Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Retrospective: Cults of Prax

Allow me to indulge in my characteristic hypocrisy and say that, despite its wealth of setting-specific detail, I love Cults of Prax, the first supplement to RuneQuest, written by Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford and published in 1979. This 112-page book details 15 cults and the deities to which they are dedicated, "helpful in clothing a Glorantha-based campaign," according to the introduction. It is quite rightly considered one of the best treatments of religion in a fantasy RPG ever written and it's certainly one of the most inspirational. Every time I read it, I desperately want to start up a campaign in Glorantha, as Cults of Prax ably demonstrates one of the setting's great strengths -- its varied and believable belief systems.

Each of the book's 15 cults is described in some detail, providing information on its history, organization, membership requirements, associated cults, and its unique spells and magic. What's really remarkable is how each entry manages to be so evocative and useful while at the same time being so comparatively spare in its verbiage. Gamers familiar only with contemporary Gloranthan materials might find it hard to imagine but it was once possible to discuss an entire cult in fairly straightforward language without much space being wasted on self-indulgent chrome. (Though, to be fair, each entry does include what can only be called early examples of "gaming fiction," but they're short and often just as useful as the expository text)

The cults themselves are, as I noted, a varied and believable lot, from barbarian deities like Storm Bull to esoteric ones like Humakt to nonhuman ones like Zorak Zoran. Reading through them, one is struck by the fact that none exists just to fill in a spot in a "logical" view of the cosmos, apportioned according to some pre-established schema like alignment. Instead, Cults of Prax presents what might be called a "naturalistic" view of the divine, one that feels more like actual myth, complete with inconsistencies, contradictions, and a disregard for the notion of straight answers. Each cult exists to answer a need within the game setting rather than within the game rules, thereby enabling each entry to give us an invaluable window into Glorantha without having to resort to exhaustive pedantry.

I'm generally down on books like this, which I find tend to forget that they're game products rather than sociological dissertations. Cults of Prax never makes that mistake and yet somehow manages to present religions that feel like more than mere excuses to give characters powerful new spells and magic items. I hate to keep using the word "believable" to describe a book that includes information on the Goddess of the Trolls but it really is apt. Cults of Prax is nothing like Gods, Demigods & Heroes (or its successor, Deities & Demigods), for example, which managed to reduce real world religious/mythological figures to mere game constructs; Cults of Prax does the opposite, elevating game constructs to something approaching credible, if clearly fantastical, belief systems. It's a true classic of the early days of the hobby and a reminder to me that I really was an idiot not to have immersed myself more fully in RuneQuest back in the day.

It's a mistake I'm doing my best to rectify now.


  1. As a long time RQ lover, I'm happy to hear that. RQ (either the old versions from Chaosium or the new from Mongoose) is a very powerful system, and though I'm no Gloranthaphile I admit that the setting is one of the best fantasy worlds there is for gaming.

  2. I loved RQ, and I played it a lot during the last years. I recently gave up on it because I really dislike the slow combat system and the mess the GM have to do with hit locations and so on. But what you say it's true and even if I'm not a great Glorantha-fan, I've to admit that its system of religions and beliefs is the best I ever read among the many books of our favourite hobby.

  3. I quite liked the gaming fiction in this book - I always wondered what happened to the woman and her mysterious child.

  4. if I wanted to start a campaign in the dragon pass region what books for RQ you could recommend me? sorry to hijack the thread like this but I am trying to sift through wealth of RQ material available and decide which to obtain with my limited funds.

  5. If you want to run a Dragon Pass RQ game, honestly, I would give consideration to JUST acquiring Cults of Prax, Cults of Terror and a set of RuneQuest rules. CoP will work best with the original RQ I or II, but could be shoehorned into the other versions (one reason I think one loses something in the newer versions is the way skill training is handled, a significant aspect of how CoP cults work is the discounts they give on skill training).

    The Glorantha Classics Vol III Cult Compendium is one way to get Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror.

    The various modules and campaign packs do have nice background material, but honestly, they start leading one down the path of reveling in the detail of Glorantha and getting away from the practicality of playing. They also tend to be plot heavy. But they can be picked over for some nice scenarios, but they also are focused on Prax, not Dragon Pass (with the exception of Apple Lane - which is a fun module that I have used just about every time I ran RuneQuest).

    You can find some nifty maps around on the web if you want nicer maps than those included in Cults of Prax.


  6. A belated welcome to the RQ club. Are you planning to do restrospectives on Griffin Mountain, Borderlands, and/or Pavis & Big Rubble? Or, for that matter, Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars?

  7. I absolutely adore CoP and, like you, it's a reminder to me that I really should have gotten into a RQ game way back when. I consider its treatment of religion to be a model of how games should handle gods and cults, striking a good balance between game and roleplay needs.

    When Hogshead still had the WFRP license, a friend and I were asked to submit a proposal for a Realms of Divine Magic book. Cults of Prax was our model, and it would be again today for a similar project. It really has stood the test of time.

    Perhaps we remember the gold and forget the lead, but there are so many products from that day that, while approached in quality, perhaps even equaled, have never been surpassed.

  8. Cults of Prax is where Glorantha really opened up for many. RQ core was more a generic RPG with Glorantha as an example. Prax was more the Glorantha sourcebook.

    If you liked Cults of Prax (Cults of Terror is good too tho not as essential) I'd recommend Tekumel's 2 volume Mitlanyál or book of the gods. Basically systemless and chock full of bits useable as adventure seeds, NPCs / Patrons / Enemies, sekrit cults and good primers on Tekumel culture and the recent Civil War (itself and its aftermath another good fodder for adventure).

    There was a single volume pre-publication version that's occasionally up for sale that may work better for some. It's written as if during the Civil War so tends to erm, support the necromancer Usurper.

  9. Are you planning to do restrospectives on Griffin Mountain, Borderlands, and/or Pavis & Big Rubble? Or, for that matter, Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars?

    I plan retrospectives on the ones I either own or can easily get my hands on, yes. Consider it my penance for the years of my youth I spent dismissing the game and setting.

  10. There was a single volume pre-publication version that's occasionally up for sale that may work better for some.

    I own a copy of that, signed by Professor Barker and Bob Alberti, actually. I submitted some comments and errata to Bob for use in the formally published version but I have no idea if any of them met with his or Phil's approval in the end.