Review: Pavis: Gateway to Adventure
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There's a scene in the original “Conan the Barbarian” in which Conan and his companion, Subotai, are crossing a countryside of rolling steppes and scrub on foot in a short montage meant to establish just how big the wilderness is. When the montage ends, they're outside the walls of a big, noisy city. The initial shot of the walls, panned out, with the architectural style of the gate front and center, shows something closer to a late Bronze Age city than a medieval fantasy metropolis; it's all brown stone and straight angles, with livestock in the streets and incense burning in a hundred temples. As they slip through the gates, the pair gawk at their surroundings. It's the first city either has ever been in and the dust, stench, and noise are all overwhelming. Conan breathlessly wonders how the wind gets inside the walls to clear the air.
In my mind's eye, this is what the city of Pavis, one of the most storied settings in roleplaying game history and subject of the latest HeroQuest supplement, looks like: a polyglot hive of activity, with smooth-talking cityfolk rubbing elbows with rough-cultured barbarians from the highlands, brown and dusty and hot and smelly. With the new book, appropriately titled Pavis: Gateway to Adventure, Moon Design Publications has jumped right back into Glorantha with both feet, once again setting the bar when it comes to modern RPG supplements and more than doing justice to the great city setting.
If you're unfamiliar with Glorantha, I did a review of the first two Glorantha supplements from Moon Design a few weeks ago. There's a bit of an overview of the history of the world and its place in gaming history. The city of Pavis figures prominently, being a major focal point for adventuring in Glorantha for thirty years and is the subject of several supplements over the years detailing both the city and its environs.
What makes Pavis special in the context of the world is its linked neighbor, Old Pavis or, more popularly, the Big Rubble. This is a crumbled but once magnificent ruin, taken over by trolls and worse. The existence of the ruined, barely tamed old city makes Pavis, in purely game terms, an awesome setting for a wide range of games. You have your dungeon crawls right there in the Big Rubble. There's ample room for city intrigue or examining the often violent clash of cultures in Glorantha. Because of Pavis' location on the border of the great grasslands of Prax, tales of wilderness adventure, exploration, and barbarian clashes are available. By accident or design, thirty years of Pavis has made the setting a pitch perfect hub for anything you might want to play.
Just as with the Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes books, Moon Design has done a remarkable job of making a supplement which defies the evolving industry standard of lower page counts and less art. Pavis is just mammoth, clocking in at 416 pages. I'm altering my tune on Moon Design's pricing of their Glorantha stuff; Pavis is 60 dollars but, my goodness, it's just huge. There aren't any shortcuts to inflate the page count, either; no large print, no huge borders. So, yes, 60 dollars, but I'm increasingly thinking that's not just even money for quality but quite possibly a bargain.
The book shares much of its structure with the Sartar supplements and I approve of this. I've come to like a consistent structure between supplements by the same company. Across all three books, but particularly with Pavis and the Sartar Companion, the content is laid out in the same order and at the same pace. It makes for a pleasingly uniform reading experience, a bit like reading a single author fantasy epic.
The content cribs from prior Pavis supplements but this isn't a drawback. When you're centralizing thirty years of history, across ten or so long out of print supplements for older game systems, this is fine. There's no copypasta that I could tell, though I only own one Pavis book from the 90s. Certainly, just as with the Sartar books, this makes a great jumping off point for neophytes to the Glorantha experience.
My favorite bit from Sartar is back with updated Clan Generation charts. This time, the last several steps from Sartar are replaced by some distinctly Pavis myths. This is only for Satarites, which is a minor though steady disappointment; with Pavis being such a melting pot, I would have loved to see a similar system for the other cultures in Pavis. With HQ2 being such a rules light, narrative system, I don't think there will be a huge disadvantage to non-Sartarite player characters, but there's a certain amount of flavor the Lunars and others miss out on. That said, I fully expect a more robust communal background system to be in place when the other cultures eventually receive their full background books.
The vast majority of the book is flavor text. Histories, stories, myths, personalities, all written in that distinctly Gloranthan style which Stafford and company bring to the best of their work. This has the benefit of making the book very system agnostic if you prefer something other than HQ2. Certainly, with the sixth edition of Runequest just released, there's ample room for the experienced Glorantha gamemaster to transition over to RQ, if they so wish.
The book wends its way masterfully through both Pavis and the Big Rubble, slowly expanding out with each chapter to examine the surrounding areas. We're treated to a preliminary look at Prax and its nomadic riders of exotic animals, the best that I can recall reading. The guys at Moon Design have hinted at a big Prax book sometime soon, so this is best considered a nifty preview of a full-blown treatment of Praxian culture.
The book closes with several adventures meant to capture the distinct feel of Pavis and the local religions. The adventures range from above average to extremely good in quality, with The Purple Troll being my personal favorite. The cults of Pavis are presented in great detail, even more than most of the Sartarite cults. This is very welcome, since they break from Sartarite models quite a bit.
The book is, overall, just gorgeously written and illustrated. I'd place it as my second favorite of the three released Glorantha books, right behind Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, but this should by no means be read as my thinking this is an average book. I simply prefer the subject matter a bit more in Sartar. Pavis is, by any definition, a really good gaming book, the sort of thing you can pleasure read as much as mine for gaming-specific material.
I think it's safe to say that there's a renaissance going on in Glorantha material. I'll admit that I didn't pay it too much mind when Sartar was first released a couple years ago; I wasn't especially impressed with Mongoose's take on Glorantha when they had the license for Runequest and HeroQuest's portion of the license always tended toward small print runs of (good quality) digest sized books at infrequent intervals. But since taking the license and enlisting Greg Stafford and some of the brightest luminaries in Glorantha writing, Moon Design is batting three for three. Consistency counts for a lot when it comes to my gaming dollars these days, and we've reached the consistent awesomeness level with the HQ2 Glorantha material. I can't wait for the next one.