Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Retrospective: Griffin Mountain

Originally published in 1981, Griffin Mountain has been called -- not unreasonably -- one of the best RPG products ever produced for any game. Subtitled "A Complete Wilderness Campaign for RuneQuest," it was written by Rudy Kraft and Paul Jaquays, with additional material by Greg Stafford and details the Gloranthan region of Balazar, which is to the northwest of Prax, where so many early RuneQuest products were set.

And the subtitle is no joke: Griffin Mountain really is a complete campaign in a single 200-page book. Within its pages, you'll find information not just on the history and geography of Balazar, which are pretty standard for sourcebooks of this kind, but also information about the peoples, beliefs, and locations of the place. So, each settlement gets a write-up, along with its leaders and inhabitants, as do various citadels, caravans, and points of interest. There are weather tables and dozens of rumors, in addition to reaction and encounter tables, maps galore, and of course plenty of scenarios. In short, it's the perfect toolkit for a Gloranthan sandbox campaign.

If Griffin Mountain has a flaw, it's that it may be too comprehensive and getting a handle on all of its details is difficult, even for an experienced referee. After all, it describes a nearly 800-kilometer wide area of wilderness, inhabited by thousands of barbaric humans and as many non-humans. Besides Griffin Mountain itself, there's the River of the Damned, Dragonnewt Plinth, Firshala's Prison, and many more significant locales, each of which gets a full description, including maps in many cases. There's also the fact that, set as it is in Glorantha, there are additional details to consider, those quirky bits of lore and context that make Glorantha the remarkable fantasy setting that it is.

But it can be overwhelming and to take full advantage of Griffin Mountain, one would need to spend a great deal of time reading it, taking notes, and preparing in advance. This is not a product that can be picked up and used without preparation, even if the book does handle some of the tedious tasks of refereeing RuneQuest, such as providing stats for all the humans and monsters the characters are likely to encounter. Griffin Mountain is thus very much a product of its time, which is to say that, despite its wealth of information and prepared scenarios, it's still not fully usable "out of the box." It demands that the referee pore over its pages and make it his own, a process that takes time, effort, and no small amount of creativity to do right.

Of course, the result is well worth the effort, as Griffin Mountain is a true masterpiece of the early days of gaming. It's a great example of a sandbox, filled with people, places, and adventure hooks to keep a party of characters busy for innumerable nights of adventure. Best of all, none of it feels heavy-handed or pre-scripted. Instead, what you get is a large canvas on which to create stories of one's own against the backdrop of one region of the world of Glorantha. It's hard to do justice to it in a few words and, even if I described its entire contents exhaustively, it still wouldn't convey just what it is that makes Griffin Mountain so remarkable. It's a pity that it's long out of print and difficult to obtain nowadays, because I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what sandbox gaming is all about. For that matter, I think some publishers could do worse than to emulate it. Nearly 30 years later, it still has few competitors.

19 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I only had the Avalon Hill version and I don't remember being that impressed with it. Is the older version different?

    As for competitors, you should check out Frandor's Keep for HM Basic. It's by far the best mini sandbox I've seen.

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  3. I never owned the AH version, so I can't really compare the two. It's my understanding that the AH version is still quite good, but is generic and stripped of its Gloranthan references, thereby weakening it, but I may be mistaken on this score.

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  4. The AH version is vastly reduced in detail from the RQII original. It is generic and moved to an "island" to make it easy to avoid inconvenient questions about "what's beyond that border". The AH version is not bad; for what it is, it does a decent job. But the original is far richer, I think.

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  5. James, I'm on board with you regarding the AH version. I was never a real fan of the AH version of RQ and feel that the AH "Griffin Island" is not as potent as the original. The detailing of Soldier Port (including one of the best city maps I ever made) is about the only part I consider better than the original. BTW, Mongoose did a great republication of the original GM about 10 years ago. Their hardcover edition is pretty awesome. -- Paul

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  6. I was about to ask if Mongoose or one of the other current licence holders had thought about reprinting it if it's such a classic. Too late! ;)

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  7. Anyone know why Moon Designs stop selling the reprint?

