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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Friday, January 10, 2020

THE SMOKING RUIN & OTHER STORIES: A REVIEW (okay not a review so much as a love letter because I couldn't find a damn thing wrong with it)

THERE IS A LINE on the dust jacket of the Guide to Glorantha that reads; "Glorantha is the technicolor cure for bland, pseudo-medieval generic fantasy."  Normally when you read something like this, you can be forgiven for thinking it is self-aggrandizing, pretentious crap.  Not in this case.  If you have any doubts, all you need do is look at exhibit A, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories.  Seriously.  You can open to any random page and find proof that--yes Toto--you aren't in Thedas, or Middle-earth, or Faerûn any more.


Written by Christopher Klug, Steve Perrin, Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, and Jason Durall, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories (hereafter just TSR) is a collection of adventures for Chaosium's RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Set in the South Wilds of Dragon Pass, the book details that region and contains three--no, I am not going to use the word "scenarios" here, they deserve better than that--three fables which unfold there. We are not talking about stories where you sit in a tavern and overhear dwarves talking about a dungeon filled with orcs and treasure here. We are talking about stories in which your priestess of the Earth Mother sends you to recover artifacts in a ruin where the cursed bodies of massacred trolls have been damned to burn for centuries, their spirits trapped agonizingly within. We are talking about stories in which you find yourself in a hidden valley besieged by mercenary Beast Men, a valley whose ancient guardian has gone missing and needs you to find him. We are talking about about Elves--oh no, my friend, not those Elves...I mean a race of animated dryads with wood for bones and sap for blood--attempting to plant a sacred tree that will bless and spawn a new Elf Wood. In short, we are talking about stories that really could only happen on a flat world under a sky dome, a Bronze Age world that eschews physics for mythology. These are stories that could only happen in Greg Stafford's Glorantha.


Coming in at about 192 pages TSR is a bold attempt to remind you why RuneQuest is a gaming legend.  The South Wilds, the Lost Valley, the Wild Temple are all settings as exotic as they come, settings in which the mountains can casually be described as "the backbone of the dragon Sh’harkazeel, covered in earth and vegetation."  Here the Pure Horse People graze their herds and defend them against dinosaurs and smilodons.  Here the numerous types of Beast Men--centaurs, satyrs, and far stranger--gather at a spiraling network of megalithic standing stones to worship the Mother of Nature.  Here there is a valley shrouded from the rest of the world.  The locations and their denizens are all richly detailed with full statistics in grand Chaosium style (the company has several decades of reviews praising them for meticulous craftsmanship and hardly needs me to join that chorus).  What I will say instead is that Chaosium products have never looked as stunning as they have in the last couple of years, and that Olivier Sanfilippo has my blessing to continue doing Gloranthan maps for the rest of eternity.  The talents of Dimitrina Angelska, Antonia Doncheva, Jon Hodgson, Jennifer Lange, Pat Loboyko, Eli Maffei, Magdalena Mieszczak, Sara Otterstätter, Scott Purdy, Corey Trego-Erdner, and Chris Waller make this a beautiful book to look at as well as play.


On the subject of shout-outs to contributors, I would be failing miserably at my job if I didn't single out industry legend Christopher Klug.  Author of The Smoking Ruin, the longest and central fable in this collection, Klug really should need no introduction, but for my younger audience, Christopher Klug is the man responsible (amidst a great many other achievements) for 1983's James Bond 007 RPG, a game design so brilliant you can pull it off your shelf today and play it and think it was cutting edge.  If you have ever played an RPG with the concept of hero points in it, write a thank you letter to Klug right now.   


Now look, gentle reader, I know what you are thinking; "is this a review or a love letter?"  But the fact remains that I struggled long and hard to come up with flaws--spelling mistakes, typos, botched index references, anything--so that I didn't come off as a lovesick school boy, but alas, here we are.  The worst I can say of TSR is that if you like your fantasy medieval, with knights and goblins and trap doors, ignore the book and go play Pathfinder.

Otherwise, just buy the damn thing.  
  


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

THE SASSOON FILES: A "CTHULHU" REVIEW

A BOOK BANNED

When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists...

Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations”

THE FORBIDDEN TOME—and establishment attempts to ban, burn, or blot it out of existence—is a staple so common in what has come to be known as Cthulhu Mythos fiction that it runs the risk of being cliche.  Yet in an example of life imitating art that is exactly what happened to The Sassoon Files, a sourcebook by Sons of the Singularity for Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu being he likeliest suspect).  Sassoon is a collection of scenarios and campaign resources set in 1920s Shanghai, and when Chinese censors got wind of it, they ordered every copy of it burned.  Not that Sassoon was driving hordes of innocent gamers mad—the book was ordered destroyed while it was still at the publisher—but in a nation where the government has ordered a ban on time travel fiction because it “disrespects history,” one must imagine that an alternate Chinese history crawling with nameless cosmic powers would also be verboten.   It’s hard not to be reminded of the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, when the American government mistook GURPS Cyberpunk for a manual on hacking.  No one seemed to explain to the Chinese government however that in the age of PDFs burning books is archaic enough to be quaint, and fortunately Sons of the Singularity found publishers for print copies elsewhere.

