Runequest, 2nd Edition

Copyright 1979, The Chaosium

Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, Warren James
Editing and special sections by John Sapienza and Greg Stafford
Illustrations by Luise Perrin
Sartar and Prax maps by William Church
Based on the universe created by Greg Stafford

8 1/2" x 11" book, 120 pages.


Back to the Fantasy Wing
Back to the main lobby

Runequest is a game of considerable reputation. The Museum only recently acquired a copy of it, but its legend preceded it. Greg Stafford's world of Glorantha, where Runequest is set, sounded like a fascinating world for adventure. From bits and pieces we have picked up over the years, mainly from old issues of White Dwarf magazine (before it became a Warhammer house-organ), we awaited the opportunity to learn more about the Lunar Empire, Zorak Zoran cultists, Griselda, and Rowdy Djoh Lo's. We had heard that Gloranthan myths were real: the world really was flat; there really was a Godtime before time, and the storm god Orlanth killed the sun god Yelm, sending the world into darkness. There were weird creatures like the Uz, trolls who could digest anything; mysterious Dragonewts who never truly died, but were resurrected in new forms; and the puzzling Ducks. Most mysterious of all were the runes themselves: we had heard of Rune Lords and Rune Priests, individuals who mastered runes and gained access to their powers.

The actual game was disappointing, given our anticipation. Runequest is a set of rules, not a background. Although Glorantha is the default setting for the game, the rules are mainly generic, and adaptable to most any heroic setting. In fact, the Runequest game engine quickly evolved into Chaosium's Basic Role Playing (BRP) game engine, a system that became the basis for such games as Call of Cthulhu and Elric!. Had Chaosium thought of it (and had the money, resources, and customer base of D&D), BRP might have become the universal system that d20 is becoming today. In fact, Chaosium re-released BRP in 2008 as a stand-alone set of generic rules.

While Runequest did not include the information on Glorantha that we hoped for, it is still an accomplished game. We consider it a second generation RPG, with characters using skills instead of character classes to define their abilities. Published midway through AD&D's release (the Monster Manual and Players Handbook had been published, but not the Dungeon Masters Guide), Runequest actually accomplished what AD&D seems to have been aiming for: a clean, logical upgrade of the fantasy RPG, suitable for all gameworlds, capable of dominating the market. Both games support the same style of play: characters aspire to improve themselves and to reach the pinnacles of human achievement (Lords, Wizards, and Patriarchs in AD&D; Rune Lords, Rune Priests, and Heroes in Runequest). This is done through killing opponents, looting their belongings, and using the profits to pay others for training to advance in skills. Experience is also earned by beating opponents in battle. Both games contain little background information, being de facto generic rules for fantasy role play.

There are differences, of course. AD&D is set in a pseudo medieval Europe setting with castles and steel armored knights. Runequest is set in an earlier time of bronze weapons and armor, with heroic individuals leading bands of followers on bold adventures. However, both games borrow freely from the same fantasy backgrounds: Robert E. Howard's Conan, Michael Moorcock's Elric, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, although the Tolkien influence is more clear in AD&D. Both games feature lists of monsters where there has been little effort to map out a consistent ecology: medieval manticores and unicorns mix with Greco-Roman dryads and centaurs. Both games encourage referees to import whatever magical devices or creatures from outside sources they desire. If Glorantha was supposed to be a coherent fantasy world like M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel, Runequest certainly didn't help maintain consistency.

But where AD&D sought to polish the existing D&D game mechanics and become the pre-eminent RPG system, Runequest advanced the paradigm. AD&D was a mess, mechanics-wise. For every detail that the authors sought to add, a new game system had to be developed. Runequest used only three basic systems: roll against a skill with percentile dice; roll against a multiplied characteristic with percentile dice (usually a characteristic x5, to turn the 3 - 18 characteristic scale into a percentile one); and compare your characteristic to an opponent's on the Resistance Table to determine a percent chance to succeed, and then roll percentile dice. By keeping the game mechanisms both simple and transparent, referees were better able to come up with answers for new situations and keep the game flowing.


