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.

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Games Workshop’s Forgotten RuneQuest

When it comes to discussions of the different versions of RuneQuest, some editions naturally have more advocates than others. 1st Edition doesn’t seem to be widely discussed, I suspect due to a combination of a) it not actually being sold for that long before it got replaced by 2nd Edition and b) 2nd Edition largely being an updated version of it. 2nd Edition has many fans and advocates, particularly Glorantha fans who appreciate how Glorantha was intimately tied into the system, and that’s largely guided the design of the latest edition. 1984’s 3rd Edition is a little divisive; some fans appreciate the extra detail it offers and prefer the fact that it is less tied to Glorantha (though the magic systems are 100% derived from the Gloranthan metaphysic), whilst others feel like it went a bit too deep down the high-crunch rabbithole for too little return.

(The current powers that be at Chaosium seem to take this stance, and indeed have taken this stance for a good long time; Michael O’Brien, current Vice President of Chaosium, put out this article on his website and through the Tales of the Reaching Moon fanzine aeons ago back when he was just a regular fan like the rest of us and not one of the Chaosium head honchos. Seeing how the current Chaosium regime is made up of the Moon Design folks, and Moon Design grew out of Tales of the Reaching Moon. Seeing how recent statements by Chaosium leadership suggest that they still consider 3rd Edition to have been a bit of a misstep – not least because it meant that Chaosium lost control of the RuneQuest trademark for a long period of time, I don’t see much reason to think that their opinions have changed that much in the intervening time.)

Then you have the two Mongoose editions, which don’t seem to have many advocates; the first one seemed thrown together quickly and cheaply and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone seriously claiming it was their favourite version, whilst the second version is generally held to have been butchered by editing; it survives as Legend, but doesn’t seem to have gained much traction, not least because its main designers went to set up the Design Mechanism and publish RuneQuest 6 (now known as Mythras), providing a much stronger version of their vision for the game. This edition does have its advocates, mainly from folk who are happy with high crunch and appreciate the wide range of combat options it delivers and don’t mind that it isn’t closely tied to Glorantha.

There is, however, another RuneQuest edition which doesn’t get so widely discussed – or when it is considered, it’s lumped in with the standard Avalon Hill presentation of 3rd Edition RuneQuest (whether that be in the form of booklets in a boxed set, as Avalon Hill initially presented it, or as a big fat book compiling the booklets as they shifted to midway through the edition’s run). This would be Games Workshop’s presentation of 3rd Edition, which came out in a set of hardcover volumes in 1987, some 4 years after RuneQuest 3rd Edition debuted.

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RuneQuest Comes Home

Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest is now out in the wild in hardcopy and PDF. Whereas RuneQuest was pushed as a generic fantasy system for its third edition (developed by Chaosium and published by Avalon Hill), its two Mongoose editions and the incarnation offered up by the Design Mechanism, for its return to Chaosium it’s also returning to its roots as a game intrinsically tied to the Glorantha setting, as was the case for its first two editions.

Part of this doubtless arises from the preferences of the new regime at Chaosium. After Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen reassumed control of the company – as I’ve chronicled elsewhere – they brought in the gang from Moon Design to become the new board of directors. Moon Design are a group of Glorantha superfans who had previously teamed up with Greg Stafford to produce the Hero Wars/Heroquest RPG, the epic Guide to Glorantha, and other Gloranthan materials. It’s only to be expected that they would feel a certain affection for the setting and a certain nostalgia for the glory days of RuneQuest‘s 2nd edition, which as well as being a generally favoured edition in the wider fandom is also the clear favourite of the Glorantha-happy section of the fandom.

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A Quick Introduction to What We Already Know

Chaosium’s upcoming revision of RuneQuest will be the 4th edition of the game issued by its home company. Indeed, the copyright notice at the back of this set of quickstart rules (including an adventure) produced for Free RPG Day refers to this new version as the 4th Edition, though of course there they might simply want to avoid any implication of trying to claim copyright to text actually produced by Mongoose or Design Mechanism.

Still, some will no doubt see these quickstart rules as a decisive rejection of the direction that RuneQuest took for the two Mongoose editions and the version Design Mechanism produced. For my part, I tend to instead see it as a tacit acknowledgement that that particular fork of the system already has a very good expression in the form of Design Mechanism’s Mythras (which is what they relabelled their Runequest 6th Edition as). If there is going to be a point to Chaosium’s new RuneQuest, it needs to do something different from Mythras – and from all the other BRP-inspired fantasy systems out there.

