Lowlights from the Sobjectivist Debate
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Despite everyone's best efforts, the "objective/subjective" debate occasionally rears its tedious and hoary head. This is a collection of a few of my past contributions to the Glorantha Digest, presented "more in sorrow than in anger," so that newcomers to Gloranthan mailing lists can at least be aware that they aren't the first people to have wondered why so many of our subjective Gloranthan sources contradict each other... and, perhaps, to save me the bother of re-entering the fray myself.
I have slightly edited some of the posts, mostly to remove the names of prominent argumentative objectivists from my rebuttals. I hope nobody is upset to have had their name excised from their past idiocies, and I will be delighted to replace them if requested.
From: Nick Brooke
It's a pretty well accepted Truth that any Gloranthan question will have at least four valid answers: from the Animist/ Shamanic, Theist/ Priestly, Monotheist/ Humanist/ Wizard and Mystical perspectives. This fact seriously depletes my keenness to carry on constructing overarching "rules" for the world, which (as I say) mean nothing to the inhabitants. Because however you define the powers of "the Gods", the humanists of the West will be able to say that you're talking rubbish, that there are no such things. And if your theory says they're wrong, then it's wrong.
From: Nick Brooke
So, you want to know about the "subjectivist issue". Check out the archives of the Gloranthan Digest for May/June of 1997, to see it in full flood.
Essentially, it's a hardy perennial of the Digest, which gets stamped on every time it appears. There are essentially two major camps:
One group believe (in defiance of observed Gloranthan phenomena) that the Gloranthan gods are the same everywhere across the world, communicate clearly and can be understood accurately by their worshippers, and have rational agendas of their own, towards which they direct their worshippers through Divination and the like. These are called "objectivists".
The other group believes (in compliance with observed Gloranthan phenomena) that the worship of Gloranthan deities and other powers is affected by cultural and temporal factors, that opposing groups can worship the same deity (albeit perhaps under different names and possessing different attributes or attitudes), and that the Gods do not attempt to clear up the resulting confusions, being greater than and beyond the perfect comprehension of mortals. These are called "subjectivists".
Subjectivists can be libelled by pretending they say "All Gloranthan cultures deliberately make up the gods they want to worship; anything imagined by anyone on Glorantha becomes a real and potent force in the otherworld; no myths can be 'True' as it's all made up anyway." This is a straw man, as can be observed by the lack of objectivist arguments against the "real" subjectivist position.
Objectivists can be embarrassed by asking how their story explains the wars between and heresies within even the centrally-controlled religions of Glorantha (e.g: Yelmic Dara Happa vs. Yelmic Pentan Nomads; mutually-excommunicating Malkioni heresies; even the Dwarf heresies); asking how the Cosmology from Cults of Terror (with its Four Ways of perceiving the world, each equally valid) can reconcile to a One-True-Myth approach; and asking them to define which myth is True (and, therefore, which cultures of Glorantha are founded upon intrinsically false and misleading beliefs).
There's much more in the archives; late May would be a good time to dip in. But the argument never gets anywhere, as most participants have already made up their minds, and resolved not to budge an inch (or listen to opposing arguments). Do what fits your campaign, and try not to sully or destroy Glorantha for the sake of a philosophical preference with no impact on gaming: that's my advice.
From: Nick Brooke
Alex Ferguson posts a nice scale (see box), on which I'd oscillate between 2.5 and 4.
There probably is "one true mythic reality" and I have no neat theory to explain it: don't ask me what it is! No Gloranthan individual or culture has ever come up with a proof of what it might be, although many of them can operate perfectly well within their own "unproven" mythic realities (cultural constructs), which are usually internally consistent (at least to a wave/particle level) and can afford to ignore external unknowns or contradictions. The God Learners perhaps came closest to "proving" a mythic reality, but were obviously wrong (this may be a Sandyism manifesting in my susceptible brain). But for all Gloranthans, reality (and myth) are what they experience them to be, and we know that different Gloranthan mythical accounts of the same event can be inconsistent and correct at the same time (cf. the Four Perspectives and the Multiplicity of Truth).
