Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Ending to Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott

This seven series book, Crown of Stars, was one I've taken two pauses in. The first was because I only owned the first three books in science fiction book club edition. The second because I waited and purchased the second two books at Half Price and then finally used some of the old e-mail coupons to buy the last two at Borders.

While not a challenging tale in and of itself, it does illustrate that people have options. In a fantasy campaign, it's important to keep those options in mind when designing encounters not because you want to put a clamp on them, but because the more aware you are of what the characters can do and how your players think, the more likely you'll have results ready for anything they try to do. You don't do this to pin them down to a predetermined course, but rather, so that you can keep the game itself moving. When the game slows down because the game master wasn't prepared for something the players didn, everyone loses.

Anyway, onto some thoughts on Crown of Stars.

"I am puzzled," said Rosvita, "by what he meant by men with animal faces." (p.19)

Description without explanation is a mysterious thing. A large humanoid can be any number of things. In the case above, the men with animal faces are actually primitive elves who wear animal masks. Coming to the people third source however, it may craft images of a far different manner. Think about how the players learn about the campaign setting. If they're willing to play with the background details you've given them, while they won't experience that first rush of discovery at an orc as they may have once, it will prevent things from being same old same old.

"No one would ever know the whole, now that Anne was dead, and even Anne could not have comprehended everything because in many ways she had also been their pawn, their creation." (p.163)

Often I hear bitter complains about the evils of railroading.

Let me tell you something.

If you're doing a good job running things, the players not only won't know if and when they've been railroaded, they'll enjoy the story as it moves along like a thing of destiny. This isn't saying put up massive impenetrable forests if they move off the road or to have a quest spell laid on them to get a certain item but if the events require a certain way to do things, run it to the players fun as much as possible and they'll go with it, often not even knowing it was a rail road.

"Or she could stay in the Eagles, like Hathui, always and forever, because she loved being an Eagle even after all this, even after everything. Here she felt at home, standing watch in the middle of the wilderness with enemies all around and a few stout friends at her back, all in service to the regnant. Here she felt a measure of peace, perched on the wall with the damp air and the spattering of rain and the night wind breathing on her. Not knowing what the next day would bring and aching with the misery of wondering what has happened to the ones she loves." (p.184)

Why do the characters do what they do? Sometimes it could be easier to show them through an NPC. A ranger or other wilderness styled individual who still owes alliegance to those in power can be a showcase of how one can be rugged and on the outside, yet still serving a greater cause. The old post over here on Grongnardia offers some interesting thoughts on that.

"Laws are silent in the presence of arms, so it is said." (p.206)

In America, most of us are very fortunate in that we live in a world of laws that are not necessarily enforced by strength of arms. In most fantasy campaigns, that's not true. The further from civilization with its many layers of protection the characters are, the more likely they are to discover the value of the presence of arms.

Game Masters can work this contrast between safety and civilization and the wilds and danger. Using the times the players are in the city to highlight the various options they have to them ranging from different types of food, clothing, and even companionship and past times to what they have to make do with on the frontier and how a well forged sword may be worth someone's life.

Of course civilization, especially in a fantasy setting, doesn't necessarily only have to showcase how things stay together. But that's a topic for another post.

"Hugh had no power of his own except what he could wreak against others, a man armed wit ha sword who must stand on the field against disciplined ranks of archers and cavalry. This made him no less dangerous. A man with a sword can still kill anyone who comes within arm's reach. As long as Hugh could twist others to do his will, he could and would, harm his enemies and every innocent soul who got in his way." (p.235)

In a civilized land, it's all about who you know. After all, if you know the captain of the guard and he's one of the greatest warriors around, whose going to mess with you? The ability to confuse men and make them serve causes not necessarily their own has been showcased in many classic characters including one Gríma Wormtongue of Lord of the Rings fame.

"The ancient law?"

"Stil lheld to in Alba, I might add, and in much of Varre. The identity of a woman's children is always known, since they have sprung from her womb. That of a man's offspring-- well, no matter what anyone says, i nthe end it is always a matter of faith."

In dealing with the laws of succession in a kingdom, how does it fall? Does it fall to the eldest son? Does it fall to a woman who can prove her fertility and thus worth of carrying on the bloodline? Most fantasy settings assume the eldest male with young men going into church or other forms of service but don't be afraid to mix it up.

"We hear rumors of reavers with poisoned arrows harrying travelers along the roads leading east into Fesse." (p.267)

I've mentioned it before but always keep the rumor mill flying. Things should always be happening, even if the player's don't follow up on them. The larger the setting feels to the players, the larger it effectively is.

