The Land of Gods: Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin on the origins and legacy of RuneQuest
Since this article was first published in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming magazine, Greg Stafford has sadly passed away. We're reposting it in full as originally printed in honour of his contribution to the roleplaying genre and tabletop gaming hobby as a whole.
“I was a troubled youth, frankly, trying to fix myself through any means.”
As a teenager growing up in the mid-sixties, Greg Stafford turned to classic tales of gods and legends to discover the answers he sought.
“First I read books of stories, then books about the stories – and then the books I found in the footnotes of books about books of stories,” he says. “I pushed myself into adventures, some of them absolutely wonderful – being a hippy at age 18 to 20 was a very colourful and mind-bending experience. Some stuff was crazy, some dangerous, some stupid – okay, a lot stupid, some suicidal. But all of it was a search and, when I discovered people experimenting with magical and spiritual stuff, I dove in headfirst.”
As his fascination with mythology deepened, Stafford began writing his own stories to help him better comprehend his increasingly spiritual outlook. In 1966, while a freshman at Beloit College in Wisconsin, he spontaneously penned – “out of nothing” – a single-page excerpt from a lifeboat’s log. It was followed by a fragment of a short story about a hero named Snodal arriving on the continent of Altinela. This grew into a longer story, charting the region of Fronela. From the pieces, a new world had been formed.
“One beautiful afternoon chatting with friends I looked out into space and thought of Glorantha – actually called Acos at that time – and the whole world opened up before me, a huge and wide vista without a lot of detail but vast breadth and depth,” Stafford recalls. “I was struck with awe and knew I’d be writing more about the place.”
The world of Glorantha would pass through its first age while Stafford was still at college, as he continued to write. A second age coincided with his later employment and recovery from hepatitis. The universe was evolving, but in private; it would be several years before the setting first appeared in print, in sci-fi, horror and fantasy fanzine Space and Time, which published some of Stafford’s earliest fiction. A letter of rejection for another short story would spur the writer to become a designer, eventually deciding to set a planned fantasy board game in Glorantha. Stafford would ultimately release 1975’s White Bear and Red Moon himself under the newly-founded Chaosium label after struggling to find a publisher willing to take on the project.
A third age of Glorantha followed White Bear and Red Moon, as did a second board game set in a neighbouring region of the fantasy land: Nomad Gods. A third instalment in the Dragon Pass series – named after the early 1980s rechristening of Stafford’s debut game – was planned, but never completed. After a few unsuccessful attempts to adapt Glorantha for the burgeoning roleplaying genre, Stafford contacted Steve Perrin, the creator of a set of alternative rules for Dungeons & Dragons and Chaosium-published All the World’s Monsters supplements, to give it a go.
“The decision to have a roleplaying game was Greg’s, he just asked me to supply the actual game,” Perrin recalls. “In the creation of the world, Greg supplied the background and population to provide a rich roleplaying environment. White Bear and Red Moon, along with Nomad Gods and Dragon Pass, provided a wealth of creatures and situations that begged for roleplaying investigation.”
“I didn’t really have to make a lot of change for the genre, although I did adapt things to co-ordinate with the authors’ creative input,” Stafford adds.
"Glorantha is a world in which the gods are not only real but palpable and knowable. Their influence has a major effect on everyday life."
The result of the collaboration was 1978’s RuneQuest, a fantasy RPG released just a handful of years after D&D that recast the molten roleplaying format into a new shape. In place of D&D’s reliance on d20 dice was a percentile-based system that required players to roll a value from zero to 100 under their level in a skill to succeed at various tasks. The framework would later be released as the generic Basic Roleplaying ruleset, as well as providing the foundation of many of Chaosium’s subsequent games, including Call of Cthulhu.
“Mainly the d100 under-roll system is more intuitive,” Perrin offers by way of comparison to D&D. “If you tell someone they have a 14 in a skill you are just begging the question of ‘14 what?’ Saying someone has 70% in a skill is a much better indicator of just how good they are.”
Just as revolutionary was a move away from the character classes and level-driven progression of RPGs such as D&D in favour of a skill-based advancement system.
“Players can develop their character as they have played her – rather than have the character develop according to some abstract template in the rules book,” says Jeff Richard, project lead for this year’s new edition of RuneQuest. “Your character ends up being a unique individual. Your character might have started play trained as a scribe but, thanks to adventuring, she becomes a skilled at axe fighting and moving quietly.”
“The main benefit of skill-based progression is the feeling of verisimilitude,” adds Perrin. “The challenge is that it can lead to parties where everyone has about the same abilities – it is hard to have a niche-based character who is the only one in the party able to specialise. However, this allows characters to develop into specialists naturally, as they find areas they want to concentrate on or the character seems to always make experience rolls in one direction. Also, as a character gets more advanced in a particular cult, they automatically become more and more of an embodiment of the particular god. Yet a warrior still has the chance of pulling a magical trick out of a helmet when it is needed, when in other games she would be the least likely character to have that ability.”
