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Sunday 18 August 2019

Retrospective: Cults of Prax

One of the issues with RuneQuest—recently and beautifully republished as RuneQuest Classic by Chaosim, Inc.—was what it hinted at and did not provide. It hinted at a setting, that of Glorantha, which we know of today in all of its richness and detail through numerous roleplaying games and supplements. Notable among those hints were three cults, of which Orlanth and Kyger Litor were more important than the Black Fang Brotherhood, which suggested the power and place of faith and magic in the world of Glorantha. Had there been descriptions of more cults in RuneQuest, then perhaps the first step into Dragon Pass and Glorantha would have been easier. Of course, it should be made clear that this is not an issue with the most recent iteration of the roleplaying game, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, in that the cults, gods, and runes are more strongly integrated into the rules as well as the setting. Not so in 1978, but then came Cults of Prax.

Cults of Prax was published in 1979. It presented fifteen cults—old and new—plus their subcults, dedicated to fifteen very different deities. Fifteen cults which presented different world views. Fifteen cults which would support their members and even help train them in terms of magic and skills in return for their worship and donations to their gods of magical power and money. Fifteen cults which helped maintain a link between their gods and the real world, particularly through the rune magic the cults taught their initiates. Fifteen cults that the player characters could join and aspire to become Rune Lords and Rune Priests and so bring the power of their gods into the world. Fifteen cults which would provide motivations for NPCs and player characters alike.

The fifteen cults are broken into four categories—the Barbarian gods, the Invader deities, the Lightbringers, and non-human gods. The four Barbarian gods and their cults are Daka Fal, Storm Bull, Waha, and Eritha, the latter the primary Earth goddess in the region covered by Cults of Prax. The Invader deities are Humakt, the Seven Mothers, Pavis, and Yelmalio, with Pavis being an example of a local city cult and the Seven Mothers, a cult which most hold in antipathy, here presented as with the rest of the other cults as an organisation which a player character could join, benefit from and donate to, espouse, and more. The Lightbringers details only four of those that journeyed into Hell and returned Yelm to the world and include Issaries, Chalana Arroy, Lhankor Mhy, and Orlanth, whilst the non-human gods are Kyger Litor and Zorak Zoran—two Troll deities, and Aldrya, the goddess of the woods and mother of the Elves, Dryads, and Pixies. There is an interesting and diverse range of cults detailed here, most of them for the first time—the inclusion of Orlanth and Kyger Litor being the exception—but all pleasingly natural as if they have a place in the world, their members believe so, and they believe in the myths of their gods, which of course, varies from god to god. Sometimes conflicting, sometimes not. 

What is interesting about this selection and thus Cults of Prax is the geographical setting. In more recent treatments of Glorantha—RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and HeroQuest in Glorantha—the focus has been on Dragon Pass, on Sartar, and its surrounds, but here in the second book for RuneQuest, the region explored is Prax, the god-blasted desert region home to the great beast-riding barbarian tribes, infested by Trolls at night, and the site of the civilised town of New Pavis, abutting the ruins of the old city, now known as the Big Rubble. This means that many of the deities more familiar to Sartar are not detailed here—Ernalda, the primary Earth goddess, being the primary example. This focus upon Prax and its nearby regions would continue in then future supplements for RuneQuest, such as the Pavis: Threshold to Danger and Big Rubble: The Deadly City boxed sets.

Each of the fifteen is described more or less in the same level of detail, giving information on the mythos and history of the cult, the nature of the cult, its organisation, membership, and associated and subservient cults, along with some miscellaneous notes. The supplement actually begins not by detailing a cult to be found in Prax, but a sample cult, a generic cult which is used to explain what each of the entries are in the cult write-ups. Along with guidelines for creating Rune spells, what this chapter also does is explain cults in a manner that a Game Master could go away and create his own rather than use those given in Cults of Prax.

Of the entries in each cult write-up, the mythos and history of the cult presents the life and purpose of each god in four stages—‘Before Time’, ‘Since Time Began’, ‘Life After Death’, and ‘Runic Associations’. So, for Yelmalio, ‘Before Time’ describes how as a warrior and leader he fought for his father, Yelm, the Sun, and despite being disarmed by Orlanth, and being wounded and having his fire powers stolen by Zorak Zoran, fought alongside Lord Elf to fight chaos; how ‘Since Time Began’, the cult has remained relatively small having few Sun Dome temples, but spread wherever the Sun and sky are worshipped, fielding professional soldiers in many conflicts; and for ‘Life After Death’, how his worshippers will descend to the mansions of Yelm where the sun god stayed after Orlanth killed him. There they will find final contentment after many lifetimes of work, being willing to return again and again to achieve this—even resurrection. The cult’s ‘Runic Associations’ are Truth and Light.

