We finally worked up the courage to get Jeff Richard on our show!

Jeff is the Creative Director and Chair of Chaosium, the lead writer on most of the RuneQuest books, the lead art director on RuneQuest, and the editor for Pendragon. Jeff is also generally responsible for the look and feel of the Chaosium books.

Jeff’s Gaming History

Jeff’s roleplaying career started in the late seventies with not being able to make much sense of the original D&D rules but getting the system from playing Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha. It was in Middle or High School when one of his friends brought a copy of RuneQuest and advertised it as a game where you could play anything in the setting, even a were-pig. Even better, they realized it was in the same setting as that board game White Bear and Red Moon which they had played before.

Jeff had been gaming for quite some time before he and Greg Stafford started writing together in the late 1990s. In the 2000s Jeff and Rick Meints ended up pretty much taking over the leaderless Issaries Inc. with its Hero Wars/HeroQuest line, putting out the second (generic) edition of the HeroQuest rules and campaign books for Sartar and Pavis. A few years later Greg Stafford regained control over Chaosium and brought the Moon Design crew (expanded to include Michael O’Brian aka MOB and Neil Robinson) in to take over the company.

Ludo mentions that Jörg told him just before the recording about the werepig. Jeff confirms that Pinky Petunia was his first character (who didn’t last very long), a kamikaze werepig which was the coolest experience to a 14 or 15 year old who had been playing just AD&D and related games with their very limited set of character classes and races.

Jeff also was part of the Seattle Farmers Collective, a group of Seattle roleplayers including Jeff, David Dunham, Neil Robinson, Pam Carlson, Dana Shack (?), Dave Pearton and others which engaged in a number of ways of exploratory gaming in the nineties.

David Dunham had managed to marry the Pendragon rules with RuneQuest, which on retrospect is pretty easy, and the Collective played a couple of generational games in various places in Glorantha. What was interesting was that the characters were the local community, and they were involved in these Bronze Age feuds, and the more the characters succeeded the worse the things would turn out.

At the time, Jeff was reading a lot of Icelandic Sagas and researching theories of feuds, of how feud systems would end up to create an equilibrium.

A lot of those experiences worked their way into David Dunham’s computer game King of Dragon Pass, and then, twenty years later, a lot of that worked its way into the current edition of RuneQuest.

Ludo mentions that a lot of people who play RuneQuest might recognize its setting as that of the King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages games, much like Jeff had the experience with the White Bear and Red Moon boardgame.

Jeff talks about the demography of the players of RuneQuest and the fans of Glorantha. It is very clear that a lot of old-time fans are getting back into it, but sales numbers indicate that it is largely a new audience. There are people coming in from David Dunham’s computer games, others come in from the Morrowind/Skyrim connections (mentioned in this interview with the designers).

Jeff often jokes that old RuneQuest is The Velvet Underground of gaming, selling 20,000 copies but everybody who ended up owning a copy leaving a big impression. Ludo inserts the saying “You might not know RuneQuest, but RuneQuest is your favourite game designer’s favourite game.”

Jeff argues that this changed in the last decade or so as RuneQuest had largely been dead as a rules system since the early nineties. Now it has a new edition, it has a very active fan-base, it is showing up at conventions, its audience is growing – Jeff will probably have to retire that Velvet Underground joke. What would have happened if that band had ever actually caught on?

Ludo points out the good influence of new people coming in to the setting, and mentions our Gloranthan Initiation series of interviews where we talk to people comparatively new to the setting (which we upload in between the main episodes of this podcast).

Asked for roleplaying games outside of the BRP family, after rattling off a number of games published by Chaosium (Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu, Nephilim) Jeff mentions Vampire: The Masquerade as a game he enjoyed a lot, and Ars Magica, which he did a couple of campaigns with. Both these games offered something else than going underground knocking down doors and taking people’s shit. Other games include the old West End Games Star Wars, FGU’s Bushido (which shared one of the authors with RQ3’s Land of Ninja). Ludo points out Bushido’s battle rules, while Jeff emphasizes its implementation of the samurai code of honour. Jeff names Chris Klug’s James Bond 007 as one of his favourite games of all time, too, comparing it to Pendragon for brilliantly designed games.

Ludo points out Jeff’s role in the first ever Gloranthan podcast, Tales of Mythic Adventures which he co-hosted with Michael O’Brian (aka MOB). Jeff explains that setting up a regular podcast or just any kind of regular show is a gigantic time commitment (you can nearly hear Ludo and Jörg nodding sagely at that), and for some reason people thought that it was more important that Jeff and MOB write and create books for there to be podcasts about.

Jörg points towards Jeff’s work on the Prince of Sartar webcomic which went into indeterminate hiatus for the same reason. Again, some people out there put more value in new books being produced rather than Jeff and Kalin Kadiev producing an experimental webcomic. Ludo recalls people crediting the webcomic for drawing them back into the Glorantha hobby. Again, Jeff blames the time commitment, but calls it a platform to play around with the look and feel of things, and you can see a lot of impact from that in the later art direction and the look and feel of the RuneQuest books.

The Cults of RuneQuest Series

With this, we have completed the introduction of our guest, and we can drop into the Cults of RuneQuest series. Ludo quotes Jeff having said that this was the biggest project he had worked on in his career so far, and asks whether Jeff can take a break now or whether he is already diving into his next big project.

