Wednesday 18 June 2014

RuneQuest 6 for Free! (and some thoughts on player competency)

RuneQuest 6 is a masterpiece. In my judgement, it is just too much system for the group that I play with, and for our play-style, but I can't help but admire the elegance of the system, the quality of the writing, and the physical book itself – I own the hardcover with slipcase. I also own Monster Island, the Book of Quests, and will no doubt continue to buy RQ6 stuff almost as quickly as the Design Mechanism can churn it out. I am very much looking forward to Mythic Britain.

 RQ6 is too much for our group, I said. BUT…

But RuneQuest Essentials has now been released as a FREE resource. You can get it directly from the Design Mechanism HERE. 200 or so pages containing, well, everything that a player needs to play competently. Perhaps this summer, when D is back in town and we are able to put some time into face-to-face play, we could reconsider RQ6. I still, as always, worry that book-keeping crunch and systems with too many moving parts are enemies of the kind of freedom that I value in roleplaying games, which is why B/X and its derivatives are my go-to games. And it'll have to jostle for position with some other games demanding my attention for our summer game (WFRP1e, Classic Traveller, etc. etc.). BUT...
But I have more to say on the subject of player competency. I tend to shy away from games that require any great degree of system mastery on the part of the players in order for them to play 'well'. It is one of the reasons that I don't like later D&Ds – it appeared to me that understanding the system was essential if a player was to make good choices, from character creation to the 'synergistic' use of feats, powers, and magic. I prefer systems in which the players can make effective choices on the part of their characters without needing any deep understanding of the mechanics that will be used to resolve the actions. Of course, you can’t avoid some system 'intrusion', but the system would ideally be one that a new player could sit down at the table and grok in their first session. D100 games, with their intuitive roll-under mechanism expressed as a percentage, are good for this. At least until you get to magic - and magic is the barrier to ‘player competency’ in almost all fantasy RPGs as it often cannot be understood simply by reference to real life and the [non-mechanical] ‘fiction’. Which is one reason, beyond the aesthetic, why I prefer relatively low-magic games...

Now, magic in RQ6 contains more moving parts than my usual system of choice. But that is a player competency issue I expect and just have to live with. My worry re: player competency in RQ6 is the admittedly beautiful combat system. Will a character with a low score in their Combat Style, but controlled by an experienced player, beat a character with a high score controlled by a novice? Yes, or at least he has a chance. In a D&Dish game a high skill fighter (as defined by level) has the same chance of beating a low skill fighter regardless of the players involved. This might sound like a bad thing, but it is not. It is part of the ‘simulation’ of the world – the player choices with regard to his or her character are not about what type of stroke to make with your sword, or what part of your body the shield will cover. The level 5 fighter knows this, and he knows it better than the level 1 fighter - and this competency is abstracted into the mechanics of D&D combat. The choices that a player makes are about when to engage in combat, on what terms, in what circumstances, etc. The larger-scale decisions, the strategic decisions, are the province of the players, and these can be made in the context of the game world, requiring little system mastery.

But the more granular the decision making is, the more it will expose the mechanics, and thus it will require greater system mastery in order to play 'well'. In RQ6 the experienced player will have a better understanding of which Special Effects to apply in which circumstances. he or she will understand how these Special Effects interact with Resistance Skills and the Combat Action cycle/economy. For a skill-based game - which traditionally default to the character sheet to deal with the question of player/character competency - this creates a curious ‘break’ in the conceptualisation of player skill. So you don't need to actually be a great diplomat, as you have Oratory and Influence Skills of over 100%. Sure, you might need to know when to apply these skills, but those decisions are taken at the strategic level, and the level of system mastery required is little more than; "oh, my character is a master orator, so I'll get up on the steps of the forum and try to incite the crowd with tales of the debauchery of the noble classes", i.e. playing well comes down to engaging with the game world, not engaging with the system.  

All that said, despite my worry that the granularity of the system is such that player decisions are being taken at the ‘wrong’ level, the combat system is a fantastic game in its own right, and the Special Effect system produces some lovely, easy to narrate battles. And it is FREE, so cheap at twice the price!


  1. D&D is heavily dependent on player competency, especially with oldschool gamers - because your skills and decision making have absolutely no mechanical basis. It's a matter of description and thinking of the right thing to solve puzzles.
    RuneQuest simply takes the 'player competency' aspect away from skills (which are generally well defined) and puts it into combat and tactics.
    RuneQuest is _more_ of a simulation than D&D in that its characters are rather tightly bound into their community and property, having lives outside of 'I was on a farm, now I kill things'. Aside from domain play I almost never see D&D characters with real property, which is ridiculous to the point of stupid.

    1. "D&D is heavily dependent on player competency, especially with oldschool gamers - because your skills and decision making have absolutely no mechanical basis."

      For me, and the sorts of people that play with, that is a good thing. I rarely game with players who read the rules, basically, so I need them to being able to make competent decisions by reference to the fictional world rather than the inter-workings of a number of different mechanics. But I find most d100 games are good at this too - when I'm GM-ing D&D I simply reference the character background and invent a x in 6 or x in 8 etc. chance of success for skill-like actions (which I normally tell the players before they make a decision - most characters would be aware of their in-world competency and chances of success) - either that or I just say 'yes', in d100 games even a total novice can look at their character sheet and see their characters relative competencies expressed as percentages. Couple that with the 'what skill levels actually mean' table from MRQII/Legend, and a quick quide to difficultly modifiers clipped to the player-facing side of the GM screen and the players, even complete beginners, have a really clear idea of what their character is capable of, and so can make meaningful decisions without any deep system mastery.

      The 'problem' I have with RQ6 (and this goes for my players - not for all groups) is that the granularity on the combat system demands, far more than any other d100 game, that the players have quite deep system mastery. Their Combat Style % is not as reliable a guide to their character's skill in combat as the % scores in, say, 'Insight' or 'Influence' skills are guides to character competency in those domains. Of course player competency still matters - as it should - but in the non-combat areas (magic excepted) the player competency springs from the interaction of their general wits and the knowledge of the game world that they have acquired through play (and paying attention). In RQ6 combat, player competency is dependent on system mastery in a way that reminds me - in a bad way - of what little I am familiar with later D&Ds. I say this even as I say that the combat system in RQ6 is an absolute masterpiece.