Runic Rants: Chaos is an Ecosystem


Runic Rants is an irregular series of thoughts, opinions, and experiments about RuneQuest.

Why do some Heortlings get involved with Chaos when they know it’s really really bad?

Short answer (in my opinion of course): people are flawed, and Chaos is hidden under multiple layers that permeate through the edges of Heortling society.

Chaos is Bad, M’Kay?

Just because something is bad doesn’t mean people will stop doing it. Heortlings are humans, and humans are deeply flawed. They get angry, desperate, and envious. They cheat, steal, kill, and worse. Everything bad that happens on Earth also happens in Glorantha. But in Glorantha, Chaos often lurks further down.

Besides, the “Chaos is bad, m’kay?” rhetoric probably loses its impact after a while for anybody who does not have a “Hate/Fear Chaos” Passion. The emotion of the moment, the pressure of the situation, the obligations to other people, all have more immediate importance — this is why people do bad things, whatever universe they live in.

Sure, Heortlings certainly believe much more deeply that Chaos can destroy their way of life than, say, we Earth humans believe that climate change can destroy ours. But humans are still generally bad at dealing with uncertain, future threats or rewards. They are much better at dealing with the short term. And the short term possibly means dealing with some really shady people.

Once You’re in the Family…

The way I picture it, Chaos is manifested and surrounded by various types of people. There’s a nest of scorpionmen here, a bunch of feral broos there, a hidden temple to Cacodemon somewhere in the middle… but I’m most interested in how Chaos enters cities and tribes. One way might be through criminal organizations.

Sure, not all criminal organizations are Chaotic, the same way that not every street gang in Baltimore, prostitution den in London, email scam office in New Delhi, or drug dealer in Hollywood is necessarily involved in serial killings, human trafficking, or large scale industrial pollution. But human societies are highly connected, and if you dig deep enough, you’re only a few degrees of separation from a ruthless Mexican cartel drug lord or Russian mafia boss1. It only takes a few debts to repay to start walking down these connections.

And that’s one way Chaos seeps into Glorantha. The road to Chaos is paved with good intentions, and all that. People start with something slightly wrong or illegal, they hire criminal services, they deal with the wrong spirits, and unless they make an effort to pull out, they risk gravitating towards Chaos as they navigate these connections. Plus, they might not even know! How can you tell whether this merchant you’ve “helped” get business from the clan ring is “just” a corrupt opportunist, or a worshipper of Mallia? Are you even going to ask? He’s got muscle, and you already owe him a lot. You did what you did to get your wife some urgent care when the Chalana Arroy temple was full, and you like your kneecaps intact, thank you very much. It’s better to look the other way, and not think about it too much when you hear that the tribal Issaries priest has died of a surprisingly fast-acting disease…

Of course, shortly after, they’re telling you that they need your participation with something on the next Black Moon, and you have to bring a dead rat. That’s probably nothing?

Update: based on the feedback I got from this article on Discord, I want to clarify the point I’m making. The point isn’t about whether criminal organizations are Chaotic (not necessarily) or about the nature of Chaos (it’s complicated). The point is about world-building and narrative design, which is something I’m looking into as I prepare my next campaign arc.

I’m thinking of TV series like Justified or The Wire, where local criminal groups like the Bennett clan or the Barksdale gang are connected to various other factions, including an invariably scarier, bigger, and powerful shadow in the distance, such as the Detroit mob or the Greek mafia. These mysterious factions, represented only by a few visiting characters, supply the main protagonists with the resources they need, such as the drugs they deal throughout the series. But we eventually get a hint of the broader picture. For instance, a container full of dead East European prostitutes washes up on the docks and the corrupt port workers’ union, who was previously only used to forging cargo manifests and operating dead-drops, now has to go out of their way to protect their “sponsors” from a full-on human trafficking police investigation that threatens to unravel the truth.

In this comparison, the criminal hillbilly dynasties of Kentucky, corrupt docker unions of Maryland, and street gangs of Baltimore are not Chaotic. The drugs they smuggle and sell aren’t Chaotic either2. But the leading families of the Detroit and Greek mobs would in this case be stand-ins for Chaotic cults, and the container full of bodies would be a direct consequence of Chaotic activity. This is how I’m currently building up my factions, and how I’m looking at stories where players uncover Chaotic activity in their lands. I’m talking about stories like the classic thriller/noir structure of starting with a simple or unremarkable problem, and eventually uncovering vast conspiracies and deep rooted corruption. Only I’m not building stories, here — I’m building a world that is (hopefully) conductive to these stories. A connected world where Chaos survives because it finds a place inside an ecosystem.

I’m curious about your campaign, though: where are your Chaos cults, what are they up to, and how do your players find them? Let me know!

1 Technically, everyone is only a few degrees of separation from a ruthless Mexican cartel drug lord or Russian mafia boss

2 Although I reserve the right to make an adventure where a new type of drug gives you temporary Chaotic features! Hey, if that trope works in Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green, with Tcho-tcho smuggling operations and drugs laced with Mythos magic, it can work in Glorantha too!

If you have any comment about this Runic Rant, or some ideas for a future installment, please send them to us!

Comments are closed.