martes, 31 de agosto de 2021

Cults of Prax review

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The world of Glorantha is rich in detail. But back in the tender beginnings of the RuneQuest roleplaying game, the setting was far from detailed. Glorantha was but a small map with names, a couple pages of background information and the bestiary included in the rulebook of the 1st and 2nd editions. However, that changed in 1979 when Chaosium published the supplement Cults of Prax.

Up until then, the California-based games company had only published several scenarios such as Balastor's Barracks, Apple Lane, and Snake Pipe Hollow, as well as supplements with stats for enemies. Unlike those, Cults of Prax was the first supplement to broaden the background information on the world of Glorantha. Written by Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin, this book opened the doors to Glorantha for the fans. It described 15 cults or religions from a place called (yes, you guessed it) Prax, including their myths and the magic they offered. Here such idiosyncratic Gloranthan cults as Storm Bull, Yelmalio, Lhankor Mhy or Aldrya were described for the first time ever. On top of that, the book includes background information about Prax and a short story set there. In the following review I tell you all about it.

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Cults of Prax was originally published in 1979 with the cover seen above. Later in 1981 Chaosium reprinted the supplement with a new cover, and Games Workshop also used the new cover when they published the British edition in 1982. Much later, in 2002 Moon Design got the rights to print the book together with Cults of Terror and other cults featured in Trollpack and in some magazines and titled it Cult Compendium. Finally, in 2016 Chaosium did a PDF-reprint with the original cover as part of the stretch-goals reached in the crowdsourcing campaign of RuneQuest Classic Edition. This remastered edition is the one I am reviewing, printed on demand straight from Chaosium's online store.

Left: The cover from 1981 with William Church's color map of Prax - Right: Dario Corallo's cover for Cult Compendium


Cults of Prax is a thin 118-page softcover book with a square back binding. The interior is black and white, with some text boxes in a grey background, all part of the slightly new and optimized layout by Rick Meints and Nick Nacario. The art is as scarce as in RQ2 and most other RPG publications of the time. The illustrators are William Church, who also did those famous runes, Gene Day, Luise Perrin and Steve Swenston, who also did the cover. The full-color cover shows a mule, a woman and a man talking to intelligent baboons. It is a scene from the chronicle of Biturian Varosh, a trader whose adventures around the plains of Prax are told in the book (see further down). Despite now being so iconic, it can be difficult to understand what is going on if you have not previously read the book, and the scene itself has a weird composition. Therefore, an image more directly related to the cults would have been a much better choice. For example, a worship ceremony to Waha or some scene from the gods' rich mythology.

This piece of interior art by Gene Day depicts a Praxian bison rider.


The remastered edition of Cults of Prax is 99% like the original and is divided in three main sections: an introduction, the 15 cults classified in four categories, and the appendices with extra information about the religions and additional background information about Glorantha. The other 1% is a small addition: some brief designer notes for Cults of Prax originally included in Wyrms Footnotes.

In the introduction, the authors point out several features characterizing Gloranthan religions that make them classic and distinctive core elements of this fantasy setting. This approach, summarized in a few paragraphs, is what gives these cults a feeling of realism and its special flavor. To begin with, the authors describe a cult as "a vehicle for providing communication between living people and cosmic entities known as deities", whose goal is to "provide for the many deep needs of a mortal being". This support means they offer protection, the certainty of life after death and moral and behavioral guidelines. Mortals also worship the gods for the attributes the gods attained in the feats done in mythical times that shaped the world as it is. By imitating the feats of their deities, mortals can obtain a portion of their magic. At the same time, that imitation defines each mortal's relationship with the world, so, for example, a herder naturally worships a herding god, a healer worships a healing goddess and a warrior worships a war goddess.

You may be wondering, why did the authors choose to portray only the cults of Prax, and not some of the most widespread faiths in Glorantha? The answer the authors give is they want to offer a complete overview of the religions in this particular region. Later on, they promise, they plan on publishing similar books focused on the deities of such iconic regions as Dragon Pass and the Lunar Empire. This matches the most repeated piece of advice for getting started in roleplaying in Glorantha (see here). And, actually, in that early stage of the development of the setting, the defined world was mostly comprised of these three regions, the ones where Stafford's wargames White Bear & Red Moon and Nomad Gods are set. I wish they had managed to publish those other books, although since Cults of Prax already includes some cults common in those other regions, there would have overlapped a bit. Could that be why they did not publish them until much later, when the much bigger Gods of Glorantha was released for RQ3?

The authors also suggest using the cults in the book as inspiration to create those from other worlds, such as Ancient Greece, Arthur's Britain or Hyboria. As in the case of RuneQuest 2nd edition, Stafford and Perrin seem to be promoting further uses of their book to broaden its potential audience, perhaps in case Glorantha did not manage to have enough fans. This is understandable, since in 1979 this fantasy world had just begun its journey and its fanbase still had to grow.

