Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gloranthan Humanocentrism?

I've been devouring the Gloranthan Classics volumes I received yesterday with great pleasure. Reading them is a joy and, unlike my re-immersion in old school D&D, no one can rationally claim the positive feelings they're generating in me are based on nostalgia, as I had only a very limited exposure to RuneQuest in my youth. Reading them, among the many things that stands out is how human-focused published Glorantha appears to be. Most of the NPCs and sample PCs are humans, for example, and human concerns seem to drive most of the adventures. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, one of the things I "knew" about RQ even though I didn't play it was that the rules allowed you "to play anything." And of course there were the dreaded ducks, the very idea of which kept me away form RuneQuest longer than they ought to have. But if published products are any indication, non-human PCs don't seem to have been very common. Second, being a skill-based system, there are no level limits or mechanical disincentives to playing a non-human. Yes, there are Charisma penalties when interacting with members of other races, but they apply equally to humans in a non-human environment. Yet, talking to people who did play RQ extensively back in the day, hardly anyone ever chose to play non-humans. I find this especially odd, given both the variety of non-humans in Glorantha and the depth with which Chaosium invested many of them, enabling them to transcend stereotypes.

In the end, Glorantha, at least as it was published back in the second edition era, reminds me a lot of the way classical science fiction treated alien beings. Sure, there are lots of aliens out there, many of them quite different than human beings, and they often figure prominently in stories. However, they're rarely protagonists and, if they are, they're a lone example of their kind in a tale that's dominated by human beings. That's how Glorantha strikes me at the moment. It may well be a caricature of the truth or merely an artifact of the products Chaosium was able to publish back in the day, but that's how things seem nonetheless.

I certainly don't object to it and, honestly, I find it a nice change of pace from D&D, which, despite the intentions of at least Gary Gygax, became annoyingly less humanocentric as the years wore on. Speaking as an admirer of pulp fantasy stories, these old Gloranthan products strike me as often more in line with their sensibilities than does Dungeons & Dragons. Whereas non-humans in Glorantha are clearly alien "others," elves, dwarves, and halflings in D&D are (generally) just "guys at the office." They may look a little different and have special abilities you don't, but, fundamentally, they're no different than you or I -- little wonder, then, that so few D&D players ever batted an eye about choosing to be an elf over a human, especially once the game's already-weak disincentives for doing so were eliminated.


  1. That is pretty much how our campaign played, as I recall through the misty haze of years. There was a dark troll or two, fighting along side the humans battling chaos. At least one elf made an appearance but I do not think any were long running characters. And no one played a duck, ever.

  2. I'm with you on D&D becoming "annoyingly less humanocentric." Games where characters have races like centaur-nagas, half dragon-wereboars, and the like really dilute the wonder and uniqueness of non-human races and cultures. Personally, I've ensured my campaign world is decidely humanocrentric - it makes encounters with non-humans much more interesting when they do occur. Of course, this is just personal preference - to each their own.

  3. I played a Duck in an RQ campaign (as well as a human turned chia pet, but that's another story), but, your observation is correct: playing other than humans was rare. I think one of the reasons is that Glorantha offered distinct human cultures that could function as different "races," while human societies in D&D's published setings had a more "generic medieval" feel that I think "incentivized" people to play nonhumans.

  4. The reason why people play elves and dwarves in d&d is exactly because they're like us homo sapiens. I always found the RQ elves too alien to roleplay. It was like imagining what it means to be a plant instead of just roleplaying a person with a different worldview and values.

    The RQ dwarves and their sexless existence was hard to internalize too.

    Mechanically the elves and dwarves were much tougher than humans but I didn't find that problematic.

  5. Good observation. My campaigns have always had a non-human or two (though often as an NPC in the group).

    Anthony makes a good point. What it really amounts to is you don't have to play a non-human to be cool. In AD&D, one way to be a cool fighter was to be non-human. And halfling thieves were almost across the board better than human thieves. And even mages were often elves because being muti-class was cool.

    Then you add how unusual the Gloranthan races are, especially the standard elf and dwarf (and lack of halfling). Then top it off by the non-humans not having many cult writeups and there's almost a disincentive to play a non-human. Note also that charisma penalty affects cult membership and really steers the non-humans away from the human cults (except ducks and Humakt where the charisma penalty doesn't apply).

    I can only remember one duck PC (in my most recent campaign). I've had one or two newtlings, never any trolls that I can remember (despite allowing them at various times), one or two baboons, with elves as the only regular non-human (Aldrya is actually a much better cult for a healer than Chalana Arroy due to CA's non-violence clause - which I have decided should really preclude a CA from being a regular part of an adventuring party). We actually had a pixie in one campaign.