On the other hand, "reavers with poisoned arrows" is just a damn fine encounter. How dangerous is the poison? Where is the supply coming from? Can the supply be cut off? Is there a common cure? Is there a anti-toxin that adventurers can take before hand to minimize the threat? Foes who have methods of dealing great death and destruction always get a player's respect right out of the box and make them think more than mere numbers.

"Henry should have killed Sabella after the first revolt!" said Liutgard. "He was too lenient!"
"Wendish do not murder their kinfolk, not even to the pursuit of power," said Sanglant mildly. "We are not Salians, Liutgard. Thank God." (p.350)

I've mentioned it before, but trying to prevent a group of players from being men men reavers who kill all they encounter can be a difficult thing. Most fantasy engines are designed to reward the defeat of the enemy and keeping an enemy alive is often more problem than its worth.

But what about family? What about family that may be redeemed? What about family that's very close to the character, a direct relative as opposed to a distant one? Is it still loot the dungeon and let the deities know their own? Kinslayers can have a nasty reputation that could easily mar the reputation for the whole party if they are known associates of such an individual.

"Liutgard smiled tinly. "There is no traitor's gate, Cousin."

So named in the book as a crawling spaced where a small group of men could creep in to surprise the defenders of a castle. Sound like a job for adventurers or what?

"It was Hugh of Austra who murdered her, when she was sleeping and helpless, and for no better reason than that he wanted no apprentice of Meriam's to challenge his knowledge of the magical arts." (p. 379)

When looking for motivation for the bad guys, one simple thing may be that they like their toys so much they don't want anyone they don't directly control to have them. Liches and other ancient undead can horde power by killing those who may know their arts or similiar arts. Great warriors may hunt down those who know their style in order to maximize the effectiveness of their own murderous arts. Always look at what the players can do and think who doesn't want them to have that ability. In some instances, it may be a whole race. For example, what if the elves so regret teaching humans the magic arts that they send out highly trained assassins to kill all human mages?

"Ai, God," whispered Alain... "He is a good man. Can you not fly after him and bring him back?"
"Why should I?"
"Because Heribert loved him." (p.455)

A good villain may not be well rounded but it should have something to it that the players can understand and that the players can work against them. In the above instance, Sanglant is essentially unkillable by man or woman but this entity Alain speaks with is essentially a other planar entity that rips his soul out, leaving his body souless. The thing does this looking for Heribert, whom the entity loves above all others thinking Sanglant is hiding him. By appealing to the thing's love of Heribert and that motivation of doing what the one he loved would want down, Alain manages a victory without combat. In D&D and Burning Wheel, among other games, skill checks can be a great way of engaging this types of challenges without rolling for damage.

"Despite the trappings- the primitive standard, the gaudy lacework that gridled his hips and thighs, the jewels drilled into his teeth, and the bare chest painted in spirals and crosshatches- he was not what he seemed. He might appear savage, but far more dangerous current surged within." (p.477)

Appearance isn't everything. One easy way to shake things up is to pit the characters against an enemy who seems to be one type of thing but is actually far beyond those humble origins and in fact holds a far different role than the players may assume.

"it was the king of grunt made by a person who has just realized that, in fact, he will have to haul those damned logs all the way back up the hill and that there is no use complaining because the master is harsh." (p.484)

If you have a gaming group and they're always complaining about the way the game is going, it might be time to find a new gaming group. There is a massive difference between grumping in character because things aren't working the way you'd like and grumping that the game sucks, that the magic item ratio is too low, that the game master is against you, etc... Engage the characters when possible but don't waste your time as a game master on people who are only there to complain.

There are numerous other parts of a Crown of Stars I could quote, but instead I'll do a dreaded summary.

The Crown of Stars itself. This item is found late in the series, the old artifact of the old emperor. At the end, instead of using it as a symbol of old power, they return it to the original statue where the old king is buried and forge ahead on new paths of unity.

The ending. I'll admit, it didn't do it for me. It took a generational look at a character I just didn't care about. However, it also had a small "what happened to" section on a character I did care about and that part redeemed the ending. When ending a campaign, it might be better to do a fade out shot of the characters, especially if they're reached the upper tiers of the campaign, as opposed to having the players hear some wish washy NPC they never liked speak of the deeds of their children.

The length. Try to maintain a sense of the campaign for the long run. A series like Crown of Stars runs thousands of pages and can be a beast to devour all at once. Don't be afraid to take side journeys on that path as long as you return to the road.

Last but not least, make sure that you as the Game Master, are enjoying the road you are on. There is no point in making the group happy if you're misearable because sooner or latter that misery will make itself manifest!