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Runebearer, Adventures in the world of Bostonia

Reviewed by Aaron Smalley Copyright ©2001

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

While surfing the Internet recently I came across another in the long line of recently released free RPG engines. This one is called Runebearer, adventures in the world of Bostonia. It is available in both html and pdf versions from the web site at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~tpope/bostonia/. However, when you visit the site, be prepared to turn the volume down on your computer, as the opening page is a bit loud. You will see a simple white page with seven simple lines of text and an enter button, as well as hear the ringing of what sounds like a church bell. This is a very fitting opening for the site, as you will see shortly. The text that appears is supposed to be a well-known poem in the lands of Bostonia:

The church bells cut the silence.

No one listened.

The Faithful drowned.

The dead danced.

Only me

Watching the shooting stars,

Witness to the end of days.

 

The setting of Bostonia is of a world that is recovering from a great cataclysm. The god Stratus, or The Father as he is sometimes called, had come to realize that the Ancients had lost their faith. They had gained control over the elements and had built huge cities, developed flying machines, and a host of other unnatural technologies. Then the Deceiver started to hold sway over the Ancients, whispering to them that they could cheat death and that they could gain immortality by following his teachings. As the Deceiver's power grew, the Ancients were led further away from the teachings of The Father and The Mother (Stratus and Aestra); their magical technology continued to grow and flourish, until very few of the faithful remained.

 Stratus then told the few remaining faithful to go to the edge of the sea and submerge themselves in The Mother's embrace (in the water) because death was coming to the world. The faithful did what was ordered, then The Father forged thirteen seeds of elemental fire which he then threw to earth causing them to bloom into huge plumes of fire that decimated the lands. Only the faithful submerged in the sea were safe from the destruction that followed. Once the followers of the Deceiver were gone and he was weakened, Stratus was able to capture him and banish him to a prison of elemental fire.

Thousands of years later, the earth started to recover and the faithful emerged from the sea to start the rebuilding of their world. This is the background for the setting of Bostonia.

The character generation system is straightforward, but takes a little digging to understand all the aspects and options that are available. It is a human-centric setting (there are other races covered, although these are not in the rules as of this writing). However, their plans are to have a "World Book" out before too long which will go into much more detail on the races and the setting as a whole. Once this comes out we will try to review it here at The Guild Companion.

The author recommends starting the character generation process by putting some thought into what type of a character the player is interested in, and what will work with the GM's plans (if there are any). The development of the ten base attributes is the next step: Strength, Agility, Dexterity, Speed, Toughness, Intelligence, Will, Charisma, Spirit, and Perception.   These attributes are generated using 4d6-4 (resulting in a range of 0 to 20). Then the secondary attributes are figured using the primary attributes and some simple tables. These figured attributes include your Hit Points, Base Defense and Parry Modifier, Dodge, Initiative, and Base Move.

From here, the player chooses a "Template" (the characters profession), which gives the character a package of skills that are appropriate to the profession or background that the template simulates.  Each template also has a number of "Buy Points" that can be used to purchase other skills, thus allowing for considerable variation from one character to the next within the same Template.  The list of skills available is fairly extensive and well rounded, with each having attributes that are used to determine the actual starting ability level in the skill. Some of these skills also have a "Default", meaning that you can perform the skill at the default level without any training or experience in that particular skill. Each skill also has an "Improvement" value that determines how quickly the character can improve the skill through actually using the skill (see below).

The action resolution system is a simple yet reasonable one. The dice mechanic uses 2 rolls of a d12. Each skill attempt is assigned a Difficulty Level (DL) by the GM to simulate the situation. The player rolls one d12 and adds the appropriate skill or attribute level, while the GM (or opponent in the case of an "Opposed Roll") rolls another d12 adding the DL of the task at hand (or skill if it is an opposed roll). If the player's roll is equal to or higher than the GM's roll the task is successful, of the GM's roll is higher, the attempt has failed. At first glance it appears that all skill rolls are opposed rolls, but the idea here is that a person can sometimes perform a skill poorly and still succeed due to luck or the situation. This introduces more variation into the situation and also gives a wider range of results.  The opposed roll mentioned above involves a player trying to perform a skill or some feat that is in direct opposition to another character or an NPC. In this type of case, the DL is simply the appropriate opposition skill level.  An option here is that the degree of success can be worked into the details of the attempt.

