This article originally appeared in Pyramid #13
Rune Mysteries Revealed
by Bruce Kvam
Editor's Note: We made a couple of small graphic errors in our original presentation of this article in Pyramid #11, resulting in the rune table and several examples being a bit on the confusing side. With our deepest apologies to Bruce (who did a great job), here's a good portion of that article run again with all the right runes in all the right places.
Runes those mystical symbols of power, arduously inscribed on ancient dwarven-forged swords, or conjured in crackling fiery outlines by great wizards are staples of fantastic literature. Roleplaying games often use runes to cast spells and create magic items. In the real world, pre-Christian Teutons used them for writing and fortune-telling.
Roleplaying games sometimes incorporate runes for divination, but provide little detail. This is a gamemaster's guide to the Futhark runes, describing their history and how to use them for divination and as "hyperdice" to suggest campaign plot threads.
RunecastingThe exact methods the ancients used for runecasting are unclear. Centuries of Christian condemnation and influence have all but eradicated the details, though some modern mystics claim to have recovered the lost knowledge through retrogression or "analeptic memory." Feel free to take those ideas that you like, throw away the ones you don't, and invent new ones that please you everyone else did.
Runecasting involves random selection of runes and laying them out in a pattern, then interpreting that pattern. Actual runestones are the most fun to use. You can buy them in New Age bookstores or make them from wood or clay (1" x 1" is a good size), but you can just draw the symbols on 3" x 5" cards.
For a runecasting, draw the stones one by one from a bag and place them face-down on a white cloth in the appropriate pattern, several of which are described below. Once the pattern is complete, turn the stones over. Some of the runes may be upside-down or backwards leave them this way! Reversed or inverted runes have a different meaning; generally opposite of their upright meaning. For example, means strength, while means weakness. Some runes have no reversed appearance ( and , for example) and have only one meaning, though that meaning can be modified by adjacent runes.
Some diviners suggest writing each rune down as it is drawn and putting it back in the bag. This has the advantage of increasing random variation, but it defies the aesthetic sensibilities.
Runecasting PatternsOne stone: The simplest casting involves a single stone to answer a yes or no question. An upright rune means yes, an inverted rune no. A non-reversible rune might indicate that no answer is available yet. The actual rune drawn may have some bearing on the answer: if the question is, "Will we defeat the forces of Evil at Ragnarok?" a result of (Tyr, or victory) would indicate yes, while would indicate no (failure). A result of (is, or Standstill) might indicate a stalemate. The blank rune might indicate you shouldn't be asking such questions.
Three stones: Three stones can also be used to answer yes or no questions. This is sometimes called "Asking the Norns," and may be the ancient Teutonic divination method mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania. Place the three stones side by side. Three upright stones are an emphatic yes; three reversed, a certain no. If two runes are upright, the answer is yes, modified by the reversed rune. If two runes are reversed, the answer is a conditional no. For example, the response to the above question about victory in battle might be
indicating victory, but after some delay or frustration or loss of property.
The appearance of a non-reversible rune in a casting can indicate what the casting is about. For example, if a PC asks, "Will Madame de Beauville finance our expedition to recover the Pharaoh's Ankh from the Nazi archaeologists?" the response
means yes, implying that a romantic approach ( and ) might make the trip () possible.
The blank rune in this pattern usually indicates no answer is available.
Three stones can also be used to ask a general question or cast a fortune. The runes are laid out left to right with the following interpretations: 1) Overview, 2) Challenge, 3) Action. For example, if the question is, "Where is the Runesword of Æpelstan?", the response might be
meaning that 1) the sword is hidden, 2) requires a journey across water, and 3) requires strength and a test of skill to win it. Being sufficiently vague, this will naturally elicit another runecasting: "In what land is the sword?"
meaning 1) travel across the sea to 2) the land of the ice giants, and 3) fight. Other interpretations are obviously possible; the devious GM can have a lot of fun with runecasting.
Five stones: More stones can give a greater narrative feel to the reading. The first pattern is the Elemental Cross. Lay the stones out in the following pattern:
4 1 2 3 5
The positions have the following meanings: 1) Past (that which led up to the current situation), 2) Present (the current situation), 3) Future (the result), 4) Help to be expected, 5) That which cannot be changed. For the question, "When would be the best time to attack Eldred's castle to obtain the Runesword?", the response might be:
meaning 1) that the PCs were nearly toasted by Eldred's fireball in their last attempt on the castle, 2) they are currently under siege, 3) they should attack at daybreak, 4) help may be available from the ice giants who the PCs think are on Eldred's side, but who are actually enslaved by the wicked mage and 5) no change in wealth, meaning Eldred has no treasure.
Another pattern is a column of five runes: 1) Overview, 2) Challenge, 3) Action, 4) Sacrifice, 5) Result, which extends the three-rune casting with Sacrifice and Result runes.
Six Stones: Six stones can be laid out in the following cross pattern:
6 5 1 2 3 4
Indicating 1) Past, 2) Present, 3) Future (or Action), 4) Hidden Forces, 5) Challenge, and 6) Result. This is interpreted much as the five-stone cross. If this pattern is too ominous, invert it.
