Posted by: markfender | August 12, 2014

Glorantha

There are rumors of giants in the RPG industry. Things like Dungeons & Dragons. The mythical Tekumiel. And Glorantha.

iss2005-front-coverI never played Runequest back in the ’80s, although I did know people who owned it. So I sort of missed out on the whole Glorantha thing. I picked up a few of the Heroquest books in the early ’00s in hopes of maybe gaining access to this weird world. While I liked the Heroquest rules (one of the early narrative-focused rulesets), the descriptions of Glorantha didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense.

People who like Glorantha really, really like it. You can tell because they have runes in their avatar pictures on forums. I have no idea what those mean, but I know to automatically take any praise they offer the world with a grain of salt (I mean, they’re obviously superfans). And Glorantha, for some odd reason, only seems to attract superfans. To be fair, they’re far less annoying than OSR superfans, who seem to actively hate all other games (The Glorantha fans acknowledge that it’s not for everybody and it’s hard to get invested). But Moon Designs has just released their massive Glorantha project – the Guide to Glorantha. It’s a two-volume 800+ page monstrosity (with an additional 120 page Atlas). It collects a lot of out-of-print information, never-before-published information, and is the first comprehensive guide to the whole damned thing. It’s a giant artifact of gaming…so I looked at it.

Glorantha apparently began development by Greg Stafford in 1966 as a uniquely myth-inspired world. It eventually became a roleplaying game setting after that whole genre was invented. It has a couple unique hooks:

1. It’s inspired by “mythic reality.” What this means is that it’s more important to pray to the God of Fields for good crops than it is to actually go tend your crops. The sun is a god who traverses the sky each day and travels through the quite literal underworld at night. Everything in the world has supernatural reasons for existing and continual changes to the world are caused by other supernatural events. As a giant mythology nerd, this is appealing to me. Unfortunately, the world is perhaps too full of supernatural things. There are a billion and a half gods, all spread across many different pantheons (some even appear in multiple pantheons, or different aspects of those gods crop up under different names in other pantheons). There is the God Time, in which all myths took place AT THE SAME TIME, making for a purposefully confusing morass (Okay, so the God Time was before the concept of Time actually entered the world (it’s mythic like that) so there’s a reason for it existing – it’s just deliberately confusing).

2. It’s got Heroquesting. Heroes of a particular people will enter the mythic world and attempt to recreate myths of their peoples, with companions taking on the roles of the various gods in the myths. Successfully retelling these stories grants the retellers mystical power. This might just be a unique artifact, being more awesome, or learning a new power. But, since all the myths take place at the same time in the God Time, not every myth is so straightforward. Things can change within the myths as you heroquest them, since there’s different versions of the same story told by other cultures. So, it’s dangerous and stuff. This is a pretty cool concept and sounds far more interesting than going down into a dungeon…again.

So, the mythic framework sounds pretty cool and the ideas of the game are certainly appealing to me. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of other stuff to not like. For instance, the emphasis has been repeatedly placed on one particular corner of the world – Dragon Pass. Across multiple editions, the playable areas of the game have barely expanded past this region. This is where the Orlanthi tribes conquer, get conquered, and generally go about their business across three ages. The Orlanthi are a Bronze Age-level civilization based on Anglo-Saxons. I know a lot about Anglo-Saxons. I have read every scrap of writing they ever produced that we still have access to. And I just don’t care about Anglo-Saxons. So, the majority of material for Glorantha over the decades is boring as hell to me. I’m much more interested in exploring some other corners of the world (sections this book actually does explore, so that’s good, even if for the first time in print). It’s as if everything produced for Forgotten Realms was always in Waterdeep. I’m just unenthused.

