Runequest, the River of Cradles, and the Island of Kos

Clint Staples

A little while ago, Mike Varhola, the head honcho over here at d-Infinity, suggested that I write an introduction to explain my 'sudden' interest in things Runequest. I started to do just that, then came across this one that I wrote a while back. So instead of writing a new one, I thought, on Runequest Thursday, I might repost this one slightly modified and expanded.

My 'sudden' interest is not exactly that. Runequest was one of the first games i ever played, back in '79 or '80. I have been hooked on the game ever since, returning to it again and again over the years after forays into different iterations of Dungeons and Dragons, Champions [shudder], Old World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, D6 Starwars, and more.

So after picking up a bunch of older Runequest product cheap at Imagine Games, my FLGS in Winnipeg, I decided that I had to justify my expenditure by running a Runequest campaign. After reading some of my newer acquisitions, and rereading stuff I have owned since the 80s, I decided on the River of Cradles as the region I was interested in and that I had sufficient source material for.

If you have never played Runequest, it can be a VERY different experience from D&D [and I don't just mean rules-wise, although the system is quite different too]. Non-humans are much less human - elves are actually plants and generally hostile to men; trolls are an ancient and venerable race, enemies of mankind since the great Darkness and the bringing of the Light by a bunch of human gods called, appropriately enough, the Lightbringers. Dwarves are essentially die-cast humanoids stamped from molds and imprinted with part of a cosmic machine soul [does this sound like the Dwemer from The Elder Scrolls to anyone else]. Add to that the immortal, reincarnating Dragonewts, the forces of Chaos [from which GW took much of its inspiration for the version of chaos in Warhammer and Warhammer 40K; of course, both GW and RQ were heavily infuenced by Moorcock's understanding of Law/Chaos as detailed in Elric and elsewhere, but that is another post in itself], and a pretty firm timeline of the history of the world, developed over decades, and dozens of products - and you have an impressive, potentially highly political, highly intimidating stew of really cool elements that you need to juggle as GM. This all tends to encourage a pretty humano-centric character mix, with tensions between characters based on their culture and background that get glossed over in a lot of other games. I will try to explain and expand on Runequest institutions as I go, in this and articles yet to come.

Now, back in the hoary days of yore [the imprint on the product is 1982], there was a detailed campaign box-set for the River of Cradles, called simply, 'Borderlands'. The premise was that the PCs enter the service of one Duke Raus of Rone, who, having been exiled from the Lunar Empire, was trying to carve out territory in the lower River of Cradles region as part of an Imperial land grab/ colonization scheme that could get him back in the Imperial fold. The PCs would be the spearhead of settlement: escorting and protecting colonists, dealing with local tribes, pacifying the region of hostiles and whatever else arose to challenge the new order. This is a great campaign for a bunch of reasons, which I have wanted to run or play for decades. But there are some difficulties in the set up.

First a bit about the Lunar Empire [If you want more, Google 'Lunar Empire Runequest'].

In Runequest, the Lunar Empire is a cosmopolitan, autocratic, highly regimented, expansive entity with a particular religious agenda centered around the Red Goddess's desire to bring the entire world under her wing. Since, during the Godtime, the Red Goddess had considerable dealings with Chaos, often binding chaos monsters of immense power to her will and then handing them over to her mortal supporters as terror weapons [Go ahead and Google 'Crimson Bat Runequest' and see what comes up], the Empire has a rather 'live and let live' philosophy with chaos that sticks in the craw of a lot of their neighbors.

Enter the Players - all of whom had chosen, some without any real knowledge of the choice - to play characters that were pretty anti-Lunar. Thus making it rather unlikely that I could sell them on signing their futures over to a disgraced Lunar gent trying to earn his way back into the Imperial limelight.

One of the things that the Borderlands setting assumes is that it will be easy to talk the PCs into working for a Lunar. The notes in the GM section make some mention of how Raus is pretty easy going, and that the GM should play down the Lunar angle in order to allow Chaos-hating PCs to work for him without problem. The campaign set also includes pre-gen characters for use in a brand new campaign [like the one I was setting up] to allow for characters that would be flexible enough in their choices to accept service with a Lunar.

