domingo, 15 de enero de 2023

Review of Korolan Islands: an archipelago for RuneQuest

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The East Isles is a place in Glorantha rife with adventuring possibilities: a cluster of hundreds of islands, big and small, each of them with their own inhabitants, gods and magic. It is also one of the least explored regions in published material, but this is slowly changing thanks to the Jonstown Compendium and several enterprising authors. One of these fan publications set in the East Isles is Korolan Islands by Hannu Rytövuori, with Nils Weinander, Juha Heinänen and David Cake. Following the common advice of "start small" for getting started in Glorantha, instead of covering the whole of the East Isles, this supplement for RuneQuest primarily focuses on a small archipelago of 5 islands with a very particular history. Below you can read my review, thanks to the fact the author sent me a copy. I have tried my best to be impartial, but please let me know if you feel that is not the case.

The cover is a piece of colorful art by Tania Rodriguez-Kaarto

First of all, this is only the first installment in a series of publications about a small corner of the East Isles. The second installment is a set of scenarios titled The Fires of Mingai that I will cover in an upcoming review. Korolan Islands is basically all the setting information and extra rules you need to create characters native to these islands or some nearby islands to start a campaign and play the scenarios in the following book. In order to fully use this book, aside from the rulebook you need the Bestiary and The Red Book of Magic.

The look

This 90-page-long book is well laid-out using the Jonstown Compendium template and has a good deal of art. Although the book is in color, half of the interior illustrations are black and white and somewhat amateurish. Still, some of them are great, like the Senate House of Sitoro (inspired by Sumatran architecture), and they all help visualize the inhabitants of the isles and their culture with items such as masks, weapons, and sculptures. It also includes a couple of color maps of the islands instead of relying on the free-to-use maps of the Argan Argar Atlas, which is cool. However, they both lack a scale. The cover by Tania Rodriguez-Kaarto is quite good, stylish and colorful, but rather uninteresting. It depicts a woman and a child on a bend of a path through the jungle, who are possibly looking at two birds, with the sea and other islands on the background.

A nice map on the first pages of the book shows the location of the Korolan Islands in Glorantha

The contents

After the introduction to the East Isles, the book briefly describes the history of the Korolan Islands and each of the five small islands of the archipelago. Unlike most of the East Isles, which tend to be more individualistic, the inhabitants of these five islands are united through a common history and myths, and although each island has its own patron deity, they cooperate among themselves under the rule of Queen Tamerana. Their description includes geography, flora, fauna, farming and fishing, culture, population, languages, spirit societies and, of course, the parondpara or local island gods and goddesses they worship.

Some of the information in the Geography section is repeated under the description of the islands in the People and Culture section, so it would have been better to unite the two. Also, there is a mention of a beastfolk race of half boars, which sounds very interesting, but they inhabit an island outside the main archipelago that is not included or mentioned on the map. I have spotted some stats for these mralotaurs in the next volume though! On the other hand, I love that the author has included a "What Your Grandmother Told You" section with questions and answers from the point of view of an inhabitant of one of the islands. If you have read the old supplement Gods of Glorantha or the HeroQuest Voices, you know these are a great in-world summary of what a specific culture is like, and also help roleplay this people as characters in your campaign. The list of names commonly used in the Korolan Islands is also helpful for creating and improvising characters.

The book describes the culture of the Korolan Islands

Characters do not need to be always human, as the book includes a brief section about one of the most common non-human inhabitants of the East Isles: the keets, the avian non-flying humanoids related to the Sartarite ducks. This includes guidelines to create keet adventurers, and even provides some variations in characteristics for some kinds of keets, such as albatross, cormorant, or pelican keets. I wouldn't have included the mallard or merganser varieties though, as they make me think of climates very different from the one I expect to find in the East Isles. Besides, the stats for mallard keets are almost identical to the ducks included in the RuneQuest Bestiary. Next you get a description and stats for sorns, the keets' evil cousins that do fly and look like small pterodactyls.

