Sunday, June 26, 2016

Runequest 6 vs. Magic World: A comparison and contrast

By popular demand I've decided to work up a list of differences between Runequest 6 (alias Mythras) and the BRP/Magic World game systems. In the latter case, I'm grouping them together as ultimately Magic World is essentially BRP powered, but with differences derived from the old Elric RPG mechanics. Where MW does something particularly different from BRP I'll mention it.

Character Creation:

There are lots of differences between the two systems here, but most are cosmetic. RQ6 provides a concise and straight method of character generation, as does Magic World. BRP provides a system littered with options and variants, but at its core can emulate character generation even more complex than the other two games, or as simple as Call of Cthulhu depending on which options you turn on and off.

Of the three, Magic World aims at the quickest and most streamlined character generation system. The net result is still functionally the same as RQ6 and BRP, but the goal is speedy and easy to use. It accomplishes this by defining how many skills to pick and at what value, and cuts out any optional rules that are not necessary. Despite being streamlined you still end up with a culture (defined by civilization size rather than RQ's cultural groups) and profession, as in Runequest. Magic World also restricts itself to a single magic system (unless you attach Advanced Sorcery or The Magic Book to it) which is based on the Elric! RPG sorcery system.

MW and RQ6 also differ in their morality systems. MW has a law/chaos axis defined as light and darkness (to de-Elricize it) with in-game effects based on behavior leading to purity or corruption. Runequest has a percentile-based passions system which was interesting and tries to codify a character's imperative in a mechanical way.

Combat:

This is really the biggest area where lots of little differences add up to a ton of trouble if you're not totally down with the rules differences (and where I felt the game dragged, albeit with the caveat that if we played long enough we'd probably all get used to it). Here's the differences:

Combat Styles:

RQ6 introduced combat styles, a "package" of typically 3-4 weapons all linked by one skill value, and reflective of a cultural combat style. Previous RQ editions still had each weapon with it's own skill value, and you could progress at different rates based on actual use. Go back to RQ3 and earlier and you still had attack and parry modifiers....so each weapon actually had two values! Combat styles also give you a special perk/maneuver option as well. The game is very tightly defined, except (strangely) for this part. Combat Styles are to combat what Passions are to personality/alignment....it's a weird spot where a holistic approach is applied to a game which otherwise is about to infodump serious effort into realistic combat.

Don't get me wrong, the concept works well. It is not really a bad approach, but it's hard for me to understand why there isn't more granularity in this part of the process when every other step of combat is highly granular.

By contrast, BRP lets you measure this from basic skill-per-weapon with default modifiers on up to the system Magic World uses, which is skill-per-weapon, but each weapon is part of a group which skill in one can affect skill in other weapons in the group. In BRP there are even options to "turn on" the old attack/parry style of RQ3 if you want that.

Strike Rank and Action Point Economy: 

I hate the way RQ6 handles strike rank and action points. HATES IT. Maybe I'm doing it wrong? My two veteran RQ6 players seemed to think the way I did it was fine, and even found out they had mistakenly been charging additional APs for special maneuvers (double dipping the cost).

So the Strike Rank is just a measure of initiative in RQ6, and it is where the MRQ/RQII/RQ6 mechanic jumped shark from the older RQ editions. The principle is sound: ditch the old strike rank system, which many found confusing and cumbersome in favor of a more delineated action point mechanic. You roll your strike rank initiative (SR, modified by an armor penalty, plus 1D10) and go. Each time your SR comes up, you can take an action, burning an AP. Each time you need to react, you can burn an AP. When you are out of APs, you are done...finito. The GM goes down the strike rank list, calling out until all participants in the round are out of APs to spend, then you go back to the top and start again. Sounds easy, right?

In practice, making sure the players track their APs correctly, and the GM tracks his APs correctly, is a micromanagement nightmare happening every single combat. There's no hard and fast rule on how to do it, other than to do the best you can to track each action and if you're in to this sort of stuff it might even be cathartic....but for me, it feels like work, every single time. Painful, unpleasant work that reminds me of how other games that are 98% identical to this one do it simpler and easier for the same effect. Never mind tacking on tracking each foe's injuries to the mix....more on that in a second.

