Toothed Ducks

From: Hughes, John (NAT) (
Date: Wed 15 Mar 2000 - 04:27:17 EET

Heys Folks


While not having a personal interest in the current debate on roleplaying
styles, in the continuing absence of the FAQ here is the original 'levels'
essay so you can misquote me with accuracy.

For me a conceptual tool is simply that: you use it when it is appropriate
and you use something better when it ain't. I proposed the 'four levels' as
a particular tool for examining a particular problem back in the early
nineties. It was not intended to be universal or absolutist, and it most
certainly wasn't intended to caste nasturtiums upon particular playing
styles. Some days I still find it useful. Other days I don't.

With Orlanthi dogs as with levels, there are exceptions to every

Mikael, answering Simon:

>I'm not actually sure that John Hughes is or wants to be called an
>immersionist or a simulationist, so you'd might want to check that up
>before you claim it to be true.

I'm not sure what these words mean. I bin called worse. At home. Often. :)

>>There... just call me an elitist bastard too.

>You're an elitist bastard too. There's only one truth about playing
>RPGs: if you have fun doing it, you are doing it right.

Says it all really. Please pull the levels argument to bits. We may learn
something. As long as we all have fun doing it.



(elitist bastard, alleged positivist, shamanic tale-gunner,

Here's the original essay. Its a bit dated. I cringe when I see that
so-out-of-fashion word 'emic'. You may too. I know Nick does. :)

- - - - - - -
Do Ducks Have Teeth - FAQ Essay


What is the Focus of this Mailing List?

In brief, this is a mailing list for discussion of Greg Stafford's shared
fantasy world of Glorantha....

John Hughes sees several categories of discussion, depending on whether one
is talking about:

Glorantha as background for a roleplaying game (the RuneQuest or rules
Glorantha as a shared literary work or myth (the genre or mythological
Glorantha as it seems to its inhabitants, a living, breathing nuts-and-bolts
world (the 'emic' or Gloranthan level), and
the rules underlying Gloranthan reality (the absolute or 'nomic' level).

Of course these categories are far from absolute, and there is often an
interplay between the various levels. They are intended as conceptual tools,
useful for clarifying certain problems. Some of the implications of these
different perspectives are discussed by John in [the doc below].

Some Digest contributors have raised the question of whether Gloranthan
material can be fun at the same time as it is accurate. The general
consensus is "yes," but people (of course) disagree about how much realism
counts. This debate is recurring, and basically boils down to personal
preference. Some people find it fun to draw conclusions about First Age
Solar religion from the style of dress of the gods on the Gods Wall in the
gray-cover version of the 'Glorious ReAscent of Yelm'. Others like to have
their Duck Death Lords kill zombie broos. Many like a little of both. That's
one of the reasons why exploring Glorantha (and participating in the Digest)
can be so much fun.



On Exploring Glorantha - Some Tools for the Fantasy Ethnographer and

"I had in my hands a substantial fragment of the complete history of an
unknown planet,with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological
terrors and the sounds of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its
minerals, its birds and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its
theological and metaphysical arguments..."
Jorge Luis Borges "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius".

"No amount of academic knowledge is a substitute for a poor imagination."
Devin Cutler, in the 'levels' discussion, RuneQuest Digest.

"Stwand And Delibber. Dis is a hoist, Won mowve und ya oil broo-bait!!"
Quackbeth the Hueymakt, one-legged duck bandit. (various encounters, Pavis
1612-15, Sartar 1615-21, Far Point 1621-32).


Welcome to Glorantha. A whole new universe awaits, inviting you to explore
its mysteries, to test your powers of observation and imagination, and to
leave your own mark upon its fluid reality.

The world of Glorantha is complex, engrossing, occasionally frustrating, yet
always tremendous fun. It's a contemporary example of a shared fantasy
world, a psychological and social creation whose ancestors include Gilgamesh

and Dante, the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead', 'The Journey to the West
(Monkey)', Edward Abbott Abbott's 'Flatland' and the thought worlds of
Albert Einstein. To enter Glorantha is begin an other-worldly journey.
Throughout human history, such journeys and worlds have served as vehicles
for our stories and myths, vehicles for our hopes, fantasies, and wildest
dreams, places of wonder and adventure, testing grounds for our conceptions
of what can and cannot be.

