Though Designers & Dragons focuses on 60+ roleplaying game companies, it also offers orthogonal looks at some of the industry’s primordial settings in smaller essays scattered throughout the book. These include Blackmoor (pg. 388), Greyhawk (pgs. 24-25), Kalibruhn (pg. 242), and The Wilderlands (pg. 69) — all early settings used for D&D. This month I’m going to expand that category a bit by talking about Glorantha, another very early setting, but one used for RuneQuest, one of D&D’s top competitors in the early ’80s. —SA, 3/26/12
This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #14 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history is planned for publication in Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories.
Glorantha is a vast fantasy world and unlike the best documented roleplaying settings — such as the Forgotten Realms and Hârn — much of it has never been detailed in depth. Even the best-known northern continent of Genertela has only been seen in bits and pieces. Still, a considerable corpus of material has been published about the world over a span of thirty-seven years, with that material scattered across four major publishers, two game systems, and considerable reams of fanzines.
It all started in 1966 when Greg Stafford began writing the stories of Prince Snodal, a hero of “Western” Genertela — a setting somewhat similar to a very magical version of the European Middle Ages. Surprisingly, Genertela’s western lands were not officially detailed (except in overview) until recent years, with Mongoose Publishing’s Fronela (2009). That’s pretty much the story of the vastness of Glorantha in a nutshell.
A decade after Stafford first wrote stories of Snodal, official publication of his world began.
The First Age of Gloranthan Publishing: The Chaosium Years — 1975-1983
Chaosium’s White Bear and Red Moon (1975), a counter-based wargame, was the first Gloranthan publication. It shifted the focus of the world to the center of Genertela, where the Romanesque Lunars and the Celtic-like Orlanthi fought in the famed Dragon Pass and the nearby Orlanthi lands of Sartar. It was the beginning of the Hero Wars that marked the end of the Third Age of Glorantha. In the board game’s rulebook, the mechanics of the game were heavily supplemented with descriptions of the races and peoples that filled the world, truly making it the first description of Glorantha.
When the Gloranthan RPG RuneQuest (1978) appeared, it seemed obvious that Dragon Pass would be the focus of the RPG as well. As was typical at the time, Chaosium began defining their game world through adventures, includingApple Lane (1978) and Snakepipe Hollow (1979) — both of which were indeed set in Dragon Pass.
And then the world of Glorantha took an unexpected turn, which would result in fans of Glorantha having to wait over twenty years to see Sartar officially detailed in any depth.
By the time of RuneQuest‘s release, Chaosium had also published what was to be the second in a trilogy of board games, Nomad Gods (1975). It was set in the ruined plains to the southeast of Dragon Pass, where life was clustered mostly on the shores of a great river. The river was home to the ancient city of Pavis and its ruined old city — a place where Lunars tried to rule and nomads roamed. Following those first few adventures, it was these Praxian plains that became the true setting of RuneQuest throughout its days at Chaosium. Cults of Prax (1979) led the drive to the plains, followed in later years by three large, boxed adventure & setting supplements: Borderlands (1982), Big Rubble (1983), and Pavis (1983).
Cults of Prax deserves a few additional notes due to its importance to the world view of Glorantha. It provided extensive descriptions of 15 gods that could be found in Prax — including not just nomadic gods, but also some gods of the Orlanthi and the non-human peoples of the region. It was an early splatbook of the type also produced by Lion Rampant as Order of Hermes (1990), where different groups were each given relatively brief descriptions.
More importantly, however, it really highlighted the importance of religion in Glorantha. Most characters followed gods; higher level characters could even walk in their gods’ footsteps by repeating their myths as “heroquests” (at least theoretically they could; there were no official rules for such until at least 2000). These gods and their myths remain one of the most unique and evocative elements of the world of Glorantha. Chaosium continued the emphasis on religions with the publication of Cults of Terror (1981) a few years later. More cults appeared in Different Worlds magazine, in White Wolf Magazine, and elsewhere.
Returning to Chaosium’s publication, we find that the early ’80s did offer a few reminders that Glorantha was larger than just Prax. Griffin Mountain (1981) told of Balazar, another nearby region of barbarians, but its publication was almost an accident — the result of Judges Guild considering an adventure that ended up being good enough for Chaosium themselves. The RuneQuest Companion (1983) included an article on another nearby land, the Holy Country.
