Getting Into Glorantha

Glorantha has a strong claim to being the second oldest fantasy setting to have been introduced to the general public through the medium of tabletop gaming. Sure, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk and Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaigns were the first campaign worlds developed specifically for Dungeons & Dragons, but before either of them had hatched those worlds Greg Stafford had been tinkering away on Glorantha since the 1960s, with the public’s first sight of it being the boardgame White Bear and Red Moon. M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel setting is the only gameworld that can claim to be older whilst still fitting the criteria of its first public offerings being gaming products – those being Empire of the Petal Throne and its little-discussed companion boardgame War of Wizards – since Barker had apparently been working on it since the 1940s. Beyond that, settings like Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos or Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age were all, of course, introduced to the public via stories in other mediums, and only later adapted to gaming formats.

Any world which has been tinkered with by its creator and his collaborators for half a century is going to accrete an awful lot of detail – and getting those details straight is a challenge, particularly when changes to the canon have been made here and there and when the published depictions of the world have unfolded over four decades, winding their way through multiple different publishers – Chaosium, Avalon Hill, Mongoose and Moon Design being the major ones, with Moon Design’s assumption of leadership roles at Chaosium bringing it all full circle.

It is fitting, then, that the lead minds at Moon Design would, shortly before and shortly after they became the guiding intelligences at Chaosium, be involved in crafting definitive, canonical depictions of Glorantha, to provide clear and definitive foundations for future explorations of the world and to sum up multiple decades of accreted material.

One of these projects, the Guide to Glorantha, was undertaken prior to Moon Design’s fusion with Chaosium, but sort of ended up being the product which made that possible in the first place – produced in close collaboration with Stafford and Sandy Petersen, who between them would assume sole ownership of Chaosium after negotiating Charlie Krank’s exit from the business, it was funded through a Kickstarter. The successful completion of that Kickstarter meant that Moon Design had accumulated both experience with the Kickstarter process and, perhaps more crucially, goodwill with gamers – which made them a good pair of hands to handle the delivery of the troubled 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter.

The Guide is now put out by Chaosium themselves, having been integrated into their product lines; The Glorantha Sourcebook, an introductory book of more modest dimensions and different emphasis, was later produced by Chaosium.

So much for the publishing history; are the books any good? Let’s dive in and find out.

The Guide to Glorantha

For quite some years Greg Stafford had wanted to get a comprehensive overview of Glorantha published – the Gloranthan Encyclopedia being an early, abortive attempt – and finally, in 2014 Moon Design were able to publish one. This lavish two-volume hardback set, credited mainly to Stafford, Jeff Richard, and Sandy Petersen, is a systemless overview of the world which, whilst it does keep in mind that the majority of readers are likely to be gamers intending to use it as the basis for an RPG campaign, at the same time could also stand as a useful tool for anyone writing fiction set in Glorantha, or as a coffee table book to read for its own sake.

The text is structured sensibly enough: it begins by discussing general premises like geography and cosmology, history, the major human cultures, and the various non-human cultures ranging from extremely unusual takes on elves and dwarves to uniquely Gloranthan entities like dragonnewts. (Also, of course, there’s the ducks.) Then you have the majority of the book taken up with in-depth discussions of particular regions. Because Glorantha is a world where substantial nation-states and empires with set borders are the exception rather than the rule, the regional analysis is based more on identifiable geographic regions, the chapter on the Lunar Empire being a notable exception. These regional analyses take up most of the page count, and then at the end you have a brace of appendices covering topics which, whilst interesting, are not necessary to understand the world and are of rather specialised significance. (For instance, there’s a map and travelogue of the Red Moon itself, and a chapter on the inner workings of Chaos, and God Learner maps depicting how they conceptualised the geography of the world at the various phases of God Time, and an extensive chapter on the grand war against Gbaji that ended the First Age.)

For the most part, the book depicts Glorantha as it exists in 1621 AT (After Time) – towards the end of the Third Age, when the Hero Wars are about to begin. Side boxes in the text give pointers on things which may happen to the cultures or places described during the Hero Wars, and an appendix gives pointers on what “canon” states is going to happen – but Moon Design have quite firmly taken the position, here as well as elsewhere, that Your Glorantha Will Vary.

