An investigation by the Tales of the Reaching Moon editorial staff (1991)
A version of this article appeared in Tales of the Reaching Moon issue #5.
© 1991 Reaching Moon Megacorp
MOB’s opening note: I offer this as a document of purely historical interest, or perhaps as a bitter lament for what could have been. Sadly, RuneQuest is of course now long dead.
RuneQuest is a great game. We all know that. Unfortunately, things haven’t been going so good for the game for some time. We all know that too. We, the Tales of the Reaching Moon staff present here our thoughts about the history of the game, the hole RuneQuest is currently in, and what action we think Avalon Hill should take to dig its way out again.
We have no intention of pointing bones at either Avalon Hill or Chaosium; our intention is just to lay the facts as we see them on the table and suggest remedies. You will find our position is a conservative one. From our correspondence with Avalon Hill, we gain the impression that they’re eager to take the game to new places, to try to second-guess the market and provide what it seems to require. However, we believe it would be more useful for Avalon Hill to consolidate the present position before they try to expand.
Comment on this article is sought after and welcome. Perhaps you have ideas of your own. Let us know. More importantly, let Avalon Hill know what you think!
Some Ancient History
The golden period for RuneQuest players was without doubt from 1982 – 1983, when the game won most of its fans. In that time Chaosium produced five excellent boxed sets: Questworld, Trollpak, Pavis, Borderlands and Big Rubble. The latter three boxes were a trilogy of adventures on the same geographical setting. (Pavis was cited by Ken Rolston in Dragon #156 as still one of the best all-time City supplements for roleplaying.)
The Avalon Hill Edition
After this frenetic publishing burst, RuneQuest went into hibernation while the Avalon Hill edition of the game was prepared. Players waited on the edge of their seats. The time delay was too long, and some started to drift off.
When the game did come out in 1984, it was bigger and better, but many were disappointed. The price was prohibitive; the physical quality could have been improved; and the rules had gained new complexities which some players were unable to cope with. But at any rate, RuneQuest was back. Some loved it, some decided to live with it, some deferred judgement, and some dropped it.
Glorantha was inseparable from RuneQuest in the earlier Chaosium editions; in the Avalon Hill edition it became optional. What was more important to gamers, the world or the rules? We are still finding out.
Those who stayed around looked eagerly for the first supplements, to get their hands on some new adventures to try out the revised rules. By and large they’re still waiting.
Four Kinds of RuneQuest
These days you can buy RuneQuest in four different flavours, and this has its own problems. In particular the advent of a watered-down version, Standard Edition, has created a number of extra hassles, although its principal aim – to make RuneQuest available at a lower price – has been realised.
The four types of RuneQuest are:
Deluxe: The basic RuneQuest unit. Ideally, everyone should buy this one. The price has (we think) dropped from its initial publication. Even so, it is the most sound investment on the roleplaying market, at any price.
Player’s Box: A fair idea, making available a small portion of the game to those with limited budget or interest. However, RuneQuest is not a game like Dungeons and Dragons which requires an imbalance of knowledge between players and the gamemaster; ideally, everyone should buy Deluxe instead. We know of one games shop in 1989 that took nine months to sell one copy of the Player’s version.
Gamemaster’s Box: An odd set. By itself, it’s not only half a game, but it’s the wrong half. No Gamemaster would buy this without the Player’s box, unless he or she was an idiot; in other words, again it makes more sense to buy Deluxe and get it over with. The only consumers that the Gamemaster’s Set would be of real use to is those who bought Player’s first, and then wanted to go the whole hog. Alternately, there may be gaming groups out there who are so communal-minded that the players bought their box and the gamemaster bought theirs and they all lived happily ever after – but we doubt it.
Standard Edition: Aha. A kettle of worms, this. A valiant attempt to bring the price down; this is RuneQuest lite. But the same problem exists, that is, once they’ve bought Standard, if they like it then sooner or later they’re going to have to spring for Deluxe anyway. To ward this off, RuneQuest supplements have included Deluxe rules sections for Standard players, but this frustrating for those who already own Deluxe (and are thus paying for pages they don’t need).
Here are four possible solutions to the Standard Edition bottleneck:
(a) Continue on including Deluxe rules sections. As we’ve said, we think this is annoying for Deluxe owners.
