"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.

Monday, September 27, 2021


The Problem, the Solution

HERE is the problem.

First published in 1978, Runequest is one of the oldest and most respected roleplaying games out there, frequently named after D&D as having exerted the greatest influence on the hobby. The current edition, Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha is forty years in the making, drawing on not only the original editions but elements of subsequent games Runequest inspired. Runequest's setting, Glorantha, is legendary. It influenced authors like George R. R. Martin in shaping the world of the Song of Ice and Fire saga and Ken Rolston in helping create the world of The Elder Scrolls. In ranking RuneQuest at #5 in the fifty most popular roleplaying games of all time, Arcane magazine said 

RuneQuest manages to establish itself as a cut above the rest because of its intricate and highly original campaign setting. [...] This is a world that combines high-fantasy heroism with the gritty realities of cross-humanoid racism and the problems of day-to-day living. The cults of the world, which play an intrinsic part of every adventurer's life, add to the mysticism of the game, and give it a level of depth which other fantasy systems can be but envious of...
Christmas Issue, 1996

So why would I call any of this a "problem?" Simply put,  Runequest's immense depth and breadth can be intimidating to new players, especially potential game masters looking to run it. The Runequest core rules are nearly 450 pages. Then there is the Runequest Glorantha Bestiary and a GM's pack. Meanwhile, the Glorantha Sourcebook is a svelte 220 pages, but the Guide to Glorantha is 800+. The problem is compounded by old grognards like me who can (and if you have been reading this blog do) opine endlessly on the minutia of the setting. Would-be players get the impression that to play Runequest, you first need a PhD in it.

If only there were a single, streamlined product we could point new players to, a concise entry point that explained the rules, introduced the setting, and made it all effortless to learn and play. Something that showcased what makes this fantasy RPG unique. 

Oh wait, now there is... 

Let me introduce you to the Runequest Starter Set.

I. A Boxed Set

Like the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set before it, the Runequest Starter Set harkens back to the earliest days of the hobby, using a boxed set as the format for introducing the game to new players. The reasoning is simple. The boxed set format allows you to include everything needed to play--short of players and pencils--right there inside. Unlike the flimsy boxed sets I remember from my early days playing, the first thing that struck me was how sturdy the Starter Set was. The heavy cardboard is designed to handle a bit of wear and tear.

Make sure you have space on your shelf. In both length and width the boxed set is considerably larger than the hardcover books in the line such as the core rules.

Once you open the lid you find a box crammed with goodies. Two immediately jump out at you, the dice included in the set and the top cover sheet explaining what the product is and everything you will find inside it.

First you get a full set of all the dice you need to play Runequest. As one might expect for a game set in a Bronze Age world (more on that below), they look a bit like bronze. For the record you find a D6 (six-sided die), D12, D8, D20, D4 and two percentile dice (ten-sided dice one with a tens number and the other with a ones).

The cover sheet has a "read me first" box that explains briefly what a roleplaying game is and what will be found in each of the books inside. Then you get a more detailed "what's in the box." We will be going over each of the contents in turn. Before we do, there is also a handy "what's not in this box" for long time players who might wonder what was omitted. For the record the Starter Set does not cover;

    - Character creation
    - Equipment (beyond that carried by the pregen characters)
    - Advanced combat options (phalanxes, chariots)
    - Rune Masters
    - Sorcery and advanced Spirit World information
    - Sacred Time phase rules

II. A Brief Detour Into Art

Before we get into the actual contents, a word needs to be said on art. 

While the old adage tells us you can't judge a book by its cover, you actually can and most people do. One thing that has been a key element of the "new" Glorantha and Runequest since--by and large--the 2014 Guide to Glorantha has been the quality of the art. Over the last four decades art for Glorantha has been all over the place, something curiously at odds with a game that has such well defined cultures. There has been a real effort in the Runequest line since 2018 to be consistent in the depiction of these cultures, and to make them look unique (as opposed to, say, just fantasy Greeks or Celts or Vikings). 

The Starter Set, beginning with Ossi Hiekkala's terrific cover, exemplifies this. The reason I mention the art here is that the moment you flip over the cover sheet you see a product listing for other titles in the Runequest line. Right beside this is an image of one of the pregenerated characters included in the set by the frankly amazing Loïc Muzy. Looking at the character, we immediately get a sense of the Bronze Age setting (the short slightly leaf-bladed sword, the shield, the armor) and the culture. We notice the use of tattooing or body painting, get a sense of ethnic identity (and one which is not immediately identifiable as an Earth culture, a trap previous incarnations of RQ have fallen into), etc. This is all critical, I think, for a boxed set whose mission is to introduce the game to new players. The art immediately makes it clear that this is not medieval fantasy Europe, or even really ancient fantasy Europe. More importantly, it draws you in and makes you want to explore.

