miércoles, 13 de marzo de 2024

Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology, a review

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Glorantha is a fantasy world with an incredibly rich set of myths and legends. It has sometimes been described as the fantasy world created by a mythologist (Greg Stafford), in the same way Middle Earth was created by a linguist (Tolkien). Put in another way, the same way Middle Earth was an exercise in fictional languages, Glorantha is an exercise in fictional mythology. Like Middle Earth, Glorantha is also a setting for all kinds of games like RuneQuest, so with myths being such a key component of Glorantha, surely there must books about them, right? The answer is the series of supplements Cults of RuneQuest that detail the myths and magic of many Gloranthan deities, grouped by elemental affinities. Acting as a sort of introductory volume of this series, the supplement Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology deals with Gloranthan mythology in general, accompanied with lots of great visual aids. On the back cover of this book, we are told that it is "an indispensable history of the mythology of (...) Glorantha", and "an explanation of myths and mythology and how it works in Glorantha". But is this book what the blurb promises? And how useful is it for GMs running a roleplaying game in Glorantha? Let's have a look.

N.B.: Chaosium sent me a copy of the book so I could write this review. However, this has not influenced my opinion, as I point out both the good and the bad. If you feel I have been partial, please let me know!

The excellent cover by Loïc Muzy, with the goddess Vinga in the center, shows how diverse Gloranthan mythology is.
The rune below stands for "divinity".

To begin with, the Foreword by Greg Stafford and the Introduction set about to clarify many basic terms dealing with the nature of mythology in Glorantha. For example, the relationship between myths and truth, the difference between myths, legends, and folk tales, what is a cult, what is time, what is magic, or what is heroquesting. Just reading this section already puts you in the right frame of mind to understand Glorantha. It also includes a wonderful piece of art about the cosmology of Glorantha: a transversal view of the world from the Sky Realm down to the Underworld. This, together with an basic map of the whole of Glorantha in a brief section of the main regions of the world broadly defines its mythical as well as earthly realms. 

The Contents page - Click on the image to enlarge

One of the key points made in the book more than once is that myths explain why the world is the way it is, because they are the deeds of the gods and those deeds established the rules of reality. But, at the same time, mythology is variable and dependent on every culture's point of view. This section could have done with some more examples (see further down), but for instance, in Glorantha the sun does not set every day "just because"; according to the Storm worshippers' myth "The Contests", the sun sets because the sun god was killed during the God Time, and so he dies every day. But then the Sun worshippers' myth (as told in "The Ten Copper Plates of Yuthuppa") claims the sun god was not really killed, but disintegrated into six parts after witnessing the appalling murder of his son, who he had appointed to rule the world. Both myths are true, even if they contradict each other, because they are both facets of the original event, which is only accessible through limited cultural knowledge, lenses and biases.

The introduction spells out concepts like "What is a cult?" or "What is the God Time?"

However, Greg Stafford knew that having a bunch of contradicting myths is a mess when you want to learn about the general background of a setting, even if it makes the most sense worldbuilding-wise. That is probably why he created the Jrustelan Monomyth. This is an in-world compilation of myths placed in order to create a coherent narrative. It takes some myths as "truer" than others, and makes them fit a unified mythic history of the world. This is a generic approach or synthesis to what happened during the God Time, when the gods interacted with each other and shaped the world. It is by nature highly imperfect, but useful anyway to understand how Glorantha was created and how it changed during the God Time.

This wonderful piece of art and its accompanying text box details the different realms that make up Glorantha

In fact, Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology tells the Monomyth of Glorantha in two different ways. First, in the section of that very name you get a narration of the mythical events that shaped Glorantha through its different ages in the God Time. For the sake of completion, you also get a summary of the historical events of the First, Second, and Third Ages after the beginning of Time (the "current times" in this edition of RuneQuest is the Third Age). However, this unified tale has a slight bias towards the Lightbringer deities and the Orlanthi pantheon. Therefore, the mythical events have these gods as protagonists, and the historical events focus on the region of central Genertela (Dragon Pass, Prax, the Lunar Empire), which is the one the RuneQuest rulebook is mainly focused on.

The Monomyth tells you a coherent mythic history of Glorantha with relevant myths interspersed along the main text.

