"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.

Thursday, April 15, 2021


We need to talk about Simon Phipp.

While fanzines and later fan websites are a thing for most RPG settings, they have long been a very strong tradition for Glorantha. In part this is due to the fact that it is a lore-heavy setting. There is a lot out there to analyze, detail, and discuss. On the other hand, there is also the long-standing "Your Glorantha Will Vary" policy, meaning that how the setting appears at your table will differ from at other tables. This all but demands fans get out there and share what "their" Glorantha looks like. But the real culprit is probably RQ3, the third edition of the flagship Glorantha RPG RuneQuest published in the 80s and early 90s by Avalon Hill. 

For those of you who may not have lived through all of this, the story is detailed in Shannon Appelcline's terrific Designers & Dragons. In a nutshell, the relationship between Avalon Hill (RQ's publisher) and Chaosium (RQ's creator) was never a terrific one. The game, which had literally been created to showcase Glorantha, was turned into a generic system that could also be played in Glorantha. This was a turn-off to many fans (myself included). There were long stretches of time between the release of any Gloranthan materials, while generic products for vikings and ninjas appeared. As the new default setting of RQ was "Fantasy Earth," when Gloranthan products did appear they often presented the cultures of Glorantha as Earth-analogues, a problem that persists in Gloranthan gaming circles to this day. While all this would eventually lead Chaosium to pull the plug on the relationship, it also led to fans who decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own Gloranthan content. Here was the birth of the Gloranthan fanzine tradition.

For more details on all of this, just do yourself a favor and go read Shannon's books. I need to get back to Simon.   

Now, as any long-time Gloranthropologist will tell you, Simon is the author, curator, and custodian of Simon's Glorantha Pages. Never mind the quality. Feel the width. This online collection of Gloranthan lore has existed since time immemorial (I could be exaggerating), or at least to around the same time I arrived in Japan (just under 20 years but I assure you it feels like forever). All these years of producing fan material for Glorantha makes him, gentle reader, exactly the sort of creature the Jonstown Compendium is the ideal habitat for. He has mountains of material and he is going to use it.

It's been a bit over a year since the Jonstown Compendium--a place for Glorantha fans to publish materials--appeared, and in that time Simon has unleashed several projects including Secrets of Dorastor and Secrets of HeroQuesting. For people watching Simon's website, it felt like these projects had been brewing for awhile in his mind looking for a place to manifest. The same can be said for The Book of Doom, which simply put is the kind of resource you would have to be mad not to purchase. It's a compilation, or dare I even say a compendium, of spells and skills that Simon has obviously been working on for decades. To be exact, we are talking about 55 new RuneQuest skills, 89 new spirit magic spells, 22 sorcery spells, and 494 new Rune spells. Not enough for you?  Fine. Simon also delivers up new rule systems including Alchemy, with 15 alchemical "concoctions" and 11 ways of delivering them. If you still need more numbers tossed at you there are 4 new magic items and 7 new varieties of plant. You are never going to use everything in The Book of Doom, but you are definitely going to use some of it.

It is by default a RuneQuest resource, however. While most of it could be used in sister games like HeroQuest/QuestWorlds or 13G, it presents its materials through the lens of RQ.

There is not a lot of art in The Book of Doom, and it reads a bit like an encyclopedia, but that is essentially what it is. We are looking at years of ideas a Glorantha fan has come up with. Rather than going for a skills section, a spirit magic section, and a Rune spells section, the items are grouped together in fields or topics. For example, in the "Crafting" section Simon offers up some rules on crafting items, followed by specific crafting skills. Then comes a large selection of spells that relate to the creation and shaping of items. The same applies to realms like "Adventuring," "Agriculture," "Entertaining," "Love," "Twins," etc. It's a common sense, practical approach that arranges a lot of material in a way that is convenient to use.

To be certain, there is a ton of crunch in here, but it is not all crunchy. There are some very specific combat items like "Tooth Shattering Armor," a spell that like the name says basically protects against bite attacks, but also a lot of story-oriented, roleplay-heavy ones. "Plough Hard Earth" may not get a lot of adventuring use, but to a society like the Orlanthi it is far more valuable than "Bladesharp." There is plenty in The Book of Doom for those looking for magic and skills useful off of the battlefield.

Between this and Chaosium's The Red Book of Magic it is hard to imagine needing to come up with any more spells for your game. While the Red Book is a compilation of published spells, The Book of Doom expands on those with the author's own innovations and ideas. Filled with boxed texts and asides that explain the designer's thinking, The Book of Doom would be an extraordinarily useful tool for any RuneQuest campaign. To be clear, The Book of Doom is really just one author's take on the setting, and there will likely be areas where you disagree with Simon's choices. But this is essentially the way it has always been with the Glorantha fanzine tradition. Your Glorantha Will Vary, and The Book of Doom has a ton of ideas you will want to borrow to personalize your view of the setting.

