"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, December 29, 2022


Since I first started playing their games back in the early 80s, Chaosium’s Basic RolePlaying—the engine that powers most of their RPGs—has been my “baseline” system, the rules set that I return to again and again. Be it RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu, Superworld or Nephilim, Stormbringer or Pendragon, or more recently the “generic” presentation of the rules in the Big Gold Book, I must have run thousands of BRP sessions by now. Like any GM who spends a lot of time with a system, I occasionally tinker with it, tweaking it for different genres or styles of play. Part of the charm of BRP is how flexible it is, and how modular. You can add, subtract, or modify the rules without “breaking” the game.

I have published some of these tweaks in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and The Seven Tailed Wolf, as well as the Six Seasons in Sartar HQ/13G Conversion Guide. But I thought here at the end of 2022, I might share some of the tweaks I use for more “cinematic” styles of play. 

Make Opposed Rolls A Fight

One of the reasons combat is such an RPG mainstay is that it contains multiple variables. Skill rolls tend to be pretty binary…you pass or you fail in a single throw. But in combat, you roll to hit, and the opponent rolls to dodge or parry. Then if you do hit, you still roll your damage…which could end up being a negligible amount blocked by your opponent’s toughness or armor. Combat is thrilling because of the back-and-forth, the tension of extended uncertainty.

But this can work for opposed rolls as well. 

Whenever I want to make opposed rolls particularly tense, I do the following. Take the two skills being pitted against each other and divide them by 5. This gives you “contest points.” For example, you are interrogating a prisoner. Your Intimidate skill is 72%. The prisoner resists with their own Intimidate of 58%. This gives you 14 contest points, and your prisoner has 12.

You begin the first exchange. You put them under hot lights, threaten them, rough them up a bit, and they resist. You roll Intimidate and fail with an 83. The prisoner succeeds with a 37. The prisoner spits in your face, tells you to do something anatomically impossible to yourself, questions your mother’s virtue, and so on. For “damage” I like to use a D6, but your mileage will vary. For longer contests use a D4, for shorter, a D8 or D10. Because the prisoner won the round, they roll a D6 and get a 5. You get red faced and flustered, and your contest points are not down to 9. The prisoner still has 12.

If one side fumbles a roll, I like to make them roll a D4 and remove that from their own contest points. This is in addition to any “damage” inflicted by the opponent. For example, if the roll above had been a fumble instead of a failure, in addition to the 5 points you from your contest points, you would lose an additional D4 as well. In the case of a critical, roll double damage. If both sides score the same relative result—both fail, both succeed, both get specials or criticals—it’s a stalemate. No points are lost on either side.

The exchanges continue until one side or the other reaches zero contest points or less. In the example above, if the prisoner reaches zero they “break” and tell the players want they want to know. If the player reaches zero, there is no way to get the prisoner to talk. They need to try something else.

Obviously, you aren’t going to want to do this with every opposed roll. Just use it when you want to increase the drama and tension. I find it works well with:

  • Chases (more on this shortly)
  • Debates
  • Bargaining
  • Seductions (like the lady says, “love is a battlefield”)
  • Interrogations
  • Drinking contests (use CON as contest points and CON x 5 for rolls…”damage” depends on the strength of the alcohol)
  • Dance offs (in case you are running a campaign based on Footloose or West Side Story

Chase Sequences

I used BRP several years ago for a Mission Impossible/James Bond kind of cinematic spy campaign, and used a modified version of the opposed rolls contest rules above. It works like this:

Each side uses the appropriate chase skill. Drive, Ride, Pilot, Swim, Fly, etc. For a chase on foot, go with DEX (or if you want to get really serious about it, average DEX and CON). This gives you your “chase points” (basically the contest points from above). For skills divide by 5. For DEX, multiply by 5.

First, determine the range. I basically use the range track in Basic Roleplaying, p. 216 but omit range 5, “out of sight.” Range 1 is “side-by-side,” range 2 is “near,” range 3 is “far,” and range 4 is “very far.” If circumstances don’t dictate the starting range, just roll a D4. 

MOV determines initiative. If both MOVs are equal, the side with the higher DEX goes. They declare what they are trying to accomplish. “I run the red light.” “I lock lasers and fire.” “I run faster to escape.” “I try to pull a 180.” “I turn down the alley.” The opponent declares what they are doing to stop them. “I raise shields.” “I accelerate to catch them.” “I evade their fire.” Keep range in mind. You can’t ram their vehicle or tackle them unless you are “near” or “side-by-side.”

Now both sides make appropriate rolls. This does not necessarily have to be the skill that determined the initial chase points! If your Aston Martin has built-in machine-guns, you can roll your Machine-Gun skill rather that Drive. 

Compare rolls as per the opposed skill roll rules above. If you like your chases faster-paced, use a D8 or D10 for damage. Fumbles still add an extra D4 (feel free to use a D6 instead).

When one side or the other reaches zero they are “out” of the chase. The side that wins gets to declare what happens to the loser.