Jeff replies that there are no breaks. One of the differences between fan publications and his current position is that he does that for a living, so he can’t sit back and take a nice pause now a project gets fulfilled. At the end of the day, what Chaosium is all about is to create new books and new adventures.

Jeff is in the process of looking at the first pass of the layout for the Lunar book, looking into the refining, and hoping that it will be off to the printer in the next couple of weeks. After that there will be the Guide to Dragon Pass, and after that either the Sartar campaign book or the Solar volume of Cults of RuneQuest. Jeff describes the situation of his layout people as working on a conveyor belt. Jeff enjoys that RuneQuest now is in a situation where Chaosium could realistically schedule six to eight RuneQuest books in any twelve months period. Other than RuneQuest, the Pendragon line is getting up to a similarly lively publication schedule. Ludo allows himself to be distracted from Glorantha giving his appreciation for the layout style of Pendragon with all those little medieval illuminations in the margins.

Jeff compares the word count of the Cults books with that of the Guide, both being in roughly the same magnitude. Asked what was the most complicated aspect of the project, Jeff confirms it was the inter-connectedness which made the project so much harder, making sure that all of these rules systems tie into each other. Jeff describes the Guide as a fictional encyclopedia, a purely narrative description of the setting which doesn’t need to be mechanically linked. For example, when you go through the associated cults you need to make sure they all line up with each other. Ludo claims that you can’t make a big table cross-indexing all cults with one another, and while Jeff did actually create such a table with a hundred by a hundred entries when developing the books, including spreadsheets documenting which cults allow sorcery, which cults allow shamanism, which cults are associated with other cults, which cults are enemies… That was a whole other level of complexity compared to writing the Guide to Glorantha.

When asked about the Mythology book, Jeff confirms that it is already printed, and going to be released in October. Go and buy, buy, buy! He goes on to show us the printed proof, which doesn’t do that much to our audience, as no-one can see this (yet), but boy it looks pretty.

In an absolute ideal world where Chaosium did not have to worry about marketing and building their audience, Jeff would have liked to start the Cults of RuneQuest series with the Mythology as the leading book. In Jeff’s view the Mythology book is the most important book in the series because it explains how Greg Stafford and Jeff view mythology and how to interact with the rest of the books. It provides the framework for the rest of the Cults books. On the other hand, in itself it has no cults in it.

Jeff supports Chaosium’s marketing decision to go with the Prosopaedia first, presenting a huge number of deities, and then the volumes Lightbringers and Earth Goddesses which include the most popular player character cults.

Now that the books are broken up into eleven volumes, Ludo asks about who would be the customers for which books of the series. While a player mainly interested in playing earth cults will be well served with the Earth Goddesses volume, would the Mythology book be catering to the GMs instead?

Jeff views all of the Cults books as player-facing. While a player may say “I never play a Darkness cult, I won’t need that book”, and that’s totally fine. With the exception of the Lords of Terror book all the Cults Books contain stuff that you might play. As a player, Jeff would probably buy the book with the cult of the character, and then the companion book about all the other cults in the party, and then the Mythology book which connects all the stories of the deities. Jeff tried to provide the most detailed presentation of the Monomyth to date.

Jeff tells us how Greg had tried to write the Mythology book based entirely on individual stories. You would then be able to assemble the Monomyth by realizing that all these stories fit together. There are two problems with this approach. One is that the entire project is getting really long. The other is that at some point you start writing stories to fill in gaps, resulting in some stories just not being as good. Greg always worked better when he had this great inspiration and came up with an amazing story, and in that story he would see how it would fit into the overall framework of the Monomyth. On the other hand, when he had to write all that stuff between the lines, he ended up with a lot of stuff that lacked that brilliance and probably should have been rejected a long time ago.

The approach taken by the Mythology book is to provide the overview of the Monomyth supplemented by small stories that give you examples how that would work. As a result it reads better and can actually be done in a reasonable deadline rather than try to finish the Belintar’s Book project which would collect all the stories that are known.

Ludo reports his experience how the Monomyth shines through the various stories told in the two Cults Books published so far, and he has been wondering whether the Monomyth is a convenient construct for a gaming world or whether Greg just was a great fan of Joseph Campbell and wanted to implement his theory.

Greg Stafford started writing his fictional mythology back in the Sixties, and there has been a framework to the mythology since 1966 or 1967 and has always been there since. It got the title of the Monomyth in recognition of Joseph Campbell, but it has a structure similar to how Tolkien’s Legendaria has structure to it. This is where Glorantha is a work of fantasy and experimental mythology. We can do things in the world that make it feel more real and that can take us a step further than we can imagine with real world mythologies.

Ludo brings up interconnected stories like e.g. the Marvel Cinematic Universe but points out that mythology doesn’t need as much consistency as that. Myths may very well contradict each other. Ludo asks how the Cults series avoids creating just a Gloranthan cinematic universe where all the stories line up perfectly consistent with one another, creating a One True Monomyth. Jeff replies that there is an essay in the Mythology book addressing that. One of the things that was important to Greg (and Jeff) is that the very worst approaches to understand mythology is to grab a book and argue about the details as you largely miss the point of the stories.

The best way to understand mythology is for it to show up in your games, for your GM and the player characters to participate in it and to experience it. It would even better to be that person and directly interact with spirits and gods, but given the limitations of our experiences that is difficult to arrange. The next best way to experience the mythology is to play it, and after that the next best is to listen to someone telling you the stories (in a minimally interactive way). Treating the events in a myth as cold facts from a book is the worst way to interact with the myth. Still, nerds being nerds, these details usually end up being what is discussed on internet forums. Most Glorantha fans fall into the group experiencing the myths through play or narration, appreciating that there is a structure where it all fits together, ideally leading them onward to think about other things.

