Magic in RuneQuest and Its Descendants

2019-09-11

Modified 2020-03-28

This was originally an appendix to Magic in D100 Games. It's a useful enough reference, though, that I decided to make it its own independent article.

RuneQuest‘s multiple versions and derivatives have had multiple, incompatible magic systems, sometimes with identical names. Below are the highlights.

Major Magic Systems

These systems were used or adapted in multiple products.

Battle / Common / Spirit Magic, a.k.a. Sorcery But Not That One

RuneQuest 2nd ed. a.k.a. RQ2 introduced Battle Magic, a low-powered set of spells that burned Magic Points to give advantages in battle. RuneQuest 3rd ed. a.k.a. RQ3 renamed it Spirit Magic and added some spells.

Stormbringer 4th edition replaced prior versions’ demon-based magic with something he called Sorcery. it was like Battle/Spirit Magic but with more utility spells and a darker tone. This variant appeared in Basic Roleplaying, a.k.a. the Big Gold Book, and Magic World, with further material released in Advanced Sorcery.

Mongoose’s RuneQuest II (2010) a.k.a. MRQII, later renamed Legend when Mongoose lost the rights to the RQ name, created Common Magic with similar spells plus a bunch of skill-enhancing utility spells for craftsmen and the like.

RuneQuest 6th edition (2012) a.k.a. RQ6, later renamed Mythras when Design Mechanism lost the rights to the RQ name, significantly weakened it and called it Folk Magic, so as not to compete with its new “Mysticism” system, described below.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018) a.k.a. RQG restored the name Spirit Magic and the basic spells and mechanics from RuneQuest 3.

Divine Magic, Rune Magic, and Theism

Magic from the gods went through a similarly tortuous process.

In RQ2 Rune Magic was the other magic nearly everyone had. RQ3 renamed it Divine Magic and replaced specific Gloranthan gods with general domains and corresponding lists of spells.

Mongoose’s first version of RuneQuest reproduced the RQ2 / RQ3 system, warts and all. One such wart is that priests only got one casting of a particular spell before they had to return to a temple and pray for another spell. Not surprisingly, OpenQuest inherited this system.

RQ6 / Mythras replaced Divine Magic with “Theism”. Theists learn Miracles (spells) specific to their god or religion. They also bank Magic Points in Devotional Pools by performing religious rituals, sacrifices, and deeds in honor of the god. Magic Points to perform Miracles may come only from these Pools. Unlike the older system, Theists may decide the Miracles they call upon when they need them, not when contemplating in a shrine or temple.

RQG once again rewrote the whole thing using Rune Points and percentile alignments tied to Glorantha’s Runes not gods or cults.

Shamanism, Spirit Magic (the other one), and Animism

In RQ2 and RQ3 shamans just had these innate powers to visit the spirit world and bind spirits.

Mongoose’s RuneQuest 1st edition, a.k.a. MRQ1 introduced Spirit Magic as a pair of skills Shamans used, and MRQII made them work. RQ6, renamed Mythras, called theirs Animism, and added refinements to make it work better.

RQG, as usual, has more or less gone its own way, although I haven’t read enough to say how.

Sorcery … No, The Other One

Chaosium’s Worlds of Wonder included “Magic World”, a setting and system in which spells were skills. Inspired by that idea, the authors of RQ3 created a similar system in which base spells were almost uselessly weak but a sorcerer could augment their Intensity, Duration, Area, etc. or combine them. The original version had serious flaws, and RuneQuest fans complained about them at length.

MRQ and especially MRQII / Legend revived the ideas but did a better job testing them. RuneQuest 6 / Mythras worked out most of the kinks. In this version, Sorcerers have at least two skills. To cast a spell successfully they test an Invocation skill, specific to the “wellspring” from which they derived that spell, as defined by the GM. (Legend called each of these skills “Grimoire”.) Each “source” typically provides multiple spells; increasing the associated Invocation skill each encapsulating multiple contained spells. Sorcerers’s Shaping skill limits how far they can augment their spells, but they never test it directly.

RQG, however, went back to the drawing board and ended up with something like an Ars Magica noun-verb system with specific spells, once again, as individual skills.

Mysticism

Greg Stafford’s original notes on “mysticism” in Glorantha, written from the perspective of Gloranthan scholars, dismissed the entire discipline as a lot of work for little reward.

RQ2 introduced Illumination, which in accordance with Red Goddess doctrine allowed characters to ignore restrictions on joining and leaving cults. Most Gloranthans found Illumination horrifying and evil.

MRQ1 introduced “draconic mysticism”, for Dragonewts only, which allowed them to use dragon-flavored Spirit Magic at the cost of their spiritual development over subsequent reincarnations.

