"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, October 25, 2022

Writing Riddles: Babalon and the Red Goddess

This is the second in a series of essays on Gloranthan Illumination. See the first here.

SEVERAL CENTURIES OF AN EXTREMELY POWERFUL exoteric religious institution led to the systematic suppression of esotericism in the West. For the sake of convenience—this is an article on Glorantha, not ecclesiastic history—we will label the various Western esoteric religious traditions as “Gnostic.” As a general rule of thumb Gnosticism places personalized spiritual experience over orthodox teachings, and this placed it at war from the 1st century C.E. onward against the developing and later dominant Catholic Church. Particularly later in the history of the Church, a convenient way to dismiss the Gnostic traditions was to associate them with the Devil. Whatever their teachings or intent—and there were some Gnostic traditions that painted a favourable picture of the Devil—the Gnostics were all “satanic” and therefore the enemies of mankind and ripe for extermination.

This sounds suspiciously like the attitude of several Gloranthan theistic cults towards Illuminates.

Gnosticism was deep underground by the 19th century, and increasingly referred to as “occultism.” Again, we are simplifying a bit here, but the statement is fairly accurate. Much of Western occultism, the Western Mystery Tradition, is essentially Gnostic. Perhaps no single occultist of the period, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, was accused of playing on the Devil’s team more than Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). It is also fair to say no other occultist revelled in the accusations as much either. Labeled “the Wickedest Man Alive” by the British press, Crowley was accused of Devil worship, human sacrifice, corruption, enslavement, deviancy, and murder. I am sure more than one Nysalorean Riddler could relate. But what he was teaching, his doctrines and his goals, are deeply Gnostic, and a basic understanding of them is a useful way to bring Illumination—especially Lunar Sevening—alive at your gaming table.

Let’s get three things out of the way before we begin. First, while we are going to be drawing numerous parallels between the Red Goddess, the Lunar Way and Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema, no one here is saying that Greg Stafford was a Thelemite or that he intentionally modelled the religion of the Lunar Empire on Crowley’s teachings. Rather, these parallels (and as you will see there are a LOT of them) seem rather to arise from the fact that both Crowley and Stafford were digging deep into the same mythologies. Second, this is not an essay on Thelema, qabbalism, or any of the other concepts it will touch on. We are here to talk about Glorantha as a setting, RuneQuest as a game, and how to make these concepts playable in the context of both. Third, while I am myself a Thelemite, I am not here to proselytize to the reader in any way, shape, or form. Technically, Thelema forbids that. That aside, let’s dig in.

Babalon/The Red Goddess

There are a number of Thelemic deities, and Crowley conceptualizes them like a Malkioni Wizard. Each is seen as a manifestation of an abstract cosmic principle, and each is an emanation of what we might ultimately call his version of the Invisible God. Thelema has deities like Nuit and Hadit (more on them later), Ra Hoor Khuit, and the Holy Guardian Angel...but really it is Babalon, the Scarlet Woman, the Bride of Chaos, who is probably the most recognizable in the Thelemic pantheon.

With good reason. She is arguably the most significant.

Moon Goddess, Mistress of Time, Sister of Chaos...she went on a dire Godquest to find her Seventh Soul...and brought the gift of Illumination back into the world...she returned to the world in 1232, riding atop the Chaos demon known as the Crimson Bat. Illumination is an essential part of the Lunar religion and she embraces seemingly incompatible powers such as Life and Death...

"The Red Goddess," The Glorantha Sourcebook, p. 149   

Aside from the similarity in their titles—“scarlet” and “red,” “woman” and “goddess”—Babalon and the Red Goddess both combine in themselves all dualities and contradictions. This is actually Babalon's function in Thelemic mysticism. 

The Thelemic notion of Illumination--Crowley referred to it more often as Illuminism--lies in the union of opposites. Zero (Nothing or “no-thing” because it cannot be measured, described, or defined) is a symbol of this union. Zero equates with infinity. All numbers and their opposites are contained within Zero: 1 + -1, 2 + -2, 10,000 + -10,000, etc. For Crowley, then, overcoming false duality (male and female, dark and light, life and death) is essential to the ultimate union, that of subject and object, Self and Not-Self, Microcosm and Macrocosm. This experience is the "zero state."  

Creation, conversely, is the act of this perfect Nothing, the Void, dividing into opposites. Even in Genesis this is the case. The Deep, formless and void, is divided into light and darkness, day and night, wet and dry, male and female, etc. In Glorantha, this is of course Primal Chaos, from which the Elemental Runes emerge followed by Power, Condition, and Form Runes in neat pairs of opposites. 

For Crowley, Babalon is the mystical rejoining of opposites to reach that transcendent state once more. She accepts all things, and all things are united with their opposites within her. The Red Goddess serves a parallel Gloranthan function. She unites Death and Life, Illusion and Truth, Chaos and Cosmos. This is point one, then. Both Babalon and the Red Goddess represent Illumination via the reconciliation of opposites. 


According to Greg Stafford, in the Dara Happan religion the individual is said to have six souls. Each of these is associated with a specific god: Dendara, Lodril, Oria, Dayzatar, Gorgorma, and Yelm. Lunar Illumination is referred to as "Sevening," because it postulates a Seventh Soul that awakes durning Illumination and unites all the rest. This soul is associated with Rashorana, either the last of the gods born or the first Chaos god. Rashorana incarnated--the Lunars teach--in the First Age as Nysalor.

Of course we also know that the Red Goddess had Seven Mothers, and there are Seven Phases of the Red Moon. But the number seven belongs to Babalon as well.

The Seal of Babalon, seven points, seven letters, and a whole lotta sevens.

