Ernalda. In most RuneQuest and other Gloranthan campaigns she is Queen of the Gods and the supreme deity of the Earth pantheon. Hers is one of the most powerful and widespread cults in the setting. But the Ernalda we see today, in products like the Glorantha Sourcebook and the new RuneQuest Roleplaying In Glorantha game line, is not exactly the same Ernalda we met in products 40 years ago. If you lay the cult of Ernalda description from both 1984’s “Glorantha Book” in RQ3 and the one appearing in the upcoming RQG cults book side-by-side and read them, the difference is striking. Nothing has been retconned, and sometimes the very same sentences are repeated, but you easily see that while the skeleton has remained the same the current Ernalda has been fleshed out in fascinating ways. Important ways. In this piece I would like to dive into those.
My interest in Ernalda began at university. I had played RuneQuest for about eight years and was finally running my first campaign. More than half of the players in my gaming group were women. At the same time, I was a budding Indologist, and my focus was on the Mahādevī (Sanskrit “great goddess,” cognate with Latin magna dea). Naturally both my players and I were interested in exploring the Gloranthan Great Goddesses and the Divine Feminine in the setting. Unfortunately, this was 1990, and the only real example of this in print was the Red Goddess. We had the cult write-up of Ernalda from RQ3, but the Disneyfied presentation of her there did not at all embody the Great Goddess I knew from mythology. Yes, she was universally loved and worshipped, yes she was the bountiful earth, yes in many lands she was the bride of the ruling local god, but she lacked anything even vaguely resembling agency. This was not a truly mythological Great Goddess. She felt sanitized and whitewashed for a hobby that still catered to a young male demographic for which a true Great Goddess could only be portrayed as the Chaos-loving adversary.
As I introduce my latest group of players to Glorantha, this is no longer true. Like the Red Goddess, Ernalda now feels like a Great Goddess. To find out more about this evolution, I reached out to RQG editor-in-chief Jeff Richard, who in turn pointed me in the direction of Claudia Loroff, who alongside Jeff and Greg Stafford was instrumental in writing the new cult of Ernalda text.
ALM: Claudia, thanks so much for doing this. I thought we might start by having you introduce yourself, and tell us a little about what brought you to Glorantha and fantasy gaming?
CL: I started roleplaying games in the mid-eighties, living in Berlin, Germany where I grew up. My school mates were playing Das Schwarze Auge – at that time the most popular German RPG. Some time after, we went through a period of trying a lot of RPGs. That was when I tried Call of Cthulhu, Traveler, AD&D, Elric! and whatever was on the market. In the early nineties I came into contact with a group playing RQ3 and became involved in the German RQ-scene. Later, in the mid-nineties, I had a strong Call of Cthulhu phase – both games became the games I played most. I also went through a long phase of playing Magic The Gathering and my other big love are board games. I am an “Essen Spiel” regular and attending the fair since 1992 every year. And of course, I read all the relevant books already as a teenager (like Lord of the Rings, Dune, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and so on). I would call it a classic gamer vita except maybe that I always was one of the few women who did that.
Eventually, I met my husband Jeff Richard on a gaming convention at the Rhine River in 2006. He introduced himself as my nemesis. Isn't that romantic? It was actually Greg Stafford--who was there too who got it faster than the two us that we could be a good match. But that is another story.
I got stuck with Glorantha because of the setting AND the people I played it with. Of course, when you are playing it for so long, attending many conventions, you know people from all over the world and it is a setting which connects you with a lot of very interesting people.
ALM: How would you describe Ernalda? Who is she, what is she and what are her key attributes?
CL: She is the earth mother! She brings life, feeds everybody, keeps the community together. She is powerful. If you treat her badly, you will starve, or nature will threaten you.
She knows how to keep the soil fertile in the real world but also spiritually with her rituals. Of course, sex and childbirth both play a very important role. Her followers will be the first ones rolling in the fields having sex with lovers to end the winter and give spiritual life to the soil. A priestess of Ernalda would welcome and encourage women who are able to give birth to do the same and to strengthen her magic! And if children result of these kinds of rituals, they are blessed by the goddess! Keep in mind – childbirth is a dangerous thing and bringing a child up and make it survive in a Bronze Age world is a challenge. Pregnant women, babies, and children need every worldly and spiritual support.
Her followers represent the wise woman in a community who knows when the weather changes and the crop must be brought in or when the time of frost is over, and the seeds can be brought into the soil. She knows the yearly rhythm of planting to keep the soil fertile and what can be planted with others to keep plants and creatures healthy.