III. Now Back to the Contents...the Rules Book

Let's be clear up front. The goal of the Starter Set is to introduce new players to the game, not to be something you create your own characters and campaigns with. For that, you will want Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. The boxed set then gives you a wide selection of pregenerated characters and all the rules you need to play them. It written in such a way as to ease those new to Glorantha into both the system and the setting. 

Coming in at 61 pages, the Rules booklet starts with an introduction to Runequest and Glorantha, a light discussion of roleplaying games and the roles of GM and player, and a summary of the game system. I am not going into any depth on the actual mechanics in this review. In essence, Runequest is a skill-based system without anything like a character "class." Characters are defined by what they can do and what they know. If you know a spell you can cast it. If you have skill in a sword, you can swing it.

Most rolls are resolved with a percentile roll. Two ten-sided dice are rolled, one clearly marked as the "tens" and the other as the "ones." This number is compared to your percentage chance of performing the task. If you roll is equal to or under the value, you succeed. Degree of success can also matter. If you are curious, I've already talked about all that extensively here.

What characters can do is defined by abilities. These are broken down into characteristics like Strength or Charisma, which measure raw talent and potential, skills which are learned abilities, passions which are strong emotions like love, loyalty, honor, or hate, and finally Runes (more on these in the next section). Most of these are rated in percentages, from zero to a hundred+. 7th edition Call of Cthulhu players take note; characteristics are not given in percentiles but on a scale of roughly 3 to 21. These are generally multiplied (x2, x3, x5) before rolled against. 

The presentation of the rules in the Start Set is very aware this is likely the first time people have ever seen them, so they are clear, concise, and very to the point. Case in point, a skill like "Charm" is explained with about 80 words in the core rulebook, in the Starter Set is explained in ten. Like the core rulebook, when key terms are mentioned they are in boldface so as to make them easy to find. Nearly every section comes with an example of play.

The Rules booklet covers the use of abilities, improving from experience, combat, and magic. Magic in the game is divided into spirit magic, charms and spells powered by the caster's own magical energy or that of spirits bound to them, Rune magic which comes directly from the gods, and sorcery which is the manipulation of the Runes through established procedures. The Starter Set emphasizes that every character can, and should, use magic...something that makes Runequest different from the majority of fantasy RPGs out there.

Again, the art comes through as a very useful tool to simplify, illustrate, and explain things. In Runequest combat "hit locations" (where a blow actually lands on the body) is crucial, and this makes armor important. Because many potential players coming into the game will not be familiar with Bronze Age armor terminology, the following illustration helps clarify. The Starter Set is filled with art like this.

IV. The World of Glorantha

Glorantha is one of the first fantasy game settings, appearing alongside Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Tékumel in 1975. It is almost certainly one of the most defined, with forty years of materials in print. If the inspiration for a world like Middle-earth was primarily linguistic--a place for Tolkien to build imaginary languages--Glorantha was born because Greg Stafford wanted to explore mythology. This is a Bronze Age world, bearing more in common with The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Mahabharata than The Lord of the Rings or Le Morte d'Arthur. Instead of knights in shining armor think "heroes" and "priest-kings." 

Glorantha is not a world like our Earth with a little magic thrown in. It is flat, stretching under a sky dome. The sun literally emerges from the gates of the underworld in the east, travels across heaven, and then descends through the gates of the west at night. The realm of the dead lies beneath your feet; great heroes can actually escape the underworld and return to the lands of the living. 

Glorantha is defined by her magic, but this is deceptive if you are thinking of other fantasy worlds. The world, and everything in it, is composed of the Runes. These are to Glorantha what the periodic table is to chemistry, or phonemes are to language. Darkness, Water, Earth, Plant, Harmony, Death...these are the essences, the building blocks of existence. "Magic" in Glorantha is how your character relates to the Runes. It is often defined by culture and the magic you practice. Some see the Runes as living spirits, negotiating and bargaining with them. Some see them as impersonal forces of nature to be tapped into and directed via knowledge and will. Some see them as gods, mighty beings whose deeds in the mythic prehistory of the world shaped it. By sacrifice, the worshipper becomes one with them. None of these approaches is wrong.

The Starter Set is painfully aware that all the gods, all the mythology, all the history and lore makes Glorantha daunting to newcomers. So it condenses what you need to know to about 20 pages. Other rule sets have tried manage the overload by focusing on a single region of the world, usually Dragon Pass and neighboring Prax. The Starter Set narrows even further. It concentrates on the northern half of the principality of Sartar, a barbarian nation that worships a pantheon headed by a thunder god and his wife, the Earth Mother. These people have recently liberated themselves from the yoke of an invading northern Empire. Then it picks a single city, Jonstown, to go into detail on. It spends roughly 40 pages of the 61 page booklet on just this city, which detailed maps of its neighborhoods...