One of the ironies Jeff experiences is that people brand new to the setting get this point a lot better than people who have been arguing about it for years.

Sensitive Topics in Glorantha

Ludo lists a number of grand themes that myths deal with: why people do what they do, why society has to work this way etc., touching on death and gender roles and other sensitive topics. Ludo brings up a couple of cases where people have complained about depictions of nudity or of animal sacrifice in the art. Jeff (who had a foot in both the European and the American side of things) points out that contrary to Ludo’s expectations Chaosium never had any complaints like that from the US. The complaints came from the UK or in case of the animal sacrifices from Spain.

Jeff views RuneQuest as game material for mature individuals of whatever age able to deal with topics like life, death, sex, gender, social organization. A lot of the stuff is “Where does the world come from?” or “Why do things function the way they do?” In order for that to feel real and to be artistically honest it is gonna hit a lot of stuff that we don’t like to talk about as much, especially in this social media-driven world that we find ourselves in today. Asked whether Chaosium actually had to wave away certain vocal minority problems, Jeff tells that they started out being very careful about how they presented things, there being some ground rules. Jeff tries to be as open and aware of inclusion as possible. There are some things that don’t exist in Glorantha like a race-based slavery with large scale deportation in the setting. Writing takes a combination of care and artistic integrity. When problematic topics arise, it is because they are part of the world, and not out of a sense of mischief or trying to be shocking. A fantasy setting cannot just be about things we like and aspire to, but also need things we fear and hate. People’s reaction is different when such elements enter the story with artistic integrity rather than when they are smuggled in only for shock value.

Ludo describes the Monomyth as the way each cult and deity fits into the grand scheme of the cosmos. Presented in the core rules book with three seemingly redundant hunter cults (Foundchild, Odayla and Yinkin) Ludo was confused why there were three such gods, but with the Lightbringers book their respective roles and context has been clarified. Jeff reminisces that at the time of putting together the core rules book Jeff knew that it would be quite a long time before Chaosium could deliver the detailed cult write-ups, so the designers had to find a compromise between providing a set of archetypes that exist in the world but also throwing in a few existing cults that were fan favourites from earlier editions. While these may not be as mythologically important, people might whine if these were missing. If the designers had decided to have only Yinkin as the example hunter cult, that would have been pointless for people wishing to game in Prax. The one cult that almost did not make the cut was Odayla who isn’t really that important in the core area covered by the rules, but as Jason Durall pointed out, that cult allows its members to become a bear, and how awesome is that?

Any time the designers create a book, they establish the setting and provide its content, and try make sure that the setting and fantasy fiction fit together, but also it has to function as a game, to keep people engaged in it is also terribly important because that is what RuneQuest is for.

Asked whether it would be hard to make these cults playable, Jeff answers that e.g. that followers of the water cults might have a tough time making those cults relevant if the entire campaign takes place up in the highlands of Dragon Pass, away from the sea. Jeff tells how one of the players in his current game is an initiate of the local river god, who is great when the party is right near the river, which they almost never are in the adventures. But to Jeff it is important that not every character decision is equally good in all situations, that there are consequences. A situation without consequences might be hard ot get into, and may ultimately end up in a dead end for game play for most people.

Ludo asks how Jeff presents people coming from D&D with the roleplaying opportunities when they pick a less important minority cult (without attempting to introduce some artificial game balance). In Jeff’s opinion a lot of the minor cults have tremendous roleplaying opportunities, but that initiating to the Great Storm King with all his friends and being devoted to basically the cat god have different scope in affecting the game world. While playing a follower of Yinkin may not be as cosmologically significant as playing a hero of the Storm King, it can be as much fun, and most new players get that. There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate paths to potential power with roleplaying opportunities. While it is completely valid that some players seek a character on the path to power, it is just as fine to have players who want their characters just to chew scenery and have a great time without ever achieving some great power. Ludo talks about his experiences with players designing a character they wanted to play, totally unwilling to give that character any growth in terms of proficiency as that character already hit that sweet spot.

In Jeff’s experience, it is a fallacy to assume that all players playing the game want a certain thing X, and then to design the game so that all players achieve this thing, when the players demanding this thing X are just a vocal minority of the target audience. What Jeff likes about the Cults books as splatbooks is that each cult provides a different mix of possibilities. If players choose Humakt as their cult, they know that combat is a very important part of their character, and same for a Storm Bull cultist, but playing a follower of Donandar is going to be a very different perspective, with combat still going to be an important part of the experience of that character, but not something their cult is going to be a great help with. Playing RuneQuest with other humans doesn’t have to provide that computer-game-like balance. Entering the game with a scribe who has nothing in the way of combat skills is an option in an open setting, even though it may place a tough task on the GM who has to provide situations for the characters to play their characters. RuneQuest is what you make of it.

The advice to play is to pick a location, the core theme of the campaign and its context. The players learn about the important gods of the place and find the one that clicks, that speaks to the player. Now if a player insists on playing an Engizi worshiper, the GM should tell the player that the setting is up in the mountains, away from the river valley, and it is fine if the player then decides to select a cult that has a little more heft in that environment, but many players will be cool with having much of that cult identity exerting less of an impact to their game.

