The Let's Play Archive

King of Dragon Pass

by Haifisch

Part 31: Tricksters

A Treatise on Tricksters

OK, besides being highly opinionated, I can't avoid taking a perspective broad enough that nobody in the setting would agree with it. I'll try to be more of a gamemaster than a Godlearner, though.

The key to understanding the trickster is understanding that a trickster best follows the rules by breaking them. In a world where major violations of laws brings curses and Chaos down upon you, having a subset of people around who can break the law without bringing Chaos is so valuable that a few cultures, like the Orlanthi, are willing to put up with those people the rest of the time.

So, let's begin with a highly controversial theory about the origins of Glorantha, at least if you presented it to natives. Chaos philosophers (and there are such beings) have written that everything is Chaos. That's a slight distortion. But if we think of Chaos as the primordial substance out of which everything was formed, then things will make a certain amount of sense.

Chaos, of course, is without rules. So, what would a "Chaos trickster" look like? Presumably, someone who breaks the rules of Chaos by following rules at all. That would theoretically make the Invisible God the first trickster, one who violates the sole defining characteristic of Chaos by making Law out of it. And that, in turn, results in the world of Glorantha. Sound unlikely? I have a rune-related theory about what Law really represents, and it's based on an observation about two opposed runes, Truth and Illusion. The Truth rune looks like a Y, while the Illusion rune is those three balls. Imagine the topmost of the three balls nestled in the top of the Y. Notice how the Y of the Truth rune defines the space between the three balls of Illusion?

If the shape of the Illusion rune is particularly significant, then consider that the Law rune is a triangle. Take the Illusion rune. Connect the dots...

This way lies madness, or some lame suggestion about Glorantha being the Matrix, and that's no fun at all. So let's abandon this line of thinking with the understanding that the essence of reality in the world of Glorantha sits uncomfortably close to illusion, and that the world may be one massive trick by the biggest Trickster of them all.

Let's instead talk about some of the races and societies of the world and think about what a trickster might look like in each.

Orlanthi: This one's easy, right? We've seen Eurmali at work. There's a few key elements to consider here. First off, Orlanth is in part defined by his relationship to the Bad Emperor/Yelm. From a Solar perspective, Orlanth himself looks pretty much like a Trickster himself. Secondly, there's one theory that suggests the Air pantheon represents a past Chaos incursion where the invading entities were successfully made part of the world, though that's a theory only a Lunar might love. In any event, the Orlanthi are all about Disorder having a place in society, so they're comfortable with trickster magic.

And since Arkat and the Heroquesting paths he showed to the world himself behaved a little like a trickster, Eurmali are very handy on the Heroplane. But there's another way in which they can be amazing for heroquesting. Consider that walking a particular path carries with it expectations of following the story. Violating the rules of the story risks not just failure, but broader consequences in the world. But sometimes, you need to break the rules. Eurmali can do so while affirming the role they play on the Heroplane, instead of violating the role, so they're amazing when things go wrong, even if they're also likely to make things go wrong. Orlanthi are pretty comfortable with massive screw-ups they have to clean up afterward (half the Orlanth stories are about him fixing a mess he created), so it makes sense they're fine with tricksters.

My thoughts here have been anticipated by that post to the Glorantha list linked earlier in the thread. But I'd go further and say that Mostali are so rules-obsessed that any variation outside of specs qualifies as trickster-level influence. So it isn't simply that their trickster-figure is a Gremlin. It's everybody who isn't performing as expected. That means elves, trolls, humans, ducks, just about all life. When the clan in the LP handed over that book or freed those dwarf thralls? That was action in accordance with the "plan" and thus an indication that the clan, as part of the World Machine, was functioning properly. The rest of the time? Malfunction, ultimately attributable to a trickster manifestation. A "heretic" Mostali might be the rare example of a "useful" Mostali trickster.

You can see why the most traditional of the dwarfs stay deep underground and have nothing to do with members of any race besides their own. The whole damn rest of the world are tricksters!

