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Mongoose RuneQuest SRD: A Long and Detailed Review

Introduction.

My introduction to RuneQuest was in 1981 as the first role playing game I participated in. I have long considered it to one of the most superior games available. I participated significantly in the new Mongoose edition of the game, given that it has been over twenty years since an edition was published. The playtest group was not always the best experience; at one stage months went by without any communication from Mongoose. Rules changes appeared to be written at random, with little consideration of the comments by testers or the basic principles of design. Nevertheless, I persisted and was included in the final playtest reserved for the "hardcore" and "inner circle" of testers (their words).

I was a little surprised to discover that I was not listed as a playtester when the introductory PDFs were released. Matthew Sprange, listed as author and designer, promised to fix this prior to the game going to printers. I have not actually seen the print version of the game due to the tyranny of distance (I'm in Australia), so I do not know whether Mr. Sprange carried out his committment. I hope he did, not that this changes my review one way or another. I have no idea what's actually in the final print version rules, apart from what I've read in reviews. I have had, however, an opportunity in the last twenty four hours to read the SRD which shows some significant changes to the final playtest version.



Chapter One. Creating an Adventurer.

Characters have seven characteristics (STR, CON, DEX, SIZ, INT, POW, CHA) which is very RuneQuest. Although not mentioned in the SRD, like all other version of BRP we can assume these are generated on 3d6, or 2d6+6 for INT and SIZ. We read: "All characters and creatures have seven Characteristics." Really? Like Spirits? Forsooth, the empty set!

Attributes are derived from characteristics. These include Combat Actions, Damage Modifier, Hit Points, Magic Points and Strike Rank. Combat Actions max out at 19 DEX for four combat actions; so DEX 19 and DEX 190 give the same number of combat actions. Damage modifer (STR + SIZ) max out at 200. But Hit Points (SIZ + CON) keep on going and going and going.

A simple editorial change (like the word "etc") would have fixed this. Also the damage bonus is contrary to the laws of probability; the damage bonus *decreases* from 1d12 to 2d6 at the 60 STR+SIZ breakpoint. Finally, Strike Rank is based on the average of DEX and ... INT. As one commentator dryly remarked: "it's a well known fact that Steven Hawking can act before Jackie Chan in a fist fight by virtue of his superior intellect."

Basic skills are based on characteristics, which is lot quicker than earlier editions, and varies not only in characteristic value, but the number of characteristics used. For example all close combat is based on STR+DEX, except unarmed which is STR, but range is DEX only. This means on average that the base chance using ranged weapons or unarmed fighters will have half the ability of close combat fighters, a problem prevalent throughout; some skills are based on two characteristics, some on one and some on 10+char and some on 10+char - (another) char (usually SIZ). Munchkim gamers; pick those skills with two positive modifiers.

"Cultural" background (barbarian, peasant, townsman and noble) gives previous experience. Apparently "peasant" and "noble" are "cultures" in their own right, a significant retardation from the more sociologically accurate RuneQuest III. Munchkin gamers; there is no reason why anyone shouldn't pick Noble. They get more advanced skill choices and much more money, although strangely everyone gets the same level in starting language. So much for eloquotion and grammar school. Professions (Alchemist, Bard, Diplomat, Farmer, Lord, Mercenary, Merchant, Scholar etc) give you roughly 50% in basic skills. No "women's work" of course. Some give a little less, but some advanced skill options or magic instead (at a rate of 10% per loss in basic skills).

Everyone starts with an additional 100 skill points. Everyone is aged between 18 and 30. Everyone has a movement rate of 4m. Everyone has 2 Hero Points. Apart from RQ suddently getting an attack of political correctness (remember when RQ characters started in their mid-teens with their "Coming of Age" ceremony?), the idea that an 18 year old having the same degree of skill as a 30 year old is just ridiculous.


Chapter Two. Skills.