The cult entry for Yelmalio goes on to detail how it survives in areas where there are Storm worshippers; how it has little political power, but is renowned for its mercenaries; and why it hates Zorak Zoran and Kyger Litor, but maintains a professional rivalry with Humakt. Thus cult temples are organised like military companies and Trolls may never join the cult and cult members may never befriend Trolls. Cult members are taught battle magic spells Coordination, Detect Gold, Light, and Repair at half the cost, but cannot learn Bludgeon, Darkwall, Fireblade, and Fire Arrow—the latter two because Zorak Zoran stole Yelmalio’s heat powers, which is a neat way of mechanically reflecting the cult’s mythology. The entry goes on to describe the requirements for lay and initiate membership, then Rune Lord and Rune Priest, details the Rune spells the cult teaches, as well as Rune spells that Yelmalio’s associated cults also grants, so for example, the Sunripen Rune spell from Aldrya and Sunspear from Yelm. Lastly, miscellaneous notes detail the uniform nature of the cult’s temples—square, with slightly tapering walls and a gold sheathed dome, how the cult hates to be paid in silver Lunars rather than gold Wheels to the point that it pounds Lunars into lumps of metal, and how many of the cult’s members tend to be blonde and brown-eyed.

There is a wealth of detail in each of the fifteen entries. Whether it is the notes on Troll culture and Human prejudices in the entry under Kyger Litor; how Storm Bull worshippers are contemptuous of anything that does not meet their cult’s crude and simple demands, even as they partake of the contemptible lifestyle; and how the swords of Humakti initiates always shine. There is a certain dryness to this detail, but this does not get in the way of it and it is counterpointed by the travelogue of Biturian Varosh, a merchant prince of the Issaries cult. His journey takes him across Prax to Pavis, down to Corflu and back again, all the while encountering different cults and attempting to trade with them (or not in the case of Lunar Seven Mothers cultists), adding colour and flavour, though of course from a Lightbringer worshipper’s point of view.

In addition, Cults of Prax gives an explanation of the Gloranthan calendar, whilst an extensive set of appendices lists such things as cult compatibles, cult membership for the various barbarian tribes of Prax, the new skills and Battle Magic spells to be found in the supplement, a chronology, and new weapons of the Lunar scimitar and the use of shield and two-handed spear favoured by Yemalio mercenaries and soldiers, since adopted by regiments of the Lunar Empire.

Physically, Cults of Prax is organised in a simple, readable fashion. There is no index per se, but the lists of new skills, Battle Magic spells, and Rune spells do indicate the sections where they can be found, and since the book is so well organised, finding such entries is actually not as difficult as it could be. The book is lightly illustrated with just a few decent pieces of art, though some of it does little to actually illustrate the contents of the book.

The critics at the time of its publication were positive in their response to Cults of Prax. Reviewing Cults of Prax in White Dwarf No. 23 (Feb/Mar 1981), O. C. Macdonald wrote, “Cults of Prax, which is essentially an expansion of the rather scanty rules given in the RuneQuest rulebook on runemagic is described as the second book of RuneQuest.” continuing with, “For those who are interested in RuneQuest, I cannot rate this book too highly, it makes an already excellent, imaginative, and highly playable FRP system into a masterpiece that richly deserves a place at the forefront of the hobby.” before awarding it a score of ten out of ten. It was also given a detailed review by Richard L. Snider in Different Worlds, Issue 7 (Apr/May 1980), who described Cults of Prax as, “...[T]he best extant cosmology designed for use with any FRP that has been published. The format is presented in a professional, enjoyable and highly organized manner. I heartily recommend it both to those persons who own a copy of RQ and others who are interested in adding this dimension to their individual campaigns.”, finishing with, “I view the addition of social interaction mechanisms and a delineated cosmology to be integral to a complete fantasy campaign. Cult of Prax [sic] is the only published sourcebook of this type that gives these factors anywhere near their proper weight. I applaud both authors and the editors for their fine product.”

Steve Jackson—of Steve Jackson Games—gave Cults of Prax a capsule review in Space Gamer Number 27 (March/April 1980), commenting that, “This book could perhaps have been improved by a slightly less scholarly writing style, The "textbook" nature of the cult descriptions make them somewhat confusing at first (even to an experienced RuneQuest fan; I checked!) On the other hand, this same textbook attitude gets a lot of data into a small space, and lends great verisimilitude to the game-world of Glorantha.” He finished the review, saying, “If you play RuneQuest, you want this book. If you are a serious Game Master in any fantasy system, you would do well to look it over. The CULTS OF PRAX philosophy is totally god-orientated. Similarly god-orientated GMs may find it used; others will find it interesting. And remember: Gods don't have to be effective to be important. Belief is the thing, and the interactions of social groups and differing beliefs in CULTS OF PRAX is good fantasy reading if you don't game at all.”

Cults of Prax was published in 1979 and so is forty years old. If RuneQuest provided the framework through which we could enter Glorantha, Cults of Prax, described as the second book of RuneQuest, opened up the world of Glorantha, not necessarily physically—though there is a geographical aspect to the supplement in Biturian Varosh’s travels—but mystically and motivationally. In focusing upon the cults, it placed an emphasis on how and why each cult’s members viewed the world, and how and why they interacted with each other, with other cults, and with the world around them. Cults of Prax brought both function and form to faith, and in doing so, it made faith both playable and something that you wanted to play. This is what made Cults of Prax arguably the most important supplement ever for both Glorantha and RuneQuest.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you; Cults of Prax is where Glorantha and RuneQuest exploded into vivid life. I had played White Bear & Red Moon and was running a RQ campaign since the end of 1978, but the publication of this book was where RuneQuest caught fire for myself and my players.

    "The most important supplement for both RQ and Glorantha": bulls-eye.