So as we have noticed, the RuneQuest cults are deliberately not balanced. Some cults have way more magic – and effective magic – than others. Now that was part of Greg’s vision – but why?
One way of answering that is to look at the history of Time. At the Dawn, most people worshiped what we would call Spirit Cults. They provided a handful of Rune Spells at best (maybe not even Common Rune spells). These spirit cults are what carried those people through the Greater Darkness and Grey Ages that preceded the Dawn. Think of cults like Oakfed, Diros, Telmor, Rathor, Black Fang, Frog Woman, Grain Goddess, Lightning Boy, Yinkin, etc. and scatter them across Genertela.
All of these spirit cults are pretty weak. Lightning Boy, for example, provides Lightning. And that’s about it. But in Dragon Pass, we have a group of cults called the Lightbringers or Theyalans. This includes early versions of Orlanth Adventurous and Orlanth Thunderous, Ernalda, Issaries, Eurmal, Lhankor Mhy, Chalana Arroy, Humakt, Yelmalio, etc., as well as cults like Kyger Litor, Zorak Zoran, Aldrya, etc. At this time, all of these cults have a comparable assortment of Rune Magic (but remember Orlanth has two cults!).
The Theyalans send out speakers to the people of Genertela. They show them their gods and teach them how to reach them. In some cases, they show that the spirit cults are accoutrements or aspects of the greater gods. Lightning Boy is proven to be one of the Four Magical Weapons of Orlanth Adventurous. The Grain Goddess is proven to serve Ernalda. And so on. In other cases, the spirit cults are shown to be related to each other. The Urox atop Stormwalk Mountain is discovered to be the same god as the Storm Bull of the Desert Wind, and the Block is revealed to be even more important than Stormwalk.
Within a few generations, we have a diverse kaleidoscope of cults. Some are growing tremendously through syncretism, identification, and challenges – Orlanth and the Lightbringers, Ernalda, and so on. Orlanth Thunderous and Orlanth Adventurous are realized to just be aspects of the same god. That kind of thing.
But we also still have these little spirit cults and lesser gods. People still worship them because they fill some need, even if that need is largely tradition. Some gods that were fantastically useful in the Grey Age and at the Dawn remain popular – despite their comparatively weaker magic. Yelmalio is a good example of that. Yelmalio survived the Greater Darkness where the other gods did not. He showed people how to survive in the Darkness, even though his magic was not great. And his cult has always been tenacious and socially cohesive.
Meanwhile in Peloria, we have a Yelmalio horse cult worshiped along with deities like Polaris, Shargash, Hippoi, etc. ruling over a population of Lodril and Grain Goddess and River Goddess peasants. They kill the Theyalan missionaries they find within their realm and this leads to war between Dragon Pass and Peloria. Eventually the Dara Happan lesser nobility rebel against their horse lords. The Pelorian Yelmalio cult is torn between factions. And a Dara Happan nobleman gathers magical accoutrements and enters the Hero Plane to ascend the Pillar of Yelm, the lost Sun God. He is acclaimed Emperor and reveals his god is the returned Yelm, the Imperial Sun, a god that previously only the Pure Horse People priesthood could contact. Unlike Yelmalio, Yelm has LOTS of magic. He’s got Sunspear, Trueshot, Shield, and plenty more. When the Dragon Pass armies defeat the Horse Lords, this new Dara Happan Emperor negotiates peace and neutrality with Dragon Pass. But the Orlanth cults recognize his god – it is Yelm the Emperor, who Orlanth slew with Death. And worshiping Yelm places you under the authority of the Emperor, Yelm’s regent in the Mundane World. So most folk in Dragon Pass stay loyal to Yelmalio. As do many of the horse lords, who flee to Pent with Yelmalio aka Kargzant.
So now we have a wide range of cults. Some have only one or two spells, some have more than a dozen or two! This process continues over the next two ages. Sometimes cults collapse or contract, like what happened to Yelm during the Second Age, when Yelm was defined by what he was not. But usually, these syncretic agglomerations were lasting. Orlanth gained another big aspect when Alakoring brought back the magic of Orlanth Rex in the later Second Age. And the God Learners and Empire of the Wyrms Friends promoted identification and syncretism.