...and statistics and images of important residents.

For new players, and especially GMs, it has never been easier to "get into" Glorantha. By giving you just one region of one principality, and detailing one city in it, you have a very manageable base of operations to run the included adventures in. For long time players, the deviously cunning and vilely evil tempters at Chaosium know you will need this boxed set just for the gloriously illustrated and detailed look at Jonstown.

V. Soloquest

There is not THAT much I can say about the third booklet without giving the plot away. This is a solo adventure, meant for either a potential player or GM. You take on the role of Vasana, Daughter of Faran, and play through the famed "Battle of Dangerford," a battle I covered in The Company of the Dragon, Ian Cooper covered in The Eleven Lights, and Nick Brooke gave a take on in his Duel at Dangerford. It is a terrific choice because it is historic and takes place at the very start of the timeline in Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. 

The book is a bit like the old classic "choose your own adventures," but by playing it it is actually teaching you the rules of Runequest as you go. It is fun, exciting, and by the time you emerge you will have a reasonable grasp of the game and the setting.

VI. Adventures

The fourth and final book is the longest, coming in at 81 pages. It includes three full adventures, A Rough Landing, A Fire in the Darkness, and The Rainbow Mounds all geared towards a first-time game master running them. Experienced GMs can of course use them too, but the additional support and advice makes it easy for beginners to do so. There is tons of support in here, including good reminders for even old hands at running the game. Following these is a chapter of rumours and gossip around Jonstown and adventure seeds that could be fleshed out.

VII. The Rest of the Content

Yes, I know what you are thinking. "Wait, stop Montgomery, stop. 260+ pages of fantasy RPG goodness, a full set of dice, and there is more?!?" Yes, gentle reader, would I lie to you?

The Pregenerated Characters

Instead of containing character creation rules, the Starter Set gives you 14 (!!!) pregenerated characters to chose from. These cover the gamut of characters one might expect in and around the city of Jonstown, acting in and of themselves as teaching tools by showing new players and GMs the kinds of characters that exist in Glorantha. These 14 each come on their own character "folios." I am not going to call them sheets. On one side each starts with a gorgeous full page illustration of the character...

...flipping this over you find two folded leafs showing the characters Runes and a description of them and how to play them...

...and these fold back to reveal the character sheet. And on that note, I am done talking about them. The accompanying pictures reveal how stunning they are.

The boxed set includes two blank versions of this character folio as well. Chaosium...if you are reading this, start selling packets of these please.


Rounding out the Starter Set are three gorgeous maps. The first is northern Sartar, the region around the city of Jonstown. The second is Jonstown itself. The third shows the Rainbow Mounds from one of the adventures.

Handouts and Play Aids

Finally, you get a collection of handouts and useful play aids, including handy combat tables and a description of the Runes. There is even a "Strike Rank" tracker (used to measure who goes first in a Runequest combat round) that I will definitely now be using in my games.

Final Thoughts

There has never really been a product like this for Runequest, or any other form of Gloranthan gaming for that matter. Priced at around $30 US (if Amazon is to be believed) this is simply the best single introduction to the game and setting we have seen. Long time players are going to want it for Jonstown, the extra play aids, and a few really excellent adventures. But they are also going to want to give it to friends as birthday gifts and the like to try and show them what Runequest is and why we love it. Gamers curious about Glorantha, but put off by the depth and immensity of it all, will want this product as something that shows them exactly why Runequest and Glorantha are so talked about and famous. For little investment of time and money, they can jump right into the setting and decide if it is for them. 

The boxed set is loaded. Even ridiculously so. Even the backs of the four books are put to use, forming a map...

...all for just pennies per page. If you have ever been even mildly curious about Glorantha or Runequest, here is your chance to explore. You will know exactly after exploring the Starter Set if this is the game for you. 

Friday, September 24, 2021


IN THE SPRING OF 2002 I left the United States for Japan. This meant, of course, packing up my entire library and putting it into storage. I had a massive collection of gaming books, acquired over two decades and helped along by having worked, twice, in different game stores. Parting with that was probably the hardest part about the move. 

I mention this because I brought one book with me. Just one. It wasn't my hardcover 2nd edition Runequest or my beloved Nephilim. It wasn't even Pendragon. The book I carried with me to Japan was the 20th anniversary edition of Call of Cthulhu, and it sits, still, on the shelf a few feet from my writing desk.

