I’m extraordinarily tired, so what follows may make painfully little sense. Before I collapse in to my bed however I would like to quickly record my impressions of a wonderful weekend spent at a games convention called Consequences F. Don’t stop reading just yet though — this is not just about my usual roleplaying games hobby.
This weekend I have been Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a spiritualist medium in 1920′s Arkham attending a gallery opening, a troubled English aristocrat in 1938 England, a brave (but rash) young Viking warrior trying to prove himself, an industrialist on a backwater planet, an AI programmed to open a stargate, and … well the list goes on!
You may be familiar with the idea of murder mystery games, often played at dinner parties, where people dress up and play a character, trying to solve a mystery. They are a type of roleplaying game, but unlike “tabletop” games which are played with a group of frreinds, dice pencil and paper around (as the name implies) a table, these “freeforms” are a form of LARP (live action roleplaying). You walk around, talk to other players in character, and physically interact. Unlike the kind of LARP you occasionally see on Facebook or even the TV, these games are played without bashing one another with foam rubber weaponry. I think the Americans call this “theater style gaming”, but I’m not sure that is much more use, unless you realise all the actors in the game have freewill, and the script is determined by their actions and in character actions. No one knows whether the mystery will be solved, your chap will get the girl, your pig will win the contest, you starship will survive the battle; until it happens! A hard working teams of referees (GM’s) write the games, and cast characters, and you take your role and try and achieve your goals while everyone else tries to achieve theirs! The rules cover the outcome of inevitable conflict, but your ability to piece together information, understand clues, scheme and manipulate others or just convince folks your character is a nice person, that is what determines how you do.
Anyway Consequences (so called as it is held nine months after another games convention for tabletop games called “Conception”) is an annual freeform game convention held down in Naish, near Christchurch, Dorset. The site is a holiday camp, and all the players stay in chalets on site under bleak November skies, gathering in the main building to play whichever of the many games on offer have taken their fancy.
Now I can’t afford to go on holiday: I really, really can’t. However this year I went to another great gaming convention dedicated (mainly) to tabletop roleplaying games called Continuum up in Leicester, with my friends Lloyd and Hugh. There we met some lovely people (who shall remain nameless – I’m not going to name any other names, because people may not want their gaming hobby exposed ) who persuaded me that after five years of reading about Consequences this year we should all attend. So we saved up £78 each for a chalet for four nights (!!!) , Hugh agreed to drive, and we paid our £30 booking fees to attend the con. I had always thought Consequences sounded pricey – but that was because I mistook £312 or whatever a chalet costs as being the cost per person. Nope that is the cost per chalet, each of which has two twin and two double rooms — so in theory you could have 8 people stay for four nights for just £312 – less than a tenner per person per night. The trick is to go with a friend or two, and as the chalets are self catering this is possibly the cheapest holiday I have ever had, and i specialise in pretty cheap holidays when I taken them at all.
OK, so what happened? Well about a month ago, having paid up front in July, I suddenly realised I had best sign up for some games. I chose Starship Aries, a Star Trek style game, Dulce et decorum est (set in 1938 during the Munich Crisis), Midsummer Mischief based upon the characters of PG Wodehouse, Gallery of Shades a Cthulhu game set in the 1920′s and Come Hel or Hiawatha, a game set in Viking Vinland. There were many many more games, Tolkien inspired, Science Fiction – the space marines were very colourful to look at, and even some games set in Zelazny’s fantasy worlds of Amber. Hugh played a cyberpunk game Marlowe 2020, and a different one, Collision Imminent, set on a spaceship (he had a great time in both!)
OK my experience: after Continuum where the costuming had astonished me – people REALLY dress up – I was dreading having to costume for 5 games. However, I need not have worried as much – while my costumes were fairly cheap, as I borrowed, scrounged and improvised what I needed, anything from perfect historical dress to theatrical minimalism – a pair of mirror shades say for cyberpunk – was perfectly acceptable, and some folks who stepped in at the last moment for games did not costume at all. I could not costume for Gallery of Shades because I did not see my character till the day of the game, so I used the same outfit for the 1920′s as I had for 1938 — and that worked fine, but actually I found that dressing as a character and having a single prop (a book, a cabbage, whatever) helped me get in to character and probably enhanced my enjoyment of the game!
Getting down to Christchurch was a nightmare. Lloyd went ahead, and Mark a friend we met at Continuum who was sharing the chalet with us also drove down earlier. Hugh and I planned to set out quite early, but by mid afternoon gales and widespread flooding not to mention torrential rain had closed many roads, and we finally waited till 9.30pm before setting off, missing the first half day of the con. Luckily neither of us had signed up to any games till Friday. When we set off we agreed if conditions were too bad on Salisbury Plain we would just turn back, and the trip was to be honest pretty harrowing. The worst of the weather had passed over by the time we set out, but I honestly did not think we would be able to make it. Still by Marlborough I was more confident, and once we passed Salisbury things improved, and we arrived on site by half midnight.
Of course we were too late to sign in: luckily I knew the chalet number, and the others were there with keys, but if you have ever looked at the ranks of chalets in a holiday park in pouring rain in the teeth of a howling gale a hundred yards from the cliffs down to the English Channel on an icy November night, wondering just where ML65 might be, well you will appreciate our concern as we stood in the car park looking at a scene devoid of human activity, outside a locked reception!
Just then Lloyd hailed us. Quite by chance he had gone back to some folks chalet for drinks, and considerably the worse for wear had got lost wandering back, and had returned to Reception to get his bearings. We fell upon him like a guardian angel sent to deliver us – we might have kissed him had he not seemed so bewildered at our great joy in seeing him a few hours after we last had in Cheltenham. He directed us to the chalet, and we unloaded our many bags of costume, food, and necessities.
Wow! Chalets are far more luxurious than I recall. We had two toilets, a proper bath, a fully equipped kitchen, a TV, and it was all toasty warm. Despite the late hour we knocked up some food, greeted Mark with equal joy, and played a quick game of Dominion (a board game) before crashing out. I really recommend Naish as a holiday venue, though obviously it costs more in high season.
Friday morning saw me up at 8am, ready for the 9am start of Starship Aries, a game run by friends of mine. It was what is called a “horde” game; a very clever device by which some folks play one character for the whole game ( the starship bridge crew in this case) and others like me had up to 5 different roles to play, sequentially. I really enjoyed this — I was Ambassador Lexington, out to make contact with a frontier world, then I was … anyway I can’t really say. The wonderful thing about freeforms is you can run them many times with different players — and I can’t give spoilers, because I am sure this one will run again. Costuming required was also minimal – any black trousers and something red as a shirt , or blue if you were bridge crew. This worked just fine. The game lasted 3 or 4 hours, but I had no time to grow bored, as I had to keep changing roles and the fiendishly clever plot was worthy of (several) Star Trek episodes. I took part in a coup, failed to keep my secret relationship with my professor very secret, and almost destroyed the Starship Aries: but they are not spoilers, as if the game runs again whoever runs the characters I had will do things completely differently I’m sure.
