"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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


This is the third in a series of articles. Read the first here and the second here.

The average modern man's relationship with nature is not the one that prevailed in the premodern "cycle," to which, along with many other traditions, the hermetico-alchemical tradition belongs. The study of nature today devotes itself exhaustively to a conglomeration of strictly reasoned laws concerning various "phenomena"--light, electricity, heat, etc--which spread out kaleidoscopically before us utterly devoid of any spiritual meaning, derived solely from mathematical processes. In the traditional world, on the contrary, nature was not thought about but lived, as though it were a great, sacred, animated body, "the visible expression of the invisible". Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation"...

Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition

Towards Tradition

The paragraph I just quoted above characterizes the fundamental shift between Sorcery in the third edition of RuneQuest, and Sorcery as portrayed in the latest edition, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha. It parallels a corresponding shift in the way the Malkioni peoples of the Gloranthan West are portrayed, and is the direct result I think of Greg Stafford's deepening understanding of--and appreciation for--the Western Mystery Tradition.

The first two editions of RuneQuest had very little to say on the Westerners. While Glorantha resists one-for-one substitutions (the Orlanthi are Indo-Europeanish...but whether they are Aryans, Norse, or Greeks is left to interpretation; the Lunars are an Empire but they might be Persians, Romans, Victorians, or the Imperium from Star Wars), it is clear that the Malkioni are meant to reflect "Western" mythology. But their thin presentation in RQ and RQ2, and even in RQ3, shows a largely exoteric view of the West. They are monotheists and materialists, they are colonizers, they have a decidedly 19th century approach to comparative religion. Their Sorcery is effectively given to us as "science," effects caused by the rational manipulation of immutable natural laws. Their main function and contribution seems to be the Monomyth, which while being immensely useful to Gloranthan GMs and players is nevertheless the sort of reductionist nonsense colonial European powers layered over religions around the world. In short, the Malkioni are presented to us largely as the "modern man" Evola speaks of in the quote above. It would take a couple more decades, and Stafford's involvement with the Chaosium RPG Nephilim, for the Malkioni to finally make the leap from "modern" Westerners to the authentic hermetico-alchemical traditionalists I expect they were always meant to be.

To outline this shift, let's take a closer look at Sorcery in RQG.

The Nature of Sorcery

Sorcery begins, in RQG, with a restatement of its introduction in RQ3. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe of immutable laws," says RQG, while RQ3 had "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe. But they also believe that among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." While RQ3 then makes no mention of Spirit or Divine (Rune) magic, RQG almost immediately does: "it does not require the assent of the gods or spirits the way spirit or Rune magic does."

What distinguishes RQG from its predecessor though is that it explains what these immutable forces are and incorporates them into the system. RQ3 told us about such laws but then never shows them. It instead presents a magic system that basically functions like Spirit magic. This is in part a direct result of it being generic, but I would also argue it stems from Greg not fully appreciated the esoteric principles of hermetic magic. RQ3 could have linked sorcery to the manipulation of occult energies (the four elements, the planets, the stars, etc) but it didn't seem to feel any real need to. It was content to leave sorcery without any rationale at all.

RQG wants is to understand how exactly how sorcery functions, however. We are told almost immediately is the manipulation of Runes through defined Techniques. It tells us that the relationships between these Runes matter, and that the God Learners used the Monomyth to map them out.

Obviously this makes sorcery a more complex affair than it was in RQ3, but in a game that has always been famous for its immersive features this is an odd complaint. True, combat would also be easier without hit locations, strike ranks, armor, or weapons...but those elements bring RuneQuest battles to life. I find that player character sorcerers in RQG likewise appreciate the added detail. It makes the magic system a knowable thing, something that the player can come to understand and explore.


It starts here with the Runes. Obviously, on some level it has always been clear that the "immutable laws" the sorcerers of Glorantha are manipulating are the Runes, but this is the first time we have a visible framework. As mentioned there was no such framework in previous versions of the sorcery system. I think we owe this, at least in part, to Nephilim, which likewise explained sorcery as the manipulation of fundamental esoteric forces and included them in the magic system itself. 

Runes, and as we will soon see Techniques, are not skills, nor are they affinities. They are not learned. Instead, in the clearest and truest nod to the Western Mystery Tradition yet: 

to master a new Rune or technique, the sorcerer must achieve intellectual union with the source of their magic (be it the Invisible God, the One, the Great Mind, Logic, or whatever the sorcerer’s philosophy holds to be the case).