I was eleven the first time I played Call of Cthulhu, the year after the game came out. I had already played D&D for a few years, and was currently playing RQ, but Cthulhu was unlike anything I or my peers had ever seen. Set in the 1920s, the players took on the roles of ordinary men and women drawn into investigating the eldritch powers of the Cthulhu Mythos. There were no magic swords to be won, no treasures, and characters were more likely to suffer madness and grisly death than achieve glory. Despite this, the game was irresistible. When our characters met a hideous fate we hollered and cheered.

It is easy to forget, sitting here four decades after the game was first released, how iconic a thing it is and was. How absolutely genre defining. Outside of academic circles and hard core horror fans H. P. Lovecraft was virtually unknown. In my gaming group, I was the only person who knew what Cthulhu was (and that was only because I had just read Stephen King's Danse Macabre the very same year). The credit for putting Lovecraft on the map has to go to Sandy Petersen's quirky little roleplaying game. And while for many roleplayers D&D is still "the" roleplaying game, no one in their right mind would dispute that Call of Cthulhu is "the" horror roleplaying game. There isn't even a contest. Actually, if you are in Japan, Call of Cthulhu is "the" roleplaying game (or "TRPG"). While Japanese gamers have heard of D&D, few have played it. It never achieved anything near the popularity Cthulhu has here.

Now, I talk a lot about Runequest here, and Glorantha, and I've written quite a bit for it too, but the fact remains that it was Call of Cthulhu I carried across the ocean with me (I am actually writing something for Cthulhu as we speak, but am not at liberty to talk about it just yet). When push comes to shove it is literally the book I would (and did) drag with me to an (not exactly desert) island. The 20th anniversary edition, with its green leatherette cover and parchment pages, is still my favorite edition of the game. But all that is about to change now, because as impossible as it is to believe we are on the verge of the 40th anniversary edition, and it looks like my beloved green leatherette is about to get bumped to second place.

Now this is not a review, and for the record I do not have a copy of the 40th edition yet in my hot little hands. The book--which premiered at Gen Con--is a limited edition reissue of the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Due for release in October, it has a stunning black leatherette cover and "includes personal accounts by some of the early creators and contributors to the game, new endpapers, and the re-inclusion of the 'The Haunting', the classic scenario..." The reason I can say with confidence it will replace my 20th anniversary edition as my new favorite toy is that the 7th edition has already proved itself the definitive version of Call of Cthulhu, and the fact the 40th anniversary edition exists is a testament to both the longevity of the game and the modern renaissance it is experiencing. So instead of a review, that is what I would like to talk about. Call of Cthulhu at 40.


Based on the writings of celebrated American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), Cthulhu depicts a incomprehensibly vast cosmos occupied by utterly alien, often god-like beings, in which mankind and its concerns are insignificant.  There are no beneficent deities, humanity wasn't created in anyone's image, and there are no universal standards of good and evil. It is a brutal, uncaring universe where Investigators struggle to prevent the more powerful alien occupants from wiping out the human race too soon.  In 1981 its charm was in inverting most other RPG tropes.  You didn't create a first level character and watch them ascend to greatness...you created a capable professional and watched them slowly descend into madness.  You didn't boast about your character's heroic exploits...you bragged about the horrific way in which they met their untimely end.  Forty years later, I think this is still what makes Cthulhu different from most other games on the market. Even the horror ones. It is a scary game, sure, but it is also a blackly humorous one. 

That element of having its tongue in its cheek--with decades of "Cthulhu for President" stickers and plush toy Cthulhu dolls (mine peers at me as I write this review)--is one of the game's greatest assets. Watching a group of veteran Call of Cthulhu players swap stories is a bit like Quint and Hooper showing off their scars in Jaws. Horror games can, by their very nature, be uncomfortable. Some, like Kult, have gleefully leaned into that. But Call of Cthulhu has survived this long because it has a sense of humor about itself, a quality that can make it attractive to the more casual horror fans who want the scares but don't want to be overpowered by them. Make no mistake, Call of Cthulhu has been scaring the crap out of people for decades, but it is self aware enough of the absurdity of it all that you can laugh about it afterwards. Thus, despite wearing the crown of "king of horror games" for forty years, Call of Cthulhu has deftly avoided the pretentiousness that marks some other game lines (looking at you, Vampire: The Masquerade, looking at you).

Not R'lyeh, just my desk in Tokyo

Cthulhu is also a very flexible game.  Generally played in one of three time periods (1890s, 1920s, modern era) it has been adapted to many more. We have seen it retooled for ancient Rome, the Dark Ages, the Old West, and several other time periods. Probably the most famous adaptation was Delta Green, which introduced X-Files elements of modern conspiracy.  And for those who find Lovecraft's cosmos was too bleak, Call of Cthulhu can also handle standard tales of ghosts and ghouls, vampires and werewolves.