After Starship Aries it was back to the chalet to dress in white tie, or some semblance thereof, for dinner at Markyate Manor, home to the Viscount Markyate. The Athertons in 1938 are a troubled family, and Geoffrey who I played was certainly troubled with reason. I am afraid I can say almost nothing about him or what transpired, but this was emotionally intense dramatic gaming about people more than plot, and was one of the best games I have ever played of any type, freeform, tabletop or whatever. It helps (if a chap at least) if you have some knowledge of the period, and the politics and issues of the time, but after the first half hour that need faded for me as Geoffrey’s own personal issues and goals became increasingly paramount. The character sheet was brief, and I had no clearly laid out goals; nor did it tell me how Geoffrey felt about things, leaving that for me to decide. I knew facts about what had happened in the past – my own response to them was however left to me as Geoffrey, and a few very simple events quickly spun me in to a web of intrigue, mystery, complicated romantic and familial relationships and an increasingly rising pace until I suddenly heard a referee call “5 minutes left” and realised I had spent three or more hours completely immersed in being Geoffrey, and that I needed to do something to try and resolve the desperate situation I found myself in. Geoffrey had a final scene talking with his father, a terribly fumbled pass at a French opera star as he stalked out, and a rather harrowing leave taking of his family. Even I don’t know exactly what he did after he shouted his final sardonic farewell to the assembled guests and walked out in to the night. Epic stuff! I’m no actor, and I hope my bumbling at times portrayal of Geoffrey did not spoil anyone else game, but I did really get in to this one, and liked the character a great deal, whatever his (many) flaws. Dulce et decorum est is certainly an apt title for this game: very highly recommended.
After a quick meal in the chalet I was back to gaming, this time in the 1920′s for Gallery of Shades. I had mixed feeling about this one. I have loved HP Lovecraft since boyhood, love the Cthulhu Mythos, and am particularly fond of Robert W Chambers King in Yellow cycle. I have written a book for Call of Cthulhu; I own almost everything for that game, and loved Cthulhu Live, running a very successful Cthulhoid larp with it over seven weekends in the year 2000. Yet recently Cthulhu has become a constant geek cliché, and is endlessly parodied, and HPL has become increasingly reinterpreted in more and more parodic and playful ways. There is even an episode of Supernatural I am told that references Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu! Furthermore I know from experience of running my own games that doing scenarios about the king in Yellow and Hastur cycle are extremely hard, if the players are to have any meaningful input in to the outcome. I fear my reservations on this as least proved true.
I finally signed up for Gallery of Shades because the referee is known to be outstanding, and the level of game prep in terms of the game environment was very high. That however is no replacement for a pre-game issue at least the day before of a character sheet so one can dress for the part, and think about how to play the role. I actually liked the character, someone who had experienced an apparition with an enigmatic message and had become a medium — but I would have asked to play a very different role if I had the chance to fill in a casting questionnaire. The reason why was the fist few minutes of the game, when none of us were sure if we were “in character” or “out of character”. Some poor soul asked me “what can you tell me about the theories of ghosts?” I was really pleased someone was interested in my research and replied in character (just in case) limiting my response to the state of the topic in 1927. I fear I may have bored them to death — this essay of mine is pretty much what I related, though it brings the survey of the field up to date. At least I was not asked to play a parapsychologist (though Tischner does not coin that phrase I think until 1929 — So I mean psychical researcher I guess )
There was another moment once the game was in full swing a while later that shows the perils of trying to keep in character and out of character knowledge separate – my character had been intensely religious in youth, so when it came to the inevitable debate with a vicar suspicious of my spiritualism, I was ready to quote scripture and make theological arguments. The poor vicar’s player of course can not be expected to counter that, as they have probably not thought about the issues quite as much as an Anglican ghost hunter like the real life me — but they took it in good grace, and we laughed about it, and broke off the conversation when it was clear that I was going to go the full ten rounds. I still felt a bit of an arse about it, and thereafter limited myself strictly to what it said on my character sheet, however likely I thought it the character would know something about Spiritualism.
Anyway this started out as a great game: and it ended wonderfully, with some incredible effects. However… I am not one to critique others games. I have written what I am sure were lousy games, and some players probably avoid me after one bad experience. The set up here though became intensely frustrating – it was not that we could not do things – we did all kinds of things, and there were some wonderful pieces of characterisation, the suffragette was amazing, the decadent flapper Greta a perfect mix of boredom, indifference and sensual amorality, the utterly insane (literally) lady in the burgundy dress was magnificent, and Walters, Bream and others fine characters and great fun to play with – the PI and I had our moments too – nothing wrong with the characters, they were all great, or the players – nope, the problem was we felt we could not do anything to resolve the issue we faced. The game went on an hour to long, because the person who needed to act in a certain way to provoke the next scene did not realise it, and despite my best efforts to find the catalyst, it seemed a very long time till the resolution, while a few players appeared to me bored and not committed, as they felt there was no way to influence the outcome?
This is a game by one of the finest freeform authors there is: it has a magnificent climax, but in disempowering the characters, and driving them to madness frustration and a realisation of cosmic futility, it is important not to alienate the players. That is a very hard trick to pull off. For a few I don’t think it worked. This was a first run, and Gallery of Shades should certainly run again, but it needs a few minor tweaks to give those battling to save their characters sanity a sense of small gains, and large losses, rather than a static brick wall of frustration and inevitable doom, no matter how Lovecraftian that may be in essence. Recommended for future runs, but needs a tiny bit of work. I enjoyed it though.
Friday night the Belgian contingent threw a wonderful chalet party, and I got to chat to some of the other delegates I had not met before. This was a great part of the whole experience. I woke up late on Saturday, perhaps at ten, and I had taken a whole day off gaming. A friend came down to visit us, and we enjoyed a long walk with Lloyd around the beach and cliffs, and down the “bunny” and back. In hindsight I probably could have played another game on Saturday – everyone has their own endurance on how many games they can face in a day,and two I think might be my limit really; perhaps tiredness leads one to not enjoy a game as much as you should.
Saturday night however was to prove amazing, for me at least. I was off to Blandings Castle – my castle in fact, for I was Lord Emsworth, and with the county fete just four days away I was determined the Empress of Blandings my prize pig would take the prize. Midsummer Mischief is a perfect slice of pure Wodehouse, and whoever the authors were, I wish to thank them for this heavenly madness. There referees did an outstanding job, time flew by (one day an hour, and four hours till the end) and one had a real sense of freedom to scheme, plot, interact and do some pretty odd and very very silly things.
Now one of my biggest fears in any game where I get a chance to play an over the top character is that I will spoil it for others with my rather exuberant performance in the role – I certainly never wanted it to get too silly, because then comic characterisation fails as absurdism creeps in. It can work in a Monty Python sketch, but there is one episode of Father Ted that I felt became just marginally too surreal: for me a brilliant comic character is like Basil in Fawlty Towers extreme but (just about) believable. I’m hoping I managed to stay just the right side of the line, and keep dear old Emsworth eccentric but acceptably so, rather than making him a thin parody! However some players clearly liked my Emsworth, which genuinely surprised me, but I guess it was my sheer love of the character and the enthusiasm and real joy I found in playing the role that shone through, whatever the deficiency in my “acting”. Beach was absolutely perfect in the role, Connie and the other two sisters present were fantastic, and Pru and her bloody cats, Vee and Aggie and their romantic arrangements, blasted Freddie my son and the insufferable Popjoy all kept me running around in increasing panic, while bloody Huxley — I can say no more. Maudie the librarian was great, and Lord Vosper with the pig kept me so so paranoid, while that slime Parsoe-Parsoe (beautifully played) outwitted me as I expected. I should have asked Gally to biff him!