Fortunately, this is followed by another section with wonderful maps of each of the mythic ages of the creation of Glorantha offering a much bigger scope. Rather than focusing on the myths of the Lightbringers, the maps encompass bits of many different mythologies at once. Every map is marked with many locations and some mythic events, and each of them gets a brief description. This offers a much wider overview of what is going on in different places during a particular age. Since the marked items are taken from a wider variety of cultures, including the Malkioni and Vadeli from the far west, the Kralorelans and Vithelans from the far east, and the Pamaltelan from the south, all interspersed with some mythic events of the Elder Races, you can see in very general terms how all these different mythologies intersect and overlap at certain points. This is done by attaching to every snippet of information the in-world source it comes from, as every culture's mythology is by definition subjective and therefore limited. Not only it gives the reader a good overview of every God Time age, but it also shows how varied mythology is, and how impossible it is for actual Gloranthans to have a full picture of the events unless they analyze many myths from distant regions.

The Greater Darkness is the age of Glorantha before Time when the world came to the brink of total annihilation

All these locations and events from places and cultures far away from central Genertela (summarized from Greg Stafford's drafts such as Revealed Mythologies) makes a coherent whole out of a rich patchwork of mythic details. Actually, it is the first book in the current edition of RuneQuest where you can see how vast and varied Glorantha really is, at least as far as myths go. Of course, it is extremely useful if you are the GM, or if you are just interested in knowing more about the depth of this setting, but it is by no means necessary for players. In fact, it may even be beneficial if players do not read this, as they will roleplay their characters limited to what they know of their small corner of mythology. As for GMs and casual readers, it is fun to read the map locations and then try to find them on the map.

These ages before the creation of Time are now only accessible to Gloranthans through heroquesting, so you can use these maps as a source of inspiration to create new myths. You can also use them to explain what your adventurers come across when they explore the Hero Plane, or when something goes terribly wrong during a heroquest and they find themselves in another place, myth or age. Each cult has easier access to some of these ages during holy ceremonies, as specified in other books like Cults of RuneQuest: The Lightbringers or Cults of RuneQuest: The Earth Goddesses under "Otherworld Home". Still, the topic of heroquesting (or interacting with the God Time) is missing a central piece to make the puzzle complete, as the RuneQuest rules for heroquesting will be revealed in the forthcoming RuneQuest Gamemaster's Guide. The only bad thing I can say about these maps is that they should be bigger in order to better read all the markings, and that some locations are not marked (for example, Tinsnip Mountain or the Unworldly Marsh as far as the Golden Age goes).

Some basic concepts about heroquesting and a brief rundown of the heroquests the Orlanthi hero Harmast undertook

These mythic maps are not new though. They were included in the Guide to Glorantha (see page 680), and before that in some of the Stafford Library books. However, in Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology they are updated, expanded, and more accessible. For example, the section about the Golden Age in the Guide has around 30 entries, while the one in Mythology has 66! The Glorantha Sourcebook also includes some rough mythic maps (e.g. page 99), but they are rather basic and limited in comparison, as they do not cover the whole of Glorantha like the ones in Mythology.

Similarly, if you own the old Gods of Glorantha box set for RuneQuest 3rd edition (published in 1985), you will notice it covers some of the topics included in Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology. The difference is that the new version is also heavily expanded with many new sections and myths, and gorgeously illustrated. It is not a word-for-word repetition. The Glorantha Sourcebook also includes sections about the runes, the lands of Genertela, the famous heroes, and the different pantheons. The main deities of Glorantha are described in more detail in The Glorantha Sourcebook (it has more pages, after all), but the series of Cults of RuneQuest books include all that detail and more in every particular book of the series, such as The Lightbringers and The Earth Goddesses. Besides, Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology has a wider scope, as it covers mythical events of cultures from many more lands, even if in a fragmentary fashion.

Aside from these sections, the authors try to explain how mythology interacts with individuals in a brief chapter called Understanding Mythology. It deals with the different ways of getting in touch with myths, and how cults fulfill important needs for their members which have little to do with getting cool powers for your character. It also tries to explain how cults are mediators between individuals and the gods, and how cults influence society, and vice versa. The book uses examples from ancient religions and from Glorantha's mythology to illustrate this, which makes me think it was an attempt to include some of the examples I found missing in the earlier sections.

