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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

SIX SEASONS IN SARTAR, AN UPDATE, AND WHAT ELSE IS IN THE WORKS

SIX SEASON IN SARTAR

Six Seasons In Sartar is still in DriveThruRPG's top ten "Bestselling Titles" three weeks after release, something I certainly never expected from a modest community content offering.  I am indebted to the folks at Chaosium, as well as the Glorantha fan community, for this.  The reviews have been terrific, and because of all of this we are working hard to prepare the book for a print on demand offering (something we never initially expected to do).  Stay tuned for news on that.

 
Click to read what people are saying.


And here as well.


With this said, I'd like to let all of you know what you can expect from us next.

THE FINAL RIDDLE


Expected Late Summer


New Pavis, 1623.

As Pavis struggles to recover from the Great Winter, its streets thronged with the destitute and the hungry, a Dara Happan aristocrat arrives from the ancient Pelorian city of Alkoth.

Unva Prithverna is hiring.

For two dozen desperate guards, bearers, and guides, employment means rescue from starvation.  But everything comes with a price.  Prithverna's path will lead them across the River of Cradles into the desolation of the Wastelands.  Her purpose a mystery, they stray far from caravan trails and nomad grazing lands into uncharted horror and madness.  The restless dead, hungry spirits, and Chaos monstrosities haunt them every step of the way, but all this pales before what awaits them at the end...

Help Prithverna unlock the final riddle.


Unva Prithverna (some interior art)

Inspired by Armaj of Glamour's infamous pillow book, The Final Riddle is expected to be about a hundred pages.  Like Six Seasons in Sartar, it comes annotated with excerpts from scholarly works and lectures detailing aspects of Seventh Wane history, Lunar religion, and life amongst the nomad peoples of Prax.  Also included between the covers you will find;

5 complete scenarios set in the Wastelands beyond Prax, useable together as a single campaign of suspense and horror, or separately in your own Gloranthan sagas.

An introductory essay on author Lady Armaj, Lunar pillow books, and how The Final Riddle led to her downfall and death.

A chapter on Illumination in Glorantha, discussing the differences between Nysalorean Illumination, Lunar Sevening, and Draconic Consciousness.

Streamlined NPC creation rules that focus on roleplaying and making the characters memorable.

A dozen Prax and Wasteland specific "episodes," mini-scenearios and side quests you can use to expand your campaign or drop into any ongoing Gloranthan game.     

We hope to offer the book in both PDF and POD formats.


SIX SEASONS IN SARTAR: THE COMPANY OF THE DRAGON


Sartar.  1620 to 1625 ST.

Once, you had a home.  You had a family and a people.  You belonged, and something belonged to you.  Then, the  treachery of your own king and the servants of the Red Moon goddess took everything away from you.  You watched the people you loved die and the life you knew burn.

Now, all that's left is vengeance.

Playable as a direct sequel to Six Seasons in Sartar--in which your characters are now "the Company of the Dragon," also known as "Kallyr's Chosen"--or as its own separate campaign where you start off as a band of outlaws and rebels waging guerrilla war against the Lunar Occupation, The Company of the Dragon is the story of a conquered people and the lengths they will go to for freedom.  Members of the Sartarite rebellion, from their hidden encampments the characters strike at the Occupation every chance they get.  But the "deaths" of their god and goddess at the hands of the Lunars have brought endless winter and starvation.  If something doesn't change soon, there will be nothing and no one left for them to liberate.

Planned to be even longer than Six Seasons, at about 160 to 180 pages, The Company of the Dragon will include;

5 complete scenarios taking place over as many years, including a daring raid to rescue prisoners condemned to feed the Crimson Bat, the Battle of Auroch Hills, and a terrifying mission into a condemned dragonewt citadel in order to help Kallyr of Kheldon drive out the Lunar Empire once and for all.

A extensive look at Initiation in its various forms and degrees, including initiation into cults or war bands, Rune Lord status, or the Rune Priesthood.

An essay on Draconic Consciousness, the dragonewts, and the mysteries of the Empire of Wyrm's Friends.  

Two dozen "episodes," mini-scenarios and side quests centered around life as a rebel.  These include raiding caravans, espionage missions, attacking supply lines, taking and liberating hostages, and diplomatic assignments to gain support for your cause.  While tailored for this campaign, they could easily be adapted to any other Gloranthan saga, especially those focused on rebellion and banditry.

Like Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon is designed with flexibility and adaptability in mind, so that much of it can be reused in other RuneQuest or HeroQuest/Questworld campaigns.  

We intend to have the book ready before Christmas, in both PDF and print on demand forms.  
  


Tuesday, June 2, 2020

HARLEM UNBOUND 2ND EDITION: A REVIEW

TIME FOR FULL DISCLOSURE.

This review was written on the 17th of May, though Chaosium asked me to hold it until the release of the hardcover edition.  I mention this because the death of George Floyd fell between then and now, and as I write these words I am watching the nation I left behind wrestle with its soul.