Example 1: Two characters are in a roof-top chase, leaping from building to building. The GM rolls a 3, so the range is “far.” While they are running, the GM decides that the critical skill here is actually “Jump.” One character has Jump 45%, the other has Jump 30% (for 9 chase points and 6 respectively). Both characters have MOV 8, but their DEXs are 14 and 12. The 14 goes first. He is the pursuer, so he says “I am going to try to close the distance between us.” The other character says “I am going to leap on to the next building and slide down to the gutter.” They both roll Jump. The pursuer rolls a 29, a success! The other character gets a 17, also a success. He leaps to the next roof top and slides down, but his pursuer does as well. Neither loses chase points. Next round the pursuer says “I will leap and make a grab at him,” but the GM reminds him the range is still “far.” “I try to catch up then.” The other character keeps running. Since both are running now, the GM decides each should roll DEX x 5. The pursuer has a 70% chance and rolls a 35. Success again. The evader has a 60% chance and rolls 43. No points lost. the chase continues. The third round they have to Jump again. The pursuer fails this time with 33. His target rolls a 24, a success! The GM had declared “damage” for this chase is D10, so he rolls. A 10! He only had 6 chase points. The GM declares the evading character makes the jump to the next roof but the pursuer doesn’t. The evader gets away and the pursuer is not dangling precariously from the edge of the roof. he now has to make a STR roll to pull himself up or fall…

Example 2: Special Agent Dina Might is in her cherry red Ferrari racing through the streets of Paris. Two police vehicles are chasing her. Her Drive is 86%, the police only have 45%. This makes the chase points 17 for Dina, and 9 for each police car. Dina has a sports car with a MOV 200. The police cars are MOV 150. She goes first. The range is 2 for the first police car and 3 for the second.

“I will slam on the brakes and spin in a 180 degree turn so the first police car blows past me,” Dina declares. She rolls a 34. A success. The first police car rolls a 07, a special success! The damage this time is a D8. The police roll a 3. Dina’s chase points are reduced to 14. The GM says, “the police car slams on its brakes and turns sideways, bumping into the front of your car but stopping you from going forward.” The second police car rolls a 71. A failure. The GM rules they close to range 2 however.

Dina curses and slams into reverse, racing backwards down the street. The first police car will right itself and resume the chase. The other police car will try to close. Dina gets a 64, a success. The police get 64 (a failure) and 09 (a special!). Dina is having a bad day. Dina beats the first police car, so they loss a D8. She rolls a 7, so the first police car is down to 2 chase points. The second car beats Dina, so she also suffers a D8. She loses 5 more points and is now down to 9 chase points. The GM decides the second police car closes the gap to range 2, near.

Dina declares she will turn down a side street and try to get away. The other two cars pursue. She gets a 16, a special! The first police car gets a 98 (a failure) and the second gets a failure too (64). Dina rolls a 3 against the first police car and a 1 against the second. The first car is out of the chase, and Dina decides that they miss the turn and crash through the window of a doughnut shop (this is Roger Moore era light comedy). The chase continues…

You will notice we are not taking into account vehicle speeds, hit points, armor, etc. That all works for more realistic genres, but this is cinematic…it is the character’s skill, not the equipment, that matters. On the other hand, there are times when it might. Imagine your spy mobile comes complete with caltrops, smoke screens, a slippery oil slick, etc. The GM might inflict a penalty on the opponents’ rolls in this case (-30 to -50% maybe). If your vehicle has heavy firepower, add a +1 or +2 to the D8 or D10 roll when you damage their chase points by shooting at them. 

Crashes will do damage when appropriate. GMs should feel free to approximate (“You ski right into the tree, taking 2D6 damage,” “you slam into the wall but the airbag goes off, take 1D8 damage”). 

Stunts: As a final word on chases, sometimes the player characters will want to pull a “stunt.” This amounts to taking a penalty intentionally, but the opponent needs to take it as well. Usually I let the players declare stunts, not my NPCs…but you do you. “I leave the ski slope and ski down the bobsled run trying to escape! I will take a -30%.” “I push the nose of the fighter jet straight down and pull up seconds before I hit the ground. I take -40%.” They take a penalty to their roll but so too must the opponents. 

Paper Tigers   

Games like Feng Shui and 13th Age call them “mooks.” They exist to make player characters look tough. 

Basically, in a game like RuneQuest, Paper Tigers only have 1 hit point in each location. Any damage that gets through armor reduces that location to zero or less. In other games, just give them 3 hit points total. They might still have armor, or even dangerous fighting skills, but they have glass jaws and go down easily. 

Give It Hit Points

Like the opposed rolls rules above, this applies a bit of combat magic to other skill rolls. Basically, it amounts to giving a task “hit points.”

Imagine the player character has to crack a safe. Security guards are on the premises and time is of the essence. The GM has decided the safe has 18 “hit points.” Your character has Safecracking 68%, and the GM rules you can make one roll each minute (he simultaneously rolls each round to see if guards show up). As above, you do a D6 on a success, and double that with a critical. Each successful roll lowers the “hit points” to zero. At zero, the safe opens. A fumble might inflict penalties to further rolls (-25% or -30% is a good number).