I think the two extreme positions (1 and 5) have nothing to commend them, though a powerful enough heroquester* probably tends towards both, simultaneously (i.e. he is experiencing a consistent and all- encompassing otherworld, and is unaware that it's his presence as observer/definer/solipsist that makes it appear that way).
As usual, I use Objective to mean "external to Glorantha, and never proven or provable within Glorantha", and Subjective to mean "as experienced within Glorantha, and therefore useful in fiction and gaming".
* a "powerful enough heroquester" works like "sufficiently advanced technology", I suppose: you can get away with anything, and stuff the laws of myth/physics!
From: Nick Brooke
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997
The "objective/subjective" thing seems (to me) to hang around whether or not Gloranthans would understand the arguments about Glorantha that we're having. "Objective" tends to create a GM-mechanical point of view, while "Subjective" leads to the kind of arguments a Gloranthan worshipper or priest might conceivably hold. As there's enough evidence within Glorantha that the gods aren't clearly and objectively understood by anyone (e.g: Yelmic Dara Happa vs. Yelmic Nomads; Lokamaydon vs. Harmast; Malkioni sects; Dwarf heresies; the whole Monotheist - Theist - Animist - Mystic thang), the usefulness of objective arguments can be questioned: without chucking out loads of myth and history, denying PCs the Free Will you grant their gods, etc., it's clear the world doesn't work the way Objectivists would like it to.
It's a non sequitur to say that because we accept that Gloranthan myths must contain some truth, insight or value, that all the myths of one (favourite) culture must be "Correct", and that no other culture's mythology can possess an equivalent level of accuracy. (Or, taking the argument to extremes, that all other cultures' myths are "Incorrect").
(Note also that one of the oldest Gloranthan myths of the Celestial Court explains that there is a multiplicity of Truths in the world: cf. Wyrms Footprints for more in this vein).
This was, in fact, an Orlanthi-subjective argument. I have no problem with it, as the kind of in-character thing an Orlanthi might say in-game, but it seems daft (and, on this list, provocative) to use this as a touchstone for GMing or writing about Glorantha, from any other than an explicitly Orlanthi point of view.
Bizarre. We know (and have known for years) that there are four correct and mutually-inconsistent ways of viewing Glorantha: Cults of Terror called these the "Humanist" (Monotheist/Atheist), Theist, Mystic and "Naturist" (Shamanic/Animist) perspectives. This gives the world internal consistency: the core beliefs of the four 'perspectives' are contradictory and true, and are non-disproveable w.r.t. each other, as far as any Gloranthan observer (including deities, cosmic powers and Keepers of Arcane Secrets) could ever hope to attempt such a proof or disproof.
Now, if a fan of objective myth can define one world-system which encompasses the Monotheist, Theist, Animist and Mystic perceptions (doing violence to none of them) while avoiding the evils of giving one culture preferential treatment ("All the Pamaltelans, Malkioni, Easterners, Pelorians, Tarshites, and non-Quivini are hopelessly deluded!"), he's doing better than any of the rest of us.
If, on the other hand, his attempts to do so result in something incompatible with the known (CoT) behaviour of the Gloranthan Cosmos -- equally valid when viewed by any of the four perceptions -- then he's probably got something wrong.
BTW, proto-flamers, beware! I'm using "Objective" and "Subjective" to refer to whether an argument is external (obj.) or internal (subj.) to Glorantha, NOT in the rather fallacious ("Subjectivists believe all myth is made up by worshippers and that gods aren't real") sense that has been foisted on my chosen camp (an outpost of Hidden Variable Objectivism) by people who can't be bothered to read arguments. Zero tolerance starts here!
From: Nick Brooke
A prominent Objectivist wishes that "different stuff" had been and was being published, better fitting his rather literal take on some aspects of RQ2's Glorantha.
