RuneQuest Classic: Six Years That Changed Gaming

After the infamous corporate drama which saw a new regime take over at Chaosium in order to save the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter from disaster, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen arranged for the operators of Moon Design Publications, creators of the QuestWorlds RPG (AKA the RPG formerly known as HeroQuest), to take control of day-to-day operations at the company.

Moon Design began as RuneQuest fan publishers before, impressed by their work, Greg Stafford teamed up with them and they became the official custodians of Glorantha. It’s no surprise, then, that one of their first priorities when they took over was to bring RuneQuest home – both home to Chaosium as a publisher, and home to Glorantha as a setting.

In fact, so keen were they to bring a distinctively, inherently Gloranthan-flavoured RuneQuest back, they did it twice. Not only did they serve up a freshly-cooked new edition of the game, but they also ran a Kickstarter to put out RuneQuest Classic – a rerelease of the core rulebook for the 2nd Edition RuneQuest rules which were the primary inspiration for the new edition. Stretch goals funded PDF reissues of the majority of the 1st and 2nd Edition product lines, and now print-on-demand copies of the reissues have been made available via Lulu.

RuneQuest may well be the most influential RPG since the original white box release of Dungeons & Dragons, so for this article I’m going to cover the entire line, taking a look at how it evolved from a scrappy 1978 fantasy RPG with an eccentric setting to the rich mythic tapestry it was offering by the end of the run of the “classic” line.

The Rulebooks

One reason why it is appropriate to treat the RuneQuest Classic line as, in effect, one single game line (rather than a first edition line and a second edition one) is that the first edition of the game was only available for a small window of time, in comparatively limited numbers, rushed out to allow for a release at the 1978 Origins convention. With a monochrome version of what would later be the iconic colour version of the second edition cover, and much text in common with second edition, it was essentially an “early access” version of the game decades before Early Access was a thing. Various tweaks were applied between the two – including the revision of the name of the campaign setting from “Glorontha” to the more familiar “Glorantha” – but the systems are sufficiently close that material for one can be used for the other more or less as-is.

RuneQuest Classic is not quite a perfect reprint of the second edition of RuneQuest – the layout has been spruced out and cleaned up, the various pieces of errata that had previously been printed on the inside front and back covers have been incorporated into the text along with a range of other tweaks, various useful reference sheets that in the original had been presented as a pull-out section are instead provided as a separate booklet, some setting description sections (writeups of various cults) have been updated to match the expanded, definitive descriptions presented in later supplements, additional text boxes with relevant snippets from sources like Wyrm’s Footnotes that further clarify things are added in, and alongside the existing appendices various additional articles of general use have been added.

But despite being an improved reprint, RuneQuest Classic is still basically a reprint, and so its quality hinges on the quality of the original. Fortunately, that quality is extremely high. Within a substantial faction of the game’s fandom, RuneQuest 2 is held to be one of the best versions of the game – and it’s no surprise that the Moon Design crew who now run Chaosium are of that school of thought, seeing how they put out Glorantha Classics in the first place. Whereas the 3rd edition worked in various extra wrinkles that many (including the main developers at Chaosium these days) consider to have added too much complexity for too little benefit (especially when it comes to modern tastes in RPGs), RuneQuest 2 hit a sweet spot, polishing the original game’s presentation sufficiently to better implement and communicate its ideas without needlessly cluttering it.

RuneQuest was a revolutionary game for its time with a number of innovations which have become so familiar through their adoption in other systems that they can seem like old hat. One thing which stood out was the way it was tied to a particular setting. (It wasn’t the first to do this – Empire of the Petal Throne preceded it – but this was still far from the norm when it first came out.) I would even argue that this setting dependency has helped keep this edition of the game relevant to this day. Whilst later versions of the game went in a more generic direction, this could feel a little empty – as I’ve noted before, there’s enough generic fantasy RPGs out there built on RuneQuest-like principles that choosing one over another comes mostly down to personal choice, after all, and RuneQuest’s particular magic systems, having been cooked up to support the metaphysics of the game’s setting, feel much more flavourful and intuitive when deployed in the context they were developed for.

The setting of RuneQuest is the fantasy world of Glorantha, the brainchild of Greg Stafford. Unlike some RPGs with a built-in setting where it’s clear that the developers made the setting up as almost as an afterthought, Glorantha benefitted from being tinkered with by Stafford for over a decade before RuneQuest came out, Greg having started developing the world for his own personal pleasure and to work through some of his ideas about mythology in 1966 and using it as the basis for the White Bear and Red Moon boardgame in 1975.

Glorantha has a distinctive cosmology, differing in several radical respects from the material universe we live in, and an ornate history along with it. To avoid overwhelming players and referees, the core RuneQuest rulebook focuses its setting information on a particular area and era of Glorantha. It is the Third Age of the world, and the Lunar Empire – ruled over by its Red Goddess, a lunar deity mistrusted by many due to there being a whiff of cosmic Chaos about her nature – is expanding its territory into the ancient realm of Dragon Pass and the lands of Prax beyond it. The default assumption of RuneQuest 2 is that player characters will be adventuring in the region of Dragon Pass and Prax, during the era of the pushback against the Lunar occupiers – one of the flashpoints of the era-ending conflict known as the Hero Wars.

Players are encouraged to give their characters a stake in this Bronze Age-inspired setting during character generation by accepting training from various guilds or cults, who are keen to train adventurers to undertake the difficult tasks facing the groups in question, but who of course aren’t just going to offer their help for free. Thus, characters are likely to start out in debt to a certain extent, which gives them a motivation to adventure, and are also likely to start out with links to groups within the campaign setting.