To contrast: BRP lets you use a basic action economy where you go in order of dexterity, and everyone gets their movement and action (the CoC method, let's call it). Even better, BRP lets you mod the hell out of this if you want, to the point where you can reinstitute the complex and cumbersome strike rank/action system of old RQ2 and RQ3, which I won't elaborate on other than to say that if realism is your goal you should look in to it.

Magic World finds a fantastic, happy medium which ditches action points and goes with a variant of the strike rank system, but all using dexterity. So in MW you count down from your Dex score....you take action on our Dex, as the GM counts down. Every 5 increments (called Dex ranks) you have a chance at another action.....but every action comes with an increasing penalty, usually a -30% that is cumulative. So If Joe Elf with a Dex 18 acts on 18 to sprint to cover (2 MOV), then on Dex 13 he can strike at the orc, then on Dex 12 the orc tries to hit him so he makes his first parry (no penalty), and then on Dex 8 he decides to use his off-hand weapon to make a second strike (at -30%), and at Dex 3 he could in theory do more if the opportunity rises. Magic World avoids the action point economy by saying everyone gets an attack and parry at no cost, and every additional attempt (which requires a prerequisite, such as greater than 100% skill to make a second attack, for example, or an off-hand weapon) gets the cumulative penalty. So you can try to pull off more, or even avoid being killed more....but it's going to cost you. And best of all...when the GM hits Dex 1, the round is over and it all starts over again. You don't need to track anything; the flow of combat already did it for you. 

Injuries and Hit Locations:

RQ6 has a system where you have no overall hit point total...just locational hit points. You can get hit and wounded many, many times as long as you don't go negative in any one location, and if you do go negative, you're not at risk of death or dismemberment until you reach and exceed the negative of your HP total. I've seen this in action in RQII a lot, and now RQ6, and it makes for some interesting battles, especially against large and formidable foes like a minotaur. Everyone can be hitting them, but the damned thing won't go down. This, in and of itself, is totally cool.

However, try the following: 7 player characters are attacked by six soldiers, well armed and trained, with their leader and a minotaur. In D&D you need to know the AC, HP and what the creature does. You can capture most of that in a stat block easily enough. In RQ6 you are now tracking each wound on each location of each creature. Think about that for a second. While thinking about it, keep in mind you only have stat blocks if you create them, or stick to generic monsters....RQ6 has yet to release a convenient "Giant Book of statted NPCs" so maybe at best you can filch stats from prepublished modules (that is what I did, due to lack of time to stat everyone out). If The Design Mechanism ever does release a "Giant Book of Pre-Statted NPCs" I will buy that sucker for sure.

Now you have your action point/SR chart, your NPC roster, and a rolling hit locations chart. Better hope your NPCs drop fast! RQ6 does include rules for rabble and underlings...which are essentially NPCs with one block of hit points, to help alleviate the GM's job here. So...an acknowledgement that universally applying the hit locations can be extremely cumbersome in play.

BRP has all sorts of options, defaulting to the very basic hit point mechanic of Call of Cthulhu but also including rules for turning on all the complexity of hit locations circa RQ3. However, all such versions use a central hit point mechanic: you can take locational wounds, but two or three locational wounds can become a big deal when your main hit point total is depleted. BRP also uses the major wound threshold mechanic...when you take half or more of your HPs in one shot, you suffer grievous and lasting injuries. The latter is the default mechanic; you can use it with or without hit locations.

Magic World simplifies slightly, dropping hit locations entirely while keeping the hit point total and major wound threshold. In actual play I've found that MW PCs end up with just as many grizzly, debilitating injuries from an unfortunate combat as RQ6 characters do. Sometimes more! Magic World does offer an interesting heroic alternative, one where SIZ+CON become your hit point total (instead of SIZ+CON/2). This doubles your hit points and makes PCs much likelier to take risks and survive the results, on average. It's an incredibly simple way of keeping a realistic game system but making the PCs notably more epic.