Skill tests are determined by rolling under your rating on d100 with modifications according to difficulty and haste. A critical success occurs if you roll under 10% of your skill and a fumble occurs on a roll of 00. Opposed tests are designed so there is always a victor. If both fail, whoever rolls the lowest wins. But if both succeed, whoever rolls the highest wins. Not only is it contrary to common sense that multiple participants can fail or succeed simulataneously, the changing of the resolution mechanic is annoying and will confusing to novices.

The mechanic used to resolve opposed skill rolls with characters having greater than 100% is to keep dividing until both characters have a rating below 100%. This results in serious statistical problems, which is an issue given the fact that the improvement system will result in characters with their skills over 100% in a short period of gaming. Again, the laws of probability are not a strong point in this game. Munchkin gamers; try to get your skills high, but not above 100% as you're chance of success in opposed rolls will be reduced.

Skill descriptions are brief at best; examples of difficulty are usually not provided. There are twenty basic skills, fourteen advanced skills, 16 melee skills and 4 ranged weapons skills, and one magic skill (runecasting); this does not include specialisations, such as languages, lores or runecasting, which is actually thirty-five different skills. Melee and ranged weapon skills are basic skills. Advanced skills are usually an elaboration on a basic skill (e.g., First Aid is basic, Healing is advanced) or a deep specialisation (e.g., Lore (World) is basic, Lore (Theology) is advanced).

Some interesting elements; having a language skill of 80% or higher indicates literacy. Presumably a starting character, with 50%, knows how to write their name at best. First Aid and Healing skill use goes into some detail, specifying how it deals with degrees of wounds (minor, serious, major) and disease, poison etc. Finally, as a necessary break from the detail of earlier editions of RQ, weapon attacks and parries are no longer separate skills.

Parts of this chapter (e.g., the critical mechanism, the detail for healing skills) were quite neat. The basic and advanced skill system is a fine idea and reasonably implemented. The opposed tests mechanics are annoying. The lack of examples of difficulty is frustrating; a leaf could have been taken out of Rolemaster Companion II, for example, to see how a percentile system can provide detail on degrees of difficulty.

Chapter Three. Combat.

Roll a dice and add your strike rank modifier every round. A round is 5 seconds, with a number of actions equal to your CA attribute and an equal number of reactions (dodge, parry, dive, free attack). Surprise reduces your SR by 10 and you cannot apply reactions until your SR is reached. Take 1st action, resolve according to SR, take 2nd action, resolve accordintg to SR etc. Reactions may be applied any time, but only once per "trigger event". Actions include Aim, Cast Spell, Ready Weapon, Flurry, Change Stance - the usual. Roll d100 to hit, opponent rolls d100 to dodge or parry, roll damage, check for knockback, roll for location, subtract armor, apply damage. Easy really!

Some of the CAs haven't been thought through. Disarming actions are based entirely on skill; the STR of the attacker or the defender plays no role (although you do get a +20% bonus if your using a two handed weapon). It's also very easy; succeed in your attack, have a quick contest of skill and if you win that, "bye, bye weapon...." Damn, I wish I used that maneuver more often when I took swordfighting lessons.

The CA "Charge" is another example and was cited as a broken rule numerous times on the playtest group. No matter how fast you are, or whatever SIZ/STR you are, if you can move a minimum of 5 m you can charge doing an extra 1d4 damage. Whether you're a wounded sylph or a enraged bison, or even the Crimson Bat, your charge bonus will be 1d4.

The parry and dodge rules are heavily biased towards the attacker. If you fail an attack roll, and a defender dodges or parries and they fail that roll, you still hit them. For munchkin gamers: If you have a low skill in parry or dodge - do nothing! You are *less* likely to be hit.

