Monday, January 31, 2011

How Jack Vance Almost Kicked Glorantha Off Its Runequest Pedestal

The history of our hobby is littered with any number of “could haves”, “would haves”, and “should haves”. Much digital ink has been spilled lamenting the never-coming of such and such promised Great Product from the shadowy reaches of the “real” Castle Greyhawk to...well a number of things that had a Gygax label pinned to them.

Yesterday I came upon one of the stranger coulda shouldas when tracking down what ever had become of my old acquaintance Runequest.

I had always wondered what ever had become of Runequest since my first brush with its second edition circa 1982. I had loved that glimpse into the deeper-seeming world of Glorantha enough to get excited about my favorite hex-and-counter wargame company Avalon Hill putting out its third edition (but not enough apparently to ever actually play either edition).

The AH edition was a disappointment. There were some interesting tweaks to the rules mechanics like a wider array of background choices, but gone was Glorantha as the default background setting. A bland mythical real world Earth had usurped it; leaving behind what was essentially a clunky D&D spin-off game—a dime a dozen in the 80s as everyone and their dog tried “to fix” the flagship game.

Third edition RQ was apparently an even bigger dud with its hardcore fan base. Like Tekumel, much of its appeal to them was not as a rules fix for D&D, but rather as a rigorous top-down setting game that had color and depth. While the game had some resurgence due to both the distribution might of a bigger company and the fact that it subsequently began re-issuing a stream of Glorantha-related products—it ultimately began to tank and fade into obscurity in the 90s.

Interestingly, while AH owned the rights to RQ, it did not own the rights to Glorantha. The setting's original owners, Chaosium, had retained them (thus the appearance of the vanilla fantasy Earth) and upset over the direction of the game they canceled their license and ordered AH to stop producing all the Glorantha-related materials in 1994.

So far interesting, but for us laymen “so what” really. Well, this is where I find myself wanting to find myself in an alternate gaming earth.

AH was undeterred and decided to push ahead with a fourth edition under the direction of Oliver Jovanovic, the guiding force behind RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha. Likely knowing that they needed something big, splashy, and interesting enough in it's setting detail to replace Glorantha, they approached Jack Vance and acquired the rights to reproduce Lyonesse as the new edition's setting.


As a rabid fan of all things Vancian I did a double take and went into a flurry of trying to find out more about this. For you see on several occasions I have publicly scratched my head on why this setting never had an English-language rpg treatment.

Many old schoolers are well-acquainted with Vance's Dying Earth books either directly or in passing due to the import of it's fire-and-forget magic system into the DNA structure of D&D. A smaller set are familiar with his three Lyonesse books. While Dying Earth fascination stuck around long enough in gaming circles to spawn a game (and slew of slick supplements) by Pelgrane Press, Lyonesse never did until it was picked up in a French-only edition by the now-defunct, oddly-named Men in Cheese company.

This genuinely puzzled me as Lyonesse blends many of the strongest elements of the Dying Earth books—picaresque tales, vivid fantasy locales, bizarre cultural tropes—with a presumably more-palatable, dark fairy-tale medieval fantasy setting. A great love of those books have spurned me to shovel large, healthy doses directly into the stew of my Hill Cantons campaign (where a mysterious green pearl played a prominent, cursed foil for nearly two years). Despite my own pro-homebrew leanings, I would have bent over backwards to have gotten my hands on anything related to this as a game setting. 

Unfortunately, here's were strange and wondrous got trumped with stranger and just plain tragic.

Just as Jovanovic was moving on RQ IV he was arrested, tried, and convicted on a sado-masochistic torture and sexual assault case. (I kid ye not.) Since the story involved a then-novel Internet angle to it, it made national headlines—briefly dragging RQ's name even in as the media frenzy whipped up.

Ultimately Jovanic's conviction was overturned in 1999, but the damage was long since done both to his life and to that of RQ IV and Lyonesse.

Avalon Hill itself collapsed too and was bought out by Hasbro (no less) in the late 90s. The rights to Lyonesse may have reverted to Vance at this point (crazy to think that the company that eventually owned D&D may have this in its back pocket too) who sold them back to Men in Cheese last decade.

Coulda, shoulda, back to that Domain Game.

[Editor's Note: The tip-off about Lyonesse and RQ's history in general can be found on Pete's Runequest site, an excellent source in general for that game.]


  1. Well, that's a mind-blower of a tale.

  2. Good gravy! RuneQuest just got way more interesting.

  3. That's quite a "almost was" story!

  4. Very interesting. I’d have bought a Lyonesse RQ4.

  5. Very interesting bit of rpg-archeological journalism and a great DIY project for someone...

  6. Wow, what a strange, remarkable tale!

    I'm a huge, huge fan of Lyonesse (it's probably my second-favourite fantasy series of all time). A RQ version would have been amazing!

  7. I totally would lay money down on something based from Lyonesse.

  8. I just found this post, and I am sorry I did. Now I must share your grief that Lyonesse never was born on the RPG page; I would have played that above all others.

  9. Avalon Hill should have included Questworld as one of two sourcebooks with the RQ3 box sets (the other being Glorantha). They'd already written up Questworld and opened it up for other companies to exploit so they could have worked with other companies to have a lot of content available when RQ3 shipped. It would have appealed to those that felt Glorantha was weird and unapproachable and who wanted a more Tolkienish background.

  10. Weird Tales . . . Particularly since Lyonesse is due to come out for Mythras (the game previously known as RQ6) soon. I guess somebody wouldn't let that dream die.

  11. I realize it's terribly Necromantic, but found this post when looking for something similar-ish that you may or may not already know about...