Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Retrospective: Pavis

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.


  1. Sounds like a really awesome place to adventure. By any chance is the Lunar Empire actually from the moon? Cuz, you know, that would be freakin' awesome.

  2. As both a player and a GM, I really like the city-and-ruins structure. Compared to establishing adventuring sites over an expansive swath of wilderness, it’s natural or necessary for PCs to re-visit places they’ve already explored, and this makes those places seem more real. Compared to a monolithic mega-dungeon, a ruins provides ground for a grab bag of mini-adventures whose connections to each other, or to the city, are conceptual rather than physical and emerge over time. For instance, I set your Cursed Chateau in the ruins of my Khanbaliq, and after the PCs broke Jourdain’s curse, and looted the upper stories, a gang of thieves moved in to create a new and very different set of problems.

  3. > There is, for example, a lot of history to digest, not to mention cultural and religious information.

    It's that in general that made RuneQuest intimidating. D&D was more friendly to your own god-complex as DM, but to run RuneQuest in the early editions you had to know all about the runes and mythology.

  4. Funnily enough, I'm in the middle of designing a city-ruins-as-dungeon at the moment: see here.

  5. @Nick Sorry, but the Lunar Empire worshiped the Red Goddess and was led by the semi-divine Red Emperor. The Goddess was symbolized by the Red Moon. Hence the name.

  6. I use the City-Ruins device for my Mutant future campaigns. It of course makes total sense and is the norm in a Post Apoc game.

    I must admit as a youngin, D&D was simply more available and accessible to me than RQ was. It was around, but the learning curve seemed much greater at the time. Its a shame, I think I would have really enjoyed the setting.

  7. EarthDawn has a ruined city called Parlainth, which had a boxed product just devoted to it. I still have a copy. Even though I played EarthDawn for 8 years, I never used it.

  8. "There is, for example, a lot of history to digest, not to mention cultural and religious information."

    For me, this is a feature, not a bug. :) Pavis is an example of how this kind of development is done right, as opposed to the tedious stuff we've seen so much of since the 90s.

  9. Pavis/Big Rubble were excellent, although like most RQ material, the ref needed to do some hardcore studying.

    I did have some gripes with a few of the scenarios: the Cradle scenario was epic in scope, but the very definition of railroading, and some of the adventures in Big Rubble ended up being kind of pedestrian. Overall, though, I love the RQ stuff.

  10. As good as Pavis & Big Rubble are, my favorite RQ2 boxed set was Borderlands. I adapted that one, coupled with RQ3's Strangers in Prax and Shadows on the Borderlands, in an AD&D campaign in the 1990s, and my seasoned xD&D players (who were unfamiliar with RQ) loved it.

  11. Hi All,

    An overhauled version of Pavis, without the RQ mechanics is being published later this year by Moon Design Publications, it uses the Heroquest sytstem, which is virtually stat free. It is a great resource for GM and contains loads of new scenarios. The Big Rubble is about to face a similar revision. Got to for more information!

    Simon Bray
    Art Director
    Moon Design Publications.

  12. Here's my own little horn tooting - I've posted quite a bit about RQ and related things myself (links below for that one guy who might be interested).

    As a kid hanging out at the local game shop, the older guys (many of them probably some of the old burnt out pricks over at DF), especially the owner, loved RQ. It was the main game played there for years (that and another James M. fave Traveller). I had a ton of exposure, had a lot of fun, but in the end AD&D, Champs, and CoC became my adult mainstays. Still, I am currently having an obsession over RQ and old school Glorantha. My goal is to get my game group into both RQ and CoC (so It'll be a big year for Chaosium stuff at my table) next year and run the living hell out of them. None of my players have experience with this stuff, so it should be a lot of fun introducing them to it. My own problem is what part of Glorantha do I set them in? Sweaty and sandy Prax, or rainy and mystical Dragon Pass? I think most of my games in youth were set in DP, so I may go for the gritty Mesopatamian feel of Prax and good old Pavis.

  13. Nick, the Lunar empire started when they created a moon (there are at least three in the Gloranthan sky). There's a big crater where the matter was taken from.

    I'm not so familiar with Gloranthan mythology, but I think the Red moon itself is one of the aspects of their Red Goddess. There are people living on it, but they're mostly Lunar heroes and it might be basically afterlife for most of them.

    As for RuneQuest, I had best time when we did a romp through the places there, went for dungeons, looted things we killed, and stuff like that. That is, we did play it mostly the same way as D&D, but I think we added more socializing stuff.