Instant NPCs

I published a form of these in Six Seasons and Company of the Dragon as "CRs" ("character ratings"). When you need quick stats for an NPC, rate them on the same scale you would rate STR, CON, INT, etc. Basically, Computer Programmer 14, or Security Guard 12. 

Assume this rating is their highest characteristic, their number of hit points, their magic points, etc. Their other characteristics are 2 or 3 lower, and they have a low characteristics at 4 or 5 lower. Their best skills will be that number times 5. Other skills can be based off their other characteristics or lower.

For example, we have an Innkeeper 13. We assume his CHA and INT are 13 each, other characteristics are 11, and his STR is just 8. He has 13 hit points, but just 11 magic points to reflect his assumed POW. He has the skills he needs to run an inn at 65% (13 x 5), other skills around 55% or lower. 



Monday, December 19, 2022

Drives & Epic Passions, a Sneak Peak at THE FINAL RIDDLE

The following is a snippet from the upcoming "Characters" chapter of THE FINAL RIDDLE.

Drives (A Character Option)

Characters in film and fiction often behave differently than their RPG counterparts. In many horror films, someone comes up with the bright idea to split up and explore the haunted house. Your average group of Call of Cthulhu Investigators are far less likely to do so. In literature, the private investigator will accept the offer of a drink from a suspect only to get drugged. In an RPG, the character that NEVER passes up a drink will suddenly do so in the same situation, suspicious of the offer. Players know they are in a game, and many play to win, even those who are roleplay inclined. They exercise a degree of caution that characters completely under authorial control seldom do.

Lady Amarj’s characters have misgivings about their mysterious Esrolian employer from the start, but they consistently set them aside, or make excuses to themselves to justify her actions. Why? Each of them has a strong motivation to go with her into the desert. They are not gamers. They are desperate people driven to follow her.

While your players may very much be into deep roleplaying, The Final Riddle is a potentially lethal one-way journey filled with horror and Chaos, especially if you are trying to run it close to the original pillow book. To “sweeten the deal” for them slightly, we suggest the following option rule system. Drives.

A Drive is a Passion, but it starts at 90% and never changes. It can be used to augment any roll that is made in service of that Drive. With a critical, special, or regular success, the roll receives the usual 50%, 30%, or 20% bonus, BUT if the roll fails—even with a fumble—there is no penalty. There is none of the usual despondency or despair. The character doesn’t get a bonus, but the Drive remains.

On the other hand, the Drive dominates the character’s psychology. A character whose Drive is “Revelation” should always prioritize that over any other Passion. If choosing between seeking forbidden knowledge and putting their family in danger—assuming they have Love (Family) at less than 90%—they will always seek the knowledge. A character whose drive is “Opportunity” will set aside any Loyalty, Love, or even Hate in pursuit of riches…again, so long as they are under 90%. If the other Passions are equal to or greater, they player should roll both against each other.



The thrill-seeker. The adrenaline junkie. The one with a death wish. The character with the Adventure Drive does not feel truly alive unless they are risking that life. They do not run from danger, but towards it. Depending on their other Runes and Passions, this Drive might take many forms. A character with high martial skills and Honor might always be seeking to test their prowess, to demonstrate they are the best in the land. A character with a high Death Rune might secretly wish for death, while one with a high Darkness Rune might feel cold and empty inside and only peril makes their heart race. A character with a high Disorder Rune might just be out to watch the world burn, and if they burn with it, so be it.

Bound To Another

The servant. The shield-bearer. The lover. The follower. The custodian. The character feels they are in some way obligated to someone else, bound to them even in life and death. It doesn’t matter if this is technically true—and indeed there are many slaves who have no love for their owners—this character feels it. With high Love or Loyalty the motivation is obvious: the character feels they must do anything for the object of that Passion. With high Devotion, the character might be an initiate assigned to a higher ranking cultist and feel Bound to them. The character might be a junior officer, a batman (in the World War I sense) dedicated to a superior, or an “Alfred” (in the Batman sense). They might be a parent risking everything for a child. The crucial thing is that the character with the Bound passion will go to Hell and back for the person or persons they feel Bound to.


The treasure hunter. The beginner seeking to make a name. The social climber. The one looking for the big score. The character lacks something—wealth, fame, reputation, recognition—and they are desperate to achieve it. A character with a high Man or Harmony Rune is probably looking for status, while one with a high Fire/Sky Rune wants recognition. A character with high Earth might want wealth. While all characters with an Opportunity Drive will risk anything to get what they seek, one with high Honor or Truth will probably not be willing to throw others under the bus for it. One with high Disorder or Illusion will gladly lie, cheat, and steal to get that they believe they deserve. 


The penitent. The disgraced. The dishonored. The character has had a fall from grace, and will do anything to clear their name. There is “red in their ledger” that they will risk their lives to wipe out. A character with a high Honor is motivated by that…perhaps their Honor was once even higher until they lost it. A character with high Love or Loyalty might have betrayed the focus of that Passion, and are desperate to prove themselves once more. With a high Death Rune they were once perhaps a cold-blooded killer until something turned them from that path. Perhaps the character is tainted with Chaos somehow and seeks to wipe away the stain.


