Review — A Rough Guide to Glamour

The Jonstown Compendium—Chaosium’s community content program for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—has on offer a variety of fan-produced game supplements, all in digital formats. Until now! A Rough Guide to Glamour, from Nick Brooke, Chris Gidlow, and Mike Hagen, is the first release on the storefront available in hard copy, printed on demand. Consequently, this review will address the book’s content and artwork, but also discuss the physical item. I’ve ordered some print on demand offerings from DriveThruRPG before, but never a hardcover, nor have I reviewed one. Further, I suspect the object’s quality may be of interest for other customers of the Jonstown Compendium.

Before digging into the Rough Guide, a few quick disclaimers: while I was not involved in this work’s production, I also publish on the Jonstown Compendium, and generally do benefit from other contributors doing well. I’m also acquainted with some of the persons involved in this publication. Finally, any links in this review to DriveThruRPG are affiliate links. If you buy anything over there, I’ll get a small kickback, which inevitably goes into my art budget.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

Content

This is a strange book.

Overall, I like it. But it’s a strange book, and it’s very open about that.

Perhaps it’s best to start with some background. “A Rough Guide to Glamour is your indispensible (sic) companion for any visit to the capital city of the greatest empire the world of Glorantha has ever known,” claims the back cover. Originally published in the 90’s, the Rough Guide reprints the original material and more, alongside a wealth of art. It is one of several works born from the collaboration of Glorantha’s fans, and published in small runs at various conventions. Several of those persons—including some contributors to the Rough Guide—now actually run Chaosium. Yet this is and remains a fan publication, written with a knowing wink in its eye. At times this edition feels like an enormous in-joke which the community at large is just now being let in on. But at the same time, the Rough Guide remains newbie-friendly.

For newcomers to the setting of Glorantha, the Rough Guide provides a strong, slightly idiosyncratic, picture of the Lunar Empire. This empire is traditionally the setting’s antagonist, the force which players are struggling to overcome. Using a peculiar melange of mythology, subtext, and pop culture, the Rough Guide is the best currently available introduction to the Lunar Empire and its capital city, Glamour. Glamour is the wholly magical capital of a wholly magical empire, a city built from illusions and dreams. This leads to a great deal of strangeness, apparent both in the method of presentation, and in the city itself. The “magical capital of a magical empire” has become something of a trope in fantasy, but I’ve never seen it done quite this way. And certainly not for the setting’s antagonists!

Rather than a straightforward description of the city as you might find in any other guide to a tabletop RPG city’s setting, the Rough Guide is more like a work of fiction. Its primary tool is in-world texts: descriptions, short stories, fictitious journals and letters written by visitors to and residents of Glamour. The classic “map and described locations” is included, yes, but as one facet of a varied document. It’s with the in-world documents that the book’s occasionally tongue-in-cheek sense of humor comes to the front.

The most persistent example of this is prominently displayed in the center of the cover illustration. The Red Emperor, ruler of the Lunar Empire, holder of many titles, is Elvis. And not just Elvis, but decrepit, obese Elvis. Illuminated with not one, not two, but three scatologically-fixated vignettes the Emperor’s faded glory stands as the symbol of the Empire itself. Swaddled in layers of silk and illusion, he is the empire’s avatar. Even the prose itself reflects this in obscuring the Emperor’s foul “deeds” behind a veil of erudite vocabulary. I never expected to learn the word “micturation” through an RPG supplement! (And I’ll let you go discover that definition yourself.)

emperor elvis
Excerpt from Jaxarte & the Emperor, by Dario Corallo

While the Red Emperor is the most prominent blend of fantasy and pop culture throughout the book, he’s not the only one. The front and back cover includes multiple celebrity lookalikes, which are reproduced in the article “Very Important People” within. Notable among these, for me, are Danny Devito as the leader of the IRS (Imperial Revenue Service) and commander of the Tax Demons, and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, who portrays the “Red Dancer of Power,” the Empire’s economic organizer and Chief Missionary of the state religion. These ongoing allusions to Earth continue in the text as well. Most notable of these is “Pelorian Rhapsody,” a stupendous parody of Queen’s immortal song, which tells the story of the head of the Empire’s pantheon, the Red Goddess.

