"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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024


Being the Tale of the Road Leading to Pendragon

BY THE TIME I started playing their games in 1982, Chaosium already had something of a reputation.  Though no one was using the term back then, Chaosium appeared determined to be the first real publisher of what we now call "Indie" games.  While most publishers were either trying to "fix" D&D, rip off D&D, or adapt D&D to other genres, Chaosium was cornering the market on deeply literary, art house products, seemingly disinterested in the pop culture trends informing the developing RPG hobby.  At a time when Tolkien and Star Wars increasingly determined the conventions of tabletop role-play, Chaosium was drinking from a very different well.  Just look at the history.   

Chaosium's first RPG was RuneQuest--a game inspired by ancient epics and the academic theories of thinkers like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.  RuneQuest had no orcs, no knights in shining armor, no recognizable Dark Lord.  There were no jovial halflings, singing elves, or dour dwarves.  Instead, RuneQuest featured a bewildering array of invented gods and exhaustive ruminations on mythology.  The most polite word for this game was "niche." 

Soon after, as the entire point of contemporary RPGs seemed to be accumulating levels and treasure, taking down bigger and badder adversaries, and climbing to greater heights of power, Chaosium followed RuneQuest with a game that  turned all the burgeoning conventions of RPGs on their head. Call of Cthulhu, a game based on the writings of pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft had its characters spiraling into despair, madness, and death.  These weren't heroes, they were investigators, and horrifically out of their depth.  Add to this the fact that in 1981, outside of French academia and those lucky enough to own hand-me-down Arkham House collections, Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" was practically unknown, and Call of Cthulhu becomes a very art house choice for a company's second RPG. 

Fantasist Michael Moorcock was certainly better known than Lovecraft, but the publication of Stormbringer that same year was yet another example of Chaosium refusing to "just do" Tolkieneque high fantasy like everyone else.  Moorcock--who years later would be nick-named the "Anti-Tolkien"--famously rejected the creator of Middle-earth in his classic 1978 essay, "Epic Pooh." By making Stormbringer their third RPG, Chaosium doubled down on its own rejection of expected fantasy RPG tropes.  

Three years later, at the very height of Star Wars fever, Chaosium yet again zigged while the rest of the industry was zagging with the hard science Ringworld.  Based on the works of acclaimed writer Larry Niven, Ringworld was another example of the emerging Chaosium pattern; go with the literary rather than the cinematic, the niche rather than the popular.

That Chaosium not only succeeded with these games, but in fact became an established brand through them, says something about the times.  Before video games, binge-watching, or the Internet, nerds were bookish.  The first generation of gamers in the 70s and early 80s didn't just read Tolkien, they read Howard and Poul Andersen, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, etc.  Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide came with an impressive bibliography.  Thus, when eleven-year-old me first encountered Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu back in 1982the first thing I did was go back into the literature, reading every piece of Moorcock and Lovecraft I could get my hands on. RuneQuest had had a similar effect on me.  I read everything from the Iliad to Eliade.  Literature was the primary fuel for roleplaying.

Timing is everything, however, and the moment when Chaosium forever defined itself as a gateway drug into classic literature came in 1985, just as the rest of the hobby seemed to be turning away from literature towards television, cinema, and eventually—in a predictable display of inbreeding—itself for inspiration.  With Dragons of Autumn Twilight sitting on bookstore shelves, marking the dawn of an age when games now produced their own insular literature, Chaosium did exactly what they always did and went in the opposite direction.  Greg Stafford, who had already given us Glorantha, wrote his love letter to Sir Thomas Malory and 15th century Arthurian Romance.  If Call of Cthulhu was Chaosium's greatest commercial success, this game was their greatest artistic one.

It's name was 
King Arthur Pendragon.   

A winner of Origins awards for Best Roleplaying Game Rules and Adventures, the Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence, and an inductee into the GAMA Hall of Fame, Pendragon is ranked 5th in RPG.net's highest rated games, and consistently mentioned by both gamers and game designers as a groundbreaking and seminal work. Stafford himself viewed the game as his "masterpiece."  If you like your games literary, thoughtful, and thrilling, Pendragon needs to be on your shelf.          

