"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.

Sunday, March 31, 2019


Note: The River of Cradles picks up where Six Seasons in Sartar left off.  If you haven't checked out that campaign, go back and start here.


When a wandering Chaos obscenity killed those under her protection, Vinga’s fury and despair knew no bounds. Gustbran took the goddess’ wrath and forged it into a blade called Vengeance. The Loyal Daughter took the sword and tracked the raider’s bloody trail over nine raw mountains and eight terrible valleys. Finding the killer and its kin in their lair, she enacted a vengeance so terrible and complete that even the monster’s name is lost to our knowing.
Greg Stafford, The Book of Heortling Mythology  

The River of Cradles is the second book and sequel to Six Seasons in Sartar.  Cradles picks up where Seasons left off; the young protagonists have been separated from or lost their families and clan.  Their home has been taken, their wyter destroyed.  Yet Cradles is by necessity a very different sort of campaign.  Seasons was a heavily-scripted tragedy with a pre-determined ending, meant to introduce a new group of players both to the world of Glorantha and the HQG system.  The characters spent most of the book not yet adults. HeroQuest Glorantha’s “as-you-go” character creation was drawn out over all six chapters.  Until their initiation in chapter five, the characters were not even able to wield magic, and not until chapter six did they emerge as finished and complete HQG characters.  In Cradles, they enter play complete.  They are full adults with their destinies in their hands.  This demands a less scripted play style, a more traditional RPG approach in which the player characters are allowed to find their own way.

Having said this, Cradles still has a story to tell.  With the women and children of their clan sold into slavery in the wastelands of Prax, the player characters are resolved to travel that land, find them, and liberate them.  The trail will take them from Pimper’s Block across the region to the Lunar grantlands along the Zola Fel river.  From Defender’s Shore they move northwards upriver, through Lokazzi, Eyes Rise, Weis Domain, and Red Cliff.  Finally they pass through Sun Dome County and finally into Pavis, where Luck or Fate tosses them into a new take on a classic RuneQuest adventure.  The story then ends with another disaster; back in Dragon Pass the Windstop is unleashed.

Along the way there are difficult choices to be made.  Will the player characters simply rescue their family and clansmen from bondage, or will they try to liberate any Sartarite they find?  Do they also free Praxian slaves?  Nonhumans?  Is their intention to free every slave they find?  And do they limit themselves to liberation, or is vengeance upon the Lunars part of the mission?  These decisions will swing Cradles between a story of covert liberation—creating and running a sort of underground railroad—to a full-on Spartacus level slave revolt.  The choice is theirs.

If the theme of Seasons was “Coming of Age,” the theme of Cradles is “Coping with Loss.”  The young player characters have all been through a horrific experience, and the focus of Cradles is how they deal with it.  Do they turn to faith, or succumb to the temporary bliss offered by hazia and kvass?  Do they embrace a purpose or cause, or exorcise their demons with bloody revenge?  These are all questions central to the campaign.

A secondary theme is finding a Tradition or Cult.  Now that they are adults and their Runes awakened, which form of magic do they embrace?  Which god calls to them?  Because of this sub theme, Cradles is far more mystical than its predecessor, with more signs and omens, more incidents of the gods making their presence felt.  

Welcome then to The River of Cradles.  The year is 1620 ST.  The place is Prax.  As the story unfolds, the young protagonists find out what sort of people they will be, and on the very eve of the Hero Wars, see hints and glimmers of the roles they will play in the coming storm…

The Key Question:
Now that you are adults, what kind of person will you be?

Chapter One

Setting: Sartar, starting Waterday/Stasis Week/Fire Season 1620.  The action moves back and forth between a Lunar prison in Boldhome and a Lunar encampment south of Wilmskirk.   

Theme:  Faith and the Gods.  What role do the gods play in the lives of men?  

Motif:  Descent into the Underworld.  In Boldhome, Kalf and Beralor are being kept in dark oubliettes, tortured and interrogated.  These experiences change them.  South of Wilmskirk, Leika and Kalliva take part in a daring ambush, using underground tunnels to change their fates and those of hapless Lunar captives.  None of the characters actually descend into Hell in this story, but these subterranean experiences change their lives.  

Synopsis: In Boldhome, the actions of a god and a spirit make it possible for Kalf and Beralor to attempt an escape from captivity.  South of Wilmskirk, Leika and Kalliva experience the power of two goddesses, Vinga and Ernalda.  A stark choice is put before them concerning what sort of people they wish to be; do they take up Vinga’s sword (Vengeance) or follow Ernalda’s message of “there is always another way?”

Dramatis Personae

Ashagara Bonewitch
  • Runes: Moon, Darkness, Spirit
  • Seven Mothers Jakaleel Devotee (“…the Mistress of Black Magic, Keeper of Secrets…(h)er sub cult explores the horrors and solaces contained in the secrets of the Dying Moon, and has some close associations with the Blue Moon”)
  • Goals: To break Kalf and Beralor and find out everything they know about Kallyr Starbrow’s quest, what happened in the Dragon Temple, and the possible whereabouts of their co-conspirators (Kalliva and Leika).  
  • Notes: Ashagara never acts without consulting the Runes.  She keeps a set on her person at all times in a black pouch at her belt.  These are carved on the bones of her female ancestors.  No one knows what she looks like.  She is always covered from head to toe in black (robes, tattered cloak, deep hood), her face, hands, arms, etc are wrapped in black linen bandages.  She wears lead claws on her fingers (these are like thimbles with long razor-sharp nails).  