Seven Stones: Seven stones can be laid out in three pairs with a single result rune (sometimes called Mimir's Head):
12 34 56 7
The paired runes are interpreted together. 1 & 2) Problem, 3 & 4) Outside factors that caused the problem, 5 & 6) Course of action, 7) Result. Paired runes can impart a great deal of information, implying a verb and a subject. For example, King Haraldr's queen has been captured and seduced by the foul Lord Fyllbryht. The king is contemplating war and has sought the council of his runemaster, Sigfred. The casting is:
The first pair obviously means that the homeland must be protected. The second pair means that Haraldr's troubles come from his enemies in the matter of love. The course of action is waning enthusiasm and sacrifice obviously Haraldr should dump the queen. The result rune is thorn reversed meaning either "beware hasty decisions" or "bad luck." Sigfred, knowing which side of the biscuit is buttered, councils Haraldr against making any quick decisions to go to war.
More Stones: Patterns with more stones are mentioned in the literature, but it's hard to tell how authentic they are; most are influenced by astrology or Tarot. If you want bigger patterns, create your own. Determine the "variables" in the "equation" and assign a pair of runes to each variable in the manner of Mimir's Head.
Runecasting in Roleplaying As gamemaster you should select the runecasting methods available for the campaign and let the player select the one appropriate to the question. For the casting itself, the player executes the necessary game mechanics and states the question. You lay out the resulting runes and the player interprets them.
If the mechanics involve rolling dice to judge success, roll the result in secret. On a critical failure give misleading runes. On better rolls give more informative runes (with hints of treasure, outside help, etc.).
If you like to live on the edge, let the player draw the runes and perform an actual runecasting. The result should then shape events in the campaign. The runestones now become "hyperdice" that generate non-numeric results. As GM you aren't bound by the players' interpretation, but subsequent events should follow from the stones cast.
Finally, don't let divination spells get out of hand. If the players are constantly reaching for their rune pouches, the blank rune may be called for.
Runes as a Game Master's Tool You can use runes as an alphabet to add flavor to the game, using them to write messages, inscriptions and carvings. The rune names can be used as "power words" or the verbal components of spellcasting rituals.
Runes should be a staple of Viking campaigns and can easily be worked into any medieval setting. An evil Nazi rune sorcerer is a natural in a 1930's occult/adventure campaign. And runes can figure in the origin story for a super-hero or arch-villain.
An interesting way to generate plot threads in your campaign is to tell the fortunes of player characters with runes. The Mimir's Head (seven-rune) casting is particularly useful here. For example, I just drew these runes at random:
Problem: happiness disrupted, Cause: loss of fertility, Action: death (murder?), and Result: death. (This is an example of one rune affecting the interpretation of another: the reversed clinched the death interpretation of ). What this might mean depends on the situation, but it certainly looks bad. In our campaign, one PC was just betrothed, against his will. One of the few reasons he agreed to it was to get an heir. If his bride is infertile, he will be very unhappy. Are murder and mayhem in the offing? The runes say... yes!
The essence of both fortune-telling and roleplaying is storytelling the runes are just signposts to help you find your way.
Rune TablesThe following table gives the runes, their pronunciations, their Anglo-Saxon names, the names "reconstructed" for the Proto-Germanic precursor language, the original linguistic meanings, the meanings when the runes appear upright in a runecasting, and the meanings when they occur reversed. Feel free to add to or subtract from these lists.
Rune Pronunciation Anglo-Saxon Name Proto-Germanic Name Original Meaning Divination Meaning Upright Divination Meaning Reversed FREYA'S EIGHT f feoh fehu cattle Wealth, property Loss (economic), argument, frustration u ur uruz auroch (wild ox) Strength, test of skill Weakness, illness, misfortune th, p thorn thurisaz thorn, giant Protection, luck, Thor Beware hasty decisions, bad luck a (A-S o) os, ansur ansuz god, mouth Advice, signals, Odin Bad advice, lies, trickery, Loki r rad, rit raido wheel Journey, travel Plans will be upset, inconvenient trip k ken, kaon kano torch Fire, energy, new beginning End, loss g gyfu, gifu gebo gift Generosity, love, partnership w, v wynn wunjo bliss, joy Joy, happiness Unhappiness, failure, double-dealing HAGAL'S EIGHT h hægl, hagal hagalaz hail Disruption, uncontrollable (impersonal) forces, unexpected, risky n nyd, nied nauthiz need Need, constraint, perseverance Think twice about plans i is isa ice Standstill, emotional cooling j, y yer, jara jera year, harvest Justice, long-term benefit y yr eihwaz yew tree Defense against danger p peorth perth mystery Secret, mystery, hidden Unpleasant surprises, "dirty" secrets z eolh algiz elk Protection, willing sacrifice Vulnerability, avoid, unwilling sacrifice s sigel, sig sowelu sun, victory Sun, victory, life force, health TYR'S EIGHT t tyr, tiw teiwaz Tyr (a god) Victory in battle, warrior, masculine Waning enthusiasm, failure, infidelity b beorc, birca berkana birch Birth, fertility, nurture, beginning Death warning, sterility e (A-S eo) eoh ehwaz horse Change, travel, slow growth Blocked movement, restlessness m man mannaz man, mankind Interdependence, self, help, family No help, isolation, trouble from enemies l lagu laguz water, sea Water journey, flow, feminine Misled by intuition, female treachery ng Ing Inguz Ing (a god) Fertility, new beginnings, completion (cyclical) d, th dæg, dag dagaz day Day, light, breakthrough, growth, transformation o othel, epel othila property, homeland Property, inheritance Delay, frustration, failure, accident
The Blank RuneThe blank rune () usually stands for Fate or Destiny or Karma, though it can portend a lack of information or even death. It is not among the original 24 Futhark runes, and seems to be a creation of fortune-tellers. It therefore has no authentic name, and is variously referred to as wyrd, skjebne, or just the blank rune.
Article publication date: June 1, 1995
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