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Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Fulcrum in Stasis

The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is a supplement for use with HeroQuest: Glorantha. Published by Chaosium, Inc., it is the first part of The Red Cow duology, providing the setting and background details for the campaign, The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. This setting and background is that of the Red Cow clan, famed for the red cows that it breeds and trades which make it the envy of many of its neighbours. The Red Cow clan is part of the Cinsina tribe, itself part of the Jonstown Confederation, which firmly places it in the Kingdom of Sartar in Dragon Pass. The time frame is between 1618 and 1625, so the early years of the Hero Wars that mark the end of the Third Age. The supplement details the Red Cow clan, its leaders and notables, its allies, enemies, and their aims, laying out a rich tableau which the player characters can explore and influence. They will take the role of clan warriors, hunters, herders, healers, farmers, priests, and more, their role and position becoming more important and prominent as they become involved in the events detailed in The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. It is important to note that although The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is set during the Hero Wars and the events of The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II take place against the background of the Hero Wars, neither the player characters nor the Red Cow clan will become directly involved in the Hero Wars. Rather they will become involved in events on the side-lines of the Hero Wars or in the consequences of those events.

As of 1618, the Red Cow clan, like most of Sartar, is under occupation by the Lunar Empire, the consequences of which are to divide the clan into several factions. Some like the Moon Winds, dominated by the Sardaling bloodline, have not only accepted Lunar rule, but also been converted by missionaries to worship of the Seven Mothers and welcomed the riches the Lunar presence brings. The Free Sartar faction sees those of the Moon Winds faction as traitors and would not only punish them, but see all Lunar presence driven out of Sartar. The Free Sartar faction supports those who rose in rebellion against the Lunar Empire and continues to support the surviving rebels who now conduct a guerilla war against the Lunar occupation. Its members also support the Orlanthi priesthood which has been forced into hiding since the Lunar administration outlawed worship of Orlanth. The Conquering Storm concerns itself with more local matters, in particular, old feuds and slights, wanting the tribe to keep the tribe itself strong and its neighbours weak, whilst the Wolfskinners fear the Telmori, the werewolves who live with their wolf brothers to the east and whose skin in wolf-form can only be cut by magical or iron weapons. The Wolfskinners would even co-operate with Jomes Hostralos, the Lunar General who has been given a land grant which was owned by a rival clan destroyed by the Telmori and who has led raids against the wolfmen. Lastly, there is Eye of the Hurricane, the faction which does not want to involve the clan in affairs beyond the borders of it lands, avoiding all talk of the Hero Wars and rebellion against the Lunar Empire. It is the clan chieftain, Broddi Strong-Kin, who leads both the clan and the Eye of the Hurricane faction, and so must keep a balance between the rivalries and politics of the factions, the clan, and the tribe.

Interestingly, the Red Cow slogan is ‘No one can make you do anything’ and that lies at the heart of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I and presumably, The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. So at the point when the player characters enter the story the situation in the clan is one of a status quo between the faction and the clan and the external forces, and this will not change without the agency of the players and their heroes. As the young men and women of the clan, the player characters can be hunters, warriors, healers, thanes (household heads, merchants, craftspersons, housecarls, and other persons of note), mercenaries, cattle raiders (the tribes of Sartar have a tradition of raiding rival tribes and clans for their cattle), and more. An example of each of these five options is given as pre-generated characters, either ready to play or useful as inspiration for the players in creating their own. One interesting option particular to the Red Cow clan is to play one of the ‘Rattle-Born’, the warriors grown to full adulthood with a shake of Orlanth’s Rattle, a Red Cow clan treasure, one of several treasures possessed by the clan. Muscular and martial, the ‘Rattle-Born’ are capable warriors, but emotionally immature having missed out on a normal childhood. Other options might include merchants or priests to Ernalda or Heler.

