Land of Ninja, Workshop of Games, and Bushido By Other Means

I took another look at my copy of Land of Ninja recently, which was the 3rd Edition RuneQuest supplement directed at adapting the system to a “medieval Japan with all the elements of magic and folklore having objective existence” type of setting. My copy is the Games Workshop release, which re-edits the booklets from the Avalon Hill boxed set into a slim hardcover.

In some respects, Games Workshop were really going all-out with their launch of their 3rd Edition RuneQuest line; 1987 would see them mounting a real blitz of releases, which would see them release the core rules (split into RuneQuest and Advanced RuneQuest), the Monsters volume, this, and Griffin Island, all adapted into hardcovers from original Avalon Hill sources. (Monsters incorporated creature from Monster Coliseum but, perhaps well-advisedly, ignored the rather lacklustre arena combat components; Griffin Island was an Avalon Hill repackaging of the classic 2nd Edition release Griffin Mountain with the Gloranthan connections surgically excised, and is considered rather inferior to the original.)

This stands out even in a year when Games Workshop were putting out classic early WFRP material like Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death On the Reik, and Warhammer City, was actively supporting their own Judge Dredd RPG with the release of its Companion, put out their hardcover version of Paranoia 2nd Edition, and were giving Chaosium more love by putting out their hardcover version of Stormbringer! and their Green and Pleasant Land supplement for Call of Cthulhu (the 3rd edition of which they had put out in hardcover the previous year). By anyone’s measure, that’s an absolutely vintage year for RPG releases from Chaosium, both in terms of their own homegrown offerings and their licensed products, but even in the context of those impressive offerings, bringing out five RuneQuest hardcovers within a year feels like a big deal, and would have come across as a big deal at the time.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Changeling Cliques and Gloranthan Glamours)

Sometimes I read a supplement and I want to say a few things about it on here, but don’t want to give it a full article; for this purpose I’m going to start reviewing such things in this new ongoing feature, Supplement Supplemental. This time around, I’ve got some slim additions to Changeling: the Lost and RuneQuest to look at.

Oak, Ash, & Thorn (Changeling: the Lost)

Oak, Ash, & Thorn is billed as “The Changeling: the Lost Second Edition Companion”, this feels like something of a misnomer. Usually, when RPG supplements are billed as “companions” – and that’s been true for Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness output as any game line – that’s usually a signal that they have a fairly broad scope, offering a diverse range of material which may be a bit of a grab-bag, but precisely because of this can be potentially useful for a wide variety of campaigns within the envisioned scope of the game. Onyx Path have used the “companion” designation for some of their own material – think the V20 Companion or the Dark Ages Companion – which very much fits the status of stuff which, whilst useful, didn’t fit in the core book for their respective lines.

That is not quite the case with Oak, Ash, & Thorn, which actually is more specific in intention and unified in theme than that. As the introduction notes, it’s pitched to “Tier 2” Changeling games. Tier 1 is street-level, low-status stuff, where the PCs are probably not the movers and shakers in their Courts and events focus tightly on the motley’s immediate needs and foes. (Think the classic mode of play of early Vampire: the Masquerade, when the overriding assumption was that the PCs were all new-ish vampires towards the lower end of an extensive hierarchy as of the start of the campaign.) At the other end of the scale is Tier 3, which are intended to be more global in scope; this is the sort of cosmic-scape campaign which culminates with you bursting into the True Fae’s homes in Arcadia to go full Long Lankin on them.

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OpenQuest and Clarity of Design

OpenQuest has a new 3rd edition out. My thoughts on it are broadly in line with my thoughts on 2nd edition, since OpenQuest is one of those games where a new edition is taken as an opportunity for iterative improvement rather than radical reinvention. However, one thing which impressed me looking over the new book is the clarity of the design and the willingness to take a little space to explain some design decisions.