Of these groups, the cults of RuneQuest are the most memorable part of the setting for many, and for good reason; there’s excellent reasons to cultivate relationships with cults, since they can offer training in various skills and access to various types of magic, and at the same time they also have rich histories and theological outlooks. This incentivises players to not only have their characters join such cults, but to also have their characters properly engage with the cult so as to advance within it and thus gain access to more benefits.

In a sharp break from many previous RPGs, characters in RuneQuest are not forced into limited niches based on character classes and/or character level. Baseline chances with various skills are derived from your rolled characteristics and then can be increased either through training or through successful use of skills during play (like in the Elder Scrolls games, whose designers were inspired by RuneQuest when coming up with this system). Thus, anyone can learn a bit of magic, anyone can learn some combat-related skills, and nobody is locked out of learning any capability provided that they can acquire the appropriate training and, when it comes to magic, entry into the relevant cult.

Another important RuneQuest development was the way it presented a standardised resolution mechanic for anything characters in the game may attempt. Whereas many previous RPGs had followed the lead of Dungeons & Dragons in having sometimes wildly differing procedures for action resolution, in RuneQuest you simply select a skill or attribute appropriate to the task at hand, roll percentile dice, and try to get equal to or less than your rating. Opposed rolls (for instance, when one character’s willpower is set against another in a contest of magic) are handled by comparing the relevant attributes and making an appropriate percentile roll.

Interestingly, when looking at the 1st edition rulebook it’s apparent that Chaosium might not have realised at the time just how powerful that unified skill system actually was – the original character sheet doesn’t even have a skill list, just an “Abilities” section for you to write in your non-combat skills. John Sapienza would later design the character sheet which was provided in 2nd edition, with the skill categories and the skills they govern now explicitly printed on the sheet. It seems likely that early feedback and play revealed that a) skills were important to the game and b) the skill system was a key part of the formula.

Yet another useful RuneQuest contribution is the way that non-player characters and monsters are built with the same stats as player characters. In some games this can become unwieldy, but fortunately character statistics are simple enough in RuneQuest so as to keep this viable. This is useful for two reasons. The first is that it helps support a range of methods of dealing with opponents and creatures. In games like Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls opposing forces are statted out only in terms of their combat capabilities and maybe their general level of intelligence, so if you have to work out (say) whether a particular orc is more or less dextrous than your party’s thief you end up having to wing it and it’s very easy to fall into the assumption that such opponents just exist for player characters to fight and kill. Conversely, not only will a walktopus, broo, or duck’s characteristics in RuneQuest tell you just as much about them as a player character’s characteristics will tell you about the player character, but also the fact that they are not defined solely by their combat capabilities means that combat stops being the default assumption and is merely one option of many – a common option in an action-packed game, but still an option rather than an expectation.

This is particularly good because RuneQuest combat can be quite brutal. Steve Perrin based the system on his experience in reenactment fighting, and some of its assumptions do ring true – shields are very handy to have, for instance, and there is a stark difference between a simple hit which just wears someone down a bit and an impaling thrust which does serious damage to someone.

In addition, as well as being built along similar lines to player characters, monsters were also generated like player characters, with statistics generated by appropriate dice rolls. Not only did this drive home the idea that monsters are people too, but it also meant that whilst you could just take the average roll to get a perfectly average example of a particular species, all species included a fair amount of variation, further encouraging away from the D&D-inspired tendency to treat all orc footsoldiers as basically the same as all other orc footsoldiers.

The combination of a strong setting, a unified resolution mechanic, in-setting organisations designed to give player characters a stake in the world, a character creation and development system that avoids the class-and-level-based pigeonholing of many Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games, and opponents that are just as detailed in system terms as the player characters presents a model which many roleplaying games follow to this day. For instance, although the specifics of its die-rolling system are very different, Vampire: the Masquerade took on all of these ideas and acknowledged the influence of RuneQuest at the back of its 1st Edition; if you listed all the games which either directly picked up these ideas from RuneQuest or came to them second-hand from subsequent major releases like Vampire (or its predecessor Ars Magica) you would be looking at a sizable chunk of the traditional tabletop RPGs out there.

In fact, if you expanded your list to include games which just picked up a subset of those ideas – like how recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons have taken onboard on the concept of a unified resolution mechanic and giving full stats to monsters – then you’re looking at more or less every significant RPG published in the last few decades which wasn’t some sort of very high-concept indie game undertaking extensive experiments with the tabletop RPG format taking at least some inspiration from RuneQuest – if not in the execution, at least in the approach.

Whilst RuneQuest isn’t perfect (some of the rules explanations are a bit brief, though fortunately extensive examples are offered throughout the game in sidebars to help you out), the particular combination of major improvements to the tabletop RPG format it offered remained an important basis for subsequent game design. At the very least, I would say that if you were designing a tabletop RPG to be played along the standard omniscient referee/players each controlling a player character model, you would be well advised to take a look at the major RuneQuest innovations and, if you don’t take them up, at least make sure you are doing so for a compelling reason rather than being different for the sake of it.

(For instance, if you aren’t using a unified resolution mechanic, what are you trying to accomplish that justifies making your system that much more cluttered up? If you aren’t providing a strong and interesting campaign setting with your game, are your rules really interesting enough by themselves to get people’s interest? If you aren’t providing something along the lines of RuneQuest’s cults or Vampire’s Clans to give player characters an instant hook in the setting, are you going to provide something else, or are you specifically going for a game where the player characters are strangers in a strange land who have little or no pre-existing entanglements and develop stakes in the setting during play?)

