Friday, March 26, 2010

Fantasy is Frightening

In RuneQuest, there is a race of beings known as Broos or goatkin. In my second edition rulebook, they're described as
Human-bodied and goat-headed, [they] ... are tied irrevocably with the Rune of chaos. They are given to atrocities and foul practices, and carry numerous loathsome diseases.
Broos have the ability to procreate with any species, intelligent or otherwise, with the resulting offspring taking characteristics from both its Broo and non-Broo parent. Most Broos in the Dragon Pass area (the area of Glorantha originally most detailed in RQ's early materials) have the heads of goats and other herd animals, hence their nickname, but Broos come in a variety of types, depending on their parentage.

Anyway, during the RuneQuest Renaissance of the '90s, a product was put out for RQ3 called Dorastor: Land of Doom, which detailed a Chaos-tainted land to the south of the Lunar Empire. As I've stated several times before, I never played much RuneQuest at any time, but I was often interested in it. Just before Avalon Hill was purchased by Hasbro in 1998, the company was selling off its stock of RuneQuest materials in very cheap -- and hefty -- bundles. I bought them out of curiosity and it was then that I first read Dorastor. The supplement included a NPC known as Ralzakark, leader of Dorastor and king of the Broos.

For reasons I can't fully articulate, I found Ralzakark quite frightening. Perhaps it was because he had the head of a unicorn, a creature normally associated with purity and goodness. Perhaps it was because he was an urbane, sophisticated creature unlike his subjects. Whatever it was, Ralzakark frightened me. I don't mean scared in that ooga-booga-monster-in-closet sort of way; I mean in some psychological/emotional way. Ralzakark was a disturbing NPC -- and fascinating too. For all I know, I may be the only person who finds the Unicorn Emperor of the Broos unnerving, but I suspect not. I know of many people who find the Broos more than a little creepy and Ralzakark's inversion of many of the known facts about these creatures probably does unsettle people besides myself.

This got me to thinking about how the best fantasies, the ones that really stick with me, are frightening on some level. Shelob, in The Lord of the Rings, frightens me and so does Gollum, come to think of it. They both touch on things within my psyche that I'd rather not think about and force me to confront them. Most of us, I imagine, need to do this from time to time, which is why I think it's healthy for children's stories to include frightening elements. It's the same reason I think RPGs shouldn't shy away from being frightful. That's not all they should be, of course. Still, I think they're a lesser entertainment than they can be if they neglect to include things to unnerve us from time to time.

27 comments:

  1. In Gene Wolfe's "New Sun" series there is a scene where the main character spends the night in a hovel with a peasant family whose little girl is missing. During the night a lanky four-legged beast whispers outside the door with the voice and memories of the missing child, pleading with the family to come outside. It is one of the most genuinely creepy things I have ever read. It gave me new respect for the leucrotta.

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  2. I once owned a copy of the Dorastor book (sadly, I let it go a few years ago). It was magnificently disturbing, and Ralzakark is a big part of that. I think the decision to render Ralzakark in a mannered, medieval style (both on the cover of the sourcebook and in the interior illustration you reproduce here) contributes to his disturbing nature.

    He also reminds me of the demon Amdusias, from the Goetia (and thus also included in DragonQuest) who appears to mortals in the form of a unicorn. The idea of an evil spirit materializing in the shape of something associated with purity and goodness seems very appropriate, considering the nature of demons (and the Broo as well).

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  3. Actually, the thing that comes to mind when I think frightening and fantasy is from Glorantha: Morokanth and their herd men.

    When a part of Glorantha, Prax, was converted from a garden paradise to wastelands during the Great Darkness all the tribes, both two legs and four legs, drew lots. The losers would become graers that provided food and shelter to the winners. The winners would care for and honor the losers. So you get tribes of humans riding various animals: sables, rhinos, and so on (but no horses, who are taboo). So far, so good.