Beyond Dragon Pass

Ludo observes that the Cults Books often mention places outside of the area described in the core rules, and asks what was the design decision behind opening more of the world of Glorantha through these sometimes cryptic references. Jeff explains how Greg Stafford was always dissatisfied with how the old RQ3 Gods of Glorantha book had been put away, with the assumption that you would have these cults from the whole world in one place, and that you could play any cult you want from that list, but that all the places offered to the GM to interact with the world were set in the valley of the River of Cradles, or briefly in Dorastor.

For RQG they kind of flipped that, providing information mainly for central Genertela, which includes Dragon Pass, Prax, the Holy Country, and the Lunar Empire and the Elder Wilds, which is where Jeff estimates 99.5% of all the games set in Glorantha played over history have been set. While Jeff has played quite a few games outside of that area, and a couple of quite vocal people have done so as well, the other games might be little more than a rounding error. Ludo expects a flood of letters aiming to prove Jeff wrong. Jeff would go on to locate about half of all games ever played in the River of Cradles area (and Prax), and the other half in Dragon Pass. That’s where most of the audience is.

On the other hand, Jeff wanted to provide the wider world and the larger picture, which is why for instance Pamalt is included. His cult gives an impression how Genertela might have turned out had Genert survived the Gods War. Presenting Pamalt’s tribal pantheon also gives a different way how you can arrange these cults and their interactions. That doesn’t mean that Jeff expects many people to play Pamalt initiates in Dragon Pass or Prax, but players being players, it is almost bound to happen. But if you want to, you now have the building blocks.

Jörg points out that the description of Argrath’s companions (in the Glorantha Sourcebook) laid the little cuckoo’s egg with his companions from the Circumnavigation of the Homeward Sea (following Harrek’s Wolf Pirates). Jeff agrees that with the Hero Wars coming, we always have an excuse to include characters with exotic backgrounds, possibly characters that would have rejected when playing with the original rules of the Hero Wars rpg (that later turned into HeroQuest, now into Questworlds). But now, if a player’s heart is set on playing a Pamalt initiate? There are boats, the character could have arrived with the Wolf Pirates or on board of a merchant vessel.

The History of the Cult of Orlanth

Ludo asks how much the cults have evolved over the decades until they were published now. Jeff could approach this from a fan point of view, but chooses to look at it from the writer’s perspective he shared with Greg.

Orlanth (or rather the Storm King) first showed up in Greg’s stories in the sixties as Humat or Humakt or Humath, the great storm god, and he started writing stories about it. The name Orlanth doesn’t even appear until the year 1977 (a year before the publication of RQ1, two years after the publication of White Bear and Red Moon). Using the setting of White Bear and Red Moon for playtesting RuneQuest, Greg’s players wanted a god, and he said ok, we have one of the gods who is a war god, Humakt. And the god turned into a deity of war and death in the course of the game, so Greg realized he needed a new name as this wasn’t even close to the Storm God that he envisioned behind the Kingdom of Sartar. That new name became Orlanth.

Initially for RQ2 Greg had the Lightbringers story quickly, and then he wrote a ton of cool material about the Orlanth cult, its history, etc. The Orlanth Adventurous write-up was one of the three original cult examples in RuneQuest. Greg kept writing such material, but due to the nature of the Chaosium Greg lost a lot of that material in the early 1990ies, and it remained AWOL until about 2015.

After Chaosium had licensed RuneQuest to Avalon Hill, basically it became a money loser every time Greg wrote new material for the game, as unlike earlier he would only receive the royalties from the new material, with Avalon Hill earning the lion’s share of the new product. Greg was one of the best writers in the Chaosium team, and they would not earn very much by writing for RuneQuest any more.

So Greg turned towards writing a story about  what he really cared about, which turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in the setting, Arkat, but at a certain point this turned into a story about Harmast, so Greg wrote about Harmast’s Lightbringer’s Quest, and then it became a story about the initiation of Harmast. Now all of this is set in the First Age of Glorantha rather than the Now of RuneQuest in the Third Age, with Greg’s focus on the early histora of the setting before the Gbaji Wars, before Arkat, before Harmast’s Lightbringer’s Quest, and even more before the God Learners, the EWF or the Lunar Empire. The subsequent publications by Greg were Glorious ReAscent of Yelm set 230 years after the Dawn, The Fortunate Succession tracking the Dara Happan dynasties from the God Time into the Modern Age, Entekosiad with stories set in God Time, etc.

Throughout this period Greg wasn’t really writing anything for a game product, but then you had Hero Wars coming out and people wanted to write material, so Greg gave them what he was working on at the time and people tried to make it relevant for the now of the gaming time, pulling stuff a millennium or more into the future of the setting.

By the time Jeff started working on the Guide, he and Greg wanted the Guide to be set in the gameable now, even when it was looking back on the history of the setting or a region in the setting. Around that time Greg re-gained much of his older writings. Subsequently, Greg regained control over Chaosium with the aid of Moon Design. When work on the new edition of RuneQuest started, the focus was to be on the now as it had been in the seventies and eighties.

Back to Ludo’s question: The Orlanth cult actually got a heavy rewrite compared to its earliest appearances, as did the Ernalda cult which got a lot of input from Claudia Loroff (Jeff’s wife, and our guest for episode 16 of this podcast) and Skylar Mannen (credited for editing and proofreading in the Cults books). Thinking about what changed, Jeff mentions the Ernalda spell list, the context for Maran Gor and Babeester Gor who did not have any full cult write-up beyond the skeleton info in RQ3 Gods of Glorantha (although Maran Gor got a write-up in Tales of the Reaching Moon #6), or Orlanth receiving a lot of work about how the Orlanth Rex subcult works within Orlanth. A lot of world building derives from that.