Part of the "Understanding Mythology" section which includes a description of the main solar deities

However, at times the text becomes a bit wordy, so I had to reread it in order to grasp the points the author makes. Also, perhaps it would have been better to merge this section with the introduction to unify all the explanations. For example, the introduction includes several paragraphs about what cults are, and Understanding Mythology expands upon this topic. It would have been better to have the answers to questions like "What is the God Time?" followed by how the God Time still influences societies. Despite that, the fact the section uses as a main example the main solar gods balances a bit the Storm mythology bias on the preceding section about the Monomyth. Moreover, this chapter is essential to understand how much thought was put into making the cults of Glorantha believable, so it can also be a good guide for creating your own fictional religions, for any RPG.

The section Catalogue of the Gods includes the wonderful genealogies by Katrin Dirim showing the relationships between the deities of every elemental pantheon, as well as the gods of Chaos and the animals. Each particular book of the Cults of RuneQuest series of supplements includes the corresponding genealogy as well, but here they all together so the reader can see the full picture. Only the genealogy of plants is missing (included in The Earth Goddesses supplement). Interestingly, with the PDF of this book comes a separate image of the unified genealogies so you can see them all on the same page and how they relate to each other. You can stare at it for hours!

The stunning genealogies by Katrin Dirim allow you to visualize a whole pantheon of gods at a glance

While the style of the genealogies in The Glorantha Sourcebook is inspired by Indian iconography, the ones in Mythology are clearly inspired by Mesoamerican and Egyptian iconography. This makes them feel different but also ancient and believable, and the artist has managed to squeeze more deities in them, so they are more complete. You will notice that some deities have full bodies while others are depicted in a more symbolic way. For example: the demigoddess Hon-Eel has a full body, while Jar-Eel is depicted only as her weapons and harp. This was done on purpose by the artist: the deities with a full body depiction have full cult write-ups in this series of supplements, while the rest are subcults or do not have their cults detailed. 

In the book, every genealogy is accompanied by a brief description of the main deities in it, so it is a handy quick guide as to who is who. One of the most intriguing details is the section about the portions of Yelm. Who is Berneel Ashagorn? Who is Enverinus? To know more about these gods and others that are left undescribed, you either need to check the Prosopaedia or the myths in the corresponding Cults of RuneQuest book. I think the gods that do get descriptions here are the ones whose cults are detailed in each particular supplement, so here you can see which ones are going to be included in the yet unpublished ones. Moreover, these genealogies help the reader identify many of the deities depicted on the stunning four-page illustration of the Monomyth by Agathe Pitié. This is so detailed you can stare at it for hours, although the book does not explicitly explain anything about it.

Near the end, the book includes a section about the "Universal Cult Format" or template used to describe the cults in the Cults of RuneQuest supplements. Here you can read what you can expect to find under each section of the cults' description, such as "Life After Death" or "Cult Organization", which goes to show this book is really an introduction to the Cults of RuneQuest series of books. It includes some snippets of interesting information like "How Cults Change", and it can be useful as a guide to create your own cults. Still, it is the least interesting section of the book for me, because you can also extract this information by checking out the cults described in the cult books like The Lightbringers or The Lunar Way. Moreover, half of this section repeats information already present in the RuneQuest rulebook, such as the temple sizes, and the general requirements and benefits for every cult rank: lay members, initiates, priesthood and rune lords.

The section of the Universal cult format includes an interesting text box about "What happens on a holy day"

On the one hand, it is convenient to have everything relating to cults in one place, but on the other, some readers will consider it a waste of space. On top of that, these sections have been updated with small changes, which is good, but it also makes parts of the corebook no longer reliable. For example, to become Chief or High Priest you do no longer need at least CHA 15 and 90% in 3 Knowledge skills as stated in the rulebook. Some points have been clarified like "initiates of a cult may participate in the rites of associated deities and replenish their Rune points", which makes this aspect of the game more flexible. Another welcome bit is that the functions of a temple now include "Skill Training" and "Improving Runes", like training any other skill. There is not only guidance on what skills can be trained at every temple size, but also a table with training costs, and an expanded Spirit Magic Spells cost. I think this was already included in The Red Book of Magic, as well as the section on devising new Rune Spells.

Finally, the Cult Distribution Charts show what percentage of the population of each particular kingdom worships what deities. This is useful to know what temples your characters can find in faraway places, who are the most revered deities in each land, or to randomly determine what gods an NPC worships. There are charts for elves and trolls, and even for Praxian tribes such as the Rhino Tribe and all the kingdoms in the Lunar Empire. On top of that, it includes the first political map of central Genertela published in this edition of RuneQuest! It would have been cool to also include a chart for Pavis and the Praxian Sun County, and even more "fringe" Elder Races, like beast men from Beast Valley, ludoch from the Rozgali Sea and Choralinthor Bay, or heretic dwarves from Dragon Pass and Pavis.

