Saturday, July 7, 2012

Armchair Reviews: RuneQuest 6th Edition

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This is the 6th Edition of RuneQuest, and it is something special -- a real thing of value. It's one of the few RPG books that have come out this year that I think should be enshrined as an example of good RPG writing.

This book will turn you into an expert on the game of RuneQuest, and I don't say that lightly. It talks not only about the system, but also about the history of RuneQuest -- its prior editions, its importance in the early industry, and its many twists and turns. But that's only a few pages. The bulk of this 456 page book is constructed with solid gaming goodness -- a complete Fantasy RPG to realize your favorite setting.


The meat of the book (the rules, character creation, magic, and so on) is written with succinctness and systematic clarity. For example, the section on Characteristics and Attributes follows the following pattern in its paragraphs:

-- differentiation of Characteristics (basic stats) and Attributes (figured Stats)
-- name of Characteristic / Attribute
-- short explanation of what the Characteristic / Attribute represents
    -- general rationale for the stat
    -- what characters with high values in this stat are like (roleplaying-wise and mechanics-wise)
    -- what characters with low values in this stat are like (roleplaying-wise and mechanics-wise)
    -- what happens when the value is reduced to zero

This approach is emblematic of the writing style of the game: in only 5 short pages, you're presented the rules for Characteristics & Attributes, the general game design rationale for them, their implication in terms of story and mechanics -- which includes tables for the calculated values of Attributes and the formulas for the basic skills whose starting values come from these Characteristics and Attributes!

Added to these pages is a nice one-page excerpt of the character sheet with various callouts that display tables explaining how the information for each field is to be calculated or filled in.

Added to that is Anathaym's saga -- an example of a character (and, later on in the book, her adventuring party) and how the rules in game system shape her life.

It seems that the writing, organization, and layout of the game was really done with an eye to reducing page-flipping back and forth between sections (though there are really useful sidebars that identify other pages with related rules, an organized and surprisingly detailed 1 page Table of Contents in the front, and a lovely 9 page Index in the back to help you if you can't find something).


RuneQuest is one of the earliest skill-based systems -- it's built around a character concept and random or limited resources to build that character concept. You can have a cantrip-casting warrior, a sword-swinging spirit talker, a martial artist wizard, and so on if you build it properly. This edition is no different, and in fact both streamlines and expands the options for character.

Chapter 1 breaks down the basics of Character Creation, tackling Characteristics, Attributes, and Basic Skills

Chapter 2 talks about Culture and Community, identifies different generic  fantasy cultures lists the Standard Skills, Professional Skills, Combat Styles, and Cultural Passions associated with each. It also has a table for unique background experiences in a character's life, a table for generating Allies and Enemies, and an explanation of what Passions are (an optional rule that gives bonuses and penalties to the characer based on their drives, their loves and hates, etc.).

Chapter 3 tackles Careers and Development, hitting you first with 70 example (!) professions and their related skills, with a nice table showing how they're grouped by cultural background. It then talks about the impact of Age, gives a broad view of Equipment and Magic (which have their own chapters) for finishing off your character.

Chapter 4 talks, again in a very organized and succinct fashion about the nitty-gritty of Skills in terms of the types of skills, the different types of skill rolls in the game including reattempted skill rolls, augmenting skills, and opposed skill rolls.

Chapter 5 goes through not just Equipment, but Economics as well. It covers not just things that adventurers might buy, but also income and social class, bargaining and bartering, food, clothing, and accommodations, vehicles, and siege weapons.

Chapter 6 is the Game Mechanics section and, for me, shows that the game philosophy for RuneQuest is broader than mere combat (which gets its own Chapter, thank you very much), because it tackles a lot of things here beyond the typical character improvement rules, suggesting rulings for things like Asphyxiation, Blood Loss, and Falling, tackling the use of game resources like Luck Points, and a very important discussion of Action, Time, and Movement.

Chapter 7 is about Combat, is grouped into headings and sub-headings tackling the various combat topics, including: Components of Combat, Combat Styles, Weapon Size and Reach, combat ranges, hit locations, and special effects.

Chapter 8 talks about Magic in general, which you should not skim through lightly. It talks about what magic is, how they're tied to runes, and sets the basis for understanding the various magical traditions available in RuneQuest 6, such as: Folk Magic (Chapter 9), Animism (Chapter 10), Mysticism (Chapter 11), Sorcery (Chapter 12), and Theism (Chapter 13). Each of these establishes these various magical traditions, describes the 'spells' of each, and explains the various additional rules that really differentiate them from one another in terms of philosophy and game mechanics and game options.

Chapter 14 tackles the Cults and Brotherhoods that explain the organizations and movements that can provide formalized instruction in the the magical disciplines tackled in other chapters. It really gives you a lot to create your own factions, old dinosaurs, movers and shakers, and up-and-comers in your own setting -- and what these mean for your players and their characters.

Chaper 15 tackles Creatures and Spirits in terms of story and mechanics. There are rules here designing your own creatures, and rules on being able to have Player Character Creatures as well.

Chapter 16 is focused on the GM and Games Mastery, including the "Petersen Rules of Good Gaming"  (from Sandy Petersen, of course) and lots of advice on running games, sticky situations for GMs, and different styles of play using the system.

Finally, we have a collection of Game Aids, including the character sheets, a series of tables for non-human hit locations, and a combat tracking sheet.


Just one last thing here: I purchased the PDF and was so intrigued by the system and the writing that I began to highlight and annotate my PDF using the default Acrobat Reader. I was surprised when I was asked to save the file -- and it asked me if I wanted to save it under another file name. When I did so, it began saving a lighter version of the file (optimzed for web browsing it said) that weighed in at around 40 MB, much reduced from the 104 MB filesize. I get to have a pristine version of my PDF & a highlighted / annotated version! Sorry, geek moment.

Also, the hyperlinking is very useful in the PDF, and makes the whole thing easier to navigate through and read.


I heartily recommend this book for Fantasy RPG enthusiasts looking for a detailed, but customizable system to help your create and realize your own setting! I'm almost sold on using this for my own Enigmundia project, with all my Mystara work firmly in the realm of D&D goodness.


  1. I really liked the foreword. I always learn something new about the history of the game from introductions by special guest authors. :)

    Great review - lots of useful detail. :)

    Funny that you should mention the file size. I downloaded it first to my iPad where it takes up 41MB appx whereas the PC download is definitively more than double that. Could it be a huge embedded font file or something like that? I think you're right to mention this because for some customers, depending upon their web service provider, large downloads can be a very big deal.

  2. Thanks! I didn't know that about the iPad downloads so it's cool you mentioned it too!

  3. Hi,

    I contacted you last year, and you were going to email back, but I never heard from you. So I'm re-sending my review request.


    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    A while ago I put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and HP Lovecraft's Under the Pyramids.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

    If so, please email me: Let me know what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.


  4. Alexander - thank you for such a great review. Very much appreciated.

    I've no idea why the download size is in the 100MB range. The production PDF is, indeed, 41MB in size. It must be something Drivethru do, as direct downloads from our partners at Moon Design don't suffer from the same problem.

  5. @James -- sorry about that. I'll be a bit more free after the anthology that I helped edit comes out this month.

    @Lawrence -- I truly enjoyed reading (and still enjoy re-reading) the book. As for the file size -- do you need to figure it out? I can tell you about the file or e-mail you a copy if you need it

  6. RuneQuest 6 does look dauntingly good.


That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

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