"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.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Ships & Shores of Southern Genertela: A Look

verisimilitude /ˌvɛrɪsɪˈmɪlɪtjuːd/ (noun)
the appearance of being true or real.

If there is a single word I associate with Martin Helsdon's Glorantha work it is verisimilitude. It's a Latin word, come to English via French, from the roots versum (truth) and similis (alike, similar) that means pretty much the same thing in modern English that it did in the days of the Roman Republic. Martin, frankly, has turned verisimilitude into a cottage industry, and his work adds a different sort of texture and depth to a setting with already established socio-cultural and mythological verisimilitude. Martin brings unparalleled detail of the setting's material culture.  

The Armies & Enemies of Dragon Pass, his first, spear-headed the brand new Jonstown Compendium, Chaosium's community content program for Gloranthan and RuneQuest material. It was the book that got me to write Six Seasons in Sartar. Weighing in at nearly 400 pages, meticulously illustrated, it was the closest thing to Osprey Publishing for Glorantha, a comprehensive and encyclopedic look at war and warfare in the Dragon Pass region (see my review here). What I tend to hand-wave Martin digs into and details. Armies & Enemies became one of the best loved and most used reference books at my table. If the players wanted to know what their armor actually looked like, or how to care for their weapons, or who the troops they were fighting were, well, there was Martin.

He did it again with Men of the West, turning the same care and attention to the Malkioni cultures of western Genertela. Once the Invisible God comes out for the Cults of RuneQuest series, combined with Men of the West running a campaign in that region will be a snap.

Martin was also a contributor to the Chaosium publication RuneQuest: Weapons & Equipment.

So when he announced Ships & Shores of Southern Genertela, I was--pardon the pun--on board for it. With the Hero Wars and Sartar and Prax, RuneQuest campaigns tend to focus on the Iliad aspects of the setting and not the Odyssey. Greg didn't, of course. Argrath sails round the shores of Glorantha with the Wolf Pirates before ready to come back and conquer. Martin hasn't forgotten either. Ships & Shores--which honestly I think is his best work to date--opens the seas of Glorantha in a way not seen since...well, in a way not before seen.

Available now as PDF and soon (we hope) in print (Martin, as a Platinum medal winning Jonstown author and 2019 winner of the Greg Stafford Award for Gloranthan Fandom is a safe bet for print), Seas & Ships is a 390+ page exploration of all things nautical in the Bronze Age world of Glorantha. The book offers detailed examinations of the kinds of ships used, how they are built and maintained, sailing and navigation, life at sea, harbors and ports of the southern Genertelan coast, naval warfare...you name it. If you are a GM like me who is all--ahem--at sea for all things nautical, Martin once again has your back. 

What is it exactly that Dormal did to open the seas, and how do sailors now use his magic to sail the seas? Martin knows. What are the major imports and exports for the harbor cities of Southern Genertela? The answers are here. What are ships made of in this ancient world? What construction methods and maintenance are used? Martin walks you through every step in exquisite detail. And while he is drawing on historical terrestrial detail, Martin never forgets this is Glorantha. Eyes are painted on ever ship, and when the time comes, the ship is "awakened;"

As the final stage in construction, a Dormal priest will formally awaken the tutelary spirit of the ship.

‘Awaken oh ship! Smell the brine of the sea, hear the restless waves! Oh, brave ship, fearless voyager, Water will bear you, Air will fill your sails, Sun will warm your deck. Openings to the water we have stopped; we have searched diligently for cracks; your hull has been anointed with pitch; oxen have been sacrificed. Awaken, oh ship!’

The officers and crew are inducted into the ship’s cult. ‘Oh ship, here are your companions, brave men and women, sailors who will worship you, and care for you, as a husband does their bride, as a wife does their groom, oh Daughter of Dormal. All praise your sleek lines, your sturdy timbers, your brightly painted hull. Grant them safe voyages.’

Ships & Shores, p. 92

Again, gentle reader, the word of the day is verisimilitude

Two things elevate Ships & Shores above previous entries of his. First is the "Periplus of Southern Genertela." Inasmuch as my spellcheck insists the word "periplus" does not exist, it does. It means a sea voyage around something. In this case it allows Martin to tip his hat to "Rurik's Saga" from RQ2, "The Travels of Biturian Varosh" from Cults of Prax, and "Vasana's Saga" from RQG, providing snippets of short fiction through a text to bring the harbors and topics alive. Martin gives us interesting and colorful characters, and we journey with them, seeing Glorantha through their eyes.

The other element is the art.

Art is the hardest part of community content work. It is what has delayed--just "delayed"--my release of The Final Riddle (finished back in March). The issue, really, is that artists are contracted and paid up front, while authors need actual sales to make money. Hiring artists is therefore a gamble. The book needs to do well--far better, frankly, than most community content titles on DriveThruRPG--just to get the author out of the hole. 