To conclude, along with the original edition of Traveller, I would say that RuneQuest was one of the few RPGs from the 1970s to seriously raise the bar and set new standards of best practice when it came to RPG design. On top of being of great historical interest and an exemplar of great game design, RuneQuest Classic is also a highly atmospheric game that’s easy to pick up the basics of, and provides enough interesting details and possibilities in its surprisingly brief page count to offer years of exciting play.

The Pre-Rolled Character and Creature Collections

The earliest support material for RuneQuest 1st Edition consisted of a series of little booklets – Trolls and TrollkinCreatures of Chaos 1 (there was no 2), and Militia & Mercenaries, which all predominantly consist of big lists of pregenerated characters cranked out by Ray Turney. The idea was that this allowed referees to have some instant foes to drop into the game, avoiding the need to generate NPCs on the fly by stat-rolling but also providing more varied fare than just using average stats would. This is the sort of thing which was doubtless useful at the time, but simply wouldn’t be that viable these days, when it’s much more viable to call up an online dice-roller and get an instant statline.

That said, each of those booklets included a little extra something that gives them a little more enduring interest. For instance, Trolls and Trollkin contains a mini-essay by Greg Stafford on the history of the trolls, which proves to be somewhat deeper and more interesting than you would expect (and vastly more detailed than most monster cultures in RPGs of the time), encouraging by its very presence the use of these monsters with a little more love and nuance than simply tossing them out there to be hacked up by players. (In particular, it provides instant context for trolls in the Dragon Pass region – because they opposed the corrupt Empire of the Wyrms’ Friends and sided with the dragons in the Dragonkill War, when the Wyrms’ so-called Friends suffered the consequences of their tampering with draconic powers, trolls were able to enter Dragon Pass during that time when other races, such as humans, were excluded from it.)

Creatures of Chaos 1 is similar but has less of a meaty essay – instead, there’s brief discussions from Greg of what Scorpion Men and Broos are (answer: nothing nice) and Geedunk Dungeon, a little mini-dungeon which was originally slated for inclusion in the 1st edition of RuneQuest but was pulled for lack of time. It is notable that it was decided not to include it in the 2nd edition – Chaosium perhaps realising already that the game had potential for more than the old school dungeon-crawling these early supplements tended to assume would be the focus of play, and not wanting to bake in a dungeon adventure into the core book which would give the opposite impression.

Militia & Mercenaries, rather than reeling off bunches of individuals, presents balanced groups of, well, militiafolk and mercenaries. It also debuted the redesigned character sheets and other forms for RuneQuest designed by John Sapienza, which became the standard in the 2nd edition of the game.

Whilst the Sapienza character sheets would survive into the 2nd edition era, the “prerolled character” supplement format would not survive long. 1980 saw the release of Foes, a thicker (80 page) booklet of prerolled stats produced by David Forthoffer. A slim 16-page condensed version, retitled Fangs, was one of the booklets included in the boxed set version of RuneQuest 2nd Edition; the other books in the box being the original Basic Roleplaying booklet that gave the Chaosium house system its name, the core RuneQuest 2nd Edition rulebook, and the adventure Apple Lane described below. Foes and Fangs lacked any interesting essay content, and so are vastly less interesting to modern gamers than the other prerolled creature and character booklets; Chaosium have simply not bothered to reproduce them for the reprint line, and I don’t really blame them for not investing the time in doing so.

The Early Adventure Booklets

Though RuneQuest has come to be prized for promoting a more thoughtful, culturally-immersed style of play than the likes of D&D or Tunnels & Trolls specialised in, part of the difficulty of pioneering this sort of thing is that when you’re breaking new ground, all the examples you have to draw on were built on the old ground. This is especially apparent in Balastor’s Barracks, the earliest adventure module for RuneQuest, which is at its heart a simplistic dungeon crawl written mainly by Steve Henderson (with contributions from Warren James and Steve Perrin), notable mainly for being set in the ruined section of Pavis, a major city of Prax and hub of adventure. As we will see, Pavis and the associated sprawl of the Big Rubble would get a much more expansive treatment later on.

Balastor’s BarracksTrolls & TrollkinCreatures of Chaos 1, and Balastor’s Barracks form four components of the Old School Resource Pack, a compilation in the RuneQuest Classic line of very early, very OSR-ish products in the RuneQuest line which don’t really reflect where the line evolved after its earliest days. Rather than providing much in the way of bonus material in these supplements, they are merely printed in a manner matching as closely as possible the original release.

That isn’t to say there isn’t anything new in the Resource Pack: rounding it out is The Sea Cave. This makes its debut here, but is presented in a design consistent with the other supplements in the resource pack. The Sea Cave is another dungeon adventure, this time penned by Greg Stafford, detailing an interesting site on the coast of Prax. The early sections of the module are relatively developed, but the latter section is highly incomplete with only a few notes on what might be there, and the maps are clearly hand-drawn.

Stafford worked on this into 1979, before he decided to shelve it in favour of other projects; this was likely the right call, since other RuneQuest releases soon pushed the game forward and meant this would have looked like a throwback. The text was thought lost after this, but when Moon Design took over Chaosium it was discovered stashed away in the depths of Chaosium’s decades of accumulated paperwork. Here, Chaosium have done an excellent job of reproducing the extremely rudimentary but quaintly charming style of the 1st edition RuneQuest supplements, and given how simplistic The Sea Cave is at the stage of development it is presented at I feel like presenting it here was the right call.