Before describing the cults, the authors include a section about time in Glorantha, the difference between the time of the gods and historical time, as well as the Gloranthan calendar with its peculiarities. There is even space to describe the way the Lunar Empire measures time.

The 15 cults of Prax all follow a template offering a comprehensive overview of each cult after each of its sections is filled. The richness of information this affords to each cult is formidable. To start with, each cult includes the most important myths of the deity, what kind of life after death it guarantees and its runic affinities. Then how the cult interacts with the world around it, the motives for its existence, its social-political power, organization, centers of power and even its holy days. After that, you can read about the requirements for joining and for ascending in the cult hierarchy: you start as a lay member, then you can become an initiate if you pass the test, and some become priests or runelords. Each of these levels of responsibility and duty is rewarded by access to increasingly powerful magic spells, and every god has a particular list of thematic spells available to their faithful. Some cults have subcults, which represent facets of a particular god or their most renowned heroes, as well as their spirits of reprisal, magical beings who punish those who offend the gods. With this richness of information, it is surprising they did not use the same template in the later Gods of Glorantha for RQ3 with lots of cults, but leaving most of the juicy background information that made Cults of Prax stand out.

The "barbarian gods" category encompasses the most important gods in Prax's mythical history. The good ones, at least.

At the beginning of each category of gods in which the book is divided, there is background information detailing what they share in common. The first section is dedicated to the "Barbarian Gods", and describes the core gods of the Praxian animal nomads: Storm Bull, mighty god of the fight against Chaos, Eiritha, mother of the herds, Waha, the hero who established the Praxian way of life, and Daka Fal, god of ancestors. Here you can read the myths and history common to these four deities, and find out about the Praxian culture and how the nomad tribes live thanks to their herds. When you are done reading this section, you know the main myths of each god and you have a basic grasp of how the Praxians think and behave, and how their culture and magic is like, which is useful to roleplay them.

In the other categories you can read about other gods worshipped in Prax whose cults were imported into the region. For example, "Invader Gods" describes cults from different origins: Humakt, god of war and death, Yelmalio, god of light, the Seven Mothers, creators of the Red Moon, and Pavis, the founder of the city that bears his name. By explaining how these religions reached Prax, you get more and more pieces of the puzzle that makes up this region. For example, when reading the cult of the Seven Mothers you learn it reached Prax after the Lunar Empire conquered the region, and its new philosophy is radically different to that of Storm Bull's, as it does not consider the forces of Chaos as enemies. Other details are fascinating or just flavorful. For example, the description of the cult of Humakt includes the rules for duels according to the humakti code.

For veteran RuneQuest fans, it is funny seeing how some of the game rules included here evolved in later editions. For example, the classic list of gifts of Humakt did not include yet the blessing that allows your sword to do double damage, while the Truesword spell doubles damage as in RQ3 and RQG, but capped by the maximum weapon damage, as in RQ6! Whereas the Madness spell cost only 1 point to cast in RQ3, in RQG the cost was again 2 as in Cults of Prax.

The section about the "invader gods" begins with the cult of Humakt, grim god of death and honor

The next category of gods is the "Lightbringers". Although they are seven gods, the book describes only four of them: Issaries, god of Commerce and Communication, Chalana Arroy, goddess of Healing, Lhankor Mhy, god of Knowledge, and Orlanth, god of Air and Adventurers. In general, these gods are more popular in the neighboring, more civilized Kingdom of Sartar, but they have some adherents among the Praxians and the citizens of Pavis. Small details in the cults, like the four subcults of Issaries and the dislike of his cultists for hyenas due to an ancient curse make these religions special and credible.

The last category encompasses several non-human gods: Kyger Litor and Zorak Zoran, are two troll deities, and Aldrya, mother of forests and elves. They are the least common cults in Prax, because trolls and elves are not very common, but they do have their place mainly in the ruins of Old Pavis. I guess they were included for those players who enjoy roleplaying a non-human being, and they need to have their cults ready.

Aside from the cults, the book also includes a series of narrations describing the steps of the journey of a merchant through the wild plains of Prax (the one depicted on the cover). At the start of the book you can see all the steps marked on a map. His tale accompanies the reader through the book, as he comes across followers of each of the cults at every stop of the journey. Every encounter is placed next to the description of each particular cult, so the cult information informs the tale, and the tale breaths life to the cult descriptions. As Greg Stafford himself confirms in the designer notes, the travels of Biturian Varosh are included to bring "some life and color" to the cult descriptions. More importantly, they help to point out the contrast between the grand myths of the gods and the at times more down-to-earth behavior of their mortal worshippers. For example, even though the description of the cult of Humakt focuses on the concept of honor, Biturian comes across a follower of this warrior god who employs questionable methods to win a duel to death (Naimless, started out in RuneQuest Screen Pack), and this goes to show that, in spite of the tenets of each cult, their interpretation by its followers can and does vary.