Wounds are classified as either minor (location at zero hit points), serious (-1 or more), or major (greater than original hit points). A major wound disables a location and may cause death if the wound is on the head, chest or abdomen. Missing two arms? "Most Skills based on STR or DEX are impossible, though some (such as Athletics and Dodge) only suffer a -30% penalty." You suffer on Dodge because your arms are incapacitated? How about two legs? "Most Skills that rely upon physical mobility are impossible, though some (such as Dodge and Stealth) only suffer a -30% penalty" My brain hurts. You lose *both* your legs and you only suffer a -30% to dodge?

With regards to Knockback: "If a character is knocked back into a wall or other solid object, he must make a Dodge Skill test or suffer 1D4 damage to a random hit location as they slam into the obstruction." This is regardless of whether you were knocked back 1 metre (for receiving greater than your SIZ in damage) or 10 meters for receiving your SIZ + 50 points of damage.

I'm learning to love MRQ physics. It's better than "Toon".

Natural weapons: "They may parry other natural weapons or unarmed attacks, but not crafted weapon attacks." Just remember when that axe-murderer is chasing you. You may not, under any circumstances, raise your arm and take the blow there instead of on your head. You simply cannot parry 'crafted weapons'.

Enough said. Next chapter.

Chapter Four. Magic

In the playtest group, I spent more than several weeks haranguing my fellows with the line "This game is RuneQuest - it is *about* questing for Runes". Steve Perrin, bless his cotton white socks, came to the rescue with a work which actually linked magic to runic affiliations. Sprange publically dumped all over it, and Perrin, justifiably miffed, left the playtest group. Nevertheless the core concepts remained. Go figure.

Now for the rules. Within the third sentence I want to throttle someone. "Characters will automatically regain Magic Points equal to their POW every 10 hours. They will regain this amount in 5 hours if they are fully resting." Magic Points used to represent how much magic you could use *per day*. In RQII you regained 1/4 every six hours. Nice and simple; RQ III made it 1/24th every hour, but noone used that to my knowledge - too much "crunch". But this Mongoose edition increases MP by almost two and a half times and up to... almost six times.

"Take my Disruptions!" *budda-budda-budda...* *rest* *budda-budda-budda...* *rest* *budda-budda-budda...* *rest* etc.

The new magic system does capture some sense of the title of the game. You find runes, you integrate them, you lose a point of POW and you gain a Runecasting skill appropriate to the rune at the base level (POW+CHA) and a runic power. That's a nice touch, and would be even nicer if they included, again as the playtest group recommended, rune integration into things like "coming of age" or "cult initiation" ceremonies. There is no bonuses gained by integrating multiple copies of the same rune, so presumably the implicit objective of the game is collect as many as you can. Unlike earlier editions of RuneQuest, most people do not have spells.

One you have one or more runes you can learn "rune magic", which uses the same sort of spells as "Battle Magic" did in RQ II and "Spririt Magic" did in RQ III. Rune magic spells vary according to magnitude, with different magnitude levels taking a different period of time to learn; one day per level of magnitude. This is, of course, independent of INT or POW or anything sensible like that. "Progressive" spells may be learnt and cast at different levels of magnitude without limit. Bladesharp 10, giving +10 damage and +50% to weapon skill, will take ten days to learn if you have the Metal rune and have learnt it's predecessors. More feed for munchkins.

The runes are a physical focus, and in order to cast a spell the caster must physically hold the runes, which rips any sense of "symbolic power" out of the game. Once a spell is cast, either successfully or not (check runecasting skill), magic points are depleted. Targets may then attempt a Resist test to prevent the effects of a spell.

Compared to other editions of RuneQuest, the capacity to cast magic is significantly increased through rapid recovery of magic points, but the ability to cast magic is reduced, as is the chance of success (cast test, plus opponents resist test). The integration of runes is very nice, although elder gamers will recognise the concept dating back to Swordbearer. As for the Runes themselves with the spells given there is a certain bias. Most Runes are only useful for one spell, however disorder is good for five and metal, motion and beast for four each. Tied to the Detect subgroup of spells, Truth has a variable number. Make sure, munchkins, that you pick up these.