But we can't talk about the 40th anniversary without talking about the game's renaissance.

I have discussed this before in reference to Runequest, but in 2015 Chaosium (Cthulhu's publisher for the one or two people who somehow stumbled into this article not knowing that) underwent what can only be called a rebirth. True, Chaosium never went out of business, and Call of Cthulhu never went out of print, but in 2015 the founder of the company, Greg Stafford, and Call of Cthulhu's original author Sandy Petersen returned after nearly two decades to active participation in it. They were soon joined by an all-new management team as Moon Design Publications became part of the ownership. I am not going to get into the full story here, and if you have read Shannon Appelcine's brilliant Designers & Dragons (and honestly, if you haven't stop calling yourself an RPG fan right now), you already know the first half of it. But the point is that 2015 saw Chaosium shake itself out of a long torpor. Not that the company had not published anything of merit in that period--Jason Durall and Sam Johnson's masterful edit of Basic RolePlaying remains one of my all time favorite books--but what came after 2015 was nothing less than extraordinary.

For Call of Cthulhu this meant the 7th edition. I was a bit cool on it in my 2015 review, and looking back at it I must have been exceptionally cranky that day. Having had six years to play with it, I can see now the system is smoother, more streamlined, and still faithful to all that came before. But the entire Cthulhu line since 2015 has been extraordinary. I am not just talking about the superior production values, but the products themselves. Berlin: The Wicked City has to be the all-time finest setting book Chaosium has ever produced for the game, and its treatment of LGBTQ+ Investigators was not only appropriate to any book set in Weimar Germany, it also showed that Chaosium was no longer going to shy away from controversial topics at the game table. They seemed to double down on this in publishing the 2nd edition of Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound, which if Berlin is not Call of Cthulhu's best setting book this would have to be. Harlem is authentic, scary as hell, and brutally honest.

I could go on. The reissues of Malleus Monstrorum and Masks of Nyarlathotep were both clear exercises in taking the good and making it better. Pulp Cthulhu added a twist people had been waiting decades for. There was a new energy at Chaosium, a new level of ambition. And it showed.

So here we are in year forty. Some of us have spent nearly our entire lives playing the game. I have the 20th anniversary edition on my shelf and hope to put the 40th right next to it. While I might live to see the 60th, the prospect of the 80th seems like a long shot. Regardless, I am fairly confident they will exist. The 7th edition line demonstrates that the game can change, adapt, grow, and still remain true to the qualities that have given Call of Cthulhu its extraordinary longevity. At forty, Cthulhu is stronger than ever and I am sure that some day, someone will be holding the 100th anniversary edition.  

Unless, of course, by that time Great Cthulhu has arisen from his ages-long slumber.   



Friday, September 17, 2021

THE FALL OF THE HARABORN (AGAIN): Coming Back to Six Seasons in Sartar after Two Years, Two Books, and Too Long

This blog is, on the whole, a collection of essays. This one is a little bit different because it HAS to be different.

It is the first of an ongoing series as my gaming group--the one that played the Heroquest version of Six Seasons in Sartar-- returns to reprise their roles as the very same characters, this time adapted to Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. Together we will play the published version of Six Seasons, and then move into The Company of the Dragon. Along the way I will be providing additional thoughts, mechanics, and a LOT of stuff that got cut from both Seasons and Company. Some of this will appear in a little book I plan on publishing early next year, a collection of everything cut from the published campaigns packaged with a new scenario about what happens AFTER the Haraborn return to Black Stag Vale. Look for The Seven-Tailed Wolf in the spring.

Right now, we are in the process of remaking the characters for RQ. The next post will go into detail on all of that. This first one is a bit more personal than I usually get, but as I said, it has to be. Six Seasons has been a profound experience for me, and as one of those people who cannot process a thing until they have written about it...well, here you are.

Expect the posts ahead to be a bit more "all business."

- D 

Past is Prologue, and all that

IN THE SPRING OF 2018--and damn, doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago now--I introduced a new group of players to Glorantha.

They were not new to me, just the setting. Ira, Keith, Vicks, and David had already been through two campaigns with me (Numenera and Night's Black Agents: The Dracula Dossier). Keith and Ira had been around longer than that, survivors of an older gaming group that had imploded under all the usual pressures (new spouses, new jobs, new infants). 

