Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The New RuneQuest

While I was in Albuquerque this weekend, I stopped into a local game store and bought their last copy of the Runequest Main Rulebook. I haven't made it all the way through the book yet, but I had a good chunk of time in the car ride back from Albuquerque, so here are my impressions so far:

Production Values Okay, I realize that Mongoose does not have the publishing resources of WotC. They set ambitious goals for themselves and are a prolific publisher on what must be a shoestring budget. But come on, guys. The number of typos in the core rule book is embarassing, and there are some layout mistakes that one cannot believe were overlooked (such as the bullets in bulleted lists flying way off to the left). Typos in a rulebook don't affect the game (unless they're so bad they obfuscate the actual rules), but they do make you wonder about how solid the rule system is if the rulebook looks thrown together.

This impression is made worse by the confusing or incomplete ways in which some rules are presented. A good rewrite and editing job on this book would go a long way.

(Mongoose, if you somehow end up reading this, I'll volunteer to proofread future RuneQuest publications and make suggestions.)

Besides this, though, the production quality is better than most small publishers. It's a solid hardback book with obvious effort in making the interior pages attractive and readable.

Artwork The artwork is quite good in places, but it is unfortunately not of a uniform quality. And there's precious little of it - most pages look exactly the same, and often, when there is artwork, it's just a picture of a rune. I can excuse this due to the likely budget for this offering, but again, art often carries the burden of communicating the atmosphere of the game system (and RuneQuest does differentiate itself from, say, d20 in this respect), so it's not exactly negligible to the rules, either. I would have liked to see a little more artwork used to portray the unique elements of the Runequest flavor, such as showing a situation where a wounded arm causes problems for the hero.

Rules Ah, the meat of the matter. I think it's fair to say that the new edition of RuneQuest preserves much of what made RuneQuest what it was back in version two, with a modernising to bring it more in line with current game systems. For instance, the skill-based system remains, but a game mechanic that allows for "power-ups" for characters, similar to feats in d20, is in place.

But some of the graceful game mechanics that I really appreciated about the game have been removed. For instance, gone are the little checkboxes next to your skills which you roll against to see if you improve in them at the end of an adventure. This is replaced by a "pick three skills to improve" sort of mechanic, which is less satisfying to me. The original system was very cool in that you get better at using a spear by using a spear, and you get better at using an axe by using an axe. It was natural, straightforward, realistic, and best of all, responsive to what the player does throughout every moment of their career.

Also gone is the resistance rule of pitting characteristic versus characteristic, which was an effective and easy core mechanic of version two. In order to achieve this, they had to adopt some conventions that seem clunky on the first read. For instance, what may have been a STR or DEX rolls in version two are now replaced by an "Athletics" skill check. It seems to me that this would largely make the primary characteristics only marginally useful as skills eclipse them in importance.

The good news is that they have somewhat streamlined the hit location mechanic by removing the "total hit points" thing, which always seemed to be extra bookkeeping, and simplified impale and critical rules so that you're not having to figure out what 5% of 37 is on the fly. Fumbles have also been made more infrequent, which is good.

They also streamlined the confusing "strike rank" mechanic from version two in a way that is not only more efficient, but actually makes tactical decisions more interesting. You have a fixed number of actions and reactions per round, and you can use each in different ways that require some interesting combat decisions. For instance, if someone attacks you with their "action" and you do a good enough job parrying the blow with a "reaction", you can also "riposte" and immediately make an attack roll. But to take advantage of this, you must expend an additional "reaction" for that round, which may put you in a position where you are unable to parry or block an incoming attack later in the round. This is the sort of thing that makes combat interesting: tactical decisions that are simple, but important.

Overall, I'd say the changes balance each other out from what I've read so far, and if I were to run a RuneQuest campaign, I'd very quickly put the old version two rules back in place as house rules.

Value Here's where the RuneQuest Main Rulebook falls down in my opinion. The $24.95 price tag was worth it to me mainly because I have prior knowledge of the system and what it is capable of, but a newcomer to the game is likely to feel ripped off. The book is about a third the size of the d20 Player's Handbook, has a font size/line spacing about half again as large, and has rather gigantic margins in comparison. A lot less content than I expected for a core rulebook.

Worse, the organization of these books is going to make for a lot of back-and-forthing. From what I can tell, the RuneQuest Companion contains information that should have been in the core rulebook, like how spirit combat works, character advancement between adventures, and part of the list of character backgrounds for character creation. Meanwhile, the core rulebook has monster stats and giveaways on how certain diseases work and such. If you're going to split the rules into two parts, split them into a book containing player information and a book containing gamemaster information - that speeds up play if only because it will usually be obvious which book to open.

In the end, this book is a lot less content than my well-worn second edition version had. I was willing to buy this new version because I know the value of the system, but I'm skeptical that others will be so gracious. After getting a slim volume for $25, it makes you wary of dropping more cash on that franchise; I would have preferred to see a thicker, more feature-complete core rulebook to usher in new players.

Final review: Disappointing in some ways, delivering in others, it's a moderate offering, but the system remains a solid alternative to the typical d20 fare which focuses more on high fantasy. RuneQuest is more Robert E. Howard than Tolkein, and if that's a fantasy flavor you like, RuneQuest is an excellent system for achieving that feel. Just be prepared to put in a little more work as GM to compensate for the awkwardness of the rules presentation, at least until such time as Mongoose issues a revised edition.

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