This is an older game, and the use of item cards can to me be distracting, as can the multiple envelopes and sub-systems of the rules certain players need to know, but it all works perfectly. I don’t recall speaking to a ref once in Dulce in decorum est – there was simply no need, the game ran itself. Gallery of Shades needed a couple more refs, Starship Aries was just right, but the three referees in Midsummer Mischief were worked off their feet and served admirably. They were marvellous, simply marvellous. I can not give a best game, as they were so VERY different, but Dulce and Midsummer are certainly among the best games I have ever played, and if you love Wodehouse you must play this game!
Saturday night saw an amazing chalet party, and astonishingly good hospitality, plenty of booze (which I did not partake of ) and great company. I’d like to thank our hosts, and hope the chalet survived the influx! I was home by 4.30am and in bed by five — shame I had to be up at eight thirty today…
The final game of the weekend for me was Come Hel or Hiawatha, a fun game set in Vinland. Some Vikings have landed in the wake of an earlier failed expedition, and met the natives, the Skraelings. Plots involve the tense negotiations between the two parties, tempered by romances, personal ambition and the epic consumption of mead. Strange things are afoot, and my character was a rash young Viking warrior, who I played as wildly impulsive, hotheaded and not exactly bright. I hope that I did not take it too far, but I did really enjoy the character, and while he had the same name (Gunnar) as my dad, they were very very different Vikings! My character married the girl of his dreams and gave up on a career as a warrior to farm ducks. I called them all Anders, in case you were wondering.
This is a gem of a game, that could be played slightly comically, or totally straight. We played it straight, with my character providing occasional moments of mild comic relief from the tense negotiations. Well crafted, definitely worth playing!
OK, so we left after the closing ceremony, Hugh driving back through driving rain, but finding time to take in the Rufus Stone, Stonehenge and Avebury en route. I had a great weekend, and if anyone is interested in learning more about Consequences or Freeforming do check it out or email me: a good place to start with friends at home might be these excellent games.
A wonderful memorable weekend, but I’m off to bed.
First up, do me a favour. If you don’t know or care about Ars Magica, but you enjoy strategy games, or fantasy games, or history games, go to this Kickstarter and think about pledging $20. If it funds, you get a download of the game when it is completed. If the funds aren’t raised, your money never leaves your account. $20. Do it for CJ I’m not involved with the project, but this is a computer game based on the rpg I spend my life writing books for, so I’m keen to promote it as hard as I can If you help fund, and later play and enjoy the computer game,perhaps one day you will understand what this whole Ars Magica thing is about So $20 – and you either don’t have to pay if it fails, or you do and get a cool game.
I’m pretty sure all fans of Ars Magica were delighted to hear about the kickstarter to raise funds to allow the funding of an Ars Magica based computer game set in the Schism War, and a lot of people would like to know more. Funding is going well, but after 4 days the project is still only 10% funded, so I think it’s vital now to push it as hard as possible, and let as many people hear about the project as I can. I think it probably will fund, but I am an optimist: yet very few roleplaying games have the beauty of setting and design that Ars Magica provides, and a lot of people who might never want to play the tabletop rpg might be excited by a game of wizards in England in the century of the Norman Conquest. Atlas Games have licensed it: if funding allows it will go ahead!
Now I won’t explain in detail what a Kickstarter is, or what Ars Magica is - basically a Kickstarter is a way to raise funds for a creative project, and you buy in at a certain level, pledging money if the project funds. If it funds in 30 days your money is debited and you receive certain rewards, based upon the level of your pledge – if the project is even a dollar short of the total, no one pays anything at all, and the project never goes ahead.
The guys at Black Chicken have a history of delivering high quality computer games, and are also genuine fans of the Ars Magica system – so here is my (slightly redacted) light hearted interview with them!
OK, many of you will know I play a game called Ars Magica about medieval wizards and have written on a lot of books for the line over the last nine years or so. I really enjoy the game, but even hardcore gaming friends of mine don’t really know what it is all about often. Well soon my blog will be filled with stuff on poltergeist cases and research related to that again, so I thought it would be nice to try to explain a little bit about the game. I have set out to teach it to ten new people this month by playing games with them, and so far have managed to play with 9 people but only four so far completely new to the system. Still we are only four days in to September. If you’d like to play a game and live near Cheltenham just email me on email@example.com
Annoyingly I somehow missed out the following slide, so before you scroll down and have a look at the presentation some absolute basics–
My little presentation below was developed really for people who know roleplaying games a bit, but non-roleplayers should get the idea too, and learn enough to be able to join in a game and have some idea of what is going on. It’s in several bits, but you don’t need to know anything or own a rulebook to understand this first presentation. Even if you have no interest in games you may find it mildly amusing as an exercise in playing with Latin words and thinking about how a medieval wizard might solve problems, if you stick with it for the quizzes and exercises. Click on the presentation controls at bottom to change slides.
The bits useful to print as a cheat sheet are here for convenience -
I have written a lot on games recently and not much else, but back to the normal soon. Despite the title this post is as much about real English history as my game, and therefore possibly worth reading — you can skip the sections with green headings and read the ones with dark blue heading to find the fact rather than the game stuff! I have just finished hosting Grand Tribunal 2012 the Ars Magica roleplaying game convention, and so am still full of enthusiasm for my gaming exploits. This year saw a rather unusual one — trying to recreate a rather important if obscure event in English history (a battle at Fornham, just outside Bury St Edmunds in 1173) with a combination wargame/freeform/rpg game set in the world of Ars Magica, using the 5th edition rules.
However, let’s start with the real world history…
Why was there a battle at Fornham?
During the reign of Henry II Henry was persuaded to grant his son (also called Henry) a coronation, making him effectively “junior king”. From this time on he is referred to as “Henry the Young King” to differentiate him from his father. This was deemed necessary to ensure a smooth succession on Henry II’s death — after The Anarchy of the 1150′s when the rival camps of the Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought a bitter civil war in England over the throne, it seemed like a good idea.
Unfortunately Henry the Young King felt his father had given him the title but none of the power, and rebelled against his father. The rebels fought a campaign in Normandy, then part of the Angevin Empire which Henry II ruled over. Henry, Geoffrey and Richard all attacked their fathers castles, and various baron’s including Hugh Bigod, Earl of Suffolk and Robert Beaumont Earl of Leicester rose in support of the siblings against their father.
Henry II however fought a brilliant campaign, and the rebels were smashed in Normandy despite the French joining them and the Scottish too entering in to the alliance and invading England in the north. Humphrey III de Bohun (the Constable of England) crushed the Scottish invasion and pursued them back north of the border forcing them to end hostilities, while Richard de Lucy (the Justiciar) took the rebel stronghold the city of Leicester and besieged Leicester castle.
In October 1173 Leicester tried a last gasp invasion of England, landing at Walton on the Naze with a formidable force of Flemish mercenaries. He attempted to take the port of Dunwich (which no longer exists, a victim of coastal erosion, except as a couple of gravestones on a cliff and a fish and chip hut as I recall from my last visit) but the townsfolk closed the gates against him and bombarded the besiegers with rocks and the contents of chamber pots.