It might appear at first blush then that this review is being published in a very different context than it was written.  But then again, is it really?  I am of the opinion that the only thing that has changed in America these days is that there are more cameras; what happened to George Floyd has been happening on a daily basis for centuries.  Nothing has changed, but we can all live in hope that this time maybe--just maybe--something finally will.

One thing I will say before you and I go ahead with the review.  Back in May, I initially had some reservations after looking at what I had written.  I questioned myself whether the review wasted too much time talking about Harlem Unbound's contribution to the ongoing conversation on race in America, rather than talking about it as the damn fine Call of Cthulhu supplement it is.  I decided to let it stand.  My sense was that author Chris Spivey--who has clearly poured his heart and soul into Harlem Unbound--wanted the dialogue on race to be part of the experience.  For me to shy away from that as a reviewer would be disingenuous at best and cowardly at worst.  Now, as I watch the news each morning, I am glad I made that call.

Chris, if you are reading this, thank you.  And if you are a drinking man, someday the first beer is on me.

ALM        



     

THE BOOK YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU NEEDED

EVERY NOW AND THEN a role-playing game product appears that you didn't realize you needed--no, scratch that, that the industry needed--until it finally arrived.  This is really the only place you can start a review of Harlem Unbound.  It's a setting book for Chaosium's flagship Call of Cthulhu, and rather than sum it up for you I will just quote the back of the book; 


New York City. Prohibition is in full swing and bootleggers are living high. African-Americans flee the oppressive South for greener pastures, creating a new culture in Harlem. The music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington pours out of the city’s windows, while women in stylish skirts and silk stockings, and men in white gloves and Chesterfield coats crowd the sidewalks. There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But, even in this land of promise, Harlem is a powder keg, ready to explode. While classes and cultures collide, the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways to infect the hopes and aspirations of the unwary. Can you hold it together and keep the terrors at bay for one more song?

Now, we've seen a lot of these over the years, and Chaosium used to be in the habit of prefacing their titles with "Secrets of," as in Secrets of New York, Secrets of Japan, Secrets of Kenya, Secrets of San Francisco, and so on.  These were all pretty good and they served their basic function; give the Keeper and Investigators enough information about a location to run Call of Cthulhu games there.  But there's been a new team over at Chaosium the last five years, and it's been just the shaking up that Cthulhu, now just shy of turning forty, needed badly.  Last year's Berlin: The Wicked City didn't just drop "Secrets of" from the title, it came with a whole new attitude.  Set in Weimar Germany, Berlin didn't shy away from what made the city notorious at the time.  The book tackles prostitution, drug abuse, and homosexuality head on.  It sent a clear signal that after decades of "Cthulhu for President" bumper stickers and Cthulhu plush toys, Call of Cthulhu wasn't "cute" any more.  It was a horror game and it was ready to get its hands dirty.


Harlem Unbound actually predates Berlin, with an ENnie-award-winning first edition published in 2017, but the second edition doesn't just share the same typeface and layout design as Berlin, it shares the same attitude. Cthulhu is no longer content to gloss over the uncomfortable realities of its 1920s setting, or the equally uncomfortable realities about Howard Phillips Lovecraft. And so, this long introduction finally gets to the point; Harlem is not just a setting sourcebook, it's a book that deals frankly and honestly with race.

Because really, people, how could a book set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance not?

AND NOW, THE TOUR

Harlem Unbound is a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition or, if you like your campaign two-fisted, Pulp Cthulhu.  Weighing in at 370 pages, it demonstrates all the superb lay out, graphic design, and art we have come to expect from Mike Mason's tenure.  Spivey himself did the Art Direction, leading a team made up of Brennen Reece, Alex Mayo, and Jabari Weathers.  The combination of period photographs and stark black, white, and red illustrations is both eye-catching and suggestive.  I suspect there is subtext in those color choices.    

The book starts with a bang.  In his "Introduction" author, developer, and art director Chris Spivey (who leads a writing team that also includes Sarah Hood, Alex Mayo, Steffie de Vaan, Dr. Cameron Hays, Bob Geis, Noah Lloyd, Ariel Celeste, and Neall Raemonn Price) lays it all out for you.    Yes, Lovecraft was a racist.  He was also homophobic, anti-Semitic, and a misogynist.  This isn't news to anyone.  "But we're not here to focus on the man," Spivey tells us, "...we are here to focus on the work and how to elevate it."  The way that we are going to do that is to turn Lovecraft inside out and on its head.  Where Lovecraft wrote from the place of a white man's fear of marginalized people, we are actually going to be playing the objects of his fear.  The default assumption in Harlem Unbound, to put it plainly, is that the player characters are black.