The combat system is a little more complex, but the strategic options that are available more than make up for the complexity. It is not as complex as some systems but is more so than the D20 system (but much better in my humble opinion). The actual attack roll is made as an opposed action, pitting the attackers weapon skill (and any situational modifiers or special strategic attacking maneuvers) against the opponent's defensive bonus (including situational modifiers or special defensive maneuvers), with the attacker winning any ties. Damage from a successful hit is determined using a die roll based on the attackers strength and a die based on the weapons "leverage" for melee weapons, then the Armor Value of the defenders armor may reduce this damage.  Thrown weapons are treated similarly (except the strength die is reduced by one level). Missile weapons are treated a little differently, with a damage die for the type of bow or launching mechanism (sling, staff sling, etc.) and a second for the actual projectile (arrow, bolt, stone, bullet, etc.).

A system of Wound Severity charts and rules covering Stunning result in some interesting results; however, these are a little cumbersome to use at first (but become easier with time and as familiarity with their workings builds). There is also a simple Hit Location table that adds to the interest of what actually occurs in each round of combat. There are two drawbacks that I can see with the combat system. First is the number of die rolls that need to be made for each successful hit (2 for the hit, 1 for location, 2 for damage, and 1 for severity (if 25% of total hits are delivered in a single hit). The second drawback (and this is a matter of personal taste) concerns the rules covering Lethal versus Non-Lethal damage. The weapons tables show that all Staves and all Unarmed and Improvisational weapons do non-lethal damage. The concept behind this is good, and there are rules covering special training (skills) that allows for hand-to-hand to do lethal damage. However, the problem I have is with the Staves doing non-lethal damage. Personally, I feel they should do lethal damage the same as most other weapons. But then again, I'm also disappointed by the fact that the quarterstaff does the same amount (only non-lethal) of damage that a dagger does, when in fact a quarterstaff should be capable of doing considerably more lethal damage than a dagger.

Overall, the combat system seems to have a pretty good basis of operation, but is not flawless...but then again, what system is? While a little cumbersome, it is workable and has many strategic options for those who like a rules-heavy system.

The magic system that is used in Runebearer is flexible and easily customizable to suit the needs of the setting. This is done by the use of three different areas, or realms, of magic: Rune Magic, Ritual Magic, and Priest Powers. Each has it's own special benefits and interesting quirks.

Rune Magic is the primary area and the one that the game system as a whole takes its name from. The basic principle behind Rune Magic is that adventuresome people go through harrowing risks to be branded with a Rune which allows them the ability to channel magical powers that are related to that rune. This allows for a wide variety of magical spells. With hundreds, or even thousands, of these Runes possible, each with its own list of spells (with a creative GM or player), the variations are nearly endless. There are over 60 pages of sample runes with several runic spells for each within the Runebearer pdf. The casting system uses a skill test (similar to the above explanation for skill tests), with the opposing roll representing the complication or difficulty of the spell being cast.

Power is expended with each spell cast, thus making more casting (without rest) more difficult and risky. This is handled by a reduction in the related runic skill. However if the mage wishes to take the risk, he can cast spells until his skill is reduced to zero. In lieu of loosing skill, the caster has the option of burning his body's energy (by loosing hit points in place of skill levels), but this is also risky, as it can later create other dangers.

Due to the way that runic magic is utilized in Runebearer, it is not the realm of physically feeble academics as in so many other games. Instead, it is the realm of risk- takers and power-mongers. However, the other side of the coin is that while runic spell casters are very powerful in the lands of Bostonia, they are the outcasts in society. The Church rules the lives of the common people and the use of Runes is a sin in the eyes of the Church. As a matter of fact, it is one of the sins that resulted in the destruction of the Ancients by The Father.

