Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Delightful Uncertainty

One of the things I find most delightful about RuneQuest's presentation of Glorantha is its unwillingness to present The Absolute Truth about its metaphysics (assuming that such a thing even makes sense to consider). Take, for example, this discussion of the all-important Runes from the second edition rulebook:
The Runes are symbols which have power inherent in them. They serve as aids in manipulating the universe. However, merely looking at a Rune is not sufficient to use its power. A character must know how to use it as a symbol to gain any benefit from it. In practice, this means being a priest or shaman.

Not much is known about the Runes themselves, although they have been known to change over time. Whether the Runes reveal a deep harmony in the universe, to which even the gods must conform, or whether the gods produced the Runes and they are manifestations of the gods is question [sic] of much dispute, even among the gods, from whom it is difficult to get a straight answer, anyway.

To the practical minded character, interested mostly in the use of power, it doesn't matter. The Runes are there, and they work.
I have little doubt that this approach to setting design likely bugs a lot of gamers. Heck, it probably would have bugged me if I'd been aware of it in my younger days. Now, I find it simply delightful, as it comports well with my own approach to creating and describing a setting.

16 comments:

  1. In this spirit there are the seven questions that Greg Stafford will never ever answer. One of the questions is, of course, "what are the Seven Questions?"

    Although "What is the Godlearner Secret" is an obvious one.

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  2. This makes an interesting point. The geek urge to solve mysteries is part of what draws us to pulp settings, but must be resisted if those settings are to remain intriguing.

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  3. In general, I find this approach necessary for setting design.

    The one thing that dings me the wrong way is stuff like, "... is a question of much dispute, even among the gods". Like we're privy to what the gods are bickering about in private?

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  4. Sadly, the effect of never stating some very basic information about the background has been to allow Stafford room to change his mind about stuff. The result is that Glorantha has gradually degraded over the years and editions as new ideas were retrofitted. The fact that we (gamers) did not know the "truth" did not prevent us feeling when that truth had changed in the published material and the style of that material shifted, sometimes radically.

    "Modern" Glorantha is a good deal less interesting than the 2nd edition version. Ambiguity has rendered everything meaningless. If Stafford had answered some of his 7 questions then I think the structure those answers would have given would have saved the setting from his own whims and changing moods.

    Even the Runes slid out and in of favour over the years going from something "that work" as per your quote to irrelevant superstition and then back to something with some undefined power again.

    Glorantha is a great idea ruined by the creator's incessant tinkering.

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  5. The one thing that dings me the wrong way is stuff like, "... is a question of much dispute, even among the gods". Like we're privy to what the gods are bickering about in private?

    Through divination and heroquesting it's entirely possible for mortals in Glorantha to be in direct communication with at least some of the gods, so that statement is less ridiculous than it would be in most other circumstances.

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  6. Does that mean that, for your younger self, cosmological certainty was part of the attraction?

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  7. Don't runes sound a lot like the magic words written in an MU's spellbook? Outside of shamanistic stuff, sounds kind of Vancian to me.

    wv: "subblea" A small, deep sector of the Underdark

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  8. Yes, that approach would have bugged me only a few short years ago. I prefer the 'logical pre-established schema' when constructing a cosmology, because....it's "real". The gods are "real" in a fantasy setting where priests gain powerful spells from the gods.

    However, I have recently gained an appreciation for MYSTERY in the world; something easily misplaced by an author of a setting. I have come to realize that the mystery with which characters in the setting must contend does not itself preclude the 'logical pre-established shcema'. In fact, keeping up the mystery and uncertainty of the gods only makes it seem MORE real.

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  9. I dig this.
    In my own setting, I look at the present as the culmination of many possible and possibly contradictory pasts. It's kind of the opposite of the SF cliche of the "possible future."

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  10. look at the present as the culmination of many possible and possibly contradictory pasts. It's kind of the opposite of the SF cliche of the "possible future."


    I like thinking like that in my main game world (created over 30 years ago). When you think about it, every player creates part of the past when they are working on a new PC's background. The DM does it every time he comes up with a new NPC with an interesting history, or a location or event with it's own storied history. So the past gets to be sort of a living, growing thing just like the present.

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  11. ...Oh yeah, and it is no problem if you have to look at something in the past, or have to retcon it all together.

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  12. A vagueness or multiple co-current truths is one thing I like about Glorantha, Tekumel (no really, much of the detail is written IC, conflicting and only one of many many layers and branches of reality/Tekumel), and Traveller (esp. some of the tech, MT's Encyclopedia, and GURPS Traveller's gray OTU where much of the printed material is considered the official Imperium POV).

    But then you have oh, Cyberpunk 3.x where nobody knows the exact date or what Nixon really said cos of LOL paper eatin' virus and somethingsomethingelse.

    Glorantha at least can get away with the all myths are true sorta thing, science fiction needs a bit more justification *usually*.

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  13. Although "What is the Godlearner Secret" is an obvious one.

    Hasn't that been broached somewhat in more recent Glorantha material? Or am I confusing it with some other aspect of the God Learners?

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  14. The geek urge to solve mysteries is part of what draws us to pulp settings, but must be resisted if those settings are to remain intriguing.

    Yep, it's one of those paradoxes that can lead to some terrific creative tension but can also very swiftly bleed a setting dry of its power if not handled well.

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  15. Glorantha is a great idea ruined by the creator's incessant tinkering.

    That is a common problem, alas, as any fan of Star Wars, for example, will likely tell you.

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  16. Does that mean that, for your younger self, cosmological certainty was part of the attraction?

    My younger self? My present self is still probably too hung up on cosmological certainty than is healthy :)

    It's a vice of mine and I'm very much aware of it. I'm trying hard to overcome it and embrace a less hard and fast approach to many things, but it's a difficult struggle at times, as it runs counter to my personality.

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