Runequest 6 – Back to the Future (Part Two)

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Now that we have had a couple of sessions playing with the new Runequest 6 (RQ6) rules, its possible to make some reflections on first impressions. We are dyed-in-the-wool evangelists for Basic Role Playing (BRP) from Choasium in its various incarnations – specifically Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer and second edition Runequest. For our group, it suits our style of play, as its the kind of rule system that keeps out of the way until it’s needed. We like the idea of story-telling, character building and intrigue, but we also come alive when conflict and challenges need to be resolved by dice-rolls. BRP is a perfect match to this balance, which explains why it works so well with Call of Cthulhu: the system is light during the investigations but during times of conflict it introduces a sense of excitement and unpredictability.

Our group reformed after a 25 year hiatus and revisited our old stomping grounds in Glorantha – the wilds of Balazar and the far corners of Prax – exploring some of the classic supplements from the early 1980s: Griffin Mountain and Borderlands. Recently, we began to develop a familiar unease about the rules that we started to feel thirty years ago. When we played Runequest (second edition) back in the day, we soon made mental calculations that could anticipate our potential for success when it came to combat. For example, when we were helping Duke Raus of Rone commit acts of genocide against Newtlings – ethnic cleansing with delicious tails – the Player Characters realised that it was impossible for the little-lizards to do any damage unless they had a critical hit.

The characters we were using for the Borderlands campaign were tough (they need to be). We only have a small group so we need to double up with Player Characters, combat became a familiar pattern of “I hit”, “the opponent parries”, “I hit again”, “they parry again” and so on. The GM was frustrated at the lack of options available to the NPCs, other than spells or chucking in an usual weapon combo (a net and trident) there were too little options for Newtllings to benefit from their home-advantage.

It was time for us to investigate what has been going on in the hobby, while were were off the grid …


First thing to say is that the rule-book is very handsomely produced. I took it on holiday last year and there was a real pleasure in flicking through the pages and discovering new little corners of interest. Hard copies are relatively difficult to come across, but there is a PDF download available from The Design Mechanism. There’s also a free edition of ‘Essentials’ available for the kindle (free of charge) but the rendering distorts the format to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to read.

The rules are both familiar and different/ old and new, a bit like Sharon Osbourne, there is the resemblance to the old rules but there are elements that are very different. The design of the rules reflects this as there is a homage to the original cover, a running story to explain some of the rules (remember Rurick?) and there’s generous use of runes from Glorantha to illustrate the chapter headings.

Character Creation is broadly the same as in the second edition – the attributes are the same and rolled in the same way so that humans have a range between 3-18 (there’s an option to allocate points too). The skills are calculated by adding together attributes to provide a ‘base’ rather than using a bonus table. It also adopts the background and professions that were introduced in the third edition, but here the allocation of starting skills is much more generous. The best addition is the development of background for the character – the relationship with surviving members of the family, and determine their ‘passions’ and motivations for becoming an adventurer.


Readers familiar with BRP will know that one of the key game mechanics is the use of a resistance table to resolve most conflicts. It’s a simple, but effective, means of pitting a character attribute against an opposing force to calculate the percentage difficulty on a D100. Lifting a treasure chest with a SIZ 14 when you have a STR 14 is a 50% chance, if you have STR 13, then there is a 45% chance and so on. Even dumb poltroons as the collective minds of The Armchair Adventurers can work with that level of mental arithmetic.

RQ6 dispenses with this approach and introduces the idea of OPPOSED ROLLS to pit skills against skills – if you have a 60% spot hidden and you are trying to find someone who is hiding with a Stealth 40%, both parties roll and if they if they both succeed then the highest roll wins (unless its a critical): The person looking rolls a 55 (success) but the person hiding rolls 35 (another success) so the person looking finds him, because he rolled higher.

It took a bit for us to get used to this concept (and to remember the number that had been rolled) but we are starting to think it’s a neat mechanic.