Elves are fairly chill so long as they and their fellow plants are left alone to grow. In some ways, they're creepier than the Mostali because they're not all about the balance of nature. They'd be happy to see unchecked growth overwhelm the world. General consensus seems to be that the elves don't really have a primary trickster figure. I'd say that's mostly correct. If growth and being "natural" are your defining rules, then violation would involve "pruning" and embracing the artificial. The only example I can think of in Aldryami culture would be those elves who don't just step a bit outside the comfort zone and worship one of the Solar deities, but the rare elf who turns to a death cult, or perhaps even embraces the cause of pain and suffering. From this perspective, an active warlord (as opposed to a hunter or forest defender like High King Elf) would look closest to a trickster figure. One can see why, despite being much better with humans than the Mostali are, the heretic dwarfs are the ones to go to for military weapons and mercenaries.

The Troll trickster figure is actually much trickier than you'd think to define. There's no one clear figure to point to, and Uz society is sufficiently complex that it's hard to generalize. The best I can say is that multiple figures within the Troll pantheon possess aspects of the Trickster but no one of them fully satisfies requirements.

For a wide range of reasons, Arkat doesn't really qualify as a trickster, although those who follow him could. One could make a case for the Dark Sun (god of the Kingdom of Ignorance), especially as the prior Uz kingdom in the area used that cult as a trick of sorts to keep human thralls in line, and when the kingdom fell those slaves perpetuated the worship.

Me, I'd finger Xiola Umbar and Zorak Zoran, two darkness spirits who became Uz deities. Xiola Umbar is all about meekness, mercy, protecting the weak, and a range of other values that are pretty un-Trollish, but the Uz love her anyway. Zorak Zoran manages to be nearly an exemplary Uz figure despite being completely unlike the ideal Troll. He stole fire from Yelmalio and uses it himself, despite being a Darkness entity; he's a god of anger, violence and hatred, yet also one of the greatest foes of Chaos creatures, who themselves tend to embrace those same values; his followers are berserk warriors but many are also generals of Uz armies. As it happens, these two spirits/deities are sister and brother. Neither quite fits the trickster mantle. But I would wager they might be offspring of the Trickster.

Going far outside my comfort zone for a moment, I'd say that in western society, the Trickster-equivalent depends upon subsequent societal reform. Malkion might be a trickster from the Brithini perspective, and so on. The Godlearners were NOT tricksters. Imagine worshiping the fabric of reality. Wanting to study it more closely fits within societal norms. Discovering that reality's foundation is illusionary and deciding to tinker with it doesn't so much break the rules of society as extend them in a way that completely endangers the world. I would speculate that to a Westerner, a genuine Theist would represent a trickster-figure. I'm not talking a deluded barbarian who worships false gods (as they see most worshipers). I'm talking about a respected figure in their own society who concludes on the basis of study that the other deities are genuine.

I'd expect such a person to be swiftly put to death, though.

Dara Happa/Solar cults:
With so many rules and so much hierarchy, this culture ought to have a clear Trickster and yet doesn't. Trickster does feature in some of their stories, though. I think the simple way to think of the Trickster in a Solar society is as a genuine exile/foreigner. Someone who acts like a trickster can't possibly be a member of this society; therefore, members of other cultures are like tricksters or all are potential tricksters. Insularity and ceremony are means of protection against such outside threats. The general inability of the Light-worshiping cultures to adapt to the increasing utility of having a trickster around is reflected, I think, by their place in the Third Age, with the Red Goddess and her Emperor as de facto leaders of Dara Happan culture despite not being Solar.

Oh, boy. I think I'll defer on addressing this final culture/pantheon. In many respects, the Seven Mothers and the Red Goddess employ trickster-like approaches and work-arounds to accomplish their objectives, but there's strong evidence (especially in materials published after I quit following the setting's RPG iterations) that the Lunar cult is mystical and Nysalor-influenced, and I strongly doubt that Illumination represents anything that can properly be termed Trickster-related. That's an argument for another time, though, because I could as easily argue the reverse.

To say something, though: think of the Lunars as having founded a culture deliberately built upon the myths and legends of other cultures, with the intent to exploit them or to unite them, depending upon your perspective. Unlike the Godlearners, the Lunars value piety and hold their gods in proper respect. But they're still manipulating reality for their own ends. If the Godlearners are post-modernists who perceive all of Glorantha as illusionary and therefore see reality as arbitrary and theirs to manipulate freely, the Lunars are closer to the Buddhist concept of reality, seeing it as unreal without claiming it to be arbitrary or ours to manipulate freely.

Within such a framework, ultimately no trickster can persist, although most outsiders would consider the devout to all be tricksters. The closest you could get, I think, would be those who willfully resist enlightenment and cling to those values rejected by the Lunar way. Orlanthi, in other words.