Being the Story of Core Pendragon, and What Remains in this Edition  

Pendragon is, obviously, a game set in Arthurian Britain.  Given 1500 years of telling and retelling these stories, however, that covers a lot of ground.  Specifically then Pendragon is the unofficial Le Morte d'Arthur RPG.  Despite Stafford's discussions of the English, French, Welsh, and contemporary versions of the cycle (and how to include elements of them in your campaign), what is clear is that Thomas Malory lies close to the heart of the game and defines its parameters.  This means Pendragon is a game about knights; there are no rogues, no barbarians, no clerics, and no magicians...at least not as player characters.  There are no dwarves or elves (again, not as player characters).  Your character is an armored warrior in a feudal system of vassalage, and expected to follow a code of chivalry.  It also means that your character's traits and passions are going to be front and center in the game.  Malory distinguished his bewildering array of knights by focusing on their personalities; Galahad was chaste, Gawaine lecherous, Argravaine a bit cruel.  Lancelot was defined, for good of for ill, by his passion for Guinevere.  Because these things were important to Malory, they are important in Pendragon.  Finally, it means this game is going to be a bit anachronistic.  Malory's work was published in 1485, roughly a thousand years after the period it was set in, and the world he portrays looks a great deal more like his than post-Roman Britain.  Pendragon deals with this in a very clever way, which we will get to in a moment, but players need to be prepared for shining  armor, jousts, and courtly love.

I keep calling it "Pendragon." It should be noted that up until this new edition, the title was fully King Arthur Pendragon, and the 6th shortens it to what we all basically have been calling it anyway. 

Pendragon campaigns tend to cover the same period of time as Le Morte d’Arthur as well; namely from the reign of Arthur’s father, Uther, up through Arthur’s “death” and being spirited away to the isle of Avalon.  This is about eight decades of game play, and to accommodate this Stafford builds in the conceit that player character knights have one adventure per year.  Aside from the adventure itself, there is a year-end winter phase, when the GM and players manage the knight’s estate, arrange a suitable marriage, and go about the business of producing heirs who will then become the new player characters when the original ones are too old for adventure.  A player then might end up roleplaying three of four generations of characters.  It’s not merely a clever way to get through the whole of Arthur’s reign, but also goes to the root of another very authentic Malory concern…lineage.  Arthur’s story is, after all, just as much Uther and Mordred’s as it is his own.  

Pendragon uses this pacing to do something else rather extraordinary.  When the game begins under the reign of Uther, it is very 5th century Britain (or does it? see below).  The armor is a bit anachronistic (Norman), but the character’s estate is likely to be a ruined Roman villa or a wooden motte-and-bailey castle.  Life is Hobbesian; chivalry is not yet a thing and there is nothing resembling courtly love.  Magic and the supernatural are also quite rare.  Yet as the game passes through phases of Arthur’s reign, the arrival of the King unleashes a sort of magic over Britain.  Time accelerates, so that you race technologically through a thousand years of medieval history.  By the end, heavy plate armor, magnificent soaring castles and towers, high chivalry and courtly love all exist.  At the same time, magic increases.  Supernatural creatures and Fae knights make their appearances, as Britain becomes idealized and enchanted.  Of course Arthur’s death will end all of this, and the Dark Ages will rush back in, but for one brief, shining moment, there was Camelot.  Stafford brilliantly made Malory’s anachronisms a feature rather than a bug in a way that also allows groups to experiment with “different” Arthurs…one phase can be the historical Arthur, the next the old Welsh Arthur, later the English Arthur or the French Arthurian romances.  

The system itself is something of an evolution of the classic Chaosium “basic roleplaying” rules. It uses a d20, rather than the BRP percentile, with the player attempting to role less than or equal to his rating in a skill or trait.  A critical success is achieved by rolling exactly your target number; if your skill is 16, rolling a 16 is a critical.  A 20 is always a fumble…unless your rating is higher than 20, in which it becomes a critical.  It’s a clever way of making sure that higher skill matters, rather than a critical being just a roll of a 1.  This universal mechanic handles all die resolutions in the game.

Since the player characters are all knights, they are distinguished from each other though what is probably the real centerpiece of the game, the system of Traits and Passions.  Lancelot was no doubt a great warrior, but we remember him for his love for Guinevere. Likewise, Arthur is revered for his sense of justice more than his jousting score.  To be true to the genre, the same has to apply to the characters in the game.

Characters are defined then by 13 pairs of opposed Traits, the sum total of each pair being twenty.  Pairs include Chaste/Lustful, Merciful/Cruel, Valorous/Cowardly, etc.  If your Chaste is 13, your Lustful must 7.  If Chaste increases, Lustful goes down.  These act as general guidelines how to play the character, unless the Traits rise close enough to 20 that you start earning “Glory” (a form of experience) from them.  Thus, if you are renowned for being a Chaste Knight, and earn Glory for your chastity, acting Lustful will probably require a roll.  If you fail your Chaste roll, you can act however you like.  If you succeed you must be Chaste, or else suffer a penalty (such as the Trait being reduced).