The Sartar Book which has all the editing and the art done is due to go into Layout as soon as it fits into Simeon Cogwell’s schedule. All this new material about Orlanth, Ernalda and their associates ties into the work that has been done on the Sartar Book. The Cults books provide a framework, and Jeff can now show how this cults works within a specific homeland through the homeland books.

So the cults in both the Lightbringers and the Earth Goddesses volume required quite a bit of rewrite, although not all – Humakt did not change much, for instance. Ludo asks about cults changing not just in their descriptive text but also in their role in the cosmology and their look and feel. And in many cases there wasn’t much in the way of cult write-ups to start with at all. Jeff claims that this was the first time that the Ernalda cult really was written, claiming his take on it in the HQ2 Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes as a first draft. (Jörg’s pedantry demands that the Ernalda long cult write-up in the RQ3 DeLuxe box Glorantha booklet receives a mention, but that book did not really invite anybody to create a roleplaying character from that cult.) What is new is a shift in thinking about what is the role of the Earth Mother, the goddess of women and Fertility, letting this run wild.

Anciant Symbolism and Real World Inspirations

Ludo mentions some of the ancient symbolism used in the cult descriptions and depictions, like the snakes that accompany the earth goddesses. The snakes stand for healing and rebirth, connected to their shedding of the skin, leading to the Caduceus, whereas in modern thinking snakes got bedevilled and associated with venom and getting bit, the dragon aspect. Jeff says he put these things there for people to run wild with this. In the the Southwest of (the United States of) America where he lives, snakes are an important symbol. Jeff mentions a recent experience on a walk shared with Suzanne Stafford and his son Finn during a visit to the Lindenmeier archaeological site which has one of the oldest archaeological records of the proto-Indians, and it has a bison herd. A rattle-snake crossed their path, and rattle-snakes are a powerful image, as it also is in the Meso-American mythology. For some people this is great, this is not the Marvel version of Thor. Other people may ignore such symbolism, and either way is fine with Jeff.

Ludo explains how his exposure to Glorantha made him get up to date with Meso-American and Vedic Indian symbology and other ancient sources, but he wonders what would be the most surprising inspiration that was used for the cults, stuff like the native American clown societies which made their way into the Cult of Eurmal.

Jeff explains that with almost all Gloranthan deities it is a combination on drawing on various real-world parallels but then also just personal inspirations and experiences. One thing that came as a surprise to Jeff was how strong the Orlanth and Shiva connections turned out to be. Orlanth is a Destroyer, but his destruction makes the world possible, which makes him both a destroyer and a preserver. That gives Orlanth a nice distance from say a Viking god.

Jeff recalls that there were some Meso-American stories they drew on for Ernalda, in part because Greg was really heavily influenced by Meso-American mythology. When Greg died, he was working on a (non-fiction) book on Tehuacan mythology, based on his research during his stay in Mexico. Other influences include Hindu mythology, but one rather impactful experience on Jeff was a visit to an exhibition at the ethnographical museum in Dahlem, Berlin, about the cult of Heracles. The iconography of Heracles moved around the (Old) world, spreading from Roman Britain and the Pillars of Heracles at Gibraltar all the way to being the guardian of Japanese Buddhist temples in the name Nio.

One of the places which registered as most Gloranthan with Jeff was Gandahara in the second century BC to the first century AD, a place which has a mythic synthesis of Buddhism, Vedic imagery and Greek and Persian mythology. This also has the advantage of being a period which has some massive sculpture and surviving artwork giving us something we can actually look at. For Jeff, Gloranthan iconography works similarly, with names and images of deities migrating across the setting. In Glorantha we always start with the underlying proposition that the deity or the spirit is real, whereas in our real world we always assume that the deities depicted are more societal constructs than actual entities (unless one may be considered a religious nut). That perspective lets you end up with a very different feel and understanding if you come from the underlying assumption that these Gloranthan deities are real.

Ludo talks about how Jeff’s posts on Facebook often describe that Gloranthan cults aren’t static within its history, how certain groups may have different cultures with different understanding of archetypal entities until they come together and realize that this deity is Orlanth, or that there is cultural and technological development like people starting to ride horses or horse-drawn chariots. This results in cultural, religious, technological and social developments happening to the various groups in Glorantha. In Jeff’s opinion, such a non-static behaviour is also necessary to make the setting believable. For instance the Lightbringers’ Quest in the Orlanth cult and its history within Time shows this tension about what is Orlanth – on one hand this heroic adventurer god who runs around, kills dragons, fights giants, or is he this atmospheric god responsible for natural phenomena. As a result the cult has now two big aspects that are both acknowledged, but they are slightly in tension with each other. To Jeff this is more believable than saying “sixteen hundred years ago, before the player characters could do anything, we have the Dawn, and it has all been set in stone since then.” Having this tension creates the sense that the setting is dynamic and that even the understandings of the deities are dynamic, making it easier to believe in the reality of the setting. Jeff points out that he is giving the perspective of a writer here.

Thinking about which of the Cults books got the most new writing, the Lunar book has almost completely new material, and even the Solar book had surprisingly little material previously defined.