Now there is nothing remarkable about this.  Not really.  If you were playing a campaign set in feudal Japan your character would be Japanese.  If the campaign was set in Anglo-Saxon England, you'd be Anglo-Saxon.  So really it is obvious that a game set in 1920s Harlem would feature black player characters.  

But in making this perfectly logical design choice, Spivey (himself a black man) is asking us to do something uncomfortable; to walk in his shoes.  Not just his shoes, but the shoes of people who lived just a few scant generations away from slavery.  I don't usually quote the author at length in a review, but I going to do so here because it is a point well made;

This game is unique (only for the moment, I hope) as it actively encourages players and Keepers to take on roles of minorities. This may lead to a more difficult gaming challenge: to look at the past for what it really was. Harlem Unbound does not gloss over racism in the name of gameplay. Racism is part of the world and part of the game. This is a chance to try to comprehend the crushing weight people of color have endured for generations. No, we can’t truly know what it was to live during the Harlem Renaissance. And no, white people can never really understand the impact of insidious racism. But we’re gamers. We embrace the idea of living different lives through play—and each time we do, we learn something new. If we’re lucky, we reach a better understanding of people different from ourselves, and learn to empathize with the “other.”

Now, I am not a church-going fellow, but it's hard to read a passage like that without an "amen."

What follows over the next twenty pages or so is a history of Harlem, and a detailed look at what has come to be called the "Harlem Renaissance."  Despite being set in the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full flowering, Call of Cthulhu has never really used this as a backdrop before.  

Called "The New Negro Movement" at the time, after African American and Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke's 1925 The New Negro, the Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and artistic explosion whose epicenter was Harlem, New York, but which had ripples felt around the world.  Much of what we think of as the roaring 20s--the music, the fashion, the energy--either has its roots in the Renaissance or finds expression there.  It grew out of the Great Migration, the movement of upwards of 6 million Black Americans from the rural South into the urban centers of the Northeast and the Midwest.  After centuries of not having a voice, these people were finding theirs, and the contribution they made to American society was immense.  Spivey and his team take us through all the facets of the Renaissance, the fashion, the cuisine, the art, the literature, the science, and of course the music.  They paint a vibrant picture of the neighborhood, and why it makes such a unique and complex setting.


These transitions us perfectly into the third chapter, which covers creating Investigators.

As mentioned, the default assumption is that your Investigator is black, but as the next chapter makes clear Harlem also had strong Jewish and Italian communities.  The chapter introduces both new occupations and tailors old ones to the setting.  These include selections like the Conjure Woman (or Conjure Man), a catch-all occupation representing the priests, practitioners, and wise people of African-rooted traditions, and the Harlem Hellfighters, soldiers from the Great War who served in segregated units.  There are Harlem-specific backstory elements, and talents for Pulp Cthulhu aficionados. 

Chapter Four talks in depth about the peoples of Harlem, including as mentioned the Italian and Jewish communities, as well as the LGBTQ community (lest we forget Harlem was also a queer mecca during the period).  It gives biographies of prominent residents and sneaks in several campaign seeds into boxed texts involving them.  I found myself spending the most time with this chapter, coming back time and time again to read about these people and their lives there.  Josephine Baker is here, alongside Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and dozens of others.  The chapter had me so lost in the period I almost forgot I had come there for some Lovecraftian horror.

Chapter Five talks about the neighborhood itself, all its distinctive areas and parts.  It familiarizes you with the clubs, the eateries, the night spots, the places to go and to avoid.  Alongside the previous chapter, it's a fascinating read and the temptation to jump into a campaign grows each page you turn.

Chapter Six is devoted to storytelling in this setting, and at first brings us back to the issue of race and racism.

Spivey pulls no punches here, but neither does he go out of his way to offend.  There is a full and frank conversation here on the realities of the period...and the realities that persist today.  There are mechanics; he introduces the "Racial Tension Modifier" which increases the difficulty of rolls (like social skills) made across racial lines. Yet there are also important reminders and tips on running Harlem Unbound comfortably and confidently, especially if your players are a diverse group.  Can a white person he a HU Keeper?  Spivey certainly believes so and walks you though what to be mindful of.  25 years ago, I was a white gamemaster living in West Philadelphia and playing with a group of black and latino players.  While I was not running Harlem Unbound, many of these tips would have been priceless then and they more than deserve a read now.

Chapter Six is also where the book starts to make the transition deep into Mythos territory.  From a discussion of the Mythos and the very human evil HU Investigators face, Harlem Unbound introduces in this chapter short scenario hooks suitable for a night or two of gaming, as well as a handy 4d6 scenario generator.  These can be used to expand on and personalize the campaign provided in the rest of the book.

And that, dear reader, is where our dance draws to a close.  Chapter Seven encompasses just under 200 pages, with seven fully-realized scenarios that form the core of Harlem Unbound.  Having said this, there is very little a review can say about scenarios without entering the country of spoilers.  I will say this is a terrific collection, greatly expanded from the previous edition for those wondering if they need to make the move to the new edition.  They continue to bring the setting to life, and the horrors within are terrifying enough to remind us this is a Cthulhu mythos game and not just a historical.