The Setting

It is difficult to describe the setting, because there is so little information on it in these rules and it is scattered through the book. While Runequest's default world is Glorantha, the authors encourage players to use the rules for other worlds if they choose. It should also be mentioned that Glorantha existed before Runequest: it first became available to the public via two fantasy wargames, White Bear & Red Moon, and Nomad Gods. We should mention that the background information below has largely been pieced together from what is available in the sourcebook, along with a few snippets found on the web. As such, we may have made some errors. We also point out that Gloranthan history is subject to periodic revision from its original creator, Greg Stafford.

The game background at the beginning of the book says that the gods created Glorantha out of chaos. This began the Golden Age, a timeless period where the gods and intelligent beings lived. The battle between Orlanth, a storm god, and Yelm, the sun god, occurred during this period. Orlanth used a new force, Death, on Yelm, plunging the world into darkness and permitting the rise of Chaos. To defeat Chaos, the Seven Lightbringers quested for Yelm, and returned with him from the underworld. To avoid more wars, the gods formed a compact called Time to which they are bound. After Time, there have been several ages which have seen the inhuman races (dwarves, elves, dragons, and trolls) decrease in importance, while humans increased in importance. Among other details, the dragons were brought low by treacherous humans, and now the survivors apparently spend most of their time dreaming—but their dreams take form and walk the earth. The trolls were brought low by a curse, and they do not breed true, producing instead the lesser beings known as trollkin. Little is said of the dwarves and elves, but these are not Tolkeinesque: dwarves are apparently sentient stone beings, and the elves are actually intelligent mobile plants—although these details are not to be found in the rulebook.

The current crisis is the conflict between the Lunar Empire and the kingdom of Sartar. Thus far, the Lunars have managed to conquer most of their opposition, including Sartar. But recently, the hero Argrath Dragontooth defeated the Lunars, and Sartar rose again.

Glorantha is a flat world that does not follow the rules of physics. Bronze is an element, extracted from the bones of dead gods. Iron, tin, copper, and lead prevent users from casting spells, unless that person has mastered the rune associated with that metal. The map of the world shows that humans have not penetrated to the edge of the planet, and these areas remain dangerous mysteries, inhabited by powerful supernatural beings. Other mysteries are scattered around the world. One could actually sail into Magasta's Pool, a massive whirlpool in the center of the ocean where the water drains away to the primal waters upon which the earth floats.

The detailed map of the Dragon Pass region shows cities, towns, ruins, and places to adventure in. While we don't have detailed information, we do have a class system with peasants, nomad barbarians, merchants, and nobles. Adventurers are common and often join bands with common goals. These bands may train player characters in skills for a fee, both to earn money and to win friends and influence. As befits a bronze age culture, common weapons are clubs, maces, daggers, axes, and spears. Oddly enough, crossbows are also common, although we believe that on historical Earth this was a much later innovation. Militias and mercenary bands apparently do not field dedicated missile troops (Glorantha does not have longbows, for example, and the optional "available experience" rules do not list missile troops for skills acquisition), but there are light and heavy cavalry, and light, medium, and heavy infantry to learn skills in.

There is little information on the religions of the world. Gods and goddesses are common, of course, but only three are detailed in the rules, and there is little information on how they are worshipped, or what their role is in society beyond training adventurers. Referees are encouraged to come up with their own deities, and the aspirations of most adventurer types to become leaders in these cults implies an interesting and diverse fantasy society.


Character Generation

After an introduction to role playing, we go directly into character generation. The basic characteristics are Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, and Charisma. They are generated by rolling 3d6. While players may not adjust these scores at character creation, many of them can be modified during play by training. Most of these characteristics affect play: every characteristic except constitution and charisma adjust basic combat rolls (attack, parry, defense, damage). Hit points are the same as constitution, adjusted by size and power. High charisma gives one a discount in the cost of training up combat skills.

After basic characteristics are generated, a percentile roll determines one's background/social class (peasant, townsman, barbarian, poor noble, rich noble, very rich noble). Background determines both one's starting equipment and cash on hand. The optional rules in the appendix also allow for background determining what skills are available for the player to have trained up in as a young adult, before beginning to adventure.



