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Review: Glorantha Triumphant - Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and The Sartar Companion

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Of all the shames I can think of in the world of modern fantasy, the fact that Glorantha isn’t better known by the wider public is up near the top of the list.

Bear with me here. This isn’t a normal instance of me forgetting what my list of disappointments is and then constantly repopulating it with new ones. This is something I’ve felt for going on twenty years. Glorantha’s a setting which ranks up there with Middle-Earth, the Young Kingdoms, Hyboria… the big ones. The ones we grew up with, the ones that stuck in our heads, the ones we’ll recommend to our kids and our grandkids.

It’s going to be very hard to do it justice in the span of this review. So much of the charm and feel of Glorantha is tied up a very specific use of language and outlook on the pages. I’m not going to be able to translate that properly here. Just take my word for it that the feel of the whole thing, that nebulous, handwavey emotion which the prose in a good Glorantha book evokes in the reader, is one of the big draws and I can't really convey that.

So let's talk about the history of Glorantha before we start in on the proper review of the new Sartar books. Glorantha is a fantasy world created by Greg Stafford (full disclosure: I'm working with Mr. Stafford on a gaming project now, though I assure you that my feelings about the man's work were favorably inclined long before we ever became acquainted). He cooked up the first stirrings of Glorantha in 1966, when he was 18 years old. It wasn't meant to be a roleplaying game setting, though it obviously ended up as one. There was a distinctly literary approach to the way the world was put together, meant for world building and tale telling.

It's a different fantasy world than most. The world has a very Bronze Age feel to it. The gods play a big part, but not in the way in which they do in something like the Forgotten Realms. There's a tendency to portray the deities in fantasy worlds sort of like big, powerful humans. The best you usually end up with are gods informed by stuff like Bulfinch's mythology: fair modern takes but not really representative of what the old myths were to the people who believed them. But this isn't what Glorantha does. Gods in Glorantha aren't just rulers of concepts or things; they ARE concepts or things. So Orlanth rules storms, yes, but he also IS storms. Characters retell the stories of the gods, symbolically or literally, in what are called heroquests. Stafford has always been interested in religion and, at its best, Glorantha serves as a canvass on which to deconstruct pre-modern religious practice.

The world's not what I would call weird fantasy (despite the fact that the world's a cube and there are duck people) but it's definitely not in the Tolkien vein. The feel is of a world much older, much rougher than most fantasy which takes its cues from the Middle Ages. The humans of the world are irrevocably split on cultural and religious lines, the non-humans mysterious and rather sinister. Everything has a spirit or a god governing it, and they must be respected... unless the god governing it is foreign, in which case it is Other and must be defeated or looked at warily. Myths are living things here.

More than anything else, Glorantha is big. Not just in terms of the world, itself, but in terms of the information out there. Stafford loves his world and spent year after year expanding it, perfecting it, telling stories and writing poems about it (seriously, go check the library of writing on it; it's amazing). His love became the love of Glorantha's fans and the people who were hired to help officially expand upon it. It's inspiring, intimidating, a little weird, and a lot cool.

Stafford eventually founded Chaosium, the legendary gaming company which pounded out Runequest, King Arthur Pendragon, and Call of Cthulhu. Glorantha and Runequest, the game which would become the mechanical basis of so many settings to follow, go hand in hand; it was Glorantha which was the first and always primary setting for the Runequest rules.

The world which Stafford created as a young man at 18 grew up with him, over numerous editions of Runequest and, after he departed Chaosium, in an odd duck narrative game called HeroQuest (well, Hero Wars, first... the distinction's not important).

While a full review of HeroQuest is outside the scope of this particular piece, the game served as a sort of forerunner of many of the story games so popular with independent presses today. It was remarkably open-ended, with players able to create their own statistics. No strength, dexterity, etc. You would, instead, write something like “Strong as an Ox” and then roll that when it was applicable. For the time it came out, in the mid-90s, this was pretty unique stuff.