The truth-seeker. The zealot obsessed with Things-We-Were-Not-Meant-To-Know. The mystic. The spy. There is a secret out there, tantalizing, out of reach, and this character needs to know. Combined with a high Moon Rune, the character is likely on the Sevening path. With a high Truth Rune, like a certain television special agent they know the Truth is Out There and will risk anything to find it. With inclinations towards Chaos, the character might be a full-on Lovecraft-style cultist. Those with a high Death Rune might, like Dr. Frankenstein, be obsessed with the secrets of Life and Death. With a high Man Rune, they might be an information broker, a spider in a web of information for sale. Regardless, they are after secrets, and will risk anything to obtain them.

Amarj’s Suggested Character Drives

If you are playing the pre-generated characters from Lady Amarj’s pillow book, we recommend the following Drives for each.  

Darana is desperate. She is caring for her siblings in a hovel in Oldtown, and there has been no work in nearly twelve weeks. She needs this job to feed them (Bound to Another). Possibly she sees this as a way to never worry about money again (Opportunity).

Sarokar and Jolar might both be driven by Opportunity. They are swords for hire and the money is running low. However, one or both might be Bound to Another, each doing this because the other needs it. Sarokar might also be doing it for Adventure…in the pillow book he does nothing but drink when not fighting and there are hints before Jolar he longed for death. Finally, Jolar owes money to his Black Fang superiors, so Redemption might be a motive to get back into good graces with them.  

Shi’an was in Pavis looking into their father’s connections to something called the “White Bull Society” when the Windstop fell, and Revelation might be driving Shi’an as they continue looking for him. Tun-Bak was sent to watch over them by Shi’an's father (Tun-Bak is also a member of the White Bull), and is Bound to Another through through either obligation to Shi’an's father or Love for Shi’an themself.  

Simios was disgraced in Jonstown for falsifying records, and came to Pavis for a second chance. In his mind, this expedition might be it…a lost city from before Time? A forgotten goddess? This could make his name amongst the Lhankor Mhy. We think this is Redemption, but it could be played as Opportunity.

Zarxis is also a Danfive Xaron cultist working to lift the stain upon his soul (Redemption). On the other hand, he is also pursuing the Lunar path of Sevening (Revelation). 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Writing Riddles: Babalon and the Red Goddess

This is the second in a series of essays on Gloranthan Illumination. See the first here.

SEVERAL CENTURIES OF AN EXTREMELY POWERFUL exoteric religious institution led to the systematic suppression of esotericism in the West. For the sake of convenience—this is an article on Glorantha, not ecclesiastic history—we will label the various Western esoteric religious traditions as “Gnostic.” As a general rule of thumb Gnosticism places personalized spiritual experience over orthodox teachings, and this placed it at war from the 1st century C.E. onward against the developing and later dominant Catholic Church. Particularly later in the history of the Church, a convenient way to dismiss the Gnostic traditions was to associate them with the Devil. Whatever their teachings or intent—and there were some Gnostic traditions that painted a favourable picture of the Devil—the Gnostics were all “satanic” and therefore the enemies of mankind and ripe for extermination.

This sounds suspiciously like the attitude of several Gloranthan theistic cults towards Illuminates.

Gnosticism was deep underground by the 19th century, and increasingly referred to as “occultism.” Again, we are simplifying a bit here, but the statement is fairly accurate. Much of Western occultism, the Western Mystery Tradition, is essentially Gnostic. Perhaps no single occultist of the period, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, was accused of playing on the Devil’s team more than Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). It is also fair to say no other occultist revelled in the accusations as much either. Labeled “the Wickedest Man Alive” by the British press, Crowley was accused of Devil worship, human sacrifice, corruption, enslavement, deviancy, and murder. I am sure more than one Nysalorean Riddler could relate. But what he was teaching, his doctrines and his goals, are deeply Gnostic, and a basic understanding of them is a useful way to bring Illumination—especially Lunar Sevening—alive at your gaming table.

Let’s get three things out of the way before we begin. First, while we are going to be drawing numerous parallels between the Red Goddess, the Lunar Way and Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema, no one here is saying that Greg Stafford was a Thelemite or that he intentionally modelled the religion of the Lunar Empire on Crowley’s teachings. Rather, these parallels (and as you will see there are a LOT of them) seem rather to arise from the fact that both Crowley and Stafford were digging deep into the same mythologies. Second, this is not an essay on Thelema, qabbalism, or any of the other concepts it will touch on. We are here to talk about Glorantha as a setting, RuneQuest as a game, and how to make these concepts playable in the context of both. Third, while I am myself a Thelemite, I am not here to proselytize to the reader in any way, shape, or form. Technically, Thelema forbids that. That aside, let’s dig in.

Babalon/The Red Goddess

There are a number of Thelemic deities, and Crowley conceptualizes them like a Malkioni Wizard. Each is seen as a manifestation of an abstract cosmic principle, and each is an emanation of what we might ultimately call his version of the Invisible God. Thelema has deities like Nuit and Hadit (more on them later), Ra Hoor Khuit, and the Holy Guardian Angel...but really it is Babalon, the Scarlet Woman, the Bride of Chaos, who is probably the most recognizable in the Thelemic pantheon.