I say “fortunately” because The Sassoon Files is a gritty, evocative take on a setting we have seen before in Cthulhu gaming, but never in such detail or with such awareness.  What is immediately clear here is that the writing team knows their subject matter intimately; in fact the project began as campaigns played by gamers living in the People’s Republic of China.  This insider’s take on the setting is one of the book’s strongest features.  Instead of overwhelming you with facts and figures, the writers have cherry picked the juiciest bits.  They know what makes this a unique setting, and concentrate on bringing you those elements.  The result is a campaign book that is primarily ethos, with just enough support to evoke that ethos at your gaming table.


BETWEEN THE COVERS

…At Shanghai’s Great World Amusement Arcade, across from the horse tracks, prostitutes sought out high-rollers while politicians made deals with gangsters. One-armed bandits cranked and whirled, occasionally vomiting just enough coin to keep players hooked. Ghosts, Spiders, and Phantoms lined up outside the casino in a makeshift parking lot. Those who braved the alley behind the casino may have noticed the rickety metal stairwell precariously hanging off the five-story building that housed the Great World Amusement Arcade. Residents called these stairs the “stairs to heaven”, and told tales of men jumping to their deaths. This is Shanghai; Victor Sassoon’s Shanghai. 
Introduction, p. 1

As mentioned, The Sassoon Files takes Mythos roleplaying back to Shanghai, a setting first visited in 1984’s Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Yet like Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), the hotelier and real estate tycoon who for all intents and purposes built modern Shanghai, The Sassoon Files isn’t just visiting the city, it has moved into Shanghai and made it home.  The book provides everything a Keeper might need to run a Shanghai-based campaign, including four scenarios (“Strange Gates, Hidden Demons,” “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” “There is This One Girl,” and the scenario that probably got the sourcebook banned, “Curse of the Peacock’s Eye”).  All of the materials are modular; you could use the setting and characters in the book and never run the scenarios, or so could run one or more of the scenarios and skip the others.  Nor are you required to play them in any given order.  To help you expand on these scenarios there are “campaign drivers,” suggested lists of events which arise as a consequence of the characters’ choices and actions, and an extensive and colorful cast of NPCs that help bring the setting alive.  Depending on your tastes, the campaign is designed to fit both “pulp” and Lovecraft “purist” styles.  

I am reviewing here the 209-page PDF, which retails at $19.99 US.

Victor Sassoon is the default organizing principle in the campaign.  Here, this colorful historical figure is a correspondent of one Dr. Henry Armitage, and the two share a common goal of opposing the Mythos.  Sassoon is primarily concerned with keeping its baleful influence out of “his” city, and to that end has assembled “professors, detectives, debunkers, muscles, guns, criminals and other problem solvers,” including the player characters, to fight it.  However, if you want a more exotic spin on your campaign, two other lenses are provided.  Player characters could instead be part of the Green Gang, a Triad controlling the city’s opium trade, or underground members of the Communist Party, just one of many factions vying for the soul of the nation.  The default “Sassoon” option leads to a far more familiar Cthulhu campaign, the other lenses are far more setting-specific.


The book hits the ground running with “The Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese designation for the 110 years between 1839 and 1949, characterized by a China abused by Western powers and finally Japan.  These three pages set the stage for the campaign in a concise, very readable history told in a prose style that manages to be factual without ever getting dry.  This history is followed by a biography of the titular character, Victor Sassoon.  Sassoon’s presence in the book is emblematic of what makes The Sassoon Files as good as it is, blending historicity with fiction in equal measures.  It would be impossible to really do justice to Shanghai in the 20s without his presence; he invested millions in creating the modern city, owning nearly 2000 properties in it.  Employing the fiction of having him aware of the Mythos, and employing the player characters to stave it off, makes terrific sense (more in the archaic sense!).

After this discussion of Victor follows a collection of Mythos story hooks you can use to develop your own stories in the greater campaign, and a concise timeline.  This is followed by sections on pronunciation, playing Chinese characters, and a note on the colonialism and racism of the period. 

The table is thus set for “Shanghai: The Pearl of the East,” a chapter that goes neighborhood by neighborhood in giving an overview of the city, and then a listing of historical personages as well as the fictional characters introduced in the campaign.  The latter are organized by which scenario in which they first appear, making it easier for the GM to keep track of when they were introduced.  A little over 40 important locations are described here, their descriptions never more than a paragraph in length, as well as a general description of the area of the city itself.  Much like in the historical and setting details, The Sassoon Files is very efficient here, focusing on what you need to know to game the location, rather than overloading you with extraneous details.  Some GMs might prefer a shade more information—for example, maps—but these have rarely been essential to a Cthulhu campaign.  

THE SCENARIOS

The bulk of the book, from page 21 to 180, is given over to the four scenarios that form the core of the campaign.  Ironically, this is the section I will be talking about the least, as to not give the plots away.  

Strange Gates, Hidden Demons is chronologically the earliest of the episodes and tells the story of a Jesuit priest who unwittingly unleashes a Mythos terror.  This is concealed by the authorities under the fiction of a cholera outbreak, and forces the player characters to deal both with the horror summoned into this world and the gate through which it passed.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie begins with a Chinese general who pillages the tomb of a Chinese empress.  The player characters descend into the criminal underworld in search of a relic from that tomb, and come face to face with a Triad run by a woman who claims to be that dead empress.  Is she?

There is this One Girl starts off with the Investigators asked to look into cheating at the casinos and dog races.  A Triad is behind the scam, but what is the source of their uncanny foresight?  

