domingo, 29 de octubre de 2023

Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses review

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Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses is a supplement for RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha by Greg Stafford and Jeff Richard detailing 16 cults of the Earth goddesses and adjacent deities. In the world of Glorantha, everyone follows at least one cult that lends its worshipers a portion of the deity's power and provides a set of moral codes that define their everyday behavior. Since the Earth Goddesses and related deities are some of the most important in the area of Dragon Pass and Prax where the current edition of RuneQuest is mainly set, this book, together with Cults of RuneQuest: The Lightbringers, is essential for any campaign in those areas, and others. In this review, I tell you all about it, including my personal impressions.

A note on biases: I have been a fan of RuneQuest and Glorantha since the early 90s, so I couldn't wait to have this book on my hands. Also, Chaosium sent me a copy so I could review it, but rest assured I have tried my best to be objective and write the review with a critical eye. Please let me know me if you think otherwise.

The beautiful cover is by Loïc Muzy - I love how the composition parallels the cover of The Lightbringers.

The content

The goddesses and gods are a central part of playing any game set in Glorantha, and cults are the organizations that structure the worship of these deities. They are not religions as we currently understand them, because belief plays no part in the life of Gloranthans: they know for a fact that gods exist. The only choice is what particular goddess or god your character chooses to worship in earnest. This choice is obviously biased by the culture your character was born in, and so for example, the inhabitants of Sartar, Heortland, Esrolia, and Prax tend to worship the Earth goddesses, the Storm gods and adjacent deities. Some of these deities are also worshiped in distant lands under different names.

While the RuneQuest corebook provides just the basic information about some of these cults so you can get started, in the Cults of RuneQuest series of supplements you get the complete information about them, and also many others. Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses describes the following 16 cults in 135 pages: Ernalda, Queen of the Earth, goddess of crops, vegetation and life in general; Aldrya, goddess of forests and elves; Asrelia, goddess of the Deep Earth, wealth, and fortune; Babeester Gor, defender goddess of the Earth who carries vengeance against transgressors; Caladra & Aurelion, the Volcano Twins; The Cult of the Bloody Tusk, cult of the savage and cruel Tusk Riders; Donandar, god of music, dance, and theater; Eiritha, goddess of the herds and cattle; Flamal, god of all plants and seeds; the Grain Goddesses, whose bounty are the cereals; Maran Gor, goddess of earthquakes; Mostal, the Maker, god of dwarves; Pamalt, Earth-King of Pamaltela, the southern continent; Ty Kora Tek, goddess of the Dead and the Underworld; Uleria, goddess of Love in all its forms; and finally Voria, virgin goddess of Spring and new beginnings.

The Ernalda cult description is the longest in the book, as it is one of the greatest cults in Glorantha.

So, while in the rulebook you get a brief description of each deity, the spells they provide, and the requirements for becoming a god-talker, priestess/priest, and runelady/runelord, here you get much more. For starters, the main myths of each deity. For example, in the case of Ernalda you get how she conceived many other deities like Aldrya and Eiritha, or how she sought for a champion to rescue her from Yelm's imprisonment. However, compared with Orlanth's in The Lightbringers, which is the most important god in that other book, this section is disappointingly short, and most myths are rather uninteresting as she is just giving her blessings effortlessly. The Orlanth cult description takes 24 pages, while Ernalda's 14. As the Earth Queen, whose cult is equally important or even more than Orlanth's, her myths should have been more detailed. Also, it would have been a good opportunity to include some myths in which she plays a more active role, rather than a passive one. Although that is our modern perception intruding in a fantasy Bronze Age world way of thinking, it would make the Ernaldan myths  more interesting for players. Still, compared with the cult description in the previous 3rd edition, she has more active spells such as Demoralize and Befuddle (I've heard Jeff Richard's wife insisted in that).

The account of the history of the cult since the Dawn of Time is also rather bland, including details like the Goddess Switch the God Learners performed, followed by the deity's otherworld (the place where the souls of worshipers go after death), funerary rites, and iconography. Then you have a section about the nature of the cult and its social/political power (did you know that the physical earth is owned by the local Ernalda temple?), how its temples are organized, and its centers of power. These sections are more detailed and, together with the ones in the Orlanth cult description, are basic to understand how the Orlanth-Ernalda culture works in Dragon Pass.

Ernalda is well loved by family and friends, so she has many subservient cults and associated cults.

