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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.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

BAD DAY AT DUCK ROCK: A Jonstown Compendium Review

A LOT OF THE PRODUCTS coming out of the Jonstown Compendium have been, shall we say, "experimental." By this I mean products that took RuneQuest in directions different from the ones Chaosium was taking. Right out of the gate Nick Brooke gave us A Rough Guide to Glamour, which while being a terrific overview of the Lunar capital also had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was peopled by a cast of characters who looked suspiciously familiar. Six Seasons in Sartar soon after introduced ideas like shorthand character statistics and squabbling academics arguing the finer points of an epic poem which never existed. Tales of the Sun County Militia, in both art and attitude, demonstrated a rebel streak. I could go on, but the Jonstown Compendium was clearly a place to put on full display "Gloranthas That Varied."




In Bad Day At Duck Rock author Peter Hart does something very different. He gives us a thoroughly classic adventure...and by that I mean a call back to the earliest days of RuneQuest but this time with far superior art, lay-out, and editing. Reading through it, I was reminded of Apple Lane seasoned with shades of Griffin Mountain. It is an adventure for the latest edition of RuneQuest, of course, and is set in the post-Dragonrise timeline, but in spirit this is a visitation from the Ghost of RuneQuest Past. 

In retrospect, that is experimental, isn't it.

Weighing in at 79 pages, this PDF is lavishly illustrated by Dario Corallo. Because this is an adventure--and a mystery on top of that--there is very little I can say that will not spoil it. In the author's own words;

The adventurers are escorting a merchant, Tiberian Oneprice, through Duck Valley with a shipment of bronze, silver and gold ingots, acquired from Dwarf Mine, their destination being the village of Man Vill in Beast Valley. Tiberian orders the adventurers on to the village of Duck Rock to secure rooms at the inn and trade with the local redsmith. Meanwhile, the merchant heads off to visit a pair of old friends, both sages of Irripi Ontor, at their farm to the north of the village. What could possibly go wrong?

The adventurers will have to navigate through multiple challenges as they meet the villagers of Duck Rock, bandits, chaos, undead and of course, ducks.

With this set up, Hart sets up a race against time filled with all sorts of iconic RuneQuest adversaries, potential adversaries, and allies. This is part of what I mean about it being a "classic" adventure. All the old favorites seem to show up in its pages. The adventure will probably fill several play sessions, but the book is also crammed with ideas and tools you can easily borrow or use to build a foundation on. There are even clever links in it to past publications.

And Great Orlanth does this thing come packed! There are forty pages of statistics in the book's back end, including the introduction of a new monster I am not at all sure I know how the Glorantha Bestiary could have missed. There are real shades of Griffin Mountain in how complete a sandbox Hart has constructed for you to play in here. You might never meet all these characters, but the fact of their existence gives Duck Rock and its environs verisimilitude a lot of modern adventures forego. This is a setting your characters can feel free to wander anywhere in.




It is also an adventure I would heartily recommend to a new GM. Bad Day at Duck Rock is written with terrific clarity and care, with support at every twist and turn to help GMs run it. Nothing here comes off fuzzy or half-baked. I get the definite feeling that in the years this was playtested, Hart took the opportunity to refine, retool, and clarify. It assumes the use of the pre-generated characters from the RuneQuest core rules, but again is filled with examples of how to tweak things if players use characters of their own making.

If you favor the sandbox approach to play, Bad Day in Duck Rock is ideal for you. If you still love your Apple Lane, this is right up your alley. If you are a GM who appreciates support and detail in an adventure, but it. If you are looking for an adventure that will keep you entertained, guessing, and delighted by the large and colorful cast of characters, what are you waiting for? It is a terrific entry to the Jonstown Compendium.      

   

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

BLACK SPEAR: A REVIEW

WE CANNOT DISCUSS BLACK SPEAR until one thing is made absolutely clear. 

Glorantha was cooked up in the brain of a shaman.



If we strip shamanism of its diverse cultural variations, the shared core is all about ecstatic experience. "Ecstasy" is the critical word there. It comes to English from the Latin and it from the Greek, but in a nutshell it means "to be out of the normal." Ekstasis was used to mean insanity, astonishment, and in the New Testament a trance state...in other words, an altered state of consciousness. Whether it's Tibetan trance oracles, ayahuasca in the Amazon, or peyote among Native Americans (an experience this author highly suggests you try), shamanism is at least in part about leaving the normal behind and entering the psychedelic (which itself comes from two Greek words meaning "make the mind shine"). Greg Stafford was a practicing shaman, and thus it should surprise no one that Glorantha is very psychedelic. Greg understood that roleplaying games are altered states of consciousness, playing them we leave behind the normal world and have a shared hallucination, and just like shamans, those psychedelic experiences challenge us and if we are lucky change us. All RPGs are like that, sure, but in Glorantha it is up front and baked into the setting. I mean, what do you think a "heroquest" is if not a psychedelic roleplay experience?

All this bears mention because Nick Brooke's Black Spear could not possibly exist anywhere BUT Glorantha.

First the basics. Black Spear is a 181-page PDF, available exclusively from the Jonstown Compendium. Written by Brooke and phantasmagorically illustrated by Mike O'Connor, it is in Brooke's own words "(a)n epic saga of the Hero Wars, festooned with heroquests and deep Gloranthan weirdness. Probably the strangest thing I’ve ever written." I am not inclined to disagree with him. If your Glorantha is a deadly serious recreation of life in the Bronze Age, this is probably not the product for you. On the other hand, if your Glorantha is a lozenge under a sky dome peopled with talking baboons and yes, ducks, if your Glorantha embraces the essential surreality and psychedelic facets of the setting, then this is very much the product for you.

As we are talking about a scenario here, there is not all that much I can say without spoiling it. Written in seven acts, most forming a distinct adventure, the player characters are assumed to be Sartarites of the Colymar tribe. Following the death of Prince Kallyr, your tribal queen, Leika, asks you to go to New Pavis to invite its king, Argrath, to come to Sartar and take the throne. To show her seriousness, she entrusts the characters to bear a token to bring to him. Hint, it's titular.

