Calithena and Steve Marsh
Artwork by Fat Cotton
Heroquests are rituals wherein mortals partake of immortal natures and participate in eternal patterns. In game, these may involve quite dramatic spectacles, re-enacting and even changing ancient myths or doing battle at the very courts of the gods. But at the same time, many real-world activities, such as the Stations of the Cross in the Roman Catholic tradition or even saying the US Pledge of Allegiance, have a heroquesting aspect to them as well. They are supramundane and involve participation in greater cultural and religious, historical and mythic wholes; they occur whenever a mortal reaches out past the ordinary world and takes part in the deeper structuring of psychic and historical reality. Regardless of the status of such activities in the real world, moreover, in fantasy realms where myth and reality blend they can have permanent effects on PCs and campaign worlds alike.
At the general level, there are several elements to be considered when running a heroquest. The first is the story itself. The classic story-types are well-documented in gaming products (David Emigh’s The Quest and the “Myth of the Month” feature at glorantha.com are both good sources) and in the Jungian tradition (check out Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Carol Pearson, and Jung himself for ideas). Alternatively, instead of learning about things at one or more theoretical removes, you could simply read myths plucked from various real-world mythologies and tailor them to fit your own world’s needs. But in any case the stories that really matter here are the ones relevant to your campaign’s own mythological cycle. How were your gods and heroes born? What did they do? What are they doing ‘here and now’ – whatever that means in your cosmology? Once you answer these questions you will be in good position to consider what heroquesting in your world might look like. (You should remember to consider the story from multiple points of view – how would the giant tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?)
The next thing to consider is what the heroquest means for the hero – usually a PC, since it’s often lame to play adventures where the PCs are the supporting cast in some NPC’s big story. In game terms, heroquests are activities beyond the mundane wherein a putatively non-mythic creature (a normal, mortal PC) gains access to mythic powers and abilities. During a heroquest, one or more of the PCs will probably embody a heroic or divine persona and relate to other such heroic or divine personas through their adventures; enough of this and the PC will start to become a hero or demigod him- or herself. This gives PCs a chance to interact with supernatural and divine beings, sometimes bestows temporary powers upon him or her, and usually grants some more permanent kind of special blessing or magical ability to the PC if the quest is successful. The hero’s transformation is the sort of thing that most GMs will be familiar with, since PCs gaining new and wondrous mystical powers is a staple of most fantasy RPGs. These transformations can sometimes be more complete and far-reaching than those offered by spells and magic items, however, given that the hero’s journey through the quest makes the PC him- or herself at least a tiny part of the mythic fabric of your campaign world. If there are special statuses for some PCs in your world – demigod, exalted, rune lord, rune priest, culture-hero or divine emissary prestige classes, and so on – specific heroquests can be great points of entry for them.
Where do heroquests happen? One possibility is to locate them in ‘other planes’ – the spirit world, or the realms of the gods – and in other mythic ages of existence. From some points of view this is what happens on Glorantha; on this reading when a heroquest occurs e.g. on the God Plane, the PC who walks the path ‘is’ at the same time the god. This approach follows (and usually, though perhaps not in Glorantha, reifies) Eliade’s general approach of separating out sacred and profane spaces: the Godsrealms or the Spirit World and the ordinary world, the outer planes and the prime material. An alternate approach, which Calithena has developed in the rigorously materialistic campaign world of Advent, is to treat the material world itself as fundamentally enchanted or magical, and to treat the space and time of heroquests as literal places – primarily in the hundreds of orbiting moons, deep within the ocean, and deep under the earth. In Advent the gods are material beings and the distinction between myth and history is nuncupatory. Del Beaudry’s world Oceania as we understand it takes a third approach, wherein mythic reality has a ‘planar’ (or regio-like, if you remember Ars Magica) character, but is in some sense directly opened onto from the ordinary world the PCs inhabit, almost like several extra dimensions which coexist with the others but which can only be accessed at certain moments.