So what exactly is Harlem Unbound?

For starters it is very much more than the some of its parts.  The campaign contained in its pages will deliver all the challenges and chills we have all come to expect from Call of Cthulhu, and 200 pages of scenarios is more than enough to sell the book alone.  But somewhere along the line Cthulhu campaign settings have made the realization that it isn't all about having a backdrop for horror.  Investigators have lives, loves, and reasons to fight the forces of the Mythos.  Thus, the richer the setting, the more incentive the players have to care about it, and frankly it doesn't get richer than Harlem Unbound.  In playing Insomniac Games's Spider-Man on the PS4 last year, I am not ashamed to admit I spent countless hours just swinging around the amazingly realized city.  I strongly suspect players will find similar enjoyment just "being" in the streets of 1920s Harlem.

And yes, Harlem Unbound has now established itself as the definitive text on dealing with race in roleplaying games.  This is an element that cannot be overlooked.  While it is odd for weirdos like us who are drawn to horror games and the thrill of experiencing discomfort, race is an uncomfortable thing we tend to look away from.   Harlem Unbound asks us, gently, not to be afraid, making it arguably the first Call of Cthulhu supplement NOT trying to scare us.  



       


Sunday, May 31, 2020

INITIATION: THOUGHTS ON WRITING "RITES OF PASSAGE"

Death rides the Camel of Initiation.

Aleister Crowley, 
Liber 333, "The Book of Lies"


COMING OF AGE


THE BRAZILIAN STATE of Amazonas is one of the largest territories in any country in the world, close in size to the US state of Alaska or Australia's Queensland.  It is also mostly tropical jungle.  The combination of rainforest and immensity makes Amazonas fascinating in another way; it plays home to peoples relatively untouched by the modern world.


The Sateré-Mawé number roughly 13,000, and are one of the indigenous peoples native to the area.  They speak a form of Tupian, a language still found in scattered pockets around Brazil.  Given my daily coffee intake, I feel a certain sense of kinship with them; the Mawé were the first to cultivate guarana, a plant with caffeine concentrations more than double that of the coffee bean.  

I mention this plant not merely because of my caffeine addiction.  It has an interesting origin story. The Mawé will tell you that once upon a time, long, long ago, a beautiful child was born in a Mawé village.  The child was not just beautiful to look upon, but gifted with a sweetness and goodness to match.  Like so many peoples, however, the Mawé have their Tricksters.  This one led the beautiful child to its death.  The villagers could not be consoled.  Fortunately they also had some beneficent deities, and one of them, to comfort these grief-stricken people, plucked the eyes from the beautiful child's dead skull.  The left eye he planted in the wilderness, creating a wild species of guarana used by shamans and medicine people.  The right eye he planted in the village, to ease their suffering with cultivated guarana.

Even the gods understand there is no pain caffeine cannot cure.

Now, if you have any sort of fascination with mythology you are already way ahead of me, but let me underscore the universal message here anyway; loss and suffering--aka "sacrifice"--results in transformation and change.  The death of the beautiful child gave his people the magic of guarana.  Odin's crucifixion on Yggdrasil brought us the Runes.  Christ's crucifixion opened the way of redemption.  Without pain, there is no growth.

Which brings me to the ants.

Paraponera clavata, the "bullet ant," scores a perfect 4.0 on entomologist Justin Schmidt's pain index.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the gold medal of insect stings.  People who have experienced clavata's loving ministrations have compared it to being shot.  Those who have been stung and shot in their lives say they would rather take a bullet again than the ant.  It is, simply, the most excruciating agony an insect can cause you.  Forget wasps.  Forget the honeybee. When the bullet ant stings you, you wish for death.

The perfect gift for your 13-year-old.

Slight detour.  Bear with me.  When I was a boy I was extraordinarily annoyed by a Jewish friend's bar mitzvah.  Not only did he get this fabulous party, at 13 years old he got to be a man.  I found this singularly annoying because I was taller than him and had, to borrow a Greg Staffordism, "come of hair" before him.  Yet his culture had this thing where at 13 he suddenly became recognized as an adult, while I had to wait five stupid years.  Worse, all he had to do was get up and read the Torah to his congregation.  It felt unfair to me that my culture didn't have a comparable adulthood rite.

I might have felt differently had I been Mawé.

When a Mawé boy turns 13, ladies and gentlemen, there is no Torah reading for him.  Instead, the Mawé collect those bullet ants and fill a pair of mittens with them.  They irritate the ants to make sure they are properly angry.  Then they make their 13-year-old boys wear these rage-ant laden mittens for ten minutes.  The boys are not to cry out.  They are experiencing pain that people have compared to being on the receiving end of gunfire, they are 13, and they are supposed to suffer in silence. Only thus do they make the transition from childhood into being recognized as adults.

