Retro Reviews: Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars

Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars is one of the first supplements to be written for Hero Wars line by Issaries, Inc.  It’s the 253-page crash course for Greg Stafford’s fascinating and complex game world – one that has existed since 1978 in various incarnations, but most famously through Chaosium’s (and later Avalon Hill’s) RuneQuest.  In that respect, Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars has a lot to live up to, and the fact that it is the core world for the Hero Wars line adds more pressure to deliver the goods.  For those new to Glorantha, the Issaries supplement is the only in-print, all-inclusive guidebook to the key game world for Hero Wars.  For RuneQuest alumni, the closest out-of-print comparison is the 8th boxed set by Chaosium and Avalon Hill for RuneQuest 3rd edition: Glorantha: Genertela, Crucible of the Hero Wars.

A quick explanation of the term “Hero Wars:” throughout Gloranthan history, a major catastrophe has erupted approximately every 500 years.  In the current state of the world, this 500-year interval is ending, and the Hero Wars is the name given to the impending crisis.  It is also the age that player characters will be thrust into as they begin their campaigns.  The Hero Wars were originally referred to in the Gloranthan boxed set and some of the earlier Chaosium supplements, but the Issaries line is the first to make the Hero Wars the major backdrop to the new RPG.

Grumbles Department

Okay, let’s get the complaints out of the way first.  Like the first edition of Issaries’ Hero Wars, Glorantha is filled with lots of annoying typos (including the back cover and the table of contents) and is plagued with less than compelling layout.  A single font face is used throughout, but it’s not one that’s particularly easy to read, especially if you’re used to the quality of the RuneQuest products.  In the later chapters, the cultural viewpoints and deities are detailed using call-out boxes, but the beginning chapters do not use the same layout style; there are many areas that look as if they were completely passed over when it came time to do formatting.  There’s no index, so this means hunting through the book to find references to various events and names that may have been mentioned in previous chapters.  The book has been produced in a softbound trade paperback format, which makes it easy to carry around and read, but makes for more difficult display of important features like maps and tables.  The art (with the exception of the too-busy cover) varies from average to excellent throughout, but in short, Glorantha is a desktop publisher’s nightmare.

Rules Absentia

The authors have chosen to take a rules-agnostic approach to the supplement, which makes it valuable to both RuneQuest die-hards and players new to Hero Wars.  Unlike the Avalon Hill boxed set, Glorantha does not provide rules for setting up characters in the world, or any rules-centric material at all.  Issaries is saying that the basics of character creation are handled in the core Hero Wars rulebooks and that more detailed character background will be handled through a series of Players Guides for each of the major regions.  Two of these, Storm Tribe and Thunder Rebels are already available, and She Guards Us, the Lunar Players Book is forthcoming.

The no-rules approach is something of a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, Glorantha is probably the most comprehensive supplement for the world of Glorantha ever written, and having rules interspersed would have doubled the size of the book.  On the other hand, it lacks a sense of connectivity to the Hero Wars rules, and it’s up to the players to make the leap from the information to actual game play.   I suppose using Glorantha could lead players to some interesting character keywords, but nowhere is there any kind of guideline for how to do so, other than referencing the main rulebooks and making a best guess.

Preparing Yourself

For newcomers (and even in general), be ready — Glorantha is a tough read.  The numerous references to arcane events, people, places and points of view make it easy to get lost.  Readers may find themselves re-reading a paragraph multiple times before what the authors are saying sinks in.  While this can probably be said for every RuneQuest supplement ever written, it’s especially true here.  The learning curve is steep, and the best advice I can offer in preparing to read this supplement is to first accept that the people telling their story skew the historical account to reflect their own beliefs.  It is difficult to find an objective viewpoint when it comes to Glorantha, and more so when the writer’s first language is not English!   Secondly, there are numerous references to people, gods, places, cults, and so on, which are not always explained or cross-referenced.  Good or bad depends on your own point-of-view; one could argue that the style is meant to spur the imagination and motivate referees to make create their own stories behind the names and places, but one could also argue that it’s just sloppiness on the part of the authors.  I sometimes wonder if the authors are truly trying to challenge the reader to figure things out by setting a tone for the mythologies, or whether they simply have trouble writing straightforward sentences.

