2nd edition Heroquest Metaphysics

I’ll continue on the matter of Heroquest a bit more, I still have a bit to say. This one’s about the metaphysics of Glorantha in Heroquest. In fact, it’s a sort of an extended question I’m going to ask of my Gloranthan sage friend at some point – writing this post should help me verbalize the thing that’s been bugging me for a long time.

The structure of the world

The second edition Heroquest describes Glorantha as a world that is made up of three different types of existence. These types are Essences, Souls and Spirits, corresponding with the three major cosmological frameworks of Glorantha. Specifically, the game teaches us that all people are essential, soulful and spiritual. However, magic is a phenomenon that only raises its head when people purify their connection to the otherworld by focusing and concentrating on only one facet of their nature. A person needs to discard their essence and spirit to worship personalized gods, for instance, becoming fully or almost fully soulful beings. Likewise spirit practices require getting rid of essences and souls, and high-level veneration is only possible for people with strong essence and no soul or spirit.

Like people, the world also is made up of all three Otherworlds. Sometimes a thing in the world is really pure and only made up of one otherworld, which makes it magical. Thus we can have Essential animals or Spirit animals or Soul animals, for example, when an animal happens to have an unitary connection to one Otherworld and not others.

As I intimated above, magic comes from focusing your connection and relationship with one Otherworld over the others. This is not in the book, but it almost seems to me as if the world of Glorantha is magical by nature, it’s just that the three different Otherworlds counterbalance each other and thus make the world mundane; when a character gives up the restraints of the other two worlds, he allows his chosen Otherworld to shine through into the world in the form of magic.

The rules of the game focus greatly on the implications of this metaphysic. One of the more prominent features in this regard are the rules for focusing your magic and the rules and restrictions on the types of magic a character can possess. Focusing your magic means that you remove all but one of the Otherworlds from your character sheet, gaining a major discount for buying magic from the one Otherworld that is left in the process.

The question

A fundamental question raises its head in light of the above material: how much does the above interpretation of Glorantha accord with other textual sources? I would not be surprised if f.ex. old Runequest sourcebooks and such had a completely different view on the three magic systems and such; I always got the sense from Runequest that the three magic systems were more of a sociological thing than a fundamental cosmological constant. Also, as a follow-up it’d be interesting to know more about alternate interpretations of what this whole tripartite magic thing really means.

It’s not just impressions from old textual shards that make me suspect this metaphysic; another reason is that I don’t really think that the above metaphysical system makes sense, or at least I don’t know enough to really understand it. For instance, I don’t see the literary significance in making a big deal out of the three separate types of supernatural matter when they are so abstract. What does it really mean for a bear to be a Spirit bear instead of a Soul bear? I can’t really visualize this as an immediately interesting and dramatic thing in the setting of the game – the book doesn’t describe a spirit bear shooting different colored lasers out of its eyes or anything like that, and the metaphysic itself doesn’t really give the bear a different role in the world whether it’s spiritually inclined or essentially or whatever. It seems to me like the essence vs. spirit vs. soul thing is just a meaningless label, which is a bit strange.

One could very well assume that the thing with the three Otherworlds is an extension of a clash of civilizations, but in the light of the actual setting material this seems to be rather far from the truth of the matter. The major conflict of the setting is between the Lunar empire and Orlanthi barbarians, which is largely a theistic conflict within the spiritual realm. The second-most important conflict in my mind is the evocative “War against War” in the west, which again takes place within the monotheist framework solely. There are some conflicts between the frameworks, but nothing that would really feed an interpretation about this thing; if anything, the factual state of the setting seems to indicate that this whole Otherworld thing is coincidental and not even really true. Some pretty important religions in the setting outright contradict the tripartite Otherworld model, too, worshipping spirits as gods or venerating them or whatnot.

Another hypothesis is that the tripartite Otherworld is in place as a sort of character class thing where your character is a Theist or Spiritist as a way of differentiating him from others. This works somewhat until you notice that it’s actually not nearly as important as the differences between the actual in-setting religious traditions; it’s much more important that your character is an Orlanthi Windlord than that he is a Theist. You can’t really pick and choose magic powers from within the Theist world, for example, any easier than you could cross into Spiritualism. The average cult seems to limit associating with other cults of the same Otherworld pretty much to same degree they limit associating with entirely different Otherworlds, as far as I can see.

The role of the tripartite metaphysic is equally suspect in how it attaches to the rules system of the game. Reading the ample examples of play in the Heroquest 2nd edition rulebook, I get a sense that the game presupposes that player characters are adventurers who cross the cultural lines in the world and perhaps make choices regarding their identity in between the different belief-systems. It’s interesting in this context that the game is crazy insane in piling up penalties on characters who step out of their accorded magic systems. You can’t wield powerful magics from other belief systems without losing all of your prior magic, you can’t wield magics from two sources simultaneously without all sorts of penalties and so on. Apparently you have to be Arkat (a legendary hero in the setting, one who apparently doesn’t much care about these rules) to have the privilege of actually surfing the mythic currents and hacking the Otherworlds to work to your advantage. Everybody else is really quite limited in what they can or can’t do, there’s definitely no building wacky combinations out of the different magics.