With good reason. She is arguably the most significant.

Moon Goddess, Mistress of Time, Sister of Chaos...she went on a dire Godquest to find her Seventh Soul...and brought the gift of Illumination back into the world...she returned to the world in 1232, riding atop the Chaos demon known as the Crimson Bat. Illumination is an essential part of the Lunar religion and she embraces seemingly incompatible powers such as Life and Death...

"The Red Goddess," The Glorantha Sourcebook, p. 149   

Aside from the similarity in their titles—“scarlet” and “red,” “woman” and “goddess”—Babalon and the Red Goddess both combine in themselves all dualities and contradictions. This is actually Babalon's function in Thelemic mysticism. 

The Thelemic notion of Illumination--Crowley referred to it more often as Illuminism--lies in the union of opposites. Zero (Nothing or “no-thing” because it cannot be measured, described, or defined) is a symbol of this union. Zero equates with infinity. All numbers and their opposites are contained within Zero: 1 + -1, 2 + -2, 10,000 + -10,000, etc. For Crowley, then, overcoming false duality (male and female, dark and light, life and death) is essential to the ultimate union, that of subject and object, Self and Not-Self, Microcosm and Macrocosm. This experience is the "zero state."  

Creation, conversely, is the act of this perfect Nothing, the Void, dividing into opposites. Even in Genesis this is the case. The Deep, formless and void, is divided into light and darkness, day and night, wet and dry, male and female, etc. In Glorantha, this is of course Primal Chaos, from which the Elemental Runes emerge followed by Power, Condition, and Form Runes in neat pairs of opposites. 

For Crowley, Babalon is the mystical rejoining of opposites to reach that transcendent state once more. She accepts all things, and all things are united with their opposites within her. The Red Goddess serves a parallel Gloranthan function. She unites Death and Life, Illusion and Truth, Chaos and Cosmos. This is point one, then. Both Babalon and the Red Goddess represent Illumination via the reconciliation of opposites. 


According to Greg Stafford, in the Dara Happan religion the individual is said to have six souls. Each of these is associated with a specific god: Dendara, Lodril, Oria, Dayzatar, Gorgorma, and Yelm. Lunar Illumination is referred to as "Sevening," because it postulates a Seventh Soul that awakes durning Illumination and unites all the rest. This soul is associated with Rashorana, either the last of the gods born or the first Chaos god. Rashorana incarnated--the Lunars teach--in the First Age as Nysalor.

Of course we also know that the Red Goddess had Seven Mothers, and there are Seven Phases of the Red Moon. But the number seven belongs to Babalon as well.

The Seal of Babalon, seven points, seven letters, and a whole lotta sevens.

Again, this is not an essay on esoteric number theory or the Qabalah (if you want those look here...I wrote five essays on the topic back in October of 2016 and they remain the most read articles on the blog today). So I am going to keep things simple here. 

Basically, Crowley placed a lot of import on the Tree of Life, a concept borrowed from Hebrew kabbalah. This is a conceptual blueprint of the mind of God as well as the human soul. Reading from the top down it shows the process of divine creation...but from the bottom up it shows the process of returning to the divine. That is all you need to know to follow the rest.

The Tree of Life also proposes multiple souls, or portions of the human psyche. I will spare you the Hebrew and make it simple. The three circles above the red line are basically the parts of us that are holy. They are, actually, indivisible from each other. If it helps, think of them as the point, the radius, and the circumference of a circle. Three things that are one. We will be coming back to them.

Below the red line are parts of us we are more familiar with. Setting aside the Body for a moment, Crowley's Illuminism was about awakening and mastering those six aspects of our psyches, much as Greg described awakening the Dara Happan souls. This is when the Illuminate reaches the Seventh...number 3 on the illustration below. THAT is the sphere where Babalon dwells. Thus she is the "Seventh Soul," where all the opposites come together.

Neat, huh.


But what happens when you transcend all those opposites? Well, you are introduced to circle number 2 on that diagram. 3 is Babalon, but 2 belongs to To Mega Therion, the Great Beast, also known as Chaos.

Without up or down, left or right, good or bad, we are left with Chaos. And number 2 there on the Tree is decidedly sinister. Remember when I said from the top down it was a map of divine creation? Well circle 1 is Unity...circle 2 then is Disunity, the All tearing itself apart. Christian theology would put the Devil here. Perhaps a better way to think of these top three is thesis (1), antithesis (2), and synthesis (3). Put another way, 1 is the contracted universe, 2 is the Big Bang--a huge, violent, terrible holocaust--3 is where the explosion cools and matter and cosmos begin to form.

So Chaos is dangerous, untamed, wild...and thus needs Babalon to control it. Borrowing from the Book of revelations, Crowley uses the imagery of Babylon the Great riding atop the Beast, as seen in this depiction from his Tarot deck, the Book of Thoth.

The Eleventh Tarot Trump

Now if it seems odd to you that Aleister chose to use the Whore of Babylon and the Beast as essentially positive symbols, let me just say quickly that he felt the Book of Revelations was a good thing, and that exoteric monotheism needed to be torn down and replaced. Like a good many Gnostics before him, he took negative figures from the Bible and made positives of them conceptually. 

