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Do Ducks Have Teeth?
On Exploring Glorantha - Some Tools for the Fantasy Ethnographer and Adventurer

The Red Moon
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Gloranthan Folk Tales

Gloranthan Songbook

Moonie Madness

Carmanian Sources

Malkioni Scriptures

by John Hughes, 1994

"I had in my hands a substantial fragment of the complete history of an unknown planet,with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sounds of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its minerals, its birds and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical arguments..."
Jorge Luis Borges
("Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius")

"No amount of academic knowledge is a substitute for a poor imagination."
Devin Cutler
(RuneQuest Digest)

"Stwand And Delibber. Dis is a hoist, won mowve und ya oil broo-bait!!"
Quackbeth the Hueymakt, one-legged duck bandit.
(various encounters, Pavis 1612-15, Sartar 1615-21, Far Point 1621-32)


Glorantha as Mindscape

Welcome to Glorantha. A whole new universe awaits, inviting you to explore its mysteries, to test your powers of observation and imagination, and to leave your own mark upon its fluid reality.

The world of Glorantha is complex, engrossing, occasionally frustrating, yet always tremendous fun. It's a contemporary example of a shared fantasy world, a psychological and social creation whose ancestors include Gilgamesh and Dante, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Journey to the West (Monkey), Edward Abbott Abbott's Flatland and the thought worlds of Albert Einstein. To enter Glorantha is begin an other-worldly journey. Throughout human history, such journeys and worlds have served as vehicles for our stories and myths, vehicles for our hopes, fantasies, and wildest dreams, places of wonder and adventure, testing grounds for our conceptions of what can and cannot be.

Glorantha participates in the ancient tradition of other-worldly journeys, albeit in a new form: a shared cosmos explored primarily through group roleplaying. Yet like its ancestors (many of whom loom large in the structure of Glorantha itself) it is a mindspace, a mirror and magnifying lens for our imagination. It presents itself to us as a frontier and a mystery, a place to experience adventure and wonder.

It is also significant that Glorantha emphasises humour and enjoyment in a big way. Rather than for some religious, spiritual or literary purpose (the genesis of most shared worlds), Glorantha was created to be a fun place to visit. And no matter how rabid our powergaming or fervid our scholarship, its always good to keep this fact in mind.

The Twin Visions of Glorantha

Two complimentary visions dominate our exploration of Glorantha. The first is provided by Greg Stafford, Glorantha's prime creator and chief shaman, standing with Joseph Campbell at his right shoulder and Snorri Snurluson at his left. Greg's thirty year vision-quest has given Glorantha its basic structure, its intricate history and its loyalty to the dictates of mythology. Greg is also responsible for much of the world's wackiness, its Californian humour and its off-beat surprises.

The second vision is more implicit, and somewhat less central. Through the RuneQuest rules system, Glorantha bears the stamp of a particular style of male fantasy roleplaying dominant in the late seventies. This vision emphasises accessibility, simplicity and heroism, but, being only a step or two removed from its wargaming ancestors, concentrates on combat, lone adventuring and exotic monster-bashing. Anything beyond these particular themes - for example the dynamics of family, society and religion - are abstracted or ignored for the sake of simplicity and fluidity.

Of course, roleplaying has matured a lot in the last twenty years, giving us new ways to share our stories and dreams. RuneQuest has attempted to keep up with the change, to balance the joy of one-armed duck bandits and the catharsis of broo-bashing with an equal emphasis on storytelling, discovery and characterisation. In addition, other roleplaying and storytelling systems have arisen as alternative vehicles to explore the richness of the old Lozenge.

These two visions of Glorantha: one emphasising detail and diversity, the other simplicity and enjoyment, stand in creative tension. When the two strands can be integrated, as in Trollpak, the results are breathtaking. Getting the balance right is the aim of a lot of discussion on the Digest, and the cause of most of its arguments. Together, these twin visions constitute much of what Glorantha is about - and together they raise the broader issue of what roleplaying is, can be, and should be, and just how closely the world of Glorantha should be tied to roleplaying games such as RuneQuest.

The 'Levels' of Gloranthan 'Reality'

In our discussions on the Digest, a familiar pattern often emerges in debate. In exploring aspects of the old Lozenge, we slip back and forth between different levels of Gloranthan 'reality', acting according to the level we're most familiar with, or perhaps in the faith that all the levels somehow mesh. The most familiar shifting occurs when to trying to reconcile RuneQuest rules with what we know of Gloranthan society from other sources. There are others.