This stunning piece of art by Lionel Marty illustrates the section about the Empire of the Wyrms Friends of the Second Age

So, is this a useful book to have?

Mythology contains little game content and so it is not as immediately useful as the rest of the books in the series for running a game of RuneQuest. However, it is definitely useful to get a solid grasp of the general mythical history of Glorantha, to understand why myths are so central in Glorantha, and to get a basic overview of the great variety of mythologies it encompasses. Therefore, it is an interesting read also for people who are just curious about this fantasy setting, and want to know "what Glorantha is about". Moreover, the "Universal Cult Format" and the cult distribution charts contain useful information for GMs, but also for players, for example, if you want to create an adventurer from Sylila and want to know what are the main gods worshipped there.

A map of the world of Glorantha illustrates the section on the main regions of the two main continents

All in all, it is a useful, lavishly illustrated book. Although it is somewhat less useful for veteran RuneQuest GMs who already have books about Gloranthan mythology from previous editions, the expanded mythic maps alone should tempt them to buy the book. In fact, this whole series of supplements is a much expanded, improved and better-looking version than the old Gods of Glorantha and Cults of Prax supplements, so if you liked those, you are probably going to absolutely love these.

My only actual disappointment is that even at 158 pages, it is a tad too short. It deserved to be more ambitious. For example, I would have liked to find more full myths, especially from cultures far away from central Genertela, and I would have liked to see chart distribution tables for all the regions of the world. Of course, then it might have been too much for some readers. In short:

The best:

  • The art by Loïc Muzy, Lionel Marty, Ossi Hiekkala, Katrin Dirim and Francesca Baerald.
  • The updated and expanded mythic maps of the God Time show how diverse Glorantha is.
  • The detailed genealogies are a quick visual reference to who is who.
  • The cult distribution charts are useful for GMs and players.
  • Good overview of the mythical history of Glorantha.
  • Great read if you are interested in mythology in general and/or fictional mythology in RPGs.

The worst:

  • Several texts are labelled as myths but are not really myths, like "What Happens in Sacred Time?" or "Gold Wheel Dancers", so the blurb on the back cover is a bit misleading when it claims it contains "dozens of Gloranthan myths".
  • A book titled "Mythology" should have contained dozens of myths more! :-P
  • There are bits of repeated information from other books like the rulebook, The Glorantha Sourcebook, The Red Book of Magic and The Guide to Glorantha.

Watch me flipping through the hardcover book in a minute or so:

You can purchase a copy of Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology at Chaosium's website in hardcover format for 40$ (which includes the PDF), or only in PDF for 20$. The PDF is also available from DrivethruRPG. You can also buy the hardcover book at your FLGS (if it is part of the Bits and Mortar initiative, you will also get the PDF for free). I hope you have found my review helpful. If you already have read the book, do you agree 100% with my assessment? If you have any comments, I'd be delighted to read them below, and reply to any questions you may have.

2 comentarios:

  1. I think you are being a little easy on this publication, it should be call Cults of Dragon Pass: Mythology.

    There are also repeat after repeat in the maps, have a look at the entries for the Troll Strongholds. They say almost exactly the same thing [slightly different words, same meaning] for different strongholds and the same thing for the same stronghold on different maps! Someone did too much C&Ping.
    Make something up, FCoL, it's a Imaginary game, use yours.

    There really isn't anything new here, bits have been clarified but it's almost completely stuff that has been published before.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. :-)

      I guess with "Dragon Pass: Mythology" you mean the fact that the Monomyth is biased towards the point of view of the Storm pantheon and the Orlanthi. But as I mention, the maps include mythic events and locations from faraway mythologies. True, as you say, some locations don't change much from one age to the next. For example, the description of the "Terrifying Black Cloud" is the same in the Early Lesser Darkness and in the Middle Lesser Darkness. But after that it disappears and other troll strongholds emerge.

      I agree that most information comes from previous books, but they have presented it here in a much accessible and expanded format. You must be a veteran Glorantha fan! If that is the case, try to think of the newer fans. They deserve to have their own "Gods of Glorantha" from the 80s, but now improved and better presented, using information from the Stafford Library and The Guide. It must be hard to please old-hands and new fans at the same time.

      What totally new things would you have liked to see included?


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