Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Cheese and Quackers

Owing to the prejudices of some of the older gamers I met when I first entered the hobby, I was initially very leery of Chaosium's RuneQuest and its setting of Glorantha. Chief among these prejudices was a disdain for ducks. According to the RQ rulebook available at the time, ducks are

a race cursed by the gods during the Great Darkness for not joining them versus the forces of Chaos. It is unknown whether they were originally human and became feathered and web-footed, or originally ducks cursed with flightlessness and intelligence.

As a younger person, I found this more than a little ridiculous. I've always tended toward self-seriousness – a huge surprise, I know – and that tendency has long influenced my evaluation of fantasy games and settings. Consequently, it didn't take much to convince me that RQ and, by extension, Glorantha was fundamentally unworthy of my time, because it included intelligent, playable duck-men as a feature. In earlier times, I found the very idea not merely unacceptable to me but downright silly. What kind of fantasy setting took inspiration from Donald or Howard?

A very good one, I would later find out. Part of what makes Glorantha such a terrific fantasy setting is its quirkiness. It's not a paint-by-numbers setting whose contents are entirely predictable. Instead, Glorantha is filled with the unexpected, from trollball to morokanths and their herd men to, yes, ducks, and they all exist side by side with the more staid Bronze Age socio-anthropological feel of the place to give it a unique depth and texture. 

But it took me a long time to accept this. I used to be so hung up on a very narrow understanding of seriousness that I was unable to recognize the need for a little weirdness and levity. Ironically, it was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, who summed it up quite well in a 1977 interview, in which he explained the origins of the character. According to Gerber, the whole point of the character and the comic in which he appeared is

that life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.

That's a useful corrective to people like myself, who generally don't want the peanut butter of silliness in the chocolate of our fantasy settings. Things like Glorantha's ducks fly in the face of my usual expectations (no pun intended) and that's a good thing. I wouldn't want an entire setting filled with ducks, but I think Glorantha and other fantasy settings are better for having oddities like ducks in them.

Mind you, when I played RuneQuest a couple of years ago, I had a traumatic experience with ducks. My character and his comrades were traveling through Sartar, on the way to New Pavis, when the party stumbled upon a group of ducks. Our interactions with them quickly head south and a fight ensued, one that resulted in the death of one of the player characters. My character and the others who fled the scene developed a suspicion  and hatred of ducks from that point on. Far from being a bad joke, they were, in fact, quite dangerous foes whom we dreaded encountering again. I will never again say that ducks aren't serious.

30 comments:

  1. Gotta watch them ducks . . . . I'm just starting off "How to Read Donald Duck" by Dorfman and Mattelart for tips.

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  2. I too tend to seriousness, and have paid the price in my games. I am quickly realizing that a lot of D&D culture is the belly-laugh of the quirky, silly moments in games which might otherwise be quite serious.

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  3. Great post James - I read an article somewhere, I think it is in Fight On!, about penguins as a playable character race, and I loved the idea. I have introduced a penguin NPC to my group in the past, and it was great fun. It is as you said - seriousness or silliness can depend on perspective.

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    1. Sandy Petersen’s “Cthulhu Wars” board game now has Albino Penguins as a recruitable monster. And a player faction of cats.

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    2. SPI's Swords & Sorcery boardgame had Giant Killer Penguins as a random monster type, mostly stuck in the few glacier hexes to the far north of the map but also sometimes showing up elsewhere during bad winters. IIRC they were 50' tall, so not kidding about the "giant" part. I think they might have shown up in Dragonquest later on as well.

      That was also the game where the dragon faction was led by Gygax Dragonlord, of course. :)

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  4. As much as I love Glorantha, I always had issue with Ducks as well- based on the art.

    I think it was Mongoose who finally had some serious renditions of Ducks, making them appear more like anthropomorphic ducks, rather than Huey, Dewey, and Louie. And from those MRQ books, my stance on Ducks became more tolerant.

