"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.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE about The Cults of RuneQuest series, "An Encyclopedia of the Deities of RuneQuest," is how the titles give subtle hints about the nature of the pantheons described within. The Lightbringers was not about just the Air pantheon or "storm tribe," but about the myth that is the core of their civilization and identity, the redemptive Lightbringers' Quest. The title tells us not only what the god Orlanth and his companions did during the mythical Darkness to redeem the world, but what their mortal followers did after the Dawn to spread the "good news." Likewise The Earth Goddesses may contain several masculine deities too, but it is rooted in the matriarchal culture of Esrolia, which places primacy on the divine feminine. One imagines in Esrolia "goddess" as a blanket term for all deities. 

Yet nowhere is the significance of the title more evident than in the newest offering, The Lunar Way. This is not "Gods of the Lunar Empire" or "The Lunar Pantheon." Neither would have been accurately descriptive of what the Lunar religion is. Because ultimately, that religion is a "path," forged by the Red Goddess, that all the deities and heroes and humble followers of the Red Moon follow. She is leading them somewhere. It is not about worshipping and maintaining the status quo. It is a religion about going. The teachings of the Red Goddess are less scripture and more like the Tao.

The Red Goddess and her empire have suffered a bit of abuse the last four decades or so. Binary thinking is deeply ingrained in some schools of fantasy literature, so if Sartar is the "good guys" the Lunar Empire must be villains. But neither of these were ever true. Greg Stafford and those who followed wrote Glorantha more in the tradition of swords and sorcery fiction than high fantasy. Decades before George R. R. Martin would revive the style, Glorantha presented a very believable world of civilizations at cross purposes, of cultures in conflict. There were no white hats or black, just different points of view. It is difficult for same gamers to embrace that. Indeed, in today's climate of extreme polarization, side-picking, and demonizing the other, it is difficult for people to embrace that. 

On the other hand, the Lunar Way is indeed a radical point of view. Glorantha is a world that was nearly destroyed by Chaos. Most pantheons--despite extreme differences--therefore oppose it. It is perhaps the ultimate, undeniable "evil." Yet the Red Goddess embraces Chaos, believes it is part of the world order. She incorporates the teachings of the First Age deity Nysalor, a god created by mortal races--in violation of divine accordance known as the Great Compromise--inside the mortal world of Time. Nysalor too embraced Chaos, and taught a discipline called Illumination that freed the individual from cult restrictions, personal passions and loyalties, and even to a degree from the Runes. In a world as conservative as Glorantha, where restrictions are in place to keep Chaos from ever happening again, this ultimate liberation is threatening. From the reactionary point of view of most anti-Chaos cults, Illumination is akin to Lovecraft:

The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

Indeed. This was the same criticism leveled against the teachings of the Buddha in ancient India by the established priesthoods. In a highly hierarchal world view, where gods speak through priests and cults, personal liberation--being told one does not need a god--is a threat.

But ultimately the best thing about Glorantha is that both points of view--Illumination is Lovecraftian madness or misunderstood mysticism--are accurate. I portrayed it as a sort of cosmic evil in The Final Riddle, despite the fact that my first RuneQuest character back in the 80s was a devoted Seven Mothers priestess. One of the reasons I have always found online arguments about Gloranthan "facts" tedious is that ultimately there are none. You go where the campaign takes you. I am perfectly happy to portray the Lunars as monsters in one campaign and then as heroes in the next. Because they are both, a point The Lunar Way very finely makes.

So let's take a look, shall we?

The Cults

The Lunar Way covers 15 distinct cults. Well...14 distinct cults and 1 overlapping one...well 1 cult that overlaps 6 others, 7 distinct cults...and 1 that overlaps all of them...

Did I mention Lunar religion is complicated?

We have the cult of the Seven Mothers. These were seven "occult conspirators" who undertook a perilous series of quests to revive a dead goddess inside the mortal world of Time. Moon goddesses had existed before Time, in the mythic Gods Age, but had a habit of being killed and reborn. The Red Goddess is the latest of these, and if you believe the Lunars she is their ultimate form. The Seven Mothers are those who brought her back to life.

While the Seven Mothers are worshipped collectively, and are the primary "missionary" cult spreading the Lunar Way outside the Empire's borders, each also has their own distinct cult. Of these The Lunar Way details the cults of Danfive Xaron, Deezola, Irrippi Ontor, Jakaleel the Witch, Teelo Norri, and Yanafal Tarnils. Only the mysterious "She Who Waits" is left undescribed. 

Outside of the Seven Mothers, we get the cults of the Red Emperor, Etyries, Yara Aranis, Hon-eel the Artess, Hwarin Dalthippa, the Crimson Bat, and Nysalor/Gbaji. 

Above all of these is the supreme Lunar cult, that of the Red Goddess herself. To become an initiate of this, you must first be a Rune master of one of the other cults and Illuminated.

Before we talk about Illumination--and we need to talk about Illumination--it should be noted that none of these deities, not even the Red Goddess, existed before Time in the Gods Age. This is yet another aspect of the Lunar Way that makes the Empire a sort of boogeyman to so many other cultures. As a general rule, Glorantha was shaped by the actions of the deities before the beginning of Time. Glorantha "facts" derive from these myths. The sun rises and sets because he was killed and resurrected in the Gods Age. The presence of new gods, new gods born inside of Time, by necessity reshapes reality. Orlanth is the master of the Middle Air and king of the gods. This is "fact." But the presence of the Red Goddess threatens to alter those "facts," and if one imagines our own laws of physics being altered the unease that would ensue. For the Lunars, these gods are not being created so much as revealed, and the world is not being changed as much as maturing into what it was always meant to be. Evidence of this might indeed be the mysterious Spider Woman, who seems to have defended the Red Goddess' right to exist at every turn. She can be none other than Arachne Solara, the anima mundi and mother of Time. But this rewriting the DNA of the setting is another cause for conflict.