Leicester withdrew, probably to Framlingham, where he met up with another powerful rebel Hugh Bigod. English history often turns on minor events, and in this case it was a squabble between two women. Bigod’s wife Gundreda and Petronilla de Grandmesnil, wife of Leicester, fell out soon after meeting. The two women simply could not stand each other — and all plans for a united rebel attack on London faltered. This may well have proven to be the disastrous moment for the rebel alliance. Leicester decided march east and try to reach his power base in the East Midlands, and perhaps relieve Leicester castle. Bigod was to proceed south through Essex. However once Leicester reached Bury St Edmunds where predictably the townsfolk closed the gates against him, and the monks raised a huge force of 1,200 men to repel him, he discovered the forces of Humphrey III de Bohun and Richard de Lucy waiting to prevent him crossing the River Lark.
Where was the battle?
As far as I can make out, the area bounded by Fornham St Martin, Fornham St Genevieve, Fornham All Saints and the Tollgate, Bury St. Edmunds. The Priory near the tollgate had a mural bridge across the Lark, heavily defensible (similar to the one you can see in Eastgate Street, Bury St Edmunds on the edge of the abbey ruins – a few flint remains exist which I discovered when I was fourteen and lived on the battlefield, behind the supermarket car park and to the right – also many oyster shells from the staple diet of the times in a midden slowly collapsing in to the river!)
You can walk along a footpath from Fornham All Saints Bridge down to the Mildenhall road which crosses the golf course and gives you a great view of the battlefield if you wish to take a look, and many artifacts from the battle included some wonderful swords and crested helmets (far more elaborate than I had expected from Ars Magica artwork, looking more like later full plate helms) can be seen in Moyses Hall Museum on the Buttermarket, Bury St Edmunds (admission free to Bury residents btw!). I worked out where I thought the troops were on the morning of October 17th 1173, and then assigned starting positions, though players had considerable flexibility in their exact set up.
How did we build the battlefield?
I have fought Fornham twice before – once as an Ars Magica adventure as part of my ongoing saga, using tabletop rpg rules, and once as a skirmish wargame. For Grand Tribunal 2012 I decided to combine the two. Counters would be used for the main units, plastic 20mm toy soldiers from the Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham packs for the leaders and unique characters (each represented by a player) and then a light green king-size bed sheet was painted with the River Lark, villages, fields and water meadows. With help from Tom Nowell, Becky Smith, Phil Jenkins and Hugh Wake we ended up with a simple, cheap-ish and visually appealing set up for the game.
Becky made up paper models of the Priory and two churches, and the remaining church was one Hugh and I had built. They were lightweight and actually all looked rather good on the table, and dark green cloth cut t shape made excellent woods. We had planned to use books to make the hills (just placing them under the sheet) but I forgot to mention it to Hugh who did the set up and this being Suffolk they are more ‘slight rises’ than hills, except for Tut Hill and Barton Hill at opposite corners of the map which are still very low in the terms of anywhere but East Anglia, and almost entirely off map.
The actual Lark Valley is really quite flat, only rising behind my parents’ house as you proceed up what is now the Mildenhall Estate to a ridge line that divides it from the Howard Estate. I created the counters in Paintshop Pro, researching and pasting the correct heraldry on them, and colouring them perhaps confusingly according to the heraldic colours of their leaders, which meant many counters ended up red & yellow, blue & yellow, and so forth despite being on different sides. Reginald the Ear of Cornwall and Robert Earl of Leicester both ended up with blue & yellow counters, which makes it hard to see on the photos who is who. The actual counters used however were very clear as you could see the shields of each leader, though perhaps there was scope for some confusion over heraldry — which would be historically very appropriate – but on the day it never happened. The counters were printed on thick card, then pasted carefully by Phil Jenkins on to cork cut to size. It was all a bit Blue Peter!
The whole construction process took place over two weeks, though two days would probably be enough if a few of you were involved. The most laborious task was Becky’s - building the churches and Priory, though really this was entirely for scenic effect. You could miss that bit out. Alternatively if more ambitious you could build the houses for the three Fornhams and the tollgate, mural bridge and Fornham bridge. The ground scale used was 1cm to 7 meters, which meant the battlefield was a seventh the size of the real one, as everything in the game worked on 1cm to a meter, roughly the scale of the figures and buildings.
This contraction does not matter because the units counters were made to roughly ground scale, and then cavalry scaled up by a factor of four to show them milling around and their greater “reach” on the battlefield. These choices may seem odd, but they were very carefully designed to make the game run smoothly, and worked very well in practice!
The game as written has 19 characters and supports 19 players. Yes, really. However we fell short of this by a few on the day (some folks were tempted away to play The Jerbiton Summit freeform or other games: there is always a lot of games on offer in each slot at Grand Tribunal), and Jocelin of Brakelond is an optional character who need not be played, and if is should be used to replace someone who has died already.
We did the same with Binna & Banna, and Maggy, and doubled up one of the Royalist commands, and had Walter de Wahull arrive on the battlefield late when a last-minute player showed up. Reading the character sheets will show you who can be doubled up with who to give a player two commands. You could of course play Fornham as a straight battle if you so wish – just get rid of all the “oddball” characters, and fight it with any wargaming rules? Each of the characters had a full Ars Magica character sheet, and I used rules from Hedge Magic Revised, ROP: The Divine, ROP: The Infernal, ROP: Magic and ROP: Faerie as morale rules from Lords of Men and the core Ars Magica 5th combat system, and especially the group combat and leadership bonuses rules.
I explained all the relevant rules in the character sheets though so in fact we did not have to consult any books during the game! Each character was written with specific aims, often very tangential to actually winning the battle: these victory objectives each scored seven points in the final scoring, and there were a few bonus points available to each character. Highest score on the day was I think 24; average around 14, and a few players managed to score zero! The victory points system was important because it gives a) competitive players a reason to play in character b) gives the rebels, outnumbered six to one a good chance of actually winning and c) made it quite clear what everyone wanted out of the battle. You could ignore it though if you wanted. The characters were of three types; rebels, royalists and oddballs. The oddballs were various minor characters with no troops but whose action was to have a profound effect on how the day actually turned out, and one of them did end up commanding a unit of knights at one point.
- ROBERT BEAUMONT. Earl of Leicester
Commands 4 groups of trained knights (36 knights)
- PETRONILLA BEAUMONT, the Earl’s scheming wife.
Has a bodyguard group (4 knights)
- DIGGO OF KASSEL,leader of the Flemish Crossbowmen mercenaries
Commands 5 units of crossbowmen (100 crossbowmen) and 2 units of archers (40 archers)
- MENFRID OF GHENT, leader of the Flemish spearmen Commands 5 units of spearmen (100 men)
- BROTHER SAMSON OF BURY ST EDMUNDS
Commands 5 groups of knights (25 knights) and 10 groups of Bury Townfolk (1,200 untrained men with improvised weapons)
- RICHARD DE LUCY, JUSTICIAR OF ENGLAND
Commands 12 groups of knights (96 knights) and 3 groups of untrained spearmen (120 men)
- HUMPHREY III DE BOHUN, HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND
Commands 10 groups of knights (90 knights)
- WALTER FITZ ROBERT OF LITTLE DUNMOW
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights)from Essex
- WILLIAM D’AUBIGNY, EARL OF ARUNDEL
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Castle Rising, Norfolk
- WILLIAM FITZ ROBERT, EARL OF GLOUCESTER
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Bristol
- REGINALD DE DUNSTANVILLE, EARL OF CORNWALL
Commands 3 groups of knights (15 knights) from Truro
- WALTER DE WAHULL, ROMANTIC KNIGHT
One group of himself and bodyguard (3 knights)
- BINNA & BANNA
A little girl & her brother.