The refereeing advice chapter, in particular, is extremely good, offering a wealth of advice based on years of not just running and playing OpenQuest but a good knowledge of the rest of the Basic Roleplaying ecosystem. In this vein there’s quite a good bit at the start of the referee advice chapter where author-publisher Newt Newport explains what he considers to be both the traditional elements of BRP-ish games which OpenQuest inherits and embraces, and where it’s deviated from the rest of the field in general (and its immediate ancestor, the Mongoose Publishing edition of RuneQuest, in specific).

He doesn’t call it Basic Roleplaying, mind; OpenQuest uses the euphemism of “D100 gaming” to refer to BRP, wisely giving Chaosium’s protected areas of intellectual property a wide berth, but if you know your gaming history and a wider range of systems you know damn well that it’s not any particular percentile-driven system that’s being referred to by this but specifically BRP. Despite being coy about using the term Basic Roleplaying, OpenQuest is willing to namedrop Legend (which Mongoose renamed their second edition of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name( and Mythras (which the Design Mechanism renamed their version of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name).

In doing so, Newt ends up being a little modest when he refers to OpenQuest as being a “little brother” to Mythras. This might be true in terms of, say, rules complexity or big-name settings – OpenQuest hasn’t landed a licence on the level of, say, Lyonesse or Luther Arkwright, Mythras has. But in terms of seniority, OpenQuest has the edge, the original version having emerged in 2009; this is clearly earlier than the emergence of Mythras, even if you regard Mythras‘s “zeroth edition” as being the 2010-released second Mongoose edition of RuneQuest, which is now called Legend. (To recap the argument for doing so: Nash and Whitaker of The Design Mechanism did the original design on Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend before they did Mythras, and they’ve said previously that Mythras is basically the “director’s cut” of that game, the original release of Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend having suffered a butchered edit.)

What particularly impressed me, though, was the clear explanation of some aspects of the Empire of Gatan, the sample setting provided here, in which Newt does the decent thing and levels with the reader – something which RPG setting designers, fond as they are of keeping secrets and wanting to keep interpretations of their setting open are often reluctant to do. Here he points out explicitly how much of the setting material provided is from an Imperial perspective, and gives a more clear-sighted rundown of what he considers to be the Empire’s positive attributes and which aspects of it he considers to be significant flaws in the society depicted.

Some might question whether this is necessary, but in the realm of speculative fiction it’s not unknown for authors to design settings which reflect how they believe the world should work (or how they believe the world actually works – which results in a world infused with their personal worldview which, inherently, is going to include some personal biases and preconceptions), and especially not unknown for uncritical readers to brush past all the indications that you aren’t meant to take the in-character statements about the world at face value.

This sort of ambiguity suits movies and books and videogames with strong designer-imposed plots better than they do RPGs. In the former, the events of the story can help tease out what the author actually thinks about the world in question. In an RPG, everything ends up filtered through the referee, and the action of the plot is up for grabs, so there’s much more scope for people to miss the point of a setting – and therefore not get the best out of it – without this sort of direct statement of “this is what this is about”.

This sort of clarity is very much OpenQuest‘s stock-in-trade, and this remains true of the new edition, making it a welcome inclusion in the somewhat crowded penumbra of BRP-derived games.

Also, there’s a duck on the cover, proving that Newt is on the correct side of history on the ducks issue.

Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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RuneQuest Classic: the Solo Adventures

In 1982 Chaosium would publish a clutch of solo adventures for the 2nd Edition of RuneQuest – the SoloQuest collection of three mini-adventures, Scorpion Hall, and The Snow King’s Brides, all penned by Alan LaVergne, who along with his wife Debra had been a participant in Steve Perrin’s RuneQuest campaign. As Chaosium’s first foray into solo adventures, the SoloQuest series – now reprinted in one volume as the SoloQuest Classic Collection – is a rather interesting early pass at the concept, and also one which raises the question of what solo adventures are for and how they fit in with more traditional referee-implemented RPG gameplay.

