Monday, March 1, 2010

Sandy Peterson on Runequest

Few RPGs permit playing a non-human with the facility of RuneQuest even today [1996!]. In fact, the trend is rather away from playing non-humans. 'Tis not necessarily a bad trend, given the rather lame interpretations of these beings that have infested the RPG market. Partly as a result of the difficulty in playing them.

You see, most games render non-humans as variations on humans. Example: "dwerlfs are like humans, but with -2 from STR and INT" or whatever. RQ nonhumans are completely independent -- you could set up a RQ game with no nonhumans at all, and never make any reference to humans, and character creation and play would be smooth. I think that the psychological aspects of this difference have had an effect on scenario designers, essayists, and gamemasters.

There is another way in which RQ affected Glorantha. By the nature of most of Greg's early stories, plus White Bear & Red Moon, Nomad Gods, etc., Glorantha seemed to be a place where titans battled far above the level of mere mortal fodder.

But RQ's combat system is anti heroic. A mighty swordmaster of 90% is comparatively easy meat for a trio of 50% mercenaries. The huge bad troll with tons of magic and a 3D6 damage bonus was killed by my stinking players on the first blow of the combat, via critical spear impale to his face. When a scrawny crossbow-armed guard gets the drop on a mighty-thewed (but unarmored) barbarian, the latter raises his hands in surrender. No matter how skilled your hero is, a single blow from a mediocre giant's cudgel breaks bones and maims.

RQ combat rewards numbers and luck (criticals & fumbles) more than PC skill. Even the infamously weak RQ magic serves as an equalizer. Facing a mean magician? -- the worst he can do is zap one of your number with his Sunspear, and a simple Demoralize settles his hash just fine.

The effect of all this was to draw Glorantha's emphasis away from the mighty heroes on the heights, and focus on the little guys on society's underside, scrabbling to maintain a meager subsistence-level ecology. RQ PCs live close to the bone.

One result is that mercantile activities hold more interest than in most RPGs. You can make money on trade expeditions, and from Joh Mith to the Desert Trackers to the redheaded Lunar caravans across Pent, merchants have become an indelible part of the Gloranthan ethos. In most games, caravans serve only as employers (PCs-as-caravan-guards being a staple of RPGs) or as targets to pillage.

A typical evening of play has maybe a single combat. Even a combat-crazed player perforce must use brains and tongue before going off half-cocked. In addition, tactical skill (as opposed to mere high percentiles) is rewarded -- those smart enough to do a Shield Bash at the right moment, or to close up on the halberdier reap the rewards. When's the last time in RQ you stepped back to permit a fallen foe to get back on his feet? We press our advantage mercilessly. This is hardly the stuff of heroic one-on-one duello, as each side rolls combat dice endlessly till one falls. Instead, cunning and strategem are rewarded to such a degree that the stereotypic "big strong dumb" PC is viewed as interesting and quirky instead of a dull norm.

A tradition has arisen of prisoner-taking and ransom-paying. In many RPGs, battles end with everyone on the losing side dead. Some games have special techniques to prevent this, or cultural niceties, but RQ does it as a matter of practicality.

Finally, RQ combat is different from most other medieval or ancient RPG. A typical fight is a running skirmish, not a set-piece battle. Arrows, javelins, and spells zip across the battlefield, as both sides use available cover, dodging from tree to tree. Hand-to-hand fighting is brief, rarely lasting more than a few rounds against equal opponents. It's not the stuff of Hollywood.

I like my Glorantha PCs the way they are -- tattoos, scars, scavenged bits of armor, bristling with eclectic weapons, painted runes, muddy boots, and mangy familiars. More like something out of Road Warrior than King Arthur.

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