"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.
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Monday, April 13, 2020
Any rumors of my being entertained by naked, "gazelle-hipped boys" in the City of Dreams in exchange for a favorable review are mendacious lies spread by those disloyal to the Emperor.
All Hail the Reaching Moon!
GLORANTHA IS MANY THINGS. It's a Bronze Age game setting with a strong anthropological bent. It's a mythological world steeped in Joseph Campbell, Georges Dumézil, and Mircea Eliade. It's a neo-traditionalist artifact designed to recall ancient epics like the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or the Enuma Elish.
Glamour--the city--is fantasy gaming's answer to Indraprashta, the capital city of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. Built by Maya, the god of both Illusion and Magic, the Mahabharata describes it as;
How to convey, when one only has words,
the transcendental beauty of the building?
Decades afterward, old men would tell
how seeing the great hall at Indraprashta
had changed them, changed the meaning of the word
Marble that looked like water, artful stairs,
ponds so clear and still them seemed like stone,
painted roses asking to be picked,
jeweled flowers among real lotuses.
In this way, the inspired architect,
invited visitors to be alert,
the reflect on the nature of illusion.
The reason I go out of my way to mention this is that Glamour, the city, and A Rough Guide to Glamour, the book, are both the Mask and the Mirror that the Red Goddess claims to be. Hinduism describes reality as "the play of Maya," a double-edged illusion. The Lunar Way taught by the Red Goddess is a fictional reflection of this, and the Goddess incorporates all contradictions in her. To devout followers of the Lunar Way, Glamour is a warm buzz, the dizzying hormonal bliss of being a teenager in spring. To those who oppose her, it is three AM at the club when you have vomit on your shoes, too much vodka in your bloodstream, and you are starting to come down hard off the high. A Rough Guide to Glamour is a lot like this; if you are down with the silliness, if you "get" the Ducks and cradles and talking fish, the book is a terrific laugh and a teachable moment in the nature of the Lunar Way. If you never cared for the way out flippancy of some of Glorantha, this might not be the book for you. In the end, though, Maya (and the authors) are asking you to reflect on the nature of illusion...namely, where does the silliness in Glorantha end and the mythology begin? The world is a freaking cube, after all. Seen from one angle, it is all sublime, and from another, absurd.
Alright, Nysalorian detour over.
The book details the city of Glamour, its history, neighborhoods, and main attractions. A lot of this heavy lifting comes courtesy of Mike Hagen and Chris Gidlow, who provide a thorough description of the city and her history. RGtG discusses New Pelorian, the language of the Lunar Empire, contains the cult write-ups of both the capital's founders (the Red Emperor and Glamour herself), and talks about the important inhabitants of the city and the heroes of the Empire. It looks a great deal like your typical gaming sourcebook in this way. You could easily use it to set games, even campaigns, in the Lunar capital.
Fitting, however, for the capital of a Goddess who embraces madness, Chaos, and Illusion, a great deal of the book is winking at you. Gidlow's Let's Speak New Pelorian! for example is an obvious wink and nod at Orwell, but at the same time is telling you something very true about the Empire. The illustrations in the Very Important People in Glamour section might look suspiciously like Elvis, a certain actress who played Vanessa Ives, or another who played Hela in a Marvel movie (among others), but this is drawing comparisons between them. The spirits of reprisal in the Red Emperor's cult might make you cringe...but they also make sense. Jeff Richard's Glamour: Goddess of the Capital of the Lunar Empire cult write up will bring a grin to the faces of 80s New Wave fans--or gods help us 90s British Pop and Snow White--but captures the hallucinatory experience of the cult. And what can I say about Nick Brooke's Pelorian Rhapsody? Only that I am not altogether certain Freddie Mercury was singing about the apotheosis of the Red Goddess...but really, who knows?
My gut tells me this might be a slightly controversial entry in the Jonstown Compendium, but hey...what fandom out there these days isn't divided over that is canon and what isn't. The right people are going to grok this, and in the end that is the audience the book is seeking. YGWV, and if your Glorantha doesn't include Ducks because they offend your sense of dignity, you might want to give A Rough Guide to Glamour a pass.