One thing which is especially interesting about the SoloQuest adventures is that they are very much designed to be played using a player character that you have fully rolled up for yourself. This is in contrast to solo adventures produced for Call of Cthulhu like Alone Against the Dark or Alone Against the Frost, which both gave you control of pregenerated characters (with some level of customisation possible).

It’s also something of a burden, because RuneQuest 2nd Edition character generation could be a bit fiddly, as well as having various options (such as rolling up five years’ worth of pre-game experience, which was often a very sensible option if available) which could be a bit laborious to work through if it’s just for the sake of a short solo adventure. By comparison, the more streamlined Basic Roleplaying framework that Call of Cthulhu was built on made it easier to take Alone Against the Flames and incorporate a simplified stat-up-as-you-go method of developing your character attributes into the adventure itself, as was done for the version published in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

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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.

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Mini-Review: The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories

Chaosium have put out another adventure supplement for the new edition of RuneQuest – The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories, which has a fairly similar form factor to The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories, though packing in seven adventures where that book collected three (with both books also including overviews of regions and communities).

As one might expect from that disparity, the adventures here tend towards shorter jaunts than the longer and more intricate offerings in The Smoking Ruin, as well as focusing on a somewhat different and more diffuse geographical region; the material here spans the northern parts of Sartar, a dip into Prax, and the border region between Sartar and Lunar Tarsh. Though the centre of gravity is still Dragon Pass, this selection takes the scope of adventuring a little bit outside that – with the dip into Prax, the other most-developed section of Glorantha, being the obvious next step in fleshing out the world within the context of the new edition. (Prax, home to Pavis and the Big Rubble, was the focus of Steve Perrin’s own RuneQuest campaign, just as Dragon Pass was Greg Stafford’s stomping gorund.)

The titular Pegasus Plateau is a fun little adventure which gives a distinctive Gloranthan flavour to the ol’ “get yourself a flying mount” quest; it also has some links to the Locaem, a newly-described tribe that gets its own mini-writeup here. It sets the tone for the adventures in this book – short and sweet, good either for a one-off game, or an interlude in an ongoing campaign, or as something to kick off a longer campaign.

The Grey Crane has the adventurers caught up in a tussle over some old adventuring artifacts; it has some editing issues, most particularly with the maps of one location simply not matching the descriptions, and with said descriptions not agreeing on whether a particular undead entity has been bound in the basement of the place in question for “centuries” or merely a dozen years or so. Textual evidence suggests the latter, so it’s not a huge issue, but it’s pretty clear that an older text was left only half-revised here.

Editing issues also strike in Helena Nash’s The Rattling Wind, an otherwise pretty good adventure about a community haunted by an arguably-justified crime from its recent past. Here, the page numbers are off, probably as a result of the adventure originally being put out as a free standalone PDF release to commemorate the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s death. Crimson Petals is another “community haunted by an unacknowledged crime” story, though a different enough spin that if it’s run distant enough from Rattling Wind it shouldn’t feel too much like a do-over; it has some extensive fertility themes, what with the offences in question having outraged a fertility goddess this is to be expected, so referees should probably make sure their players are cool with this before going ahead.

The most substantial adventure here is Gloomwillow’s Hollow – mostly because in addition to the child-saving adventure itself, it also provides a mini-gazeteer of the Woods of the Dead, a place of great peril which could be the focus of an entire campaign following on from the action of the adventure if the PCs try to tackle the mystery of the Gloom that overshadows it and the corrupt ruler who exists at its heart.

The last two adventures are The Pairing Stones – the aforementioned dip into Prax and a potentially more light-hearted affair – and The Ruin On the Stream. This latter one could potentially give your PCs a real cognitive hand grenade – an insight into the secret knowledge of the Empire of Wyrm’s Friends which could have major ramifications however they use it – or be a total dud, depending on your PCs’ interests; it’s structured enough around a particular set of activities that I suspect that, without extensive referee additions and improvisation, PCs who simply do not have that much investment in the relevant skills will find it frustrating. The book is rounded off with Renekot’s Hope, a description of a small village in the border region between Tarsh and Dragon Pass, and therefore a great place to start your PCs off at if you want them to be torn between the Lunar and Sartarite causes right away.

