Back in April, in yet another moment of surrender to temptation, I received the .PDF of Classic Fantasy – the supplement for Mythras (newly branded from RuneQuest6) – in lieu of the hardcover copy of the same tome due to arrive in the summer. At the time, I wrote about why it “might very well hit the sweet-spot in terms of fantasy roleplaying”. I went on to play a series of solo sessions using the rules to emulate the 1983 D&D Red Box “First Adventure”.
Last night, in a sort of heart-to-heart moment with one of my oldest and certainly most loyal roleplaying friends, I explained that Mythras Classic Fantasy certainly seems to be the closest I have ever come to finding the “ideal” fantasy roleplaying experience for me. What saddens me is that, through my long history of flitting from system to system in the quest for just that “sweet-spot” game, I’ve managed to drive all my players crazy: in short, we never play anything long enough to really “get our teeth into” higher-level play. Several players have, over the last 18 years or so, deserted me as Gamemaster for just that reason. These days, hearing me talk about Mythras Classic Fantasy must sound quite hollow to them.
Here, then, is my apologia – a formal written defence of my opinion and conduct – on why it’s time to play Mythras Classic Fantasy.
From the Roots of All Roleplaying…
Gamers who have played with me probably also know that I got into roleplaying games through two routes almost simultaneously: my Dad bought RuneQuest (2nd Edition, 1980) while my friends introduced me to both Dungeons & Dragons (1981) and Traveller (1977). We were about 10-11 years old when we began, in late 1981 or ’82.
RuneQuest, and the fantasy realm of Glorantha, fascinated me. I remember rolling up characters and playing solo in my bedroom, mostly because my friends wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller. Later we played Star Frontiers and eventually got into Rolemaster. While I also loved Traveller from the get-go, when it came to fantasy gaming it was RuneQuest that captured my imagination. Looking back on it all, it’s obvious to me now that the appeal of Rolemaster and (later) Palladium Fantasy (1st Edition) was rooted in RuneQuest‘s d100 system.
RuneQuest was one of the “big three” games in British roleplaying in the 1980’s. Alongside it was Dungeons & Dragons (at least in my gaming circle). Together, these games were the root of my roleplaying experience. Since those heady daily gaming sessions after school, I have been seeking to re-discover that spark which originally inspired me. In April 2016, a spark did indeed light something deep within me…
Of Gygax, Perrin, and Hargrave…
I’m a child of Gary Gygax, Steve Perrin, and David Hargrave. Those are the fathers of my gaming hobby: Gygax, the creator of it all; Perrin, the master of d100 gaming; and Hargrave, the mad inspiration of my more recent fantasy worlds.
To me, the levels and classes of Dungeons & Dragons sit at the foundation of a style of fantasy roleplaying that has proven timeless. If the modern “Old School Renaissance” is anything to go by, the hexcrawl and dungeon focus of the original roleplaying game has never gone away. Although I have been seduced by story-telling games and other styles of play, at heart I’ve discovered that Gygax’s style suits me best. That said, I find Dungeons & Dragons to be more of a game than is sometimes comfortable. As I’ve said before, the prime example of this is the Red Box rule on opening locked doors: if you’ve not got a Thief or a Magic-User with the Knock spell, you can’t open a locked door in that game. It’s always jarred with me.
That’s why Perrin’s RuneQuest was always superior. I still love the elegant d100 mechanic and the way in which your characteristics influenced your ability with, to extend the example, the Manipulation skill. In that game, anyone could (in theory) learn any skill and even many spells. It was a less-restricted vision of fantasy gaming that, right from the beginning, inspired dreams and the desire to play games. When I discovered RuneQuest 6th Edition, in early 2013, it was like coming home.
Coming home to RuneQuest coincided with the discovery of David Hargrave’s Arduin in March 2013. As I wrote at the time, I’d never heard of him but came across his work from another blog post, and bought Arduin Eternal. Eventually, having enjoyed that work, I ordered copies of his original works, The Arduin Trilogy. That discovery opened my mind and my heart to the possibilities inherent in all fantasy gaming. His brand of (for want of a better word) gonzo all-in fantastic dreaming inspired me to revisit the idea of my own fantasy world. Hargrave taught me to not be afraid, to challenge the assumptions of the classic original game, but also to grasp onto that which I loved most from my early hobby. In short, I began to heed his advice and “took a troll to lunch.”