Getting there is half the fun. Doing so might involve the characters seeking modes of magical transportation that hearken back to White Bear and Red Moon and Nomad Gods, being potentially man-handled by baboons, entangled in the rituals of disco newtlings (yes, you read that correctly) and caught up in an epic power struggle in Sun County. Along the way, they are haunted by strange dreams and reality seems to be breaking down the closer they get to Argrath...who here is Kurtz wrapped in his very own Heart of Darkness.

 



Full disclosure; I've been aware of Black Spear for some time now, ever since Nick Brooke and I discovered we were both writing Prax-centered Heart of Darkness tales. But Black Spear is nothing like my Final Riddle, in part because there is nothing else quite like Black Spear. There are some very deep dives into Gloranthan lore here, some terrific heroquests, but Black Spear also leans into pop culture and some really trippy shit, man. That is what I think is brilliant about it. There is absolutely no mistaking the setting it was conceived for. This could never unfold in Middle-earth, Thedas, or Westeros. This is some top shelf, high-grade Gloranthan-psychedelia.

I simply cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a slickly produced and wonderfully illustrated feast for the eyes, with tons of options and support for GMs taking it on (with plenty of advice on making it more "vanilla"). This is one journey upriver that you and your players are going to want to take.  


Sunday, October 3, 2021

SIX (MORE) SEASONS IN SARTAR: A CAMPAIGN LOG

DECEMBER OF 2019 saw the final blog post of my Six Seasons in Sartar/River of Cradles campaign. We were 16 sessions in. Breaking for Christmas and New Year, we made plans to meet up for the next chapter in late January 2020.

That never happened.

Here in Japan, the news media was abuzz with a story about a quarantined cruise ship, the Diamond Princess out of China. Apparently several people aboard were infected with some new and puzzling illness. People started wearing masks. Things ground to a halt, and we delayed the session.

You know the rest. Everyone reading this has lived it.

As I mentioned in the last post, I used the suspension of the campaign as a chance to put Six Seasons in Sartar on paper and let it loose on the world. As the pandemic dragged on endlessly came The Company of the Dragon. But now, with my gaming group now fully vaccinated and infection numbers in Japan starting to head in the right direction, we have started talking about resuming the campaign. With nearly two years of water under the bridge, however, we decided to restart it instead of resume. The "Six Seasons in Sartar" we played was not the Six Seasons in Sartar that was published, and the campaign that followed at our gaming table, "The River of Cradles," was totally unrelated to The Company of the Dragon. We decided to start all over again and play the two published campaigns.

The twist is, the group decided to play the same characters all over again. This meant translating a party of Heroquest characters to Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha.



Black Stag Vale, the setting of Six Seasons in Sartar. My map, annotated by Nick Brooke


Remaking the Characters: HQ v RQ

"Translating" might be the wrong word for how we handled character creation. More of a "reset." I told them to think of this new campaign was a remake, and I made it clear that the characters could be different in any ways the players wanted. We didn't have to fuss with converting abilities across the two systems. It was a simple question of starting the player characters from scratch with the same concepts in mind...and in a new system, which turned out to be an important factor.

Back in 2018 my players were new to Glorantha. The idea of using Heroquest was that they could create their characters "as they went," fleshing the characters out as they played the campaign and grew to know more about the setting. The problem with that is that the characters did not start with a strong, defined concept. They were amorphous and "fuzzy." I don't think they really came into their own until a dozen sessions in. In retrospect, this is my primary criticism of Heroquest (and for the record I mean the second edition, both Hero Wars and Heroquest first edition offered a lot more detail). It is a great game system if you have players who know the setting, but does little to support those who don't. Note this is not a criticism of the mechanics; I feel the system needs a more defined Glorantha "genre book" to make it feel more true to the setting. This is something I am hoping Questworlds will eventually fix.

RQ by contrast contains tons of information about the setting right there on the character sheet. The Runes, the skills that exist in the setting, the characteristics that define people, are all right there. I found it helped my players focus this time more clearly on who exactly their characters were. They had felt a bit lost and bewildered when we started HQ. "But what does the Heortling Keyword actually do?" This time they had a lot more information to work with.

Now, the original characters from the HQ version were:

Beralor "Three-Father" Harvarrson (Keith)

With his real father killed in the struggle against the Lunar Occupation. Beralor has been raised by the redsmith Harvarr Horviksson and his husband, the Nandan Affar Dronnsson. Beralor is now sixteen, and has the Heortling, Crafter (Smith), and Black Stag Community keywords. His Runes are Air, Motion, and Mastery.

Kalf "Lightfoot" Broyansson (David)
The son of a cottar sheepman (killed in Kallyr's rebellion), Kalf lives alone with his mother in a cottage on the edge of the Vale. He is the oldest in the group, 17, having just missed the last Adult Initiation ceremony four years ago by having been just a bit too young. He has the Heortling, Black Stag Community, and Herdsman keywords. His Runes are Air, Stasis, and Beast.

Leika "the White" Faransdotr (Vicky)
The albino daughter of a cottar spirit-talker, Leika's condition renders her sensitive to sunlight and slightly ostracized by some of her peers. She overcompensates with a forceful, "bossy" personality. Leika is 14, and has the Heortling, Black Stag Community, and Spirit-Talker keywords. Her Runes are Air, Motion, and Spirit.

Kalliva Kallessasdotr of Twin Stone (Ira)
The daughter of an Ernaldan carl in the prominent Twin Stone stead, the identity of her father has never been divulged by her mother. Kalliva is torn between what her mother wants for her (marriage, family) and following the path of her Vingan aunt (currently a rebel living in the hills and mountains striking at the Lunars). She has a close relationship with her uncle Garnath, who is one of the chieftain's housecarls. Kalliva has the Heortling, Black Stag Community, and Warrior keywords. Her Runes are Air, Truth, and Mastery.

With these ideas and the aforementioned sixteen sessions of play, we grabbed the RQ rulebook and remade them according to the guidelines in Six Seasons in Sartar (pp 20-22).

