Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest is now out in the wild in hardcopy and PDF. Whereas RuneQuest was pushed as a generic fantasy system for its third edition (developed by Chaosium and published by Avalon Hill), its two Mongoose editions and the incarnation offered up by the Design Mechanism, for its return to Chaosium it’s also returning to its roots as a game intrinsically tied to the Glorantha setting, as was the case for its first two editions.
Part of this doubtless arises from the preferences of the new regime at Chaosium. After Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen reassumed control of the company – as I’ve chronicled elsewhere – they brought in the gang from Moon Design to become the new board of directors. Moon Design are a group of Glorantha superfans who had previously teamed up with Greg Stafford to produce the Hero Wars/Heroquest RPG, the epic Guide to Glorantha, and other Gloranthan materials. It’s only to be expected that they would feel a certain affection for the setting and a certain nostalgia for the glory days of RuneQuest‘s 2nd edition, which as well as being a generally favoured edition in the wider fandom is also the clear favourite of the Glorantha-happy section of the fandom.
However, the shift back to making Glorantha an integrally baked-in feature of the game also has some reasonable business arguments behind it. In general, the new regime at Chaosium have backed away from emphasising BRP as a generic system – the generic fantasy Magic World RPG got discontinued, for instance, and they’ve stepped back from promoting the BRP big yellow book too. Their overall attitude is that they think BRP does best when it’s coupled to a strong setting.
They know Chaosium’s sales patterns better than anyone, but even without that information there’s good reasons to believe that they are right. Call of Cthulhu remains a major force in horror RPGs despite the fact that Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain these days thanks to its strong name recognition; Glorantha is by far the most widely recognised setting for RuneQuest.
Furthermore, when Mongoose had the licence they put out their version of RuneQuest under an SRD (because Mongoose are a bit of a publishing cargo cult and did that with their games at the time because SRDs were popular back in the early 2000s). As a result of this, there’s no way to retain any sort of exclusivity over the basic system – but Glorantha is not an open setting and so the setting information and integration is something which Chaosium can offer that nobody else can. A generic RuneQuest would end up competing with D100 Games’ OpenQuest, Mongoose’s Legend, Design Mechanism’s Mythras and more besides; RuneQuest integrated with Glorantha is offering something none of those games can offer.
It’s also teasing out what helped RuneQuest make a splash in the first place. Although Empire of the Petal Throne predated it when it came to RPGs with a specific setting baked in, the system largely consisted of an interpretation of white box Dungeons & Dragons hammered into the setting, whereas the original RuneQuest had a number of systems tailored with Glorantha in mind – most particularly its magic systems, which have the axioms of Gloranthan cosmology hardwired into them.
For this new edition Chaosium’s main means of accomplishing further integration of the setting into the system has largely seemed to involve adopting ideas from Pendragon – which makes a great deal of sense when you consider that many of Pendragon‘s innovations were originally cooked up by Greg Stafford for his home RuneQuest campaign. You have Passions working much as they do in Pendragon, you have a personality trait system based off the Gloranthan runes with ties into your qualifications to join rune cults and use rune magic, and you have a process in character generation of working out what your favourite grandparent and parent did in recent history, giving you instant stakes in the Hero Wars.
To make this latter feature work, the game focuses on Dragon Pass and its surrounding areas for the cultures available to player characters, at least for the purposes of the core rules, but given that this follows the lead of the early editions and centres the game on the region which has had most development in game products anyway that’s just sensible. The assumed start date is 1625 of the Third Age, a little later than early editions – whereas those were set just before the Sartar rising against the Lunar Empire, this edition assumes your campaign starts a little after that kicks off, with the PCs having a bit of pre-game experience in that revolt.
On the whole, the general approach can be summed up as “like 2nd edition, but better”. (The text does acknowledge the work done by The Design Mechanism – but not Mongoose, perhaps reflecting a certain disapproval of Mongoose’s rather cheap and cheerful approach.) Sorcery is given a thorough revision that gives it more flavour than the take offered in 3rd edition, rune magic now works off Rune Points you get in return for sacrificing POW to your deity (making that sacrifice a better deal than it was in earlier editions), and the new character generation process, whilst rather involved, really immerses you in the setting. (A quick character generation system is promised for the GM screen kit.)
Perhaps the greatest shift in the system is the emphasis on seasonal play – much as Pendragon assumes one adventure per year, the new RuneQuest now assumes one per season, with downtime activities between each season (and the Sacred Time fortnight that’s a feature of the Gloranthan calendar being a time for major downtime stuff or heroquesting). This helps weave the cycle of the year into the campaign as well as nudging the campaign into encompassing a span of time, helping to emphasise the communities the PCs are part of and the things they build.
On the whole, my only real criticism of the book is that they went too happy with the textures on the maps, which makes them hard to read. Beyond that, this is a really solid version of RuneQuest which should set the bar for BRP-based Gloranthan gaming for years to come.