This is in complete agreement with the passage I quoted at the start of the article; "Knowledge about nature derived from inspiration, intuition, and visions, and was transmitted "by initiation." Though the word is not actually being used here, we are talking about gnosis, the fundamental distinction between alchemy and chemistry. One is learned, the other known in the sense of being united with it. It adds the missing religious element--and despite its "atheism" Malkionism is still a religion--in that to better command the universe, the sorcerer has to align himself with the Mind of the Creator. This is, frankly, RuneQuest doing what it has always done best...being authentic.

Furthermore, the Runes do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in relationship to each other, another piece of much needed verisimilitude. We had a preview of this with the publication of The Guide to Glorantha, which I will not deny (and long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear) that I "squeed" the moment I saw these;

Zzabur's Sigil, side-by-side with the Ka Elements from Nephilim

In the interest of full disclosure, between the preparation for the art in the Guide and when RQG went to print there was a further refinement. The Elemental Rune relationships in the sorcery system in RQG are best described by the wheel on that character sheet, and not the one above;

Regardless, RQG makes the relationships a quantifiable part of the game. When a sorcerer attunes to one Rune, the Rune they have "mastered," the two opposite Runes are gained as minor Runes. It's a nod to both Nephilim and the hermetic principle that each thing contains within it its opposites. To a lesser extent this continues with the Power Runes (if you master Movement, you gain minor knowledge of Stasis).

What emerges here is a way to interact with the Runes that is methodical, structured, and totally different from the way Rune cults handle it. It integrates sorcery into the world as an actual part of the setting rather than hand-waving details away for the sake of expediency.

More Western Mystery Tradition Influences on RuneQuest Sorcery, the Runes and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life


Like Runes, Techniques are gained intuitively rather than learned. Again this is consistent with the idea of apprehending something "immutable." Skills are extraordinarily mutable, developing entirely within the context of Time. Techniques exist outside of Time, part of the fabric of Arachne Solara's Web (and spoiler alert, they make a return in the upcoming heroquesting rules).


RQ3 presented spells as skills, and in lieu of Techniques had sorcery skills to manipulate them. This reduces everything to skill rolls, and misses sorcery's self described point. If sorcery is the manipulation of immutable laws...then the spell, the "skill," is clearly the manipulation. Where then is the the law?

RQG answers this elegantly. The Runes and the Techniques are the "letters" of the alphabet, the spells are their spoken combinations. This is very in keeping with the hermetic tradition that sorcery derives from. The letters of the Greek alphabet, or the Hebrew, were perceived as immutable constants manipulated by placing them into combinations of words. That is literally the origin of the word, "spell" (and why it is related to "spelling"). Again, RQG is modeling what RQ3 could not, or would not, bother to. 

Spells still require magic points and skill rolls to cast, but because Runes and Techniques have been separated out it is clear what immutable forces are being manipulated. The cost of the spell depends on whether or not it is a quality you have Mastered or just have a Minor affinity with (in the latter case the cost is doubled).

Final Thoughts

In a way that RQ3 failed to, I would say that sorcery in RQG hits all the criteria it needed to. 

It is a very different magic system from spirit magic or Rune magic. Players who want "flashy" super-hero spells will want Rune magic, but the player who is methodical, who likes to plan, and to whom you give ample time and resources can do things with sorcery no one else can. It just takes a patient, meticulous mind. If you have a sorcerer in your group, give them a season to plan and the results can be staggering. 

Conceptually, RQG sorcery does everything it needs to. Stafford's setting carefully and considerately models shamanism, and it has a sense of ancient theistic religions second-to-none. This edition is the first time it has ever gotten sorcery--hermeticism--right. One of Glorantha's most most attractive features has always been its exploration of religion, and this is the first time the Malkioni do not get cheated. 

But of course we have only seen the basics. I am very curious what sorcery practiced in the West might look like, and have put some ideas of my own into my campaigns. In the next article I will share some of those, and look at alternative directions you might want to take sorcery in.



Monday, January 23, 2023


This is part two of a series. See Part One here.

Not A Bad System, Really

SO FAR AS MAGIC SYSTEMS GO, the Sorcery rules presented in the third edition of RuneQuest are pretty good. I would go so far as to say they accomplished two-thirds of what they were designed to do. 

First, the Sorcery rules introduce to RuneQuest the magician-type character familiar to players of other fantasy role-playing games. This was critical if you were trying to market RuneQuest as a generic system. Potential players have expectations of who and what sorcerers are, shaped not just by "magic-users" in other games, but the sorcerers we see in Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber. Neither Rune magic nor Battle magic conformed to such expectations, being intended to model magic specifically in Greg Stafford's Glorantha.