Friday, April 9, 2021


This is the second in an ongoing series of articles about a campaign in Chaosium's 1994 Nephilim. In Nephilim, the player character is an inhuman elemental spirit that incarnates in a series of human hosts over the course of history. 

IN ENGLISH, THE SECOND TAROT TRUMP is usually labeled as number I, and called either the Magus or Magician. It is worth noting however it is often referred to as the "Juggler." That last appellation formed the inspiration for much of this session.

A frequent criticism of 1994's Nephilim is that it is essentially a game about "possession." I've already shared my thoughts on this elsewhere, but I think these criticisms have more to do with the blinders that secular humanism, Western culture's celebration of (obsession with?) "individuality," and two thousand years of the Gerasene demoniac story getting repeated have put on many potential players. After all, in RPGs you can play a professional killer, a tomb raider, or a blood-drinking monster, but if you play a spirit that incarnates in a human host people suddenly start developing qualms. As modern Westerners we have been taught that "uniqueness" and "autonomy" are the two greatest traits a person can possess, even though very few people actually possess them. Hermeticism directly challenges this assumption, and there is no way Nephilim could be authentic without doing so as well.

That aside, this session was a chance to dig into incarnation, and so we decided to frame it from the point of view of the simulacrum. What does incarnation feel like?


Dr. Trevor Bennett, 42, is a Las Vegas-based forensic pathologist. He lives with his wife, Lucinda, and his daughter Marisol. On the surface his life appears suburban, successful, and happy. In reality, it is all caving in.

When I run Nephilim I always start from the perspective of the simulacrum, and I always ask the player to build a "dark night of the soul" into the backstory. The term comes to us from Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross (la noche oscura del alma), and signifies the spiritual crisis and crumbling of identity as one approaches union with God. It is hardly, however, limited to Catholicism. Buddha's confrontation with Mara on the eve of his enlightenment is another famous example. In many mystical traditions, the individual breaks down and endures a period of blackness before reintegrating and achieving union with a higher spiritual force. In Hermeticism, this is the alchemical process of nigredo. 

In Nephilim, the elemental spirit lacks a soul (Sol, Solar Ka). It is made of five other elements corresponding to heavenly bodies (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Luna) but has no center, no core. Humans possess only Solar Ka. Incarnation then is the reformation of a complete microcosm, with the Nephilim's elements coming into orbit around the human's Sol. It makes both the elemental spirit, and the human host, a complete being. But as the core element, Solar Ka can dominate the elemental forces, so prior to incarnation, the Nephilim blindly and instinctively seeks out hosts in a period of crisis, a moment of weakness when the Sol is wavering. 

For Trevor Bennett, this means being on the edge of losing everything. Years ago he was set up into spending the night with a prostitute by a local drug cartel, las Polillas Calaveras, the “Skull Moths” (Death’s Head Moths in English). They have been extorting him ever since into falsifying death reports, switching bodies, and lying about causes of death. Now, his ambitious younger rival, Dr. Emily Yang, has discovered his involvement with the Moths and has threatened to expose him if he doesn't step down.

Bennett is drinking too much and sleeping too poorly, his world about to end, when the incarnation occurs.

The session starts with a dream of listening to his mother playing piano downstairs, the metronome ticking. He awakes suddenly and hallucinates a gigantic serpent, like a constrictor, slithering across the carpet towards his bed (the player chose a Snake Metamorphosis). It is just a trick of the light. And yet he feels strongly a presence in the room.

The next morning he awakes and climbs out of bed to go downstairs... only to suddenly find himself in a woman's body. The character's first incarnation was an Egyptian priestess (Nofretiti) in Thebes, 1350 BC, and Bennett is suddenly experiencing her memories. Befuddled, he struggles to understand where he is, who he is, and what is happening to him. The scene shifts again and he is now a man again on the streets of Elizabethan London (the second incarnation). Both hallucinations pass and he finds himself befuddled in his kitchen, his wife staring at him wondering why he hasn't gotten dressed for work yet while his daughter plays a game on her phone.

Bennett goes into the office and we introduce Emily Yang, and roleplay out the tension of the situation. Soon after, Bennett begins to hallucinate both Nofretiti and Avad Levinson (the Theban and Elizabethan incarnations), seeing them as people in the room only he can see or hear. They try to explain what has happened to him.