Again, this is not an essay on esoteric number theory or the Qabalah (if you want those look here...I wrote five essays on the topic back in October of 2016 and they remain the most read articles on the blog today). So I am going to keep things simple here. 

Basically, Crowley placed a lot of import on the Tree of Life, a concept borrowed from Hebrew kabbalah. This is a conceptual blueprint of the mind of God as well as the human soul. Reading from the top down it shows the process of divine creation...but from the bottom up it shows the process of returning to the divine. That is all you need to know to follow the rest.

The Tree of Life also proposes multiple souls, or portions of the human psyche. I will spare you the Hebrew and make it simple. The three circles above the red line are basically the parts of us that are holy. They are, actually, indivisible from each other. If it helps, think of them as the point, the radius, and the circumference of a circle. Three things that are one. We will be coming back to them.

Below the red line are parts of us we are more familiar with. Setting aside the Body for a moment, Crowley's Illuminism was about awakening and mastering those six aspects of our psyches, much as Greg described awakening the Dara Happan souls. This is when the Illuminate reaches the Seventh...number 3 on the illustration below. THAT is the sphere where Babalon dwells. Thus she is the "Seventh Soul," where all the opposites come together.

Neat, huh.


But what happens when you transcend all those opposites? Well, you are introduced to circle number 2 on that diagram. 3 is Babalon, but 2 belongs to To Mega Therion, the Great Beast, also known as Chaos.

Without up or down, left or right, good or bad, we are left with Chaos. And number 2 there on the Tree is decidedly sinister. Remember when I said from the top down it was a map of divine creation? Well circle 1 is Unity...circle 2 then is Disunity, the All tearing itself apart. Christian theology would put the Devil here. Perhaps a better way to think of these top three is thesis (1), antithesis (2), and synthesis (3). Put another way, 1 is the contracted universe, 2 is the Big Bang--a huge, violent, terrible holocaust--3 is where the explosion cools and matter and cosmos begin to form.

So Chaos is dangerous, untamed, wild...and thus needs Babalon to control it. Borrowing from the Book of revelations, Crowley uses the imagery of Babylon the Great riding atop the Beast, as seen in this depiction from his Tarot deck, the Book of Thoth.

The Eleventh Tarot Trump

Now if it seems odd to you that Aleister chose to use the Whore of Babylon and the Beast as essentially positive symbols, let me just say quickly that he felt the Book of Revelations was a good thing, and that exoteric monotheism needed to be torn down and replaced. Like a good many Gnostics before him, he took negative figures from the Bible and made positives of them conceptually. 

However, the image of a unifying goddess riding a wild manifestation of Chaos--Chaos she has tamed to her purpose--is instantly familiar to Gloranthaphiles as well.

From the Glorantha Sourcebook.

In both cases, the Crimson Bat and the Great Beast, we are seeing a very similar idea being played out. In the Thelemic case, by taming Chaos, Babalon reunites the cosmos and we are restored to circle 1, Unity. This is essentially the argument the Lunars are making. Chaos is dangerous, but part of the Universe and it needs to be controlled. Once tamed, the universe can be healed back to Unity. 

But there is a deeper point to be made here. Primal Chaos, the Void the Dragons speak of, is the Perfect Zero state that preceded the cosmos. It was only when this Primal Chaos began   to be ripped apart into Elemental, Form, Condition, and Power Runes that lesser Chaos, the Chaos Rune, was formed. That Chaos, the lesser Chaos, is the one that needs to be tamed so you can get back to the original state of transcendence. Crowley symbolized this with a mathematical formula, 0 = 2. Primal Chaos tears itself apart into 2, or rather n and -n. That state of duality is the bad one, the lesser Chaos. Once the duality is reconciled, transcendence again.

So Wait a Minute...

...are you honestly saying that the Red Goddess is basically Babalon?


As I said before, Greg and Aleister were working with very similar mythological concepts. I don't honestly know to what extent Greg had the Whore of Babalon in mind when he wrote about the Red Goddess sweeping into the world on the back of a giant Chaos beast, but if we peel back another layer on the onion we get to ask an even more exciting question.

Who was the Whore of Babylon?

Most Biblical scholars will tell you "Babylon the Great" in the Book of Revelations is actually the Roman Empire. As Babylon had once held the Jewish people in captivity, Revelations appears when another empire, Rome, has enslaved them. I have the distinct impression that if you could explain the Biblical reference of the Whore of Babylon to a Sartarite during the Lunar Occupation, they would happily draw some Red Goddess parallels.

But the image itself has a far deeper history than the Biblical, and this is why Stafford and Crowley both employed variations of it. By the time Rome became an Empire, the Anatolian goddess Cybele had been adopted by the Imperium. She was called Magna Mater, the Great Mother, and was seen as the mother of the Empire and the manifestation of its power and authority. We have a number of depictions of her crowning Roman Emperors. This is likely the "Whore of Babylon" the Jewish rebels were speaking of, because Cybele rode a lion as her mount.

Magna Mater

Being a mythologist, however, Greg knew (as Crowley did) that this goddess was so much older than Rome. Long before the Imperium, with roots in the Bronze Age or older, we find a goddess associated with lions, sovereignty, and high places. We see her on Minoan seals:

In Mesopotamia they called her Inana and Ishtar:

And so widespread was her worship she remains in India today as the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess:

When I approach Greg's work in Glorantha, I always try to avoid looking at a single source, because there never really is one. The Orlanthi could be Norse, or Celt, or Greek, or any other Indo-European people. The Lunars could be Roman, or Persian, or Babylonian, etc. One of the things that makes Glorantha feel so real is that we all recognize it, because really it is patterned on mythologies that transcend any one given culture.

