RPG Items I Like: Strangers in Prax
I have to admit I'm not a big fan of modules-- at least the smaller ones that don't provide a good deal of context. I've run a few more often than not I end up jerry-rigging more things than the material provides. I'm a bigger fan of sourcebooks-- hooks, culture, NPCs, background and general ideas I can filter out for my players. I want material I can integrate and use to enrich the experience for my players. (With an exception-- if I'm buying materials for a superhero game, I don't care about that-- I don't even really want that. I want adventures, adversaries and new mechanics. Superhero rpgs are a kind of anti-matter in my thinking about games).
But with that said, one of my all time favorite rpgs products is essentially a module, Strangers in Prax for Runequest 3e. Long out of print, Avalon Hill released it during their brief period of trying to actually put out quality Glorantha material, not long before they shut down their role-playing arm.
Strangers in Prax takes place in the River of Cradles, the Valley of Prax (complimented by a number of other regional sourcebooks and material for the area). If you want an analogue, imagine a distant border province, overseen by a foreign empire. The key to the area lies in the presence of the city of Pavis and “The Big Rubble” a great ancient city, long destroyed now serving as a beacon for adventures to match their wits against the new monsters and old traps which fill it. It is a classic, early setting first mentioned and developed in the late 1970's.
Of course, all of this takes place in Glorantha. If you like fantasy and don't know Glorantha, it is worth looking into. Originally created by Greg Stafford and enriched over the years by many other authors, Glorantha takes seriously the question of what a fantasy world would look like if the gods were active, present and a vital part of the daily lives of the inhabitants. I'll admit the setting is hard to get into given the complexity of it, but it is worth it, if only to provide new perspectives on other fantasy games.
Which brings me back around to Strangers in Prax, which I ought to be fairly meh about-- but what drives this set of scenarios (broken into three parts) to greatness is the characters. Imagine that for all of the adventurers and outside occupation, the region of Prax is fairly isolated and hidebound. Each scenario centers around a foreigner (or group of foreigners) and the plots and event which occur when they arrive in Prax. If the PCs themselves are outsiders, this gives them a chance to build sympathy-- if the characters are locals you can use these characters to showcase the strangeness of the outside world.
And bottom line, all of the NPCs presented here are fun-- wonderfully interesting, with conflicting motivations and strong personalities.
The shortest section of the three is given over to Barran the Monster Killer-- a sea captain who has come to the region to work through his great quest. There's interesting material here on the idea of people who live to fight sea monsters and leviathans. The book describes Barran and his crew and provides a rising series of plot hooks, pursuing small monsters, searching out legendary equipment, and meeting with figures out of myth. The players can get drawn along on his journey, never feeling like second fiddles given the richness of it. Alternately, a more eco-friendly group might find themselves at odds with the ambiguous nature of Barran's quest. The payoff final scenario is properly epic and legendary.
Arlaten the Magus drives the action of another section. In simple terms he arrives in Pavis, a representative of strange magics from a far-off land. He decides to set up his shop in the middle of the Big Rubble-- possibly involving the adventurers in the clearing of his choice location. Arlaten serves as a great potential patron for characters in the setting. It has opportunities for misunderstandings and learning about the ways of a land far enough away to be almost a myth. The strength of that character (and his entourage) makes up for the fact that you only get two detailed scenarios in that section: one which assumes the players aid in the taking the tower Arlaten wants and another which involves defending that tower later from powerful forces who wish to drive him out. I'd imagined there was more material in there, given how much spun out of that when I ran a campaign which used this. In going back I see that most of what I used grew out of the possibilities inherent in the set up.
The third section deals with agents of the occupying force, the Lunar Empire. Powerful figures called the Lunar Coders have been sent to survey the area and deal with a few problematic rebels. The Coders provide an opportunity to present interesting NPCs who really believe in the mission and role of their Empire. In Gloranthan materials, the Lunar Empire often fills the role of “The Evil Empire” but that status is questionable. The nature and personality of the Coders themselves puts that question to the players.
The Coder section gives the most opportunity for the players to play for or against the NPCs presented. In some ways, the Coders seem like a classic adventuring party-- with internal drama, very different backgrounds, and strange abilities rarely seen elsewhere. They can serve as a dark or a bright mirror for the PCs. As the Coders get tangled deeper in the politics of the area, the players may find themselves trying to understand those politics more deeply.
While the material here seems at first glance pretty deeply entrenched in the Glorantha setting, I think it could easily be adapted and repurposed elsewhere. John Bykowski borrowed my copy after the campaign and used it for a chunk of his Planescape game. Strangers in Prax, simply put, provides rich NPCs and then builds great plots around them-- whether the players stand with or against those NPCs doesn't matter as much. That gives great freedom to the players and to the GM.
The last thing I should note: While there are some pretty mechanics-heavy write ups for the NPCs (and if you've seen RQ3 you know what I mean) I think the material is easily reworked for other systems. When I ran these adventures, I used Rolemaster and switched things over on the fly. John adapted the ideas to d20 without too much problem for his campaign. I think it would be even easier with lighter mechanics systems.