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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6 responses 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).

  2. Session 3 of our Runequest 1978 game is live! https://youtu.be/LDF7DP0DTyY

    Alas, subsequent tech problems made recording impossible and were only resolved with the purchase of a new PC, so I’ll record a short video summarizing the (rather explosive) events of Sessions 4, 5, and 6, and videos will recommence at Session 7.

    One thing you’ll see across these sessions is that I am playing the NPCs as very ‘grabby’ toward Avid and Sam’s characters. In-fiction, young people are of critical concern to their elders, whose focus is on generational knowledge transmission and cult status. In terms of technique, I’m bringing a very Sorcererous approach to my play. This is met by Avid and Sam’s adamant, uncompromising play of Ajax and Eusebius. We’re creating a heady brew.

  3. Listening to the recording about sessions 4,5, and 6. The mention of the labyrinth brought back memories of the Lamentations game we participated in.
    Am enjoying the listen, though I do not have a specific question or note, save that you all seem to have embraced the cults quite enthusiastically.

    • Okay I made it to the session where the new character damaged herself in the first fight. Sam, my very first Runequest combat roll I fumbled and slit my stomach open. So I feel ya!

    • You know, after that Fumble, my thought was, “At least we’ve seen the worst the system has to throw at us.” Whatever loppings, mutilations, and amputations lie in wait, we’re ready.

  4. A summary of sessions 4, 5 and 6 is available here – https://youtu.be/7u2rELmwGz0

    In sessions 8 and 9, I had the sense that I was failing to honor the content within certain scenes. It was the same sense I had during the Council scene from session 2. I felt it especially sharply during a dialogue between Eustorgios and Ajax in session 8, where I felt that what I said next was exactly what I was expecting Eustorgios to say next, instead of listening to Avid and being potentially bounced by her contributions.

    Concepts from the Adept Play course have been helpful in reflecting on this issue. Many of us are familiar with Ron’s arrow diagram of the interactions between different situational components (https://adeptplay.com/2021/09/08/situation-case-study/).

    In this particular game, the golden arrows and the blue arrows are particularly heavy with fictional content.

    Because of this, when it’s my responsibility to narrate the content that gets us from one now to the next, I’ve become too fixated on the the blue and golden arrows, and failed to honor the contents of the little black arrows.

    Before I go on, it’s important to understand two things: When I say some arrows are heavier than others, this has nothing to do with the relative importance of their contents – the little black arrows are just as consequential as anything in the big arrows. I’m merely indicating differences in quantity of content. Second: The responsibility of getting us to the next now isn’t mine alone. When Sam and Avid are tasked with opening a new scene (for instance, by saying what their characters do next) they are responsible to the same situational elements that I am when it’s my job. In fact, noticing the ease with which they carry it off has highlighted my own opportunity for improvement on this.

    So far, I’ve tried these techniques to avoid losing sight of within-scene content, with some success:

    (1) Slowing down and being aware when it’s my responsibility to move us to the next now;

    (2) Honoring the relevant content of the blue and golden arrows, but reminding myself (sometimes aloud) that my job is to get us to the next now, not make a cinematic montage;

    (3) When the job is done, savagely puncturing my balloon of situational speculation, consciously clearing my mind of anything that isn’t immediately relevant, and trying to play as close to the bleeding edge of the little black arrows as I can.

    This is an ongoing learning process for me (you’ll see me fail to implement some of these practices in session 10), but putting the course concepts and diagrams to use has been very helpful for identifying how to improve in this area.

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