Second, the Sorcery rules provided an alternative magic system that operated unlike either Battle or Rune magic (both renamed in the third edition to "Spirit" and "Divine" magic respectively). Those two approaches were largely static, in that once a spell is acquired it does basically what it says in the spell description.  Sorcery spells were flexible, with the sorcerer able to combine effects as well as manipulate the range, duration and strength of the spell. This approach made certain that Sorcery had its own unique feel. 

But in the third presumed objective, the Sorcery rules fell short. We are told several times in the rules that Sorcery is an "impersonal" system, that sorcerers perform magic by exploiting immutable laws of the universe. Nothing in the actual mechanics of Sorcery confirms this, however. 

Consider. If I sprinkle salt in a bowl of water, then with alligator clips and wire link one clip to the positive end of a battery and the other to the negative, when I place the other ends of the wires into the water, we start to see bubbles form. Why? The electricity is breaking the covalent bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen in the water. This is impersonal. It does not depend on my conscious will or how many magic points I spend. I make the bubbles happen because I am genuinely exploiting an immutable universal law. 

Sorcery as presented in RQ3, does not operate anything like this. In a game system famous for having clear rationales in how it modeled things, RQ3 really had no clear clue what it was modeling in Sorcery at all. Instead, it comes off as some form of advanced and flexible Battle magic. Sorcery spells were skills, and there were further skills to manipulate those spells. Like Battle magic, the "fuel" for these spells was the expenditure of magic points, the personal energy of the sorcerer, or energy he stole from a victim. Conceptually this is identical to Battle magic ("the forceful alteration of the fabric of reality by use of one's own POW" and "affect(ing) the Universe by force of will"). We are told it operates by manipulating natural laws, but shown the opposite.

For truly "impersonal" magic systems, we need look no further than Dungeons & Dragons or Harry Potter. In these, the magician learns specific gestures and incantations and "hey presto!" magic occurs. These operate mechanically, by laws baked into the setting. If Stafford and company had genuinely wanted impersonal magic, it would have looked something like this. But the problem was that Stafford was a mythologist, and he knew that there is no such thing as "impersonal" magic. Impersonal "magic" is called "science."   

Magic in Transition

When a new religion takes over, the gods of the old religion become devils. Once upon a time, older beliefs were outlawed as heresies. Today we simply dismiss them as fantasies. In the Enlightenment, as materialism, humanism, and "progress" became the core tenets of the New Faith, words were divorced from their meanings and very often reversed so as to weaponize them. "Myth," for example, went from meaning "stories that tell us the origins and rightness of things" to "something that isn't true." "Esoteric" went from meaning "inward" to meaning "extraneous." "Psychological" went from "of the soul" to "of the mind."

"Magic" likewise suffered. In Old French, magique, meant "the art of controlling spirits and superhuman powers." By the Enlightenment, however, the English magic meant "the art of predicting or influencing events using hidden natural forces." This is a radical shift. No longer is the magician dealing with beings, they are dealing with "forces." By the late 18th century, the word was further degraded to mean "illusion."   

At the epicenter of this shift, in the West, was the practice of alchemy. Nearly any current dictionary will tell you alchemy is "medieval chemistry," or (and I get a kick out of this one) a "protoscientific tradition." This is of course another example of redefinition from above. Further, in a breath-taking display of what Stafford would have called God Learnerism, we are also told that Taoist waidan and neidan, Sanskrit rasayana, and the theories of Zosimos of Panopolis are all "alchemy," as if these things bore any relation to each other at all. What does connect them--and all that matters to modern detractors--is that scientific medicinal and chemical practices emerged as by-products of these traditions. That they were essentially spiritual practices is irrelevant because they are "protoscientific."

By the time Sir Issac Newton and later Thomas Jefferson were practicing it, alchemy was indeed essentially desacralized, leading to this notion that hermeticism was just a kind of science. This would have fit comfortably into Jefferson's own Deism, the belief that the Universe was the work of a Creator who has nothing further to do with it, God as the Master Clock Maker. This is very much the view of Stafford's God Learners. But dial back a few centuries and alchemy looked quite different. "Universe, hear my plea," begins the invocation the Corpus Hermeticum (13:18) instructs alchemists to begin their operations with. "Earth, open. Let the Waters open for me. Trees, do not tremble. Let the Heavens open and the Winds be silent. Let all my faculties celebrate in me the All and One!" The alchemists participated in a living Universe, a very personal Universe. "The true elements are the soul of the essences, physical elements are but their shells or bodies" (Pemety, Stories of the Egyptian and Greek Devotees, 1786). 

