"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, April 22, 2023


A Few Brief Notes Before We Begin

I reviewed Basic Roleplaying (hereafter BRP) pretty extensively back in 2020. If you are new to the game, and want an in-depth look at it, please look there first. Here, I am going to talk mainly about the 2023 rerelease available from Chaosium here and DriveThruRPG here.

Second, in the interest of full disclosure, I have written several books for RuneQuest and contributed to others. RuneQuest is the game that BRP was invented for, but I had nothing at all to do with the 2023 rerelease. Having used the game system for forty-one years--I have literally played every Chaosium game that used BRP and a few games produced by other companies that have--I have a bias. To be clear, I love this engine.

Not a New Edition

Credited to original author Steve Perrin and the author of the 2008 omnibus "big gold book" edition, Jason Durall, the 2023 Basic Roleplaying is a revision and a rerelease of a classic. I picked those three words carefully. This is a revision and rerelease of the 2008 big gold book. Nowhere does it present itself as a new edition. If you are expecting a complete rewrite and overhaul of the game system--as with 3e, 4e, or 5e of Dungeons & Dragons--you are not going to get it. That is because of the third word I used, classic. You don't rewrite the rules of chess every time a new chess set is released. You don't need to. BRP has been played, tested, and loved all over the world for more than four decades. It remains immensely popular in Chaosium games like RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha and Call of Cthulhu, not to mention games produced by other companies, such as Delta Green or Aqularre. If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Okay Then Drew, Why A New Revision?

Because there are smart people at Chaosium.

Look, let's get the elephant out of the room first. Earlier this year the gaming industry was rocked by Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro attempting to yank the Open Game License, effectively trying to remonopolize something that had been open for 23 years. The response of other companies, led by Paizo and companies like Chaosium, was to create a true, irrevocable, open game license, the Open RPG Creative (ORC) License. This would not be held by any specific company--who might be tempted as Hasbro was to yank it later--but like similar licenses would be held in trust to ensure systems participating in the license remained open to fair use. Chaosium, which already had an open game license for Basic Roleplaying, knew this was a smart move and committed to it nearly right away. The new rerelease of BRP was to get it out under the ORC license...but instead of just re-issuing the 2008 BRP, they moved rapidly to put together the art and lay-out teams responsible for the terrific look of recent Chaosium products to make 2023 BRP worthy of being on the shelves alongside any modern RPG product.

2023 BRP is not just "sexier" than the previous release, however. This is where Jason Durall comes in. The release is cleaner, leaner, and up-to-date in terms of language. 

What's In It?

The core mechanic of BRP is roll percentile dice under a skill or characteristic percentage. That's it. If you have "First Aid" at 55% on your character sheet, and you roll a 55 or less on two ten-sided dice, you succeed. Everything your character can do is right there on the character sheet, with a percentage beside it. If you don't have a skill that applies, take one of your characteristics--Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Charisma, (and in modern settings Education)--multiply it by five and roll under the result as a percentage.

That's it. That's the entire system.

The rest is optional. Basic Roleplaying draws on previous games that have used its mechanics (RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Superworld, Ringworld, ElfQuest, Pendragon, Nephilim, etc) to pull together a ton of optional rules. You are not required to use any of them, but they are there in case your campaign needs them. 

For example, "hit points." The default method to determine how many hit points your character has--effectively the amount of damage they can take before being incapacitated or killed--is to average your Constitution (health, endurance) and Size. But what if you want something grittier and more realistic? There is an optional rule for "hit locations," where limbs, torso, head, etc have their own hit points. What if you want a more heroic option? Use "total hit points" and add your Constitution and Size rather than averaging them.

Again, BRP is a rules buffet. Take what you like, ignore the rest.

Playing a horror game? Use the optional Sanity rules adapted from Call of Cthulhu. Running a superhero game? The "Powers" chapter is for you. "Spot Rules" has rules for almost anything you can conceive of--aimed attacks, acid, asphyxiation, aerial combat (and that is just a few of the "A's")--but again, they are options if you need them. You can very easily turn BRP into whatever sort of genre you need it to be. 

What's New?

We have some goodies from the latest edition of RuneQuest. Passions are here, more (again, OPTIONAL) ways to define the psychology of your character and use them in the game. Reputation is here too, showing how recognizable your character is and what people think about them. Augments are here, using Passions or skills to provide a bonus to specific rolls. For example, you want to use your Bargain skill to negotiate a deal. You might augment it with Insight...getting a "read" on the people you are bargaining with and using that for your negotiations. 

What Is Not Here?

The percentile characteristics of Call of Cthulhu are absent (easy enough to do yourself...just multiply by 5). Pushing is missing, as are bonus and penalty dice. I think the message here is "if you were thinking of using the ORC to produce Call of Cthulhu supplements outside of the Miskatonic Repository," think again. As a Jonstown Compendium author, to my mind that is fair.

