"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 12, 2022

THE GROUNDING OF GLORANTHA: Making the Impossible Believable

Blood and Wood

I ran my current group through one of my favorite episodes of The Company of the Dragon yesterday.

"Blood and Wood" is the first chapter of a possible trilogy of stories in which the Company crosses paths with the Aldryami, the "elves" of Glorantha. In a relatively spoiler-free nutshell, the player characters are thrust between two factions in a land dispute that is spiraling out of control into ever-growing bloodshed. The Company can take one side or the other, try to make peace, or stay out of it. Each of those choices comes with consequences.

The scenario features my favorite thing about Glorantha: there are no "good guys" here. In the "Thoughts On Running Glorantha" section I wrote: 

Because the setting is all about the clash of cultures and religions--just as our own terrestrial history is--the tired cliches of black and white, good and evil, light and dark do not work terribly well in Glorantha and give way to more complicated shades of gray. The Lunar soldiers the Company fights are not orcs. They have spouses, and children, and loved ones. They follow a religion they believe in and follow an Emperor they see as just. It just so happens that their agenda is at cross-purposes with the wants and needs of the Sartarites. How far you rub the faces of the players in these uncomfortable facts is entirely up to you. The point is in Glorantha people fight because they differ, not because one side is “good” and the other “evil.”
The Company of the Dragon, p. 101

"Blood and Wood" is all about this. Both sides have done terrible things, both sides are out for blood, and both sides insist the other started it. If this were a different fantasy setting, the player characters would come across a poor group of villagers being terrorized by marauding orcs and know exactly what to to do. They are the "heroes," it is their job to defend them.

But "hero" is a word we need to use very carefully in Glorantha. It probably doesn't mean what you think it does.


hero (n)
late 14c., "man of superhuman strength or physical courage," from Old French heroe (14c., Modern French héros), from Latin heros (plural heroes) "hero, demi-god, illustrious man," from Greek hērōs (plural hērōes) "demi-god," a variant singular of which was hērōe.

Going back to the ancient Greek, "hero" meant "demi-god." It signified a measure of divine power, not necessarily with any moral component or admirable qualities. When it first arrives in English it indicates the "superhuman," but as the Enlightenment arrived and humanity became ever more skeptical anything greater than us could possibly exist we applied the word ever more increasingly to ourselves:

a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great 

the main character or the main male character in a book or film, who is usually good 

someone who you admire very much

Thus, Achilles is certainly a hero in the Greek sense, but his penchant for dragging his slain enemies around behind his chariot might disqualify him from the modern use of the term. Heracles is a Greek hero too, and while we can just overlook the nasty business of his murdering his own wife and children (cue the "Agatha" theme "it was Hera all along!") it's harder to give him a pass for flying into a rage when chastised by his music teacher Linus and then beating Linus to death with his own lyre.

The thing is, just like the Greek gods, the Greek heroes were morally ambiguous beings.

This is not to say they were not worshipped or admired: they were...but so too were the gods. And this is a point that brings us straight back to Glorantha. While the Greeks worshipped Achilles, the Romans were cooler on him. Virgil called him a merciless butcher. Horace called him a child murderer. Catullus and Ovid labeled him a rapist and pederast. Why? Because he was a Greek hero. Imagine what the Sartarities say about Jar-Eel the Razoress, or how they talk about Argrath in Glamour.

Glorantha, a Bronze Age world, leans towards the ancient Greek definition of hero. It doesn't mean "the good guy" and it doesn't mean a protagonist we should expect to save the day.

What's In A Name

I've already argued that I think RuneQuest qualifies, in many ways, as an "Old School" game. I won't reiterate those arguments there, save to summarize.

The general concept of "Old School" is that prior to 2000, RPGs--particularly fantasy RPGs--tended to focus on player characters who were weaker, more fragile, and more morally dubious than post-2000 RPGs. I don't necessarily agree with this. It lays too much blame (credit?) at Wizard's of the Coasts' door. I think the date can be pushed back further to 1990, but essentially there has been a decades long transformation of the player character into the "hero."