An elderly lady out collecting sticks
- JOCELIN OF BRAKELOND
A monk in the wrong place at the wrong time
- LUCIAN OF GUERNICUS
A Quaesitor on important business!
- RED HANNAH
A lady of Fornham St. Martin who has not fled her home.
- PRIOR ROBERT
His house is in the battlefield, but he seems strangely distracted!
- A MYSTERIOUS NOBLEWOMAN
She rides alone across the battlefield. What does she want and who is she?
The accounts of the (mythic) battle!
Rather than say what actually happened and spoil it in case there is a re-fight, as happened historically Leicester lost. Here follow the accounts of some of the main protagonists, emailed to me by their players after the battle. I think reading them gives you a sense of the fog of war, and I have provided another map of the battlefield in which I have shown the approximate positions and movements of each of the protagonists whose accounts are listed below. Hopefully it is amusing, even if you were not there on the day, and reading it really shows why medieval chronicles are often rather hard to understand when we try and sort out what actually happened in many battles!
Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
Poor Robert of Leceister – Luck and God was certainly not on his side that day! His overconfidence led him to lead a heroic charge to destroy the southern bridge (over a drainage ditch), where he was met by Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall. A battle ensued between the knights of Leceister and Cornwall as the Leceister knights attempted to destroy the bridge. Leciester’s knights suffered 3 casualties and took 3 Kent knights prisoner, but Robert himself was gravely wounded against the Cornish lord, who smote Robert’s head open. Eyes full of blood, Robert botched his retreat and fell from his horse. Taken prisoner by Cornwall, who took him bound to the Priory, he remained there for the rest of the battle. His leaderless knights were overwhelmed by the Royalists, and Cornwall impaled Robert on a red hot poker and hung him from the Priory walls, as a warning to all other godless rebels.
Historically Leicester’s fate was kinder – see below!
Menfrid of Ghent, Flemish Mercenary Captain
Boldly did Menfrid send his hundred Flemish spearmen up the road to act as a vanguard and escort for the baggage train. Menfrid himself went into the church of St. Martin and prayed and prayed for the intervention of Saint Dympna. Forty of his men formed a defensive line outside the church to hold the knights coming along the road from the north whilst the rest moved back to defend the baggage train from the knights approaching from the Priory. Suddenly a terrible soul rendering howl emminated from the woods and his men holding the northern road fled into the church leaving their spears behind. They rambled about some big black dog or other. Finally Saint Dympna intervened and Menfrid rallied his men, twenty of whom went off to capture knights lying wounded on the field outside the church for ransom whilst he led another twenty men to relieve the Flemish crossbowmen outside with the aid of another twenty spear men who moved away from the baggage train as needed. The last forty men “escorted” two wagons of the baggage train off the field of war and sensing that the battle was lost Menfrid made a deal with Sir Reginald’s knights and gave up his hostages for safe conduct off the field.
Menfrid’s men escaped, but the Flemish crossbowmen were massacred by the knights of Humphrey. Only their leader, Diggo of Kassel, was to escape. Let us move on to the royalist accounts…
Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall.
That mumbler Damson (Editor: He means Samson - poor Reginald was deaf in one ear) bungled things from the start by lining his forces up behind the unfordable river where they’d never get into the fray, despite my protestations. The IDIOT actually thought he knew what he was doing! God may move in mysterious ways, but not as mysterious as Damson’s men, ha!
The key to the battle was clearly the bridge in front of the priory, which Damson’s bungling had thankfully left the path clear to for my household. So along the road we trotted, spotting Leicester and some of his knights attempting to take the bridge. Putting spurs to our horses flanks we smashed into them, driving them off the bridge and back into their camp in disarray. In the ensuing melee, several of his knights fell and I personally defeated and captured the rebel Leicester. My knights having the better of the combat, I left them to it and escorted Leicester back to the Priory where Damson (bloodthirsty bugger) insisted he be impaled. I returned to my Knights who were finally receiving some support from the knights under the supposed command of Damson, come belatedly to the battle (the men-at arms never made it, and a good thing too, as all they are good for is holding castles and being ridden underfoot) By this time the left wing of the army had found a fording point and were rolling up the remnants of Leicester’s forces from the North, I having pinned them in their camp to that end. The battle was over.
I did hear after the battle that all manner of weird and wonderful happenings had been reported. The wild imaginings of men green to war if you ask me, inventing stories to excuse their own shortcomings. I never saw or heard anything of the sort!
Brother Samson of Bury Abbey
My Lord Abbot, I beg to report that through Divine favour we have been victorious this day ! I grieve for those who have died in pursuit of our cause but I know that Our Lord will grant them a place of honour at His table for their service. By the Lord’s Grace, I gathered some 1200 men of the area who love their rightful king and 25 knights who owe service to the Abbey and we arrived at Prior Robert’s house in time to stand against the rebel, Leicester. As you know, there is but a small and defensible bridge across the Lark here and the rebel forces appeared few so I gave instruction to Sir Reginald, who had accompanied us, and our own knights to ride forth and seek battle with the ne’er-do-wells while I held back the citizenry to defend the House of God and the crossing of the Lark. I had hoped that some of the local men might know of a ford across the Lark so that they could support the knights but also their knowledge proved false so the entire host was required to slowly cross via the Prior’s house’s bridge.
I believe that to the north the men of the Constable and Justiciar manoeuvred also to bring the enemy to battle, though My Lord de Lucy seemed much hampered by the Lark’s swift flow and thereafter succumbed to diverse diversions rather than pursuing the enemy with his customary vigour. Surely God’s light shined upon Sir Reginald though for in Our service he rode hard for the traitors and he and his knights struck mighty blows against the enemy forces, including Leicester himself. Such was Sir Reginald’s prowess enhanced by God that Leicester himself has struck down and captured ! Truly God moves in mysterious ways for who would have thought that Sir Reginald, in his dotage, should be the instrument of Leicester’s downfall ! However, as the knights directly under my command also advanced to drive off Leicester’s men there came a dreadful smell of brimstone and I was affeared that the chapel in the Prior’s house had been sore afflicted by great evil ! Indeed, such an evil must have been present and must have touched Prior Robert for he joined me on the walls only to give orders to our knights that they should support Leicester ! Surely he was in the thrall of Lucifer !
As my superior though I could not gainsay him but made my way clear of the infernal stench and called upon St Edmund to show him the error of his ways. Ah, glorious day ! I had not thought to be so blessed that I should see such a saint walk upon God’s earth but it was so – St Edmund himself castigated the Prior in such tone that the Prior immediately repented his actions. Alas, the infernal dominion was strong here though for Satan’s minion challenged St Edmund for the Prior’s soul; but no one can match the power of Our Lord and St Edmund carried the Evil One away. Prior Robert is even as I write reconsecrating the chapel. But what of the battle ? Well, I am sorry to say, Your Reverence, that the fighting was so heavy with Leicester’s forces that ten of our knights have fallen and drawn their final breath on this Earth. They shall surely be rewarded in Heaven ! But none were captured – and in conjunction with Sir Reginald’s men we took some nine knights of Leicester captive.
