Games Workshop’s Forgotten RuneQuest

When it comes to discussions of the different versions of RuneQuest, some editions naturally have more advocates than others. 1st Edition doesn’t seem to be widely discussed, I suspect due to a combination of a) it not actually being sold for that long before it got replaced by 2nd Edition and b) 2nd Edition largely being an updated version of it. 2nd Edition has many fans and advocates, particularly Glorantha fans who appreciate how Glorantha was intimately tied into the system, and that’s largely guided the design of the latest edition. 1984’s 3rd Edition is a little divisive; some fans appreciate the extra detail it offers and prefer the fact that it is less tied to Glorantha (though the magic systems are 100% derived from the Gloranthan metaphysic), whilst others feel like it went a bit too deep down the high-crunch rabbithole for too little return.

(The current powers that be at Chaosium seem to take this stance, and indeed have taken this stance for a good long time; Michael O’Brien, current Vice President of Chaosium, put out this article on his website and through the Tales of the Reaching Moon fanzine aeons ago back when he was just a regular fan like the rest of us and not one of the Chaosium head honchos. Seeing how the current Chaosium regime is made up of the Moon Design folks, and Moon Design grew out of Tales of the Reaching Moon. Seeing how recent statements by Chaosium leadership suggest that they still consider 3rd Edition to have been a bit of a misstep – not least because it meant that Chaosium lost control of the RuneQuest trademark for a long period of time, I don’t see much reason to think that their opinions have changed that much in the intervening time.)

Then you have the two Mongoose editions, which don’t seem to have many advocates; the first one seemed thrown together quickly and cheaply and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone seriously claiming it was their favourite version, whilst the second version is generally held to have been butchered by editing; it survives as Legend, but doesn’t seem to have gained much traction, not least because its main designers went to set up the Design Mechanism and publish RuneQuest 6 (now known as Mythras), providing a much stronger version of their vision for the game. This edition does have its advocates, mainly from folk who are happy with high crunch and appreciate the wide range of combat options it delivers and don’t mind that it isn’t closely tied to Glorantha.

There is, however, another RuneQuest edition which doesn’t get so widely discussed – or when it is considered, it’s lumped in with the standard Avalon Hill presentation of 3rd Edition RuneQuest (whether that be in the form of booklets in a boxed set, as Avalon Hill initially presented it, or as a big fat book compiling the booklets as they shifted to midway through the edition’s run). This would be Games Workshop’s presentation of 3rd Edition, which came out in a set of hardcover volumes in 1987, some 4 years after RuneQuest 3rd Edition debuted.

This was part of a run of nice Chaosium hardcover editions of Chaosium’s major offerings that came out in 1986-1987. Games Workshop had put out their own printings of the 2nd edition RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu boxed sets back in 1980 and 1983 respectively which had largely been straight reprints of the Chaosium 2nd editions of those two games with new Games Workshop cover art. (The Games Workshop version of RuneQuest 2nd Edition is faintly embarrassing, actually – it’s a riff on the Chaosium art, except the warrior woman fighting the lizardy duded is wearing a revealing chainmail bikini rather than the decidedly badass bronze age armour she’s wearing on the Chaosium version.)

The newer hardbacks, however, all offered something a bit different than the baseline Chaosium offerings. For Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, the Chaosium core rulebooks were combined with the Cthulhu Companion and Stormbringer Companion respectively, thus incorporating substantially more information between two covers and generally improving the offering at hand, and then they spruced things up a little with colour inserts of their own artwork to round things out.