Priests, while having sworn off the use of Runes many generations ago, can still use Ritual magic as well as having some special abilities of their own that can not be recreated using either runic or ritual magic. These include the ability to turn undead, rite of absolution, blessing of the Father, rite of consecration, and creating blessed water. There are also some more powerful and much more involved rituals and powers including major consecration, prayer of vengeance, ritual of sacrifice, and of course, divine intervention.

Others can also perform ritual magic, which by their very nature are dangerous and lengthy to create. Rituals are very similar to Runic magic, except that they take longer to cast, can require additional materials, and drain hit points if the caster fails to perform the ritual correctly. They can be powerful but can also be devastating to the caster. Each Ritual has its own specific skill associated with it, thus making it difficult to dedicate the time to learning very many rituals.

The magic system is very well detailed and has considerable variation possible within its rules, with over one third of the book being dedicated to this subject.

Advancement is handled through a system of the GM awarding "Skill Checks" to players for good use of a skill. At the end of a session a player may roll a d30 for each skill check he has been awarded, and for each result that is higher than his current value, he gets an Improvement point. The GM can also award "Free Checks" for good roleplaying or completing a mission or for similar reasons. The player can then use these the same way as skill checks, assigning them to an existing skill, or saving them to put towards learning a new skill.  Each skill has a cost associated with it relative to how many Improvement points it takes to increase the skill by one point, and once enough Improvement points are earned in that skill, the skill increases.

Attributes can be raised in a similar fashion as well. When a character makes an Attribute test, he/she may be awarded an Attribute check. The biggest difference is that attributes all have a cost of 10 and a d20 is rolled instead of a d30, thus attributes will increase at a much slower pace. However, an increase in an attribute can also result in an increase in several of the skills, since the starting skill levels are determined directly from the attributes.

Runebearer uses in interesting mechanic for simulating Healing. A character can initially be healed of much of the injuries that result from a single "Flurry of Injury" using magic or medical skills. However anything from a single Flurry that is not healed by the first attempt (using magic or medical skill), is then recorded as "Persistent" which can then only be healed over time, at a much slower rate. This slower rate of healing also depends on the severity of the wounds for the time it takes to recover.

Alchemy and Herbalism are also covered fairly in-depth within Runebearer, but this is best left for the readers to peruse through themselves. It is fairly well thought out and comprehensive in its view of how to handle these issues in the setting. With skill, the right equipment, and the right raw materials, it is possible to create some interesting concoctions using this system. Also included is an extensive list of equipment as well as materials that can be used. There is also a listing of sample Potions with an explanation of the materials and process used to make them (or at least enough detail for background purposes). The next section has a listing of sample Herbs and an explanation of their effects or uses.

A section covering the behind-the-scenes details that a GM will need to know to run a Runebearer game includes many pointers on various subjects, including the use of conversation skills.  This is one of those areas where it is difficult for the GM to make a call as to where the player's skill ends and the characters skill begins. It is often that a player who is not very skilled in such areas plays the part of a character that excels in social skills, and vise-versa. Also, the subject of overland travel is touched on, as is random encounters (with several samples included in an innovative way of determining them). Three and a half pages of this section are also dedicated to equipment/services and their prices. There are also several optional rule suggestions for those who wish to use them covering diseases, disarming and other such topics. A couple of sample adventure ideas are also presented here.

The Bostonia Bestiary, which covers about 24 pages of the text, gives details on several creatures that can be incorporated into games within the Bostonia setting. While it does include a few of the common fantasy beasts that one would expect, it also includes some original ideas as well as some common real life creatures. It should serve as a good start for any GM who wants to use the Runebearer system.

The biggest element lacking from the pdf text are background details on the world of Bostonia; however Chris and Thomas are currently working fervently to have a World Book available some time in the near future.

All in all, I have to say that the system and world created by Chris Magoun, with the help of Thomas Pope and several others, is a compelling and interesting possibility. Personally, I am impressed with it, especially considering that it is currently available as a free pdf download. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 7 for playability and an 8.5 for originality.

 

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