Having said this, Ships & Shores is lavishly illustrated, and by many of the artists working for Chaosium directly (not least of which is his fellow Greg Stafford Memorial Award winner Katrin Dirim). It makes this a gorgeous book but I also think for Martin one hell of a gamble. I tip my hat to him. Visually, you can pit this against anything you have seen from Chaosium. It is a terrific looking book.

Glorantha is about mythologies, but it is also a living, breathing world. You want to know what people eat, what they wear, how they fight, and how they sail. Martin's work fills in these gaps, and with his books at your side, bringing the setting to life is easy.


Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Old Gods of Appalachia, An RPG Review

There are places in this world that humanity was never supposed to see- walled in by mountains of burning black rock, isolated by a choking canopy of poison flora, woods where tooth, claw, and hunger still sit atop the food chain. Long before our kind ever set foot in these mountains, when the peaks of the Blue Ridge towered above the stars, and the heart of the plateau still rolled with ridges tough as pine knobs, darkness was brought here in cages made of fear. Our tongues do not have the shape to speak the true names of what they are . . . and that's are, not were. They are hunger, consumption, lust- all the things that settle under the heart and below the ribcage. They are the cancer that will one day eat the edges of this universe, and leave nothing in its place. They are not evil. They are not of Hell or the Christian devil. They simply are...

Old Gods of Appalachia, Season 1, Episode 0: "Prologue"

A Surprisingly Personal Connection

I don't often get to review a game that leads me to discover something about myself.

I was interested in Old Gods of Appalachia (the RPG) since I first caught wind of it. I love the Cypher System and have reviewed it extensively, as well as Numenera and VURT. In addition, I am a lifelong horror buff, though I had not originally listened to the podcast the RPG is based on, the premise of the game (so perfectly summed up in the quote above) sent shivers down my spine. When Old Gods finally arrived I started reading it, and simultaneously listened to the podcast...and that is when the sense of deja vu started to hit me.

When I was a boy of eleven, circumstance drove my family from suburban Arizona back east, to family. We moved to rural upstate New York, to a fairly isolated community in the Catskill Mountains. My great-grandmother had about 200 acres of land there, seven miles deep in one of the "small, sheltered valleys" Old Gods of Appalachia calls as a "holler:"

A holler has a head, a mouth, and often a creek, even if it’s only seasonal. The mouth is the least remote and typically broadest part of the holler, being its start; it’s also typically where the holler’s creek—if it has one—joins a larger creek or stream. The head is the most remote part of the holler, nestled near where the ridges meet. Houses are situated along the slopes of occupied hollers, with a road in the middle, running roughly parallel to the water source.

This was exactly where she lived, along a dirt road impassable in the winters. And it was--like all the narrow little valleys hidden in those mountains--called a "hollow." Bouck's Hollow, to be exact. Author's Note: before publishing this I ran it by a friend who grew up there. He reminded me that I was an outsider...I might have called Bouck's Hollow, Polly Hollow, Preston Hollow etc "hollows" but everyone else did indeed call them "hollers."

As I kept reading, and listening, it was like my childhood flashing before my eyes. The section on weather related disasters in Appalachia (p. 184) talked about flooding. In 1987, when I was sixteen, the Schoharie Creek flooded nearly the entire town, and has flooded several times before and since. In discussing the geology of the mountains, these were the mountains I remembered, shale and limestone, and impossibly ancient. You could climb those mountains and at their summits find the fossils of prehistoric sea life frozen in the shale, and not so far from where I lived was the Gilboa Fossil Forest, petrified trees 385 million years old and believed to perhaps be one of the first forests on the face of the Earth. 

As I read about the people, and listed to the stories, that was when I really began to relate. I knew these people...the townfolk, the farmers in the valleys...and the folk up in the hollows (hollers). In a July 18th article from 1991, the New York Times published a piece about them:

Along the sinuous West Middleburgh Road that makes its way through the rolling green hills lie crumbling old shacks surrounded by chickens, decaying barns, rusting farm machinery and tiny overgrown family plots. Here, families with names that have been known in these parts for more than 200 years live lives that often seem untouched by modernity… The insular life in the hollow has preserved old folk beliefs, arcane slang and diversions, like cockfighting, that are illegal in New York State. Nearly every dirt yard has at least one majestic rooster with a foot tethered on a string to a stake, waiting for the next cockfight. Foxes are kept in cages out in back of properties, which are often more than a hundred acres. Some houses lack indoor plumbing, but few lack American flags...

Now, if you hear a bit of Big City Contempt in some of that, you are not alone, and one thing Old Gods of Appalachia (the RPG) gets very, very right is avoiding ugly stereotypes about the people of the region. But the article is mostly right, and trust me when I say the people in the hollows had just as much contempt for the city folk. 

The point I am arriving at is the more I read Old Gods the more it echoed my own experience. But I grew up in New York, not Appalachia...didn't I? Didn't I?

Turns out, officially, I did grow up in Appalachia.