However, the image of a unifying goddess riding a wild manifestation of Chaos--Chaos she has tamed to her purpose--is instantly familiar to Gloranthaphiles as well.

From the Glorantha Sourcebook.

In both cases, the Crimson Bat and the Great Beast, we are seeing a very similar idea being played out. In the Thelemic case, by taming Chaos, Babalon reunites the cosmos and we are restored to circle 1, Unity. This is essentially the argument the Lunars are making. Chaos is dangerous, but part of the Universe and it needs to be controlled. Once tamed, the universe can be healed back to Unity. 

But there is a deeper point to be made here. Primal Chaos, the Void the Dragons speak of, is the Perfect Zero state that preceded the cosmos. It was only when this Primal Chaos began   to be ripped apart into Elemental, Form, Condition, and Power Runes that lesser Chaos, the Chaos Rune, was formed. That Chaos, the lesser Chaos, is the one that needs to be tamed so you can get back to the original state of transcendence. Crowley symbolized this with a mathematical formula, 0 = 2. Primal Chaos tears itself apart into 2, or rather n and -n. That state of duality is the bad one, the lesser Chaos. Once the duality is reconciled, transcendence again.

So Wait a Minute...

...are you honestly saying that the Red Goddess is basically Babalon?


As I said before, Greg and Aleister were working with very similar mythological concepts. I don't honestly know to what extent Greg had the Whore of Babalon in mind when he wrote about the Red Goddess sweeping into the world on the back of a giant Chaos beast, but if we peel back another layer on the onion we get to ask an even more exciting question.

Who was the Whore of Babylon?

Most Biblical scholars will tell you "Babylon the Great" in the Book of Revelations is actually the Roman Empire. As Babylon had once held the Jewish people in captivity, Revelations appears when another empire, Rome, has enslaved them. I have the distinct impression that if you could explain the Biblical reference of the Whore of Babylon to a Sartarite during the Lunar Occupation, they would happily draw some Red Goddess parallels.

But the image itself has a far deeper history than the Biblical, and this is why Stafford and Crowley both employed variations of it. By the time Rome became an Empire, the Anatolian goddess Cybele had been adopted by the Imperium. She was called Magna Mater, the Great Mother, and was seen as the mother of the Empire and the manifestation of its power and authority. We have a number of depictions of her crowning Roman Emperors. This is likely the "Whore of Babylon" the Jewish rebels were speaking of, because Cybele rode a lion as her mount.

Magna Mater

Being a mythologist, however, Greg knew (as Crowley did) that this goddess was so much older than Rome. Long before the Imperium, with roots in the Bronze Age or older, we find a goddess associated with lions, sovereignty, and high places. We see her on Minoan seals:

In Mesopotamia they called her Inana and Ishtar:

And so widespread was her worship she remains in India today as the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess:

When I approach Greg's work in Glorantha, I always try to avoid looking at a single source, because there never really is one. The Orlanthi could be Norse, or Celt, or Greek, or any other Indo-European people. The Lunars could be Roman, or Persian, or Babylonian, etc. One of the things that makes Glorantha feel so real is that we all recognize it, because really it is patterned on mythologies that transcend any one given culture.

Back To Babalon...

Hopefully this has given you something to think about, to chew on, swallow, or spit out as you please. As I continue working on The Final Riddle, however, Babalon has been useful to me in filling in some of the gaps of Sevening. I think she and the Red Goddess are two manifestations of a deeper myth. I playfully made mention of their association in The Seven Tailed Wolf, but as The Final Riddle is all about Illumination I thought it might be useful to share my though processes here.

Thanks for reading!



Wednesday, October 19, 2022


Note: This is the first of two (maybe even three) essays on Gloranthan Illumination. It is an overview, and sets up the theses for the future pieces.

In writing The Final Riddle, I realized I needed to start with the prickly subject of Illumination. Introduced way back in 1981's Cults of Terror, Illumination is a state of spiritual and mental transcendence, the Gloranthan equivalent of "enlightenment." Like many things Gloranthan, it has parallels to concepts in our own world, such as the Buddhist nirvana, Saint Symeon's "dying to the Self,", or the concept of moksha on the Indian subcontinent. Yet Illumination is not strictly speaking any of these. Like so much in Glorantha, a setting which resists the simple dualism of many fantasy worlds, the nature of Illumination is left up for individual gaming tables to decide. In doing so, we are weighing in on a subject that has been the source of much conflict in our own world.

On one hand, we have Nysalor, the "Bright One." This First Age deity introduced (or re-introduced, in later writings) Illumination into the world. For his disciples, it was an overwhelmingly positive force, elevating the Illuminate above all the harmful divisions caused by the Gods War. Illumination allows the individual to rise above dualities and definitions. Life and Death, Harmony and Disorder, Illusion and Truth, even Cosmos and Chaos can be seen as aspects of the same thing. Illumination effectively liberates the individual from religious strictures, such as joining opposing cults or facing spirits of reprisal. It all seems...good.