Combined with the innovative skill system was an equally groundbreaking way of dealing with combat, influenced by Perrin’s decade of activity with the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval study and recreation group.
“This put an emphasis on one-to-one combat and the effect of damage on locations, rather than generalised hit points,” Perrin explains. “The combat system has pretty much been the same from the git-go, with variations on the effects of damage on overall health, and the effects of damage on weapons and armor. The attack and parry mechanic has remained much the same, just as it has on the tourney fields of the SCA.
“I am pleased to have essentially pioneered skill-based RPGing and developed a game that gives a ‘realistic’ feel to ancient/medieval adventuring.”
RuneQuest’s inventive gameplay immediately marked it as a landmark in roleplaying. It would take the application of Stafford’s years of muscular worldbuilding to Perrin’s mechanical skeleton to complete its vision.
Glorantha was a fantasy setting like no other. Dungeons & Dragons had begun as a set of modified wargaming rules that a world gradually formed around, new patches of lore sewn in as the gameplay necessitated. Glorantha, meanwhile, arrived as a fully-realised creation, its geography and inhabitants carefully woven together by years of Stafford’s detailed writing and imagination.
“When I am writing I enter into a trance of creativity that I love,” Stafford says. “When searching through the anther of conception and innovation and discovery ideas flow through me with excitement and reveal themselves to me without conscious thought. I get to watch the world draw itself out and form itself into contests and dances, into panoramas and tiny moments of passion, into expressions of affection and conflict that drive themselves into story. So that is my favourite high – better than all the drugs I have so cheerfully poisoned myself with.”
Central to Stafford’s cosmos was a dedication to what he describes as “mythological reality”, with the logic of the universe defined by the existence of deities, rather than science. The surface world of humans is sandwiched between a bowl-like sky and bottomless sea, with an underworld below. Even without the scientific reality of factors such as gravity and physics, Glorantha appears to operate in the same way as our own world.
“The mythical reality demands multiple pantheons of deities independent of each other, but with a mystical underpinning that is not quite understandable by human beings,” Stafford explains. “For instance, there is one single sun in the world, but there are multiple deities of that celestial body. It has a long mythical history preceding human existence, based in part on the actions of the pantheons on local conditions and of the various pantheons upon each other and the whole. Finally, despite the immense power of the deities and their existence defining the world, humans and other mortal races are the free agents of the cosmos and determine its changes as they work in harmony or dissonance with the immortals.”
“It is a world in which the gods are not only real but palpable and knowable,” Perrin adds. “While they are obligated to refrain from interfering directly in the affairs of the many races living on the world, their influence has a major effect on the everyday life of the world. The world is more ancient in atmosphere than medieval, though some areas have chivalric elements.”
“It has a vivid Bronze Age feel, when mortals were closer to the gods, and one’s allegiance is to tribe, city and cult, not to abstract alignments or ideologies,” agrees Richard. “It is mythological rather than material – mythology is no mere euhemeristic explanation of an objective material world; in Glorantha, mythology is the source of the world!”
Despite Glorantha’s spiritual origins being a defining aspect of the world, players initially struggled to come to terms with the scope of Stafford’s vision.
“After first-edition RuneQuest a lot of people apparently felt that there were enough gods – there were three,” he recalls. “Then [supplement] Cults of Prax added more, which was plenty, but then with Storm Tribe some people felt overwhelmed. To say nothing of the number of deities added in Esrolia and History of the Heortling Peoples. I hope that people began to understand the multitudinous complexity is a feature, not a bug. Mythology just isn’t a nice neat package of 12 major and a bunch of minor deities. There is a certain pick-and-choose aspect to it, depending on what task is at hand.”
Even RuneQuest’s early designers took some time to get to grips with the complexity of the world and its celestial nature.
“They had to adapt to my inclusion of shamans and the mythological concepts in general, which was the most difficult part since they were entering new territory for them,” Stafford says. “I actually rewrote all the cults for the first several years to make them conform to my understanding.”
"When I am writing I enter into a trance of creativity that I love. [...] That is my favourite high – better than all the drugs I have so cheerfully poisoned myself with."
Today, mythology has permeated popular culture, from the ongoing surge of interest in the godlike cosmic beings of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and the reimagining of cultural deities in games such as Blood Rage and Rising Sun to the blockbuster success of superhero films, starring characters both directly and indirectly indebted to traditional legends.