RQ6 / Mythras were the first to introduce a complete, general system. Mystics can enhance their own natural abilities, notably their Derived Characteristics like Damage Modifier and Initiative, or practice other techniques to endure starvation, move quietly, etc. It uses a familiar pattern: mystics test their Meditation skill to activate powers. A specialization of the Mysticism skill represents their Path and defines which powers they can use; its value defines the strength of those powers.

Psychic Abilities and Psionics

There’ve probably been a bunch of variations. The version from Elfquest and later BRP used a one-skill-per-power pattern that burned Magic Power points.

Luther Arkwright for Mythras defines packages of related powers with one skill apiece for those powers and one general skill representing psychic strength, not unlike their Mysticism system.

Witchcraft

A Chaosium monograph during the BRP era merely cobbled existing systems into a set of vaguely witch-like abilities.

Cakebread and Walton’s Clockwork and Chivalry 2nd ed. introduced an explicit Witchcraft system, reproduced in their Renaissance SRD. In that system witches have an additional MAG attribute, starting at POW/2, which determines the power and intensity of each of their spells. Befitting the Early Modern European setting, most techniques for increasing MAG involve deals with the Devil. Nothing stops a GM from removing this rule, which lets pagan and “white” witches attain the heights and power of their diabolical sisters and brothers.

To perform a spell, a witch needs time and for some spells specific materials. Assuming test their Witchcraft skill to perform any of their spells, assuming they have time and any necessary materials. While the system includes a list of spells with overly descriptive names, the system assumes every witches knows all the common spells and can learn or make up others at need.

Other Renaissance products like Dark Streets have used variants of it.

Mythos Magic

ADDED 2020-03-28, based on an entry formerly under Minor Magic Systems below.

The magic system in Call of Cthulhu is specific to that game only. It has, however, remained remarkably consistent from the 1st edition (1981) through the significantly overhauled 7th edition (2014 and onward).

Just as in stories by Lovecraft and his circle, a would-be sorcerer must first locate a tome of the Mythos. The student must study the tome for months, and if he comprehends its dark secrets he learns one or more spells … and loses points from his SANity score.

Each spell costs Magic Points and SANity to cast. (Magic Point costs may be fixed or variable; some summoning spells are more likely to produce results the more MP the caster spends.) Depending on the nature of the spell, it may also take considerable time (especially summonings), some material components, and occassionally a living sacrifice. Some spells only work at certain times of day or year, or when cast at specific locations. Spells that are permanent or create powerful effects require the caster to sacrifice one or more points1 of his POW characteristic.

If a sorcerer summmons a Mythos creature, they may also lose SANity over and above the casting cost. Ill-prepared sorcerers typically also lose their lives.

Also as appropriate to the Cthulhu Mythos, surviving sorcerers rapidly run out of SANity, whereupon they become deranged cultists under the Keeper’s (GM’s) control. Magic is more the domain of NPC villains than PCs, although PCs sometimes learn a few useful counterspells or minor curses.

Editions, supplements, and adventures have added spells over the decades, even adding entire sub-systems for magic (allegedly) outside the Mythos, all without changing the system’s basic structure.

Minor Magic Systems

UPDATED (2020-03-28): The description of Mythos Sorcery was appropriately insane, in that it contained three partial versions of the same sentence. It also combined the Call of Cthulhu and Dark Streets versions into one entry despite serious mechanical differences. The listing below describes only the Dark Streets version; an expanded description of the Call of Cthulhu system was added above.

The following systems appeared in one or only a few related products. Multiple sources are given if one is out of print, and/or if two independent sources designed two similar systems.

