Path to the Sea: Fiction in Glorantha RPGs
I was recently privileged to read the short story/excerpt “Morden Defends the Camp” – which I understand to be only a part of an unfinished novel by Greg Stafford. It made me wonder again, as I’ve wondered before, why there seems to be such a small amount of fiction for Glorantha. I’ve been reading about and following Glorantha for several years now, but for the first time I felt like I intuitively understood the way the world functioned; I understood what it was to be a hero in Glorantha – something that several years of reading Gloranthan books and playing Glorantha games had failed to instill in me in as visceral a way as had this story.
Let’s face it, Glorantha books read like reference texts – this observation is not meant as criticism, but as a statement of fact: two of the last three major releases for Glorantha are explicitly reference works. The Coming Storm and The Guide to Glorantha are both catalogs of setting detail, and while there’s nothing wrong with this, it does beg the question of what about these books will draw in a new player or a casual reader. The art, perhaps, and there are people for whom lore is sufficient, but I think those people are rare. Some games have the advantage of universal themes (or no themes at all), which require little explication (or obviate it completely). Glorantha, with its (in)famous depth, is not one of those games. It needs a hook, a guide, a lead-in to its world. Do not throw the casual reader into the ocean and say “swim!”; they will rebel. Draw them in first to the shallows – teach them to love the water, then show them the sea and they will dive in of their own accord.
Fiction provides that hook. Good fiction establishes the mechanics of the world it occupies. It creates structure. The events of its narrative, the characters peopling it, and the world surrounding all of it give context to teach the reader what the world is all about. A good piece of fiction arms the reader with an innate grasp of the physics of the world; in an RPG, the player may then immerse himself in the setting with the faith that he has some familiarity with what his character should be, and what his character can be.
The Heroquest RPG rules are somewhat analogous to this structural problem. In fact, Heroquest was for several years the only experience I had with Glorantha; it was the rule system for the first two Glorantha campaigns that I ran, and though I enjoyed its free nature, and the way it could scale up or down to encompass many different levels of play, and how “Sneaky Like an Alynx 17” was a useful skill, Heroquest was not the game for me, nor for the three groups that I have run it for. For each of the groups, the problem was always the same: what do we do? And: How do I know what my character can do? And: What does my magic look like and how does it work? Perhaps this is my failing as a GM, but I would submit that the mechanics for a game should support the function of the game’s world.
Perhaps the most explicit example of this comes in the “Dwarf’s Armring” adventure from the Sartar Companion. I love this adventure, as it rewards players for acting with suitably Orlanthi distrust of foreigners (by not trusting the dwarf, blame for the dragon’s attack falls on others), and can be the germ of a great quest to either Tink or Old Wind, where the players may encounter strange and bizarre Gloranthan secrets. One thing has always bothered me about the adventure though, and this is the acquisition of Orlanth’s Dragonbreaking power at Old Wind Temple. What does the Dragonbreaking power do? What does it look like? What is it, even – and how does it work? How does the hero acquire it, and how does he change once he has? The adventure does not cover this, and I as the narrator had no idea how to frame it other than as a new ability which now allows the hero to kill the dragon. Here, the description of the Dragonbreaking Power would inform our understanding of the world – instead it is simply another bland ability on a character’s sheet. As the GM, I could make something up, but it’s a missed opportunity to explore Gloranthan myth and legend.
Glorantha is long on facts about itself, but it has less to bring those facts to life. The world, the peoples, their history and myth are the things we love about it to the point that the term “scholars of Glorantha” is often used. I am no different in my love of these things, but I contend that there should be a greater focus on the individual as a player character. Tell us about the heroes of Glorantha; tell us about their spirit guardians, and how they are bound to their masters; tell us about their magic, how it looks and feels; tell us how they use and acquire it. Show me what I can be, then use the rules to tell me how to be it.