  6. After the writeup of dwarves in Different Worlds, dwarves completely dropped out of possibility. Perhaps had we seen a Dwarfpak that actually gave them enough depth they might have found a place.

    In my early RQ playing before Cults of Prax and reading that Different Worlds article, we probably did have a dwarf or two, but I never did any serious RQ play until after getting Cults of Prax and reading Different Worlds.

    These days, I might even discourage playing of elves. There's no reason you can't have a human follower of Aldrya (which in fact I did for an NPC in my most recent RQ campaign). They lose the cool elf-bow, and aren't automatically initiates, but they still get access to the Healing spell free.


  7. I don’t belive in demihumans being too alien, but I do believe in them being exotic- much how they are treated in Tolkien’s works. At least most published D&D settings have them as a minority- most nations by far are human-based. In my campaign, they are isolated, and rarely seen by humans. And Players who pick them have to contend with the fact that they will face racism with the humans, for the races distrust each other due to differences in philosophy and possibly past feuds. Thus, elves or dwarves in a human village or cities will not be welcomed with open arms, and vice versa. Sure, they’ll enter, but shall receive dirty/unpolite stares and possibly be picked into fighting.

  8. I ran a couple of humans in RQ back in the day, but the only two I remember are my Dragonnewt and my Duck.

  9. It's not so much a matter that you could "play anything," but that everything played the same way which was the laudable part of Runequest.

    The problem is that the races in Glorantha don't really mix well. In fact the cultures in Glorantha don't really mix well. Often different human cultures would seem as weird and strange as the other races.

    So creating a mixed party had it's problems as to how all these people came together in the first place, let alone the reactions of people to these strangers (often where there is a definite cultural predisposition to antagonism).

    Most of the published adventures concentrated on the Lunar/Sartar conflict (at one remove), which was one of the major dynamics of the Third Age, and substantially a human conflict. Add to that most of the Elder Races were in serious decline by the Third Age (in comparison to the effects they had in the First Age), and you start getting the minimal roles they played in events.

    But lots of games eventually featured non-human player-characters. Trolls (and half-trolls) player characters played an important part in bot Greg Stafford's and Sandy Peterson's original campaigns. Often this was because player-characters ended up being envoys to enclaves of the various non-human races [cf Pavis & Big Rubble], striking up their own friendships and antagonisms. One game I was in ended up forging close friends with the Aldryami and resulted in gaining elf player characters.

    One nice thing about Runequest is the degree by which the skills, and not just the characteristics), shapes the play of a non-human. Some of my favourite games have been playing a gang of baboons in Prax. And the skills means that you really can't play them effectively as humans. You have to start thinking about how you would apply those skills you do have to the problem. They aren't just humans with slightly different characteristics and pointy ears.

    And if you think Trolls are an alien race, wait until you start dealing with Dragonewts.

  10. I bought RQ back in the day, but was put off because I wanted it to be just like AD&D. Now I wish I had a copy, because I realize how great those differences were and would love to explore Glorantha.

    The one time I ran RQ, my sole player chose to be a duck because it sounded hilarious and fun. Which it was.

    Players who pick them have to contend with the fact that they will face racism with the humans, for the races distrust each other due to differences in philosophy and possibly past feuds.

    Yeah, I'm mulling over a campaign setting where "everyone knows" that dwarven merchants will cheat you if they get a chance, that halflings are lazy and thieving, and elves are dangerous savages.

  11. Nice. It's a little esoteric even by Glorantha standards but Arcane Lore has some in-game notes on why the Elder Races are decreasingly relevant as time passes. Basically, the argument boils down to free will: humans have it; aldryami, uz, mostali and the exotics don't. As a result, as time passes, the human "share" of the physical world increases while the others transition to the otherworld. It's a poignant eschatology.

  12. But you can play D&D any way you want right? For instance, I recently played in an on-line PBP game where, even though many of the PCs were dwarves, the referee subtly implied that their prescence in human lands was an anamoly, maybe even part of a dwarven zeitgeist to reclaim a long-lost fortress that informed, in a very understated way, their selection of human companions and the spirit of our foray into the dungeon. And the players took the hint.

  13. The "alien" factor was a definite disincentive to playing a Mostali or Aldryami, even if you loved playing dwarfs and elves in D&D.

