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Monday, July 30, 2018

THE RUNEQUEST GLORANTHA BESTIARY: A LONG HARD LOOK

GENERAL THOUGHTS

THE BESTIARY HAS ITS ORIGINS with Aristotle, whose History of Animals is one of the oldest and most influential examples of it.   Aristotle’s work, however, was that of a naturalist.  It is based on direct observation and sticks—in the words of Joe Friday—to “just the facts.”  However by the Middle Ages, and the bestiaries we are all more likely to be familiar with, the nature of the form had changed a bit.  The bestiarum vocabulum wasn’t as interested with what beasts were as much as what beasts meant.  Now including basilisks, dragons, unicorns, and griffins, the medieval bestiary used animal life to show the meaning of the world.  It saw flora and fauna as a reflection of spiritual realities, manifestations of the underlying themes of the world.  The creatures described in the pages of the bestiary didn’t simply inhabit the world, they helped define it.  


The new RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary lies somewhere between Aristotle and the bestarium vocabulum.  In terms of “facts” it is full of them; as a system, RuneQuest has always been detail oriented, and so all the creatures here get the full statistical treatment from characteristics and skills to passions and hit locations.  With a wink and a nod to the 1984 third edition, the subjects even get Latin taxonomies.  The Brown Elf, for example, is Dendro sapiens mrelum, the True Dragons are Draco infinitus.  On the other hand, this isn’t just RuneQuest…it is RuneQuest Glorantha.  This means the first thing discussed in each entry is the species’ place in the greater context of Glorantha’s rich mythologies, and thus the creature’s meaning.  For example, to really “get” the physiology of the the Gloranthan troll, whose predominant personality trait is hunger and who is able to eat quite literally anything, you need to know the race is the result of the mating of the Man Rune and Darkness.  The Man Rune gives the troll its humanoid shape and form, but Darkness—which devours everything—defines its nature.  The symbolism of the creature is as integral to its design as its hit points.  This has always been the case with creatures in Glorantha.  They don’t simply exist, but rather they personify the deep primordial forces underlying this unique world.  Like gods, they are manifestations of the Runes.  Thus you cannot really understand these creatures without understanding Glorantha…and you cannot understand Glorantha without experiencing them. 

The design team of Sandy Petersen, Jeff Richard, Jason Durall, Michael O’Brien, Steve Perrin, and Greg Stafford have given us the most definitive and comprehensive look yet at Glorantha’s non-human cast of characters to date.  It is possible that Anaxial’s Roster contained more entries (I didn’t dig out my copy to count them), but that earlier work went nowhere into the depth that these entries do.  Aside from game statistics and the creature’s mythological role, each entry goes into subtypes, region of origin, and distribution.  Whenever appropriate, religion, culture, and government are discussed.  If the creature is suitable as a player character, it gets a section on adventurer generation as well as full cult write-ups for the major deities or faiths of that race.  Thus the RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary goes a long way to “completing” the game.  As mentioned in my review of RuneQuest Glorantha, the core rules departed from previous editions in not being “an entire fantasy role-playing game in one book.”  This Bestiary now goes a long way to filling the gaps, not just with adversaries, but with player character races long-time Gloranthaphiles have come to know and love.  


With a heavy-hitting cast of writers like this, it might come as a surprise that the real “star” of the Glorantha Bestiary is San Diego-based artist Cory Trego-Erdner.  Rare for books of this kind, Trego-Erdner turns in literally all of the illustrations in this work, from detailed black and white sketches to glorious full color paintings.  The Dragonewts on pages 36 and 37 finally surpass those from back in RQ III (and this reviewer has spent three decades convinced no one was ever going to do better Dragonewts than those). Trego-Erdner’s Mostali straddle perfectly the line between what we think of as fantasy “dwarves” and the unique spin Glorantha puts on them, and the Uz (Trolls) take the iconic images from way back in Trollpak and breathes new life into them.  I kept going back to a Dark Troll with a Trollkin on a leash (p. 77) and staring at his face.  There is a story there in his features, character and detail.  And the Broo?  Terrifying perfection.  It was both risky and inspired to let a single artist define how the entities of Glorantha were going to look in the imaginations of a new generation of visitors, but it gives the world a wholeness and uniformity of vision.  It was a gamble that paid off; this artist was chosen well, and pulls it off with aplomb.

IN DETAIL

The RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary is a 210-page PDF.  Layout, typeface, and overall style matches both RuneQuest Glorantha and The Glorantha Sourcebook.  Just under 200 monsters are covered in this work (which, like an idiot I counted before seeing the back of the book already told me that).  The text is divided into ten sections;

INTRODUCTION:  The first topic covered here is game balance—which, in a system that eschews “levels” of any kind can be tricky.  RQ has always embraced gritty realism; if your young and experienced character wanders into a lair of scorpion men or encounters a dream dragon, defeat is highly probable.  This not only differentiates RQ from leveled games, but also her sister game, HeroQuest, where all difficulties are fluid and you will seldom face a challenge (unless dramatically appropriate) that outclasses you.  So the Bestiary recommends handling this by applying—you guessed it—more realism.  “Dark Trolls are people too.”  Not all monsters fight to the death…they prefer to live.  They will retreat rather than let all their hit points be depleted.  Adventurers should do the same.  Intelligent monsters will negotiate, or hold defeated captives for ransom.  And of course the GM should never railroad the player characters into an encounter.


