Stafford began imagining Glorantha in 1966 as a way to deepen his own understanding of mythology. He founded the company Chaosium to publish White Bear and Red Moon (1974), a board wargame set in Glorantha. Chaosium later published other games in the setting, including the critically-acclaimed RuneQuest. Various later editions of RuneQuest, the narrative roleplaying game HeroQuest, and the computer game King of Dragon Pass were also set in Glorantha, as were several prominent fan efforts. Mongoose Publishing currently publishes RuneQuest. Stafford has also explored the Glorathan setting in the fantasy novel King of Sartar and a number of extended essays known collectively as 'the Stafford Library'.
In Glorantha, magic operates from the everyday level of prayers and charms to the creation and maintenance of the world. Heroes venture into metaphysical realms to gain knowledge and power, but at the risk of body and soul. Various magical outlooks, such as shamanism and mysticism, compete to describe the world. Within a metaphysical system, adherents also compete, such as when theistic worshipers of rival gods battle each other. The world is flat, with a dome-like sky, and it has been shaped in large and small ways by the mythic actions of the gods. The historical world of Glorantha is in a more or less fallen state, having recovered only partially from a universal battle against Chaos in the mythic Godtime.
Humans are the dominant race, but other sentient beings abound. Some, such as the mystic dragonewts, are unique to Glorantha. Familiar nonhuman races, such as elfs and dwarfs, are distinct from their common, Tolkienesque portrayals.
Glorantha has been so far the background for 2 board-games (White Bear and Red Moon/Dragon Pass and Nomad Gods), two role-playing games (RuneQuest and HeroQuest), one computer game (King of Dragon Pass), one comic book series (Path of the Damned), five novels or collections of fiction ("King of Sartar" by Greg Stafford, "The Collected/Complete Griselda" by Oliver Dickinson, "Gloranthan Visions" by various authors, "The Widow´s Tale" and "Eurhol´s Vale & Other Tales" by Penelope Love, and numerous pieces of myth and fiction created by the Glorantha community, featuring in magazines such as Tales of the Reaching Moon. Several hundred gaming miniatures by various licensees and about a dozen plush toys have also been produced at various times.
Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, the other approach to fantasy role-playing which traces its roots back to the 1960s and which derives from the wargaming scene, the roots of Glorantha lie in experiments with mythology, storytelling, and recreation and blending of ancient societies.
Stafford's first imaginings of Glorantha date back to 1966, when he began his studies at college, as a vehicle for him to deepen his own understanding of mythology by creating his own mythology, and also (so he says) as a way of getting to know girls. Stafford was greatly influenced by the ideas on mythology of Joseph Campbell, and echoes of Campbell's work are to be found in many aspects of Glorantha; for instance the story of the "God Learners" can be seen as an exercise on the implications of Campbell's idea of a unifying monomyth, and the story of Prince Argrath an exploration of Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. More abstractly, Campbell's idea that myths are how we shape our lives deeply informs the picture of life in Glorantha throughout the game world's publication history.
The first game system set in Glorantha was the board game White Bear and Red Moon. Stafford first tried to sell the game to established publishers, but despite being accepted by three different game companies, each attempt ended in failure; eventually he founded his own game company in 1974, the influential Chaosium, to publish his game. The game detailed the rise of the barbarian Prince Argrath to defend his homeland of Sartar against the red tide of the civilized Lunar Empire, and filled out the area of Dragon Pass; since that time the game has undergone several reissues.
The next publication was also a board game, Nomad Gods, published by Chaosium in 1978, which detailed the raids and wars between the beast-riding spirit-worshipping tribes of Prax, a cursed land to the east of Dragon Pass. A French language edition was published by Oriflam under license from Chaosium under the name "Les Dieux Nomades" in 1994.
In 1978 the first edition of the role-playing game RuneQuest was released. In this edition of the game, the game world is "Glorontha" (sic). Several later editions were made; RuneQuest II in 1980 introduced many sophisticated game aids, such as Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror, and highly polished game scenarios, such as Griffin Mountain. Using materials such as Cults of Prax, players aligned their characters with any of several distinct religions, grounding those characters in the political, cultural, and metaphysical conflicts of Glorantha. Each religion offered a distinct worldview and cultural outlook, none of which are objectively correct. This approach of offering competing mythic histories and value systems continues in current Glorantha material. Cults of Terror focussed on the worship of evil gods and adversaries, such as Vivamort, a vampire cult, and Lunar and Chaos cults. It did not review as well as its companion volume, being given 6 out of 10 in White Dwarf magazine.
