GLORANTHA? 13TH AGE?
It is likely that some of you know Glorantha, but not 13th Age. Some of you will be fans of Heinsoo and Tweet's d20 game, but may not know Glorantha. This section is to bring everyone up to speed.
Glorantha is one of the first fantasy game settings, appearing alongside Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Tékumel in 1975. It is almost certainly the most defined, with forty years of materials in print. If the inspiration for a world like Middle-earth was primarily linguistic--a place for Tolkien to build imaginary languages--Glorantha was born because Greg Stafford wanted to explore mythology. This is a Bronze Age world, bearing more in common with The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Mahabharata than The Lord of the Rings or Le Morte d'Arthur. Instead of knights in shining armor think "heroes" and "priest-kings."
Glorantha is not a world like our Earth with a little magic thrown in. It is flat, stretching under a sky dome. The sun literally emerges from the gates of the underworld in the east, travels across heaven, and then descends through the gates of the west at night. The realm of the dead lies beneath your feet; great heroes can actually escape the underworld and return to the lands of the living.
Glorantha is defined by her magic, but this is deceptive if you are thinking of other fantasy worlds. The world, and everything in it, is composed of the Runes. These are to Glorantha what the periodic table is to chemistry, or phonemes are to language. Darkness, Water, Earth, Plant, Harmony, Death...these are the essences, the building blocks of existence. "Magic" in Glorantha is how your character relates to the Runes. It is often defined by culture. Shamans see the Runes as living spirits, negotiating and bargaining with them. Sorcerers see them as impersonal forces of nature to be tapped into and directed. Theists see them as gods, mighty beings whose deeds in the mythic prehistory of the world shaped it. By sacrifice, the worshipper becomes one with them.
A shaman would tell you that rivers run to the sea because the river spirits are mediators between the spirits of the land and the spirits of the deep. A sorcerer would tell you it is the nature of the Water Rune to always seek the lowest level. A theist might tell you that during the War of the Gods, when the Devil shattered the Spike (the primordial cosmic mountain that was home to the first gods), the Ocean rushed in to fill the hole left in the center of the world, and called his daughters, the rivers, to rush to help fill it. Drawing on mythologists like Mircea Eliade and exponents of perennial philosophy like René Guénon or Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Greg Stafford would tell us that in Glorantha...all these stories are true. "Truth" is something outside the walls of time and space that bind the mortal races of Glorantha. It is caught in glimpses. The ultimate goal of Gloranthan magic is to seek it. This search for Meaning (with a capital "M") was implicit in the title of the first two Gloranthan RPGs; Runequest implies seeking to understand and master the Runic forces of reality, and Heroquest is a Glorantha term for leaving the mortal plane to interact with the timeless myths that define reality.
13th Age, meanwhile, is a modern d20 game incorporating features of the recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons with many of those these recent editions abandoned. Unlike Pathfinder, or the third edition, 13th Age is a streamlined, rules-light system that relies more on storytelling and GM improvisation. Battle mats and miniatures are optional. Situational modifiers are kept to a minimum. And unlike the 4th edition, each character class is a unique play experience. Playing a Sorcerer feels nothing like playing a Fighter or a Druid. The classes all share features like levels and hit points, and gain greater abilities as levels increase, but they are designed to offer difference kinds of players different kinds of challenges. Play a Wizard if you want a lot of improvisation and flexibility. Play a Barbarian if you want to hit things and throw a lot of dice.
The greatest innovations in 13th Age are not the purely mechanical ones, but rather those geared towards creating unique characters and telling great stories. Characters do not pick from a skills list, for example. Instead they created broad backgrounds, such as "Former Spy for the Elf Queen" or "Exiled Nomad" for their abilities. These are rolled against whenever applicable. The Nomad might roll to soothe troubled horses, find water in the desert, or hunt for food. The Spy might roll his background in matters of Elven etiquette, to decipher codes, or to eavesdrop. These backgrounds go a long way to flesh out the protagonists.
