Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 3

The cults in Kingdom of Heroes are written in much the same format as in previous Gloranthan books from Storm Tribe all the way back to Cults of Prax. However, much of the information is fresh, and, of course, the new magic rules put a different slant on things. It is here that the re-focusing on the runes is perhaps at its most obvious; we always knew why Chalana Arroy, for example, had the runes of Life and Harmony, but here its quite specific what that means in concrete terms.

Thunder Rebels and Storm Tribe both focussed to a large extent on subcults; the various speciality forms of worship granting unusual magic. In a sense, one could argue that Destor, say, was the default Orlanth cult (at least for warriors), but it didn't truly feel like that - it was more as if one had to pick from a big list of options. Now, I never found that problem, and I quite liked the range of options that were provided, but restoring the subcults to optional niches (as they were back in the old RuneQuest days) is certainly a good deal simpler.

In fact, its not really accurate to say that the subcults of TR and ST have been done away with. A great many of them do survive, albeit somewhat downplayed in importance. Orlanth, for example, has eleven , including Hedkoranth, Destor, Helamakt, and so on. It would be relatively easy to add those that are "missing" (such as Yavor or Vanganth, for example), assuming you have access to the older sources.

There have, on the other hand, been some demotions. The powers of some of the old subcults are relegated to mere feats of the 'default' version of the deity, although, again, its fairly easy to build them back up if one is so inclined. Vinga the warrior-ess and Heler the rain god, both full deities in Storm Tribe, are here demoted to mere subcults of Orlanth. That isn't necessarily so bad, though, since Vinga was always supposed to be able to do anything Orlanth could do, so she might as well be merged in rules terms as well. Heler is perhaps a little more disappointing, but when you have space for only nine cults, its a perfectly reasonable one to leave out. (Incidentally, the others from ST who fail to make the grade are Odayla, who to my mind isn't as interesting as Yinkin, and Eurmal, who isn't very suitable for PCs anyway).

Having said that, cults are fairly central to play in the Dragon Pass setting, and, given the size of the book, I would have liked to have seen more. Expecting minor cults to get the full 5+ pages devoted to each those that made it in might, perhaps be a bit much... but one or two pages each would have sufficed to at least give us the basics. As it is, this is an area where having Storm Tribe available is going to be helpful - at least until a companion volume comes out with the lesser cults properly described.

The one cult in KoH that I felt unhappy with was Humakt, god of death. There seems to have been a general move since RuneQuest days to make the Humakti embody death to such an extent that they cease (at least from my perspective) to be truly interesting or really playable. Storm Tribe, while subscribing to this view, at least seemed to recognise what a big problem it could create in game. The "re-sheathing" ceremony mentioned in that book was a decent stab at keeping Humakti playable, and was, as a result, to my mind one of the most crucial points about the cult in that book.

Sadly, KoH seems to ignore that altogether. Technically, it doesn't contradict it, but that's not much of an excuse, when the reader will be clearly left with the impression that all Humakti - and not just, say, the Devotees - are somehow the "living death". It's a disappointing omission, and, perhaps, quite a surprising one.

While I'm on the subject, the section on Humakti gifts and geases feels weak and woolly by comparison with all previous versions - some more specific examples would have been very helpful here.

Still, other than Humakt, the cults are good. And they're by no means the end of the cool material in the book. There is a lot of good advice on heroquesting, expanding and improving on that in earlier books. Heortling culture is well described, bringing them as a people to life, helped by the high quality illustrations throughout. Dragon Pass itself is described, with the aid of several glossy full colour maps.

These maps in particular, are a part of the reason why I say that the book is worth the price. How often do you see full colour maps in RPG products that aren't produced by giants like Hasbro/WotC? And these are nice looking maps at that, and detailed enough to be really helpful in play. There are even black & white plans of the cities of Sartar, something that has generally been lacking in previous publications. There's also a detailed description of the Colymar tribe, complete with its own colour map.