Perhaps part of the reason Greg abandoned The Sea Cave was that he had already managed to move past its design principles in one of his other projects. Apple Lane, which has benefitted from a tidy-up for its RuneQuest Classic presentation and is an appreciably meatier affair than Balastor’s Barracks or The Sea Cave. It bills itself on the front cover as offering “two beginning scenarios”, and in keeping with this beginner-friendly ethos it bears charmingly cartoonish cover and interior pieces by William Church (who’d deliver a similarly flavourful cover for the first printing of Snakepipe Hollow). Artwork for Gloranthan products would soon skew substantially more serious in tone and execution, but I admit to liking Church’s style a lot – for one thing, it’s true to a lot of the details of the setting, despite its simple execution. More importantly, it makes it look more charming and approachable, which I think is important for a setting which can tend to have a reputation as being rather difficult to get your teeth into.

Top billing on the cover is given to the full scenarios, Gringle’s Pawnshop and The Rainbow Mounds, but what comes before them should not be overlooked. Welcome To Apple Lane presents an overview of the titular village, and includes sufficient information and colourful NPCs to ensure that Apple Lane can be a memorable home base for characters even after they have tackled the two adventures here, whilst Tribal Initiation encourages referees to run their players’ characters through their initiation into adulthood at the start of the campaign, an early glimmer of the emphasis on community life which would later be considered a hallmark of RuneQuest and a central pillar of the present edition.

This represents an early instance of RuneQuest adventure material which simultaneously presents an interesting scenario for immediate play but isn’t as “fire-and-forget” as some dungeoneering modules can be, providing instead the basis for extensive further play; again, the scenario collections for the current edition build on this approach, as do many recent Call of Cthulhu supplements and releases, and I consider it a characteristic of classic-period Chaosium design which fell by the wayside a bit and is now thankfully being re-emphasised by the new management.

As for the scenarios themselves, Gringle’s Pawnshop has the PCs hired to defend the establishment in question, with Gringle and his opera-singing duck assistant Quackjohn needing to leave in order to perform various observances required of them by the Issaries cult but expecting an attack from a tribe of angry baboons. It’s essentially a siege scenario, with a sequence of events programmed out beforehand and an outcome which will largely depend both on the preparations the PCs make as well as how they respond both to the expected attack and unexpected complications, but this is rather innovative for a time when most scenarios out there – both for RuneQuest and for fantasy RPGs in general – were still largely dungeon crawls.

The Rainbow Mounds is a dungeon crawl, in fact, but one with a number of distinctly Gloranthan twists – including golden opportunities to befriend potential allies, and reasons to go adventure there which aren’t just “bust into a place where some creatures live, exterminate them, and steal their stuff”. In particular, the text makes it clear that the Dark Troll Whiteye, whose gang of trollkin followers have taken to banditry in the region, is a renegade who is disliked by other Dark Trolls as well, and that in the past Apple Lane has had a more positive relationship with the troll peoples, who sometimes stay at the local inn or use the Temple of All Gods for some of their rituals. This not only makes it clear that these trolls are being a menace to people are aggressors whose activities need to be stopped, but also that this is not the universal conditions of trolls and more positive relations are possible and desirable.

Apple Lane is not perfect; there are some unfortunate gender assumptions made where it is explicitly stated that none of the women are capable warriors, for instance. The updated version of Apple Lane that appears in the current edition’s GM screen pack, as well as providing all-new adventures and presenting the village some 12 years after its depiction here, makes sure to include some badass warrior woman (and a man who is an initiate of the Ernalda earth-mother cult), which is in keeping with Greg’s own thoughts on gender in Glorantha developing over the years as well Greg adopting a more consciously inclusive approach to RPGs. (See, for instance, how editions of Pendragon from the 4th edition onwards have explicitly said it’s OK to have women as knights in your campaign.)

Still, whilst it has some blemishes of its time, by the standards of its time it’s pretty good. It is no surprise that out of all of the adventure booklets that came out for 1st Edition RuneQuestApple Lane was the one which is the most celebrated, and was kept prominent in the game line – bundled into the 2nd Edition boxed set, revisited in subsequent editions of RuneQuest and other Gloranthan RPGs, and now made available again in the RuneQuest Classic line.

1979 would see the release of the last of this terser style of adventure supplement (at least from Chaosium themselves – Judge’s Guild would put out a few). Snake Pipe Hollow was worked up by Greg Stafford and Rudy Kraft, and is about as epic a dungeon crawl as the game would produce; again, though, there’s some distinctive twists. Again, compelling reasons are given for going to the dungeon – in fact, a whole plethora of different adventure seeds which might point characters in that direction are offered, to allow referees to fine-tune it for their own campaign. A history not just of the locale but the region around it is offered, and the maps make sure to contexualise where the wilderness about the Hollow is within the wider scope of Dragon Pass. Once more, there are allies to be made as well as foes to be faced, and said allies have their own priorities and interests.

Furthermore, Snakepipe Hollow is an early example of the idea later expressed by OSR designers of the dungeon not being a mundane piece of ordinary (if unusual) architecture and/or natural cave systems, but instead a mythic underworld. Specifically, the Hollow is a wound in Glorantha left in the wake of the battle of I Fought We Won – the great conflict at the cusp of the dawn of Time when the folk of the world forced back the hordes of Chaos who threatened to undo reality altogether. (Chaos in Glorantha has a certain overlap with Chaos in the various Warhammer game lines – unsurprisingly, given that Games Workshop was a Chaosium licensee, put out RuneQuest and miniatures for it in the UK, and adopted the broo wholesale as Chaos Beastmen.) Hideous things of Chaos sometimes burst through from there, magical things from the mythic age are there to be recovered; real Campbellian monomyth stuff. The RuneQuest Classic edition incorporates a composite map of the entire dungeon.