Overall my problem with this cosmology is that I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Why is this interesting, what interesting things does it do? I suppose that the competing metaphysic would remove the distinction between souls, essences and spirits, with just one Otherworld in which all the various metaphysical critters of the setting live, Saint Caspodi rubbing shoulders with Humakt the Death God. In this set-up the difference between a shaman and a wizard wouldn’t be that they draw on different otherworlds for their magic, it’d just be that they use different techniques for what they do, perhaps because the entities they get their magic from are different in nature. What practical difference does the tripartite Otherworld make? Does a human Essence look different from a human Soul from a human Spirit?

6 thoughts on “2nd edition Heroquest Metaphysics”

  1. Pingback: Glorantha in Solar System « Game Design is about Structure

  2. Brand Robininizki

    Excellent post, as usual.

    I’ve always felt that to some degree the tripartite divide has more to do with our culture, or that is the culture of the Glorantha fans who were driving it (Greg included, but not sole), than it does with any necessary inherent metaphysic of the world.

    That is to say, it works that way because a lot of folks reading the material considered, due to their real world associations, these three types of magic to be different things. Shamans and Pagans and Christians, oh my! Thus, in the world they became different things, just because so much of Glorantha grew organically rather than by design.

    Also, Glorantha has a high degree of relativism in its cosmology (from what I understand, I’m not an expert), and so the current division as presented in HQ could work that way mostly because everyone in the world thinks it works that way. Who knows that it didn’t work differently at other times? Like before the Godlearners broke the world.

    Which brings me to Arkat. I don’t know that Arkat is actually a single mythical hero in the setting. I always rather got the feeling that Arkat was more like a Hero Title for a type of hero, or a hero who completed some big heroquest that made him/her an Arkat. Thus the reason that there are so many conflicting stories of Arkat — there was no one dude who was Arkat. Its a type, rather than an individual.

    And, specifically, I think its a type that PCs are supposed to shoot for being. The type of hero who crosses borders, plays with the rules, makes new rules, syncretizes, and pushes communities into being new types of communities.

    This is in full contrast (possibly, I’m less sure this is the case) to the Godlearners, who are certainly a type. They’re the type of bad player character who tries to minmax the rules of the magical worlds, not for interesting plot or community or mythical reasons, but on the blank logic of the mechanical system of the universe for no purpose other than personal power.

    The two taken together have always seemed to me to give this half buried, unclear, but none the less present indication that you’re supposed to play in the junction between magical types and cultures — but only in the good way (anthropological/mystical/community exploration around hero roles) and not in the bad way (scientific/gamist/effect centered use of systemic logic).

  3. That is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? I agree that it sort of seems like the exciting, inviting thing to do is to go all Arkat on the setting – but then you get to the actual rules, and what do you find? You get a system where your character slowly accumulates experience points (hero points) that are then pushed into various abilities. From an effectiveness viewpoint it’s clearly mandatory to focus your hero point expenditures on a small number of abilities simply because that’s the only way to get reliably hero-level abilities; if you always switch to new abilities and broaden your hero, that means you’ll never be expending the hundreds of points necessary for gaining the several masteries necessary of a true hero. Meanwhile, what happens if your character decides to do something like, I don’t know, unite two religions or become a troll or reinterpret a mythology to make enemies into friends? Going by the rulebook the most common mechanical effect of doing anything against the orthodoxy is that you lose all of your original magic while paying the normal hero point cost for whatever it is that you just did. Also, the setting material encourages the GM to push all seven sorts of magical curses on your character if he ever disobeys the orthodoxy.

    Now, this should seem obvious, or else I’m sorely misunderstanding something: why would Arkat ever choose to betray Malkionism and pick up a new set of religious beliefs (and not just once, but several times) if the objective sum total effective result of that would be the loss of his original, presumably powerful magic and the gaining of some new magical abilities at 13 points per? He’d even have to pay hero points for the privilege! It seems obvious to me that something is not being said, insofar as we believe that player characters are supposed to act a bit like Arkat, break the rules and be the bad boys of religious orthodoxy. I can sort of see the rules system that would actually support that sort of thing, it’d have to be something where you can leverage your existing magical potency for new achievements, so that even while you burn the bridges behind you (spiritually speaking), that allows you to reach for even greater objective power in the future. It’s just that I’m not seeing anything like that in the rules; they’re very static and seem to only support picking a religion and sticking with it for the fear of losing the dozens of hero points you’ve invested on those magics. The farther you delve into a given magical paradigm, the more you have to lose in terms of invested character resources when and if you find it necessary to offend the orthodoxy. And if you never commit to those religions, then you’re never going to get any of the powerful and cool magics for yourself, either. The rulebook even goes out of its way to clarify that the religious authorities will use many sorts of truth magics and interviews to ensure that they don’t accidentally initiate unworthy individuals who wield forbidden magics from other cults.

