"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.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

THE CULTS OF RUNEQUEST: Part One, Some Thoughts on Chaosium Cults and the Prosopaedia

The Dreaded "C" Word

In the topsy-turvy lexicon of the modern era, "cult" has become a bad word, the result of a schism between modern materialist thinking and the thousands of years of tradition that came before it. Words with a formerly spiritual meaning have all been gutted and repurposed. "Psychology," which in 1650 meant "the study of the soul" (its nature, purpose, and destiny) is now "the study of the mind," especially in the sense of scientifically explaining human behavior. "Esoteric" which originally meant "inner" or "essential" (as opposed to "exoteric," which meant just the surface or outer appearance of a thing) today is the synonym of words like "abstruse," "obscure," and "incomprehensible" ("arcane" falls into the same category). "Cult" has perhaps suffered even worse than these, becoming a full-on pejorative. The Latin cultus, which also gave us "culture" and "cultivate,"  originally meant to be a part of something, to devote oneself to something greater than oneself. In modern parlance, and increasingly over the last four or five decades, "cult" now suggests fringe religions, groupthink, and brainwashing. As Hugh Rawson, in his delicious 1989 book Wicked Words defined it, cult now means "a group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree."

The schism I mentioned above occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, a period many of us in the Western world have been taught to refer to as the "Enlightenment" or "Age of Reason." A perfect storm of new ideas was brewing in western Europe at this time, and colonialism was forcing it on the rest of the world. Namely "human happiness is the greatest good," "knowledge is obtained only by reason and the evidence of the senses," and my particular favorite, "progress," the concept that each generation knows better than all the ones before it. The end result of these ideas manifested most fully in the early 20th century. Materialism (the idea that only matter and energy were real), rationalism (the idea that reason, and not personal experience, was the only foundation of certainty), and humanism (the idea that human concerns, as opposed to supernatural or divine ones, are the basic of ethics), all teamed up to put the traditional viewpoint to the sword. Humanity was no longer part of a divine order, a chain of being which extended beyond the material universe into the worlds of spirit or divinity. Now humanity was just an animal, existing with no purpose other than passing on its genes, clinging to an insignificant ball of rock in a universe that was oblivious to its existence.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, a small game company in California took to exploring the "before and after" of this schism in two of their signature games. The company was Chaosium, and RuneQuest was the game exploring the traditional world, the world in which humanity could climb the chain of being to interact with divinity. Call of Cthulhu explored the modernist viewpoint, where humanity was tiny and powerless and pitted against a cold and uncaring universe in an endless struggle to delay the inevitable.

And the instrument both games used to explore these opposite worldviews was the cult.

Cults In RuneQuest    

RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu are matter and anti-matter, or more accurately, mythology and anti-mythology. Mirror images of each other, both posit universes in which titanic, conscious, inhuman forces are at work behind the curtain of nature, forces before which mere mortals are insignificant. Both suggest that magic, rather than science, is the path to true knowledge. Both feature cults in which human beings surrender their individuality to these primordial entities in exchange for knowledge and power. 

Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Call of Cthulhu shares the horror of the author who inspired it. Lovecraft lived and wrote in that period where tradition finally surrendered to modernism. Some of the greatest discoveries in physics and astronomy were made during his lifetime. The immensity of the universe, and the apparent meaninglessness of human existence, fueled his tales of horror. His "gods" were not spiritual entities, but incomprehensible aliens. His "magic" was not about interacting with the divine, but geometry and mathematics. And in his atheistic and humanistic worldview, cults could only be degenerate things. If the human ego and identity is the greatest good, binding yourself to other forces could only lead to madness and self-destruction. There was no chain of being in his cosmology, so the highest levels of reality are Not For Man To Know.    

By contrast, RuneQuest presents a very deep exploration of the traditional viewpoint. Yes, humanity is small and blind, but there is a chain of being for mortals to climb. There are divine realms and humans can access them through magic and Myth.

"Myth" is another prime example of words stripped of their initial meanings in the modern world. Originally it signified sacred stories, tales that explained the origins of things and the correct way humans were supposed to interact with each other and the world. Today, it is usually used to indicate a false belief. 

In RuneQuest, Myth is a sort of road map to the divine or spirit realms. While in Call of Cthulhu humanity can never know the deeper truths of the universe, with Joseph Campbell RuneQuest asserts that the power of Myth is to "reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the fearful and fascinating mystery) of the universe" (Campbell, The Masks of God, vol 4). Myths are not literal truths, and in RuneQuest many Myths contradict each other, but they can lead you to truth. As the old adage goes, Myths are maps, and maps are not the actual landscape.

RuneQuest depicts a world in which everything has its god, because if a thing exists it does so because some god did it (or created it) first. There are smiths because the god Gustbran figured out how to work metal. People die because Humakt killed Grandfather Mortal. There are flowing bodies of water called "rivers" that head to the sea because the Devil put a hole in the center of the world and Magasta called his children to help him come fill it. If it is there, a god put it there, and each god in the world of Glorantha subsequently has their cult. For a player character to gain power, they had to join one, and then slowly come to embody more and more of the god my accepting the gods magic and interacting with its Myths.