The rest of it will read it and add percentiles to our march towards Illumination.
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Thursday, March 26, 2020
We don't know a tremendous amount about Cimbrian gods, but a later Roman cult complex near Heidelberg gives us a few hints. The complex, which dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, contains inscriptions to Mercurius Cimbrianus, or "Mercury of the Cimbri." Curiously this figure seems to have been the chief of their pantheon, something that could hardly be said of Mercury. Yet Tacitus, writing a century before this cult complex was built, also identified Mercury as the chief god of the Germanic peoples. He was called Mercurius Rex. Even more strangely, he was a bearded patriarch rather than a lithe, pre-teen boy.
By now you see where I am going with this; they were calling the Germanic god Odin (Woden, Wotan, etc) by Mercury's name.
This was a very Roman--and even Hellenic--thing to do. The Romans saw Mercury in the stooped, gray-bearded, one-eyed Odin the same way the Greeks had seen it in the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth. In fact a bewildering panoply of diverse gods ended up associated with Mercury/Hermes, all across Europe and the Near East. Nor was this limited to Mercury; the Romans and Hellenes did it with all their gods. It didn't particular matter to them how a deity was depicted. They were looking at something deeper. They were looking at what the god meant.
Mercury, Thoth, Odin, Lugus, etc et al were gods associated with communication and language, and thus in the classical mind, they were one and the same. It didn't really matter what the god was called, what his local myths were, or what he looked like. They knew the identity of the god by his essence.
Flash forward two thousand years.
In March of 2018 I reviewed The Glorantha Sourcebook, and something rather curious began to happen. Not really even thinking about it, I had selected a few pieces of art from the book to show my audience, and started to receive some very irate comments about, well...Orlanth. Now, for the one or two people who might have stumbled in here thinking it was a dissertation on ancient European religions, Orlanth is a fictional deity, a creation of the late Greg Stafford for his world "Glorantha." He is very much the Indo-European thunder god we see in deities like Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor, both the king of the gods and the deity of storms. He is the chief of his pantheon, and the central deity (with his wife the Earth goddess Ernalda) of a barbarian people. The messages I was receiving basically told me that the deity depicted in these pictures was not Orlanth, could not be Orlanth, and were all wrong.
The problem was the number of arms.
Somehow, in the intervening centuries between the classical period and the modern world, we had gone from looking at a bird-headed god and one that looked like a shepherd boy and recognizing the same deity--despite totally different names and mythologies--to getting bent out of shape that a fictional deity--with the same name and the same mythology--had the wrong number of arms.
Now, to be fair, Orlanth generally had been depicted with two arms in older games. He had also been depicted in a unitard. Call me crazy, but I will take super-cool multi-armed Orlanth over Slim Goodbody Orlanth any day of the week.
Levity aside, however, what we are seeing is fifteen centuries of monotheism at work on the Western mind. For nearly two millennia we have had institutions not only define deity for us, but teach us that any deviation from the authorized and sanctioned depiction of deity is wrong. In many cases deviation was not just wrong, it was heresy. Entire wars have been waged over the smallest details of mythological minutia, so it comes as little surprise that our reflex is to embrace what we have been taught about a deity initially, and reject anything that comes after which doesn't fall in line with that. This knee-jerk orthoodoxy bleeds into new "religions" as well...how many Internet battles have been waged over how the new Star Wars movies are not Star Wars or how Discovery is not Star Trek. We have gone a full 180 degrees from the classical impulse to see commonalities in deities to picking apart the differences.
The supreme irony, of course, is that this is a game about Bronze Age peoples. Your typical Gloranthan would look at multi-armed Orlanth, two-armed Orlanth, shrug, and ask what Runes each was associated with. Air, Motion, Mastery? Yup. Both Orlanth.