Back To Babalon...

Hopefully this has given you something to think about, to chew on, swallow, or spit out as you please. As I continue working on The Final Riddle, however, Babalon has been useful to me in filling in some of the gaps of Sevening. I think she and the Red Goddess are two manifestations of a deeper myth. I playfully made mention of their association in The Seven Tailed Wolf, but as The Final Riddle is all about Illumination I thought it might be useful to share my though processes here.

Thanks for reading!



Wednesday, October 19, 2022


Note: This is the first of two (maybe even three) essays on Gloranthan Illumination. It is an overview, and sets up the theses for the future pieces.

In writing The Final Riddle, I realized I needed to start with the prickly subject of Illumination. Introduced way back in 1981's Cults of Terror, Illumination is a state of spiritual and mental transcendence, the Gloranthan equivalent of "enlightenment." Like many things Gloranthan, it has parallels to concepts in our own world, such as the Buddhist nirvana, Saint Symeon's "dying to the Self,", or the concept of moksha on the Indian subcontinent. Yet Illumination is not strictly speaking any of these. Like so much in Glorantha, a setting which resists the simple dualism of many fantasy worlds, the nature of Illumination is left up for individual gaming tables to decide. In doing so, we are weighing in on a subject that has been the source of much conflict in our own world.

On one hand, we have Nysalor, the "Bright One." This First Age deity introduced (or re-introduced, in later writings) Illumination into the world. For his disciples, it was an overwhelmingly positive force, elevating the Illuminate above all the harmful divisions caused by the Gods War. Illumination allows the individual to rise above dualities and definitions. Life and Death, Harmony and Disorder, Illusion and Truth, even Cosmos and Chaos can be seen as aspects of the same thing. Illumination effectively liberates the individual from religious strictures, such as joining opposing cults or facing spirits of reprisal. It all seems...good.

Yet at the same time, in the West, we see Nysalor's teachings abused and corrupted. His disciples use their liberation from normal ethics to create diseases just so they can spread them and cure them. The Vampire Lords of Tanisor go further. This gave rise to Arkat, Nysalor's great enemy, who himself became Illuminated to bring down the Bright One. They became mirrors of each other, each called the other Gbaji, the Deceiver. In the end of their cataclysmic struggle one emerged, but no one can be sure which.

Readers with a taste for South Asian history might see some parallels here. When the Buddha emerged, his teachings of self-liberation went completely against the Vedic priesthoods, who taught that personal salvation came only from the temples and their deities, and the practice of sacrifice to both. Buddhism was, in essence, an affront to the social order which kept the priests and the warrior castes in their lofty positions. The accusations then lay in charges that Buddhists were antagonistic to the Cosmic Order, rta. In this way they were associated with disorder, or to use a Greek-derived word, Chaos. As Glorantha fans all know, that is the primary charge against Illumination. It is a form of Chaos.

The socio-political tensions between early Buddhism and the Vedic tradition are not unique, however, they are nearly universal. We need to talk a moment about exoteric and esoteric spirituality. The first is communal, societal, and usually organized around group ceremonies, temples, and priesthoods. The later is internal, solitary (mostly), introspective, and subjective. Exoteric religion tells you "do this," or "believe this." Esoteric religion asks you to withdraw and look inward for answers.

In any given religious tradition, we see these two aspects. Judaism has kabbalah as an inner tradition, for example. Islam has sufism. Christianity has a strong mystical tradition early on that the Church slowly tapped down. There are, historically speaking, often tensions between these two sorts of faith. In the Sunni tradition, a fine example is the tension between Salafism (exoteric Islam based on the Qur'an, hadith, and performance of the Five Pillars) and Sufism (which is more meditative, contemplative, and inner). 

In Glorantha, theism is extremely exoteric. The Orlanth cults, for example, form the backbone of Orlanthi society. Worship revolves around lay people supporting temples, with priests and Rune Lords wielding a great deal of political influence and power. Theistic cults tend to hold society together. So too do many of the Western sorcerous traditions. Shamanistic societies are a bit less rigid, but still involve a specialist (the shaman) to deal with the spiritual world on your behalf.

Illumination throws all of this out the window. You must answer its Riddles for yourself, and the enlightenment liberates you from the restrictions of theistic (or sorcerous) faith. This makes it extremely dangerous from the exoteric position, because it cannot be controlled.

The Lunar Empire handles this in a clever way. They hand the exoteric reins of power to the Imperial state cults, while the Great Sister overseas Lunar esotericism. The exoteric state cults maintain order and Imperial unity, and the vast majority of the population may belong only to them. Further, the state cults are expansionistic, pushing the borders of the Empire outwards and seeking converts. Those citizens seeking to go deeper into the Lunar religion, however, can turn to the esoteric Illumination (or "Sevening") ways. These cults are centripetal, pulling the initiate inwards towards the heart of Lunarism. This unique dualism is inherent in Lunar Illumination, and will be the subject of Part Two of this series. Still, even though the Red Goddess embraces the esoteric path in a way most exoteric cults can't, she has her Examiners in service of the State that watch for Illuminates going "bad" ("Occluded," is the Lunar term).

It is worth noting, incidentally, that even the language we use suggests a tension between these two religious approaches. The Sanskrit word for "religion" is yoga, or "yoke." The English comes from the Latin re ligio, to be "bound" or "tied" (we get the related word "ligature" from the same root). Compare this to the word most closely associated with enlightenment..."liberation." To be "freed" from bonds. One binds, the other unties.