That Elmal Business

Jeff mentions the endless debates on Yelmalio, Elmal, Kargzant, etc., and Jeff has the old marked-up manuscripts from Greg where it says all Yelmalio, and then hand-written corrections “let’s call him Elmal here”, or “Yelmalio is the chief god of the nomads”, or “hey, let’s give him a nomadic name: Kargzant.” Having this access makes Jeff look at the material from a different perspective. Jeff recalls a conversation a few years back about the Mesopotamian scribes identifying hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gods, when in reality they had about forty deities which had a cult. But if you wanted to have a big list, you would give a recognizable god say twenty different names, resulting in a list of maybe 500 names when there are about forty distinct identities. The same thing is going on in Glorantha, there are about 100 or 120 divine entities of wide relevance around, and all sorts of minor and tiny ones. Greg would write lists of names. When it comes to the solar gods (who are worshipped by different names in many distinct cultures) it becomes clear that you have to cut through the list, let’s cut through the names. We all know that in the actual real world, the Romans did not really think that Greek Zeus was a totally different deity from Jupiter. They said “this is what the Greeks call Jupiter”. When you read Herodotus, he talks about the Egyptian gods, giving them the Greek names but pointing out that the Egyptians view these deities differently and address them differently, but it still is the same god. So, looking at the solar gods, there is a sun god, because there is a sun. So we have Yelm, and most people cannot even reach Yelm.  That’s why you have the Sun Disk, and then there is a god who pulls the sun disk across the sky. Jeff reminds Jörg of Christine Reich, the resident archaeologist of Jeff’s Berlin group (immortalized in the HeroQuest Glorantha rules), who gave a presentation at the German convention The Kraken about the solar gods of central Europe in the Bronze and Iron Age. The sun is one of the few things in the world that always follows a set pattern. It is a regular thing and doesn’t have a lot of stuff it can do on its own. Most cultures did not even view it as something which had a lot of agency. The sun is a great thing, it is in the sky, it brings life, but it is not going to do anything much beyond what it is doing. But it has got a horse or someone who is following that path, and that thing is a lot easier to approach. So you just have to go to Greg’s names for the sun gods, you got Yelm, and then you got Little Yelm, or Yelmalio. In the Solar book, Jeff had a lot of fun exploring that, but he is fairly sure that there will be vigorous small argument about it along the lines of “This is Awful!” or “I feel this has ruined this”. Jörg suggests that maybe Jeff might put out some of the faksimiles of Greg’s original manuscripts to document how this is not so much a recent development but how things were meant to work.

Jeff recalls the first draft of the Entekosiad, before Greg came up with the naming system of Pelanda, so there were stories about Lodril, Yelmalio, Yelm, etc. Jeff thinks that it is great that people get so passionate in these debates about those names, that shows how much people love this setting and love the game, but sometimes observing these debates just makes him go “guys…” Ludo repeats that nerds will be nerds, which Jeff rephrases as “It’s passionate fandom.” Ludo blames the internet, but Jörg speaks from experience when he says that people do it face to face as well.

Jeff tells about people telling him with a straight face that he got it wrong, that god X (usually it’s Elmal) has fire powers and fire spells and the cult write-up says so when there never was a published RuneQuest cult of Elmal. Jeff admits that he wrote something in a book (the HeroQuest 2nd edition book Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes), and he admits that he got it wrong at the time. The passion of some of the discussion about it can be interesting.

Jeff explains how Elmal came about: Greg was trying to figure out what the Orlanthi of the First Age thought the sun was right before they had the interaction with the Dara Happans. What would their stories have been, and the result of that was Elmal. The next step was to determine how it was that this perception of the Little Sun deity became Yelmalio, and there we were with all the stories about the Yelmalio cult in the Second Age (both in Griffin Mountain background notes and in the history in Troll Pak). Jeff then claims that if you had read everything in the (publication) history up to King of Sartar, it all was easy to put together. The problem happened when David Dunham came out with the King of Dragon Pass computer game, and Elmal was a popular cult in this, and you had these Elmal myths that David (and Robin Laws) wrote, and they are great, and great fun. All of that became people’s experience of Elmal, but people forgot that the entire premise of the King of Dragon Pass computer game was an alternate history of Glorantha where there was no Sartar coming to unite the Quivini tribes, and the task falls onto your clan instead. That game is set two to three centuries before the RuneQuest setting.

Untangling that came up when the question was should we have Elmal temples in Dragon Pass, and Greg said “No, they are all Yelmalio, that’s what I said in King of Sartar.”

One of the great things about Glorantha is that everybody has their own head-canon, but at times that causes a headache to Jeff. When Chaosium is publishing RuneQuest (or other Glorantha material), they need to keep the story lines for the publication straight, providing one definitive version of what the cult description is going to be, while on the other hand everybody’s Glorantha is going to vary. (Often from one game to the next with the same group of people.)

An Impromptu Lore Auction

Jeff drops a surprise on Ludo and Jörg as we are coming to the end of the episode by offering us to do the old Glorantha lore auction, with three questions we can get answered with a canonical answer.

Expanding on the identity of deities, Jörg asks “If Tolat and Annilla are twins, who are their parents, and when are they born?”

Jeff leads by stating that while not all their myths claim that these two deities are twins, it is one of the most accepted genealogies for them. Both were born in the Underworld after Yelm died, so their parents are Yelm and the River Styx (listed as Edzaroun in the Prosopaedia). Yelm being so awesome that even dead he was able to produce offspring on Underworld deities. When you think of it, we got the Blue Moon goddess who is tied to the tides, but also the sky, because she goes up and down from the Underworld to the sky. When she moves up, the waters rise following her, and when she moves down they drop with her, so she has got to have some deep water connection.