Keets are very similar to Sartarite ducks, only they look like many other kinds of birds.

One of the parts of the book I enjoyed the most reading was the cult write-ups. First the local gods of the Korolan Islands: Tamorongo, Mingemelor, Aoea, and Irvata, each a local god of an island and each with a different elemental rune. What's best, each comes with a page-long flavorful myth by Nils Weinander. As for the fifth island, it has no local god and because of its neutrality, it is the center of government. Then you can read the write-ups of the cults of bigger gods or parloth that are widely worshipped in the East Isles, such as Finzalvo the Great Fisherman or Veldru the Protective Wind, up to seven. These are refreshing to read, as they are different from the ones you are used to read about in Dragon Pass and Prax. The cult of Ombardaru the Priest surprised me, as he basically provides the priests who can run worship services for any of the gods of the East Isles. This makes total sense in a region made of islands where not all temples are close by. Every write-up includes a bit of mythology and of course all the magic they provide, with some new rune spells like Wind Shield or Gambler's Water. The East Islanders worship many other gods, but they are not described in this book. Strangely, although in the Korolan Islands there are temples to Enevar, Mairnalli and Prosendara, these cults are not included in the book. Perhaps they will be in a future volume?

The cult of Ombardaru the Priest does not provide a lot of magic, but it is nonetheless vital for the inhabitants of the East Isles

The most interesting section of the whole book is the one devoted to mysticism. This is the fourth approach to magic, not covered in the core rules, and very widespread in the East Isles in the form of a multiplicity of schools and traditions, some of them mixed with martial arts, and fully integrated into everyday life. Aside from covering the different approaches to mysticism in the world of Glorantha and the East Isles in particular, it includes some game mechanics to represent this fourth kind of magic, whose main goal is to attain enlightenment. Here you can learn about the different mystic paths and traditions taught by different sages, seers and even gods. From the orthodox and nearly inaccessible path of Oorduren, to the teachings of Ser Marnad that mix mystic practices with worship to the enlightened goddess Mairnali and other deities. The Mysticism skill is needed to attain Illumination, which provides access to up to eight powers common to the Nysalorean tradition from central Genertela, such as transcending Rune opposites or overcoming Runes and Passions. But the mystic can also use certain austerities to gain some magical abilities through the Meditate skill and the sacrifice of points of POW or other characteristics. Three such abilities are described in specific game terms, but many others are just described in passing. This has the advantage of letting GMs decide how exactly these other abilities work mechanically, but I would rather have all that work already done for me, even if I then decide to tweak the rules here and there to adjust them to my campaign. Some of those are absolutely intriguing and could potentially be game breaking, which I guess is the reason they are not described in specific game terms. For example, some followers of Mashunasen the Great Mystic "may see through Illusions, may manipulate many aspects of reality such as distance and space, and treat some aspects of reality as illusionary". How do you translate that into hard-and-fast game mechanics? That is left for every GM to decide. Also for one of the paths, the author suggests that the abilities gained "might resemble the rules for Ki in the RuneQuest 3 supplement Land of Ninja", which is a nice idea if you own that book, but it might also be frustrating if you do not, as it has been out-of-print for a long time now. In spite of this, the section is really a gold mine for mystic characters, it sparks the imagination and it is an enjoyable read, very inspired by Greg Stafford's Revealed Mythologies.

Unlike in Dragon Pass, in the East Isles mysticism is not secretive, but well known and common.

Martial arts are also widespread in the East Isles and they are described as knowledge about fighting that is influenced and enhanced by mystic and other magical practices. In the East Isles, this mostly means combining the Meditate skill with austerities or constraints on your time and behavior that produce magical effects. The book includes nine such effects and the austerities needed to attain them. For example, the Iron Hand ability makes your fist attacks cause one extra damage point and parrying with your fists blocks an extra point of damage (on top of the effects of the Martial Arts skill), but you need to train by punching hard surfaces at least once a week, and if you break this rule, you lose the ability, perhaps even permanently. Moreover, making the austerity more restrictive or sacrificing characteristics can increase the power level of some abilities. Every martial arts school teaches certain effects an a sample is given. It is conveniently the one found in one of the Korolan Islands, but I wish the book had included many more.