What resolution mechanics one uses for heroquests will be highly dependent on the nature of the world you run and the rules you use in other parts of the game. Here are a couple of observations, though. First, many of the greatest heroquests in Glorantha were originally successfully run using the highly ‘naturalistic’ and even ‘simulationist’ Runequest system, so you don’t have to create weird metagame mechanics to mark the move from ordinary to heroic and divine adventuring unless you’re inclined to do so. Second, heroquests are both the best and worst parts of an FRP sequence to revert to ‘story logic’ and free-form roleplaying to adjudicate outcomes. If the group and GM have it just right, there will be moments when it is obvious what should happen in terms of the underlying mythic reality, and going there can yield highly satisfying play. But at the same time, preserving the sense that something is at stake and that PCs must act themselves to influence it is critical, and so reverting to free-form can sometimes make the players feel like passive spectators, robbing them of the crucial magic that makes mythically transformative play an interesting alternative. So use the free-form approach when it makes sense, but cautiously, and to amplify your players’ actions rather than to thwart or redirect them.
There are principally three types of heroquest one can undertake, with increasing stakes:
Reenactment: In this simplest kind of heroquest – which can sometimes be a gateway to the higher types – the PCs will simply attempt to follow out an existing pattern of history, cosmology, theology, and/or myth. Success reaffirms and reinforces the myth, often securing blessings and/or rewards for the questors; failure ejects the PCs from their engagement with mythic reality, possibly with a few wounds and/or geases for good measure. Although there are certainly some long myth cycles that can be played this way, I recommend keeping adventures of this kind short, as they are often fundamentally railroads. They can be great short flavor adventures to get blessings, magic items, or mystical keys needed to complete some broader quest, however. If you do want to use a reenactment-style heroquest as the basis of a longer adventure, my recommendation is to at least stay open to the possibility that creative play or interesting random encounters will turn it into a quest of the second or third type.
Reconnection: This intermediate form of heroquest, which in Glorantha was often successfully undertaken by Arkat Chaosbane, is one in which new divine, cosmo-logical, and mythic connections are formed. As Arkat discovered, though this is often unknown even to the gods themselves, the paths of myth and the pillars of the cosmos are far more interwoven with one another than is commonly appreciated. The mysterious stranger who helped a deity from one pantheon might be revealed to be a trickster-demigod from another; the ancient enemies of one people might be revealed as the ancestors of another. Two gods from different places might even be discovered to be the same! This kind of quest often leads to interesting discoveries about the campaign world, and can be a good way to get PCs access to powers or allies from wildly disparate traditions.
Transformation: This is where the heroquest concept is potentially at its most radical and interesting, where the actions of the PCs actually have the potential to change the gameworld myths, legends, and structure forever. Some-times PCs choose to ‘take the gameworld on’ directly: for a great discussion of how one group dealt with the issue of rape in relation to the Gloranthan chaos goddess Thed and the Orlanthi pantheon, check out /adept-press.com/ideas-and-discourse/other-essays/goddess-of-rape/. At other times, things just happen. In one game, one of our PCs participated in a heroquest involving the God of Sunrises and Sunsets, who fell in love with the PC and offered her apotheosis: she could take his hand and become Consort of the Dawn. The fate of the mortal world was more important to her, though, and though she wept with his loss, she blew him a kiss goodbye ere she departed the Godsrealms en route to completing her quest. Her kiss caught the rays of dawn and coalesced into something new, a fourth moon that ever since has orbited the world of that campaign; and though the character did not become a god in the conventional sense, that moon has now always been there, and its mythic history is tied in with that PC’s own as her adventures have continued.
How do PCs leave their mark on your campaign world, and what kind of mark can they leave? The naturalistic approach to this question is in many cases adequate. Raising armies, conquering kingdoms, leaving heirs, building castles, even holding local office or running an inn are all fine goals for many a PC. But the heroquest offers another possibility: the chance to change the mythic, physical, and cosmological structure of the fantasy world itself. At the metagame level, you can think of transformative heroquests as a kind of dialogue between players and GM, where the successful player can transform even the theology and cosmology of the campaign through his or her PC’s actions. Such is difficult, of course, usually requiring clever play and tremendously powerful characters to find success; but if it can be done then the gameworld itself can be transformed, destroyed, or made anew. Having a heroquesting option within your game also makes a clearer path for PC apotheosis; they must undertake various heroquests with an eye towards inserting themselves into one or more existing mythologies.
Such things are not easy to accomplish, though. In Glorantha, Orlanth slaying Yelm is a pretty major event. Should you wish to save Yelm, you would have to go back past the beginning of time, work your way forward to that conflict, and then face the unshielded death rune. Your PC might very well be one of the many shadows or gleams of light that Orlanth shredded as he slew Yelm. Each of those was/is someone who thought he could transverse time and make a difference. None did, of course – so far.