"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."

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Friday, August 9, 2019


IN THE THIRTY-SIX YEARS I have been writing scenarios and running game sessions, Glorantha is the setting I return to most.  Starting with the classic RuneQuest 2, then RQ3, Hero Wars, HeroQuest, HeroQuest: Glorantha, my own GURPS adaptation (don't ask, it was the 90s), two editions of Mongoose's RuneQuest: Second Age, and most recently RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha, I have led dozens of groups across Prax, over the mountains of Sartar, across the Homeward Ocean, and into the Underworld.  Now, none of this makes me "the expert."  No one is here to tell you how your Glorantha is to be run.  But I have been living, breathing, and thinking Glorantha for most of my terrestrial existence, and I thought I might take some time off from chronicling the current campaign to share some thoughts I have on running games in this setting with you.

Let's start with the basics.  In no particular order, these are core principles I come back to time and time again to try and make Glorantha "Glorantha" for my players.  In future discussions, I will talk specifically about my thoughts on running the different game systems. 


The first, last, and middle thing to keep in mind when running Glorantha is that it is a world forged by myth.  In the early, timeless ages of the world, the actions of gods, heroes, and spirits laid the foundations of the cosmos.  The world was made, there was a golden age, then the gods warred upon each other and let Chaos in.  To save existence, Time was born, and the cycle of the Gods Age became the blueprint for everything in the world.

There are no physics, no biology, no chemistry.  It is not a fantasy setting that is world just like ours with a bit of magic added.  On this flat world, under a sky dome and over an underworld, there is no "axial tilt"--seasons change to reflect the cycle of the Gods Age.  Spring is the dawn of the world, summer and autumn the golden age, winter the war of the gods and the coming of Chaos.  This is not a planet that rotates--the sun rises and sets because he was born, ascended to the throne of heaven, and then was killed and sent to the underworld.  Like all gods, he now repeats his Gods Age actions (from the mortal perspective) endlessly.  There is no gravity--rivers run to the sea in answer to the sea god who called upon them to come help him fill the hole the Devil left in the center of the world.  Keep this in mind at all times; when things in Gloranthan seem to operate just as they do in our world, they do so for mythic reasons and not scientific ones.  Make this clear in the daily lives of the player characters.

In my games, for example, people don't "catch colds."  There are no viruses or bacteria.  Instead they become possessed by sickness spirits.  Wounds become infected because the cut lets such spirits "in."  If the spirit is minor enough, the possessed's own spirit will eventually eject it.  If not, call a healing priestess or shaman to exorcise the possessing spirit. Likewise adolescents don't sexually mature because their pituitary glands and gonads kick into action; their Runes are awakening.  Even then, they are not able to procreate (or perform magic) until they pass their adulthood initiation rites and fully awaken those Runes.  Indeed, young, uninitiated boys can help their fathers plant the fields by leading the plow or carrying bags of seed...but they never plant the seeds themselves because nothing would grow.  They lack that procreative power.  In the same way women in my games menstruate because the local mother goddess once made a blood sacrifice to awaken her fertility.  Because I like to start my Glorantha campaigns with youths becoming initiated into adulthood, all of this becomes a way to introduce players to the unique flavor of the setting.

Your Glorantha will vary, and if you don't want to get into the weeds on Gloranthan "birds and the bees" that is just fine.  Come up with other examples of how even the mundane in Glorantha is mythic.  Once the players understand that even the "facts of life" here operate by mythic rules, they understand they are not in Kansas anymore.


Magic in Glorantha is how mortal beings in the Inner World (of Time) interact with the Outer World (of Myth).  Because myth is the blueprint of existence, magic is ubiquitous.  Nearly all acts of change and creation are magical because they call upon the myths underlying existence. Planting a field, forging a sword, bearing a child, building a home, these are all just as magical as calling lightning from the sky.

These acts are by definition also mythic.  Fields are planted because the farmer god first did it in the Gods Age.  Blades are forged because the smith god first did it.  When you perform any of these actions, you are therefore acting as a god did.

In running Glorantha, let this concept color everything.  Gathering a party and descending into a ruin in search of treasure isn't just a dungeon crawl; your party is walking in the footsteps of Orlanth, who gathered the Lightbringers and descended into the Underworld to rescue the sun.  A drunken bar fight between an Orlanthi warrior and an off-duty Lunar soldier is a reflection of the rebellion of the storm gods against the celestial empire (conversely, the Lunar is emulating the Red Goddess at Castle Blue, proving her right to exist in the world).  Anything you typically take for granted in other fantasy settings in Glorantha resonates with the very highest levels of existence.  There are no "small" adventures.  Even a low-level RuneQuest campaign about homeless Sartarite youths struggling to survive on the mean streets of New Pavis is part of the world's epic, heroic tapestry.