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  8. I ran RQ3 in the late 80s and early 90s and loved the Jaquays "Griffin Island" reboot. I'd never seen the original at that point, and didn't know enough to be a Gloranthan purist. We had a blast with it, but as I've noted elsewhere, we basically ran RQ as D&D with cool flavor text and more limb loss.

    I've since seen the original, though I've never run it, and agree that it's both awesome and completely different than the reboot. But "Griffin Island" is still pretty damn cool. :)

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  9. Paul, are you sure you mean Mongoose re-printed it? I thought it was Moon Designs that re-printed it.

    Frank

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  10. I never used it for RQ back in the day, but I did for D&D. The great outdoors feel of it seemed kind of California-like to me, so I used it for part of a D&D campaign where the party landed on foreign shores that was much like Cali in weather and stuff.

    I Ebayed it sometime around 8 years ago when I thought I was done with gaming. Bummer.

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  11. Frank ... you're likely right. My copy of the hardcover republication (seems wrong to call something with so much obvious effort a simple reprint) has been packed in storage for a year now.

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  12. I picked up the Moon Designs reprint a few years ago for around £20. Good stuff, though I wondered about this iron age culture supposedly being pre-agricultural!

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  13. James, in view of my modest experience of running it, I think you maybe exaggerate a bit the effort needed to run games with Griffin Mountain.

    True, you have to do some reading before starting but by no means everything. But then you can run with a very thin plotline and improvise.

    In the Moon Design reprint there is a very useful article by Greg Stafford on how to run a Griffin Mountain game. I used that to start a game with very little idea of what will have happened to the PCs.

    Just rolling on the encounter tables and improvising, util some sort of plot began to emerge from the players' actions. Before using Griffin Mountain I was all for very detailed (and fairly linear) campaign plots.
    In my experience Griffin Mountain makes sandbox play very easy to run and narratively very satisfying.

    Griffin Island is nice but inferior. It contains, however, quite a few new bits that can be retrofitted into Griffin Mountain.

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  14. Fortunately I have the Moon Design reprint. Noble Knight is sold out of the Cults compendium, but still has Borderlands. I think a special purchase may be in order.

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  15. I came late to the interview party and had a question for Mr. Jaquays. Rather than derail this thread further, I've placed it in the comments section of the interview's second part. Hopefully, Mr. Jaquays might see this comment in today's review of his work and take the time to answer my query on the other post. Thanks.

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  16. Bidding on a copy of Griffin Island (GW cover) - the retro-fitting to a more generic setting will be better for my OpenQuest campaign.

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  17. Moon Design still sells the Griffin Mountain reprint.

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  18. If I hadn't played and loved Griffin Mountain for a couple of years, I may have enjoyed Griffin Island. As it was the AH version appalled me. There was so much lacking.

    Griffin Mountain: yes, the best gaming adventure I ever had. Came with a great double sided map: and a unique dog-hunting culture within which to explore. This was one of the features of all the best RQ material: the setting was as much a character in the adventure, as the characters themselves.

    Funny: just occurred to me that I find myself telling my Creative Writing students the same thing. (Never noticed this link before - duh! But has struck me that RPGing was one of the reasons I ended up being a writer. What is RPGing but telling a communal story?!)

    Agree that the GM needed to do preparation before adventuring, but I don't remember this being much of a problem for fairly experienced Gms.

    Still have my copy somewhere. Have been collecting the reprints too. They were like hens teeth once AH took over - and they still have their magic.

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  19. Wow. This takes me back. I actually ran this when it first came out, and I think I still have it somewhere.


    An amazing setting for a novice GM to navigate; I'd DMed AD&D for a while, but this was a completely different kettle of fish from dungeon crawls. Had I known just how expansive it was, I might have been scared off! I recall my party getting lost in the Elder Wilds, being eaten by a giant fish and forced to cut their way out, and finding Gonn Orta's Castle after getting unreliable directions from a dim-witted giant.
    It really is the gift that keeps on giving, thanks to the terrific character sketches, the detailed maps and the almost unlimited sense of possibility that comes with a well-written setting. I wouldn't hesitate to run it today, as it's an undoubted classic of the genre.


    Old School campaign writing at its finest!

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