Glorantha participates in the ancient tradition of other-worldly journeys,
albeit in a new form: a shared cosmos explored primarily through group
roleplaying. Yet like its ancestors (many of whom loom large in the
structure of Glorantha itself) it is a mindspace, a mirror and magnifying
lens for our imagination. It presents itself to us as a frontier and a
mystery, a place to experience adventure and wonder.

It is also significant that Glorantha emphasises humour and enjoyment in a
big way. Rather than for some religious, spiritual or literary purpose (the
genesis of most shared worlds), Glorantha was created to be a FUN place to
visit. And no matter how rabid our powergaming or fervid our scholarship,
its always good to keep this fact in mind.


Two complimentary visions dominate our exploration of Glorantha. The first
is provided by Greg Stafford, Glorantha's prime creator and chief shaman,
standing with Joseph Campbell at his right shoulder and Snorri Snurluson at
his left. Greg's thirty year vision-quest has given Glorantha its basic
structure, its intricate history and its loyalty to the dictates of
mythology. Greg is also responsible for much of the world's wackiness, its
Californian humour and its off-beat surprises.

The second vision is more implicit, and somewhat less central. Through the
RuneQuest rules system, Glorantha bears the stamp of a particular style of
male fantasy roleplaying dominant in the late seventies. This vision
emphasises accessibility, simplicity and heroism, but, being only a step or
two removed from its wargaming ancestors, concentrates on combat, lone
adventuring and exotic monster-bashing. Anything beyond these particular
themes - for example the dynamics of family, society and religion - are
abstracted or ignored for the sake of simplicity and fluidity.

Of course, roleplaying has matured a lot in the last twenty years, giving us
new ways to share our stories and dreams. RuneQuest has attempted to keep up
with the change, to balance the joy of one-armed duck bandits and the
catharsis of broo- bashing with an equal emphasis on storytelling, discovery
and characterisation. In addition, other roleplaying and storytelling
systems have arisen as alternative vehicles to explore the richness of the
old Lozenge.

These two visions of Glorantha: one emphasising detail and diversity, the
other simplicity and enjoyment, stand in creative tension. When the two
strands can be integrated, as in Trollpack, the results are breathtaking.
Getting the balance right is the aim of a lot of discussion on the Digest,
and the cause of most of its arguments. Together, these twin visions
constitute much of what Glorantha is about - and together they raise the
broader issue of what roleplaying is, can be, and should be, and just how
closely the world of Glorantha should be tied to roleplaying games such as


In our discussions on the Digest, a familiar pattern often emerges in
debate. In exploring aspects of the old Lozenge, we slip back and forth
between different levels of Gloranthan 'reality', acting according to the
level we're most familiar with, or perhaps in the faith that all the levels
somehow mesh. The most familiar shifting occurs when to trying to reconcile
RuneQuest rules with what we know of Gloranthan society from other sources.
There are others.

Personally, I like to draw distinctions, at least in my own mind, as to what
type of reality I'm discussing. I see at least four fairly distinct levels
of Gloranthan 'reality' which are sometimes reconcilable, sometimes not. If
each is a 'map', let me list them in terms of smaller and smaller 'scales'
until we reach the final level, Gloranthan 'reality' itself.

* Glorantha as background for a roleplaying game (the RuneQuest or rules
* Glorantha as a shared literary work or myth (the genre or mythological
* Glorantha as it seems to its inhabitants, a living, breathing
nuts-and-bolts world (the 'emic' or Gloranthan level), and
* the rules underlying Gloranthan reality (the absolute or 'nomic' level).

We could argue about my names of the levels and how they intermesh, but for
me the important point is the fact that there are several distinct ways of
dealing with Glorantha.


