"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, May 31, 2020


Death rides the Camel of Initiation.

Aleister Crowley, 
Liber 333, "The Book of Lies"


THE BRAZILIAN STATE of Amazonas is one of the largest territories in any country in the world, close in size to the US state of Alaska or Australia's Queensland.  It is also mostly tropical jungle.  The combination of rainforest and immensity makes Amazonas fascinating in another way; it plays home to peoples relatively untouched by the modern world.

The Sateré-Mawé number roughly 13,000, and are one of the indigenous peoples native to the area.  They speak a form of Tupian, a language still found in scattered pockets around Brazil.  Given my daily coffee intake, I feel a certain sense of kinship with them; the Mawé were the first to cultivate guarana, a plant with caffeine concentrations more than double that of the coffee bean.  

I mention this plant not merely because of my caffeine addiction.  It has an interesting origin story. The Mawé will tell you that once upon a time, long, long ago, a beautiful child was born in a Mawé village.  The child was not just beautiful to look upon, but gifted with a sweetness and goodness to match.  Like so many peoples, however, the Mawé have their Tricksters.  This one led the beautiful child to its death.  The villagers could not be consoled.  Fortunately they also had some beneficent deities, and one of them, to comfort these grief-stricken people, plucked the eyes from the beautiful child's dead skull.  The left eye he planted in the wilderness, creating a wild species of guarana used by shamans and medicine people.  The right eye he planted in the village, to ease their suffering with cultivated guarana.

Even the gods understand there is no pain caffeine cannot cure.

Now, if you have any sort of fascination with mythology you are already way ahead of me, but let me underscore the universal message here anyway; loss and suffering--aka "sacrifice"--results in transformation and change.  The death of the beautiful child gave his people the magic of guarana.  Odin's crucifixion on Yggdrasil brought us the Runes.  Christ's crucifixion opened the way of redemption.  Without pain, there is no growth.

Which brings me to the ants.

Paraponera clavata, the "bullet ant," scores a perfect 4.0 on entomologist Justin Schmidt's pain index.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the gold medal of insect stings.  People who have experienced clavata's loving ministrations have compared it to being shot.  Those who have been stung and shot in their lives say they would rather take a bullet again than the ant.  It is, simply, the most excruciating agony an insect can cause you.  Forget wasps.  Forget the honeybee. When the bullet ant stings you, you wish for death.

The perfect gift for your 13-year-old.

Slight detour.  Bear with me.  When I was a boy I was extraordinarily annoyed by a Jewish friend's bar mitzvah.  Not only did he get this fabulous party, at 13 years old he got to be a man.  I found this singularly annoying because I was taller than him and had, to borrow a Greg Staffordism, "come of hair" before him.  Yet his culture had this thing where at 13 he suddenly became recognized as an adult, while I had to wait five stupid years.  Worse, all he had to do was get up and read the Torah to his congregation.  It felt unfair to me that my culture didn't have a comparable adulthood rite.

I might have felt differently had I been Mawé.

When a Mawé boy turns 13, ladies and gentlemen, there is no Torah reading for him.  Instead, the Mawé collect those bullet ants and fill a pair of mittens with them.  They irritate the ants to make sure they are properly angry.  Then they make their 13-year-old boys wear these rage-ant laden mittens for ten minutes.  The boys are not to cry out.  They are experiencing pain that people have compared to being on the receiving end of gunfire, they are 13, and they are supposed to suffer in silence. Only thus do they make the transition from childhood into being recognized as adults.

And the Mawé, my friends, are getting off easy.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Bukusu people of western Kenya, 14-year-old boys undergo the sikhebo.  Jangling chinyimba bells he goes from house to house, getting gifts--and insults--from friends and relations.  He is called a child, a "sissy," and told he is not ready to become a man.

That evening, while everyone gets drunk on busaa, a cow is slaughtered and the boy is smeared with the contents of its bowels.  Like the Mawé boy he is not to cry out of show fear. He will be forced to remain awake all night while alternately taunted and instructed in what it means to be a man.

