Monday, May 30, 2016

Let's Play Runequest - I: Character Generation

If you follow me on Google+, then odds are you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m getting into RuneQuest a bit these days. There are a number of reasons:
  • I backed the RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter a while back. There was a lot of hype for a reissue of Runequest 2nd Edition, which debuted in 1980 and was arguably the most popular (and grognardy) version of the game. The brand has had a long and tumultuous history, culminating in the latest version of Runequest 6 and now Runequest Classic (which I am supposing is more or less synonymous to Runequest 2nd Ed., which of course is not to be confused with Runequest II, which was put out fairly recently by Mongoose Publishing and is the immediate predecessor to Runequest 6. Yeah, it gets confusing.)
  • Runequest defaults to a Bronze Age setting. Yes! There seems to be a great divide in the RPG community between medieval fantasy (thanks to D&D) and a number of other genres, most notably science fiction. Sci-fi and modern games are pretty huge. What I don’t like about sci-fi is that there’s an underlying assumption that everything is explainable. We can build a hyperdrive because of these reasons. Fantasy is different in that the unexplainable (Magic, Dragons, Justin Bieber's popularity) is simply accepted. The problem, however, is that fantasy rarely ventures outside a pseudo-medieval setting, and occasionally into a modern (Dresden Files) or futuristic (Star Wars, if you ignore the “long time ago” bit as the movies start). I have a lot of fondness for pre-Roman history, so kudos to Runequest for breaking the medieval mold.
  • It fixes a lot of the problems most of the people I talk to have with D&D. For whatever reason, Armor Class really infuriates a lot of players. This is because all of the reasons that a player character misses an attack are lumped together for simplicity. If you miss in D&D, you could chalk it up to an actual miss thanks to a deft dodge or a glancing blow off the enemy’s armor that doesn’t happen to do any damage. Many alternative systems (like RQ) get around this by giving an active defense roll and/or having armor absorb damage.
  • It’s both old-school and not. RuneQuest followed closely on the heels of D&D and Traveller as one of the earliest role-playing games. However, when compared to D&D, Runequest is completely devoid of character classes and instead focuses on skill rolls. A d20 is forgone in favor of a percentile roll (d100). Combat is (reportedly) gritty and realistic. It sounds like it could behave somewhat like GURPS...
Speaking of GURPS, it might be the perfect introduction to why I’m even writing this post in the first place. Theoretically, everything is runnable in GURPS. All you need is to spend points on some character concept and before you know it, you’re free to roll a 3d6 skill check from now until forever. The problem is there’s a lot of work to do in the beginning, and you have to have a character concept that you’re working towards. Contrast that with old-school D&D, where you had better not invest more than five minutes into character creation, because it doesn’t take long at all to roll 3d6 a bunch of times, and it will really feel like a waste of time after your level 1 character dies fighting a Dire Mosquito.

With this in mind, I decided that while I’m waiting on my RuneQuest Classic book to arrive, I at least have the PDF version, so I should try making a character to see how it’s done. Furthermore, since I have copies of both RuneQuest 6 and the upcoming RuneQuest Classic thanks to the Kickstarter, I can compare the character generation systems of both (again, guessing that the upcoming Classic version is very close to RuneQuest 2E.) My hope is that this will help me get used to both systems and see if either is simple enough to incorporate into my regular I-Want-To-Run-This game system arsenal.

RuneQuest Classic - Characteristics and Abilities

This seems pretty simple, with everything being 3d6 in order. Except that I’ve got different characteristics to roll: STR, CON, SIZ, INT, POW, DEX, and CHA. These are pretty much their D&D equivalents, with some exceptions. Size is entirely new, Intelligence has nothing to do with magic, and Power has everything to do with magic.

So I decided to roll up a character. Let’s call him Nabua. Rolling 3d6 in order, I get:

STR 6 / CON 10 / SIZ 11 / INT 12 / POW 9 / DEX 9 / CHA 11
So, apart from being somewhat weak in Strength, I have a fairly average character. RQ Classic now says I have to look at these and calculate some abilities—basic adjustments to simple skills: Attack, Parry, Defense, Perception, Stealth, Manipulation (i.e., intricate tool work), and Knowledge. Your hit points and damage bonus are calculated at the same time.

What's really cool about these aspects is that they each depend on multiple characteristics. For example, stealth is not purely dependent on DEX, but also SIZ, INT and POW. Size is easy to understand—it's easier to hide if you're small. I won't get too into things, but suffice to say that these abilities are far from one-dimensional.

Unfortunately, all the charts are for naught as Nabua apparently gets no natural bonuses to any abilities. He's also got no damage bonus and a total of 10 HP. But anyway, that's all there is to it. Just look up some adjustments on tables for your character, and those modify your basic skills (whatever those are by default...)

RuneQuest 6 - Characteristics and Abilities

The modern version of RQ is very much the same, except that not everything is 3d6. For both Size and Power, you roll 2d6+6 for humans, which indicates (apparently) that humans tend to be more massive and more intelligent than your average RQ race. I thought that this was quite a nice touch—it reminds you that humans are only one of many distinct races in the world, each with its own unique qualities, but it still gives us a collective pat on the back for being generally smarter than the rest of them.