(b) Let the Standard players suffer. Give no ground, let them sink or swim. This is unsatisfactory, as it betrays the trust of those who took the carrot and bought Standard in the first place.
(c) Produce a Standard Edition Update, much like the ames Workshop Advanced RuneQuest book. It will be annoying to use, because players will find themselves needing two sources to look up the same information; but no more inconvenient than the current situation for Standard Edition users. However, it would be cheaper than having to start all over again by purchasing Deluxe.
(d) Continue to do the Deluxe rules sections for each new supplement but, instead of making them part of the text, make them available for free by having the consumer send in a stamped self-addressed envelope. Standard users don’t miss out, and Deluxe users don’t find themselves with material they don’t need. Of the four, we think this is the preferred option.
The Supplements: Overview
Discounting the different versions of the rules, from 1985 – 1990 Avalon Hill has published 19 supplements for RuneQuest. Averaged out, that’s about three per year. In fact, in the last two years, the rate has dropped to two per year. That hasn’t been enough.
Many of the supplements have failed to catch the imagination of the original RuneQuest players, who have seen them before.
Looking at the contents of the published supplements:
New and Reprint are blurry categories; some of the New products contain old content, some of the Reprint products contain new information. Our rule-of-thumb for the distinction between New and Reprint is whether or not an old RuneQuester would feel compelled to buy it. By useless material, we callously mean products of little use or value.
By our reckoning then, only 5 supplements have contained substantially new material, less than one third of the total output, or less than one per year. If we further differentiate between Glorantha and Alternate Earth, there has been only one brand new Gloranthan supplement out for every two years.
We think you may start to see why RuneQuest has failed to charge ahead.
The Supplements in Detail
Here are our thoughts on the 18 things thus far released. We think that the ones marked with an asterisk (*) have been strongest sellers. We do not have access to full records of RuneQuest sales, although we do know which ones have gone well in shops we have worked in or are familiar with. Still, we are fairly confident that our assessments are close to the mark.
A general comment applies to all the boxed sets. Paper-covered books are not sturdy enough for roleplaying use, which is more vigorous than that of a set of boardgame rules. This has been a constant problem and complaint.
Here we go. We use the copyright dates, even though they are not necessarily the year the item came out:
Monster Coliseum (box, useless, 1985)
An arena combat supplement. The maps and components were handsome, but players were simply unlikely to get a lot of use out of it. The monsters had lasting use, but at US$16.oo, the set just wasn’t worth it.
Adventurer Sheets [Human] (box, useless, 1985)
The game itself provides you with character sheets to photocopy. This was simply unnecessary, and Avalon Hill had the gall to call a pad of character sheets “Supplement #2”!
Adventurer Sheets [Nonhuman] (box, useless, 1985)
Of marginally more use than the Human set, but still not really value for money.
Vikings* (box, new, 1985)
The first Alternate Earth supplement, a great set. Many hours of solid play was available from it. We know of one Vikings campaign which now five years old, and still going strong (a saga in the making!).
Gods of Glorantha* (box, new, 1985)
The first Glorantha supplement. Indispensible background material.
Griffin Island (box, reprint, 1986)
Old adventures transplanted to a new setting; even so, people who had played Griffin Mountain were unlikely to get use out of this.
Land of Ninja (box, new, 1986)
Second and perhaps last of the Alternate Earth supplements. Despite its somewhat misleading title (the ninja are only a peripheral element in the game), a fine set. As the majority of roleplayers are more accustomed to Eurocentric adventuring, Land of Ninja was perhaps of less universal appeal than Vikings. This makes us wonder about the commercial viability of Aztecs, a manuscript currently in the hands of Avalon Hill.
Apple Lane (book, reprint, 1988)
A classic adventure, but an old one. The first of the book releases, bringing the price of the average RuneQuest item a little closer to the pocketmoney budget.
Snakepipe Hollow (book, reprint, 1988)
Into the Troll Realms (book, reprint, 1988)
The first of the trolls. Somehow the single 1982 boxed set Trollpak was turned into four separate reprints. Owners of the original were usually unlikely to buy any of them.
RuneQuest Cities (book, reprint, 1988)
Unlike the other reprints, this supplement was not a RuneQuest one in its original publication. It’s a useful book, but not one that everyone would feel compelled to purchase.
Gloranthan Bestiary* (book, new, 1988)
New monsters for Glorantha. A must for all Gloranthan RuneQuesters.
