This is my first post at Adept Play, so a little bit of background context may be in order. I’ve been exposed to roleplaying games since elementary school, made several tentative attempts to play them, ended up developing my understanding of how to play them slowly, starting in university and continuing to this day. I became exposed to Glorantha media objects with King of Dragon Pass in high school, then the version of Heroquest with the orange cover (and the sweet magical duel on said cover) in university, and then I learned these things were connected. By 2019, I moved from passive fan activity (purchasing, reading, quietly writing private bits of prose) to a less oxymoronic type of fan activity, and then in 2021, my partner wanted to know more about this Glorantha thing because I was posting, in an active game, etc..
There was some hesitation on my part, I think because I was aware of the process of thinking around the areas of the media property I didn’t like without rejecting them. But they (my partner’s pronouns are they/she, and I will be alternating them to refer to the same person throughout) were my partner, and we shared a fair amount of media tastes, and she was hooked in a fairly critical way. The image for this post was cropped by them and sent to me with the caption “sacred ground”, and then she and I had a back and forth about this zany fantasy setting. Then a few months later, they asked if I could run a game of Runequest (the one with “: Roleplaying in Glorantha” on the cover) for her, one-on-one. They wanted to experience this (never having played a tabletop roleplaying game before, nor having more than marginal familiarity with the cultures of tabletop roleplaying discussion) because she wanted to be able to forestall any gatekeeping attempts based on them never playing any official RPG for the setting.
We sat down on a call one Saturday to start the process of reading through the rulebook and creating a character. She had some simple principles- they didn’t want to play a game where her character was required to engage in lethal violence, or ideally any violence at all, to achieve said character’s goals. Violence as an option rather than a feature, you might say. They then, after reading through the character creation chapter, decided on a premise that she wanted to play through- their character would be a courtier (specifically a jeweler) to the Demivierge of Rhigos, an established backdrop sentence in Glorantha who exists halfway between a joke (her fancy title is just “half-virgin”) and a kind of accelerationist take on the sword-and-sorcery genre figure that I always associate with Queen Yishana from the Elric stories. Oversexed, soft-domme, with massive harems of lovers and an interest in the protagonist, quite easy to read in psychosexual terms, and then the Demivierge does this all while still being a virgin. Rhigos, for its part, is a city marked as being in Glorantha’s country of Esrolia.
Examining the Family History, we realized very quickly that the options for Esrolian characters all looked northward and all focused on events relevant to the metaplot exploits of the character Argrath. My partner had somewhat less than no desire to interact with Argrath, so we decided not to use the Family History and went with the shorter version in one sidebar. She was enamored with one of the deities described in the 90s-era books Greg Stafford put out as explorations of the deep mythology of the setting, the figure Entekos who gives her name to the fourth of these, the Entekosiad. Fairly obviously, there was no writeup for any version of Runequest for this goddess, nor for the games in the Hero Wars lineage, nor did any fansites emerge from searching, for this was the one among these texts that had a fandom reputation of being both obscure and irrelevant, an exploration of weird deep time that didn’t make much sense.
So I said we’d start from the Orlanth cult and modify it from there, and cursed the lack of any guidance on how to make your own cults in Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, not thinking about the Runequest (with the woman fighting a large lizard on the cover) pdfs I had which would, on a close read, prove to have such guidance. But at the moment, that was that. We determined that we wanted to start off a few years before RQ:RiG’s presumed start date, and that this character, Topazine of Rhigos, was a lead figure in a secret Entekos cult that had emerged in Esrolia from prolonged Lunar contact and cultural exchange, figured out a few goals she might have, and then concocted a basic situation.