Also missing is some of the simplification used in Rivers of London. But to be fair, none of that was ever BRP, it was specific to RoL.

Final Thoughts

Look, if you have the 2008 edition, you do not need the 2023. That has never been the way Chaosium played the game. Early on, D&D learned that to sell copies you have to reinvent the wheel every five years. But Call of Cthulhu barely changed through six editions, and even the 7th edition is essentially the same game. RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is basically 1978's RQ2 with additional features. Sharks have not evolved since prehistoric times because they haven't needed to. Sometimes a design is just classic.

Having said this, you should want the 2023 revision. It reads better, it is cleaner, and it has the amazing production values of modern Chaosium products. I am not throwing my copies of the big gold book out, but I am looking forward to the print version of the 2023 and it will be the one I use going forward.

This is one of the simplest, most flexible, most customizable engines in the tabletop gaming business. That is why it has lasted this long. You can talk about antiquated game systems, about out-of-date mechanics, but you are saying nothing other than personally preferring your Pokemon cards to chess. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing wrong with a classic either. This is a definitive update of a definitive game system.  



Monday, February 13, 2023

The Ship of Theseus: When Does a New Edition Become a New Game?

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

— Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1

SO WE ALL KNOW THE PARADOX. You have a ship. Over the years, as the planks rot, you replace them with new wood. At some point the entire ship has been replaced. Is it the same ship, or a new one?

The thought problem becomes somewhat more complex when applied to RPGs. Novels get reprinted. They often get new covers, possibly a new foreword, but remain the same text. If we bring them into another language, we call it a "translation." If we take a novel and turn it into a movie, we all agree the film is not the novel. It is an "adaptation." If a song is performed by a different artist, we call it a "cover." If a painting is copied, it's a "reproduction." 

With roleplaying games, we generally use the term "edition." Unlike new editions of other books, roleplaying games are often changed when this happens. Errata is included. Corrections made. Material is added or subtracted. Often, however, the rules themselves change, and sometimes substantially. I am always reminded of Bones McCoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture lamenting, "I know engineers, they LOVE to change things." Game designers do too.

But this is where it all gets messy.

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu remained largely the same throughout sixth editions. There were clarifications, some things were removed, some added, but all were completely compatible with each other. They shared the same ethos. The same setting. The current seventh edition is probably the most changed, but it is still, clearly, Call of Cthulhu. Anyone who plays seventh edition will recognize it as Call of Cthulhu.

RuneQuest is mildly more complicated. Chaosium's first and second editions were nearly identical, separated mainly by a few clarifications. Avalon Hill's third edition, however, was more of a departure. While still compatible with the original setting of Glorantha, sweeping changes were made to make it a more generic game. Currency was renamed, all the in-text play examples changed, Rune magic became "Divine" magic (the same, but very arguably different), etc. I think this raised some very interesting questions. If, say, Legend of the Five Rings was relocated to fantasy Europe, would it still be the same game? If The One Ring was relocated from Middle-earth, would it? 

With the latest edition of RuneQuest, there is a new subtitle and some additional mechanics, but in a move quite unusual in the hobby it returned to both its original setting and core system. It is even more recognisable as the original RuneQuest than were its immediate predecessors.

But what about the elephant in the room?

Over the last two months, the question I am posing to you here as an entertaining philosophical conundrum has become deeply relevant to much of the hobby. We need to talk about D&D.

Around the time Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons, the question of "what is a roleplaying game" became incredibly complicated. The original 1974 game had gone through several editions, but the differences between them were minor, much as they were in our examples of Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest above. Holmes clarified and simplified. B/X made a few more revisions. BECMI added a great deal of additional options, but at the core it was the same game. And it was in several ways a very different game from Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which--while renamed for reasons of shutting out the original game's co-author from royalties--was presented as a different game, not a different edition. AD&D's 2nd edition included many rules changes, the renaming of "problematic" elements like demons and thieves, and a shift in focus from its original setting (Greyhawk) to the Forgotten Realms and others. Still, I think if you compare AD&D and AD&D second edition, they are as recognizably the same game as RQ2 and RQ3.

Then we hit "third" edition, and it all goes off the rails somehow. Presented as a "third" edition--clearly a reference to the two previous editions of AD&D--and sold in the AD&D format of three hardcover books, it nevertheless called itself Dungeons & Dragons, the "other" game traditionally in boxed sets. It had AD&D's alignment system. It had AD&D's iconic monsters. It preserved AD&D's spells and cosmology...all VERY different from the actual Dungeons & Dragons. Well, fair enough...they were simply calling AD&D by the other game's name.

But then on top of this, the new game had a completely different engine. While the d20 system carried over a lot of the terminology of previous editions, it was a completely new game. After all, no one confuses RuneQuest with D&D despite shared use of concepts like STR and DEX and hit points. The d20 version of the game was neither D&D nor AD&D mechanically, just in name.