My suggestion here, then, is not that Greg Stafford was modeling any specific cultural conflict in the tension between Gloranthan religions and Illumination (Buddhist and Vedic, Salafism and Sufism, Christian and Gnostic, etc), but rather the inherent religious tension between these two approaches to Truth. Glorantha is about mythology, so too is religion, and the struggle between the two religious paths is often expressed in mythological terms. It is logical that one of the main struggles in the setting, then, is the tension between exoteric orthodoxy and esoteric heterodoxy. I would argue that it is indeed a main theme in Glorantha, maybe even its primary one. After all, the First Age was dominated by Arkat's struggle against Nysalor. The Second Age, meanwhile, was characterized by the rivalry between two Empires and philosophies, the extreme orthodoxy of the God Learners and their drive towards One Universal Truth, and the EWF's esoteric heterodoxy of Draconic Consciousness (a close cousin to Illumination). In the Third Age, it is repeated again, with the Lunar Empire struggling against the Theistic nation of Sartar (the twist being, of course, Argrath's own Illumination). 

Fantasy settings thrive on conflict. Tolkien's Middle-earth had Good versus Evil, Moorcock's Multiverse had Law versus Chaos, Howard's Hyborian Age had Barbarism versus Civilization. What we are looking at in Glorantha, I think, is a more nuanced theme about the Truth that is defined for you versus Truth that is defined by you, and the dangers inherent in both.   

The Final Riddle is coming soon to the Jonstown Compendium.       

Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Four years ago, on this very day, I tried to express my grief at the passing of Greg Stafford (1948-2018). For a man I had only ever spent a weekend with at a convention, and spoken with only over a few drinks, the sense of loss I felt was striking. It shook me to my core. And it turned out to be life altering.

As a kid I was obsessed with mythology; the D'Aulaires books of Greek and Norse mythology in the second and third grades, Edith Hamilton around grade four, dozens of others. I must have checked them all out of the library so often no one else in the school ever had the chance to read them. It was this intense interest, in fifth grade, that introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. A teacher had a set of the Holmes Basic Set and convinced me to GM it. "You'll love it, it has monsters and gods and heroes." She was right. I did.

I was excited to go to junior high school because they had a D&D club. I would get the chance to play, rather than run. To my surprise, when I arrived the older boys were not playing D&D, however. They were playing something called RuneQuest. That was how I met Glorantha. How I "met" Greg.

It was an earth-shaking moment because I realized for the first time that mythology could be created. While AD&D scavenged--it had pegasi and minotaurs and gods like Zeus and Thor--Greg was conjuring Orlanth's rivalry with Yelm, the Seven Mothers and their Red Goddess, Storm Bull dispatching the Devil with the Spike. Mythologies could be created...new mythologies! Soon after I would discover Lovecraft and Moorcock and Tolkien, but Greg showed me the possibility first.

I didn't really get to "know" Greg until I went to university, however. The plan was to be a history major, but in a comparative religion course I discovered Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and Profane.

...religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is pe­riodically reintegrated by means of rites...

That changed the course of my studies. I realized Greg hadn't just conjured Glorantha up. The setting had sources, forerunners. It was a revelation, of sorts. I felt I was following a trail of breadcrumbs Greg had left for me. I ended up spending the next seven years chasing it, moving into the study of ancient epic poems like the Iliad and Mahabharata. In this way I chased Greg's shadow throughout grad school, feeling a little thrill whenever I tripped across something that gave me a glimpse of where Glorantha had come from. Before I knew it I was a mythologist and Indologist. All from chasing Stafford.

It was in the midst of this that I met Greg in the flesh, at the very first RuneQuest-Con in 1994. Ironically, we talked mostly about Pendragon.

Then life got...complicated. A break-up. Leaving my country behind to cross an ocean and enter an alien world. It got complicated for Greg around the same time. Chaosium, the company he founded for Glorantha, was in financial trouble. He left and took Glorantha with him. As Hero Wars replaced RuneQuest I was in Japan, learning a new language, leveraging my linguistics background into a teaching career. Greg meanwhile was turning Hero Wars into HeroQuest, and way ahead of everyone else his Glorantha Trading Association was Kickstarter long before Kickstarter. I became a backer, and for the record the first edition of HeroQuest was the first Gloranthan book my name appeared in.

Life went on. While I had written a lot when I was younger--four novels in my teens and twenties, and in 1989 I had been the first winner of the New York Young Playwrights' Contest and the winner of it again in 1990--teaching had become my priority and the writing was happening less and less. This saddened me, so in 2012 I started blogging. To my surprise, the blog started to take off, gathering readers. Around the same time, Greg also returned to something he loved. He went back to Chaosium. As my writing picked up again, Chaosium was reborn.

Then came the news. RuneQuest was returning.

Threads seemed to be pulling everything together. Greg was back, Chaosium was back, RuneQuest was back. I was running "Six Seasons in Sartar" as a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign and blogging about it when I was asked if I wanted to review the new RuneQuest. Of course I did. I jumped at the chance. I published "Rites of Passage" on the blog a month after that review, then reviewed the Bestiary the month after that. The "Six Seasons" blog entries were becoming huge hits, and I was getting more and more messages and emails about them. Something was stirring. I had this feeling that "Six Seasons" was meant to be something bigger than blog articles, but had no sense of what or how. Yet with RuneQuest back, I knew "Seasons" had to be rewritten for it. I started the process. In the meantime, I reviewed the Gamemaster Screen Pack.

A few short weeks later, Greg had entered the Spirit World and wasn't coming back.

The entire next year, 2019, nearly every article on the blog was about the world he left behind. No, not this one...I mean Glorantha.