    But I think a big part of it was the richness of the options available to a human character. My Bison Rider of Prax, an axe-weilding Storm Khan, is extremely different from a priest of Lhankor Mhy from the Holy Country who is different from a Lunar solider who deserted. We didn't need other races, we had other cultures.

  14. We didn't need other races, we had other cultures.

    Exactly. And, while it wasn't Glorantha per se that attracted me, that approach to designing a world certainly had its effect on my subsequent games, regardless of system.

  15. Well, perhaps I'm the odd duck out. We've been playing 3rd Ed D&D and whenever we start out at lower levels, there are far more human pcs then non-human ones. When we start at higher levels, there are less humans.

  16. We had 1 aldryami and 1 dark troll PC (not at the same time!) but neither of them lasted more than a couple sessions. All long-term characters in both of my RQ campaigns (one c. 1991-92 and another 1994-97) were human.

  17. Still don't really understand love of human centric / hatred of non-human PC's.

    > reminds me a lot of the way classical science fiction treated alien beings

    Sounds a bit "I like human centric cause that is what I grew up with and know and like" which is fine. But boring (to me) and nostalgic (to me and one I don't share, I grew up idolizing Spock, Wookies, robots, etc.) and so probably why I have trouble understanding.

    The demi-humans not being alien enough is an argument I can understand a little more but don't agree with. I like human aliens and alien aliens and also alien humans (EPT comes to mind). I see playing a human culture of mtn lving grumpy, greedy smiths (to paraphrase one sterotype) almost identical to playing a dwarf.

    Eh, I'm hoping someone will someday explain it in a way I'll understand. But, I don't think I can. I think it comes down to brains being wired differently.

  18. I'm not sure that anyone in this conversation is anti-non-human PCs.

    For myself, I know that what I appreciate about my RQ parties is two things:

    1. That humans, which are supposedly the majority, and in Glorantha, even the primary forces driving myth, at least as expressed in the game materials, which Glorantha also points out are purposefully biased, are the minority in PC groups.

    2. I sometimes get tired of the menagerie effect that appeared in some groups I have run.

    3. Oh, one more thing, the tendency in some systems to encourage "fighters are dwarves, thieves are halflings, mages are elves, etc." The combining of architype with race.

    4. And something worse that often comes with #3, the rendering of humans to a sub-optimal play choice, because the human special ability is adaptability/non-specialization, but the game mechanics reward specialization.

    No, I want there to be non-human PCs, and sometimes I have even been disappointed there weren't more in RQ (or that certain races essentially never appealed to players). But I also like most of the effect.


  19. I also really appreciated the alien nature of non-humans in RQ, as well as the stark differences between human cultures. In my one attempt to create a campaign setting for Swordbearer (reviewed here recently), I ripped off a lot of Stafford's "Tolkein revisionism", as one might call it: elves who were part plant, dwarves who were hewed out of the stone, etc. I tried to tie in the different races with the elemental magic system of the game to make the different races not only distinctly non-human, but even non-animal: dwarves with metallic eyes and hair, elves with skin like birch bark or paper and eyes like amber (I also stole a lot of the imagery from the film Hellboy 2 here), gnomes with skin like gnarled bark. Elves worship the tree forms that their ancestors inhabit; dwarves adhere to an materialist mindset that embraces stone and ore as the most enduring and useful matter, and therefore the most "real". And so on.

    Perhaps more importantly, I tried to abandon the idea of "race" (which is a pretty ridiculous concept anyway, scientifically) and instead focus on the idea of "nations" or "tribes". Thus, the elves were considered a tribe, as were the dwarves, as were the "humans", who had for the most part a single, distinct culture: the "humans" in the game were originally a tribe of desert nomads who had expanded into an empire due to their aggression and high birthrates, not because they were more "versatile". The default "human" stereotype being a death-worshipping, shaven-headed, tattooed guy in robes wielding a serrated dagger, I was really going for a world in which everyone was equally "alien".

    I realized after putting all of this together, of course, that I was copying Talislanta more than Runequest. And I think these two games provided a very interesting set of alternatives to fantasy world-building: either make a game in which human PCs are varied and interesting while non-humans exist primarily as alien NPCs on the periphery, or make a game in which there are no "humans" per se, only different tribes and nations of exotics. I'm not sure which I like better, although I think I differ from James in preferring the all-alien Talislanta approach to the humanocentric Runequest one.