Subsequent conversations about these depictions of Orlanth--and certain other Gloranthan deities--reveals another layer of the issue. There seems to be a certain feeling that these recent depictions of Orlanth look too...Indian. This doesn't particularly bother me; really, if you are a student of comparative mythology, Orlanth reads far more like Indra than he ever has Thor. This aside, though, it is clear that Stafford's deity is conceived of as a sort of proto-Indo-European chieftain god, so it is not wrong to see Zeus or Thor or Perun in there as well. If, like me, you met Orlanth way back in the beginning, when Glorantha leaned more towards Conan and the Iliad than Celtic or Norse myth, you are probably more inclined to shrug recent depictions off. Unfortunately, there was a long middle period of Glorantha were Orlanth was looking rather...Aryan. And I don't mean the ancient India kind;
Or being very clearly associated with Odin;
If you had first encountered Orlanth in this mid-stage, I can easily see why the more recent depictions might throw you (from an upcoming Chaosium publication);
Yet if we step back a moment and look at Fetisov's frankly stunning portrayal of Orlanth, what immediately comes clear is that this is not Indian, nor is it Aryan, Germanic, Celtic, or Greek. Whereas the previous two illustrations seem to be telling us "Yes, this guy is called Orlanth but he is basically just Odin or Thor," the Fetisov depiction might be the first I have seen that visually expresses what Stafford's Orlanth was meant to be. That shield design is very Celtic, like the famous Battersea Shield. The greaves are very Greek. That red beard immediately suggests Thor for people who prefer mythology to Marvel comics. The dragon head could be Chinese, but looks suspiciously Persian. The vajra he is holding suggests India. In short, this is not an Orlanth that settles for being North European or Indian or Greek. He is all of the above and more.
There were never any real pictures of Orlanth back when I started playing in 1983, and in retrospect that might have been a good thing. I always had a fixed image of the Orlanthi as Howard's Cimmerians with Orlanth as a sort of brooding Crom. By the time game lines like Hero Wars were making very clear Celtic and Germanic references, I had already gone through graduate school, where I discovered the Indo-Europeans and formed my own image of Orlanth and Dragon Pass. In fact I can specifically recall a rant of mine circa the early 00s that the Orlanthi were NOT land bound Vikings (I have mellowed since then). In the end what I suppose I am suggesting here is that we take a cue from the setting we are playing and the time period it is set in. In some ways, the people of the ancient world were far less silly than we are. I have this mental image in my head of a 21st century student sitting on the floor of the Library of Alexandria with his tutor; "But Hermes doesn't look like a baboon, they can't be the same god."
It ends with the tutor smacking the student over the head.
Friday, February 21, 2020
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
This is not a review.
Characters--and by this I mean also animals, monsters, and NPCs--are represented by Characteristics and Skills. There are seven core Characteristics--Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity and Intelligence, Power, Appearance. The first four are physical traits (and in humans have a maximum of 21) while the second three are mental (with no upper limits). Obviously nonhumans and superhumans have different minimums and maximums. The Characteristics represent in order how strong, hardy, big, agile, intelligent, powerful, and charismatic a being is. "Power" is a tricky attribute, representing willpower and mental fortitude, as well as magical potency in fantasy settings, psychic power in science fiction, or "energy" in a superhero setting.
Options come into play here in how Characteristics are generated, either by dice rolls or point-buy systems, depending on your tastes. Another option is an eighth Characteristic, Education, suitable for more modern and futuristic settings with widespread educational systems.
These core Characteristics determine both Derived Characteristics and Characteristic Rolls. Derived characteristics include your damage bonus, determined by your Strength and Size; your hit points, determined by Size and Constitution; your Power Points, equal to your Power Characteristic, and an experience bonus equal to one half your Intelligence. These are all measures of how much damage you dish out in unarmed or melee combat, how much damage you can take, how much "magic" or "psychic" energy at your disposal, and how well you learn from exercising your skills.
On the subject of Skills, the Characteristic Rolls are determined by multiplying your base Characteristic by 5 percentiles. So if your Appearance is 13, you have a Characteristic Roll of 65% in that. As a side note, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (the first post-BRP edition of the venerable game) adopts the Characteristic Roll by just making all the Characteristics percentiles.