(The Games Workshop version of Stormbringer is actually the official “third edition”, since Chaosium didn’t bring out a corresponding 3rd edition in the US but just kept selling the 2nd edition; they did do a corresponding US 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu, but so far as I can make out literally all they did was split the main rulebook in there into a players’ booklet and a Keepers’ booklet to help preserve some of the game’s mysteries and there’s no real textual difference between the Chaosium 2nd and 3rd Editions. Oh, and if you were wondering about the difference between the 1st and 2nd Editions of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, it’s that the 1st Editions came with the original Basic Roleplaying pamphlet to provide the baseline rules and a separate booklet for the setting-specific rules, whereas in the 2nd Editions the relevant rules from Basic Roleplaying were integrated into the main booklet text, improving readability and greatly reducing the cross-referencing needed to play.)

For RuneQuest, Games Workshop took a somewhat different approach, splitting the rules material of the full-fat 3rd Edition set into a set of hardback books – RuneQuest Fantasy Roleplaying AdventureAdvanced RuneQuest and Monsters (which as well as gathering together the monsters left out of the basic RuneQuest book also included a range of beasts from Monster Coliseum, an arena fighting supplement Avalon Hill did). Left on the cutting room floor was most of the booklet giving an introduction to the Glorantha setting from the Avalon Hill box (the Glorantha-specific monsters listed there did make the cut, however), but given that Avalon Hill had apparently abandoned the Gloranthan setting by that stage this was probably a sensible call.

(Avalon Hill relented in 1988, shifting gears back to Glorantha for a while before meandering back to more generic material, but by that point Games Workshop had already lost interest – all of their 3rd Edition RuneQuest stuff was issued in a stack in 1987 and then they walked away from the licence. Games Workshop’s RuneQuest releases did include a hardcover of the Griffin Mountain adventure supplement, which had originally been released for 2nd Edition as a Gloranthan adventure, but the 3rd Edition version of that campaign had tweaked it to remove the Gloranthan stuff and make it more flavourless and generic.)

The basic RuneQuest book offers a taster of the system, an introductory version with a smattering of monsters and spells and with the complexity toned down appreciably. I freely admit that part of my affection for this version of the game stems from my local library having a copy of this book, which was my first exposure to RuneQuest and BRP in general, and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have found the full-fat version of the game nearly as approachable.

Avalon Hill had tried something vaguely similar; having received criticism of the high complexity of 3rd Edition RuneQuest and deciding it needed an easier point of entry, in 1986 they put out a slimmed down “Standard Edition” version of their RuneQuest along with the all-in-one-book “Deluxe Edition”. (This may, in fact, be the text the core Games Workshop RuneQuest book is based on; I can’t find any details on the exact contents of the Standard Edition aside from a mention that there’s only 10 Spirit Magic spells in it, and there’s 10 Spirit Magic spells here.)

The problem Avalon Hill created for themselves was that their Standard Edition was basically redundant. The “deluxe” edition was actually the standard version which supplement writers were basing their work on, and some three years’ worth of supplements were unusable with the Standard Edition because they were written assuming you had the full 3rd Edition rules to hand. Subsequent Avalon Hill supplements suffered from having to dedicate space to detailing the Deluxe Edition rules details that Standard Edition readers were missing.

As noted in that “RuinedQuest” article on Michael “MOB” O’Brien’s website, Avalon Hill kind of just let that situation persist without really doing anything about it – which is absurd, because Games Workshop had hit on a perfectly viable solution in the form of Advanced RuneQuest, a book containing all the rules material excised from the Standard Edition, which folk could then refer to where necessary, eliminating any need to redundantly reprint stuff in each and every new supplement. Simple, no? MOB takes the view that this might be irritating because it involves flipping about between two rulebooks – but then again, the original Avalon Hill box had five different booklets in anyway, and cross-referencing two books is orders of magnitude easier than flipping between five. (It helps that the hardbacks are somewhat sturdier than the infamously flimsy booklets Avalon Hill turned out in an attempt to produce the game on the cheap.)

On top of that, there’s an important point which MOB’s RuinedQuest article misses, and one of the reasons I actually like the Games Workshop presentation of 3rd Edition the best, which is that by having Advanced RuneQuest as a separate book Games Workshop made it possible to cherrypick which elements you took from it. If you just wanted a broader selection of spells and skills, you could do that, or you could work in the entire thing and have a substantially more fiddly combat system if you really wanted, or you could focus on the combat system and leave one or more of the magic systems by the wayside, or whichever combination you wanted.

