What happens when you go to your local gaming store on payday, disappointed that several books you were planning to buy have had their release dates pushed back a few months? Well, in my case, you come home with RuneQuest II by Mongoose. I don't know how it happened really. I just went in to look, knowing the things I wanted would not be there. Worst of all, the company that failed to deliver the desired products on time was the very same group of furry snake-eaters. I suppose it was a result of my renewed interest in Basic RolePlaying, the game system upon which all past and present manifestations of RuneQuest are based and being quite impressed with how well Mongoose buffed up the venerable Traveller rules, I was somewhat curious to see what they would do with BRP.
So, how does it compare, you ask? Not bad. It's different, but not unrecognizably so. Skills have been reorganized, there has been some streamlining (i.e. no more Spot, Listen, Sense, it's all Perception), some unstreamlining (i.e. Dance and Sing are now separate skills, rather than specializations of Perform) and the base percentage of the skills is derived by adding two characteristics (i.e. Athletics = STR + DEX) or doubling one (i.e. Lore = INT x 2). Skills are categorized as common (available to everyone) or advanced (requisite upon appropriate cultural or professional criteria). Also, combat skills have been redefined as combat styles, such as 2H axe or sword-and-shield, although they are purchased with skill points just like in BRP. One notable difference is the introduction of the Evade (based on DEX), Resilience (based on CON) and Persistance (based on POW) skills which act like saving throws, thereby eliminating the Resistance Table so familiar to Call of Cthulhu players. For me, this is a welcome change. I hate tables.
Magic plays a big role in RuneQuest II, indeed, literally everyone has access to at least some magic, right down to the lowliest peasant farmer or footman. I gather this derives from the design philosophy of the original campaign setting associated with the original RuneQuest, Glorantha. There are four kinds of magic, Common, Spirit, Divine and Sorcery. Common Magic, as the name implies, is the weakest and the most widely-available. It is the weakest because each spell is a separate skill, just as it is in BRP. Therefore, most practitioners of Common Magic will know only a handful of spells at most. A fighter may know the Bladesharp or Firearrow spell to make himself a bit more effective in combat, but he won't be mistaken for a serious spellcaster.
The other types of magic might be described as shamanism (Spirit Magic), clericism (Divine Magic) and wizardry (Sorcery). Each has two skills associated it, so it is possible for practitioners to accumulate an impressive number of spells without spending large numbers of skill points. Spellcasters are expected to join a cult, an organization (not necessarily religious) which, among other things, provides its members with access to new magical knowledge. Learning new spells pretty much requires cult membership. This is where runes come into play. Runes are symbols corresponding to various concepts such as law, chaos, light, darkness, man, beast, etc. They seem to have played a bigger role in earlier editions of RuneQuest, but they still have some relevance in the latest version of the game. Each cult has several runes associated with it and these runes shape the philosophy of the cult and the spells available to be learned from it. In order to gain access to a wider range of spells, most spellcasters will belong to more than one cult, as long as they are not opposed (i.e. one may not be a member of both a fire cult and a water cult).
I would say that RuneQuest II is a highly-playable game, if a bit dense for a newbie. I'm not sure if I am committed to investing in Glorantha at this stage, so I hope Mongoose treats MRQII the same way it did with Traveller, adapting the game to multiple settings. I notice Cubicle 7 has already started, releasing the Clockwork and Chivalry campaign setting, an alternate history of the English Civil War incorporating magical clockworks and alchemy into the struggle between the Royalists and the Roundheads. Not my cup of tea, but something else like a Dying Earth or dark fantasy setting might peak my interest. I shall look forward to what Mongoose comes up with in the soon-to-be-released State of the Mongoose address.
Update: I was mistaken in my original description of Common Magic in MRQII. In fact, the is only one skill governing the use of Common Magic. However, the spells are generally weaker than similar Divine, Spirit and Sorcery spells.