As you might have surmised from this segue, in BRP "Skills" are all rated in percentiles. Unlike Characteristics, which are common to all characters, Skills are learned abilities and vary tremendously from character to character. They are divided into six broad groupings, each optionally connected to Primary and Secondary Characteristics. These groups are Combat, Communication, Manipulation, Mental, Perception, and Physical Skills. For example, for Communication Skills, Intelligence is primary with Power and Appearance as secondary characteristics. Again, and this is an optional system for those who like depth and realism, skill modifiers are generated from the applicable Characteristics and applied to all Skills in that group. For example, a character is an INT of 15, a POW of 13, and an APP of 12 would apply a bonus of +5 to all Communication Skills. For play groups who prioritize speed and simplicity of play, this option is skipped.
The number of percentiles you receive to distribute to your Skills depends on the "power level" of the campaign. These levels are Normal, Heroic, Epic, and Superhuman and will also affect Powers (see below).
In the end, your Skills will be rated from 0 to 100, though again as another option Skills can actually go above 100. In a Superhuman campaign, Skills of 150%, 200%, or higher would not be uncommon. To test each Skill, the GM first determines the difficulty. Automatic means no roll is required, you simply succeed; Easy means your base percentage is doubled; Average means your percentage remains as if; Difficult means your percentage is halved; and Impossible requires a roll of 01% or none at all. The player then rolls percentile dice against this percentage. Note that in campaigns and play styles more simulationist in nature, the GM might assign these difficulties based on circumstance and complicating factors, but for groups with more narrative-driven tastes, the difficulties could just as easily be assigned based on the needs of the story,
After difficulties are assigned, you roll under this percentage to succeed, and if you roll over and you fail. Note, however, there are three other "levels" of results; a Critical, a Special, and a Fumble. A critical is the best possible result, a special is a particularly good result, and a fumble is a disaster. Depending on your skill rating, chances of these special results fluctuate. If you have a skill rating of 50%, a roll of 01 to 03 is critical, 01 to 10 is special, and 98 to 00 is a fumble. If your skill rating is 100%, criticals result on 01 to 05, specials on 01 to 20, and fumbles on 00 alone. This is why in more Epic and Superhuman campaigns, skills above 100% remain useful.
Famously, BRP has always eschewed class, experience points, and levels. When you use a skill successfully, you check it. After play, your character has a chance to learn from experience and increase that skill. Depending on the setting, it is also possible to purchase skill or characteristic training in-world. This makes BRP games organic. They feel natural. The characters grow in logical and sometimes surprising ways.
Note too it does not use systems of advantages or disadvantages. Being poor, or sickly, or having some disability are all covered in the skill and characteristic systems, as are their opposites. Again this reduces the "mechanistic" aspects of the role-play experience for something more intuitive.
Combat in various BRP games has varied considerably, from the gritty and detailed RuneQuest to the more cinematic Stormbringer or four-color comic Superworld. BRP allows you to tailor combat for your campaign then through its system of checking options.
At the core, however, the attacker makes a Combat skill roll, the defender either rolls to parry (block the attack) or dodge (evade the attack). The better roll wins (a critical beats a special, a special beats a success, a success beats a failure, a failure beats a fumble). The degree of success also matters; an attacker who gets a critical against a defender who gets a fumble will end with the defender in a world of hurt. Once the attacker lands a successful blow, he or she rolls damage based on the weapon used and the character's damage bonus. The defender checks his or her armor (if any) and subtracts that from the damage total, applying the rest to his or her hit points.
Everything else depends on what options you have chosen to play by.
For example, for a detailed, gritty, simulation-heavy play style the order of combat (who goes first) might be determined by Strike Ranks, calculated by DEX and SIZ and the reach of your weapon. You might employ the Hit Location system, in which hit points are listed for each arm, leg, your head, chest, and abdomen. A d20 roll determines where each blow lands. Unrealistic rules, like dodging missile fire, are not employed.
In a superhero campaign, however, you might go in order of highest DEX down, or even roll for initiative. You would ignore Hit Locations (in fact, you probably use the option where hit points are calculated by adding CON and SIZ instead of averaging them). You would likely use the dodging missile fire option, so your characters can roll and tumble out of the way of gunfire, and you might even want to use the Fate Points option where you can spend some of your Power Points for re-rolls or the lessen damage.
In short, how combat plays depends entirely on what options you have chosen to sculpt the play style you want.
