This is the third in a series of articles. Read the first here and the second here.
The average modern man's relationship with nature is not the one that prevailed in the premodern "cycle," to which, along with many other traditions, the hermetico-alchemical tradition belongs. The study of nature today devotes itself exhaustively to a conglomeration of strictly reasoned laws concerning various "phenomena"--light, electricity, heat, etc--which spread out kaleidoscopically before us utterly devoid of any spiritual meaning, derived solely from mathematical processes. In the traditional world, on the contrary, nature was not thought about but lived, as though it were a great, sacred, animated body, "the visible expression of the invisible". Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation"...
Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition
The paragraph I just quoted above characterizes the fundamental shift between Sorcery in the third edition of RuneQuest, and Sorcery as portrayed in the latest edition, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha. It parallels a corresponding shift in the way the Malkioni peoples of the Gloranthan West are portrayed, and is the direct result I think of Greg Stafford's deepening understanding of--and appreciation for--the Western Mystery Tradition.
The first two editions of RuneQuest had very little to say on the Westerners. While Glorantha resists one-for-one substitutions (the Orlanthi are Indo-Europeanish...but whether they are Aryans, Norse, or Greeks is left to interpretation; the Lunars are an Empire but they might be Persians, Romans, Victorians, or the Imperium from Star Wars), it is clear that the Malkioni are meant to reflect "Western" mythology. But their thin presentation in RQ and RQ2, and even in RQ3, shows a largely exoteric view of the West. They are monotheists and materialists, they are colonizers, they have a decidedly 19th century approach to comparative religion. Their Sorcery is effectively given to us as "science," effects caused by the rational manipulation of immutable natural laws. Their main function and contribution seems to be the Monomyth, which while being immensely useful to Gloranthan GMs and players is nevertheless the sort of reductionist nonsense colonial European powers layered over religions around the world. In short, the Malkioni are presented to us largely as the "modern man" Evola speaks of in the quote above. It would take a couple more decades, and Stafford's involvement with the Chaosium RPG Nephilim, for the Malkioni to finally make the leap from "modern" Westerners to the authentic hermetico-alchemical traditionalists I expect they were always meant to be.
To outline this shift, let's take a closer look at Sorcery in RQG.
The Nature of Sorcery
Sorcery begins, in RQG, with a restatement of its introduction in RQ3. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe of immutable laws," says RQG, while RQ3 had "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe. But they also believe that among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." While RQ3 then makes no mention of Spirit or Divine (Rune) magic, RQG almost immediately does: "it does not require the assent of the gods or spirits the way spirit or Rune magic does."
What distinguishes RQG from its predecessor though is that it explains what these immutable forces are and incorporates them into the system. RQ3 told us about such laws but then never shows them. It instead presents a magic system that basically functions like Spirit magic. This is in part a direct result of it being generic, but I would also argue it stems from Greg not fully appreciated the esoteric principles of hermetic magic. RQ3 could have linked sorcery to the manipulation of occult energies (the four elements, the planets, the stars, etc) but it didn't seem to feel any real need to. It was content to leave sorcery without any rationale at all.
RQG wants is to understand how exactly how sorcery functions, however. We are told almost immediately is the manipulation of Runes through defined Techniques. It tells us that the relationships between these Runes matter, and that the God Learners used the Monomyth to map them out.
Obviously this makes sorcery a more complex affair than it was in RQ3, but in a game that has always been famous for its immersive features this is an odd complaint. True, combat would also be easier without hit locations, strike ranks, armor, or weapons...but those elements bring RuneQuest battles to life. I find that player character sorcerers in RQG likewise appreciate the added detail. It makes the magic system a knowable thing, something that the player can come to understand and explore.
It starts here with the Runes. Obviously, on some level it has always been clear that the "immutable laws" the sorcerers of Glorantha are manipulating are the Runes, but this is the first time we have a visible framework. As mentioned there was no such framework in previous versions of the sorcery system. I think we owe this, at least in part, to Nephilim, which likewise explained sorcery as the manipulation of fundamental esoteric forces and included them in the magic system itself.