Personally, I like to draw distinctions, at least in my own mind, as to what type of reality I'm discussing. I see at least four fairly distinct levels of Gloranthan 'reality' which are sometimes reconcilable, sometimes not. If each is a 'map', let me list them in terms of smaller and smaller 'scales' until we reach the final level, Gloranthan 'reality' itself.

  • Glorantha as background for a roleplaying game (the RuneQuest or rules level),

  • Glorantha as a shared literary work or myth (the genre or mythological level),

  • Glorantha as it seems to its inhabitants, a living, breathing nuts-and-bolts world (the emic or Gloranthan level), and

  • the rules underlying Gloranthan reality (the absolute or nomic level).

We could argue about my names of the levels and how they intermesh, but for me the important point is the fact that there are several distinct ways of dealing with Glorantha.

Glorantha as a Rules-Driven Simulation (RuneQuest Reality)

Any game simulation simplifies its subject for the sake of playability. The RQ rules, whatever we feel about them, were derived to simulate certain aspects of reality (adventures) for a particular class of being (adventurers) for a particular purpose (rip-roaring entertainment). They do this fairly well. They were not, however, designed to simulate large scale social, environmental or magical effects, or to be serious simulations of Gloranthan culture and society.

In my experience, most campaign and convention games and published modules operate on this rules-driven level. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the rules level can be surprisingly versatile and resilient. It depends on the expectations and needs of the players involved. However, certain of the more 'absurd' Gloranthan phenomena (cult membership rules, initiation, certain spells) were derived for and work only at this level.

When beginning a campaign, a gamesmaster should decide whether RQ (or other system) rules describe Gloranthan reality or merely simulate it. If they describe it, something like a magical system than swaps points of POW for INT or SIZ will make sense. If it merely simulates it, then such spells confuse the simulation with the reality, and would probably be discarded.

Glorantha as a Literary Genre or Mythological Creation (Mythical Reality)

The literary and mythological level of stories and characters is where Glorantha began. Most rpgs don't have this level to deal with - even the companies that print game-derived 'novels' produce linear adolescent fantasies where you can usually tell when the dice are being rolled. The major exceptions are Middle Earth and Tekumel, and like Glorantha they both pre-existed their roleplaying incarnations.

Most Gloranthan games and stories are readily recognisable as belonging to a particular literary genre - that of heroic fantasy. Any genre brings with it certain unwritten but universally understood rules and conventions that dictate what can and should happen within a story. Within such a level, the tale becomes as important as the rules. The needs of the story will dictate that whatever your combat skills, the dastardly broo will beat and capture you so you can ultimately escape and wreak your righteous revenge upon them. One of the assumptions of this genre is that adventurers act as 'trouble-magnets'. Another is that they are 'special' people, and that fate will deal with them in a particular way.

Working at this level, you can suspend game rules or invoke 'meta-rules' for a given effect without having to universalise the consequences in either a positive or negative way. The submission guidelines for the projected Chaosium collection of Gloranthan fiction, Heroes of the King, provide an example of this - they state that healing spells are much less common than the RQ rules suggest. Story and effect are more important than a consistent portrayal of reality, so holes and contradictions in the background not important to immediate events can be rightfully ignored.

Working at this level you go into details beyond those provided by your rule-set, striving to portray the flow and colour of everyday life. You might explicitly or implicitly play with our earthly experience for irony or contrast. You may use exaggeration and distortion for entertainment and effect. And for your characters, their beliefs, hopes and failures become as important as their stats and experience checks.

King of Sartar is the best example to date that deals with Glorantha on this level. Scenarios can work at this level, especially when you're prepared to leave the dice behind and trust to your group's storytelling instincts.There seems to be a growing concensus that Heroquest has to work at this level.

Related to this 'literary' or 'genre' view is the the perspective of Glorantha as a myth. Not only about myth, but a myth in itself. Myth is about defining what is right and true, about imposing finite categories on on an infinite universe, creating 'culture' - breaking reality down into manageable categories so it can be understood. Myth is not primarily about logic or even story. In so far that Glorantha is itself a myth... well that's an essay in itself.

Glorantha as it Appears to its Inhabitants ('Emic' Reality)

['Emic' is an anthropological term meaning the view a particular society has of itself: the view from within a culture. It is contrasted with the 'etic' or exterior (supposedly more 'objective' view).]

When you begin to ask questions like, 'What does it mean to sacrifice a point of POW, to give in some way a part of your life force to the god? or 'Do people really give spells names like "Bladesharp 6"?', you're operating on a higher level of Gloranthan reality. On this level (which often blends fairly seamlessly with the literary or mythological level), Glorantha exists as a 'real' world. Actions have consequences far beyond game or literary phenomena, and need to be systematically recorded and explored. Gloranthan societies each have a unique structure and function, similar to Terran societies but operating according to the nature of Gloranthan reality and mythologic, with consequences that shape emic conceptions of gender, economics, history, religion, art, power and law. Our preconceptions and biases as explorers have to be made explicit as well.