Then, at dawn, without anesthetics, he will be circumcised with a knife.


Glorantha is not the "real world," but it is among those fantasy settings out there that hews closely to it, especially in terms of myth, ritual, and traditional cultures.  I suspect this has everything to do with who Greg Stafford, its primary creator, was.  Greg was not just a lifelong scholar of mythology, he was a self-described shaman.  He left us, and this world, in his sweat lodge.  So Greg knew a thing or two about how traditional societies work, and he knew a great deal about initiation.

We don't really do initiations any longer in the quote-unquote "civilized" world.  Our post-modernism safely assures us initiations are all mumbo jumbo, and we know so much better than that.  I expect that several readers out there would regard the practices discussed in the passage above as child abuse.  In writing Rites of Passage, the male adulthood initiation ritual for Heortling boys as practiced by the Haraborn, I had the boys seized in the dead of night and thrown roughly into pits.  I expect some in the Gloranthan community would call that child abuse as well.

But as long-term readers of this blog have already surmised, I know a thing or two about initiations myself.  For nearly twenty years I have been a member of the O.T.O., which describes itself as an initiatory organization, and though I have taken oaths not to speak of them, I have been through a number of initiations as a result.  They were all ordeals.  

That word has an interesting story.  We throw it around today to mean something difficult, but of course the original definition--going all the way bay to its Proto-Germanic roots--is a trial that divides.  The "deal" portion of the word is actually from the same root as "dual" or "duo."  So an ordeal is a ritual that divides you, it separates you.  From what?  On one hand it separates you from others; after the ordeal you don't belong to the same group you did before.  In case of manhood rites we are literally separating the men from the boys.  But I opened with a quote from Aleister Crowley for a reason; the point it is making is that every initiation is also a death.

In an esoteric sense, death is synonymous with "transformation."  When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is "dead."  What the Bukusu or the Mawé are doing therefore is not some simple fraternity hazing, they are transforming the boys from one thing into something else.  While our post-modern initiations are essentially window-dressing (being handed a diploma at graduation, for example), traditional societies regard them very, very seriously.  Make no mistake, those boys are being killed.  The men who take their place are transformed.

There is a temptation--a very real one--to impose our modern sensibilities on the peoples of Glorantha.  The Heortlings could simply have a party for their boys to welcome them into manhood.  They could gloss over issues of gender and have everyone simply go through the same rituals together.  YGWV and there is no wrong approach, but I suppose what is at issue here is what Glorantha means to you; is it a fantasy world in the sense that you can use it to redress the disparities and inequalities you perceive in this world, or is it an attempt to recreate and engage with traditional worldviews?  Greg firmly saw it as the latter.  So do I.

Thus it was important for me for both Rites of Passage and The Riddle to be ordeals.  The boys tossed into the pits and the girls walking into the Riddle never come out again.  Instead, brand new men and women do.  Death and transformation have to be part of the formula.  These are births, and births are accompanied by difficulty and pain. In preparing both I paid a great deal of attention to what Greg had to say on the matter, as well as traditional initiations like those described above.  To remove the pain is to misunderstand what initiation is about.           

Saturday, May 23, 2020


ONCE UPON A TIME, in a magical land called "the Early Eighties," RuneQuest looked something like this;

You are gazing there upon a typical page from William Keyes's Runemasters, which for 12-year-old version of me was akin to religious scripture, or, if you prefer a more profane metaphor, porn.  You see, this was an age when percentiles were narrative, stat blocks poetry, and statistics thick description.  To the untrained--no, scratch that, the word we want to use here is uninitiated--eye, there is an impenetrable scrawl of data there, a gibberish of cramped numerals, cryptic words, and questionable use of punctuation.  To me however, 37 years ago, this was Borek Longtooth, a sentient baboon from the plains of Prax.  In his mid-20s, he was already a badass, a Rune Lord of Daka Fal, judge of the dead.  He was deadly with a spear, had a number of animal spirits bound to his will, and was in possession of formidable magics.  He was a master of stealth, a deadly hunter who could track you unerringly, unseen, unheard.  Looking at those numbers, I could see him, his painted muzzle, the dull iron armor covering parts of his fur, a few flies buzzing around him in the baking heat of the chaparral.  This was, ladies and gentlemen, how we rolled.  In early roleplaying games like RuneQuest, the entire story was buried in statistics.