The book has information about the Lunars, and about the various other cultures that neighbour the Heortling barbarians. Rightly, the focus is on the Heortlings themselves, rather than describing the Lunar Army in detail, or describing the cults of the Grazelanders. But even so, there is enough information here to play them as foes.

All in all, the sheer density of information in the book may seem a little overwhelming to a newcomer, but it rewards the effort with a wonderfully fleshed-out look at a culture different from that in so many other RPGs, and very much retaining the "feel" that Glorantha has had for so long. Yes, I have reservations about the book. It isn't perfect, but then what is? But that doesn't mean that it isn't one of the best Gloranthan products to have come our way in a long time.

If Moon Design can keep this up at a regular schedule - and we know there are more books in the pipeline - then its going to be a very good few years for Gloranthan fandom.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 2

Every time there is a new magic system released for Glorantha, we are always told that "this time it's the way we always wanted it to be", and "this time it really reflects Greg's stories." The magic systems in both HW and HQ1 were promoted with those sorts of phrases, and HQ2 is, of course, no different. I'm past caring whether or not they're true in any meaningful way; I just want to know whether or not the system is any good.

And, on the whole, the system presented in KoH is good.

Of course, there wasn't really much wrong with the theist magic system in HQ1 - although the same couldn't really be said for animism or wizardry. But nonetheless, the writers of KoH have managed to improve on it, and that can only be a good thing.

It's worth pointing out again that KoH is, rightly, a book about the Heortling barbarians of Sartar, dominated as they are by the magic of Air and Earth. So the book has essentially nothing to say about how magic works elsewhere in the world. The primer in the HQ2 core rulebook gave a sufficient outline of that, and it will hopefully be developed more as time goes by. But this is the book for the Heortlings, and its only their magic we see here.

The core of the new Heortling magic system then, is the runes. These are the same old familiar runes of RuneQuest, with Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions. We have always been told that the runes were the basis of all magic, but it is only with this new system that that is really shown to be the case. Every character starts off with three runes, one Element, one Power, and one other, which can be anything except another Element or a Power directly opposed to the one you already have. (So, no having both Life and Death, for instance).

Characters with no cult use their runes to augment everyday tasks; they don't create specific "spells". So, if you are strong in, say, the Death rune, you will be able to use it to boost your combat prowess - a sort of Bladesharp, if you will. Here, I would have liked to see more description of what the runes generally let you boost, and a broader discussion of what each of them means. Instead, the descriptions are short, and often of little use, although they do have associated personality traits. Perhaps it was felt that the names were indicative enough, but I feel a broader discussion would have been very helpful.

I'm also not overly enthused by the idea that PCs should be penalised if they fail to act according to the personality traits written for their rune. True, the book suggests that the GM should not use this punitively, but only if it works well with the story. Nonetheless, it feels a little overly prescriptive to me, and I suspect I won't use that part.

Most characters, however, will probably want to initiate to a cult, worshipping a specific god from the Heortling pantheon. To do this, you need at least one rune in common with your god (it's generally specified which one it has to be), and it makes sense to match all of them if you want your character to be magically powerful. A character who belongs to a cult gets to use his rune actively, to cast what would be called "spells" in most other RPG systems. Each god has one "affinity" for each of his one to three runes, which act as keywords allowing the PC to use magic directly related to that aspect of the god. So a Humakti, for instance, can use his Truth rune to cast magic related to honour and oaths.

In HQ1, similar affinities existed, and they were always labelled with an appropriate rune. However, the choice of rune often made little sense - since it had no game mechanical effect, it was merely for decoration anyway. For instance, out of all the many sub-cults of Ernalda in Thunder Rebels, only one had an affinity directly linked to the Earth rune. Similarly, many cults in HQ1 had idiosyncratic runes, creating a plethora of symbols that obscured the underlying simplicity of the system - Under the Red Moon was particularly notable for this.

But, in KoH, the original, simple, list of basic runes takes centre stage. Ernalda has Earth magic, because she is the Earth Mother; Lhankor Mhy, god of knowledge, has Truth magic, and so on. This is both easier to grasp and more atmospheric than the old system, and its a significant step forward.

