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by Shrapnel Games

snap21-01.jpg (6637 bytes)When Shrapnel Games presents Rune Sword II, they’re not expecting anyone to swoon in the same way that, say, Black Isle expects people to swoon over the next Baldur’s Gate installment. Where the Baldur’s Gate series tackles role playing games with a graphics-intensive engine that provides as much glimmer as substance, Rune Sword II’s characters are, graphically, nothing more than two-dimensional bitmaps that blip around the combat screen. Where Baldur’s Gate has animated characters hacking at one another, Rune Sword has computerized dice clattering at the bottom of the screen. Where a killing blow will often explode combatants into bloody chunks in BG, Rune Sword’s dead let out a wave-file moan and then transform into a pile of bones.

snap25-01.jpg (7769 bytes)However, to attribute these differences to game quality would be missing the point. Baldur’s Gate has flashy graphics because it aspires to be, first and foremost, a computerized role-playing game—to combine the charm of playing an RPG with the spark and sizzle that computer gamers have come to expect. Rune Sword II, on the other hand, aspires to be a whole role-playing system, like AD&D or Shadowrun.

snap26-01.jpg (6792 bytes)If you’ve ever played one of these systems, you probably know that there are two kinds of people involved with role-playing games. There are players who sometimes step into the spotlight to claim a share of the glory but mostly enjoy watching things unfold around them. And then there are game masters, who create and produce the spectacle, carefully controlling how much glory there is to be had in the first place. Baldur’s Gate stands in a tradition of games made exclusively for players, while Rune Sword II is made for players and game masters alike. You could not use BG to create an adventure, for instance, but Rune Sword contains Creator 2, an editing program designed precisely for that purpose. In the considerably sized user’s manual, most of which is devoted to explaining the nuances of Creator 2, Shrapnel Games states that, "If you want to make role-playing games, or help others to do so, you’ve come to the right place."

Where Rune Sword lacks the graphics of other computer RPG’s, it succeeds with a broader and deeper range of role-playing possibilities. The emphasis here is on imagination and story-telling. Character creation, for example, is managed by first picking your character’s home region from a list of twelve possibilities, each of which has its own characteristics and politics. Your character’s home region will determine such attributes as strength, agility, intelligence, and what skills he or she is capable of learning. Rangers, hunters, and trackers come from the wooded Northlands, for instance, while brilliant merchants hail from Andoria. There is a region where the emperor dwells and power is centralized, and there’s the land of clannish barbarians who vehemently oppose the emperor’s rule. Characters can learn skills from Arcane Lore to Battle Axe, from Healing Hands to one of four classes of spell-casting. The openness of the skill system means that, although it makes sense to have a character who focuses purely on healing, for instance, it’s nonetheless possible to have a sword-wielding warrior who also practices certain schools of magic.

snap22-01.jpg (7898 bytes)The various regions and idiosyncratic character types make up the complex world of Eternia, a place more comparable to the fully realized worlds of fantasy novels than the usual settings of computer games. Where the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series depend on the elaborate and extra-textual Forgotten Realms industry to evoke a fully realized setting, Rune Sword presents a world with its own extensive history. The manual puts it best: "With most computer RPG’s, there’s no distinction — you’re going to save the world and kill the bad guy who has released his orc army to scour the land. Then in the next game release, you have to save the world all over again. Because of Rune Sword’s multiple adventure nature, however, our modules will connect with this back story much more slowly. If your character(s) are to affect the course of history of Eternia, they will have played through many adventures." In other words, players can affect Eternia in much more open-ended ways than they can in comparable games. Baldur’s Gate, for instance, progresses along a narrative arc that rarely deviates from its prescripted path. Rune Sword has multiple adventures that each take their own paths, and that might intertwine or might not. Furthermore, a single character or group of characters can continue from adventure to adventure. This continuity of character is reminiscent of ye olde table-top days, when you could play a single character through several adventure modules for years at a time. Inhabiting the same alter-ego again and again lead to a much richer role-playing experience than the single-campaign characters of Icewind Dale or Planescape: Torment. Now, you can recover a taste of that experience.

Although Rune Sword ships with premade adventures that can be played right out of the box, playing the game is only a small part of the greater whole. If you’re looking to treat Rune Sword as simply another RPG, you might think twice. That’s not to say you won’t have fun playing Rune Sword. It’s just that you’ll be missing half of the fun. With Creator 2, you can make new adventures from the ground up, so that Eternia’s history is as fluid and changeable as imagination permits. You can create adventure maps, place monsters or triggers that produce a random encounter, and even script dialogue.

snap23-01.jpg (8027 bytes)The dialogue encounters are given special emphasis, for as the manual says, "You can take the simplest, stupidest goblin monster there is, but if he says a couple of clever lines before he dies, he’ll be memorable." Dialogue construction is at the heart of story-telling in RPGs, and it gives you the opportunity to exercise a level of creativity that is almost unique in computer gaming. While most computer RPGs are becoming increasingly cold media, requiring a lot of problem-solving skills but less and less imagination, Rune Sword allows you to experience role-playing from both sides of the dice by challenging you to create fantastic scenarios of your own. These scenarios are then posted on the game’s website and shared with the rest of the world. In effect, this creates a community of gamers who are all working with the Rune Sword system to impress one another with their ingenuity, which translates to a virtually infinite number and variety of adventure modules. The whole atmosphere smacks of cult following, though undoubtedly it will be a smaller following than, say, the blank-eyed addicts of Everquest--smaller and probably smarter.

If rudimentary graphics and a no-frills playing interface sadden or anger you, then Rune Sword II will surely disappoint. If you’re strictly a player of RPG’s, you will probably be entertained, and you’ll definitely find a community of game masters happy to feed you modules. But if you are a game master yourself, or if you’ve ever been frustrated that the dialogue options in most RPGs don’t offer creative enough options, and you’ve wondered who the hell writes this crap and why don’t they do it correctly, then you’ll be thrilled that Rune Sword II presents the opportunity to show the world how it’s done.

Paul Cockeram   (12/02/2001)


Ups: Make your own RPG; nice, broad system; easy interface; lots of adventures online.

Downs: Emphasis definitely not on graphics or flashy effects.

Platform: PC