As I mentioned in Part One, Stafford clearly struggled a bit with the Malkioni--and as a consequence Sorcery--because he had a natural antipathy to the Western mythology it was based upon. Stafford knew that myths were not "just stories," that psyche was spirit and not simply mind, and with the God Learners is clearly condemning materialistic Deism, colonialism, and 19th century self-superiority. I think Sorcery comes off as muddled in RQ3 because he did not yet have a feel for it the way he did for shamanism or ancient religious traditions at the time RQ3 went to press. He himself mentions "the bulk of the data" he had compiled on the Jrusteli and their Empire came in the period after licensing RuneQuest to Avalon Hill (see his "Designer's Notes" in the 1988 Genertela Crucible of the Hero Wars). But another critical factor in "getting a feel" for Sorcery came in the early 1990s, when Chaosium produced the English edition of the  French RPG Nephilim. Chaosium's Jeff Richard was kind enough to share with me in the past the notes Greg had during this period, a deep dive into the Western Mystery Tradition that Nephilim was exploring. While Nephilim has left many fingerprints on RQG--the "wheel" of the Elemental Runes being the most evident--it is clear that Greg's sense of Sorcery, of the Malkioni, was likewise influenced by the game. It seemed to crack the code for him on how to make Sorcery "impersonal" but still an actual, living religious tradition rather than surface level materialism.

The solution was, of course, the Runes. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023


THE YEAR IS 1984, and Sorcery--fashionably late--arrives at the party.

The first edition of RuneQuest (1978) had introduced us to two types of magic already.  Both made perfect sense for a Bronze Age, mythological setting. Battle Magic was the "forceful alteration of the fabric of reality by use of one's POW." While some Battle Magic spells were recognizably supernatural, the vast majority of them were about excellence. Bladesharp and Bludgeon made your weapons deadlier. Glamour made you more charismatic. Strength, Coordination, and Mobility made you better, faster. These all fit quite comfortably in epic literature. We see things like them all the time in the Iliad or the Mahabharata. In the latter, Arjuna frequently uses a trick that looks suspiciously like Multimissile. Many of the others are right there in Homer. In fact, the Greeks probably would have just called Battle Magic arete.

Rune Magic was bigger, flashier, more powerful. But Rune Magic was also a sort of divine intervention. It is the power of the gods channeled through mortals. Again, this is the kind of magic we see all the time in the epics. Arjuna, for example, went to the Himalayas to perform austerities and sacrifice for pashupatastra: 

Arjuna soon regained consciousness and began to mentally worship Lord Shiva... Lord Shiva was satisfied with Arjuna and said, "O Phalguna, I am pleased with you, for no one can rival your prowess. There is no kshatriya who is equal to you in courage and patience. O sinless one, your strength and prowess almost equal mine. Behold me, O bull of the Bharata race. I will grant you eyes to see my true form. Without doubt you will defeat your enemies, including those in heaven. I have been pleased with you and will grant you an irresistible weapon...

Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 3

Pashupatastra is a kind of spiritual missile, a blast that will destroy whatever it strikes. Like a lot of Rune Magic, you sacrifice for it and once you use it, it's gone.

All of this is the kind of magic the ancients would have recognized.

And then there is Sorcery.

Sorcery is closer to what we--20th and now 21st century people--think of when we hear the word "magic." It's closer to the magic that saturates modern fantasy. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe," we were told in the third edition of RuneQuest, "among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." This is, essential, the magic in D&D or Harry Potter. Like electricity or magnetism, it is a natural feature of the cosmos that clever people can tap. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that Bronze Age peoples would have warmed to the idea of an impersonal universe. It's a fairly Iron Age idea, really, and a late one at that. 

And yet, RuneQuest needed Sorcery. The third edition was designed to be generic, and generic fantasy has to include modern fantasy fiction with all its very post-modern concepts. Everybody knows wizards do magic, not Bronze Age hoplites! So room was made for the kind of slow, ritual, manipulating cosmic forces sort of magic we see in Howard or Moorcock. RuneQuest at last had a "magic-user."