Glorantha – Genertela* (box, new, 1988)
The one everyone was waiting for, the strong launch that Gloranthan fans had been looking for since 1983. A great pack, rich in background details.
Trollpak (box, reprint, 1988)
Troll Gods (box, new, 1988)
And more trolls. This one is significant because of the poor quality of the artwork. Prior to this, although much of the material was familiar to them, players and collectors had been enjoying a sound aesthetic feel in all RuneQuest products in both layout and art – you might buy them just to have them. Troll Gods eroded confidence in new product.
Elder Secrets* (box, new, 1989)
Like Glorantha, a box that Glorantha fans were waiting for. Like Troll Gods, it was marred by unforgivably bad artwork. Still, it did sell well. Only the first release of the AD&D 2nd Edition hardbacks sold quicker than Elder Secrets in several games shops we know of.
Haunted Ruins (book, reprint, 1989)
The last of the trolls. Thankfully, the artwork this time was greatly improved.
The Lost City of Eldarad (books in card wallet, useless, 1990)
A total turkey, this non-Gloranthan supplement fails on almost every level. Unoriginal concept, execrable writing, uninspired layout and poor artwork. A real blow to the confidence of RuneQuesters in Avalon Hill’s ability to produce RuneQuest effectively. It is not unfair to question Avalon Hill’s lack of discernment to ever accept this manuscript, let alone go to the trouble of printing and marketing it.
The Supplements: Summary
Background material enriches a game, and it is the quality of the background material on which the fame of RuneQuest is based. Nevertheless, players also have a need of something they can buy off the shelves, flip open the cover, and start running on a Friday night. Avalon Hill RuneQuest has had some releases of this type, but it has all been reprints. A common lament amongst former RuneQuest players is “We want to play RuneQuest, but there’s nothing to play.”
As gamemasters, we have a need of things we can use with minimum effort. Over the last eight years we have had no new commercial campaigns to use (excepting Eldarad and Daughters). Those of us who can, have had to use the background in the 1982-1983 material, or have written our own.
So What Should be Done?
RuneQuest as it stands is a great fantasy roleplaying game. It is as good as and better than Rolemaster, AD&D, Middle Earth and the rest of them. What those games have that RuneQuest doesn’t is a torrent of new support material, on a regular basis.
We don’t propose any radical in direction. We believe that solid work is all that it will take to get those gamers looking RuneQuest‘s way again. To the players, the format is fine, the look is fine (some artwork notwithstanding), there just isn’t enough of it.
The Reaching Moon Megacorp 11 Point Plan for Productivity and Prosperity
Here is a rambling list of ideas and tactics for setting things in motion. There is a lot that can be done!
Formats should be set and maintained
It would be nice to show people what they are getting just by the look of the product. Four formats already exist; let’s categorize them, and suggest Avalon Hill use three of them. The formats that should be used are: 48 page books (RuneQuest Adventures), 64 page books (RuneQuest Campaigns), boxed sets (RuneQuest Expansions). The format that should be abandoned is that of the card wallet, in which Eldarad appeared.
48 page books – RuneQuest Adventures
Put out a line of single adventures in this size. All the gamemaster needs to do is sit down and play; when you’re finished, you put it away, but hell, you had a good time, you got your money’s worth.
64 page books – RuneQuest Campaigns
Books with an amount of background material sufficient to generate more adventures; mini campaign packs. The first part of the book sets up the player’s situation, and defines the territory; the next part of the book contains a dozen or so small adventures and scenario ideas; the last part will be a major adventure. Once people have played through what is printed, they’ll know enough to keep playing in that setting. Great value.
Boxed sets – RuneQuest Expansions
The box format should be retained, mixed with the cheaper lines. Boxed sets can be used for large background supplements, such as Gods of Glorantha et. al., or major campaign settings, such as the Alternate Earth series. Use the box to include extra maps and handouts. In other words, what Avalon Hill have been doing so far, except the material should be all new.