Yes, there might be a bit of cross-referencing involved – but the exact amount is entirely controlled by how much of the advanced material you work into the game, and I think having a substantially easier point of entry into 3rd Edition and not overwhelming newcomers with its full complexity is extremely valuable – so much so that it’s worth the slight extra book-juggling. I suspect that most games using this rules set would start out with the group mostly referencing the basic book and only occasionally dipping into Advanced – with the proportion only changing once the group’s command of the rules hits the point that they don’t need to remind themselves of basic principles any more, at which stage they’re likely only diving into the Advanced book for the description of the odd obscure spell or something.

As such, the Games Workshop version of 3rd Edition RuneQuest provides a welcome alternative to the all-or-nothing approach of Avalon Hill’s Deluxe Edition whilst avoiding the trap that they threw themselves into with their Standard Edition, elegantly solving a pair of problems which Avalon Hill themselves seemed to recognise but entirely fail to get to grips with. (Avalon Hill’s split of the original box into a Player’s Box and a Gamemaster’s Box was no solution to the complexity issue: they literally just put the more player-facing booklets from the main boxed set into the player box and the more referee-facing ones in the GM box, so there was no actual simplification and all it accomplished was making the process of buying the complete game more expensive.)

On top of that, the Monsters book included more monsters than the Avalon Hill set, due to the inclusion of the Monster Coliseum additions, and Advanced RuneQuest also incorporated most of the detailed guidance and advice on gamemastering your own material. The end result was a game which came in three handsome hardcovers – much as AD&D did – but where each of those hardcovers was simultaneously slimmer in form and easier on the walled than the corresponding AD&D books and had nicely evocative artwork inside and out, thanks to a range of classic Games Workshop artists stepping up to give the game a comprehensive makeover.

(This aesthetic touch-up was a decidedly welcome one, since the Avalon Hill version had rather pedestrian and uninspiring art, and very little of it at that – even by the standards of the time it was incredibly sparsely illustrated. I suspect that the powers that be at Avalon Hill, used to producing mostly-artwork-free rules booklets for their boardgames, didn’t see rules texts as requiring much in the way of pleasing layouts or inspiring artwork, which only illustrates just how poorly they understood the RPG market to begin with.)

Pitting RuneQuest against AD&D when it came to the form factor was almost certainly a marketing decision on the part of Games Workshop, and a shrewd one at that, given that they were leaning into RuneQuest‘s reputation as an intelligent and sophisticated alternative to AD&D. Their introductions to the books hype up this reputation – not mentioning D&D directly, mind, but definitely playing on the idea that this is a well-polished offering for cool and discerning customers – and perhaps also reflect the fact that Games Workshop’s team at the time were almost certainly RuneQuest fans themselves.

After all, 1st Edition WFRP clearly shows a strong RuneQuest influence in a number of respects (with the Chaosium family of games also influencing the design of its supplements, since they consciously went for “fantasy Call of Cthulhu” in their approach). One might question Games Workshop’s decision to put out 3rd Edition RuneQuest at all, since you’d think it would be seen as a competitor to WFRP, except a) WFRP was not presented as a generic fantasy system, 3rd Edition RuneQuest most certainly is and b) 3rd Edition RuneQuest seems to be positioned as a somewhat more serious-minded game than the wilder, woolier WFRP was.