The Cult Supplements

The publication of Cults of Prax in 1979, coinciding with the release of 2nd Edition RuneQuest (the design of its back cover is even consistent with the back of the 2nd Edition rulebook), was a game changer. The importance of this supplement to RuneQuest – and its influence on the hobby as a whole – can’t be underestimated. Produced by Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford, it offering a brace of religions followed on the plain of Prax (including those introduced by other cultures – there’s a particularly good overlap with the cultures of Dragon Pass), the fifteen example cults in the book not only offer a deep look at the cosmology and mythology of Glorantha (albeit with a theistic slant), but also provided the strongest possible hint that player characters were seriously disadvantaging themselves if they didn’t engage with the religions of the setting (particularly since you can conceivably engage with multiple cults to gain additional benefits).

This latter point is crucial. If anyone was confused as to what RuneQuest was “about”, Cults of Prax gave a clear answer: it’s about characters engaging with the mythic underpinnings of their world so as to face the crises of their present time. A further strong example is offered by the running tale presented in the sidebars: The Travels of Biturian Varosh. This is the diary of a devotee of Issaries, the trade god, as he and his companions undertake a trading expedition across Prax and have associated adventures. Each cult description is accompanied by an episode from the diary in which followers of the deity in question play an important part. This is incredibly useful because whilst the cult writeups offer a somewhat dry summary of the cult’s beliefs, practices and taboos, these little stories offer insights into how adherents of these cults might interact in practice – and thus interweaves the cults into the cultures of Prax and its geography. (There’s even a map showing the layout of Prax, further emphasising that culture and geography and religious practice are closely interrelated things in Glorantha.)

Games promoting themselves as being more “mature” or “sophisticated” or “serious” than standard Dungeons & Dragons has become something of a risible cliche, but it’s fair to say that Cults of Prax is about as intellectual and highbrow a product as had ever been unleashed on the market as of 1978, with its dedication to providing a vivid look into a secondary creation conceived along artistic and philosophical lines setting a new bar.

The closest thing to it anyone had attempted at the time was Professor M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne; the “designer’s notes” from Greg Stafford slipped into this reprint are in fact Stafford’s essay in response to what contextually sounds like it was a very favourable review of the product from Barker. It’s impressively erudite stuff; were Cults of Prax not equally erudite and imaginative, Stafford would come across as being astonishingly pretentious, but as it stands Cults of Prax established RuneQuest as the real deal – a high water mark of intelligent, sophisticated gaming which later generations would shoot for but rarely reach.

A somewhat overlooked companion book to Cults of Prax was 1980’s Rune Masters by William R. Keyes, which provided fleshed-out NPCs to use as powerful leaders of the various cults in the book as well as offering a rundown on how to build major NPCs using the RuneQuest system and advice on good tactics (though some rules misinterpretations slipped through which Steve Perrin later issued a correction on – incorporated in a text box here).

Probably the reason the supplement is not especially widely-celebrated is that the brief rundowns of the beliefs of each cult (handy to avoid the need to cross-reference with Cults of Prax) and the personal backgrounds of the various characters presented that Keyes had originally prepared were cut from the published version, as a result of Chaosium needing to scale back the costs of the release. They are restored in the RuneQuest Classic release, greatly increasing the utility of the supplement.

A more widely-recognised followup to Cults of Prax is Cults of Terror, developed by Stafford and various other hands. As the title implies, this 1981 supplement focuses on seriously nasty cults, intended to be a source of NPC foes. They are predominantly associated with the force of Chaos, which even the more violent and ruthless of conventional deities despises. The supplement also offers a nice clear discussion of Gloranthan cosmology, giving the full background on the depredations of Chaos since before time began.

If you liked Cults of Prax, you will probably want this, and if you don’t like Cults of Prax then you’re probably not going to get much out of the RuneQuest Classic line at all, but at the same time it’s not so groundbreaking as Cults of Prax; whereas the former supplement broke the mould and presented a brand new way of not just treating religion in RPGs but also a culture-first approach to detailing a campaign world, Cults of Terror is an exercise in following its predecessors’ lead.

Whilst the core RuneQuest rules contained some details on Glorantha, Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror were by far the most important sources of setting information during the classic era, especially since a planned Encyclopedia Glorantha supplement fell through and there was no other equivalent at the time of the present Guide To Glorantha (or, perhaps more within the reach of the industry at the time in terms of page count, the Glorantha Sourcebook). If you are intending to get into the RuneQuest Classic line, I would strongly suggest getting both Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror as the first additional things you buy beyond the core rules, and would even go so far as to say you really want to get them alongside the core rules – they really are that important to the line.

More Monsters, More Treasure

Two more supplements in 1980 provide classic Chaosium twists on by-then standard RPG supplement material. Plunder by Rudy Kraft provides both a setup for pre-rolling the contents of treasure hordes, and – perhaps much more interestingly – a series of descriptions of significant Gloranthan magical items of great rarity, with suggestions on where they might be found and how to seed them into your game.