Most campaigns feature some sort of paranormal, superhuman abilities, and BRP offers a host of them. Again, the number of these you start with, and their beginning strength, depends on the power level of the campaign (Normal, Heroic, Epic, Superhuman).
Instead of a single system that models all possibilities, BRP offers 5 distinct Power sets, all that feel and operate differently. Supplements offer even more systems. The ones included are Magic, the most typical fantasy RPG sort of spell system, Mutations both beneficial and negative, useful in grim fantasy for the touch of Chaos or in radioactive futures, Psychic Abilities good for the superhero and horror genres, Sorcery, a more baroque magic system including the conjuration of elementals, gods, and demons, and Super Powers perfect for comic book games or mythic ones. Depending on your campaign, one or more of these might be used. In most cases (though not all) use of a Power requires a skill roll and the expenditure of Power Points. This is not always the case, however. For example, the Super Characteristic "Super Power" enables you to increase your STR Characteristic permanently and far beyond mortal levels. This works automatically, is always active, and costs no Power Points to use.
This is a different approach from many other universal systems, such as Cypher or Savage Worlds, but the advantage is--as with all options in the game--that each BRP campaign will feel unique.
USING BASIC ROLPLAYING
Newcomers. If you are new to gaming, or even just new to this particular system, you are never going to find a game system this organic, this logical, this easy to grasp. Don't take my word on that; just go back over the three decades of accolades and awards the system has garnered. This is a storied game system whose influence upon the entire industry can barely be measured. There are reasons for that. The rules are a bit like a fine Napoleon brandy.
Wait...stop rolling your eyes. That wasn't hyperbole, I am going somewhere with it. Many, many years ago a friend who bartended in an upscale hotel poured me a glass of a Napoleon brandy too expensive for mere mortals such as myself to ever dream of purchasing. I will never forget the experience; I do not recall swallowing...the stuff just seemed to evaporate in my mouth.
And this brings me to the point. BRP has always been a system that just "evaporates" in play, leaving the taste and the warmth behind. The mechanics fade into the background allowing the play experience, the characters and the story, to come first. There are no time-stopping calculations, no head-scratching. The system makes sense and it is very easy to make rulings everyone can agree on without pouring through the rulebook.
Finally, its modular nature really does allow you to experiment, to design exactly the tone and feel of the campaign you want. The core rules are so simply they once were squeezed into a 16-page rulebook, so the 400 pages of BRP are really just a giant buffet of picking and choosing what your game needs to be the game you want.
Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and Other BRP Players. For the rest of you then the core issue here is compatibility.
You already know how well Chaosium games "play nice" with each other. In college, for example, I ran a Stormbringer campaign that sailed the player characters into the Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands. Earlier in high school, my Superworld players defended San Francisco against the rise of Great Cthulhu. This is what I meant by BRP being a Rosetta Stone; it's a terrific tool for translation.
Let's say you want your Call of Cthulhu campaign to feature the psychic vampires of the True Knot feeding on child psychics (a la Doctor Sleep), or you want your Investigators to be psychics themselves. There is a complete system waiting for you in BRP ready to be popped right into your campaign. Let's say you want things a bit more Gothic horror; the demon summoning rules in the Sorcery section can help.
RuneQuest Glorantha players, how are you handling powers gained during "heroquests?" Back in college I used the Super Powers from Superworld to design them for my RQ2 campaign, and it is even easier to do now with BRP. Has your Orlanthi gotten the ability to throw bolts of lightning? Easily done! Have your characters become champions of their clans, their cities, their nations? Do they have supporters and worshippers sacrificing POW to them? Adapt the "Extra Energy" Super Power to model a growing pool of Magic Points available to them. Or what if you want to run a campaign that is just a bit less RuneQuest and a bit more HeroQuest or even White Bear & Red Moon? Drop the hit locations and use some of the more cinematic options in BRP to create an RQ game just a bit more "juiced." Heck, why not run a full on campaign at the power level of Jar-Eel or Harrek? Easy to do with BRP.
The point is, of course, that despite not having Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest in the title, BRP is a terrific sourcebook for both games. Decades of options are in there, from Pendragon's personality traits to Stormbringer's Allegiance and Cthulhu's Sanity.