After this you get the full description of the levels of cult membership, with the responsibilities and benefits (like spells and skill training) every level entails. This includes lay members, which are the ones with the lowest degree of responsibility, but also the least benefits. In the case of Ernalda, being a lay member means you can "procreate, sow seeds, and harvest food without angering the Earth deities", so you can guess most people if not everyone in an agrarian community are certainly going to be at least lay members of the Ernalda cult! This is just a sample of the kind of information about the world that makes this book key to understand how Gloranthan societies work, and some of it can be overlooked as it lays in different sections of the cult descriptions. So read the book carefully! On the other hand, the book also says "lay members are required to join in the weekly services", but what happens if they cannot attend those? Does the priestess just reprimand that lay member next time she sees him or is he punished by the cult or the goddess? The book does not say, so every particular GM will need to make a ruling when necessary.

Something that stands out in the Ernalda cult description is the amount of subcults (6), associated cults (17), and husband-protectors (9). This shows Ernalda is a big goddess focused on family, children, crops, and creating strong relationships with others. This provides her worshipers with a huge array of magic available at her great temples. Finally, the "Miscellaneous Notes" section includes information about the goddesses Esrola, Kero Fin, and Dendara, as well as cool tidbits like temple children and the marriage contests, which reminded me of that great old scenario: the Garhound Contest included in Sun County.

Asrelia is Ernalda's mother and Keeper of the Treasures of the Earth

Some might argue that all this level of detail is worthless, because spells like Pregnancy, Fertilize, or even Earthwarm are hardly ever going to be used by RuneQuest adventurers. The same goes for other cults in this book like Asrelia, Ty Kora Tek, Voria and Uleria. This might be right if you take the Cults of RuneQuest series of supplements just as sources of cool powers for your player characters. However, these books go beyond that use.

First, they are an act of worldbuilding. Glorantha was created to be a coherent magical world, so the presence of cults and magic not directly related to having "cool powers for smashing enemies" makes total sense. Actually, most Gloranthans will probably be more interested in magic that secures food and children than in other type of spells, because that's basically what you need to guarantee the survival of your family and clan. Therefore, if the PCs in your games are unlikely to use these spells or follow cults such as Ernalda, at least this information tells you a lot about how societies work in Glorantha.

Secondly, in providing all these cults, RuneQuest does not shy away from another way of playing in Glorantha. Granted, like other fantasy games striving to create heroic stories, most RuneQuest games are going to focus on epic battles and high adventure. But unlike most of those other games, in RuneQuest you can also play other, very different stories, that can be as interesting and rewarding. For example, why not play a group of characters whose main goal is to care for the wellbeing of their community? Crops, wealth, food, cattle, and yes, children. Imagine a group of player characters made up only of initiates of Ernalda, Asrelia, Eiritha, and Ty Kora Tek. Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses makes that possible and so the game is not only more well-rounded in its worldbuilding, but also in the scope and wider range of stories it helps to create. Admittedly, it would be a challenge for me to create a campaign with such a group of PCs, but that has more to do with my limitations as a GM than with the fact of whether or not that could make for an interesting campaign, provided everyone at the table were on board with it. Or, imagine a clan whose warriors went away to fight the Lunar empire or other threats and never came back. Now mostly only women remain, and they have to make sure the clan endures. Wouldn't that make for a fantastic campaign?

Thirdly, some of these cults are clearly made for NPCs, like the Cult of the Bloody Tusk. The same is true of some cults in the Cults of RuneQuest: The Lightbringers (f.ex. the cult of Gagarth is mostly for bandit NPCs). This will be even more clear when other books come out like the one covering the Chaos gods.

Eiritha is the goddess of the herds and cattle

A detail I feel ambivalent about is the presence of Pamaltelan cults in the book. So far, all RuneQuest publications are focused on Dragon Pass and its adjacent home lands. I have read some fans complain about the fact the scope of the core rulebook is so limited, when Glorantha is such a big world. Therefore, the presence of Pamalt's cult description in this book is an incredible window to that other southern continent of Glorantha and its magic, since Pamalt is one of the main deities there. It includes a basic rundown of some of the main regions in the southern continent, including the story of how Fonrit became a slave nation due to Garangordos the Cruel, and how Doraddi chieftains are chosen. A pity that there was not enough space to include some of the many regional subcults Pamalt has. Still, it is great to see this glimpse into the huge plains of inland Pamaltela. The associated cults offer another glimpse at the array of gods under the Pamalt pantheon: Aleshmara, Cronisper, Rasout, Vangono... they all help form a basic image of life in inland Pamaltela. 