The Lunar Way brings Illumination into the latest edition of RuneQuest. I was very pleased to see it does so mostly in accordance with how I did the same in The Final Riddle.

Back in Cults of Terror (1981), Illumination was gained by hearing, and understanding, Nysalorean Riddles. These Riddles are akin to zen koans, but linked to certain skills in the game. For example, a Riddler might ask "in what sound is Truth revealed?" The character would then make a Listen roll. If successful, 1% of Illumination is gained and added to any previous percentiles, and the characters answers the question ("In silence is Truth revealed"). Each year at Sacred Time, the character would roll against their cumulative Illumination total and if successful, BAM! The character is Illuminated.

Illumination came with benefits. First, the Illuminate could sense Illumination in others. They could now tell others Nysalorean Riddles to spread Illumination. They were immune to Detect Law/Chaos abilities. They possessed the "secret knowledge" that Chaos was not an inimical force. And finally, the one that really got the power gamers salivating, the ability to break cult restrictions and not be chased by spirits of reprisal.

In his updating, Jeff Richard has stuck to most of this but amended it to better suit the new edition. First of all, Illumination is now a Magic skill, and comes with a base percentage equal 1/5 your Moon Rune affinity (+ your Magic skill modifier). This takes advantage of the new editions use of Rune affinities and makes perfect sense. The cult of Nysalor is largely extinct, and from the Lunar point of view superseded by the Lunar Way. Further, in addition to this change, Illumination can now be trained, like any skill, by proper Lunar cults. This will have the effect of making Illumination a great deal more common in RQ campaigns (appropriate as the timeline moves into the Hero Wars).

The benefits of Illumination have also expanded. The ability to sense Illumination, avoid Law/Chaos detection, learn Nysalorean Riddles, immunity to spirits of reprisal, and "secret knowledge" about the nature of Chaos all remain intact. Now however the Illuminate can ignore cult restrictions (using gifts without geases, learning spells forbidden to your cult, joining enemy cults, etc). They may use their Illumination to overcome Rune affinities and Passions. And paired Rune opposites (Fertility and Death, Harmony and Disorder, etc) no longer need to total 100% and can be raised at will.

And you thought the power gamers were salivating before...

But there are warnings in here as well.

Becoming Illuminated in Glorantha is shocking and madness-inducing. Once you are Illuminated, there is no turning back. Mass murderers, mad prophets, hysterics, atavists, catatonics, and all sorts of raving loonies are common products of the profound dislocation that results from Illumination...(on)ly the strongest of most grounded minds and wills can retain the mask of normality after this shattering epiphany...

The Lunar Way, p. 99

In short, Illumination erases everything that made the character the character. Passions (Love, Loyalty, Devotion) no longer bind the character. Rune affinities are brushed away. Your cult and deity no longer have a hold on you. All the things that define an RQ character are shattered. "An Illuminated individual views ethics, morals, mythology, deity, magic, and the world in a solipsistic manner." The Lunar Empire is aware of this, and watches Illuminates for signs of Occlusion (going off the rails). Most other civilizations would murder an Illuminate instantly. The Lunar Way leaves policing Illumination to the GM. In some campaigns, it can be portrayed as pure liberation, but in others there is plenty of room for horror (Illuminates cannot be instantly sense, but INT rolls could be required to see if the Illuminate is able to maintain the "mask of normality." Failed rolls could have dire consequences.

The Rest

Like other cult books, The Lunar Way begins with an overview of the religion and how it views the rest of the world. It emphasizes the primacy of the Solar religion (the Lunar cults see themselves as extensions of the Celestial pantheon) and the Lunar Way as a path or process. There is a wonderful discussion of how the Lunars view life (Righthand Incarnation) and death (Lefthand Incarnation) as equal phases of existence and enlightenment, and an overview of the Lunar Empire as a political entity (with descriptions of the prominent noble families). Finally the geography of the physical Red Moon is discussed, useful for those who don't have The Guide to Glorantha.

Closing Thoughts

Both the Crimson Bat and Nyslaor/Gbaji have "migrated" from Cults of Terror into this Lunar book, making you wonder what might replace them in the future Chaos cults book. Also I was mildly disappointed to not find Annilla here (the Blue Moon was one of the first cult write-ups I ever tried my hand at back in college) but perhaps she might appear in the Darkness cults book. There is less on the White Moon cult than might be desired as well, but that might be something better developed as the timeline progresses.

What we do have here is the definitive take on the Lunar Empire. I think it is harder, reading these pages, to reduce the Lunars to previous long-standing tropes (they are fantasy Romans, they are bad guys, etc). It is tremendously useful book for those who wish to portray the Lunars as human beings, whether running a pro-Sartar campaign or a pro-Lunar one. Clearly understanding an antagonist's motivations makes them a richer antagonist. There is a clear sense in these pages of why the Lunar Way is different from other religions, and why that generates conflict. The definitive RQG take on Illumination is likewise game-changing (I am relieved it is close enough to my guesses that I will not have to completely rewrite The Final Riddle!). Most importantly, perhaps, this is the first of the cults books to really broaden the base of game play. No longer confined to Dragon Pass, Prax, or Esrolia, campaigns could now be comfortably set in Lunar Tarsh or Peloria. Unfortunately for those hoping to save their pennies, The Lunar Way is ultimately another "must-buy."    



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