Fantasy Adventure: Runeslayers

Last week I had little time for gaming, but I did manage to pull off a rather interesting session of trad-style adventure gaming with Runeslayers. We played for five hours, during which time we managed to create characters for two players and play through a large enough arc of adventure. There were two players and me doing GMing, being that I was the only one who’d read the rules beforehand. The interesting points from the fantasy adventuring perspective mostly pertain to character generation, here.

First, a couple of words on me and Runeslayers. Mostly Runeslayers, actually: Runeslayers is this rather unknown game by Christopher Lawrence and J.C. Connors, which they wrote at the latter end of the ’90s for Avalon Hill. Legend (well, the guys themselves) has it that the game was supposed to be called Runequest: Slayers, as it was going to be the first book of a new edition of Runequest the roleplaying game. However, Hasbro bought Avalon Hill, cancelled the project and left the game unpublished. The designers then made the excellent decision of publishing their game for free as a pdf. I have no idea how they also got appropriate art for the game, but there you have it: a very real-booky pdf file of a couple of hundred pages of a decade old roleplaying game.

The real significance of Runeslayers is that it is very, very good as an adventure game. I would almost say that it’s the best ’90s adventure game if I had more solid expertise on the era; certainly the only game from then I’ve seen that really compares is Ville Vuorela’s Praedor, while the common American stuff is left far behind. Comparatively speaking, Runeslayers has it all: superior structural analysis, meaningful play decisions, strong vision for the system, innovative setting hooks and character roleplaying rules… it has its weaknesses in the grand scheme of things (one of which I’ll be expounding on below), but alongside the relatively low-level designs in the latter part of the ’90s it shines like a jevel.

I found out about Runeslayers at the beginning of the decade, pretty soon after it got into the interwebs. After that it took me several years to find this brief opportunity to play the game, even while it intrigued me from the beginning. At first I was too busy running my own intricate D&D campaign, after which I got heavily involved with schooling myself on modern indie and storytelling game design. Lately I’ve been fiddling with adventure gaming again, which is why I rather insisted with Sami Koponen that we should play Runeslayers, a game he hadn’t heard of.

Anyway, that’s it for backgrounds. How did the game run?

The joys of point-based chargen

There’s been some rumbling at my blog, and from other quarters, about my professed liking for randomization as a character generation solution for D&D-like challengeful adventure roleplaying. Well, Runeslayers has the opposite solution: at the beginning of character generation you get 30 character points, out of which you buy the race, abilities, skills, wealth, social rank and weapon expertise of your character. You even get to buy a speed score. All this is very typical of ’90s character generation systems: the idea is to emphasize player freedom in “creating the character they want” and faciliating character detail by allowing the player to go in concept-first. Essentially, you should be able to take whatever details the GM imparts about the setting, conceive a character totally freeform, and then assign it whatever you feel as priority statistics based on that character vision.

Well, not only do I find this a dull process as a general principle, but it also takes forever to work through when you don’t have a character vision that determines for you what abilities you want to buy. Not having a character vision is not a flaw for a player in my books, while having to make a raft of nigh-meaningless decisions as part of the character creation process is. Here are just some examples from Runeslayers:

  • Abilities are each bought with character points, starting from ten and the cost going up logarithmically above that. You can also sell ability points for character points at one per. The tactical significance of the abilities for combat are in most cases qualitative: a character needs to have a higher ability than his opponent, but overpowering advantage does nothing for most abilities. This holds true especially for Agility, which gains a player one bonus die for supremacy, but nothing else. Consequently, this is a pretty interesting conundrum: which abilities should be invested in to gain supremacy against likely foes? Of course this would be better if the abilities weren’t arbitrary and a player could have some benchmarks for the process; otherwise it’s still pretty arbitrary on a case-per-case basis whether a given opponent has a higher or lower Agility.
  • While the Ability buying works on some level (or rather, I imagine it could be made to work), the system quickly falls down after that. All characters start with base speed at 10, but can use character points to buy more. What do you even do with speed? The rules suggest that it’s used in pursuit situations, which just aren’t going to come up often enough to justify this expense… And even assuming that they did come up, how many points of Speed do you want? Apparently you want to be faster than your competition, which is the same logic applied for most of the Abilities… While I can appreciate this for the Abilities, with Speed it’s just stupid and unrealistic (code for “not appealing in the fiction”); speed should be based on something else if it’s needed at all. Wasting character points on it is just foolish.
  • The whole system falls down with money, skills and social status, all of which are bought with the character points. This means that instead of having a structure the characters are just a bucket of points, with little fictional appeal in their construction. A player might make the in-fiction meaningless decision of heightening the Might of their character by lowering their starting capital, for instance, which simply doesn’t mean anything for who or what the character is. While this is obviously fine if you’re just putting numbers to a character you’ve already imagined in your head, it means the chargen system does not inspire nor structure gameplay in any appreciable way.