Though another interesting way of presenting setting detail, the collection is also another somewhat overlooked release from this era, possibly because this is one area where D&D was actually pretty on point; the idea of magic items with significant histories and cultural import was incorporated into the game via the “artifacts” concept by this point, which the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide baked into the core of AD&D 1E. To an extent, Plunder is a Gloranthan take on that concept – not unwelcome, but not as game-changing as some of the rest of the line was.

(The RuneQuest Classic release of Plunder incorporates More Plunder, a collection of further items designed by Kraft which ran in the pages of Pegasus magazine back in the day.)

One highly interesting 1980 release was Sandy Petersen’s The Gateway Bestiary. This was a collection of additional monsters for RuneQuest – some of which would end up incorporated into Glorantha, but many of which hailed from other backgrounds altogether. This was the first of the “Gateway” products, an early attempt to offer RuneQuest support for non-Gloranthan settings. The only other actual Gateway product released during the run of RuneQuest 2nd Edition would be Questworld, a collection of “Gateway” adventures and the only product in the line which hasn’t yet been rereleased in RuneQuest Classic, because it’s the only one in the stretch goal list that the Kickstarted didn’t fund, and I don’t think anyone was enormously upset about that.

You might also count the 1981 Thieves’ World boxed set, which included support for RuneQuest as well as a fat stack of other RPG systems at the time, including AD&DD&DChivalry & SorceryTravellerAdventures In Fantasy (the Dave Arneson RPG which is sort of a prototype of Powers & Perils), DragonQuestTunnels & Trolls, and The Fantasy Trip, though this was kind of an exercise in seeing just how many systems a game product can cover and is no more specifically a RuneQuest product than it is specifically a product belonging to any of the other product lines it was compatible with.

Either way, the Gateway project rather fell by the wayside for various reasons. One was that, as we’ll see, at least one major product originally intended as a Gateway release got absorbed into Glorantha. Another was that the 3rd Edition of RuneQuest framed itself as a generic fantasy game applicable to a range of settings. A third was that Basic Roleplaying ended up being a more convenient vehicle for Chaosium to do radically different settings with, in part because working from a simplified, streamlined system helped file off a lot of the system aspects which nudged things in a Gloranthan direction (like the emphasis on Bronze Age arms and armour) and build in new system aspects to better suit the new settings.

Still, The Gateway Bestiary is both an interesting artifact of the Gateway project and a genuinely useful book, even if your game is Glorantha-based. Some sections could be partially or entirely used in Glorantha; the wraiths from the “miscellaneous” section made it in, a land of dinosaurs would be discovered on the eastern frontier of the Lunar Empire (as we shall see), and the “natural animals” section was useful for stats of things like doggos and birds and bears which clearly exist in Glorantha but didn’t yet have stats.

Other sections range further afield. There’s a nice selection of giant bugs, creatures from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, “anthropophages” (honest to goodness xenomorphs from Alien with the serial numbers filed off), a range of “Celtic Horrors” that could form the basis of a campaign set in a dark interpretation of Celtic myth, and a cluster of “Legendary Beings” from sources like Greek or Roman mythology or the Arabian Nights.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion is a few H.P. Lovecraft monsters, in case you want to send a Shoggoth or twelve after your RuneQuest party. It’s easy to see why Petersen would have had these to hand, since Call of Cthulhu was preparing to emerge from the eldritch depths into the light of day in 1981. In addition, it seems likely that this was a bit of a flex on the part of Chaosium – remember, 1980 saw the release of the original Deities & Demigods for 1E AD&D, which ruffled feathers at Chaosium since they’d had the Arkham House licence and prompted the hasty addition of an acknowledgement of Chaosium’s rights in the book (as with the Elric-based material), followed by the removal of chapters overlapping with Chaosium’s settings in the 1981 printing. Including Lovecraft material in The Gateway Bestiary would have been a quick and easy way for Chaosium to assert that they were in fact making use of that licence, which might have been handy had negotiations with TSR gone sour.

The Classic Campaign Packs

From 1981 onwards the RuneQuest line pivoted away from shorter, terser support material into more expansive campaign packs, each providing both a range of adventuring opportunities and sufficient setting background to be enduringly useful going forwards even when the prepackaged adventures are completed. Griffin Mountain was released as a book of over 200 pages – substantially longer than the core rulebook! – whilst others in this style were originally released as boxed sets. The RuneQuest Classic line has reformatted them all so that each pack is presented in a single printed book. (Fold-out maps originally provided are included with PDF purchases, or are sold separately as prints on Redbubble.)

Griffin Mountain was cooked up by Rudy Kraft, Jennell Jaquays, and Greg Stafford, after a rather convoluted development process. Kraft and Jacquays had previously collaborated on Legendary Duck Tower, a 1980 third party adventure for RuneQuest put out by Judges’ Guild, which had been started by Jacquays and which Kraft had agreed to finish off. For their next project, Jacquays would return the favour, tuning up and extensively building on a manuscript prepared by Kraft.

When it was submitted for consideration by Chaosium, Greg Stafford liked it and started considering it for release as a major Gateway release for RuneQuest, but noted some issues with it. For instance, he decided that the geography was nonsensical to a point where even “magic shit happened” wouldn’t be enough to salvage suspension of disbelief – and when you are dealing with a guy who cooked up a fantasy world where the land masses are the protruding bits of a large block dumped in a vast ocean surrounded by the void of Chaos, and has all the other peculiarities on the large scale and in local regions that Glorantha demonstrates, you know things have gone pretty far.