Yet at the same time, in the West, we see Nysalor's teachings abused and corrupted. His disciples use their liberation from normal ethics to create diseases just so they can spread them and cure them. The Vampire Lords of Tanisor go further. This gave rise to Arkat, Nysalor's great enemy, who himself became Illuminated to bring down the Bright One. They became mirrors of each other, each called the other Gbaji, the Deceiver. In the end of their cataclysmic struggle one emerged, but no one can be sure which.

Readers with a taste for South Asian history might see some parallels here. When the Buddha emerged, his teachings of self-liberation went completely against the Vedic priesthoods, who taught that personal salvation came only from the temples and their deities, and the practice of sacrifice to both. Buddhism was, in essence, an affront to the social order which kept the priests and the warrior castes in their lofty positions. The accusations then lay in charges that Buddhists were antagonistic to the Cosmic Order, rta. In this way they were associated with disorder, or to use a Greek-derived word, Chaos. As Glorantha fans all know, that is the primary charge against Illumination. It is a form of Chaos.

The socio-political tensions between early Buddhism and the Vedic tradition are not unique, however, they are nearly universal. We need to talk a moment about exoteric and esoteric spirituality. The first is communal, societal, and usually organized around group ceremonies, temples, and priesthoods. The later is internal, solitary (mostly), introspective, and subjective. Exoteric religion tells you "do this," or "believe this." Esoteric religion asks you to withdraw and look inward for answers.

In any given religious tradition, we see these two aspects. Judaism has kabbalah as an inner tradition, for example. Islam has sufism. Christianity has a strong mystical tradition early on that the Church slowly tapped down. There are, historically speaking, often tensions between these two sorts of faith. In the Sunni tradition, a fine example is the tension between Salafism (exoteric Islam based on the Qur'an, hadith, and performance of the Five Pillars) and Sufism (which is more meditative, contemplative, and inner). 

In Glorantha, theism is extremely exoteric. The Orlanth cults, for example, form the backbone of Orlanthi society. Worship revolves around lay people supporting temples, with priests and Rune Lords wielding a great deal of political influence and power. Theistic cults tend to hold society together. So too do many of the Western sorcerous traditions. Shamanistic societies are a bit less rigid, but still involve a specialist (the shaman) to deal with the spiritual world on your behalf.

Illumination throws all of this out the window. You must answer its Riddles for yourself, and the enlightenment liberates you from the restrictions of theistic (or sorcerous) faith. This makes it extremely dangerous from the exoteric position, because it cannot be controlled.

The Lunar Empire handles this in a clever way. They hand the exoteric reins of power to the Imperial state cults, while the Great Sister overseas Lunar esotericism. The exoteric state cults maintain order and Imperial unity, and the vast majority of the population may belong only to them. Further, the state cults are expansionistic, pushing the borders of the Empire outwards and seeking converts. Those citizens seeking to go deeper into the Lunar religion, however, can turn to the esoteric Illumination (or "Sevening") ways. These cults are centripetal, pulling the initiate inwards towards the heart of Lunarism. This unique dualism is inherent in Lunar Illumination, and will be the subject of Part Two of this series. Still, even though the Red Goddess embraces the esoteric path in a way most exoteric cults can't, she has her Examiners in service of the State that watch for Illuminates going "bad" ("Occluded," is the Lunar term).

It is worth noting, incidentally, that even the language we use suggests a tension between these two religious approaches. The Sanskrit word for "religion" is yoga, or "yoke." The English comes from the Latin re ligio, to be "bound" or "tied" (we get the related word "ligature" from the same root). Compare this to the word most closely associated with enlightenment..."liberation." To be "freed" from bonds. One binds, the other unties.

My suggestion here, then, is not that Greg Stafford was modeling any specific cultural conflict in the tension between Gloranthan religions and Illumination (Buddhist and Vedic, Salafism and Sufism, Christian and Gnostic, etc), but rather the inherent religious tension between these two approaches to Truth. Glorantha is about mythology, so too is religion, and the struggle between the two religious paths is often expressed in mythological terms. It is logical that one of the main struggles in the setting, then, is the tension between exoteric orthodoxy and esoteric heterodoxy. I would argue that it is indeed a main theme in Glorantha, maybe even its primary one. After all, the First Age was dominated by Arkat's struggle against Nysalor. The Second Age, meanwhile, was characterized by the rivalry between two Empires and philosophies, the extreme orthodoxy of the God Learners and their drive towards One Universal Truth, and the EWF's esoteric heterodoxy of Draconic Consciousness (a close cousin to Illumination). In the Third Age, it is repeated again, with the Lunar Empire struggling against the Theistic nation of Sartar (the twist being, of course, Argrath's own Illumination). 

Fantasy settings thrive on conflict. Tolkien's Middle-earth had Good versus Evil, Moorcock's Multiverse had Law versus Chaos, Howard's Hyborian Age had Barbarism versus Civilization. What we are looking at in Glorantha, I think, is a more nuanced theme about the Truth that is defined for you versus Truth that is defined by you, and the dangers inherent in both.   

The Final Riddle is coming soon to the Jonstown Compendium.       

Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Four years ago, on this very day, I tried to express my grief at the passing of Greg Stafford (1948-2018). For a man I had only ever spent a weekend with at a convention, and spoken with only over a few drinks, the sense of loss I felt was striking. It shook me to my core. And it turned out to be life altering.

As a kid I was obsessed with mythology; the D'Aulaires books of Greek and Norse mythology in the second and third grades, Edith Hamilton around grade four, dozens of others. I must have checked them all out of the library so often no one else in the school ever had the chance to read them. It was this intense interest, in fifth grade, that introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. A teacher had a set of the Holmes Basic Set and convinced me to GM it. "You'll love it, it has monsters and gods and heroes." She was right. I did.

I was excited to go to junior high school because they had a D&D club. I would get the chance to play, rather than run. To my surprise, when I arrived the older boys were not playing D&D, however. They were playing something called RuneQuest. That was how I met Glorantha. How I "met" Greg.

It was an earth-shaking moment because I realized for the first time that mythology could be created. While AD&D scavenged--it had pegasi and minotaurs and gods like Zeus and Thor--Greg was conjuring Orlanth's rivalry with Yelm, the Seven Mothers and their Red Goddess, Storm Bull dispatching the Devil with the Spike. Mythologies could be created...new mythologies! Soon after I would discover Lovecraft and Moorcock and Tolkien, but Greg showed me the possibility first.

I didn't really get to "know" Greg until I went to university, however. The plan was to be a history major, but in a comparative religion course I discovered Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and Profane.

...religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is pe­riodically reintegrated by means of rites...

That changed the course of my studies. I realized Greg hadn't just conjured Glorantha up. The setting had sources, forerunners. It was a revelation, of sorts. I felt I was following a trail of breadcrumbs Greg had left for me. I ended up spending the next seven years chasing it, moving into the study of ancient epic poems like the Iliad and Mahabharata. In this way I chased Greg's shadow throughout grad school, feeling a little thrill whenever I tripped across something that gave me a glimpse of where Glorantha had come from. Before I knew it I was a mythologist and Indologist. All from chasing Stafford.

It was in the midst of this that I met Greg in the flesh, at the very first RuneQuest-Con in 1994. Ironically, we talked mostly about Pendragon.

Then life got...complicated. A break-up. Leaving my country behind to cross an ocean and enter an alien world. It got complicated for Greg around the same time. Chaosium, the company he founded for Glorantha, was in financial trouble. He left and took Glorantha with him. As Hero Wars replaced RuneQuest I was in Japan, learning a new language, leveraging my linguistics background into a teaching career. Greg meanwhile was turning Hero Wars into HeroQuest, and way ahead of everyone else his Glorantha Trading Association was Kickstarter long before Kickstarter. I became a backer, and for the record the first edition of HeroQuest was the first Gloranthan book my name appeared in.

Life went on. While I had written a lot when I was younger--four novels in my teens and twenties, and in 1989 I had been the first winner of the New York Young Playwrights' Contest and the winner of it again in 1990--teaching had become my priority and the writing was happening less and less. This saddened me, so in 2012 I started blogging. To my surprise, the blog started to take off, gathering readers. Around the same time, Greg also returned to something he loved. He went back to Chaosium. As my writing picked up again, Chaosium was reborn.

Then came the news. RuneQuest was returning.

Threads seemed to be pulling everything together. Greg was back, Chaosium was back, RuneQuest was back. I was running "Six Seasons in Sartar" as a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign and blogging about it when I was asked if I wanted to review the new RuneQuest. Of course I did. I jumped at the chance. I published "Rites of Passage" on the blog a month after that review, then reviewed the Bestiary the month after that. The "Six Seasons" blog entries were becoming huge hits, and I was getting more and more messages and emails about them. Something was stirring. I had this feeling that "Six Seasons" was meant to be something bigger than blog articles, but had no sense of what or how. Yet with RuneQuest back, I knew "Seasons" had to be rewritten for it. I started the process. In the meantime, I reviewed the Gamemaster Screen Pack.

A few short weeks later, Greg had entered the Spirit World and wasn't coming back.

The entire next year, 2019, nearly every article on the blog was about the world he left behind. No, not this one...I mean Glorantha.

I think that year I had no real idea what I was supposed to be doing. The blog articles had a strong following, and I had this nagging sense that I was supposed to be following Greg's shadow again. I had no clear idea how to do that.

Until the Jonstown Compendium came along, and on its heels a very convenient pandemic that shut my school down and left me with nothing to do but write. Everything fell into place, and it felt in some sort of weird way that the universe was showing me what my next move was to be. No, that is an understatement. The universe seemed to be bending over backwards for me to do this. So the best way for me to honor Greg's memory, I decided, was to do what he did. Add something to Glorantha and share it.

Four years to the day after I blogged on his passing, it was announced that I was the 2022 winner of the memorial award in his name. The last two years, Glorantha has become more present in my life than ever, having published about 540 combined pages on the Haraborn in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and The Seven Tailed Wolf. I've worked with Jeff Richard on the heroquesting rules and written sections of the upcoming Sartar Campaign. I have two more Gloranthan projects to get out before the year's end. 

I'm still chasing Stafford, but tonight I feel like I have at least caught his tail.