I am not saying that Sorcery was a bad addition to the game (or even to Glorantha), only that it was part of a very different mythology than the one we had seen in Dragon Pass and Prax. Sorcery is an artifact of Western mythology...and I don't mean the Malkioni, I mean us. Like colonialism, monotheism, and atheism, the impersonal universe is a feature of European mythos. Battle Magic and Rune Magic derive from older, and far more widespread, mythologies. My sense is that Greg Stafford knew Glorantha had to integrate Western mythology, but struggled with exactly how to do that. For me, the High Medieval Malkioni West of RQ3 Glorantha was never a comfortable fit. If I wanted Pendragon, well...Greg had written that game too. I spent decades politely pretending the West of Genertela simply did not exist, or at least that it had vanished with the Jrusteli.

Major Digression Alert. One of the reasons I think Greg struggled with how to include Western mythology into the setting is that he simultaneously spent a lot of time disproving it. The God Learners, after all, are the perfect distillation of the Western Mythos. Secure in the knowledge of their superiority, and by Divine Right, they knew that their One God was the only true one, and had no qualms colonizing the rest of Glorantha reducing local religions to little more than formulae. The God Learners were Greg's sharp criticism of Freud, who reduced religions to psycho-babble; of Marx, who reduced them to economics; even of Frazer who reduced magic and religion to train stops on the grand journey to science. In Jrustela, Greg lumps together the entire 19th century field of comparative religion, which wanted to reduce mythology to something else other than a thing in itself. And then Greg sinks it.

So in the tapestry of mythologies that composes Glorantha, Western was the piece he seemed to have the most trouble making fit. In the Hero Wars and early HeroQuest period, he still seems to be struggling. And yet, somewhere in this period between RuneQuests, the problem gets solved. By the time the two-volume Guide to Glorantha is published, we get a West that makes sense, that fits.

Now it was time to make Sorcery, the magic of the West, fit too.         


Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Few Thoughts on Open Game Licenses

IF YOU ARE READING THIS, I assume you know the situation.

In a nutshell: Wizards of the Coast, owner of the Dungeons & Dragons "brand" and subsidiary of toymaker Hasbro, is amending the terms of an agreement made over twenty years ago. Essentially, to sell their new version of D&D, Wizards opened the game system to free third-party use. It succeeded. I might even argue it saved D&D from oblivion.

With D&D back on top, Hasbro would now like to amend the agreement in ways that are--pun intended--draconian. I won't go into all the details. Most of you know them, and that isn't what I want to talk about here.

What is clear to me is that neither Hasbro, nor the people they have put in charge of Wizards of the Coast and D&D (many of whom come from the video game industry), have any concept of what a roleplaying game is or how it actually works.

Here is the way they seem to think it should work: the consumers buy our core product, then they buy additional materials we create in-house. They play the scenarios we write, in the settings we publish, using D&D brand materials licensed by us, preferably on a virtual tabletop we own.

I get it. I mean this works for video games. You buy, say, Dragon Age Inquisition, then additional downloadable content for it. You read licensed novel tie-ins, wear licensed t-shirts, whatever. But the core idea is that YOU (the company) are the creator. YOU create all the content. They (the consumers) PLAY what YOU give them.

That Hasbro thinks they can apply this model to table top RPGs is breathtakingly ignorant.

Since 1974, when the art form first appeared, the RPG has been a tool-kit. It is the frame, not the picture. An RPG is a kit which enables a player to create their own unique character and the GM to create their own unique scenarios, campaigns, and in some cases even their own settings.

In short, the people buying your product are not passive consumers, they are active hobbyists. 

By the very nature of the art form, once a company releases a new game, the people who bought it become the competition. Sure, you can offer scenarios and settings, but if they suck, people will just create their own. You can offer additional rules and clarifications, but if someone has better ideas, they will use their own. So you either up your game and offer the best products you can, or you can go the route Hasbro is going and try to make it impossible to not use your products.

RPG companies that understand the hobby and are confident in their product embrace open game licenses and community content programs. They know that the more people who use their system, the better regarded that system is. They know that RPGers are hobbyists exercising their creative powers, and that inviting them to publish community content only strengthens their brand. It shows they are still confident enough in their own releases that people will buy them in addition to community content.

On the other hand, companies with the track record of releases Wizards has had the last couple of years scramble to monopolize instead. To my mind, the most telling statement to come out of Wizards in all of this is that the old Open Gaming License was never intended to "subsidize major competitors." People move to OSR (Old School Revival or Renaissance) games like Old School Essentials because they don't like the current version of D&D. They play games like 13th Age or Pathfinder for the same reason. Instead of trying to win such players back, it is easier to shut the competition down.