Any game simulation simplifies its subject for the sake of playability. The
RQ rules, whatever we feel about them, were derived to simulate certain
aspects of reality (adventures) for a particular class of being
(adventurers) for a particular purpose (rip-roaring entertainment). They do
this fairly well. They WERE NOT however, designed to simulate large scale
social, environmental or magical effects, or to be serious simulations of
Gloranthan culture and society.

In my experience, most campaign and convention games and published modules
operate on this rules-driven level. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for
the rules level can be surprisingly versatile and resilient. It depends on
the expectations and needs of the players involved. However, certain of the
more 'absurd' Gloranthan phenomena (cult membership rules, initiation,
certain spells) were derived for and work only at this level.

When beginning a campaign, a gamesmaster should decide whether RQ (or other
system) rules describe Gloranthan reality or merely simulate it. If they
describe it, something like a magical system than swaps points of POW for
INT or SIZ will make sense. If it merely simulates it, then such spells
confuse the simulation with the reality, and would probably be discarded.


The literary and mythological level of stories and characters is where
Glorantha began. Most rpgs don't have this level to deal with - even the
companies that print game-derived 'novels' produce linear adolescent
fantasies where you can usually tell when the dice are being rolled. The
major exceptions are Middle Earth and Tekumel, and like Glorantha they both
pre-existed their roleplaying incarnations.

Most Gloranthan games and stories are readily recognisable as belonging to a
particular literary genre - that of heroic fantasy. Any genre brings with it
certain unwritten but universally understood rules and conventions that
dictate what can and should happen within a story. Within such a level, the
tale becomes as important as the rules. The needs of the story will dictate
that whatever your combat skills, the dastardly broo will beat and capture
you so you can ultimately escape and wreak your righteous revenge upon them.
One of the assumptions of this genre is that adventurers act as
'trouble-magnets'. Another is that they are 'special' people, and that fate
will deal with them in a particular way.

Working at this level, you can suspend game rules or invoke 'meta-rules' for
a given effect without having to universalise the consequences in either a
positive or negative way. The submission guidelines for the projected
Chaosium collection of Gloranthan fiction, 'Heroes of the King' provide an
example of this - they state that healing spells are much less common than
the RQ rules suggest. Story and effect are more important than a consistent
portrayal of reality, so holes and contradictions in the background not
important to immediate events can be rightfully ignored.

Working at this level you go into details beyond those provided by your
rule-set, striving to portray the flow and colour of everyday life. You
might explicitly or implicitly play with our earthly experience for irony or
contrast. You may use exaggeration and distortion for entertainment and
effect. And for your characters, their beliefs, hopes and failures become as
important as their stats and experience checks.

'King of Sartar' is the best example to date that deals with Glorantha on
this level. Scenarios can work at this level, especially when you're
prepared to leave the dice behind and trust to your group's storytelling
instincts.There seems to be a growing concensus that Heroquest has to work
at this level.

Related to this 'literary' or 'genre' view is the the perspective of
Glorantha as a myth. Not only about myth, but a myth in itself. Myth is
about defining what is right and true, about imposing finite categories on
on an infinite universe, creating 'culture' - breaking reality down into
manageable categories so it can be understood. Myth is not primarily about
logic or even story. In so far that Glorantha is itself a myth... well
that's an essay in itself.


['Emic' is an anthropological term meaning the view a particular society has
of itself: the view from within a culture. It is contrasted with the 'etic'
or exterior (supposedly more 'objective' view).]

When you begin to ask questions like, 'What does it MEAN to sacrifice a
point of POW, to give in some way a part of your life force to the god? or
'Do people REALLY give spells names like "Bladesharp 6"?', you're operating
on a higher level of Gloranthan reality.
On this level (which often blends fairly seamlessly with the literary or
mythological level), Glorantha exists as a 'real' world. Actions have
consequences far beyond game or literary phenomena, and need to be
systematically recorded and explored. Gloranthan societies each have a
unique structure and function, similar to Terran societies but operating
according to the nature of Gloranthan reality and mythologic, with
consequences that shape emic conceptions of gender, economics, history,
religion, art, power and law. OUR preconceptions and biases as explorers
have to be made explicit as well.

