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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.

Thursday, December 12, 2019


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.

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