At the same time, adding even more confusion, the creation of the OGL license allowed for the emergence of dozens of games that actually were the same as D&D or AD&D, they just couldn't use the name. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials...these are all recognizably earlier editions of D&D in new forms, while the game calling itself D&D became even less so (looking at you 4e, looking at you).

In recent leaks from Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro we have heard Dungeons & Dragons referred to repeatedly as an IP and as a "lifestyle brand," but not so much as a game. I think the argument can be made that this is what it has been since the early 2000s. I am not saying that 3e, 3.5, 4e, or 5e were not themselves "games," only that they were entirely new systems to which the name D&D was attached. They were no longer the original line of games, but a brand. An "idea." It was the Athenians selling tickets to the ship of Theseus when none of the planks remained.

But, let's push the question even further. If any of the leaks are true, and the next iteration of D&D will be played on a VTT and apps, with AI Dungeon Masters, we are not even bothering with the concept of the ship. Forget whether or not it is still D&D, as an automated online game is it still even a traditional roleplaying game as we understand the term? It is akin to the Athenians deciding to replace the ship of Theseus with a museum dedicated to it instead.

D&D is hardly the only game go through such changes. For example, the third (Fantasy Flight Games) edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG line was also a completely different entity from the previous editions. Yet the new (Cubicle 7) fourth edition of Warhammer, like RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, returned to the first and second editions for game design inspiration. The fifth edition of Vampire the Masquerade is mechanically different from the original game, but it returns to the original setting (unlike the sequel game Vampire the Requiem) and in many ways the "spirit" of the first edition (excluding Sabbat characters, returning more to a game of personal horror, etc). There seems to be an awareness among game designers that you editions can change...but there is a danger of changing "too much." Something of the original DNA has to remain. Wizards approach with "One D&D," shrugging off the concept of editions at all, is a very different response.   





Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The "Special Reference Works" of Courtney C. Campbell

IN HIS OWN 1978 "SPECIAL REFERENCE WORK," The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, Gary Gygax wrote;

Considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on...(e)xploration, travel, and adventure in the "world" will eventually reveal the secrets heretofore hidden, and the joy of actually earning them will be well worth the wait. (p. 7)

This is an early articulation of the "three pillars" of classic Old School gaming: combat (the "adventure" part, the joy of getting your character into and out of scrapes), social interaction (the "travel" part, encountering all the odd NPCs with their quirks and motivations), and exploration. Really, all of this can be summed up as "discovery," and it was the thrill of discovery that kept players coming back to the table. Combat was part of it, but not as much as it would become in the decades ahead.

The Old School Revival or Renaissance (with a nod to George Lucas we might even call it "Return") is about the rediscovery of discovery. Instead of well-lit dungeons where half the party has infravision anyway, these are darker delves where your torch is your best friend (one of my favorite treatments of the "light is your best friend trope" is in Veins of the Earth). Instead of building a character, players roll them, and their "feats" and "bumps" will largely derive from what magic items they uncover. And instead of GMs planing narrative arcs and engaging in hours of world-building, the entire gaming group gets the thrill of discovering the world as they go along.

Now there is a lot of creativity in the OSR, but every now and again a product comes along that knocks you back on your heels and plants a grin on your face. Recently for me, a series of three books--On Downtime and Demesnes (2019), Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas (2021), and Bestial Ecosystems Created by Monster Inhabitation (2022)--did just that. I will let you, dear reader, work our the acronyms of those titles for yourselves. These are the brainchildren of one Courtney C. Campbell, who author's bio in the first work captures the flavor of the writing in general. 

System agnostic, these books would make wonderful additions to a brand-new OSE campaign just as easily as they would a 1st edition AD&D game that has been going on for decades. I have even used bits of them in my RuneQuest campaign. It doesn't matter what "Old School" game you are playing. You want these.

The first volume, ahem, OD&D, is completely dedicated to what characters do when not in the dungeon. It focuses on creating villages, towns, and cities, on making them logical and believable, but chiefly on making them fun. With ideas ranging from "Influence" (characters building up power bases as they settle in a community) to what to do with all that gold (philanthropy? research? orgies?), it is simply brimming with brilliant ideas. One of the earliest, "Navigation," was a sort of lightbulb moment for me that I was embarrassed to confess to never once having thought of in running and writing RPGs for decades. Basically, it takes time to get around a city, and characters get lost. The bigger the community the more time it takes. Trust me. I have lived in Tokyo for a decade and I still get lost on a weekly basis.

There are rules on gaining optional skills and talents, but making them location and character-based, not generic class features. There are rules on henchmen and hirelings, there are hundred of quirky random NPCs. All of them clean, simple, and self-contained. The book is a buffet to add spice to your game.