  20. I like alien SF figures in books and movies as well as well as the next gamer, but I've grown to prefer a humanocentric RPG campaign over the years. This is for a number of reasons... some that have already been mentioned by others. One problem I have is that players rarely play up the "otherness" of their non-human characters. Mostly it seems just an excuse to have extra abilities. Or a reason to appear unique and special. I think the characters should become unique and special through the actions they take and the successes they have through problem-solving as opposed to the simple dice-rolling of ability effects.
    On the other hand, when players actually do play up the otherness of their non-human characters, that has the potential to become tedious as well. I certainly enjoy a good bit of hamming it up and role-playing during a session, but ultimately I am not there to play make-believe with everyone all night. It's a game with goals and objectives to be offered by the GM and handled by the players. At least that is the aspect of RPGs that I love the most.
    Somebody mentioned the "menagerie effect" of player parties that are all some exotic race. I agree that this tends to rob the campaign of it's otherworldly feel. I guess I am pretty old-school in my attitude that I want the GM to deliver a world of marvels for me to explore as a player... not to have a game of players with flamboyant uber-characters each trying to out bad-ass each other with their quirky powers. (Maybe this is one of the factors that divide old and new school attitudes in RPGs.)

    Then, of course, I have to mention I break all my own rules with my current Gamma World campaign... all the characters are freaky, alien weirdos! So I guess my attitudes vary depending on the game system I am playing.

  21. Elves, dwarves and halflings get a lifetime dungeon pass for being part of the source material - Moria.

    They're also physically just stretched or squashed humans. No animal parts or exotic powers.

    Editions with that half-draconic, half-tiefling, half-genasi, all munchkin feel? Forget it.

    I'm not entirely closed to saner ideas, like lizardmen as PCs. Unfortunately, "balanced, possible, but necessarily rare" doesn't translate well into mechanics. You'll end up asking for a 1 on d20 in character-generation to be able to pick an exotic race and that will be about as popular as the 2% chance to have psionics.

  22. You'll end up asking for a 1 on d20 in character-generation to be able to pick an exotic race and that will be about as popular as the 2% chance to have psionics.

    Chivalry and Sorcery actually had random race generation, with a small chance of very exotic choices.


  23. Chivalry and Sorcery actually had random race generation, with a small chance of very exotic choices.

    I miss C&S. It was my favorite "complicated" game back in the early days.

  24. Norman, with the wide variety of human cultures in Glorantha you sorta do have a range like in Tekumel of "alien humans". Take a look at the free Voices PDF/html pages, which while it dates from the Heroquest era collates a lot of info from earlier Runequest materials.

  25. In the case of aldryami I understand why you would not play them as a PC.

    Once I read up on those guys, and what I read scared me witless. Those are so damn creepy I could never play them.

    That, and similar experiences with the Elder races would make my gloranthan game, if I ever started one, be fairly humanocentric. Not any preconceived idea of it being "better".

    Uz on the other hand are just cool. :)

  26. First post here, and a quick anecdote from somebody who started roleplaying in the Nineties.

    I remember the very first rpg I ever ran - DnD, in its 2nd Ed incarnation. I and the other players were all about 13, and it was the first game for pretty much all of us. Within three sessions, the group had coalesced into the six characters that would remain the backbone for the rest of the campaign. Three dwarven fighters; two elves, one a wizard, the other a cleric; and a goblin thief.

    It wasn't until three months later that I realized that they hadn't even MET a single human being. So, I just made the brash, youthful handwave to switch positions - the humans were the ancient Elder Race that was fading from the world, and everyone else was the Young Races. Then, of course, Planescape came out, and everything went downhill, but that's another story.

    With memories like that - how none of us young punks even batted an eye at the fact there were no humans around - I can definitely understand the appeal of games that felt more humanocentric, both explicitly and implicitly.

  27. Eh, I'm hoping someone will someday explain it in a way I'll understand. But, I don't think I can. I think it comes down to brains being wired differently.

    For me, it definitely has to do with the fantasy and SF I grew up reading/watching. Most of them assumed humanity was the major, if not the only, player on the scene, with non-humans relegated to, at best, supporting roles. When I think of Howard, Leiber, and Vance, I think of very humanocentric worlds and these are the guys who form my vision of fantasy.

  28. Then, of course, I have to mention I break all my own rules with my current Gamma World campaign... all the characters are freaky, alien weirdos!

    It's not really a Gamma World campaign if all the characters are pure strain humans in my opinion.

  29. Chivalry and Sorcery actually had random race generation, with a small chance of very exotic choices.

    Stormbringer did too, with only a 2% chance that a new character could be a Melnibonéan, for example.