Character (Re)Creation

We took advantage of Zoom to create each character separately in a one-on-one game session with the GM. In general, I think there are often good reasons to create characters as a group--it makes sure everyone is one the "same page" and encourages characters that mesh together well as a team--but we opted out of it this time around. For starters, these players already know the other player characters. They all played together for a year and a half. Second, I think RQ characters are better made alone. A good chunk of the character creation process is "Family History," and unless two or more of your players are related, it is really more an exercise of communing with your ancestors rather than with your contemporaries. And I wanted to spend a lot of time on Family History (RQ pp. 27-45), because that was an aspect absent from the original HQ rules we used.

Because these were established characters, I let them chose whatever results they wanted as we went through Family History, rather than roll. As you can see from the character summaries above, the first time around the players were careful to include their parents in their backgrounds. Six Seasons in Sartar starts you off as young adults, and your relationship with your parents is critical as you get started on the road of adulthood. What surprised the players this time, however, was how RQ took you a step further back. The players had not really given thought to their grandparents before.

Here are summaries how the recreation turned out.

Kalf, Son of Broyan
Kalf went through some of the biggest changes in this character "remix" process. David decided to start with his paternal grandfather as the favored grandparent (RQ, p. 28), Derister, a warrior who was killed at the Battle of Grizzly Peak. This shifted Kalf's backstory from being the son of a cottar sheepman to actually coming from a line of thanes. This left Kalf's father fatherless, with a grudge towards the Lunar Empire. He grew up to fight both at the Fall of Boldhome (1602) and south in the Holy Country in 1605. After Kalf's birth, his father is killed fighting in Starbrow's Rebellion (1613). This last event is the same as it was in HQ, but rather than Kalf's father being a cottar who volunteered he was a thane loyal to Kallyr's cause (part of Kalf's arc in HQ was the resentment he harbored towards Kallyr for "getting his father killed," but this have shifted now towards hatred of the Empire). We decided with both his father and grandfather as warriors against the Empire, during the Lunar Peace his father's family was stripped of their status by the new tribal king, converted Lunar Kangharl "Blackmoor." Young Kalf and his mother were thus reduced to cottar status, giving him a heightened reason to Hate the Lunar Empire and Kangharl (which if you know Six Seasons in Sartar will matter later). Instead of a herdsman, this time Kalf is a hunter, being trained in the craft by neighboring cottar Beroth Son of Beyor (SSiS p. 69). Beroth has a younger son, Ashart, who privately resents the interest Beroth has taken in Kalf. Adding complexity, the widowed Beroth has been courting Kalf's widow mother.

Leika, Daughter of Faran
In the HQ campaign, Leika's defining trait was her albinism, but the fact is this never really came to much in actual play. Vicky decided to jettison that this time around and focus more on the character's connection to the Spirit World. In Family History, then, Leika's maternal grandmother Kenvali emerges as an important figure (one never existing in the original campaign). Kenvali was a powerful shaman, and a person the young Leika feels an affinity for. Kenvali fought, actually, at the Battle of Grizzly Peak, not as a combatant as much as aiding with magical support. She went south and fought in the Holy Country as well (1597). Kenvali was not at the Fall of Boldhome, however, remaining instead in Black Stag Vale, where the following year she was actually killed by the neighboring Telmori. This is a terrific twist: in the HQ campaign Leika finds herself in almost a Romeo and Juliet relationship with a young Telmori warrior, but now she enters play hating the Telmori for her grandmother's murder. Ah, pathos in future sessions, I think! 

This changes Leika's relationship with Faran, her father, a shade. Her grandmother is the shaman she wishes to emulate, not him. Still, Faran is himself a shaman and one who fought in Starbrow's Rebellion, helping Kallyr escape. This connection will come into play later in Six Seasons in Sartar. 

Beralor, Son of Harvarr
Beralor changed less between campaigns than Kalf or Leika, but something that disappointed Keith is the first campaign was how little we were able to explore his craft as a smith. This time we are shifting the focus there a bit more. In Six Seasons we will dig a bit deeper into the mysteries of Gustbran and in Company of the Dragon, Beralor will have more time to practice that art.

We also decided to keep the background largely intact. It emerged in the last campaign that Beralor is being raised by his uncle, Harvarr, and that his aunt had either been seduced or assaulted by the Eurmali clown, Keladon Blue-Eye...his true father. Beralor is being raised by Harvarr and his Nandan partner after his mother's death. This time we went into character creation with full knowledge of the backstory. For this reason Beralor's favored grandparent is his maternal grandfather, Harrakin, a warrior who fought at Grizzly Peak. Father of both Beralor's mother and Harvarr, Harrakin died by accident in 1597 (we have yet to develop this thread). Harvarr fights in the Fall of Boldhome, originally a warrior like his father. His sister gives birth to Beralor in 1604 and dies by her own hand. Harvarr takes the child in, raised by his Nandan husband Affar while he himself fights in the Holy Country against the Lunars (1605). Harvarr comes home, but fights against for Kallyr Starbrow (1613). In the wake of her defeat he is outlawed and cannot return home. He camps outside the gates of Dwarf Mine until they accept him, and returns years later as a smith.

Kalliva, Daughter of Kallessa
Kalliva is another character changed only lightly by the character recreation process, but there are still interesting changes nonetheless, mainly in her mother's backstory.

Again, I credit this to the Family History rules. What emerges is Kalliva's maternal grandfather, Bereth, a warrior who fought at Grizzly Peak and later witnessed the murder of Sartarite royals he was guarding in the Holy Country (1597). Bereth was also at the Fall of Boldhome, but he died there, devoured by the Crimson Bat (his soul destroyed forever). Also in Boldhome, Bereth's daughter Korolmara is enslaved and ends up owned by a Lunar officer. There she births a child for him, Kalliva. She takes the baby and escapes.

The hideous death of her father radically changes the character of Kalliva's birth mother, Korolmara. In the HQ campaign she was a Vingan, this time around she became a Humakti. She cuts ties to her old life and gives her daughter to her sister, Kallessa, to be raised. Korolmara fights in Starbrow's Rebellion, and with Leika's father is among those who help Kallyr escape to safety. She returns to Sartar and ends up fighting as one of Kallyr's rebels up in the mountains.