Four decades later, though, we exist in a reality of high-def television, emojis, and Instagram.  We don't converse, we tweet.  Everything is faster, briefer, louder, and more vivid.  We exist in perpetual sensory overload, and if you want an audience, you need to catch their eye.  Attention, frankly, has never been harder to hold.  A book like Runemasters would be dead on arrival.  We don't want to sift data to find the story, we want it now.  NOW.

All of this means that bringing a game like RuneQuest into the 21st century is something of a tightrope act.  The game had to change, had to adapt, but if you lean too far to the right you plunge into appealing only to hardcore grognards such as myself, lean too far to the left, and you fall into not being recognizable as RuneQuest anymore.  The design team of The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (I will be calling it Pegasus from here on in because PP makes my inner five-year-old giggle), has navigated this particular Scylla and Charybdis remarkably well.  Pegasus is modern RuneQuest, easily the most modern product Chaosium has produced for it yet, but its roots run deep and it is undeniably aware of its ancestry.

Now I know what you are thinking; "for Pete's sake Montgomery, just get to the bloody point."  So, dear reader, I shall.


One reason I call Pegasus the most modern RQ product is because it is the most visually adept thus far at getting information across.  We have to congratulate art director Kalin Kadiev and his team (Dimitrina Angelska, Dominik Derow, Antonia Doncheva, Andrey Fetisov, Elena Herrero, Jennifer Lange, Michelle Lockamy, Eli Maffei, Sarah Miller, Naomi Robinson, Valentina Romagnoli, Simon Roy, and Cory Trego-Erdner) for pieces that tell stories about the people in them. They are at turns dramatic, human, and arresting.  The art here didn't spring fully formed from the brow of Zeus--we've seen it evolving over the last several Chaosium products--but it's reached its stride here.  These Sartarites look like Sartarites, not pseudo-Celts or Vikings. The Lunars could be Romans, but there is a something of Assyria in that beard.  These characters finally have their own cultures and ethnologies, rather than looking plucked from a historical Osprey book. 


They also have personality.  You could glance at "Kana" on page 13 and pretty much predict what her personality description on page 14 would say; it's not just the upturned nose, the look in her eyes says I think I am better than you.  "Jongor" and "Delenda" on page 136 are very clearly...er, sorry, let me stop myself there with another annoying artifact of the modern media age and just say "spoilers."  In any case, the picture of the two together is worth a a thousand loud and clear words.  That the two look like they have handed their smartphone to a passerby and asked him or her to take a picture of them is a bonus; I like it when Glorantha winks at me, and I wink right back.  Also, there is a depiction of an Earth temple on page 7 that might be the single most Gloranthan image I have ever seen.  No "Fantasy Europe" there, no clinging whiff of medievalism.  It's not quite Minoan Crete or Babylon, not entirely India or ancient Cambodia, but it suggests some far older culture, the kind of ruin Sinbad would stumble across in a Ray Harryhausen movie.1


So with the art we have arrived at pictures that are information laden, not just space-fillers, and the world they depict feels entirely its own.  I have been imagining this Glorantha for four decades, so to finally see it is gratifying indeed.  Pegasus understands we are living in a visual society, where nothing is "real" unless you've uploaded an image of it.  It applies this to Glorantha through images that make that world real too.  How do we know Glorantha is real?  Because now we can see it.