    It's all about the presentation. Much like T&T's "silliness" It drives people away.

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    1. If the ducks...pardon, durulz were purely a joke I'd hate them too, but they've got sound (if mysterious) mythological origins within the setting and they fulfill an important role in Dragon Pass by keeping Delecti in check. Be zombie apocalypse time if it weren't for the feathered folk.

      Like you said, presentation. And while i hated most of Mongoose's RQ stuff, they did releases far and away the best Duck minis ever made.

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    2. I enjoyed the MRQII ruleset, but also not a fan of their Second Age Glorantha product - EXCEPT for one- Ruins of Glorantha. GREAT toolkit book for GMs. I got rid of my copy and wish I hadn't- it's something akin to C&C's "Engineering Dungeons" or any number of random table based location/adventure generator books from the OSR.

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  5. Should be weary of all Humakti, not just those with webbed feet.

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    1. Weary or wary? I don't find them particularly tiresome myself, but they certainly do call for some caution.

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  6. Are you sure those weren't geese?

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  7. I have always loved ducks in RQ. And I love that they encourage lots of duck jokes. It's also fun how many Gloranthan gods can have their names bent with duck humor (Hueymakt, Ty Kora Quack, Quacodemon are the ones that roll off my tongue, but I think there's more). The Glorantha map is filled with puns or places named after fellow gamers.

    I really don't remember what it was that grabbed me about RQ originally, but it sure has stuck. It is the ONLY game I have run in every decade since the 1970s... (just did a mind check, and yep, that is true, D&D is close, but I don't think I did ANY edition of D&D in the 1990s...).

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  8. I really dislike RQ, but because of the system, not because of the ducks. I had a party once run into a group of ducks who had come through a gate.

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  9. Let us not forget the legendary Duck Tower by Jaquays.

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  10. I like RQ's rule system but never play in Glorantha because of those damn ducks!

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  11. Awesome use of the how to make them pay book!

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  12. Loved RuneQuest, never cared for Glorantha. It was easy enough port to other campaign worlds.

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  13. I have come to view the despised anthropomorphic ducks, driven to the swamps and wastelands by their treacherous human neighbors, to be a more realistic fantasy race than the pint-sized, over romanticized Victorian farmers of Tolkien's hobbits.

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    1. The fact that the Chaos-loving broo-friend moon-kissing Lunars want them wiped out is enough for me to like the Durulz. :)

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  14. Have you read the "Dungeon" comics by Trondheim and Sfar? Everything in them is anthropomorphic animals (or mythical creatures like dragons) but I always wondered if the main character, Herbert the duck, and his people were at least partially inspired by ducks in Runequest. I don't think RQ was ever very big in France, though, so it's probably unlikely.

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    1. I am aware of the comic, but have never read it.

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    2. @ James Maliszewski Dungeon's a pretty good read, well worth the time to take a look although I wouldn't call it a must-own. Pretty easy to get in US public libraries, although you'll probably have to get it ordered through the Inter-Library Loan system.

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    3. I'm pretty sure Runequest was on the Donjon people's radar -- there's a group of broos in one volume.

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    4. More likely than you might think; RQ was very popular in France for a time. There was a French version of RuneQuest with fantastic artwork.

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  15. Also haven't seen anybody comment the illustration was from the Dragon April's fools section (Was it Dragon #60) with AD&D stats for Donald Duck, back when Dragon was less careful about copyright violations. The last year had Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Not sure if that art was from Jim Holloway or not.

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    1. Ah, I knew it was familiar from somewhere, but I was thinking Toon. Was that the issue with the Jolly Green Giant and his massive treasure trove of frozen vegetables?

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  16. Howard the Duck, in his original Steve Gerber-created incarnation, was amazing. And it seems obligatory to share a link to "March of the Sinister Ducks", a song by comics writer Alan Moore and Bauhaus bassist David J that confirms your worst suspicions of ducks aren't half of it.

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