And that is stage one. Stage two is the virtual tabletop, where GMs and players will have to play your scenarios in your settings.

It's the easy way out.

Obviously, I have bias here. I publish through Chaosium's Jonstown Compendium and (full disclosure) have written for both their RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu lines. Naturally I applaud their robust community content programs (the Miskatonic Repository as well) as smart business moves. They get that their community is going to create, why not also give them a chance to share? I honestly do not feel my Six Seasons in Sartar in any way hurt their sales of, say, The Pegasus Plateau. Possibly even the reverse. Likewise I applaud their own BRP Open Game License because I feel the more people using the system, the better. A rising tide raises all ships. And I am VERY pleased to see today they joining forces with other major industry players on a multi-system OGL platform.

OGLs and community content programs demonstrate knowing, and respecting, who your audience is. Most of the industry gets this. I suspect Wizards gets this. Hasbro, clearly, has no idea who their audience is. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023



Blame it on Aristotle.

It was his theory, that because it was the "moistest" organ in the body, the brain was the organ most affected by the Moon. Our closest heavenly neighbor clearly pulled on the tides, so it followed it also pulled on the wet lump in our heads. Later, the Roman philosopher Pliny concurred. The Moon, you see, caused dew to form, and therefore also caused water on the brain.

This notion, that the Moon is connected to madness is a peculiarly Western one, and a relatively modern one at that. The connection is not really there in the language. The English "Moon," from the Old English mona, is related to words like the Latin menis and the Sanskrit masah, all of which derive from a PIE word meaning "month." They are related to words like "meter" and "measure." This of course is because the phases of the Moon were a nearly universal way to measure time. Meanwhile, Luna, which gives us "lunatic," simply means "brightness" (related to the Latin lux and English words like "lucent" and ironically the opposite of madness, "lucid").

Mythology doesn't seem to associate them either. The Egyptian Moon god Khonsu was associated with time and fertility. The Hindu Chandra was associated with night and vegetation. The Mesopotamian Sin was associated with cattle, likely because the crescent Moon looked like bull horns, and thus Sin looked after cowherds and shepherds. The same association with horns probably made the Japanese Moon god Tsukuyomi the patron of hunters. The Greek Selene was also described as having horns, and her late association with Artemis confirmed hunting aspects. The Roman Luna has horns too, and was associated with brightness and fertility...but not insanity.

Yet when it comes to Greg Stafford's Glorantha, and the mythology thereof, the connection between the Moon and madness is definite. The Red Moon hovers there in the sky, and when it is "full" (at least from the perspective of Dragon Pass, the region where much of the action of the setting takes place), werewolves run wild and Chaos is strong. The Red Moon's Seven Mothers cult teaches the Rune spell "Madness." The elemental spirits of the Red Moon, "Lunes," inflict madness on their victims as well. So it would seem that Stafford, whose Glorantha was created to explore mythology, got it wrong here. 

Except of course that for Stafford mythology was a living thing, an on-going process. It doesn't stop with Homer and Ovid, pinned down like dead butterflies under glass. The association between the Moon and madness has been a common one in European folklore and mythology the last two thousand years, so naturally he included it in the mythology of the Red Moon, the Lunar Empire, and the Red Goddess. In the same way that Orlanth cannot be said to be Thor--or Jupiter, or Perun, or Hadad, or Indra, etc.--the Red Moon is not any single cultural or mythological notion but an amalgamation of many such notions. Indeed, in the case of the Red Goddess is it obvious, as she is an amalgamation of goddesses. She has the associations with lunacy, sure. But she is also connected to cycles and time, to Life and Death, and light as well. The "lumi" in "Illumination" is related to "luna" too.

C'mon Drew, Can We Get to the Freakin' Review Now?

I mention all this because Nick Brooke's Crimson King is simultaneously an exploration of ALL of the multiple facets of Glorantha's Moon goddess and completely, utterly, insane. Nuts. Bonkers. Deranged. Mad. Literally, quite literally, out of its mind.

Yet even more than with his previous Jonstown Compendium entry, Black Spear, I find myself completely unable to explain why I say this without ruining the entire scenario for you. In fact in writing this review, I had to go to the Jonstown Compendium page to see what Nick had to say about it so that I knew how much I could say about it...and the answer is, "not much." 