Her followers are the ones who look after the community – making sure everybody is healthy and fed and play their part to make the community thrive.
I always have those ancient voluptuous clay figurines in mind with wide hips, big breasts, narrow waist, fleshy legs, and arms which show abundance and femineity at the same time, mixed with the Minoan pictures of women in dresses showing their bare breasts.
If treated badly, Ernalda gets her revenge. She can do it herself but of course, she has deities in the earth pantheon who are more on the fighting side, but she makes it also very clear to the male deities that they must fulfill their role not only as a lover but also as a protector or even avenger if necessary.
In a game, an Ernaldan worshipper in the group opens doors, makes easy contacts, and can kick ass in battle if necessary through earth magic. They are fun to play because these characters have the potential to be “three dimensional” – what I mean is that they can be the characters with the social connections but also can kick ass in fights (of course, they must keep an eye on their magic and Rune points but on the other hand – use them – that is what they are for!). And never forget how awesome an Ernaldan dancer or singer can be in augmenting other characters if necessary. Even in real world history, dancing and singing – often supported by mind opening substances – was one way to give courage and support in difficult times or for difficult tasks. This can be directly transferred into roleplaying with augmentation – perfect!
I know that the Ernaldan picture I draw here is a character archetype which is meant for adult players. It stresses a lot – let’s say – difficult or “R-rated” topics, like blood sacrifices of animals, sex in the fields, mind opening substances and glorifying pregnancy (some pregnant women artwork made it into the Gloranthan books – I love it!). But they all fit to mother earth!
ALM: If you look at “The Cult of Ernalda” in 1984’s RQ3, one of the earliest presentations of the cult, you read; “Yelm came and inaugurated the Golden Age. He took Ernalda as queen. Later Orlanth came and vied mightily for her freedom. Finally, Orlanth won Ernalda and slew Yelm.”
It’s the same story, clearly, but in the first version Ernalda has no agency. She is taken as queen and then won. All the action belongs to Yelm and Orlanth. The new version is very different. Why the change, and why did you feel it necessary?
CL: Several years ago, we had a long discussion how to make Ernaldan initiates playable as characters. Why were they not attractive?
In the first story, Ernalda is a token which can be taken and given to the next. I don’t think it was meant like this but that is how it reads. But stop – you are talking about a kick ass goddess who – within her pantheon, can shake the world and shape it, can breathe life into dirt, can let plants grow and last or wither, can bless pregnancy and childbirth and with all of that controls the life and – as a summary - is the incarnation of love, sex, and rock'n roll! Of course, no god can rule over her. Somebody so powerful does not want to be a concubine – she is the “first mother”, the super woman, the life giver and in the end within her pantheon also the resting place for the dead. She IS the life cycle and Orlanth did well in freeing her from Yelm’s claws. For that, she rewarded him with accepting him as a husband. He showed with his actions that he cared, that he can fight for her and win and these are very important traits for bringing up and supporting future children and the things she loves.
The question was how to translate this into game play. Of course, an Ernaldan initiate or priestess can fight for herself but why? She has a more important task – let the ones do the fighting who have it as their main focus. Ernalda makes a community thrive. In an adventurer’s party, an Ernaldan initiate or priestess is the one who is always welcomed as a representative of the goddess. She will be asked to bless whatever gives (uncorrupted) life or represents life (crops, animals, women to get pregnant, pregnant women, children). To make a blessing worthwhile, it involves sex, sacrifices, singing and dancing.
By the way, the communities love every Ernaldan sacrifice (goods from the harvest, prepared foods, a nice bull or cow, chicken, a pig, or sheep). Since these are sacrifices to keep the goddess happy, the community will make sure to present high quality goods. An animal slaughtered in a ceremonial way makes it special. Part of the ceremony is not only cutting the throat of that animal but also preparing it into a delightful dish which the community can share in the name of Ernalda. Every sacrifice will be eaten – smaller “day-to-day” sacrifices keep the priestess nourished (or the ones of the community who need help), bigger ones as part of festivities will be shared in the community. In my opinion, thinking about sacrifices this way takes the edge out of them. What does this mean for game play? Of course, an adventuring party has a much better standing entering a village to get them to help if they pay for a nice pig to be sacrificed, hand it over to their Ernaldan priestess (not every village has their own Ernaldan priestess), she throws the big party properly killing the pig, grilling over a fire and presenting it with a lot of dancing and singing to the community for a nice party.
To make a long story short – your Ernaldan in your adventurer’s group is usually the key to get people to trust you and get their support. She can be very convincing, and her parties are legendary.