Arete (Advanced Sorcery):
Subtly magical effects for those whose skills exceed 100%.
Computational Sorcery (The Laundry RPG):
Like in the Laundry Series novels, computers can execute spells that open gateways to alternate universes, wherein the laws of physics may differ greatly and from which horrible things may come. Devising and debugging a spell requires a lot of offline time and skill. Computers have a rating in POW which determines the power of their spells. Also like the novels, a desperate sorcerer can also run spells in their head, assuming they don’t mind extradimensional parasites munching on their brain.
Contriving (Corum):
Skills for building for alien science fantasy technology, loosely based on Moorcock’s Corum series.
Deep Magic (Advanced Sorcery):
Inspired by the systems of Ars Magica and Mage: the Ascension, magicians have one of eight nouns and one of eight verbs they can combine to work wonders with minimal effort; others require more energy depending on how “far away” they are.
Demon Summoning (Advanced Sorcery, Elric of Melnibone):
Summon demons, make them do your bidding, and bind them into weapons, armor, and in the case of one of my characters an uncommonly animate robe. The system in Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone is, surprisingly, less kludgy and gamey, but requires a skill for each type of demon summoned, plus a skill in the Language of Command, plus a few others.
Dreamwalking (Elric of Melnibone):
A skill for entering others dreams, not unlike half of Animism (above), based on Moorcock’s later Elric novels.
“Enlightened Magic”, First Circle (Enlighened Magic):
First Circle Magic encompasses empathic powers and coincidental magic. By default, each practitioner has an elemental alignment – a hold-over from the quasi-historical urban fantasy Nephilim RPG – but a GM can easily waive those rules. Enlightened magicians can read and influence moods but not minds; they can make keys fall off a hook when no one is looking but not levitate across a room before a stupefied audience of mundanes. The book lists plenty of “spells”, again with elemental alignments, but mostly they serve to illustrate the possibilities and limits of a First Circle Enlightened Magician. It fits nicely into settings where the world at large doesn’t know magic exists, and magicians aim to keep it that way.
“Enlightened Magic”, Second and Third Circles (Enlighened Magic):
Second and Third Circle involve ritual magic, mostly in groups and generally taking hours if not days to perfom. The (single) skill for Third Circle magic may rise no higher than the magician’s Second Circle skill, and Second Circle may rise no higher than First Circle, above. Like First Circle, this kind of ceremonial magic fits nicely into low magic settings where magic happens largely in the background.
“Enlightened Alchemy” (Enlighened Magic):
Three skills for three cicles of increasinly powerful Alchemy, conducted mainly in “downtime”. Like Enlightened Magic, the skill for each circle caps all higher circles.
Herbalism (Advanced Sorcery, Elric of Melnibone):
Brewing potions, with a list of specific potions and ingredients which takes lots of time and a skill check. Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone had a somewhat incompatible system to do the same thing.
Mythos Sorcery (Dark Streets):
Conceptually the same as in Call of Cthulhu, but based on the Renaissance Witchcraft (and Insanity) systems, and instead of POW sorcerers sacrifice … other things.
Roman Magical Arts (Mythic Rome)
Ancient Roman arts of divination, talking with the dead, and making potions, not guaranteed to actually work.
Runes or “Glyphs” (Stormbringer, Elric of Melnibone, Advanced Sorcery):
Enchanting objects and places by carving sigils into them. Each Mongoose Elric rune is a skill, while each Stormbringer Rune / AS “Glyph” is more spell-like, and the two systems break up runes/glyphs into different domains, but otherwise the two aren’t that different.
Superpowers (Superworld, Basic Roleplaying):
Worlds of Wonder introduced a point-buy system for super powers, heavily influenced by Champions and other contemporary superhero games but without point-shaving and the need for a CPA. It spun off into its own RPG, which not unexpectedly went out of print. The Big Gold Book contains the basics of the system. Its best for low-powered superheroes. George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards anthology series grew from a Superworld campaign with fellow authors.

Annotated Bibliography

Most of these titles are out of print, although Chaosium keeps most of its back catalog available as PDFs. (Anything with licensed IP will not be available, e.g. anything Moorcockian, Elfquest.) Titles in bold are in print, at least through POD, as of 2020.