    Anyway, I guess that part of it is fundamentally an issue of mechanical philosophy. I can totally imagine that the above rules set-up makes sense for someone who wants to make special GM rulings whenever he decides to give a player character the prerogative to “be Arkat”, or somebody who wants to de-emphasize the importance of the numerical scores in abilities in favour of their description or something like that; I can sort of imagine how you could play the Heroquest rules in a way where “Orlanthi magic 13” becomes a good trade for “Malkioni magic 3m3” when you account for the external conditions somehow. This seems to go against the Heroquest philosophy of universal conflict resolution where all things are roughly measurable for their story significance, though. Still, even assuming that we can make sense of those rules, that still doesn’t account for how and why the tripartite cosmology makes sense in the setting itself: even if the idea of the game is for the heroes to play against the religious orthodoxy and the accepted ideas of how things are, it seems to me that the tripartite cosmology is in direct opposition for things like that; what else do the three separate Otherworlds even mean aside from the idea that no no, your hero can’t ever have a meaningful impact on these people because his magic is the wrong type. What else does that cosmology do for Glorantha?

    Also, I agree with you on the likely course of Runequest and the development of the tripartite cosmology, it probably derives somehow from a wish to make conceptual room for Christians, pagans and shamanistic barbarians. Still, that’s another thing that’s been bugging me, perhaps a topic for another post: if monotheism is originally supposed to be literally a monotheistic religious framework that is basically “like Christianity”, then what do the wizards have to do in there? Seems to me like rationalistic wizardry doesn’t have anything much to do with venerative worship. Either I’m misunderstanding the nature of Gloranthan wizards or I’m misunderstanding the nature of Veneration or those two really are metaphysically together just because.

    1. Brand Robininizki

      Re: Wizards and Monotheism.

      The truest answer is “I’ve no clue.”

      However, I suspect it has something to do with Ars Magica and the sources of historical magic that Ars Magica draws upon. That is to say, some combination of the late period Neo-Platonic/Hermetic/Gnostic muddle that was oft joined together with the early Catholic, Coptic, and Orthodox churches, and some of the other semi-monotheistic/dualistic religions of the time and their ties with similar thurgical magical traditions. (Like Manichaeism and the other Sassanid religions, which probably have something to do with the prevalence in HeroQuest, as Persia is one of the largest inspirations for the setting that very few people get.)

      In a lot of those traditions there was a combination of lay practice, devotional practice, and esoteric practice that all stood under the same roof together, but rarely stood comfortably. The “wizardy” aspect would dwindle in the western Church as time went on, though even there you’d still get folks like Meister Eckhart and the mystical nuns and anchoresses of the 13th – 14th century, who were, by a modern definition doing some kind of “magic” rather than “worship” (to them the two weren’t always separate).

      Of course, this also could show one of those divides in the HeroQuest fandom and development cycle. Greg and a lot of the early folks in the setting would have been able to talk about medieval German theurgists and Manichean syncratism with Sufi mysticism and Persian goetia. So their theism wasn’t just late North-West Eurpean Christianity, and made more sense as a home for wizards. But as the setting went on and the fandom developed, the monotheistic religions started looking less like something from the Sassinid dynasty and more like something from 12th century Normandy, and possibly made less sense as the place where wizards fit.

      As for the rest of it, I fully agree. I was fascinated with HQ for a time, and still love many things about the system, but in the end I was dissatisfied with because of the problems between generic “narrative import” mechanics and specific “this is what makes this thing in the setting cool” mechanics.

  4. Olli Kantola

    The the way magic works has changed a couple of times in Gloranthan history, plus Arkat was illuminated and very possibly occluded/mad, so he isn’t a very good example.

    That said, it certainly seems that the previous edition of HeroQuest wasn’t really about the big heroes with a capital “H”. Like you said, deviating from the trodden path isn’t very wise or effective. Actually magic isn’t very effective as a whole, because it is so much more expensive than normal abilities. Presumably you would sidestep all that hassle with heroquests if you are a big ass hero though.

    The new edition does Arkat just fine. You just crank up the genre and style to sufficiently mythic levels and go. Change is still a problem, because under the normal rules characters change very slowly, but heroquests are the answer I guess.

  5. Zac in Virginia

    Hi, Eero!
    Just a quick note regarding this post: “Mythic Russia”, a standalone version of HeroQuest set in… mythic Russia… has adapted the magic system so that it’s theism-or-nothing. A reviewer over at rpg.net suggests that this is a welcome simplification, but that Christianity might have been better portrayed by wizardry, given its communal religious practices.

    The review is here: http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/12/12699.phtml

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