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Steve Perrin: Creating RuneQuest – Part Five: An Ancient World fantasy

Posted by Michael O'Brien on 15th Aug 2021

For our RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter in 2016 Steve Perrin generously provided a personal account of his role in the genesis of the RuneQuest roleplaying game. Although at the time of the Kickstarter we publicly featured an excerpt of Steve's recollections, the full account was only ever published a high level backer item (in the RuneQuest Playtest Manuscript) and so only received limited circulation.

In memory of Steve, here we present his account in full as a six part series, offering his fascinating insights into the development of RuneQuest, the rules that cemented Steve Perrin as one of the most influential game designers of all time.

STEVE PERRIN: One important aspect of RuneQuest and Glorantha was implied in Greg’s board games, but we decided to emphasize it. Dragon Pass is essentially an Ancient World fantasy, not a medieval fantasy as generally portrayed in most D&D games and their ilk. There are many gods and they have a more personal influence on the people and events of Glorantha, just as the early myths say they do. The Lunar Empire and the largely tribal Kingdom of Sartar have analogs in Imperial Rome and the Gauls, or perhaps the Goths of Germany, rather than medieval England and France.

This is why the warrior woman on the cover is armored like a Greek hoplite. It gives a different feel to a fantasy game, and we exploited it mercilessly. We decided to make the game reflect the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. But one of the reasons bronze gave way to iron is that iron is very easy to find and work and turn into steel, while bronze must be alloyed copper and tin. Tin, at least, can be hard to find.

So we played the fantasy card and declared bronze the bones of the giants whose bodies formed the mountains of Dragon Pass. So bronze was plentiful, malleable to magical enchantment, and did not interfere with the special rune metals of the various godly pantheons (which we also created to justify the bronze use). Iron became a Rune Metal for Rune Lords. Very powerful, but unless properly treated it dampened magic. Anyone detecting something of L. Sprague de Camp’s work in this will not be surprised to learn he is one of my favorite authors of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Of course there are anachronisms. The halberd, for instance, is a late medieval weapon. Why is it being used in an ancient world?

Two words: Great Trolls.

When you have constant enemies who are much bigger and stronger than you are, you want the biggest weapon you can handle to deal with them. The only problem? Great Trolls use them too.

The four of us, me, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James, slowly hammered the rules together and tested them in play tests. I handled most of the basic rules, Ray was the magic guy, and Steve H and Warren contributed their skills, including conducting a lot of the play testing. Warren’s Blind King’s Palace was the scene of many adventures, and Steve H took us out of Pavis on adventures throughout the world known to us at the time.

Steve H also had a good ear for dramatic language and he came up with the back cover copy. Too bad whoever set it up on the typesetter misspelled “Chaosium”.

Terry Jackson contributed some very good material on horses and horse combat. Anders Swenson came up with the idea of Power Crystals. And of course Greg answered many Glorantha-based questions. When we handed him a first draft manuscript, he accepted it and said he enjoyed reading it.

One of the first decisions to be made was who got the cover credit for the game. We settled on Steve Perrin and Friends because I had done the lion’s share of the organizing and rules concepts (and typed the final draft), and too many friends had helped (as can be seen above) to get them all on the cover.

Putting that first draft into something like presentable form was mostly my job. I took all my vacation time accrued from my day job, rented an electric typewriter, and hammered out all of our playtest notes and occasional items I suddenly realized we needed, such as the shaman rules, and put them into a semi-coherent whole. There was a lot of pressure, because we wanted to have it for Origins 1978, and the date for getting the manuscript to the printer in time was looming in the not-too-distant future. There were no personal computers. No handy internet to ship stuff from one desk to another and off to the printer. There was just an IBM Selectric typewriter and piles of paper and pints of white out. Does anyone remember white out?

From my typewriter, the manuscript had to go to Lynn Willis, the production marvel at Chaosium for decades until only a few years ago. In those days he had only recently taken up this position, learning how to use the typesetting machine in the process, and I made things hard for him by single spacing the document, but there was no time to correct it. It would take too long to typeset the various tables and columns, so those were just extracted from the manuscript and pasted onto the copy going to the printer, which is why all the tables are in a different font from the rest of the book.

We were late enough that getting the books in time to go to Origins was tricky. We had to bring them as luggage on the airplane – the truck carrying merchandise to the convention had been gone for a week.

Next: an Ancient World fantasy