Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Of all the things I missed out on because of my youthful prejudice against RuneQuest, I think it's "dungeoncrawling Glorantha" that I feel most acutely these days. "Dungeoncrawling Glorantha" is my shorthand for the Chaosium presentation of the setting, back when most published scenarios and setting packs focused at least in part (if not wholly) on exploring ruins and caves, beating up their inhabitants, and taking their stuff to fund your quest for power. Like a lot of gamers in days of yore, I uncritically accepted the notion that RuneQuest was fundamentally different from D&D and thus largely inaccessible to anyone not already initiated into its alien mysteries. So I missed out not just on a really great game during the heyday of its popularity and creativity but also on some truly excellent RPG products, such 1983's Pavis: Threshold to Danger.
This boxed set, written by Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin, consisted of three books (a player's book, a referee's book, and a scenario book), along two large maps. The set describes, as its name suggests, the city of Pavis -- or rather the city of New Pavis, for old Pavis is now an extensive ruin known simply as "the Rubble," on the outskirts of which New Pavis has been built. Armed with that information alone, I'd have found Pavis an intriguing product. The re-casting of the megadungeon concept as an entire ruined city is a terrific one that, strangely, hasn't been used very often, to my disappointment. And if one still wishes to argue that RuneQuest is fundamentally different than Dungeons & Dragons, Pavis might be a good place to make that argument, for, while it's true that the Rubble is essentially an above ground megadungeon, its context is unlike that of a traditional megadungeon. Indeed, it's this context that I think makes Pavis such a great product.
Pavis, both old and New, is located in the region known as Prax, which is currently under military occupation by the Lunar Empire. Consequently, New Pavis, though filled with all manner of rogues and ne'er-do-wells (aka the player characters) isn't just some lawless frontier town. The Lunars are attempting to bring some semblance of order to this barbarian settlement and thus provide excellent villains (or at least antagonists) in a Pavis-based campaign. Likewise, New Pavis is near the ruins of the old and that history, too, plays a part, as cultures and cults maneuver in the background to gain advantage over one another and against the Lunar occupiers. The result is, I think, an entertaining mix of factions and influences, any one of which could easily serve as the basis for many adventures without even taking into account unique aspects of the area, such as the River of Cradles, so named for the cradles of baby giants that have been known to float down its length toward the sea and whose appearance is the occasion for great tumult.
New Pavis itself is fleshed out in considerable detail. Each of the city's seven neighborhoods is given its own treatment, complete with buildings, encounters, and NPCs. This makes it easier to use New Pavis as the "home base" for the PCs as they explore the surrounding region, including the Rubble. As with many RuneQuest supplements, the amount of information presented is considerable, which more or less demands that the referee spend considerable time beforehand reading and re-reading the contents of the boxed set to get a good handle on it. Fortunately, New Pavis isn't so bizarre a locale that a talented referee couldn't "wing it" when necessary and, for all its detail, there's still plenty of room for individualizing the city with one's own locales and NPCs.
I like Pavis a lot. It's a well-presented city that could easily serve as the basis for a campaign on its own, never mind as the springboard for something greater. My main criticism of it is that there are often times when I felt that it included too much detail, or at least far more than I wanted. There is, for example, a lot of history to digest, not to mention cultural and religious information. It can certainly be argued that all of this provides context useful to the referee in giving his adventures more depth and "reality." I don't dispute that, but I do think that, for some referees, it may prove off-putting enough that they'll ignore many of the better ideas included in Pavis, which would be a shame, because there's a lot of goodness to be found within its pages. In that respect, Pavis is emblematic of so much of Glorantha -- excellent ideas presented in a way that might turn away many of the gamers who'd most enjoy them.