Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 1--The World of Glorantha

[Note:  All art in this post was done by Jan Pospisil a/k/a "Merlkir" and can be found in the Guide to Glorantha]

My first encounter with Glorantha came in the form of a product called Under the Red Moon:  Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2This was in 2012 or so, and I was fully getting back into the tabletop RPG hobby after an extended absence beginning in the mid-90s.  I remembered reading a couple of old Dragon Magazine reviews of Runequest products back in the day, but otherwise I had no exposure to Glorantha.  So, when I saw the PDF for a very reasonable price, I bought it.  Let's see what this Glorantha thing is about, I thought.

The Lunars
Reading it was an experience that I will not forget.  First off, I couldn't really make heads or tails of it.  I like to think that I have good reading comprehension, and I have lots of experience reading about fictional worlds.  But I was way over my head reading this product, in a way that I simply don't experience very often.  The book had a flood of terms and concepts, presented not in normal game terms but much more "in character."  But not "in character" in the way that games like Shadowrun have in character material--it was more like reading something coming from a long-lost religious text.  It felt like I would have to do extensive background research and maybe learn other languages in order to understand what was going on.  And that was very frustrating, but also intriguing, a challenge.

Now, to be fair, Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2 is kinda impenetrable, even going back to it having read a ton more Glorantha stuff.  No one should start their journey in Glorantha there, and I don't think I would get any push-back from the folks at Chaosium, the game publisher where the setting originated and now have brought all things Glorantha under one roof.  But my experience of reading Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2 does reflect, in a hyper-distilled form, the baseline experience I have when I engage with Glorantha material.  There is something different about Glorantha, something mysterious and just a little bit inaccessible about the setting.  Reading Glorantha stuff still feels like reading a religious text, even if you have more sense of what is going on and who the players are.  In the interim I have amassed a pretty significant collection of Glorantha stuff, all of which is of extremely high quality.  It's been work, but I am an official Glorantha fan now.

This post was originally going to be a review of the new version of Runequest.  But it became clear to me that to do a review of Runequest, you need first to talk about Glorantha, and also you need to talk about the two other officially licensed tabletop RPG products that are set in Glorantha--Heroquest Glorantha and 13th Age in Glorantha.  So, this post is going to be about Glorantha, and the rest of the series will talk about the games.

So, what is Glorantha?  The best way to describe it is to compare it to Tolkien's Middle Earth.  Tolkien was living and writing in an England in decline as a result (in large measure) of its participation in the two World Wars, a linguist, steeped in medieval-era mythology and folklore, and a devout Roman Catholic.  Each of those facts can be seen in the structure and themes in his work.  Glorantha, by contrast, is primarily the vision of Greg Stafford, an American, an active member of the Bay Area counter-culture of the 1960s and living and writing in the aftermath of that era, who dove deeply into pre-Christian, Bronze Age mythology and anthropology and who was himself engaged in pagan and shamanic religious practices (indeed, he passed away last year while in a sweat lodge which, while obviously tragic, was also somewhat fitting).  As a result, Glorantha is both like Middle Earth (in the sense that it reflects Big Ideas) and utterly unlike it (as those Big Ideas are very different).

On a more concrete level, the core conceit of Glorantha is that the mythical understanding of the world and how it functions is literally true.  The sun is a literal embodiment of the sun god, who rises out of the ocean in the east at a specific point and sets in the west at another specific point.  The red moon in the sky is a mass of earth that was literally ripped out of the ground and formed into a sphere during the final apotheosis of Sedenya, the Red Goddess and patroness of the Lunar Empire.  Physics, chemistry, biology--none of that exists in Glorantha, as the world works according to mythical laws and logic, not scientific ones.

Moreover, the world of the gods and the world of "normal" people exist side-by-side.  While a worshiper honors the gods, the worshiper also participates in, and embodies, the stories of the gods.  This participation, referred to as "heroquesting," causes a "bleed" between the two worlds, so worshipers can take on the powers of the gods, but the actions of the worshipers can affect the gods.  The gods, with one notable and important exception, are limited by the Great Compromise known as Time to not directly walk Glorantha, but their powers and presence are everywhere and form the engine that drives everything.

Characters in Glorantha are defined primarily by culture, which in turns defines the gods and the foundational myths and stories that inform your character's life.  While the full Glorantha experience includes dozens of different cultures, the primary focus of most Gloranthan material are the Heortlings, and more specifically the Kingdom of Sartar.  The Heortlings generally venerate the Storm gods, lead by Orlanth, and live in clans, which in turn are organized into tribes.  While the authors of Glorantha, especially the recent material, go out of their way to disclaim any one-to-one connection any Glorantha culture and any historical culture, I have always gotten a strong Celtic/Germanic vibe from the Heortlings.

The surrender of the Sartarites to the Lunar Empire
In the time period focused on in the game materials, the Orlanthi and especially the clans and tribes in Sartar, are menaced by the expansionist Lunar Empire.  While this conflict has the normal dimension of battles and territorial movement, it also has a mystical dimension, as the ascension of the Red Moon into the sky is a challenge to Orlanth's formerly unchallenged rule over the Middle Air.  What I love about this conflict is the way it subverts and challenges many of the pre-existing assumptions that a modern person brings to a setting like this.  See, most of the stories are told from the point of view of the Sartarites.  But if you look at the Lunar religion, it is one of tolerance, pluralism, and multi-culturalism--it's core theological motto is "We Are All Us."  The Sartarites, by contrast, are traditionalists and exceptionalists in every way, clinging to a very singular understanding of what is good and right.  Cheering on, or especially embodying through play, what are essentially conservative religious fanatics against the broad-minded forces of progress is going to be a strange experience for some folks.  But, on the other hand, the Lunars really are deeply colonial and often brutal in their imposition of "broad-mindedness" (they routinely deploy the Crimson Bat, a giant flying demon that must consume 25 people per week, as a terror weapon), so it's not at all hard to see where the Sartarites are coming from.  As someone who is into religion and thinking about religion in a big way, this kind of stuff is like catnip for me.