Moreover, whilst gunning after D&D rarely makes sense in the RPG industry, 1987 was one of the few times when it was in theory a sensible option. 1987 was the tail end of the 1st Edition era, and with the last few orange-spine hardcovers like the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide being uninspiring duds and the game system having not really been revised that much since the late 1970s the whole thing was looking decidedly creaky. A 2nd Edition was surely on the horizon – and indeed planning for it had begun, with the release taking place in 1989 – but even in those comparatively calm days before major edition wars were commonplace, there was still the risk that some players would be alienated by the direction a new edition took. Taking all of these into account, presenting RuneQuest as a then-fresh alternative to AD&D without Gygax’s waffling would have made a great deal of sense – note, for instance, the way Pathfinder managed to pull ahead of 4E D&D in the late phases of that edition’s lifetime, as the muddled Essentials project confused the D&D landscape and the flow of new product out of Wizards dried up.

(There may have been some emotional satisfaction at the prospect of competing with TSR too; TSR had been an early licensing partner with Games Workshop, ever since Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone put in the largest order TSR had seen to date for a shipment of the original D&D white box rules. Games Workshop would print and distribute D&D in Europe up until the end of the 1970s – you can still find Games Workshop-branded copies of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide on the second hand market – but they eventually parted ways after Gygax floated the idea of a merger and Jackson and Livingstone got cold feet.)

Games Workshop would steer away from licensed material in general in coming years, however, and as mentioned they didn’t put out anything for RuneQuest after 1987. Aside from the three main books of their edition and the aforementioned revision of Griffin Mountain, they also put out a hardcopy version of Land of Ninja. This was penned largely by Bob Charrette, one of the co-authors of Bushido, and given its emphasis I suspect it’s largely an attempt to do “Bushido by other means” – FGU having been on the decline by the mid-to-late 1980s and issues arising with Scott Bizar not releasing the rights to games back to their authors. It’s not incompetent, but it feels like a clunky attempt to graft a bunch of extra rules concepts from Bushido like an Honour system onto an already chunky system, and since I already have Bushido in general it feels a bit redundant.

Still, as far as those core three books go, Games Workshop’s RuneQuest 3rd Edition materials feel far more evocative than the dry, drab presentation that Avalon Hill gave the game, and provides both a superior onramp and a better way of incorporating additional complexities – as such, it’s actually a substantially better version of the game than the high-crunch vision that Chaosium initially designed. It still doesn’t hit the level of the 2nd Edition and present editions of the games for me, but it is at least a version of 3rd Edition I’d be happy to leverage for the purposes of non-Gloranthan settings should the mood take me – indeed, I rather feel like it’s made OpenQuest and Magic World a little redundant in my personal library.

Buyer beware: Games Workshop hardcovers from this era have a bad reputation for having sloppy binding, with pages being prone to fall out. In my experience this is not universal, but isn’t exactly uncommon either; I’ve run into editions of Stormbringer where the pages have indeed tended to roam and some where they’ve been entirely secure, for instance. (My hunch is that their printers had trouble getting consistent quality out of their gluing process, so some batches would be just fine whilst others would be terrible.) I have been patient and lucky enough to obtain copies of their hardcover Chaosium offerings (and a few contemporary items like the original Realm of Chaos books and the first two editions of Paranoia which Games Workshop printed under licence from West End Games) with decent binding, but I am aware of others whose copies of those books are in a much worse condition. If you want to get your own copies I can only suggest a similar level of patience: be cautious of online sellers who don’t give a full rundown of the books’ condition, and if you’re buying in meatspace make sure you get a chance to check the interior to make sure the pages aren’t about to flop out.

One thought on “Games Workshop’s Forgotten RuneQuest

  1. Douglas Bailey

    For once I have to disagree. Splitting up the rules between two books was a terrible idea that just made it harder to find the rule you wanted, the layout is a chop-and-paste mess compared with the original Avalon Hill books, and the added/replacement GW art isn’t that great and rather goes against the feel of the game system for me.

    I’d have loved to see a proper hardcover edition of RQ3 — say, the Players and Magic books in one fat volume, the Gamemaster and Glorantha books in another slimmer one, and the Creatures book in a third — but this isn’t it. You’re better off getting the all-in-one softcover edition.

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