Next there is a discussion of Non-Human Adventurers (hallelujah!).  One of the glaring absences in RuneQuest Glorantha were that of the Elder Races, or any other non-human intelligences.  One could be forgiving for reading the core rules and coming away thinking the only race was the humans.  The Bestiary addresses all of this, with detailed instructions how to create Adventurers from other species.

The chapter rounds out with a discussion of Gloranthan ecology and ecological zones, as well as special monster abilities, hit points for creatures, and hit locations.  The format of all entires is summarized.

DISTRIBUTION MAPS: The reader will probably not be shocked to learn this chapter contains…distribution maps.  There are 14 of these, detailing where all the major races and Chaos fiends can be found in and around the Dragon Pass area.

ELDER RACES: By far the lengthiest and meatiest chapter, this chapter (re)introduces us to Gloranthan’s inhuman—and in many cases prehuman—cultures and species, the so-called Elder Races.

All the races you might expect are here.  The Aldryami or “Gloranthan Elves,” children of the forest goddess with sap in their veins and wooden bones; Baboons, the intelligent and tribal hunter-gatherers wandering the Wastes and Prax; the Beast Men, including Fox Women, Minotaurs, Centaurs, Satyrs, and yes, damnit, Ducks; the enigmatic and transcendent Dragonewts are detailed, including their religion, magic, and society; Giants—colossal and surly brutes who play an interesting role in the life of the Zola Fel river of Prax; Gorillas, which like their Baboon cousins hail to an earlier age when animals had not yet been divided from men; the mysterious and only recently discovered Maidstone Archers; the towering “Men-and-a-Half” or Agimori, and old fan favorite; the human-herding Morokanth;  
the Mostali, or “Dwarves of Glorantha,” a race that regards the world as a broken machine and themselves as the engineers to fix it; the amphibious Newtlings; the Triolini, or Gloranthan Merfolk; the brutal Tusk Riders and their horrid cult of the Bloody Tusk; the winged humanoid Wind Children; the shapeshifting Telmori, or Werewolves of Glorantha; and of course, the Trolls of Glorantha, the ever-voracious, darkness-spawned Uz.  Each race is extensively detailed, including subtypes and creatures related to or employed by that species.  The major cults and magical philosophies of each race are described as well.  While on the whole the main value of the Bestiary is for GMs, this chapter insures it is a tome players (especially those interested in nonhuman characters) will want as well.

CHAOS MONSTERS:  When the gods of Glorantha fell to warring amongst themselves the world was cracked, and Chaos—the essence of corruption, nihilism, and entropy—started leaking in.  Time itself was created to contain it, a sacrifice that required the very freedom of the gods themselves.  Unfortunately, Chaos remains in Glorantha, not as the world-extinguishing threat it once was, but a slow cancer eating at the world.  This chapter deals some of the chief forms the infection takes.


We begin with rules for Chaos features, the weird—often horrific—mutations Chaos randomly engenders in its infected.  Then a panoply of Chaos creatures are unleashed, from the Broo to Walktapi.  There are many old friends (“fiends?”) here; dragonsnails, gorps, jack o’bears, etc.  Some are less known—the vampiric servants of Delecti the Necromancer, “the Dancers in Darkness,” are mentioned in King of Sartar and the HeroQuest sourcebook Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, but I don’t recall seeing them in RuneQuest before.  The Broo in particular get an extensive treatment, and rightly so.  To my mind they have always exemplified what makes Glorantha Glorantha.  They are essentially this world’s equivalent of the “orc,” the standard fantasy foe that you can in general feel good about killing.  Yet they are so tied to myth, even their physiology, that they powerfully demonstrate how Glorantha works.  The Broo are fertility gone wrong.  Their origin story has wavered over the decades—we have been told in the past that the fertility goddess Thed brought them into the world as her revenge for her rape by Ragnaglar—this Bestiary prefers instead to suggest that Thed’s children, like their mother and father, were originally an untainted race that fell into corruption.  I suspect the reasons for their origins shifting has more to do with shifting sensitivities in our world than any factor of theirs; regardless the horror of the Broo is that 85% of them are male.  They reproduce by breeding with other species, sentient or otherwise, and like the face-huggers from the Alien saga such impregnation always ends in Broo larvae bursting from the doomed host.  

No orc could ever be that terrifying.