  • Runes: Air, Motion, Spirit
  • An “allied spirit” sent from Orlanth to serve the (now deceased) Wind Lord Derangath Cliffjumper.  Bound into Derangath’s alynx companion, Nightclaw, Skydancer is unable to return to Orlanth as the Lunar’s are keeping the shadowcat captive.  Skydancer can leave the animal but cannot stray too far.
  • Goals: Now that its master is dead, Skydancer wishes to return to Orlanth.  To do that, Nightclaw needs to be rescued from the Lunars (they are keeping the animal alive precisely because they want to hold Skydancer…part of a larger program of capturing and binding Orlanthi spirits to weaken the god).
Korolmara Svannsdotr
  • Runes: Air, Motion, Mastery
  • Vinga Devotee, Kalliva’s birthmother, captain of the Red Braid Sisters
  • Goals: To serve Queen Kallyr and see her on the throne of Sartar, to serve Vinga by avenging all the suffering the Lunars have inflicted on her people, to keep Kalliva alive.
  • Notes: A powerful warrior and capable leader, she strives to embody Vinga in this world.  She loves her daughter, but knows the role of “mother” is not one she is destined to play.

Gangrath Rogvarthsson
  • Runes: Fire, Truth, Air
  • Elmal Initiate, youngest son of King Rogvarth of the Sambari
  • Goals: Oppose his father’s policy of Lunar appeasement, see Sartar liberated from all Lunar influence; has taken an interest in Kalliva, so getting her to like him and share his feelings is a recent goal.
  • Notes: Gangrath is idealistic…perhaps even too much so.  He believes in honor and honesty, in “doing the right thing.”

Stora Helgarsdotr
  • Runes: Air, Motion, Earth
  • Korolmara’s lieutenant in the Red Braid Sisters.  
  • Goals: To kill every Lunar she finds, to make sure what happens to her family never happens to another Heortling
  • Notes: She was a wife and mother during Starbrow’s rebellion.  Lunar soldiers killed her husband and children and raped her.  She dyed her hair red shortly after that.

Ernaldesta the Vigorous
  • Runes: Earth, Life, Harmony
  • A member of Kallyr’s Companions (she is the Healer), a powerful devotee of Ernalda, possibly Kallyr’s lover
  • Goals: To serve Kallyr.  To heal the wounds the Lunar Occupation has inflicted on her people.  To serve as mother and guide.  
  • Notes: When the Starbrow heard of the terrible fate that befell the Haraborn she knew that she, in part, was to blame.  She refuses to let any more Haraborn suffer and has sent Ernaldesta to aid the Sons of Orlanth in making sure the male captives on their way to feed the Bat never get there.    

Elmalandti Wildstorm
  • Runes: Air, Movement, Spirit
  • Another member of Kallyr’s Companions (he is the Waterman), a powerful Kolati shaman formerly of the Old Wind Temple.
  • Goals: To serve Kallyr.  To liberate Sartar.  He has a secondary goal here, an interest in Leika (he calls her “Leika Whitecloud”) whom he thinks would make a fine Kolati shaman.

Begin With:  IN LUNAR OCCUPIED BOLDHOME, both Kalf and Beralor are the prisoners and the playthings of the Jakaleel witch Ashagara.  Solitarily confined in lightless holes in the ground, the witch works to break them, seeking information about their involvement in Kallyr Starbrow’s quest and the whereabouts of their “co-conspirators.”  Following the instructions given her after casting the Runes, she has taken two very different approaches to breaking them;

Kalf has been sick with fever.  A disease spirit has taken hold of him and will not let go (the Bonewitch conjured it and bound it to the bowl the Lunars use to feed Kalf his gruel).  He alternates between hot flashes and sweats and terrible chills.  Sometimes in the shadows of his fever Esrala comes to him.  She cradles his head on her lap and wipes his brow.  Sometimes she sings him to sleep.  Lately she keeps urging him to return to her, to “do whatever is necessary” to come back.  “Live for me.”  Most recently, she has been urging him to confess and “tell the witch everything” so they will release him.  It is likely Kalf’s player will immediately recognize “Esrala” is the witch herself, working on his mind (David is a bright lad).  Regardless, give the character a chance to resist using his strongest Rune (the equivalent of an RQ contest of POW) in a simple contest.  Apply the results to subsequent rolls to resist the Bonewitch.

For Beralor, Ashagara has ordered regular beatings; sometime the guards use their fists, sometimes the lash.  They ask nothing.  They come at irregular hours but most often when he is sleeping.  The beatings are intended to soften him up, but are having a different effect. Sometimes after the beatings, in the darkness of his cell, Beralor feels the wind on his face.  Sometimes he smells ozone.  Once after the beatings were particularly bad, he lay dazed on his back and watched thunderclouds boil and seethe across the ceiling of the room. After one terrible lashing last week, he actually had a vision back in his cell and watched the boy Orlanth, blue as the sky, dance his wardance.  Though he did not see Yelm’s ballet, Beralor heard the gods mock Orlanth and declare Yelm the winner.  Orlanth, eyes flashed like lightning, and he looked directly at Beralor.  “Some days you are beaten.  But never surrender.”

Now, tonight, tasting his own blood in his mouth, face swollen, Beralor lies on the floor of the oubliette.  There is the cool breeze and the smell of the rainstorm.  As he watches, an adolescent Orlanth appears again and performs the magic of Becoming.  Again, Beralor hears the judges declare Yelm the victor.  This time Orlanth gets down on one knee over Beralor’s beaten body.  He puts his hand on Beralor’s head.  “This day they win...but someday we will come back with the Sword.”  After this, let Beralor use his Air Rune against a Low Difficulty to attempt a “Second Wind.”  If he succeeds, his wounds are healed (he looks battered and bruised still, but feels his strength return).  he feels his bond to the Storm King grow more powerful.

Rescue - Scene One: For Kalliva and Leika it has been seven weeks since the Battle of Red Rock Stead.  Seven weeks since their escape from Roundstone.  Everything in their world has changed, making it unrecognisable.  A year ago, at this time, they were preparing for Founder’s Day as the grain fields ripened under the summer sun.  Now there were no fields to tend.  No flocks or herds to guard over.  There was only the War.