As do the "One Unique Things." Every 13th Age character comes up with an OUT to explain what makes them special. As the name suggests, it is something about the character that no one in the world has. "I am the bastard son of the Emperor," "I am the reincarnation of a Dead God," "I am the tallest Dwarf in the world." There are rules for how to use (and not abuse) these, and they work well in making characters special.
Most importantly to 13G, however, are the Icon relationships. The original game dispenses with ideas like alignment and instead has the Icons, powerful NPCs who are the movers and shakers of the world. The Emperor, the Archmage, the High Priestess, The Lich King, etc. They are left archetypical enough for groups to tailor them to their words; the Archmage could be Gandalf, or Merlin. The Emperor could lead a Roman-style Imperium or a Chinese heavenly bureaucracy. What is important is that characters assign points to relationship with these, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. A character could follow the Elf Queen and be opposed to the Dwarf King. She might follow the Diabolist and seek to undermine the Priestess. Frodo Baggins, for example, had Icon relationships with the Archmage (Gandalf), the Emperor (Aragorn), the Elf Queen (Galadriel), and the Lich King (Sauron) to various degrees.
At the start of scenarios, dice rolls are made against the relationships characters have with their Icons and it is possible that they--or at least their agents--will be activated and intrude as subplots into the story, aiding the characters or complicating their lives. This was a brilliant way to bind characters to the setting, and to make them feel a part of the story. And as we shall see it plays an extremely vital role in 13G.
So with this background behind us, let's look specifically at 13th Age in Glorantha.
13th Age in Glorantha is a not a stand-alone game, and you will need the 13th Age core rules to play. It is essentially a massive, 466-page setting and sourcebook. Because Glorantha is so immense, spanning two major continents, entire ages of time, and hundreds of detailed cultures, the focus of 13G is kept narrow. The game is centered on a region called Dragon Pass, during a specific period of Gloranthan history, the Hero Wars of the Third Age. Presumably future sourcebooks will broaden the scope, but if you know a bit about Glorantha, the book is full of ideas to expand and develop them on your own.
The book begins with a brief overview of Glorantha and the region you are playing in. Dragon Pass is the crossroads of Glorantha's northern (roughly Eurasian) continent. A highly contested region, it also happens to be one of the few nesting places of Gloranthan dragons. In the previous Age, a sophisticated Empire that practiced draconic mysticism was centered there, until the Dragons ended this experiment by slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the region. Emptied of humanity, it served as a refuge for many of the Elder Races, beings like the Aldryami (Gloranthan Elves, sentient plants with sap for blood, wooden bones, and leaves for hair) and the Uz (the Trolls, a subterranean race tied to the Darkness Rune). Mighty in the mythic prehistory of the world, the Elder Races are greatly diminished since the dawn of Time.
The Elder Races lived in Dragon Pass in relative peace until humans--specifically Storm worshipping barbarian tribes--started to trickle back into the region. Coming in greater and greater numbers, they eventually formed new communities, including the kingdom of Sartar. Roughly analogous to land-locked Vikings, horseless Men of Rohan, or Howard's Cimmerians, the people of Sartar value independence above all else. Rebellion is at the heart of their religion; their chief deity, Orlanth, triggered the mythic Gods War by rebelling against the cosmic emperor, Yelm.
Thus, conflict was inevitable when the urban and sophisticated Lunar Empire invaded Dragon Pass and attempted to "pacify" the rebellious barbarian tribes. The Lunars--themselves analogous to imperial Rome with strong shades of Persia under Darius--further incite the Sartarites by including Chaos in their society. Chaos, a force from outside Glorantha that the gods once waged a war against, is abhorrent to most cultures and especially the Storm worshippers. Thus the "Hero Wars" begin with the guerrilla struggle of the barbarians against against their imperial masters, and quickly escalate into a world shaking event that drags most people and races into the fight.
