May 26

May ‘17 Carnival: Cult Magic Failures

 

The travelling RPG Blog Carnival continues to jump from one blog to another. While I devoted a lot of time to the February topic, the monthly host continues to change.

 

In May, the latest host is Sean Holland at the Sea of Stars RPG blog. Sean’s chosen topic for the month is Occult Mysteries and Magic. The Sea of Stars site outlined the topic like this:

 

While we tend to use the word Occult is a general sense of magic and strange things, its original meaning was simply hidden or secret, so we will be looking at the secrets behind and intertwined with magic in the world and in campaign settings. We can think about questions such as:

  • Is magic practised openly or only in secret? Are there legal or social punishment for magical practice? Or are only some kinds of magic banned?
  • How is magic used behind the scenes in a setting for good or ill? Are there magical conspiracies afoot? Does magical power imply other kind of power (political, criminal, economic)?
  • Who controls magical knowledge and its dissemination? Can anyone learn magic? Or is it confined to particular people?

 

Read more about the May Carnival at Sea of Stars.

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Campaign Failure

Overall, I am very happy with my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, with the mix of Player input, interweaving story arcs and meandering interludes. However, I am yet to capture the entirety of what I want from the game. The setting is not always as epic as I want, and the broader mythic elements are not clear to the Players.

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Reading the introduction to this Blog Carnival made me think of another way I am failing to present my vision at the table. One of the reasons I borrow so heavily from Glorantha is to emulate the rich pantheons and their cults. I love their presentation in Glorantha as a central pillar to the cultures. This feature is not strong enough in our campaign.

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Gloranthan Cults

Glorantha is not alone among RPGs in having a detailed set of pantheons. What stands the setting apart is the way cults are central to the culture and the characters. I am sure the tone of the setting has an impact too. Glorantha is a Bronze Age setting, not a quasi-medieval one. Thus, multiple pantheons, along with shamanism, fit into the setting so much better.

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The setting’s transition to the more narrative HeroQuest allowed for an emphasis on the mythic aspects of the cults. Otherworld heroquests are directly referenced in the title of the game. The mythic echoes down into the mundane in so many ways. For example, the ruling council of an Orlanthi clan is organised the same way as the Great God Orlanth’s court. Every member of the clan has a divine mantle as part of their council membership.

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RuneQuest Cult Magic

My first exposure to Glorantha was through second edition RuneQuest. I only played a few games, but what struck me most about the game was the different approach to magic. Fighting monsters is cool, but the essence of fantasy is magic. In RQ, everyone had magic. This was such a profound change from AD&D, where only specific classes used spells.

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In Glorantha, divine magic is available to everyone. Access to the divine magic is via the cults, which immediately enhanced their importance for the Players. Now it was no longer enough for a Hero to merely pay lip-service to religion. In Glorantha, staying on the right side of a cult was a means to personal power.

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Divine magic was further sub-divided. Everyone had access to Common Magic or Battle Magic as the Heroes called it. What served to bind the cults into the setting were the single-use spells which temples would sell or trade to Heroes. Now the Heroes had a strong motive for visiting temples, and following cult doctrine. Loyal followers of a cult gained access to stronger magic, which made cults politically powerful and militarily strong.

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Fixing Tales of the Hero Wars

Essentially, the representation of magical power focused on the cults matched their social and moral power. In many ways, the Players only cared for the magical power but were drawn into then acknowledging the political and social power. I want a similar dynamic in my campaign. I am lucky enough to have Players who try to follow the social role of the cults. However, if I can mirror this relationship with divine magic, then our campaign moves closer to the RQ model of Glorantha.

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At this first pass looking at the problem, I see two routes to the solution. Firstly, I should provide the Players with more information about the cults. I have basic pantheon lists, but more detail is needed. Players can only react to information they know, so better-informed Players will help the game achieve this goal. This cuts both ways, and I must present GMCs with equally strong cult affinities.

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I should also highlight cult affinity more in the character creation process. Every character sheet starts with a single sentence encapsulating the Hero. Currently, this sentence includes religion at the end. To highlight the importance of the cults, then the religious component needs to be at the start, or at least a lot further forward.

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HeroQuest Glorantha rules

Finally, the conversion to a RuneQuest-style divine magic system requires further tinkering with the rules. The greatest change in HeroQuest Glorantha was the magic rules. I have adapted the personal runes into our game, but this was not enough to achieve what I want. While these runes are a personal link to the Gods, they seem to sidestep the Cults.

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I must study HQG further, but the solution seems to be a conversion from the RQ model of divine magic. I need the cults to feature strongly in the system, as a way to both raise their profile in the campaign, and to make them more relevant to the Heroes.

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Conclusion

This essay is only the start of the solution, In writing the article, I now have a better understanding of what the campaign lacks. Forthcoming versions of RuneQuest and 13th Age Glorantha may both offer possible solutions. Indeed, a close reading of HeroQuest Glorantha, or the older Hero Wars books, may also have answers for me.

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Thus, I see a lot of reading ahead of me. I love reading about Glorantha, so this is not a chore. However, it will take time, so I cannot offer a solution next week. The sequel to this essay may take many months of research and tinkering with options. HeroQuest is a simple, light system, so there should not be a problem in designing an alternate divine magic system. The answer will be more about how the Heroes can access divine magic, not in the way they work.

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In the meantime, how do you show the power of cults in your campaign? Do you have a two-tier divine magic system? Have you been inspired by the Gloranthan cults? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.

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Happy Gaming

Phil

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  1. Very interesting, thank you! 👍 I played through the Colymar campaign and I had a blast, but I’ll follow your next posts to see where you get to with this.

      • Phil on May 31, 2017 at 6:08 pm
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      • Reply

      Hi Runeblogger,

      The grand plan for my campaign involves playing the Colymar campaign once my boys are old enough to participate. So, maybe seven more years to wait.

      Yes, a big plan.

      I struggle to find time in my schedule, but I really need to fix this issue. You will need to be patient for the update with the answer.

      Knowing you are waiting will help motivate me.

      Thanks for sharing
      Phil

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