I’ve just finished my first read-through of Chaosium’s new release for RuneQuest, The Red Book of Magic. Since my “First Impressions” post was popular last time, I’ve decided to do so once more.
This article is not a review! I haven’t played any of the new content provided for RuneQuest, and my read-through was done rather hastily. Don’t approach this as a cautious and considered description of the book. Instead, this article expresses my initial thoughts.
The summary is real simple—this book’s good. Whether you play or gamemaster RuneQuest, you want this book. The Red Book of Magic is the most useful release since the Glorantha Bestiary (and that includes the Gamemaster Screen Pack, which is chock full of good stuff).
What’s in it?
Lots of spells. Over 500, to be imprecise. A majority of these are Rune spells, with the spirit magic section taking up about a fifth of the book. This includes the spells published in the core rulebook, so that The Red Book of Magic will serve as a one-stop reference on spells. It doesn’t include any sorcery—which is just as well, really, since that system is pretty much unfinished.
The book is also advertised as containing a variety of supplemental magic-related materials, such as “Hepherones’ Statement of Magic,” “Rules for using ritual practices,” the description of Rune metals, and so on. I found much of these materials disappointing because they felt either trivial (especially Hepherones “Statement,” which fills a single page) or were reprinted from prior publications, such as the core rulebook or Appendix 2 of the Gamemaster Screen Pack.
The supplemental material advertised for this product shouldn’t be viewed as an incentive to buy it; if you play RuneQuest, odds are you already have most of it. It’s included for completion’s sake. That said, it fits well into a table reference, and certainly doesn’t feel out of place. I felt slightly miffed that it was included in the advertising copy but is essentially the same text as the core rulebook. Likewise, there’s other material from the rulebook’s “Magic” chapter I think was worth including—in particular, the rules for enchantments. The book could also really use a by-the-Runes spells reference, as well as an alphabetized summary table like that found in the Gamemaster Screen Pack.
But all that’s not really important. What’s important is the absolute mountain of spells in this book. That’s really what’s engaging and useful if you play RuneQuest. Nearly 100 pages of this roughly 120-page supplement describe various Rune spells used throughout Glorantha. They cover an enormous range from healing to harming, from summoning to just plain weirdness.
Just reading through was enough to kindle my imagination.
Honestly, I could ramble for a while about stuff I like in this supplement. I’m just going to touch here on a few which ideas which really grabbed my brain.
First off, I finally feel really, actually excited to play Fire/Sky Rune adventurers. There’s tons of Fire/Sky magic in this book, and most of it is interesting. My favorite is probably Call Shanasse, which summons a fiery warrior to fight off your foes, although some of the weapon-using—or even magma-using, like Lavaspear!—is also pretty wild. Both Yelm and Yelmalio in the core rulebook felt disappointing when I considered how I’d make an adventurer with them; in contrast, the new Fire/Sky spells in this book make me want to roll up an adventurer to try them out.
Likewise, this book has tons of new Lunar magic. Some of it Chaotic, and some of it not. This is one of those spots which really highlights the granularity of the setting. For example, the spell Glowspot makes a space within which the moon always counts as full—but this spell can only be cast with the Chaos Rune. The moon’s okay within the Cosmos, but keeping it a certain way is Chaotic Chicanery.
You can derive other themes about the setting from the book, if you read closely. To take another example, a lot of Darkness magic is self-sacrificing or other-sacrificing, implying general characteristics of the mythology of Darkness deities. Of course, a lot of this might be old news for long-time fans. but for those newer (like myself) The Red Book of Magic presents a pleasantly surprising lore puzzle. I presume this will mostly be explained and clarified when the forthcoming work on cults eventually arrives.
Another cool section is the new supplemental rules on healing plants, and their associated new spells. This is, I believe, the only section of non-spell content which is new. While these rules might be too mechanical for some players, they’re just about at the space I enjoy. Basically, they give the gamemaster a way to roll and determine what healing plants adventurers can discover, including when they’re potent, and what part of the plant is effective. It’s basically a way to generate verisimilitude, and also make adventurers with an emphasis on healing more engaging.