Gaming groups are like bands. It takes time to figure out each other's grooves and to fall into a rhythm, and when you add new players the whole tone changes. Even with the right people, it sometimes takes time to find the right game. Numenera was not it, and we had entered NBA expecting to play no more than a dozen sessions. When it became clear that the band was staying together, we needed something worth staying together for. Naturally I decided to introduce them to my first love, my home-away-from-home, Glorantha.

I've already talked about my long history with Glorantha in this blog and in both Six Seasons in Sartar and The Company of the Dragon. It goes back nearly forty years, and is a relationship that has had a profound affect on my academic, intellectual, and spiritual life. I think my own enthusiasm for the setting is infectious, but I also think Glorantha is a setting that sells itself. I must have introduced a dozen gaming groups to it, and never once did they fail to fall in love too. I felt in my bones this group would as well.

We chose Heroquest as the rules system. Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha was still very new, and out of the three (I offered to run 13G as well) HQ was the one they voted for. With the system selected, I pulled out a campaign I had run in RQ2, Hero Wars, and Heroquest 1st edition, a little thing I was calling "Six Seasons in Sartar." I ran it again for them and decided--as an afterthought--to blog about it.

Just a week before the first session, the world lost Greg Stafford. I think my players all sensed what a profound blow this was to me. Keith and Ira located a bottle of mead--not terribly easy in Japan--and we all toasted Greg before beginning the campaign. I am now firmly of the opinion all campaigns should begin with such a toast.

And the old shaman was there looking over us, I think. The players took to these characters, to the Haraborn NPCs, and to Glorantha faster than I had seen before. The village and clan instantly became real. The level of investment was intense, and I knew we had found our campaign.

What I never could have predicted was what was happening in the world around us.

Every time I posted a session, the blog numbers shot up. Sure, reviews generally attracted more readers (the reviews of occult books far larger than games, actually), but people were writing to me more. They were reading about the Haraborn, about the campaign, and writing to tell me how invested they were in it. I still remember the first email suggesting I publish it. I think I laughed. Then came the second. The third. And so on. Something was in the air.

Unfortunately...something else was in the air too. We heard about it earlier than the rest of the world here in Japan when a cruise ship in January of 2020 was quarantined just off the coast. There was a virus. People seemed afraid. We suspended the game sessions and then, well. You know.

The world went mad.

The Zombie Apocalypse was not Milla Jovovich kicking ass, it was Tokyo grinding to a total halt, silence hanging ghostly over the streets. It was people masked and avoiding each other, hands gloved and frequently sanitized. It was businesses closing, including university campuses like the one I taught at. Suddenly I found myself sitting on my butt in my apartment, watching the world go by outside the windows. And I decided to put Six Seasons in Sartar on paper. 

As I write these words, Six Seasons is the bestselling title in the Jonstown Compendium. It is currently just 85 copies away from going Platinum, something I am really hoping for, not out of personal vanity but because it really ticks me off that there is still a large segment of the gaming world that turns its noses up at any community content title. Well, both A Rough Guide to Glamour and Citizens of the Lunar Empire are ENNIE nominees, and Six Seasons is on the verge of reaching a level of sales few titles reach, community content OR no (the sequel, The Company of the Dragon, is itself just 45 sales from Gold). If people wish to continue missing out because all these titles do not reach their purity standards...their loss. Rant over. 

But back then, I never imagined or expected any of that. I hoped to sell a few copies, to make my time on furlough meaningful. I had no idea what was about to happen. None of us did, really. The Jonstown Compendium was still brand new. We were fumbling around blindly, and suffering severe disadvantages. People kept confusing us for Chaosium. They wanted vouchers with their PDF copies for print books even when we had no idea if our books would ever see print. And people like me...well, I am a writer, people. I have written novels, plays, short fiction. Suddenly I found myself doing lay out, organizing art, making art. Then I was expected to learn things about ink and bleeds and whatnot for the printed versions. I was completely lost at sea.

With Nick Brooke's guidance, support, and the occasional slapping of sense into me, and unwavering support from Chaosium (especially the Notorious MOB), Six Seasons made it to print. The sequel, Company of the Dragon, benefits so much from the errors I made in the first book and I think it shows. But we were all learning together, and I do not think I go out on a limb when I say that that the entire Jonstown Compendium deserves your attention.

The pandemic dragged on (like this post is starting to...fear not, I am wrapping it up!). I went back to work on a reduced schedule, teaching classes via Zoom. Japan was dragging its feet on vaccinations. So for 18 months I kept my nose clean. I stopped going out. I masked. I sanitized. And it was writing the massive Six Seasons in Sartar sequel, The Company of the Dragon, that kept me from going mad.

Now. Finally. As 2021 wanes. Nearly three years after we lost Greg and the journey began, my players and I are all fully vaccinated and making plans to bring Six Seasons to life again, and then enter The Company of the Dragon again. 