Now, if people who thought that way were writing and publishing, there would be all these different types of sources. (Hurrah!). Instead, it looks like the creative types among us mostly write about "Subjective" Glorantha, and all that the "Objective" fans do is whinge about it and wish nothing was being added to the already-perfect world as defined in the RQ1 rulebook and presumably sullied by every subsequent release (Cults of Prax and Terror not excepted).
Maybe there's something fundamental about this: that the creative process naturally leads us "Subjectivists" to want to:
a) write articles, and
... while the retentive, reductionist "Objectivists" only want to:
a) criticise other people's articles, and
... where 'X' is the last supplement before the Fall from Pure Objective Grace (whether we date this to RQ3, KoS, GRAY or whenever).
Now, this attitude taken to extremes gives us the Die-Hard RQ2 Loyalists: you remember, those people who were so annoyed at Avalon Hill's new rules set that they refused to buy any new supplements, whatever information they might contain about Glorantha. And I doubt anyone here still thinks that was a sensible attitude.
I hope we creative writers can join together and resist this attempt to stifle our work into bland, easily-wargameable conformity. But then I would, wouldn't I?
If you need to find out whether Orlanthi Rune spells can be recovered from West King Wind's worship services, why not go to the Redlands and Find Out? My guess is yes, they can... but your Orlanthi would first have to get on well with a savage tribe of horse nomads (through role-playing, please: not just the Cult Compatibility Chart and Reaction Roll Table) to attempt this. A Wind is a Wind is a Wind... maybe it'll take longer, or "cost more", to recover Rune spells from someone else's services (or take a while getting used to them at first), but that seems mythically fair enough, and would certainly be more fun to role-play out than giving all our characters some kind of universal common interface with the Divine World: quick, cheap and easy-to-use... bleurgh!
From: Nick Brooke
A correspondent doesn't like recent revisionist publications:
With respect, that sounds like bollocks. The best sources for info about Glorantha remain (IMHO) such trusty standards as Cults of Terror, the Gods & Goddesses of Glorantha articles from Wyrms Footnotes/prints, Uz Lore, and the Dragon Pass and Nomad Gods counter descriptions. Mechanistic cult writeups and rules fixes come and go, but there's more of the "flavour" and "essence" of Glorantha in any of these than in the recent confusion of non- gaming-centred draft proto-publications.
Er, not in so many words. The Monomyth is a "good approximation", not a straitjacket: it's like the difference between reading a book about Shamanism and meeting a shaman. If the people you meet abroad, in the scenario, in your tribe, or wherever it may be, do things in a way the book didn't mention, that's a bonus. It doesn't mean the book is "wrong", just that it didn't, obviously, contain a comprehensive description of everything. Nor would you expect it to, if you had any sense. Read a book on comparative religion some day, (e.g. The Golden Bough, The Destiny of the Warrior, Patterns in Comparative Religion), then realise that this is what the God Learners were doing, in their own adorable way.
The objective reality of the gods has been "questionable" at least since the Cults of Terror four-way cosmology. Nobody denies that there are powerful entities "out there" with apparent personalities, etc. Even the Brithini, Westerners, Mystics, etc. agree on this one.
What has been shaken up is the cosy assumption that the Sun God is always (and only) called "Yelm", masculine, uptight, imperial, etc., has a singular, comprehensible personality, an agenda we can follow, and communicates fluently, intelligibly and consistently with all of his worldwide community of worshippers. (Which makes the wars between Yelmic nomads and Yelmic empires rather hard to understand, setting aside the more recent Dara Happan and Elmali confusions). And/or the idea that it's sensible to "worship" such entities.