Perhaps more notably, the unique races of Glorantha were starting to get some attention. Though the dragonewts only earned a short article in Wyrms Footnotes #14 (April, 1982), the trolls were the subject of an entire supplement, Trollpak (1982). This was a much more comprehensive splatbook of the sort that White Wolf and others would release in the ’90s, offering much more detail on a singular people than the shorter write-ups available in a book like Cults of Prax. Trollpak was also a reminder of how much detail there was to be unearthed in Glorantha.
Then the First Age of Glorantha Publishing came to an abrupt end, when Chaosium licensed RuneQuest to Avalon Hill, while simultaneously holding on to Gloranthan rights.
The Second Age of Gloranthan Publishing: The Early Avalon Hill Years — 1984-1991
From 1984-1991, Glorantha suffered its first near-death, as RuneQuest publication began to center on a “Fantasy Earth” instead of Glorantha. As a result, almost no new Glorantha material was published, though there were reprints of books like Apple Lane (1987), Snake Pipe Hollow (1987), and Trollpak (1988-1989).
The scant new Glorantha material that was released did offer a new perspective on the world, because it presented a wider viewpoint. Gods of Glorantha (1985) kicked things off with overviews of most of the then-known deities of the world, presented in much shorter form than the long descriptions of previous books like Cults of Prax. Glorantha (1988) followed that up with brief descriptions of all the lands of Genertela, then Gloranthan Bestiary (1988) gave stats for many of the world’s beasties. Finally, Elder Races of Glorantha provided more extensive info than had before been seen for any of the non-human races of Glorantha (other than those trolls).
This all marked a notable change in the scope of Glorantha. Where before GMs had been presented with very detailed but limited campaign settings, now they were given the tools required to game anywhere in the wide world. However, Gloranthan publication (again) abruptly stopped in 1989, this time because Chaosium decided that they could no longer develop RuneQuest for Avalon Hill as the finances weren’t working out for them.
Fortunately, another set of Gloranthan creators appeared in this time: the fans. “The Gloranthan Fanzines” (Designers & Dragons page 360) discusses the many fanzines that have appeared over the years. Tales of the Reachine Moon (1989-2002) was surely the most influential; within its pages, extensive new details appeared for the Lunar Empire and the West. New Lolon Gospel (1995-1996) gave a tight focus on a single part of the Lunar Empire that the author was interested in. Meanwhile, many of the different fanzines returned to Prax over the years, making it one of the most-detailed lands in all of roleplaying.
Granted, none of this material is “official”, but given the many lapses in publication that Glorantha has suffered over the years, these fanzines today represent one of the densest veins of Gloranthan ore to be mined. In fact, it seems likely that the fanzine material at least equals the “official” material by this point, and many of the fanzine authors have passed over to write official material as well (including the author of these histories).
As the Second Age of Gloranthan Publication ended, official support for the setting was gone and a plethora of fanzines now carried the torch and continued to detail the world, with the result in many ways more diverse than Chaosium what had been able to offer.
The Third Age of Gloranthan Publishing: Before Issaries — 1992-1999
In 1992, Gloranthan RuneQuest production started again under the auspices of line editor Ken Rolston. His first book was Sun County (1992) by Michael O’Brien, one of the Tales of the Reach Moon editors. It stayed in Glorantha’s very well-populated land of Prax but detailed a totally new locale within. It was the first “official” Gloranthan supplement that hadn’t been directly overseen by Greg Stafford, and it thus offered a real opportunity for Glorantha to grow beyond the bounds of a single vision (or at least it moved that opportunity from the world of fanzines to the universe of official publications). Recognizing Prax as the popular heart of Glorantha, Rolston continued to develop it with River of Cradles (1992), which was largely a reprint, and two brand new books: Shadows on the Borderlands (1993) and Strangers in Prax (1994).
What Rolson did afterward might have been more important. He published Dorastor: Land of Doom (1993), which described a chaotic adjunct of the Lunar Empire; it was the first truly new setting professionally published for Glorantha since 1983. When he followed that up with Lords of Terror (1994), discussing the chaotic gods of the region, and then began discussing the chaotic elves that lived within Dorastor with prospective writers, it seemed obvious that he was opening up a new frontier for RuneQuest that might one day share attention with the well-beloved Praxian region. Sadly, as is described more fully in the Avalon Hill history (see Designers & Dragons page 179), Rolston was let go from Avalon Hill and his RuneQuest Renaissance stumbled to a sudden halt.