In most RQ cults you start as a "lay member," attending the rituals and showing interest but not yet really a member of the cult. Here you might begin to learn the Myths of that deity. By meeting certain qualifications, you then become an "initiate," a full member of the cult. You now have to obey the cult's rules, act in accordance with the cult's standards, and tithe some of your income. In exchange you gain access to cult magic, and have broader access to skill training apropos of the cult. In time, if you qualify, you might become a "Rune Priest." This puts you in charge of leading the rites, teaching the Myths, and opens the doors wide to deeper magical power. But it also demands more of your time and nearly all of your income. This is equally true of becoming a "Rune Lord," a sort of physical embodiment of the god in the world. The gods of Glorantha are banished from the world of Time, and need to act through human vessels. This is where the Rune Lord steps in. Rune Lords also have access to the most powerful magics, and have the entire cult behind them...yet at the same time their commitments of time and tithe (90% of both to the cult) and the expectation that they will speak and act as the god itself made them less individuals and more avatars. Jorgunath is no longer merely the son of Jordangar, he is Humakt embodied. The bond between character and god in RuneQuest is an intimate one. There is no need for "belief." You feel the god there beneath your skin.

(There is an interesting parallel here to another Chaosium game, Nephilim, in which a human merges with a divine being and thus gains access to magic and higher planes of being).

Given the vital importance of cults to the game, on conceptual and aesthetic as well as mechanical levels, it comes as no surprise that the RQ community has been waiting--with various levels of patience--for the newly released Cults of RuneQuest line to begin. While we have had cursory descriptions of the cults in the core rulebook, Cults of RuneQuest allows authors Jeff Richard and Greg Stafford to do what RuneQuest is famous for, adding texture and depth far exceeding what we usually find in fantasy settings. These cults are not mere character classes, they are cultures. They live and breathe and jump off the page.

From here on in we will discuss the three available books separately. These are The Prospaedia, The Lighbringers, and The Earth Goddesses. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, while I did not write for these books and bought my copies myself, my name does appear in the additional credits of the latter two titles mentioned above. So I am calling this a discussion rather than a review. Onward!

The Prosopaedia

I cannot prove it--maybe Jeff Richard can confirm--but I am convinced "Prosopaedia" was Greg Stafford tipping his hat to Joseph Campbell. The first Prosopaedia was a booklet in Avalon Hill's Gods of Glorantha boxed set. It was a sort of encyclopedia of the deities inhabiting Glorantha. "Prosopaedia," however, is not actually a word. "Prosopon" is. In ancient Greek it meant "face" or "mask," and this is where I think the Joseph Campbell nod comes in. Campbell's multi-volume survey of world mythology was The Masks of God, a title very much in line with his idea that mythology both conceals and reveals divinity. Greg had very similar ideas. "Prosopon" has made it into modern theological circles where it means "persona," or the way mortal beings experience the ineffable face of God. "Prosopaedia," then, is a play on 'prosopon" and "encyclopedia" (from the Greek enkyklios paideia taken as "general education," but literally "training in a circle," i.e. the "circle" of arts and sciences). This then is a "general education" on all the "masks of divinity" encountered in Glorantha.

Available in hardcover or PDF (buy from Chaosium and you get both), Cults of RuneQuest The Prosopaedia is 144 pages of Gloranthan deities, religious movements, monsters, mythic relics, and heroes from across the entire setting. I have not counted all the entries, but on an average of 5 a page we are talking about 700+. Entries range from one paragraph to multiple columns (there are three columns on most pages). A typical entry gives the name, how to pronounce it, what pantheons or religions it is included in, its Runes if it is a deity, and then related "see also" entries. Then follows the text description. A typical page looks like this:

The result is the single most comprehensive survey of Glorantha's rich mythology that we have ever seen. Note we are not getting any spells here. The separate Cults books will handle that.

How comprehensive is it? I have been cramming Gloranthan lore into my cranium since 1982 and there are still entries I come across and have not heard of before. I should note, however, that this is the first volume in the Cults of Runequest series, so if you are looking for all the endless sub cults introduced in a product like Hero Wars' Storm Tribe you will probably not find them (for example, for Chalana Arroy we no longer find Ferace, Natyrsa, or Pranjala...but Arroin and the Sisters of Mercy made the cut). In this way The Prosopaedia is also hinting what you can expect going forward into the Cults series). As the game's initial releases have focused on Dragon Pass and environs, this is the first glimpse players and GMs will have had at the rest of Glorantha's myths and religions, making it a superb companion to the Guide to Glorantha (The Prosopaedia will not, however, inflict as much blunt force trauma as the Guide when used as a weapon).

Something that must be mentioned is the art. In a very bold choice, 2021's Greg Stafford Memorial Award winner Katrin Dirim is The Prosopaedia's sole artist, including the covers. I say "bold" because it had to have been a monumental task for a single person, but the artist's unique style gives the book exactly the "illuminated manuscript" feel it needed. 

While to me The Prosopaedia is a "must have," players in campaigns which have a narrow cultural focus do not absolutely need it (having said that, one or two copies per table would be ideal). They can simply purchase whatever Cult book is appropriate. To my mind, the main value of The Prosopaedia (beyond it being an invaluable reference...I have had a rough copy for over a year now and I constantly refer to it when writing) is that it is a mission statement. It pulls back the curtain on what you can expect to see it in releases ahead and solidifies the mythology for this latest edition of the game. 

In Part Two we will examine both The Lightbringers and The Earth Goddesses, with a deep dive into both pantheons and their mythologies.


No comments:

Post a Comment