I've been wanting to come add magic runes to the Fellhold campaign for a while now, to get that delicious Viking flavor. I contemplated a cool combinatory system with very modular runes, kinda inspired by sygalldry in Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle books, but I decided that a) that would be a whole lot of work, and b) it would clash with the overall Vancian magical flavor of D&D the campaign has mostly relied on. That being said, I'm a huge fan of different rule systems for Magic, and I fully plan on creating such a system for a campaign where it would fit better. I also have an idea on doing something based off the way semitic languages have vowel roots and apply consonants in forms with loose semantic meanings to get words, but that's way outside the scope of this here post.
So, I checked out the AD&D 2nd Edition Viking Campaign sourcebook, the Realms of Sorcery supplement for WFRP 2nd Edition, and wikipedia articles on runes mentioned in the Poetic Edda and sagas, and on Icelandic 'Staves'. Though I initially had high hopes for the WFRP runes, they were almost all blandly combat stat buffs. Which is useful, of course, but not as flavorful as what I wanted. WFRP's heavily skill and talent based approach was also not the right answer for mechanical implementation.
I ended up drawing a lot more from the historical Viking Campaign sourcebook than I expected to on my first read through. There were actually some kind of cool concepts about shaping the rune each and every time, because the nature of the thing inscribed and the specific circumstance and so forth all combined to give the rune a unique physical expression every time, and it had to be imbued with power. So I took a little bit of that for my own so that just knowing how to scratch the symbol doesn't give you crazy powers (even if I suspect that the historical basis for "magic runes" is at least a little tied up in illiterate people being impressed by literacy and what you could do with it - this is D&D, damnit, not a historical exercise).
I had a few basic concepts I thought would make runes interestingly flexible and open ended (the sort of magic I find coolest for games). First, I struck on the notion that the permanence of the runes effect is related to the permanence of how it is inscribed. Rather than flat out stating "runes must be carved into something", I wanted there to be the option to hastily scrawl something with your own blood on an improvised surface, but it won't last very long and it won't be very powerful compared to a purpose made rune imbued with great power and cast into an armband as it is made. Next, the power of the rune is effected by the quality and permanence of the item. Both of these are for thematic as well as gameplay reasons. Thematically, it makes magical thinking sense if more purposefully and permanently doing something to a thing of greater value gets you greater effects. Gameplay wise, I don't want players just chalking exploding runes onto every which surface they find willy nilly. Which ties into another thing I knew I wanted to do with runes: make them not fire and forget. You know a rune, or you don't. So the resource management aspect has to come in somewhere else than "times a day you can use them". You have to manage physical components, time to shape, et cetera. Also, runes are heavily front loaded resource-wise. You have to either spend a lot of time and money studying one, or else you have to give up a spell slot permanently. The final thing I knew about runes going in was that I wanted them to be flexible and open ended and able to be combined by clever players (even if I ditched the idea of modular 'programming' style runes for build your own magic items).
Which is where I ran into some troubles. See, the uber-specific rules given in the 2E viking campaign book left me cold, and they were largely written as a low-magic replacement for traditional D&D Vancian magic users for the purposes of genre emulation, rather than as a supplement to that system that provided different tactical, strategic, and logistical choices. I was also running up against a time constraint, because my clerics were about to level up, and I wanted to fundamentally tweak their options based on their patron before they got too high in level and locked into the pseudo-Christian crusader baked into the cleric class as written. So I ended up copping out a little bit. I just gave the runes brief, qualitative descriptions, and figure I'll adjudicate rules for individual uses on the fly. Hopefully this vagueness will lead to creative and cunning uses devised by players and a lack of restriction on my part, but I worry that they will be so vague as to lose out in comparison to known goods like healing spells and the like.
The last thing I ended up stumbling into with runes as I was writing the rules for learning them was the decision that anyone can learn them. I just a) let priests of Hrokr get them by prayer (but then its random), and b) made it so that Magic Users learn them faster by study than do others (studying arcane things to unlock their use is sort of their entire job). But if Clerics want a specific rune, or if fighting men want to stray into more mythic archetypal territory, they have the option if they throw down a lot of time and (presumably) money.
