domingo, 3 de octubre de 2021

The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass review

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Epic battles are a staple of fantasy stories. But, how are battles in a world where magic is as common as in Glorantha? The Hero Wars have kicked off in Dragon Pass and that means your games can feature great epic conflicts involving hundreds of warriors. But how are those armies and their regiments? How are they organized and how do they act? You can find answers to these questions and many others in The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass, a no less than 380-page-long book by Martin Helsdon available from DrivethruRPG. With this book you can prepare for any battle in the center of the northern continent of Glorantha and be familiar with all the necessary details to bring a realistic feel to your games. It does not contain stats or rules for any particular game, only background information, so it can be used with any ruleset, RuneQuest, QuestWorlds, 13th Age Glorantha or any other. The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass was one of the initial publications available on the Jonstown Compendium when it started in November 2019 and in a matter of days it had already become a best seller. Later it won Chaosium's Greg Stafford Memorial Award. Below you can read my review.

>>>También puedes leer esta reseña en español<<<

But, is it canon?

Chaosium does not publish this book, it is instead published under the Jonstown Compendium. In this section of DrivethruRPG, fans can publish their own content with no need to follow the official canon. Even so, many publications are 99% canonical and all of them are perfectly usable. For example, Martin Helsdon, the author of The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass, has based his book on many official publications such as the Guide to Glorantha, and the Dragon Pass and Nomad Gods wargames by Greg Stafford. On top of that, Jeff Richard, Chaosium's Vice President and Creative Director has lent him a hand in solving doubts and clarifying concepts. So it is as canonical as it can be a book not published by Chaosium. In fact, a good deal of the book could be described as a compilation of military information about the peoples and troops involved in the wars in Dragon Pass found in official publications.

The look

The text is in the usual double column style, with many text boxes, tables, maps and art. Some people have complained the layout is somewhat lacking for a book this size. For example, the different headers look too much alike. Perhaps the author should have worked with someone more versed in InDesign. It's no big deal, but I wish Chaosium had published the book officially and given it the perfect finish it deserves.

Most of the art in the book are black and white pieces by Martin Helsdon. He has drawn many different warriors and soldiers, usually after painstakingly examining the art in many official publications and then filling the gaps with his imagination and military history books of Ancient armies. In general, the quality is high and the author has a knack for creating volume and a realistic feel. I especially like the mounted Praxians and all the depictions of weapons, shields and armor. On the negative side, some have slight anatomy mistakes when you look at them closely and the grey contour the image left after being pasted onto the book is visible sometimes. However, that is offset by the incredible detail. And because there are more than 100 of them! Many of these soldiers had never been depicted before, so it is great to see them here. The book also includes some pieces by Jan Pospisil originally used in official publications, included with Chaosium's permission, such as the colorful humakti duel on page 109 or Kallyr and Treeleaper's submission to the Lunar army. Finally, the cover art in glorious color is simply spectacular. It is by Mark Smylie, known for his Artesia comic books, and it shows a Lunar army leaving a city, led by the demigoddess Jar-Eel the Razoress. This piece wraps around the book and continues on the back cover, where you can spot a small tribute to Greg Stafford among the soldiers (I think!).

A tiny sample of the numerous and wildly different troops Martin Helsdon drew for the book.


After the introduction, this huge book is divided into the following sections: Fundamentals of Warfare, Arms and Armor, Regional Warfare, The Battlefield, Transportation and Mobility, Fortifications and Siege Warfare, Arcane Warfare, Gods of War, Armies of Central Genertela, Hero Wars Army Lists, and Appendices. After that there is an index and a list of sources. The contents are so comprehensive that, basically, include any detail dealing directly or indirectly with the battles in the center of Genertela. Therefore, the book is useful even if your campaign focuses on the Lunar Empire or the plains of Prax, for example.

If you are new to the terminology used in books about ancient battles and armies, such as the Osprey books, you do not need to worry, because the first pages in The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass bring you quickly up to date. The book explains the differences between the main types of troops: light and heavy cavalry, light and heavy infantry, but also flying units, artillery, the Lunar vexillae, magician units and monsters. It also includes numbers, which is useful in your games, as you can know how many warriors a clan can muster and how many elite warriors are among them. While you learn about militia, mercenary companies or the soldier hierarchy, the author compares the military differences between the main cultures in Dragon Pass and Peloria, as well as with those of neighboring regions, such as Prax, Esrolia, the Grazelands or even Pent.

The title of this section "Fundamentals of Warfare" falls short, as it includes many details allowing you to bring battles and regiments to life. For example, how they share the acquired loot, how much the Lunar troops earn or even what musical instruments each culture uses in its regiments. Also: how they train, how they treat their dead, the rivalries between regiments and many other details. An interesting fact about battles in Glorantha is the regimental standards of the Lunar army and other forces house the protector spirit (wyter) of the regiment, who uses its powers to benefit its members. 