I think that year I had no real idea what I was supposed to be doing. The blog articles had a strong following, and I had this nagging sense that I was supposed to be following Greg's shadow again. I had no clear idea how to do that.

Until the Jonstown Compendium came along, and on its heels a very convenient pandemic that shut my school down and left me with nothing to do but write. Everything fell into place, and it felt in some sort of weird way that the universe was showing me what my next move was to be. No, that is an understatement. The universe seemed to be bending over backwards for me to do this. So the best way for me to honor Greg's memory, I decided, was to do what he did. Add something to Glorantha and share it.

Four years to the day after I blogged on his passing, it was announced that I was the 2022 winner of the memorial award in his name. The last two years, Glorantha has become more present in my life than ever, having published about 540 combined pages on the Haraborn in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and The Seven Tailed Wolf. I've worked with Jeff Richard on the heroquesting rules and written sections of the upcoming Sartar Campaign. I have two more Gloranthan projects to get out before the year's end. 

I'm still chasing Stafford, but tonight I feel like I have at least caught his tail.     




Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Media has a Dungeons & Dragons Problem

THE OLD ADDAGE tells us "lightning doesn't strike twice." Tell that to Dungeons & Dragons.

Created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax and published back in 1974, there is something about Dungeons & Dragons, or "D&D," that repeatedly makes it the focus of moral panics. It might have something to do with it being an entirely new kind of art form. There is a portion of the general public that cannot wrap their brains around role-playing games, of which D&D was the first. Things people don't understand, they fear.

In the 1980s it was the Right obsessing over the game. Frequently (and erroneously) blamed for suicides, murders and depression, in 1984 quoting a police chief the Omaha World Herald wrote:

[Dungeons & Dragons] appeals to very intelligent people, who use their imagination to manipulate characters and work through a series of mazes to achieve treasures and avoid falling into the dungeon. "My undertstanding [sic] is that once you reach a certain point where you are the master, your only way out is death," Stallcup said. "That way no one can beat you."

Obviously the only thing the article got correct was that D&D appealed to intelligent people.

The next year, American media company Knight-Ridder was covering attempts by a group called BADD ("Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons") and published the following little gem:

"Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a worship of violence," said Dr. Thomas Radecki of Champaign, Ill., a psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C. "...Talk to people that have played it. It's very fascinating. It's a game of fun. But when you have fun with murder, that's dangerous. When you make a game out of war, that's harmful. The game is full of human sacrifice, eating babies, drinking blood, rape, murder of every variety, curses of insanity. It's just a very violent game."

Shortly after this, of course, the same criticisms would refocus on video games, a narrative that continues to this day. Suffice it to say I have my doubts Dr. Radecki ever actually saw the game played. While some of those things do exist in D&D, they are also literary staples. You could find all of that in the Bible. More to the point, because those things might exist in the game it didn't mean D&D was condoning it. My feeling on the subject is best summarized by British occultist Aleister Crowley, who quipped "the world of magic is a mirror, wherein who sees muck is muck." The same is true of any art.

In 1986 the Richmond Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan" quoted Republican candidate for state attorney general Winston Matthews:

D&D teaches Satan-worship, spell-casting, witchcraft, rape, suicide and assassination.

This was at the start of the full swing "Satanic Panic," and literally hundreds of media articles would soon follow associating D&D with black magic and the Guy Downstairs. It became such a popular drum to beat that even 60 Minutes got on the bandwagon.

Now as I said, some of this had to do with people who didn't really understand what the game was. On the other hand, I think we could also say these criticisms came from people who could not fully separate fantasy from reality. D&D was, and is, a game. An entertainment. More to the point, it is a fantasy. Aside from elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons the game often featured a black and white cosmology where gods were real and concepts like Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil were concrete realities. This is not the world we live in. 

Well, not the world rational people live in.

But before we cluck our tongues at the silly right-wing religious nuts and their inability to separate make-believe from real life, the exact same thing is happening to D&D again these days...and this time it is coming from the pearl-clutchers on the Left.

Two days ago Gizmodo published an article "Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons." This is just the latest of a very long series. Last month the UK Independent asked "Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?" Last year ComicYears informed us "Dungeons & Dragons Has A Race Problem They Aren't Doing Enough To Fix." And Wired told us in 2020 "Dungeon & Dragons' Racial Reckoning is Long Overdue."

The crux of this argument, if you can call it such, is summed up in the Gizmodo piece as "Racial bioessentialism is a core design crutch for Dungeons & Dragons." Bioessentialism is basically the idea that biology plays a larger role in identity than culture, socio-economic status, or environment. The article quotes Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of D&D, who are trying to respond to the criticism:

“throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.” 

The article goes on to say:

With this one statement, WotC confirmed what most people already knew; that the fantasy of race in Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes racist in a way that reflects the racial dynamics that continue to oppress people of color across the world. To depict an entire group of people as “monstrous and evil”–e.g. because orcs are born to orc parents, they are evil–is the very definition of racial bioessentialism. To do so, even in fiction, is reductive and monolithic, and encourages real-world stereotyping at the expense of the racial “other.”

It is hard to know what to say to any of this, and what is truly remarkable is that D&D once again seems to be dealing with people who do not understand the concept of fiction. Yes, D&D had human sacrifice and devils and demons...but that did not mean it was encouraging such things. They were fictions within a story. And yes, D&D has malevolent beings. But so does folklore, and this is a game based in folkloric roots. Goblins and kobolds (both found in the game) date back in the English language to at least the 12th century, where they are described as wicked and evil entities. Dark Elves, the inspiration for the Drow mentioned above, are described in the Norse Eddas as being blacker than pitch and wicked. This was not a racial slur. The Dark Elves were "black" because they were the personifications of the underworld and night. 