MONSTERS: This chapter details creatures which, though not necessarily malevolent, are nevertheless large and terrifying.  Dinosaurs are here…yes, dinosaurs.  In Glorantha these are the bastard offspring of the Dragons, which unlike Dragonewts (who eventually evolve into True Dragons) have gone off the evolutionary rails.  And speaking of Dragons, there are here as well.  True Dragons are discussed; nearly gods themselves, these beings are often several kilometers long, their slumbering forms mistaken for mountain ranges and geographic features.  Bound by their own elaborate mysticism, the Dragons have transcended this world, but remain to keep an eye on their evolving offspring, the Dragonewts.  Often as their sleep, their suppressed ids manifest as Dream Dragons (also discussed here).  These entities personify negative desires True Dragons have cast off…hunger, greed, cruelty.  As True Dragons sleep for centuries, Dream Dragons can remain a very real threat just as long.

GIANT ARTHROPODS:  Oversized arthropods are prevalent in Glorantha, especially among the Trolls, who worship both the goddess of insects and the goddess of spiders.  Nor surprisingly then, giant bugs get an extensive treatment in the Bestiary.

ANIMALS:  The distinction between an “animal” and a “monster” in this volume seems to be chiefly a matter of size and ferocity.  In this chapter we find both wildlife and domesticated fauna, some familiar to those of us who inhabit the planet Earth and some unique to Glorantha.  Most notably, perhaps, horses are detailed here, as well as the Praxian riding animals.  The nomadic people of Prax, for ancient reasons, shun horses and ride (and herd) more exotic mounts—bisons, bolo lizards, high llamas, impalas, ostriches, rhinos, zebras, and more.  Finally the shadowcats, ranging in size from a house cat to a lynx, are described.  Beloved of the Orlanthi peoples, who use them as others might dogs, these will no doubt provide many PCs with loyal animal companions.


SPIRITS:  In a setting where shamanism and the spirit world are so well fleshed-out, it comes as no surprise that the Bestiary should devote a chapter to the denizens of that realm.  Spirits of all types are here, from elementals to wraiths.  Included are the legendary Black Horses of Sir Ethilrist, a mercenary captain whose men ride steeds won in Hell.  The Thunder Brothers, the collective sons of the storm god Orlanth are here as well.  Additional rules are given for using spirits in play.

TERRORS: I like to think of this as the chapter given over to Gloranthan kaiju.  The creatures here are all, thankfully, unique.  They are immensely powerful monsters that lay waste to entire regions.  The fabled Crimson Bat is here, the steed of the Red Goddess.  Something of the Lunar Empire’s “Death Star,” it is the ultimate military weapon.  Other terrors are here as well, such as the Chaos Gaggle, the fiends of Cacodemon, and Cwim.  Essentially any creature here could easily be the climax of an entire campaign.


FLORA: Finally we come to Glorantha’s flora.  The focus here is mainly on the more magical varieties of the world’s plant life, but discussions can be found of species like oaks, redwoods, and pines as well, mainly in relation to Gloranthan Elves

FINAL THOUGHTS

Fantasy settings are defined by their inhuman species.  Who could possibly imagine Middle-earth without Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, or Ring-wraiths?  What would Thedas be without the Darkspawn?  How and why magic works—what forms it takes—is probably a more fundamental issue in distinguishing one fantasy world from another, but it is the monsters we remember.  

This was always strongly the case with Glorantha.  As far back as the early days of RuneQuest there was always the “yes, but.”  Does Glorantha have Elves?  “Yes, but they are more like dryads than Norse fairies.”  Does Glorantha have Dragons?  “Yes, but they are more forces of nature than monsters you fight for treasure.”  There was never a single creature included in the setting that hadn’t been reworked, re-imagined, or recreated to be specific to the world and its rich mythologies.  We might be less impressed with this today than we were back then, but it was Glorantha and a handful of other settings that made this the norm, as opposed to the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach of games like D&D.

This is what made the absence of such beings from the core RuneQuest Glorantha so glaring.  We were seeing just a slice of the world, not the entire picture.  The RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary goes a long way to fixing this, fleshing out the setting for a new generation of players.  These two books together are enough to fully bring the world to life at your gaming table.  

Should they have been brought out together?  Probably.  But Chaosium is and always has been a very small game studio.  Not everything can be done at once.  What is critical is whether or not it was worth the wait, and without reservation I can assure you it was.  The Bestiary is a treasure, a masterfully illustrated and produced tome that far and away surpasses any other monster guides we have seen for Glorantha.  More even than the core rules, this is a book I think you could hand prospective players to get them excited about visiting Glorantha.  This is a strong second entry in the new line, and assures us that RuneQuest Glorantha was not a one-hit wonder.  It whets the appetite for whatever comes next. 


The Bestiary retails for $19.99 US.  It is available from Chaosium and from Drivethrurpg.       

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Thanks. Puts everything in proper context. Now I'll need to get this as well as RQG.

    ReplyDelete