shy. I expected to be introduced as the author of the new game RuneQuest, or perhaps of All the Worlds Monsters. Instead, he introduced me as the author of the Perrin Conventions. Apparently my little pamphlet had legs I didn’t know about.

It was a great two years from July of 1976 until June of 1978. The time since the debut of RuneQuest has been equally fulfilling. I established friendships that are still active forty years later and established a name in the game business that has held me in good stead for the whole 40 years. Even as I write this I have new games coming down the pike from a variety of publishers. I am very pleased the new “Classic” edition of RuneQuest 2nd edition brings back into print what many fans tell me is their favorite edition. I am only sorrowed thinking of the friends who have not managed to make it to see this 40th anniversary of the game we all contributed to.

RIP: Clint Bigglestone, Steve Henderson, Jerry Jacks, Terry Jackson, Rory Root, and Lynn Willis.

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[And now RIP Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin himself. Vale to them all - #weareallus]
 


Jimmy Dick

Explorer
Thank you for sharing this with us. As my own age keeps increasing with every trip of this rock around the blazing nuclear bomb in space, I am constantly reminded of my mortality as well as those who have inspired me during those trips. I only got to play RuneQuest one time and I greatly enjoyed that game. Alas for living in Northeast Missouri where gamers are very thin.
I enjoyed reading this tale of the founding of RuneQuest. I enjoy reading about the inspiration that went into the creation of the games from the early days of the hobby.
 



Thanks for reposting this. I was involved in a couple of the early RQ playtests at DunDraCon (I wouldn't have a clue which one anymore) as I had a passing acquaintance with Steve already at that point (either from a prior DunDraCon, A&E, or both) and I cannot begin to describe what a revelation it was; I've still got my signed copy of the first edition squirreled away somewhere, and owned every edition up through three, even though I was never a Glorantha fan (it took our local extended gaming group by storm at the time, and we ended up having an interlocked set of RQ games on different worlds linked by gates known as the RQ Prime Campaigns that went on for a number of years).

I've kind of drifted away from BRP games these days (mostly an artifact of having kind of fallen out of love with big linear die resolutions like D100 and D20) but its still colored my whole gaming life in ways I can't begin to describe. I'm still sad some of Steve's later design work never got to see the light of day.
 


Jiggawatts

Explorer
I picked up the new RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha slipcase set on a whim recently, maybe its time to break it out and actually give it a try. Having never played in Glorantha before it seems almost a bit daunting.
 


Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
This was a fabulous read - I started RQ2 back when it first came out, and loved the system more than any other, creating dark sun, empire of the petal throne and a sci-fi variant from it. Reading these snippets of history and insight into some of the elements of the rules warms my heart.
 

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