Combat Specials:

RQ6 has them in spades: if you roll well, and your opponent doesn't, you get 1 or 2 special maneuvers you can call upon. It's a neat system in one sense, integrating cool combat tricks in to the process, and they are guaranteed to pop almost every time. But it's also a pain for several reasons, as follows:

1. You have a lot of maneuver options that make more sense if you're trying for them first, then succeed/fail. For example, it makes more sense to me that you declare an intent to hit a location first, get a penalty/modifier, and then succeed or fail on that. In RQ6 you attack first, maybe get a maneuver, and then if you want choose to hit a location.
2. Because there is not central hit point total bleed effects....more bookkeeping...are a necessity. In BRP they exist as an option for certain weapons, and in MW they have been more or less omitted as part of the streamlined mechanics. SO YMMV here.
3. Most of my players hit that moment when they had a maneuver option. The fastest resolution was for the RQ veterans to suggest what they did. But the RQ6 maneuvers are a very long list. I think it would go faster with memorization and experience, though....but even we vets were tripping up a bit. Rusty, I guess?
4. Here's my actual pet peeve: the specials detracted from the combat narrative. This is a huge YMMV type of complaint, because if you as GM are not in to narrative combat then a mechanical system which builds the narrative for you is probably going to look pretty cool. For me, though, it meant that injuries and situations were predetermined, and those were all post-hoc to the actual combat resolution. So in the end, all I did was "relay facts" without a lot of exposition. Maybe I've just played too much D&D, where most wounds are open to interpetation? I think this is very much a "it's just me" thing.
5. The complaint I feel is valid: too many choices and info "after the roll" led to a lot of slower combat situations, which was disappointing. I found myself less excited for combat to start as a combination of the combat specials conundrum, hit location tracking, SR/APs tracking and lots of fiddly bits in the process left each combat dragging. I remember in my RQII campaigns that the first game took about four sessions before we all started to "get it," and I almost quit running RQII by session two for this same reason......so my suspicion really is that practice makes perfect, here. But between the RQII days and RQ6, I discovered Magic World...and Magic World's combat system is streamlined, smoother, and so much easier while netting the same effective results. So sure, I could stick with RQ6 for a while longer until we all learn it well....but why bother, when I know I can get a faster but equally evocative system running immediately?

In BRP there are special effects, too. Bleeding and Impale are the most common, but they are very well defined over years of play, and are effects you expect from the weapons in question. As such, when specials happen their adjudication is quick. Magic World streamlines this: you don't have specials, getting extra damage or bypassing armor (or both) with you roll a special or critical.

Magic:

A word about the magic systems: this is one of the cooler elements of Runequest and BRP in general; there are about two dozen magic systems floating around now for the D100 systems, and all of them are equally interesting. RQ6 actually provides 5 magic systems in its main book and 2 systems in its Essentials book. Sorcery in RQ6 was regarded as sufficiently enigmatic that my players all agreed to ignore it. I have never liked how Theism worked in RQ, but it's easy enough to understand....just hard to master (and requires a lot of "time passes while I become a cult leader" moments in play). Folk Magic (alias Spirit Magic in BRP and RQ3/2) is the easiest magic system to understand. Shamanism....Animism in RQ6.....is the spirit combat/capture system, or as I call it "the original Pokemon minigame." It's familiarity to you depends heavily on what you get out of it, and when you first deployed it. I have found the presentation in RQ6 to be needlessly complex; compare to the system in older editions of Runequest and the BRP variant for a stark contrast. Magic World handles it simplest of all, offering some spirits to find in play with some very simple rules for what they do and why.

Something I didn't realize until I started comparing both systems: the descriptions of each spell in RQ6 don't always translate from the same spells in prior editions, or in The Magic Book, Magic World or BRP. This popped up when I noticed that the RQ3/Magic Book version of Demoralize is very clear in what it does, but not so much in the RQ6 edition. Weird!