Glory be to God that Leicester himself was also returned to the Prior’s house. I am sad to say though that due to a miscommunication between Sir Reginald and myself, Sir Reginald had him put to death before he could be handed over to the King’s Justice. We have won great victory here, Lord Abbot. A traitor halted, an evil taint removed and a few pennies for Mother Church’s Holy Cause as well ! Truly the Lord smiles upon us ! Your Servant, Brother Samson
Richard de Lucy, Justiciar of England
Finally chased Leicester down just north of St Edmund’s Bury. Gave out my orders. De Bohun ranting about killing mercenaries as usual. That Samson is an awkward so-and-so, didn’t take the hint about the toll-gates. Both spent too much time talking about God and not the task in hand. And so we rode out to do the King’s will and crush the rebels, myself in the centre, de Bohun on the left and Samson on the right. FitzRobert kept pestering me about some legal document he wants me to put my seal to. Have to watch him. And so, we rode out onto the field. Tricky fellow, Leicester, got lots of archers. Hope we can buy them off, told de Bohun that we want them alive. He may have been listening. And so we rode forth, our pennons flying proudly in the breeze. The King’s men were arrayed in serried ranks, arms gleaming, before us lay the river. Distant sounds of battle came from the right and to the left the unearthly cries of some hunting beast, howling like a great hound, as I said to Sir Hugh. Most odd. The host rode forth, as yet unopposed, the enemy holding to their positions beyond the river.
At one pint, the treacherous bank gave way, plunging both me and my horse into the torrent. Emerging, I espied a most curious sight - two children, with skins as green as beans. Yes, most certainly like green beans. A very memorable simile, suitable, indeed, to be sung by minstrels. Their conversation was most charming, as they danced in the meadows. Indeed, I was strangely inclined to dance with them myself. However, sterner tasks called. So I bid Sir Hugh to gat down and give his horse to the green children, as I could not bear to be parted from such enchanting creatures, and we rode forth once more. Passing some fleeing knights of de Bohun, we stormed across the river and shortly thereafter a great victory was won, with the news that Leicester himself was taken by Reginald de Dunstanville and his forces destroyed. (Shame about the mercenaries). Good show!
Humphrey III de Bohun, Constable of England
Sir Humphrey’s battle diary Good. Run Leicester to ground without most of his allies. Bu**er still has his ru**y mercenaries with him though I see. De Lucy has given me command of the northern flank along with some rubbish about trying to save Leicester’s mercenaries so he can buy them out. I’ve told him that they are all spawns of Satan and he’d be mad to even consider using them. We agreed that any left alive after the battle would be his to recruit so I’ve given orders to my lads to make sure that none of the da**ed crossbowmen survive at least. Lost too many good men to them in the past to let them get off lightly now ! Sound fellow Fitz-Robert ! Wants to go charging off to have at the traitors. Solid fellow ! I’ll follow up with my lads and we’ll crush this treasonous lot my lunch time ! Some rum goings on with that de Lucy bloke. Capering about like some kind of madman. Always thought he was going a bit soft. Probably his age. Wish he’d get his men across the Lark though as we might need his knights to keep Leicester’s footmen off while we kill the crossbowmen. Well, got my lads across the Lark and well on the road to dealing with those ba**ard crossbowmen and what do you know but I come across, Margaret, the young filly who is betrothed to me. Can’t leave the lads for too long during the battle but best get her to a church. Silly gel, doesn’t know what’s good for her like most of her high strung gender !
Tried to run off – probably in terror with the battle only half a mile away. Still, now she’s cracked herself on the noggin she’s appropriately docile. I’ll have a priest look her over and make sure she was just lost round here. Can’t be too careful given her family connections. Time to get back to the lads ! Bl**dy idiots. Some baying dog has scared over twenty of them into the Lark. Serves them right if they drowned for being such lightweights ! Still, they have at least found a ford for de Lucy. Lord knows, he appears to need all the help he can get ! Ha, just getting up towards my boys and they seem to have overrun the remains of Leicester’s baggage train and have arranged a parley with what is left of Leicester’s forces. Da**ed good lads have also dealt with the crossbowmen as well. Never suffer one of those evil little bu**ers to live, that’s what I say. De Lucy can have the mercenary footmen and good riddance to them. Assuming de Lucy ever actually gets here of course. Hopeless. Married Margaret. Not bad but I’ve had better. HdB
The game was run using the Ars Magica 5th edition rules. Yes, tabletop rpg rules! The group rules made it very easy to run the battle. Each unit had statistics for an average member, and we used a simple method to declare if the leadership bonuses were being applied to attack or defence each turn. The movement rates (given on each character sheet) were taken from Lords of Men, as were the average stats for the units and the crossbow rules and ranges. Crossbows actually proved fairly ineffective against well armoured knights, perhaps surprisingly. The answer would be to use the knight’s Brawl (Dodge) or Ride as a Defence rather than there melee Defence when receiving missile fire – see Lords of Men for a discussion. We didn’t, because I have not included that on the character sheets. Add Ride + Quickness to work it out and archery will be much more effective; however as those stats are not given on the sheet for the units I’d default to Defence 5 against crossbows. The most important rule was only characters could take actions against other characters. So no matter if all your men were shot down by Flemish croissbowmen, only the leader of them (a player character) could shoot at your character. The game ran in four phases per turn.
1. Movement. Everyone moved simultaneously. If we had used initiative it could have taken much, much longer. You need a lot of rulers,.and if people come in to contact you work out where. It worked well.
2. Talking. The noise rules were important. Communication was 50cm (Voice range in Ars Magica), or 35cm if a melee combat or baying hound or something else noisy was within 50cm of you. You could shout a few words to any other player in that range. In reality we let people talk in character for a couple of minutes (not the few seconds of the Ars Magica combat round) to anyone they were in communication with.
3.Combat We calculated Initiative normally for each normal melee as it happened. Powers and spells used in combat were resolved in this phase using the normal initiative rules. For determining how the Leadership bonus was applied we used a sort of Paper-Scissor-Stones – players chose scissors for attack, or stone for defence, and their Leadership modifier was applied to the relevant combat score. Despite the madness of trying to run a full scale battle using table top rpg rules, it all went surprisingly smoothly, and even those who had never played Ars Magica before soon got their heads around the combat system. We allowed player characters to expend fatigue levels to boost rolls as in the normal combat rules, but ignored this option for units for the sake of simplicity.
4. Powers Magic and special character powers were resolved in this phase, in order of initiative, unless we had resolved them earlier. A second Storyguide (referee) could have sped things up here significantly, as each involved secret discussions between a player and the referee.Still it was all pretty fast. I think we resolved 9-10 turns in the three hour slot, including all discussion and rules explanations etc. Most people had their characters and a copy of the battlefield of map a few days before the game to plan, which is probably a good idea as some of the characters run to about ten pages or more.
So what really happened at Fornham in 1173?
The historical outcome was not that dissimilar to the game one (though I suspect Black Shuck and the Green Children played a less important role in proceedings). ”During the troubled reign of Henry II the Earl of Leicester staged a rebellion. He landed at Walton-on-the Naze with 300 Flemish mercenaries, a body of archers and some forty knights he had persuaded to join his cause. After unsucessfully attacking Dunwich (then an important port) he marched on to Risby, en route to Leicester where presumably he intended to raise a more substantial force” I wrote in my book Spectral Suffolkback in 1990.