13G assumes most player characters will be these Sartarite barbarians, and as a result, fully half of the new character classes introduced in this book are drawn from that culture. The other character options focus on neighboring peoples--not necessarily human--in the region.
CHARACTER CREATION - THE RUNES
Character creation in 13G follows the process in the core 13th Age rules, but adapts this to Glorantha. Essentially players select a race, a class, and roll their abilities (the standard list for any d20 game). 13th Age specific features like Backgrounds (in place of skills) and the "One Unique Thing" are discussed extensively so players can come up with Gloranthan appropriate options. Icon relationships are replaced with Runes. Since 13G discusses these before even classes or races, we'll start there too.
Every character in 13G is bound to three Runes; two will be shared with the god he or she worships, and one is personal. Characters have these instead of Icon relationships. The gods of Glorantha--like everything else--are expressions of Runic powers. The storm god Orlanth, for example, has the Runes "Air" and "Movement." The earth goddess Ernalda has "Earth," "Harmony," and "Life." The Runes define their natures and their spheres of power. People in theistic cultures access the Runes by following a god. If your character follows Orlanth, two of his Runes will be "Air" and "Movement." If he follows Humakt, god of warriors and death, two of his Runes will be "Death" and "Truth." The choice of a third Rune is meant to help personalize your character. An Orlanth-worshipping hunter might have "Air," "Movement," and "Beast." A farmer might have "Air," "Movement," and "Earth." Stranger choices are also possible if you wish to give the character a more unusual backstory.
13G discusses each of the Runes and gives a brief overview of the major pantheons and gods found in Dragon Pass.
During every full heal up (periods of restful downtime), each player character rolls a d6 to see which Rune he will be "attuned" to that coming day. Basically, this Rune is currently "active" in the character's life. A shaman might see this as a particular spirit accompanying you that day, a sorcerer might explain it as an alignment of the stars and planets that brings a specific Rune into focus, a theist will see it as the favor (or curse) of a god. Whatever the case, on a roll of 1, 2, or 3, the character is attuned to his or her first, second, or third Rune. On a 4 - 6, the Rune will be randomly determined by a die roll. If that die roll results in one of your personal Runes anyway, that Rune is empowered, which means in addition to normal benefits and complications of attunement, you will end up with a permanent magical gift from that Rune.
The player can "narrate" whatever Rune he is currently attuned to, granting him or her some sort of non-combat benefit during a dramatic moment in the game. Tons of examples are given, as Runic attunement and narration is one of the things that distinguishes 13G from her sister Gloranthan games. A character currently attuned to Darkness, for example, might be trying to slip past the town watch. The player might narrate that Rune by having a cloud pass over the sun at the very moment he sneaks by, dramatically dimming the light, or since blindness is associated with the Darkness Rune, perhaps the guard gets dust in his eyes. A character attuned to Truth might get a bonus to seeing through an NPC's lies, or his own words might become more convincing.
But the Runes are all double-edged swords. When a Rune is narrated in this way by a player, the GM rolls a d20. On a result of 1 to 5, a complication arises. This is a Rune-specific subplot that makes life suddenly more difficult for the player characters. For example, as the character slips past the guard under the temporary influence of Darkness, he is spotted and followed by Troll bandits lingering in the busy square. Why Trolls? Because they are bound to the Darkness Rune. The character who narrates Truth might be forced into a situation later in which he cannot lie. The possibilities are endless.
As a sidenote, most of the material in 13G is presented in ways that put the Runes front and center. Specific locations are associated with certain Runes, as are the creatures in the Bestiary. All this helps GMs come up with appropriate complications.
