Tabletop RPG Review: RuneQuest Starter Set

Let me get the meat of this out of the way right at the start.  This box set is fantastic and if you want to try some Bronze Age, ultra-high Fantasy, with some brutal combat, dense but malleable lore, and more than half a century of history, buy it.  For its price, it’s a phenomenal deal.  You could play for weeks, if not months with just what’s in this box, and what’s in this box will continue to be useful if you push further in and buy the full game.

OK, with that out of the way, let me gush and ramble about the RuneQuest Starter Set.  I’ll begin, as I often do, by mentioning that I’ve been aware of RuneQuest since first getting into the hobby in the 1980s. My father got me hooked on tabletop RPGs with Worlds of Wonder from Chaosium, which contained their elegant and super adaptable core rules, Basic Roleplaying.  This rule system was mostly compatible with the edition of RuneQuest that was on the market at the time, being published by Avalon Hill.  So I raided material from that game for my Basic Roleplaying games, particularly monsters.  However, I never read deep into it, and I never explored Glorantha as a setting.  My tastes ran toward Conan, The Dark Crystal, Michael Moorcock books, and frankly, Science Fiction.  So a deep dive into another Fantasy setting wasn’t top on my list, especially because I thought it was just another pseudo-Medieval European setting (snooze).  It was only when I backed a Kickstarter for the reprint of the 2nd edition rule book that I discovered Glorantha was what it was.

My interest was piqued, but I quickly found myself overwhelmed and confused.  The setting was huge and rich and full of concepts I didn’t really understand.  I discovered the YouTube channel Bud’s RPG Review, and he covered a bunch of RuneQuest, which started teaching me some of the names and places, but I was still missing something, some essential element that would open Glorantha to me.  Even after reading the Quickstart Rules and The Glorantha Sourcebook, I was not getting it.  I knew more, but still lacked understanding.  It was only when I watched a little bit of an actual play of the video game Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind that my third eye opened and I “got” it.  That prompted me to pull this box set off the shelf and finally crack it open.

What’s inside?  Well, there are plenty of video and print reviews that go into all the details.  Suffice to say, it’s got what you need.  First up is a somewhat stripped down rulebook that gives you the basics, including action resolution, combat, and some magic.  RuneQuest is a skill-based system, as opposed to a level/class-based system.  This means that you become the character you play.  The more you do certain things, the better you get at them.  Want to be better with the sword?  Use the sword.  Want to be a better tracker?  Do some tracking.  None of this, “I killed my 80th monster, so now I can move twice as fast, climb walls, and read a new language” stuff.  Though stripped down, it’s full of useful stuff and I can imagine having a copy on hand when running or playing the game, because most of what you’re likely to deal with in any given session is right here, and easier to find than in the larger rules tome.  There are also plenty of examples and clarifications.

After that is a guide to the world of Glorantha.  Things that are hugely important in the game, like religion and magic, are explained in succinct ways that are easier to digest.  It looks at some of the other sentients you’re likely to interact with.  You’ll notice that two classics of Fantasy RPGs are here, Elves and Dwarves, but Glorantha’s versions are quite a deviation from what you might be used to.  There are also Trolls, and they are much, much different than what you might expect.  I’m getting ahead of myself a bit when I mention this, but something I like about Glorantha is that there’s not such a sense of black and white, good and evil as you get in a lot of game worlds.  Even the ostensibly evil forces of Chaos are not all bad or unreasonable.  The Lunar Empire is set up to be like an overall setting-villain, yet many Lunars are perfectly nice people.  OK, putting that aside, the world book also describes the city of Jonstown and several of its important people.  This being a Bronze Age Fantasy, the city isn’t as extensive as something like Lankhmar, and Jonstown has recently suffered a great deal of violence and damage at the hands of the Lunars.  Still, there’s a lot going on and a lot to see.  This setting will be important in the following two books.

The third book is called SoloQuest, and it’s just that, a solo quest.  Like Alone Against the Flames in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, it is a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure style scenario, designed to teach you the basics of the game as you play through the story.  In it, you take on the role of Vasana, Daughter of Farnan, as she takes part in the Battle of Dangerford, a pivotal engagement in local geopolitics.  You’ll learn how to use skills, combat, and some of the basics of magic while trying to survive and gain honor.  You’ll also get a taste of what the world of Glorantha is like.