The GM can apply different grades of difficulty based for skills and combat,based on the circumstances (it’s dark, for example) by reducing the percentage chance of success in thirds. This is making our maths head hurt, but the table provided in the GM guide helps, its something we’ll get used to by playing more often (we used to struggle with the resistance table).


It is the combat rules that have really sold RQ6 to our group because they create such colourful and descriptive situations. On the whole, fights are resolved much quicker in game time, and in time (when we get more familiar with the rules) it will also reduce the sense that the PCs are grinding out results against evenly matched opponents. Skills percentage are determined by combat styles, which can feature multiple weapon combinations (a Mercenary style, for example, can use an axe, shield, short sword and great axe all at the same percentage). This is based on the principle that combat training is likely to feature a combination of different weapons in case you are disarmed, or in different situations.

Without going into too much detail, there is a similar mechanic as the Opposed Rolls principle applied to combat (Differential Rolls) where levels of success are determined by the number rolled. If you are successful in attacking, and the defender fails parry, then the attacker can choose to implement a ‘special effect’ based on the weapon, if they get a critical then they can choose 2 special effects. For example, Leika got a critical against a weapon’s thane – the player chose to ‘Choose location’ and ‘Impale (to maximise damage: full damage strike to the head, killed him in an instant). The same principle applies if its the other way round – the attacker could fail and the defender get a successful parry – the chance to disarm an opponent or ‘pin the weapon’. The special effects are wonderfully tactical choices than can shift the balance of combat in interesting ways.

There are rules about weapon length and size that are great for us gamers who like a ‘lightweight’ sense of simulating the real-thing. The fatigue rules are less cumbersome than the third edition (but need the ‘divide by 3’ maths that we’re not very good at) and there a genuine sense of excitement during combat.

Healing spells are not as mechanical (I’ll write about magic in another post) so there is no chance of sticking an arm back on with a Healing 6. There’s no hit-points and the level of points per location have been increased, but combat remains lethal for those with low armour (sorry Conan).

Another interesting feature to help in moments of desperation are LUCK POINTS which are allocated by the GM at the start of every session. These may be deployed to ‘re-roll’ a result or to rescue a dire situation. It is a neater solution than offering an attribute multiplier … “you need to roll POW X2  to see whether or not you fall to your death”).


The second edition was indelibly associated with Glorantha. RQ6 is much more generic, with the promise of more Glorantha material to come in the future. I’ve done some conversion work that I’ll discuss in another post. The absence of setting is always an issue with a rules set and this is probably the biggest weakness of RQ6. The combat styles are interesting, but there are too few examples provided in the rules.

In my campaign I have brought together the rules-lite Heroquest, Sartar Supplement with the very crunchy RQ6, so far it’s providing some interesting results. Thirty three years later, Grindle’s Pawnshop seems very different…

Runequest 6 – back to the future (Part One)


They say that you always remember your first time. It was a sun-dappled day in 1982 that we had our debut RPG game, we really should have been enjoying the fresh-air, but for weeks we had been pouring over the finer points of the RUNEQUEST rules. It was a massive conceptual leap to grasp the idea of a game without a board. Thanks to an article in Starburst magazine, which provided an example of play, we were able to work out the idea of ‘Games Master’. When combined with my 12 year old ‘God Complex’ it seemed a natural thing to do. The Games Workshop box set contained ‘everything you needed to play’ which at the time seemed slim pickings, but on reflection were a feast:


Basic Roleplaying: A pamphlet that provided the essential mechanics behind RUNEQUEST, which was later adopted by other Choasium games, most notably CALL OF CTHULHU. The idea of a ‘percentile dice’ being able to resolve most skill-based actions was fairly simple to grasp, as was the attribute vrs attribute resistance table to resolve tests of strength, willpower and agility.