And the Mawé, my friends, are getting off easy.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Bukusu people of western Kenya, 14-year-old boys undergo the sikhebo.  Jangling chinyimba bells he goes from house to house, getting gifts--and insults--from friends and relations.  He is called a child, a "sissy," and told he is not ready to become a man.

That evening, while everyone gets drunk on busaa, a cow is slaughtered and the boy is smeared with the contents of its bowels.  Like the Mawé boy he is not to cry out of show fear. He will be forced to remain awake all night while alternately taunted and instructed in what it means to be a man.

Then, at dawn, without anesthetics, he will be circumcised with a knife.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Glorantha is not the "real world," but it is among those fantasy settings out there that hews closely to it, especially in terms of myth, ritual, and traditional cultures.  I suspect this has everything to do with who Greg Stafford, its primary creator, was.  Greg was not just a lifelong scholar of mythology, he was a self-described shaman.  He left us, and this world, in his sweat lodge.  So Greg knew a thing or two about how traditional societies work, and he knew a great deal about initiation.

We don't really do initiations any longer in the quote-unquote "civilized" world.  Our post-modernism safely assures us initiations are all mumbo jumbo, and we know so much better than that.  I expect that several readers out there would regard the practices discussed in the passage above as child abuse.  In writing Rites of Passage, the male adulthood initiation ritual for Heortling boys as practiced by the Haraborn, I had the boys seized in the dead of night and thrown roughly into pits.  I expect some in the Gloranthan community would call that child abuse as well.

But as long-term readers of this blog have already surmised, I know a thing or two about initiations myself.  For nearly twenty years I have been a member of the O.T.O., which describes itself as an initiatory organization, and though I have taken oaths not to speak of them, I have been through a number of initiations as a result.  They were all ordeals.  

That word has an interesting story.  We throw it around today to mean something difficult, but of course the original definition--going all the way bay to its Proto-Germanic roots--is a trial that divides.  The "deal" portion of the word is actually from the same root as "dual" or "duo."  So an ordeal is a ritual that divides you, it separates you.  From what?  On one hand it separates you from others; after the ordeal you don't belong to the same group you did before.  In case of manhood rites we are literally separating the men from the boys.  But I opened with a quote from Aleister Crowley for a reason; the point it is making is that every initiation is also a death.

In an esoteric sense, death is synonymous with "transformation."  When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is "dead."  What the Bukusu or the Mawé are doing therefore is not some simple fraternity hazing, they are transforming the boys from one thing into something else.  While our post-modern initiations are essentially window-dressing (being handed a diploma at graduation, for example), traditional societies regard them very, very seriously.  Make no mistake, those boys are being killed.  The men who take their place are transformed.

There is a temptation--a very real one--to impose our modern sensibilities on the peoples of Glorantha.  The Heortlings could simply have a party for their boys to welcome them into manhood.  They could gloss over issues of gender and have everyone simply go through the same rituals together.  YGWV and there is no wrong approach, but I suppose what is at issue here is what Glorantha means to you; is it a fantasy world in the sense that you can use it to redress the disparities and inequalities you perceive in this world, or is it an attempt to recreate and engage with traditional worldviews?  Greg firmly saw it as the latter.  So do I.

Thus it was important for me for both Rites of Passage and The Riddle to be ordeals.  The boys tossed into the pits and the girls walking into the Riddle never come out again.  Instead, brand new men and women do.  Death and transformation have to be part of the formula.  These are births, and births are accompanied by difficulty and pain. In preparing both I paid a great deal of attention to what Greg had to say on the matter, as well as traditional initiations like those described above.  To remove the pain is to misunderstand what initiation is about.           



Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE PEGASUS PLATEAU & OTHER STORIES: A REVIEW




ONCE UPON A TIME, in a magical land called "the Early Eighties," RuneQuest looked something like this;





You are gazing there upon a typical page from William Keyes's Runemasters, which for 12-year-old version of me was akin to religious scripture, or, if you prefer a more profane metaphor, porn.  You see, this was an age when percentiles were narrative, stat blocks poetry, and statistics thick description.  To the untrained--no, scratch that, the word we want to use here is uninitiated--eye, there is an impenetrable scrawl of data there, a gibberish of cramped numerals, cryptic words, and questionable use of punctuation.  To me however, 37 years ago, this was Borek Longtooth, a sentient baboon from the plains of Prax.  In his mid-20s, he was already a badass, a Rune Lord of Daka Fal, judge of the dead.  He was deadly with a spear, had a number of animal spirits bound to his will, and was in possession of formidable magics.  He was a master of stealth, a deadly hunter who could track you unerringly, unseen, unheard.  Looking at those numbers, I could see him, his painted muzzle, the dull iron armor covering parts of his fur, a few flies buzzing around him in the baking heat of the chaparral.  This was, ladies and gentlemen, how we rolled.  In early roleplaying games like RuneQuest, the entire story was buried in statistics.