People don't associate New York State with Appalachia. In a 1981 governmental study, only 20% of those surveyed identified the region as extending north into that state. Yet the Catskill Mountains are just as much a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain as the Blue Ridge Mountains are, and 14 New York counties are also official members of the Appalachian Regional Commission. When Congress created the Commission back in 1965, part of its mandate was to define what Appalachia actually "was" according to cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors. Their conclusion was that these 14 counties did indeed belong. I grew up in the one that forms the northeastern most tip of the region. The culture in the hollows/hollers of that mountain chain runs deep, and the more I looked the more I found. Linguistic connections. Common traditions. Shared beliefs. 

And...well, the weirdness.

There is something in those mountains. You feel it. Something impossibly old. Something deep. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the slopes of the hills where I grew up were all cleared for hops farms. In the 1910s, a hops blight came, and then Prohibition finished the job. The farms were just abandoned, and by the time I was there, the forests had swallowed them back up. You could walk through the woods and come across a wall of neatly stacked shale which had once marked the boundaries of a field, or come across the ruins of a farmhouse, the trees grown right up through the foundations. Then everything would go quiet, and you could almost feel something looking into you. The Green, if you were lucky...the Things if you were not.

But I get ahead of myself, Family. Let's talk about Old Gods.  


Part 1 "Where the Shadows Stir" and Part 4 "The Darkest Mountains in the World"

A 418-page PDF and book, Old Gods of Appalachia is full-color, profusely illustrated, and for the print version on thick, glossy paper. If you own Numenera or the Cypher System core books you know the general quality and style you will be getting. Kyle A. Scarborough's cover depicts "The Thing Whose Name Sounds Like Horned Head But Is Not," aka "The Beast," "The Maker of the Poisoned Promise," "The Liar Saint," "The Uncast Shadow," and my favorite--for personal reasons--"The Black Stag." 

The book begins with a full page introduction by the authors and creators of the original podcast, Steve Shell and Cam Collins. Click that link sometime and give it a listen. This Introduction, along with Part 1 and later Part 4, give you a general overview of the setting, so lets talk about that all first.

Set in a slightly alternate Appalachia in the early decades of the 20th century (with some episodes set later and some before), Old Gods of Appalachia (game and podcast) speaks of the powers in these mountains, and the effects of their interaction with the human communities living in them. Most dread of these powers is the Inner Dark. Hundreds of millions of years ago, when these mountains soared far higher and steeper than they do today, Those Who Sleep Beneath were imprisoned beneath them. Not gods, their power is godlike, and should they escape their prison it would be the end of humanity if not all life on Earth. As entire geological ages passed and these mountains were slowly weathered down into the rolling hills and hollers we know today, Those Who Slept Beneath were able to exert some of their power, calling humans to settle in this region, to seek them out, and to dig. The greatest servants of these eldritch horrors are the Deep Things, like the Blag Stag on the cover, the generals of the Inner Dark's armies. Next come the Middle Things, powerful horrors and servants, followed by the Low Things, mostly mindless animal-lever terrors used as hunting dogs and shock troops.

What locked the Inner Dark below the mountains? Possibly the other great power in these mountains...the Green. less malignant that the Inner Dark certainly, the Green is nevertheless the raw and untamed power of life and nature. Creation, destruction, recycling. The Green is the food chain and the breeding cycle, overwhelming instinct, but also health and healing. Folk in these mountains can sometimes use its magic to their own benefit, as well as against the Inner Dark.

There are other powers, independent ones. The Boy. Jack. The Railroad Man. The Dead Queen. But the ones above are the primary forces player characters will be dealing with.

The horror in the podcast and game leans heavily on folk horror, but I would argue it is more of a thing in itself. Folk horror is rooted in old superstitions, paganism, the isolation of a rural setting, cryptids, and folk magic/religion. All of those elements are indeed present here, but the inclusion of forces like the Green and the Inner Dark make Old Gods of Appalachia something different. Folk horror tends to be "us vs. them," with "us" being urban outsiders and "them" being the locals. Midsommer, The Ritual, Children of the Corn, and The Wicker Man are all excellent examples. The outsider comes to the region, gets caught up in the dark local magic, and horror ensues. Had Dracula just been the initial 40 pages of Jonathan Harker's journal, it would have fit the bill. 

But that is not really Old Gods of Appalachia at all. Instead, it is often a case of the rural local people drawing on folk magic, lore, and traditions (see below) against the eldritch power of the Inner Dark, or other horrific enemies. In this way I think Old Gods reinvigorates the genre by jettisoning some of its more tired tropes and at the same time seeing the folk of the hills and hollers as protagonists rather than antagonists.   

To that end, Part 4 digs deeper into the setting, with an overview of central Appalachia (the game does not extend south into Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia, or north into New York). The geology, geography, weather, flora and fauna of the region are summarized, as well as the history and origins of its people. there is a broad look at the people and how they lived, both in the hollers and in the towns and cities. Communication, transportation, entertainment, commerce, and because of the time period Prohibition, are all discussed Specific locations and characters from the podcasts are detailed here as well. 