The argument is about what meaning people should ascribe to the existence of the "gods" (or "spirits", or "demons", or whatever): across Glorantha, different cultures take different approaches, with some worshipping, some manipulating, some appeasing, some avoiding, and some even pitying the poor benighted deities. The Dara Happans say, "Yelm created humans to worship him". The Orlanthi say, "The Evil Emperor enslaved everyone until Orlanth brought freedom to the world". The Westerners say, "Thou shalt worship no other gods beside the God of Malkion, who is the Invisible God." The Kralori say, "Some more tea while you're meditating on the folly of intangible entanglements, honourable Mandarin?" The Teshnans say, "Who is this 'Yelm' you speak of? The Sun God is great Somash, who straddles the Elephant of Heaven to bring Thunder and Monsoon at his command!" And the Trolls just swear in incomprehensible Darktongue (as ever).
Everyone can have their own view, but the "god" (or gods, or God, or whatever) is still there. We usually see them through the theistic perception, anthropomorphic entities with personalities and myths, but we can't and shouldn't deny that there are other perspectives. Unless you want to torch the Cults of Terror cosmology, that is.
The stuff about the difference between the Gods Age and Time is, frankly, a bit of a red herring. Most Gloranthans today believe that the world changed the way you've always thought it did from earlier sources, that the first sunrise was in the year dot, and that time and the world have been different ever since then. All you "learn" from the stuff in the Glorious ReAscent of Yelm is that over a thousand years ago, some people in Dara Happa didn't yet have this world-view. Does that really damage your enjoyment of Glorantha? And if so, why?
The Elmal/Yelmalio thing is perhaps the most annoying/unnecessary change in recent years. But back in Cults of Prax we were told that "even the staunchest Orlanth worshipper admits the presence of the Sun"; the discovery of "Elmal" demonstrates how this works in tribal Orlanthi areas bereft of any Sun Dome Temple, while CoP had already informed us that the Dragon Pass Sun Dome Temple was a recent re-foundation of the ancient cult ("In the Third Age, the cult moved back into Dragon Pass at the request of the House of Sartar. There it restored some of the cosmic balance of the area and stabilised the kingdom for the ruling house.").
The saddest thing, IMO, has been the extremist interpretations of what we see in King of Sartar: claims that the cult of Yelmalio sprang up overnight (with a fully-formed thousand-year history, etc.), and that anyone using "Yelmalio" (or not using "Elmal") in their games must be "wrong". I'd prefer to take the world as we've always seen it, and use the new information about Elmal/Yelmalio to explain how the re-founding of a Sun Dome Temple "stabilised the kingdom" (by ending a near civil war between Storm- and Sun- worshipping Orlanthi), and resulted in the reintroduction of the cult of Yelmalio, from Prax, into Dragon Pass. Why muck around?
If you think so, think so. But you won't have as much fun playing games as people who take everything on its merits (and you surely won't find as many people to talk to about them!). The Fortunate Succession has some neat new stuff about recent Lunar History, which complements the earlier articles from Wyrms Footnotes and Heroes nicely; with the Glorious ReAscent, it has new bits of Dara Happan myth and history which could be built into interesting scenarios, treasures, lost temples and obscure rediscoveries. But it's frankly unnecessary to think that this is "more valid" -- if it's an area your game never encounters, it's irrelevant; if you aren't a traditionalist Dara Happan priestly type, who cares? We can mine this stuff for background colour, obscure local myth, etc. (cf. my article on the Oronin Valley in Tales #16 for an example), without changing anything important in our approach to the world and its use in gaming.
Defeatist talk. Sergeant, shoot that man! Beginners who turn up here with sensible questions get sensible answers. Old-timers who turn up with a derogatory attitude towards any product less than fifteen years old and perverse reverence for TSR's hackwork worlds get short shrift. And that seems fair enough to me.
(Out of interest: which was that, when was it declared invalid, and why on earth do you believe whoever made that declaration?)
Now, to something more important. This "subjective" malarky seems eventually to infect every Gloranthan argument, so I'll choose my words carefully, because I really do believe that understanding it might just be the best way to understand Glorantha's mythic reality.
"Who invented hoplite warfare?"