The elemental spirit never "speaks" in the session. Again, this is consistent with the idea that lacking a Sol, the Nephilim is not a person. The two previous incarnations, however, are fully realized identities that Trever Bennett now carries around inside him. Over the course of the campaign they will appear less and less to him as external beings as he integrates more with their memories, but early on they play the role of narrators easing him into his new reality. Bennett is "juggling" these identities around.

Bennett goes to the gang member who pulls his strings, Axel Escribano. He tries telling the gangster that he is not going to be able to go on as their man inside the crime lab much longer. Escribano, who is young, well-dressed, but with shockingly pink dyed hair, explains how unfortunate that would be for Bennett's wife and daughter and suggests taking Emily Yang "out."

Persuaded by the new voices in his head, Bennett attempts (and fails) a spell to seduce Emily Yang and bring her around to his side. This only makes matters worse and intensifies the trouble Bennett is in. That night, however, Yang is killed in a very convenient car accident, too convenient by far...

The previous incarnations urge Bennett to both find and locate his stasis object, as well as seek-out and make contact with his Arcanum, the Magician. Signs, omens, and Ka vision point him in the direction of the latter.

In our Nephilim Vegas, the Penn & Teller/Siegfried & Roy analogue is Black & White. Merlin Black and Arthur White run a nightly performance in the Luxor hotel and casino, and Bennett uses a lot of cash and resources to get a VIP backstage pass to their performance. Merlin Black is in fact Ras-khem-ka, a Nephilim Bennett knew previously in London as Dr. John Dee. Arthur White is the Magister Templi of the Stella Auream, a Rosicrucian society working unwittingly for Black. They will help Bennett seek out his stasis, but there is another complication coming...

The gang extorting Bennett all these years is a particularly vicious one, engaged in both human and drug trafficking between northern Mexico and the souther United States. Rumors are that they are run by a woman, called only la Virgen Negra (the Black Madonna). Merlin Black is extremely distressed to hear Bennett has dealings with this gang. He suspects the Black Madonna is not a woman, not human, and not even alive, but an ancient Aztec Selenim operating in the region for centuries. Bennett finds this a shocking coincidence that his life has been entangled with the world of the Nephilim all these years without knowing it. Merlin Black tells him there are no coincidences, and that it time he will understand that his life, and the existence of Temek'Tel (the Moon Nephilim incarnated in him) have been entangled all along.

Returning home that night, Bennett has a visitation from Emily Yang. Dead, nude, and showing her autopsy scars, she hovers inches about the ground staring at him. In Ka vision he sees her shrouded in dark tendrils of Black Moon Ka.

I see you, she says, but it is the Black Madonna doing the talking. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021


IN THE TAROT, the Zero Arcanum is called "the Fool." At gaming tables, "session zero" has become a popular designation for getting the players together, creating characters, and talking about the game before actual play begins. The two concepts dovetail nicely, as the Fool is the card of initiation, of beginning from scratch, of starting from nothing.

Pre-pandemic I was running a Glorantha campaign, but that all went on hold last year, giving me time in the interim to collect that campaign and others into two books. I have never run a game online, and have been extremely resistant to the idea. As a means of sticking a toe into the waters of distance gaming, I decided to run a one-on-one session with one of my regular players. The game we chose was Nephilim.

I have already talked extensively about Nephilim here, here, and here, so I will spare you the introductions and just point you in those directions. Nephilim is one of my favorite pieces of game design in existence, but given its subject matter (and its extreme faithfulness to that subject matter), it is easy to see why many people just didn't "get it." Shams Shirley, one of the co-authors of the English edition, commented after my first Nephilim post;

The Chaosium edition of Nephilim was an alchemical work intended to catalyze gnostic awakening, or to move the (player) closer down that path. Not a great marketing strategy, & prone to misinterpretation because the reader sees into it only to the depth that they are able to understand.

I've had several discussions with Shams about that and I agree: Nephilim is hard to grasp if you come at it from the standard post-modernism of the 21st century. But then again, King Arthur Pendragon is hard to play if you don't understand concepts like chivalry, Call of Cthulhu loses something if you don't embrace the existential dread, and RuneQuest makes less sense if you don't grok the entire Bronze Age mythology approach. Nephilim is asking you to take a step that many find hard to do, namely to embrace the possibility that humans are not the pinnacle of existence, that there is a chain of being, and that humans cannot ascend it without help.

Fortunately that was not going to be an issue with my player, who, like me, is an occultist and an initiate in a Western esoteric tradition. So this time Nephilim was being tackled by two people who speak the language. My mission here, in these blog posts, is to try and make it accessible to everyone else, and show why the game is really not as hard to play as you might have heard.

