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Friday, 2 August 2019

Rune blades

This was an early piece that I wrote for White Dwarf (issue 39, March 1983). Evidently I'd already been asked to work on Questworld. Most of these magic swords later found a home in Dragon Warriors, but to do them full justice you really need to include the Rune associations. Looking at it again 35 years on, I was struck by the reference to "humanists". Does that mean the Renaissance kind, or modern humanism? Seems a little anachronistic given that Greg Stafford's Genertela (always cracks me up; at times my sense of humour is quite puerile) is a Bronze Age world filled with quite irrefutable spirits and deities, but obviously it made sense at the time.

The pillars of any RuneQuest universe, more fundamental than the gods who make use of them, are the Runes themselves. Many non-theistic cults on both Questworld and Glorantha strive to interact directly with the Runes and to use their power to shape the world around them. Even some of the more familiar religions can be interpreted this way. The Black Fang Brotherhood involves shamanistic worship of the Death Rune, while Kralori philosophers would be able to see the gods (especially those, such as Humakt, linked almost exclusively to one Rune) as mankind's anthropomorphised view of the powers and workings of the Runes in nature.

The consequence of this philosophy is a reversal of the individual cult member's approach to the world: he doesn't necessarily behave according to certain rules simply because 'the god wills it', but accepts responsibility for his own actions and ethics, and associated himself with the Rune or Runes which embody his own philosophy. For example, a humanist Knight of western Genertela might wear the Death Rune on his shield in the same way that a Humakti would, but with a quite different feeling and personal philosophy behind this.

By focussing on the Runes, the Wizards of such a cult acquire the ability to channel their power and so create magical artifacts. In a world where many cults have to fight for their existence, the creation of magic weaponry is of obvious importance; this is what will be covered here.

Rune weapons are usually swords, created by the priests of a Rune cult for use by the cult champion. The priests gather and together perform the rituals while permanently sacrificing some of their POW to enchant the sword. The Ritual of Enchantment is a skill (see below), and each priest must make his roll in this skill or the POW he contributes is wasted. If any one of the priests fumbles then the entire ritual is disrupted and all the POW is lost to no effect. (This can create really bad blood among the other cultists!) The ritual requires 30 points of POW to be successfully relinquished in order to enchant the sword.
The Ritual of Enchantment skill is learned at the rate 750/1000/ 2000/3500, though it would be common practice inmost cults for the priests/wizards who had mastered it to give free instruction to the others. Rune weapons can have any ability, limited only by the imagination of those who create them and the power of the Rune involved. The more common types are listed here.

Volcanic Sword
The sword is tied to the Fire Rune. Whenever needed, its blade will rise in temperature to red-heat within seconds. This effect does not damage the blade itself. Any damage that penetrates armour is doubled.
Example: Lord Balin of Dorgoth is fighting a cave troll. He hits the creature with his iron volcanic sword and rolls 5 on the damage dice, of which 2 points penetrate its skin. In addition to the 2 points, the troll takes an extra +2 from the heat of the blade. (In this case, being a troll, it also takes another +2 just because the sword is made of iron).
Fireblade cast on such a weapon will not add to the damage done but will merely convert it to doing 3d6 damage for the duration of the spell.

Blades of this type are commonly shortswords, created for use by Death Rune cult assassins. The weapon does normal damage, but is kept supernaturally sharp and cuts easily through armour. The amount of damage the armour would normally absorb is halved (round fractions up). Magical protections such as shield are not affected.

Severblades can be enhanced by bladesharp, but will temporarily be converted to normal 3d6 weapons by fireblade.

The most common of several Mobility Rune weapons, the blurblade moves with dazzling speed. The wielder of a blurblade always hits with it at Strike Rank 1 (even if he or she had it sheathed at the start of the round), and opponents subtract 05% from their chance of parrying. If the opponent is unaware of the sword's ability, he will be automatically surprised on the first attack and his parry chance will be halved.