The combat system is fundamentally simple, although there is a lot of number crunching to get there. The basic system is roll under your skill with a weapon to hit (d100), while your opponent rolls under their parry skill to block the blow. There are four possibilities: both miss (no effect), attacker succeeds and defender fails (attack hits), attacker fails and defender succeeds (attacker's weapon takes damage), or both succeed (defender's weapon takes damage). A successful hit rolls d100 again to find which part of the defender's body is struck, damage is rolled (variable damage by weapon type, adjusted by attacker strength), and the armor worn on that part of the body absorbs what damage it can. Any remaining damage injures that part of the defender's body.

Initiative is based on "strike rank," a number from 0 to 12 based on dexterity, size, surprise, and weapon length. Strike rank is a more useful concept than "initiative," because it's also a way to measure how many actions a character may have in a round (so long as they're not engaged in combat). Characters outside of combat may perform a number of activities, so long as their combined strike ranks don't go over twelve.

Computing actual skill rolls can be time-consuming. Each weapon has its own attack and parry percent success score. One begins with the basic chance of hitting with a weapon: there are five groups of weapons, and each group starts with a different base percent chance to hit, ranging from 5% to 25% without any training. Character natural ability scores, computed during character generation, are added to this base percent. Beyond this, characters may train with individual weapons to boost their chances to use them. Regardless of skill, a roll of 01 - 05 is always a hit, and 96 - 00 is always a miss.

Runequest uses critical hits and fumbles, too. The probability of a critical hit must be calculated (5% or less of the character's to hit probability). A critical hit simply means all damage gets through; armor has no effect. Fumble probabilities must likewise be calculated, starting at 5% (roll 96 - 00), and reduced by one point for every 20% chance to hit. A fumble means rolling d100 on a fumble table. Most of these results are losing activities, straps on armor pieces breaking, dropping weapons, and so forth, but really bad rolls can have one do a critical hit to oneself, or even have multiple rolls on the fumble table. Yes, it is possible for a character to fumble badly and take his own head off.

Further details in combat include impales, getting your weapon stuck in an enemy's body, critical parries, fumbled parries, and so forth.

Characters improve their weapons skills by training with the fighting bands, or by simply succeeding in combat. If the character lands a blow with their weapon in combat, after the battle is over, they may roll the difference between their weapon skill and 100 on percentile dice. Success means improving combat skill by 5%. While this permits rapid advancement with weapons, it also leads to min-maxing: carrying a lot of different ones, and trying one's luck with a variety of them in every battle.



Runequest has two different types of magic: basic magic, and rune magic. Basic magic is further subdivided into battle magic and spirit contact. Unlike D&D, every character has access to battle magic. To learn it, all a character has to do is pay money to a Rune cult and be trained. There are 49 battle magic spells. While there is nothing stopping a character from being trained in all of these (save for the expense), characters are limited by their intelligence score in the number of spells they may hold in their head available for casting. This is not D&D's magic system: characters spend Pow to cast spells, and can cast any combination of spells they remember any number of times until they run out of Pow. Further, a character may choose to let go a spell from their memory and remember any other spell they have learned over a period of time. Battle magic spells can therefore be considered unlearned (a character must be trained to use it), learned, and in memory (ready for use), or learned, but not in memory (requiring a period of time before the spell is available for use).

Some battle magic spells are cast unopposed, meaning the caster will succeed on a roll of 01 - 95, with 96 - 00 indicating failure. If a spell is cast on a hostile opponent, the caster's Pow is compared to the defender's on a resistance table, and the result is the probability of the spell succeeding, with a roll of 01 - 05 always a success, and 96 - 00 always a failure. Pow is recovered over 24 hours.

Most battle magic is direct: increase your chance to hit with a weapon, increase your speed, heal damage, etc. The availability of healing magic to all characters should enhance character survival considerably. An interesting feature of battle magic is that spells often require a focus, a rune carved into an item that the caster must concentrate on to make the spell successful. Rather than AD&D's clumsy spell components, Runequest has characters carving spell runes either into possessions (a Fireblade rune on one's sword) or a number of them can be carved into a wand, which the caster must focus on while casting. The wand doesn't blast energy, but simply holds the runes for casters to study.