Runequest Rule Book: The cover, and the box featured an evocative painting by the wonderful Iain McCraig, depicting a boiled-leather-bikini clad woman battling with a horrible lizard monster. We would learn that the woman’s chances of survival were minimal if the tenants of the rules were followed. The rules introduced the rather baffling ancient world of Glorantha. Its a wonderful ancient-world setting, but overwhelming for a 12 year brain trying to get to grips with hit locations, three different variations of spells and ‘treasure factors’.


FANGS: A collection of (much needed) pre-generated non-player characters. The best thing about RUNEQUEST is that the NPCs are as richly detailed as the PCs; the worst thing about RUNEQUEST is that you have to roll the NPCs in the same way as the PCs. It meant more work for the Games Master. This booklet provided characters ‘generated on one of those fancy computers that everyone is talking about).


APPLE LANE: A card-backed booklet with a simple line drawing of a little fella being mugged by a goblin-like creature. Inside it provides the details of a small hamlet nestled in the mountains of Dragon Pass. There are three scenarios, the most significant was Grindle’s Pawnshop, where the adventurers are recruited to protect a building against an attack from a pack of baboons.


The first game that we played on that summer’s day was Grindle’s Pawnshop. As the Gamesmaster, I had played the game a hundred times in my head before we actually sat down to do it. There had been weeks of painstaking preparation. The scenario suggested that the plans of the Pawnshop were mapped out on ‘butcher paper’, but I wasn’t sure what it was and the bemused heavy-metal lovin’ guy at Manchester GAMES WORKSHOP didn’t know either.

I compromised and drew the floor plan of Grindle’s Pawnshop on a sheet of graph paper. We’d been collecting Citadel miniatures long before we knew that they were connected to a game. In essence, we had created a board for a game that didn’t really need it. The first game was faltering as I was constantly consulting the rules to try an accommodate an action that the players had devised that didn’t fit the version that had been practised in my head.

Despite the sometimes clumsy session, it was clear by the end of it that we were hooked. The thrill of being in the middle of an epic combat with a group of bandits lead by a centaur was just too enticing. The ability to determine our own destiny in a fantasy world, when we were forced in to conformity in school, made us more determined to learn the rules and put the hours in to get better and better at it.

REUNITED – Runequest second ed.

Fast forward 32 years and our gurnard group is stronger than ever. We reunited several years ago to dust off the old supplements such as Borderlands and Griffin Mountain. As adults, we have been able to weave a more textured experience of Glorantha and have been willing to make the setting our own. When we were teenagers we were a bit too precious about upsetting the multi-layered game world with its countless cults, races, myths and convoluted history. There was always a concern that if a Games Master changed something, it would be later contradicted by a supplement.

Now we feel more at liberty to do what we like with the setting, besides there are so many supplements for Glorantha already out there, we are never going to read them all.

At first, we were rusty on the rules. Each of us remembered the rules for ‘special attacks’ differently. Was it full damage plus rolled damage? or, roll the damage twice? Either way, it seemed more deadly than a ‘critical’ that merely ignored armour. Could special attacks be parried with a normal parry roll, or did it need to be a special one? We had a number of different permutations  in the early games, which meant that combat was often broken with outbursts of “that can’t be right, can it?”.

Steven, our resident rules lawyer, studied the appendix of the second edition rules where the different effects of an impale, slash and crush, are described in detail, which explained the results of special attacks change, depending on the weapon. We realised that the rules that were in our memories were a conflation of STORMBRINGER and some house-rules we adopted back in the day, thanks to an article that once appeared in White Dwarf.

Since the 2nd edition rules were released back in the early 80s, there have been a number of iterations published. Thanks to the complicated exchange of rights and acquisitions since then, its has been difficult to keep up with what actually constitutes ‘Runequest’. Last year, The Design Mechanism solved uncertainty by deciding that the latest version of the rules were the ‘6th’ edition and they published a handsome rule-book to bring the game into the 21st Century.

It’s time for the these old gurnards to freshen up!