It does, on the other hand, lead to some problems when the affinities are overly broad. If Orlanth can do anything possible with the Air rune, its difficult to see what the point of any other Air cult might be. As far as I can tell from the rules, a priestess of Ernalda should be just as good at creating earthquakes as a priestess of Maran Gor, the goddess of earthquakes, which sounds a bit odd. Of course, if they were competing against each other, you would give the latter a bonus for the more specific ability, but that seems to be rather side-stepping the issue. Fortunately, the cults provided in the book don't overlap very much, so it's less of a problem than it might appear at first glance.

Another issue in HQ1 was that almost everyone chose to be a devotee, a level of ability that got you more potent magic, but that was supposed to be really rare in the game setting (although, to be honest, this was never very clearly expressed). In KoH, the new "initiates" are essentially the equivalent of the old "devotees" in terms of magical power, removing the temptation to do this.

What KoH calls "devotees" are actually closer to the HQ1/Storm Tribe "disciples" - indeed, they seem to have the same in-world titles. Devotees get specific "feats" which are more focused, and hence more powerful, magic than the broad affinities. In return, they face considerable limitations on their freedom of action, making them less attractive as PCs, unless you really want to play a powerful specialist. Which is, to my mind, as it should be. It is also no longer possible to start play as a devotee; it's a status to be achieved through play, as disciple was in HQ1. A slight niggle is that some of the feat descriptions are a long on flowery text and short on what it is they are actually supposed to do. You're probably meant to work this out in play, but some more guidance would have been nice.

In part 3, I'll take a look at the cults themselves. It's a big book - it needs a long review...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 1

And so, the wait is over, and Kingdom of Heroes has been released. If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you already know what that is, but, to summarise, it's the new HeroQuest sourcebook for the Kingdom of Sartar, a magical barbarian land dominated by the powers of Air and Earth. It is set in the world of Glorantha, where everyone can do magic, and there is a distinct bronze age vibe that makes it different from most other fantasy settings on the market.

On the other hand, if, by some chance, you are actually more interested in my occasional musings on secularism and scepticism, then I’ll take the opportunity to promote the recently released Tim Minchin single “White Wine in the Sun”. This is a beautiful Christmas song about the values that are more important to many of us at this time of year than something that may, or may not, have happened in a stable 2,000 years ago. Buy the MP3 online from a legal download site for just 79p, and maybe it’ll get into the Christmas charts. It’d be a nice thought.

Right, back onto gaming. Chances are that the first thing that will strike you about KoH is “blimey, is that the price?” And, yes, by RPing standards, it’s pretty darn expensive - although, if you’re willing to go PDF-only you can get it for much less than many D&D books by buying it online at sites like DriveThru RPG. The obvious question then, is whether the book is worth the price. I’d say that, if you’re already a fan of Glorantha, then yes, it is. (Of course, if your actual question parses as “is it worth my wife making me sleep on the couch for a month because I spent so much on an RP book?”, then you’re on your own).

The reason I say this is partly the sheer size of the book; at a whopping 378 pages, it’s the equivalent of a number of normal RP supplements stuffed into one cover. And, even for the size, there’s a lot of text. The artwork is great (although some of it isn’t new), and there are even full colour maps inside, which you don’t see very often outside of the really big publishers. Certainly, when you compare it with just about anything previously published by Issaries/Moon Design, the physical quality is in an entirely new league.

On the other hand, if you’re not already a fan, I can’t really deny that it has quite a steep entry price. Furthermore, one of the criticisms often levelled at Glorantha is that it’s too complicated, and there’s just too much to know to get into the setting. Dumping a book of this size down in front of someone is unlikely to dissuade them from that opinion! So, I’d have to say that this feels much more like a book for the fans than one for newcomers. The fact that the book has the name "Sartar" in huge letters on the cover, when nobody but a fan will have a clue what that means, supports the idea that this was what the publishers were aiming at; by comparison the more evocative "Kingdom of Heroes" title is in much smaller print.

