Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Burning Stone by Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone continues the epic Crown of Stars by expanding an already large cast and using a larger net to continue to link events to one another. Below I’ll be discussing some of the various happenings in the book which could be considered spoilers for those who haven’t read it. If you’re interested in reading and wish no spoilers, do not read further.

“IN any village, a stranger attracts note and distrust. But Eagles weren’t strangers, precisely…” (p. 16)

When characters are moving from town to town, as often happens in lower level fantasy games, the people of the town will not only want news of the outside world from these characters, but will be notable to those in the town. They will come under a great deal of scrutiny. Depending on the nature of the town, guards may want them to bind their weapons, if they allow them to keep their weapons at all.

In this way, most fantasy games give the players a ton of options that may not have actually existed. In essence, if they’re not nobles, the adventurers are essentially riff raff. But much like the Eagles, special messengers for the king, they’re not normal armed bandits. Rather, in a setting where adventurers are a known quantity, they might be very welcome to any town they come to once their mettle is known.

Let the players know that they are under observation. Let the people ask questions of the players such as who do they serve? What deities do they worship? Do they have any weapons of a unique nature or design that would mark them as servants of an enemy empire? Do they speak any languages that would mark them as outcasts?

Margrave Judith’s procession came into view on the road. Her banner, a panther leaping upon an antelope, flew beside a banner marked with the Arconian guivre set between three springing roes, two above and one below, the sigil of the old royal house of Varre.” (p. 69)

Sometimes when reading, I’ll come across a word I’m vaguely familiar with. In this case, Margrave. The last time I remembered actually seeing it in fiction, was probably in a Moorcock book in the Corum line. Heading over to the old Wikki, I was impressed by the amount of information this title has. In many ways, players who are going to be made into royalty, or into part of the royal estates, would fit the concept of a margrave perfectly.

Even the lowliest lady with her small estate and dozen servants must contend against bandits and the depredations of her ambitious neighbors.” (p.119).

It just goes to show, no matter what your status, there will always be those out to take what you have for your own. In a points of light setting, the range of things that would want to destroy you just to make a meal of you if far higher than your typical pseudo middle ages fiction.

In addition to bandits, you have monsters. In addition to monsters, you still have all the problems of people wanting what’s yours. In fantasy campaigns though, that’s generally not only about your land and your titles, but rather, your individual possessions because most fantasy characters will have items of some power. Items that will grow in potency as the players do. Characters also tend to have first hand knowledge of different magics than most people due to their travelling.

When having the characters interact with patrons, insure that the patrons also speak of their own problems that are being handle in the mundane fashion and don’t need the players help with. The patrons must be more than simple quest givers for the players to have a way to interact with them outside of ‘clicking’ the yes/no option.

“It was hard going. Roots had torn up portions of the old pavement; water and ice had shattered others. Liath stayed on her horse and didn’t complain. Eventually the woodland opened out and beyond a river they saw a thread of smoke marking a village. The old bridge had fallen to pieces, planks lost or gaping. Sanglant scouted the shore but could find no boat, and in the end he volunteered to lead the horses and mules across one by one. In some places he had to shove planks together. In others, he simply laid his shield down over the gaps so they could get across. In this way they made it to the other side. Of the servants he saw no sign, but one of them blew in his ear teasingly.”

Sanglant and Liath are at this point part of a royal kingdom. This kingdom though, is not as grand or powerful as the old one. When trying to create a ‘points of light’ feel for your campaign, even if the players are going from kingdom to kingdom, little things that the players see and experience first hand along the road can quickly give the players an idea of what the overall setting can be like.

Bridges and roads in dire need to repair alongside forests that are no longer taken care of alongside wide spread bandit attacks and a lack of food and goods to serve all of the kingdom speak much higher than telling the players that it’s a long way between cities.

“You have served God and this throne faithfully, Alain. I offer you this choice, that you walk away from Lavas Holding now and never return to any lands under its watch on pain of death, or that you accept a position in my Lions, fitting to your birth, and serve me.”
That fast, he had tumbled down Fortune’s wheel. It was simply too stunning to grasp.” (p.580)

Alain’s rise and fall is based on the court. In a role playing game, where characters tend to carry their power with them, the Game Master must dance delicately if he is going to strip them of their power. This is more true in a level based game than in a point based one. The difference in point based games is generally lower until the players have achieved a lot of experience. In a level based game, a 5th level character and 10th level character are often like different animals completely.

The major things a character tends to hold include personal wealth, magic items, and power. If the game master doesn’t want to tinker with those things, and those things are dear indeed to most players, then the game master needs to weave a world about the characters that the players like and whose loss will strike them like taking away wealth, magic items or power.

On the other hand, if you’re a bastard GM, having the characters encounter a horde of undead rust monsters with some type of wrath template put onto them will do the trip in a heart beat.

“It was shaped something like an eagle with a tufted eagel’s head and a noble beak, but it wanifestly no eagle. They couldn’t grow so large, and eagles didn’t have gold feathers, as if they’d been gilded by flying too close to the sun. It was magnificent, with tail feathers that seemed to blaze and eyes that even from this distance sparked and glimmered like starlight. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life.” (p. 585).

When describing monsters to the players, try to insure that the sense of wonder you had when you first encountered a strange monster is there. Try to insure that each meeting with a new creature is not simply one of charge and attack. If you can give the players pause with your description, then you’re doing your job as a Game Master.