D&D is a game with unicorns and dragons and gods and devils...things that do not exist. More to the point, many D&D campaigns assume the existence of moral qualities as concrete cosmological forces, just as Tolkien did. Good and Evil are as as real in these settings as heat and light...and that is why we call it fantasy. Orcs are not evil just because they were born to orc parents. They are evil because this is a fantasy game where evil is personified.

And in a case of history repeating itself, D&D is backing down. Back in 1989, the second edition of AD&D removed all references to devils and demons, assassins, thieves, and whatever else the morality police objected to. Today they are doing it again by capitulating once more. When the 3rd edition of D&D appeared in 2000, enough sanity had returned to the world that the devils and demons were put back in. Hopefully twenty years from now sanity will return again   

Are there people who will look at Orcs--as they have with Tolkien--and see real-world racism in them? Sure, but these are the people Crowley was talking about. They look in the mirror and see only what is in themselves.

Hat tip to Chris Higgins who wrote an article back in 2012 referencing one of mine. It gives a lot fuller treatment of the "D&D panic" of the 80s than I do here.

Monday, September 12, 2022

THE GROUNDING OF GLORANTHA: Making the Impossible Believable

Blood and Wood

I ran my current group through one of my favorite episodes of The Company of the Dragon yesterday.

"Blood and Wood" is the first chapter of a possible trilogy of stories in which the Company crosses paths with the Aldryami, the "elves" of Glorantha. In a relatively spoiler-free nutshell, the player characters are thrust between two factions in a land dispute that is spiraling out of control into ever-growing bloodshed. The Company can take one side or the other, try to make peace, or stay out of it. Each of those choices comes with consequences.

The scenario features my favorite thing about Glorantha: there are no "good guys" here. In the "Thoughts On Running Glorantha" section I wrote: 

Because the setting is all about the clash of cultures and religions--just as our own terrestrial history is--the tired cliches of black and white, good and evil, light and dark do not work terribly well in Glorantha and give way to more complicated shades of gray. The Lunar soldiers the Company fights are not orcs. They have spouses, and children, and loved ones. They follow a religion they believe in and follow an Emperor they see as just. It just so happens that their agenda is at cross-purposes with the wants and needs of the Sartarites. How far you rub the faces of the players in these uncomfortable facts is entirely up to you. The point is in Glorantha people fight because they differ, not because one side is “good” and the other “evil.”
The Company of the Dragon, p. 101

"Blood and Wood" is all about this. Both sides have done terrible things, both sides are out for blood, and both sides insist the other started it. If this were a different fantasy setting, the player characters would come across a poor group of villagers being terrorized by marauding orcs and know exactly what to to do. They are the "heroes," it is their job to defend them.

But "hero" is a word we need to use very carefully in Glorantha. It probably doesn't mean what you think it does.


hero (n)
late 14c., "man of superhuman strength or physical courage," from Old French heroe (14c., Modern French héros), from Latin heros (plural heroes) "hero, demi-god, illustrious man," from Greek hērōs (plural hērōes) "demi-god," a variant singular of which was hērōe.

Going back to the ancient Greek, "hero" meant "demi-god." It signified a measure of divine power, not necessarily with any moral component or admirable qualities. When it first arrives in English it indicates the "superhuman," but as the Enlightenment arrived and humanity became ever more skeptical anything greater than us could possibly exist we applied the word ever more increasingly to ourselves:

a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great 

the main character or the main male character in a book or film, who is usually good 

someone who you admire very much

Thus, Achilles is certainly a hero in the Greek sense, but his penchant for dragging his slain enemies around behind his chariot might disqualify him from the modern use of the term. Heracles is a Greek hero too, and while we can just overlook the nasty business of his murdering his own wife and children (cue the "Agatha" theme "it was Hera all along!") it's harder to give him a pass for flying into a rage when chastised by his music teacher Linus and then beating Linus to death with his own lyre.

The thing is, just like the Greek gods, the Greek heroes were morally ambiguous beings.

This is not to say they were not worshipped or admired: they were...but so too were the gods. And this is a point that brings us straight back to Glorantha. While the Greeks worshipped Achilles, the Romans were cooler on him. Virgil called him a merciless butcher. Horace called him a child murderer. Catullus and Ovid labeled him a rapist and pederast. Why? Because he was a Greek hero. Imagine what the Sartarities say about Jar-Eel the Razoress, or how they talk about Argrath in Glamour.

Glorantha, a Bronze Age world, leans towards the ancient Greek definition of hero. It doesn't mean "the good guy" and it doesn't mean a protagonist we should expect to save the day.

What's In A Name

I've already argued that I think RuneQuest qualifies, in many ways, as an "Old School" game. I won't reiterate those arguments there, save to summarize.

The general concept of "Old School" is that prior to 2000, RPGs--particularly fantasy RPGs--tended to focus on player characters who were weaker, more fragile, and more morally dubious than post-2000 RPGs. I don't necessarily agree with this. It lays too much blame (credit?) at Wizard's of the Coasts' door. I think the date can be pushed back further to 1990, but essentially there has been a decades long transformation of the player character into the "hero."

No? Go no further than to compare the 1st edition of the Player's Handbook to the 5th:

The 1st edition has a party of adventurers, surrounded by their retainers, in a dungeon. We see a few dead humanoids scattered about as they scrabble to pluck gems from a statue's eyes. 5th edition? A single character is taking on a giant, looking like they just stepped off the cover of a Marvel comic. In case the message is too subtle for you, the 5e cover tells you this book will help you create heroic characters (this is a step back from 2008's 4th edition, which preferred to straight up refer to player characters as "heroes").

