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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.

Monday, March 11, 2024


"Play and ritual have many aspects in common, and ritual is a key component of the early cult practices that underlie the religious systems of societies in all parts of the world."

Ritual, Play, and Belief, In Evolution and Early Human Societies

..(C)ivilization is rooted in noble play and that, if it is to unfold in full dignity and style, it cannot afford to neglect the play-element. The observance of play-rules is nowhere more imperative than in the relations between countries and States. Once they are broken, society falls into barbarism and chaos.

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

ONE OF THE MOST OVERLOOKED RULES in RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha falls on pages 245 and 246. "Ritual Practices" is only about 280 words long, but they are arguably some of the most important words in the book. 

An adventurer can increase their chance to successfully cast any spell (including ritual spells), use a Rune, or perform a Magic skill (such as Worship) through a ritual practice. These take many forms in Glorantha, including ascetic meditation, chanting of mantras, creating mandalas or other geometric patterns, carving of Runes, etc.
RQG, p. 245

The mechanics are straightforward. By performing some sort of ritual practice, you receive a bonus to the skill roll. The longer you spend performing the ritual, the greater the bonus. Simple. The implications of the rule, however, are complex, and run right to the heart of the setting. Arguably, we are looking at a fourth "magic system" here. Consider: the bonus gained for a half-hour long ritual is +30%. That is the equivalent of "Bladesharp" or "Bludgeon" 6, and without the expenditure of magic points. The "energy" of the ritual isn't coming from the magician, it's coming from the ritual itself.

What is Ritual?

In the modern world, we tend to associate "ritual" with "religion," and use it interchangeably with "ceremony." The two words have very different origins, however. "Ceremony," which probably came into Latin from Etruscan, means something "sacred, holy, reverent." Ritual, on the other hand, is from proto-Indo-European and is related to the words rhythm, arithmetic, and right. We think the original meaning was "to observe, to count, to reflect." The idea of ritual was observing the way the world works, and aligning yourself with natural law by imitating it. The Hindu concept of dharma "behaviours that are in accordance with Ṛta—the "cosmic order" is an extension of this. In fact that word, Ṛta, again derives from the same root as ritual. The implication seems to be that the order and harmony of the universe was itself understood to be a ritual. Human rituals were re-enactments of cosmic rituals.

This is exactly the case in Glorantha. For shamans and theists, the actions of gods and spirits created the world, and the Great Compromise turned these actions into a ritual performed again and again endlessly throughout Time. Magic comes from imitating the rituals of the spirits and gods. For sorcerers, who lean more towards the arithmetic side of ritual, they observe the repeated patterns of nature, the rhythms, and ritually align themselves with that. But in all cases, magic spells are rituals, or at least obtained through rituals. Ritual, then, is magic.


Just as the modern world has segregated ritual into a religious context, it has desacralized the concept of "play" and "game." Ritual is play, and play is ritual. In any ritual, you the designate space the rite is to be performed in, you gather the tools and instruments you need, and you gather co-practitioners. Then, for the duration of that ritual, the ritual becomes your world. This is exactly what you do when you play RuneQuest, or football, or chess. The reality of the game becomes the only reality for its duration, the microcosm.

In his Homo Ludens, which explores the concept of human civilization as a complex game, Johan Huizinga writes at length how ancient cultures saw games as ritual, as "magic." He uses dicing in ancient India as an example:

For us the chief point of interest is the place where the game is played. Generally it is a simple circle, dyutamandalam, drawn on the ground. The circle as such, however, has a magic significance. It is drawn with great care, all sorts of precautions being taken against cheating. The players are not allowed to leave the ring until they have discharged their obligations. But, sometimes a special hall is provisionally erected for the game, and this hall is holy ground. The Mahabharata devotes a whole chapter to the erection of the dicing hall - sabha - where the Pandavas are to meet their partners. Games, of chance, therefore, have their serious side. They are included in ritual.

One way to think of magic in Glorantha, and of the ritual practices rule, is that your adventurer is gam(bl)ing with the universe. There are rules to magic, like any game, and the adventurer wagers their magic points and tests their skill. In casting a spell they are figuratively rolling the dice just as you, the player, literally are. The reward is getting the outcome you wanted. By extension, this is also what they are doing in combat, what the Mahabharata called "the ritual of battle." Here the battlefield is the ritual space, weapons are the instruments, and the contestants are (ideally) bound by certain rules. Play is not necessarily synonymous with "fun."