The nomads of Prax
The other thing that sets Glorantha apart is how deeply weird much of it is. One of my favorite little bits of Gloranthan weirdness are the morokanth of Prax.  Prax is a big grassland, and each Praxian tribe is a bunch of humans whose entire culture revolves around a particular four-legged animal (think the way that the Native Americans of the plains related to the bison).  All except the morokanth, who are four-legged creatures who rely on "herd men," basically humans with animal-level intelligence, for food and tools.  See, the gods of Prax had a lottery for each tribe to decide who would form the herd and who would be the herders, and in each tribe except one the humans won.  The morokanth think the humans cheated, but in any event they got to have the intelligence and their herds of humans do not.  That's deeply weird, and I love it.

Likewise, the standard fantasy races are weird in cool ways.  Dwarves are biological robots built for a single task in the greater project of rebuilding the World Machine, and don't age so long as they stay faithful to their task.  The elves are walking plants, and come in various types depending on which type of tree or other plant they are associated with.  Trolls are matriarchal, eat everything, and while brutal are not evil (and, in fact, have been a staunch foe of Chaos).  There are humans with blue and red skin, color-coded to reflect their caste functions and who also don't age so long as they stay within caste laws and taboos.  There are no orcs and other fantasy antagonist staples, but there are broo (goat-like creatures of Chaos that can breed with anything) and walktopi (i.e. walking octopi).  Dragons are miles long, god-level entities whose sleeping bodies form mountain ranges and other topographical features.
The Trolls

This mix creates a fantasy experience that is different from anything I have seen before, and certainly different from your standard ttrpg fantasy experience.  Reading Glorantha stuff is dislocating, like you are entering a funhouse with distorting mirrors.  If you are someone who has drunk deeply of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, some of the fantastical elements may not feel very fantastic anymore.  Since Glorantha is so different, it doesn't run into this problem.  And if you are in any way are burned out with standard fantasy, then this is a way to recharge those batteries.

But, I mean, is Glorantha good?  As a literary creation, absolutely--it's incredibly good.  It is the deepest and richest fantasy setting to come out of tabletop RPGs, and holds its own with any other literary creation you can come up with.  The spotlighted Sartar/Lunar conflict is great, and many of the other parts of the setting chronicled in the mammoth two volume Guide to Glorantha cry out for further development.  As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a tone to Glorantha, a way in which it communicates its mystery in a way that is hard to pin down.  Even a casual reading of a Gloranthan source makes it clear that there is something different going on here, something brilliant.  It has occurred to me recently that all of the world-building I've done myself since being exposed to Glorantha has been influenced by the world and its themes--the centrality of culture, the complicated villains with self-consistent motivations.

But is it good as a setting for a tabletop RPG?  That's a little more complicated.  The thing with Glorantha is that it seems to me if you are going to use it, you have to go all in.  The depth and the complexity and the cultures and the myths are the things that makes the setting worthwhile, and so everyone has to be committed to exploring these things.  If GM or the players are not going to focus on that stuff, and they just want to have a low-key, beer-and-pretzels style fantasy game, then there are far more accessible options out there.  I want desperately to run a Glorantha game, but I would only do so if I had full player buy-in, and they were stoked about digging deep into the Red Cow clan, its relationships to the other clans of the Cinsina tribe, and its role in the climatic events of the Hero Wars, or whatever hyper-specific Gloranthan angle we have settled on.  If they just wanted to fight some monsters and get some treasure, or they weren't interested in the sort of deep cultural play, then I think the complexity and nuance of Glorantha would be a hindrance to the experience at the table.  Because, while the stuff that is there in Glorantha is great, there is a lot of it, and it takes work to take it on board.  It's just not suited for a beer-and-pretzels-style game.

The other thing to say up front is that Glorantha has more-or-less a metaplot.  Runequest and 13th Age in Glorantha are set to default to 1625 ST, right at the beginning of the Hero Wars that end the Third Age; much of the published Heroquest material is set around 1615 ST.  The events of the Hero Wars, at least in broad strokes, are described in the Guide to Glorantha and a deeply strange and wonderful book called The King of Sartar.  You could, of course, ignore all of this material, and many of the published sources emphasize the principle of "Your Glorantha Will Vary."  But, again, you are going to want to incorporate that stuff--I mean, Prince Argrath rules (a life goal of mine is to find a way to work the phrase "This is how we deal with assassins who have no respect for life" into a conversation).  Still, running a game set in Glorantha brings into the the sorts of continuity questions that you get in games based on licensed properties.  Some GMs really, really hate this kind of thing, and if it bothers you, be warned going in.

Still, if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, you owe it to yourself to take a dive into Glorantha.  The new Glorantha Sourcebook is one probably the most accessible introduction to the setting, though basically limited to the Dragon Pass region; beyond that is the Fully Monty of the Guide to GloranthaI would also recommend a series of free documents called "Heroquest Voices," which consist of a series of stories written as questions children ask their parents about Glorantha, told from the point of view of various Gloranthan cultures.  It's a really good way of showcasing how culture is so central to Glorantha, and gives you a sense of the different points of view.  There is also an online comic series, The Prince of Sartar, which is a good introduction to the big-name characters and the bigger metaplot and lore.

But, let's suppose you and your group are all in, and you want to play.  If so, which one of the three games should you go with?  That also depends.  First up for consideration is the newest version of the oldest Glorantha vehicle--Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.