RPG Review: Sartar Kingdom of Heroes for HeroQuest 2
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!