Runic Sorcery

Copyright 1993 by Peter Maranci

Table of Contents

Note: The following is a work in progress. It is by no means a final draft. I have interspersed explanatory notes through the text in square brackets where necessary. I have also interspersed some of my own questions. Any comments or suggestions will be gratefully received. I would like to acknowledge the work of Bill Moodey, who came up with some of the original concepts from which this experimental system has been derived. This system uses skill difficulty classifications from the playtest version of RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha, but can be run without them. It should be easily adaptable to virtually any roleplaying system, since the key element is conceptual rather than numeric. No challenge is intended in this work to any pre-existing copyright or trademark. -->Peter Maranci


Runic Sorcery is a science of magic, using purely human skills and abilities. It is based on evoking Elements and manipulating them to the Sorcerer's will via knowledge of the corresponding Runes. These Runes correspond with, but are not necessarily identical to the true Runes of Glorantha.

Spirit Magic depends upon the unnatural knowledge of spiritual entities; Divine Magic rests upon the Gods. Sorcery is the Third Way, using the natural non-personified Runes of Glorantha as a source of power. Use of the Runes in this atheistic manner strikes some as being reminiscent of the techniques of the God Learners. Sorcerers laugh at such suggestions -- at least in the West.

Sorcerers may create magic in either of two different ways. They may use their knowledge of the Runes to create off-the-cuff Castings, also known as Runic 'sentences'. These offer incredible flexibility within those Runes the Sorcerer knows.

Additionally, a Sorcerer may formalize a Rune sentence as a spell. Such a spell lacks the flexibility of a Casting, but is quicker to cast and easier to master. Spells may be created by the sorcerer or learned directly from another sorcerer or book.

All Sorcery is based upon a sorcerer's knowledge of the Runes. Each Rune is learned as an individual skill; these are usually Hard skills, though some are Very Hard. Knowledge of a specific Rune can be acquired as any other skill: through training, or research. All Rune skills are at (00) base percentage, with the exception of the Self Rune, which starts at (Age in years x 5%), and can be trained as a Very Hard skill.

There are six different kinds of Runes: Elements, Shapes, Forms, Names, Conditions, and Powers.


Every spell must include an Element. The Element is what the other Runes in the spell modify. Those which do not include an obvious Element incorporate at least one Intensity of Magic.

Element Runes are used to summon elements to be modified by other Runes. In the West, the commonly recognized physical Elements are Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Light, and Darkness. Of these, Fire, and Light are clearly related. All of these are Hard skills. There is also one non-physical Element: Magic. This is raw magical energy, used in spells and Castings which do not incorporate a mundane element. The Magic Rune is Very Hard to learn, since it cannot normally be seen, smelled, touched, or otherwise experienced.

The Element Runes are used to create or summon an amount of the raw element. Each magic point expended creates one cubic meter of an insubstantial element, or one kilogram of a solid one. If the element is already present, twice as much of the material may be controlled per magic point. The maximum number of magic points which may be used to create or control an element is the Rune skill divided by ten.

I considered 5% rather than 10% -- it seemed to fit in better with the basic mechanics of RuneQuest -- but it simply made Sorcerers too powerful.

Greater amounts of material may be created/controlled by incorporating the Rune in question more than once. However, the magic point cost per point is increased by one for each re-use of the Rune. For example, with a skill of 50% in the Fire Rune 5 Intensities of Fire may be summoned, with a damage potential of 5D3. This would cost 5 magic points, before costs for Shape, Movement, and any other modifications. If the Fire Rune was used twice, however, up to 10 intensities of Fire could be created. Each of the first 5 points would cost one magic point each; each point from 6 to 10 would cost 2 magic points apiece. Therefore, eight Intensities of Fire would cost a Sorcerer with a Fire Rune skill of 50% 11 magic points to summon: five times one (5) plus three times two (6). The same Intensity of Fire would cost a Sorcerer with a Fire Rune skill of 80% merely 8 magic points to summon (8 x 1 = 8), and would cost a Sorcerer with a Fire Rune skill of 10% 36 magic points! (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8). Each time the Rune is re-used counts as a separate Rune, with a - 10% penalty to skill for each use (see CASTINGS). Obviously the chance of success in the last case would be virtually nil.

If the Fire Rune were incorporated three times, the first five points would cost one MP apiece, the second five points would cost two MP apiece, and the third five points would cost three MP apiece. A maximum strength triple-Fire summoning with a skill of 50% would therefore cost 30 MP before any additional modifications.

