"The legions of the Reaching Moon came a generation ago, desecrating our temples, destroying the Old Ways. In the lowlands and the towns, the hand of the Red Emperor is at the people's throats, but here in the highlands we still live free as the wind that roars over the mountain peaks. We are the Haraborn of Black Stag Vale, and our clan has outlived false gods, Western sorcerers, and the lies of dragons. The Red Moon now thinks she can break us, and bend us to her filthy foreign ways. I say Shepelkirt is wrong. When Argrath comes as prophesied, and tears the Red Moon from the sky, we will still be here, faithful to our gods, loyal to our ancestors, and mindful of the ancient ways..."

- Joddi White Hart, Haraborn Lawspeaker

Sunday, January 8, 2012


I wrote the following some time ago as part of a review of the Mongoose product, "Magic of Glorantha." Thinking on conversations with my players, I wanted to re-post it here;


The hallmark of all great fantasy is a strong, overriding world view. I was tempted to employ the more useful term “paradigm” in the heading, but to avoid Mage: The Ascension associations opted against it. But the fact remains that the truly enduring fantasy worlds all have a paradigm which informs them, a lens through which the setting understands itself. Perhaps it is because of our sympathy for certain paradigms over others that different people find themselves attracted to different settings; they show us the world the way we choose to believe it really is.

Consider Tolkien. Middle Earth is a world which has an absolute truth. Eru created the world, and those who live in accordance with the “mind of Eru” are good while those who go against it are bad. Goodness, truth, and righteousness are the rewards of those who side with Eru and the Valar. Those who defy Eru, from Melkor and Sauron right down to the Easterlings, fall into error and ultimately suffer. This is the kind of absolutism offered by Christianity, which is not surprising considering Tolkien's own devout Catholicism.

On the other hand, we have Howard. Howard's Hyborian Age has no absolutes, no good, no truth, and no real evil (its demons may be alien and inhuman, but don't qualify as evil the way Melkor does, because there is no absolute good to be the opposite of). The Hyborian Age is an almost Nietzschean paradigm where strength is the only real virtue.

Michael Moorcock offers a very different paradigm. His work seems to say that any absolute—in his case absolute Law or absolute Chaos—is intrinsically unbearable and that the only wholesome route lies through balance.

With this in mind, let's consider Glorantha. If Middle Earth embraces a single truth, Hyboria mocks truth, and Moorcock's Million Spheres seek a balance between truths, Glorantha says to us that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Truth exists, and can be obtained, but it is a cultural and—to an extent—personal truth not valid for everyone. Truth is a local, rather than a universal, phenomenon. For example, most cultures in Glorantha agree that there was a time when the sun disappeared from the sky. The Orlanthi say that the sun was a tyrannical emperor, and that mighty Orlanth slew him to liberate the cosmos. However, the sun-worshiping Dara Happans say Orlanth merely slew the solar emperor's son(the divine sun himself was far too great to slay), and that the solar emperor died of grief. Now, in any other world, we might just say that these too cultures have different beliefs and leave it at that. But in Glorantha, an objective third party—like, say, a God Learner—could go to Dara Happa, leave the mortal plane, and personally witness Orlanth slaying the solar emperor's son. The same God Learner could then go to an Orlanthi holy site, enter the Hero Plane, and personally witness Orlanth slaying the tyrannical solar emperor himself. In fact, he could get powers from participating in two contradictory myths!

Because of this, Glorantha embraces a pluralism unprecedented in other fantasy settings. Tolkien is culturally pluralistic, but his world operates around a single truth. Hyboria is also culturally pluralistic, but truth is ambiguous at best. And Moorcock may have a Million Spheres, but all are governed by the same struggle. Even Dungeons & Dragons, with its “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to setting design, still has the cosmic absolutes of law, chaos, good, and evil (lawful good is lawful good, from world to world and setting to setting). Glorantha is wholly relativistic.

This pluralism is not the result of a modern, politically correct, “accept all faiths” viewpoint, but rather indicative of the pagan attitude, which is wholly consistent with the mythic, bronze-age world Glorantha portrays. When we examine the religious attitudes of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures, for example, we find that they are perfectly aware of foreign gods, and accept their existence, but view their own deities as being more central to their lives. A clear example can be found in the Ten Commandments of Hebrew scriptures, where Yahweh tells his people “I am your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.” Note he does not say, “I am the only true God, and all other gods are false.” This attitude did not appear until late antiquity, a period which falls long after Glorantha's scope.

From a Gloranthan viewpoint, therefore, the natural way of things is to stick with your own gods and truths, but be aware that other equally valid realities exist. Whenever, in Glorantha, a culture violates this rule, they are made to pay. This theme was certainly present in previous incarnations of the game—for indeed, the great crime of the Lunar Empire was to attempt to impose its own view of the world on all surrounding cultures—but it is far more clearly articulated here in the Second Age. Both the great empires of this age are guilty of trying to impose their beliefs upon others...and this will be the downfall of both.

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