Having one or zero spells listed for Dragon, DragonNewt and Chaos doesn't trouble me so much as these are rather foreign beings and one can assume will be part of referree plots. However, Shadow is a different Rune to Darkness, and "Dragon" is different to "DragonNewt" for no particularly good reason. The one spell listed for Chaos is Skybolt - which is a lightning bolt from the sky spell. Glorantha fans will be horrified; "All hail Orlanth master of Chaos!" Oh well, I guess storms are chaotic after all.


Chapter Five: Adventuring and Chapter Six: Equipment

The chapter opens with a movement table which gives different rates with distance and time. The human move (no modification for DEX or stride, remember), gives a running speed of 96 metres per minute. "Sprinting" (an Athletics test at -20%) will increase the distance that one runs in one minute from 96m to 120m. Sensible modifications are given for terrain and weather, albeit without examples.

The tables for illumination, darkness and perception are very useful and elegant, as are the Fatigue level, effects and recovery rules, although it would have been trivial to add that characters may engage in "Light" activity for CON hours before suffering from effects of fatigue, rather than the suggestion that characters engaged in such activity, never suffer. Exposure, starvation and thirst rules are particularly nasty, as damage resulting from the latter two cannot be healed either naturally or by magic. Actually, to be perfectly honest aren't any rules on Exposure despite the heading.

The comments on Healing are brief with more complete rules provided in the actual skill descriptions. The Encumbrance rules are perhaps too simple; there is only two levels - no encumbrance (less than STR+SIZ) or overloaded (less than 2 times STR + SIZ).

Falling does a d6 of damage per five metres to a random location with each d6 rolled separately. Wear some armour and a character can largely forget about falling damage. The rules for suffocation, fire, heat, freezing, poisons and disease are all quite reasonable, albeit with the annoying opposed test mechanic used in the latter two instances. The chapter concludes with a brief description of the armour and hit points of inaminate objects.

Chapter Six is simply an equipment list; it could have easily been combined with Five. Currency is five lead bits to one copper, ten coppers to a silver and twenty silvers to a gold, which accords with early editions of RQ. The close combat and ranged weapon lists is are mostly fine. The Armour Points of Pole Arms are far too low; if you succesfully parry a dagger with glaive you are likely to still receive damage. The "notoriously difficult" to parry flails cause a rather modest -10% modifier. Long Bows are probably the most frightening weapon in the game, with the same damage (2d8 plus impale), but much quicker reload, lower encumbrance and greater range than the heavy crossbow. Missing of course is the great ease of use for the crossbow versus the months of training required for the longbow.

Armour reduces damage according to AP, costs ENC, and carries a skill penalty. It follows RQ II rather than III in terms of the degree of protection (i.e., plate is back to 6, rather than 8). Characters with SIZ less than 5 will have cost and ENC or amour halved and those greater than 21 will have cost and ENC doubled. Clearly the concept is fine but the implementation lacking in graduation.

The rest of the equipment lists are fine, with no obvious problems with the inclusion of slaves a nice touch of realism. The food and lodging prices are quite acceptable. The chapter concludes with magic items, specifically crystals and potions. Crystals can either store magic points, enhance spells or power. They are very expensive, with costs measured in gold rather than silver or copper. The somewhat cheaper potions either act as antidotes to poisons, healing or to replinish magic points.

Chapter Seven: Improving Adventurers and Chapter Eight: Cults

Per story (equivalent to a D&D scenario or module), a character should receives between one and five improvement rolls, and zero and four Hero Points. For a skill to improve a d100 roll at the end of the story greater than the existing skill rating increases the skill by 1d4+1 percent. If the roll is equal to or less than the skill percentage, the increase is 1 percent. Further, skills may be practised (one day per 10% currently in the skill) or researched (which gives a +10% bonus to the improvement roll). Mentors can increase the skill improvement gain. New advanced skills can be learned at their base level at a cost of two improvement rolls. Characteristics can be improved with a cost of three improvement rolls and a successful d100 greater than the existing value, with the exception of SIZ.