She was going out to the countryside to investigate a site that might prove to be a lost temple of an ancient goddess of the air. I prepared this as a rough dungeon-like object: no firm map, but a basic set of spatial relationships, some entities to interact with, and a variety of paths to the top. I also had rather a lot of backdrop in my mind that I thought might prove to be backstory. What happened instead? Well, my partner immediately started flirting with the Wind Child (winged human) I’d put on the outskirts. I realized that the general trend of Glorantha fandom and Gloranthan branded products had lied to me- that obscurantism when it comes to playing with myths is a frustrating, subtractive enterprise. And play happened. At the end of it all, Topi had won the blessing of the earth goddess Ernalda and of the tutelary spirit of this temple, she had confronted the god of winter and tricked him into trying to freeze the unfreezable, and she had entered into the sanctuary, where she met her goddess… and then had sex with her for a month (in fairyland time, or Godtime as you’re supposed to call it in Glorantha).
And then we realized, separately, that this was all very resonant to a metaplot event scheduled for the year we’d set for the game. The Windstop, where the storm god Orlanth dies locally and this causes a horrific winter that lasts for a whole year or more. The only solution in the metaplot was to free Orlanth and return him from the dead. But what Topi had done was to establish contact with an alternative to Orlanth and drive away the winter through trickery. So. What happens?
The first-order consequences were quite simple- the Windstop effect just… stops in most of Esrolia, thanks to this new temple of Entekos. But the second-order consequences quickly established the rhythm of play. Firstly, the Runequest rules didn’t seem to fit with what we were doing, so we progressively discarded them and started improvising our own set. Secondly, we needed to split up sessions of play into two types- sessions where a standard set of character advocacy (partner as Topi, myself as… everyone else) prevailed and where Topi would do things and take actions, and then sessions where a looser set of character advocacy prevailed and where we attempted to game out the effects of Topi’s latest set of actions and interactions. And then thirdly, we had a methodology brewing to address the interesting questions of play.
These improvised rules- this “systemless” (really a system that’s inarticulate but also proceeds by its own very strong rules) game- are nearly entirely devoid of Fortune or Karma resolution. (We have done some brief experiments and they have not been incorporated going forward.) So it’s very much Drama-primary, it has rules that are not articulated but very strong, and so- where is the bounciness coming from? What makes these questions answered or explored through play, rather than through taking turns at being a “storyteller”?
I think that at least a strong part of it comes down to a division of authorities and character advocacy that’s not as typical in published games but is fairly characteristic of how kinky “scenes” tend to be set up, particularly for kinks in the BDSM space. There’s a modal shift between “planning the scene” and “doing the scene”, and even if you’re doing the “GMing”, the work of framing the scene while in the planning mode, that has no intrinsic connection to your role within the scene. So in the “planning mode”, I have one set of authorities in setting up the constraints and defining the characters who will be present in the “scene mode”, and in the “scene mode”, I have an entirely different set of authorities in playing out the character and their actions. And the advocacy that’s expected of me in the two modes is aligned but distinct.
And so since the situation is “fixed”, in that neither of us is deploying outcome authority at the same time as situational authority, or can deploy such, by the unarticulated rules, there is that unpredictable quality of play as the characters are disassociated from the players and any and all of the players can advocate for the character they are playing in a given scene to the hilt without that effecting the overall situation. (With the additional, essential but also unarticulated rules for when “scene mode” must be suspended or ended and the authorities switch over to “planning mode.”)
I doubt this specific system is easily generalizable, of course, because the social context here is one that makes it easy to know when to drop out of the scene and go into planning mode or vice versa but not as easy to explain this to anyone, and I think, on reflection, that there’s also a degree to which this method can tangle IIEE and produce a slow, snarled resolution process. And beyond that, twosie play obviously makes it difficult to have scenes with more than two people being relevant at a time, and there are difficulties in kink scenes, especially in text-based ones, with having more than two people interacting at once. But I do think that this form of play had a very useful personal effect, beyond the delightful pleasure of it in itself, in making all that language, IIEE, authorities, character advocacy, immediately meaningful and clearer, because the received vocabulary of roleplaying games was immediately inadequate. And then beyond that, the developed methods of kink/erotic roleplay and scene-setting are an area I’m finding interesting to analyze and compare, in particular the way safety techniques are used and conceived of.