Another problem is that the world is super-confusing. Besides the already mentioned “all myths occur at once” thing, the history section repeatedly throws out names that I, as a reader, have no context for. Here’s a quote:

The God Learners boldly entered the network of the Gloranthan God World and reshaped it. They altered the Hero Plane almost at will. When the Raccoon Guardian of Tusunimmi Ford was skinned by a wizard, they moved Mr. Raccoon from Doctor Rock to the ford. When the Grand Vizier of the Soul Pearl (who ruled a notorious pirate fleet in Teleos) complained that the Two Righteous Golden Lion Dragons of the Mountain of Light were all that stood between him and a draught of the Divine Cup of Victory, eager magicians pleased their lord by catching and dismembering the metaphysical entities, removing them from the Spirit World entirely.

Where’s the Mountain of Light? The (admittedly, very thorough) index has one reference – this page. Likewise with Doctor Rock, the Grand Vizier, and other names. Yeah, it kind emulates the way myths from a culture are often interposed, reinterpreted, and expanded upon with no coherent thought between different groups, but as a reference work for a world that I’m expected to create stories for, it kind of fails in ever actually explaining anything. There’s just no context for any of this, making it a confused mess of glossolalia. It’s pretty sad when the morass of names in something like Forgotten Realms actually seems more coherent.

Another problem manifests in the bit I quotes above: the names. Mr. Raccoon? Doctor Rock? Are those seriously names in your mythology? Is Mr. even a term of address used by any culture in this world (Not that I can tell)? And while there are plenty of proper names that sound like “proper fantasy” names (I mentioned that index, right? Did I mention that it’s forty-five pages?), there are also weird anachronistic terms like those. Or a race that looks like Donald Duck. Or terrible jokes like calling the atlas the Argan Argar Atlas (Because Argan Argar is the God of Surface Darkness (wait, what?) and its initials are AAA and OH GOD I’M EXPLAINING A BAD JOKE). The whole thing, frankly, strikes me as something written by an aging hippie telling a lot of “dad jokes” and I don’t get it (and I fucking loathe hippies).

So, my conclusion is that Glorantha is a setting with a pretty cool nugget of an idea, wrapped in millions of layers of sweaty tie-dyed headbands, Bazooka bubblegum wrappers, and Beowulf: Dragon Slayer comics. I don’t want to have to peel those layers away to find the good stuff. It’s a huge world with a ton of detail and definitely deserves the props it might receive from historical sources looking back at the foundations of the hobby, but its particulars are pretty much the opposite of anything I have a desire to read about. The book(s) itself are the sort of things you put on your shelf to just stare at, marveling at their size and density as a sort of declaration of the creative works that RPGs have created. As a statement, they’re impressive. As a sourcebook, they’re comprehensive. As a world to explore, I’m happy just staying home and ignoring everything out the window.

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Responses

  1. I don’t know when you posted this, but I’m experiencing the same sort of thing now. I’ve bought the recently released HeroQuest: Glorantha and the King of Sartar. Both books are beautiful and do sit nicely on my RPG shelf, as you mention about the Guide to Glorantha. I’m resisting purchasing it until I’ve actually read the two I own. There is almost too much information about the world for a newbie to handle, and is some basic information, like explanations for the God Time, The Second Age, and the Third Age, that is either lacking or not presented soon enough. Still, I’m looking forward to spending my free time reading these books.

  2. I’m having trouble lifting mine, no, seriously, it’s that heavy, so I haven’t got to grips with the Guide to Glorantha yet. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m fairly new to Glorantha/Runequest/et al, so it’s a. It intimidating to have to read and assimilate 800+ pages in order to enjoy an RPG. Speaking of the accompanying Atlas, it’s not cheap, but doesn’t even include a legend for the maps. So, there’s one page that’s missing. When you consider the cost of the Guide, I feel sure a. Enter product would have been the two guide books plus the Atlas as a single product; surely there could have been some cost savings by doing it that way too.
    As a long time gamer, I’m much more familiar with N. Robin Crossby’s HârnWorld, a much more accessible and equally as detailed world as Glorantha (with the proviso of only taking a cursory glance at Glorantha so far). One thing’s for sure though, the Hârn maps are better, much easier to read with clearer fonts used, and the PDF versions from Kelestia Productions are layered so details can be switched on/off as you wish.
    Of course YMMV.


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