AD&D (Courtney's book, not Gary's) has a subtitle that had me doing a spit take with my coffee, "Killing Characters Fairly." Like OD&D, this is a compilation of ideas, rules, and suggestions, this time on how to make hazards, traps, and encounters...fair. I don't mean "balanced!" Again, this is Old School philosophy. But as the author says on the back "No longer will your players complain about traps or unfair encounters. Now when they meet their doom, they will blame themselves for their own foolishness!" It is filled with images and examples of rooms one might encounter in a dungeon, truly devious traps that if players are cautious and logical they should be able to get around, and the kind of hazards (natural and not) that can get you killed while adventuring.

Finally, BECMI. This book is dedicated to the monsters, but this is not a collection of stats. Instead, Campbell goes monster by monster alphabetically, covering all of the truly classic beasties, and offering suggestions of how to make them different for each campaign. In some cases there are four, five, or six pages of clever ideas. Essentially, these prompts get you thinking, ensuring that players will forever be on their toes. Do unicorns, for example, "gain their power from the chaste and pure of heart" or are they "warlike fae sustained by bloodshed, righteous fury, and fanatical zeal?" There are scores of ideas, some dark, some comical, but mainly clever.

We are told not to judge books by their covers, but these are really evocative and quirky, throwbacks to the eerie and awesome game art popular in the pre-Dragonlance days. The art wraps around, so on the shelf they really stand out.

These books are currently available on DriveThruRPG in PDF and print-on demand. I link the bundle here, but scroll to the bottom of the page for other buying options. There are terrific examples of the energy and creativity coming out of independent and community content creators, at a time when we need to remind ourselves how valuable those folks are. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2023


This is the third in a series of articles. Read the first here and the second here.

The average modern man's relationship with nature is not the one that prevailed in the premodern "cycle," to which, along with many other traditions, the hermetico-alchemical tradition belongs. The study of nature today devotes itself exhaustively to a conglomeration of strictly reasoned laws concerning various "phenomena"--light, electricity, heat, etc--which spread out kaleidoscopically before us utterly devoid of any spiritual meaning, derived solely from mathematical processes. In the traditional world, on the contrary, nature was not thought about but lived, as though it were a great, sacred, animated body, "the visible expression of the invisible". Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation"...

Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition

Towards Tradition

The paragraph I just quoted above characterizes the fundamental shift between Sorcery in the third edition of RuneQuest, and Sorcery as portrayed in the latest edition, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha. It parallels a corresponding shift in the way the Malkioni peoples of the Gloranthan West are portrayed, and is the direct result I think of Greg Stafford's deepening understanding of--and appreciation for--the Western Mystery Tradition.

The first two editions of RuneQuest had very little to say on the Westerners. While Glorantha resists one-for-one substitutions (the Orlanthi are Indo-Europeanish...but whether they are Aryans, Norse, or Greeks is left to interpretation; the Lunars are an Empire but they might be Persians, Romans, Victorians, or the Imperium from Star Wars), it is clear that the Malkioni are meant to reflect "Western" mythology. But their thin presentation in RQ and RQ2, and even in RQ3, shows a largely exoteric view of the West. They are monotheists and materialists, they are colonizers, they have a decidedly 19th century approach to comparative religion. Their Sorcery is effectively given to us as "science," effects caused by the rational manipulation of immutable natural laws. Their main function and contribution seems to be the Monomyth, which while being immensely useful to Gloranthan GMs and players is nevertheless the sort of reductionist nonsense colonial European powers layered over religions around the world. In short, the Malkioni are presented to us largely as the "modern man" Evola speaks of in the quote above. It would take a couple more decades, and Stafford's involvement with the Chaosium RPG Nephilim, for the Malkioni to finally make the leap from "modern" Westerners to the authentic hermetico-alchemical traditionalists I expect they were always meant to be.

To outline this shift, let's take a closer look at Sorcery in RQG.

The Nature of Sorcery

Sorcery begins, in RQG, with a restatement of its introduction in RQ3. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe of immutable laws," says RQG, while RQ3 had "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe. But they also believe that among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." While RQ3 then makes no mention of Spirit or Divine (Rune) magic, RQG almost immediately does: "it does not require the assent of the gods or spirits the way spirit or Rune magic does."

What distinguishes RQG from its predecessor though is that it explains what these immutable forces are and incorporates them into the system. RQ3 told us about such laws but then never shows them. It instead presents a magic system that basically functions like Spirit magic. This is in part a direct result of it being generic, but I would also argue it stems from Greg not fully appreciated the esoteric principles of hermetic magic. RQ3 could have linked sorcery to the manipulation of occult energies (the four elements, the planets, the stars, etc) but it didn't seem to feel any real need to. It was content to leave sorcery without any rationale at all.

RQG wants is to understand how exactly how sorcery functions, however. We are told almost immediately is the manipulation of Runes through defined Techniques. It tells us that the relationships between these Runes matter, and that the God Learners used the Monomyth to map them out.

Obviously this makes sorcery a more complex affair than it was in RQ3, but in a game that has always been famous for its immersive features this is an odd complaint. True, combat would also be easier without hit locations, strike ranks, armor, or weapons...but those elements bring RuneQuest battles to life. I find that player character sorcerers in RQG likewise appreciate the added detail. It makes the magic system a knowable thing, something that the player can come to understand and explore.