Created by Air Rune cults, a sword of this type allows its user to summon storms once a day. The storm will muster within one minute and will then last for up to fifteen minutes. The main force of the storm is concentrated to a zone 160m around the sword; within this zone, visibility drops to 6m, all movement is halved, normal communication is impossible and flying creatures must roll DEXx5 each round or be buffeted helplessly by the winds. There is a clear zone (the eye of the storm) for 3m around the sword. While the storm rages, the user can cast lightning bolts from the tip of the sword at the rate of one every five melee rounds. These bolts leap for 1-8 beings within 16m, with a 60% chance of hitting. If the target has a Defence, this will count. A bolt that hits deals the target 1-4 blows for 1d8 damage each; armour gives half normal protection.

The Darkness Rune is another favourite with assassins. Night-blades give their user the ability to see in darkness, to Hide in Shadows at +30%, and to create a globe of darkness 3m across around himself at any time. Shades will not attack the wielder of a nightblade.

Deriving its power from the Magic Rune, this sword acts as a variable matrix for any battle magic spell up to 4 points. That is, the user can cast any such spell with the sword (and his own POW). It takes one full turn (five minutes) for the sword to switch from one spell to another.

Fortress Sword
Weapons of this type, tied to the Stasis Rune, protect their user by enhancing his chance to parry. 30% is added to the user's parry ability, but this concentration on defence reduces his attack chance by 10%.

Vigor Sword
This is another common Mobility cult weapon. Essentially it is the opposite of the Fortress Sword mentioned above. In this case the sword impairs its user's parries by the ferocity of its attacks, ie +30% to user's attack and -10% from his parry.

Vorpal Blade
Through its Fate Rune powers, the Vorpal Sword has a knack of finding openings in an opponent's guard. If the attack roll is half (or less) of what the sword's user needed then he can specify where he's hitting his opponent.
Example: Ericre Bloothaux has a shortsword with a Vorpal Blade. In combat with a dream dragon, Ericre rolls a 13 for his attack. With his shortsword skill of 70% this is not only an opportunity to hit the dragon wherever he wants, but also happens to be an impaling blow. 16 points in the head puts the creature down, and Ericre is forced to admit that the line dividing Fate from Luck is often a fine one.
For arcane symbolic reasons, Chillblades (created, of course, by Ice Rune cults) are always impaling weapons. Any damage an opponent takes from the icy blade of the weapon is matched against his CON on the Resistance Table. If the roll is successful, the victim takes damage to his CON (as with systemic poison) and suffers -2 from STR and DEX for ten melee rounds. An unsuccessful roll simply means that the victim takes an extra 50% damage in the area hit.
Example: Archos the Lame is hit for 4 points in the arm by an enemy's chillblade. Matching 04 against Archos' CON of 11 gives a 15% chance that he will also take 4 points of CON damage. Archos' foe rolls a 82, however, so the only effect of the chillblacle is an extra 2 points of damage in Archos' arm.
Chaos Knife
The name is euphemistic; Chaos 'knives' are often greatswords. The effect of the weapon is simply to bestow the user with a random Chaotic feature, different each time he draws it.

Vortex Sword
The Vortex Sword, or nullblade, is the rarest of all these rare weapons, being connected with the ancient Void Rune of Questworld. Its powers absorb and annihilate magic. Any spell cast at, by or on the user is reduced by 6 POW points: a countermagic 8 becomes a countermagic 2. Non-variable spells are rendered ineffective if reduced below their minimum POW by the sword's powers. Remember that Rune magic is twice the strength of battle magic, so that a shield 4 cast on the user would count as shield 1.

The secondary effect of the Vortex Sword is still more terrible: anyone slain by it is utterly annihilated by being drawn into the Void, and cannot be resurrected.

Final points
Once the Rune weapon is created, the cult champion (or whoever is going to use it) must sacrifice one point of characteristic POW in order to attune it. Having done this, he cannot attune a magic crystal until and unless he relinquishes use of the Rune weapon.

Rune weapons are very, very rarely found as treasure. Having cost the cult wizards at least 30 points of POW between them, the weapon is not going to be allowed to lie in some treasure hoard somewhere. The exception to this is when the cult champion was killed in the middle of the quest and the cult found it too difficult or dangerous to retrieve the weapon. In this case, whatever killed the champion may be hanging around where the weapon fell, ready to fight anyone else who'd like to own it.

Anyone who manages to get hold of a Rune cult weapon will be able to use it by attuning it as above, so long as they are members of a cult incorporating the appropriate Rune.