One of the more critical sections (as touched on above) is the discussion of Appalachian magic, ranging from the folk magic known as "witchcraft" and "granny magic" to the magic of the Green and the Inner Dark. Magic plays a bigger role than it might in a Call of Cthulhu adventure, because this is not the alien magic of Lovecraft's "cosmicism." Sanity, and madness, is not at much a part of the game. Yes, the magic of the Inner Dark is ultimately corrupting, but the folk magic of the hills and the power of the Green can often be called as a weapon against it. These are ultimately isolated, self-reliant communities that must look out for themselves when the monsters come crawling. They cannot wait on the learned men from Miskatonic to always show up on time.

Part 2 "Welcome to the Family"

This section then, a full 100+ pages, is character creation. This sounds like a lot, but if you know games powered by the Cypher System at all you will see it is really about offering you a selection of detailed choices rather than complexity.

But here is where I come to the first mention of what I am not going to be doing here. As mentioned earlier, I have a very detailed and in-depth review of the Cypher System here, so if you are not at all familiar with the game and you want to understand Old Gods of Appalachia's rules, I urge you to go there. Here I would prefer to focus on this incarnation of the system. 

At your core the characters in Old Gods are still defined by Might, Speed, and Intellect, with Pool, Edge, and Effort being important factors of those traits. There are still six tiers to rise through.

Characters are also still defined by Descriptor, Type, and Focus. Namely "I am an (adjective) (noun) that (verbs). The character Types are now Protectors (Cypher System Warriors), Sages (Adepts), Explorers (Explorers), and Speakers (Speakers). All have been give rewrites to make them fit better into the specific setting.

Some of the Descriptors are familiar, but a surprising number are new here, again, tying specifically into the Appalachian setting. For example, "Superstitious" comes with a boxed text of Appalachian superstitions your character likely subscribes to. The same is true of the Foci, with setting-specific ones like "Serves the Green" and "Fears no Haints" to others that resemble ones we have seen before, but are repurposed here for the period ("Cures What Ails Ya" or "Makes a High Lonesome Sound").

Through these descriptions, Old Gods frequently offers quotes from the podcast, tying these game features back to characters and situations in the anthology. The section finishes out with "Goods and Currency," which almost feels like it really belongs in the section on Appalachia for the amount of detail it gives on the setting.

Part 3 "Playing the Game"

This is really just the Cypher System rules...determining the task stat and difficulty, modifying the difficulty, and rolling a d20. Skills, assets, and effort all work the same way. It is still player-facing, meaning the GM doesn't usually roll any dice. Experience is still handing through intrusions, and the game includes a number of setting-specific character arcs to play through.

Part 5 "Running the Game" and Part 6 "Adventures"

After thorough and comprehensive advice on running the system, Old Gods of Appalachia comes back to the setting again with a really terrific assortment of just under 100 setting-specific Cyphers and about half as many Artifacts. Cyphers are one-use items, Artifacts can be used multiple times but often with a chance of "coming due," losing their powers permanently or needed somehow to be re-awoken. For me, these two sections really make the game unique. For example, the "Circle of Safety" cypher is a mason jar filled with churchyard dirt, ant eggs, seven nails, lye, gunpowder, and saltpeter. Pouring the contents in a circle around you and setting it alight will protect you with a nearly impenetrable barrier. A 'Fear Knot" is a hemp rope woven with animal hair soaked in spring water of seven days. Whisper your deepest fear to it, and the next 24 hours you are given protection against fear. The cyphers, and the artifacts, are all drawn from folklore and folk magic, giving tremendous flavor to the game.

"Haints, Spirits, and Revenants" come next, the chilling antagonists of the podcast and Appalachian folklore. The Powers mentioned earlier are all here (the Boy, Jack, the Dead Queen, etc) as well as a wide assortment of Things of the Inner Dark and a few "must-include" NPCs like the Witch Queen. I will not describe them because I want to spoil neither the podcast not the game for you, but for a game being called "eldritch horror" this is another area it distinguishes itself in.

The horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, as magnificent as they are, arise from Lovecraft's "cosmicism," that humanity is insignificant and without meaning in a vast, uncaring cosmos. The entities encountered are horrific because they are alien. Old Gods of Appalachia is different. The Inner Dark is about the horrors buried deep in the human heart. There is more a sense of Stephen King than Lovecraft to the podcast and it carries over beautifully to the game. These horrors will tempt you and corrupt you, because they seem to have an understanding of humanity that the Great Old Ones do not. It creates a very different sort of horror experience at the table.

Finally, the book closes with not one but two sample advantures, both exemplifying the kinds of stories Old Gods of Appalachia can tell.

Closing Thoughts

Neither Lovecraftian cosmic horror nor folk horror, Old Gods of Appalachia seems to be an alloy of both, making it neither. Lovecraft, I think, is "city horror," and more than that, "modern city horror." It is about a world that has lost meaning, or perhaps never had it...a world in which each new discovery takes us closer to madness.