By themselves, improvement rolls to skills would result in progression at a snail's pace. Combined with practise, research and mentoring, the rate of improvement increases substantially, indeed too quickly. Even if a character failed all their skill improvement rolls, a worst case scenario, they would still improve from 70% to 100% in under nine months of practise! Rather than "days", "weeks" may have been a better time frame - resulting in just over four and a half years using the same example.

Hero Points may be used to purchase "Legendary Abilities". These are cinematic skills such as "Born to the Saddle" which allow a person to use their Ride skill rather than Dodge in combat. Given the Riding skill requisite for this ability is 90%, you can imagine what it'll be like. Whilst contrary to previous editions of RuneQuest (which gave "legendary abilities" at high levels of cult-specific divine magic), these are not all entirely combat orientated. Runelord and Runepriest are listed as "Legendary Abilities", with the former costing two points more (12 to 10). The advantages are not specified and are presumably cult-specific.

One example cult is given in chapter 8 of the SRD, "The Brotherhood of Mithras". Example worshippers, cult skills, duties, spells and special benefits are provided. There is no mention of the old RuneQuest approach of "History of the Cult", "Reason for Continued Existence" or, strangely, any mention of the benefits of being a Runelord or Runepriest. Divine Intervention is also described; character's may appeal for Divine Intervention once per month with a d100 less than or equal to the character's POW and with the loss of POW equal to the roll if the Intervention request succeeds. Again, there is no evident benefit from being a Runepriest or lord.

Chapter Nine: Creatures

Creatures with a random INT are capable of self-determination; creatures with a fixed INT are not considered sentient. Creatures may also have traits, such as Breathe Flame, Dark Sight, Excellent Swimmer and so forth. Oddly, "Flying" is not a trait although some creatures are quite capable of it.

The creature list in the SRD is a mere 18 beasties, mostly of the carnivorous natural variety (lions, wolves) or monsters (manticores, griffins, dragons) and some humanoid species (e.g., great trolls). Yes, our dear friends the bipedal sentient Ducks are included. Notably absent are mainstays such as ghosts, various chaos creatures (broos, scorpian men, gorps) and ogres. The latter is particularly strange as in the first edition of the playtest they were a player character option!

The application of the fixed INT rule seems wildly inappropriate in some cases; the brown bear, the griffin, the horse, the lion, and the manticore are all creatures incapable of "logical thought and self-determination". It would have been much better to apply the fixed INT rule like in RQ III where fixed INT represented a creature governed by instinct.

Conclusion

Despite great enthusiasm over a new edition of RuneQuest, the actual product itself must be evaluated as it is written. To be blunt, it simply cannot be recommended. Character abilities are full of unjustifiable limitations. The base skill level is a nice simplification, but with an unbalanced implementation. The combat system, especially the parry and dodge rules and the charge and disarm combat actions and damage effects, is completely broken and beyond repair. The new magic system, whilst a great concept, is poorly implemented; it both unbalanced and lacking the superb sense of wonder generated in earlier editions.

A local gaming store, having kept many copies of RQ III in shrink wrap over years and has been selling this stock (the Deluxe Rule Book, Dorastor and River of Cradles in one pack) for a mere $20 AUD. In recent weeks, I have bought *seven* copies, to add to the four copies I already own - that's how much I like RuneQuest. Heck, I'll probably buy their remaining stock. OK, so I'm starting a new campaign as well. But the point is, I can't see myself buying a new copy of MRQ (at $45 AUD) in preference.

Which is a damn *painful* thing to write, having spent months and months working on the playtest and coaxing the designer to (a) pay attention to what the RQ community wants and (b) pay attention to the basic principles of game design. Not to mention wanting, so very badly, to write up ElfPack and DwarfPack. Maybe I'll do these for HeroQuest instead...

Lev Lafayette. September 01, 2006

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