So I am not going to tell you where it is set, or who the protagonists are, or any of the plot. In fact, as I looked over what I had initially jotted down for this review, I had Buffy Summers in my ear asking "Huh? Can you vague that up for me?" As a demonstration of exactly how much of a nerd I am I also had River Song in the other ear warning "spoilers." So you and I are going to have to tread lightly here.

Set in the year 1627 S.T., Crimson King is a roleplay-heavy scenario in three acts (it could, with little effort, be set in a different year). There is a fight scene, sure, but Crimson King is more improvisational theater than tabletop wargaming. It is superbly illustrated, but that is a hallmark of Nick Brooke's projects. Brooke brings interior illustrations by Linnea Mast, Mike O'Connor (from Black Spear), Dario Corallo, and Brooke's fellow Greg Stafford Memorial Award winner Katrin Dirim (2020 and 2021 respectively) to the project, with striking cover art by John Sumrow. It sees the players taking on the roles of powerful dignitaries of the Lunar Empire, the movers and shakers you might say, and places them together at a dinner party somewhere in Lunar territory. Along with the usual palace intrigues there is a conspiracy afoot and then things take a sharp turn. 

A really sharp turn. In fact, (REDACTED: SPOILERS).

Where was I? Oh yes. Crimson King is full of details and ideas that flesh out various facets of the Lunar Empire and its religion, with detailed descriptions of famous Lunar luminaries and aspects of the Moon (each beautifully illustrated by Dirim). There is a lot here that could be dropped into any Lunar campaign. It is nominally a sequel to the author's The Duel at Dangerford and the aforementioned Black Spear, but there is no reason it has to be. It could easily be dropped into any campaign. It also...um..."reinterprets" elements from A Rough Guide to Glamour and Life of Moonson but you really don't need those either.

On the other hand, if you know any of these products you will have a much better idea of what you are getting here. Crimson King is distinctively a Nick Brooke Production. It is playful rather than stuffy, juicy rather than dry, and tongue-in-cheek rather than solemn. It references pop music and Terry Gilliam (not to mention Star Wars, Casablanca, Mission Impossible, the Eurythmics and John Carpenter). If you are looking for academic, and by this I mean "self-important" rather than "informative," this is not that. It takes the MGF concept ("maximum game fun") and runs with it.

And yet, damnit, the thing I most want to tell you about Crimson King is the one thing I can't. The scenario has one of the best "pulling the rug out from under you" scenes I have seen in recent RPG memory...in a good way. There is a twist in this that makes it terrific, but that is about all I can say.

You will come to Crimson King for the phenomenal production values, gorgeous art, and trademark Brooke wit. You will remember it for the setting and the ingenious plot twist. Crimson King is lunacy of the highest order, absolutely insane. Yet for a hobby in which people sit around have a consensual hallucination...is that really a bad thing? 





Tuesday, January 10, 2023


The Joy of Jonstown

One of the greatest assets of a program like the Jonstown Compendium is content. Glorantha--the setting of the world-famous RPG RuneQuest--is a big world, but publisher Chaosium has never been a big game studio. The result of this is that no matter what products they are currently focused on producing, fans are going to want something from outside that focus that Chaosium is not working on. The best example of this is the oft-repeated lament that everything is focused on Dragon Pass and Prax. "What about Ralios?" "Fronela?" "Kralorela?" "Pamaltela?" Et cetera ad infinitum. One of the best features of the latest edition of RuneQuest is that it ties characters deeply into the setting (previous editions, like RQ2 or 3, were somewhat more vague with cultural backgrounds like "Barbarian" or "Townsman"). This makes it tricky, however, to play characters and campaigns outside of the detailed cultures in the core rulebook.

Jonstown Compendium to the rescue. Now instead of waiting for Chaosium to get around to the East Isles, we have Scott Crowder do it...and if that was not enough East Isles for you, Hannu Rytövuori, David Cake, and Nils Weinander delivered more. Simon Phipp has brought us to Dorastor several times, Paul Baker turned his eyes on Kralorela and Teshnos, and dozens of other authors have served up much, much more. Really, just do yourself a favor and get the catalogue for all the amazing content out there. The point is the Jonstown Compendium helps to make RuneQuest a tremendously well supported game.  

And on that note, I have a review to get to.