Old Gods of Appalachia is different. "There are ancient powers...but listen to the wisdom of your ancestors so that you can deal with them. The game includes cities but is is deeply rural, and it expresses darknesses and secrets I think one can only understand if you embrace the setting, where modernity had been kept at bay and old truths remembered. 

I am particularly pleased that Shanna Germain and her team remained so committed to using the Cypher System here. I liked Invisible Sun but never fully grasped why a modified Cypher System was designed for it. Maybe because I grew up on Chaosium, I like house systems. Cypher was perfect for this. 

Buy this game if you are looking for a unique form of horror. Listen to the podcast and I can almost guarantee you will but it.





Tuesday, September 12, 2023


“We live among ruins in a World in which ‘god is dead’ as Nietzsche stated. The ideals of today are comfort, expediency, surface knowledge, disregard for one’s ancestral heritage and traditions, catering to the lowest standards of taste and intelligence, apotheosis of the pathetic, hoarding of material objects and possessions, disrespect for all that is inherently higher and better — in other words a complete inversion of true values and ideals, the raising of the victory flag of ignorance and the banner of degeneracy..."
Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Apocalypse Now

In my previous posts on the Cults of RuneQuest series, and particularly my last post on games, ritual, and play, I have mentioned several times the contention that the 21st century has become completely stripped of meaning. That our language itself has been hollowed out and inverted so that words like cult, psychology, esoteric, art, and even spirit now stand for the opposite of what they originally did.  My old mentor and teacher summed it up fairly explicitly in the quote above. As a species, the last few centuries we sacrificed meaning on the altar of scientific and technological advancement, a sacrifice that was never necessary, but happened because as our increasingly polarized societies demonstrate, we find it hard to keep two conflicting ideas in our heads.   

I am not a Luddite, nor am I a conspiracy theorist. I embrace the power of reason and the scientific method, and I do not think there is some sinister Deep State or Technocracy that manipulated us into the wasteland our world is becoming. No, I suspect that the change was gradual, and started small. I suspect it was not organized at all, but one idea simply came tumbling after the other in a display of small-c chaos. And to paraphrase our favorite Vorlon, once the avalanche has started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote. I think science came along and it was a Good Thing...but I also contend we have been programmed to accept that if there is a Good Thing then its alternate must be a Bad Thing. If science was leading strides forward, tradition and meaning had to be regressive.

In discussing Cults of RuneQuest: The Prosopaedia I spoke a bit about Chaosium's primary games and how they explore the issue. Games like RuneQuest, King Arthur Pendragon, and Nephilim are about worlds still pregnant with meaning. They are not the only ones, of course--The One Ring jumps out as another immediate example--but all of them are about traditional worlds in which the characters' actions resonate not just on physical planes, but moral, spiritual, and archetypical as well. They are all settings in which being something means something. The characters have the possibility to take actions that not only move the plot or change the world, but also feed the soul.

Compare this to Call of Cthulhu. Now, Call of Cthulhu is a terrific (in the original sense of the word and the modern) game, but the point is that it's a horror game, and what makes Lovecraftian horror work is "cosmicism," the author's contention that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of existence. Cthulhu embraces the post-Enlightenment viewpoint, in which existing really just means "staying alive." There is no significance beyond that. There is no soul to feed, no deeper meaning to our actions. And from this comes a sense of bleak dread.

Compare this with what makes capital-C Chaos so horrible in RuneQuest. "Endless debates define and redefine Chaos, but the overriding factor is that Chaos destroys and subtracts from Glorantha and is capable of killing even the gods. (from the Prospopaedia, p. 22)." In other words, the dread of Chaos is that it has the potential to reduce Glorantha to our world, devoid of gods, and as we know from our own history, once you kill the gods the planet comes next.

Play as Recreation

Let me quote another sufi: my mentor Nasr is one, but one of my favorite musicians--former Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy--is as well.

The power of poetry comes from the ability to defy logic
Defy logic often
Use a metaphor and tell us that your lover is the sky.
Tell us that your lover is the sky.

When you do that
We won't believe you,
We won't believe you
Because saying so makes no sense
But we'll see a meaning.

We'll see a meaning
The other thing is the ability to be remembered.

Understand where you came from. Understand.

Peter Murphy, Things to Remember

"Mean" is a very interesting verb. There is some contention on this but the men root may be the same as mem (like the English con and com), connecting words like mental, mind, and mean with memory and remember. They all signify, naturally, to have in mind.

Now, "mean" as a noun and an adjective, "average" and "common" respectively, come to us from different roots but when you get back to the PIE we find mei, potentially the root of men and mem above. It means "to share, to exchange." There is a broader idea here of meaning as something shared, something held in common. This of course makes perfect sense, because we cannot possibly know what anyone else has in mind unless it is exchanged and shared.