This is a total, complete, transformation. Gary Gygax, author of the 1st edition, viewed a "campaign" as the adventures occurring within a specific sandbox. He would run multiple groups of players in the same sandbox and they all existed there at the same time. For example, if the Friday night group penetrated the local dungeon, and your group arrives on Sunday, you will find the goblins dead and the treasure looted. This is completely different from the modern definition, where a "campaign" is a bit like an ensemble TV show, the ongoing story of a specific group of characters. They are the stars. They are the heroes.

As this ideological shift occurred, game mechanics evolved as well to make the player characters stronger, hardier, more spectacular. They were given tools to control the narrative. Combats were expected to be balanced so that they were never too tough for the stars of the show. The days of the Old School meat grinder, where you might expect to go through several characters, are long gone (outside of the OSR or "Old School Revival" and a few throwbacks...like RuneQuest).

And this brings me back to Glorantha.

Hero Wars appeared in 2000, and appeared in a retitled edition in 2003 as HeroQuest. This was, officially, the new Gloranthan game. HW/HQ was very much a product of the new times. Player characters were referred to as "heroes," and it was a narrative system that moved away from RuneQuest's casual lethality and "let the dice fall as they may" ethos. It was followed in 2009 and 2015 by reworked editions of HeroQuest with a system that doubled down on the narrative approach and the "heroes" as the center of their story. Challenges, for example, were designed to scale compared to the number of adventures the characters--sorry, the "heroes"--had played. 

Now let's be totally clear here...HeroQuest was a design masterpiece. It did exactly what it was designed to do. And the argument could be made that it suits a world of Jar-Eels and Harreks and Argraths and Crimson Bats better than its predecessor.

My distaste for it was a matter of taste, that's all. Glorantha had always felt real to me because the world was so detailed, the cultures so believable, the magic system so solid, and the combat so simulationist. RuneQuest characters were not Hollywood action heroes. Encounters were not balanced. Combat wasn't "sport" it was "war." Sometimes, characters failed. They failed often and sometimes unfairly. They were driven by beliefs and loyalties and ambitions. Glorantha felt real to because the system was grounded and because the world did not revolve around the player characters. It operated by its own rules, not the needs of their arcs. 

And RuneQuest underscored this by calling them "adventurers," not "heroes."

Back to Blood and Snow

The reason I dragged you down this detour was because the game last night didn't just exemplify what I love about Glorantha but also about RuneQuest. Not only was the Company dragged into this messy conflict, the dice were truly against them.

Though they attempted, valiantly, to talk to the two sides out of open war, every chance at persuasion failed (and in some cases backfired). The result was tragedy as the Company looked on and the two sides went into battle.

Now, these players were introduced to Glorantha through the HeroQuest version of Six Seasons in Sartar. While they had replayed Six Seasons in RQthey are only a few seasons into the sequel, and this was the first time, really, that they experienced the design approach differences in the two games. 

Being Old School, RuneQuest requires more strategy and planning than many modern games. This is true of combat, but also other aspects of the game. If you just charge in, expecting the game mechanics to support that approach, the dice will likely show you the error of that decision. The issue from my perspective as a long-time RQ player is that they didn't come up with a unified strategy. Each player character tackled the problem themselves, from their own angles, just as game designs which tell you that you are the "hero" condition you to do. They didn't tackle it as a "team."

The good news is that all enjoyed the session--and it is my hope that they will come to embrace the "Tao of RuneQuest" after a few more sessions and see that failure also drives forward the game. Dice, like life, are cruel, but that is all part of the experience. For me, it might have been my favorite session thus far, showcasing why Glorantha and RuneQuest are an unbeatable combination. Once you set aside the hero moniker and the expectations that come with it, the real adventure begins.      


Sunday, September 11, 2022


A Brief Bit of Autobiography

When I was seventeen, I wrote my first play.

My English teacher persuaded me to do it. New York was launching the first “Young Playwrights Competition,” and she knew that I was a writer. She thought the competition was ideal for me. I was not as certain, however. I’d written two novels by that time, and a number of short stories, but never a play. Prose was more my thing. Still, my teacher was persuasive and the prize—seeing your play produced and staged—was too tempting to pass up. I decided to give it a try.

Mara ended up taking first place out of five hundred entries (as a side note I entered again the next year with The Wine of Violence and took first place again). It was the story of three young men who reunite a year after they were all in a horrific car accident. One of them was left paralyzed from the waist down. One of them was traumatized (what later we would call PTSD). The third—the driver during the accident—is blasé about the entire thing. There was, however, a fourth victim that night…the young woman driving the car they collided with. She was killed.

No sooner do they reunite than a sudden blizzard—the same weather conditions as the night of the accident—snows them in. Housebound, the power and phones go out. There is the sound of an accident and a young woman stumbles to the door before collapsing. They take her inside and tend to the unconscious stranger.

As they do, hidden resentments slowly surface. The traumatized young man resents the driver, who seems completely callous about the incident. The young man in the wheelchair resents the other two for being able to walk away from the accident. The driver resents that the other two hold him responsible, that they seem to think he should feel guilty. Tensions mount and it ends in murder and suicide. Only the wheelchair bound narrator remains…and the unconscious guest.

She awakes soon after the violence, and (you guessed it) confirms she was the fourth victim that night. Just as the wheelchair bound man invited the other two, he summoned her from the grave. This was his revenge as much as hers. When the ghost vanishes we are left with the narrator, who stares out into the blizzard and debates rolling out into it to quietly freeze to death.

