The Hero Wars rpg was released by Issaries back in 2000 and a problem child from the very beginning.
Hero Wars is the name for the all-new Gloranthan role-playing system [and in this respect successor to the late RuneQuest FRPG], devised by the well-known Robin D. Laws and developed by famous Greg Stafford, as well as Roderick Robertson and Shannon Appel, all which are known to most gamers as well.
I won't go into too many details here, but part of the problem Hero Wars has experienced was the lack of easy-to-use and actual game-related material. Although there are lots of background information and fascinating details on the fabulous cultures of Glorantha available, many people including myself longed for such trivial stuff like ready-to-run adventures, descriptions of geographical areas, et cetera.
Then The Unspoken Word
came to fill this gap...
The Unspoken Word
The Unspoken Word is the title of a line of semi-professional fan-publications for the Hero Wars
role-playing game and its background world Glorantha
The Thieves Arm
is the third book in the line [although it's numbered no.2, but this is a different story] and I'll do reviews of the previous two, Tarsh In Flames
and Uz - The Trolls Of Glorantha
later. I'll have a look at the newest USW-installment In Wintertop's Shadow
as soon as I had the chance to really dig into it.
Minor disclaimer - since I'm not a native english speaker I do have the tendency to express myself cumbersomely and sometimes even wrong. I beg your pardon and indulgence for this in advance!
At First Glance
The Unspoken Word 2 - The Thieves' Arm comes with 64 pages, staple-stitched, full color back and front cover.
The front cover is a rather good one, but may be a bit misleading, for judging by it one could easily take the book as a volume on elves or ents.
The layout of the interior is done very well, dense but clear and a pleasure to read, with b/w illustrations on nearly every single page. Most of these pictures are well-done, evocative and adding flavour to the accompanying text, though I did not like some of those done in a more comical manner.
The content breaks down into 25 articles [or 'chapters'], ranging from a half to 8 pages length.
Boxes with additional, rather esoteric or atmospheric information are scattered all through the book and the few game-stats are adjacent to the relevant description. Due to the story-telling nature of the Hero Wars rules, the stats itself are short but rather colorful and add to the description of the NPCs, unlike the waste of space as seen in some other RPGs.
There are also include some good chuckles, when for instance a Trollkin has surprisingly courageous as stat.
A Close Look
SPOILERS GALORE - READ AND CHEAT AT OWN RISK!
The overall theme of the book is [I quote the tagline from the front cover]
to 'Gather An Army Of Bandits And Outlaws To Fight For Freedom'
and all articles are true to this by various means:
While one describes 'ruthless bandits who ambush caravans crossing Exile Country'
in considerably detail along with scenario seeds, another chapter features a long scenario outline, with details left to the Narrator [Hero Wars' GM], and others give you complete HeroQuests [that's one of the specialities of Hero Wars/Glorantha - the journey into the realms of Gods and Heroes, maybe some parts of TSR's Planescape
-setting come close to this].
The style of writing vary with each author, which is fine by me, since all manage to uphold a high degree of quality, but I can see problems arising when e.g. two different HeroQuests are described in the book and while one write-up is evocative and impressive, the other is a bit sketchy.
This shouldn't pose any serious problems to the average Narrator, though I'd have preferred a more continuous style here.
Essentially the book is a collection of articles on [Gloranthan] thieves in the broadest sense.
But the editors tried to add additional value to this grab bag of encounters, scenarios, cameos, artifacts and gazeteer by linking all articles into a huge campaign, or story arc
as is Hero Wars' term for this.
While this might not be the greatest innovation since sliced bread, I really appreciate the effort that has put into this and thereby leaving the decision up to the Narrator if he wants to use the book as ready-to-use collection of single ideas or as whole as a single long-term adventure.
The term Thief can prove very misleading compared to more classical fantasy settings:
Don't have the urban-medieval-sneak-over-rofftops-and-gain-etry-into-your-local-guild-burglar in mind, but rural Robin Hood and his gang of bandits.
There's few material that's explicitely useable in an urban setting, so Narrators looking for this may be dissappointed, but on the other hand, other than maybe its title the book never promises to provide stuff like this.
