I Have No Game, and I Must Blog

Glorantha and HeroQuest

S. Ben Melhuish • Friday, July 11, 2014 • filed under settings, shelves

We sometimes think of Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk setting as the first fantasy game setting, but there were actually a handful that were actually conceived before D&D was published: M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel (c. 1940), Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms (c. 1967), and Greg Stafford’s Glorantha (1966).

Since TSR adopted the Realms, it has been detailed to a fault, but Tékumel and Glorantha have always kept an air of incompleteness, a sense that their creators hadn’t had a chance to get everything out of their heads and onto paper.1 I think that sentence hides the explanation: the Realms became a shared setting, with Greenwood as something of a caretaker or (unofficial) overseer. But Tékumel remained almost entirely a creation of Barker, and his death2 leaves it unlikely that we’ll see a more complete treatment than has been published to date.

Stafford has always encouraged people to flesh out Glorantha, though under his supervision. But as more writers became more familiar with his work, he was able to relax his control and trust their creations. And the setting has benefitted from it, to the point where earlier this month, a Kickstarter project (which eventually grew to cover a complete guide to the Glorantha setting) has finally been released.

And it’s beautiful.

Map of the Glowline extending into Lunar Tarsh

Glorantha is strange, as far as fantasy settings go. Most of the world is still in a bronze age; magic is ubiquitous, to the degree that farmers use common charms and prayers (that actually work) to protect their crops; elves are actually mobile, sentient plants.

Aside from the threat of Chaos (roughly defined as “everything that the gods agree does not belong in this world”), most of the conflict in the setting is between cultures and world-views. The primary one is between the clannish, unruly, storm god–worshipping Orlanthi, and the syncretic Lunar Empire, tolerant of everything but lack of submission, that threatens to engulf them.

Let’s look at the sample above (click/tap the map for a larger portion of the page). Part of the strength of the Lunar Empire comes from the Glowline, the visible magical border of the empire within which the power of the Red Moon is projected. The Glowline, and the influence of Temples of the Reaching Moon that extend it, are shown on the map. The empire is about to complete its largest such Temple in the heart of the Orlanthi peoples' lands, adding a new (larger) red circle and extending the Glowline in the hopes of binding the Orlanthi within its peace and stability. The Orlanthi, for their part, refuse to acknowledge any god or goddess above the wild leader of their wild pantheon, and are engaged in a (so-far-unsuccessful) guerrilla war against the implacable imperial legions.

(That’s been the primary focus of the setting for years of its publication history, but the new Guide to Glorantha turns the microscope to literally every other culture in every other corner of the world.)

The theistic Lunar and Orlanthi people gain their magics from reenacting their myths, sometimes actually magically stepping into the role of the deities, and even (in a higher-power game) thereby changing those myths such that they have a more desirable outcome. Other peoples in the world perform sorcery, or bargain with spirits, or meditate on draconic mysteries, or what have you. The clash and blending of world-views provides a basically limitless source of conflict and story.

The first RPG to use this setting was RuneQuest, (in)famous for its deadly combat and critical hit tables. Nowadays, much Glorantha gaming uses the newer HeroQuest rules, designed by Robin Laws3. I’m sure much of what I found new in the system originated elsewhere, but coming from more-traditional games like D&D or even Ars Magica, it’s a bit of a surprise.

First, there are no statistics such as D&D’s Strength et al. There are no separate rules for your connections to other characters and society, no special rules for equipment, no rules for measuring your connection to your god. There are abilities. If I want a character who is strong and has a magical sword, I would take the abilities Strong like an ox and Trollbane, a family heirloom. I would represent my ties to my clan with Red Spear clanswoman, and my religious affiliations with Initiate of Vinga. Another game’s “classes” can be represented by keywords, basically an “umbrella” ability which explicitly or implicitly includes several other abilities under it, such as Weaponthane or Godtalker.