Just as the setting is mythic on the microcosmic, day-to-day level, it is equally so in the grand, macrocosmic sweep of history.  This is an aspect of fantasy roleplaying that your players are more likely to be used to--Tolkien used it again and again--but the changing of the Ages in Glorantha is as much a part of the cycle of things as the changing of the seasons.  

The cosmic war of the Storm Tribe against the Celestial Empire echoes in weather patterns, personal lives, and the ages of the world.  It is said that the Devil returns every six or seven hundred years, but it could also be suggested that the Gods War is repeating.  The struggle of Nysalor (the new emperor of light) and Arkat (the rebel) in the First Age carries strong echoes of Yelm (the old emperor of light) and Orlanth (the original rebel).  In both cases we have a stormy and tempestuous challenger to the ordained embodiment of the status quo.  In both cases, both sides are morally ambiguous (a point we will revisit below).  There are entire cultures who view Orlanth or his local counterpart as the villain in this mythic struggle, just as others cast him as the hero.  It is much the same with Arkat and Nysalor.  Which one of them is "Gbaji" (the Deceiver)?  The uncomfortable answer is probably "both."

The Hero Wars seem to be yet another return of this cosmic cycle.  This time the celestial status quo is embodied by the Red Emperor and his mother, with Argrath (whose name is even a convenient corruption of Arkat) as the stormy rebel.  Ties back to Orlanth are even clearer when we remind ourselves that Arkat and Argrath both mean "Liberator," and this is very much how Orlanthi culture views the storm god.  Yet the same question circles the Hero Wars that did the Gbaji Wars...who exactly is the "good guy" here?  The Lunar Empire, which Argrath will rend to tatters, is probably the finest place in Third Age Glorantha to actually live.  Lunar philosophy of healing the world and e pluribus unum is seductive.  At the same time, they embrace world-destroying Chaos and subjugate local populations via a titanic demonic bat the likes of which would give Godzilla pause.  Argrath, meanwhile, has a sympathetic, almost Arthurian backstory--a royal, destined king raised in obscurity who returns and displays his right to the throne by drawing a sword from a stone...or rather in Argrath's case relighting the Flame of Sartar.  He seems to be a uniter as well.  On the other hand he is an Illuminate, something central to Lunar philosophy that Argrath's own people tend to revile, and much of what he accomplishes resembles, frankly, the same things the Empire does.  He is ruthless, dangerous, unpredictable.  And, oh yes, he destroys the world...at least as we know it.  

The point here is that a dark and stormy, world-shattering rebellion emerging against a cosmic order that is peaceful but stagnant is baked into the setting.  It is in the DNA of the world.  History repeats for the same reason the seasons do; it all happened in the Gods Age.


We tend to think of "gritty realism" in gaming as synonymous with "lethality."  I submit to you, however, that realism is a function of background detail...that it lies in portraying a world that is rich, consistent, and believable to the players.

Having just spent the past ten minutes explaining the mythic dimensions of the world, it has to be stressed that in many ways Glorantha is probably also more realistic than other fantasy settings your players are bound to have encountered. Player characters are rarely roving bands of adventurers who remain eternally 20-something and live their lives liberating monsters from the burden of their treasures.  Gloranthan PCs come from cultures, they belong to communities, they have families, careers, and even cults.

My Gloranthan campaigns are always about the "3Cs;" culture, cults, and cultivation.  All three English words emerge from the Latin cultus, "care, labor, worship, society, tending" and sum up nicely what Gloranthan characters do.  In lieu of alignments, their world views are shaped by their cultures, by the customs, traditions, history, and lineage of their peoples.  This shapes how characters think, how they determine what is right and proper.  It also shapes their goals.  They fight to protect, sustain, and see that their communities prosper.

Basically, in this they are just like us.

As far back as the original RuneQuest this was made clear in how cults worked.  Unlike character classes, cults made ever-increasing demands in exchange for the power they granted.  Becoming an initiate meant gaining greater magic, but also meant giving your time, energy, loyalty, and resources to the cult.  The demands increased the higher you rose, until eventually the character and the cult were inseparable.  