On the whole, the collection feels like a more approachable version of The Smoking Ruin, and indeed I suspect this supplement was supposed to come out first – based on the catalogue numbers, and based on the fact that The Smoking Ruin‘s adventures tend to be substantially longer and complex, whereas The Pegasus Plateau errs towards adventures which are nicely bite-sized, and more approachable for new players and referees.

The editing issues I’ve highlighted above do seem like a black mark against Chaosium at this point. OK, I realise that proofreading your own material can be difficult, I realise that it’s become almost an industry standard at this point to put out the PDF first, use customer feedback to catch the last few typos, then send to print. But come on – the disparities here are the sort of thing which should have been caught trivially, on a first read-over of the complete text, and it falls well short of the standards Chaosium show on, say, their Call of Cthulhu products. Pull your socks up, do better, and actually do some professional editing work on your stuff rather than crowd-sourcing it, Chaosium.

Mini-Review: The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories

The latest hardcopy release from Chaosium for RuneQuest is The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories, another supplement offering a nice mix of setting material and prewritten adventure stuff, which was also the case for The Reign of Terror release for Call of Cthulhu that I reviewed recently.

The balance here is still mostly in favour of adventure material than pure setting detail, but less so than in that product. The book includes an overview of the South Wilds, a region of Dragon Pass which includes, among other things, the titular Smoking Ruin – a city where legend has it a group of trolls met a terrible end and their corpses burn eternally. (The truth of this may be discovered by characters who attempt the longest and most detailed adventure in here.)

The book also offers a closer look at some significant locations in the South Wilds, and some more adventures – there’s the Wild Temple, a massive open air holy site, the Lost Valley which offers an interesting little community, and the adventures Urvantan’s Tower in which the fate of the Lost Valley relies on quick action from the player characters and Grove of Green Rock, in which the player characters can get hired to help a massive elven project to establish a new sacred grove in Dragon Pass.

Glorantha can be a daunting setting, given all the detail that has been lavished upon it, and the question of “How am I meant to make a game out of this?” can come up; the adventures provided here, as well as offering deeper insights into the locales in question, are useful worked examples in this respect. Each of them, in their own way, provides both an interesting immediate challenge, potential for future campaigning based on them, tie-ins with longstanding history and myths of Glorantha, and a strong emphasis on the consequences of the adventure for the communities affected.

All of the adventures assume that player characters are starting off from the settlement of Clearwine, which is detailed in the GM screen pack, though The Smoking Ruin gives enough of an overview of it that you could make a start with just this book and the current core rules, though the Clearwine reliance of them varies; I would say the other two scenarios could pretty happily be run without a Clearwine connection, but The Smoking Ruin has enough of an impact on the politics of that settlement that you’d need to do some serious work to shift it to a different starting locale.

Each scenario, in its own way, helps tease out something distinctive about the Glorantha setting and how this present of the game depicts it. The Smoking Ruin emphasises mythic history, storytelling, and relationships with spirits as part of the game; Urvantan’s Tower can showcase the capabilities available through Heroquesting and Illumination, Grove of Green Rock can present a regular diversion for the player characters over years, in keeping with the game’s new “one adventure per season” assumptions.

The book also has references to books for the line which have not come out yet, but which seem likely early components of the supplement line. There’s word on an upcoming Gods of Glorantha, for instance, and reference to Heroquesting rules in a Gamemaster Sourcebook which doesn’t exist yet. One can only hope we’ll see those soon; not only does this book suggest that the production values and quality of material for the new RuneQuest is going to remain strong, but it will be damn shame for this to be yet another edition of RuneQuest which makes passing reference to Heroquesting rules but doesn’t actually get around to publishing them.

A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.

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