A couple pages from the section on "Fundamentals of Warfare"

After that, the section on arms and armor starts with a painstaking review of all the materials involved in their creation, not only metals. It includes such details as the fact that in Prax red-hot metal is taboo and bronze is a sacrifice for the reconstruction of the dead god Genert (!). More? There are iron mines in the Von mountains, probably where many iron beings made by dwarves perished. Then it focuses on the process and mythical origins of metallurgy. The vocabulary is always precise and technical, so the text is accompanied by a useful glossary of terms (there is another one at the end of the book). If you learn all these terms by heart, you will be able to speak about this topic like a proper scholar!

For example, reading this I learnt leather armor can weight twice as much when it gets soaked in a storm. Or how many animals you need to build a leather hauberk. This level of detail can tempt the gamemaster to create house rules, like penalizations for perception rolls, fatigue or for adapting armor to new users. For example, some may be surprised to know you need to transport a bow without its bowstring attached in order to maintain its shooting strength (this reminded me of the movie Princess Mononoke), or that you need to protect Praxian bows (composite) from rain, or that Pentan quivers carry more arrows. Moreover, since in many cases the author specifies the origin of the materials, you can use this information to know what merchants from several regions can be transporting in their caravans, like dyes for painting shields.

Some pages of the "Arms and Armor" section

The section "Regional Warfare" begins with the history of the military organization of the cultures involved in the wars between the Lunar Empire and the peoples of Dragon Pass: Peloria, the cradle of the empire, with its varied subregions like Pelanda or Carmania, then the Holy Country, the Pentans and the Grazelanders, the hsunchen and the Orlanthi, including the Tarshites and the Sun Dome Yelmalians.

I loved learning about the different sorts of duels: in the Orlanthi culture there are duels between farmers, between champions for resolving legal disputes, and the humakti duels. There are also different rules for duels among the Praxians, the Yelmalians and the Uroxi (Storm Bull initiates).

The songs and war dances are also dealt with, as well as gladiator combats and some martial games. For example, chariot races and the game of Shield-Push originating from the Sun Dome templars. There is also an interesting section about war prisoners, slaves and how the dead are treated. Lots of adventure ideas spring to mind when reading this book.

Equally interesting is the section about the battlefield. Here you get a description of the battle order, how the different types of troops are deployed or the role of army generals. The "street view" of a battle is brutal: dust, gore, sweat and screams. Perfect to better describe battles in your games.

Sample pages from the section about the battlefield

Then the book describes the differences between troop formations, focusing on phalanxes and shield walls, but also other ones like the humakti sword walls and even different shapes of phalanxes. In principle, being closer formations and more disciplined, phalanxes are superior in combat over other units. That partially explains the advance of the Lunar Army in Dragon Pass. However, you can also read ways to destabilize and overcome them. As an example, a detail I found interesting: most Orlanthi cavalry does not charge into contact with the enemy, preferring to throw javelins and then turning around, and only dismounting to fight in melee after it has managed to shake the enemy with missiles. What sets heavy cavalry apart from the light is that it can fight in melee and fairly closed ranks. In spite of that, charges are only effective when the enemy is already a bit shaken. Aside from heavy cavalry, in Dragon Pass there is also "very heavy" cavalry (Praxian rhinos) and "extremely heavy" cavalry (triceratops!). A topic (minutia, really) that has generated a lot of debate among fans of Glorantha is the existence of stirrups and here you can find the particular cultures that use them. The level of detail is such that you can also find here the amount of rations a warrior and every type of mount requires daily.

Martin Helsdon provides a thorough description of armies, including units of flying beings, war chariots, war ships and a bit about naval warfare, and hero groups. He also does not forget to deal with movement of troops, foraging and military logistics. Therefore, if you want to know how many kilometers a magical Lunar barge can fly in each moon phase, or how many kilos a supply caravan can transport, this is your book.

In the section about fortifications and siege warfare you can learn about all the siege engines and fortifications used, even the Esrolian fortified farms, with a piece of art depicting them. The text goes on to deal with the history of the evolution of fortifications in several regions.

A couple pages from the section about arcane warfare

I found the section about magic in battles the most interesting, but also the one where I missed the most having access to actual specific data in game terms. For that we can only wait until Chaosium publishes the RuneQuest Grand Campaign about Argrath against the Red Moon, I fear. For example, here you get some information about the magic regiments able to summon gigantic elementals, wyters capable of attacking enemy troops at long distances, and the so-called "temple magic" wielded in battles when all the priests from a temple join forces so that the magic of their deity damages the enemy units. But, how does it work, exactly? After that the author goes on to talk about omens, divination, celestial bodies and calendars, but that is information you can find elsewhere.

Something similar happens with the section about war gods and goddesses, where some cults are mentioned that have never been described in game terms. For instance: Irillo, one of the Defender Brothers of Nochet, the capital of Esrolia, or Karndasal, the lion god in Pelanda.