It starts here with the Runes. Obviously, on some level it has always been clear that the "immutable laws" the sorcerers of Glorantha are manipulating are the Runes, but this is the first time we have a visible framework. As mentioned there was no such framework in previous versions of the sorcery system. I think we owe this, at least in part, to Nephilim, which likewise explained sorcery as the manipulation of fundamental esoteric forces and included them in the magic system itself. 

Runes, and as we will soon see Techniques, are not skills, nor are they affinities. They are not learned. Instead, in the clearest and truest nod to the Western Mystery Tradition yet: 

to master a new Rune or technique, the sorcerer must achieve intellectual union with the source of their magic (be it the Invisible God, the One, the Great Mind, Logic, or whatever the sorcerer’s philosophy holds to be the case).

This is in complete agreement with the passage I quoted at the start of the article; "Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation." Though the word is not actually being used here, we are talking about gnosis, the fundamental distinction between alchemy and chemistry. One is learned, the other known in the sense of being united with it. It adds the missing religious element--and despite its "atheism" Malkionism is still a religion--in that to better command the universe, the sorcerer has to align himself with the Mind of the Creator. This is, frankly, RuneQuest doing what it has always done best...being authentic.

Furthermore, the Runes do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in relationship to each other, another piece of much needed verisimilitude. We had a preview of this with the publication of The Guide to Glorantha, which I will not deny (and long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear) that I "squeed" the moment I saw these;

Zzabur's Sigil, side-by-side with the Ka Elements from Nephilim

In the interest of full disclosure, between the preparation for the art in the Guide and when RQG went to print there was a further refinement. The Elemental Rune relationships in the sorcery system in RQG are best described by the wheel on that character sheet, and not the one above;

Regardless, RQG makes the relationships a quantifiable part of the game. When a sorcerer attunes to one Rune, the Rune they have "mastered," the two opposite Runes are gained as minor Runes. It's a nod to both Nephilim and the hermetic principle that each thing contains within it its opposites. To a lesser extent this continues with the Power Runes (if you master Movement, you gain minor knowledge of Stasis).

What emerges here is a way to interact with the Runes that is methodical, structured, and totally different from the way Rune cults handle it. It integrates sorcery into the world as an actual part of the setting rather than hand-waving details away for the sake of expediency.

More Western Mystery Tradition Influences on RuneQuest Sorcery, the Runes and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life


Like Runes, Techniques are gained intuitively rather than learned. Again this is consistent with the idea of apprehending something "immutable." Skills are extraordinarily mutable, developing entirely within the context of Time. Techniques exist outside of Time, part of the fabric of Arachne Solara's Web (and spoiler alert, they make a return in the upcoming heroquesting rules).


RQ3 presented spells as skills, and in lieu of Techniques had sorcery skills to manipulate them. This reduces everything to skill rolls, and misses sorcery's self described point. If sorcery is the manipulation of immutable laws...then the spell, the "skill," is clearly the manipulation. Where then is the the law?

RQG answers this elegantly. The Runes and the Techniques are the "letters" of the alphabet, the spells are their spoken combinations. This is very in keeping with the hermetic tradition that sorcery derives from. The letters of the Greek alphabet, or the Hebrew, were perceived as immutable constants manipulated by placing them into combinations of words. That is literally the origin of the word, "spell" (and why it is related to "spelling"). Again, RQG is modeling what RQ3 could not, or would not, bother to. 

Spells still require magic points and skill rolls to cast, but because Runes and Techniques have been separated out it is clear what immutable forces are being manipulated. The cost of the spell depends on whether or not it is a quality you have Mastered or just have a Minor affinity with (in the latter case the cost is doubled).

Final Thoughts

In a way that RQ3 failed to, I would say that sorcery in RQG hits all the criteria it needed to. 

It is a very different magic system from spirit magic or Rune magic. Players who want "flashy" super-hero spells will want Rune magic, but the player who is methodical, who likes to plan, and to whom you give ample time and resources can do things with sorcery no one else can. It just takes a patient, meticulous mind. If you have a sorcerer in your group, give them a season to plan and the results can be staggering. 

Conceptually, RQG sorcery does everything it needs to. Stafford's setting carefully and considerately models shamanism, and it has a sense of ancient theistic religions second-to-none. This edition is the first time it has ever gotten sorcery--hermeticism--right. One of Glorantha's most most attractive features has always been its exploration of religion, and this is the first time the Malkioni do not get cheated. 

But of course we have only seen the basics. I am very curious what sorcery practiced in the West might look like, and have put some ideas of my own into my campaigns. In the next article I will share some of those, and look at alternative directions you might want to take sorcery in.



Monday, January 23, 2023


This is part two of a series. See Part One here.