Somewhat recently, a second edition, put together by Robin Laws, came out. It was setting agnostic, in stark contrast to the original edition, which was tied tightly to the Gloranthan setting. The new edition (HQ2 in shorthand) was tightened up and made to focus very specifically on the pacing you find in a novel. It's a pretty slick, elegant product which improves upon the original while still carrying over most of the framework.

Which, finally, brings us to Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and it's companion volume, appropriately titled Sartar Companion. There are people who have been waiting 25 years for this book. For those people who hung in there through the extended introduction to this review, yes, it's what you've been waiting for. For the newbie to Glorantha? Yes, this is a wonderful introduction to the setting, self-contained and easy to get into... it might be the best single Glorantha intro I've seen.

The book is all about the setting material. There's a lot of it in the book, with the total page count clocking in at nearly 380 pages. The rules bits blend seamlessly into the setting, giving a very nicely unified presentation. There are no tedious arguments about crunch vs fluff to be had here; in Sartar, such an argument would be completely absurd because they're so skillfully intertwined.

The book's setting is a very magical, very important place called Dragon Pass. Dragon Pass is in the center of the main continent on Glorantha and serves as the only easily traversable break in a range of forbidding mountains. This status makes it highly coveted by empires throughout history. Sartar, the province in this area which serves as the player characters' home, is the major political player in the area, though it's constantly under siege by an evil empire to the north, the Lunar Empire, which worships strange gods and uses strange weapons.

Sartarites, which is what everyone at the table plays, are a Bronze Age culture, presented as something close to the real world's Bronze Age Celts with a hint of pre-Viking Scandinavian thrown in. The emphasis on playing something approximating a real person with real cultural values which inform everything you do and are is a hallmark of Glorantha going back to the beginning and it's no different here. The presentation of this is phenomenal, with HQ2's stressing that who you are is at least as important as what you are (I am a Thane, but Who?) really tying things together nicely.

This creates a neatly holistic approach. Character creation transitions to an extensive (very extensive!) chapter on religion, which is another important cog. Every god governs a thing and every person prays to a god. Again, we see the important motifs which have always given Glorantha its uniqueness given life in a new book. Religion is terribly important. The myths which the Sartarites believe in give the world life. I don't mean this in the literary sense, that it makes the world seem believable and alive. In terms of the actual game world, myths drive it. Gods live in it. Bridging the gap between the real and mythic worlds is something that must be done, both to renew the world's life and to gain the strength needed to drive off your enemies (and Sartarites have a LOT of enemies).

Presenting a cohesive culture, with all of the common terminology, religion, and beliefs isn't enough to bind a new group of characters together for Stafford and company, however. Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes presents one of my single favorite character creation options ever set down in print: Clan Generation.

The people of Sartar are divided into tribes and clans, which are large extended families tracing common ancestral myths. If the identity as natives of Sartar is the characters' common bond in macro, the shared history drummed up before the game starts in Clan Generation is the characters' common bond in micro.

The system is presented as a questionnaire, consisting of a series of myths. You decide how the myth turns out in your clan history. The answers adjust the stats of the clan, which have very real in-game benefits, as Gloranthan culture is local and tightly knit, allowing you to draw on the clan's abilities in play. What's neatest about this isn't the fact that all of the PCs have a reason to be together from the very start (although that's great and I wish every game on Earth did something to get those reasons) but, rather, the language used in the designed myths. Here, I have to cite an example from the game's text:

“The Goddess Asrelia, the Empress Earth, gave out many treasures to the descendents of Grandfather
and Grandmother Life. The treasure she gave your people awoke them from the formless Green Age and named them as something specific.

Which treasure did Asrelia give to your people?