As Stafford applied some tweaks, he thought at first that it was a shame that the book wasn’t set in Glorantha, since there were some features which he thought would fit that setting really well. Then, as he tweaked further, he realised that it could, and after some consideration realised that the region of Balazar and the Elder Wilds – a zone where the older races hold sway and the main human occupants have a Stone Age-esque culture, complete with roving dinosaurs, with some influences from outside cultures (like the development of significant fortress settlements). The decision was made to further reconfigure and make this a Glorantha-based supplement.

This is essentially a big wilderness hexcrawl with a fairly detailed Stone Age culture attached which by and large doesn’t adhere to simplistic “ug the caveman” stereotypes. There are inaccurate assumptions made about how often women participated in the hunter side of hunter-gatherer cultures, but this reflects the scholarship of the time; later work has revealed that some 30%-50% of the women in such prehistoric cultures may have been hunters, and the assumption here is about only 10% do; still, at least acknowledging that 10% is better than propagating the myth of a hard gender divide in prehistoric hunters.

However, it also makes some significant contributions to the game. As well as providing a significant amount of local background which also helped to shed the light on some wider issues, the book also provides details on making Balazaring player characters. This further emphasised that characters should be shaped by their cultural background in RuneQuest – a feature that was actually more prominent in the playtest manuscript made available through the RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter, but which was dialled back on when the core book concentrated on making characters broadly appropriate for Dragon Pass or Prax. Subsequent editions would bring, if not Balazarings themselves, then at least the idea of cultural background being a major force shaping your character.

Borderlands from 1982, written by diverse hands, was a seven-episode campaign of largely prewritten adventures (though each with significant scope for how they might pan out) set in northern Prax, and gave some insight into Lunar politics – specifically, the player characters are hired as mercenaries for a Duke who belongs to a faction that has lost an internal struggle in the Lunar Empire, and rather than being brutally purged has accepted effective exile to the Lunar frontier. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Borderlands is the way it teases out the idea that “taming the wilderness” in a fantasy RPG context has strong colonialist implications, and making that more apparent by having the colonisers here be theoretically loyal to the Lunar Empire, who’d been framed as somewhat villainous earlier in the product line.

1982 also saw the release of the revered Trollpak by Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen. Trolls had become signature enemies in RuneQuest thanks to their role in Apple Lane, but Greg Stafford didn’t see them as mere mooks to be mown down. Providing an expansive history of trolls, a deep consideration of their mythology, and an examination of a truly unique fantasy race – dwellers in shadow who live in a matriarchal society and struggle with a curse which causes extensive physical and cognitive developmental issues in many of their newborns – this gives these human flesh-eating underground creatures a real sense of being proper people.

Along with a clutch of troll-themed scenarios (some of which are intended for use with more usual RuneQuest parties, others of which can be used as the backbone of a troll-themed campaign) and rules for troll PCs, it was one of the first RPG products to treat monsters as actual people – perhaps the first. Ken St. Andre’s Monsters! Monsters! was basically a riff on the Tunnels & Trolls system and essentially presented monsters as the bland antagonists to humanity the core T&T rules did – it was just an exercise in playing the monsters to go hack and slash some humans. Here, the monsters have interests which go beyond simply being antagonists for the sake of antagonism. From supplements about playing a wider range of non-human characters in AD&D to entire game lines built around the concept of playing creatures ordinarily presented as villain, like Vampire: the Masquerade (which, remember, credited RuneQuest as an influence), a whole swathe of later RPG releases owe a great debt to Trollpak.

The final two boxed sets of the 2nd Edition era form a linked pair – this being 1983’s legendary Pavis and Big Rubble, credited to primarily to Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford but with additions from a host of additional contributors. Whilst Stafford’s home campaign was focused on Dragon Pass, the centre of Steve Perrin’s own RuneQuest playtest campaign was Pavis. The greatest city of the Prax region, Pavis is, like Dragon Pass, under Lunar occupation – or at least New Pavis is. Old Pavis, the original city, is now the area known as the Big Rubble – a walled enclave of tumbledown old neighbourhoods and grazing lands for livestock occupied by renegade humans and significant numbers of nonhumans (including masses of trolls).

The Pavis set details New Pavis – a more “civilised” place, thanks to the influence of the Lunars, but one where adventure is still decidedly possible. By far the main draw of the book is the extensively detailed city guide, where every building is home to some flavourful business or other and the internal politics of the city is laid out to allow PCs to back one faction or another as they wish. Such city guides weren’t unique in this era – they were an early subgenre of RPG supplement dating back to Judges Guild’s City-State of the Invincible Overlord – but this is an especially flavourful one. There’s also a collection of adventures to undertake in Pavis, though they tend to be very linear for my tastes (sometimes in a way which I suspect will be frustrating to many players). My inclination is to use it as a source of ideas for how to run particular types of encounter in Pavis rather than running the adventures as mapped out.

The ruins of Old Pavis are detailed in the Big Rubble set, along with a range of adventures that can viably take place there. This includes a welcome update of Balastor’s Barracks, adding more context to the location. The various factions existing in the Rubble lend themselves to treating the location less like a classic dungeon and more a source of dangerous allies as well as lost treasures.

From a certain perspective, Pavis and Big Rubble together depict an extremely old school setup – it’s basically a city with a convenient dungeon attached, which is exactly what Greyhawk is. From a different perspective, it’s alien to anything that D&D was doing at the time – with the Lunar occupation forces trying to keep a lid on exploration of the Rubble (shades of Stalker!), the rich culture and mythology, and wild adventures like the River of Cradles one, in which the player characters must deal with a giant baby cradle (complete with giant baby) that’s bobbing down the river, it’s got a very different feel. RuneQuest 3rd Edition would revisit the region extensively.

