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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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK only available on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Sorcerously Resurrecting the Line

I swear that I didn’t know this was coming when I put out my more recent Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd Edition review, but there’s now a Kickstarter running for a 5th Edition of the game. The rightsholders, Brittannia Games, have been very quiet for some years, but it seems like they haven’t been lazy: rather, they’ve spent at least part of that long silence wisely making sure that they get all their ducks in a row for this Kickstarter (I am particularly reassured by the fact that Quickstart rules are already available and work on the main book layout seems to be at an advanced stage).

Particularly interesting for those interested in RPG history is this piece on Chaosium’s website, recounting the tale of an encounter between Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame and Chaosium as they were in the process of thrashing out RuneQuest – it’s interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of ideas there, since I’d identified already that both games were very interested in rooting player characters in a specific social context.

Now, as I noted in my earlier, more sceptical take on Chivalry & Sorcery, Brittannia Games is not a full-time endeavour on the part of its principle movers. However, they seem to be approaching the project in a decidedly sensible manner. The text of the book is said to be complete, and they show clear evidence that the layout process is ongoing; indeed, the fact that they’ve been able to produce the Quickstart rules so soon after beginning the campaign suggests that they’ve got their layout ideas more or less worked out and it’s just a matter of working through the material. The February 2020 date for fulfillment sounds entirely plausible on those grounds. On the balance, I have decided that it’s worth the risk of backing; we’ll see how this apparently definitive attempt to present the game comes out.

Inscribing the Core Runes

It’s been a little while since the core rules for the new edition of RuneQuest made landfall, and now the physical versions of the major core supplements – the Glorantha Bestiary and the Gamemaster Screen Pack – are out in the wild too (along with a handsome slipcase to hold the treats in).

In my review of the core rules I found them to be a credible return to RuneQuest‘s old stomping grounds – how do these first expansions stand up?

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Getting Into Glorantha

Glorantha has a strong claim to being the second oldest fantasy setting to have been introduced to the general public through the medium of tabletop gaming. Sure, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk and Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaigns were the first campaign worlds developed specifically for Dungeons & Dragons, but before either of them had hatched those worlds Greg Stafford had been tinkering away on Glorantha since the 1960s, with the public’s first sight of it being the boardgame White Bear and Red Moon. M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel setting is the only gameworld that can claim to be older whilst still fitting the criteria of its first public offerings being gaming products – those being Empire of the Petal Throne and its little-discussed companion boardgame War of Wizards – since Barker had apparently been working on it since the 1940s. Beyond that, settings like Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos or Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age were all, of course, introduced to the public via stories in other mediums, and only later adapted to gaming formats.

Any world which has been tinkered with by its creator and his collaborators for half a century is going to accrete an awful lot of detail – and getting those details straight is a challenge, particularly when changes to the canon have been made here and there and when the published depictions of the world have unfolded over four decades, winding their way through multiple different publishers – Chaosium, Avalon Hill, Mongoose and Moon Design being the major ones, with Moon Design’s assumption of leadership roles at Chaosium bringing it all full circle.

It is fitting, then, that the lead minds at Moon Design would, shortly before and shortly after they became the guiding intelligences at Chaosium, be involved in crafting definitive, canonical depictions of Glorantha, to provide clear and definitive foundations for future explorations of the world and to sum up multiple decades of accreted material.

One of these projects, the Guide to Glorantha, was undertaken prior to Moon Design’s fusion with Chaosium, but sort of ended up being the product which made that possible in the first place – produced in close collaboration with Stafford and Sandy Petersen, who between them would assume sole ownership of Chaosium after negotiating Charlie Krank’s exit from the business, it was funded through a Kickstarter. The successful completion of that Kickstarter meant that Moon Design had accumulated both experience with the Kickstarter process and, perhaps more crucially, goodwill with gamers – which made them a good pair of hands to handle the delivery of the troubled 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter.

The Guide is now put out by Chaosium themselves, having been integrated into their product lines; The Glorantha Sourcebook, an introductory book of more modest dimensions and different emphasis, was later produced by Chaosium.

So much for the publishing history; are the books any good? Let’s dive in and find out.

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Games Workshop’s Forgotten RuneQuest

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

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

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

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

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RuneQuest Comes Home

Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest is now out in the wild in hardcopy and PDF. Whereas RuneQuest was pushed as a generic fantasy system for its third edition (developed by Chaosium and published by Avalon Hill), its two Mongoose editions and the incarnation offered up by the Design Mechanism, for its return to Chaosium it’s also returning to its roots as a game intrinsically tied to the Glorantha setting, as was the case for its first two editions.

Part of this doubtless arises from the preferences of the new regime at Chaosium. After Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen reassumed control of the company – as I’ve chronicled elsewhere – they brought in the gang from Moon Design to become the new board of directors. Moon Design are a group of Glorantha superfans who had previously teamed up with Greg Stafford to produce the Hero Wars/Heroquest RPG, the epic Guide to Glorantha, and other Gloranthan materials. It’s only to be expected that they would feel a certain affection for the setting and a certain nostalgia for the glory days of RuneQuest‘s 2nd edition, which as well as being a generally favoured edition in the wider fandom is also the clear favourite of the Glorantha-happy section of the fandom.