The races available in 13th Age don't exist in Glorantha. There are beings called "elves" but these are humanoid plants with wooden bones and sap in their veins. There are beings called "dwarves," but they are a rigid machine race seldom seen on the surface world. There are no halflings, orcs, or gnomes. Most characters will be humans, and in keeping the focus on Dragon Pass, the game offers four "cultural traits" in place of races. Aside from the Heortlings (the Storm worshipping barbarians we discussed), players can select the Earth worshipping Esrolians, the nomadic Praxians from the wastes to the east of Dragon Pass, and the Tarshites...cultural "cousins" to the Heortlings who have embraced the Lunar Empire and abandoned the Old Ways.
Two non-human options are available. The first are the Uz, or Gloranthan "Trolls." A hulking subterranean race strongly tied to the Darkness Rune, they were driven to the surface during the Gods War when the murdered Sun plunged into the Underworld. Capable of eating anything--with the unfortunate habit of eating their neighbors--the Trolls nevertheless are fierce opponents of Chaos and a popular player race.
The second option are the Ducks.
Though not a particularly numerous species (they are just one of many sentient animal or partially animal races in Glorantha), the Ducks are probably one of the best known features of the setting. In the early 80s, when I started playing Runequest, the D&D players derided the game as "the one with ducks." Whether they are waterfowl cursed with sentience or humans cursed with bills, feathers, and webbed feet, it is certain that the Ducks are cursed and they know it. As a result they are a grim species given to worshipping Humakt, the god of the Sword and Death. 13G recognizes the notoriety of this race and offers several options for portraying them. These range from comic relief to grim, legendary sinners paying for an ancient transgression.
In 1978, Runequest was one of the earliest RPGs to kick the concept of class and level aside. Characters were defined instead by discrete skills. On the other hand, there is something powerful and mythic about archetypes, so Runequest incorporated these as the Glorantha cults. As one adventured, and grew in power and ability, he or she finally joined a cult that narrowed the scope of his or her choices but opened greater avenues to power. Your cult informed basic things like spells, favored skills and what armor and weapons you could wear. In effect, then, Runequest characters began play classless but eventually ended up selecting, and joining, their class "in game."
13G has a radically different power structure than Runequest. Characters enter play later in their careers, already the rough equivalents of Rune Lords or Rune Priests. All the background adventuring you do before joining your cult has already been done. Thus you start with an archetypical class. To frame this in Heroquest terms, in 13G your race is the equivalent of your Cultural Keyword, your backgrounds cover the territory of your Occupational Keyword, and your class takes the place of your Religion Keyword.
13G introduces 11 Dragon Pass appropriate character classes:
The Berserker comes in two subtypes, the Chaos-fighting worshippers of Storm Bull and the fire and death using Zorak Zorani Trolls.
The Earth Priestess is primarily a worshipper of Ernalda, but could easily be modified to any of her sister goddesses.
The Hell Mother is the Troll equivalent of the Earth Priestess. Both are matriarchs and both classes use a combination of spells and summonings (earth elementals in the first case, darkness spirits in this one).
The Humakti is the worshipper of the god of Truth and Death. Grim warriors bound by rigid codes of honor (though more along the lines of discipline and truth than morality), the Humakti are also famed enemies of the undead. To my mind, the Humakti was one of the 13G standouts, and is probably my favorite treatment of these characters since Cults of Prax.
The Monk stands at the opposite side of the "quality spectrum" from the Humakti. There isn't much here. Basically it adapts a pre-existing 13th Age class (more on this in a few moments) to Glorantha, but while most classes (like the Humakti) feel perfectly adjusted to Glorantha, this one is a head-scratcher.
The Orlanthi Warrior is the first of several classes devoted to aspects of the barbarian Storm god, and as 13G points out, is easiest to play. It is basically the Barbarian from 13th Age augmented with Storm specific elements and powers. More on this class momentarily.
The Rebel is a follower of Orlanth Adventurous, a sub-cult of the Storm god. This is the "young Orlanth," the rebel god who rose up and slew the Emperor of Heaven to liberate the cosmos. The Rebel adapts the Rogue class, and does it very well, replacing elements of thievery with guerrilla fighting and trickery.