Different Elements have different effects. Armor subtracts from all attacks using the physical Elements. Since such Elements still have a physical manifestation, however, they still do half damage even if the caster fails to overcome the target. The Magic Element ignores armor, but has no effect upon the target if resisted.

When used for attack:

Fire is the most destructive Element. Each Intensity of Fire causes 1D3 damage to a target. This damage is absorbed by armor. Fire causes no extra damage for a Special result. Flammable targets may be ignited by Fire, of course.

Earth causes 1D2 damage per Intensity. Unlike Fire, Earth can Crush on a Special result. Stone may be summoned using the Earth Rune, at a cost of two magic points per kilogram. Depending on its shape, Stone may Crush or Impale.

Note: Is it necessary to differentiate Earth and Stone at all? Should Earth do less damage?

Water causes 1 point of damage per Intensity. It is also more likely to knock down a target. When striking an object, each point of Water counts double for Knockdown purposes. Water Slashes on a Special success.

Air, Light, and Darkness each cause 1 point of damage per 2 points of Intensity. They have no additional effect on a Special success. They may have special effects on some creatures, however. Light, for example, may blind a target, and in addition would do extra damage to Shades. It would also be especially demoralizing to Light-fearing creatures such as Trollkin.

Magic causes 1 point of damage per Intensity. It has no additional effect for a Special success. However, only one point of magic is usually necessary for a spell affecting the target's mind. More magic would have a proportionately greater effect. One point of magic combined with the Disorder Rune in a spell intended to confuse, for example, could cause -5% to all skill chances. Two points would have a -10% effect.

Metals can be summoned by using a second Element with the Earth Rune. Bronze, for example, is summoned through the combination of Earth and Air, and costs two magic points per Intensity, rather than one. The volume summoned is also less than that of a pure Element: one gram per Intensity.

The various Elements have other properties deriving logically from their natures. Fire, for example, would offer little protection against most physical attacks, but would damage those things passing through it. Earth (or Stone) would generally be the most protective. Water would be most effective against Fire. Air can be breathed if necessary. Light makes it possible to see in dark places.

Note: The possibilities are so widespread that it is probably impossible to detail every case; the most that could be done would be to write a broad set of guidelines, and let the GM extrapolate. All amounts, incidentally, are adjustable. I've chosen the cubic meter/kilogram standard because that's what is in the description of the RQ3 Sorcery Form/Set (substance) spell. This may not be an ideal figure.


Shapes are perhaps self-explanatory: they represent geometrical ideals, and are commonly used to shape elements. There are, therefore, as many possible Shape Runes are there are shapes. However, some are more common than others. The simplest Shapes are Bolts, Balls, and Walls. Bolts are usually used to fire an Element toward a target, intersecting a single hit location. This is an Easy skill. Balls are used to shape an Element into a large sphere, encompassing a large area (the size also depends on the volume of Element summoned). The Ball Rune skill is a skill of Medium difficulty, as are the Rod and Spike Shapes. Walls are, again, self-evident; the complexity of the Wall Shape makes it a Hard skill to learn. Cones, solid Cubes, and solid Cylinders are also Hard. Hollow Spheres, Cylinders, Cubes, and other hollow forms are Very Hard, as are some irregular and multi- sided Shapes. More complex shapes can also be created by combining less complex Shape Runes.

If no shape is used in a Spell, the element summoned has no cohesion once the active portion of the spell is finished, and will behave normally. Water flung at a target will simply fall to the ground, doing little if any damage. Fire will disperse, unless there is fuel to sustain it. Light and Dark will be absorbed by the ambient environment, etc. The exception to this is magic, which if directed towards a target will conform to the target's shape -- unless the target has successfully resisted the Spell.

Size and Shapes: A Shape may be any size the caster desires. However, the larger the Shape the more dilute the Element becomes. Logic applies. One Intensity of Fire does 1D3 damage, and covers 1 cubic meter. If spread over an area equal to 2 cubic meters, it will do half as much damage. If spread over an area equal to more than 3 cubic meters, it will do no damage at all. If covering an area greater than 6 cubic meters, it will no longer be visible.