They go into it more here, but in brief: even the “official” Gloranthan canon has varied a lot over time, and various bits of material published in the past has been punted down the memory hole over the years, sometimes by Greg Stafford himself (a process known as “getting Gregged”). For instance, there was a period when the western regions of the world were depicted as being a pseudo-medieval realm much like those in vastly more generic RPGs: this made little sense given the general Bronze Age/very early Iron Age style of the setting, so that got Gregged into something more interesting and thematically appropriate.

Likewise, when Mongoose were putting out Gloranthan material for their versions of RuneQuest, a lot of the stuff they put out was of decidedly variable quality due to various factors. (Specifically: Mongoose relied, as they always have done, on farming out a lot of work to freelancers who naturally would have rather varying styles. On top of that, Mongoose set extremely tight deadlines for their freelancers so as to keep their production schedule on track, and combined that with variable-at-best standards of in-house editing and proofreading, so as a result a bunch of sub-par material slipped under the radar and much good material ended up being hacked apart or botched by Mongoose’s editing process. This didn’t just affect setting supplements; the Design Mechanism guys are on the record as being not thrilled with the editing job on Mongoose RuneQuest 2/Legend, and RuneQuest 6/Mythras is basically their director’s cut of their version of the game.) As a result, much of what Mongoose produced is no longer canonical; it helps somewhat that the Mongoose material was set during the Second Age, so if you really want to reintroduce favoured aspects of it you can slot it into those parts where the sweep of history leaves things vague.

So much for the official canon – but, of course, Glorantha has been released into the wild as a setting for gaming, and as such it was always going to be the case that people would explore outcomes and incidents and ideas not originating with Greg or Chaosium or Moon Design when playing in Glorantha. That, and a fan writing scene able to sustain multiple fanzines, has meant that more or less from the get-go people have had variant visions of Glorantha, and under the Your Glorantha Will Vary banner fandom and publishers alike have embraced this as a feature, not a bug. By proudly trumpeting this, Gloranthan publishers and fans have tried to counteract the idea that Glorantha is such a strange and detailed setting that only Greg could run it – a fate which has at times befallen other RPG settings like M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel (of Empire of the Petal Throne fame) and N. Robin Crosby’s Hârn, both of which retain a cult following but suffer from a reputation for requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting to run “properly”.

Nonetheless, Greg and Moon Design have recognised that if Glorantha is to live on and thrive in future decades, it would be extremely useful to have some definitive statement of canon – a finalised blueprint of the setting that subsequent designers can embellish as they see fit, and which can act as a measure of canonicity when we no longer have Greg handy to provide that service. The Guide succeeds at the clever trick of simultaneously being the foundational document of Gloranthan canon going forward whilst at the same time respecting the Your Glorantha Will Vary idea by ensuring that some aspects of the gameworld are what you might call “canonically uncanonical”.

The Hero Wars section is a major example of this, since it provides a set of contradictory accounts of what may happen rather than a simple canonical timeline; other instances include the discussion of why Chaos has absolutely no place within the world, which is presented as an in-character text which could be entirely correct or could be fatally biased. Another good example is the appendix on the Gbaji Wars that ended the First Age, which offers the Dara Happan position that Nysalor was an OK guy after all and Arkat himself was Gbaji. On top of that, the setting has its own compelling mechanic to allow for variations in its presentation: the practice of Heroquesting, in which characters enter the mystical Hero Plane and re-enact the myths of the God Time – or actually change them – in order to have some effect on the world. If you like, any variation between your preferred take on Glorantha and the canon can be accounted for as the result of a Heroquest changing it!

The Guide also continues Glorantha’s long tradition of having a nuanced and diverse handling of culture. A wide range of cultures are present in the world, and the descriptions of them makes it clear that a range of different racial features are exhibited and various different conceptions of gender are at work in the world. Most importantly, though, the book remembers that cultural norms are just that – norms and averages and expectations, rather than something that people never actually vary from in practice. After all, you don’t develop cultural taboos relating to entirely unknown behaviours, and by definition Heroes in this world tend to be nonconformists, often with either an exceptional and unusual niche in their cullture or outcast from their culture entirely.