The weapons and armor section offers 12 new weapons and 14 new pieces of armor used in the East Isles. The weapons are drawn from several real cultures, like the totokia from Fiji, the Sundanese kujang from Indonesia or the two-handed kampilan sword from the Philippines. It would have been cool to accompany the description with illustrations in order to visualize them better. Still, since metal is very scarce in the East Isles, these items are refreshingly different, as they use materials such as stingray stingers, shark teeth, sea troll skulls, giant crab shells or shark skin, among others, which definitely gives the area a unique flavor.

The Roaring Orangutan is the martial arts school found in the Korolan Islands

Korolan Islands also includes some rules for creating adventurers from the central archipelago, but also from 3 other clusters of islands: Haragala and its surrounding islands, the Shorenti Island Chain, the Dessheetan Isles, and the Jabbi Isles that have been dominated by a Malkioni sect since the Second Age. The method for creating characters skips the family history and goes straight to the basic passions and cultural skill bonuses, together with a background table, a new family heirloom table, suggested cults and occupations you need for the fast method of creating adventurers. It also lists 15 occupations and their skill bonuses, some very similar to the ones in the rulebook like assistant shaman or crafter, but others completely new and obviously suited to this region of Glorantha, like fisher (with the new "Fishing" skill!), sailor, pirate, martial artist, or mystic student. Finally, the book also describes very briefly several other islands mentioned elsewhere in its pages, often pointing to the The Guide of Glorantha Vol. 2 for further information. This shows it is hard to write a book about these islands without stepping on the officially published information, but despite that, there are a handful of new and interesting islands, like Heigos or Gimano. Again, a map would have been useful here.

Wrapping up

On the one hand, the book is missing some bits that would allow you to use it for running campaigns, like a table of encounters, rumors, seeds for adventures, a bestiary, important NPCs, maps of the main villages, and detailed maps of each island. Instead, it is focused on providing exactly the material you need to play the scenarios in The Fires of Mingai. Plus, this second book includes some of the maps, NPCs, and detailed descriptions that are missing in the first, like the ones for the islands of Mingai and Sitoro. Perhaps it is a way to entice you to buy the next books in the series, but at least the second one is already available, as it was released at the same time as the first, and the third one is in the works.

On the other hand, the book includes a lot of material, with the cult write-ups, the mysticism rules and the martial arts rules being the most interesting. For a fan publication, the effort made to open up an exciting and very different area of Glorantha is commendable, and therefore it deserves to be a success. Before concluding this review, some people might be wondering if Pirates of the East Isles, the other fan publication about this area is better or worse than Korolan Islands. In fact you will find both are actually quite complementary, and the adventures they include have different approaches. The former takes you  away from your homeland on a tour around the East Isles in general, while the latter is focused on the islands where most of the player characters live. The best thing is you can now combine all of that material to run a big campaign in the East Isles. So, all in all:

The best

  • It opens up the East Isles for playing different and exciting RuneQuest games.
  • The cult write-ups and myths.
  • The rules for mysticism and martial arts.
  • The fact it is only the first volume in a series of books.

The not so good

  • The order in which the sections are presented could be improved.
  • Most sections would have benefited from a bit more material, like more cult write-ups, more martial art schools, and more specific rules for mysticism.
  • It would have been nice to include a map of all the surrounding islands described in the book, with a scale. I know the Argan Argar Atlas is free, but still.

The goddesses and gods of the East Isles are completely different from the ones in Dragon Pass

Now you can read my review of the next book in the series: Fires of Mingai. I hope you have enjoyed reading this one. Korolan Islands is available from DrivethruRPG so far only in PDF format for 10$. As with other publications in the Jonstown Compendium, it will only be available in print-on-demand when it reaches 250 sales. So what are you waiting for? ;-)

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