A short, but useful gazetteer sets the scene [the Bushrange in Dragon Pass for the initiated] for the following chapters, a wild and unruly, with many different cultures clashing, ranging from celts-like hill barbarians to the imperialistic Lunar empire, which resembles the great nations of Rome and Mesopotamia to paint it in brad strokes.
[Asterix the Gaul comes into mind :)]
Thieves' Arm makes good use of the possibilities such a crucible offers and introduces not only encounters and NPCs native to the region, but complete strangers too:
Colorful rapscallions, an erring knight and entourage, degenrated countryside cannibals, imperial rebelhunters, a notorious trollkin gang, a lunar magistrate, elvish raiders, a thievish GIANT, city-based streetgangs and much more are to be found between the covers.
Most encounters and NPCs are quite interesting, enjoyable to read and described in colorful detail, with suggestions provided how to use them in your personal campaign, how to use them in the story arc and almost all come with some little twist in their description/personality, that keeps them interesting to both players and Narrators in the long run.
The editors assume the PCs belong to the oppressed side to the conflict that dwells in the background AKA the Lunar Empire conquered all freedom-loving barbarians and the proposed story-arc suggests the building of outlaw-resistance against the intruders.
[did I mention Robin Hood yet?]
Though I think that's the way one gets the best out of the content, it's still no real problem to use it the other way around or even skip the setting related background themes/tensions, as long as one's campaign offers plenty of wilderness and rural areas to place the encounters.
If the book is used as story arc, there is not much choice for the Narrator: the location isn't moveable easily and the PCs are obliged to act against the empire either for patriotic or [at least] economic causes.
A short summary of the arc:
the players make some accidental contact with outlaws, get hands on an ancient blade, that tries to fulfill the insurgent mission of its late original owner via the PCs, who in turn can use it as their allied spirit/fetch/totem/wyter or however your favorite FRPG calls this kind of community-protecting spirit.
As the story arc progresses and the PCs get more powerful, they attract unwanted attention of the occupants, gain a magically hidden glade as base of operation, and eventually get involved in a massive full-scale riot in one of the major border towns of the [enemy] empire.
Concluding useful suggestions follow on what to do next with the now [in-]famous PCs who are likely to face the first eruptions of the "globe-shaking" Hero Wars, which inter alia are described in the Sartar Rising books from Issaries.
Because of the very structure of the book as loose collection there's plenty of creative space and [positive] vagueness between the chapters of the story arc to be filled by the Narrator.
Again, Narrators who look for a fully described campaign, with nothing left to do for him but presenting will have to look elsewhere.
Personally, I consider this to be good thing, for I can adjust, skip, alter and tweak everything as needed.
But after all, I won't use the arc as written at all, for I did not like the underlying idea of a outlaw-campaign, but this is a matter of taste and does not lower the overall value of the book.
The Bottom Line...
The Unspoken Word 2 - The Thieves' Arm is a very welcome and worthwile addition to the slowly growing collection of material for Hero Wars.
Though not without its faults - the varying writing styles/structures of chapters, some illustrations, the story arc - but all things considered this is a sure winner!
It provides what Hero Wars unfortunately is lacking [yet!]: playable material, ready and easy to use!
If you use it either as whole campaign or as repertory of ideas, adventures, scenario seed, encounters or NPCs - there's something in it for nearly everybody.
Of course the usefulness depends on the particular campaign - if you're not playing in the Dragon Pass area, or none of your PCs belongs to one of the oppressed nations there, there little in this book that will make you happy [but even then you'll get some generic encounters and NPCs!].
But I consider this a forgiveable flaw, since the Dragon Pass area is where most Gloranthan campaigns are set.
I'm pretty sure that not everybody will like everything in The Unspoken Word 2 - The Thieves' Arm, but this is to be expected considering the many different authors.
GMs yet not familiar to Hero Wars or Glorantha should have a look at the book, even if some minor background details are a bit on the esoteric side, you can easily integrate the book as is into your old-school RuneQuest campaign or use it with other epic settings as well, for actual gamesystem-information is sparse.
Game-wise one of the most useful Hero Wars books to date, marking the transtition to the upcoming new edition of Hero Wars as HeroQuest
this is by far more Hit than Miss - Thumbs Up!
(No Morokanth-pun intended!)