Not A Bad System, Really

SO FAR AS MAGIC SYSTEMS GO, the Sorcery rules presented in the third edition of RuneQuest are pretty good. I would go so far as to say they accomplished two-thirds of what they were designed to do. 

First, the Sorcery rules introduce to RuneQuest the magician-type character familiar to players of other fantasy role-playing games. This was critical if you were trying to market RuneQuest as a generic system. Potential players have expectations of who and what sorcerers are, shaped not just by "magic-users" in other games, but the sorcerers we see in Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber. Neither Rune magic nor Battle magic conformed to such expectations, being intended to model magic specifically in Greg Stafford's Glorantha.

Second, the Sorcery rules provided an alternative magic system that operated unlike either Battle or Rune magic (both renamed in the third edition to "Spirit" and "Divine" magic respectively). Those two approaches were largely static, in that once a spell is acquired it does basically what it says in the spell description.  Sorcery spells were flexible, with the sorcerer able to combine effects as well as manipulate the range, duration and strength of the spell. This approach made certain that Sorcery had its own unique feel. 

But in the third presumed objective, the Sorcery rules fell short. We are told several times in the rules that Sorcery is an "impersonal" system, that sorcerers perform magic by exploiting immutable laws of the universe. Nothing in the actual mechanics of Sorcery confirms this, however. 

Consider. If I sprinkle salt in a bowl of water, then with alligator clips and wire link one clip to the positive end of a battery and the other to the negative, when I place the other ends of the wires into the water, we start to see bubbles form. Why? The electricity is breaking the covalent bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen in the water. This is impersonal. It does not depend on my conscious will or how many magic points I spend. I make the bubbles happen because I am genuinely exploiting an immutable universal law. 

Sorcery as presented in RQ3, does not operate anything like this. In a game system famous for having clear rationales in how it modeled things, RQ3 really had no clear clue what it was modeling in Sorcery at all. Instead, it comes off as some form of advanced and flexible Battle magic. Sorcery spells were skills, and there were further skills to manipulate those spells. Like Battle magic, the "fuel" for these spells was the expenditure of magic points, the personal energy of the sorcerer, or energy he stole from a victim. Conceptually this is identical to Battle magic ("the forceful alteration of the fabric of reality by use of one's own POW" and "affect(ing) the Universe by force of will"). We are told it operates by manipulating natural laws, but shown the opposite.

For truly "impersonal" magic systems, we need look no further than Dungeons & Dragons or Harry Potter. In these, the magician learns specific gestures and incantations and "hey presto!" magic occurs. These operate mechanically, by laws baked into the setting. If Stafford and company had genuinely wanted impersonal magic, it would have looked something like this. But the problem was that Stafford was a mythologist, and he knew that there is no such thing as "impersonal" magic. Impersonal "magic" is called "science."   

Magic in Transition

When a new religion takes over, the gods of the old religion become devils. Once upon a time, older beliefs were outlawed as heresies. Today we simply dismiss them as fantasies. In the Enlightenment, as materialism, humanism, and "progress" became the core tenets of the New Faith, words were divorced from their meanings and very often reversed so as to weaponize them. "Myth," for example, went from meaning "stories that tell us the origins and rightness of things" to "something that isn't true." "Esoteric" went from meaning "inward" to meaning "extraneous." "Psychological" went from "of the soul" to "of the mind."

"Magic" likewise suffered. In Old French, magique, meant "the art of controlling spirits and superhuman powers." By the Enlightenment, however, the English magic meant "the art of predicting or influencing events using hidden natural forces." This is a radical shift. No longer is the magician dealing with beings, they are dealing with "forces." By the late 18th century, the word was further degraded to mean "illusion."   

At the epicenter of this shift, in the West, was the practice of alchemy. Nearly any current dictionary will tell you alchemy is "medieval chemistry," or (and I get a kick out of this one) a "protoscientific tradition." This is of course another example of redefinition from above. Further, in a breath-taking display of what Stafford would have called God Learnerism, we are also told that Taoist waidan and neidan, Sanskrit rasayana, and the theories of Zosimos of Panopolis are all "alchemy," as if these things bore any relation to each other at all. What does connect them--and all that matters to modern detractors--is that scientific medicinal and chemical practices emerged as by-products of these traditions. That they were essentially spiritual practices is irrelevant because they are "protoscientific."

By the time Sir Issac Newton and later Thomas Jefferson were practicing it, alchemy was indeed essentially desacralized, leading to this notion that hermeticism was just a kind of science. This would have fit comfortably into Jefferson's own Deism, the belief that the Universe was the work of a Creator who has nothing further to do with it, God as the Master Clock Maker. This is very much the view of Stafford's God Learners. But dial back a few centuries and alchemy looked quite different. "Universe, hear my plea," begins the invocation the Corpus Hermeticum (13:18) instructs alchemists to begin their operations with. "Earth, open. Let the Waters open for me. Trees, do not tremble. Let the Heavens open and the Winds be silent. Let all my faculties celebrate in me the All and One!" The alchemists participated in a living Universe, a very personal Universe. "The true elements are the soul of the essences, physical elements are but their shells or bodies" (Pemety, Stories of the Egyptian and Greek Devotees, 1786). 