Runes, and as we will soon see Techniques, are not skills, nor are they affinities. They are not learned. Instead, in the clearest and truest nod to the Western Mystery Tradition yet:
to master a new Rune or technique, the sorcerer must achieve intellectual union with the source of their magic (be it the Invisible God, the One, the Great Mind, Logic, or whatever the sorcerer’s philosophy holds to be the case).
This is in complete agreement with the passage I quoted at the start of the article; "Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation." Though the word is not actually being used here, we are talking about gnosis, the fundamental distinction between alchemy and chemistry. One is learned, the other known in the sense of being united with it. It adds the missing religious element--and despite its "atheism" Malkionism is still a religion--in that to better command the universe, the sorcerer has to align himself with the Mind of the Creator. This is, frankly, RuneQuest doing what it has always done best...being authentic.
Furthermore, the Runes do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in relationship to each other, another piece of much needed verisimilitude. We had a preview of this with the publication of The Guide to Glorantha, which I will not deny (and long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear) that I "squeed" the moment I saw these;
In the interest of full disclosure, between the preparation for the art in the Guide and when RQG went to print there was a further refinement. The Elemental Rune relationships in the sorcery system in RQG are best described by the wheel on that character sheet, and not the one above;
Regardless, RQG makes the relationships a quantifiable part of the game. When a sorcerer attunes to one Rune, the Rune they have "mastered," the two opposite Runes are gained as minor Runes. It's a nod to both Nephilim and the hermetic principle that each thing contains within it its opposites. To a lesser extent this continues with the Power Runes (if you master Movement, you gain minor knowledge of Stasis).
What emerges here is a way to interact with the Runes that is methodical, structured, and totally different from the way Rune cults handle it. It integrates sorcery into the world as an actual part of the setting rather than hand-waving details away for the sake of expediency.
Like Runes, Techniques are gained intuitively rather than learned. Again this is consistent with the idea of apprehending something "immutable." Skills are extraordinarily mutable, developing entirely within the context of Time. Techniques exist outside of Time, part of the fabric of Arachne Solara's Web (and spoiler alert, they make a return in the upcoming heroquesting rules).
RQ3 presented spells as skills, and in lieu of Techniques had sorcery skills to manipulate them. This reduces everything to skill rolls, and misses sorcery's self described point. If sorcery is the manipulation of immutable laws...then the spell, the "skill," is clearly the manipulation. Where then is the the law?
RQG answers this elegantly. The Runes and the Techniques are the "letters" of the alphabet, the spells are their spoken combinations. This is very in keeping with the hermetic tradition that sorcery derives from. The letters of the Greek alphabet, or the Hebrew, were perceived as immutable constants manipulated by placing them into combinations of words. That is literally the origin of the word, "spell" (and why it is related to "spelling"). Again, RQG is modeling what RQ3 could not, or would not, bother to.
Spells still require magic points and skill rolls to cast, but because Runes and Techniques have been separated out it is clear what immutable forces are being manipulated. The cost of the spell depends on whether or not it is a quality you have Mastered or just have a Minor affinity with (in the latter case the cost is doubled).
In a way that RQ3 failed to, I would say that sorcery in RQG hits all the criteria it needed to.
It is a very different magic system from spirit magic or Rune magic. Players who want "flashy" super-hero spells will want Rune magic, but the player who is methodical, who likes to plan, and to whom you give ample time and resources can do things with sorcery no one else can. It just takes a patient, meticulous mind. If you have a sorcerer in your group, give them a season to plan and the results can be staggering.
Conceptually, RQG sorcery does everything it needs to. Stafford's setting carefully and considerately models shamanism, and it has a sense of ancient theistic religions second-to-none. This edition is the first time it has ever gotten sorcery--hermeticism--right. One of Glorantha's most most attractive features has always been its exploration of religion, and this is the first time the Malkioni do not get cheated.
But of course we have only seen the basics. I am very curious what sorcery practiced in the West might look like, and have put some ideas of my own into my campaigns. In the next article I will share some of those, and look at alternative directions you might want to take sorcery in.
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