    Then you get to the Morokanth. One tribe of four legs beat one tribe of two legs. The winners, the Morokanth, are intelligent beasts who herd and eat men who are dumb, grazing beasts. As if that isn't creepy enough raiding of herds is common in Prax and human tribes who raid Morokanth think nothing of capturing herd men and using them for food, leather, bone, and everything they use their native herds for. Finally, there are spells to both awaken herdmen and turn regular humans into herdmen. In addition the Morokanth keep human slaves separate from the herds.

    And, in case you wondered, herd-men and intelligent men can interbreed with the results being 50/50 one parentage or the other.

    I have loved the Morokanth since first playing Nomad Gods but they still creep the hell out of me. It's the utter normalness of it all that eats at your brain. I can't wait to spring them on players.

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  4. It is no coincidence that snake-men are such a staple of sword & sorcercy and fantasy. And science fiction. And just about everything else. Snakes trigger something in most people, and the unnatural mixture of snakes and men probably does the same.

    Sure, snake-men are cliche. That's because they always do the trick.

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  5. I loved using Broo. My favorite thing about them was the "mutation" many would have. Extra large legs for jumping, the ability to explode when hit for a certain amount of damage, or pain weakness so bad the particular Broo would scream in pain just from running.

    I used to like having my RQ players (for the maybe 3 years I ran it regularly in the early 80's) come across Broo rituals, where a huge audience of howling broo would be in attendance to watch special "tricks" by the gifted broo, done in religious fervor.

    I liked them so much, I even brought them over to my D&D world. Has been awhile since I used them, but I think I had them be chaos-tinted cousins of gnolls in my D&D.

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  6. I grew up playing D&D in the South. Unfortunately, it was art like this that people around me used to paint D&D as a form of demonology. Took me years to convince my grandmother otherwise.

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  7. Wow. The Morokanth sound like Swift's houyhnhnms and yahoos on steroids. Even the human raiders who use the herd-human bodies as spare parts fit the Swiftian model: Gulliver wears clothes and sails a boat made out of Yahoo skins and tallow.

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  8. Heck, compare the cover of Wyrm's Footnotes #9--

    http://index.rpg.net/pictures/show-pic.phtml?picid=10310

    --with Arthur Rackham's depiction of the yahoos' drawing of the houynhnhm's sled here:

    http://4umi.com/image/book/swift/gulliver-winter-houyhnhnm-yahoos.jpg

    That's brilliant, that is.

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  9. Ralzakark: "I would like a scoop of cookies n' cream, then mint chocolate-chip, and fudge-ripple, then top it off with caramel and sprinkles - Ralzy like to treat himself once in awhile!" ;)

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  10. @Rob: Given Greg's eclectic tastes as well as that of the writers of Runequest I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't inspired by Swift.

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  11. Broo are among my favorite creations in RQ. It wasn't their beat-like nature that I found so horrifying, however: what set them apart for me was how they reproduced (by rape, with any species or gender) and that it was a religious act for them. (By extension, Thed and Malia are two of the most horrific cults in RPGs, I think.) Others must've liked them, too, since GW "adapted" them for WFRP. (I don't recall if they were in WFB pre-WFRP, however.) Being typically squeamish about anything sexual, however, they took out what made the broo/beastmen most horrific.

    If I recall right, Ralzakark is an "illuminated" broo. This is what makes him (other illuminated beings) scary, in my book: he stands beyond conventional boundaries of morality, of right and wrong, outside the paradigm. Truly alien, and therefore scary at an instinctual level.

    Glorantha is a mixed bag of like and dislike for me, but many elements are so good, like Ralzakark, the broos, and many of the cults, that they beg to be adapted to home campaigns in other games.

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  12. [@Herb: And you forgot to mention the final part of the story as to why Morokanth are unpopular with the tribesmen of Prax: "And to this day both sides say the other side cheated."]

    And if the very idea of Dorastor didn't creep you out you were either playing it wrong or a soon-to-be-deceased Storm Bull fanatic.

    Although I believe that the goat-headed form is their natural form, as most of the cultures of Genertala consider goats to be unclean animals and don't keep them as herd animals and kill the wild ones whenever possible (because of their association with broo and their goddess Thed).