Four decades later, though, we exist in a reality of high-def television, emojis, and Instagram.  We don't converse, we tweet.  Everything is faster, briefer, louder, and more vivid.  We exist in perpetual sensory overload, and if you want an audience, you need to catch their eye.  Attention, frankly, has never been harder to hold.  A book like Runemasters would be dead on arrival.  We don't want to sift data to find the story, we want it now.  NOW.

All of this means that bringing a game like RuneQuest into the 21st century is something of a tightrope act.  The game had to change, had to adapt, but if you lean too far to the right you plunge into appealing only to hardcore grognards such as myself, lean too far to the left, and you fall into not being recognizable as RuneQuest anymore.  The design team of The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (I will be calling it Pegasus from here on in because PP makes my inner five-year-old giggle), has navigated this particular Scylla and Charybdis remarkably well.  Pegasus is modern RuneQuest, easily the most modern product Chaosium has produced for it yet, but its roots run deep and it is undeniably aware of its ancestry.

Now I know what you are thinking; "for Pete's sake Montgomery, just get to the bloody point."  So, dear reader, I shall.

THE ART

One reason I call Pegasus the most modern RQ product is because it is the most visually adept thus far at getting information across.  We have to congratulate art director Kalin Kadiev and his team (Dimitrina Angelska, Dominik Derow, Antonia Doncheva, Andrey Fetisov, Elena Herrero, Jennifer Lange, Michelle Lockamy, Eli Maffei, Sarah Miller, Naomi Robinson, Valentina Romagnoli, Simon Roy, and Cory Trego-Erdner) for pieces that tell stories about the people in them. They are at turns dramatic, human, and arresting.  The art here didn't spring fully formed from the brow of Zeus--we've seen it evolving over the last several Chaosium products--but it's reached its stride here.  These Sartarites look like Sartarites, not pseudo-Celts or Vikings. The Lunars could be Romans, but there is a something of Assyria in that beard.  These characters finally have their own cultures and ethnologies, rather than looking plucked from a historical Osprey book. 

 

They also have personality.  You could glance at "Kana" on page 13 and pretty much predict what her personality description on page 14 would say; it's not just the upturned nose, the look in her eyes says I think I am better than you.  "Jongor" and "Delenda" on page 136 are very clearly...er, sorry, let me stop myself there with another annoying artifact of the modern media age and just say "spoilers."  In any case, the picture of the two together is worth a a thousand loud and clear words.  That the two look like they have handed their smartphone to a passerby and asked him or her to take a picture of them is a bonus; I like it when Glorantha winks at me, and I wink right back.  Also, there is a depiction of an Earth temple on page 7 that might be the single most Gloranthan image I have ever seen.  No "Fantasy Europe" there, no clinging whiff of medievalism.  It's not quite Minoan Crete or Babylon, not entirely India or ancient Cambodia, but it suggests some far older culture, the kind of ruin Sinbad would stumble across in a Ray Harryhausen movie.1


            



So with the art we have arrived at pictures that are information laden, not just space-fillers, and the world they depict feels entirely its own.  I have been imagining this Glorantha for four decades, so to finally see it is gratifying indeed.  Pegasus understands we are living in a visual society, where nothing is "real" unless you've uploaded an image of it.  It applies this to Glorantha through images that make that world real too.  How do we know Glorantha is real?  Because now we can see it.

THE MECHANICS

I'm going to invoke John Wick because with this book he has at last joined the Glorantha family.  John is responsible for the eternally true Stafford Rule that states;

If you believe you've come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.

Pegasus is a variation of that rule, because now it has to be "Chaosium has already done it."  In trying to square the circle in my own recent Glorantha book (shameless plug, cough cough), I thought I was being oh so clever in designing a simplified approach to NPC design.  Lo and behold, O Montgomery you foolish mortal, Pegasus beat you to it.

Right on page 2 Pegasus talks about the "missing abilities" approach.  Here is why I began with Borek the Baboon.  In "classic" RuneQuest the default assumption was often "if it is not on the page it isn't real."2  A book like Runemasters, which contained just pages and pages of statistics for Rune Masters, existed because doing your own stats for them took longer than reading Tolstoy.  Flash forward four decades later and in a game like HeroQuest Borek would simply be a difficulty.  If RuneQuest took that approach, however, it wound be RQ in name only.  Thus there has to be a way to satisfy the modern taste for information in light rapid doses that also feels RQ.

The surprisingly simple approach is to give NPCs only the stats they need in the story and omit the rest.  You can quibble if this is an actual mechanic, but by putting it into writing, Pegasus makes it precedent for the rules lawyers amongst us.  Anything else that comes up in play can be improvised.  Sure, this seems a "no-brainer" today, but RQ is 42 years old and has a reputation for being--let's just say it--anal.  But it doesn't have to be.  There are ways to make it every bit as improvisational as a game like HeroQuest, and this turns a spotlight to it.    