Curse of the Peacock’s Eye is probably the most ambitious and epic of the tales, and as mentioned before the one I suspect got the book banned in China (make of that what you will).  Mythos mastermind Lao Che seeks the Peacock’s Eye in the Lost City of Golden Sands.  This story serves up black lotus, a hideous curse, and the chance to leave the realm of 1920s Shanghai for somewhere a bit…different.


These scenarios all work perfectly in the overall feel of the campaign, one of a crowded and bustling city overlaying a criminal underworld of gambling, opium, and Mythos horror.  The Sassoon Files is very noir in its approach, leaning at times perhaps more towards pulp than purist but never so far that it can’t be run as a very straight, deadly, Lovecraftian campaign.  It does what Cthulhu has always done well, using the period setting to spice up the horrors.  It mixes both the exotic and the familiar, the glittering and the grotesque.

As mentioned at the start, this campaign is written both for GUMSHOE and for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.  As one would expect, key antagonists and NPCs are given stats for both game systems.  The scenarios are very clearly laid out, with a core spine of clues to follow and plenty of detail.  With just a little work, some of them could even be adapted to other settings, though really the star of the show here is Shanghai itself.

CLOSING THOUGHTS


“Write what you know” is what they tell aspiring authors, and this is what makes The Sassoon Files such an interesting product.  Not that the creative team behind it necessarily deals with Mythos horrors or recalls the 1920s, but it is clear they know the setting well enough to boil it down to what will best serve your gaming table.  The Shanghai in these pages is a superb mixture of stereotype and reality, history and horror.  It’s a polished, good looking product as well.  The layout is clear and readable, the art an excellent mix of photography and original works.  If you are looking for something a bit different for your Cthulhu campaign, you really can’t go wrong with this one.   

Monday, January 6, 2020

RUNE MAGIC AND WORTHINESS: THOUGHTS ON CREDIBILITY IN HEROQUEST GLORANTHA

The following is a "rethink" on the previous blog post and how I plan on going forward in my campaign.

CREDIBILITY

PROBABLY THE SINGLE most important rule in HeroQuest is the "credibility test" (HQ p. 74, HQG p. 113). On this subject, author Robin Laws writes;

In works of fiction, it is the author’s job to maintain the illusion of fictional reality by presenting the reader only with events that seem credible within the rules of reality they’ve established for their world. ...(a)s Narrator, you are never obligated to allow a contest just because two characters have abilities that can be brought into conflict.  If the character’s proposed result would seem absurd, you disallow the contest, period...(d)on’t make the mistake of assigning a high resistance to avoid an impossible outcome—lucky rolls and hero points can make your world seem suddenly ridiculous.  (HQ, p. 74)

The credibility test is vital because of the essential relativity of the system.  Assume two characters both operate in the same four-color comic book city of Metropolis.  There is no way that the first one, a "Professional Bodybuilder 7W2,” could use his Ability to stop a runaway locomotive, but the Daily Planet’s newest reporter could use his “Last Son of Krypton 17” to try.  It doesn’t matter that the bodybuilder’s Ability is far higher than the reporter’s; what matters is that by the rules of the setting Kryptonians are superhumanly strong.  Their comparative strength ratings have nothing to do with it.

The importance of the credibility test cannot be overstated, because it is often the only tool the rules give you to define your game.  

I ran afoul of this recently in my current HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  I’ve been running Gloranthan games for 37 years, including three editions of RuneQuest, Hero Wars, HeroQuest, and even a GURPS conversion, but this was my first lengthy HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  The error I made was in assuming it operated more or less along the same lines as Hero Wars and first edition HeroQuest, which of course it does not.  

The first six sessions of the campaign featured the player characters as un-initiated youths, without magic of any kind.  The next few sessions after that, they were using Basic Magic to augment their abilities.  The trouble began only after they started getting initiated, and getting access to Rune Magic.  This is how I learned the value of the credibility test.

THE PROBLEM

As the rules are written, once your HeroQuest Glorantha character becomes a cult initiate;

You may now use all the Runes you share with your god directly, as you would any other ability…you may describe actions and contest results as overtly supernatural…credibility tests do not apply to them as long as your use is within the scope of the Rune…
(HQG p. 144) 

Now, in other Gloranthan games, two central themes defined Rune magic; its immense power and its scarcity.  Everyone used magic in Glorantha, but Rune Magic was your Big Gun, the thing you held on to and unleashed only at your most desperate moment.  In the days of RQ2, cult initiates paid dearly for Rune magic with permanent sacrifices of personal Power, and once they used it, it was gone for good.  Even then, “(m)ost cults restrict this to initiates going on cult missions, or as a rewards to trusted and long-standing members” (RQ2 p. 59).  Even Rune Priests—masters of this sort of magic and the emissaries of the gods—had to spend entire days in worship at a temple or shrine before they could use any Rune magic again, deterring them “from casting Rune magic frivolously (RQ2 p. 64). The latest edition of the game, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, was considerably more generous with Rune magic, but still the rules required you to replenish your magic in worship and sacrifice on holy days.

There is no mechanic for scarcity in HQG, however.  While RuneQuest counts every hit point lost, every coin spent, every arrow fired, in HQG you don’t run out of these things unless you are defeated in a Contest and the Narrator decides the consequence of defeat is losing one of these resources.  The same applies for Rune magic.  There really is no reason for an Orlanth initiate to ever use a spear, when he can hurl lightning bolts instead.  There is no reason to walk home after a day of farming out in the fields when he can just teleport.  Mechanically, the only risk is that his player might fail the roll and the Ability is compromised.

