Monday, 3 January 2011

Sartar Companion - Review pt 2

The Sartar Companion includes six scenarios. They are not linked together by any common theme, and can be run in between sessions of the Kingdom of Heroes scenario, or separately. The first of these is "Return to Apple Lane", which is a sequel to the original Apple Lane scenario, first published in the late '70s, and later, for RQ3 in 1987. Its hard to avoid the feeling that this is a nostalgia-fest for those whose first experience of Glorantha may well have been this introductory adventure way back when. However, no knowledge of the original is required, and the scenario will work just as well for those new to the hamlet.

Details of Apple Lane itself have been changed to fit the new rules, but most of these changes are fairly minor, and the majority of the original NPCs are present - albeit five years older. The only ones who are obviously missing are the Humakti weaponmasters; their building is shown on the map, but they appear to have left the hamlet at some point, perhaps to prevent them offering too much assistance to the PCs. The scenario itself is also reminiscent of the original, with the heroes once again finding themselves defending Gringle's Pawnshop, this time from the Lunars.

The conclusion to the scenario is fairly scripted, although it feels natural enough, rather than railroading the players. Suffice to say that "Return to Apple Lane" is also a bridge between the original RQ version and "Sheep, Clouds, Thunder" from the Gathering Thunder scenario book for HQ1. That received some criticism for the way it treated the hamlet; at least this time the heroes get to salvage something first, and the ending isn't as downbeat as might be expected.

The second scenario, "The Hero and the Grove", is a short heroquest about strengthening the magical pact between the Colymar Tribe and the local wild lands. It's a fairly average heroquest, but does have the advantage of being a good introduction to the concept of re-enacting myths in the Otherworld. If possible, it would probably be a good idea to run this (or something like it) before the more dramatic otherworldly adventure in Kingdom of Heroes, at least if your players are new to the concept. A nice touch here is the description of how the myth was enacted first by Orlanth, then Heort, then Colymar, showing a common historical theme in heroquesting.

"Treasure of Two-Face Hill" is an expansion of a plot hook provided in the background section of the book. There's a good chance the players will need to spend some hero points just to have their characters survive the first part of the scenario (although its also possible to side-step this entirely, if they're more sensible than your average PC), but from then on it turns into a question of how to defend your clan from something that's essentially unbeatable in combat. This is one of those areas where the HQ2 habit of rating opponents as "Nearly Impossible" to defeat, or whatever, really does make sense - if the enemy wasn't significantly tougher than the heroes, there wouldn't be a scenario.

For my money, the best scenario in the book is "Ghosts of the Ridge". Here, the players are presented with a problem that can be solved in numerous ways, all with their own pros and cons. The judicious use of extreme physical violence is certainly one of the options, although perhaps not the best one. While the heroes are certainly free to try that, and other possibilities besides, the scenario nudges them towards seeking a legal solution to their situation, and undertaking a rather cool heroquest to recover an item of considerable magical power. Characters following Lhankor Mhy, god of knowledge, will probably get as much chance to shine in this one as the warriors, if not more so. The heroquest can also be run as a stand-alone scenario, should the characters choose another way of dealing with the central issue in this one.

"The Gifts of Stone" starts out fairly scripted, with some obvious scenery-gawking, but later turns into a return visit to another old RQ scenario, in this case the Sazdorf tunnels from Haunted Ruins. The nature of the heroes' mission makes this feel somewhat different from the original, and there are a few reminders that you're not here to just steal treasure from the trolls!

The final offering isn't so much a scenario as a bit of scenery setting. The Crimson Bat arrives in Sartar, eats a bunch of people, and then buggers off to Whitewall. This can be used as an opportunity to do all sorts of things, and is rather more dramatic than it may sound. If you already know what the Crimson Bat is, 'nuff said... if not: "scary" about sums it up.

So, the actual narratives of the scenarios are, on the whole, pretty good. Where they fall down is for the same reason as in Kingdom of Heroes: the lack of any stats. This was, to my mind, a significant drawback in that book, and it hasn't been fixed here, either. This flaw naturally extends to the encounters, and, to some extent, the background material, as well as to the scenarios.

To be fair, the writers are quite up-front about it - literally so; they mention it in the introduction. Their argument is that stats "aren't necessary" in HQ2, which is technically true, but doesn't mean that they aren't highly desirable, at least for some GMs. Instead, anyone who thinks such things are useful is just told to go away and do all the work themselves, which isn't terribly helpful.

Now, one of the problems with HQ2 as a system - if you like the style of gaming I do - is that you couldn't give numbered stats to NPCs if you wanted to. The system doesn't work that way, and sometimes (as in "Treasure of Two-Face Hill", mentioned above) that's an advantage, and sometimes it isn't. Either way, nobody can blame the writers for leaving out the numbers, since they just wouldn't make sense.

But that isn't to say that you can't give a clearer idea of what the NPCs and other encounters are capable of. A listing of significant abilities is all that's required. In fact, this is done for one particular being (p226), so why not the others? You're presumably supposed to infer any stats you might need from the text descriptions, but this really isn't very satisfactory, especially for the more important characters, like the villain in "Return to Apple Lane". Yes, you can do all the work yourself, as you're advised to, but you shouldn't have to.

A rather sour note to end on, then, although it has to be acknowledged that many people won't find the lack of stats a problem at all, and some will doubtless rejoice in the freedom it gives them. But, really, it's my only major criticism of the book, which in every other respect (except maybe the proofreading) is of high quality, and eminently useful for any Sartar-based campaign. If you don't mind going only PDF-only, you can even get it for almost half price, which is pretty good value, all things considered. There's a lot of really good material here, and the book deserves to do well.

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