I wanted to create the same character I would have created using the RQ Classic rules, so I took the same die rolls and applied them in the order that the RQ6 book calls for them. With that in mind, Nabua now has the following RQ6 characteristics:
STR 6 / CON 10 / SIZ 13 / INT 12 / POW 12 / DEX 11 / CHA 9
So overall, a bit similar, but with a few extra points here and there.

Ability calculations are quite a bit different, but each is still dependent on multiple characteristics:

Action Points: 2
Damage Mod: -1d2
Experience Mod: 0
Heal Rate: 2
178cm tall, 87 kg weight
HP: 5 Head, 7 Chest, 6 Abdomen, 4 Arm, 5 Leg
Luck Points: 2
MP: 12
Move rate: 6m
Strike Rank: 11.5*

*—there's some ambiguity with the strike rank, because I'm not sure whether I should be rounding it up or down, or keeping it as a non-integer rational number.

Now there might seem to be a lot of things in this list, but it's only one more than the list I glossed over when doing my RQ Classic version of Nabua. There's something that kind of irked me for the longest time, though, and I couldn't quite place it until just now: With the exception of damage bonus and hit points, everything from RQ Classic was skill-based. With the introduction of things like "action points" and "luck points" being mentioned, it hints at more complicated mechanics.

The reason I'm so mechanics-averse is mostly due to prior experience both as a player and a GM. Some of the best role-playing I've seen has been in situations where the only mechanics invoked was a simple universal check, sometimes just to see what number came up. (E.g., roll 1d20 in a rules-light D&D game. Roll 3d6 in a GURPS game. Roll a d% and let's see what you get.) Meanwhile, mechanics-heavy games such as FATE or D&D 4E present games where the presence of the mechanics distract from the fiction... Anyway, I can forgive all this because so far the character generation is still pretty quick, about the same speed as I'm going through RQ Classic.

RuneQuest Classic - Money and Equipment

OK, switching back to RQ Classic, we see a brief section on how to improve your characteristics, which is essentially how you pay for training. Skipping over that (since Nabua doesn't have any cash yet), we see a section on Money and Equipment. Learn to pick up some d100, because this is when you start using them. I get lucky and roll a 93, meaning I'm a Poor Noble. I roll another d100, and I see that I get 325 Lunars every year until I'm 21 Score! (Note that since this seems to be a fixed stipend of some sort, I'm assuming you don't re-roll the value for every year. You could get anywhere from 5-500 Lunars that way, which is a rather wild fluctuation.)

Anyway, this is a perfect time to say how much I love random tables. Without the game forcing me to roll for it, it would not have occurred to me to play a poor noble. Or if it did, it would be after a long period of deliberation, during which I rejected other options for a character. With having my character's background dictated by the game, it immediately sets the imagination in motion. Why is my poor noble Nabua adventuring? Is he simply bored? Has he stumbled on some arcane secret inside his family library and strives to know more? Is he determined to avenge his cousin, who was kidnapped by someone who thought his family had more than they did?

The character concept is something that always has to be considered in a system that lacks character classes a la D&D. I'm sure that there are probably some random tables out there that help generate character concepts like these for systems where there are no classes or templates. It would make a fantastic aid for games such as GURPS, where you could sometimes struggle to come up with an idea for an interesting character.

Anyway, the book gives me some simple lists of equipment depending on my character background, and with that I head straight into the Combat and Mechanics chapter. That was an easy session of character generation! Let's go back to RQ6 for its wrap-up:

RuneQuest 6 - To be continued..?

Going back to RQ 6, I get to calculate my Standard Skills by simple formulae that are based on my characteristics (which, by the way, is a process that still hasn't been spelled out for me in RQ Classic.) For example, my First Aid skill is INT+DEX, expressed as a percentage—easy peasy. In addition, an additional skill is the Combat Style, which varies based on setting. For example, a Scythian horse archer and a Greek hoplite would both have different proficiencies in combat, but they would be contained within their respective Combat Styles. Furthermore, who's to say that a Greek hoplite couldn't assimilate into Scythian culture and start learning (probably really slowly) to be a horse archer? All it would take is adding and developing a second Combat Style. Awesome.

And then I see that I have two more chapters to go before character creation is done. Chapter 2 is Culture and Community. Chapter 3 is Careers and development.

Damn it.

I've heard that RuneQuest combat is gritty and deadly, which is great. But I've just passed the fifteen-minute mark with these character generation steps (not counting the writing I've done for this blog post,) The more time I invest in the generation of Nabua, the more I lose if and when that character dies. I find that in a lot of modern RPGs, character death is almost unthinkable in practice because people are too damn attached to their characters. I'm at a great point in the RuneQuest process where I've got enough detail to go on and have (I believe) enough balance on the daring-cautious spectrum to be a good adventurer. If the Game is going to have a Song of Ice and Fire-style mortality rate, I can envision getting mighty pissed off when we have to stop the story every time a player character dies so that a new character can get rolled up.

But for now, I'm going to try to withhold judgement. It took a long while for me to get the free time to produce this lowly blog post, so I'll have to finish the RQ 6 character generation process another day...

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