If you ask a Pelorian worshipper of Granite Phalanx, he'll tell you that Granite Phalanx did. Or maybe General Daxdarius, back in the old days. If you asked a Dara Happan, he'd give the credit to the Emperor Urvarainus. If you asked an Orlanthi, he'd say that it was something the Sun Dome Templars brought to their lands, and that the Lunar Army seem to do things the same way. The Sun Domers will (of course) say that their own Yelmalion way is the "Original and Best", and that anyone else is offering a cheap substitute.
Now, the great thing about all these arguments is that they're subjectively true. The Orlanthi and Yelmalions really do think that the Sun Dome Templars have the original phalanxes; the Pelorians have their own origin stories which don't mention the Temple. But what on earth would be the alternative?
Simply, all Gloranthan cultures would share perfect information about all preceding events, historical and mythical. There would be only one True Answer to any question. A Grey Sage of Lhankor Mhy in Boldhome would know that the Pamaltelan Mask-God Bolongo was the "Owner of the Disorder Rune". A Dara Happan in the First Age would know that his Emperor either was, or was not, righteous in the eyes of Yelm. A Malkioni Wizard would perfectly interpret scripture, rendering schism and heresy somewhat irrelevant. While this may be an interesting thought-experiment, it's a damnably boring setting for a role-playing game.
Instead, there can be a multiplicity of Truths. This does not mean, BTW, that everyone "makes up" their own version of events; that cultures can just pretend to believe something and, Picard- like, "make it so". It means that beyond a certain point, it is not possible to determine the truth or falsehood of asserted facts. This squares nicely with the myth of Orenoar's Torch (cf. Wyrms Footprints p.38), with the fourfold Cosmology in Cults of Terror, with the Philosophical Age and doubtful stages of precreation myth from the World of Glorantha, and with the various, dubious, contradictory and confusing Emperor Lists in the Fortunate Succession.
Let me refer you back to the first words of the first article ever written about Glorantha's gods:
If I understand it correctly, our correspondent wants to be told what the Great Mystery itself is. He thinks that previously we were presented with Ultimate Truths about Glorantha, but that these have since been "rejected" in favour of other Ultimate Truths. In view of the deliberate uncertainties written into our sources since the very beginning, this is obviously a false dichotomy. (The first edition RuneQuest rules told us, not that nobody knew which Rune came first, but that everyone said their own Rune had done so. If that's not a "subjective" explanation, what is?)
If we can accept that all the information we receive about Glorantha is limited, imperfect, approximated, abstract, and parochial, then there's no difficulty in encountering new ideas and either adapting or rejecting them for our own games. But let's do it without the pretence that everything used to be straightforward and uncomplicated, and that it's only recently that "evil scholars on the Internet" have added confusion to everyone's gaming tranquillity. I can quote you chapter and verse from the very earliest published RuneQuest products to show you that's not so. If, when we were younger, we used to uncritically accept the Praxian cosmology -- and/or ignore the parts we didn't really understand -- then that's an artifact of our younger selves, not an accurate reflection of what we were actually reading back then.
The Great Big Advantage of embracing subjectivism is, of course, for gamers. When there is no One True Myth, no One True Way, no canonical source of answers to the Big Questions, then we can all get on with inventing our own tribes and traditions and customs and kingdoms and cults and stories and scenarios and suchlike, and know that nobody can just come along and say, "That's wrong, because..." -- as we'll all know they're talking crap.
The benefits of a "scholarly" approach are best seen in reconciling weird and contradictory information. I hope we can settle how Telmori magic, werewolves, and the phase of the Red Moon are related, some day soon. I'm very pleased with recent work on the Elmal/Monrogh/Prax connections, with my own stuff on the phases of the Red Moon, with the nomenclature of Satraps and Sultans in the Empire... but all of these take contradictory sources and come up with a workable synthesis, preserving as much as possible of the existing information, but adding new insights to it. There needn't be a dichotomy between "old" and "new" Glorantha: if we ground ourselves in "Glorantha as she is played", and then look at newer material quizzically, asking "How can I use this in my games?", then we'll all benefit in the long run.
