Good-bye, Glorantha

Sam, Avid and I embarked on a game of 2nd Edition Runequest. I volunteered to GM, and, inspired by Ron’s run on RQ2, jettisoned Glorantha and determined to use Runequest as a launching-pad for my own Bronze Age fantasy.

Still exhausted by the endless course corrections Avid and I had to make during our Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha duet in 2021, I was adamant about following the procedures of the 1978 text, meaning: Adolescent player-characters, generated via random rolls, with Skills increased and Battle Magic learned by taking on debt to religious and social organizations, in a post- and maybe pre-Apocalyptic metaphysical context.

I’m attaching the inspirational material I shared during character creation. The big idea is: Two interlocking societies – the Anthropoi and the Parthenoi – each one gender supremacist and defining itself in contradistinction to the other, with the masculine Earth culture engaging in geographically fixed terrace agriculture and a high degree of economic planning, and the feminine Air culture continuously moving on a circuit of nomadic pastoralism driven by a relentless, Dionysiac orgy. The cultural touchpoint is pre-Hellenic Greece after the collapse of the Minoan civilization, and the geographic touchpoint is the Andes mountain range.

The most relevant detail for our characters is that neither culture recognizes the other’s right to a relationship with their offspring. This means that children are contested territory in a cold and sometimes hot war between the two societies, while also being prized as initiates into guilds and cults. It also means that physical coercion and psychological subjugation of the young is quite limited, and a certain degree transgression on their part is tolerated – after all, an unhappy child can always escape one culture and assimilate into the other, or be adopted into another cultic or professional group. In this, I was inspired by David Graeber’s discussion of women’s circumstances in among the Lele people in Debt: The First 5,000 years

I imposed the somewhat arbitrary constraint that our player characters would hail from Winding Ways, an Anthropoi town raised atop the Labyrinth, the Earth cult’s center of power. Avid and Sam jumped right into the midst of things by making, respectively: Ajax, a biologically female boy whose parents are dead, and Eusebius, a biologically male boy whose father Eustorgios is a well-respected builder in Winding Ways, but who also has a Parthenoi mentor, Zenais, who’s been his secret teacher in the ways of spirits. Eustorgios is Ajax’s maternal uncle and took him in when his parents died.

As Avid and Sam selected skills and their characters’ networks of debt came into focus, it became clear to me that Eusebius was being coached by Zenais to leave Winding Ways and join the Parthenoi, despite being sought after by the Priests of the Labyrinth on account of his high POW. Ajax, surprisingly, given his orphaned status, was much more integrated into the fabric of the town, working alongside his uncle Eustorgios in the Waller guild, tagging along with the miners’ guild, and studying map-making with the priests of the Labyrinth. I asked both players to describe a typical day for their characters, and they told me that, after their obligations were discharged in the morning, they went out into the woods to fuck around, like kids anywhere.

The only original procedure I brought to the table was the abstraction of currency, as the backdrop I had in mind likely wouldn’t support a sophisticated coinage system. Instead of Clacks, Lunars, and Wheels, we’re using “Ls,” a representation of one’s reputation, access to resources, individually owned commodities, and capacity to mobilize social support. What I quite liked about this procedure in play was that it opened a more nuanced use of the “Treasure Hoards” rules in Chapter IX, so that, for instance, Ajax’s escape from the many-legged monster in the bunker-lab didn’t earn him as many Treasure Factors as slaying it might have, he still received a degree of social approval for how he handled himself.

I’m bearing Sorcerer in mind while playing this game. Between character creation and our first session, I folded a pinch more weirdness into my prep. It was obvious that Zenais was also Eusebius’ mother, and assigning her the vulnerable status of a pregnant woman gave Sam one hell of a Bang to work with. Ajax didn’t have as obvious a crisis-point to strike at, but Avid had mentioned them looking for stuff in the woods, so throwing the ancient bunker-lab across his path made all the sense in the world. I added some magical peril to the woods that, in the early scenes, passed over Eusebius and Ajax but locked onto their friend Diokles. I’ve described elsewhere how a single detail is enough to make me ready to play. Over the weekend, I hit upon the Earth cult’s sentient, flying Sky-Bulls and put down my pen, because I could hear the electric guitars gearing up and knew I had everything I needed.

Even so, the action rose so precipitously that the entire situation was shaken up in only two hours of play. I felt called upon to make bigger, more sweeping moves than I ever have before while GMing, as the adults took cascading actions beyond Ajax and Eusebius’ ken. These moves did not take agency away from Sam and Avid. On the contrary, their decisions created the context for my decisions, such that (for instance), Eusebius’ interference with the search party guaranteed the Anthropoi wouldn’t spot his mother’s camp, while Ajax’s drawing of the ‘chaotic’ Rune prompted Hesperos to strafe the woods on his Sky-Bull and make the roll he needed to spot Zenais and fall upon her like a storm.

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One response to “Good-bye, Glorantha”

  1. Session 2 of our game of Runequest 1978 is live.

    An insight I had during preparation for RQ1978 (not long before I started prep for this particular run) is that the ‘Runequest dungeon’ or adventure is uniquely contained within a larger social labyrinth of cults, guilds, and other groups. After a couple sessions of play, I have a new appreciation for the original text’s insightful portrayal of currency inside a non-capitalist economy: the function of Clacks, Lunars, and Wheels is NOT the purchase of commodities for private consumption (no matter what RQG’s lavish book of “Weapons & Equipment” might suggest). Currency works to enable and facilitate the shifting of one’s social relation vis-a-vis the cults and, by extension, the larger society and the gods. From this point of view, abstracting currency to “Ls” is merely a cosmetic change to the 1978 procedures, no revision or subversion involved.

    I came into the second session on high alert, riding the momentum that concluded our last game. Looking back, I should have taken some moments to breathe between scenes. In particular, my narration of the Council was far more energy- and time-intensive than it should have been. I narrated it sequentially, and kind of stumbled over the certainties as I went poking around the fiction looking for the potential uncertainties, like a kid startled by frogs under the rocks he’s flipping over. You can see how tired I am on the other side of it.

    What I should have done is this: Taken stock of what had been locked down by previous previous verbal contributions (namely: Ajax’s revelation of his spirit-walk to Nikon, Hesperos’ desire to see a Parthenoi ‘child-thief’ punished, Zenais’ correct guess that Eustorgios and Eusebius had not ratted her out and her resultant resolve to keep their relationships to her a secret, Ajax’s consenting to go under the Truth spell and tell his story to the larger assembly); also, what I wanted to convey in narration for the pure joy of enriching the fiction (mainly: the raucous, very Athenian form of democracy practiced by the Anthropoi).

    Had I done this, I would have seen that there was no uncertainty as to which way the Council’s judgment would go. In fact, Ajax’s testimony to the Council was more a move by me-as-Nikon than by Avid (hence why it didn’t even occur to me to call for a “Speak Own Language” roll – barring interjection by Avid or Sam, any misunderstandings would have been capably navigated by the high priest). We could have flown through narration of the outcomes of the Council and plunged back into more interactive verbal exchange much more efficiently.

    I’m looking forward to playing a few lower-temperature scenes around Winding Ways next session (assuming, of course, that Avid or Sam don’t take action that sparks the inferno again).

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