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Many Basic Flavours

As with any game with its long pedigree, the publishing history of RuneQuest is awkward and complicated and has included more than a few missteps – I get the impression, for instance, that Moon Design/Chaosium these days consider farming the publication out to Avalon Hill and then to Mongoose to have been serious historical mistakes, and given how annoying overcomplex RuneQuest 3 was and generally shoddy the Mongoose RuneQuest products often were I can’t altogether disagree with them. However, between that, Mongoose’s SRD experiments, and Chaosium’s own attempts to promote the Basic Roleplaying system in other ways when they no longer had control of RuneQuest (including putting out the component booklets of RuneQuest 3 as Basic Roleplaying monographs), there has been a proliferation of fantasy-leaning setting-agnostic Basic Roleplaying-based systems out there.

I already covered Magic World in my review of the Stormbringer RPG, due to the fact that Magic World is basically 5th Edition Stormbringer with the Moorcock scraped off and a new setting tacked on the end, but it’s probably worth taking a look at various other BRP-based fantasy RPGs I’ve gathered over the years and see whether they are entirely redundant, or whether their differing focuses makes them useful for different purposes. It seems particularly apt at this point in time because the new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has made it clear that generic or setting-neutral RPGs are not where their heart is at: they would rather put out games where, as in pre-Avalon Hill editions of RuneQuest, or Call of Cthulhu, or Stormbringer, the game is constructed around supporting a strong setting from the get-go, rather than a setting being an afterthought, opting to allow other publishers to struggle over the crowded “generic BRP-ish fantasy” space.

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Proud to Be Pro-Duck

I’m reading the Guide to Glorantha at the moment, and this bit of art brought joy to my heart. Not just the awesome depiction of dragonewts – though they are cool – but how in the background you can see a dragonewt negotiating with a party of ducks.

Now, these are unabashedly ducky ducks. We’re not dealing with the sort of situation you see sometimes in D&D, where someone takes a creature whose description was originally a bit goofy and tries to make it look a bit more badass and realistic (like how Demogorgon’s heads don’t really look like chimp heads any more). No, these are not watered down at all. And that’s great.

For those who don’t know, ducks are in RuneQuest effectively as a little homage to the awesome Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comics; folk of my generation may be less familiar with them, but will be familiar with Duck Tales, which was basically Carl Barks’ Duck Comics: the Animated Series. Ducks aren’t a sloppy, crowbarred-in addition, mind: they have a very specific history and cultural place in the world which incidentally makes them total badasses.

Unseen Phil’s tumblr post compares the duck thing to the way people react to the “men culturally ride side-saddle if they ride at all so all cavalry warriors are women” thing in the default setting of Reign, but I think there’s a mild difference there. Both Glorantha and Reign‘s setting are a bit weird – with Reign I personally found the side-saddle thing not especially odd, since it’s basically a cultural assumption, but found the shonky geography to be kind of annoying – but I think there is a crucial difference. Reign‘s weird bits have a whiff of “try-hard” about them, like Stolze is straining to throw in odd little things simply for the sake of being odd. Conversely, Glorantha’s oddness is richly contextualised, and so far as I can tell has been from the start. It probably helps that Greg Stafford was thinking about and developing the setting for about a decade before producing any games or other publications set in it, whereas Reign‘s setting comes across as something Greg Stolze made up on the fly when cooking up the game because he thought a more generic version of the system wouldn’t get traction.

Either way, for whatever reason I find that I can buy into the eccentricities of Glorantha far more easily than those of the default Reign setting. Anyone whose imagination can embrace wizards, vampires, werewolves, owlbears, monsters that have literally evolved to look like treasure chests for the sake of trolling adventurers, and a host of “animal heads on human bodies” creatures of all varieties but balk at angry death-worshipping waddling heroes defending the cosmos against undead horrors is welcome to take it up with Donald here.

Donald had this armour designed specifically to mock the Lunar Empire, because he’s a badass like that.

Clockwinder General

In the not-too-distant future one of my Monday night group is going to be running some of Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton’s Clockwork & Chivalry, so I thought I would check it out. The conceit is that it’s set during an alternate version of the English Civil Wars of the 1600s (exactly how many Civil Wars were fought in that period is apparently a non-trivial question). The twist is that Parliament, supported as it is by the craftsmen and merchants of the middle classes, can bring a range of amazing clockwork devices to bear on the battlefield; meanwhile, the Royalist forces bolster their chances by turning to alchemy, and whilst most of those persecuted for witchcraft in this age are innocents, there are a few genuine Satanists with true magical power lurking in the shadows.

The default starting point for the game is the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby, which deviates from the result in our world due to it being the first fight where the various clockwork and alchemical contrivances were used on the battlefield. In this version, King Charles was captured and quickly executed by Oliver Cromwell, who has declared himself Lord Protector; however, the Royalist forces under Prince Rupert of the Rhine still control significant sections of the country (King Charles II is too young to lead the war at the moment, so he is staying in Paris with his mum). An uneasy break in the fighting has occurred as both sides come to terms with the twin shocks of the apocalyptic battle of Naseby and the sudden regicide following it – but surely that cannot last.

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