Most players—even those drawn to more narrative-driven games like HQG—love to game the system.  It’s a natural instinct.  Given the way Difficulty works in HQG, the higher an Ability the increasingly less likely the character will fail and ever lose it…even for Nearly Impossible tasks. So what I began to see in my campaign then was other Abilities languishing while the players poured all their Hero Points into improving their Runes.  Rune magic increasingly became the answer to every problem.  All this might have been fine—resorting to powerful magic might have made perfect sense if these characters were Heroes or even Rune masters—but these were brand new initiates.  The internal logic of the setting began to fall apart.

WORTHINESS

What constitutes a credible action may vary from one campaign to the next.  A campaign centered around a group of desperate treasure hunters in the Big Rubble may have a very different definition of credible than a campaign centered on the eschatological conflicts of the Hero Wars…  (HQG, p. 114)

It was this single passage above that provided the answer I was looking for.  Unlike most game systems, the solution wasn’t in what the rules allow, but what is credible for your campaign.  The Rune magic rules are a generalization meant to model how this type of magic works for all levels of play—from new initiates to Heroes like Argrath.  The only way to create a distinction between a Hero and an initiate then is the credibility test.  

As a Game Master though I was still needed the conceptual architecture to justify this distinction. How much magic could an initiate use before credibility comes into play?  What is the limiting factor within the setting itself?  In RuneQuest, the question had always been “how much have you sacrificed?”  It is a very transactional relationship between the worshipper and the god; you give this much and get that much in return.  Yet in HeroQuest there was no way to effectively model this, you don’t acquire the spell first and then use it, you are asking for the spell right then and there.  So it occurred to me the new question the god had to be asking was “is this a worthy use of my power?”

In English, the word “worship” comes from the Old English weorð and -scipe, meaning together “the condition of being worthy.”  This struck me as the credibility test that I needed.  When attempting to perform Rune magic, if the deity finds the character unworthy of the magic, or doesn’t find this particular use of its power worthy, it doesn’t have to happen.  The deity can simply say “no.”

To determine if a use of Rune magic is worthy, then, we needed some criteria.  After some thought, I boiled it down to three;

  1. Does this use of magic further the aims of the deity, expand its influence, or protect its cult in the world?  Remember always that the character serves the deity, not the other way around.
  2. Is there another way for the same effect to be accomplished that doesn’t involve the deity expending its power?  Keep in mind that gods are “fueled” by worship and sacrifice, and that every expenditure of power diminishes them. 
  3. Is the worshipper worthy of this magic; i.e. does the character behave consistently according to its divine Rune affinity, does the character regularly worship and sacrifice, does the character hold any position in the cult (priest? Rune master?  Devotee?)?  The more important an instrument the character is, the more likely a deity will be to act. 


If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” GMs are well within their rights to impose a stretch penalty or to simply say the magic does not work. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

RUNE MAGIC REVISITED: A MORE RUNEQUEST APPROACH FOR HEROQUEST

IN MOST VERSIONS of Glorantha magic is a renewable resource that can be depleted.  In RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, characters expend Magic Points and Rune Points, which are restored through rest, meditation, and worship.  In 13th Age Glorantha, magic is represented through Spells and Feats that need recovery periods to restore.  In King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages, magic is gained during Sacred Time, assigned, and spent over the course of the year.  In HeroQuest Glorantha, however, we find magic to be something you can do any time, as often as you like, with no clear signs of exhausting it.

There is a certain logic to this in a game that puts the story first.  Recovery is presumably something that happens "off camera."  On the other hand, the rules as they stand tend to encourage magic as the solution to all the characters' problems.  Instead of Keywords progressing more or less evenly, there can be a tendency to just keep dumping Hero Points into the Runes.  Catch-Ups (p. 106) tend to encourage this tendency.  Now, resorting to magic as often as possible is a solid game strategy as the rules are written; but HQG is not just a game about "stories," it is about Gloranthan stories.  We see time and time again in the setting that magic is a thing to be gained, saved, and expended at critical moments.  It is not a superpower to be used at will (these can and do exist, but usually as abilities gained through heroquesting).

The following rules are simple suggestions to bridge the conceptual gap between magic in HQG and in her sister games.  GMs and players will recognize them right away as adaptations of already existing HQG mechanics.  Their intent is to bring HQG magic more in line with other Glorantha games, to make powers gained in heroquesting more “special” (more like reusable “superpowers”), and to encourage players to develop abilities other than magic. 

Basic Magic

Called "spirit magic" or "battle magic" in RuneQuest, these are common charms and spells that any Gloranthan whose Runes have been awoken in adulthood initiation rites can perform.  As discussed on pp. 133-134, Basic Magic does not produce any overtly supernatural results, it just augments another ability.


Using these charms and spells draws on the character's personal reserve of energy and power.  Starting with the third, every odd use of magic of this kind thus incurs a penalty as the character tires.  This penalty increases in a fashion identical to the "Consequences of Defeat.”




“Use” here means a single augment attempt (act of magic performed).  If the GM feels the magic in question is minor, he might count it as a "free use."  if it is more major, it might count as two or even three uses itself.The terms “Hurt,” “Impaired,” etc are for purposes of Healing only (see below).  