The Road to Classic Fantasy
When I first read about the forthcoming Classic Fantasy supplement for RuneQuest6 it was on the back of the news that Chaosium and The Design Mechanism were parting ways. Until that moment, I began to believe that RuneQuest6 would fall away and so I bought up pretty much the whole back catalogue. I had been trying to write my own RPG design, desperately seeking to marry what I loved in d100 gaming to the Gygax-Hargrave vision of class-and-level based gaming. Classic Fantasy, as a concept, made my heart stand still with anticipation.
Here was a supplement billed as, “Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 style!”; looking at the free preview pages, it looked like just what I was hoping to find. When it arrived in April, I discovered that Rodney Leary did not disappoint.
Preamble over, here’s why…
Classic Fantasy: Gygax meets Perrin
I wrote about the basic reasons why I have come to love Classic Fantasy back in April:
“Mythras scratches my itch for a bit more detail than the original editions of Dungeons & Dragons provide… and that’s kind of the point. While I have come to appreciate that, in many ways, the less-is-more approach of the Old School offers a lot to playability, I still hanker to fix those aforementioned problems.”
Here is a game in which you can play any of the Gygaxian character classes from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition) through to the approximate equivalent of 14th level. You can play that Fighter, Thief, Magic-User or whatever but you also do it using the elegant d100 game system of classic RuneQuest vintage.
Mythras is a very clean and more experienced inheritor of all that is great about classic RuneQuest, married to much-improved combat and magic systems. In and of itself, the game is a very good one. What Classic Fantasy does is help aficionados of Gygaxian tropes to use Mythras to emulate that older tradition. When you consider that Hargrave also ended up with a d100-based system for his own Arduin, Bloody Arduin, there is a great resonance for fans of the 1970’s and 1980’s roleplaying experience.
As I sit here planning my next fantasy campaign, happy to run it using Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for my friends who prefer that game, it’s obvious to me as the Dungeon Master that my inspiration lies in those earlier experiences. If I was to run the adventures using Classic Fantasy, I’d more accurately evoke the style and setting that I am aiming to emulate because I’d be shedding the accretion of d20-based power-ups that still make me yearn for simpler days.
Interesting Combat & Magic
Yesterday, I played a solo game using Classic Fantasy. One comment hailed the post as “the best solo run entry so far”. Perhaps one of the reasons was the fact that the hero, Goriel, managed to defeat a guard without killing him because Mythras generates exciting and engaging narrative during combat scenes.
I’ve already written about how Mythras gives you combat with armour that makes sense and heroes who don’t amass more hit points than a dragon. It’s worth reminding you of how the game makes combat exciting by adding opposed rolls, to hit versus a parry or evade, and generates very cool special effects – the very effects that allowed Goriel to put down a guard even though he’s not strong enough to really hurt the fellow. I’ll let you read the earlier article on here, or my original reviews on The Iron Tavern, if you want to know more.
I would, however, add the way in which magic – both arcane and divine – is modelled in Classic Fantasy. In addition to the five different magic systems in the core Mythras rulebook, Classic Fantasy adds rules to emulate the magic of the original Gygax masterwork. It’s done using the familiar magic points that Perrin created, and of which Hargrave would have approved, while giving Magic-Users and Clerics alike the kind of oomph that I missed when revisiting Red Box D&D a couple of months back. In short, you really get the right feeling when you create a Magic-User or Cleric; you can do the specialism thing too, which is very cool.
Playing a game of Mythras Classic Fantasy does, as far as I have been able to determine from the half-dozen or so sessions I’ve played solo, beautifully marry the original style of Gygax with the innovative design of Perrin. It allows space for the gonzo explorations of folk like David Hargrave, who wanted to let players run characters who were Trolls or Witch-Hunters. It comes with a lovely default campaign setting, Greymoor, but leaves space for you to create your own hex-crawl or more plotted campaign world. Whatever floats your boat, really.
Some have criticised the brevity of the 336-page supplement, claiming that limiting initial play to the first three Ranks is a problem; to that I say, “Pish!” – that’s the equivalent of 14 levels of old D&D, which was more than enough for most campaigns back in the day. The eventual expansion with the Unearthed Companion will take things all the way to Rank 5, which is 20th level and beyond in old money. Patience, patience, you must learn patience…
I want to play Classic Fantasy more. It’s my desire to bring Mistamere Fell to life using these rules that hit my sweet-spot and, perhaps, one day in the not-too-distant future I’ll get to do just that. The big thing that this game helped me to realise, however, it that you CAN play classic Gygaxian fantasy using the gloriously elegant d100 system that Perrin gave us in 1980.