The card wallet that Eldarad appears in is apparently some sort of compromise between the Boxed Set and the Book format. Eldarad consists of three books, contained within a card wallet that folds out into a campaign map. This format is not appealing, because of the lack of durability of the card wallet (and the paper covered books within). The card wallet does not have the visibility or attractiveness of the boxed sets in a bookcase. Despite these factors, Eldarad is only marginally cheaper than the boxed sets. For these reasons, we recommend that the card wallets should be dropped.This is a solid foundation, but, even so, Avalon Hill needn’t feel straight-jacketed by it. Perhaps even 24 page books could be a goer. As a change from large adventures, books which contain pages of encounters or dozens of small adventures might work. Perhaps on a half-yearly basis a RuneQuest Companion could be issued, containing a plethora of new essays and ideas. The important thing is to get the ball rolling!
Avalon Hill should stick to Alternate Earth and Glorantha
Avalon Hill obviously have a better idea of how Alternate Earth is doing than we do. If it does sell, then by all means they should keep it going. Alternate Earth products should maintain the standard set by Vikings and Land of Ninja. They should keep with the theme of a strong historical backing, and be well-researched and accurately presented. Generic faceless “fantasy” products, such as Griffin Island and Eldarad, are unlikely to satisfy the majority of gamers. We recommend that Avalon Hill ditch RuneQuest Gateway. For fantasy, Glorantha is a strong, coherent and rich background world; it should be used.
Production standards need to maintained
Component quality should ideally be upgraded in the boxed sets. In all publications the artwork, very important to the feel of any roleplaying product, needs to be of high quality, both on the cover and inside.
The products have to be new
Reprints have their place, but let’s let them take a back seat for a while. We’d like to see Avalon Hill publish some things we haven’t seen before.
There should be a regular schedule
Releases should be monthly. People will be accustomed to expect a new RuneQuest item, and should know where to look for one. As it stands, it’s just a pleasant surprise whenever one happens to appear. The various formats should be rotated around to give variety to the releases.
There should be advertising and promotional support
Avalon Hill have to get out there and actively and physically invite people to play RuneQuest. Advertising should be constant and varied; readers have seen essentially the same ads for five years now, so they’re unlikely to scan the fine print in them to actually see what’s new. People should know what’s coming before it hits the shelves; too often these things are a bolt from the blue.
There should be magazine support
Chaosium have recently been getting RuneQuest coverage in different magazines, which is excellent. Poor old Heroes was okay in parts, but it was too specialized for anyone who didn’t play the four systems it exclusively covered, and not specialized enough for anyone who did. Perhaps the market could support a RuneQuest magazine? Maybe not; perhaps a newsletter. Avalon Hill need to get back in touch with the gamers. An excellent means of doing this would be for Avalon Hill to assist Tales of the Reaching Moon maintain a professional standard and gain a wider audience; after all, the people who read Moon are the people who buy RuneQuest products.
Avalon Hill need to get writers writing
A great problem has been nothing to publish. Promising teams of freelancers are yet to deliver, after six years. Subconsciously, it is our belief that they all think that one day the sun will burst from the heavens and RuneQuest will kick into high gear, and that’s when they’ll really get cracking. Avalon Hill need to convince them that that time is now! Avalon Hill need to bombard them with invitations to join new projects, send them a regular freelancer’s newsletter, shower them with hints, hooks and handouts. To kick it off, at the very least Avalon Hill need to provide a submission guidelines sheet, to tell potential writers exactly what they want, and how it should be presented.
Avalon Hill should look into other medias
Without looking before they leap, Avalon Hill could try cross marketing. RuneQuest has a rich background, enough to carry it into other spheres. If they are able to maintain quality, Avalon Hill can generate a lot of additional interest and excitement. Areas to explore might include RuneQuest novels; RuneQuest computer games; RuneQuest comics; RuneQuest boardgames (repackage Dragon Pass to make it look like a RuneQuest supplement, reissue Nomad Gods); RuneQuest artbooks; RuneQuest miniatures (again).
Avalon Hill should keep in contact with other publishers
What do the French want of RuneQuest, or the Japanese? They have an inbuilt advantage that all product is new product to them – the reprints don’t affect them. But they have resources Avalon Hill should tap into; for example, the French edition of Genertela is beautifully produced and illustrated.
