Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: Trollpak (Troll Week)

In many ways, 1982's Trollpak from Chaosium (and then later Avalon Hill, then Chaosium again) is the reason for my decades-long fascination with trolls in RPGs.

Like many gamers my age, it was the ads in Dragon magazine where I first came in contact with Trollpak. The ads were quite effective too.  Going back to Dragon #65 we get a dissected troll with it's guts all hanging out.  Nothing like that EVER appeared in D&D.

Back then for some reason, I thought this product was for Tunnels & Trolls and not the very obvious RuneQuest.   Even when I learned the difference I still wanted to combine Trollpak with Tunnels & Trolls, something I am attempting to try this week.

Sadly I never knew any groups that was playing RuneQuest so getting my hands on one to view was non-existent.  And my gaming dollar was stretched as it was back then, so buying it blind for my D&D games seemed a bit of a risk for me. 

Reading over the PDF now and some of the very few reviews I see that I certainly missed out and wonder what my trolls would be like today had I owned this back in the 80s.  These days I think I am fairly set in my ways, but is still there is so much here to use.  So let's get into it 



For this review, I am considering the PDF version of Trollpak that is currently being sold on DriveThruRPG.  This is a reprint of the original Trollpak from 1982.
216 pages, color covers, black & white/monchrome interior art.
By Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen for Runequest 2nd Edition.
The original box set of Trollpak contained three books (the "pak" part); Uz Lore, Book of Uz, and Into Uzdom.  The PDF combines all three into a single file.  The PDF was released in 2019.
The books correspond to the PDF sections, "Troll Legends and Natural History", "Creating and Playing Troll Characters", and "Adventures in Trolls Lands" respectively.


Uz is the name the trolls of Glorantha give themselves and how their creation is central to the lore of the world.  Already this set is going to be the sort of deep-dive into a topic that you know I love.

On the very first page, we get an "in-universe" side-bar about how trolls living near or amongst humans begin to become more human-like and how both groups eventually take on an equilibrium.  
This sets the stage for this book in two very important ways.
  1. This book is steeped in the lore and legends of Glorantha. So teasing out pieces to use in other games might be trickier than I first expected.
  2. These trolls are NOT one-dimensional collections of hit points and potential XP and treasure.  If you prefer your monsters to be mindless evil races to just kill then this book will be wasted on you. 
Book 1: Uz Lore, Troll Legends and Natural History
We get right into the myths and legends of the Uz people/trolls.  We get a feel right away since we get a listing of the Seven Sacred Ancestors of the Uz even before the Gods.  It is right before the Gods sure, but the importance of these ancestors is emphasized. We learn that "Uz" means "the folk" in the Uz language. So the Mistress Trolls (akin to the troll mother race) are the Uzuz.  Dark Trolls, the corrupted "evil" trolls are the Uzko. And so on. Speaking of the language we also learn that the mother tongue of the trolls is a debased form of the "Darktongue." So in D&D terms "Trollspeak" could be a corrupted form of "Abyssal" or something like that. I think in old forms of D&D anyone who spoke the Chaos alignment language could speak to trolls.  

Speaking of Chaos.  The Law - Chaos access is also present in RuneQuest, though not as an alignment as in D&D but as elemental forces.  Another clue that these are your D&D trolls comes up that trolls are often seen as agents of Chaos WHEN IN FACT they were really some of the first victims. 
Let that sink in for bit.  If that were published today there is a certain segment of the hobby that would be screaming that they don't want "social justice" politics in their games.  But this is from 1982, from two of the titans of the RPG industry.  

The section continues with more history and recounting of great troll battles. There is a quasi-academic feel to this and that is really fun.   An example is an experiment a troll researcher did on a troll and a trollkin (a smaller version of troll) in which they were locked in a room with various items and the researcher recorded what they ate.  The point here is that Uz trolls can eat and will eat almost anything. 

We learn there are many kinds of trolls (as to be expected). The Mistress Race is the mother race of all trolls. They are ancient and wise and claim to predate all other races and even the world itself.  The other races of trolls are the Dark Trolls (your stock evil trolls), great trolls, cave trolls, sea trolls, and the diminutive trollkin.


We even get details on troll senses and how they differ from humans. Differences in trolls from region to region. Even a troll evolutionary tree and "prehistoric" troll cave painting and idols, there is even a six-breasted "Venus of Willendorf" style troll idol of the troll mistress race.
There is even details on the types of pets trolls keep. 

There is far more detail about trolls in this 64 page section than in all five editions of (A)D&D.
Nearly everything in the section is system neutral.  While it is tied to the world mythology at a fundamental level, it can be used in any game.

Book 2: Book of Uz, Creating and Playing Troll Characters
This section/book is all about creating a troll character to play in RuneQuest.  Before we delve into this let's have a look at this from "Playing Trolls,"
It is tempting to use trolls as monsters with weapons.
However, they are intelligent creatures who have survived despite gods and men. Several traits set them apart from humans as well, and they naturally exploit those special traits to their advantage. You should do so as well.
D&D players may have issues with playing races as evil or not, but RuneQuest had it figured out in 1982.