As I mentioned in Part One, Stafford clearly struggled a bit with the Malkioni--and as a consequence Sorcery--because he had a natural antipathy to the Western mythology it was based upon. Stafford knew that myths were not "just stories," that psyche was spirit and not simply mind, and with the God Learners is clearly condemning materialistic Deism, colonialism, and 19th century self-superiority. I think Sorcery comes off as muddled in RQ3 because he did not yet have a feel for it the way he did for shamanism or ancient religious traditions at the time RQ3 went to press. He himself mentions "the bulk of the data" he had compiled on the Jrusteli and their Empire came in the period after licensing RuneQuest to Avalon Hill (see his "Designer's Notes" in the 1988 Genertela Crucible of the Hero Wars). But another critical factor in "getting a feel" for Sorcery came in the early 1990s, when Chaosium produced the English edition of the  French RPG Nephilim. Chaosium's Jeff Richard was kind enough to share with me in the past the notes Greg had during this period, a deep dive into the Western Mystery Tradition that Nephilim was exploring. While Nephilim has left many fingerprints on RQG--the "wheel" of the Elemental Runes being the most evident--it is clear that Greg's sense of Sorcery, of the Malkioni, was likewise influenced by the game. It seemed to crack the code for him on how to make Sorcery "impersonal" but still an actual, living religious tradition rather than surface level materialism.

The solution was, of course, the Runes. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023


THE YEAR IS 1984, and Sorcery--fashionably late--arrives at the party.

The first edition of RuneQuest (1978) had introduced us to two types of magic already.  Both made perfect sense for a Bronze Age, mythological setting. Battle Magic was the "forceful alteration of the fabric of reality by use of one's POW." While some Battle Magic spells were recognizably supernatural, the vast majority of them were about excellence. Bladesharp and Bludgeon made your weapons deadlier. Glamour made you more charismatic. Strength, Coordination, and Mobility made you better, faster. These all fit quite comfortably in epic literature. We see things like them all the time in the Iliad or the Mahabharata. In the latter, Arjuna frequently uses a trick that looks suspiciously like Multimissile. Many of the others are right there in Homer. In fact, the Greeks probably would have just called Battle Magic arete.

Rune Magic was bigger, flashier, more powerful. But Rune Magic was also a sort of divine intervention. It is the power of the gods channeled through mortals. Again, this is the kind of magic we see all the time in the epics. Arjuna, for example, went to the Himalayas to perform austerities and sacrifice for pashupatastra: 

Arjuna soon regained consciousness and began to mentally worship Lord Shiva... Lord Shiva was satisfied with Arjuna and said, "O Phalguna, I am pleased with you, for no one can rival your prowess. There is no kshatriya who is equal to you in courage and patience. O sinless one, your strength and prowess almost equal mine. Behold me, O bull of the Bharata race. I will grant you eyes to see my true form. Without doubt you will defeat your enemies, including those in heaven. I have been pleased with you and will grant you an irresistible weapon...

Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 3

Pashupatastra is a kind of spiritual missile, a blast that will destroy whatever it strikes. Like a lot of Rune Magic, you sacrifice for it and once you use it, it's gone.

All of this is the kind of magic the ancients would have recognized.

And then there is Sorcery.

Sorcery is closer to what we--20th and now 21st century people--think of when we hear the word "magic." It's closer to the magic that saturates modern fantasy. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe," we were told in the third edition of RuneQuest, "among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." This is, essential, the magic in D&D or Harry Potter. Like electricity or magnetism, it is a natural feature of the cosmos that clever people can tap. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that Bronze Age peoples would have warmed to the idea of an impersonal universe. It's a fairly Iron Age idea, really, and a late one at that. 

And yet, RuneQuest needed Sorcery. The third edition was designed to be generic, and generic fantasy has to include modern fantasy fiction with all its very post-modern concepts. Everybody knows wizards do magic, not Bronze Age hoplites! So room was made for the kind of slow, ritual, manipulating cosmic forces sort of magic we see in Howard or Moorcock. RuneQuest at last had a "magic-user."

I am not saying that Sorcery was a bad addition to the game (or even to Glorantha), only that it was part of a very different mythology than the one we had seen in Dragon Pass and Prax. Sorcery is an artifact of Western mythology...and I don't mean the Malkioni, I mean us. Like colonialism, monotheism, and atheism, the impersonal universe is a feature of European mythos. Battle Magic and Rune Magic derive from older, and far more widespread, mythologies. My sense is that Greg Stafford knew Glorantha had to integrate Western mythology, but struggled with exactly how to do that. For me, the High Medieval Malkioni West of RQ3 Glorantha was never a comfortable fit. If I wanted Pendragon, well...Greg had written that game too. I spent decades politely pretending the West of Genertela simply did not exist, or at least that it had vanished with the Jrusteli.