“In the meantime the King’s loyal supporters had not been idle. The Lord Chief Justice of England Sir Richard de Lucy gathered together 300 knights and proceeded to Bury where he was joined by the High Constable Sir Hugh de Bohun and the earls of Gloucester, Arundel and Cornwall. Between them they raised a force of some 1,200 Bury men who were willing to fight for their cause and the future of the Crown. (It is ironic that forty two years later the Barons met again at Bury to draw up and prepare the Magna Carta, designed to limit the power of the Crown.) Battle was inevitable. The Rebel forces took the high ground on Barton Hill, and Leicester’s tiny army attempted to ford the Lark. It is said that the Earl’s men were unable to find a crossing place, although this seems hard to believe today, for the river rarely exceeds four feet in depth, although things may have been different then. Perhaps Leicester decided the crossing would disorganise and weary his men and allow the enemy to fall on them from behind. Leicester must have realised defeat was inevitable. None the less he drew up his men and prepared to make a stand on Fornham meadows with the river protecting his right flank. He made a heroic speech, and seems to have truly inspired his road weary and out numbered forces. The battle began with the heroic charge of Walter Fitz-Robert who was beaten back. Then the Earl of Arundel marched forward, only to be met with withering fire from Leicester’s archers. This was followed immediately by a charge by the High Constable’s knights. It is fascinating to try to imagine the armour, plumes and pennants fluttering from the steel tipped lances as the mighty war horses thundered down the hill and across the meadows towards Leicester’s tired men. One hundred men, mainly archers were captured yet still the rebel ranks held.
De Lucy decided enough was enough and through his main force forward to the attack. Leicester’s wife now fled in terror, losing her jewellery and to no avail as she was captured by the (hopefully) gallant knight Sir Walter de Wahull. Leicester saw his mercenaries cut down and no realised the day was lost. Falling back to the parish church of St. Genevieve (this particular building burnt down in 1782) he and his knights made a desparate stand, until overwhelmed by weight of numbers they chose surrender rather than death. It was a wise choice, for the prisoners were merely deported to Normandy and then confined to Calais for their treason… “
I thoroughly enjoyed the project, though some one hundred and twenty man hours went in to the preparation and construction of the game. Still all worth while, and possible because of the team of people who worked on it: Becky Smith, Hugh Wake, Thomas Nowell, Phil Jenkins and Lisa Langood all played significant roles in getting the game to fruition, and I wrote the characters and designed the whole things of which I am just proud. I have made the game available to Mark from Grand Tribunal America for use their perhaps in the future, and am happy to share with other Atlas Games promoters from the Atlas Games Special Ops demo team who attend games conventions promoting Ars Magica by running games. Many thanks to John and Michelle Nephew at ATLAS Games, everyone who played and all the delegates of Grand Tribunal 2012.
I’m occasionally approached by other game companies to promote their game by a one off event at a convention – well if I enjoy your game I’m happy to consider it, and you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reaading cj x
I wrote this for Continuum 2012, but never got around to running it, and indeed had pretty much forgotten about it, but Jeff mentioned it while I was there, and I gave it to all my players in Pelorian Song Contest as a gift. It can be run as a freeform, or as a system-less game, but it I wrote it for HQ2 and it may work best with that system. I thought it might be nice to make it available…
HQS A Summers Eve
If you take a look do comment, and hope it amuses.If you are interested in poltergeist cases you may enjoy it, or may not!
All the best
It’s been a while since I wrote about my hobby, roleplaying games, and what follows is a brief review of a supplement for one such game, Heroquest 2. It’s a pen and paper/tabletop rpg like Dungeons and Dragons, not a computer game, though there is a computer game and iphone app set in the same background, the excellent King of Dragon Pass, and if you have an iphone or can find the original game I highly recommend it. (I have only played the pc version, but they are pretty much the same I’m told.) Anyway if you follow my blog primarily for my writings on psychical research, and have no interest in games, you might want to skip this post! If however you have ever played a traditional rpg, or are interested in trying such things, have a look at my review of Heroquest 2 and drop me a line if you would like to know more. If you have ever played Runequest or Dragon Pass, then do read on!
Sartar Kingdom of Heroes is a book I waited a very long time to get, mainly because when I had the money I could not find it in the shops, and most of the time I never had the money! While Heroquest 2 is a generic system, where you can play any genre or setting at all, from Fantasy to Romance to Horror to Hospital Drama, or whatever else you and your players can come up with, it does have a short appendix on playing in Greg Stafford’s fictional setting Glorantha, a beautifully detailed world of high myth and high adventure. My first two HQ2 games did not utilize these rules at all — I ran a heist movie game, which showed how fun and inspiring the character generation system was, and then ran a short Bonnie & Clyde inspired Depression era game about a family of moonshiners and bank robbers, which was also a lot of fun.
When I finally managed to get Sartar Kingdom of Heroes, I was tempted in to running my first Gloranthan game with the rules, and it has taught me an awful lot more about the strengths of the system. HQ2 is a great system – but with S:KoH it really sings, and purrs along. I asked my players to comment, and Rob Smith a veteran of twenty years rpg and dozens of systems wrote about HQ2…
Love the system. Really flexible on character generation and storytelling. Gave me the ability to try something really challenging and leftfield which was certainly immersive, escapist, liberating and highly enjoyable. I’ll stop now before this ends up is “Pseud’s Corner” in Private Eye.
The fact that since playing in Sartar three out of four of my players have decided to acquire Heroquest 2, and the other one I believe already owns the pdf tells you a lot. Much of what I write below is designed for people who already know Glorantha, but if you don’t the computer game Skyrim’s setting is very similar in some ways to this marvelous fantasy game setting.
So without further ado, the book…
Sartar Kingdom of Heroes – henceforth SKoH — is a physically impressive book. While most of my rpg books have a page count of 120-200 pages, this one weighs in at 378 pages – it has the look of a telephone directory, if you can remember such things before they went online and almost everyone went ex-directory. It’s a paperback book, but with nice binding and it has so far survived the trauma of extensive use in game and being moved during redecoration, and is still in good condition. Physically I must say the presentation is excellent, though for a book of this size and which I will use as much as I will this one I would have bought a hardback if it was available. Moon Designs earlier paperback books however have long outlasted my Mongoose Runequest hardbacks, which have real binding issues, so I’m delighted with the book and have no worries about it falling apart.
So what is in the Book?
Everything apart from the Heroquest 2 rules you will need to run a Gloranthan rpg game set in Sartar, a kingdom of Dragon Pass. And I really mean that. While the Sartar Companion, which I also own and will review later is absolutely excellent, this book has an incredible amount in it. If you had never played any game set in the world of Glorantha before, then I think this book would make the ideal introduction. The book is divided up in to four sections.