Ritual in RuneQuest

To your ancient world thinking Gloranthan adventurer, ritual is how they live and act in the world. It governs every aspect of their existence. It is the way things are to be done. Dharma. In their minds, there is no real distinction between the laws of society, the laws of nature, and the rules of a game. Ritual is the opposite of Chaos. Ritual is what keeps Chaos at bay.

One way to promote character building and to engage with Glorantha as a setting is to encourage players to think about rituals for everything, not just magical practices.  What rituals does the adventurer perform upon first waking, or before going to sleep? What rituals are performed before taking a meal, drawing water from a well, making love to your partner? Giving a little thought to this helps players get into the minds of their characters, and allows them to "flesh out" the cultures of Glorantha as they understand them. Some examples:

Jandetin Twice-Tamed is an Archer of Yu-Kargzant. He eats three times a day, at dawn when he wakes, at noon, and at sunset. Each time he turns and faces the Sun, bows his head and covers his eyes. He thanks Yu-Kargzant for lighting the world so that food may grow. Before eating he then breaks off a small piece of food as an offering to the Sun to show his thanks.

Vargast Son of Varan is a Sartarite initiate of Humakt. Each night before sleeping, he first cleans and oils his swords. Then he holds the blade aloft. "Now I descend into darkness, the nightly death that is the promise of what is to come." He lays the blade beside his bedding, and always sleeps with his head facing west...the gates of the underworld all must one day pass.

Ferenasa Daughter of Bernarva is an initiate of Ernalda. Her husband Jarmast is an initiate of Orlanth and Barntar. On mornings when the mood is upon her, she touches her husband's arm with a knowing look and gives him a list of tasks she wishes him to perform that day. Often these are things he does every day anyway, but by setting him these tasks, as Ernalda set out tasks for Orlanth in his wooing of her, she is signaling a romantic evening. At the end of the day he returns, and announces his trials are complete. They retire to their bedding for an intimate evening. 

In the streets of Jonstown, it is the practice of Eurmali clowns on the 13th day of the Sacred Time to dress in black rags and don hideous, goat masks. They go door-to-door, banging loudly on them, threatening to carry off children to eat them. The children must face them, and drive them off by throwing charcoal or balls of ash. This is the annual rite of "chasing away the Devil," to ensure good health and fortune for the child the coming year.

Andrin Son of Andru is an initiate of Lhankor Mhy. Before starting to write upon a new scroll, he first spits into the ink. "I join this ink as my thoughts join the page, writer and written, one."

A gamemaster should offer a bonus for these minor rituals, plus 5 or 10 percentages. For example, maybe Andrin's ink ritual grants him a +5% on his writing skill. A child who completes the "chasing away the Devil" gets +5% on the "Child Survival" roll that year. These rituals are acts of magic. They have real power in them.

And why not allow ritual practices to augment important skill rolls?

Imagine a Gustbran initiate charged with repairing the sword of this chieftain. The blade has been in the chieftain's bloodline for centuries and was recently damaged. The smith withdraws the entire day into his forge. He does not eat, speak, or sleep. Instead he sings songs to the broken sword, getting to know the metal, the shape, the spirit of the blade. He promises the blade he will restore it, an oath he seals by nicking his thumb on the blade. This is a full day of ritual practice, and earns him a +50% on his Craft roll to repair the blade.

In fact, why not turn this ritual practice into a form of worship? 

On the eve of a great battle, an Orlanth chieftain leads a ceremony to gain Orlanth's favor on the field the next day. They climb to a hill top and call upon the god with drums and dance and hymns to please him. At the climax, they sacrifice a bull. This is an hour long ritual (+35%) with a sacrifice (+20%), giving those who participate in the ritual a +55% on their Battle rolls the next day. 

These are big bonuses, but bear in mind they apply to only a single roll, so will be used in something like a Craft roll or Battle. And there is no reason a gamemaster can't call for rolls to see if the ritual practice works. Also, you can be certain that in the second case the opposite side is performing rituals as well to get the edge in battle.

Ultimately, increased ritual practice in your game reflects the things that inspired RuneQuest. Rituals like these are throughout texts like the Iliad or Mahabharata. It encourages players to enter the ritualistic mindset of their adventurers.    

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