THE STORIES

There are seven adventures, one tribe, and a village in the pages of Pegasus, but really to say too much about them would be to ruin them for you.  I did save this part for last, however, because one of the most modern elements of Pegasus is in the variety and diversity of the stories told here.

It's probably a stereotype that classic RPG adventures were all dungeon crawls, but looking back many of them were.    Even the RQ ones.3  "Sandbox" is the term we use these days and I still advocate it as a valid form of "emergent storytelling" (that is for another post), but Pegasus brings a hard focus to narrative storytelling, making RQ feel more in line with younger games.  The range of stories is really one of the book's best features, but also one I suspect might bug some of the audience.  The stories don't just differ in terms of tone and feel, but in structure, how stats are presented, etc.  Again, this is a manifestation of YGWV, and Pegasus showcases more than any previous RQ product that there really isn't "one" style of play or "one" way of doing things.  These are seven different visions of Glorantha, not a unified campaign.  If one doesn't speak to you, the others very likely will.

You will find a story about a wedding ceremony gone wrong, a ghoul king in a forest of the undead (HeroQuest players might have seen this before...), a chance to tangle with Lunar soldiers, a murder mystery, a sort of Glorantha Olympics, Glorantha's answer to Stephen King's Christine, and a ruin where you have the chance to learn from one of Glorantha's more interesting features.   These are all packed with surprises, memorable characters, and occasionally deadly dangers. Authors Jason Brick, Rachael Cruz, Steffie De Vaan, Jason Durall, Helena Nash, Steve Perrin, Diana Probst, Jeff Richard, Dom Twist, and John Wick have done an admirable job of providing a full palette of Gloranthas.

If you take nothing else away from this review, take at least this; RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha has all the DNA of its predecessors, but it is no more RQ2 than I am my father.  If you are staying away from RQ because you feel it is too dated, too dense, too mechanical, take a look at this.  The lesson is that rule systems do not age, presentation and application does.  This is an RQ collection of adventures every bit as cutting edge as anything other system on the market.  


1. If THAT doesn't put a picture of a dancing Kali statue in your head, nothing will.

2. I know some of you old timers will deny the game was ever played this way.  Apparently you never had Bill gamemaster for you.  I was once told I couldn't light a torch because I hadn't written "tinder" on may character sheet.  No, after nearly four decades I am not still bitter.  Not.  At.  All.

3. Looking at you, Snakepipe Hollow, looking at you.
     

Monday, April 13, 2020

A ROUGH GUIDE TO GLAMOUR: A REVIEW

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure I received a free copy of A Rough Guide to Glamour back in March for the purpose of doing this review.

Any rumors of my being entertained by naked, "gazelle-hipped boys" in the City of Dreams in exchange for a favorable review are mendacious lies spread by those disloyal to the Emperor.

All Hail the Reaching Moon!



GLORANTHA IS MANY THINGS. It's a Bronze Age game setting with a strong anthropological bent. It's a mythological world steeped in Joseph Campbell, Georges Dumézil, and Mircea Eliade.  It's a neo-traditionalist artifact designed to recall ancient epics like the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or the Enuma Elish.

And it is a world with Ducks.

Not ducks with a lower case "d," Ducks like Howard, Donald, and Daffy; bitter, emo Ducks that brood like Bogart in Casablanca.  It's a world where you can be hired by fish, eat at Geo's, and a race of humans are kept as cattle because they lost an ancient bet.  The world is flat, it's made of Runes, and heroes come back from the dead so often it would make Jean Grey blush.  Essentially, Glorantha is very much a product of the time and the place where it originated, northern California in the late 60s and early 70s.  It is a martini mixing equal parts deep and at times pretentious academic speculation with trippy, counterculture nonsense.  Shaken.  Not stirred.  Served with a twist.

A Rough Guide to Glamour is the perfect microcosm of all this.  It's epic, mythic, quasi-historic, and profoundly ridiculous.  The Emperor looks like Elvis, the official dialect sounds suspiciously like Orwellian Newspeak, and the goddess of the capital (the titular Glamour) might be Debbie Harry (serenaded by lyrics from the Eurythmics).  And I haven't even mentioned Pelorian Rhapsody yet.  If I had to "elevator pitch" the thing to you I would describe it as the Punica meets the Illuminatus! trilogy.    

In short, it is brilliant.


