Friday, 26 September 2003

My Life in Glorantha

As anyone who's read my other RPG posts — and especially my background page — will know, I burned out on gaming in early 1995 — and that I spend a lot of time on those pages talking about either variant D&D or Champions, but other systems are only mentioned in passing.

As it happens, I've had a love/hate relationship with RQ/Glorantha for going on 25 years now.

I first encountered Glorantha in the form of the original Nomad Gods game at the Wargames Soc. at college, and thought it a little bit silly — though by no means as bad as Greg Costikyan's humour in the SPI Swords and Sorcery game. It was a while later, when looking to other systems to find bits to plunder to fix D&D, that I picked up a copy of RQ2 (the new edition at £8, as opposed to the old one at £5, this being back in about '78). RQ2 had a lot of things that I thought made for an ideal game — individual skill ratings rather than blanket levels, fixed hit-points — but it didn't have a splashy magic system in that way that *D&D always has, so while I tried a few one-off sessions, and Karen even did her first bit of GMing c1980 with RQ set in a setting of her own, Glorantha languished as something I read fragments of in Cults of Prax, Trollpak, and Cults of Terror, but never did anything with.

Neil Taylor picked up a copy of Borderlands, and started to run a campaign based on that set. The characters were mainly Orlanthi (Sartar's equivalent of the Church of England), with a neo with a death wish playing an Humakti. With the limited source material, we modelled Sartar after high classical Greece, like the pictures in the rule-book suggested, and the Praxians — at Horn Gate, at least — as Arabs at the stereotypical oasis.

And at that sort of time, the group burned out on the whole fantasy genre, and Karen and I moved house from Cambridge to Stevenage because I needed a job. When we found our feet there, we started playing other games with a new set of players (the group that Phil Masters had accumulated), mainly Champions. Meanwhile HeroQuest had gone from being a “source to be published” in the list at the back of the RQ2 rulebook, to an item in the Spring 1982 issue of the Chaosium Games catalogue in which promised it for that summer.

Time passed. RQ3 happened, and the combination of the dollar price hike, and the pound falling almost to parity meant that it cost 5 times what the previous edition did — £40 in 1985 money [by comparison, HeroQuest is priced at about £24 in 2003 money]. I did pick up the hideously expensive boxes of Gloranthan background (Gods of... , Genertela) and pored over them for arcane details, while the modified rules stayed on the games' shop shelves.

By the late 80s, I was back in Cambridge and working at the same company as Neil Taylor. As the Champions game folded due to increasing dissatisfaction with the Hero System, he and I would spend hours going over the minutiae as revealed, especially the new scraps in a new fanzine, Tales of the Reaching Moon. I remember fascinating discussions about recherché topics like the implications of the RQ2 Prax map showing the burial mound of a prehistoric hero even larger that the specially large mountain pictogram used for Kero Fin, the mighty goddess-mountain.

And so he set up an RQ3 game based in a slightly variant Glorantha (the big conflict was Tarsh — oriental in flavour — vs. Sartar — more like the current received wisdom, though Babeester Gor was in the role now occupied by the Vinga cult which hadn't been discovered at the time, and Yelmalio was taken as the cult accepted as the Sun among Storm), based alternately in Pavis and Sartar. I had problems stumbling over bits of rules that had changed subtly since the previous edition; other players had problems with other bits of the system like the experience rolls (one Unicorn Woman had her most frequently used combat skills stick at ~45% while others went up to ~70% because the dice would hardly ever convert a skill check into a % increase). We all found that the restraints on spirit magic meant that the old standby of “Glue” (Healing 6) battle-magic that made combat a survivable thing was no longer a plausible strategy. A belated change to Pendragon, to use the virtues and passions system as part of the cult attributes just made things worse — the movement rates and ranges meant that we had something like five times as many rounds to take damage from emplaced trollkin slingers when advancing from their extreme range to contact. [From this experience, I'm somewhat dubious about Pendragon's ability to truly emulate the almost D&D-like combats in Malory.]

The game also suffered from the “tourist trap” tendency — with a detailed world, the temptation comes to play tour guide, and escort the PCs around all the interesting parts — so our lowly step-and-fetch PCs were sent hither and yon, until the game folded under cumulative dissatisfaction, and I ran some cathartic high level D&D to permit some righteous ass-kicking that the RQ had denied us.

With the '90s also came the RQ-revival, spearheaded by a group that gave the appearance of seeking to play something between “Morris-dancing, the RPG” and “Iron John, the RPG”, which is still present in Hero Wars material like Thunder Rebels. The Glorantha that came out of this was trapped in a Procrustean bed of unsatisfactory mechanics, and with revelations that changed my perception of the world — not essentially trivial things like the (Y)elmal(io) flap, but that the Sartar/Lunar conflict was a lot more German/Roman rather than Greek/Persian as the RQ2 art implied. Yes, Orlanth is meant to be Tiw, not Zeus, and the new vanguard had only contempt for the stuckist grognards who liked the old way better.

In the middle of this I burned out on gaming, and when Hero Wars came out, I couldn't even gather the energy to focus my eyes on Neil's copy. I knew I had reservations about what I heard about the system — important events getting handled in a quantum box, with abstract action points expended until the state collapses and you can tell what happened — like who got wounded and how much. Later on, I did buy Storm Tribe, another gods book, and without the damnable barbarian culture.