But still some old small cults survived. Yinkin and Odayla still have cults independent of Orlanth, even if they are small and their magic fairly weak. Yelmalio’s gifts were likely more important than his Rune Magic, but even that proved incredibly helpful in fighting against trolls and in contesting with the Orlanth Thunderous cult.
So if we think about this from a setting perspective, of course some cults are going to have better and broader array of Rune Spells. As an aside, the Common Rune Magic array I think is a byproduct of the God Learner/EWF era.
And so if we think about Yelmalio, his cult survives for a variety of reasons:
- His worshipers are really really tenacious. They have learned to fight as soldiers and have tremendous internal cohesion. Sure they might lose a lot of duels and challenges to Wind Lords, but they win a lot of set-piece fights with tribes! And not through magic, but through things like pike and shield or Kuschile archery.
- He is not Yelm. Yelmalio is far more easily tolerated by the Lightbringers, and his cult is not a political challenge in the same way Yelm is (even if both cults are equally neutral towards Orlanth). His cult can happily exist as an autonomous minority.
- He has a long tradition of existence. The Delta House rule is real.
- He fills an important niche. He is a Sky Cult that can coexist with Earth and Storm as peers. He is really good against fighting trolls and the darkness. Elves dig him.
Also what I hoped to show with that little essay is how much Gloranthan cults change with Time. The Orlanth Thunderous and Orlanth Adventurous CULTS of the First Age had lesser access to magic than the Orlanth CULT of the late Third Age.
Theyalan literally means People of the Dawn. Theyalan, Lightbringer, and Orlanthi are used interchangeably.
Wherever the Theyalans went, they brought their cults and gods. So wherever you see those arrows, you had awareness of the Lightbinger cults in the early First Age.
I don’t think there was much interaction with or even awareness Chaos at ALL in the early Dawn Age, outside of a few nests like Snakepipe Hollow, the Print, and in Prax and the Wastes. And not much Than, Tien, or Atyar.
Kuschile archery is just a rules issue. It should make a difference, but for the rules as they stand it makes very little – or at least, it helps only poor riders. It needs a bit of a rules rethink to make it more useful to skilled riders? it is useful because it is useful for poor riders. It means that if you have a mass of folk who are good archers but mediocre horsemen, they can still be good horse archers. Historically that is a mighty thing for a small agricultural community. One more reason they can punch above their weight.
And so if you are a person who wants a cult with a broad range of spells, then pick one of those. Orlanth, Ernalda, Humakt, or the other Lightbringers. Or Maran Gor, Babeester Gor, etc. And if having a relatively short list of spells isn’t your thing, then the answer is – don’t pick a cult with a short list of spells. Yelmalio for example provides 4 special Rune spells, all common Rune spells, 2 associated Rune spells, plus gifts. His magic is good for seeing in the darkness, getting rid of the darkness, getting rid of clouds, commanding hawks, blessing crops and healing body. His gifts give his followers an edge, potentially a serious edge.
Now Greg was very pleased with Yelmalio precisely because his cult isn’t that magically powerful in comparison with Orlanth or Humakt. But Yelmalio offers something quite important – a tale about being the Last Light in the Darkness. Yelmalio survived the Greater Darkness, even though he was very dim by the end. He was there to greet the return of the Sun and the other gods.And to me that is a powerful thing.
As a soldier, he doesn’t have great heroic powers. He just has to do his duty and carry on. Often without magic – as it was in the Greater Darkness and Grey Age.
Yelmalio didn’t survive because he had a magical ability to survive. He survived because the Light was not completely extinguished even in the Greater Darkness. So actually Sunbright is that ability. Yelmalio can make it as bright as a sunny day, even during the darkest night! Issaries wasn’t about finding secret passages or shortest paths. He opened ways (Passage) and knew the threats on the way (Pathwatch).
One thing I reject from proposed cult write-ups is stuff along the lines of “Argan Argar was the ruler of the Surface World, right? So shouldn’t he provide some rulership magic?” And the answer is no. Thanks to Yelm and Orlanth, the position of Cosmic Ruler is filled. Heck, because thanks to there being two claimants for the position, the Sun died and the Darkness happened, so two is enough.
This gets into a general writing issue. If you want to pitch a cult writeup to me, remember that most cults are not Orlanth, Ernalda, etc. Most Genertelan cults that have not yet been written up are hopped up Spirit Cults which might not even have Common Rune Magic. Or they are actually more or less cults we are already familiar with but with an unfamiliar name.