viernes, 2 de septiembre de 2022

Review of Tales of the Sun County Militia: Sandheart Volume One

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Tales of the Sun County Militia, Sandheart Volume One is a campaign setting for RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha including an introductory scenario in about 100 pages. It is a fan creation by Jonathan Webb, with substantial additions by Nick Brooke and other contributors, sold on Chaosium's Jonstown Compendium. The authors have released three further volumes containing scenarios, but below you can read my review of the first book in the series.

The cover art by Jacob Webb is a vista of the barley fields in the Sandheart district where the player characters live.

"This is... Sun County!"

Many RuneQuest adventures are focused on the Orlanthi, but this instead focuses on the Yelmalions. More specifically, the book is set in a small region called Sun County, where most men worship Yelmalio, god of Light, and most women worship Ernalda, goddess of the Earth. Sun County lies in Prax, a hot and arid place, but more specifically in the valley of the Zola Fel river, which makes at least the lands on its banks fertile. The traditional way of fighting in this region is hoplite warriors forming phalanxes, so if you put all that together, and were forced to describe it in just a few words, that could well be: isolated Spartans in the Far West, living next to the Nile/Mississippi, surrounded by chaparral and hostile nomad tribes. Does that sound cool?

If it does, you must know RuneQuest 3rd edition had an entire official supplement describing this region in detail. Unfortunately, it is now out of print, but Tales of the Sun County Militia, Sandheart Vol. 1 dodges the issue by including some paraphrased information about the land so you can still play it without a copy of the older book. To be fair, the author recommends having that old book in the introduction or at least any of the sourcebooks about nearby places like Pavis or Borderlands (those are still available), but you can get very well by with just the contents of Sandheart Volume One. For example, following the pattern in RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, you can learn about both the recent history and the important personalities of the place through character creation, as Nick Brooke has included a nifty family history generator focused on Sun County. This is accompanied by many text boxes with other useful tidbits of information, like the languages spoken and some cultural details. It is also fun to read, because the author has a tongue-in-cheek style and makes use of references to our modern world that will make you smile ("the Summer of Love"!). Also, since Nick Brooke is friends with the people at Chaosium (he is also the Jonstown Compendium Community Ambassador), he managed to include the map of the Sun County sourcebook from the 90s.

Stats for the typical Sandheart militia, art by Mark Baldwin

In a way, then, this series of books form a revival of Sun County, that remote region with an interesting human culture to roleplay. This is fun for those veterans who treasure our copy of the original Sun County sourcebook. But it is also great because it demonstrates you do not need to know a lot about Glorantha to start playing in this fantasy world. As I explained in this successful post, you only need some details about the immediate surroundings where the player characters live. And they can have plenty of adventures there without needing to know more about the world out there. But who do you play in the adventures included in the book?

You are the Sandheart Militia, and you are the law

In RuneQuest, the player characters' community is important and many campaigns are centered on that, with the heroes defending it from enemies and trouble. Tales of the Sun County Militia, Sandheart Volume One embraces this approach by describing a small community all PCs belong to: the hamlet of Sandheart. This is a backwater near the borderlands of the county, and its description includes the stats of typical inhabitants, important NPCs, good maps of the hamlet and of the wider district, and a gazetteer. All you need. 

The player characters in this campaign are not strictly speaking "adventurers" but militia. That means they are part-time or full-time Bronze Age policewomen and men in charge of maintaining peace in their district, enforcing the law and preventing crime. This narrows down the scope of the campaign and makes the scenarios be fairly down to earth, with hardly any influence on global events. However, it makes the campaign more original than the usual trope of adventurers looking for trouble, it is easier to run for the GM, as the campaign structure is fulfilling missions in the style of a "police procedural" show, and it gives the PCs a reason for not straying too far from their community, so it will be focused on their territory around their hamlet. The Sandheart district (represented in the map) and a bit of Sun County will be all the "setting" the players need to know. The GM can then introduce new topics with each session or adventure.