Overall Style:

A lot of my issue with RQ6 boils down to a utility vs. expository presentation. If you are looking for a book that outlines the rules in a quick and merciless manner, then a system where the mechanics are clearly in one section and the exposition is clearly delineated for your leisure is very important. To give you an example, Magic World is, to me, a very utility-driven book; I can find most rules in its pages quickly and easily, with little muss or fuss; even BRP does a pretty good job, especially given what a toolkit approach it takes. RQ6 is a much chattier game, talking a lot of theory and exposition before getting to any rules when it comes to magic. This is in a sense good, because it really breaks from typical FRP game tradition, but it could really benefit from a 1-2 page cheat sheet for the magic systems, something which distills all the rules down to concise bits for quick access. Just my personal preference, though; another cohort of mine loves the RQ6 style and precisely because it is so laden with detail. For him (and to clarify, he's a single guy with a lot of free time!) finding the rules nuggets is not an issue. For me (a married guy with a company to run and a family to entertain) I just haven't got that sort of time. In fact it was the existence of Runequest Essentials that even gave me a sense I could feasibly return to RQ6 and try it out for this reason....the Essentials edition made it a cleaner package. It's also why the new Mythras Imperative will definitely be a system I run in the near future, albeit for a Sci Fi setting; I'll keep my fantasy with Magic World.

I have a final, petty complaint because as I was reading Magic World through again,* I realized that I wasn't wearing my reading glasses. Why? Because it has decent sized print for my middle-aged eyes. RQ6, unfortunately does not. Petty, I know! But I have the same complaint about Pathfinder. When you look at a lot of OSR games, I bet you'll notice that more, not fewer, use large font sizes, and I bet it's for this reason. (I won't even get in to the ligature issue, since Pete and Loz have identified that the next Mythras edition will get rid of it entirely).

What I think Runequest 6 could benefit from is as follows:
1. Some optional rules content, maybe a discussion on how to have a "basic combat system" and then layer on additional options for desired complexity.
2. Each of the core rules systems need a 1-2 page cheat sheet included which provides the flow-chart outline of how the systems work. A cheat sheet for the magic systems would go an enormous way to improving the utility of the book while leaving the expository text intact. Everyone wins, here.
3. I don't know what solution to offer on strike ranks/action points since they are pretty core to the RQ6 methodology. I'll have to brainstorm on ideas for how to make this process simpler,or at least easier to track.
4. Whatever comes out for Mythras next, I think they should have a Mythras Essentials to replace the RQ Essentials. Mythras Imperative is cool (and very, very utility-based), but it doesn't offer enough to do fantasy at all, and needs more content to do any genre justice.

And for BRP/Magic World:
1. Whatever Chaosium does with this, please keep any future BRP edition "moddable" like the current one. It should remain a toolkit at it's core. The new future BRP sounds like a skeletal framework on which specific settings will get their own stand-alone books, however, so I suppose my second request is just to keep the BGB in print.
2. Chaosium, please think about how you could revive Magic World. A second edition with errata fixes and expanded content (from the unpublished future sourcebooks we all knew about but never got to see) would be fantastic. Figure out a way to tie it to your new Runequest to boost sales. Like...call it QuestWorld 2E or something if you have to. Just please don't abandon it.




*I can re-absorb the whole MW book in about 2 hours but I still haven't finished RQ6. Go figure.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for the comparison, especially since I was one of the people who asked for it. I love Magic World (Elric/Stormbringer)as an off shoot of the simplest BRP version there is. It is, and has remained, my go to fantasy system for over 20 years and I can teach new players and non-roleplayers how the system works in under 15 minutes. That's a huge savings when introducing roleplaying to people who might be hesitant to give it a try.

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    1. I've loved Elric/Stormbringer for exactly that reason, but love Magic World even more since I can use it for anything I feel like....not that I don't like the Young Kingdoms as a setting (I do).

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    2. I always just stripped out the setting specific stuff before I ran "generic" fantasy. I've run a brief Elric/Stormbringer campaign in the past. You are right that Magic World strips out the world specific YK stuff, but for some reason I find the organization in the last version of Stormbringer preferable to Magic World.