The planetary deity Tolat also spends half his time in the Underworld, as the planet dies, but he is also a celestial entity that has this kind of screwed-up Underworld connection.

Now all good Dara Happans will tell you that Shargash is the son of Yelm and Dendara, who is also a planet.

From an in-Gloranthan perspective (rather than the external perspective of a writer), Plentonius (the in-world author of the Glorious ReAscent of Yelm) did such a good job explaining things in the first or second century of History that even where he was wrong, people find reasons to make him right. Plentonius basically hammered things down. The identification of Antirius (the Dara Happan name for the Little Sun) on the Gods Wall is such an example. There are a lot of identifications by Plentonius, you can poke holes in them (the Guide appendix has a Lhankor Mhy scholar’s commentary on the ancient text, too), but by god, he was such a good writer, and generations of scribes learning the written version of Firespeech have been trained on his text. With these countless copies of his text, the Dara Happan scribes are dedicated to preserving the Plentonius version of it.

Jörg likens this to the fallacious passage in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico where he repeats the information given to him that people capture sleeping moose by felling the trees they lean on since these beasts are lacking knees. Jeff counters this with Herodotus claiming that giant ant lions are the source of India’s gold.

Ludo asks what was Prince Snodal’s goal when he killed the local communication god.

Jeff replies that Snodal  (a Talar from Loskalm) and the Syndics had to destroy the God of the Silver Feet because if they could not find a way for Fronela to dissociate, the writing that Snodal had seen in Zzabur’s book or some other such document be a semi-divine people during his stay with the Altinae (on the northern edge of the World) claimed that Loskalm (in addition to vast other tracts of Fronela that mattered less to Snodal) was going to be destroyed. By killing the God of the Silver Feet they were going to bypass that prophecy, eliminating some of the stated prerequisites of that future event.

In essence, they had a horrible prophecy predicting a major catastrophe, and Prince Snodal and his buddies figured out a way to bypass it. Of course, now the Syndic’ Ban is ending, and you got the Kingdom of War appearing, so maybe this only temporarily bypassed the prophecy, or it just delayed it.

Jeff had recently re-visited the story of Snodal visiting the Altinae, and this was the way Snodal figured out to prevent the doom for Loskalm.

For the last question, Jörg picks up something that he saw recently discussed online, the matter of theist worship of the Malkioni, To what extent is the theist worship of deities convergent with their monotheist philosophy?

Jeff starts out by talking about the words and labels that send people down the wrong path.

Malkioni is a big cluster word, describing a religious group more broadly than almost any other such grouping in Glorantha, which is probably a mistake. The key thing that all Malkioni groups have in common is that the humans are at the centre of the universe, and that the world can be understood materially. The Malkioni say that they have a material view of the world that is superior to that of people sitting around offering plates of food and dead pigs to gods and spirits. From this materialist perspective results ways that people are able to influence the ways of the world through the use of what we call sorcery. But the problem with sorcery is that most people are never going to possess the time or resources or dedication to make much out of it.

In an ideal world (as a sorcerer) we would set up a system where everybody, the rest of society, the non-specialists, would provide us with massive pools of mana, for us to weave it into spells where we are able to do the things that are necessary for us to have a good harvest, to be protected from our enemies, for  hostile and malevolent things to be banished, and whatnot.

But even the purest wizards have (almost) never been able to produce a society that works entirely on that philosophical grounding. Unfortunately for the sorcerers, there is history, there are other peoples, and gods and spirits, they have always been there in the background, and it has often been easier and more cost efficient for us to set up some cult to that deity rather than to spend a huge amount of resources and focus to give the wizards the power to deal with it in a way they find philosophically appropriate.

In every Malkioni society you have the tension between the logical rationalism you have among the wizards, and all the rest of society.

Ludo chimes in that the farmers say “we have this ritual that allows us to offer a pig so we have rain without you wizards having to undertake a season long ritual to produce the same rain this deity gives just in exchange for this pig.”

And a lot of the people living in the Malkioni portion of the world have always worshipped the spirits and the earth goddess, and the most important Malkioni history of Time was Hrestol, and his big myth was that he went and killed the daughter of the local earth goddess, for which he got sent to the Underworld, and his father Froalar, the Talar of Seshnela, ended up having to marry the Earth goddess, and his son who was to inherit the kingdom was half serpent, so it was obvious that he was touched by the Earth goddess. All of this interaction with the deities has been there from the beginning.

So of course there is going to be in a lot of the Malkioni societies a lot of people who aren’t going to rely a hundred percent on the wizards, they are going to hedge their bets and they are going to set up shrines to spirits and to acceptable deities. They might call that acceptable deity something else.

The two Malkioni places that are really exceptional are both movements in the Third Age.

One is Rokarism, and Rokarism is a reaction to the destruction of Seshnela and all the other horrible calamities that the God Learners had. The Rokari movement states that we should follow the law, that we should really not make compromises that are philosophically and intellectually unjustified. People should not enslave themselves to deities and spirits. Only bad stuff happens from this.

Of course, again you have the problem that the vast majority of the common people weren’t part of this philosophical movement. There was an alliance between the wizards and the rulers to try and create a society that has a more rational basis. Rokarism is the faction of the realists. This is unfortunately the way the world is, but in the long run we will be able to create something that really is able to follow Malkion’s precepts or laws. Eventually, will basically have what was promised to humanity.

