Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lingering Innovations: The Runepriest and Runecaster

Runes have been a source of inspiration in D&D, probably since the beginning. Nordic rune magic can be seen in the old spell lists, but the journey from a few spells to the recent runepriest class isn't strait forward.

I've been pretty critical of the runepriest class in the past. I just don't like how it was implemented. For example, why strength as the key ability score? Constitution, at least, would make some sense given the lore of sacrifice to gain the power of runes. Wisdom as well, since runes have a tradition of insight about them, rather than intellectual cunning per se. What is interesting is the choice to make rune magic a type of divine magic, and labeling its wielders priests. There is a precedent for this, however. I'm going to stick just to the D&D examples of runes here though, rather than going afield into other RPGs.

Basic D&D

The first systematic predecessor to the runepriest that I've found so far comes in 1988. The Northern Reaches (GAZ7) for the basic D&D system doesn't present a specific class of rune-users, but instead gives northern priests access to a system of rune magic. I actually think its quite ingenious for the time. Rather than introducing a new runecaster class (see below), clerics gain access to a small series of second- and third-level rune spells (2 interpret, 2 bless, 3 know, and 3 inscribe rune), which they uses to access a system of runes.

The runes then are essentially thematic add-ons to this list of spells, accessed via the Bless Rune spell. An activated rune might have a power like maximizing the next healing spell the cleric casts.  The know rune spell, however, costs the caster a week of time and a point of constitution, so you won't be learning too many runes in your day.

AD&D Second Edition

Second edition sees another rune system, shortly after the BD&D one. This system is introduced in the Vikings historical campaign book, and is repeated and modified later on in the Elves of Evermeet and Giantcraft.  The runecaster is a stand-alone class with access to a new magic system. The PC learns runes at each level, and can use the runes at will, though inscribing them takes time (often measured in terms of minutes or even hours). There may also be a limit to how many active runes a runecaster can make at a time.

These runes are then, essentially, equivalent to one-shot magic items. So in a way the Runecaster is also a precursor to the third (if not fourth) edition artificer class.

The system presented in Vikings and Giantcraft are loosely Nordic in origin. The Elves of Evermeet presents the system as totems for the totem sister kit, though it is mechanically similar to the other two. All three systems are different and may require a bit of work to convert from one to the other, but I think the Giantcraft system is the most well developed one.

D&D 3.0 and 3.5

In the third edition of the game, we lose sight of a runecaster class once again. Runes are presented, but are hardly systematic. We see a rune domain for the cleric, rune-based prestige classes (Geometer in Complete Arcane, Runecaster in Forgotten Realms, Runesmith in Races of Stone), runestaves, and such. They're just not wide-spread in the game. The generic symbol, rune, and sigil spells remain, of course.

Special note, however, deserves to be made of two systems presented in the third edition Tome of Magic. The Tome is a wonderful book which presents three alternative magic systems: binding, shadowcasting, and true names. The first and last are relevant here. The Binder class isn't based upon runes per se, but upon goetia: the ritual summoning and binding of otherworldly powers. Diagrams are key here, and they present the binder with a slew of daily powers based on which entity he binds on any given day. The second, true name magic, resembles runes in-so-far as runes represent cosmic truths like true names. A true-namer merely utters the true name of an opponent and gains power in doing so. Neither of these are rune-magic per se, but still based on the concepts of symbols and language.

D&D 4e

Finally we come to the Runepriest. I was quite disappointed here. Not because the class doesn't play well: I think it does. I just think it lacks any real ties to runes. The runepriest constantly switches between offensive and devensive states, which gives him a lot of versatility on a turn-by-turn basis. The classs never got much support, and was shoe-horned into a particular view of the runecaster as a militant, strong, heavy-armor wearing devotee.

So. The unfortunate trajectory that I see in the case of runes in D&D has gone decidedly downhill since the mid 1990s. We move from some fairly coherent subsystems to ones that are a bit ad hoc. Then we come to a class that, more or less, just seems to be labeled with the word rune.

Frankly, I think the the basic D&D system and the second edition system are the best. The basic D&D system is ingenious in including the runes as a few key spells, but not requireing a whole new subsystem grafted onto the game. Second edition is notorious for adding those subsystems, but I think this one works and is rather coherent. One could easily blend the two to allow runecasters to be clerics, wizards, or any other spellcasting class in D&D Next. I'm not sure of its better to keep rune magic separate from other types, or to allow it to mix. The inclusion of rune-magic spells or a rune-magic theme wouldn't preclude a class that specializes in accessing runes though. The Runecaster might simply have those few spells as at-will powers and might gain access to and empower runes better than other casters.

The runecaster, however, is one of a handful of concepts that I think might warrant a class in the new edition of D&D. Its probably not material for the initial release, maybe not even appendix worthy right away. But it is a distinct style and flavor of magic, and that seems to be what warrants a division between clerics, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards. With the runecaster option, one could easily build a setting without wizards, and run something more like the Vikings historical campaign.  Furthermore, the idea of runes isn't even central to a Nordic-themed campaign. The 4e Runepriest has a Kara-tur build for east Asian flavor, while the second edition Elves of Evermeet gives the rune system to an animistic religion. One could easily imagine that other cultures with ideas of sacred writing (Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs, Incan quipus, Sumerian or Akkadian tablets, etc.) might serve as the basis for runecasters as well.

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