The combat system is simple in conception and allows for tactics in play. Combatant A and B use "strike ranks" or dexterity to determine who goes first, then assuming A goes first he rolls for success in his weapon attack skill, and if he succeeds then his opponent rolls for his weapon parry (or dodge) skill. Shields are just another weapon in the system, albeit one that's better for parrying than for attacking. If the attack succeeds and the parry or dodge doesn't, then roll for hit location and damage. Armor protects by subtracting its value from damage done. Assuming both combatants survive then B attacks while A parries or dodges. One such sequence of attack and parry routines is a combat round.
That's the basics of the combat system, though there are quite a few complications that you can add in if you want. Complications can add a lot of fun or they can be tedious. They include fatigue (tedious), critical and special and fumbled hits (fun), damage to parrying weapons (mostly tedious), aiming (fun), movement and maneuver (fun), and tons of special modifiers and actions (mostly fun).
RuneQuest includes a characteristic called "Power," which represents your character's luck and innate magical power (in RQ, as in real life, they're the same thing). Though there are a lot of magic systems in various RQ publications (spirit magic, divine magic, sorcery, ki, color magic, lunar magic, heroic magic, etc) they all boil down to one principle: By exerting your will (and fatiguing or sacrificing Power) you can make physical changes in the world. In game-speak, you spend POW to work magic.
The unique thing about RuneQuest is that almost everybody knows some magic. It's mostly minor stuff, charms to sharpen your axe to get through the woodpile quicker, to kill rats, and so on, but such charms are useful in lots of situations including combat (natch). The rat zapper, frinstance, is called Disrupt, and the axe sharpener is called Bladesharp, and they're mainstays of combat in RQ. Every time two hostile groups meet, they first stalk around building up their own confidence and putting blessings on their weapons and themselves, and casting curses at each other. How uncivilized of them, eh?
And that's the final point I want to make about RuneQuest. RuneQuest is primarily an ancient period game. Unlike most pseudo-medieval fantasy rolegames, with their emphasis on feudal knights and saints and wizards and dragons, RQ feels more like an ancient period game. It's Iron Age period stuff, like a combination of Abyssinia, Sumer, Sea Peoples, pagan Celts and Goths, Mongols, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Aztecs, Vikings, Warring States China, Toltecs, Mayans, Esquimeaux :-), native American tribes, and the Mabinogi.
Don't expect your standard, vanilla pseudo-medieval settings to work all that well with RuneQuest. It's much better for more ancient, more legendary settings. And IMHO they're more fun anyway, because they are less thoroughly explored.
The 3rd Edition (Avalon Hill) rules have Errata.
David Dunham Page