It is too soon to see if Kalliva will, herself, become a Humakti rather than a Vingan this time around, but we will see in play.

The Runes

One of the key differences between HQ and RQ is the addition of Rune affinities. Now, bear in mind that HQ pioneered the idea of characters having Rune affinities. In classic RQ you got Runes by joining a cult. The latest edition adopted Rune affinities from HQ and greatly expanding the idea, drawing on two other classic Chaosium games, Pendragon (the paired Power and Form Rune affinities) and Nephilim (the Elemental Rune affinities). 

Where the characters started with three Rune affinities in the previous campaign, they now have affinities with all the Runes (well, not all). For the most part, the players kept their original Rune affinities in mind choosing their new ones, but there were changes, and I think it gave these remixed player characters greater definition and depth.

Kalliva, for example, keeps her powerful Air Rune affinity but Fire/Sky is a close second, reflecting her idealism and "straight arrow" personality. She also gets a touch of Moon Rune affinity this time to reflect her parentage. Beralor also comes in with a strong Fire Rune as well as Man, to reflect his refocusing on Gustbran and the forge. He took a very high Disorder as well, to show the influence of his Eurmali biological father. Kalf's Fire Rune is actually equal to Air, again a reflection of a character who could be very righteous, focused, straight and narrow. His high Beast Rune as a hunter matches as well. Leika actually emerges with Fire as her highest Rune, with surprisingly strong Darkness as well. 

I am intrigued that the characters in the remix all came out with high connections to Fire/Sky (which is of course Kallyr's chief affinity as the Starbrow). 

In short, both the Family History and Rune affinities produced characters more complex and fleshed out than before. The Passions contributed a lot to this as well.

Magic? Cults? Additional Experience?

Six Seasons in Sartar starts with the characters undergoing their adulthood rites, and follows them over their first year as adults. As such the characters do not yet have magic or cults, and have only cultural and occupational skills (derived from the occupation of their parents). Starting with their adulthood rites, which we also conducted over Zoom and separately, magic will come into play.

But that is for next time. 
  

Monday, September 27, 2021

THE RUNEQUEST STARTER SET: A REVIEW

The Problem, the Solution

HERE is the problem.

First published in 1978, Runequest is one of the oldest and most respected roleplaying games out there, frequently named after D&D as having exerted the greatest influence on the hobby. The current edition, Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha is forty years in the making, drawing on not only the original editions but elements of subsequent games Runequest inspired. Runequest's setting, Glorantha, is legendary. It influenced authors like George R. R. Martin in shaping the world of the Song of Ice and Fire saga and Ken Rolston in helping create the world of The Elder Scrolls. In ranking RuneQuest at #5 in the fifty most popular roleplaying games of all time, Arcane magazine said 

RuneQuest manages to establish itself as a cut above the rest because of its intricate and highly original campaign setting. [...] This is a world that combines high-fantasy heroism with the gritty realities of cross-humanoid racism and the problems of day-to-day living. The cults of the world, which play an intrinsic part of every adventurer's life, add to the mysticism of the game, and give it a level of depth which other fantasy systems can be but envious of...
Christmas Issue, 1996

So why would I call any of this a "problem?" Simply put,  Runequest's immense depth and breadth can be intimidating to new players, especially potential game masters looking to run it. The Runequest core rules are nearly 450 pages. Then there is the Runequest Glorantha Bestiary and a GM's pack. Meanwhile, the Glorantha Sourcebook is a svelte 220 pages, but the Guide to Glorantha is 800+. The problem is compounded by old grognards like me who can (and if you have been reading this blog do) opine endlessly on the minutia of the setting. Would-be players get the impression that to play Runequest, you first need a PhD in it.

If only there were a single, streamlined product we could point new players to, a concise entry point that explained the rules, introduced the setting, and made it all effortless to learn and play. Something that showcased what makes this fantasy RPG unique. 

Oh wait, now there is... 

Let me introduce you to the Runequest Starter Set.



I. A Boxed Set

Like the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set before it, the Runequest Starter Set harkens back to the earliest days of the hobby, using a boxed set as the format for introducing the game to new players. The reasoning is simple. The boxed set format allows you to include everything needed to play--short of players and pencils--right there inside. Unlike the flimsy boxed sets I remember from my early days playing, the first thing that struck me was how sturdy the Starter Set was. The heavy cardboard is designed to handle a bit of wear and tear.

Make sure you have space on your shelf. In both length and width the boxed set is considerably larger than the hardcover books in the line such as the core rules.



Once you open the lid you find a box crammed with goodies. Two immediately jump out at you, the dice included in the set and the top cover sheet explaining what the product is and everything you will find inside it.

First you get a full set of all the dice you need to play Runequest. As one might expect for a game set in a Bronze Age world (more on that below), they look a bit like bronze. For the record you find a D6 (six-sided die), D12, D8, D20, D4 and two percentile dice (ten-sided dice one with a tens number and the other with a ones).



The cover sheet has a "read me first" box that explains briefly what a roleplaying game is and what will be found in each of the books inside. Then you get a more detailed "what's in the box." We will be going over each of the contents in turn. Before we do, there is also a handy "what's not in this box" for long time players who might wonder what was omitted. For the record the Starter Set does not cover;

    - Character creation
    - Equipment (beyond that carried by the pregen characters)
    - Advanced combat options (phalanxes, chariots)
    - Rune Masters
    - Sorcery and advanced Spirit World information
    - Sacred Time phase rules




II. A Brief Detour Into Art

Before we get into the actual contents, a word needs to be said on art. 

While the old adage tells us you can't judge a book by its cover, you actually can and most people do. One thing that has been a key element of the "new" Glorantha and Runequest since--by and large--the 2014 Guide to Glorantha has been the quality of the art. Over the last four decades art for Glorantha has been all over the place, something curiously at odds with a game that has such well defined cultures. There has been a real effort in the Runequest line since 2018 to be consistent in the depiction of these cultures, and to make them look unique (as opposed to, say, just fantasy Greeks or Celts or Vikings). 