A couple of notes on the use of Rune weapons in campaigns. First, do not sprinkle them around too freely. Remember that it takes quite a powerful cult to make such a weapon – at least ten priests or wizards at say 95% in the Ritual of Enchantment and prepared to reduce their characteristics POW from 21 to 18. Such a cult would presumably have a highly skilled champion (perhaps one of the wizards?) who would be more than a match for a few player characters. Even if the cult lost the weapon, it would tend to end up in the hands of a powerful character who would do his best to hang onto it. Secondly, Rune weapons will almost be made of iron and will thus require the use of Divine Intervention to allow the casting of spells while holding them.

Rune weapons are intended as special items for full campaigns. Initiate-level player characters who found one could use it for the rest of the adventure and would then be well advised to hand it over to their own cult (in exchange for goodwill and a rich reward) rather than become a target for the most powerful treasure-seeking adventurers in the land!


  1. I remember that article! I read it when I was in primary school. The bit that sticks in the mind is the description of the Chaos Knife ("'chaos knives' are often greatswords"). I thought it very evocative then, and I still do.

    It's a great concept for a magic item too - nicely unpredictable. The only improvement would be if the RQ2 chaos-feature table had a few more negative effects ...

    1. Thanks, JC. That it stayed with you for 36 years is pretty good going for an article I probably hammered out over a weekend on my old Olympus Traveller typewriter.

    2. It's the only thing from the old White Dwarfs that I can recall actually using in a game. I suspect it resonated for a couple of reasons (besides the 'twist' with the name and the great concept). First, our primary-school minds struggled a bit with the POW-related concepts of RuneQuest (crystals, etc.), so this was a magic item that was immediately useable.

      And second, the chaos-feature table was extremely appealing - one of the best bits of the then-laborious process of creating RQ baddies. So something that allowed repeated rolls on the table was perfect.

      I'm currently planning a Fantasy Trip one-shot for my son's birthday; I'm going to slip a Chaos Knife into that for old time's sake. The unpredictability should cause considerable glee, and the concept fits right in with my general views on magic items - doubtless because it shaped them!

    3. The Fantasy Trip -- there's a blast from the past. Sadly I got rid of my books ten years ago when we had a mass clear-out. I can still picture the wizard's luxuriantly wavy '70s hairstyle.

      The Good Friends of Jackson Elias had a show recently about interesting game mechanics, and random tables came in for a lot of love. My own favourite use of that was probably the Casket of Fays in the scenario "A Box of Old Bones".

      The Drinker sounds interestingly nasty. I might guest-star it in my campaign when the characters are a little tougher. (They're just starting out now, a new campaign to playtest the 2nd edition Dragon Warriors rules, so it would be a bit cruel to throw it at them yet.)

    4. Well, I dropped the Chaos Knife into a Fantasy Trip game at the weekend, and it was quite the hit. I just used the RQ2 chaotic-features table, adapting the stats on the fly. The pirate queen who got hold of the sword became scaly and armoured the first time, shrieked uncontrollably the second and spat acid the third - a nice range of results!

      To avoid having it wielded against the PCs when they discovered it, I put it in the suckery clutches of these fellows: No hands, so no ability to draw or wield the sword!

    5. What a great range of chaos features! Mind you, the player has really been spoiled getting those to start off. Next time she might end up with an overpowering stench :-)

  2. I always loved those Warlock blades in Dragon Warriors. They were very powerful but more importantly they were so memorable and iconic that I still remember them all these years later!

  3. DW 2e!!!!! How about spotlighting a few key rules/concepts for loyal fans to both salivate over and to consider and comment on to assist with development? (Although I am reminded of that old adage about a camel being a horse designed by committee!)

    1. I should do a post, shouldn't I? I think I've been holding off on that in case the playtest goes horribly wrong. At the moment (with the first game just a few hours away) the rules are pretty simple. Characters have four innate qualities, eight abilities which can be trained and cover every possible action, and a number of masteries that give you a little more control over use of abilities. Will it work? We'll soon see...

  4. Sounds intriguing! Hope the play test goes well!

  5. Thanks for sharing these (s)words forged in the Wayland's Smithy of your mind, Dave !

    1. Now here's a coincidence, John. Half an hour ago I was looking for images of Wayland's Smithy to make a birthday card for a friend. Spooky...