Runes can be granted to clerics of Hrokr through prayer, or they may be learned through intense study of from a talented teacher. A rune is not merely a symbol with magical properties. Rather, it is a physical distillation of the true nature of a thing in relation to the world. So, a berserk rune will vary depending upon what surface and for what warrior it is crafted, and understanding the forces necessary to apply this to any object is a matter of some insight.
Runes impart abilities to the objects on which they are inscribed or to their bearers. Usually, merely writing or painting a rune is insufficient to unite the energies of the rune with the item upon which it is placed, but some runes can grant a limited or weak effect when so temporarily marked. There is a direct relationship between the permanence and craft of the object and the method of inscription to the power of the rune. Thus, a sword crafted by a master smith, with the runes worked into the blade as it is forged and quenched will be a far more potent item with more permanent powers than a dagger with a rune hastily scratched into its hilt.
Sometimes the release of the energies of a rune will damage or destroy the item upon which it is placed, and this is more likely the more hastily crafted the rune is.
A cleric of Hrokr can learn a rune whenever he gains a new spell slot. If he chooses to do so, he automatically learns a randomly determined rune and it permanently replaces one of his spell slots. He may choose which spell slot, and it need not be the newly acquired slot. Once chosen, it may not be moved to a different spell slot. To randomly determine what rune is learned, roll 1d20 and consult the list below. If the result is a rune already known to the cleric, he may instead choose freely, as he has been granted particular insight by Hrokr.
Any character may attempt to learn a rune through study if he has access to obscure runic lore, or to a tutor (these will probably take some finding!). These sources will have information on only a few, specific runes, and access to them will probably not be cheap. If the referee has not established which runes the source can teach, and he can’t decide, he may randomly roll 1d4 runes from the list below. Learning a rune from pure study (no tutor) takes 20 – the character’s level in weeks if he is a magic user, and 20 – half the character’s level (rounded down) if he is a fighting man or cleric. A tutor will reduce this time by 5 weeks. The minimum time to learn a rune is 1 week. However much time it takes, it is a period of intense study, and the character is considered to do nothing else of consequence during this time. If there are any interruptions, he must start over and take the full amount of time. At the end of the period, the character attempts to roll under his intelligence. If he fails, he may retest in another week. Continue retesting once a week until the character gives up or succeeds.
List of Runes
- Victory Rune
- Opening Rune
- Ale Rune
- Wave Rune
- Heal Rune
- Curse Rune
- Ward Rune
- Fear Rune
- Berserk Rune
- Fire Rune
- Dead Rune
- Disease Rune
- Strength Rune
- Water Rune
- Earth Rune
- Air Rune
- Iron Can’t Bite Rune
- Fortune Rune
- Shield Rune
- Sealing Rune
These descriptions are purposefully left vague in order to facilitate their creative application. Referees should make rulings on their use based on the desired level of fantasticness and power they want runes to bring to their games. Just remember the guidelines: the more permanent the inscription, the more powerful the effect, the higher quality and more permanent the material, the stronger the effect, the more temporary, the more likely the rune will damage or destroy the object inscribed, and the rune must be crafted by the casters own hand.
- Victory Rune – Improves a weapons chance to hit and imbues it with magic
- Opening Rune – Causes a locked or sealed portal to be opened – doors, windows, et cetera.
- Ale Rune – Will destroy a vessel that holds poisoned food or drink
- Wave Rune – Improves the handling and speed of a ship
- Heal Rune – Increases a specified target’s ability to heal
- Curse Rune – Inflicts a curse on a specified target
- Ward Rune – Protects against spells and curses
- Fear Rune – Causes fear in the enemies of the bearer
- Berserk Rune – Causes the bearer to become a berserker
- Fire Rune – Brings about fire in the thing inscribed or protects against fire
- Dead Rune – Summons a spirit of the dead to answer questions
- Disease Rune – Causes disease on a specified target
- Strength Rune - Grants great strength to the bearer
- Water Rune – Provides protection against water
- Earth Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of the earth
- Air Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of air
- Iron Can’t Bite Rune – Reduces damage to the bearer
- Fortune Rune – Allows the divination of a specified targets fortune
- Shield Rune – Makes an item or its bearer more resistant to ill effects
- Sealing Rune – Seals a portal of some sort