The Starter Set, beginning with Ossi Hiekkala's terrific cover, exemplifies this. The reason I mention the art here is that the moment you flip over the cover sheet you see a product listing for other titles in the Runequest line. Right beside this is an image of one of the pregenerated characters included in the set by the frankly amazing Loïc Muzy. Looking at the character, we immediately get a sense of the Bronze Age setting (the short slightly leaf-bladed sword, the shield, the armor) and the culture. We notice the use of tattooing or body painting, get a sense of ethnic identity (and one which is not immediately identifiable as an Earth culture, a trap previous incarnations of RQ have fallen into), etc. This is all critical, I think, for a boxed set whose mission is to introduce the game to new players. The art immediately makes it clear that this is not medieval fantasy Europe, or even really ancient fantasy Europe. More importantly, it draws you in and makes you want to explore.




III. Now Back to the Contents...the Rules Book

Let's be clear up front. The goal of the Starter Set is to introduce new players to the game, not to be something you create your own characters and campaigns with. For that, you will want Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. The boxed set then gives you a wide selection of pregenerated characters and all the rules you need to play them. It written in such a way as to ease those new to Glorantha into both the system and the setting. 



Coming in at 61 pages, the Rules booklet starts with an introduction to Runequest and Glorantha, a light discussion of roleplaying games and the roles of GM and player, and a summary of the game system. I am not going into any depth on the actual mechanics in this review. In essence, Runequest is a skill-based system without anything like a character "class." Characters are defined by what they can do and what they know. If you know a spell you can cast it. If you have skill in a sword, you can swing it.

Most rolls are resolved with a percentile roll. Two ten-sided dice are rolled, one clearly marked as the "tens" and the other as the "ones." This number is compared to your percentage chance of performing the task. If you roll is equal to or under the value, you succeed. Degree of success can also matter. If you are curious, I've already talked about all that extensively here.

What characters can do is defined by abilities. These are broken down into characteristics like Strength or Charisma, which measure raw talent and potential, skills which are learned abilities, passions which are strong emotions like love, loyalty, honor, or hate, and finally Runes (more on these in the next section). Most of these are rated in percentages, from zero to a hundred+. 7th edition Call of Cthulhu players take note; characteristics are not given in percentiles but on a scale of roughly 3 to 21. These are generally multiplied (x2, x3, x5) before rolled against. 

The presentation of the rules in the Start Set is very aware this is likely the first time people have ever seen them, so they are clear, concise, and very to the point. Case in point, a skill like "Charm" is explained with about 80 words in the core rulebook, in the Starter Set is explained in ten. Like the core rulebook, when key terms are mentioned they are in boldface so as to make them easy to find. Nearly every section comes with an example of play.

The Rules booklet covers the use of abilities, improving from experience, combat, and magic. Magic in the game is divided into spirit magic, charms and spells powered by the caster's own magical energy or that of spirits bound to them, Rune magic which comes directly from the gods, and sorcery which is the manipulation of the Runes through established procedures. The Starter Set emphasizes that every character can, and should, use magic...something that makes Runequest different from the majority of fantasy RPGs out there.

Again, the art comes through as a very useful tool to simplify, illustrate, and explain things. In Runequest combat "hit locations" (where a blow actually lands on the body) is crucial, and this makes armor important. Because many potential players coming into the game will not be familiar with Bronze Age armor terminology, the following illustration helps clarify. The Starter Set is filled with art like this.




IV. The World of Glorantha

Glorantha is one of the first fantasy game settings, appearing alongside Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Tékumel in 1975. It is almost certainly one of the most defined, with forty years of materials in print. If the inspiration for a world like Middle-earth was primarily linguistic--a place for Tolkien to build imaginary languages--Glorantha was born because Greg Stafford wanted to explore mythology. This is a Bronze Age world, bearing more in common with The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Mahabharata than The Lord of the Rings or Le Morte d'Arthur. Instead of knights in shining armor think "heroes" and "priest-kings." 



Glorantha is not a world like our Earth with a little magic thrown in. It is flat, stretching under a sky dome. The sun literally emerges from the gates of the underworld in the east, travels across heaven, and then descends through the gates of the west at night. The realm of the dead lies beneath your feet; great heroes can actually escape the underworld and return to the lands of the living. 

Glorantha is defined by her magic, but this is deceptive if you are thinking of other fantasy worlds. The world, and everything in it, is composed of the Runes. These are to Glorantha what the periodic table is to chemistry, or phonemes are to language. Darkness, Water, Earth, Plant, Harmony, Death...these are the essences, the building blocks of existence. "Magic" in Glorantha is how your character relates to the Runes. It is often defined by culture and the magic you practice. Some see the Runes as living spirits, negotiating and bargaining with them. Some see them as impersonal forces of nature to be tapped into and directed via knowledge and will. Some see them as gods, mighty beings whose deeds in the mythic prehistory of the world shaped it. By sacrifice, the worshipper becomes one with them. None of these approaches is wrong.

The Starter Set is painfully aware that all the gods, all the mythology, all the history and lore makes Glorantha daunting to newcomers. So it condenses what you need to know to about 20 pages. Other rule sets have tried manage the overload by focusing on a single region of the world, usually Dragon Pass and neighboring Prax. The Starter Set narrows even further. It concentrates on the northern half of the principality of Sartar, a barbarian nation that worships a pantheon headed by a thunder god and his wife, the Earth Mother. These people have recently liberated themselves from the yoke of an invading northern Empire. Then it picks a single city, Jonstown, to go into detail on. It spends roughly 40 pages of the 61 page booklet on just this city, which detailed maps of its neighborhoods...



...and statistics and images of important residents.


For new players, and especially GMs, it has never been easier to "get into" Glorantha. By giving you just one region of one principality, and detailing one city in it, you have a very manageable base of operations to run the included adventures in. For long time players, the deviously cunning and vilely evil tempters at Chaosium know you will need this boxed set just for the gloriously illustrated and detailed look at Jonstown.