Written by Chris Gidlow, Mike Hagen, Nick Brooke, Michael O'Brien, Jeff Richard, and Greg Stafford (with help from others), and illustrated by Antonia Doncheva, Dario Corallo, Simon Bray, Julie Hudson, BA Wayne, Dan Barker, and Gene Day, this release for the Jonstown Compendium is a hallucinogenic love letter to that other side of Glorantha, not the dense donnish textualism of The Glorious ReAscent of Yelm or the Entekosiad, or the Jack Webb "just the facts ma'am" approach of The Guide to Glorantha.  A Rough Guide to Glamour reminds you that whatever Gloranthan game you play, it exists in a setting where one of the most epic adventures ever was protecting a giant baby in a cradle.

Originally released in a 40-page booklet form back in 1997, Glamour is a 113-page full color PDF (at least in the form I am reviewing it in).  The book details the capital city of the Lunar Empire, built on the edge of the Crater left behind when the Red Goddess gathered a mantle of earth around herself and ascended into the Middle Air as the Red Moon.  There she hovers, looking down on the city her son, the Red Emperor, built in her honor, and over the Empire that spread out from it.  To found this metropolis--one of the greatest cities in the world--the Emperor courted the nymph Glamour, the genius loci of the region.  Glamour was the daughter of Tylenea, the Mistress of Illusion.  The city she and the Red Emperor built together is a dream made flesh, the philosophy of the Lunar Way written in stone.  

Glamour--the city--is fantasy gaming's answer to Indraprashta, the capital city of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata.  Built by Maya, the god of both Illusion and Magic, the Mahabharata describes it as;

How to convey, when one only has words,
the transcendental beauty of the building?
Decades afterward, old men would tell
how seeing the great hall at Indraprashta
had changed them, changed the meaning of the word
"beautiful"

Marble that looked like water, artful stairs,
ponds so clear and still them seemed like stone,
painted roses asking to be picked,
jeweled flowers among real lotuses.
In this way, the inspired architect,
invited visitors to be alert,
the reflect on the nature of illusion.


- Mahabharata, Carole Satyamurti rendering

The reason I go out of my way to mention this is that Glamour, the city, and A Rough Guide to Glamour, the book, are both the Mask and the Mirror that the Red Goddess claims to be.  Hinduism describes reality as "the play of Maya," a double-edged illusion.  The Lunar Way taught by the Red Goddess is a fictional reflection of this, and the Goddess incorporates all contradictions in her.  To devout followers of the Lunar Way, Glamour is a warm buzz, the dizzying hormonal bliss of being a teenager in spring.  To those who oppose her, it is three AM at the club when you have vomit on your shoes, too much vodka in your bloodstream, and you are starting to come down hard off the high.  A Rough Guide to Glamour is a lot like this; if you are down with the silliness, if you "get" the Ducks and cradles and talking fish, the book is a terrific laugh and a teachable moment in the nature of the Lunar Way.  If you never cared for the way out flippancy of some of Glorantha, this might not be the book for you.  In the end, though, Maya (and the authors) are asking you to reflect on the nature of illusion...namely, where does the silliness in Glorantha end and the mythology begin?  The world is a freaking cube, after all.  Seen from one angle, it is all sublime, and from another, absurd.

Alright, Nysalorian detour over.  


The book details the city of Glamour, its history, neighborhoods, and main attractions.  A lot of this heavy lifting comes courtesy of Mike Hagen and Chris Gidlow, who provide a thorough description of the city and her history.  RGtG discusses New Pelorian, the language of the Lunar Empire, contains the cult write-ups of both the capital's founders (the Red Emperor and Glamour herself), and talks about the important inhabitants of the city and the heroes of the Empire.  It looks a great deal like your typical gaming sourcebook in this way.  You could easily use it to set games, even campaigns, in the Lunar capital.

Fitting, however, for the capital of a Goddess who embraces madness, Chaos, and Illusion, a great deal of the book is winking at you.  Gidlow's Let's Speak New Pelorian! for example is an obvious wink and nod at Orwell, but at the same time is telling you something very true about the Empire.  The illustrations in the Very Important People in Glamour section might look suspiciously like Elvis, a certain actress who played Vanessa Ives, or another who played Hela in a Marvel movie (among others), but this is drawing comparisons between them.  The spirits of reprisal in the Red Emperor's cult might make you cringe...but they also make sense.  Jeff Richard's Glamour: Goddess of the Capital of the Lunar Empire cult write up will bring a grin to the faces of 80s New Wave fans--or gods help us 90s British Pop and Snow White--but captures the hallucinatory experience of the cult.  And what can I say about Nick Brooke's Pelorian Rhapsody?  Only that I am not altogether certain Freddie Mercury was singing about the apotheosis of the Red Goddess...but really, who knows?

My gut tells me this might be a slightly controversial entry in the Jonstown Compendium, but hey...what fandom out there these days isn't divided over that is canon and what isn't.  The right people are going to grok this, and in the end that is the audience the book is seeking.  YGWV, and if your Glorantha doesn't include Ducks because they offend your sense of dignity, you might want to give A Rough Guide to Glamour a pass.  

The rest of it will read it and add percentiles to our march towards Illumination.