Approaching Glorantha

All these things said, Glorantha contains some fascinating material.  Glorantha starts with a short introduction and overview of the world, and then devotes a chapter to the world’s prehistory – Godtime — and then moves on to the invention of Real Time and actual history, or ages, of the world.  These first few chapters and the introduction to the regional chapters are the closest the book comes to the objective flow of events, and are generally agreed upon as “Things That Happened.”  It’s here where we learn how Chaos entered the world, how the sun was destroyed and later saved, how a god was manufactured, and why the sun one day stopped dead in the sky. In the later chapters on individual regions, the locals detail their version of the cause and effect of these events.

The middle and largest portions of the supplement detail the various regions, people and beliefs of the world, generally devoting a chapter to each region, but sometimes breaking stride to detail a major religion or elder race.  The regional chapters begin with the western coast of the northern continent of Genertela and move eastward.  The later chapters move to the south, covering the middle oceans and island civilizations, wrapping up with a comparatively brief chapter on the southern tropical continent of Pamaltela.  The final chapters provide information about the “Outer Limits” surrounding Glorantha, including the sky- and underworlds, and conclude with the “Future of Glorantha,” which summarizes the major forces driving events in each region and hints at possible directions the Hero Wars could take.

Genertela, the Heart of the Hero Wars

The bulk of the book focuses on the continent of Genertela, as this is where the Hero Wars are prophesied to begin.  With a few exceptions in layout, each regional chapter provides a reasonably objective historical overview of the area intermixed with call-out boxes containing stories and beliefs passed down from an elder to a younger, interesting or famous people and places, special notes about a cult or belief system, or alarming nearby events.  These short, boxed write-ups are the most interesting pieces in the book, and add local color and life to the broad historical overview.  Each chapter also contains a short series of paragraphs detailing smaller, noteworthy locations within a region as well as a summary of major cults, religions or mystic beliefs, each with a description of major gods and their associated runes.  The following principal regions make up the bulk of the supplement:

The Malkioni people of the western regions of Seshnela, Ralios and Fronela possess a strange blend of monotheism, sorcery and medieval chivalry, with many things in common with what we might call Christianity, including multiple factions, hierarchies, heresies, denominations, fundamentalism, and a basic fear of damnation.  Because of its reach over multiple regions, Malkioni culture, history and religion is given its own chapter, similar to the chapters on the Elder Races.  Malkionism’s roots lie in the rise and fall of God Learners, ancient sorcerers who sought (foolishly) to take a scientific approach to the use of divine magic, ultimately bringing destruction upon themselves and many others.

The Lunar Empire of central Peloria has a more Persian or Roman flavor, and its recent history reflects an expansion in land and influence due to the ascendance of the Red Moon Goddess, her tolerance of Chaos, and a partnership with the sun god, Yelm.

The Orlanthi rebels of Maniria have their backs against the wall and are threatened by the Lunars to the north and west of Tarsh, Dragon Pass and Sartar; still, they have vowed not to give into Lunar proselytizing or force.  The Orlanthi pantheon, also known as the Lightbringers, is also threatened, as Lunar equivalents make attempts to replace traditional gods.

The eastern Wastelands of Pent and Prax are threatened by the Lunars as well, but the harsh terrain has allowed only the beginnings of major inroads into the region.  The region is populated by vast numbers of animal nomads.

Kralorela sits on the eastern coast of Genertela, largely separated from western influences due to the natural barrier of the Wastelands and mountains.  Mysticism pervades this region as well as strong ties to dragon magics.  The Kraloreli are a secretive and insular people and seek to avoid all contact with the primitive and evil foreigners to the west.

Interspersed with each regional chapter are chapters describing the important Gloranthan Elder races – the Aldryami (elves, or walking plants), the Mostali (dwarves, craftsmen and repairers of the World Machine) the Uz (trolls, dwellers in the dark and big eaters), and the bizarre Dragonewts (offspring of dragons).  The authors appear to have chosen the placement of these chapters based on where these races have large Genertelan population bases.