V. Soloquest

There is not THAT much I can say about the third booklet without giving the plot away. This is a solo adventure, meant for either a potential player or GM. You take on the role of Vasana, Daughter of Faran, and play through the famed "Battle of Dangerford," a battle I covered in The Company of the Dragon, Ian Cooper covered in The Eleven Lights, and Nick Brooke gave a take on in his Duel at Dangerford. It is a terrific choice because it is historic and takes place at the very start of the timeline in Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. 


The book is a bit like the old classic "choose your own adventures," but by playing it it is actually teaching you the rules of Runequest as you go. It is fun, exciting, and by the time you emerge you will have a reasonable grasp of the game and the setting.

VI. Adventures

The fourth and final book is the longest, coming in at 81 pages. It includes three full adventures, A Rough Landing, A Fire in the Darkness, and The Rainbow Mounds all geared towards a first-time game master running them. Experienced GMs can of course use them too, but the additional support and advice makes it easy for beginners to do so. There is tons of support in here, including good reminders for even old hands at running the game. Following these is a chapter of rumours and gossip around Jonstown and adventure seeds that could be fleshed out.

VII. The Rest of the Content

Yes, I know what you are thinking. "Wait, stop Montgomery, stop. 260+ pages of fantasy RPG goodness, a full set of dice, and there is more?!?" Yes, gentle reader, would I lie to you?

The Pregenerated Characters

Instead of containing character creation rules, the Starter Set gives you 14 (!!!) pregenerated characters to chose from. These cover the gamut of characters one might expect in and around the city of Jonstown, acting in and of themselves as teaching tools by showing new players and GMs the kinds of characters that exist in Glorantha. These 14 each come on their own character "folios." I am not going to call them sheets. On one side each starts with a gorgeous full page illustration of the character...


...flipping this over you find two folded leafs showing the characters Runes and a description of them and how to play them...


...and these fold back to reveal the character sheet. And on that note, I am done talking about them. The accompanying pictures reveal how stunning they are.



The boxed set includes two blank versions of this character folio as well. Chaosium...if you are reading this, start selling packets of these please.

Maps

Rounding out the Starter Set are three gorgeous maps. The first is northern Sartar, the region around the city of Jonstown. The second is Jonstown itself. The third shows the Rainbow Mounds from one of the adventures.

Handouts and Play Aids

Finally, you get a collection of handouts and useful play aids, including handy combat tables and a description of the Runes. There is even a "Strike Rank" tracker (used to measure who goes first in a Runequest combat round) that I will definitely now be using in my games.



Final Thoughts

There has never really been a product like this for Runequest, or any other form of Gloranthan gaming for that matter. Priced at around $30 US (if Amazon is to be believed) this is simply the best single introduction to the game and setting we have seen. Long time players are going to want it for Jonstown, the extra play aids, and a few really excellent adventures. But they are also going to want to give it to friends as birthday gifts and the like to try and show them what Runequest is and why we love it. Gamers curious about Glorantha, but put off by the depth and immensity of it all, will want this product as something that shows them exactly why Runequest and Glorantha are so talked about and famous. For little investment of time and money, they can jump right into the setting and decide if it is for them. 

The boxed set is loaded. Even ridiculously so. Even the backs of the four books are put to use, forming a map...



 
...all for just pennies per page. If you have ever been even mildly curious about Glorantha or Runequest, here is your chance to explore. You will know exactly after exploring the Starter Set if this is the game for you. 


Friday, September 24, 2021

CALL OF CTHULHU at 40

IN THE SPRING OF 2002 I left the United States for Japan. This meant, of course, packing up my entire library and putting it into storage. I had a massive collection of gaming books, acquired over two decades and helped along by having worked, twice, in different game stores. Parting with that was probably the hardest part about the move. 

I mention this because I brought one book with me. Just one. It wasn't my hardcover 2nd edition Runequest or my beloved Nephilim. It wasn't even Pendragon. The book I carried with me to Japan was the 20th anniversary edition of Call of Cthulhu, and it sits, still, on the shelf a few feet from my writing desk.

I was eleven the first time I played Call of Cthulhu, the year after the game came out. I had already played D&D for a few years, and was currently playing RQ, but Cthulhu was unlike anything I or my peers had ever seen. Set in the 1920s, the players took on the roles of ordinary men and women drawn into investigating the eldritch powers of the Cthulhu Mythos. There were no magic swords to be won, no treasures, and characters were more likely to suffer madness and grisly death than achieve glory. Despite this, the game was irresistible. When our characters met a hideous fate we hollered and cheered.

It is easy to forget, sitting here four decades after the game was first released, how iconic a thing it is and was. How absolutely genre defining. Outside of academic circles and hard core horror fans H. P. Lovecraft was virtually unknown. In my gaming group, I was the only person who knew what Cthulhu was (and that was only because I had just read Stephen King's Danse Macabre the very same year). The credit for putting Lovecraft on the map has to go to Sandy Petersen's quirky little roleplaying game. And while for many roleplayers D&D is still "the" roleplaying game, no one in their right mind would dispute that Call of Cthulhu is "the" horror roleplaying game. There isn't even a contest. Actually, if you are in Japan, Call of Cthulhu is "the" roleplaying game (or "TRPG"). While Japanese gamers have heard of D&D, few have played it. It never achieved anything near the popularity Cthulhu has here.

Now, I talk a lot about Runequest here, and Glorantha, and I've written quite a bit for it too, but the fact remains that it was Call of Cthulhu I carried across the ocean with me (I am actually writing something for Cthulhu as we speak, but am not at liberty to talk about it just yet). When push comes to shove it is literally the book I would (and did) drag with me to an (not exactly desert) island. The 20th anniversary edition, with its green leatherette cover and parchment pages, is still my favorite edition of the game. But all that is about to change now, because as impossible as it is to believe we are on the verge of the 40th anniversary edition, and it looks like my beloved green leatherette is about to get bumped to second place.