In practice, a Glorantha GM really needs to take time at the onset of the campaign making the character's culture real to him or her, and making it matter.  In Six Seasons of Sartar I started the characters off as uninitiated youth, and spent four entire sessions just painting a picture of Sartarite village life.  I explored kinship structures, daily life, farming, diet, what they wore, values, etc.  I gave them family members to care about, rivals, pets.  Were I to run a Lunar campaign--or the Uz campaign I have always secretly dreamed of--I would do exactly the same.  Glorantha makes this easy to do because the cultures are all so vibrant and richly detailed.  The Guide to Glorantha is an extraordinary resource for this, but there are 40 years of background materials available as well.  I submit to you, however, that Greg Stafford and Company did not spend decades and hundreds of thousands of words on making Gloranthan cultures so rich if they were not close to the heart of gaming in the setting.

While not all campaigns can (or should) start their characters off as youths growing up in the same community, another way to approach this is the old World of Darkness concept of the prelude.  If you intend to have a group of characters from different cultures, try a solo session with each player before the first game, in which you portray their background and upbringing.  A face-to-face session would be best, but barring this even an email exchange or discussion can make all the difference in making the character's culture central to his or her identity.

All of this improves your game by making it real to the players, by making the setting multi-dimensional and complex.  Yes, there are kilometer-long dragons and an Underworld, but people also farm, love, and make babies (and the latter three occupations are far more important to them).  Because the setting is really all about the clash of cultures and religions--just as our own terrestrial history is--the tired cliches of black and white, good and evil, light and dark give way to more complicated shades of gray.  Let me give you concrete examples;

In the six episodes of Six Seasons in Sartar I portrayed the Lunar Empire as a faceless, monstrous evil.  This is, after all, how an isolated mountain village in occupied Sartar would see it.  Yet in the subsequent River of Cradles campaign, I started to cast doubt on this.  The player characters befriended a Lunar boy who turned out to be not all that different from them.  In a recent session, one of the characters (who has a wife back home and is expecting a child) kills a Lunar soldier.  While searching the body, he finds a locket around the man's neck with the carefully painted portraits of his own wife and child inside.  To my mind, this is gritty realism.  Killing an orc seldom raises such moral qualms.

Of course there is plenty of "feel good" killing in Glorantha; no Broo deserves to live (having said this, I can instantly imagine crafting a Broo character that might challenge this).  But Glorantha works best when she is messy and complicated and human.  Never forget that mythology itself exists in part to explore the deep moral and ethical questions as much as explain where the world came from.  No?  Revisit the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or the Kalevala and the ethical struggles of their characters.



  1. Excellent summary of what makes Glorantha different and interesting. Of course, you can also use it as any other fantasy setting, but the advice you give here helps a lot to really "experince" Glorantha to the fullest.

  2. Excellent, and reinvogorated my love of trying to learn the MASSIVE world that is Glorantha, and after reading RQ:G I wanted to learn more but this article just cemented it.

  3. Outstanding post, an even better short introduction for new players than anything else that Chaosium has produced.

  4. Excellent post on a blog that's already filled with superb advice. Thank you. Hopefully, Chaosium's upcoming GM guide will tackle some of the points you raise and give equally practical advice. It seems to me though that the examples you offer, although useful and appropriate, are for GMs who are already very familiar with the Gloranthan pantheon and its related myths. As an uninitiated GM who will soon run "The Broken Tower" for a bunch of Glorantha-naive players, I know virtually nothing about Gloranthan mythology. As a result, not only would I find it impossible to come up with the sort of examples you give, however on point they might be ("the sun rises and sets because he was born", or "your party is walking in the footsteps of Orlanth, who gathered the Lightbringers and descended into the Underworld to rescue the sun"), but I would also find them too conceptual to impress my players at a visceral level -– I can already hear them say, "So what if the sun was born this morning and is going to die tonight?" I supposed the question should be, what would my players feel, see, hear, and/or smell that's specifically Gloranthan if they, as modern XXI century people, suddenly found themselves walking along a river flowing somewhere in Sartar, or a forest, or a tribal compound, all that on a quasi-animistic world actually suffused with magical energies, where goddesses are reel, where spirits abound, and where the plane of the gods is only a drum session and psychotropic drug hit away? While raiding that underground dungeon you mention, would the characters have brief visions of the gods of their myths doing the same thing? Would the four-armed silhouette of Orlanth flash between the clouds of a large storm rolling over an otherwise quiet alley? Do such marvels even occur? Orlanth-in-the-clouds would not explain who Orlanth is or how he relates to other deities, of course, (this, the PCs would know) but it would certainly startle my naive modern players at a gut level and therefore make Glorantha memorable and unique among other fantasy worlds (as should be).
    - Alex