But I don't like things to be that easy. One of my players [and fellow GM in our gaming group, by the name of Rick Neal] mocks me for never running anything 'right out of the box'. And I can't say a thing to deny it.

So, preparing for the eventuality that my PCs might have a problem with working for a Lunar, I modified the campaign slightly to allow for competing settler groups - one run by NPCs working for Duke Raus, and one run by the PCs working with the backing of their cults [or friendly cultists, at any rate]. So the heroes got propositioned by both sides, and got to choose - work with the Lunar, get more stuff up front in terms of settlers, support, materials and cash in return for only ever being mercenaries in his service; or serve the Lightbringer cause, trying to settle the region in competition with the Duke, possibly the Empire itself, getting less upfront, but the possibility of becomes masters and mistresses of whatever they can hold, while stimying the Imperial expansion plan. The players went with door number 2.

Which brings me to another staple of Runequest: cults.

In Runequest, the term doesn't simply refer to hidden cabals of evil sorcerers eager to summon lacadazical, cthonic space monsters into our reality. It can, but it refers to much more as well.

In Runequest, cults refer to center[s], rites, and  worship of a god or gods. They are social, political and religious organizations that are pretty central to the RQ experience. You don' have to be a cleric to be in one, the way you would in D&D. They are central to society, a lot of people belonging in various degrees of devotion - lay members, initiates, or the high-rankers like Runelords, Runeladies, and Runepriests. The Lunars represent one pantheon of cults based around the Red Goddess and her devotee deity-heroes, the Seven Mothers, who followed her into godhood. The Lightbringers and their ally gods, represent another. Religiously, and politically, the Lightbringers are opposed to the Lunars. The Lunars hope to bring Imperial civilization and worship to the provincial barbarians, while the largely Lightbringer peoples - the Sartarites, the Heortlanders, and the Sartarite-descended clans in and near Pavis [the Principal city of the River of Cradles] opposed the chaos-friendly Empire that would smother their culture and gods. There is much more involved than just Lunars and Lightbringers - Praxian nomads have their own pantheon, as do other peoples such as the sun-worshipping Yelmalians, the River folk who venerate the soul of the great river itself, and a host of others, not to mention the non-humans and their own gods..

Suffice to say that cults can be a LOT more than just a place to pray and get your spells back. So the Lightbringers are backing the PCs efforts to settle the middle portion of the River of Cradles, in hopes of stopping the Lunar effort to expand from the north and south and control the whole area.

Good enough for me. Seems to be working the players.

However, In addition to running games, I write them, write fiction and write about both. In a blatant plug, a work that I had a hand in, Lives of Kos, has just hit RPGNow in pdf format, and will be bundled into the massive print and pdf 'Kos Campaign Setting' when all the portions of that are complete [we are getting near the end of what needs to be produced, so it should be available soonish, but don't quote me, cuz that is not my end of things]. 'Lives' is a collection of 115 character backgrounds and details for significant people in and around Kos City. It is system neutral, so you can use it with anything, and focused on Role-playing, not roll-playing.

Anyway, Live of Kos, and the rest of the Kos products available, are a terrific ancient world fantasy setting that has a very similar feel to a lot of the Runequest material that I love. And I really wanted to incorporate it into the River of Cradles campaign. Unfortunately, being an island in the Aegean [look it up on Google maps, Kos is really there], I couldn't really drop it right in the middle of a river-centric region. But the River of Cradles enters into a southern sea at the Corflu delta. So I placed Kos as a, currently, independent island trading nation, a few days sail from there. As such, Kos is near enough to venture to, far enough to be exotic, independent of the Lunars, so a potential ally to the PCs and their cause, or at least a place to find difficult-to-acquire goods.

At present, the Campaign is a few sessions in, and we seem to be having fun. I will keep you apprised of developments as they arise.


Glorantha Wiki - where you can find out more about the setting of River of Cradles and the 'Core' Runequest setting.

Lives of Kos - where you can purchase 'Lives of Kos':

Rick Neal, my friend and frequent co-conspirator in gaming, has a gaming blog here, with interesting things to say:

You can find fiction that I wrote, set in the actual City of Kos Campaign Setting, here:

Note: There is a lot of other great free fiction, set in Kos or elsewhere, on the Skirmisher site, under fiction, check it out.