The geographical orientation of Issaries’s Glorantha works better than RuneQuest’s alphabetical approach to the regions, as it gives the reader a clearer idea of how the cultures in each region relate and interact with one another.  The maps are too small and lack detail, but at least you can see where the major regions intersect and why the conflicts between these regions have arisen.

What’s Not There?

Missing from the supplement are scenario hooks, rules for creating characters, or the quirky and fun “Activity Tables” – a list of typical and less common sample events within a region — of the RuneQuest supplement.  If you own the Hero Wars Players Book or any of the Players Guide supplements, this may not be much of an issue as there are some guidelines there, but there is a certain sense of connection between Glorantha and the Hero Wars rules that is missing, as well as the sense of playfulness and epic sparkle that earlier supplements possessed.  As a result Glorantha is much drier, more grim and textbook-like than it should be.  Combined with the unflattering and inconsistent layout, the supplement most likely will not inspire new players to try Hero Wars.

This is a shame, as there is a wealth of fascinating material to be drawn upon here.  The hard truth is that there’s still no perfect written introduction to Glorantha for new players.   The Issaries supplement, while it accomplishes the basic task of introducing the history, regions, people and beliefs of Glorantha, does not fully spark the imagination or make it easy for new players to become entranced with the world.  Typos and the confusing and inconsistent layout don’t help.  As a companion volume to other printed material, however, it works fairly well and adds depth to what’s already been published.

In view of the many different supplements spread out over three editions of RuneQuest, plus the newer Issaries material, it would be good to see a companion volume to Glorantha that takes an encyclopedia-style approach to Glorantha, similar to Chaosium’s Encyclopedia Cthuliana.  A quick-reference guide would provide a short definition of the many names and places in Glorantha, and perhaps provide a pointer to specific supplements where more detailed information could be found.


For long-time Glorantha players, this supplement is a good addition to the world, and the book expands on material that has been written previously.  I recommend that those folks own both the Avalon Hill and Issaries supplements in order to get at this difficult world.  For people who are new to Glorantha but are still interested, the supplement is a demanding and unsatisfying introduction.  Their best bet is still to find an experienced group of players who can slowly introduce them to the world through straight gaming.

The perfect introduction to Glorantha is yet to be written – here’s hoping Issaries can live up to the promise of the world with 2nd edition Hero Wars, currently under development under the name HeroQuest.   Both the Hero Wars game system and the supplemental material are remarkable and perhaps even great, but Issaries is in dire need of a thorough second draft, a good writer, and better layout and proofreading before the magic can return to Glorantha.

Grade: B
Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars
Published 2000 by Issaries, Inc.
Written by Greg Stafford and Peter Metcalfe

3 thoughts on “Retro Reviews: Glorantha, Introduction to the Hero Wars

  1. Mark Bozzuto says:

    I had the Avalon Hill version, and several of its supplements. The universe of Glorantha is most definitely brilliant in its creativity, successfully making a world that specifically avoided typical western medieval tropes… but despite my appreciation for it, that quality was also its weakness. I simply could not grok the complex cosmology… and finding players willing to read-up on the world’s history/cultural background to get a “feel” for this alien world never materialized.

    I had a similar problem with Talislanta.

    • gpili says:

      I always think it is a particular challenge to find ways to portray a complex world without dumping exposition. Thinking back to the original Star Wars, Lucas managed to give us the world a piece at a time, very carefully viewed through just a few characters’ eyes. Same was done for movies like Blade Runner. If one was to start up a Gloranthan (or Talislantan) campaign, I’d think you’d need to do the same — introducing just a few concepts, slowly trickling information a small bit at a time.

  2. Dave Nolan says:

    For those of use who still remain confused by the blizzard of books, adventures, and supplements, a cross-company roadmap would be so helpful. So, for instance, how does the books for “Legend” factor into the RuneQuest cosmology? Multiple producers of the material, multiple lines, it’s hard to figure out what’s what sometimes. … Just a thought.

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