Passions have an even more profound effect on the game.  These can be things like Love, Loyalty, or Hate, usually targeted towards a specific person or group.  Passions can be rolled against to become inspired by the passion, gaining a bonus for a success and a larger bonus for a critical.  On the other hand, failing them, or fumbling them, can drive the character into depression or even madness.  We turn again to Lancelot as the perfect example of this.  His Love for Guinevere (or Amor, before they became actually lovers), could inspire him to fight furiously for her if she is endangered or abducted, but a failed roll could send him years of madness as a hermit in the woods (all of which has happened in the cycle).  This may not seem terribly realistic my modern standards, but it suits the reality of Malory perfectly.

In which Arthur and His Knights Learn of what has Changed...

When Stafford and Sandy Petersen returned to the House That Greg Built in 2015, they brought with them a new team and an ambitious agenda. First came the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, an edition that instituted more mechanical changes in the game than any previous edition. This was followed by RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, an edition that...instituted more mechanical changes than any edition before. Now we have Pendragon 6th edition which, you guessed it, institutes more changes than any edition before. Don't take my word for it. Take Greg's. He wrote:

This is the sixth edition of the game. Only the transition from first edition to second has had as much updating as this one has. Yet despite the intervening time, even material made for the first edition game is compatible with this one. Sure, it needs a bit of Gamemaster tweaking, but this consistency spanning forty years of writing is a rare distinction in an industry where new editions tend to wipe out previous ones in an effort to force consumers to purchase a whole new set of books. Such mercenary considerations have never ruled my designs.

Pendragon, p. 237

I have seen in a few other early reviews the complaint that the 6th edition has "less" in it than some previous editions. The Core Rulebook covers only the creation of characters from the region of Salisbury, which was also the case in the 5th edition (the sprawling 4th edition covered characters across the Arthurian world). It seems to have removed the--ahem--"woman's character sheet," a conceit in previous editions to allow players to portray female characters in a more authentic medieval way. Instead, it keeps the focus squarely on "knights," and this includes female knights or "dames." There is no bestiary, "no scenarios" (there are, in fact, solo scenarios, generic adventures intended to catch up naughty players who miss game sessions), etc. While it is clear to me that many of these things will likely appear in the upcoming Gamemaster book (and others are the result of design choices meant to speak to 21st century players), Greg's point above still stands. If you have any previous editions of the game, you can still use them with this one. This Core Rulebook, instead, is aimed at new players, who will hardly miss any of the material mentioned above. With the simultaneous release of The Grey Knight, and the prior release of the Starter Set, much of this has already been covered anyway.

But there is a lot that is new in this edition, and it is with some sadness that I read Stafford write:

This is “Greg Stafford’s Ultimate Edition” because it will be my last version, simply because my age requires me to work on new material, not to revise the old.

He goes on to explain what this edition focuses on is detail. In that, it delivers. It takes much of what players of previous editions were simply supposed to know and lays it all out. There is more on knighthood, on what knights do, on the setting, on weapons and equipment, even on generating a coat of arms. And Pendragon 6 takes older elements of the game and expands them. "Honor" is the prime example. It existed in previous editions but here it is highlighted, hugely detailed and expanded, and made as central an element of a knight's progress as Glory is (Glory in all editions served as a knight's general "experience points" measure, their notoriety and fame, etc). It moves from being a detail of the game to a primary concern. 

Skills have been considerably reworked and re-detailed. Converting from previous editions, skills will be where the most juggling is. Yet they are clearer then they have ever been, once again better enabling players to understand what they are for, why they are there, and how they explain the setting and what knights do. To illustrate the differences I am driving at here, let us simply compare the skill "Dancing" from the 5th and 6th editions:

5th Edition

This Skill measures the character’s ability to move gracefully to music, as well as his knowledge of the many styles of formal dancing done at court. This elegant style of dancing depends primarily on experience and knowledge of forms rather than on agility. A success indicates accurate adherence to the accepted form of the dance being performed, while a critical success indicates superb grace, verve, and perhaps spontaneity. A fumble means that the character went the wrong way, probably bumping into other dancers. The Gamemaster may even rule that the fumbler tripped and fell over his own feet. A fumbled Dance roll is invariably a humiliating experience. Glory can be gained from successful Dance rolls if the dancer(s) are the center of attention.

6th Edition

Skill Groups: Courtly, Ladies

Skill Use (what function might the skill use in play, to show off, to gain information, to sway others, etc): Deed, Inquiry

(Can) Glory (be gained): Yes

This Skill measures the character’s ability to know the difference between types of dances and the proper steps for each. Courtly dances are usually performed in groups, with dancers clasping hands and arms, swinging their partners about, and trying to avoid collisions with others. The dance music varies in tempo and duration. A failed roll means the dancer turns in a mediocre and forgettable effort, while a fumble indicates a collision on the dance floor or a similar faux pas.