They have been sleeping, eating, and training under the protection of the Red Braid Sisters, of which Kalliva’s mother, Korolmara, is captain.  These dozen or so Vingans are just one of many war-bands in the Sons of Orlanth, composed both of Women who took vows to Vinga after the death of their husbands or brothers, and Women-In-The-Shape-Of-Men.  All are initiates of Vinga Orlanthsdotr.  Korolmara is a devotee.  Korolmara’s lieutenant is Stora Helgarsdotr

They have traveled south with another war band, the Brightblades.  These are led by Gangrath Rogvarthsson.  Now, south of Wilmskirk they skirt Sun Dome Country and meet with a third war band, the Stormshouters.  A surprise waits for them there.  At the Stormshouter camp Ernaldesta waits.  She calls for a council meeting with Korolmara, Stora, Kalliva, Leika, Gangrath and his lieutenant, as well as the Stormshouter captain Jarvan Spearbreaker.

They have a plan.  The Lunar prisoner caravan is encamped two miles to the south.  By tomorrow it will be too late.  They will reach the bulk of the Lunar Army—and the Bat—outside Whitewall.  If the prisoners are to be rescued it has to be tonight.  Ernaldesta’s plan is to ambush them…in a way that only a powerful priestess of Ernalda could.  She plans to open a tunnel in the earth, and to continue to tunnel as the Sons of Orlanth march at her back.  They will go right beneath the Lunar encampment, then open the earth to receive both the prisoners and their captors.  As these plunge into the earth, they attack and rescue the men.

There are a ton of roleplaying opportunities here; Kalliva’s continuing relationship with her birthmother, Gangrath’s crush on Kalliva, Kalliva learning more about Vinga, Elmalandti trying to persuade Leika to join his tradition, etc.  One crucial scene is around the campfire before the raid begins.  Stora will tell the story of Vinga’s Sword; the subtext here is to obliterate the Lunars and erase them from history.  Ernaldesta will quietly ask if she may share a story, and tells the tale of Ernalda showing mercy (Orlanth is fighting the Fire Tribe and takes Elmal captive; Ernalda persuades him to spare the young god’s life, and this display of mercy causes him to join the Storm Tribe).  The message here is the value of mercy instead of vengeance.  Stora looks suspicious.  “I have never heard that story.”  But she takes it no further.

Escape - Scene Two:  Kalf’s fever has grown worse.  In a pool of his own sweat he lies curled up in a ball shivering on the floor.  Suddenly, Esrala is in the room again, but she doesn’t speak to Kalf, she just watches.  Let this play out…he might think it is the Bonewitch again.  It isn’t.  

Can you see me?  The figure says, sounding surprised.  It comes closer and this time looks like Ashart.  It must be because that spirit which enslaves you is dragging you into my world.  

The visitor is actually Skydancer.  Realizing that Kalf can see him, the spirit offers a deal.  It will engage in combat with the disease spirit and try to drive it from Kalf and assist him in escaping…IF he promises to liberate Nightclaw and get him away from the Lunars.  

No roll is needed for this; Skydancer will win.  It drives the disease spirit out and Kalf’s strength begins to return.  Over the day, he grows stronger.  That evening, when the Lunar guard comes to bring his gruel, Skydancer possesses him and frees Kalf from the oubliette.  Kalf can take the Lunar’s curved sword and shield, or grab a spear from the rack in the hall around the oubliette.  He can also take the guard’s key.  

He will now need to rescue both Beralor and Nightclaw.  The spirit can guide him to both, but insists on Nightclaw first (she can be useful to you).  There should be at least one encounter with a guard before Kalf gets to the others.  Make it a simple contest.  The spirit can assist by simultaneously initiating spirit combat with the guard and distracting him.  If Kalf wins, he goes on.

Once Nightclaw is free the spirit re-enters the cat and will fight alongside Kalf as a companion.  He has three abilities, Shadowcat 5W, Spirit Rune 18, Air Rune 15.  As it leads Kalf to Beralor, to add more tension insert another simple contest against two more guards, one for Kalf and one for Nightclaw.  

Before they reach Beralor’s cell, we transition inside his dream.  He is dreaming of the Golden Palace of Yelm, with all the gods assembled.  The Contest of Weapons has come.  Yelm unleashes a golden arrow and it embeds itself in Orlanth’s chest.  The golden arrows blackens and withers away to ash.  Eurmal appears behind Orlanth, again in the form of Keladon Blue-Eye, and hands him a massive iron sword.  Beralor’s heart pounds looking at it.  Orlanth lifts the blade and begins to stride down the hall towards Yelm.  Keladon turns and looks at Beralor.  “Now is the time for the Sword.”

He is woken by Kalf freeing him.  

The spirit has found an escape tunnel in one of the cellars beneath the prison.  It is meant, obviously, for the soldiers not the prisoners.  They will have to fight their way towards escape.  This is extended combat; each faces two opponents (though with Kalf, Nightclaw can take one).  Assuming they defeat the guards, they reach the tunnel and begin their escape…

Rescue - Scene Three:  The rescue begins after sunset.  Ernaldesta strips naked down to her waist, painted from head to toe a light green.  Two sacred snakes coil around her arms.  She dances and chants as Elmalandti beats a hand-held drum for her.  As the assembled warriors watch, mesmerized, they realize even the forest is watching.  Birds have landed in the streets.  Rabbits, foxes, some deer and even a bear circle the clearing and sit in staring silence.  She dances in a wide circle, then slowly spirals towards the center.  As they look on, a depression forms in the ground, growing deeper and deeper.  By the time Ernaldesta reaches the center, a tunnel has opened in the earth.  Korolmara gives the order.  The warriors move in.