You have to be pretty committed to operate at this level. It is the realm of
the scholar and dedicated explorer, of the serious co-creator.You do not so
much play the game as take holidays in Alda Chur. It is evoked mainly in
background descriptive articles and 'Gloranthan' documents. Many Digest
explorations attempt to operate at this level.


['Nomic' is a philosophical term relating to natural law. On this level, if
it is describable, the map finally becomes the territory.]
In his descriptions of Glorantha, Greg Stafford gives few clues as to the
nature of any underlying 'ultimate' reality. What, for instance, is the true
nature of the forces that shape and guide Glorantha - the 'gods'? We know of
four contradictory belief systems within Glorantha - the theistic, mystic,
naturalistic and humanist, each with its own working and consistent
explanation of 'reality' and the forces behind it. Can we as explorers
penetrate beneath these emic descriptions to understand the mechanics and
underlying laws of Glorantha, to seek the ultimate answers?

Some explorers believe that we can. Others believe the quest is fruitless
and even misleading, because belief itself has a very special reality-status
within the Gloranthan universe. The debate continues.


The difficulty in fully integrating these levels may explain why there have
been so few published scenarios in the past fifteen years have that uniquely
Gloranthan 'feel'. Most instead rely on combat and generic fantasy elements
where every inn holds an encounter and every Dark Secret(TM) comes down to
hoards of broo appearing out of nowhere. It may also explain why Greg
Stafford does not write scenarios.

Following my original post on this topic, several contributors to the Digest
responded with helpful comments concerning 'level jumping'.

Jonas Schiott pointed out that the bulkheads between the various levels are
not hermetically sealed - a point echoed by several other respondents. Joerg
Baumgartner argued cogently that we should be trying to reduce reduce the
difference between the realities as far as possible, fine tuning the
simulation mechanics so they do not hamper the simulation. Joerg also
pointed out that the levels build upon each other in actual play and
storytelling, contributing to our personal experience of Glorantha. Alex
Ferguson pointed out the majority view is that that we don't have to change
Glorantha to suit RuneQuest, but rather adjust RQ where necessary to suit
our knowledge of Gloranthan reality.

And Martin Crim talked about ducks.

Martin pointed out that some things that are undeniably Gloranthan work best
in only certain levels. Ducks for instance. Ducks are comic, and work in the
rules-derived and literary realities. Do they have teeth? Of course, so they
can hold their cigars (says John Castellucci). This is probably not an emic
answer - in fact creating a plausible one is going to be tough, because the
essential comic relief nature of Ducks will show through. ('No! No!', John
screams in frustration. 'You don't understand! Ducks are Twagic! Serious!

Martin also provided an example of concepts evolving into new levels. Trolls
and (especially) trollkin were originally just monsters to kill, rules-level
creations. With the publication of Trollpack, they evolved through the
literary/genre level into a fully fledged Gloranthan culture with strongly
defined emic values. They continue to work in all three levels dependent on
circumstance - for instance in an Uz bash (rules and combat), Trollball
(literary exaggeration) or in a religious or trading mission within an Uz
stronghold (lots of loving detail and a strong emic perspective).

Using levels when thinking about Glorantha is merely a conceptual tool.
Sometimes it can be helpful, sometimes a hindrance. What is does do is
remind us of the incredible richness of the Gloranthan experience, and how
symbols and concepts borrowed from Terran mythology or generic fantasy
(concepts that are often stereotypically shallow in other FRPGs) can evolve
into something uniquely Gloranthan, fully-rounded, and wonder-full.

That's what the Glorantha Digest is all about. Glorantha just keeps on
growing. Our challenge is to keep on growing with it, and to keep on having
fun as we explore.

THANKS to Jonas, Alex, Martin, Devin, Joerg, Sandy Petersen, Nick Brooke,
Peter Metcalfe and the other Digesters who have commented either directly or
indirectly on the ideas contained in my original posting. I have paraphrased
their responses rather than directly quoting them because my own
conceptualisation and labelling of the various levels has changed - partly
in response to their comments.


End of The Glorantha Digest V7 #465

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