    Although the idea that conducting rape (otherwise known as "the broo crime") would result in you eventually turning into a broo, has a certain innate appeal.

    Though I do think the best horror comes from setting and delivery. Game mechanical effects for simulating the effects of fear just don't cut it, and don't make you huddle under the single working light of an otherwise deserted country railway platform.*

    And I can never go past Kult, where just reading the rules on a bright sunny day gave me the shivers.

    [* A particularly effective Call of Cthulhu session. And to make it clear, I am talking about the players doing the huddling after the game session, not their characters. And there was plenty of nervous laughter and false bravado when we realised what we were doing.]

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  13. I seem to remember that the Dorastar book was (principally?) written by Sandy Petersen. It wouldn't surprise me if this were, in fact, the case: I suspect that when it comes to being able to know, and present, material that is really, gruesomely terrifying, Sandy's probably got a good handle on it... 8)

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  14. I love the broo; they're such wonderful antagonists. I recently adapted them to my Castles & Crusades game, to good effect (my players now hate the broo with a fiery passion).

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  15. There's a lot of really disturbing imagery in Glorantha. Ralzakark is scary, revolting and quite amazing.

    My personal favourite is Arkat. He started as a bright shining knight, and ended converting religiously and *physically* to a troll, hating light and forfeiting all he believed in, repeatedly, in order to fuel his hatred of Chaos. He scare the living daylights out of me.

    Greg knows how to dig deep in the psyche and bring out some quite strong stuff.

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  16. I seem to remember that the Dorastar book was (principally?) written by Sandy Petersen.
    You remember correctly. There are some other credited contributors (and some material was drawn from the running narrative in the eralier Cults of Terror), but the bulk of the book is Sandy's work.

    IMO Glorantha got better once Sandy Petersen started being involved (Trollpak, RQIII, Glorantha: Genertela - Crucible of the Hero Wars, Elder Secrets of Glorantha, Missing Lands, all kinds of cool stuff posted to the RQ mailing list in the early 90s that never made it officially into print), and got much much worse once he stopped...

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  17. Creepy enough for War Hammer to borrow wholesale, I suppose, or maybe that came earlier? I am not up on my Rune Quest chronology. Shelob is certainly quite a horrifying character, and I suppose taps into the same sort of "ancient evil monster" stuff that the Cthulu mythos does. .

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  18. I just wish Shelob talked in the movie. They probably thought it was silly, but I think otherwise.

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  19. If I might call on the wisdom of Glorantha devotees here:

    Let's say I want to read up on the setting. Is there any one book or product that is the single most comprehensive source of information on the setting where I should start?

    What's your "desert island Glorantha guidebook", in other words?

    Thanks!

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  20. Let's say I want to read up on the setting. Is there any one book or product that is the single most comprehensive source of information on the setting where I should start?

    Alas, not really -- at least published during the "classic" (i.e. RuneQuest) era. If you're holding firm on one source only then the Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars boxed set from 1988 is probably the best combination of breadth and depth, but it is very short on details of the various cults and religions (which are extremely important in Glorantha), so to fill in that gap you'll probably want either Gods of Glorantha (which covers a huge number of religions in pretty cursory fashion) or Cults of Prax (which covers a lot fewer religions but in much greater depth -- GoG has about half a page per religion, CoP has about 5-6 pages each).

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  22. There is a lot of Glorantha material available online here for free. That's probably your best bet for starters.

    If you want a product this
    one is pretty good.

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  23. As by a coincidence I actually have the
    Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars boxed set and the Gods of Glorantha box for sale.

    They are in storage but I can dig them out.

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  24. Broos are interesting monsters, indeed. And Cults of Terror book a very good source of frightening ideas.

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  25. As I recall, Broo became Warhammer Beastmen as a result of GW/Citadel having a bunch of Broo figures left over when they lost the RuneQuest licence, and simply carrying them over into their new game.

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  26. That makes quite a bit of sense; GW's "Melnibonean" line became the High and Sea Elves of WFRP.

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  27. A couple of years ago, me and some others had a run at statting up the Broo for AD&D. If you are interested: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=27447

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