But the connection between "meaning" and "remembering" in the song above is a very Traditional (capital T) idea. When someone tells you "their lover is the sky," something is triggered deep inside us. Something stirs. Reason rejects the statement, because it makes no sense. Yet memory kicks in. Feeling the sun upon our faces. Gazing up at the beauty of the stars or the moon. The sheer sense of wonder and awe of looking up into the heavens. We remember, and because we remember, we see the meaning.

"The power of poetry" lies in this, but the power of mythology as well. None of us here truly believes there was a historical figure named Icarus who made wax wings and flew too close to the sun. But we hear the story and we remember...all those times in our lives when we overreached and failed. We are reminded and we see the meaning.

Yet the connection between meaning and remembering also connects us to Tradition, to our ancestors, to the past, because the process works equally in reverse. Because you learned the story of Icarus, because it was passed down to you over thousands of years, before you overreach you might remember it, sense the meaning, and exercise restraint. 

This is precisely what was lost on the altar of progress. The myth of Icarus does not need to be demonstratively proven true to have meaning or value. Things can exist outside of the physical phenomena science allows us to understand and still be true. 

As a side note, this is what makes Glorantha's myths so powerful. They have been constructed so masterfully that when we hear the stories, like Icarus, they trigger remembrance and meaning. The Lightbringer's Quest is a completely original unique story, but whether it is Inana's descent into the underworld or Christ's, when we hear about it, we remember.  

This is also a blog about magic, but I mostly try to keep that subject and roleplaying games separate because for the most part I am speaking to different audiences. I will say this, however, to set up my next point. I have had experiences in the ritual chamber that cannot be proven by science, conversations with gods, spirits, the dead. I've had extraordinary visions. None of which I can measure, weigh, or place under a microscope. But I know, in the same way I know the story of Icarus to be true, that they were real because they contained both memory and meaning.

The question is, as I touched on earlier, the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head.

People who lack that ability (and I contend everyone can possesses it if they chose to exercise it) will play a game and dismiss their trusty mount, their faithful squire, the NPC their character is in love with, their mortal foe as fictions. None of these are biological entities existing in physical space and possessing nervous systems or DNA. They are just "playing" a game.

The power of poetry comes from the ability to defy logic. On the other hand, if you cultivate the ability to recognize the truth of your own experience, that it can be real without being scientifically true, those NPCs all become part of your reality. They are spirits that you interact with, connect to, and learn from. Your visits to Glorantha, Arthurian Britain, Middle-earth, or wherever become genuine explorations and journeys. You are still just "playing" a game, but it has become something much bolder. "Play" is now "recreation."

This is yet another perfect example of a word hollowed out in the modern age. Today the dictionary defines it as "enjoying yourself when you are not working." Everything must now be defined in the context of our 9 to 5 existences, after all. They are the only things that give us value.

But the Latin is so clear I hardly need to state it. Re means "again" and creatio is to "create." Recreatio meant "to be restored, to recover from illness." Now, as much as I find it amusing that the modern rebranding of the word immediately implies our 9 to 5 jobs are illnesses we need recovery from, "recreation," "play," is so much deeper. It is healing. When you play games like RuneQuest, which also help you explore worlds that have not yet been stripped of meaning and made senseless, you are being healed--slowly--of the damage done to you living in the 21st century. In the myths you explore and the legends you create at the table, you are slowly restoring meaning to your life. You are "remembering" the world your ancestors once lived in. If enough of us can remember, maybe the world can be recreated. 
Understand where you came from. Understand.      



Saturday, September 9, 2023



In a recent interview, Chaosium's Jeff Richard discussed TTRPG criticism and whether these games can be viewed as "art." If you watch it before reading this, you'll have a bit more context where I am coming from in this piece. 

As I read through the comments the interview received, I was struck by--but not particularly surprised--how many people have been trained to belittle the hobby they presumably love and themselves by extension for participating in it. Many seemed ready and eager to make themselves, and their experiences, small. How odd for a hobby which is entirely about Walt Whitman's line, "I am large, I contain multitudes."

I read things like "it is just game." "It is just play." "It's all about luck." I found myself thinking yet again how indicative this all was of the quiet hollowing out of words that has occurred the last two centuries. Words have meaning, and when they don't, when they become meaningless, we end up where we are today where even truth is now a meaningless concept. 

Because I agree. RPGs are "games," and they are "play," and they are about "luck." But these words mean something to me that I don't think they mean to some of the critics, and because they do, I am ready to argue that roleplaying is not just an "art," it is also a "rite."

Rituals of Battle and Play

As a graduate student, my thesis advisor was the late Alf Hiltebeitel, who passed away just this year, on my birthday. Alf had been one of the top specialists in the great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The latter was his primary focus. He wrote a series of brilliant books on the character of Draupadi and her cult, as well as studies of the concept of dharma in the epic. Yet one of his earliest works is the one I want to reference here as our gateway into a discussion of RPGs, art, games, and ritual. Alf's The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata was a stunning piece of research, full of new insights. It also shaped how I think about rituals and games.

