Many classic, imaginative worlds came from the dawn of the tabletop RPG era. For anyone that was around in that time, the names of some worlds were well known, even without personal experience with the products. It may not seem quite as impressive in the modern information age to be aware of a wide variety of product lines, but in the era where gaming news came from word of mouth or publications like Dragon Magazine, it is a bit more noteworthy.
The product I’m looking at today is 13th Age Glorantha, a melding of the much more modern 13th Age game system with a game world that goes back almost to the beginning of fantasy roleplaying, Glorantha.
Glorantha’s publication history is too in-depth to go into in a review like this, but the setting is originally associated with the RuneQuest RPG, which was first published in 1978, but elements of the game world first showed up on board games years earlier.
The Translation Made Manifest
13th Age Glorantha is a hefty tome, being 466-pages of material. This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The physical copy of the book releases in July.
The book shares a lot of the same formatting choices as the 13th Age books, but with a slightly more classical feel to the fonts used. The artwork ranges from pieces that are more historical and representational in appearance, to more modern photorealistic images.
This mix of art styles could lead to a lack of a uniform feel, but the formatting is strong and creates unity across the various art styles. Much like the setting, it takes inspiration from Celtic, Norse, and South Asian themes and symbolic elements.
Chapter One: Initiations
This section is a primer on the big concepts of Glorantha, as well as presenting a summary of what is in future chapters in the book. The book is very careful to, from the beginning, point out that this product is about a specific time period in Gloranthan history, in a relatively constrained region. While this product can be used for creating multiple campaigns, the goal of it is to serve as a broad introduction to a place and time where players can sample a relatively pure sample of the setting.
Chapter Two: Creating Characters
This section outlines the standard checklist for character creation in 13th Age, then introduces the differences between the standard game and 13th Age Glorantha. In addition to introducing several tribes of humans, Ducks, and Trolls, there is a detailed description of runes.
Runes replace the Icons from the standard form of 13th Age, with each character having several personal runes that govern how they interact with the world. Unlike the Icon relationships, runes can be triggered to narrate how a particular challenge is overcome, and a roll is made to see if there is a complication. The way the complication is subverted must be in keeping with what the rune governs, and runes generally can’t be used in structured combat situations.
Ducks are people that look like . . . small humanoid ducks. They are associated with fighting the undead, and rumors exist that they were a human tribe that is suffering under a curse of some kind. Trolls are big lumbering monstrous humanoids that live underground, and while they don’t exactly love humans, they hate Chaos, the big primal cosmic force seeking to ruin the universe, so they make alliances in troubling times.
The chapter also mentions that the setting of Glorantha has a whole lot of other beings that could qualify as player character choices, but as an introductory product, the human tribes presented, Ducks, and Trolls all represent some pretty foundational Glorantha lore.
Chapter Two: Running Glorantha
This chapter tackles a lot of topics, most of which relate back to how running 13th Age Glorantha differs from running 13th Age. There are headings for narrating runes, combat rules, gear, heroquest gifts, and how to use traditional 13th Age magic items in a 13th Age Glorantha game.
A lot of the last chapter spent time explaining the most common runes, and this chapter dives into the topic with even more detail. Not only are there examples of narrating runes in a scene and how complications might play out with different runes, runes also play into runic gifts. Runic gifts are magical abilities associated with various runes that an adventurer might acquire for accomplishing important tasks. While the setting may have “normal” magic items, runic gifts fill a similar role for player characters. Runic gifts have similar categories, but with slightly different trappings. For example, the gift of Striking appears across many different runes, but what the secondary powers you may gain from the gift later may be will be flavored by the rune.
Glorantha is a bronze age setting, but most of that is reinforced through narrative, rather than extensive rules for how gear works. This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone that has seen how equipment works in core 13th Age, but as an example — heavy and light armor is redefined for the setting. No real change in how either category works, just some notes on what each class of armor looks like in context. There is also a feat that you can take that just says you have more advanced iron armor and weapons on your person. No separate rules for how they work, just a feat to say that having advanced iron arms is part of your character concept.
One of my favorite concepts in this chapter is the heroic return. Instead of having magic that raises the dead, anyone can narrate a heroic return. Because the setting is a one that reinforces the mythic, characters might just sneak or fight their way out of the underworld, and find their way back to the land of the living. This gets easier the more heroic they are (or in game terms, at higher levels), but the difficulty of the check increases for each other time the character escaped the clutches of death. It is simple to resolve, and yet very mythic feeling.
