Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Retrospective: Trollpak

Even though I never played much RuneQuest during its heyday in the 80s, there were two things I knew for certain about its setting, Glorantha. First, the setting included anthropomorphic ducks as a playable race, a "sin" that I am ashamed to admit prevented me from taking the game seriously for a long time. Older and wiser -- and with a better sense of humor -- I actually rather like the ducks and can't imagine Glorantha without them. Second, Glorantha's trolls were nothing like the trolls I knew from D&D and fantasy literature; they were weird. Of course, most of the nonhuman races of Glorantha are "weird" and that's part of their charm, but, callow youth that I was, I saw this as yet more evidence that Glorantha was not worth my time.

Truth be told, it probably wasn't, at least not at that stage of my initiation into the hobby. Nowadays, though, I find myself feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for RuneQuest and Glorantha -- the nostalgia for something I never directly experienced in my personal past. There must be a term for this odd feeling, probably a German one, but, regardless, I've been feeling it a lot lately and never more strongly than when I recently reread 1982's Trollpak, written by Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen. As its title implies and its subtitle -- "Troll facts, secrets, and adventures for RuneQuest" -- makes explicit, Trollpak was a boxed set detailing the race commonly called trolls but who call themselves the Uz.

Trollpak contained of four books, a map, and many handouts, all presented with the kind of care and attention that was typical of Chaosium boxed sets in the early to mid-1980s. The first book, "Uz Lore," presents an overview of the history, mythology, and anatomy of trolls. The second book, "Book of Uz," included all the rules and information needed to create and play troll characters, whether as PCs or NPCs. It includes details on family life, religion, insects (which play a big role in troll culture), and a glossary of troll words and terms. The third book, "Into Uzdom," is a book of scenarios that take advantage of the new information presented in the first two books. Some scenarios are written with troll PCs in mind, while others present the trolls as antagonists with whom PCs of other races must interact. Also included are rules for playing trollball, an ancient -- and violent -- sport among the Uz that uses cursed trollkin as the "ball." The fourth and final book, "Munchrooms," is also an adventure, but a unique one in that it is designed to be played two ways, one with the PCs as trolls and another with the PCs as non-trolls.

Normally, I'm rather averse to delving too deeply into an "evil" fantasy race, as it almost always presages the sudden discovery that the race in question is not in fact evil but merely misunderstood. Call me racist and imperialistic but I like being able to kill orcs with impunity, knowing that they're the spawn of Chaos, bubbling up from black pools beneath the earth and having no purpose other than to kill men and bring down civilization. Fortunately, Trollpak does not turn the trolls into nice guys. They're still creatures tied to the rune of Darkness and enemies of men and elves alike, whose cults are decidedly unsavory. What Trollpak does do is present the trolls as more than one-dimensional beings whose behavior and motives make no sense. They're presented as, for all intents and purposes, aliens. That they are nevertheless intelligible and usable is a testament to just how remarkable this product is.

Rereading Trollpak has, as I said, only increased my sense that I missed out horribly by not having been more into RuneQuest in my younger days. It's also reminded me that, at the time, this boxed set was often described as being "overwhelming" in its detail and it's true that it is lengthy compared to previous treatments of almost any fantasy race in a RPG. However, compared to the products based on such topics we've seen in the years since, Trollpak is comparatively spartan in its detail and still leaves many aspects of troll life and society undescribed (or only cursorily so). That is, it doesn't feel constraining at all but acts as a spur to my own ideas about trolls and how to use them in a Glorantha campaign.

It's still probably more detailed than I personally need -- the extensive histories, for example, seem particularly unnecessary -- but Trollpak doesn't leave me with a sense of either self-indulgence on the part of its writers or pointless padding to meet a page count quota, flaws inherent in a lot of RPG products that have been written since 1982. Instead, Trollpak evinces the enthusiasm of its writers for the mythic world of Glorantha and its fantastical inhabitants. There's a palpable sense of joy here, the joy of "discovering" an alien race and sharing it with others. Given that, I'm willing to cut it a great deal of slack and note that, if more gaming products were as obviously joyous, I'd probably be willing to extend the same courtesy to them as well.

20 comments:

  1. I think this is my favorite supplement, for any game, of all time. There is something about this that I still find myself returning to over and over again. Heck, I have to like it, because I have the original and the AH reprint.

    I got to say I am really happy that you have "discovered" this game. I spent many of years playing it.

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  2. When I picture gloranthan trolls I always see the Lisa Free art. It's my favourite RQ2 supplement.

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  3. Ducks up, halflings down, any day.

    My old campaign took hobbits back to their conceptual and etymological roots, replacing them with 3 foot tall rabbits (and the taller, dumber hare warrior race). I can't deny that RQ's Ducks were the inspiration...

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  4. "I find myself feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for RuneQuest and Glorantha -- the nostalgia for something I never directly experienced in my personal past. There must be a term for this odd feeling, probably a German one, but, regardless, I've been feeling it a lot lately..."

    That describes me and Empire of the Petal Throne.

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  5. The difference between traditional races and their Gloranthan equivalents wasn't always the case. One thing I found interesting was how the original illustrations of elves, dwarves and trolls were much more like their Nordic precedents, rather than the Aldryami, Mostali, and Uz they were to become quite rapidly.

    I'm talking early Runequest 2e here, such as the illustrations done by Luise Perrene. I particularly recommend her images in Rune Masters (especially a very impressive Humakti Death Drake). I think these gave me the best idea of what Gloranthan people looked like, at least until Simon Bray took over.