Now this is not a review, and for the record I do not have a copy of the 40th edition yet in my hot little hands. The book--which premiered at Gen Con--is a limited edition reissue of the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Due for release in October, it has a stunning black leatherette cover and "includes personal accounts by some of the early creators and contributors to the game, new endpapers, and the re-inclusion of the 'The Haunting', the classic scenario..." The reason I can say with confidence it will replace my 20th anniversary edition as my new favorite toy is that the 7th edition has already proved itself the definitive version of Call of Cthulhu, and the fact the 40th anniversary edition exists is a testament to both the longevity of the game and the modern renaissance it is experiencing. So instead of a review, that is what I would like to talk about. Call of Cthulhu at 40.

Longevity

Based on the writings of celebrated American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), Cthulhu depicts a incomprehensibly vast cosmos occupied by utterly alien, often god-like beings, in which mankind and its concerns are insignificant.  There are no beneficent deities, humanity wasn't created in anyone's image, and there are no universal standards of good and evil. It is a brutal, uncaring universe where Investigators struggle to prevent the more powerful alien occupants from wiping out the human race too soon.  In 1981 its charm was in inverting most other RPG tropes.  You didn't create a first level character and watch them ascend to greatness...you created a capable professional and watched them slowly descend into madness.  You didn't boast about your character's heroic exploits...you bragged about the horrific way in which they met their untimely end.  Forty years later, I think this is still what makes Cthulhu different from most other games on the market. Even the horror ones. It is a scary game, sure, but it is also a blackly humorous one. 

That element of having its tongue in its cheek--with decades of "Cthulhu for President" stickers and plush toy Cthulhu dolls (mine peers at me as I write this review)--is one of the game's greatest assets. Watching a group of veteran Call of Cthulhu players swap stories is a bit like Quint and Hooper showing off their scars in Jaws. Horror games can, by their very nature, be uncomfortable. Some, like Kult, have gleefully leaned into that. But Call of Cthulhu has survived this long because it has a sense of humor about itself, a quality that can make it attractive to the more casual horror fans who want the scares but don't want to be overpowered by them. Make no mistake, Call of Cthulhu has been scaring the crap out of people for decades, but it is self aware enough of the absurdity of it all that you can laugh about it afterwards. Thus, despite wearing the crown of "king of horror games" for forty years, Call of Cthulhu has deftly avoided the pretentiousness that marks some other game lines (looking at you, Vampire: The Masquerade, looking at you).

Not R'lyeh, just my desk in Tokyo
   

Cthulhu is also a very flexible game.  Generally played in one of three time periods (1890s, 1920s, modern era) it has been adapted to many more. We have seen it retooled for ancient Rome, the Dark Ages, the Old West, and several other time periods. Probably the most famous adaptation was Delta Green, which introduced X-Files elements of modern conspiracy.  And for those who find Lovecraft's cosmos was too bleak, Call of Cthulhu can also handle standard tales of ghosts and ghouls, vampires and werewolves.


Renaissance


But we can't talk about the 40th anniversary without talking about the game's renaissance.


I have discussed this before in reference to Runequest, but in 2015 Chaosium (Cthulhu's publisher for the one or two people who somehow stumbled into this article not knowing that) underwent what can only be called a rebirth. True, Chaosium never went out of business, and Call of Cthulhu never went out of print, but in 2015 the founder of the company, Greg Stafford, and Call of Cthulhu's original author Sandy Petersen returned after nearly two decades to active participation in it. They were soon joined by an all-new management team as Moon Design Publications became part of the ownership. I am not going to get into the full story here, and if you have read Shannon Appelcine's brilliant Designers & Dragons (and honestly, if you haven't stop calling yourself an RPG fan right now), you already know the first half of it. But the point is that 2015 saw Chaosium shake itself out of a long torpor. Not that the company had not published anything of merit in that period--Jason Durall and Sam Johnson's masterful edit of Basic RolePlaying remains one of my all time favorite books--but what came after 2015 was nothing less than extraordinary.


For Call of Cthulhu this meant the 7th edition. I was a bit cool on it in my 2015 review, and looking back at it I must have been exceptionally cranky that day. Having had six years to play with it, I can see now the system is smoother, more streamlined, and still faithful to all that came before. But the entire Cthulhu line since 2015 has been extraordinary. I am not just talking about the superior production values, but the products themselves. Berlin: The Wicked City has to be the all-time finest setting book Chaosium has ever produced for the game, and its treatment of LGBTQ+ Investigators was not only appropriate to any book set in Weimar Germany, it also showed that Chaosium was no longer going to shy away from controversial topics at the game table. They seemed to double down on this in publishing the 2nd edition of Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound, which if Berlin is not Call of Cthulhu's best setting book this would have to be. Harlem is authentic, scary as hell, and brutally honest.


I could go on. The reissues of Malleus Monstrorum and Masks of Nyarlathotep were both clear exercises in taking the good and making it better. Pulp Cthulhu added a twist people had been waiting decades for. There was a new energy at Chaosium, a new level of ambition. And it showed.


So here we are in year forty. Some of us have spent nearly our entire lives playing the game. I have the 20th anniversary edition on my shelf and hope to put the 40th right next to it. While I might live to see the 60th, the prospect of the 80th seems like a long shot. Regardless, I am fairly confident they will exist. The 7th edition line demonstrates that the game can change, adapt, grow, and still remain true to the qualities that have given Call of Cthulhu its extraordinary longevity. At forty, Cthulhu is stronger than ever and I am sure that some day, someone will be holding the 100th anniversary edition.  


Unless, of course, by that time Great Cthulhu has arisen from his ages-long slumber.   


  

 

Friday, September 17, 2021

THE FALL OF THE HARABORN (AGAIN): Coming Back to Six Seasons in Sartar after Two Years, Two Books, and Too Long

This blog is, on the whole, a collection of essays. This one is a little bit different because it HAS to be different.

It is the first of an ongoing series as my gaming group--the one that played the Heroquest version of Six Seasons in Sartar-- returns to reprise their roles as the very same characters, this time adapted to Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha. Together we will play the published version of Six Seasons, and then move into The Company of the Dragon. Along the way I will be providing additional thoughts, mechanics, and a LOT of stuff that got cut from both Seasons and Company. Some of this will appear in a little book I plan on publishing early next year, a collection of everything cut from the published campaigns packaged with a new scenario about what happens AFTER the Haraborn return to Black Stag Vale. Look for The Seven-Tailed Wolf in the spring.