FWIW, I never say "Urox" or "Takenegi" or "Rufelza" unless I'm provoked; while I'm happy to believe these words exist, and are accurate transcriptions of Gloranthan originals, I'm happiest using the familiar old names, "Storm Bull", "Red Emperor", "Red Goddess". Why complicate your game?
My version of Sun Dome history -- seen on the Digest recently -- preserves the essentials from Cults of Prax, Sun County and King of Sartar, incorporating extra material about Monrogh from The Birth of Elmal article, but not, I devoutly hope, screwing up anyone's Glorantha in the process. (Unless someone's already retro-screwed-up their Glorantha to eliminate all traces of the Yelmalio cult, in which case they aren't really my target audi- ence any more).
If anyone finds an article on the Digest, in Tales, or elsewhere "useless scholarly wank", it might be because it's completely irrelevant to their Gloranthan gaming -- most Pamaltelan or Eastern material fits this bill for me (but others may feel the same about Western, Pelorian, Praxian or even Orlanthi material, so please don't feel picked on!).
OTOH, it could be because they don't like the article's approach to something they would have had a use for (e.g. the KGB/Gestapo cult of Danfive Xaron; the magic spells of Granite Phalanx; the army officer cult of Yanafal Tarnils), in which case the simplest thing to do is steal any bits you do like, ignore the rest, send a brief post stating your opinions and version (in case everyone else out there feels the same way and/or prefers your account), and carry on gaming happily. We aren't all going to agree about everything, now, are we? Or why would there be horse-races, or politics, or any of the myriad other ways in which differences of opinion manifest themselves?
I find the worst arguments come when someone writes something, however well-meaning they might be, however well-researched it might appear, that could only damage other people's games. Like saying there was never a god called Yelmalio, or that all Lunar myths are false, or that Humakti are homosexuals, or that simple Divinations could clear up incorrect mythology, or that Orlanthi are classical Athenian democrats. This is silly and provocative behaviour, because it gets nobody anywhere.
If your own game has spent years building up its own "Gloranthan" background in isolation from the published mainstream, good luck to you: but unless something remarkable happens, your material is unlikely to find its way back into that mainstream. (This is a particular problem with RQ2 diehards, I find, but maybe that's just a bee in my bonnet: "I spent the 80's playing RQ2 without buying anything from Avalon Hill, and now I'm so upset to find that you lot know much more than I do that I've decided to stop playing altogether!").
It's possible usefully to present, say, a part of the world that's never heard of Yelmalio, or an in-character rhetorical attack on Lunar missionaries, or a Sacred Band of homosexual Humakti, etc... but saying, "It must always have been thus and so, and all other views are wrong" is simply asking for trouble. And, usually, getting it. (Hurrah!)
This is absolutely true (though I'd say it was the old RQ2-era sources, including e.g. Wyrms Footnotes articles, and not just the "RQ books" themselves, that gave me a feel for Glorantha). Since Glorantha lives through our gaming, not through obscure scholarly arguments, why not get on with your game and ignore the scholars? (But don't cull them: be merciful! Give them a place to live, out on the Internet somewhere, where they can carry on exploring the world in their own way, contributing occasional gems and insights, and answering questions from humble lay members and returning lost sheep alike).
This Digest is a great place for hashing out consensus in some obscure fields, but IMO this is pointless without an end in view, and that end should be well-written, well-thought-out articles that explain and enhance aspects of Glorantha for use in gaming. And given the number of Digest contributors who have since been published in one place or another, I think it's working well. Without the Digest, recent publications would have been much poorer; and unless you refuse to buy any recent RQ material, that can hardly be a bad thing, now, can it?
Glorantha, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, and Issaries are trademarks of Issaries, Inc. The contents of this page are copyright by Nick Brooke, 2003; 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.