At the same time, we had to make sure that she can be a real threat in a battle. An Earth Elemental is not funny and commanding swine can make the life of Tusk Riders very difficult.
What I always like about playing in Glorantha is the rich setting and that you can do much more than dungeon crawls. Playing out the community part: I talked already a lot about the role and importance of an Ernaldan in communities. Of course, you can go into the Puzzle Canal and fight chaos monsters. But this gets boring. And if you are not a Storm Bull, you like to have a reason why you fight the Chaos monsters. This is when the community part comes into focus. Of course, the GM can let the adventurers enter a village and the villagers run instantly to them to ask for help against the chaos monsters torturing them. On the other side, the GM can play it out, maybe the village is cursed by the gods and the adventurers must find out why. An Ernaldan is good in building up trust and making good sacrifices!
The setting is deadly: You character can die easily. I find this challenging and interesting.
Try to run a farm: The setting gives you enough material to make playing a farmer interesting. We tried to run a farm in Dorastor and failed! It was too dangerous!
The world is Mystical: Glorantha is always described as a rich setting. Why? Because even after playing in it for nearly 30 years I can find new things. You can fight chaos monsters (and likely die – remember – the setting is deadly!). You can help a giant baby on the River of Cradles get to the ocean, you can fight Lunar oppressors, you can be a Wolf Pirate, you can try to find out why the dwarfs work on the world machine, you can ride on zebras, beetles and bisons (and more), you can go on treasure hunts in the Big Rubble, you can play politics in Notchet (see later point), you can discover that Argrath is a Dragon (did I spoil something here?), you can meet the Feathered Horse Queen and become her champion, you can be a crazy Lunar magician, you can try to fight iconic figures like Jar Eel (and lose), and so on.
Going on a heroquest: I love heroquesting! In a good heroquest, you must be very creative and use what you have at hand. It comes out always differently than as planned and it is about challenges to overcome. A good GM lets you play around with metaphors and metaphorical use of your skills to overcome the challenges.
Gods are real. I mean it two ways – you can talk to them or interact with them because they are real and they are a bunch of jealous, backstabbing, loving, caring, fighting, killing, and scheming creatures, which give a lot of potential to put it into games!
The setting is four dimensional. You not only have not only a well described setting but a well described setting over time! You have a rich history to play around with. The year and season you play in matters. This gives the world an additional complexity which I call the fourth dimension - time.
Coming back to Ernalda there is of course Nochet in Esrolia – the place to go for any Ernaldan. City ruled by women – not only in the palace complexes but the whole city by the Grandmothers – with political scheming as much as your heart likes.
I also like that the picture of other sentient beings like elfs, dwarfs and trolls is very different in Glorantha from classic high fantasy – I find it very refreshing.
ALM: What are some other important additions or changes to the current portrayal of Ernalda do you feel are important?
CL: Ernalda is a powerful goddess, and her worshippers can take over an important role in an adventurer party. They now have useful skills (and yes, in a very mystic culture with a lot of powerful gods and goddesses skills like singing, dancing and worshipping are very useful!) and powerful spells (only want to mention the big huge Earth Elemental again – not only useful in battles!). I also think that stressing the importance of pregnancy and childbirth gives Ernalda a positive and special touch.
What I am still working on is to change the mental pictures of Ernaldan women. I am very happy that pictures of pregnant women made it into the published books. I would love to see more pictures of “fleshier” Ernaldan priestesses, not only the skinny ballet dancers. They do not to have to be Rubenesque, more like a well-curved belly dancer – and they are getting more and more in this direction. In my eyes, a successful and powerful Ernaldan priestess would look well-nourished and reflect how successful she is and not look like the super models today. And – to be honest – giving childbirth also changes the body of a woman and that is OK!
ALM: Ernalda is first and foremost a mother goddess. Her priestesses must have given birth to at least one healthy child to qualify for the position. As a mother, how (if at all) has motherhood affected the way you approach RPGs and Glorantha? And what are your thoughts on women and gaming, and especially mothers in gaming? Does the hobby do enough to include them?
CL: I would like to separate these questions:
Before being a mother, topics like pregnancy and childbirth were there but in a very theoretical way and made it only rarely into my games. Giving birth to two wonderful children and nearly dying giving birth to my second, my daughter, changed a lot. Taking responsibility for the two changed me even more. You become a member of a “different club”, as a friend once said and that is right. Playing a priestess of a goddess which - as you said yourself - is the mother goddess must be a mother herself to know what it means. As I stressed before, giving birth is wonderful but can also be very dangerous – even nowadays. The wonderful thing in the game is that there is a goddess who can help and who sees this as one of her tasks to help bring new life to the world (human, animal life, plants) and let it thrive and fiercely protects it if necessary.