Most contests are handled with a single opposed d20 roll; the goal is to roll under your ability. If I’m trying to lift a boulder, I’d roll my Strong like an ox 17 against whatever the GM assigns as the boulder’s resistance (perhaps Heavy 10, but maybe more if it is magically tied to the spirit world). The result can be a fumble (natural 20), failure (rolled above the ability), success (rolled equal to or below the ability), or critical (natural 1). The contestants' results are cross-referenced, resulting in a (rare) tie or a marginal, minor, major, or complete victory for one. I would do the same thing for combat (my Trollbane 14 against a trollkin’s Scrappy bite 10) or social interactions (my Red Spear clanswoman 14 against Avoid Imperial trouble 17 to convince my clan to hide me from Imperial soldiers).

Dramatically-important sequences are handled similarly, but with extended contests, where victories and defeats accumulate until one side has scored enough to win the contest. Critically, note that the system does not privilege combat with special rules, nor should combats necessarily be extended contests — only if they are dramatically signficant.

One of the quietly elegant parts of the system is how it handles increasing ability scores. Implied above is that a score can’t go above 20. If you want to raise your score above 20, it resets to 1 and gains a mastery. If I have one more mastery than my opponent, my result is bumped up one — fumble to failure, failure to success, and success to critical. If I have two more masteries, my result is bumped up twice (and beyond that it’s not clear why we’d be rolling). These masteries are represented in the game with Glorantha’s Mastery rune W.4 If I’ve raised my skill with Trollbane to 5 with a mastery, this would be written as Trollbane 5W1 on my character sheet, and if I’m in a contest against a trollkin’s Scrappy bite 10, I would roll more failures but (due to my extra mastery) they would be treated as successes, and my successes (2–4) would be treated as criticals, just as if I’d rolled a 1.

(Those with a more visual eye might find the table below a little easier, comparing the results against an opposition with no mastery.)

roll 17 5W1
1 critical critical
2 success critical
3 success critical
4 success critical
5 success critical
6 success success
7 success success
8 success success
9 success success
10 success success
11 success success
12 success success
13 success success
14 success success
15 success success
16 success success
17 success success
18 failure success
19 failure success
20 fumble failure

If multiple abilities can apply to a contest (perhaps I want to use Trollbane to shatter the dark troll’s maul, which could be either Trollbane or Strong like an ox), one ability can augment the other, dividing the secondary ability by 5 and adding the result to the primary. So my Trollbane 5W1, augmented by Strong like an ox 17, would be treated like Trollbane 8W1. Sneakily, see that we can treat flaws just like abilities. Sometimes they’re rolled on their own (I don’t want to ambush the Lunar patrol before they’re in position, so I pit my Obedient soldier 12 against my Hate Lunars 17); sometimes they’re treated as negative augments (my attempt at sweet-talking would be my Convincing patter 12, but since the target is a Lunar commander, it’s modified by my Hate Lunars flaw and becomes Convincing patter 9).

I think the main obstacle to playing a game in Glorantha is the apparent inaccessibility of its cultures. This can be overcome with a series of two-page summaries called HeroQuest Voices, which presents the setting as a series of questions and answers between a novice and an elder. For example:

Q: How do we deal with others?
A: Our clan is our family — they are the air we breathe. Even those no-good cousins at Rotroot are blood kin, and they will never starve as long as a Varmandi [our clanfolk] is alive with a pack of food.

The relatively brief size and evocative answers should be enough to help any interested-but-intimidated player ease into a game.

  1. The remainder of this discussion of Glorantha is taking as a given that a fully-detailed setting is a virtue. I generally tend to agree with Ken Hite’s defense of sketchy setting, though note that his dismissal of fully-detailed settings is “This is all well and good, if you’re Greg Stafford”. ↩︎

  2. And the fact that Barker was a neo-Nazi! (Added March 22, 2022.) ↩︎

  3. Diligent reader of this blog will recognize this name, among other things for the Gumshoe system discussed in “The Ashen Stars are right”. ↩︎

  4. The font used for this rune contains only this Mastery rune from the Glorantha core rune font, which is © 2014 Moon Design Publications. ↩︎