But, hey, if you are a fan, or better yet, if you are a newcomer and want to try it anyway, then read on…

Perhaps the second question that might strike a potential purchaser is whether we really need this book. If you’re a fan of Glorantha, chances are that you already have the previous Sartar book, Thunder Rebels , not to mention later supplements covering the setting such as Land of Thunder and Storm Tribe. TR was a pretty damn good book, so do we really need a new book on more or less the same subject?

Here, the issue is a little more complex. It’s perfectly possible to run a game set in Sartar with what’s already been published, so “need” is perhaps too strong a word. On the other hand, there is plenty of new material in here, and a number of things that improve on Thunder Rebels. But, then again, there are some other respects in which, in my opinion, Thunder Rebels did a better job than KoH. In fact, for reasons I’ll get into shortly, I’d say that owning Thunder Rebels will make it easier to get more out of this book – they complement each other, rather than the new book replacing the old one.

The first part of the book concerns character generation. Here, the system is essentially the standard one from HeroQuest, although the original religious keyword has now been replaced by a choice of three runic affinities, which are described later on in the book. Aside from this, there is a cultural keyword that applies to all Sartarites, and then a choice of occupational keywords.

A positive step here was to return to the culture-specific occupational keywords of Thunder Rebels, rather than the generic occupations of HQ1. This makes sense for a book about a specific culture, and removes some of the bland generalisations made necessary in HQ1. It also allows a greater range of occupations than official HQ1 publications had, with, for example, distinctions between common mercenaries and elite weaponthanes.

Regrettably, though, this is one area where KoH falls short of the high standards set by Thunder Rebels.

If you have read my review of HeroQuest 2, you may recall that I praised the preservation of the old method of describing keywords alongside the newer alternatives. Here, HQ2 is allowing flexibility for the needs of the GM and players. Unfortunately, it’s wise advice that KoH chooses to ignore. In this book, there are only “umbrella” keywords, and no indication of how to create the “package” sort. Indeed, there isn’t even any acknowledgement that this might be a problem!

Essentially, all you get in your keyword descriptions is some text, with no clear guidance on what specific abilities they might include. For many people, that might not be an issue, but some might struggle to remember exactly what being, say, a skald, is supposed to imply in terms of abilities. Since many of the abilities that might be included under a keyword aren’t at all obvious (for example, that “entertainer” includes knife-fighting), I myself would certainly want to write down the individual abilities on a character sheet - even if I had to indent them and write ‘+0’ instead of a number.

The writers do their best to get round this limitation in the text descriptions, and largely succeed when it comes to the magic, but they do tend to fall down when it comes to the occupations. Sure, it’s possible to deduce what most of the abilities are going to be from the prose, but a list would have been much simpler to use. Fortunately, anyone who owns Thunder Rebels can use the keywords in there if, like me, they find them more helpful.

Of course, for many people, umbrella keywords will be an improvement over the way they were described in previous books – they might, for example, find it less limiting. But it’s a pity that KoH failed to acknowledge that not everyone might be the same when that variety is specifically catered for in the rulebook itself.

After character generation we come to the clan generation system. A previous version of this was published in Barbarian Adventures way back when, but this one has been retouched since then. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is a system for generating the history of the particular barbarian clan that your PCs come from. It guides the players through a series of questions about what their ancestors did at a particular time, steadily building up details of their clan as they do so, and providing a quick and entertaining course in the history at the same time.

When I’ve done this before, with people mostly new to Glorantha, it proved popular, and it can be something of a fun game in its own right. The decisions you make all have some sort of effect on the final clan, and the starting resources available to the characters. For example, is the clan warlike, wealthy, open to new ideas, etc.? The system for working this out has been somewhat streamlined since the previous version, although there are still times when the GM will probably want to give the players some idea of what the outcomes of their decisions might be in advance. And this time, there is a nice-looking clan sheet to go with it, which you can fill in when you’ve finished.

In part 2, we'll turn to the magic system, which represents perhaps the biggest change from earlier versions.