The data most similar to game terms in the book are the descriptions of particular regiments in the section about the army lists. The book not only describes the arms and armor of each unit, but each entry is accompanied by a data box with numbers quantifying its "power" in hand to hand combat, in missiles, and magic, as well as its morale. These "stats" are informed by the Gloranthan wargames White Bear & Red Moon (also called Dragon Pass) and Nomad Gods, complemented by information from Chaosium's Jeff Richard. They come in handy to have an idea of their capabilities and to better compare the regiments. They also include a description of every regiment with some added material. Would you like to know what is the melée power of the Black Horse Troop, the Bodyguard of the Red Emperor or even Harrek the Berserk? The book covers that and many other troops. After reading this I am left wondering how these numbers work in the wargames to better understand what they mean exactly.

Several regiments of the Lunar Army described in the section about the Hero Wars Army Lists

In the precedent section there is more information about several of these regiments: from the Lunar Empire, Dragon Pass, Esrolia, Prax, and even several non-human races, but focusing in their composition and internal organization. The organization of the Lunar Army stands out here as it details its chain of command, logistics, auxiliary troops, and the main units of its several kingdoms and provinces. After reading this part I think it would be great to run a campaign where all the player characters are army officials or members of a mercenary unit.

To finish with, the book contains several appendices dealing with 4 topics: one is the history of the Sun Dome temples from central Genertela, in special the ones in Sartar and Prax. Another is the biography of Fazzur the Wideread, a skilled general of the Lunar Army in Dragon Pass. The other two might have been added after the book was published, as they are placed after the word index. They deal with the Lunar Army strength, and they include an interesting table specifying the total number of Lunar troops present in several regions in central Genertela, by year, between 1619 and 1628 (the start of the Hero Wars, the conflict that will change the face of Glorantha forever). 

Pages from the section Armies of Central Genertela

All in all

If I had to choose only one word to describe The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass it would be: comprehensive. Therefore, it is better to digest it little by little. Open it on a random page and dive into the sea of details. In all sections there are interesting facts you probably had never thought about. As the author himself explains in an interview, the book "is intended as a reference resource, where the reader can either follow the thread of the text in a chapter, or dip in for information, and find inspiration for scenarios, not just in a military campaign, but more generally." Obviously, it will be extremely useful if you include in your games the battles of the Hero Wars breaking off in Dragon Pass. At least until Chaosium publishes the grand campaign covering all these events, and perhaps even then. It is also interesting if you only play in one of the regions it deals with, or even just for the pleasure of learning interesting details about Glorantha. The numerous drawings accompanying the text, as well as the mini narratives at the start of every section, make the journey even more enjoyable.

On the negative side, the book can be a little overwhelming and the content in some sections overlaps with that of others. I wonder if it would have been better to include all the information about one culture in just one section, instead of dividing the information by topics and comparing the facts of every one of them. At any rate, the book would have been a bit easier to navigate had it included links on the contents section and references to other pages with related information. So, summing up:

The best:

  • The mini narratives at the start of every section.
  • The huge amount of details& allows you to better describe battles in your games.
  • Lots of art depicting warriors and soldiers, as well as weapons and standards.
  • The comprehensiveness of its contents.
  • It is a source of adventure ideas.
  • The fact all was made by one person, except for the cover and some borrowed art.

The worst:

  • The index has no links to the sections.
  • That Chaosium did not publish it officially.
  • It can be a little overwhelming.
  • Referencing other pages with related information would have made the book easier to navigate.

Stages of the creation of a Wolf Pirate drawing Martin Helsdon shared on the BRP Central forum

The Armies and Enemies of Dragon Pass is available from DrivethruRPG for 25$ in PDF, 40$ in Print on Demand physical format  (with B&W interior), or 65$ for the pack of both PDF and physical book. Martin Helsdon has also published other similar books, like Men of the West about the armies of Seshnela and Ralios, War Elephants of Fonrit and Temples and Towers. Well I hope you have enjoyed this review. What do you think of this book? :-)

2 comentarios:

  1. Thank you for your kind review.

    Alas, the document as it currently exists was created and laid out in Word, so that brings its own issues with formatting.

    Whilst writing the document, there were only two possible ways of organising the material – by culture, or by topic. The latter proved easier to do, because the amount of information for some traditions is very much greater than for others.

    The material after the index was added to a later version.

    The art… Well, after completing the text it was obvious that the walls of text were overwhelming, and the page count needed far more illustrations than I could afford to pay for. The obvious solution was to do them myself, using an ink pen and shading the flesh of scanned images using Paint. Not being a professional artist, sometimes the anatomy is ‘off’. Mea culpa.

    It is intended to be used for reference, so there is limited duplication to save the reader searching back and forth. It is a very small percentage of the text. The index was generated using Word…

    A POD version is being worked on.


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