22 January 2024

Animal Shape-Shifters in Glorantha

cover of DW #9
With the exception of the Telmori, the lupine shape-shifters that play a central role in the lore of Dragon Pass and Sartar, and which have been extensively described in several RQ and HQ supplements, animal shape-changers have never been precisely described in Gloranthan products. Worse than that, what little information we may find in the sources is often contradictory.

In RuneQuest 2nd edition (their first appearance), for instance, animal shape-shifters are described as follows under the heading Lycanthropes:

“Shape changers are a lonely breed, tainted with Chaos, and disdainful of civilisation. Few know whether they are animals who can take on human shape, or humans capable of assuming the shape of an animal. In either case, they can assume the strength and senses of the animal form at the expense of some intelligence (varying as to species).


Lycanthropes are a very rare breed, no matter what sort of animal they become. The genes for lycanthropy are recessive, so that only matings between lycanthropes will breed true. Most children of two lycanthropes are either animal or human without shapechanging ability.


Their Chaotic nature gives them their abilities of shape change and invulnerability to impure metals. They do not receive any of the Chaotic Features shown in Chapter X.


The lycanthropes include Bearwalkers, Tiger Sons, Tusk Brothers, and Wolfbrothers.”

In HeroQuest Glorantha, animal shape-shifters are described as follows under the heading Skin-walkers — accompanied by the Beast and Spirit Runes:

“Skin-walkers are shape-changers, and disdainful of civilisation. Few know whether they are animals who can take on human shape, or humans capable of assuming the shape of an animal. In either case, they can assume the strength and senses of the animal form at the expense of some intelligence (varying as to species), with its natural weapons.


The skin-walkers known in Dragon Pass and the Holy Country include Bearwalkers, Tiger Sons, Tusk Brothers, and Wolf Brothers. Only the Wolf Brothers are described in further detail here. The God Learners classified them as a type of primitive men they called Hsunchen or Hykimi. There are dozens of different types of Hsunchen throughout the rest of Glorantha.”

In a nutshell, RQ2 tells us that animal shape-changers are lycanthropes tainted by Chaos, whereas HQG describes them as a sort of peculiar Hsunchen. Well, that’s completely different: lycanthropes are basically monsters, whereas Hsunchen are primitive humans. Also, the connection to the Chaos Rune has been replaced by a connection to the Beast and Spirit Runes.

Worse yet, the most recent material (the RQG line) is completely devoid of any references to animal shape-shifters other than the Telmori. The Guide to Glorantha merely mentions (on page 484) that one of the towns in the East Isles has a Tiger Son Guard “comprised of Hsa were-tigers”, which simply adds a layer of confusion since ‘Hsa’ is the name of the tiger Hsunchen tribe according to the Guide (p439 and p561).

It is simply impossible to try and figure out which interpretation is correct (‘monsters’ vs ‘primitive humans’) given the current canon.

A further research on each type of animal shape-changer in the Gloranthan corpus doesn’t provide any particular help either:

A search on ‘Bearwalker’ returns a mention of “the Rathori Bearwalkers from the forests of northern Genertela” in HeroQuest Glorantha, and a very similar one in the Glorantha Sourcebook.
In the HQ supplement Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, ‘Bearwalkers’ is the name given to the initiates of Odayla (p110). In its sister publication Sartar Companion, there is a description of such an NPC (p133), who “attacks and kills Telmori or Chaos on sight and without hesitation”. We are very far from the Chaotic nature of RQ2 Bearwalkers...
In RQG, ‘Bearwalkers’ is the name given to Odayla Rune Lords (RQG core rules p300, and the Lightbringers p124). 

A search on ‘Tiger Son’ returns a long, unofficial article in Different Worlds issue No.9, and a mention of a Tiger Son initiate of Zorak Zoran in Big Rubble

A search on ‘Tusk Brother’ doesn’t return anything.

So, to summarise:

★ In early Glorantha (end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s), lycanthropes were animal shape-shifters tainted by Chaos. According to the official rules, you had to be born a lycanthrope, whereas Big Rubble and Different Worlds issue No.9 seemed to imply you might become one via a cult.

★ In the early 2010s (at the time of the Guide and of HeroQuest Glorantha), the concept of ‘animal shape-changers’ seems to have become interchangeable with ‘Hsunchen’. The association with the Chaos Rune is gone, except for the Telmori.

★ Today, with the RQG line, there is no all-encompassing concept any longer. You have the Chaotic Telmori; you have the Bearwalkers who are the Rune Lords of Odayla; Tiger Sons and Tusk Brothers have disappeared. As for the Germanic prefix were-, it is used in the Glorantha Bestiary for the Ducks who are “sometimes called durulz or were-ducks” (p31), even though... they are not shape-changers, they are Beast Men! The inconsistency is total.

11 January 2024

R.I.P. Jennell Jaquays

Jennell Jaquays (14 Oct 1956−10 Jan 2024) has passed away. She was one of the last giants of the gaming industry from the Golden Age, on par with Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin.


The Dragon, issue 21, cover by Jennell Jaquays

Jennell Jaquays’ peculiarity was that she was an accomplished artist: writer, illustrator, miniature sculptor, and even magazine editor. She also worked in the video game industry. Another peculiarity is that she will be remembered both for D&D classics (Dark Tower, Caverns of Thracia) and non-D&D classics (Griffin Mountain, probably the very first RPG sandbox, and the Flying Buffalo City Books).

She even left her name as a verb: “jaquaying” a dungeon means rendering it less linear, providing several entrances and ways out, and most importantly designing it so that important encounters needn’t appear in a pre-definite order of succession.

More about Jennell Jaquays’ legacy at Designers & Dragons.