Spirit Magic, Rune Magic, and Sorcery
Spirit Magic is based on compelling a bound spirit to perform a service for you.  Sorcery is the intense application of intellect and will upon the cosmos.  Rune Magic uses power bestowed upon the character in return for sacrifice and worship.  The first two cases are tiring for the magician; it takes a great deal of mental energy to compel spirits or impose your will on reality.  For this reason, the use of Charms and Spells uses the same “damage” track as Basic Magic.  For example, if a character uses Basic Magic twice to augment abilities, and then uses a Charm or a Spell, that counts as a third use and takes a penalty.

Rune Magic, bestowed by a god, does not tire the magician when used.  Instead, it depletes the pool of divine power invested in the character.  For this reason, it is measured on a separate track from Basic Magic.  If a character used three Basic Magic spells and then casts a Rune spell, the Rune spell would take no penalty.  Use the same table for Rune Magic as the one for Basic Magic, but the two types of magic are kept track of separately.

Healing

Magical energy is recuperated in a fashion similar to “Healing” (p. 106-107).  Energy expended through Basic Magic, Spirit Charms, and Sorcery Spells is restored through rest an/or meditation.  At least six hours of sleep, or three hours of undisturbed meditation, the character may make a Healing contest using an appropriate ability (Meditation, Vigorous, Iron Will, etc etc).  As with Healing, this restores lost levels of magical “damage.”

Rune Magic is harder to restore.  This requires the character to wait for a time sacred to the god and to be at a place sacred to the god.  Only if both conditions are met can the Worship ceremony that activates the Healing roll be performed. 

In most cases this means returning to a shrine or temple on the deity’s Holy Days.  However, initiates can temporarily create sacred space (long enough for the Worship Ceremony to take place) anywhere using the character’s Divine Rune Affinity.  The Difficulty is generally Moderate.  Note, however, that this is an act of Rune Magic and is subject to whatever penalty the character has currently incurred.   

The Worship Ceremony involves the creation of sacred space and the banishing of outside or negative forces (these steps are omitted within a temple), followed by the “parting of the veil” opening the way into Godtime.  The participants re-enact one of the central myths of the deity and a sacrifice is offered. The whole procedure takes 2 or 3 hours.

At the conclusion of the ceremony the character engages in a Simple Contest against the Difficulty level of his or her magical “damage.”  These levels are “healed” according to the rules on pp. 106-107.  Plot augments maybe added to this roll based on the following conditions;

  • Performed during Sacred Time or High Holy Day +6
  • Being at a shrine +3
  • Being at a temple +6
  • Donation or Sacrifice offered equal to a Moderate Wealth Contest +3 ( see p. 234)
  • Donation or Sacrifice offered equal to a High Wealth Contest +6
  • No Donation or Sacrifice offered -3

Thursday, December 12, 2019

THE ARMIES AND ENEMIES OF DRAGON PASS, A REVIEW

Martin Helsdon
Jonstown Compendium
PDF 24.95 USD

GLORANTHA WAS INTRODUCED to the world via a war game, 1975’s White Bear and Red Moon.  The game was about the “Hero Wars,” the earth-shaking clash between the Lunar Empire and the kingdom of Sartar, along with the other surrounding forces in Dragon Pass pulled into the conflict. Thus, before there were Gloranthan “characters” in the roleplaying sense, there were “units.”  Three years after Glorantha’s debut, RuneQuest brought roleplaying there, but the rules were still deeply rooted in ancient warfare.  Characters drew previous experience from backgrounds in heavy, medium, and light cavalry or infantry; hit locations made you think about vambraces and greaves; strike ranks taught you about the importance of weapon length in battle strategy.  Even much of the magic in the game was martial.  This is not to suggest that all Gloranthan gaming is about war—there are stories of love and heroism and tragedy and wonder a aplenty—but most official products and campaigns have existed against a background of martial conflict, the Hero Wars mentioned above, or in the very least in the events leading up to it.  This places Gloranthan stories in the grand tradition of the Iliad or the Mahabharata, sagas that used wars as the canvas upon which stories and adventures were painted.


Given this history Martin Helsdon’s The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass had an air of inevitability about it. Even if war is only the backdrop of your campaign, it is still useful to know how Bronze Age Gloranthan warfare works, how it is organized and waged, who the forces all are.  Weighing in at 380 pages, Armies delivers an exhaustive treatment of the subject, the most detailed look we have ever had at the soldiers, warriors, and mercenaries active at the dawn of the Hero Wars.  System agnostic, Armies could be used for RuneQuest, 13th Age Glorantha, HeroQuest Glorantha, or any other ruleset you are using.  It does for fighting forces, essentially, what the Guide to Glorantha did for cultures and regions.  We learn how they are organized, what arms and armor they employ, what gods they worship, what tactics they favor.  

Loaded with illustrations of Gloranthan troops—most of them labeled—Armies adds depth and verisimilitude to any campaign.  For GMs, it brings the setting to life in a level of detail not seen before.  For players, there is much to help connect with character knowledge; as a 21st century person, a player will know what a “scabbard” is, but your character can likely identify the chape, core, finial, lining, mouth, throat, and top mount of his or hers.  With the information in Armies, you will know what your character does.  And since the tradition of Gloranthan characters has always been to erase the distinction between fighting and magic-wielding archetypes, weapon and armor knowledge is likely to be useful for any player.  Beyond this, Smith characters will learn how to identify the temperature of a fire by the color of the flames, and what temperatures are ideal for forging various types of armor and weapons.  There are discussions of the effects of wounds, how infection and putrefaction might work in Glorantha, siege engines and fortifications, how “hero light” manifests, how magic is used in mass combat...the list goes on and on.