    Also, if you can get your hands on it, take a look at the illustrations in Foes. I'm not sure of the artist (as my copy is buried in my library), which had some impressive work, in particular illustrations of the Beast Riders of Prax (in a most unlikely conglomeration admittedly).

    [This was where my Glorantha started to diverge from canon. In particular, my trolls are substantially carnivorous, so the injunction for a Kargg's Son to "ritually eat a large amount of vegetable matter. (Elves are considered vegetable matter.)" adds new incentive for why trolls and elves just don't get along. <grin>]

    ***

    And you'll be surprised how helpful the histories are when you are creating and detailing Uz heroquests.

    And you have to remember that to most inhabitants of Glorantha, stranger is synonymous with enemy. And alien races are even stranger than other humans. [Besides, it was the humans (or their gods to be more precise) that drove the Uz out of Paradise and into the Hurtplace by killing the Emperor. You can't blame them for being rather antsy about that.]

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  6. the race commonly called trolls but who call themselves the Uz.

    I may be being extraordinarily dense here, but is "Uz" a pun? Should I be surprised if trolls refer to other races as "Dem"?

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  7. James, above you posted:

    "Rereading Trollpak has, as I said, only increased my sense that I missed out horribly by not having been more into RuneQuest in my younger days."

    This has made me curious. Given that childhoods are finite, and thus any system you would spend more time with would naturally come at the expense of something else, are there any games or systems that you wish you wish you'd been less into in your younger days?

    (Obviously, you can avoid naming specifics if you don't want to speak ill of any still-extant games, but it might be good thought-exercise fodder to discuss "dead ends" in styles or genres your youthful self engaged in...)

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  8. I ran a session of RQ1 back in the day. My D&D players were freaked by the idea of intelligent magic using trolls. they freaked. Which turned out to not be a good thing. We never played RQ again.

    Course, thanks to you and your commenters I went to my FLGS and picked up MRQII yesterday.

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  9. My GM getting Trollpak back in the day led to an amazing campaign where we had to defend an Uz community from a Broo invasion. The GM (father of one of the players, and a Vietnamese immigrant) did a good job of introducing us to an alien culture and letting us decide that Darkness does not equal Chaos.

    I got the box for Hanukkah that year, and it remains one of my all-time favorite game supplements.

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  10. I have mixed feelings about Trollpak. On the one hand, it's a really cool resource. On the other, it's got way more detail than is practically useful. I never actually ran any of the scenarios.

    What I did appreciate it for was introducing trolls as a race that didn't have to be "evil" yet could still be opponents. It was also nice to have a good selection of troll gods. A small amount of the detail was used to give trolls a bit more depth.

    It's also got my favorite map of Dragon Pass and Prax (or enough thereof to be a good campaign area).

    Frank

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  11. We seem to have very similar gaming paths, starting the hobby just a year apart with D&D, trying things like "James Bond 007," etc. Where we differ was on RuneQuest. The moment I played it, it completely replaced D&D for me. Oddly it was many of the "strange" things that turn people off that turned me on. Magic-using trolls, Ducks, etc. Yet I do still consider myself a a fan of Old School, and would definitely consider RuneQuest that.

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  12. the nostalgia for something I never directly experienced in my personal past. There must be a term for this odd feeling, probably a German one

    Weltschmerz - a nostalgia for a place you have never actually been and probably will never get to go.

    Not exact, but close, as you're never going to be able to look at RQ with the fresh eyes of a teenager, which seems to be part of your lament.

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  13. What I always liked about RQ trolls was that, yeah they were alien and evil and not nice to humans and worshipped Darkness.

    AND they hated Chaos and fought against it.

    It's nice that there's a whole other level there, beyond the "us and them" -- the "we are all us" part of RQ's cosmology that lets even foes be on the same side against the real Big Bad.

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  14. My old campaign took hobbits back to their conceptual and etymological roots, replacing them with 3 foot tall rabbits (and the taller, dumber hare warrior race). I can't deny that RQ's Ducks were the inspiration...

    That's a really inspired idea.

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  15. That describes me and Empire of the Petal Throne.

    Oh, I get that feeling too. Just not today :)

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  16. Steven,

    That's an excellent question and one deserving it's own post, which I'll probably make tomorrow.

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  17. Yet I do still consider myself a a fan of Old School, and would definitely consider RuneQuest that.

    As I noted earlier, I think any definition of "old school" that would exclude RuneQuest needs to go back to the drawing board. RQ, at least through its second edition, is, by my lights anyway, a very old school game.

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  18. What I always liked about RQ trolls was that, yeah they were alien and evil and not nice to humans and worshipped Darkness.

    AND they hated Chaos and fought against it.


    I'm digging that myself. Of course, that's rather the way I portray the religion of Typhon in my Dwimmermount campaign, so perhaps I'm predisposed to like it :)

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  19. I have mixed feelings about Trollpak. On the one hand, it's a really cool resource. On the other, it's got way more detail than is practically useful.

    I hear you, but I find myself more disposed to it than I ought to be, because most of the detail, while greater than I likely would ever need, doesn't feel useless. That is, it's not just Stafford and Petersen creating detail for its own sake, or so it seems to me. Something about its detail feels different than the detail I remember seeing some of the later Tékumel or Hârn products, for example.

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  20. actually, the runequest trolls were not "evil" but rather the "good" race -- the human abominations were the evil antagonists. that's what made the game and this specific supplement so revolutionary.

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