"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, 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. 

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