There is a discussion of how some of the core 13th Age rules work in the setting, how they change, and how some of those rules should change in the 13th Age core rules as well. In general, I love the conversational tone of 13th Age books, since you never really need to worry about what the designers were thinking or how they expect something to be used. On the other hand, something that amounts to errata is very hard to follow in that same format.
Chapter Three: Classes
This section introduces Glorantha specific 13th Age classes, as well as some classes that get some remodeling to make them fit the setting more accurately. The following classes appear in this section:
- Earth Priestess
- Hell Mother
- Orlanthi Warrior
- Storm Voice
- Wind Lord
Some of these classes look like they might have more direct analogies from 13th Age, but there are a lot of mechanics that go with them that make them a distinct class. Berserkers get lots of god flavored magical powers and effects that trigger on their own special die, for example.
Other classes, like the Rebel, are much more closely aligned to a class from traditional 13th Age. While the Rebel gets several pages of new powers, it is essentially a sneaky warrior that gets some powers to make it more of a skirmisher and less of a thief/assassin.
I’m going to take a few moments and address the Trickster here. It is a very integral Gloranthan concept that Tricksters exist to introduce randomness into the universe because of the blessings of Eurmal. A lot of this class is set up so that you draw damage to yourself instead of your allies, you set up allies to do more damage, and you can heal people that have dropped by begging them to get up. I am at once happy with how they mechanize playing this kind of character, and still not even the least bit enamored of the trope of characters that are accidentally competent.
There is a section at the beginning of the chapter that discusses how easy the various classes are to play, and I think it is worth reading through. My general impression is that the classes that are more complex to play tend to have a few more bells and whistles to them than the complex classes that appear in core 13th Age.
Chapter Four: Enemies
This chapter starts out with a list of existing 13th Age monsters, with notes on how they might be tweaked to represent existing elements of the setting. The remaining monsters are organized by what rune they are associated with. There are some encounter building charts that don’t replace previous versions, but do provide a little more granularity in determining how many monsters should go where for what kind of challenge.
This runic association is both thematic and helps when determining elements of things like heroquests and complications. I would go into some of the creatures outlined, but Glorantha has some very strange and very distinctive monstrous entities. If you like a setting where cultists have extra powers based on the severed heads they carry, there are bears with jack o’ lanterns on their heads, and dragon snails are very much what you would picture them to be from the name, you should probably at least look at what Glorantha has to offer.
Chaos creatures have whole tables of extra features that might be added to the base creature to make it unique. Some of these features make them less effective, some more effective, and some just shift where their strengths and weaknesses are. Chaos creatures can also steal the escalation die. For those unfamiliar with core 13th Age rules, the escalation die is a d6 that counts from 1 to 6 in combat, and goes up each round, allowing the adventurers to add that number to their attacks, representing the momentum that the adventurers have towards victory.
Chapter Six: Campaign World
This chapter has sections for Aspirational Feats, the outline of the default setting of 13th Age Glorantha, and a geography section organized by rune.
Aspirational feats are feats that you take to represent your connection to the setting, such as who your famous ancestor may have been. Each level after you take the feat, you roll to see if the gifts of that feat trigger, however, if you do a specific thing in the campaign, that will also cause the mechanics of the feat to engage. In other words, you are declaring a thing about your character, and if you do a thing in the game that plays towards that declaration, you get a reward.
The period chosen for the game is a time after most of the foundational myths are in place, but in a time that has enough murkiness to it that all kinds of PCs could have done important things, but it won’t seem too odd that they didn’t show up in later Glorantha lore.
The geography section is interesting, because while it gives very brief descriptions of a lot of locations in the Dragon Pass area, the locations are grouped by rune, giving a flavor for the kinds of threats or complications that might arise in stories that take place in that area. It’s a great thematic way to convey information, but it is also a tad confusing when you are still getting used to the runes, and cross referencing the map, the name, and the runic section the description falls under.
Chapter Seven: Heroquests
This section gives a few example heroquests, and provides some structure for how to build them, what kind of rewards they provide, and how to determine if a character just barely completed the quest, or did so in truly, well, heroic fashion.
Heroquests are one of the Glorantha concepts that I love the most coming out of this book. Essentially, mythic actions that have shaped history are super important. Between the mortal realm and the realm of the gods, there is the Hero Plane, where myths resonate. People of Glorantha sometimes enter the Hero Plane to reenact the myths to be strengthened by them, and to gain benefits from them.
The trippy part is that sometimes chaos gets into the Hero Plane, and if they mess with a myth, people forget it, and history may subtly change. Even if regular heroquesters screw up too often reenacting a myth, its importance may fade.