Courtly Dances

Court dances are always group affairs meant to entertain both participants and observers. These are performed in a courtly setting, with musicians making pleasing sounds and keeping the beat. Dances are not every-night affairs but are sponsored at gatherings and celebrations.

- A Carole or Ronde is performed by a group of dancers arranged in a circle, or sometimes in a chain or procession. A leader sings a song, and the other dancers answer with the refrain.

- A Quadrille is a dance for four couples who stand in a square.

- A Basse Dance is for couples and is slow and sedate.

- The Black Nag, Black Alman, Estampie, and Rufty Tufty are lively yet dignified, with jumping and much bowing andcurtseying. Dancers are divided into couples who face each other.

- A Saltarello is another active dance, with much jumping about and lively steps.

- Commoners have their own dances, but these are obscure to knights and ladies.

This is where the focus of the new Pendragon lies. It brings a level of detail and "life" to the game that was previously missing or exiled to source books rather than the core game.

This continues into what knights can aspire to become. In a game with a single character "class," differentiation comes from personality and what the characters aspire to. We have seen in previous editions, for example, the "religious knight" who puts faith first. But here too we have the "chivalrous knight" for whom the code knights live by is a chief concern, and the "romantic knight," a critical ideal for a genre so often referred to as "Arthurian Romance." 

In which the Author Speculates Wildly

The sixth edition Core Rulebook is, without question, the definitive guide to playing knights in the world of King Arthur Pendragon. Its sole focus is to take the reader into the setting and show them what it means to dwell there, to be part of that milieu. There is less for Gamemasters, but frequent mentions are made of the upcoming "gamemaster's book" which I am completely on board for. 

More tantalizing, I think, is page 7.

Inseparable in my mind from the game is The Great Pendragon Campaign. Stafford spoke of Pendragon as his masterpiece, but if this were true, The Great Pendragon Campaign was the masterpiece of his masterpiece. This was a campaign book that exemplified and defined everything Pendragon is, taking players from 485 AD to 566, the entirety of Arthur's reign. Later expansions allowed play to start earlier, in the reign of Arthur's father, Uther. This is the book that shows the accelerated march of time, from the post-Roman dark ages to the era of high romance, and ensured at least 100 extraordinary play sessions.

But page 7...page 7...

If you are an Arthurian nerd you know the story goes back much further than Uther. On page 7 "The Pendragon Chronology" begins with Constantin in 415 AD, then goes through the Vortigern, Tyrant, Uprising, and Aurelius periods before we reach Uther. And the page says, and I quote...

The volumes of The Great Pendragon Campaign...expand on these details...

"Volumes," Chaosium? Plural? Are you bringing us the earlier periods as well?

Because the Author had to Work In at least One Mary Stewart Reference...

Obviously, it is a very pretty book.

I say this because most editions of Pendragon have, in various ways, been beautiful, but also because every post-2015 Chaosium production has had jaw-dropping art. There is a wide range of art here, which I have noticed recent RuneQuest tomes have shied away from in favor of a single artist or unifying vision. I think the range fits here, because there is not, nor can there be, "one Arthur." 

I think despite Greg Stafford's name being the only one on the book, credit must go to line editor David Larkins, developer Veli-Matti Pelkonen and David Zeeman, and creative director Jeff Richard for the book. My suspicion is that all bowed out gracefully from credit because this was the Great Man's final work. But the team of artists deserves praise, and the rest who had a hand in the book's lay-out and production.

Ultimately, Chaosium is dealing in 40+-year-old properties that are uncontested classics. Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and Pendragon are "hall of fame" games, undisputed masterpieces of design and execution. This makes it tricky to roll out new editions. What I think we have seen in Cthulhu and RuneQuest, and now especially in Pendragon, is a recognition of what made these games legendary, and a sort of "let's go with that" attitude. They are updated for modern play, to be certain, but anyone sitting down at Pendragon 6 having started with the first edition will immediately recognize the game. At the same time, there has simply never been a better introduction to Pendragon than the Starter Set and this Core Rulebook. You are immediately transported into Camelot's cosmos, and the support the system and content gives you makes you feel you belong there.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024


 Chaosium Con Australia 2024 is right around the corner, and I will be there next week. 

On my end I will be doing three seminars:

“Bringing RQ to Life” focuses on the small details and ‘daily life’ elements you can sprinkle into games to make them feel more organic to players. 

“Writing for the Jonstown Compendium” is pretty much what it sounds like. My (hard won) experience turned into short cuts, tips, and advice…but also WHY you should consider doing it.

