A Gentle Learning Curve For Glorantha

Chaosium’s new RuneQuest Starter Set is very much designed along similar lines to their extremely successful one for Call of Cthulhu. Like that set, it has cover art clearly riffing on the game’s original cover art – as with early editions of the game you get a Bronze Age warrior woman fighting a monster here, but you have a wider party of adventurers with her and it’s more evident that party members are using a mixture of magic and combat prowess. Like that set, it’s intended to provide some semblance of training wheels to help owners of the set go from zero to refereeing their own games by offering a solo adventure to provide an introduction to the rules before providing a rich set of sample adventures to play through as a group. Like that set, the provided rules summary is actually in-depth and useful enough to remain useful for consultation even should you graduate to using the full-fat RuneQuest rules.

At the same time, the RuneQuest Starter Set necessarily deviates from the example set by the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set in some important ways, necessary because of the somewhat different nature of the game. For one thing, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game where player characters start out not knowing much about the true evils of the world, and which is set in the real world and real history. This means that there’s little need for the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set to offer much of anything in the way of setting material, because players and referees alike can draw on their general knowledge of the period and place and use Wikipedia or other sources to cover any particularly severe gaps.

Conversely, RuneQuest is closely tied to Glorantha as a setting, which is a fantasy world that’s highly original but, precisely because of that originality, is also likely to be very strange to participants who don’t have that much in the way of prior exposure to it. As such, as well as a rules booklet, a solo adventure booklet, and an adventure booklet, the RuneQuest Starter Set includes a setting booklet which provides a basic introduction to Glorantha in general, the Dragon Pass region in broad brushstrokes, and goes so far as to provide a deep dive on Jonstown, the settlement at the hub of the provided adventures.

This latter part borrows a trick from the WFRP Starter Set in terms of providing a reasonably fleshed-out setting in the box. As is the case with that one, it’s a shrewd move: it means that there’s useful stuff in the Starter Set even for people who by no means need a basic introduction to the setting. As well as being in the heart of the Dragon Pass region that most of the current edition of RuneQuest‘s materials focus on, it’s also conveniently close to Apple Lane, which means that the adventures in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack can be moved onto smoothly after completing the material here (or shuffled in if you already own them).

In addition, as well as finding the rules booklet particularly useful for quick reference purposes, I think RuneQuest veterans may still find it handy to have the more big-picture overview of Glorantha here, if only because it provides a less daunting rundown of Gloranthan core principles than either the Guide to Glorantha or the Glorantha Sourcebook – the former of which is two massive tomes plus an atlas, the latter of which is more compact but is very information-dense.

Another important distinction is that whereas the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set included a compact character generation process, there are no character generation rules here. RuneQuest has always had a somewhat crunchier system than Call of Cthulhu and other Basic Roleplaying-derived games (after all, Basic Roleplaying was originally derived by taking RuneQuest and then pruning it back to the core), and the current edition is no exception – between their cultural backgrounds, Runic affiliations, passions, cult memberships, magic, and so on, your typical RuneQuest character simply has far more in the way of game mechanical moving parts than a Call of Cthulhu PC.

In addition, precisely because RuneQuest puts such a big emphasis on making characters rooted in a Gloranthan context, it’s much harder for people who aren’t so familiar with Glorantha to just pull a character concept out of a hat. By contrast, if you’re using the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set the character generation process is asking you to dream up a character who may plausibly exist on Earth in the 1920s, which is a much easier and more approachable task. The full-fat character generation process in the main RuneQuest rulebook can guide you to help make a character who’s deeply rooted in the setting, but it’s not really amenable to being condensed down nearly to the extent to which you can condense the Call of Cthulhu process.

Chaosium account for this by providing you with pregenerated characters. Whilst RPG starter sets of years past may have given you only just enough PCs for a party of 4-6 or so, here you at least get a deep bench – there’s 14 pregens here – which means that players do at least get plenty of choice, and in addition it means that PC attrition in a campaign need not force you to buy the main rulebook before you can keep playing until you’ve burned through about ten or so characters, which even considering how deadly RuneQuest combat can be is quite ample.

As far as the adventures provided here, the solo adventure – The Battle of Dangerford – is much better than the old SoloQuest offerings, both providing a smooth introduction to the rules and the world (indeed, though it’s numbered as book 3, you could jump into it fairly early and not be entirely lost), as well as letting the player feel like they are embedded in a major event in the world’s history. The group adventures include one investigative scenario, one dungeon crawl (an updated take on The Rainbow Mounds from the original Apple Lane scenario pack), and – as the first adventure in the collection – a rather neat introductory endeavour which mingles action, negotiation, and a little investigation. That first scenario does a good job of showcasing RuneQuest‘s major themes – the rich cultural context of Glorantha, the emphasis on adventurers as existing within a social context rather than just being random murderhobos, and so on.

With some maps and reference sheets (again, useful regardless of whether you are using the full version of the rules or this) filling it out, the RuneQuest Starter Set ends up filling its box space just as much as the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is, and on the whole Chaosium have done a solid job here. The only major criticism I would offer is that it’s just a touch information-dense, to the point of potentially being daunting to beginners – but equally, I think if you are into Glorantha and RuneQuest, it’s probably because you are here for the rich setting detail in the first place, and a starter set which did not offer a taste of that wouldn’t really be showcasing what people enjoy about the game and its world.

Will it be a commercial success? Well, that depends on a lot. The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set was certainly a big success, though that was in part a factor of Critical Role devoting an episode to it – still, even taking that into account, I think between that and the warm reception of the WFRP one a case can certainly be made that a high-quality starter set for a game which provides an attractive starting point for newcomers whilst at the same time providing material of interest to long-standing players can be a real boon to a game.

By and large, the RuneQuest Starter Set provides exactly that for RuneQuest. If Chaosium’s luck holds and they are able to give this the distribution and promotion it deserves, it might even turn out to be a bigger deal for RuneQuest than the Call of Cthulhu one was for that game. Call of Cthulhu has always benefitted from having a fairly simple concept to explain, whilst RuneQuest feels like it’s less approachable. The massive, encyclopedic scale of the Guide To Glorantha may well exacerbate this, particularly now the current edition is intimately tied to the Gloranthan setting, and the fact that it’s a somewhat higher-crunch game than Call of Cthulhu can make it daunting.

This Starter Set is about a good a job as Chaosium could have done of providing an easy onramp onto the game. If it picks up momentum, it could be really transformative for the game. If it doesn’t, then you’d have to seriously question whether RuneQuest will ever be able to recruit beginners directly (rather than having much more experienced roleplayers adopt it when they tire of other games), because I have no idea what more Chaosium could do to make the game easier to get into short of sending out RuneQuest referees to go door-to-door offering introductory sessions.

4 thoughts on “A Gentle Learning Curve For Glorantha

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