Helsdon lays out this detail with a gentle fiction that Glorantha really existed;

At this remote remove from the period, surviving texts from the Hero Wars and afterwards are often fragmentary, and at times contradictory.  ...Archaeological evidence supplements our knowledge. Unearthed burials, weapons, armor, fortifications, decorated pottery and other pictorial evidence contributes greatly to our understanding. Numerous artifacts are on display in museums.  ...However, the available sources are never definitive, and must be augmented with speculation and conjecture. (p. 5)

He thus presents his work then as a historical account of a far distant period.  This makes reading the book itself an act of roleplay.

The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass spearheads the first batch of fan-created releases for the Jonstown Compendium, and thus does not have the same slick production values we might see in RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha or other Chaosium works.  Having said this, it is considerably more polished than many “classic” RQ products (or even Hero Wars).  Looking at it as a fan-created work simply makes it more remarkable.  While a great deal of art is recycled from other works (like the Guide or HeroQuest Glorantha) the afore mentioned troop and warrior drawings are new.  The text is dense and the pages uncluttered.  It has a very “down to business” presentation style.



If The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass is any indication of what we can look forward to from the Jonstown Compendium we are all in for a treat.  It says something, I think, about the type of fans Glorantha has always tended to attract.  Helsdon’s work follows in the footsteps of books like Cults of Prax; it is effectively an academic dissertation of a game book; erudite, professional, leaving no stone unturned, utterly authoritative in its subject matter.  If the Gloranthan Renaissance is going to include fan contributions like this, we might actually be looking at. Golden Age.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

THE RIVER OF CRADLES, CHAPTER TEN: THE BROTHER'S KEEPER

Chapter Ten:
THE BROTHER’S KEEPER

"I want my brother back," he told her. "I want him whole and in one piece and uninjured. And I want him now.” 

― Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

CORE
A guide the party trusts leads them into a trap.  The guide is not a villain, but forced into this action by some hold the true enemy has over him.   

ELABORATION 
Orininus Prathvi Yuthaldrex—the freed Lunar slave who has been traveling with the player characters since their arrival in Prax—has told them of reports he heard (on his way to rescue them from the Old Sun Dome) of a band of escaped Lunar slaves encamped somewhere along the banks of the swollen, Sea Season Zola Fel.  The slaves are said to be men and boys from the salt mines of Vulture Country, who rose up in a bloody riot against their masters and are now raiding farms along the river.  From what Orin heard, the Lunars are coming down from Pavis to assist the Sun Domers in recapturing them.  As the players know, this will likely end in crucifixion. On the chance that Ashart Berothsson—and the two dozen other boys and men from their clan sent to the mines—are among these rebels, the player characters go to seek them out.

But Orininus is leading them into a trap.  After Ashaghara Bonewitch’s failed attempts to capture “Starbrow”s Children,” Lunar Intelligence chief Dagius Furius has put Gimgim the Masked One in charge.  Looking over Ashaghara’s reports, Gimgim decided Orininus was the weak link he could use to get them.  He has had Orin’s younger brother, Ythvan, brought to him and sent word to Orin that the boy would die unless Orin “played ball” and led Starbrow’s Children into his trap.  Orin was approached with all this right after being separated from the party when they were captured by agents of the Old Sun Dome.

Lunar troops are lying in wait along the Zola Fel looking for the slave bands, but Orin has instructions to lead the player characters directly to the Lunars, not them.  

MOTIVATIONS
The player characters are driven by their mission to rescue their enslaved kinsmen and reunite the clan.  Ashart and the two dozen other boys sent to the mines in Vulture County are a huge part of that.  Orin is driven by his Dara Happan upbringing; the Father is All, but the Eldest Son is his agent and emissary.  When the Father cannot be there to guide and protect the family, it is the sacred duty of the Eldest Son.  He must do whatever is necessary to protect his younger brother, even if this means betraying people he has come to care about.  

The slave band is lacking clear purpose and motivation.  These are all boys, some as young as eight and nine, and what exists right now is a sort of The Lord of the Flies situation.  After the uprising, the Praxian slaves promptly fled back to their tribes.  The Sartarites and Pavisites were left to fend for themselves.  Their lives are complicated by the slave brands burned on to each of their faces.  Even if they could manage to escape across Prax back to Sartar or Pavis, they are clearly marked as Lunar property, and under imperial law any who provide aid and comfort to them can be punished.  Going home doesn’t seem an option.  So right now they struggle just to survive…and for some, to inflict pain on others in retribution for the pain they feel.