Right now, we are in the process of remaking the characters for RQ. The next post will go into detail on all of that. This first one is a bit more personal than I usually get, but as I said, it has to be. Six Seasons has been a profound experience for me, and as one of those people who cannot process a thing until they have written about it...well, here you are.

Expect the posts ahead to be a bit more "all business."

- D 


Past is Prologue, and all that

IN THE SPRING OF 2018--and damn, doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago now--I introduced a new group of players to Glorantha.

They were not new to me, just the setting. Ira, Keith, Vicks, and David had already been through two campaigns with me (Numenera and Night's Black Agents: The Dracula Dossier). Keith and Ira had been around longer than that, survivors of an older gaming group that had imploded under all the usual pressures (new spouses, new jobs, new infants). 

Gaming groups are like bands. It takes time to figure out each other's grooves and to fall into a rhythm, and when you add new players the whole tone changes. Even with the right people, it sometimes takes time to find the right game. Numenera was not it, and we had entered NBA expecting to play no more than a dozen sessions. When it became clear that the band was staying together, we needed something worth staying together for. Naturally I decided to introduce them to my first love, my home-away-from-home, Glorantha.

I've already talked about my long history with Glorantha in this blog and in both Six Seasons in Sartar and The Company of the Dragon. It goes back nearly forty years, and is a relationship that has had a profound affect on my academic, intellectual, and spiritual life. I think my own enthusiasm for the setting is infectious, but I also think Glorantha is a setting that sells itself. I must have introduced a dozen gaming groups to it, and never once did they fail to fall in love too. I felt in my bones this group would as well.

We chose Heroquest as the rules system. Runequest Roleplaying in Glorantha was still very new, and out of the three (I offered to run 13G as well) HQ was the one they voted for. With the system selected, I pulled out a campaign I had run in RQ2, Hero Wars, and Heroquest 1st edition, a little thing I was calling "Six Seasons in Sartar." I ran it again for them and decided--as an afterthought--to blog about it.

Just a week before the first session, the world lost Greg Stafford. I think my players all sensed what a profound blow this was to me. Keith and Ira located a bottle of mead--not terribly easy in Japan--and we all toasted Greg before beginning the campaign. I am now firmly of the opinion all campaigns should begin with such a toast.

And the old shaman was there looking over us, I think. The players took to these characters, to the Haraborn NPCs, and to Glorantha faster than I had seen before. The village and clan instantly became real. The level of investment was intense, and I knew we had found our campaign.

What I never could have predicted was what was happening in the world around us.

Every time I posted a session, the blog numbers shot up. Sure, reviews generally attracted more readers (the reviews of occult books far larger than games, actually), but people were writing to me more. They were reading about the Haraborn, about the campaign, and writing to tell me how invested they were in it. I still remember the first email suggesting I publish it. I think I laughed. Then came the second. The third. And so on. Something was in the air.

Unfortunately...something else was in the air too. We heard about it earlier than the rest of the world here in Japan when a cruise ship in January of 2020 was quarantined just off the coast. There was a virus. People seemed afraid. We suspended the game sessions and then, well. You know.

The world went mad.

The Zombie Apocalypse was not Milla Jovovich kicking ass, it was Tokyo grinding to a total halt, silence hanging ghostly over the streets. It was people masked and avoiding each other, hands gloved and frequently sanitized. It was businesses closing, including university campuses like the one I taught at. Suddenly I found myself sitting on my butt in my apartment, watching the world go by outside the windows. And I decided to put Six Seasons in Sartar on paper. 

As I write these words, Six Seasons is the bestselling title in the Jonstown Compendium. It is currently just 85 copies away from going Platinum, something I am really hoping for, not out of personal vanity but because it really ticks me off that there is still a large segment of the gaming world that turns its noses up at any community content title. Well, both A Rough Guide to Glamour and Citizens of the Lunar Empire are ENNIE nominees, and Six Seasons is on the verge of reaching a level of sales few titles reach, community content OR no (the sequel, The Company of the Dragon, is itself just 45 sales from Gold). If people wish to continue missing out because all these titles do not reach their purity standards...their loss. Rant over. 


But back then, I never imagined or expected any of that. I hoped to sell a few copies, to make my time on furlough meaningful. I had no idea what was about to happen. None of us did, really. The Jonstown Compendium was still brand new. We were fumbling around blindly, and suffering severe disadvantages. People kept confusing us for Chaosium. They wanted vouchers with their PDF copies for print books even when we had no idea if our books would ever see print. And people like me...well, I am a writer, people. I have written novels, plays, short fiction. Suddenly I found myself doing lay out, organizing art, making art. Then I was expected to learn things about ink and bleeds and whatnot for the printed versions. I was completely lost at sea.

With Nick Brooke's guidance, support, and the occasional slapping of sense into me, and unwavering support from Chaosium (especially the Notorious MOB), Six Seasons made it to print. The sequel, Company of the Dragon, benefits so much from the errors I made in the first book and I think it shows. But we were all learning together, and I do not think I go out on a limb when I say that that the entire Jonstown Compendium deserves your attention.

The pandemic dragged on (like this post is starting to...fear not, I am wrapping it up!). I went back to work on a reduced schedule, teaching classes via Zoom. Japan was dragging its feet on vaccinations. So for 18 months I kept my nose clean. I stopped going out. I masked. I sanitized. And it was writing the massive Six Seasons in Sartar sequel, The Company of the Dragon, that kept me from going mad.

Now. Finally. As 2021 wanes. Nearly three years after we lost Greg and the journey began, my players and I are all fully vaccinated and making plans to bring Six Seasons to life again, and then enter The Company of the Dragon again. 

This time, though, it is all different. it is no longer my campaign, our campaign. It belongs to hundreds of groups out there. Nick Brooke will be running it, and I hope to interview him and post it here. And the call goes out to any of you who wish to share. I would love to hear your versions going forward to.

This time, we are playing the saga together. And that is simply...awesome.