RuneQuest is down for the count and on the ropes. To resurrect it, a great deal of work, energy and enthusiasm is required. The game simply cannot afford another disaster like Eldarad. Chaosium cannot give RuneQuest their full time, they have other games. Avalon Hill is the same, plus they admit that they lack the expertise to work on it. RuneQuest has been caught in the middle. Sure, the future of RuneQuest is to a large degree dependent on the quality of the submissions tendered to Avalon Hill by outside contributors, but Avalon Hill needs an experienced body of people to assess the suitability and appeal of the various manuscripts, then get on with the job of preparing them for publication. That such an obviously poor submission as Eldarad ever made it into print clearly shows that this has not been the case. Perhaps we were spoiled back in the Chaosium days when Greg Stafford, a passionate devotee of Glorantha, supervised the development of the game. That devotion is evident in the high quality RuneQuest supplements published at that time. Now that Stafford is unavailable, Avalon Hill needs another person like him.
RuneQuest has a generic set of rules, and could be translated to other genres: science fiction, cyberpunk, modern, whatever. Avalon Hill have been toying with the suggestion of turning RuneQuest into a sort of “RQGURPS”, a generic roleplaying system with supplements about a variety of genres. This is a dangerous and mischievous idea, and should be avoided! Here are the problems:Any new genre needs support material. By creating different streams of RuneQuest, you attract new gamers who will want more in that line. If that need is not satisfied, the market shrinks as players look elsewhere. To a degree, Games Workshop have fallen into this trap with their various Warhammer system games. A supplement that sells 1,000 still needs the same amount of energy and expense to design and produce as a product that sells 10,000. Avalon Hill are having trouble keeping one genre (fantasy) pinned down, let alone half-a-dozen.A generic system doesn’t equal success. GURPS doesn’t sell. Steve Jackson Games might like to correct us if we’re wrong. It sure doesn’t sell in games shops we know of, anyway.People usually play the first game released in each genre. D&D remains the strongest fantasy system. Traveller is still plugging away for science fiction (sf is the biggest graveyard in the gaming industry). Champions is still in there for superhero gaming. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk still leads that pack. Battletech is still the big gun in fighting robots. Exceptions have been where licensed games have broken in. West End’s Star Wars has colonised a small corner of the sf market. The superhero games based on Marvel and DC comics brought their own fans with them.Some of Chaosium’s previous efforts to diversify are now gone; a new setting does not necessarily equal success. Ringworld an excellent science fiction system which was effectively RuneQuest in Space, did not survive. Also gone is their superhero game Superworld, and their cross-genre game Worlds of Wonder.All in all, we feel that Avalon Hill’s best bet is to stay with trying to make a go of RuneQuest as it stands. We don’t think taking RuneQuest to genres where it’s never been before would increase the market’s enthusiasm; rather, we think it would have the opposite effect.
RuneQuest has had an interrupted career. There have been a few decisions made that slowed it down. It still has enough of its own steam to survive; if Avalon Hill choose to stoke it up a bit, it will start to pull them ahead rather than dragging behind.
It needs a four star relaunch, because after seven years it still hasn’t had the concentrated kick it deserves. Avalon Hill needs to take their game back to the consumer and say “We are here! And we are great!” Avalon Hill need to tell them and show them in new ways, with new messages, and new material.
MOB’s final note:This article was actually based on a report commissioned by Avalon Hill itself in 1990, prior to the decision to publish Eldarad. The original report was written by an award-winning game designer. Eldarad pretty much showed us his advice didn’t hit home though, so with his permission, we raised the issues again in the pages of Tales.
Well, we tried and we failed: the next thing AH brought out was Daughters of Darkness, another dud, which along with Eldarad has served as highly flammable tinder fuel at various Gloranthacon auctions.
After more agitation, we did get the brief flowering of Ken Rolston’s RuneQuest Renaissance (Sun County (to link), River of Cradles, Shadows on the Borderlands, Strangers in Prax, Dorastor and Lords of Terror). Maybe a few things from our optimistic 11 point plan were finally beginning to bear fruit, but Ken’s reign as Rune Czar was all too brief and plans for a new edition of the game were scuppered.
Fortunately, Glorantha has been kept alive in the realms of fandom, and today we’re eagerly awaiting Greg’s all-new game Hero Wars. As I say in another article, Vale RuneQuest…
- Daughters of Darkness – Review
- King of Dragon Pass – Review
- Meints Index to Glorantha II – Review
- Pavis & Big Rubble: Gloranthan Classics Vol.1 – Review
- Questlines & Questlines II – Reviews
- The Lost City of Eldarad – Review
- The Traditional Convention Book Burning, Convulsion C2K
- Vale RQ – MOB farewells a game we all know and love
- Ye Booke of Tentacles II – Review