Adventurers From The Lunar Provinces

Since the world of Glorantha was first revealed to mortals in 1975's White Bear and Red Moon, the core struggle in the setting has been between the Lunar Empire and the new, upstart kingdom of Dragon Pass. The Empire invaded the mountain nation of Sartar, the desert region of Prax, and had designs on the sophisticated southern matriarchy of Esrolia, until an upstart hero named Argrath came along. A sort of Alexander figure, Argrath liberates Prax, becomes Prince of the newly liberated Sartar, and is invited to become hegemon and defender of Esrolia all in the space of four years. He then turns his eyes north to the Empire that once held his new domain and exiled him.

Now, it's been traditional--but by no means mandatory--for RuneQuest adventurers to come from the regions Argrath claimed and to nurse anti-Lunar attitudes. This gets oversimplified somewhat in chat rooms and discussions casting Argrath as the "good guy" and the Lunars as the baddies. I think a lot of this was the zeitgeist of the period RuneQuest originally appeared. The first edition came out when a little-known film called Star Wars was in theaters, and it was easy to cast the Sartarites and Praxians as plucky rebels against a mighty Empire equipped with its very own titanic orb of doom hanging in the sky ("That's no moon," but it was, the Red Moon that hovers in the sky over the Lunar capital of Glamour). As a result, many people played the rebels and the Lunars always had British accents.

This was not universal, however. Full disclosure, my second RQ2 character (and the one I played most of my adolescence) was a Lunar. And since one of the core features of Glorantha is that is rejects the whole "black/white, good/evil, light/dark" ethos of many other settings, a lot of other people were interested in playing the Lunars too. 

Peter Hart's Adventurers From The Lunar Provinces focuses on the southern reaches of the Lunar Empire...not the Lunar heartland, but the tribes and nations it brought into the fold prior to all the headaches down south with Argrath. As such it might be better to think of these peoples as "Lunarized" rather than "Lunar," a distinction without a difference really as the Lunar Empire is as much a proselytizing religious movement as it is a military and political entity. This 58-page PDF is a companion to Hart's upcoming adventure Hydra!, set in the Lunarized kingdom of Tarsh. Tarsh is described in the core RuneQuest rulebook, but Adventurers covers the neighboring nations north of it; Aggar, Imther, Vanch, and Holay. 

And "cover" them it does indeed. The first section of the book details character creation, following the style and presentation of character generation in the "Adventurers" chapter of the core rulebook. You will, of course, still need possession of the RuneQuest rulebook to make use of it. 

This means that Adventurers details the base Passions, cultural Rune and skill modifiers, and family histories of the homelands mentioned above. The layout is nearly identical to the core rules, clean, well-edited, and easy to use. Art comes from public domain works, alongside RuneQuest-specific art from Jonstown alumni Dario Corallo and Martin Helsdon (from their superb art packs). Altogether it is a great looking book.

But two things really jumped out at me. The first is Adventurers' focus, and subsequent detail, on characters with military backgrounds. This is because Hydra! will apparently feature characters who are career soldiers or conscripted. You can, of course, use Adventurers to create other sorts of characters, but to prepare you for Hydra! Hart focuses on soldiers here. This means tables to determine what regiment you are from, what type of unit, patron deities, home base, and a corresponding page reference to the unit descriptions in Helsdon's terrific Armies & Enemies of Dragon Pass.

The second--and honestly this is reason enough to pick up the book in itself--is that Hart provides you with twenty pregenerated characters from these Lunar Provinces. These are full descriptions, complete with an illustration. I include one below. Each is unique, different from the others, and ready-to-play. On the other hand, they could also inspire players with ideas for their own characters, and would be of tremendous use to any RQ GM who needs a Lunar soldier to drop into an on-going campaign. Note too that they represent the diversity of the Empire. While some belong to Lunar cults, for example, there are plenty of followers of Yelmalio and Humakt as well.   

Along with all of this are handy timelines, lists of key battles, and even a terrific list of important temples in these regions. Maps come courtesy of the Argan Argar Atlas. Finally, in a tradition dating all the way back to Rurik Runespear and the travels in both Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror, we have "Jonstown to Eneal--From the Journal of Salvatrix the Sober." This gives an insightful look into the region, the cultures, and the kinds of adventures that happen there.

Closing Thoughts

Adventurers From The Lunar Provinces is a sterling example of what the Jonstown Compendium has to offer, a product that is useful to GMs and players alike. Shifting the focus from Dragon Pass north, it nevertheless could be used to drop Lunar soldiers anywhere into a Dragon Pass or Prax campaign. Highly recommended, and has out appetites whet for Hydra!.

In the next review, we will take a look at Nick Brooke's new Crimson King, a product that features the other side of what makes the Compendium great...doing stories that Chaosium is unlikely to tell.