At some 800 pages there is rather too much Glorantha here for anyone to digest at once – those intending to use this in an actual game would be best advised to choose a region to concentrate on and read up on that and its neighbours at first. It’s certainly an object lesson as to why it was probably a wise choice for the original RuneQuest to concentrate at first on the Dragon Pass region and then work in further regions in supplements. At the same time, as a grand central repository of Gloranthan canon going forwards, it’s a magnificently produced book which comes highly recommended to fans of the setting – especially if you want to see what regions you’re interested enough in to obtain additional supplements providing finer detail for.

Argan Argar Atlas

This companion piece to the Guide is pretty much what its title suggests it is: an expansive atlas of the whole of Glorantha. Although the Guide offers plenty of maps, this provides even more, and is useful to have to hand when getting deep into one of the regional sections of the Guide.

The Glorantha Sourcebook

The Guide may be impressively broad in its coverage, but this comes at the cost of a lack of focus. That’s intentional, of course – it’s not intended to solely be used as a basis for RPG campaigns, but is meant to be used by artists, writers, storytellers, and anyone who wants to explore the world of Glorantha through any medium or with any technique. If you want a guide to the setting to use for the purposes of running an RPG campaign, you’re likely to want something which is simultaneously shorter (to make it easier for you to integrate its contents into your game and find the info you need to find mid-session) and more focused on a particular time period and area of the world (so you can concentrate on material which is directly relevant to the PCs and their community).

An extra wrinkle to the matter comes in when one considers the range of game systems that Glorantha has been adapted to. You have multiple editions of RuneQuest, including its current one. You have HeroQuest, focusing a bit less on gritty adventuring and a bit more on mythic narrative. You have 13th Age, because eh, Pelgrane wanted to do it and why pass up the licence money? And that’s just the official adaptations; I’m sure there’s been ample homebrewed conversions to other systems besides.

Chaosium’s solution to this is The Glorantha Sourcebook, a set of systemless Gloranthan essays cobbled together by Greg Stafford and Jeff Richard, and what with Greg’s recent death it’s most likely the last truly major presentation of the setting that we’ll see from its creator’s hand. The focus is on the region of Dragon Pass, its history, the cosmology and theology of the world as interpreted by the local cultures, the elder races that may be found there alongside humanity, and the Hero Wars-era confrontation between Sartar and the Lunar Empire that happens there.

If you’re concerned about this being redundant next to the Guide, worry not; where the Guide went broad, this goes deep, perhaps aided by the fact that Dragon Pass has been the main region Greg has focused on in his Gloranthan gaming and therefore has naturally become the most deeply detailed part of the setting. In fact, the sheer depth of information here is daunting at some points, and it is perhaps best not to try to actually master all the information here for the sake of running a campaign – instead, dip in here and there as and when you need to know more about a subject. That said, a read of the essays will help give further insight into the Dragon Pass region and its conflicts; I have a much clearer this time around, for instance, of the links between the rise of the Red Empress and the philosophy of Nysalor/Gbaji, and the parallels between Nysalor’s conflict with Arkat and the Red Empress’ fight with Argrath.

On the whole, I would say that if you are interested in Glorantha but balk at the expense and size of the Guide, the Sourcebook is an excellent first port of call. Its scope is limited to its rather Dragon Pass/Lunar Empire-centric interests, though the cosmology section and details on the Elder Races to at least give you a little idea of what’s out there beyond Dragon Pass, and Dragon Pass is as close to being Greg’s special corner of Glorantha as anywhere. This recommendation goes double for RPG purposes, since RuneQuest: Adventures In GloranthaHeroQuest Glorantha, and 13th Age Glorantha – and, for that matter, the first two editions of RuneQuest from back in the day – all assume in their core that you’re going to be playing at least in the vicinity of Dragon Pass. Go here first, and then spring for the Guide if you fall in love with the world and want more detail on a broader range of topics.

Also, I greatly appreciate the fact that there’s a ducky on the cover. Quack quack quack, I’m slaying for Humakt!

3 thoughts on “Getting Into Glorantha

  1. Amanda

    Hey! Arthur! Google took me to ferretbrain and that took me here, and I have a 100% unrelated to this awesome blog thing I want to say about an awesome article you wrote about Justin Cronin, and you are one of like 2 other people I can find who ever talked about it, so how do I chat with you!

      1. Amanda

        Ty! I swear I know how to use the internets, mostly. And thanks for the link! Will be in touch.

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