    There were good modules which didn't have *that* much Glorantha information and we used those as we basically used whatever was published in Finnish. I remember at least playing through Apple Lane and the Griffin Island (as it was published instead of Griffin Mountain), but our GM did create much stuff himself.

    At least the Apple lane had a honest dungeon crawl. The Griffin Island was brilliant, we got the map and just traipsed around the place seeing what the strange places were.

    The best memory from the Griffin Island was when we had the map and just couldn't place ourselves on it even though we did count the rivers and so on. It turned out we had been teleported to a completely different place. I still remember the argument whether there should be a road somewhere or not.

  14. 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.

    Dwellers of the Forbidden City (which you've championed before) is one of the best examples of this- fleshed out, it could form the basis of an entire campaign.

  15. One great advantage of the Pavis setting (and I include Borderlands and Sun County in that), was that it was so isolated, and yet had this excellent adventuring opportunity (The Rubble) right next door. It was almost at the furthest reach of the Lunar Empire (only the mosquito-ridden river-mouth port of Corflu was further away), and isolated from anything else by the various Beast-Riders of the Prax wastelands that surrounded it. And because it was so isolared it became a melting pot of all the cultures that were there. Frontier cosmopolitan where most people were actually foreigners. Anywheer else you'd have one culture in an established and dominant position, and that just wasn't the case here.

    Interestingly enough I think most people did ignore much of the actual history (as was found in the 2nd edition Runequest rule book when they played it). The fact that the Rubble once one of the last bastions of the EWF, and it had been magically closed off for a very long time, was generally ignored by most gamemasters. Far easier to think of the here and now, and the Rubble as a vast dungeon (don't forget the basements such as formed Balastor's Barracks).

    Incidentally Lawrence Whitaker wrote, based on Greg's notes), a Second Age version of Pavis (where the Rubble was a functional city at the height [or actually a little past it] of the EWF, called Pavis Rising, which is an interesting contrast. I do think that this book requires knowledge of Third Age New Pavis and the Big Rubble to work, though.

    All Hail the Reaching Moon!

  16. Sadly I had the same issue and for similar reasons. My gaming group didn't much like anything non-D&D/TSR, not just because we had a lot of the books, but everything else seemed complex/grown-up (e.g. Stormbringer & RoleMaster) or stuffy/academic (e.g. RuneQuest & Harn) -- the sort of details I now *want* to put into my own stuff. Harn, especially, is one I wish I had at least tried, yet even using it as source material back then was hard *because* of all the rich detail. At that age you just assume it's an all-or-nothing...improvisation is a foreign concept.

    To that end, these days, I see "too much" as a great plus: use a different bunch of the material each time you go back. Instead of trying to shoehorn the entire history of an area into one adventure (or even a campaign), simply pick and choose what you like for a particular run/sandbox and update with other stuff next time. I have gone back and picked up some of the individual environments from Columbia Games at RPGNow/DriveThruRPG (e.g. Shostim Castle and Hyen Keep)...9-12 pages of details with some maps to flesh it out for ~$4. A bit pricey, yet cheaper than eBaying old modules.

  17. speaking of Glorantha, I see this interesting looking game just came out for the idevices...

  18. I avoided RuneQuest initially because it seemed so complicated compared to D&D - I remember, for example, the fact that hits were applied to various points of the body (arms, legs, abdomen, chest, head) and that the sum of the hit points for each of these areas was greater than a character's total hit points.

    But thankfully I got over that and switched from D&D to Runequest in time to enjoy all that Runequest had to offer. Pavis and the Big Rubble were really hard to come by, though, even then. But Griffin Mountain was a fabulous place for adventure.

    I liked the Glorantha setting. It was reminiscent of Tolkien, in the sense that you felt you were getting a glimpse of something much larger. (There's a Glorantha Yahoo Group still very lively) But it also got away from the simplistic good/evil focus of adventures.

    Yes, the Lunar Empire was intrinsically tainted by chaos, and the rebels of Sartar were 'freedom-fighters' but this was a setting with many shades of grey rather than simpler definitions.

    The fact that all characters could use magic seemed strange to me too, coming out of D&D where magic was more limited, but the types of magic made sense: they were as much 'charms' that men knew, according to their culture, while real powerful magic needed initiation into the higher ranks of one of the religions.

    I have to admit, I miss RuneQuest. It seemed to self-destruct as it changed editions, but the Warhammer RPGs picked up a lot of what was good about their game mechanics: percentile system, hit allocation etc.