Pelorian rhapsody
Pelorian Rhapsody, by Dario Corallo.

It’s not only the sheen of pop culture which makes the Rough Guide unique. Strip away that layer of this multi-textual work, and we’re still left with a subversive image of the evil fantasy empire.

And the Lunar Empire is an evil fantasy empire. There’s no doubting that—it has a demon bat the size of a football arena which devours souls, for crying out loud!—but despite near-monolithic hegemony and a vice-tight grip on its subject states, the Empire’s core concept entails an inherent hollowness. This is typified by the Emperor, as suggested above, but also repeated in the portrayal of its capital city. The city’s goddess, Glamour, provides magics to create illusion and splendor; the city shines brightly, but has a wicked underbelly. Glamour isn’t the City on a Hill (although it has three), but is presented as such. All of the in-world texts are purportedly pro-Lunar, but are clearly meant to be read with the reader’s eye toward what they overlook. There’s a shadow in the heart of Glamour.

This shadow doesn’t make the bright places false, and these contradictions are intentional. They’re a key aspect to what makes the setting, Glorantha, so compelling for fans. The Lunar Empire is a paradox, just like many real-world cultures are. It has ways it is bright, and ways it is dark, and Glamour (and the people who live there) reflect this.

These elements and more spun together are why I previously stated that the Rough Guide is more similar to fiction than to an RPG supplement. It’s a book you can sit in an armchair and read—believe me, I’ve done it. It’s not a reference document. It’s something more.

But it’s not marketed as fiction. It’s marketed as a game supplement. How does the Rough Guide hold up?

A Rough Guide to Glamour claims it is “indispensible.” I’m inclined to agree. I’m also inclined to think it isn’t a great RPG supplement. If a newcomer to the setting came to me and said “Austin, where should I go to learn more about the Lunar Empire?” I would immediately answer with “the Rough Guide.” It does a terrific job presenting an overview of the Empire’s history, religion, and culture through the lens of its capital city. But if they asked “Where should I go to play a campaign in the Lunar Empire?” I’d have to shrug and babble incoherently.

The main question I consider, when trying to critique an RPG supplement—a guide to setting or an adventure, for example—is “how much work does the gamemaster have to do to use this product?” For me to take the Rough Guide and try to start a RuneQuest game set in Glamour would take quite a bit of work. Though I’m not an expert at this, I’m far from being a novice, either. What’s missing is rules content: creating adventurers, antagonists, adventure seeds—no, I’m sorry, the “Rumors” sidebars are entertaining, but they don’t count—and so forth. Paradoxically, and fitting given the subject, the Rough Guide‘s strength is also its weakness. A gamemaster with the Rough Guide and the core rulebook would have to create a lot of content before beginning play.

Then why do I agree that it is “indispensible”? Because of how strongly it provides cultural context—showing, rather than telling, in writer-speak—the Rough Guide is an excellent read for gamemasters playing other material from Chaosium or the Jonstown Compendium, which interacts with the Lunars. It shows you everything you need to know about how they behave. Although playing a game in Glamour still requires a lot of work, using the Rough Guide to gain an insight into roleplaying Lunar antagonists requires no work at all—simply an enjoyable read.

That’s not to say the Rough Guide is flawless, despite its quality. Looking at it from the perspective of fiction, rather than as a game, my biggest critique is that it is repetitive. This is most prominent in its accounts of the history of the Lunar Empire. The topic’s first touched upon in “Sultanate of the Silver Shadow,” a brief description of the lands surrounding Glamour excerpted from the official publication The Guide to Glorantha. It’s then treated with more detail in “A Brief History of the Lunar Empire”, then once again in both new RuneQuest cults, the cult of the Red Emperor and the cult of Glamour. By this last iteration the history has unfortunately grown dull and over-read. It varies slightly in details and emphasis, but is largely the same topic, touched upon three times.