As soon as the last warrior enters the tunnel, the earth closes silently behind them.  Ernaldesta dances in the lead, the earth continuing to open before her.  They pass under the roots of trees, past rabbit burrows in the tunnels walls as the mesmerized animals look on.  She will not take us deeper than this, Elmalandti whispers to Leika, Ernalda does not wish to infringe on the territories of the Deep Sisters, Asrelia and Ty Kora Tek.  Leika notices that he refers to her now as the goddess, not by her name as a woman.

Now, to everyone’s stunned amazement, as Ernaldesta continues her entranced dance, not only does the earth open before her but fragrant flowers and soft green grasses spring up beneath her feet.  Fruit-bearing vines grow over the walls of the tunnel, dangling grapes, apples, fruits they have never even seen.  Ernalda’s life-giving power throbs through the walls of the tunnel.  Everyone feels younger, refreshed.  Leika and Kalliva both realize to their surprise that they are singing the same song as the Earth Priestess…in fact everyone is, caught in the Great Mother’s spell.

Eventually, Ernaldesta stops moving forward, and dances in a spiral, outwards now, rather than inwards.  A cavern is opening around them, circular and domed.  The ceiling is rising higher and higher.  At the same time patches of lush green grass and soft moss spring up at various points around the floor.  In other places, hard, jagged stones rises from the soil of the floor.

“Be ready!”  Elmalandti cries out.  As the warriors draw their weapons, a marvel occurs.

Above them the ceiling opens to the night sky…and the occupants of the Lunar encampment come plunging down.  Everywhere a soldier falls, there is a hard stone waiting for him.  Everywhere a prisoner falls…the soft moss and grass catches them.

Witnessing this miracle, the battle begins.

Both Kalliva and Leika will face two opponents in this extended contest, but the difficulty should be kept low.  The soldiers are already battered and terrified, scrabbling to call up their own magics and mount a defense.  Once the pit is open to the sky, Elmalandti calls the Umbroli and the Vingas draw down lighting from a clear sky.  

Play out the battle.  Assuming both player characters survive, Ernaldesta can later heal them.  For now the pit closes above them and the Earth Priestess leads them the way they came.

There are dozens of Haraborn prisoners.  Among them Kalliva finds Beralor’s father, Harvarr.  He is missing his right arm.  I knew you would come for us, he tells her teary eyed.  Where is Beralor?

To Leika’s surprise, her father Faran is there, though she had not seen him amongst the original prisoners.  He is wide-eyed and mute, his mind seemingly damaged.  He does not recognize her nor anything else, but is docile as a kitten as she leads him away.  

Further Scenes: Outside the prison walls, Keladon Blue-Eye awaits them with supplies.  I never left you, he says cryptically, leading them rapidly outside the city an up a high mountain pass.  Over the next couple of days he takes them south.  Role-play as much of this as you like.  Eventually he takes them to a Sons of Orlanth camp where Leika, Kalliva, the Red Braid Sisters, Harvarr and Faran wait.

Additional scenes you may wish to address; Elmalandti again trying to persuade Leika to take up the Kolati Way, Ernaldesta’s failed attempt to regrow Beralor’s arm (it was taken off with Death magic by a Yanafal Tarnils guard during an attempted escape), Elmalandti’s diagnosis that Faran’s mind was broken in his fight against the madness causing Lune and terror causing Dehori, any further romance (if any) between Gangrath and Kalliva as he rides off, Ernaldesta and Elmalandti taking their leave as they head back south to aid Starbrow.  

The rest of the time should be given to the party as they discuss what they should do.  If necessary, Harvarr is there to push them.  You cannot leave your father in bondage Beralor, and I am no longer fit to save him.  As the next story opens in Pimper’s Block, time allowing you can play out the preparation for the journey east, and the characters’ first look at the wastes of Prax stretching out before them…


THE SWORD of Vinga was a slight shift in the campaign thus far from what I would call a "cultural focus" to a "magical" one.  Six Seasons in Sartar was largely "magic free."  The player characters were too young to wield it, and it didn't impact in an obvious way on their lives.  Instead of magic, the six chapters of that book focused on the daily lives of Sartarites, customs and rituals, what it means to be Heortling.  In part this was to ground the world in a sort of reality; the more real the world is, the easier it is to accept the fantasy elements of it.  Yet part of the choice was to reflect my belief that inasmuch as we talk about Glorantha was a mythic world, we often fail to recognize Glorantha is an intensely anthropological one as well.  Her cultures are richly detailed, and unlike high fantasy where the conflict is between Light and Dark or Good and Evil, just like our own world much of the conflict in Glorantha is driven by friction between cultures.  It is hard for those new to Glorantha to get behind the struggle between Orlanth and the Red Goddess to dominate the Middle Air, but they can easily relate to mundane things like a people oppressed by taxation, a people who feel their voices are not heard, or a people who feel their way of life under assault by foreign ways.  

With that grounding behind us, The River of Cradles is a chance to expand the horizons and show what makes the setting so extraordinary.  Namely, its approach to magic.  This will be a theme we come back to time and time again in the chapters ahead.  In so many roleplaying games, magic is essentially just a tool.  It is a quantifiable and repeatable formula that harnesses some sort of power to create an effect.  The climax of this chapter comes when the three Sons of Orlanth warbands follow Ernaldesta underground to attack the Lunar camp.  But this was not simply some sort of "dig" or "move earth" spell...it was the living Goddess channeling her power through her priestess.  It was no more a "spell" than Moses parting the Red Sea.  It felt, I daresay, holy.  Thus finally in this session the players got a sense of why magic is different in Glorantha; it isn't just creating an effect but rather aligning yourself with and in a sense becoming the powers at the heart of the world.  True, to the Malkioni magic is impersonal and mechanistic, but it was very clear to the players in this scene that Ernaldesta was not calling on energies to tunnel through lifeless earth...she was singing to the Goddess for Her to open her womb to them and allow them passage through it.  