The Forms are as those listed in the RQ2 book: Plant, Beast, Man, Dragonewt, Spirit, and Chaos (the last not being generally available). Other Forms almost certainly exist. In addition there is a generic Target Rune. Forms are generally used to target magic against creatures which can resist it. The various Forms are Hard skills. with the exception of the Sorcerer's own species Rune(s), which is/are Easy to learn. The basic Target Rune (Very Hard) simply allows the Casting to reach a specific point in coherent form. The caster must roll separately against his Target Rune skill. If species-appropriate Runes are used instead (Man for men and women, Dark and Man for Trolls, Plant and Man for Elves, etc.) then the Casting will automatically strike the intended target. A spell cast at a target other than the spell's incorporated Target Rune will have no effect.

Note: I'm not at all sure that the Target Runes are a good idea. The concept seems sound, but the division of the Runes seems to have a certain unfairness built in. For example, magic cast against Trolls would be harder than against humans, since they'd involve an extra Rune. Alternatively, a set of Species Runes could be considered as one. It would be necessary to know both Dark and Man to specifically target Trolls, but there would only be a -10% penalty for the two Runes, rather than -20%. However this may be over-complicated, though it does not seem unreasonable that Sorcery should be the most complex thing in RuneQuest. A third possibility: the use of any Rune appropriate to the Target's species will enable the spell to be effective.


Names are actually refinements of Form Runes; they are the true name of a specific creature. They can be learned only with the greatest difficulty, if at all -- long and intimate association with the creature in question would be necessary. A spell or Casting created with the true Name of the Target cannot be resisted, though protective magic will work.

Every Sorcerer knows his own true Name, the Self Rune, at a percentage equal to [(his age in years x 5%) + magic bonus. It can be trained as a Very Hard skill.

A Sorcerer may substitute his or her personal Name in any spell including his or her Species Rune(s), without penalty or effort.


Condition Runes are usually used to modify magic. When embedded in a Spell, they allow a greater degree of flexibility. The most commonly used Condition Runes in Sorcery are Duration and Range. All are Very Hard. Mastery, Magic, and Infinity are rarely if ever used as such. The theoretical differences between Magic as an Element and as a Condition have occupied thousands of pages in obscure Western philosophies.

At least one magic point must be expended in the Duration Rune, or else the Spell or Casting will be instant. At least one magic point must be used in the Range Rune, or else the range will be touch only.

Note: The manipulation Runes can be used to duplicate any form of RuneQuest sorcery desired. All that is necessary is to set an appropriate minimum effect. For example: every ten percent skill in the Duration Rune allows one point of added Intensity. This could be used to duplicate the Intensity skill in either RQ3 Sorcery or the version currently being playtested for RQ4.


Harmony, Disorder, Fertility, Death, Stasis, Movement, Truth, Illusion, Luck, Fate, and possibly others.

These are the most fluid Runes. Harmony + Magic + Man, for example, could heal, cause sleep, or calm a target -- and other interpretations are imaginable. The players' and GMs imaginations would be the defining factors.


A runic sentence, or Casting, is created on the fly by a sorcerer using Runes he or she knows. To determine the chance of success, take the lowest Rune skill among all the Runes being used in the Casting, and subtract 10% for every other Rune used. Then add the magic bonus, and subtract Encumbrance, if such is being used. The standard requirements apply: a point of magic will create 1 cubic meter of an insubstantial Element, or one kilogram of a substantial one. The time to cast is the caster's DEX strike rank + 3 strike ranks if unprepared + 1 strike rank per magic point used in the spell. There is a very rare Condition Rune which allows faster casting. Some methods of casting also allow for faster results.

If success is rolled, the desired magic takes place, modified by the GM's assessment of the appropriate effect. All the magic points are expended. If a failure is rolled, no effect takes place, but all the magic points alloted to the effect are still expended. On a fumble, roll on the Sorcery Fumble Table. The GM must adjudicate the results of a Special or Critical success.

Remember, knowledge of Runes may not increase through experience.

Note: I use a Fumble Table for RQ Sorcery, and may present a version here at some future time. Since Sorcery is a human skill rather than a spiritual/Divine ability, it seems to me that it should be liable to error.

Note: Can't I find a better name than "Casting"?


Spells are much like Castings. They are formed of the same Runes. In fact, spells may be created by studying a Casting until it becomes formalized in the sorcerer's mind. Spells may also be learned from books or taught. It is impossible to learn a spell without previously knowing all the Runes which make up that spell.

Spells have several advantages over Castings:

They are less expensive; to cast a Spell, one need only expend Magic Points for the Elements and Condition Runes (Range, Duration, etc.) used. As a result, Spells are faster to cast, too.