“Scoping Out Long Form Campaigns” is about choosing and running long campaigns. It’s hard enough running a couple of scenarios, but campaigns come with challenges. Over the last 40 years I’ve run The Great Pendragon campaign twice, Masks of Nyarlathotep three times, and my own “Six Seasons” campaign is pretty darn long. I will be talking about all of them and how to make running them easier. 

On top of that I will be doing a book signing and running two games! “The Turning” is the final chapter of “Six Seasons in Sartar” and “The Hanging Tree” is the penultimate episode of the (yet unpublished) “Final Riddle.”

I will be writing blog posts about the three seminars after the fact for those who can't back it down there. Keep your eyes here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE about The Cults of RuneQuest series, "An Encyclopedia of the Deities of RuneQuest," is how the titles give subtle hints about the nature of the pantheons described within. The Lightbringers was not about just the Air pantheon or "storm tribe," but about the myth that is the core of their civilization and identity, the redemptive Lightbringers' Quest. The title tells us not only what the god Orlanth and his companions did during the mythical Darkness to redeem the world, but what their mortal followers did after the Dawn to spread the "good news." Likewise The Earth Goddesses may contain several masculine deities too, but it is rooted in the matriarchal culture of Esrolia, which places primacy on the divine feminine. One imagines in Esrolia "goddess" as a blanket term for all deities. 

Yet nowhere is the significance of the title more evident than in the newest offering, The Lunar Way. This is not "Gods of the Lunar Empire" or "The Lunar Pantheon." Neither would have been accurately descriptive of what the Lunar religion is. Because ultimately, that religion is a "path," forged by the Red Goddess, that all the deities and heroes and humble followers of the Red Moon follow. She is leading them somewhere. It is not about worshipping and maintaining the status quo. It is a religion about going. The teachings of the Red Goddess are less scripture and more like the Tao.

The Red Goddess and her empire have suffered a bit of abuse the last four decades or so. Binary thinking is deeply ingrained in some schools of fantasy literature, so if Sartar is the "good guys" the Lunar Empire must be villains. But neither of these were ever true. Greg Stafford and those who followed wrote Glorantha more in the tradition of swords and sorcery fiction than high fantasy. Decades before George R. R. Martin would revive the style, Glorantha presented a very believable world of civilizations at cross purposes, of cultures in conflict. There were no white hats or black, just different points of view. It is difficult for same gamers to embrace that. Indeed, in today's climate of extreme polarization, side-picking, and demonizing the other, it is difficult for people to embrace that. 

On the other hand, the Lunar Way is indeed a radical point of view. Glorantha is a world that was nearly destroyed by Chaos. Most pantheons--despite extreme differences--therefore oppose it. It is perhaps the ultimate, undeniable "evil." Yet the Red Goddess embraces Chaos, believes it is part of the world order. She incorporates the teachings of the First Age deity Nysalor, a god created by mortal races--in violation of divine accordance known as the Great Compromise--inside the mortal world of Time. Nysalor too embraced Chaos, and taught a discipline called Illumination that freed the individual from cult restrictions, personal passions and loyalties, and even to a degree from the Runes. In a world as conservative as Glorantha, where restrictions are in place to keep Chaos from ever happening again, this ultimate liberation is threatening. From the reactionary point of view of most anti-Chaos cults, Illumination is akin to Lovecraft:

The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

Indeed. This was the same criticism leveled against the teachings of the Buddha in ancient India by the established priesthoods. In a highly hierarchal world view, where gods speak through priests and cults, personal liberation--being told one does not need a god--is a threat.

But ultimately the best thing about Glorantha is that both points of view--Illumination is Lovecraftian madness or misunderstood mysticism--are accurate. I portrayed it as a sort of cosmic evil in The Final Riddle, despite the fact that my first RuneQuest character back in the 80s was a devoted Seven Mothers priestess. One of the reasons I have always found online arguments about Gloranthan "facts" tedious is that ultimately there are none. You go where the campaign takes you. I am perfectly happy to portray the Lunars as monsters in one campaign and then as heroes in the next. Because they are both, a point The Lunar Way very finely makes.

So let's take a look, shall we?

The Cults

The Lunar Way covers 15 distinct cults. Well...14 distinct cults and 1 overlapping one...well 1 cult that overlaps 6 others, 7 distinct cults...and 1 that overlaps all of them...

Did I mention Lunar religion is complicated?