Section 1 – Making Your Orlanthi Character
If you are a veteran RuneQuest or Heroquest player, and especially if you have read Storm Tribe and Thunder Rebels, most of this material will be familiar to you. What it does is explains beautifully how all this works with HQ2, and it is much, much clearer than the HQ2 appendix on Gloranthan magic. We did not have to refer to the rules once, simply using the list method (previously we had used narrative in earlier non-Gloranthan games, but the players did not know Glorantha well enough to attempt this), and the players choice of Runes defined their likely cults, personalities, and pretty much everything about their characters. The runes are absolutely central in HQ2, in a way they never were, ironically, in any edition of Runequest. Reading the HQ2 rules had made me doubt if it would work well – in play it worked beautifully. Now I was a big fan of HQ1, and HQ2 has fixed many problems my players found in that system — like multiple augments leading to long tedious number crunching contests — but the way runes work now is one of the highlights of the new edition, and while fundamentally similar, it really rewards player creativity. Selecting your runes first makes you think not in terms of “creating a Humakti”, but in terms of creating a personality and then fitting that person to their cult. I really enjoyed running the flashback t the Women’s initiation, which was central to two of the characters back story, but I would have liked a little more on the female initiation rites, but it worked really well when we just went with the story and I improvised and asked the players questions about their mystical understanding of what was happening.
One thing I will definitely recommend is the useful 13 page Player’s Primer background for the Colymar Campaign (see later) which you can download free from Moon Designs site. It will give you a real feel for the book too. I asked my players to read this before we started the game, and then made sure they had read their cult description (see below) and they were away. Huge parts of SKoH can be safely be read by the players btw – the only parts I would ask them not to read are the Colymar Campaign, a series of adventures that comprise section 4 of the book, as that would spoil the fun of playing those adventures, which I have been running.
If you happen to have owned Barbarian Adventures, an early HQ1 book, or played King of Dragon Pass the PC and iphone game you will recognize the clan questionnaire which also appears in this section. As in many of Greg’s games, community and relationships with clan, tribe and family are central to your characters; they are not rootless individuals out to kill stuff and take its gold, but rounded individuals who exist in a social milieu. As such you create a unique history for your clan, by answering questions about what your ancestors did in many key events in Gloranthan history and myth, and your clan and characters are shaped by this. My players familiarity with the incredibly rich and detailed (some would say overwhelming) Gloranthan background varied, and they at times were really just answering by whatever seemed fun, but they learned a bit of Gloranthan myth and history in the process, and if they were interested in something I took the time to explain it a little – Nysalor, the First Age, the EWF, etc. We used the online clan generation sheet, and had fun creating our unique clan abilities and myths — Resist Sunspear, and the Secret of Dancing On Ice are the two I can recall now!
While this section is very newbie friendly indeed, it is perfectly readable even if you are a Gloranthan player of decades, and the introduction has a number of subtle in jokes aimed at old hands ranging from the Dragon Pass board game on that had me laughing out loud. This is something that recurs throughout the book – if you played Apple Lane, know who Rurik Runespear was or that is ransom was 300 guilders, or have ever sworn by Bladger your axe, you will love this book!)
Section 2 – Orlanthi Religion
I was tempted to skim this 120 page guide to Orlanthi religion, but I’m glad I did not. There is some great HQ2 material on how the rules and magic work in Glorantha, how different Feats can be acquired, how to sacrifice for one use specific magic, etc, etc. Even cults i thought I knew inside out like Ernalda and Orlanth had some surprises – I never thought of Ernalda as Arachne Solara till I read and understood part of this! — and their are many lovely insights even to people like me who grew up playing Runequest in the late 1970′s. Somehow the prose is fresh enough to avoid the “Kyger Litor again!” syndrome many old hands will know. Not that Kyger Litor is detailed in the book – but Orlanth, Ernalda, Elmal, Urox the Storm Bull, Chalana Arroy, Lhankor Mhy, Issaries, Humakt and Yinkin (for those who have not kept up since Cults of Prax, the Sartarite God of alynxes, the big cats who take the role of dogs in Sartarite society) are. Like much of this book all this was a huge nostalgia trip to me, but still exciting and fresh. I wanted to call Axel and Eric Quigley, the chaps who introduced me to Glorantha, and beg them to buy the book. (The Sartar Companion has an even more nostalgic elements- an adventure called Return to Apple Lane, rather bitter sweet. As a demo adventure it is available from Moon Designs free here, but if you weren’t there in the early 80′s you may never understand why I like it so much.)
The chapter also contains a good section on Heroquesting, as is only appropriate for the game!
Section 3 – The Orlanthi Book
Once again, all is familiar, yet much new. Sections on Sartarite law and culture draw from the legacy of Thunder Rebels, and I think it fair to say that you don’t need that or any earlier Gloranthan book but the HQ2 core rules to use this to full effect. Sections explain ducks, mostali, aldryami, the Lunars, the Red Goddess, Dara Happans and much else besides. This is a brilliantly written concise primer to what you will need to know to have fun in the setting. Some of it is deep history and background, mainly of use to people on the World of Glorantha mailing list, or those with a strong interest in the shaping of Sartar. It seems well researched, and completely compatible with the earlier book King of Sartar, which is a “faction” paperback that details the beginnings of the Hero Wars with several amusing nods to academic Biblical Criticism and academic studies of mythology. Fun as that book is, this section is much clearer and easier to comprehend, not being written as a Gloranthan document in the main, though one part is a Lunar report on the Orlanthi.
Section 4 – The Colymar Campaign
An admission – at the time of writing this review we have only just completed the first part of the three main “acts” of this epic adventure, which tells the story of the wooing of an Earth Priestess, and her courtship by one of the player characters. While the hook is a classic case of deux ex machina, one of the characters has to fall in love with her, from then on the storyline as written has been very useful, but not remotely constraining on our creativity, and we have had immense fun, perhaps the most fun I have had running any rpg in years, and I have recently run the superb Dara Happa Stirs campaign for Runequest. I’m not going to say much about this, for fear of giving spoilers, but it is epic stuff and if you love Gloranatha it would be a terrible shame not to read it, and I can’t imagine many groups who would not have fun trying to complete an almost impossible set of tasks to win the fair priestesses hand in marriage!
This stuff is important, as it describes the Calendar that is used extensively early in the book, and its placement here is a shame. It is worth if you are not familiar with the Gloranthan year reading this first, and also having a quick look at the useful descriptions of the 28 key Orlanthi holy days. The list of languages of Dragon Pass also answers obvious questions; remember also that nearly all Orlanthi are illiterate, so unless an initiate of Lhankor Mhy or you take literacy with some explanation as an ability, you can’t read anything.
Now as you may have gathered, the book is pricey. I bought direct from Moon Designs </a for $59.99, rather than going to Leisure Games site or Cubicle 7 where it costs £40. However if you buy direct from Moon Designs, who always have the book in stock unlike UK retailers, they benefit from your sale and are more likely to produce even more great books in the future, and as the shops never seem to have it in stock, I went this route. I nearly cried at the cost because I’m let’s face it far from wealthy– but when I saw the book, I realized it was worth every penny, and very reasonably priced for something this big and glossy to my mind at least, given how many times larger it is than most of my rpg books, and how incredibly useful it is.
The artwork is largely taken from previous publications of the last 40 years set in Glorantha, with some new pieces, and I like most of it, while one of my players was more critical. Nostalgia wins me over i think. The cover by Simon Bray is to my mind excellent, but my players were not so keen, but it is actually a very useful cover, and a page of the book explains all the things represented thereupon. I really like it though.
Overall, if you are fond of Glorantha, incredibly detailed rpg settings, or want to try Heroquest2 out, I can not recommend this book highly enough. A first rate piece of work, I report with pleasure the Sartar Companion is just as good. Do buy this book!