The Storm Voice is a priest of Orlanth, based on the 13th Age Sorcerer class. While both the Orlanthi Warrior and the Rebel are primarily fighting characters who use a little magic, the Storm Voice is far more magic heavy, commanding the powers of lightning, wind, and storm in battle. This is the companion class to the Earth Priestess from above, using spells and summonings (this time, Air spirits and elementals).
The Trickster is a follower of Eurmal, the...er...Trickster. Like Loki, Coyote, Eshu, or Hermes, Eurmal is devious, deceitful, and manipulative...but his misdeeds drive the engine of change. With Runes like Disorder and Illusion, this class is the archetypical Fool that like the Doctor (of Doctor Who fame) masks its cunning with buffoonery.
The Troll Warrior is the companion to the Orlanthi Warrior, a primarily fighting class augmented by Darkness magics. It is primarily intended as a follower of Kyger Litor, but could be adapted to other Troll gods. This is once again 13G at its best, focusing on the traditional features we associate with Trolls from previous games to create a fun, playable archetypical incarnation.
The Wind Lord brings us back to Orlanth, this time as the more martial arm of the cult. In Runequest terms, this would be the Rune Lord, while the Storm Voice is the Rune Priest. Like the Orlanthi Warrior, this is a fighter augmented by Storm magic, but there is much more magic here. And this brings us to a topic that needs to be discussed...
In core 13th Age, while the character classes are all well-balanced against each other in terms of power, they vary tremendously in complexity. This is explicit and intentional, a feature and not a bug. While mechanically Heroquest characters are all the same, for example, 13G classes are not. Thus, the distinction between the Orlanthi Warrior and the Wind Lord is not so much setting specific as a play choice. The Orlanthi Warrior is nice and simple, for inexperienced players or those who just want to enjoy the game. The Wind Lord offers far more options and choices for those who prefer such things. As in 13th Age, 13G is upfront about all this and ranks the classes in terms of complexity, with advice on what class to select to reflect your taste in gaming.
Any of these classes could serve as models for additional Gloranthan cults not covered in the narrow, Dragon Pass-specific focus of 13G. The same is also true of 13th Age's core classes, and the book discusses ideas and ways experienced Glorantha fans could adapt those classes for Gloranthan play. The Ranger, for example, could be adapted for Odayla the Hunter (or with its animal companion, possibly Yinkin). The Cleric (with appropriate tinkering) could reflect the Fire/Sky cults of Peloria or even the Red Goddess. The Wizard would be a good choice for the atheistic sorcerers of the West. In short, it is not at all difficult to change a 13th Age class, and the book offers much help in doing so.
FOR THE GM
13G introduces an extensive horde of Gloranthan NPCs and monsters, categorized by Rune. Thus an Orlanthi Bandit Leader or Renegade Godi appears in the section under the Air Rune, while the Mad Stag Broo or Krashtkid appear under Chaos. Nearly a hundred pages of adversaries are detailed. It is a robust selection.
A bit less is offered about the world itself. There are detailed maps of Dragon Pass and neighboring Prax, and descriptions of the key places in them (arranged again by Rune). Outside of this region, little of the world is discussed. Likewise, players will learn a great deal about the Orlanthi barbarians, but considerably less about the Esrolians, Aldryami, Praxian nomads, etc. To round things out, 13G frequently references The Glorantha Sourcebook, which despite being system agnostic seems to be intended as a companion book for 13G. While the Sourcebook is probably worthy of a review of its own, Gloranthan novices may find the extremely narrow focus of 13G limiting, and would benefit by also having that book. It's hard to fault the 466-page 13G for not having enough; there is a lot here, and both Runequest and Heroquest kept the focus narrow as well. Still, someone new to Glorantha may not get as much out of 13G.