Since becoming a mother, my characters became more involved with the topic. Getting strategically married for a year and a day and discussing what happened with children during the time was not a thing we waived away but really discussed it. With my Ernaldan initiate I made sure that one of our other characters played by a friend got pregnant to build a strategical alliance (don't be shocked – it was totally normal in ancient times). Over the course of the campaign that character gave birth and child raising was an important topic. I was the only mother in the group, and I don’t think I would have chosen that path during the game without my own experiences. I think I would not even have thought about it.
About women in gaming – of course, the Ernaldan is a character which should be fun for women to play. I think I will fall into stereotypes saying that women like to play more social characters and men the fighters. Yanioth, initiate of Ernalda from the starter set, is based on one of my characters I play. This character is so often played by men at conventions, and they do a wonderful job!
What I observed is that people new in RPGs (or new in an RPG setting) often tend to choose a character of their own gender and maybe even with ties to their own life. It makes it easier to get into the role and keeps space to concentrate on the new setting and on the rules. Experienced gamers usually do not care – they play what they like or what they always played (I don't understand that part – I love to experience new concepts). To give support for the first group I think it is important to provide them with sufficiently different kinds of possible characters and genders which are fun to play which Glorantha allows. And that is what we tried when tweaking the Ernalda cult – making these characters fun to play! If a woman (or man or nonbinary) wants to play a woman, nearly all cults provide a female aspect and they are fully integrated and have a distinct place in Gloranthan society. In many cases, they are not only a male version made with the changed gender, but they are often represented with their own variation of a cult including their own specialties. And yes, some cults are reserved for certain genders because it makes mythological sense. This makes the setting so attractive for me! I usually prefer to play characters which challenge me to play –I have played straight forward male and female Humakti and my first RQ character was a female Chalana Arroy. I also liked my male Lhankor Mhy initiate, or the female Ty Kora Tek initiate I play in our White Bull Campaign. I wanted to try how to create a playable necromancer in Glorantha and that was how Gina Gravedancer was developed. Maybe I have a soft spot for cults in Glorantha which are rarely played and try them out.
About mothers in gaming – having children, especially smaller children means that somebody must take care of them. This can make participating in RPGs sometimes difficult if both parents play (especially in our case where my husband needs to play as part of his work, so he goes to conventions and I stay home with the kids or we all go but I am still stuck with the kids. Luckily, they are now at an age where they enjoy board games – my other big hobby). As parents, you have several options: if you are lucky and the gaming group comes to your home, maybe you get to play when the kids are in bed or when they are watching TV, playing computer games or can join (and when they are able to join, they start to play with their own group and are old enough you do not have to observe them anymore). Maybe somebody in your gaming groups has kids the same age, then you can share the duty but there is always the possibility that the kids destroy the house while you are totally entranced in a heroquest….
Next option: only one goes out gaming and the other one stays at home (can be a nice break in childcare but it is sad if you shared the hobby before…).
Or you play online, checking from time to time if the kids have not destroyed the flat and while the other players get a fresh glass of wine during a break you quickly try to get your kids asleep. In my experience, the game is not the problem, the setting is challenging, and you must find ways to make playing possible. And even during a time where parents share the tasks bringing children up, often certain things are still mommy-duty. Which is totally OK (and yes, I am a fierce believer in gender equality, but it also has its limits – men cannot give birth and they cannot breast feed and there is a special mommy-power especially with smaller children – daddies don't worry – you get your fair share when they get older!).
ALM: What advice would you give to players who wanted to portray an Ernaldan character?
CL: Good question. The easy answer would be: look at Yanioth in the starter set. The more complicated one is – try to picture the character you want to play. Think yourself into a tough Bronze Age time combined with a lot of powerful magic and scary mythology. Think about this little clay figurines I talked about before and what they mean – femininity, fertility, abundance, and the protection of all three of them. That is what your character needs! Don't be afraid of topics like sex, nudity, or sacrifices (but, of course, respect the feelings of your other players about these topics – use them with care!). Don't make your Ernaldan Character perfect in minimaxing points and skills – give her some edges and make a kick-ass lady which is fun to play!
ALM: Finally, and just for fun, Ernalda famously has a long line of husband-protectors. Which of them is you favorite and why?
CL: Orlanth is the best. Why? Because most of the games, one plays an Orlanthi and you find them everywhere as NPCs. It can be very practical in a game to remind them of their husband protector duties. And they have the best runs for proper Ernaldan rituals!