The last book features three more adventures, these intended for a group of players.  These scenarios have helpful hints and suggestions for first-time GMs, and give you a sense of what play might really be like.  I could imagine the first scenario, A Rough Landing, being a bit tough for a first-time GM.  It’s partially an investigative scenario, where the players could take things in a lot of different directions.  There are also a fair number of non player characters to juggle.  One thing I like is that there are a lot of complicated motivations, and the scenario might play out very differently with different groups.  It could very easily be a learning experience, where players find out that trying to fight their way through every problem isn’t such a good idea in RuneQuest.  Also, making allies, even unexpected allies, can be a huge help.  A Fire in the Darkness is also something of an investigation, and gets into politics, magic, and religion.  Again, the dangers of rushing in and trying to fight your way through everything are brought home.  Being able to fight in RuneQuest is good, but always wanting to rely on fighting is not.  There are interesting twists, to be sure.  Again, I worry that this scenario might be a lot for a first time GM.  Again there are a lot of NPCs to handle, not to mention plot twists and misdirections.  On the one hand, it’s nice to have scenarios where there aren’t really right or wrong choices, or at least, where whatever choice you make, you will make a difference in how things play out.  But it seems like a lot to throw someone into.  Finally, there’s The Rainbow Mounds, which is apparently a reworking of an older scenario.  I like that they set it up in such a way that if you’ve played the older version, this one still works, because it’s going back to the same place quite a while later and dealing with similar factions, but in a different set of circumstances.  This scenario makes sense to run after the first two, but feels a bit more beginner friendly, certainly for folks coming into RuneQuest from games like Dungeons & Dragons.  This is, for all intents and purposes, a “dungeon crawl.”  A bit more work has been put into explaining why the very different types of critters are in the Rainbow Mounds, and certainly the nature of Glorantha and its extremely over the top fantasticality makes the idea of different creatures commingling like this seem a bit more natural than in a lot of D&D modules I’ve seen (Descent into the Depths of the Earth, I’m looking at you!).  Though I think this final adventure would be the least challenging to run, it would certainly be a challenging one to face as a player.  I also suspect it would take some time to complete.  Reading through it, I would imagine three sessions at the least, but times vary so wildly by game group that I couldn’t say for sure.

There are maps, pre-generated character sheets, dice, and some other stuff to help your game.  You don’t get character generation rules in the box, but the pre-gens should give you plenty of options to play for a while.  I’d recommend grabbing the Quickstart book, too (it’s free), because I think the adventure in that might be a bit more beginner friendly (check out Seth Skorkowsky’s YouTube channel for a review and some suggestions for improving it).  I also can’t forget to mention that the art throughout the books (as well as the rest of the product line) is gorgeous and vibrant.  Really top notch stuff. 

Where I was really stuck with roleplaying in Glorantha was with what an actual session would look like.  The lore was certainly a big block.  It’s so dense and so extensive that I couldn’t get past it.  With Call of Cthulhu, you’re probably going to be presented with a mystery, search for and follow some clues, uncover a horrifying truth, and then…well, who knows, but it’ll probably end in something being burned down.  In Dungeon Crawl Classics, you probably want some gold, or something is attacking a village or whatever, so you go off into the wilderness to kick something’s ass and take its stuff.  In Blades in the Dark, you’ve got a heist to pull off.  In Numenera, you’ve got a wild Sci-Fantasy world to explore.  But in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, what do you actually do?  I’ve started to realize that it’s more like my favorite Fantasy RPG, Ars Magica in certain ways.  It’s about building community and legacy.  It’s about weaving your stories together with and into something bigger.  Where the Covenant becomes a sort of shared character among all the players in Ars Magica, so the community, be that a tribe, a clan, a village, or a cult (or some mix of them all), becomes a shared character.  Also like Ars Magica, seasons and years are important.  The passage of time is important.  Your characters might go out on an adventure during one season, but then spend the other seasons doing what in many games is considered “downtime.”  Farming, keeping house, serving on councils, brokering trade deals, worshiping the gods, etc., are as important as going out to the Rainbow Mounds to fight some monsters, or raiding a rival clan for their cattle in revenge for their clan chief betraying your grandfather in a famous battle.  

Can you play a one-shot of this game?  Sure.  Can you run a handful of loosely connected adventures for some casual players?  Absolutely.  It’s a solid system.  It’s a cool setting.  There’s plenty to like.  However, again like Ars Magica, this is the sort of game and world where a bunch of folks who are ready to really buy in could go on to make the kinds of stories and memories that last a lifetime.  I think back to my time playing Ars Magica in the 90s and how even when I’ve forgotten half the games I’ve played and most of the games I’ve run, I remember that game like it happened last year.  It’s some of the best gaming I’ve ever done, and I think that RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha could be that for a group that’s ready to dig in.  This box set made me hope that one day I could recapture some of that magic.  I sure hope it happens for others out there.

Here’s my original unboxing video.

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