This time, though, it is all different. it is no longer my campaign, our campaign. It belongs to hundreds of groups out there. Nick Brooke will be running it, and I hope to interview him and post it here. And the call goes out to any of you who wish to share. I would love to hear your versions going forward to.

This time, we are playing the saga together. And that is simply...awesome.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Glorantha, Meaning, and Mythology

BY GENERAL CONSENSUS “myth,” “mythology,” and “mythic” are the words most commonly used in descriptions of Glorantha.  “Welcome to the mythic world of Glorantha,” Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet write in the intro to 13th Age Glorantha. “A world of mythology, gods, and heroes,” the Glorantha Sourcebook adds. “A mythic world of mortals and gods, myths and cults,” RuneQuest agrees. Now, on one hand, when you see the word “myth” the mind immediately jumps to gods and heroes—the usual protagonists of these tales—and Glorantha is certainly a setting full of such things. On the other, what consistently surprises newcomers to the setting is that it actually less to do with deities and demigods than it does culture, society, kinship, gender, class, and ownership. What surprises people, hearing all the “mythic” descriptions, is how Glorantha is far more about “how people live” than most other fantasy settings. 

This shouldn’t be surprising however.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was one of the 20th century’s most influential anthropologists. He had a tremendous influence over how we continue to define “myth” today, and while some modern anthropologists have broken with his ideas, it seems clear that Greg Stafford, when he started writing Gloranthan stories in the 60s, was influenced by them. In the 1926 essay, The Role of Myth in Life, Malinowski writes, “an intimate connection exists between the word, the mythos, the sacred tales of a tribe on the one hand and their ritual acts, their moral deeds, their social organization, and even their practical activities on the other.” This definition has become something of a standard, to the extent that the Oxford English Dictionary defines myth as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon.” Myth is the foundation not only of how a society sees the world, but also how they see themselves and the way to live in it. It follows that the myths of Glorantha primarily give us insights into its peoples. After all, that the sun rises and falls is an observable fact. Why a certain culture thinks it rises and falls is the purview of mythology.

Perhaps because our own society is so conditioned to prioritize fact over meaning—and as a consequence “myth” has been redefined as something false or untrue—a lot of Glorantha fans get lost in the minutia of the mythology and all the apparent discrepancies. They want to know whether Orlanth has four arms or two, whether Yelmalio is really Elmal, whether Humakt brought death by killing Grandfather Mortal or Rebellus Terminus did by killing Murharzarm, whether Vinga is Orlanth or Orlanth’s daughter, etc. They want to know the chemical composition of the sun rather than why American children draw it with a yellow crayon while Japanese draw it with red.

But myth will not give you facts, only meanings.

Take the question of Vinga. At times described as the daughter of Orlanth, she is at others described as his feminine side or incarnation. This leads some fans to question which is accurate. But simply put, gods do not reproduce like humans. Indeed, it is debatable that even Gloranthan humans procreate as we do (sperm, zygotes, eggs…does DNA even exist?). The myths are not talking about Vinga as a bodily person. She has no body. She is a god. What the myths are talking about is one of the six Orlanthi genders, the “man in the shape of a woman.” Whether as the incarnation of Orlanth or as his daughter, the myths tell us that the Orlanthi view Vinga as the same as Orlanth, as his equal, and by extension view Vingan women as separate but equal to Orlanthi males.

The Dara Happans, meanwhile, say that Death came into the world when “Rebellus Terminus” slew Murharzarm, the First Emperor. The Humakti, and most Theyalan peoples, say that Humakt did the deed when he killed Grandfather Mortal. Viewing either of these as a murder investigation we can solve by calling in a Jrusteli CSI unit also misses the point. It does not really matter how Death came into the world, or which murder was behind it.  What matters is that the Dara Happan myth is telling us the core importance the Emperor holds in their society. He is the Pillar, the Axis Mundi the Empire (and world) revolves around. Rebellus Terminus—who might be Umath or Orlanth but is definitely a barbarian outsider—ruined the world by cracking that pillar. This tells us how the Empire views the mountain barbarians as well. The Humakt story by contrast is not about blaming the ills of the world on outsiders. Rather, it is about taking personal responsibility for a transgression, a core virtue in Theyalan society. Again, death is an established observable fact. It happens. The purpose of the myth is to tell us what death means.

The confusion over Elmal and Yelmalio is another excellent example of misunderstandings in how myth gets approached. It also illustrates criticism one often hears of the setting…that the only explanation for changes are when something gets “Gregged.” This fairly pejorative verb is used when one means to say Greg Stafford changed something because A) he could, B) he was inconsistent, or C) both. It is a criticism that tells us more about the critic than the criticized, however. There are often perfectly logical internal reasons for the change.