You can randomly roll which troll sub-species your character is from, with a 1% chance you are from the Mistress Troll race and 63% chance you are a miserable little trollkin.  Adjustments for all the types are given. Your troll can be wild, semi-civilized, or civilized. You can roll for social rank and equipment.  You can even see what starting spells you have since all trolls have some magic. You can even figure out what you were before you became an adventurer. 

Trolls are a matriarchal culture. So various home habits are focused around this.  For example, the more husbands a troll leader has, the higher her social standing. Looks like my troll character Grýlka gets to pick out a couple of husbands!
BTW, I LOVE the troll greeting when offering you hospitality in their lair.  They cover your head with a blanket or hide and say "I extend my darkness to protect you."  I am totally going to use that in my next adventure. 

Some gods are covered next and their worship. They have goddesses and gods of spiders, darkness, insects (very important to troll life), and the hunt. There is even a goddess of healing.
Coverage of domesticated giant insects is also covered since these creatures often serve the same function as domestic mammals in human life. 

Some new troll types are also covered.

This section by it's very nature is more rules-focused, but there is still so much here that is just good that it can, and should, be used in any other FRPG.

Book 3: Into Uzdom, Adventures in Trolls Lands
This section covers going on adventures in lands inhabited or controlled by the Uz. 
This section is very rules-focused as well with the first part covering random encounters in troll lands. 
There are also sample/small adventures like "The Caravans" which details a troll caravan of a heard of giant beetles.  Imagine this long train of trolls, some in wagons, others walking and in between hundreds of giant beetles being led like cattle in a long line.  Quite a sight really.  Another is traveling to a troll village and NOT treat everyone like a walking collection of HP.  This one is fantastic really for all the troll alcohol available and whether or not your human character can handle any of them in a drinking challenge. 
There are five larger adventures here and several smaller ideas for seeds.  The best thing though is the inclusion of a "mini-game" of Trollball.  This game is played like football and is supposed to be a reenactment of a battle from the dawn of time.  The "trollball" itself used to be a now extinct insect so other things have been used like badgers and in rare occurrences a bear, but most often it is a trollkin.   The teams each have seven players and one can be a great troll.  They are sponsored by a Rune Lord.
The game is brutal and sometimes deadly, but since there is a religious element to the game anyone killed on the field is brought back to life by the gods whom the game honors. Full stats for the Sazdorf Wackers and Tacklers is included so players can try their own hand at Trollball, but warning, the troll gods might not raise a dead human. 

There is just so much to love about this product. It is jammed packed full of ideas.  Part of me wants to adapt my D&D trolls to use these rules and another part of me wants to insert the Uz as-is into D&D as their own race or something akin to High Trolls.  

Trolpak was updated in 1990 when RuneQuest was being published by Avalon Hill.  It was then split into the Trollpak and Troll Gods. 

The "new" pdf restores all the content back to the 1982 edition. 



Reading it now after so many years I am struck with a couple of thoughts. The first is what would have happened to my own games had I picked this up and used it in my games?  Would my trolls today have a decidedly Uz flavor about them?  What else would have changed?

Also, reviews in Dragon Magazine for this are glowing and heap high praise on this book and they called it a leap in game design.  It was, but it was not a leap everyone would take.  RuneQuest/Chaosium did this for trolls like Chill/Pacesetter had done for Vampires.  There are s few others I can think of.  Orkworld did it for Orcs for example.  But still, these sorts of deep explorations are rare. 

So if you are over one-dimensional monsters and are ready to expand your options then this is for you.
If you are RuneQuest player of any edition then this is also something you should have.

4 comments:

Ruprecht said...

This was the product that broke me free of Glorantha. Before I read this Trolls were equal to Orcs in my brain, after they were too different. That plus Bronze age and I just migrated the RuneQuest system over to Harn and was happy for years.

Cross Planes said...

Greg Stafford really did do everything first. Chaosium products, often, are still revolutionary compared to the rest of the industry even today.

I know RuneQuest 3 from Avalon Hill is not generally held in high favor, but reading through it a decade ago you could see how it inspired designers like Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo as they worked on D&D.

Dick McGee said...

First gaming supplement I know of that really examined how alien a nonhuman fantasy species should be, and how their culture, mythology, beliefs, and personalities should be wholly their own - and all that without falling into the tropes of them being "evil because they're evil" or "noble misunderstood foes" too. Uz are uz, and are no more good or bad than humans are. Heck, of all teh Elder Races in Glorantha they're by far the most like humanity is. Nowhere near as hard to get along with as fanatical xenophobic plant-based elves, isolationist Dwarves obsessed with their narrow caste-based tasks, or the almost incomprehensibly weird dragonewts. Great stuff all the way through.

I do think the Dark Trolls are mischaracterized as "stock evil trolls" though. They're the type of Uz most commonly encountered by adventures (well, outside of the shrimpy trollkin) but they're generally more obstacles than villains or monsters. Cave trolls fit the "evil" label better - bigger, dumb as rocks, regenerating, tainted by Chaos, and wholly uncivilized. Closest thing in Trollpak to a D&D troll, really.

Cross Planes said...

@Dick, bringing up "tainted by chaos" is a good motivation for a "stock evil race". For those that object to evil drow, for instance, simply making Menzoberranzen a hive of chaos keeps its traditional role in continuity while allowing more options for other members of that race.

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