This is one of the reasons I like HeroQuest so much.  Magic in RuneQuest is traditionally very specific, very defined, very technical.  I like the more organic, mysterious approach HeroQuest takes.

Thus in the captivity of Beralor and Kalf we see two types of magic at play.  Kalf's encounter with Skydancer was meant to outline the animistic approach to magic.  It was transactional; "you scratch my back, I will scratch yours."  This is really the essence of shamanism and dealing with spirits.  It is an exchange of services.  Compare this to Beralor's theistic experience.  Here Beralor recalls and re-experiences the myths of Orlanth he knows from childhood, and the act of reliving these myths opens magic to him.  He isn't exchanging services with Orlanth, he is in a sense surrendering to Orlanth or becoming Orlanth in return for a miraculous healing.  The theistic approach is not transactional, it's sacrificial.  Whether you are sacrificing bulls or your own personal identity doesn't make much difference.  Initiates and Devotees become more divine and powerful the more they mirror and become their gods.

So Kalf and Beralor manage to escape the Lunars with the help of a god and a spirit, and Nightclaw--the alynx now independent of the allied spirit that possessed it--becomes a new companion for Kalf.  Two of Kalf's Runes--Beast, Air, and Stasis--match those of Yinkin, and this is just the beginning of exploring that (whether or not the character ever actually joins the Yinkin cult).  Beralor's Runes are the same as Orlanth's, so this episode was about exploring and deepening that connection.

Of all the characters, the one closest to actually going a "cult" (though really, we are talking a "tradition" here) is Leika.  Faran's daughter has already been trained as a Spirit-Talker by her father, and now her Spirit Rune is awoken.  What tears her is which tradition to explore.  In this episode Elmalandti continues to make the case she should embrace her father's tradition and follow Kolat.  

Kalliva, meanwhile, struggles with her identity.  Born red-haired, and sharing two Runes with Orlanth (Air and Mastery), she is being drawn to Vinga.  Yet the discovery that Kallessa was not her mother, and that her "aunt," the Vingan warrior Korolmara is, has her questioning who and what she is.  

The title, The Sword of Vinga, is a reference to the fact that her blade is named "Vengeance."  In a sense there is a bit of Newton's Third Law in this story.  The Lunars decimated the Haraborn, and now the player characters strike back.  The scene around the campfire, where Stora sings the song of Vinga and Vengeance and Ernaldesta responds with a song about showing mercy, sets up a question for the characters; which path will they take?

We ended up running Beralor and Kalf's escape from prison and Kalliva and Leika participating in the rescue of the Lunar prisoners simultaneously.  In other words, all the players were together in an extended combat against their opponents even though the characters were separated by many miles.  This allowed for a very cinematic back and forth cut scene technique.  This is again a kind of storytelling trick I think HeroQuest excels at.

The few remaining Haraborn men rescued, and Kalf and Beralor reunited with them as well as the rest of the party, made the next stage clear.  The player characters will go to Pimper's Block and try to pick up the trail of the women and children sold into slavery.  Two interesting subplots were explored as well; since Harvarr's arm cannot be regrown through healing magic, his son Beralor is already thinking of going to the Mostali for a mechanical one.  An intriguing idea.  Meanwhile, Elmalandti has taken her father to be treated by other shamans of the Kolati tradition.  This increases her connection with them.

Both Leika and Kalf sent word to their paramours (Three Bears and Esrala) but it looks like they will be going to Prax without them.  We shall see.


Monday, March 18, 2019


AUTHOR'S NOTE (or, "How To Read This Mess")

UNLESS YOU ARE a diehard Glorantha nerd (and if you aren't, why the hell not?) you can probably skip the first three sections, "Glorantha Rising," "Torchbearer," and "Moon Design."  These simply give the rest of the review context.  Those new to this setting should start with the fourth section, "The World of Glorantha." 


THE GLORANTHAN "RENAISSANCE" is now arguably on the edge of becoming an actual "Golden Age."  With three table top RPGs (RuneQuest, 13th Age Glorantha, HeroQuest), two mobile platform games (King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages), board games (Khan of Khans, The Gods War), resources like The Guide to Glorantha and The Glorantha Sourcebook, "Classic" RuneQuest back in print, and now the announcement of a video game from Irish studio Black Shamrock, Greg Stafford's legendary world has never been more accessible.  I like to think that Stafford (1948-2018) left our "Middle World" last year on a high note; when he started the process of creating Glorantha more than fifty years ago, he decided not to bind the world into short fiction and novels, but rather to present it to the rest of us in the form of games.  He gave us the world, but it was up to us to tell the stories in it.  Now, very soon, no matter what kind of gamer you are there will be a path for you leading into Glorantha, and a way for you to experience your own stories there.  It's a stunning achievement.

Stafford didn't do this alone.  The list of talent involved in the Glorantha project over the years goes on and on.  Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Ken Rolston, Charlie Krank, Lynn Willis, and Sandy Petersen are just the tip of this iceberg.  Crucial to this astounding resurgence of Gloranthan gaming however is a whole new team under the aegis first of Moon Design Publications and more recently Chaosium.  Jeff Richard, Rick Meints, Michael O'Brien, Simon Bray, Ian Cooper, and dozens of others quietly started the revolution a decade ago, and though it hit an explosive high water mark with the 2014 publication of the 800+ page masterpiece The Guide to Glorantha, we need to go back five years earlier to chart its real beginnings.  Though last year I had the opportunity to review both 13th Age Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, I never did get around to reviewing the game that actually spearheaded the new Gloranthan Golden Age--the game that remains my preferred vehicle to explore Glorantha these days--HeroQuest.