And then you have these New Hrestoli, who may actually be way whackier than the Rokari. The New Hrestoli got to take advantage from the fact that during the Syndics’ Ban there was no outside people. Loskalm basically was Gormenghast, removed from the rest of the world, surrounded by mist and with no contact by anyone else. This gave them the opportunity to cut top through bottom, to really impose a philosophically ideal society. And they managed to pull that off (at least as long as the Ban lasted).

One thing that an ideal philosophical society has is that humans don’t subjugate themselves to spirits or deities. They rely on wizards to manipulate such entities through logic. The New Hrestoli of Loskalm went further and probably were more successful than the Rokari in Seshnela, but everywhere else people had to make compromises with the real world. There were gods and there were spirits, and as Ludo said, the local farmers would sacrifice a pig to the grain goddess regardless whether it was philosophically correct or not.

Based on his experience living in Berlin, you kind of can make the analogy of the soviet system in Eastern Europe if you imagine Marxism/Leninism as a philosophical system that would get rid of capitalism and all these preexisting conditions and whatnot. But if you cut deep enough into any layer existing there, the preexisting society continued to exist despite declarations that it did not.

So to boil it down, we now have this cultic worship in Rokari lands. The Talars (the nobles) have an ever shorter list of what’s acceptable. The wizards would always say “there should not be a list! These are all exceptions!”

This is the stuff that emerges when you do your world-building from the bottom up, when you rthink about what would be the experience of the people actually living in that setting, what they would react to, as opposed to the top-down model where the wizards at the top dictate the exact way things are going to be resolved.

The nobles want to make ends meet economically too, so that’s why they want these fertility rites performed on their fields.

But at the same time, they need the wizards for legitimacy and support. Another possible parallel for this is the relation between the house of Saud and the Salafi movement in Saudi Arabia. Part of the reason behind the rise of the house of Saud was their alliance with a very strict and stripped-down view of Islam, in the eighteenth century. You need to do that, but on the other hand scholars and preachers don’t have to pay the bills, they don’t have to raise the armies. But on the other hand, the rulers need the scholars and preachers because they provide the ideological support for me being the top dog. So I need to keep them happy while still making enough money out of my peasants for still being able to hire an army. Jeff always figured that that’s where the rulers of Seshnela are. They got this very organized and cohesive group of wizards who are very numerous and really, really useful. And these wizards also say that I am going to be the top dog, that I get to make all the big decisions. They will support me as long as I support whatever it is that they are doing.

But on the other hand, between the nobles and the wizards there are the 98% who make up the rest of the population, and they aren’t really on board with any of this. I need to be able to hire full-time people to fight for me because, if it is wizards, maybe give them six months to cast that spell.- that’s not very useful here. It’s great when we have the time to do it, but I need something that is going to connect faster, my soldiers/warriors. And half of them, they worship war gods and martial spirits and whatnot, I am going to turn a blind eye to that because they are damn useful. And then I have the farmers and crafters, and if they don’t have a good harvest, I am screwed.

One of Jeff’s models for Seshnela in the Third Age is the Mughal Empire in India. There you have that top tier of society that are devout Sunni Muslims – they need to be, all the key power holders in the empire are Muslim, and you got to keep them happy. But they rule a population that is mainly not Muslim. Somehow that needs to work.

You can have various other examples. Jeff always tries to avoid the trap thinking about the Malkioni barely as something like medieval Christians. In Jeff’s opinion they don’t map all that well. To blame is an unfortunate use of titles Greg used in the eighties, and the parallels drawn to the Credo board game (about the Roman Empire Christianity that had been used as inspiration for the How the West Was One freeform).

So now Ludo has this image of medieval Arab scholars for the wizards.

With that we try to come to the end of this episode. Ludo mentions the eleventh book of the Cults series about the Invisible God, probably touching on this last topic, but that will be published at the (foreseeable) end of the Cults of RuneQuest series. In the mean while, Jeff expects the Dragon Pass background book to blow people’s minds.


The intro music is “The Warbird” by Try-Tachion. Other music includes “Cinder and Smoke” and “Skyspeak“, along with audio from the FreeSound library.

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3 comments on “Episode 27: The Cults of RuneQuest

  1. John Smith Oct 14, 2023

    It’s mentioned that there is a temple to Elmal the Sun Horse in Runegate in the Adventure Pack, so Yelmalio is still worshiped as Elmal among certain clans (the Hyalorling trio) as late as 1625 AT. Elmal just being an aspect of Yelmalio (Yelm without Yelm, the Sky God who opposes the Sky/Sun) to me at least makes sense. They’re the same god, different names and aspects and associated myths, but the same god. Plus being associated with Orlanth is better for Yelmalio – you get his spirit magics, you get Shield (likely air rune but hey you get it), you probably get associations with other lightbringers (Chalana Arroy possibly) and can just slightly reshuffle the associated skills to be a bit more Orlanthi. After all, he’s their version of Yelmalio, and gods as mentioned by Greg both impact their followers and are impacted by them.

    • Yeah exactly. I’m not sure if Shield would necessarily use the Air Rune though. IIRC it’s sort of up to you to specify which Rune to use within the cult (so it could be Movement), and I don’t even remember what it says about associated cults on that front… On the other hand, if you worship Yelmalio as part of the Sun pantheon, you might get other magics from Yelm and such, which might be interesting as a pros/cons thing.