Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, December 2019, ISBN 9781916268005
In addition to completing the late Joe Dever’s vision of a thirty-two book cycle comprising four different series, Holmgard Press is intent on completing the Collector’s Edition release initially begun by Mongoose Publishing in 2010 (for details, see my review of Lone Wolf 21: The Voyage of the Moonstone). I must confess that for a combination of reasons (and despite the user-friendly formatting of Project Aon), I had never actually played books 24 to 26, in consequence of which I was very pleased to see Lone Wolf 24: Rune War released at the end of 2019. The game begins with True Friend (my Kai Grand Master of randomly-generated-name-fame) returning to the Kai Monastery from his successful mission in the Kingdom of Siyen (Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero) to be invited to a private audience with Lone Wolf. The evil Lord Vandyan has usurped the throne of the former Principality of Eldenora and invaded the neighbouring countries of Delden, Magador, and Salony in Northern Magnamund. Vandyan’s imperial ambitions are currently stalled in Lyris, where he is besieging Varetta (the Stornlands setting of Lone Wolf 6: The Kingdoms of Terror) with his Vorka horde. The Vorka are Agarashi (spawn of Agarash the Damned, an archdemon that serves at the right hand of the God of Darkness) and were believed extinct before their appearance in Vandyan’s army. The Vorka horde is being continually replenished from Duadon, the capital of Eldenora, where it appears that the creatures are being created by means of the Runes of Agarash. While Lone Wolf leads a crusade of New Order Kai, allies, and mercenaries to raise the siege of Varetta, True Friend is tasked with infiltrating Skull-Tor, Duadon’s fortress, to destroy the runes and cut off the supply of Vorka at its source. This mission brief suggests a game of at least three parts: a wilderness adventure beginning with a river journey and ending in a forest, an urban exploration of the streets of Duadon, and finally a dungeon crawl in the fortress.
The game begins well, with immediate action, although anyone who has played previous Lone Wolf games will not find the journey to Hulsta’s cooperage in Duadon too onerous (with the possible exception of the Grochod Forest section). The method of entry selected for Skull-Tor is the underground tunnels constructed in case of the need for escape by the original occupant. The plan is soon scuppered, however, and the infiltration (in my gameplay) was by means of the underground river, habitat to some very nasty local fauna. Once inside Skull-Tor, True Friend discovers the full extent of Vanyan’s megalomania, a three-step strategy for world domination, the first two steps of which have already been set in motion. This is followed by an exciting and multi-staged climax that includes a skirmish with the deadly Zorkaan the Soultaker. The game is in fact in four parts: a wilderness adventure to reach Duadon, an urban exploration on and below the streets of Duadon, a dungeon crawl in Skull-Tor, and then a two-stage escape from stronghold and city. As is so often the case, the escape is a little anticlimactic, becoming progressively easier from the stronghold to the city to the countryside. Rune War nonetheless has a gripping – shocking, even – ending, which I shall reveal seeing as Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf has been available in one form or another since 1997. After being extracted by Banedon, Guildmaster of the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star, in his skyship, True Friend returns to the Kai Monastery to receive the news that Lone Wolf, still at the head of the crusade, has been abducted by a black shadow that fell from the sky on the outskirts of Ruanon and is thought to be Zorkaan the Soultaker. Lone Wolf’s soul has, literally, been taken and True Friend’s next mission will be to bring it back.
I have little to say about the mechanics of play – as a game, Rune War is highly enjoyable, albeit not particularly demanding, and the Grand Master Discipline of Kai-screen is very useful (though not essential). As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure, “The Traitor’s Reward”, which is written by Gavyn F. Duthie. The player takes on the persona of Kalen of Salony, a Stornlander sellsword leading a band of mercenaries in service of the Salonese. My verdict is that the game is something of a mixed bag. On the upside, the adventure makes a nice counterpoint to the main feature and the idea of beginning with Kalen and his whole band is original. “The Traitor’s Reward” is also satisfyingly long for a bonus adventure (270 sections as opposed to the 350 of the feature). On the downside, there is a noticeable difference in authorial quality between the two adventures, particularly with respect to the descriptions (some of which are a little unclear) and turns of phrase (which are occasionally awkward) in the bonus adventure. More importantly, the attempt to turn the skills of a veteran mercenary into Kai-like special abilities falls flat and detracts from the internal logic of the cycle – the Kai are unique precisely in virtue of their exceptional skills and (as they progress) supra-human abilities, which are achieved by the combination of dedication, devotion, and divine intervention. Having said that, other players may well not be as distracted as I was by this question and will probably enjoy the bonus adventure much more than I did. Not only have I still not played books 25 and 26, but 25, 26, and 28 are the only three missing from my collection of various editions of the rest of the thirty books… so I really do hope Holmgard Press is here to stay.