The support for and background to the campaign begins with a clan sheet and a clan questionnaire taken from Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and filled in for the Red Cow clan, which nicely summarises the clan, its history, attitudes, treasures, and so on. It expands greatly on this, going into some detail about the contents of both sheets before presenting a gazetteer of both Red Cow Fort—the clan’s principal settlement—and the Red Cow lands and a who’s who of the notables in the clan. This includes the inner circle of the clan council, the clan chieftain’s bodyguards, the Housecarls, the priests, the leaders of the clan’s bloodlines, the Headmen, the Women’s Circle, and the craftsmen. Of note amongst the latter is Willandring the Giant who has been hobbled so that clan can retain use of his iron working skills, and Erinala Goodale, who runs the inn at Red Clan Fort, a recent and Lunar addition to the settlement which the clan sees as an affront to its traditions of hospitality. Lastly, the leading members of the Lunar garrison are presented. In addition, the clan’s previous chieftains are listed, with those of living memory described in further detail, nicely personalising the clan’s recent history.

The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I then expands upon the description of the Red Cow clan to detail the Cinsina, the tribe to which the Red Cow belongs. Primarily this is a history of the tribe, in particular its encounters and dealings with the Telmori, but again, it includes the tribe’s leading figures, notably Ivartha the Skinner, the Queen of the Cinsina. She is no distant figure, for she makes a regular progress through the tribe’s territory, staying at clan after clan. So when playing The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II, the player characters are likely to encounter her, especially as spends a great deal of time with the Red Cow clan. Rivals of the Red Cow are also presented, including the Dolutha, riven by the crime without compensation—kinstrife and the Two-Pines clan which would war on the Red Cow. Beyond the Red Cow clan, the supplement examines both the rebels and the efforts of the Lunar Empire to track them down, the holdings of Jomes Hostralos, and those of the Telmori and the ghouls, the lands of the dead.

Now none of the other clans, rivals, allies, and enemies are presented in quite as much detail as the Red Cow clan, which is understandable, since the players and their characters are going to be involved in the events surrounding the clan as presented in The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. Yet there is information enough—and even some suggestions to that end—for the Game Master to develop into games that present the Red Cow clan as a threat rather than home. So the Game Master could use the material to run a game in which the player characters are the Lunar occupying forces prosecuting the Sartarite rebellion, members of the Dolutha clan attempting to restore their reputation and assuage their sorrow and woe, or even Telmori wolfbrothers, raiding the clan lands and surviving clan raids. These ideas are not the focus of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I or The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II, nor really within its remit—as the authors do point out, and whilst possible, would need a fair degree of development by the Game Master.

Of course, much of the contents of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I will be familiar to Gloranthaphiles, but having it all detailed here makes it accessible in readiness for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II—and more so if the Game Master and his players are new to HeroQuest and Glorantha. That said, the supplement is not complete and the Game Master will probably want to refer to two other supplements for further information. One is Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, with its guide to creating Sartarite characters and to the Orlanthi faith, as well as the events of the Hero Wars which form the backdrop for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. The other is the Startar Companion, which provides information on Heler, the rain god favoured by one of the clan’s bloodlines. Of all this information, it is a pity that the character generation guide and the details on Heler are not included here as that would have made The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I and for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II more of a complete pair.

Physically, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is a decently presented colour hardback, if a little slim. The content is well organised with a lot of supplementary information packed into separate side boxes. The illustrations of the very many individuals are also good, though some are a little scrappy. Their arrangement in tableau works here very much better than it does in recent Call of Cthulhu titles from the publisher. The maps, especially those of Red Clan Fort, Dangerfort, and similar, are excellent, though those of the Cisina lands and their historical movements would have worked better if they had dates on them. The book does need an edit in places though, but the index is both full and useful.

By focusing on the one clan and its situation, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I does a fine job of bringing the setting of Dragon Pass and the political situation just before the Hero Wars to life. It has the feel of a land under occupation, very like Celtic Britain under the Romans, but of course with much more sense of the fantastic and how that fantastic is part of everyday life. Although there is some flexibility in how its content can be used, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I sets everything up ready for the events The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II and the saga that the player characters will become involved in, and does so in pleasingly readable and engaging fashion.