A poem sixteen-times the length of the Bible, the Mahabharata is a descendent of the Indo-European epic, cousin to the Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Norse sagas, etc. Scholars suspect these stories all descend from a single ancient source because of similar themes (cataclysmic wars) and the repetition of very specific phrases. For example: Ved. śrávaḥ ákṣitam = Gk. kléos áphthiton “imperishable fame”; Ved. máhi śrávaḥ = Gk. méga kléos “great fame”; Ved. dātā́ vásūnām = Av. dāta vaŋhuuąm = Gk. dôtor heáōn “giver of goods”; Ved. sū́ryasya cakráḥ = Gk. hēlíou kýklos = Old Norse sunnu hvél“wheel of the sun”; Ved. áśvāḥ āśávaḥ = Av. aspåŋhō āsauuō = Gk. ōkées híppoi “swift horses”; Av. pasu vīra “cattle (and) men” (a merism for the totality of a character's possessions). These are just the most common examples. 

Before we go on, for any of this discussion to make sense a very short summary of the Mahabharata is in order.

The story is about the end of the third age and the beginning of the fourth. The Earth (the Earth goddesses specifically), cries out to the gods for aid. Men have grown corrupt. They lie, they cheat, they steal. The despoil the land and do not treat her with respect. The gods must perform a ritual to make this right.

Several of the gods incarnate as mortal men, the Pandava brothers, the heroes and protagonists of the story. Dharma (cosmic order, rightness, truth) incarnates as the eldest brother Yudhishthira. Indra, king of the gods and thunderbolt-wielding warrior, incarnates as Arjuna. Vayu, the tempestuous berserker wind god incarnates as hot-tempered and bull-like Bhima. Finally the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva are the incarnations of the Ashvins, who are dawn and dusk but also psychopomps and healers. 

Yet above all of these is Vishnu...who incarnates as Krishna. See, the Mahabharata exists at a transition point between the old Vedic gods and the emerging Hindu ones we are familiar with today, such as Vishnu and Shiva. Thus Vishnu is portrayed as a god above the gods, and Krishna--while not the main character--is the chief string-puller, trickster, and puppet master of the epic.

Finally, the Earth goddess herself incarnates as Draupadi, who becomes the wife of all five Pandava brothers. There is a special linguistic connection between Draupadi and Krishna, because Draupadi is also called by the feminine form of his name, Krishnaa. The name means "the dark one," but the fact that they share this name is a subtle reminder to the reader. The Earth called out to Heaven to set things right. So Draupadi and Krishna are the two instigators of these events. 

The Pandava brothers are pitted against their cousins, the Kauravas (who naturally are the earthly incarnations of demons). They are fighting for who will rule the kingdom. While the conflict is settled in the cataclysmic Kurukshetra War, it is all actually triggered by a dice match. The dice match sets the story (and the end of the world) in motion. And this brings us back to gaming.

Rolling the Dice

Growing distrust between the two sets of cousins leads to the suggestion of a game to "relieve the tension," a dice match. The Kaurava bring in a ringer however at the last minute, "swift-fingered" professional gambler Shakuni who will be playing on their behalf. Yudhishthira is suspicious, of course, but because he vowed never to refuse a challenge plays anyway. Shakuni wins every round, over and over, as Yudhishthira wagers and loses the Pandava's armies, chariots, riches, possessions, and lands. Desperate, Yudhishthira wagers and loses himself and his own brothers. Then he loses their wife, Draupadi.

When Draupadi is dragged into the room and told her freedom has been lost, the Kaurava attempt to shame her and disrobe her. But again...remember the two Krishnas are the prime movers of the epic. Miraculously they are unable to remove her sari, which keeps growing and growing yard after yard. As they are all terrified by this miracle, she then challenges what right Yudhishthira had to gamble her if he had already lost himself first. Cowed by Draupadi's rage, they agree to grant her a boon. The Pandava and she get their freedom back, but must go into exile. It is during that exile that they will plan their revenge.

In the 21st century, we tend to think of rolling dice as "just" a game. But I invite you to think about it as the ancients did. Yudhishthira abides by the results of the dice game because that is what destiny ordained. Forget probabilities or randomness. The dice match was a sacred thing because Fate determined its results. Yudhishthira was meant to lose.

There is some suggestion that dice--or similar instruments--might have been used before ancient Vedic sacrifices as a way to read the future, to get a sense of the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of performing that particular sacrifice. Priests might roll dice or draw lots and from the results determine whether or not to proceed. And this brings us back to Alf and the argument he makes in The Ritual of Battle.

As mentioned above, the Mahabharata as we know it is a conscious pivot away from the old Vedic gods (who were worshipped through sacrifice) towards deities like Vishnu who can be reached through bhakti, "love" or "devotion," instead. This is similar to the same shift between Old Testament worship practices, such as the extensive types of animal offerings listed in Leviticus, and the latter New Testament refocusing on faith and love. But what is really intriguing about the Mahabharata, is the idea that reading, hearing, or otherwise experiencing the story is the equivalent of performing a sacrifice. In fact, the epic seems structured that way.