Basic magic also includes spirit contact. Spirits, the disembodied life force, can be found anywhere. While spirits normally leave the living alone, living beings may attempt to locate and battle spirits for the benefits a victory can provide. Defeated spirits can be bound into a living animal, providing a familiar that can act as a person's eyes and ears, or into a special spirit-binding crystal, which allows the character to store spells, and use the Pow of the defeated spirit to fuel spells. Failure to defeat a spirit in combat, however, usually means the spirit possesses one's body, and one's spirit is sent to the spirit world. The original character is now dead, although his body lives on with a new soul--and usually becomes the referee's property.

Spirit combat involves a Pow vs. Pow check on the resistance table. Since spirits tend to have higher Pow scores than the living, this can be a very risky proposition. Further, the daredevil being who seeks out spirits is going to need the Detect spirit spell (to find his prey), and a Spirit Binding spell to take advantage of his victory. Since these are both Battle Magic spells, they are open to most characters, if they can find the money to buy training.

A person may choose to specialize in spirit handling. These people are called shamans. To become a shaman, one needs to find a willing teacher, train for a year, and then attempt to ally with a summoned spirit called a fetch. (This is done by comparing the apprentice's power and charisma to the fetch's power and intelligence on the resistance table.) Failure, assuming the apprentice survives, means waiting another year before trying again.

While there are advantages to being a shaman character, there are also disadvantages, mainly being the shaman is now forever linked to the spirit world, and has obligations to his or her tribe or cult. Failure to support the tribe or cult may mean the loss of the fetch (and obtaining a new fetch is very difficult) to loss of one's status as shaman—and those who lose their shamanhood usually commit suicide.

Rune Magic

If a character advances far enough, he or she may aspire to the next level of power: Rune Lord or Rune Priest. Rune Lords are those who dedicate themselves to a particular cult. The minimum requirements for becoming a Rune Lord are at least 90% ability in five skills, minimum of two of them fighting skills. Power must be at least 15, and the prospective Rune Lord must prove his or her dedication to the cult. Once one has acheived these entry requirements, the player rolls against a formula based on Power, charisma, and monetary donations to the cult. Once a PC is a Rune Lord, they gain many benefits: skills may go above 100% (reducing opponent defenses and parries, and improving the chances of multiple actions); the Rune Lord will almost always have his or her prayer for Divine Intervention heard and responded to; the cult will assist the Rune Lord in obtaining a spirit ally; and the Rune Lord gains the use of enchanted iron armor and weapons, so that the steel armor does not block Battle (or Rune) magic from functioning.

One may choose to become a Rune Priest rather than a Rune Lord. Rune Priests have access to Rune Magic, a slightly more powerful and versatile sort of magic than battle magic. The real distinction between Battle Magic and Rune Magic is not so much the spell effect as the cost: Rune magic does not reduce the caster's Pow score. In fact, Rune Magic works more like D&D magic: one must be a specialized "magic user" character to use it, and one can cast a particular Rune Magic spell only once a day, regardless of how much Pow the character has.

To learn a Rune spell, a Rune Priest character must sacrifice Pow points to his or her deity. These points are lost forever, although they can be replaced by the normal game mechanic of increasing Pow scores.

There is a list of 25 Rune spells. These are common spells, not linked to any particular cult. Each cult should have its own, private list of Rune spells. The common spells are fairly generic, and combat related.

Above and Beyond

There are higher levels above Rune Lord/Rune Priest. Runequest mentions Heroes, and hints that Heroes go on Heroquests, dealing with gods and higher beings. From other sources, we believe this entails entering the mythic stories and reenacting them as heroes in the tales.


Improving Skills

Runequest uses two different systems for improving skills. The fast way is to pay a group for training. With enough money and time, a character can advance their skill score quickly. The second way is slower and cheaper: each time a skill is successfully used, the player notes that on their character sheet. After the scenario is over and the characters are resting in a safe location, the player can roll against 100 - the current skill score. If the roll is successful, the skill goes up by five percentage points. With both systems in action, players can advance in their skills much more quickly than most D&D characters can gain experience.