Piece of the map of the Sandheart district where the campaign is set, by Nick Brooke.

Even with such a focused campaign set-up, Jonathan Webb has made sure that playing in such a small community with all PCs being militia does not mean all characters look alike. He has cleverly made Sandheart an exceptional place whose inhabitants are more tolerant of foreigners and nomads than what is usual in Sun County. This way you can play the default Yelmalian warrior or farmer, but also characters from other homelands who for various reasons have ended up in this backwater. To add more variety, characters can choose be members of two small spirit cults (Ronance and Pole Star) and a local Yelmalio subcult through which Yelmalions can have access to the Shield spell (!). It is a great example of how you can modify the existing cults through the use of local subcults, and I am one of those who think Yelmalio ought to have access to Shield. In case you do not have the time to create a character, the book includes 10 pregenerated characters to start playing right away: from Yelmalian and Humakti warriors to Praxian nomads and even a Lhankor Mhy detective with a heavy crossbow. My favorite is Mareeka the Flairless, an Esrolian mercenary who lost part of her memory due to Lunar magic. They have varied backgrounds, some have hopes and dreams that can be used for scenarios and are all accompanied by full black-and-white portraits. If your players create their own characters following the rules included in the book, you can still use the pregens as NPCs or as backup characters for the players. In fact, another advantage of playing community-centered campaigns like this one is that even a total-party-kill does not end the campaign, as the new characters are assumed to have been always there, waiting for their share of the spotlight.

Nabissa's stats, one of the pregenerated characters included in the book

About the art

It is great see so much art decorating the pages of the book, some in color, some in shades of grey. There are some pieces by Ludovic Chabant and Kris Herbert, who have provided art for other publications in the Jonstown Compendium, but most of the art is by Mark Baldwin. His art for the book is a strange mix of realistic, colorful, but first and foremost, fun styles. It makes liberal use of references from the modern world to depict the Sun County inhabitants and tongue-in-cheek details. The references and jokes (Amish people, Vietnamese basket boat, biker gangs, even Nick Brooke and the Chaosium team!) are clearly saying: "Do not take this too seriously, it is supposed to be fun!". I almost feel guilty for wishing the art to have been more classic in style. As an example, the pregen Egistar the Bold has a strange-looking helmet instead of the Corinthian helmet I was expecting for a hoplite. This is a minor quibble, of course, it is just the point of view of the artist, not how things have to be or look in your campaign. On the other hand, the references in the art can be helpful as hints for the GM so she can get a feel of the county and its inhabitants when describing it to her players. Finally, I find the maps awesome, and I love the vistas of two of the hamlets Kris Herbert did, as they help you visualize the top-down maps and picture them in 3D.

Some pages about the Sandheart district of Sun County where the campaign is set, with art by Mark Baldwin.

The scenario

"No Country for Cold Men" is a short scenario to get your feet wet playing the Sandheart militia. I have not run it yet, but I guess you can get roughly a couple 4-hour sessions out of it. It is a good first scenario, as it places the player characters in "interesting" situations that will make them stop and think about what steps they should take next. Two of the scenes will probably end in combat and the other two will probably end up with your players roleplaying and interacting with other characters, so it is well balanced for different kinds of players. The good ending can only be achieved if the PCs are cautious, and I like that, because they cannot just bash their way to a satisfying resolution. On top of that, it showcases the "police procedural" kind of adventures the setting promotes, with...

I would run it pretty much as written, but in case the player characters blunder and miss the final confrontation scene, I would make it possible for them to chase the "bad guys". This could make a fine chase scene along the river (I love chases!), provided they have the necessary magic to speed up their (borrowed) boat.

