Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This is SARTAR!

The old Runequest 2 (not the new one I review below), had what can fairly be described as a legendary section that previewed "sources to be published," most of which have either never seen print or have only done so in vastly changed form.  One of them was:

THE SARTAR CAMPAIGN: Maps, personalities, histories, local cults, and other material about the storm Kingdom of Sartar.  Includes tribal specifics, extensive Road Encounters section, and a full explanation of the Orlanth cult.  Based on the campaign led by Greg Stafford.

Almost thirty years later, that sourcebook is finally here.  And perhaps it's the Gloranthan fanboy in me speaking, but it's been worth the wait.

For many years virtually all I knew about Sartar came from playing the game Dragon Pass, in which it was clearly the plucky little underdog with a barbaric (in the classical sense) culture taking on the hyper-civilized Lunar Empire.  With Lunars often having Roman names, I could not help but think of Sartar as Gaul or Britain.  In fact I often thought of developing a small village holding out aganst the Lunar invaders, aided by the unique magic of their priest.  The chief, Tonobri, would be carried everywhere on a shield, but the village's main assets would be two warriors, Steri and Obel...  Perhaps I shall put that clan together some day - the new book makes that easy and interesting, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
During the days of RQIII, it seemed that the best source for Sartar, barring the sections in the Genertela supplement, was actually Greg Stafford's own Vikings pack set in the Alternate Earth experiment Avalon Hill foisted on Runequest.  (I should note here that I never owned any of the Wyrms Footnotes issues that probably would have answered a lot of my questions about the setting).  When I had Sartarite settlements to detail, I based them and their social arrangements on the materials in that set.  Being a proud descendant of both Vikings and Saxons, I added in a few Anglo-Saxon elements but, let's face it, there wasn't that much difference between the cultures.

So when I stopped playing RPGs after my move to the States, that was where my concept of Sartar was left.  I never played King of Dragon Pass, nor did I have to deal with the Hero Wars Sartar books, which seem to me, reviewing them later (thanks, Better World Books!), to have sucked a lot of fun out of the setting and made it a realm of sheep, erm, rearers with a bizarre religion of subcults.  I have to say that if I'd come back to Glorantha five or six years ago, I might have given it up forever.

Luckily, I didn't.  Instead, my first new Gloranthan product, from the Third Age at least, was this hefty tome.  When it arrived I opened it with a great deal of trepidation.  How could it match up to thirty years, give or take a ten year hiatus, of my thoughts about the setting.  The answer is that it does so surprisingly well.  Here's my review.

PRODUCTION VALUES. Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes (SKOH from now on) is a substantial tome, 378 pages long.  It is softbound, and the cover is already starting to fray.  The cover art I have mixed feelings about.  It's evocative, but I don't think it's the artist Simon Bray's best work.  The interior art is mostly good, but a lot of it has been seen elsewhere; the maps are uniformally excellent, both the color maps and the black and white sketches.  The layout is crisp and clean and sidebars and text boxes all seem to serve a useful purpose.  The overall feel is utilitarian to good.

CONTENT: GAME SYSTEM.  SKOH isn't just a sourcebook.  It also applies the Heroquest 2 rules to Glorantha.  I could never get the hang of the first edition of Heroquest, which seemed very complicated for a supposedly rules-lite system, but HQ2 seems much more elegant.  Unlike HQ1, however, HQ2 is not dedicated to Glorantha, and has just one appendix about magic in the Lozenge.  So SKOH is really the book to tell us how the system works.  It seems to work well.  Character design is quick and simple, with the main element being the choice of runes.  Various social roles are given as guidelines and the character's role in his or her community is very important.  So much so that Clan Generation is as important as Character Generation.  This is done by means of a questionnaire, with the players' answers determining important aspects of the clan background, which will in turn have effects on the characters themselves.  Both character and clan have well-designed record sheets, which are also downloadable from  Religion is central to Sartarite life and I am very glad to say that the Sartarite religion has returned to something recognizable to old Runequest fans, with the countless subcults of Storm Tribe being, if not outright retconned out of existence, swept under the carpet.  Each of the major cults is well described, with very good ideas for how the religion works in game terms.  The section on Heroquesting (the in-game feat, not the game system) is excellent and finally answers a bunch of questions I've had on the phenomenon.  The bottom line is that I think I now know how to run a Gloranthan game using HQ2.  I probably still prefer RQII, but the fact is that the new version of RQ is so compatible with the concepts outlined in SKOH that it is actually just as valuable for RQ as for HQ.  That's a big plus in my view, and a heck of an achievement considering the state of both systems just a few years ago.

CONTENT: BACKGROUND.  As you'd expect from a 378 page book, there is a vast amount of background material here.  From the average Sartarite's clothing and homestead layout to the kingdom's legal system to the geography and climate of the region, virtually any question you'd have about Sartar is answered somewhere in the text.  Maps, personalities, histories, cults, tribal specifics and the full explanation of the Orlanth cult - all promised back in 1979 - are delivered.  The only thing missing is the extensive Road Encounters section, which the authors say was cut at the last minute...  Truly, there's a huge amount of very rich background, and yet the book does not feel detailed for detail's sake.  You have everything you need to know here with very little you don't need to know. Nor is there much that would constrain an imaginative GM, which I felt was the case with the previous Hero Wars/HQ1 incarnation.

CONTENT: THE COLYMAR CAMPAIGN.  About 70 pages are given over to a fully-described campaign, which will take the PCs from a riotous party to the gates of hell (yes, we've all been there).  I don't want to give away spoilers, but this is a very well described plot, with plenty of room for role-playing and genuine player choice (seriously complicating the plot, for instance) that really plays to the strengths of the setting.  It is easily adaptable to RQII and even a Second Age GM should get plenty of ideas from it.  By the end of it, the PCs will be well-placed for a prominent role in the liberation of Sartar, something that seemed forced in the previous Sartar Rising campaign (which I still think has a lot of good things going for it, so I hope it will be revised for future release*).  I'd gladly pay $20 for a campaign book of this length and quality on its own and hope there are many more to come.

A QUICK WORD ON CUSTOMER SUPPORT.  I ordered my copy at Christmas, but it had not arrived by the third week of January.  I contacted Moon Design and they told me that it had been posted in the first week of January, but as it had not arrived they sent me a new copy.  It arrived within the week.  I was very impressed with this and want to record my thanks to them publicly.  I presume I have a bemused neighbor who received the first package in error, because it never arrived here!

OVERALL.  This is the book I was waiting thirty years for.  It's an inspiring volume for an old Glorantha hand and I suspect for a newcomer as well.  There's a lot of old stuff therein, but presented in a new way, and there's more than enough new stuff to make it satisfying.  At $60, the price is steep and probably off-putting, but I found it more than worth it. Now if only they'd included the Road Encounters section...

*Talking of which, I wonder if the promised Pavis book will revamp the Cradle adventure, probably the best scenario in the history of RPGs.


  1. I have to agree that it is a marvelous package. The many maps are functional, and answer a lot of questions - and bring up some new ones - and the artwork is pleasant to the eye. I am particularly charmed by the woodcut type drawings, which I feel fit well to the general Sartar culture.
    I do not play HQ, but have been playing RQ since 1980 or so, and I found the book to be full of useful information. I have adapted the clan creation rules to RQ, and took in some of the character creation particularities. Good purchase, and I am happy to get stuff like this, especially since the source for 3rd Age has dried up for RQ itself.

  2. Man, I miss RQ. Now app. 25 years without. Sigh.