Route of the travels of Biturian Varosh across the plains of Prax

Being a simple tale, Stafford manages to present characters that end up becoming endearing and that evolve a little along the story. Biturian Varosh is a priest of the god of commerce who enjoys both success and failure during his trek around the plains and, while his journey continues, there is some sort of conclusion when he is about to leave Prax. The best thing of course, is that this story lets you see Glorantha from the eyes of their inhabitants and it is a source of ideas for game masters, both in terms of scenes you can include in your games, as in the details you can include in your descriptions. For example, you can read what kind of goods he trades with several different people, how a troll priestess behaves, how some Orlanthi and Praxian ceremonies are, and it even includes references to heroquests. Fun fact: the sample character in RuneQuest 2nd edition, young Rurik, makes an appearance in this narrative as a veteran Yelmalio runelord. If you own a copy of RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, this will ring a bell, as Vasana's saga was clearly inspired by the travels of Biturian Varosh in Cults of Prax.

Finally, the appendices wrap up the book with a variety of content about the cults and Praxians. The cult compatibility table reveals what is the most common attitude of each cult towards the rest: enemies, hostile, neutral, friendly and associates. It is well done because these attitudes are not always reciprocate. For example, the followers of the Seven Mothers do not commonly feel any hostility towards any other cult (except for Zorak Zoran), but many worshippers of other gods do feel hostility towards them. After that there is information about what makes the Praxian tribes different from each other (aside from their mount): their preferred weapons, spells and cults. Here you can learn that, for example, rhino riders usually fight with lances or axes, they prefer spells such as Bladesharp and Countermagic, and most of them worship either Eiritha or Waha. However, other tribes are pretty different: for example, Orlanth has more worshippers than Waha in the Impala tribe, whereas the Morokanth have a sizeable portion of Zorak Zoran worshippers.

It is worth pointing out that these tables are the first place in the book where one learns there exist different Praxian tribes, which means the information is not well arranged at all and there are huge gaps in it. "Who are the Morokanth?" or "Who are the Pol Joni?", you are left wondering. The reason is the authors must have expected readers would already be familiar with Chaosium's wargame Nomad Gods, published in 1977, as it includes a booklet with rules and a great deal of background information about Prax and the Praxian tribes, exactly what is missing in Cults of Prax. Of course, it would have been much more useful and much less confusing for new customers to have all the information in just one place.

The cult membership by tribe and the calendar of holy days

The somewhat chaotic appendices go on to include small other tidbits of background, like a crude calendar of cult holy days, and snippets about truestones and other magical items and weapons. There is even a brief mythical and historical chronology of events in Glorantha. As in RuneQuest 2nd ed., the authors list all previous RQ publications, and tease some future ones, half of which failed to materialize: a Grazelander campaign, a Fronelan campaign, a Mostali campaign... Even more tragic is the fact that they never got to publish any Cults of Sartar or Cults of the Lunar Empire for RQ2. However, they did publish later a book about the Chaos cults: Cults of Terror, also available in PDF ad POD, as fans demanded to know the "enemy" cults of the game.

In a nutshell

On the one hand, Cults of Prax is a true classic. It showed that a roleplaying setting could handle religion and mythology as defining and central aspects of a culture. The cults are original and appealing, and their rich level of detail makes them feel real. Not only that, but they also explain the origin of magic and generate adventures with the clash of their different philosophies. Most of all, the cults of Prax demonstrate that Gloranthan adventurers are not isolated from society as in other games, but they belong to groups of other people that can offer help in exchange for some duties and responsibilities. That is the main reason why it was so influential in its time, and remained so for a long time after its publication.

Furthermore, the book offers glimpses of an interesting region and the people who live there, leaving the reader wanting more. Moreover, the travels of Biturian Varosh are a source for scenes and ideas for adventures, but first and foremost, it is an entertaining way of finding out about the "real" Glorantha, the one that varies because it ignores it is actually a setting described in books.

On the other hand, Cults of Prax would have benefited a lot from better editorial planning. The appendices are a hodgepodge of tiny bits of interesting information about the Praxians, but since the book is focused on their religion, there seems to be no place for a gazetteer of the region nor a detailed description of its inhabitants. It should have been either more complete (main places of interest, inhabitants, main personalities, fauna, common events, sample scenario, etc.) or closely followed by a book with all this other complementing information explained in detail.

The best part:

  • The myths of the different gods and goddesses
  • You can read the first versions of classic Gloranthan cults
  • Seeing Glorantha through the eyes of Biturian Varosh

The worst of it:

  • It leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of Prax and its inhabitants
  • The scarcity of art

In the following video I browse through the book in a minute and a half:

Cults of Prax is available in PDF (13$) and softcover format (20$) from Chaosium. If you buy a physical copy, you will also get the PDF if you send them an email. The PDF is also available from DrivethruRPG. And that's it; I hope you enjoyed reading this review.

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