“A few of those sources are very well known and popular, but generally most others are derivative of them and just echo the misconceptions,” Stafford says of the modern treatment of mythical elements. “Such a misinterpretation is entirely understandable since polytheism and spirituality are not practised through most of the world, and people have been exposed to the most obvious and superficial aspects of mythology, mistaking them for the whole of the subject. As a result we get superheroes instead of deities, without the organic and integral depth of how deities were considered to be. Mind you, I am not saying that superhero-like entities are wrong, but they are superficial and incomplete.
“I am most proud for opening the door to mythology and making the deities much, much more than superheroes as they are usually portrayed.”
Combined with the resurgence of interest in tabletop gaming and roleplaying, it seems that Glorantha is returning to an unprecedented level of fascination with mythology that it helped set in motion four decades ago. At the same time, the setting must now compete with more immersive, expansive fictional universes demanding fans’ investment than ever before across film, TV, video games and the tabletop.
“I don’t think the broader spread of stories drawn from myth has especially diminished immersion, but the indiscriminate intermixing of worlds has,” Stafford suggests. “The mashing together of diverse sources is a very American and very modern thing. D&D and the Marvel universe are fine examples of it. The tendency is to throw everything in together, establish a rough baseline of equality among entities, and go for it! Glorantha itself has this quality with its many pantheons based roughly on various cultures, but Glorantha doesn’t generally use sources directly – it derives from them. The indiscriminate mixing of Norse, Greek and other mythologies with science-fiction and conspiracy nuttiness destroys the subtly and differences of the sources.”
Having redefined roleplaying with its first edition – it was second only to D&D in sales at its peak – RuneQuest was quickly followed with a second edition in 1980. The RPG rode high on the back of several acclaimed adventures as a third edition, published by major label Avalon Hill in an attempt to grow the game’s audience, was developed. When Third Edition was released in the mid-eighties, however, it made the once embedded world of Glorantha an optional setting for the game, now tweaked to serve as a more flexible set of rules for other worlds. Avalon Hill’s proposed fourth edition of RuneQuest would be shelved a decade later by an unimpressed Stafford.
“With perfect hindsight, I think the decision to make the third edition ‘generic’ rather than root it in Glorantha was a mistake,” Richard comments.
Meanwhile, Stafford developed a roleplaying game based on the legend of King Arthur, 1985’s acclaimed Pendragon. Similarly rooted in myth, Pendragon pioneered several new gameplay aspects that the designer had originally considered for RuneQuest, including passions and personality traits. The mechanics are only now being included in RuneQuest – multiple decades, editions and lessons learned later.
“Between the third edition and the upcoming edition, there have been several changes that have disappeared again because the overwhelming consensus of players is that the RuneQuest of the second edition – with additions from third such as sorcery – is the proper realisation of the system,” Perrin says.
“The biggest change has been an emphasis on the influence of the runes of Glorantha, and a ‘passions’ system that originated in the game of Pendragon. The new game is, initially, going to emphasise the world of Glorantha, with much less emphasis on generic fantasy environments – though these are not going to be entirely ignored.”
“What we are most proud to bring to the game are the defining elements of the newest edition: runes as integral parts of the character, rune points rather than one-use rune spells and passions,” says Richard of the 2018 edition, subtitled Roleplaying in Glorantha. “That, plus an immersive character creation process that teaches the setting through character creation.”
"My vision has come true."
This July marks exactly 40 years since RuneQuest made its debut. 2018 also sees the release of the game’s latest iteration, built off the framework off the second edition rather than revising the third edition or the subsequent fourth and fifth variants released by Mongoose a decade ago. (A sixth edition, published in 2012, once again experimented with separating Gloranthan content from the ruleset.) It will be compatible with the updated second edition, reprinted via Kickstarter in 2016 and now known as RuneQuest Classic.
“I think RuneQuest has a good future as an RPG that emphasises realistic combat effects and a fascinating world that can be explored for 40 years of gaming to come,” Perrin predicts. “As for Glorantha itself, there is a lot of world with regions that have at best a two-line description. That’s a lot of world to explore. I’m working on a proposal I call Glorantha 2020, which takes Glorantha to the Fourth Age, the age of superheroes...”
Stafford, meanwhile, expresses no loss of enthusiasm for realising the ambition and scope of his imagined world.
“More fiction. More of everything,” he replies, when asked what he sees as the future of storytelling in Glorantha. “Direct brain-to-brain transmission games. I’m hoping to see it as a MMORPG. Way before home computers were a thing I had a vision of some kind of massive epic, continental- and cosmos-spanning game with thousands of players moving and shaking the world. I’m hoping that some of the big guys in the computer biz who grew up on RuneQuest make the move! And would love to see a movie.”
Still, even with his aspirations seemingly as sky-high as they were that day he stared out into space in 1966, the creator appears somewhat satisfied.
“After years, my vision has come true.”
Artwork courtesy of Chaosium
Steve Perrin (left) and Greg Stafford (right)
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.