I'm going to invoke John Wick because with this book he has at last joined the Glorantha family.  John is responsible for the eternally true Stafford Rule that states;

If you believe you've come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.

Pegasus is a variation of that rule, because now it has to be "Chaosium has already done it."  In trying to square the circle in my own recent Glorantha book (shameless plug, cough cough), I thought I was being oh so clever in designing a simplified approach to NPC design.  Lo and behold, O Montgomery you foolish mortal, Pegasus beat you to it.

Right on page 2 Pegasus talks about the "missing abilities" approach.  Here is why I began with Borek the Baboon.  In "classic" RuneQuest the default assumption was often "if it is not on the page it isn't real."2  A book like Runemasters, which contained just pages and pages of statistics for Rune Masters, existed because doing your own stats for them took longer than reading Tolstoy.  Flash forward four decades later and in a game like HeroQuest Borek would simply be a difficulty.  If RuneQuest took that approach, however, it wound be RQ in name only.  Thus there has to be a way to satisfy the modern taste for information in light rapid doses that also feels RQ.

The surprisingly simple approach is to give NPCs only the stats they need in the story and omit the rest.  You can quibble if this is an actual mechanic, but by putting it into writing, Pegasus makes it precedent for the rules lawyers amongst us.  Anything else that comes up in play can be improvised.  Sure, this seems a "no-brainer" today, but RQ is 42 years old and has a reputation for being--let's just say it--anal.  But it doesn't have to be.  There are ways to make it every bit as improvisational as a game like HeroQuest, and this turns a spotlight to it.    


There are seven adventures, one tribe, and a village in the pages of Pegasus, but really to say too much about them would be to ruin them for you.  I did save this part for last, however, because one of the most modern elements of Pegasus is in the variety and diversity of the stories told here.

It's probably a stereotype that classic RPG adventures were all dungeon crawls, but looking back many of them were.    Even the RQ ones.3  "Sandbox" is the term we use these days and I still advocate it as a valid form of "emergent storytelling" (that is for another post), but Pegasus brings a hard focus to narrative storytelling, making RQ feel more in line with younger games.  The range of stories is really one of the book's best features, but also one I suspect might bug some of the audience.  The stories don't just differ in terms of tone and feel, but in structure, how stats are presented, etc.  Again, this is a manifestation of YGWV, and Pegasus showcases more than any previous RQ product that there really isn't "one" style of play or "one" way of doing things.  These are seven different visions of Glorantha, not a unified campaign.  If one doesn't speak to you, the others very likely will.

You will find a story about a wedding ceremony gone wrong, a ghoul king in a forest of the undead (HeroQuest players might have seen this before...), a chance to tangle with Lunar soldiers, a murder mystery, a sort of Glorantha Olympics, Glorantha's answer to Stephen King's Christine, and a ruin where you have the chance to learn from one of Glorantha's more interesting features.   These are all packed with surprises, memorable characters, and occasionally deadly dangers. Authors Jason Brick, Rachael Cruz, Steffie De Vaan, Jason Durall, Helena Nash, Steve Perrin, Diana Probst, Jeff Richard, Dom Twist, and John Wick have done an admirable job of providing a full palette of Gloranthas.

If you take nothing else away from this review, take at least this; RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha has all the DNA of its predecessors, but it is no more RQ2 than I am my father.  If you are staying away from RQ because you feel it is too dated, too dense, too mechanical, take a look at this.  The lesson is that rule systems do not age, presentation and application does.  This is an RQ collection of adventures every bit as cutting edge as anything other system on the market.  

1. If THAT doesn't put a picture of a dancing Kali statue in your head, nothing will.

2. I know some of you old timers will deny the game was ever played this way.  Apparently you never had Bill gamemaster for you.  I was once told I couldn't light a torch because I hadn't written "tinder" on may character sheet.  No, after nearly four decades I am not still bitter.  Not.  At.  All.

3. Looking at you, Snakepipe Hollow, looking at you.