1. The Rich Swan
2. The Treasured Spoon”

Now, objectively, this means nothing. The religion section doesn't contain this myth and there are no further references to it. But what it allows is interpretation by the players of their own symbolic history as presented in these myths. What was the Rich Swan? What does that mean? Was the meat of the swan rich? Did the swan possess gold? Is all that really matters that you can interpret the hinted at myth in actual play, as your characters undergo heroquests and tell tales?

Clan Generation takes you through a process which tells you your ancestral enemies, how your clan reacted when the Lunar Empire invaded, who your most revered gods are.... all in hazy, in-character language which takes you right into the world, around a campfire with your Sartarite brothers and sisters, singing songs of days gone by and the gods in the clouds.

That's the sort of use of language I referenced at the beginning. Don't mistake me here; the whole book is certainly not written this way, instead being dominated by above average prose in a straightforward style. But it slips into the mythic style so effortlessly that you barely notice until you go, “Whoa... this feels like reading a real Bronze Age myth! Where can I get more of this?” It's a mark of quality in the writing that it only enhances the book, never detracting from it. If there's one thing that made me love reading Glorantha stuff, and I mean reading for pleasure rather than just game prep, it's the use of this style which Stafford and his acolytes have mastered.

Finally, the massive tome closes out with nearly 70 pages of adventures in the format of a linked campaign, titled the Colymar Campaign after the central tribe in the narrative. I won't spoil it, but it's a really well put together series of adventures for new and old fans, alike. I played in a partial campaign of this and wasn't disappointed at all, at least until I had to withdraw due to time constraints on my end.

The Sartar Companion is a nice collection of odds and ends which just couldn't fit comfortably in Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes. Sometimes, that sort of thing annoys me, but with the nearly 380 page main book, I'm okay with it.

Again, this is a big book, clocking in at nearly 300 pages. It's something of a throwback to the old Runequest days in terms of content. It's mostly location material, detailing some of the iconic places in Sartar. For folks who have been playing in Glorantha for a long time, this might not be particularly exciting stuff, since some of it is detailed in older material. Still, it's in print and centralized in one spot, which is only a good thing and, again, for new folks it's a godsend.

There's also a pretty hefty section devoted to fully detailed random encounters. By fully detailed, I mean full on, names, stories, myths, histories of each entry. The entries are extremely good and evocative, with the in character text slipping into the mythic language which I love so much.

The only thing is that it feels a little weird to have the charts in a HQ2 supplement. Since HQ2 is pretty tied up with pacing, it feels like random encounters are a good way of messing up that aspect of the game. But then, I've only played HQ2, never gamemastered, so there's the distinct possibility that gamemasters won't feel that the novel style pacing is ever compromised.

The Companion also adds in some new gods, finishing out the entire Sartarite pantheon. This includes a few obscure deities who I'm sure will be welcomed by existing Glorantha-philes.

The volume ends with a grab bag of scenarios, meant to enhance or flesh out the Colymar Campaign. These aren't as consistently good as that section in Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, but neither are they disappointments. One of the scenarios, Ghosts of the Ridge, is a real standout, with several ways of approaching the problems at hand and plenty of room for every sort of character to share the spotlight.

Together, the two books make almost 800 pages of information on Sartar and Dragon Pass. That's simply astonishing, since it's a fairly small area of Glorantha as a whole. That means lots and lots of detail, almost all of it well, well above average.

The one drawback is the cost. Moon Design, which is handling both HQ2 and the HQ2 version of Glorantha, is a fairly small press, meaning higher per book costs; Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes clocks in at 60 dollars, while the Sartar Companion is 50. The quality of everything inside is good enough that this can mostly be ignored, with the deft writing accompanied by some really wonderful, evocative art and good layout.

So, on a budget, this can be a little rough. Certainly, for the person who's merely curious about Glorantha, there's no 10 or 20 dollar intro to things. But for those willing to take the plunge, the books form a pool which is worth diving into, even at the rather high price to do so. And if you're already in love with Glorantha and Greg Stafford's wonderful, weird world then there's no question that you should have bought both of these already.

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