For inspiration for further adventures, I would look at crime, police and detective shows and steal the plot from them. Westerns would also give me plenty of ideas. And all that mixed of course with the fantasy world of Glorantha. On the other hand, since Sandheart is a small community, I would encourage my players to describe several relationships their characters have with the inhabitants of the place and perhaps other nearby settlements, letting them come up with friends, rivals, love interests, old grudges, in short, anything that can potentially increase the drama, create a sense of place, and give way to other scenarios. I have not read it, but I have heard it say the The Hillfolk RPG can be very useful for that. The book also includes some ideas for scenarios along the text and even three "tedious tasks" that are brief encounters or scenes the militia need to solve, as an example of what they usually do, with a lot of roleplaying to enjoy and difficult decisions to make.

Start of the section about important NPCs living in Sandheart

Moreover, the scenarios in books from previous editions such as Pavis and the Big Rubble or Borderlands can be easily linked with a Sandheart campaign, as they are set very close to Sun County. In any case, the published scenarios in the Sandheart series offer GMs a good "safety net", as they include a total of 5 other scenarios, two in The Corn Dolls & Fortunate Sun, a mini-campaign in Tradition and two more in The God Skin & Mad Prax. Oh, and if you wanted a big map of Sun County, you can buy one at Redbubble. You can also download the free Argan Argar Atlas or perhaps even buy a map of the River of Cradles. You can also read some tales of Sun County after 1621 by the author of the RQ3 sourcebook. It would be great to play a Sandheart campaign that slowly turns into something more epic, involving the bigwigs described in the book, and then following with the civil war hinted by Michael O'Brien.

The other three Sandheart volumes, the original Sun County sourcebook, and the first cover of volume one (they changed it later).

Wrapping up

This first volume of the Tales of the Sun County Militia is a great addition to your RuneQuest collection. Not only are its 100 pages fun to read, but it can also be a fun campaign to play. Of course, it requires the players to be on board with playing Yelmalions and its associates in a region that is far from the usual center of the action, instead of just the usual Orlanthi in Sartar where most of the official scenarios are focused. However, that can also be a good thing if you are fed up with the Sartarites and want to try something new, or if you want your players to have fun playing militia in a small district next to the desert. In fact, you may even draw players who are not much into fantasy, but who enjoy investigative play.

It is clear a lot of love has been put into this book, with excellent art, maps, and all you need to start playing adventures in Sun County. It is no surprise it has become a Gold Best-Seller. I hope also GMs new to RuneQuest like the book enough to run a campaign in Sun County. Now go make the Sandheart militia proud and, may the Unending Light of Yelmalio shine on you!

The best

  • Original set-up: Play police procedurals with Bronze Age hoplites in a fantasy western!
  • The community-centered campaign means very little lore is necessary to start playing.
  • Tremendous amount of art.
  • Good revival of the out-of-print Sun County supplement published for RQ3.
  • The author has published three more volumes with more scenarios!
  • High flexibility for creating player characters from different homelands.

The worst

  • The scope of the campaign is limited to a district of Sun County, with little options for travelling outside of it (that is, without changing the nature of the campaign or needing other books).
  • The fact some people will miss it because it is not set in Sartar. It could be adapted for a campaign in Dragon Pass, but it would be a shame to ditch the Sun County elements.
  • Some of the art might put off fans who dislike seeing fun real-life references in their fantasy worlds. It is just one point of view though, not "the only Truth".

Lovely art by Mark Baldwin

Tales of the Sun County Militia: Sandheart Volume One is available from DriveThruRPG both in PDF (10$) and in print-on-demand hardcover options (from 20$ to 38$ depending on the color quality you choose and whether or not it includes the PDF). I hope my review has been useful to you. And if you have played or run this scenario or campaign, please let me know in a comment below! You can read other reviews of the Jonstown Compendium publications: Yozarian, Jorthan, Pirates, Armies and Treasure...

4 comentarios:

  1. Tío, no sabes el roto que me acabas de hacer. Era MUY feliz sin conocer esto, ¡ahora lo necesito!

  2. Uy, en español, qué rumor más dulce :D


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