Other cool stuff, in no particular order: magic music, summoning a Tidal Wave, making volcanoes erupt, cool movement magic, cool Movement Rune magic (especially transformation!)… the list really does trail on and on, longer than I can reasonably describe.
Oh, here’s an important one—THERE’S A SPELL TO SHAPE TRUESTONE AND ADAMANT.
Mostali shenanigans, I presume. Nonetheless, intriguing…
Another topic worth brushing over is, of course, the book’s artwork. In particular, since this is an element both which Chaosium’s definitely been upping the quality of, and because that improvement has received audience and critical attention.
For me, this supplement’s art quality is lower than prior supplements. It’s still generally good, just not quite on par with Smoking Ruins or Pegasus Plateau. If you buy these books in particular for their art, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the purchase, but you may not love them as much as their predecessors.
Chaosium has posted a lot of the art over on their Facebook page. Their choices do a good job collecting the best pieces together. I’d recommend checking them out!
Using this Book
So you’re new-ish to RuneQuest and Glorantha, you don’t know anything outside the corerulebook (or the slipcase set), and you want to make use of this book. What do you do?
Here’s what I suggest: make up your own cults. Pick an Elemental Rune and a Power or Form Rune, and choose three spells each associated with those cults. Then, mash ’em together and make up a story based on the general theme.
Say I want to make a Fire/Sky warrior cult, because I like Call Shanasse and the other new magic. I’ll use the Death Rune in addition, since that makes sense for warrior cults. Based on the descriptions of the Runes in the “Adventurers” chapter of the core rulebook, I know that the general themes of this cult will be ascetic, noble warriors, which suits me just fine. Another option I considered was the Man Rune, because there’s tons of weird and interesting Man Rune spells (I’d have to go back through the book to really figure out what I wanted—maybe a warrior cult which summons their ancestors to fight alongside them?).
Next, I’ll pick three Rune spells for each of my new cult’s Runes:
- Fire/Sky Rune: Call Shanasse, Produce Light, and Clear Sight.
- Death Rune: True Spear, Shield, and Strongspear.
As I picked the spells, I tried keeping a general theme in mind. What I settled on was something like “martial watchman.” A deity known for martial skill and defending the weak. “Strongspear” is, in the book, “Strongblade,” but I thought refitting it for spears worked fine for this cult (the spell makes a weapon unbreakable). The cult is really good in melee combat, is good at spotting enemies (and making it harder to sneak up in the dark), and can call in some backup in a pinch. I’ll assume it has all common spells, and let it command small fire elementals for good measure.
Then, I just have to pick cult skills, and spirit magic. Spirit magic’s more fun, so I start there:
- Spirit Magic: Fireblade (on spear only), Detect Enemies, Heal, Protection, and Repair.
- Cult Skills: 1H Spear, 2H Spear, Battle, Cult Lore, Scan, Search, Listen, Speak Firespeech, and Celestial Lore.
I might shift those around as I keep working on the concept, but that gives me a starting point. I used both Humakt and Orlanth from the core rulebook as a quick reference, but didn’t copy either of their lists outright. I intentionally chose a little less spirit magic than I might, because I’m not sure I want this cult to be a “major cultural deity” like those two. Although to be fair, this is a very strong assortment of Rune magic…
Lots to ponder! But, I think this gives a decent idea how a newcomer to RuneQuest and Glorantha might use this book. Of course I’ve got a decent background in the game now, even if it’s not the decades others have. This experiment took me about half an hour. It’s still pretty rough—I haven’t even named my deity!—but it’s something I and my gamemaster could create an adventurer with, and play them.
I did this experiment because it’s a good way to emphasize how this spell list opens up the setting. Even just giving a list lets players and gamemasters more creatively tinker with the world by describing examples of what’s out there in the world.
On the other hand, The Red Book of Magic might just be an incredibly audacious advertisement for Chaosium’s forthcoming cults book…