It's time to rectify that omission.


LONG BEFORE Kickstarter was a thing, there was the Glorantha Trading Association.  This was in the late 90s, when the fate of Glorantha was an open question.  Both RuneQuest and Dragon Pass (originally White Bear and Red Moon), the two games that had been delivering Glorantha to the rest of us for two decades, were out of print.  Not content to let his creation perish, Stafford started looking for ways to save it.

Getting the rights back from his original company, Chaosium, Stafford founded a second firm, Issaries, to bring Glorantha back to our world.  In the summer of 1997, he turned directly to the fans.  Offering shares for $100 each, what came to be known as the Glorantha Trading Association raised enough capital for Stafford to enlist the talents of game designer Robin D. Laws (Feng Shui, Rune, The Dying Earth, GUMSHOE, etc) for a new Gloranthan RPG.  Originally conceived of--and even advertised--back in the days of classic RuneQuest, this successor game was to be more epic, more mythic.  Called HeroQuest back in late 70s, the Robin Laws game was retitled Hero Wars as Hasbro held the rights to both the names HeroQuest and RuneQuest in the 90s.  It hit the shelves in 2000.

(We would be remiss here to omit mention of A Sharp's King of Dragon Pass, which also appeared at this time.  Published in 1999, David Dunham's brilliant storytelling computer game--the first Gloranthan game of this kind--was initially a commercial failure.  As perhaps another example of "the world just wasn't ready for Glorantha yet" the game was reborn in 2011 as an iOS game, later available on Android and then back to personal computers.  This time, it was a smash success, spawning a spiritual successor game, Six Ages, in 2018.)

To be blunt, Hero Wars was divisive.  A radical departure from RuneQuest, a game legendary for its gritty realism, detailed combat system, and simulationist approach, Hero Wars was narrative, abstract, and geared more towards the mythic battles of Harrek the Berserk and Jar-eel the Razoress than Rurik Runespear's battle at Troll Bridge.  Though I had been playing RuneQuest for nearly twenty years at that point, I loved Hero Wars and considered my investment in the GTA money well spent.  On the other hand, Hero Wars was an organizational nightmare, and its second 2003 edition, retitled HeroQuest after Stafford got the rights back, was a far better incarnation (my 2003 review of it is here).

Whether you prefer RQ or HQ, we have to acknowledge that the latter kept the Glorantha flame alive through the first decade of the 21st century, and was crucial in igniting the rebirth we are experiencing now.  HQ brought the game back from the wastelands of Prax (where much of RQ's focus had been) to Dragon Pass, the setting of the war-game that started it all.  Products like Thunder Rebels, Storm Tribe, Barbarian Adventures, and Orlanth is Dead! advanced the timeline further than RQ ever had, and revealed more about the storm-worshipping Orlanthi barbarians than we had ever seen.  At the same time, both Hero Wars and HeroQuest pulled back the veil on the Lunar Empire, the imperial force these barbarians were rebelling against.  These two opposing forces have always been the heart of the conflict that eventually brings the Third Age of Glorantha crashing down, but were never so clearly detailed.  HQ didn't just keep Glorantha in print, it explored the setting further.


Parallel to all of this, fellow American expat Rick Meints and Colin Phillips founded Moon Design Publications to collect and republish--under license from Issaries--classic out-of-print RQ materials.  From Pavis & The Big Rubble (1999) to Borderlands & Beyond (2005) Moon Design returned to print some of the most fabled Golden Age RQ products, keeping the past alive while HQ concentrated on pushing forward.  In 2006 Stafford decided to move the HQ product line to Moon Design as well, beginning the process of consolidating Glorantha under one roof.  Progress was initially slow, until an unstoppable force known as Jeff Richard came on board as co-owner of Moon Design.  

Then all Glorantha broke loose.

By the summer of 2009 there was no indication of the tidal wave that was coming; in fact, things looked depressingly bad. Moon Design jumped into the HeroQuest arena by issuing a brand new edition. A generic edition. Once again, a game that had been expressly created as a way to experience Glorantha was divorced from the setting (as Avalon Hill had done to RuneQuest in 1983). While I liked the mechanical updates to the system, and the decision to jettison the incongruous bits of simulationist gaming from a system that was overwhelmingly narrative in design and purpose, I recall being livid that Glorantha was being sidelined. I braced myself for the HQ equivalents of Vikings, Lands of the Ninja, and (grrrrr) Griffin Island.

I hadn't figured Jeff Richard into my calculations though.  While HQ2 contained less than fourteen pages of Glorantha material, the autumn of that year unleashed a tsunami of it.  Richard, working with Greg Stafford, wrote Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, delivering on a three-decade-old promise for a "Sartar Campaign."  The duo followed the next autumn with a companion book that brought the full Sartar Campaign material to about 700 pages.  Pavis: Gateway to Adventure followed in 2012, another Richard/Stafford collaboration. That same short years later Richard, Meints, and Moon Design were Kickstarting their Guide to Glorantha (of which Richard was both a lead author and editor-in-chief), which was published in 2014.  Finally, the year after that, Richard rewrote HeroQuest with Robin Laws and returned the system, firmly, to its Gloranthan setting.  HeroQuest Glorantha was that product, and will be the book the rest of this review is dedicated to.

The same year HeroQuest Glorantha appeared, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen returned to Chaosium, along with Richard, Meints, Michael O'Brien, and Neil Robinson, the principals from Moon Design.  HeroQuest had been created to carry on in the place of RuneQuest; now it was taking its place beside it.    


GLORANTHA’s story begins in 1966, when a young college freshman named Greg Stafford started to create a world.  “Glorantha” was Stafford’s personal exploration of myth; not as we understand the term—synonymous with lies and falsehoods—but as traditional, pre-industrial societies did.  In an unstable, ever-changing world, myths provided definition and order.  They were timeless, transcendent truths that showed men and women how the world worked and how to live in it.  This was an age when cults and cultures—two words with the same etymological source—were one and the same.  Civilizations were defined by their gods.