Advanced Sorcery, Chaosium (2014)
A compilation of new spells and variant magic systems for Magic World, mostly from The Bronze Grimoire from the Stormbringer era.
“Basic Roleplaying”, Chaosium (1980)
a slim pamphlet that explained the RuneQuest system.
Basic Roleplaying, Chaosium (2008)
a.k.a. the Big Gold Book, collating most of the systems from Chaosium’s prior games; “powers” include Magic (from “Magic World”, Worlds of Wonder), Sorcery (from Stormbringer versions 4+), Psychic Powers (from Elfquest), Mutations (from Hawkmoon), and Super Powers (from Superworld), plus Allegiance generalised from Law/Chaos alignments in Stormbringer.
Call of Cthulhu, 7th ed., Chaosium (2014)
A massive overhaul from previous editions, yet left the core engine pretty much the same: roll percentile dice, find things, go mad, die.
Corum, Darksyde Productions (2011)
A RPG set in “The World of Five Planes” of Moorcock’s Corum series. Notable for rules on creating Law-based techno-magic and conjuring its Chaotic counterpart.
Dark Streets, Cakebread and Walton (2012, 2015)
The Bow Street Runners meet the Cthulhu Mythos using the Renaissance System. The first edition requires the Renaissance SRD; the second incorporates the SRD’s relevant rules, but is otherwise the same.
Enlightened Magic, Chaosium (2015)
An alternate magic system based on Liber Ka for Chaosium’s Nephelim RPG.
Elfquest, Chaosium (1984)
Roleplaying in Richard and Wendy Pini’s comics.
Elric!, Chaosium (1993)
The penultimate version of Chaosium’s Elric line, substantially revised.
Elric of Melniboné 2nd edition, Mongoose (2010)
Mongoose’s version of roleplaying in the Elric books, written for MRQII by the authors of MRQII.
Hawkmoon, Chaosium (1986)
Yet another Michael Moorcock roleplaying joint.
King Arthur Pendragon, Chaosium et. al. (1984 - 2016)
The other RPG that Greg Stafford is famous for. Some call it his masterwork. While not technically BRP, the system borrows five of BRP’s seven characteristics (STR, CON, SIZ, DEX, APP), its skill mechanics (with a d20 but still rolling under), and most of the combat system. The same rules power Paladin, set in the legends of Charlemagne.
The Laundry, Cubicle 7 (2010)
An RPG set in Charles Stross’s Laundry series, more than a little reminiscent of Call of Cthulhu.
Legend, Mongoose (2012)
The former Mongoose RuneQuest II, notable for being actually good. Arguably it was Nash and Whittaker’s trial run for RuneQuest 6th edition.
Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels, Design Mechanism (2015)
Set in the comics of Bryan Talbot, this source book for Mythras features a psionics system and lots about parallel earths.
The Magic Book, Chaosium (2010)
The magic systems of RuneQuest 3rd Ed., repackaged and lightly revised. Not recommended except for historical reference.
Magic World, Chaosium (2014)
A reconstruction of later versions of Stormbringer using the Big Gold Book.
Mongoose RuneQuest 1st ed., Mongoose (2006)
A deeply flawed “4th edition” of RuneQuest written from scratch under the OGL and using some 3.x OGC.
Mongoose RuneQuest II, Mongoose (2010)
An extensive revision of Mongoose’s previous edition, and all the better for it. Renamed and slightly redacted to create Legend (above) when Mongoose lost all rights to Glorantha material and the name RuneQuest.
Mythic Rome, The Design Mechanism (2017)
Rome in history and legend for Mythras, based on BRP Rome originally written for the Big Gold Book.
Mythras (free), The Design Mechanism (2016)
The former RuneQuest 6th edition, now a slowly expanding empire.
OpenQuest (free), D101 Games, (2010, 2013, 2017)
Newt Newport’s simpler, more streamlined RuneQuest-like game derived from Mongoose’s original OGL “Runic SRD”, used in numerous products by D101 Games, Cakebread and Walton, and others. All editions are roughly the same, mainly reformatting and errata; 3rd edition rewrote the Combat chapter for clarity but changed no actual rules.
Renaissance SRD, Cakebread and Walton (2011)
A generic early modern RPG based on OpenQuest, extracted from their Clockwork and Chivalry 2nd. ed.. Notable for its “Witchcraft” system, which Cakebread and Walton adapted and reused in subsequent products. Their “Alchemy”, on the other hand, is essentially “create a Philosopher’s Stone and use it to power spells”, a bit like the anime Fullmetal Alchemist but without shocking revelations.
Renaissance Deluxe, Cakebread and Walton (2013)
A more friendly version of the Renaissance SRD, with advice for GMs.
RuneQuest 1st-2nd ed., Chaosium (1978, 1980)
The game that started it all. Originally tied to Glorantha, but the core engine proved so versatile …
RuneQuest 3rd ed., Avalon Hill (1984)
A new version done in by incomplete playtesting and bad marketing. As a result RuneQuest languished for nearly two decades; Issaries / Moon Design wrote subsequent Glorantha material for Robin D. Laws’s drastically different Hero Wars / HeroQuest system until RQG. Some content was recycled into the monographs “Basic Creatures”, “Basic Gamemaster”, and “Basic Magic”.
RuneQuest 6th ed., The Design Mechanism (2012)
MRQII/Legend rewritten from scratch and perfected by the original authors. Unfortunately for them, Chaosium had other ideas and they had to rename their product Mythras, above.
RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (quickstart) Chaosium (2018)
A reboot of RuneQuest back to what worked in RQ3, compatible with supplements written for RQ2, and firmly wedded to Glorantha.
Stormbringer 1st-5th ed. (1981, 1985, 1987, 1990, 2001), Chaosium
Roleplaying in the world of Michael Morcock’s Elric novels. As in the novels, sorcerers were vanishingly rare and mostly summoned things. The 4th edition replaced demon summoning with a spell-based system. 5th edition was essentially Elric! with older material incorporated.
Superworld, Chaosium (1993)
An expanded and revised system from the Worlds of Wonder box set.
Worlds of Wonder, Chaosium (1982)
The first “Basic Role-Playing” product, containing rules for fantasy, science fiction, and superhero role-playing.

  1. Or one or more multiples of 5 percentiles in 7th edition. ↩︎