I received a lot of praise for Mara. The editor of the Albany paper said it exemplified all the classic conflicts, man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature, man versus the supernatural. The reviews were generally positive. I worked closely with the director, and was there for the auditions and castings, and took my bow hand-in-hand with the company at the end of opening night. For a young writer, it is the kind of validation you dream of. I was very lucky.

Before writing Mara, I had gone back and researched the craft. I read every play I could get my hands on. Shakespeare. Ibsen. Williams. Miller. That was how I learned stage directions and the inner workings of a play. But what people asked me most about it was where the idea had come from. What my inspiration was. 

The answer to that was simple. 

Peter Straub.

Ghost Stories

Peter Straub (1943 - 2022) left us last week. I was deeply saddened by his passing. While pre-teen me was inspired to write by Stephen King, adolescent me was driven by admiration for Straub. To my mind, Peter Straub was to the ghost story what Shirley Jackson was to the haunted house novel.  He was the master of the genre. Straub’s ghosts—always female—are not insubstantial wraiths but manifest as flesh and blood entities. They haunt by corrupting their victims and inducing mental breakdowns. Here, I’d like to talk about three of my favorites. 

1975’s Julia was Straub’s first foray into the genre. A young American woman living in London flees her domineering husband (with the aid of his younger brother, and it is unclear if he does this out of genuine concern for Julia, desire for her, or just to piss off his brother). She has just recovered from a mental breakdown in the wake of killing her own daughter. The little girl had been choking to death, and Julia performed a tracheotomy to try and save her. But as soon as Julia moves into her new house, there are disturbances, which may or may not be hauntings. She begins to catch glimpses of a little blonde girl who looks strikingly like her daughter. The most dramatic is at a park near her home, where she spies the girl in a sandbox…

Almost immediately, she saw the blonde girl again. The child was sitting on the ground at some distance from a group of other children, boys and girls who were watching her…the blonde girl was working at something intently with her hands, wholly concentrated on it. Her face was sweetly serious…this is what gave it the aspect of a performance…

When Julia goes back to the sandbox she finds a turtle mutilated in the sand. It looks like the blonde girl had given it a tracheotomy.

Things intensify and Julia cannot be certain if this girl is a hallucination, a ghost, her daughter, or her husband trying to drive her mad.

Straub followed this with 1977’s If You Could See Me Now. Miles Teagarden is a recently widowed English professor who returns to the rural community where his grandmother once lived to write his dissertation. Or so we are at first led to believe. In the summer of 1955, Miles and his cousin Alison—whom he was in love with—made a promise to meet up there again twenty years later, in 1975. That is what brings him back. The only catch is that Alison died that summer…and he is expecting her to keep her promise anyway.

No sooner than he takes up residence there young girls begin getting murdered in the community, just as Alison had been. The police suspect him. He suspects Alison. And the reader is not quite sure who to trust.

The novel that put Straub on the map, however, was 1979’s Ghost Story.

Probably his most famous solo work (Straub cowrote both The Talisman and The Black House with Stephen King), Ghost Story is a ghost story about ghost stories. A group of old men, the “Chowder Society,” hold meetings where they tell each other ghost stories, each of which the reader gets to share. They are bound together by a terrible secret. When they were college boys, a mysterious older woman came into their lives, seducing them, playing mind-games with them, and ending their innocence. An argument and some alcohol leads to them accidentally killing her, and then hiding the body and covering the murder up.

Meanwhile, Donald Wanderly, the nephew of one of these men, becomes a successful author and lands a university teaching position. There, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young graduate student, Alma Mobley. But there is something wrong with Alma, something cold and alien that becomes ever more evident in the relationship. One of the most chilling scenes comes when he touches her skin one night and feels an electric shock of revulsion, as if he had just touched a dead body or slug. Later, he wakes to find her standing naked in front of the window. He asks her what’s wrong and she answers “I saw a ghost.” Later, he begins to believe she said “I am a ghost,” and later still…”you are a ghost.” When he ends the relationship Alma re-emerges engaged to his brother soon after. Donald tries to warn him about Alma but his brother dismisses it all as jealousy. Then the brother ends up committing suicide.

The members of the Chowder Society reach out to him for help as they become increasingly convinced their past has come back to haunt them, that the woman they killed is back and may have indeed been his Alma. There is more at work here than this, however, and they begin to understand the nature of the shape shifting horror they are dealing with. Wanderly kidnaps a little girl he firmly believes is the latest manifestation of Alma, and in this interaction we get to the heart of the novel and its conception of the ghost story:

Okay, let’s try again,” he said. “What are you?”

For the first time since he had taken her into the car she really smiled… “You know,” she said.

He insisted. “What are you?”

She smiled all through her amazing response. “I am you.”

“No. I am me. You are you.”

“I am you.

Straub is perfecting a thesis here he proposed first in Julia, namely that the Ghost is really ourselves. He frames Ghost Story with the myth of Narcissus, because for him the ghost is our own reflection and our morbid obsession with it. Julia is haunted by her past, by the death of her daughter. Miles Teagarden is haunted by the memory of Alison and the effect her death had on his life. The Chowder Society is haunted by the woman they killed. None of these people can let the past go, and by staring back into the abyss of their traumatic experiences, the abyss in turn stares back into them. 

Straub went on to write several novels in multiple genres. Shadowland is a fantasy novel about a magician who learns real magic, Koko is a novel about Vietnam, The Hellfire Club is a straight up thriller, et cetera. But to my mind, his ghost stories were a high water mark, not merely for him but for that form of literature.