Major Digression Alert. One of the reasons I think Greg struggled with how to include Western mythology into the setting is that he simultaneously spent a lot of time disproving it. The God Learners, after all, are the perfect distillation of the Western Mythos. Secure in the knowledge of their superiority, and by Divine Right, they knew that their One God was the only true one, and had no qualms colonizing the rest of Glorantha reducing local religions to little more than formulae. The God Learners were Greg's sharp criticism of Freud, who reduced religions to psycho-babble; of Marx, who reduced them to economics; even of Frazer who reduced magic and religion to train stops on the grand journey to science. In Jrustela, Greg lumps together the entire 19th century field of comparative religion, which wanted to reduce mythology to something else other than a thing in itself. And then Greg sinks it.

So in the tapestry of mythologies that composes Glorantha, Western was the piece he seemed to have the most trouble making fit. In the Hero Wars and early HeroQuest period, he still seems to be struggling. And yet, somewhere in this period between RuneQuests, the problem gets solved. By the time the two-volume Guide to Glorantha is published, we get a West that makes sense, that fits.

Now it was time to make Sorcery, the magic of the West, fit too.         


Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Few Thoughts on Open Game Licenses

IF YOU ARE READING THIS, I assume you know the situation.

In a nutshell: Wizards of the Coast, owner of the Dungeons & Dragons "brand" and subsidiary of toymaker Hasbro, is amending the terms of an agreement made over twenty years ago. Essentially, to sell their new version of D&D, Wizards opened the game system to free third-party use. It succeeded. I might even argue it saved D&D from oblivion.

With D&D back on top, Hasbro would now like to amend the agreement in ways that are--pun intended--draconian. I won't go into all the details. Most of you know them, and that isn't what I want to talk about here.

What is clear to me is that neither Hasbro, nor the people they have put in charge of Wizards of the Coast and D&D (many of whom come from the video game industry), have any concept of what a roleplaying game is or how it actually works.

Here is the way they seem to think it should work: the consumers buy our core product, then they buy additional materials we create in-house. They play the scenarios we write, in the settings we publish, using D&D brand materials licensed by us, preferably on a virtual tabletop we own.

I get it. I mean this works for video games. You buy, say, Dragon Age Inquisition, then additional downloadable content for it. You read licensed novel tie-ins, wear licensed t-shirts, whatever. But the core idea is that YOU (the company) are the creator. YOU create all the content. They (the consumers) PLAY what YOU give them.

That Hasbro thinks they can apply this model to table top RPGs is breathtakingly ignorant.

Since 1974, when the art form first appeared, the RPG has been a tool-kit. It is the frame, not the picture. An RPG is a kit which enables a player to create their own unique character and the GM to create their own unique scenarios, campaigns, and in some cases even their own settings.

In short, the people buying your product are not passive consumers, they are active hobbyists. 

By the very nature of the art form, once a company releases a new game, the people who bought it become the competition. Sure, you can offer scenarios and settings, but if they suck, people will just create their own. You can offer additional rules and clarifications, but if someone has better ideas, they will use their own. So you either up your game and offer the best products you can, or you can go the route Hasbro is going and try to make it impossible to not use your products.

RPG companies that understand the hobby and are confident in their product embrace open game licenses and community content programs. They know that the more people who use their system, the better regarded that system is. They know that RPGers are hobbyists exercising their creative powers, and that inviting them to publish community content only strengthens their brand. It shows they are still confident enough in their own releases that people will buy them in addition to community content.

On the other hand, companies with the track record of releases Wizards has had the last couple of years scramble to monopolize instead. To my mind, the most telling statement to come out of Wizards in all of this is that the old Open Gaming License was never intended to "subsidize major competitors." People move to OSR (Old School Revival or Renaissance) games like Old School Essentials because they don't like the current version of D&D. They play games like 13th Age or Pathfinder for the same reason. Instead of trying to win such players back, it is easier to shut the competition down.

And that is stage one. Stage two is the virtual tabletop, where GMs and players will have to play your scenarios in your settings.

It's the easy way out.

Obviously, I have bias here. I publish through Chaosium's Jonstown Compendium and (full disclosure) have written for both their RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu lines. Naturally I applaud their robust community content programs (the Miskatonic Repository as well) as smart business moves. They get that their community is going to create, why not also give them a chance to share? I honestly do not feel my Six Seasons in Sartar in any way hurt their sales of, say, The Pegasus Plateau. Possibly even the reverse. Likewise I applaud their own BRP Open Game License because I feel the more people using the system, the better. A rising tide raises all ships. And I am VERY pleased to see today they joining forces with other major industry players on a multi-system OGL platform.

OGLs and community content programs demonstrate knowing, and respecting, who your audience is. Most of the industry gets this. I suspect Wizards gets this. Hasbro, clearly, has no idea who their audience is.