Gimgim’s motivations are clear; while for the Bonewitch things have become personal (Beralor and Kalf escaped from her prison, they beat her at Pimper’s Block and all subsequent attempts to recapture them), Gimgim sees this as business.  Once the player characters entered Pavis they became his problem.  Once they allied with Garrath Sharpsword and helped thwart the Lunar capture of the Cradle, they became a serious problem.  He views himself as a problem solver.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

“Orin” (Orininus (or-i-NIGH-nus) Prathvi Yuthaldrex)
  • Runes: Fire/Sky, Life, Truth
  • Keywords: Dara Happan, Scribe, Ex-Slave
  • Motivation: To rescue his younger brother, Ythvan 

Harrock Joransson
  • Runes: Air, Motion (personality traits only; unawakened)
  • Keywords: Heortling, Haraborn Clan, Farmer
  • Motivation: To keep his band of escaped slaves together, to maintain leadership of them, to punish the world for what it has done to them

Ashart Berothsson
  • Runes: Air, Motion, Beast
  • Keywords: Heortling, Haraborn Clan, Hunter
  • Motivation: To restrain Harrock’s worst impulses, to go home

Gimgim the Masked One
  • Runes: Moon, Illusion, Chaos
  • Keywords: Lunar, Spy Master, Black Fang 
  • Motivation: To capture “Starbrow’s Children,” to deal with these escaped slaves

ACT ONE
According to Orin’s information, the escaped slaves have been raiding farms along the Zola Fel just south of Sun County’s borders.  The party must then make its way down the banks of the swollen river, which is experiencing its annual Sea Season inundation.  The flooding causes problems and make the journey challenging.  

Beginning: We start just hours after the conclusion of “Sundown.”  Orin has told the party about the raiding slave parties and the Lunars sent to hunt them, information if pressed he will claim to have heard from Old Venables.  The most recent raids have been about a day’s journey south, along the Zola Fel.

Second Thoughts:  There might be questions about how Orin knows all this.  If he hasn’t told them about meeting and killing Old Venables, he will now (see “Sundown”).  

The other issue is the river itself.  The normal trails running alongside it are currently under fast moving water, and the inundation has doubled and in some cases tripled its width as the waters spill out over the flood plain.  This becomes a problem moving south, as the swollen river runs right up against steep canyon walls.  The party will have to decide whether to wade through the rushing water along the base of the wall, or to try and scale the rocks to move along the cliff top.  Either choice should present the appropriate Moderate challenge, resolved in a Simple Contest.

Climax, Act One: Either scaling the walls, or navigating their base, the party comes across a pack of four hungry Cliff Toads.  These will attack from above, attempting to swallow the player characters whole.  This should be another Simple Contest at High Difficulty.  It might result in players falling (if scaling the cliffs), losing footing and being caught up in the river’s currents (if wading), or swallowed up wholly or partially by the Toads.

ACT TWO
Much depends on the Cliff Toads here.  If the party makes short work of the Toads, they can proceed downriver having lost little time.  This is actually good for Orin, who is supposed to have the party at the Lunar camp by sundown if he wishes to see his brother alive.  

If any of the player characters were injured, it slows progress down and Orin begins to get agitated, insisting they need to press on.  His emotional state worsens the later in the day it gets.

Obstacle: If the players are injured, the first obstacle should be attempting to heal them.  This will require finding a dry spot along the rushing waters to tend to wounds and injuries.  If they are uninjured, or the injuries are slight, Use the following instead;
  • If they are wading through the water, they reach a massive pile-up of debris that will have to be climbed over.
  • If they are along the cliff tops, the cliffs start to break up into a series of chasms that have to be jumped over or otherwise crossed.      
In either case use a High Difficulty and a Simple Contest (this could be lowered to Moderate depending on how the fight with the Cliff Toads went).

Encounter: The party will come across a group of river men.  Orin will attempt to speak to them alone, but if the party insists they can speak to them as well.  The men speak some Trade and the local Sun County dialect, and will explain that they have heard of a recent slave raid on farms just a few hours south of here down river.  The raid happened just last night.  Lunar troops have also been spotted in the area that morning.  The sense here is that the party needs to hurry and is running out of time if it wishes to reach the slaves before the Lunars do.

These, incidentally, are not just river men.  They are Lunar agents sent to meet with Orin and make sure the plan is going well.

Mid-Point (the Big Twist): This is where Orin’s duplicity is revealed.  Just how that happens depends on the needs of the story.
  1. The player characters might be suspicious of the river men, and through magic or some other Ability discover they are Lunar agents.  This might lead to a fight and Orin’s confession.
  2. If any of the player characters were injured by the Cliff Toads, and this has slowed the party down enough that he thinks he will miss the rendezvous, Orin’s agitation builds until finally he snaps in a fit of anxiety and despair.  He will confess the entire thing, and weep that he has failed his brother whom now the Lunars will surely kill.
  3. Or…Orin might simply confess, torn by duty to his family and love for his new friends.  He might break down and explain that he cannot go through with it and beg them to help him.
  4. Finally, Orin might keep to the plan, and continue leading them downriver…until the party encounters the escaped slaves first.  This will force Orin to break down and reveal what he was really doing.  

Obstacle: Soon after Orin “comes clean,” or as in Option #4 before he comes clean, the player characters will come across the escaped slaves.

This is a Lord of the Flies situation.  The escaped slaves are all ages 6 to 15, with none of them having yet been through adulthood initiation rites.  The Lunars use boys in the mines because they are smaller and can more easily navigated the cramped passages.  A surprise Scorpion Man attack in the tunnels through the mines into chaos, allowing many of the slaves to escape.  Those who were Praxian fled back to their tribes, but the Sartarite slaves fled towards the river.  They are all of them branded with a slave mark, and as it is illegal to help an escaped slave, they know trying to return to Sartar would be difficult and their presence there would put their own kinsmen in danger.  Thus they have been raiding farms for survival while they struggle to decide what to do.