I really love the concept that myths can change over time, and that change can alter how history is viewed. It’s a huge meta-concept made literal in the game world, and as soon as I started reading about it, I wanted to apply it all over the place. But we’ll just look at it in context for now.
Heroquests often come up when a local area has fallen on hard times, and having someone perform the heroquest will provide a boon for the local area. It may be that adventurers are about to do something similar to what a god once did, so to prepare for their enemy, they heroquest to get into the same mindset as the god.
This section has a few way to structure heroquests, including marking the midpoint and ending scene of them, and how to score them to see how well adventurers completed them, which may have both campaign effects, and specifically effects on the kind of heroquest gifts the adventurers receive for completing the quest.
Some heroquests are presented as something characters can do at multiple levels, with scaling challenges, while other heroquests are presented as a big thing that they will only do once, when they have already proven themselves to be among the biggest movers and shakers.
Chapter Eight: Adventures
The adventures section has several example adventures across different level ranges for characters. While it isn’t quite an entire campaign, some of the adventures are more open-ended and can provide more time to advance than others. The adventures are:
- The Horn of Snakepipe Hollow
- Duck Point Venture
- The Epic of Gagix Two-Barb
- Against the Crimson Bat
- Ascending with the Eleven Lights
The first adventure presented has the PCs performing a local heroquest for a community, the second involves an open sandbox area with a few key encounters and a few potential heroquests to go on, the third is the culmination of some hints dropped in other adventures, and Against the Crimson Bat is a multi-step adventure that is all geared around climbing onto a monster and defeating a cult living there, then coming back to actually take on the monster as a monster later on, instead of just using it for terrain.
The final adventure is actually an extended series of roleplaying scenes with an organization that doesn’t have the usual perspectives of some of the established groups in the setting, which can make for a contrast, not just to combat focused adventures, but also to the mindset already established in the setting from other adventures.
Sample adventures are one of my favorite ways to see exactly how I am expected to use a product, and by providing a wide range adventures across multiple levels, it feels like the answer is, “there is no right way, but here are a few different angles you can try.”
There is a lot going on in this part of the book. It’s got more notes on adapting core 13th Age classes to the setting, alternate multi-classing rules based on runes, summaries of the major gods, and reprints all some of the more important charts in the book. There are also some size comparison silhouettes for visualization purposes.
I like all of the summary information in this section, but I have to say, I wish more of the class information had been in the actual class chapter. It feels like it might be easier to transition 13th Age players to Glorantha with more direct conversions than with the newer classes that are very steeped in Glorantha tradition, and it may be easy to forget this section in the back with some of the simpler, if less satisfying, conversions from the base game.
Restoring a Lost Myth
There is a lot to like in this book. Compared to baseline 13th Age, I think I like the rune mechanic better than the Icons mechanics, just because it is flavorful and easier to adjudicate. I am in love with heroquests and the entire concept of the Hero Plane, and I think the implementation of it in this book is great. The idea of heroic returns is something you could easily port to other games, and like the best aspects of the system, is giving simple mechanical resolution to something that drives a more detailed story element. The conversational tone of the rules means that you never have to wonder why something was done in the game.
Runic Complication The best summary I can make for this book is that it is like a starter set, except that instead of providing material for an adventure or three, or taking characters through the first tier of play, it has enough to run several campaigns before expecting the group to look at decades of other products.
While I love the conversational tone, when using it to address things like updated rules, or even more complicated resolutions, it’s easy to lose track of exactly where you saw something, or how that rule interacts with other rules presented elsewhere. There are times that the thematic presentation of the book may conflict with ease of use, while conveying intent. The geography section springs to mind, but even decisions like separating character creation from classes, and then adding more pertinent class information in the appendix, can be daunting. While it may vary from reader to reader, the digressions on how great elements of the setting are that will not be detailed in this book, and the number of references to the other sources, may make this book feel less satisfying.
Qualified Recommendation — A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
The best summary I can make for this book is that it is like a starter set, except that instead of providing material for an adventure or three, or taking characters through the first tier of play, it has enough to run several campaigns before expecting the group to look at decades of other products.
While this product offers a lot to people interested in Glorantha and in 13th Age, people that are more interested in the book for general setting information will probably be able to find better sources. Even with that disclaimer in place, as with most 13th Age products, the insight into game design gives extra value, but you may want to weigh that extra value against 466 pages of material.
Have you seen newer material that introduced you to a long established game or setting? Have you jumped into a setting with a lot of lore for the first time recently? Let us know in the comments below! I’d love to talk with you about your experiences.