We have the cult of the Seven Mothers. These were seven "occult conspirators" who undertook a perilous series of quests to revive a dead goddess inside the mortal world of Time. Moon goddesses had existed before Time, in the mythic Gods Age, but had a habit of being killed and reborn. The Red Goddess is the latest of these, and if you believe the Lunars she is their ultimate form. The Seven Mothers are those who brought her back to life.

While the Seven Mothers are worshipped collectively, and are the primary "missionary" cult spreading the Lunar Way outside the Empire's borders, each also has their own distinct cult. Of these The Lunar Way details the cults of Danfive Xaron, Deezola, Irrippi Ontor, Jakaleel the Witch, Teelo Norri, and Yanafal Tarnils. Only the mysterious "She Who Waits" is left undescribed. 

Outside of the Seven Mothers, we get the cults of the Red Emperor, Etyries, Yara Aranis, Hon-eel the Artess, Hwarin Dalthippa, the Crimson Bat, and Nysalor/Gbaji. 

Above all of these is the supreme Lunar cult, that of the Red Goddess herself. To become an initiate of this, you must first be a Rune master of one of the other cults and Illuminated.

Before we talk about Illumination--and we need to talk about Illumination--it should be noted that none of these deities, not even the Red Goddess, existed before Time in the Gods Age. This is yet another aspect of the Lunar Way that makes the Empire a sort of boogeyman to so many other cultures. As a general rule, Glorantha was shaped by the actions of the deities before the beginning of Time. Glorantha "facts" derive from these myths. The sun rises and sets because he was killed and resurrected in the Gods Age. The presence of new gods, new gods born inside of Time, by necessity reshapes reality. Orlanth is the master of the Middle Air and king of the gods. This is "fact." But the presence of the Red Goddess threatens to alter those "facts," and if one imagines our own laws of physics being altered the unease that would ensue. For the Lunars, these gods are not being created so much as revealed, and the world is not being changed as much as maturing into what it was always meant to be. Evidence of this might indeed be the mysterious Spider Woman, who seems to have defended the Red Goddess' right to exist at every turn. She can be none other than Arachne Solara, the anima mundi and mother of Time. But this rewriting the DNA of the setting is another cause for conflict.


The Lunar Way brings Illumination into the latest edition of RuneQuest. I was very pleased to see it does so mostly in accordance with how I did the same in The Final Riddle.

Back in Cults of Terror (1981), Illumination was gained by hearing, and understanding, Nysalorean Riddles. These Riddles are akin to zen koans, but linked to certain skills in the game. For example, a Riddler might ask "in what sound is Truth revealed?" The character would then make a Listen roll. If successful, 1% of Illumination is gained and added to any previous percentiles, and the characters answers the question ("In silence is Truth revealed"). Each year at Sacred Time, the character would roll against their cumulative Illumination total and if successful, BAM! The character is Illuminated.

Illumination came with benefits. First, the Illuminate could sense Illumination in others. They could now tell others Nysalorean Riddles to spread Illumination. They were immune to Detect Law/Chaos abilities. They possessed the "secret knowledge" that Chaos was not an inimical force. And finally, the one that really got the power gamers salivating, the ability to break cult restrictions and not be chased by spirits of reprisal.

In his updating, Jeff Richard has stuck to most of this but amended it to better suit the new edition. First of all, Illumination is now a Magic skill, and comes with a base percentage equal 1/5 your Moon Rune affinity (+ your Magic skill modifier). This takes advantage of the new editions use of Rune affinities and makes perfect sense. The cult of Nysalor is largely extinct, and from the Lunar point of view superseded by the Lunar Way. Further, in addition to this change, Illumination can now be trained, like any skill, by proper Lunar cults. This will have the effect of making Illumination a great deal more common in RQ campaigns (appropriate as the timeline moves into the Hero Wars).

The benefits of Illumination have also expanded. The ability to sense Illumination, avoid Law/Chaos detection, learn Nysalorean Riddles, immunity to spirits of reprisal, and "secret knowledge" about the nature of Chaos all remain intact. Now however the Illuminate can ignore cult restrictions (using gifts without geases, learning spells forbidden to your cult, joining enemy cults, etc). They may use their Illumination to overcome Rune affinities and Passions. And paired Rune opposites (Fertility and Death, Harmony and Disorder, etc) no longer need to total 100% and can be raised at will.

And you thought the power gamers were salivating before...

But there are warnings in here as well.

Becoming Illuminated in Glorantha is shocking and madness-inducing. Once you are Illuminated, there is no turning back. Mass murderers, mad prophets, hysterics, atavists, catatonics, and all sorts of raving loonies are common products of the profound dislocation that results from Illumination...(on)ly the strongest of most grounded minds and wills can retain the mask of normality after this shattering epiphany...