GMs new to Glorantha will appreciate the sections of "Chaos Rises," the default campaign being offered, as well as the five (!) complete adventures included in the book. The adventures do a terrific job of showcasing the diversity of stories available in Glorantha, and are worth a read even by Gloranthan grognards.
But before we conclude our discussion, there are two more topics covered in 13G that need addressing, "Heroquesting," and "Chaos."
In Glorantha, a heroquest is a path through a myth that provides power and insight to mortals who are capable of recreating the actions and adventures of their gods. Powerful successes can restore the world, or perhaps even reshape it.
Gloranthan heroes can gain power and insight by ritually entering the Other World and re-enacting a specific myth, this time playing the roles of the original protagonists (usually gods) themselves. Heroquests don't tend to reward the characters with treasures, but rather Runic Gifts...powers and abilities bestowed by the Runes of the god they walk the path of, or beings they might encounter wile doing so. 13G presents the Heroquest like any other adventure, albeit an adventure with a script. Like any myth a Heroquest tends to be more formalized and structured than an adventure, and slightly more surreal. Since they are a defining feature of what a Gloranthan hero actually does, 13G devotes an entire chapter to Heroquests, and has comprehensive rules for running them, and a broad selection of sample quests.
Chaos is from outside of Glorantha. When the gods fought against each other, they cracked the world and Chaos started leaking in. It began to murder existence piece by piece. Chaos is randomness, mutation, and the Void. It is the chief antagonist of most Gloranthan religions and peoples.
To show the rule-breaking horror of Chaos, 13G adds a new twist to one of the game's core mechanics. 13th Age players will know that the escalation die is a critical part of the game's combats; after the first combat round, the GM places a specially designated six-sided die on the table with the one facing up. That one is a bonus added to the player character's combat rolls. Each round that the players keep fight, the die goes up...one to two to three, etc. The bonus gets bigger and bigger. Adversaries do not usually benefit from the Chaos die, but as it increases it can trigger their deadlier powers and attacks. This is a pacing tool, ensuring that in each combat the stakes get higher and higher.
In 13G, when player characters are fighting creatures and NPCs touched by Chaos, the GM rolls a d20. If the result is six to twenty, nothing happens. If the result is a one through 5, the players do not receive the bonus from the escalation die, the adversaries do. This is a very 13th Age specific twist that showcases the terror of Chaos in the world.
Three types of readers will be coming to this review; Runequest players, Heroquest players, and 13th Age fans. I've tried inasmuch was possible to include all three in the conversation, but a question still remains. Namely, if you are a player of any of the three above games, why bother with 13G.
For 13th Age fans the answer is simple. If you love that game, there is every chance that you will love Glorantha, given the fact that both Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet do. Glorantha's influence on the Dragon Empire, for example, is evident in the mythic extravagance of that world. Places like Starport, beings like the Koru Behemoths, even the Icons themselves show Gloranthan inspiration. How could you not be curious after reading Heinsoo's dedication? But seriously, this is one of the most storied and significant settings in fantasy gaming, and 13G serves it up for a game you already love. Now is your chance to see what 40 years of fuss has been about.
For Runequest and Heroquest players, the answer is a little more complex.
Let's start briefly with Ron Edwards and GNS Theory. If we look at roleplaying games as being simulationist (trying to model actual reality), narrativist (trying to model how movies or novels work), or gamist (focused on the RPG as a game, a set of rules meant to be challenging, entertaining, and to be won), 13G would fall primarily in the gamist category. Runequest is the simulationist one, while Heroquest is deeply narrative. 13th Age as a system constantly dispenses with simulationist or narrativist elements in favor of "what works at the table" and "what is the most fun." The designers are explicit about this. This is not to say 13G cannot tell great stories; as we have seen it has many superb storytelling elements. But where Runequest tackles situations by asking "what would realistically happen?" and Heroquest addresses them by "what would drive forward the plot?" 13G wants to set up challenges and let the players face them, letting the dice fall as they may. The question really is "how do we maximize the fun?"