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A Quick Introduction to What We Already Know

Chaosium’s upcoming revision of RuneQuest will be the 4th edition of the game issued by its home company. Indeed, the copyright notice at the back of this set of quickstart rules (including an adventure) produced for Free RPG Day refers to this new version as the 4th Edition, though of course there they might simply want to avoid any implication of trying to claim copyright to text actually produced by Mongoose or Design Mechanism.

Still, some will no doubt see these quickstart rules as a decisive rejection of the direction that RuneQuest took for the two Mongoose editions and the version Design Mechanism produced. For my part, I tend to instead see it as a tacit acknowledgement that that particular fork of the system already has a very good expression in the form of Design Mechanism’s Mythras (which is what they relabelled their Runequest 6th Edition as). If there is going to be a point to Chaosium’s new RuneQuest, it needs to do something different from Mythras – and from all the other BRP-inspired fantasy systems out there.

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Many Basic Flavours

As with any game with its long pedigree, the publishing history of RuneQuest is awkward and complicated and has included more than a few missteps – I get the impression, for instance, that Moon Design/Chaosium these days consider farming the publication out to Avalon Hill and then to Mongoose to have been serious historical mistakes, and given how annoying overcomplex RuneQuest 3 was and generally shoddy the Mongoose RuneQuest products often were I can’t altogether disagree with them. However, between that, Mongoose’s SRD experiments, and Chaosium’s own attempts to promote the Basic Roleplaying system in other ways when they no longer had control of RuneQuest (including putting out the component booklets of RuneQuest 3 as Basic Roleplaying monographs), there has been a proliferation of fantasy-leaning setting-agnostic Basic Roleplaying-based systems out there.

I already covered Magic World in my review of the Stormbringer RPG, due to the fact that Magic World is basically 5th Edition Stormbringer with the Moorcock scraped off and a new setting tacked on the end, but it’s probably worth taking a look at various other BRP-based fantasy RPGs I’ve gathered over the years and see whether they are entirely redundant, or whether their differing focuses makes them useful for different purposes. It seems particularly apt at this point in time because the new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has made it clear that generic or setting-neutral RPGs are not where their heart is at: they would rather put out games where, as in pre-Avalon Hill editions of RuneQuest, or Call of Cthulhu, or Stormbringer, the game is constructed around supporting a strong setting from the get-go, rather than a setting being an afterthought, opting to allow other publishers to struggle over the crowded “generic BRP-ish fantasy” space.

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Proud to Be Pro-Duck

I’m reading the Guide to Glorantha at the moment, and this bit of art brought joy to my heart. Not just the awesome depiction of dragonewts – though they are cool – but how in the background you can see a dragonewt negotiating with a party of ducks.

Now, these are unabashedly ducky ducks. We’re not dealing with the sort of situation you see sometimes in D&D, where someone takes a creature whose description was originally a bit goofy and tries to make it look a bit more badass and realistic (like how Demogorgon’s heads don’t really look like chimp heads any more). No, these are not watered down at all. And that’s great.

For those who don’t know, ducks are in RuneQuest effectively as a little homage to the awesome Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comics; folk of my generation may be less familiar with them, but will be familiar with Duck Tales, which was basically Carl Barks’ Duck Comics: the Animated Series. Ducks aren’t a sloppy, crowbarred-in addition, mind: they have a very specific history and cultural place in the world which incidentally makes them total badasses.

Unseen Phil’s tumblr post compares the duck thing to the way people react to the “men culturally ride side-saddle if they ride at all so all cavalry warriors are women” thing in the default setting of Reign, but I think there’s a mild difference there. Both Glorantha and Reign‘s setting are a bit weird – with Reign I personally found the side-saddle thing not especially odd, since it’s basically a cultural assumption, but found the shonky geography to be kind of annoying – but I think there is a crucial difference. Reign‘s weird bits have a whiff of “try-hard” about them, like Stolze is straining to throw in odd little things simply for the sake of being odd. Conversely, Glorantha’s oddness is richly contextualised, and so far as I can tell has been from the start. It probably helps that Greg Stafford was thinking about and developing the setting for about a decade before producing any games or other publications set in it, whereas Reign‘s setting comes across as something Greg Stolze made up on the fly when cooking up the game because he thought a more generic version of the system wouldn’t get traction.

Either way, for whatever reason I find that I can buy into the eccentricities of Glorantha far more easily than those of the default Reign setting. Anyone whose imagination can embrace wizards, vampires, werewolves, owlbears, monsters that have literally evolved to look like treasure chests for the sake of trolling adventurers, and a host of “animal heads on human bodies” creatures of all varieties but balk at angry death-worshipping waddling heroes defending the cosmos against undead horrors is welcome to take it up with Donald here.

Donald had this armour designed specifically to mock the Lunar Empire, because he’s a badass like that.