At the same time, though, it is not enough to entice fans to play campaigns in Pamaltela, as a lot of the necessary information about its inhabitants, different kingdoms, cultures, etc, is still missing. It was perhaps included just as an example of how different the state of affairs of the Earth cults is in the southern continent. This is because Pamalt, the main land god there, survived the Gods War, as opposed to Genert, the main land god of Genertela, who was destroyed by Chaos and thus Prax and the Wastes are now desertic lands. Besides, it looks like they did not pay much attention to certain details, since Fleetfoot it is a Rune spell that does exactly the same as a common spirit magic spell, which is odd. It looks like they mixed some of the rules from RQ2 (Mobility) with some of the rules created for RQ3 (the Pamalt cult description including the Fleetfoot spell) without realizing how they intersect. Still, I hope we will see someday an official supplement covering in detail at least some lands of Pamaltela.

Pamalt is the main land god of Pamaltela, the same way Genert was the main land god of Genertela.

Moreover, the Ernalda cult description includes a paragraph about another Pamaltelan cult: the goddess Faranar, Pamalt's wife, who the God Learners identified with Ernalda. I understand saying these two goddesses are basically the same under different names is convenient, because it saves space and makes the setting less confusing for beginners. However, their cults cannot be the same, because they exist in two very different contexts, and their worshipers may have different approaches to certain topics, not to mention different associated deities and myths. Conflating two cults like that is too reductionist and skews all the cultural context that is so important for cults. Therefore, it would have been better to save Faranar for a future supplement about the Pamaltelan savannahs.

The same can be said of Yelm, Hippoi and Hyalor. The book mentions how in Saird, parts of Peloria and among the Grazelanders, these are associated cults of Ernalda, but then, can the rest of the cult description be used exactly as described to represent the Ernalda cult in those regions? The book should have been clearer on how the cult varies in different regions. And if that is too much detail, then the cult description should have specified it is only valid for Sartar and Esrolia, instead of trying to make it look universal. This "universality" works much better in the section about the Grain Goddesses, as it provides different myths for every goddess relating to the culture she is part of. This provides glimpses of cultures far away from Dragon Pass, such as Peloria, Ralios, Teshnos, Seshnela and even Kralorela. For example, you can read about how Hrestol, one of the Malkioni ascended masters, slew Seshna Likita's daughter and was exiled from Seshnela.

Whereas Ernalda is the Earth goddess of Life, her sister Maran Gor is the terrible Earth goddess of destruction.

Aside from this, the book includes many interesting facts about Glorantha. For example, I loved reading the Asrelia cult and finding out the warehouses of the great temples to Ernalda work as the temples to Asrelia, or that miners worship her, as it makes perfect sense in the setting. I love "The Elf Story" by Greg Stafford, that describes the myths of the Grower and the Taker and shows the importance of balance for the elves (Shannon Applecline's upcoming book about the Aldryami will further expand on this concept). Initiates of Babeester Gor are so badass. Just like Humakti can't be resurrected, the fact Babeester Gori often fight to the death and are rarely ever captured is a way to balance their powerful fighting magic, as it means it is more likely their lives will be shorter than other characters'. The cult of Caladra & Aurelion is quite original and provides cool powers for twins. It is interesting though, that The Prosopaedia claims the cult was created by the God Learners, but the actual cult description avoids recognizing that fact. Are its initiates trying to forget about that or don't they really know the truth? Food for thought. The cult of Mostal has seen some changes since RQ3. I like dwarves now have a sorcery spell to control dinosaurs, while Maran Gor cultists have a Rune spell to control dinosaurs as well! This made me picture a scenario where Mostali and Maran Gor initiates battle for the control of these thundering beasts. I also like how Mostali sorcery is described, as it offers hints that the Malkioni wizards might have actually learned sorcery from them (Revealed Mythologies and Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology also point in that direction).

The genealogies by Katrin Dirim are a wonderful addition to the Cults of RuneQuest series of books

On the other hand, I find it strange that Mostal's sorcerous enchantments are temporal, because in the rulebook it says enchantments create a permanent magic effect in exchange for POW. On top of that, other spells aside from enchantments are described as requiring spending POW, so that must be a typo. Another glaring typo is that Eiritha is lacking the associated cults of Waha and Storm Bull, who are their son and husband respectively (!). The Mythos and History section in the cult of Uleria is disappointingly short for such "an ancient deity". It looks like the authors did not care to include any myths at all, and just claim that "Most stories about the goddess are sensual and erotic", so one could understand why none of these are included, but then it also says that "her other aspects, social and fertile, receive their share of storytelling as well". So where are these stories then? Where else should I look for the storytelling than in the "Mythos and History" section of the Uleria cult description?

