Every time there is a new magic system released for Glorantha, we are always told that "this time it's the way we always wanted it to be", and "this time it really reflects Greg's stories." The magic systems in both HW and HQ1 were promoted with those sorts of phrases, and HQ2 is, of course, no different. I'm past caring whether or not they're true in any meaningful way; I just want to know whether or not the system is any good.
And, on the whole, the system presented in KoH is good.
Of course, there wasn't really much wrong with the theist magic system in HQ1 - although the same couldn't really be said for animism or wizardry. But nonetheless, the writers of KoH have managed to improve on it, and that can only be a good thing.
It's worth pointing out again that KoH is, rightly, a book about the Heortling barbarians of Sartar, dominated as they are by the magic of Air and Earth. So the book has essentially nothing to say about how magic works elsewhere in the world. The primer in the HQ2 core rulebook gave a sufficient outline of that, and it will hopefully be developed more as time goes by. But this is the book for the Heortlings, and its only their magic we see here.
The core of the new Heortling magic system then, is the runes. These are the same old familiar runes of RuneQuest, with Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions. We have always been told that the runes were the basis of all magic, but it is only with this new system that that is really shown to be the case. Every character starts off with three runes, one Element, one Power, and one other, which can be anything except another Element or a Power directly opposed to the one you already have. (So, no having both Life and Death, for instance).
Characters with no cult use their runes to augment everyday tasks; they don't create specific "spells". So, if you are strong in, say, the Death rune, you will be able to use it to boost your combat prowess - a sort of Bladesharp, if you will. Here, I would have liked to see more description of what the runes generally let you boost, and a broader discussion of what each of them means. Instead, the descriptions are short, and often of little use, although they do have associated personality traits. Perhaps it was felt that the names were indicative enough, but I feel a broader discussion would have been very helpful.
I'm also not overly enthused by the idea that PCs should be penalised if they fail to act according to the personality traits written for their rune. True, the book suggests that the GM should not use this punitively, but only if it works well with the story. Nonetheless, it feels a little overly prescriptive to me, and I suspect I won't use that part.
Most characters, however, will probably want to initiate to a cult, worshipping a specific god from the Heortling pantheon. To do this, you need at least one rune in common with your god (it's generally specified which one it has to be), and it makes sense to match all of them if you want your character to be magically powerful. A character who belongs to a cult gets to use his rune actively, to cast what would be called "spells" in most other RPG systems. Each god has one "affinity" for each of his one to three runes, which act as keywords allowing the PC to use magic directly related to that aspect of the god. So a Humakti, for instance, can use his Truth rune to cast magic related to honour and oaths.
In HQ1, similar affinities existed, and they were always labelled with an appropriate rune. However, the choice of rune often made little sense - since it had no game mechanical effect, it was merely for decoration anyway. For instance, out of all the many sub-cults of Ernalda in Thunder Rebels, only one had an affinity directly linked to the Earth rune. Similarly, many cults in HQ1 had idiosyncratic runes, creating a plethora of symbols that obscured the underlying simplicity of the system - Under the Red Moon was particularly notable for this.
But, in KoH, the original, simple, list of basic runes takes centre stage. Ernalda has Earth magic, because she is the Earth Mother; Lhankor Mhy, god of knowledge, has Truth magic, and so on. This is both easier to grasp and more atmospheric than the old system, and its a significant step forward.
It does, on the other hand, lead to some problems when the affinities are overly broad. If Orlanth can do anything possible with the Air rune, its difficult to see what the point of any other Air cult might be. As far as I can tell from the rules, a priestess of Ernalda should be just as good at creating earthquakes as a priestess of Maran Gor, the goddess of earthquakes, which sounds a bit odd. Of course, if they were competing against each other, you would give the latter a bonus for the more specific ability, but that seems to be rather side-stepping the issue. Fortunately, the cults provided in the book don't overlap very much, so it's less of a problem than it might appear at first glance.
Another issue in HQ1 was that almost everyone chose to be a devotee, a level of ability that got you more potent magic, but that was supposed to be really rare in the game setting (although, to be honest, this was never very clearly expressed). In KoH, the new "initiates" are essentially the equivalent of the old "devotees" in terms of magical power, removing the temptation to do this.
What KoH calls "devotees" are actually closer to the HQ1/Storm Tribe "disciples" - indeed, they seem to have the same in-world titles. Devotees get specific "feats" which are more focused, and hence more powerful, magic than the broad affinities. In return, they face considerable limitations on their freedom of action, making them less attractive as PCs, unless you really want to play a powerful specialist. Which is, to my mind, as it should be. It is also no longer possible to start play as a devotee; it's a status to be achieved through play, as disciple was in HQ1. A slight niggle is that some of the feat descriptions are a long on flowery text and short on what it is they are actually supposed to do. You're probably meant to work this out in play, but some more guidance would have been nice.
In part 3, I'll take a look at the cults themselves. It's a big book - it needs a long review...