Runequest was a very clever game, and still holds up well. The three main flaws we see in the game system are:

1. Character generation is complex. The elaborate calculations needed for attack bonuses and defense bonuses, etc., could get time-consuming, and the combat system requires that monsters and NPCs be as developed as PCs. (Modern referees could shortcut some of this by ignoring the calculations and just assigning probabilities to hit and parry.)

2. Combat requires a lot of die rolling. With large melees, the combat system could become unmanageable. Further, there are a lot of subcalculations needed: the chance of a critical hit is five percent of one's current skill with that weapon; the chance of an impale is twenty percent of one's current skill with the weapon, and if one uses the optional rules, there are additional probabilities for a slash or crush, analogous to impales, but for bladed or blunt weapons. Players need to be on top of their character's scores; referees need to perform many calculations on monsters to have them ready for play (no quick roll up of a beastie here), and woe betide beginners to the system!

3. Without any character specialization (niche protection in modern terms), it is possible for one character to utterly dominate the game, with all other characters serving mainly as flunkies. Referees are more sophisticated these days, and usually frown on such ham-fisted powergaming, but there are players who still seek to dominate the game.

Further, while it's not a flaw in the game system, what's the deal with the all-important runes? The rules talk about mastering runes, and gaining powers and abilities thereby, but there are no details. From what's strictly available in the 2nd edition book, mastering a rune means becoming a Rune Lord or Priest of a cult that has that rune among its symbols. Mastering all of the rune spells and abilities related to that rune's influence probably counts as mastering the rune, but this could have been spelled out better...and if we're wrong, then the right information really needs to be there.

To truly make this game live, however, one needs access to world information. Runequest lists a number of products in the appendix, such as Snakepipe Hollow, Apple Lane, and Balastor's Barracks, that provide ready made adventures with world information. There are "to be published" products listed, including a roleplaying game named Hero Wars, although this is not the same product as the one eventually released as the replacement for Runequest. There are websites that list Runequest materials, and a hearty fan base of background information is available on the internet. See Pete's (no last name) marvellous role playing webpage at for an excellent starting point. The Runequest boxed set included the Apple Lane supplement, which gave referees more of a starting point.

The second edition holds up well as a playable game, and we have heard there are fans that still insist on playing it. (A few die-hards apparently still favor the first edition.) Further evolution of the system did not go well. The Avalon Hill Game Company, a wargaming company, bought the rights to Runequest, and produced a 3rd edition boxed set. While the covers were pretty, apparently the books were of lower quality, and there were long delays in re-introducing the campaign materials. Third edition focused less on Glorantha, but few people were interested in playing in Avalon Hill's Mythic Earth setting. A rumored fourth edition fell prey to troubles beyond anybody's control, and Avalon Hill and Chaosium parted ways, with the former getting the rights to Runequest, and the latter retaining all rights to Glorantha. The modern successor to Runequest was Hero Wars, and now Hero Quest, far removed from the BRP base of Runequest. For more information on Gloranthan products, including Hero Quest, see


A Personal Note from the Curator

I played Runequest 1st edition once, shortly after it came out. As a D&D fan, I was very unhappy with it. I thought the lack of character classes would upset play balance, and I had a lot of trouble understanding the combat system. I cannot remember anything about the adventure itself.

Over the years, I have kept Runequest at a distance, mainly because I was sure I'd love the setting, and I'd have to spend all kinds of money to collect the system. I'm sorry I haven't played on Glorantha in the past, but it appears I was right about the costs of acquiring all of the background material, given the way I buy game material. Issaries says on their webpage that with new Hero Wars and Hero Quest games coming out with all kinds of supporting material, now is an excellent time to become a Glorantha fan. That may be, even at a distance. I am very pleased to have this game in the Museum at long last, even if it's not all I had hoped for.

There was a Glorantha computer game called King of Dragon Pass, put out by A-Sharp. I don't know if this company is still alive, or if the product is still available. Curious beginners might start here.

June 23, 2003

Back to the Fantasy Wing
Back to the main lobby