Likewise, the book’s tone as a whole rarely varies; the dark, seedy underside of Glamour is mentioned early in the work but never discussed in depth. This is also a consequence of much of the book’s framing as in-world documents. The negatives of the Lunar Empire cannot be shown because, of course, the Lunar Empire cannot be in the wrong. But at some stage this becomes bland. Sections of the Rough Guide, particularly the “Gazetteer to Glamour”, suffer from a similar issue. Every locale is splendid, and has arcane, unspecified significance, and is the best thing, the most spectacular thing, the most Thingiest Thing. Just as the repetition of “thing” in that sentence grinds at my own ears, so too does the unwavering tone of sections of the Rough Guide. While this serves an intentional aesthetic purpose, I think this choice is incorrect because of how the text consequently drags.

The book also needs a bit of proofreading. There aren’t any egregious errors, but a handful of typos, and so on.

These are overall small issues. As I said at the start, I quite like this book. Most of it was a joy to read, and I hope that comes through distinctly in this review. Totally stunning to find something of this quality as a fan publication—a fact which, frankly, I kept forgetting as I read and as I contemplated the book. It’s an odd creation, and probably the best work of Gloranthan fiction I’ve read despite its mask as an RPG supplement.

(And yes, that includes King of Sartar.)

Art

The Rough Guide claims to be “lavishly illustrated” and lives up to that claim without qualification or quibbling. Art’s great, and I hope the excerpts I’ve shared help highlight that. My only complaint—and this really is just whining, not “reasonable critique—is that so little of the art is in color. Much of it is reprinted from prior non-digital editions of the Rough Guide, and holds up well, but is from black and white printings.

imperial baths
For example, this excerpt from Baths of Magnificus by Simon Bray makes me yearn to see the interplay of light with the water and mosaics in full color.

The new art matches well the style of old, to the point that I’m not personally certain where those lines intersect. The only pieces I’m certain are new are those in color.

glamour
Excerpt from Mucha Blondie, Antonia Doncheva’s spectacular illustration of the goddess Glamour, based on the musician Blondie. Probably my favorite piece in the whole book. Available as a print on Chaosium’s Redbubble storefront!

My rule of thumb is, if my only comment on something is “I want more,” that thing was probably pretty good. That’s certainly true of the Rough Guide‘s art. I don’t have a lot to say; it’s excellent, and I want more.

Physical Product

A Rough Guide to Glamour is an 8.5″ by 11″ hardcover book with a glossy cover. The cover art has good resolution, although I’m not certain if a high resolution is necessary due to its cartoon-like style. It is clear and distinct. While the book doesn’t meet the quality of Chaosium’s official publications, this is a fan publication. Further, the Jonstown Compendium does not provide, to the best of my knowledge, bespoke options for content creators making print on demand titles. The physical quality of this product should not reflect on its writers, artists, and publishers.

That said, the hardcover about meets my expectations. I’d love it to have all the little extra details which Chaosium uses, but I know that’s not an option. It feels a touch flimsy, but not distressingly so.

The one other note I have for the physical product is that, to my surprise, I found the page numbers in the center of the page (as they are on the PDF) mildly irritating. Like a little buzzing fly. Not a big deal, but odd—and something I should remember if I transform my own content to print on demand. I suspect its not something the creators expected either.

Rating

As I plan to put this review up on DriveThruRPG, I need to give it a starred rating, out of five. This is a process I typically dislike, since I don’t think most media can be distilled to a simple numeric value unless really good, or really, really bad.

If this system was out of ten, I’d give the Rough Guide a nine. I really enjoyed reading it, I think it has good potential for use by gamemasters, but it does have flaws. Considering the high quality of this fan publication, and that in many ways its treading new ground on the Jonstown Compendium, I’m going to give it the difference, and note this as five stars.

A Rough Guide to Glamour is available here on the Jonstown Compendium, either in PDF or as a hardcover book. A list of my own works through the program is available here.

All artwork in this review is copyright by the original authors. I make no claims to ownership of any of these pieces, and am using them only for the purpose of a review.

2 thoughts on “Review — A Rough Guide to Glamour

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s