However, a second Renaissance was simultaneously kicking off at Chaosium, where Greg Stafford had decided to restart publication of Glorantha without a game system. In other words, he started writing Gloranthan fiction (or perhaps got back to writing Gloranthan fiction, since that’s where the world got its start back in 1966). The first of these fiction books was King of Sartar (1992). Before that book’s publication, the world of Glorantha had forever been sitting on the edge of the Hero Wars of the Third Age. Now Stafford pushed Glorantha over the edge by describing what happened afterward, through fragments and notes written by characters within the world in the years thereafter. King of Sartar also gave provided more detail on the Orlanthi and Sartar (of Dragon Pass, you’ll recall) than had appeared just about anywhere else.
Unfortunately, King of Sartar also highlighted a problem in the world of Glorantha. It reimagined the sun god of the Orlanthi who had once been Yelmalio and had now become a somewhat different being called Elmal. This change invalidated the underlying structure of Sun County (1992), which had just been published months earlier. It wasn’t the last time that Stafford added details to the world of Glorantha or even changed it in a way that invalidated the writings of others. Fans came to call this being “gregged”.
King of Sartar was sold into book and game stores, but it didn’t do well enough for Chaosium to publish other Glorantha fiction via that means. Instead, they decided to produce more of these books as “unfinished works” — printed out of a word processor, photocopied at a nearby store, spiralbound or velobound, and then sold directly to fans. Through this means Stafford published a book every year or two detailing the myths and backgrounds of Gloranthan lands. The first of these unfinished works was The Glorious ReAscent of Yelm (1994), which provided deep background for the Lunar Empire. Stafford circled around the prehistory of the Lunar Empire for a while. Afterward he moved on the southern continent of Pamaltela and other lands, continuing to write even after new publishers like Issaries and Mongoose appeared.
Through his unfinished works’ descriptions of the ancient mythologies of many lands, Stafford revealed that the world of Glorantha had a richer history filled with more gods than had ever been thought. Evil magicians of the Second Age known as the God Learners had combined many of those gods into more singular entities, but now Stafford was revealing the truth of the world.
Which some saw as more gregging.
Thus the Third Age of Gloranthan Publication came to an end, with professional publication yet again halted, but the torch being carried not only by fanzines but also by Stafford’s small-press books.
The Fourth Age of Gloranthan Publishing: Issaries — 2000-2004
In 2000 Greg Stafford published a new Gloranthan RPG, Hero Wars (later: HeroQuest) through a new company called Issaries. Every bit as notable as the new system was its new focus on Glorantha; Issaries fulfilled a promise that was now 25 years’ old by finally detailing the Sartarite lands of Dragon Pass and their Orlanthi tribes through a series of sourcebooks beginning with Thunder Rebels (2000) and several scenarios beginning with Barbarian Adventures (2001). For the first time ever, players got extensive official details of these peoples and lands at the center of the world — as well as the crunch required to play them.
Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume I: The Lunar Empire (2003) suggested that the Orlanthi’s opponents would be receiving the same detail … but then in a story as old as Glorantha, publication suddenly stopped. Issaries would never publish another Imperial Handbook, while what should have been a four-book campaign arc called “Sartar Rising” ended rather abruptly with the third book, Gathering Thunder (2003).
The reasons are several and varied, as described in the Brief History of Issaries (Designers & Developers, pages 361-363), but the end result was yet another hiatus in the publication of Gloranthan material as the Fourth Age of Gloranthan Publication came to an end.
When Greg Stafford shut down Issaries’ print production he changed the company into an IP house. Since then he has licensed out Gloranthan publication rights to two different publishers.
The Fifth Age of Gloranthan Publishing: Mongoose — 2005-2010
Mongoose Publishing was the first of these companies. They were given the license to publish a new fourth edition of RuneQuest and were also allowed to release Gloranthan supplements set in the Second Age of Glorantha, several hundred years before the Hero Wars era. They made use of that license extensively over the next years.