The traditional Vedic sacrifice is being played with on two levels. First, in terms of the story, the entire Kurukshetra War is a Vedic sacrifice, or as Alf phrased it, The Ritual of Battle. It begins as a divination (the dice match), and ends up a sacrifice of life by a priest (Krishna) upon an altar (Draupadi). Draupadi was, in fact, literally born from an altar in the narrative. Her father is conjuring a son and she appears from the altar as well. Further, as Vedic altars were hourglass shaped, Draupadi is constantly called "altar-waisted" to remind us of her significance. Krishna invokes the gods, the Pandava, delivers the sacrifice, the armies, and in doing so restores the rightness of the world (more on that below).

But on another level, sitting in the audience and simply listening to the Mahabharata was like performing a Vedic sacrifice. Just sharing in the narrative was said to have all the same benefits. Hold this thought in mind as we get back to roleplaying games.    

The Words We Use

Roleplaying game. Let's start right there.

Think about the ritual of this, the magic being invoked. You sit down at the table, and like Yudhishthira surrender your fate to the dice. The dice are divination, revealing the path of your character before you.

Now think about the power of playing a role.

Earliest Greek drama emerged as ritual. The actors, masked, were believed to be invoking and incarnating the gods. The fact that is was oral mattered; the Greeks believed in the living power of the spoken word, and even Socrates wrote that when something was written it lost the power to grow and change. When you play, you sit at a table and you become someone else. You are invoking a presence that is not you and experiencing existence through its eyes. 

What on Earth could be more powerful than that?

This is another call back to the Mahabharata. After losing the dice match, the Pandava go into exile and to disguise themselves they play roles. Yudhishthira, having lost everything gambling, assumes the role of a master gambler. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, becomes a transgender dancer. Bhima--always eating--becomes a master cook. The twins become farmers. What is crucial here is they are roleplaying...and by roleplaying they grow stronger and are prepared for the war ahead. They pretend to be what they are not and it helps them expand as people.

"It is only a game, Drew, get a grip." Game. Game. Sure. Just a "game." But that word, which for you might mean "meaningless play" (because everything in the 21st century is apparently meaningless) meant nothing of the kind in the initial use of the word. The Old Gothic gaman meant "to commune with, to participate in." It was used for serious business like hunting (we still talk about fish and "game") and martial practice. "Ga" simply means "with" and "man" means, well, people. So a game was initially to participate in an experience with other people.

By the way, as an educator, one of the first things you learn is that through games and roleplay people learn. Yes, it is pretend, but it is how we become bigger than we are right now.

"It's just 'play.'" Yes it is. But what does "play" mean?"

The earliest definition we have is the one that nails it. It meant "cultivate." When you are playing, you are practicing. You are learning. Again. You are growing. Just a game and just playing make absolutely no sense to me given the origins of the words. Unless you subscribe to the Orwellian Newspeak of the 21st century, these words as dismissal should mean nothing to you too.

Now let's get to my favorite. Luck.   

When you sit down to play an RPG like RuneQuest or King Arthur Pendragon, and you fumble a roll, you might blame "bad luck." "Luck" to us is a fluke, a meaningless thing. It is a random outcome. But consider the origins of the word, and consider Yudhishthira's response to the dice match. Luck comes to us from a PIE word that meant "omen, mark, fortune" and was connected to fortune-telling, using dice, runes, stones, or whatever to determine what Fate had in store for you. This is in fact where the "lot" in "drawing lots" comes from as well. Indeed, the names of the god Loki and the goddess Lakshmi both derive from the same root as luck (he was a bad omen, she an auspicious one). So in the original sense of the work there was nothing random about it. Luck was what the universe had in store for you.

So let's sum up before the finale, shall we?

Every time you sit down to the table, create a character, and let the dice guide you...you are performing rituals that people have been doing for thousands of years. You are engaging in the ceremonial experience of becoming someone else, and experiencing situations you might never otherwise encounter. The dice, and their outcomes, reveal the destiny of your creations. You are performing a ritual, and therefore, art.

Let me throw the last few words at you.

Ritual, rite, right, rhythm, and art all come from the same PIE root, the  PIE *ar(ə)-ti-. They are related also to the Sanskrit Ṛta, which was the precursor of dharma and meant the order of the universe.

Understand what is happening here. What is being said.

When you create art you contribute to the order of the universe, to the "rightness" of it. You become part of its cycles and "rhythms." You align yourself with the harmony of the universe and that is also part of a rite.  That is the purpose of why rituals are performed.

Because we are, all of us, so small and so trapped in out own skulls. The experience of being "other," the ritual of play, is art. It allows us to get out of the narcissistic little prisons which are all the rage in the modern era, and to be bigger. To be other. To see the world through different eyes.

So the next time someone asks you why you are into roleplaying games, ask them, "why aren't you?" It is art. It is magic. It is sacred.

Do not feel the need to apologize.