This is where the comment that prompted the decision to turn this into an Actual Play post (“the use of Glorantha as a metaphorical playground for exploring delicate or nuanced real-world problems”) finally becomes relevant, because through the next sessions of play after the first, Topi would return to Rhigos, and we began asking questions about that place and its ruler, digging through the various “deep lore”/published working notes on Esrolia and various bits of fanwork and fan interpretation to try and discern the themes at play, the directions the signifiers point, and the like. And one of the components we discovered was, of course, various roots of the Goddess Movement working through the soil, along with a great deal of fan interpretations which, to us, seemed clearly rooted in anxieties about implicit lesbianism. Both of us are explicit lesbians, so we took an explicitly campy approach. We decided that rather than a “cynical” interpretation- that the Demivierge was “technically a virgin” in a manipulative way- that our Demivierge was explicitly questioning what virginity meant and had worked out a compact with her backdrop pure and chaste goddess Delain whereby she ceremonially refrained from the receptive position in penis-in-vagina sex only and performed any and every other sexual act (including topping in penis-in-vagina sex) frequently and deliberately. So from that assertion of it as a deliberate, transgressive, magical-with-a-k act, we then began building out Rhigos as an ideological posture. Again, in a campy way with low-register and high-register elements- ha ha, the decadent fleshpots have little fired-clay tablets you wear to indicate what kinks you’re into, there are guides to safe words, but also consciously attempting to develop it as an alternate position or locus of power within Esrolia as an imagined polity.
This methodology, of offering a low-register, provocative statement and then a higher-register one alongside it, allowing the tensions between them to spin out meaning like sparks, continues forward. People assume that Esrolia, a country ruled by women, is bad at traditionally masculine tasks like warmaking because they oppress men in some fashion, feminizing them symbolically? Let’s drag in the real-world asinine conspiracy theories around phytoestrogen-containing foods like soy, yams, and so on and suggest that some food grown in the Esrolian soil has high quantities of “phytoesrolians” that can literally feminize people, that there’s some Bene Gesserit gender anxiety literally happening, and then let’s blow up the binary of this gender struggle by making the explicit offer of phytoesrolian magic/food products a part of Topi’s method of diplomacy.
So to a very strong extent, the underlying questions being explored here are “How can ‘we’ (deliberately loaded term) interact with mythology and cultural heritage if we’re people who have been excluded or sharply constrained within it?” and “Should ‘we’ interact with it? To what extent?”. Glorantha is a very useful tool for this exploration, simply because it already asserts a dialogue between the different “Gloranthas” you can make, a shared language with which to engage the real-world mythology being cribbed, a set of pre-existing transformations of that mythology, and the explicit acceptance of critical tools and postmodernist playfulness within its space. There are a number of questions that can come up with, say, trans women and transfeminine people identifying with Inanna/Ishtar from passages in the popular understanding of Mesopotamian culture and Inanna’s Descent, especially related to race and cultural appropriation, which certainly can clog up the question of “what about Inanna’s signifiers makes her appealing? What can I get from interacting with her as a cultural and mythical entity?”
And with Glorantha, you can point at the Red Goddess and say, “You get to be the Ishtar now. Let’s see what you’ve got.” ‘We’, in the loaded sense, had a couple of things to explore with queerness and queer-adjacentness- lesbianism, transness, nonbinary transness, asexuality and aromanticism, assorted forms of kinky sexuality, polyamory- along with neurodivergences, mental disability or illness, stuff that’s relevant to myself or my partner or both. But the method, I strongly think, works beyond those categories.
The game is still ongoing, though once we reached a climactic point of arranging a four-way sacred marriage that cosmologically united opposing powers and restructured the setting on the level of changing its base color symbols, the two of us moving in together and adjusting to cohabitation put it more or less on hold from about June of 2022. It’s now restarting, getting back into the swing of things, and I can’t wait to see where the process of play takes us next.
This is a fairly broad post, so I feel it would be best to leave the field for questions and comments open, with the caveat that my memory is of course imperfect and I was not actively analyzing play with any developed critical language until after that long break starting in June of 2022, which will inevitably limit the details I can offer in that area.