Many of these books were global books of the sort that Glorantha had long needed (and had briefly seen in the Avalon Hill era) — including the gazetteer Glorantha: The Second Age (2006), a pair of cult books (2006), and a series of five racial splat books from Dragonewts (2007) to Trolls (2007). Smaller-scale books detailed lands that had never before been officially described, such as: Jrustela (2007), a look at the island home of those nasty God Learners; Dara Happa Stirs (2008), an extensive overview of the empire preceding the Lunars; and Fronela (2009), a first-ever official look at the West. Glorantha was being detailed more extensively and faster than ever before.
A well-received RuneQuest II (2010) revision of the rules put a slight crimp in the roll-out of Glorantha, as Cults of Glorantha (2010) revised and rewrote earlier material while Races of Glorantha Volume 1 (2010) repackaged some of the Mongoose race books. However, new material quickly followed, including The Abiding Book (2010), which offered even more details of the God Learners’ empire, and Pavis Rises (2010), an adventurous return to the original heart of Glorantha — a place that rather surprisingly had been ignored for 16 years now.
Then, Mongoose very abruptly closed down their RuneQuest II line and along with it their version of Glorantha. Though the RuneQuest II rules have reappeared as Legend (2011), Glorantha is entirely gone from Mongoose’s halls.
In six scant years, Mongoose probably produced as much Gloranthan material as Chaosium and Avalon Hill had in the twenty years from 1975 to 1994. In the process they offered information on many places never before seen. However, the canonicity of these supplements has yet to be determined. Up through 1989, all official Gloranthan material was closely overseen by Greg Stafford, and that wasn’t the case with the Mongoose material. On the flipside, much of the material was written by Lawrence Whitaker, an old-time contributor to Chaosium who stays involved in Gloranthan work to this day. A few other Gloranthaphiles like Jeff Kyer and myself also contributed.
To be gregged or not to be gregged still remains the question.
The Other Fifth Age of Gloranthan Publication: Moon Design & Friends — 2006-Present
Besides licensing Second Age Glorantha to Mongoose, Issaries also licensed Moon Design Publications to continue the HeroQuest line which detailed the more familiar Third Age of Glorantha.
To date, Moon Design’s publication speed has been extremely slow. However, they’ve published some pivotal books that continue to detail that fundamental conflict kicked off by White Bear and Red Moon. Imperial Handbook Volume 2: Under the Red Moon (2006) and Champions of the Reaching Moon (2007) focused on the Lunars while Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes (2009) and Sartar Companion (2010) offered discussion of their Orlanthi foes in two of the densest setting books in roleplaying.
While 2011 was a year without official Gloranthan publication, it looks like 2012 may see a resurgance. Moon Design is printing Pavis: Gateway to Adventure (2012) a compendium of not just all the old Pavis material, but new stuff besides. Thanks to Cubicle 7, some of Moon Design’s material is also getting into distribution for the first time. Meanwhile Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash’s The Design Mechanism is preparing RuneQuest Sixth Edition. Though they haven’t revealed their full publication plans yet, they’ve received a license from Moon Design to publish Glorantha material on their own.
For thirty-five years, Gloranthan publication was chaotic, sporadic, and occasionally repetitive. It’d be easy for someone not intimately familiar with the world of Glorantha to compare it with worlds like Greyhawk and Kalibruhn, which have never seen much cohesive publication and thus exist largely as piecemeal realms. If anything, the extensive Second Age books published by Mongoose worsen the issue of fractured publication since they describe the setting hundreds of years earlier than anything else.
However, recent books by Moon Design show the true depth of that material that has been published for Glorantha over the years. Thus releases like Pavis: Gateway to Adventure and Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes have been able to collect together decades of material and present them in huge collations of extensive detail.
That may well be the face offered up to the next generation of Gloranthan fans, now that the setting has had so many decades to percolate through the imaginations of its contributors.
Designers & Dragons has been nominated for an Origins award as the best Game-Related Publication. if you’re going to be at Origins this year (May 30-June 3) I hope you’ll vote for the book. If you have friends who will be attending, please tell them too! Also, I wanted to note that Designers & Dragons is now out of print. No word on a reprint yet, so you might want to pick up a copy while you still can if you’ve been putting it off. Meanwhile, this column will continue at least through this year.