The End of the Classic Age

Aside from the SoloQuest run of solo adventures that came out in 1982 (which I’ll probably review at some other point later), the boxed scenario-and-campaign-material sets were the main fodder for hungry RuneQuest fans for the latter period of the 2nd Edition’s run. 1983 also saw the release of the RuneQuest Companion, a grab-bag of miscellaneous bits and bobs.

This was a year in which Chaosium were trialling the companion concept – the Cthulhu Companion for Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer Companion for, naturally, Stormbringer also came out this year. In those cases, they were among the first supplements for their respective line, and helped provide useful additions and expansions to those then-fresh new games. The RuneQuest Companion, conversely, consisted of a mixture of new material and bits extracted from early issues of Wyrm’s Footnotes, Chaosium’s Glorantha-themed magazine whose first issues actually predated the original release of RuneQuest.

None of it feels truly essential, and the articles within range from the interesting but not particularly widely applicable (like the solo adventure or some of the niche myth bits) to more broadly useful stuff (like the expanded cult interaction table). The declared intention was that new Companion volumes would come out on an irregular basis as Chaosium accumulated sufficient stuff to throw into one, but of course this never happened; the fateful deal with Avalon Hill was struck, and the 2nd Edition line bowed out.

The Legacy of a Classic

On balance, it was probably about time that RuneQuest got a new edition at this stage. Yes, the 2nd edition core rulebook was already a quantum leap ahead from all of its predecessors, and still ranks as one of the best-organised, clearly explained, and widely usable RPG books from the 1970s. I think its closest competitor on all of these fronts is classic Traveller, and in third place I’d put the Holmes D&D basic set, which lent a clarity to the D&D rules absent from OD&D, AD&D 1E, and any of the various me-too games which were basically someone’s D&D house rules but is held back by only providing rules for the first three levels of play.

At the same time, the white heat of creativity at Chaosium which yielded RuneQuest did not burn itself out in one swift burst, but kept itself alive through to the early 1980s, spawning classic game after classic game along the way and also refining the promise of the RuneQuest rulebook and developing it further. The feel of the game line by the end is distinctly different from the earlier game line, largely I suspect because there was a better understanding among gamers by that stage that RuneQuest was a game where you were actually meant to care about the societies and peoples and myths you were interacting with in their own right rather than treating them as a background to dungeon-crawling and so Stafford and his co-creators could be more upfront about those aspects of the game and didn’t need to be cautious of turning people off.

The Moon Design gang now running Chaosium have made it pretty clear that they consider the Avalon Hill deal to have, in retrospect, ended poorly. As well as RuneQuest‘s 3rd Edition being considered by some to be needlessly complex, tending towards high-crunch for little reward due to following then-current fashions for high crunch in game design (this would have been around the time that Rolemaster really got going), there is also some feeling that Avalon Hill’s stewardship of the line was somewhat sloppy, with their enthusiasm for the game obviously coming in fits and starts.

The decision to make the next edition more geared towards generic fantasy probably made sense at the time, particularly if it was going to be pushed by a major publisher like Avalon Hill who may have been one of the few game companies out there which could have really made a push to knock D&D off its perch. However, with much water now under the bridge and Mongoose’s edition of the game put out under an SRD that, rather than having a bespoke licence of its own, simply rehashed the Wizards of the Coast OGL.

The upshot of this is that there is no legal barrier to anyone putting out their own RuneQuest-like generic fantasy RPG, and I’ve reviewed several of them on here. This is why I think recoupling RuneQuest to Glorantha for the new edition has been the right call. Now, reading over the RuneQuest Classic product line, I can better see how the current edition of the game represents a place where it might have evolved to based on the trajectory of its development over the first two editions, before the 3rd edition shifted course, whilst taking into account several decades’ worth of thought on how to present game settings in such a way as to convey the associated depth whilst still keeping them accessible to newcomers.

If I had to pick one RuneQuest to recommend to a new player, then I’d go with the current edition – but I think anyone interested in the game, Glorantha, or the evolution of RPG design as a whole will find plenty that’s interested in the RuneQuest Classic line.

16 thoughts on “RuneQuest Classic: Six Years That Changed Gaming

  1. This was a really informative essay. Thank you! I especially liked the tour of early supplements, many of which I have never seen, and the attention to what differentiated RuneQuest from what came before. In my limited experience, players were not willing to put the time in to learn about Glorantha, so that the setting became a hindrance rather than a support. The impact of the system is enormous, as you rightly note, found in practically every subsequent RPG.

    1. I think that’s part of where the new version of the game improves over 2nd Edition RuneQuest – it does a better job of introducing players to the setting gradually rather than expecting them to digest big chunks of myth.

      But then RQ2 and the current edition had different challenges in front of them: RQ2 had to convince people that an RPG with this deep of a setting was worthwhile in the first place, in a market where the last major attempt as such (Empire of the Petal Throne) had enjoyed only limited takeup. The new edition is dealing with a market where people are into that but want to hit a balance between cool setting details and accessibility.

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  13. Stewart

    I have to warn anyone who reads this article. I read it at the beginning of the year and owned no RuneQuest products. I am sitting here beside a bookshelf with all the current RuneQuest: Glorantha books AND the reprinted RuneQuest 2 stuff.

    Chaosium should have you on commission with the amount you have gotten me to spend in their store 😛

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