The Lunar Way, p. 99

In short, Illumination erases everything that made the character the character. Passions (Love, Loyalty, Devotion) no longer bind the character. Rune affinities are brushed away. Your cult and deity no longer have a hold on you. All the things that define an RQ character are shattered. "An Illuminated individual views ethics, morals, mythology, deity, magic, and the world in a solipsistic manner." The Lunar Empire is aware of this, and watches Illuminates for signs of Occlusion (going off the rails). Most other civilizations would murder an Illuminate instantly. The Lunar Way leaves policing Illumination to the GM. In some campaigns, it can be portrayed as pure liberation, but in others there is plenty of room for horror (Illuminates cannot be instantly sense, but INT rolls could be required to see if the Illuminate is able to maintain the "mask of normality." Failed rolls could have dire consequences.

The Rest

Like other cult books, The Lunar Way begins with an overview of the religion and how it views the rest of the world. It emphasizes the primacy of the Solar religion (the Lunar cults see themselves as extensions of the Celestial pantheon) and the Lunar Way as a path or process. There is a wonderful discussion of how the Lunars view life (Righthand Incarnation) and death (Lefthand Incarnation) as equal phases of existence and enlightenment, and an overview of the Lunar Empire as a political entity (with descriptions of the prominent noble families). Finally the geography of the physical Red Moon is discussed, useful for those who don't have The Guide to Glorantha.

Closing Thoughts

Both the Crimson Bat and Nyslaor/Gbaji have "migrated" from Cults of Terror into this Lunar book, making you wonder what might replace them in the future Chaos cults book. Also I was mildly disappointed to not find Annilla here (the Blue Moon was one of the first cult write-ups I ever tried my hand at back in college) but perhaps she might appear in the Darkness cults book. There is less on the White Moon cult than might be desired as well, but that might be something better developed as the timeline progresses.

What we do have here is the definitive take on the Lunar Empire. I think it is harder, reading these pages, to reduce the Lunars to previous long-standing tropes (they are fantasy Romans, they are bad guys, etc). It is tremendously useful book for those who wish to portray the Lunars as human beings, whether running a pro-Sartar campaign or a pro-Lunar one. Clearly understanding an antagonist's motivations makes them a richer antagonist. There is a clear sense in these pages of why the Lunar Way is different from other religions, and why that generates conflict. The definitive RQG take on Illumination is likewise game-changing (I am relieved it is close enough to my guesses that I will not have to completely rewrite The Final Riddle!). Most importantly, perhaps, this is the first of the cults books to really broaden the base of game play. No longer confined to Dragon Pass, Prax, or Esrolia, campaigns could now be comfortably set in Lunar Tarsh or Peloria. Unfortunately for those hoping to save their pennies, The Lunar Way is ultimately another "must-buy."    



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.    

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Easy is the Descent: A Look at the MÖRK BORG and ShadowDark RPGs

Easy is the descent to hell; all night long, all day, the doors of dark Hades stand open; but to retrace the path; to come out again to the sweet air of Heaven – there is the task, there is the burden.
- Virgil

"The Old School Renaissance," or "Old School Revival," kicked off in online forums like Dragonsfoot in the early 2000s. Essentially, the movement was a reaction to the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that was both mechanically and thematically a departure from all the versions of the game before it. The original OSR games were mainly "retro-clones," rulesets that made use of the Open Game License and System Reference Document to emulate those early editions of D&D. Games like OSRIC (AD&D), Labyrinth Lord (B/X D&D), and Swords & Wizardry (OD&D) all sought to preserve earlier editions of the game no longer supported by the publisher at that time. There were, however, even then games that wanted to capture the "feel" of early editions of D&D without actually reviving those early mechanics. Castles & Crusades was amongst the earliest of these. As the years have passed, this non-retro-clone "new wave" of OSR game has gained in popularity. Using modern mechanics, they return to the themes of the earliest editions. Ben Milton's Knave, Dan Masters' Deathbringer, Keven Crawford's Worlds Without Number, James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and even to an extent Howitt and Taylor's Heart fit this description to various degrees.  In this article, however, I would like to focus on two recent games that I think exemplify this trend, Nilsson and Nohr's doom metal dungeoncrawl MÖRK BORG and Kelsey Dionne's recent ShadowDark.

Before I get into why these two games, let's talk about the tone and themes modern OSR games are trying to recapture.

Worth a Thousand Words

The 1978 AD&D's Player's Handbook featured wrap-around cover art by David A, Trampier. It depicts a party of dungeon explorers, all their hirelings in tow, in a dim subterranean temple prying the jeweled eyes out of a statue. A battle has clearly already occurred, since we can see some of them clearing away inhuman corpses. But the cover tells you exactly what the game is about. Going into dungeons and looting them for treasure.