The cult of Voria definitely belongs to the category of "worldbuilding" cults, and it is only natural for the cult description of the Spring Virgin to be short. However, as in the case of Uleria, I wish the authors would have added some myths. It would also have been interesting to know how long their initiate-priestesses usually keep that position. The book tells us that initiate-priestesses are sequestered in Earth temples in order to protect them and they abandon the temple the first day of the year to dance and wake up the Grain Goddesses. But does this sequestration take the whole year? I would say, when the Ernalda cult reenacts the myth of how Ernalda went to sleep during the Great Darkness, perhaps a spring virgin is chosen and sequestered in the temple, and she cannot exit until the first day of the next year, and after that day's celebration she is free to go anywhere. On the other hand, this cult reminds me a lot of the Kumari in Kathmandu, Nepal. Maybe that was part of the inspiration behind it?

Uleria is the Gloranthan goddess of Love, but not many myths are detailed in her cult description.

Finally, in the Cults of RuneQuest books, every new Rune spell not included in the rulebook is obviously described in game terms. Even if several deities offer the same Rune spell, this is repeated under the description of each deity. This is convenient, as it saves you to have to turn to page X to look for that spell's description. However, you need to do that anyway for every Rune spell that is already in the rulebook, so they could have saved space by just pointing the reader to the page where that particular spell is first described in the book. The fact that all spells are compiled in The Red Book of Magic makes this even more striking.

The art

The layout and art in this book are gorgeous. The depictions of the goddesses and gods are excellent, including some in-world art that makes the world feel more real, like Agathe Pithié's temple mural on page 4. I absolutely love Loïc Muzy's art (except for the piece of Donandar, which I find totally uninspiring), and I'm fascinated by Katrin Dirim's divine genealogies. I also love Antonia Doncheva's pieces, although her name is missing in the credits. Even Ossi Hiekkala's piece about the different grains of Genertela is also cool, as it makes Gloranthan agriculture more palpable. The only piece of art I find disappointing is the volcano on page 58, which looks taken from a primary school workbook and does not tell me anything about Glorantha.

Babeester Gor, the avenging goddess, is one of the cults that will appeal to the more typical adventurer characters.

In a nutshell

This book is a must for running RuneQuest campaigns in the Dragon Pass area and adjacent lands. It is also extremely useful to learn about how agrarian communities work, the different grains that are grown in Genertela, and to generally learn more about Glorantha and some lands far away from Dragon Pass. Moreover, the cults of Aldrya and Mostal are also essential to complement the information about these Elder Races in the Bestiary, while the cults of Babeester Gor, Caladra & Aurelion, Maran Gor, and Donandar will be of interest to players willing to play more typical adventurers. 

Watch me leafing through the book in a minute or so.

My main criticism is that it should have described more myths in detail for every deity, and that the Ernalda cult description tries to be too universal in its scope. Aside from that, some details ought to have been more polished, but I hope they will be corrected in future reprints. So, in short:

The good

  • Fully described cults for player characters and NPCs.
  • Lots of background information shedding light on how the world of Glorantha works.
  • Interesting myths, including some from faraway lands.
  • Beautiful art by Loïc Muzy, Agathe Pithié, Antonia Doncheva, Katrin Dirim and others throughout the book.

The not so good

  • Some myths are only vaguely described, and some cults include too few.
  • Some inconsistencies (Mostal's temporal enchantments, the Fleetfoot Rune spell...).
  • The ambivalent use of the same Ernalda cult description in lands outside Dragon Pass/Esrolia.

Ty Kora Tek is the grim Earth goddess keeping the dead in the Underworld

Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses is available from Chaosium's website, your friendly local store, and DrivethruRPG. The beautiful hardcover book is 38$ and it includes the PDF (only if you buy it from Chaosium or a FLHS with the Bits and Mortar program), and the PDF alone is 19$. I hope you liked this review. Do you agree with it? Please let me know your opinion in a comment below! 

10 comentarios:

  1. All those spells mistankenly labeled as useless in my opinion have an huge potential from a scenario creation point of view.

    I have a pending issue with Palmatela. Someday...

    My reflection is that the RQ community asks a lot of questions and they must be able to come up with their own answers. It is important to make the scenario yours with the information available at any given time.

  2. Let’s suppose I only have money for one book. Should I buy this one or the lightbringers one?

    And if we include the Mythology one? Which one would you choose?


    1. I'd buy any of those and steal the other two. 😜
      More seriously, I'd think about what cults are my players most likely going to choose for their characters (or just ask them). Then I'd buy the book that has the greatest number of the cults they choose or have chosen (Lightbringers or Earth Goddesses).
      After that, I would work hard and save enough money to buy the other two books, leaving Mythology for the end. 🙂

    2. Thanks for your response! It is unlikely that I will ever get to play the game, I just read the lore.

      I think it will be Earth Goddesses first. The art looks awesome.

    3. Oh, if you are only interested in the lore, then you may find either the Glorantha Sourcebook or Mythology more interesting, as they do not include any gaming information, only lore.

  3. Your post was a true gem. I appreciate the effort you put into it!


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