Yelmalio’s shift to Elmal, and back again, is not the same thing as the world being flat and then suddenly round. Gods change identities all of the time. The Egyptian Set, a god of deserts, outsiders, and liminal spaces, became the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon for a time—the pharaohs Seti I and Setnakt were named after him—before becoming a worse demon than before. The Hebrew tribal god Yahweh merged with his rivals, like Adonai and the Elohim, to become not only the sole God of the ancient kings of Jerusalem but eventually the sole deity of  Christendom. No one accuses Set or Yahweh of being Gregged. 

Elmal and Yelmalio, as well as Kargzant and Antirius, are all manifestations of the planet Lightfore. Each is described as the Son of the Sun. Lightfore is that little spark of the Sun that did not die when the rest of the Light did. In all the mythologies of his various forms, he is the last light, the dim light that prevents total darkness from ascending. The meaning of Lightfore, then, is the Light That Never Surrendered. Whatever specific things are said of these manifestations are again just cultural nuances. Elmal’s steadfastness and Yelmalio’s “never say die” are just local color. The apparent “switch” between these gods is one of the rare accidents of history in Glorantha, rather than myth (their myths are intrinsically the same). A powerful cult in First Age Dragon Pass, the Yelmalio cult was all but destroyed in the Dragonkill War. When southern Orlanthi migrated back into the Pass, and Lightfore was still obviously there, they simply called it by its Elmal name. In the Third Age, when the cult of Yelmalio re-assumed its power, worshippers of Elmal reintegrated back into it. It made sense. Why worship a god who plays second fiddle to Orlanth when you can worship the same deity as a strong, respected, and independent rival.

The point of all this is that the Elmal/Yelmalio “switch” can only bother you if you assume your god cuts himself shaving. That is to say, he is a singular biological entity. This is the kind of god popularized in the 1960s with books like Chariots of the Gods, the ludicrous notion that the gods of ancient mythologies must have just been really advanced aliens. Comics like Jack Kirby’s Eternals or New Gods—or the Asgardians of Marvel’s Thor—took the idea and ran with it, ending in books like Deities & Demigods. If you regard a god as simply a being with super-powers and longevity, switching from worshipping Elmal to worshipping Yelmalio seems like switching between two different people. If you view gods as expressions of the numinous, on the other hand, as Gloranthans do, there is no confusion.

None of this is to say that the gods do not “exist,” or that Gloranthan mythology is the invention of mortals. Again, this is modern Zero-sum thinking against which I suspect Gloranthans would argue something like the ancient India parable of the blind men and the elephant. For those who don’t know it, essentially five or six blind men touch an elephant and each feels something different; a “tree trunk” (its leg); a “great serpent” (its trunk), a “canvas sail” (its ear); a “wall” (its side) and so on. Each has an experience of the same thing and know it exists, but each has a different experience. None can see the entire thing because they are blind, just as no Gloranthan can see an entire god because they are blinded by being inside Time. Heroquesting is not seeing the elephant either…it is just touching it. So arguing that Elmal and Yelmalio are different entities because Heroquesters have different experiences of them or cults receive different magic doesn’t really work either. Orlanth Adventurous and Orlanth Rex give out different magic too, and no one is calling them different entities. Gloranthans know the gods are real because they can touch them…they just cannot experience the totality of the god in its entirety.

To cultivate a more Gloranthan sense of mythology, try these mental adjustments:

  1. Stop asking who the god is, ask what the god means. Don’t simply accept that “Orlanth is the son of Umath and Kero Fin.” Gods are not people, they only require parents if that signifies something. So what does it mean that Kero Fin is his mother? What does this tell us about Orlanth? About the people who worship him?
  2. Stop looking at the god as an individual in the sense that you are or your friend is. The Orlanth of Sartar is not necessarily the same Orlanth as the one in Jonatela or Talastar or Lankst. Think of them as local “experiences” of a god, in the way that Adventurous, Thunderous, and Rex are. They might all appear very differently to mortals, who cannot perceive the whole truth.
  3. Stop looking at myth as history. Myth did not happen once, long ago. It is not a defined fact. Myth happens now, continually, outside of Time. 
  4. Stop looking at myth as a single explanation. Assume it says at least three things at once and one—at least—will be an explanation of a social phenomenon. Orlanth killed Yelm and this is why the Sun sets. But it is also why the Orlanthi chose leaders on deeds rather than birth, why they are quarrelsome and suspicious of central authority, why they have an ancient rivalry with the Sky gods.