In an attempt to leverage the power of a much bigger gaming company, RuneQuest III was published with Avalon Hill in 1984. This edition both loosened the connection between RuneQuest and Glorantha, introducing Fantasy Europe as a game world for Rune Quest, and much broadened the scope of Glorantha treated as a possible domain of play. Unfortunately, RuneQuest did not prosper with its association with Avalon Hill, and the relationship between Chaosium, who held the rights to Glorantha, and Avalon Hill, who held the rights to RuneQuest, finally broke down completely in 1995. A draft of the RuneQuest IV rules, called , was written but never published. It has since been renamed RuneSlayers and released as a free download. It had little to do with the Glorantha setting.
During this period of breakdown, Glorantha continued to evolve. The advent of popular use of the internet caused a boom in fan creations in Glorantha, supported by some unofficial business ventures, such as Reaching Moon Megacorp, and a lively convention scene. Loren Miller proposed his Maximum Game Fun principle as a basis for gaming, which soon became a game system in its own right, David Dunham proposed his PenDragon Pass system, a nearly freeform game system, and several ambitious freeform games were played at conventions, such as Home of the Bold with up to 80 participants. The computer game King of Dragon Pass was released by A-Sharp, allowing the player to play an Orlanthi hero who seeks to unite the clans and tribes of Dragon Pass in a kingdom; the game features exceptional depth of coverage of the area of Dragon Pass, and featured the first compelling public view of Stafford's ideas about the heroquest. Also Stafford was at this time publishing material about the history and mythology of Glorantha in non-game form as books such as King of Sartar and The Glorious (Re)Ascent of Yelm.
Today, new official material is appearing for the HeroQuest game system, for a short while called the Hero Wars system. The game system, written by Robin Laws in collaboration with Greg Stafford, is radically different from RuneQuest in that it emphasises narrativist aspects of role-playing; in contrast, RuneQuest emphasised simulationist aspects. Because of this change in approach some RuneQuest fans found it difficult to adjust to HeroQuest. However, other long-term fans felt that the game fit Glorantha far better than RuneQuest.
Another company, Mongoose Publishing, has obtained rights from Issaries to publish material concerning the world of Glorantha, focusing exclusively (and for the first time) on the little-explored Second Age of Gloranthan history. Their new edition of Runequest debuted in August 2006, and the first Gloranthan supplement for it was released in October 2006.
The Issaries website introduces Glorantha as:
"Glorantha is an action-packed world of adventure. Gods and Goddesses struggle here, with nations of people nothing but their pawns. The stormy barbarians with their brutal but honest Storm God struggle against the Lunar Empire, led by the imperial Sun God and devious Moon Goddess.
Glorantha is an exciting world of heroes. Legends are being made by great individuals, many who are not even human beings. Some work with the deities, other heroes and heroines fight against them.
Glorantha is colorful and full of magic. Supernatural animals are found, ranging from unicorns to seven types of merfolk and the Goddess of Lions.
Glorantha is immense. If explored, it has different worlds and dimensions, whole realms where Gods, spirits and sorcerous powers come from. Unlike many fantasy settings, Glorantha emphasises religion, myth and belief to a level rarely seen in roleplaying or fantasy fiction elsewhere.
Glorantha shares some fantasy tropes such as dwarves, elves, trolls, giants, but has developed them differently to the more conventional versions based on the work of Tolkien. Dwarves are literally made of stone and exist as manifest rigid inflexible laws of creation, while elves are intelligent, mobile plants. Glorantha is full of surprises.
Glorantha is as deep as you want it to be, or not. Hackers and choppers have what they want, while scholars and mythologists have a vast playground of new stories, legends and myths to enjoy."
The world of Glorantha has various cultures analogous to Earth spread over two major landmasses and a widespread archipelago. The northern continent of Genertela has a feudal society of roughly medieval type to the west, an autocratic Oriental society to the east and a classical style Bronze Age culture in the center. The southern continent of Pamaltela is somewhat like Africa, but with many differences.
Ducks or Durulz are large intelligent ducks with arms instead of wings (or men cursed with feathers and webbed feet, depending on your point of view). They reside around rivers, mainly in Sartar, and have an unexplained mystical affinity with Death.
Aldryami are Gloranthan plantmen, nature and sun worshipping-mainly worshipping Aldrya, deity of plants. Unlike Tolkienesque elves, they are alien, physically plant-like and often hostile to normal humans (meat men). Like many other fictional elf races, they are excellent archers.
Uz, the trolls, are the race of darkness, large, intelligent, astoundingly omnivorous, with a very developed sonar-like sense (darksense). Their societies are matriarchal, and they worship a number of violent and sinister darkness gods, including Kyger Litor, mother of the Trolls.
Dragonewts a magical race who comprise several forms of neotenic dragons, engaged in a cycle of self-improving reincarnation. Extremely alien and incomprehensible mindset. They must have oral surgery in order to speak human languages.