No Target Rune need be included -- the Spell will hold together of itself, and strike the desired target.

Spells are less risky to cast -- failure to cast only costs a single Magic Point.

And finally, Spells are skills, and may increase from experience.

However, once a Spell is learned it is effectively cut off from the Rune-skills of the caster. In other words, any increase in a sorcerer's knowledge of the Fire Rune, for example, will not increase his ability with previously learned Spells incorporating the Fire Rune. Once learned, changes in the Rune skills do not affect the spell chance.

It takes 100 hours per Rune involved to formulate a Spell from a Casting via research and study. It takes 50 hours per Rune if learning from a book, or 25 per Rune if taught by someone who knows the spell. All Runes in the Spell must be known by the caster.

Though Spells are less flexible than Castings, a spell with an Element Rune in it may still be manipulated by the sorcerer's appropriate Element Rune skill. If the Duration or Range Runes are part of the Spell, these may also be manipulated. In other words, a Fire bolt Spell consisting of:

Fire + Bolt + Range

can be cast with whatever amount of Intensity and Range the sorcerer wishes and is capable of using. In addition, the Bolt can be whatever size the caster desires.


The Runes may be manipulated in any number of ways; different schools use different methods. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. Among the tools used to evoke the Runes are:

...or any other means of expression. Combinations are not likely, either. There is said to be a school of magic which allows casting simply by thinking of the necessary Runes, but this would be very difficult indeed, and require great powers of concentration. The GM must determine the advantages and drawbacks of whatever means of casting is being used. Knowledge of one type of sorcerous magic does not enable a sorcerer to understand a different method.


These are generally treated in the same manner as standard RuneQuest sorcery (whatever version you prefer), except that obviously the greater range of enchantment spells possible must be individually interpreted by the GM.


Wall of Fire: Fire + Wall + Duration

This allows the caster to create a wall of fire next to him. He may then walk away from the wall. If he wishes to create the wall at a distance from himself, he would have to cast: Fire +Range + Wall + Duration (+ Target, if this were a Casting rather than a Spell). Some other spell examples:

Movable Wall of Fire: Fire + Wall + Duration + Movement

Magic Bolt: Magic + Disorder OR Death + Bolt + Range

Heal: Magic + Harmony

Earth Armor: Earth + Self + Movement + Duration

Skin of Life: Air + Movement + Duration

Telekinesis: Air OR Magic + Movement + Duration + Range

Shapechange Man to Wolf (by touch): Magic + Man + Movement + Beast OR Wolf Name Rune + Duration

Obviously there are many ways to cause similar effects. Careful GM supervision is necessary. Given that Castings are unlikely to be used often due to their low chance of success and high cost, and that Spells have standard effects upon being formulated, it is unlikely that a GM will have to spend a great deal of time adjudicating magic. And this system should give the player of a sorcerer character a much greater feeling of involvement with and control of his magic.

More Questions:

What Sorcery spells cannot be duplicated by this system?

How may Spells affect characteristics? How would one duplicate Enhance Strength, for example? One possibility: Magic + Fertility + Man OR whatever species is being affected) + Duration. This would then work for any characteristic; the sorcerer's will would determine the effect of the spell. Another possibility would be to link the seven Elements to the seven characteristics, combined with the species Rune:

Fire = STR

Earth = CON

Dark = SIZ

Water = INT

Magic = POW

Air = DEX

Light = APP

Thus Enhance Strength is Magic + Man + Fire + Harmony + Duration

My intention is that it should be very difficult to learn many sorcerous Runes. This leads to sorcerers with narrower but more interesting abilities, and requires intelligence from players in the crafting of spells. Of course, given the open-ended nature of the system there is certainly potential for abuse. Common sense may be the most important ingredient for this system.


Main Page

Roleplaying Adventures & HeroQuests

Generic & RQ Alternate & Add-On Rules
Alternate Rules

The Chaos Project: Magic Items, Found Items, & Chaos Features. Add yours!
Chaos Project

RQ3, RQ2, & CoC Character Sheets, a RQ Help Sheet, more
Character Sheets

NPC People, places, & Things
NPCs & More

Rune Art & the RQ Font

Random Thoughts From A Random Brain

Issues of my old zine, resurrected from paper
Rack & Rune

Battle Evil Online! Or get munched
Peasant's Progress

Game & Other Recommended Links

So what do you think?

[email protected]

Copyright 1996 by Peter Maranci. Revised: October 20, 2000. v.2.0