Flash forward to 2014 and the cover of the 5th edition Player's Handbook. A pair of glamorous heroes--no henchmen or hirelings in sight--are single-handedly taking on a giant. There is no treasure, because these are not treasure-looting adventurers, there are bold heroes. The focus of the game has moved from loot to combat. If the tone of the 1st edition of the game was 1982's Conan the Barbarian, the tone of the 5th edition is 2019's Avengers: Endgame. 


D&D began as a kind of "survival horror" game. Your characters were mostly ordinary people, initially quite frail, crawling into pitch-black ridiculously hostile places in search of gold. It was a game where the players themselves had to be crafty, descending into Hell, avoiding combat whenever possible, and crawling back out again with some riches under their belts. Experience (and thus character improvement) came from gold pieces, not killing opponents. Characters did not have superhuman feats at their disposal, they relied on finding magical items instead. It was a game focused on exploration, not action. Decades of video games (where you could simply go back to your last save if your character died) and blockbusters like Star Wars and the MCU changed all that.

While there is nothing wrong with playing high-powered superhero games, the OSR seems to be suggesting there was something worthwhile in those early editions too. So let's talk about ShadowDark and MÖRK BORG.


In terms of graphic design, lay-out, and sheer attitude these two games could not be more different from each other. ShadowDark focuses on clarity. Its text is straightforward, concise, and extremely readable. MÖRK BORG by contrast, is a direct assult on your senses. An extremely sparse text, it explains itself instead visually, with short, suggestive bursts of text that read more like song lyrics than prose. ShadowDark is a text. MÖRK BORG is performance.

On the other hand, mechanically the two games are very similar to each other. But use the modern d20 system: roll a d20, add your characteristic modifiers, compare to a difficulty number. Rolling high is good, rolling low is bad. In both games the math is extremely flat, so that characters do not become superhuman over time. Hit points are low. Both even share a similar spell mechanic. In both these games, magic-using characters need to make a roll to activate their spells. Indeed, both have the potential of spectacular failure if you roll a "1," a magical mishap that could be lethal to your character and the party around them. A key difference is that ShadowDark stays closer to D&D, using the standard array of STR, INT, WIS, DEX. CON, and CHR while MÖRK BORG opts for just Agility, Strength, Toughness, and Presence. ShadowDark also keeps the concepts of Advantage and Disadvantage from modern D&D. In situations where your character has some sort of advantage, you roll two dice and take the higher result. If you suffer disadvantage, roll two dice and take the lower.

Aside from these differences, ShadowDark is the more recognizable of the two to D&D players. The monsters, the spells, and the classes (Fighter, Priest, Thief, and Wizard) are all familiar. Compare this to MÖRK BORG's Fanged Deserter, Gutterborn Scum, Esoteric Hermit, Wretched Royalty, Heretical Priest, and Occult Herbmaster.

But let's talk about the covers again.

MÖRK BORG's wasp yellow-and-black and ShadowDark's eerie, silvery horror are coming from different directions but arriving at the same place. Both depict the threat of the setting, not the bold heroes. In MÖRK BORG the world is literally ending. In the very first mechanic of the game (an example of how despite its riot of color and layout the game is extremely intentional) there is a calendar the GM rolls on every day of game time to see if another apocalyptic doom is unleashed on the world. The characters are doomed and wretched, fighting to survive as long as they can. The world of ShadowDark is far less miserable, but the game is very evocative when describing the "ShadowDark," any dark, dangerous, forlorn place as almost a living presence. Only mad people would willing descend into such places. But the characters in these games are OSR characters, they are risking life and limb to buy as much time for themselves as they can.

Two final very OSR-features of these games is the widespread use of random tables and the reliance on treasure for character improvement. 
MÖRK BORG's random tables start right on the inside covers, and do more to describe the atmosphere of the setting than the text itself. The weather table gives results like lifeless grey, piercing wind, deafening storm, and gravelike cold. The next table generates items found corpse-plundering. ShadowDark's are more comprehensive than suggestive, allowing you to whip up dungeons (to be fair, both games do this), hex crawls, settlements, neighborhoods, NPCs, monsters...basically everything. You could run entire ShadowDark campaigns with these random tables. The randomness speaks to the "emergent play" feature of OSR games, that the "stories" emerge from the dice and what happens at the table, not extensive backstories or elaborate scripted plots.

The reliance on treasure is another critical feature. As mentioned, neither game is giving you an abundance of class feats that magically appear as you gain levels. If you want magical abilities, you need to comb dungeons for them. This keeps the focus on exploration and danger.