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    3. Actually yeah, the Stormbringer 5th edition book was amazing, one of my favorite BRP-based tomes ever. Well organized....and I'd say any Magic World GM could benefit from getting a copy, just to filch from it.

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  2. Very insightful analysis (and in such short order - I am impressed!!). I definitely feel your pain on some of the points concerning RQ6 combat; I too have lingering cognitive dissonance with respect to both post-impact location resolution and the overwhelming amount of information related to combat effects. At the same time, I do love combat effects...

    Anyhow, this is very a interesting and well-conceived analysis. Thank you so much!

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  3. Having GM-ed both MRQII (which is a very close relative of RQ6) and Call of Cthulhu (a lot closer to BRP/Magic World), I did notice the MRQII/RQ6 family really plays better if the players are fairly familiar with the system. While both are roll-under systems, there's a lot less for players to keep track of. It was a lot easier to play Call of Cthulhu with players who lacked a rulebook than it was to play MRQII. I suspect the same would be true of the RQ6/MW divide.

    As a GM I kinda like all the details that RQ6 has but my group is definitely more suited for the "roll-under and call it a day" style of MW.

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    1. RQII is a weird one for me, but I really do have to account for the fact that the last time I ran it we didn't have our son yet and I wasn't the senior manager of a local business, so I had a lot more time and patience to get people up to speed. Move forward five years and RQ6 (which has languished due to my peeve about thew ligatures anyway!) had a tougher hill to climb in an environment where I've started to really appreciate D&D 5E, OSR games and other titles which have simpler and more elegant rules systems....even if they don't do brutal combat exactly right (which RQ6 absolutely does).

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  4. i found rq6 to be a unpleasant read and kept thinking omg how tedious - too many new things that i have to know and 30 years of brp systems and i found it unfamiliar - i felt sorry for my shop for getting in hardbacks when i knew system was expired

    this expiring ed thing is my most hated element of gaming
    i feel alienated from brp after playing since 84 as my main system

    I liked brp, magic world and rq3 rq2 is nice too

    I scrapped strike ranks as it confused most players and used dex and used weapon stats as tie breaker - i scrapped stst skill mods and used ringworld bonus system - so a sword skill goes up to total of two stats then you specialize in types - i scrapped seperate att/parr as it meant less record keeping even though it was fun. I used rq3 skill lists for experience as suggestions for 8 professional skills. I used education stat.

    i find with rq it takes little time for a player to know what they can do from character sheets without books but nitty gritty is slower - my first few years i only used divine magic from rq3 (system ppl now saying was a problem but was used for ten years) then after being a player in rq2 i got spirit magic. It took a science graduate to look at sorcery and get rest of us into it - i like the sandy variant version was online lots in 90s.

    I find basic spirit magic fastest for players to use. A plyer three times tried to be a shaman and they never quite got it and made shamanhood in last session of one campagn. The min max players loved sorcery but most found very difficult and never got past basics. Divine was tricky but most common to max out in with least amount of trouble - i expanded champion rules a bit - i used acolytes but i probably will not use again.

    Id say some of the magic rules took several years to get hang of one or two magic systems. A good aspect is i could customise player magic use well with choices from many books including cthulhu.

    I feel alienated by modern dnd and now feel like im being pushed into the past by RQ and brp - cthulhu 6th ed seems to be for ppl with poor maths skills - i made a brp universal table every player uses at my tables like marvel one. i was going to do a combat and magic cheat sheet too.

    thanks for this article - it cemented my own feelings and i will do a brp blog soon

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  5. For me, OpenQuest 2 hits that sweet spot for d100 fantasy playability. I like RQII a lot, but it's a bit too rules crunchy for me these days as well.

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    1. Okay posting right comment now: OpenQuest 2 is actually a good choice, I think. I feel it does a pretty good job of skewing to classic RQ norms, and is very focused. I do wish it had better art (my pet peeve on that edition) but there's a slimmed down no-art version which is worth checking out.

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  6. Very comprehensive overview...thanks!

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