As a setting, Glorantha embraced this mindset and never let go.  It was a flat world floating on a cosmic sea; a sky dome turned overhead and the black chasms of the underworld yawned below.  Her societies were Bronze Age, ruled by priest-kings and priestesses.  Beyond the borders of her empires and city-states monsters reigned.  

Glorantha was not defined by chemistry or physics but by the epic deeds of her gods, spirits, and heroes.  Their actions in the primordial history of the world established the patterns of nature, and set the model for how the mortal races should live.  The sun rises and sets in Glorantha not because of planetary rotation, but because the Solar Emperor Yelm was killed by the rebellious storm god Orlanth, falling from his throne above the world and plunging down into the underworld.  With the world subsequently plunged into darkness, all the gods began making war upon one another.  The world was cracked and Chaos, the stuff of raw entropy, bled in.  One by one the gods fell and creation came closer to ending.  Thus Orlanth later descended into Hell to bring the sun back, and with the surviving gods forged a compact known as Time.  The gods would exist outside of Time in the realm of myth, never able to war again.  From the mortal perspective, they eternally repeat their deeds.  The Sun rises, is slain, and rises again.  Not only does myth define physical reality like this, it shapes societies as well.  The Orlanth worshipping barbarians forever rebel against the Sun worshipping empires.    

At the heart of this world were the Runes, the building blocks of Gloranthan reality.  Darkness, Storm, Sky.  Fertility, Harmony, Death.  The two-dozen or so Great Runes defined the pantheons and powers of the gods, explained the nature of spirits, and contained the transcendent essences of existence.  The Runes form almost a kind of a language that once you get the hang of it becomes easy to read.  Plant and Sea might mean "seaweed."  Plant and Darkness might mean "fungi."  Fertility and Earth might mean fruits and vegetables.  Disorder and Earth might mean earthquake or avalanche.  The Runes are at the core of every god, every being, every player character.

“Magic” in Glorantha was how you related to these Runes, and this in turn shaped how you saw the world.  A Shaman would see the Runes as great primordial spirits to be bargained with, a Theist would see them as gods to be sacrificed to, and an atheistic Sorcerer would see them as impersonal essences to be studied and controlled.  Thus a shaman might tell you that rivers run to the sea because the river spirits are mediators between the spirits of the land and the spirits of the deep.  A sorcerer might say it is the nature of the Water Rune to always seek the lowest level.  A theist might teach that during the War of the Gods, when Chaos shattered the primordial cosmic mountain that was home to the first gods, the Ocean rushed in to fill the hole left in the center of the world, and called his daughters, the rivers, to come help him fill it.  Yet all would agree that the Runes of Motion and Water define what a river is.

The easiest way to describe HQG is to look at it alongside its sister RPGs, RuneQuest and 13th Age Glorantha.  RQ is firmly simulationist; it is the game you play if you want gritty realism and a sense of what it would "really" feel like to live in Glorantha.  13G is gamist; this is your go-to if you want fair and balanced encounters and enjoy using rules to "win."  HQG is the narrativist system; if you like your games to have the flow and structure of novels or a television series, if you want character arcs and drama, this is the best choice for you.  

"In HeroQuest Glorantha," Richard writes...

...you start not with the physical details (of a given action, such as height, mass, or distance) but with the proposed action’s position in the storyline. You consider a range of narrative factors, from whether it would be Maximum Game Fun for (the character) to succeed, how much failure would slow the pacing of the current sequence, and how long it has been since (the character) last scored a thrilling victory...

Consider a party of player characters up against a mercenary band of Dark Trolls.  13G is going to make sure the odds are even and that it's a fair fight.  RQ is going to model the Trolls as realistically as possible, and let the battle play out with death or crippling injury a very real possibility.  HQG, meanwhile is going to ask where this battle fits in the overall storyline; are these Trolls major antagonists or minor characters?  Would it be more interesting for the player characters to lose or to win?  The GM will then assign a difficulty to the contest to reflect this.  To be blunt, the Dark Trolls don't even "exist" in game terms except as an obstacle to be overcome.  They don't have any stats.  if the GM feels they should be easy to beat they will be.  If he feels they should be a threat, he sets the Difficulty accordingly.

The logic here is one of pure storytelling.  Decades ago, a RuneQuest character of mine faced off against a giant in Snakepipe Hollow.  An archer, he got lucky, landing a critical shot against the giant's head.  It died instantly.  Now, that particular battle could have gone very differently if the character had missed.  What HQG does, however, is ask how the battle "should" go.  If the giant was an adversary encountered in the first act, the GM could set the difficulty so low that a single shot would dispatch him.  If facing the giant was the climax of the adventure, HQG gives the GM the tools to make sure the battle will be long, drawn-out, and hard won.  It's the same giant, but what matters is his role in the narrative.


Characters are defined by abilities.  An ability is any skill, talent, tool, resource, or power a character can call upon to overcome an obstacle.

Abilities are rated in tiers of 1 to 20.  Higher is better.  When an ability rises to 21 it enters the the next tier and is said to have a mastery.  It resets to a value of 1, but is written 1W (“mastery 1,” the "W" here being the Gloranthan Mastery Rune).  When it rises to 21W, it again enters the next higher tier and is now written as 1W2 (“2 masteries one”).  Just remember whatever number comes after the “W” indicates the number of 20s the ability has: 5W3 would be the equivalent of 65; 12W4 would be 92.