What all this meant in practice was that we spent three hours in character generation, doing such wonderfully interesting things as comparing different armor materials and buying pants for the characters. I realize that this is a matter of course in a traditional game, but it still takes me by surprise every time I encounter it nowadays. Obviously I need to do something about the fiddleness if I ever play more of the game… at least I can get rid of separate money currency and character point currency, if character points are indeed there to stay… Yes, there’s potential in that.

Fiddleness in combat

Again paralling earlier discussion, Runeslayers has point management in its combat system, which might provide a learning point for me in my efforts to provide an intricate initiative system for my own use. The feedback has been that my initiative system, which practically needs poker chips for tracking initiative expenditures, is too clumsy to play efficiently. Meanwhile, Runeslayers has a fatigue system wherein characters lose their effectiveness in combat and are subject to increased danger of injury when they run out of fatigue points. These are spent on every combat round, with the amount depending foremost on the weapon used by the character; a larger weapon uses up more points. Stupid gamer stuff (as if weapon size really affected the fatigue of fighting significantly), but the system itself is a fun addition to the usual factors played with in rpg combat.

In practice I didn’t find the fatigue tracking too arduous for our group. At the beginning of the fight I gave out the appropriate number of poker chips, which were then removed from the appropriate character’s pile when they were spent. Sometimes we forgot to do the removal, but it was easily enough corrected later. Simple and not that annoying, even if fatigue never actually had time to affect the fight. In that sense I’d consider the Runeslayers system of fatigue a bit dull: certainly fights can last long enough to cause fatigue to effect things, but most of the time the fatigue score is meaningless. This is compounded by fatigue expenditure being the same in most fights, so there’s not much variety in that regard.

The good things

Considering that I praise the game so highly, surely there are good things as well? Well, yes:

  • The glyph system that rewards “roleplaying” (really, OOC character activity constraint, as far as I’m concerned) is flavourful and fun when it suggests ways for characters to overcome challenges. For example, in our game a character opted to obtain an audience with the pirate captain by stealing into his chambers at night. This was certainly Daring, as per his glyph of the session!
  • The resolution system is full of elegant, simple bonuses that can be gained by in-fiction play. There’s not much emphasis on character build apart from having high scores; instead, the combat system is mostly about rolling well and taking risks, which is fine for a game with lots of combat and especially tension over initiating combat: when all characters are fighters (as is the case here) and the combat system is not very safe or certain, there are benefits to simply not fighting. Combine this with the solid-yet-simple rules the game has for non-combat tasks, with a variety of available bonuses as well, and there is a tension that is very, very much to my liking: should a situation be resolved with violence? Could other means be used? This is a breath of fresh air after too much D&D, where combat is always the correct solution.
  • Did I mention that everybody is a fighter? What this means is that there’s no pressure to form a party or care of skill coordination of any kind. Perfect for so many different purposes that I wonder why Praedor and Runeslayers are the only games that really go for where it’s at: playing adventurous warriors who belong into crazy cults (well, in Runeslayers they do) and do amazing and dangerous things.
  • The WarClan system is instant setting creation. Just take the WarClans of the characters and imagine the setting where each of them is a significant societal force to be considered. We had the pirate warclan and the city guard warclan, so the setting was a city by the coast. Simple and fun, the setting material in the book is totally redundant.

Anyway, I liked it. I liked it so much that I’m going to steal a lot of things from it. Actually, I liked it so much that I wrote a double report, with the other part at the Forge. That’s the part where I describe what happened in the fiction and such, in case you’re interested.

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