The Campaign

The first English edition of Nephilim tapped heavily into the "millennialism" of that decade, with the Templar's "Plan" set to culminate in 1999 and waves of Nephilim awakening en masse to stop it. 22 years later, however, we are all still here. Fortunately, there is always an apocalypse somewhere on the horizon. For ours we need look no further than renowned mythologist and Traditionalist René Guénon, who wrote in his  Les Quatre Ages de L’Humanité that the Kali Yuga, the Age of Kali that we currently live in, was due to end in 2030. In this campaign then, The Nephilim were unable to stop the Templars back in 2000, and the Plan has begun. It will reach its climax in 2030, and if the Nephilim cannot stop it before then the world will be lost.

However, at the end of session zero I had the player draw three Tarot cards for the past, present, and future. The final card was, interestingly enough, the Fool. In Nephilim, the Arcanum of the Fool are those Nephilim who believe in the coming of messiahs, beings that are born as Nephilim and do not become Nephilim via incarnation. They acknowledge four; Akhenaton was the Messiah of Air, Moses of Fire, Jesus of Water, and Mohammed of Earth. Rumors haunt occult circles that back in 2000 the fifth and final Messiah, the Moon Messiah, was born and will come into their full power at the age of 30. So the elevator pitch might be:

As the Templar Plan enters its final stages, whispers abound that the Last Messiah walks hidden amongst us. As the circle comes to a close, is it a new beginning, or the end of all that is...

The Character  

When the idea to play Nephilim again came up my first impulse was to run it using Basic Roleplaying and "bolt-on" Nephilim elements. My previous posts had generated a lot of discussion in the gaming community and based on feedback the general consensus was that Nephilim had a lot of moving parts and could stand being streamlined a little. But it had been awhile since I had run it, and so the player and I decided to do it "as is" to make a fresh assessment of the game for ourselves. Going forward I will talk about some of the ideas for streamlining it, and what we ended up going with.

For the campaign, my conception was to run it from the point of view of the 21st century simulacrum. Incarnation occurs and the individual slowly starts remembering past lives and their Nephilim identity. In Basic Roleplaying, I would probably have had the players simply create a modern human character and as past lives came up in the game, add "Life Experience" for that particular period to the sheet. Life Experience already exists in Nephilim. It "is taken once for each historical period in which the Nephilim has lived. It deals with all cultural knowledge of a particular time and place..." (Nephilim, p. 98). My idea was to expand that to cover all skills the Nephilim might have believably learned in that past life. So if the Nephilim had been a medieval knight, horseback riding and the use of a long sword would be covered by the skill too. It would reduce all past life skills to just a couple of skills on the character sheet and eliminate the need for double skill columns (Nephilim and simulacrum).

As I said, we decided to play Nephilim straight up, however, so we created the character the standard way.

The player wanted an Onirim or Moon Nephilim, with a Serpent metamorphosis. We decided to use the Emotional Metamorphosis system from Chronicle of the Awakenings rather than the one in the core rules. With these choice made, the player selected Magician as the character's Arcanum, and we moved on to step 3, "past lives."

The player decided to go with two prior incarnations and we looked at the combined list of available periods from the Gamemaster's Companion for ones in which the Magician Arcanum was active. He decided to go with Thebes, 1350 BC (Akhenaton's Revolution) and London 1590 (The New Camelot). We read the descriptions of each period, which the player really got a kick out of, and followed the instructions in those sections. The first incarnation was a priestess, and he decided to go with Bast for her. The Nephilim's stasis was a statuette, so he made that of Bast as well. Jumping ahead, in London the player rolled an alchemist, and decided to make him Jewish. 

The process of determining past lives is repetitive (find out how old the simulacrum was when incarnation occurred and generate skill points from their age, find out how long they lived as Nephilim and generate occult development points from that) but not difficult, and going through the process made be discard the idea I had had for a Basic Roleplaying adaptation. Reducing all past life experience to a single skill reduces these past incarnations as characters. Taking the time to assign points to their skills fleshes them out, gives them substance, and makes them more real. We both liked the past lives section "as is."

I should note that for the first incarnation in Thebes, the only form of magic available was sorcery, and we decided to use the alternate sorcery system presented in Liber Ka. In the second incarnation, all magic systems were available and the player decided to set a few points into summoning.

The final step is to select the modern incarnation. I compiled a list and added a percentile roll to it to make the process random, while making it clear to the player if he didn't like the result he could roll again or just select.  The result was a doctor, a 42-year old forensic pathologist with a husband and child. He decided to keep the result but switched the gender to male.
It is never very difficult to create BRP system characters, and neither of us found Nephilim any exception. The rules are clear, and by the time we were done we felt we had a layered, complex character. The next session then will be about breathing life into it and the world.