But this year, HeroQuest — I did like what I saw at Conjuration enough to look out Storm Tribe, if only to try and answer the question “who are all these strange gods that the demo game PCs were devotees of?” and then get a copy of HQ for my birthday. I'm still not sure about the system, the extended resolution in particular; and when I'm in a mood to worry about having too much arbitrary fiat power as GM at the totally free scope of attributes (like Over the Edge, but more so). The rules hacker in me starts to think about perhaps using something like the West End Games' StarWars D6 system, with a HQ keyword corresponding to an SW stat. But I was motivated to at least think about doing something.

Having been out of the loop for a while, I found much Gregging and counter-Gregging had gone on, but I think that Glorantha has reached a point where it has completed a metamorphosis, to a new understanding and a new system, unlike the very awkward state in the '90s when the New True Way and the uninspired changes that went into RQ3 mechanics tore in different directions. Now at last we have a mechanical exposition that supports, rather than thwarts the subjectivist approach.

For example, back in RQ2 days, there was the assumption that a warrior would be an Humakti, and there was the one-size-fits-all cult of Humakt; but in ST, Humakt is a seriously scary god that only dangerous weirdos follow (normal warriors would follow Orlanth sub-cults that no-one who hasn't been following Gloranthan events in detail for the last few years will have heard of, like Hedkoranth and Helamakt). In HQ, he's back to being a standard warrior god – but only for cultures neighbouring Sartar. This I interpret as being because the core Orlanthi culture has access to all the minor attributes/associates of Orlanth, which squeezes the other big gods out into the margins. A similar process seems to have taken place with Babeester Gor, with the Orlanthi having Vinga in the place that the Earth Avenger takes in related cultures who don't also have the Defender Storm.

Of course the process is not 100% – it doesn't fix the (Y)elma(io) problem that really set the cat amongst the pigeons over a decade ago, and had been just about reconciled (provided you don't enquire too deeply into how the myths fitted together) – the ST version of Elmal as the Orlanthi sun-god doesn't really hang together as a myth (it singularly ignores who it was that the Orlanthi think was the object of the Lightbringer quest, or the fact that Yelmalio is the light of the sunless sky i.e. twilight). So far he's swept under the carpet in HQ, in favour of (St.) Ehilm (a Saint in Aeolian Esvulia (formerly Heortland)) — and we last heard of Ehilm as a western figure, the sorcerer who had become too entangled in solar powers, cognate to Yelm.

It is interesting to note that, having the assumption in the examples of a PC party made up from folk all across the continent, and with only distant ties to their kinfolk (occsaional calling in of favours for support in the play examples), the game has drawn back from the anthropological style of RPG that was going to have killed the setting eventually. The rigid tribal Sartarite society is alien to most 21st century players, more so than easy things like feudalism. Indeed the restrictive elements are stronger than some in real-world societies which are causing active harm to people in the UK caught between their ancestral ways imported from the Indian sub-continent and the ways of their peers and age-cohort.

Having the God of the New Way of Things associated with the people of “We've always done it this way” isn't something that most people will get.

One thing that hasn't changed in HW, and by adoption, HQ, are the rather silly monsters, which hark me back to the first encounter with Nomad Gods. One thing that has improved a bit are the scenarios. I dismissed an early famous RQ scenario with this summary:

The adventurers are approached by a man seeking armed assistance. He explains that he has bought, for resale, a sacred item. The person who he'd bought it from had stolen it from a small nomad tribe, killing most of the adults in the process. When two of the survivors demanded its return from the man now seeking PC assistance, he had his assistant shoot one. He has now found out that they intend to return in force to recover their property, and is seeking help to defend his house and this item. – What do your characters do?

The scenarios in HQ are better than this.

Happy Fun Legal Text

Glorantha is a trademark of Issaries, Inc. HeroQuest, Hero Wars, and Issaries are registered trademarks of Issaries, Inc. These they tell me about on their web site.

Nomad Gods, Borderlands, Cults of Prax, Trollpak, Cults of Terror, Gods of Glorantha, Glorantha : Genertela were presumably Chaosium trademarks (and are presumably with Issaries, Inc. now). Presumably Storm Tribe and Thunder Rebels are trademarks of Issaries, Inc. [I have to guess not only the changes of ownership, but also the trademark status of the current material as the books lack any legal indicia, unlike the usual case with comic-books. Pick up a copy of, say Lucifer, and the On the Ledge section tells you that indicia — and that would include Lucifer and On the Ledge — are trademarks of DC Comics].

I'm not certain of the exact status of the RuneQuest trademark these days. Ditto for Tales of the Reaching Moon. King Arthur Pendragon used to be a Chaosium trademark, but they sold the property on, and I can't remember to whom (Green Knight?).

Over the Edge is a (registered?) trademark of Atlas Games.

D&D is a (registered?) trademark of Hasbro, Inc. Swords and Sorcery turns out to have reverted to Greg Costikyan, rather than having been inherited in the Hasbro buys WotC buys TSR acquires SPI chain of events; Champions and Hero System are (registered?) trademarks of Hero Games.

Star Wars is ultimately a LucasFilms registered trademark, though the game rights are currently with Hasbro, Inc.

Conjuration might well have been a service mark of the British Role-playing Association.

All omissions are purely accidental. I'm certainly not an owner of any of the cited intellectual properties.

Doesn't it get complicated when you try to cover yourself while writing an overview that spans much of the life of this turbulent hobby industry!