Learning HeroQuest: Glorantha

My son and I sat down last night to play our first session of HeroQuest: Glorantha. I’ve never played the game and don’t really know the rules/background/setting, but I’ve been enticed and then ensorcelled by Moon Design Publishing’s current product line. Glorantha is a dense setting and the learning curve is as steep as the slope of the fabled Kero Fin. The setting is described in innumerable source books and the lore, culture, mythology, and history of the place is deep and daunting. So rather than wrestle with the rules to create a Sartarite clan and then character, for although there is a plethora of background options the focus seems to be on the Sartar rebels and their Anglo-Saxon/Celtic/Scandinavian-esque society, I adopted an old adventure for last night’s play.

The adventure is from an old White Wolf magazine circa 1980-2. It’s a generic, solo adventure about a veteran soldier returning to his home town for a reunion of his old militia buddies. It comes as no surprise but the town ain’t what it used to be and the hero’s arrival is hardly welcomed. Since I wanted to dip a toe into the world of Glorantha, and because my son read that there is a race of humanoid ducks, I painted the rough frame of the adventure with Glorantha trappings. The returning hero became a duck, instead of returning to the village of Spruce he was returning to the village of Duck Point, and instead of riding a horse he was riding a llama. Because I don’t understand (yet) how runes and magic powers work, the duck didn’t have any. Even armed with the weight resources I’ve already aquired, there isn’t a lot of information on Ducks (should that be capitalized:). The preference seems to be on playing a Sartarite, and the many books that already sit on my shelf frequently repeat the culture, myths, and history of the Sartar folks. But the latest 13th Age Glorantha playtest sheds some light on Duck Point, so I snatched up names and NPCs for last night’s adventure.

We started with a fight, a simple wandering monster (boar) encounter to test the conflict resolution method. Both combatants roll a d20 against their appropriate skill, lower is better, and then compare results. The resolution is based on that result, success vs. success, success vs. failure, failure vs. failure, and ties. And that’s it. Simple, but it took us a while to get over the round-by-round exchange of “I swing and I miss.” I think we got the hang of it, but I need to re-read the combat examples again. As I said, I’ve never played this game. Back in the day, the friggin’ 70’s and 80’s, I learned how to play every role-playing game I played by someone else showing me. That’s not true; we fumbled through figuring out how to play D&D armed only with the Blue book. But all the rest, Marvel Superheroes, Traveler, Top Secret, Ars Magica – especially Ars Magica, which I think is unlearnable if someone doesn’t show you how to play – someone else showed me how the game worked. Glorantha feels a lot like that. I need someone to show me.

One of the reasons I like HeroQuest: Glorantha is because of the old-school feel of the game. The rough (not bad) drawings, the thick books, the confusing rules, and the hyper detail on myths and society all add to that feeling. There is also an illustrated pair of bare breasts in every book, at some point or another, which reminds me of the pulp adolescence of early role-playing games. Anyone remember the cover of Eldritch Wizardry? This is not a knock at Moon Design Publishing, who do an amazing job with this material, but there is something that seems an inch or two short of professional, or perhaps mass-commercial is a better way to say it. Its this nuance that really grabs me and reminds me of the shared, almost secret culture of early RPG gaming. No slick illustrations, no glossy charts and full-colored pages, no limp text that reads like stereo instructions. These books ooze cool and I’m gobbling them up as my finances allow.

But it’s confusing how it all fits together, especially the bridge between the “Bronze Age” Sartarites (which really should be early Iron Age for all the references and culture but who’s counting) and the mythology of the Orlanthi gods. It’s not impossible to grasp the culture, its derived from Northern European pagan culture, but the mythology is a slippery subject. It’s all invented, and while some of it is kind of like real myths, most of it reads like a late 60’s early 70’s comic book. The stories don’t feel like tales about Horus and Osiris, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Hector and Achilles, but Galactus and the Silver Surfer, Spiderman and the Green Goblin, and Jack Kirby’s Eternals. While full of color and adventure, the mythology fails when it tries to explain aspects of Orlanthi customs and geography. Often it’s a nice attempt, like the story about why violence isn’t the only way to solve a problem, but generally it seems disconnected. The invented mythology compounds the difficulty of learning the game. Besides understanding new rules, I need to comprehend how these rules fit with this massive load of mythological information.

To bridge this, I’m thinking of next running a HeroQuest: Greece game, using the HeroQuest rules to tell a story in the Classical Period of Ancient Greece. Influenced by the wonderful collection of Messner-Loebs’ and Kieth’s Epicurus the Sage graphic novel, setting a game in a world where the myths are generally known by the players circumvents the difficulty of a distant mythology. If I tell the players they have to rescue Prometheus, they’ll know who he is and perhaps why he’s imprisoned. I think it’s a softer approach than charging into the massive corpus of Glorantha lore.

The game could use a starter set. Premade characters on a set adventure with guidelines as to how to play and how to narrate.

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