A starting character will have certain standard abilities, including a Distinguishing Characteristic (like "cynical," "brave," or "cunning"), an occupation (Warrior, Bandit, Farmer, etc), a culture (Heortling, Esrolian, Praxian, etc), a community (the Black Stag clan, Bison Riders, etc), and three Runes.  Additional characteristics are created by the player to flesh out the character and make it unique.   

Die Rolls
HeroQuest uses only a 20-sided die.  A roll of 1 is always a critical, the best possible result.  A roll equal to your ability value or less is a success.  A roll above your ability value is a failure.  A roll of 20 is always a fumble, the worst possible outcome.  Each mastery the value has, however, bumps the result down one step.  With one mastery, a fumble becomes a failure, a failure becomes a success, and a success becomes a critical.  Two masteries bumps the result down two steps, etc.

Every die roll in HeroQuest is an opposed roll.  In other words, you will always be rolling against another player or the game master.  The best result—critical, success, failure, fumble—always wins.  In other words you could “fail” your roll, but if you opponent fumbles you still succeed.  If both sides score the same level of result, the high roll wins.  It is important to remember, though, that masteries cancel.  If you have 5W and your opponent has 18, you keep your mastery.  If you have 5W and your opponent has 7W, they cancel and you are each rolling just 5 against 7.  If you have 5m2 and your opponent has 18W, his mastery is lost and you lose one of yours (effectively making it 5W versus 18 again).

Difficulties are based off how many sessions the characters have participated in.  This gives the GM a Base Value to work with.  1 to 4 sessions gives a Base Value of 14.  13 to 16 would be 17.  29 to 32 would be 21, and so on.  The Base Value is then modified by how difficult the GM thinks the contest should be.  Should it have a "Low" difficulty?  Subtract 6 from the Base Value.  Should it have a "High" difficulty?  Add 6 to the Base.  Is it nearly impossible?  Add two masteries (+W2) to the Base.  There is also an option of using a Pass/Fail Cycle, in which failing a few contests actually lowers the difficulties of subsequent contests, while winning contests causes the difficulties to continue to rise.     

There are two types of contests; simple and extended.  A simple contest is handled by a single exchange; each side rolls once and the contest is over.  An extended contest ends when one side or the other reaches 5 result points or higher.  For example, if both sides roll a success, the winner gets only 1 result point and the contest goes on.  If one side had rolled a critical, and the other side a fumble, the winner would score 5 result points immediately and the contest would be over.

What determines is a contest is simple or extended?  Simply put, the dramatic stakes.  If a player character is fighting a nameless guard, the entire fight is a simple contest.  If he is fighting his lifelong adversary, the man who killed his family, it will be extended.  This has nothing to do with how long or complex the contest is in the story; a year-long siege could be a simple contest, while two Humakti warriors facing off in a duel could be extended (even if the fight lasts mere seconds).  

Augments and Modifiers
Both augments and modifiers can be used to bump up your value before a contest.  An augment is another ability that you call upon to support the main ability in the contest.  For example, if a character with the Warrior ability also has Lightning Fast, he could logically use Lightning Fast to boost Warrior when fighting a duel.  You can either roll for the augment—risking a penalty if you get a bad result but the chance to get a much high bonus if you augment goes well—or take a flat augment equal to its value divided by five.  You can only use one ability as an augment per contest.  On the other hand there are also plot augments.  These are bonuses you one in previous contests that apply to later ones.  You can stack plot augments with ability augments.   

Modifiers usually come in a range of -6, -3, +3, or +6 based on the situation.  Imagine a Super Spy fighting one of the villain’s minions.  If the minion is armed and the spy isn’t, the spy might suffer a -6 penalty.  Another special case is broad versus narrow abilities.  If two characters are trying to recall a historical fact about Second Age Heortlings, and one character has only a general "Heortling" cultural ability while the other actually has "Second Age History," the second gets a +6 bonus (his ability is narrow, the other’s is broad).  If the second character had a more general "History" ability, the GM might narrow his bonus to +3 instead.

Using an ability that the GM doesn’t think is applicable is called a stretch, and always receives a -6 penalty.

Contests always end in the same results; Complete Victory, Major Victory, Minor Victory, Marginal Victory, Marginal Defeat, Minor Defeat, Major Defeat, and Complete Defeat.  This is determined by whether or not you won and how much better your result was compare to an opponent’s.  Consequences are dealt out after the contest, never during.  Victory usually results in plot augments.  Defeat ends in penalties or even death.  In a combat situation, “death” might be literal.  In something like a poker game, “death” would be losing the shirt off your back.

The severity of consequences depends on where you are in the story.  Rising action results tend to be less punishing.  Climactic results are a bit more severe.  It is technically possible in the climax to defeat your opponent and then succumb to a deadly wound.

Hero Points

At the start of every session, each player gets three Hero Points.  These can be spent in game to “bump” a die result the same way a mastery does, or at the end of the session to raise an ability value by one point (or purchase a new ability at a starting value of 13).


With the embarrassment of RPG riches that Chaosium now offers us to explore Glorantha, HQG probably remains my favorite.  Don't get me wrong; I love me some RuneQuest, and 13G is a wild ride.  But the kind of stories my players and I are interested in telling--sweeping sagas like the Iliad, Mahabharata, or even Game of Thrones--HQG delivers.  The rules allow the players to concentrate on role-play, focusing on personality, drive, and character "arc."  They allow me as the GM to tell sweeping stories that flow the way a novel would, to work on bringing to life the world and the NPCs (check out my posted scenarios for examples of the kind of stories HQG lets me tell).  To me, Glorantha is about stories, and HQG is the best tool I have to explore that.  Your Glorantha Will Vary, and if you like the gritty survival stories RQG excels at or the cinematic combats of 13G, those engines are perfect at what they do.  I've been a fan since Hero Wars, and for purposes of pure storytelling--Glorantha or otherwise--I have yet to find a gaming engine that works as well as HeroQuest does.