You have to be pretty committed to operate at this level. It is the realm of the scholar and dedicated explorer, of the serious co-creator.You do not so much play the game as take holidays in Alda Chur. It is evoked mainly in background descriptive articles and 'Gloranthan' documents. Many Digest explorations attempt to operate at this level.

The 'Absolute' or 'Nomic' Reality of Glorantha

['Nomic' is a philosophical term relating to natural law. On this level, if it is describable, the map finally becomes the territory.]

In his descriptions of Glorantha, Greg Stafford gives few clues as to the nature of any underlying 'ultimate' reality. What, for instance, is the true nature of the forces that shape and guide Glorantha - the 'gods'? We know of four contradictory belief systems within Glorantha - the theistic, mystic, naturalistic and humanist, each with its own working and consistent explanation of 'reality' and the forces behind it. Can we as explorers penetrate beneath these emic descriptions to understand the mechanics and underlying laws of Glorantha, to seek the ultimate answers?

Some explorers believe that we can. Others believe the quest is fruitless and even misleading, because belief itself has a very special reality-status within the Gloranthan universe. The debate continues.

Is Level Jumping Possible?

The difficulty in fully integrating these levels may explain why there have been so few published scenarios in the past fifteen years have that uniquely Gloranthan 'feel'. Most instead rely on combat and generic fantasy elements where every inn holds an encounter and every Dark Secret™ comes down to hordes of broo appearing out of nowhere. It may also explain why Greg Stafford does not write scenarios.

Following my original post on this topic, several contributors to the Digest responded with helpful comments concerning 'level jumping'.

Jonas Schiott pointed out that the bulkheads between the various levels are not hermetically sealed - a point echoed by several other respondents. Joerg Baumgartner argued cogently that we should be trying to reduce the difference between the realities as far as possible, fine tuning the simulation mechanics so they do not hamper the simulation. Joerg also pointed out that the levels build upon each other in actual play and storytelling, contributing to our personal experience of Glorantha. Alex Ferguson pointed out the majority view is that that we don't have to change Glorantha to suit RuneQuest, but rather adjust RQ where necessary to suit our knowledge of Gloranthan reality.

And Martin Crim talked about ducks.

Martin pointed out that some things that are undeniably Gloranthan work best in only certain levels. Ducks for instance. Ducks are comic, and work in the rules-derived and literary realities. Do they have teeth? Of course, so they can hold their cigars (says John Castellucci). This is probably not an emic answer - in fact creating a plausible one is going to be tough, because the essential comic relief nature of Ducks will show through. ('No! No!', John screams in frustration. 'You don't understand! Ducks are Twagic! Serious! Twagic!')

Martin also provided an example of concepts evolving into new levels. Trolls and (especially) trollkin were originally just monsters to kill, rules-level creations. With the publication of Trollpak, they evolved through the literary/genre level into a fully fledged Gloranthan culture with strongly defined emic values. They continue to work in all three levels dependent on circumstance - for instance in an Uz bash (rules and combat), Trollball (literary exaggeration) or in a religious or trading mission within an Uz stronghold (lots of loving detail and a strong emic perspective).

Using levels when thinking about Glorantha is merely a conceptual tool. Sometimes it can be helpful, sometimes a hindrance. What is does do is remind us of the incredible richness of the Gloranthan experience, and how symbols and concepts borrowed from Terran mythology or generic fantasy (concepts that are often stereotypically shallow in other FRPGs) can evolve into something uniquely Gloranthan, fully-rounded, and wonder-full.

That's what the Glorantha Digest is all about. Glorantha just keeps on growing. Our challenge is to keep on growing with it, and to keep on having fun as we explore.

Thanks to Jonas, Alex, Martin, Devin, Joerg, Sandy Petersen, Nick Brooke, Peter Metcalfe and the other Digesters who have commented either directly or indirectly on the ideas contained in my original posting. I have paraphrased their responses rather than directly quoting them because my own conceptualisation and labelling of the various levels has changed - partly in response to their comments.

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Glorantha, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, and Issaries are trademarks of Issaries, Inc. The contents of this page are copyright by John Hughes, 2002; any material derived from Greg Stafford's world of Glorantha is also copyright by Greg Stafford. Glorantha is the creation of Greg Stafford, and is used with his permission.

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