The boys will attempt to ambush the party, thinking they are travelers they might rob or perhaps Lunar spies.  The Contest here will be persuading them otherwise.

Crisis: Assuming they convince the boys they are allies, they will be taken back to their current camp.  They are two and a half dozen boys in all.  Ashart Berothsson is here, and was formerly the leader of the band, but shortly after was defeated and replaced by an older boy, Harrock Joransson.  Under his leadership, the boys have not simply been raiding farms, but also killing the families they come across.

The crisis here then is twofold; they need to wrest control of the band from Harrock without violating kin strife (he and 90% of the boys are members of the player character’s own clan), and decide whether or not to help Orin despite his treachery.  This will mean, of course, raiding he Lunar encampment to rescue Ythvan.

Act Two Climax: If they refuse to help Orin, role-play the scene.  He will leave them, cursing them for this.  In his mind, his brother was taken because Gimgim wants to get to them, and thus his brother’s blood is on their hands.  

If they agree to help Orin, they will need to win control of the boys from Harrock and decide whether or not to use them in the raid.  They form a community of sorts, but to show their relative weakness, they have only 18s across the board (Morale, Wealth, Communication, War) and no Magic (they are not adults yet).  Still, they can provide some support in the raid.

ACT THREE 
This is marked by a battle with the Lunar patrol hunting the slave band.  

Act Three Climax:  If the party elects to go and rescue Orin’s brother, this scene can be staged as a raid in which they sneak in and smuggle him out, a straight up battle, or both if they are discovered mid-raid.  In any case run it as an Extended Contest.  If it is a raid, cumulative successes show getting closer to Ythvan, subduing his guards, and getting him out.

If they do not chose this option, Orin will abandon them in despair and go to the Lunar camp to plead for his brother’s life.  Gimgim will offer to spare the boy if Orin leads the Lunar patrol straight immediately the escaped slaves and player characters.  The Climax then becomes either a flight from the Lunar patrol, or a fight against them.  Again, these options should both be Extended Contests.

If this is a straight-up, head-to-head fight, the player characters face overwhelming odds.  The troops number a total of 30 men, half are Marble Phalanx infantry and the other half mounted Antelope Lancers.  Gimgim will not fight; if there is a battle, he seemingly vanishes into thin air.  Nearly Impossible (Base + 2mastery) is not an unreasonable, but Very High (Base + mastery) will give them more of a fighting chance.

Sneaking into the camp to smuggle Ythvan out will mean eluding the guards and magical wards around the gap, finding the boy, subduing his guards, and getting back out all without raising the alarm.  Depending on the needs of the story, this should be Very High or High difficulty if you feel the group needs a win.

Fleeing the Lunars should fall into either High or Very High.

Denouement: Orin—whether he stayed with the party or left—will be killed in the course of events here.  If the player characters go to rescue his brother, he will be alongside them, but at some point should fall to a Lunar guard or Antelope Lancer arrow.  This means the party now has “custody” of the eight-year-old Ythvan.

If they turned their backs on Orin and his plight, they need to lead the slave boys away from the Lunars and determine what to do with them.

AFTER PLAY REPORT

AFTER A MONTH and three sessions of revisiting classic Gloranthan episodes for the Greg Stafford memorial “We Are All Us” celebration, The Brother’s Keeper was a return to the core campaign and its characters.  The fairly simple plot allowed it to be a study in conflicting character motivations.

We picked up just hours after Sundown left off, with the player characters saying goodbye to many of those they rescued.  Jora elected to stay on with them.  Things went well enough until the Cliff Toads, which proved that for all its focus on dramatic pacing and the needs of the story HeroQuest is still RuneQuest’s sister; bad dice rolls almost got half of the party killed.  

The result was the they were forced to camp rather than press on, sending Orin into a frenzy that he would miss his rendezvous with the Lunars.  Beralor pulled him aside and Orin broke down and confessed everything.  This prompted Beralor to take pity on Orin, pledge that the group would help him rescue his brother…and not bother to tell anyone else initially what had been discussed!

The arrival of the escaped slaves put this on the back burner, briefly, and drew the party into a whole new set of issues.  First it reunited them with Ashart, a year older, taller and muscled from seasons of hard labor.  His boyish enthusiasm is gone.  He has been vying with Harrock for control of the band, disturbed by the older boy’s violence and rage.  Harrock for his part is not a bad sort; he is a 14-year-old boy who saw his father killed in battle, his clan destroyed, and just spent a year in a foreign land in the mines.  This trauma has made him violent.  He wants to punish the world for what happened to him.  Beralor picked up on this and took the boy under his wing, trying to remind him how to be an Orlanthi.

After the party was recovered from the cliff toads—in part thanks to healing potions the boys had stolen from one of the farms—Beralor came clean and after some inter party conflict (Kalf grows increasingly wary of Beralor’s “Tricksterish” side), they agreed to help Orin.  The plan was to sneak into the Lunar encampment, with the boys providing support in case anything went wrong.

It did go wrong, and the Lunars were alerted to intruders in their camp.  While Leika, Kalf, and Beralor and the boys distracted the guards, Kalliva and Orin went in and got Ythvan.  Shortly after rescuing the younger brother, Orin was badly wounded and bled to death fleeing the camp with them.  He begs Kalliva to take care of his brother with his last breath, the guilt of betraying his friends finally washing over him as he says “…he is better than I am” and dies.


The party escaped the Lunars and burned Orin’s body, Orlanthi-style.