Thunder Rebels (for Hero Wars)
Author: Issaries Inc.
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2001-03-15
I've been playing Hero Wars steadily since last August, and I've reached the point where my reviews of this material may become biased. I like the game immensely, and I'd like to think that a mediocre supplement would get a harsh review from me, but it might not be a given. Fair warning.
Thunder Rebels is not mediocre; it is excellent. The book just came out on the market, but I've been using pre-publication text in play for a couple of months, as well as plenty of material from the Issaries website. Therefore the book has fitted into our game immediately. In fact, to some extent, I feared it would really just be stuff I knew, now between covers. However, the book has made huge contributions instantly, as with Anaxial's Roster, but even more so.
At last, this is the book I needed as a kid, trying to play RuneQuest and knowing there was SOMETHING interesting and cultural behind it all, but hampered by the rules' assumption that all players wanted to do was kill things and loot their stuff. Now, we have the Orlanthi culture in all of its physical, spiritual, and social glory. I have seen what it's done for my players, who are starting to scare me in their table-thumping, deeply-felt enjoyment of this fictional people.
Of course, Thunder Rebels is FOR a specific type of role-player, the sort who wants a solid starting point, who wants a hefty culture to dig into, and who wants OPTIONS for what the character may become. This is a mix that is generally traded-off in RPGs: either you start "undifferentiated" and then develop along a certain track, or you start in a certain category and either must stay there or change only with agonizing penalties. However, Thunder Rebels explicitly reaches an excellent, functional blend of starting with definition and developing with flexibility.
Here's how it does that, rooted of course in the religious and magical aspects of the characters. I'll use the male side of the religious/magic system to illustrate. Orlanth is the big ol' Storm God, with several aspects. Each aspect has several godlings (or personae corresponding to Orlanth's various roles in myths). OK, so you start play as a skald, meaning you probably worship Drogarsi, a "face" or "persona" within Orlanth Adventurous. Well, what if you decide to lay down the harp and fight in earnest (say war has broken out with trolls)? Fine! Shift over to worship Vingkot, another side or aspect of Orlanth Adventurous. You simply alter one affinity (magic ability), but you keep most of what you've got, the stuff that goes with worshipping Orlanth Adventurous no matter what. This same principle applies if you decide to be a nice house-husband-farmer type and shift to a different aspect of Orlanth entirely.
Well, I don't know if I explained well for people who aren't familiar with Hero Wars, but the point is that a character can actually switch his or her life-plan, within the culture, without "starting over" in game terms.
So, how usable is the book? Do you have to read and memorize 1002 pages simply in order to play your weaponthane guy? No. The players and GM do not have to memorize the book. They can start with the parts that are relevant to the characters, the GM can make a couple handouts for the general-culture stuff, and the group as a whole can keep browsing and adding in bits as they go along.
In Hero Wars, a player-character is part of a society and therefore might internalize conflict within that society; thus contradictory abilities (qualities) are quite possible. Setting up a sourcebook to provide that material is challenging; it can't be a supplement where you are simply told, "If you play a skald, you're like THIS" and that's that. No, in Thunder Rebels, you have the basics of a skald, and the real job is making him a protagonist who matters. A loyal thane or a bitter outlaw should be equally supported by the system and also by the setting. Thunder Rebels comes through in this regard, in part because of the development material described above, in part because the basic character creation in Hero Wars demands the player's original input, and finally, in part because the culture itself is seething with conflicts.
The historical and literary influences on Orlanthi culture will be familiar to most people. It's a blend of blue-smeared highland Scots and hairy icelandic vikings, a fun, tattooed, loud people. They are ruthless and zesty, and the supplement has a lot of good text to capture their dignity and intensity. I also think that the discerning reader will pick up on the somewhat less-emphasized, but important dark side of the culture: blood feuds, ostracism, and hidebound conservatism. These are not a people set up for anything resembling justice or social continuity, and might of whatever kind all too often makes right. Conflicts such as leader vs. individual, self vs. community, kin vs. community are all unstable, often settled arbitrarily and setting the stage for future conflict.
Thunder Rebels also goes where no setting-book has dared go before, especially for fantasy cultures. It's gendered. Gendered at last! Oh God almighty, gendered at last! And not in terms of maximum strength rating or anything so silly, but in terms of values, life-priorities, cultural stereotypes, and beliefs. Men and women characters are not "automatically" different in all sorts of game mechanics, but they do play different roles in the culture, they do deal with differing stereotypes, and they worship different deities, albeit with some areas of overlap. Call me biased, but fantasy role-playing has needed this for a long time. (Characters in Hero Wars have gender, sex drives, feelings, sweat, and genitals. Ask my players.)
Thunder Rebels also includes extensive Other Side material, that is, myths, maps of the Storm Realm, and other details of the hallucinatory, intense "otherworld" of Glorantha. This stuff is obligatory in a Hero Wars book - everything in this setting has magical meaning, and the timeless otherworld of the myths may be entered, challenged, and better understood during play. So the material isn't just color fluff, but pure gold for role-playing.
There are no new "rules," no revisions, and no need to pick up the game because it contains crucial material that should have been in the rulebook. Hero Wars is a solid, playable game. Thunder Rebels offers what a culture-sourcebook should: just ideas, depth, good writing, ongoing options, and inspiration.
I should end with a few words of warning, though, as Hero Wars is a distinctive RPG that corresponds to a well-defined style of play. (1) The group should grasp Narrativism, so that everyone knows that player-characters are protagonists in a story you are all creating, and that their actions act as judgments on real problems. (2) The group should grasp Hero Wars, such that the rules for relationships and magic are used in full; in this game, who you care about matters at least as much as how well you swing that sword - in fact, it will help you swing that sword. And (3), the group should grasp heroquesting. In this setting, the Other Side (myth, meaning) is powerfully real, and ultimately the conflicts faced by characters are going to end up there. Once armed, however, with these understandings, role-playing groups will find Hero Wars to be one of the top RPGs of its kind in existence, and Thunder Rebels to be a valuable and inspiring supplement.