No? Go no further than to compare the 1st edition of the Player's Handbook to the 5th:

The 1st edition has a party of adventurers, surrounded by their retainers, in a dungeon. We see a few dead humanoids scattered about as they scrabble to pluck gems from a statue's eyes. 5th edition? A single character is taking on a giant, looking like they just stepped off the cover of a Marvel comic. In case the message is too subtle for you, the 5e cover tells you this book will help you create heroic characters (this is a step back from 2008's 4th edition, which preferred to straight up refer to player characters as "heroes").

This is a total, complete, transformation. Gary Gygax, author of the 1st edition, viewed a "campaign" as the adventures occurring within a specific sandbox. He would run multiple groups of players in the same sandbox and they all existed there at the same time. For example, if the Friday night group penetrated the local dungeon, and your group arrives on Sunday, you will find the goblins dead and the treasure looted. This is completely different from the modern definition, where a "campaign" is a bit like an ensemble TV show, the ongoing story of a specific group of characters. They are the stars. They are the heroes.

As this ideological shift occurred, game mechanics evolved as well to make the player characters stronger, hardier, more spectacular. They were given tools to control the narrative. Combats were expected to be balanced so that they were never too tough for the stars of the show. The days of the Old School meat grinder, where you might expect to go through several characters, are long gone (outside of the OSR or "Old School Revival" and a few throwbacks...like RuneQuest).

And this brings me back to Glorantha.

Hero Wars appeared in 2000, and appeared in a retitled edition in 2003 as HeroQuest. This was, officially, the new Gloranthan game. HW/HQ was very much a product of the new times. Player characters were referred to as "heroes," and it was a narrative system that moved away from RuneQuest's casual lethality and "let the dice fall as they may" ethos. It was followed in 2009 and 2015 by reworked editions of HeroQuest with a system that doubled down on the narrative approach and the "heroes" as the center of their story. Challenges, for example, were designed to scale compared to the number of adventures the characters--sorry, the "heroes"--had played. 

Now let's be totally clear here...HeroQuest was a design masterpiece. It did exactly what it was designed to do. And the argument could be made that it suits a world of Jar-Eels and Harreks and Argraths and Crimson Bats better than its predecessor.

My distaste for it was a matter of taste, that's all. Glorantha had always felt real to me because the world was so detailed, the cultures so believable, the magic system so solid, and the combat so simulationist. RuneQuest characters were not Hollywood action heroes. Encounters were not balanced. Combat wasn't "sport" it was "war." Sometimes, characters failed. They failed often and sometimes unfairly. They were driven by beliefs and loyalties and ambitions. Glorantha felt real to because the system was grounded and because the world did not revolve around the player characters. It operated by its own rules, not the needs of their arcs. 

And RuneQuest underscored this by calling them "adventurers," not "heroes."

Back to Blood and Snow

The reason I dragged you down this detour was because the game last night didn't just exemplify what I love about Glorantha but also about RuneQuest. Not only was the Company dragged into this messy conflict, the dice were truly against them.

Though they attempted, valiantly, to talk to the two sides out of open war, every chance at persuasion failed (and in some cases backfired). The result was tragedy as the Company looked on and the two sides went into battle.

Now, these players were introduced to Glorantha through the HeroQuest version of Six Seasons in Sartar. While they had replayed Six Seasons in RQthey are only a few seasons into the sequel, and this was the first time, really, that they experienced the design approach differences in the two games. 

Being Old School, RuneQuest requires more strategy and planning than many modern games. This is true of combat, but also other aspects of the game. If you just charge in, expecting the game mechanics to support that approach, the dice will likely show you the error of that decision. The issue from my perspective as a long-time RQ player is that they didn't come up with a unified strategy. Each player character tackled the problem themselves, from their own angles, just as game designs which tell you that you are the "hero" condition you to do. They didn't tackle it as a "team."

The good news is that all enjoyed the session--and it is my hope that they will come to embrace the "Tao of RuneQuest" after a few more sessions and see that failure also drives forward the game. Dice, like life, are cruel, but that is all part of the experience. For me, it might have been my favorite session thus far, showcasing why Glorantha and RuneQuest are an unbeatable combination. Once you set aside the hero moniker and the expectations that come with it, the real adventure begins.      


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