Thursday, January 7, 2010

Leigh Brackett's The Hounds of Skaith

The Hounds of Skaith, written by Leight Brackett, and this edition published by Paizo, a company whose RPG interest in Pathfinder, their own online store, and other fields, includes bringing back many books of the Planetary Romance field. The Hounds is book two in the trilogy featuring Eric John Stark, following the Ginger Star.
But what does that mean for a role playing game?
A bit of it can be looked at in terms of world creation. Skaith is an old world. It's star far past its prime. The planet suffers from a slow cooling that prevents the world from supporting as many people as it had in the past. Many fantasy campaigns tend to have strange sections of the landscape that don't impact others. In the old Mystara world, it was hand waved away with some expalantion bout those parts of the setting that were vastly different than others as being closer to an elemental realm. In others, it's a pure magic expalantion like the Great Glacier in the Forgotten Realms series.
When putting the fantastical in the setting, think about the wider implications it may have. Especially if the phenomena is new. While it might be more effort than it's worth to try and assign ecological issues to an already existing problem, what if something causes one of these magical ecological disasters in a different spot that they players have to fight against?
The Hounds also brings in the old cursed magic item in the form of the Hounds themselves. These dogs are telepathic and kill with their minds. They cause a form of paralysis that allows the pack to chew on down. However, they must have a strong leader and they have ties to different factions that prevents them from coming into full use. In 4e, these types of items aren't that common anymore. The closest one might think of might be a bloodthorn item where it does a little extra damage than standard but the user takes some damage in return. In older stories, heroes would often use items that were powerful, but had unintended consequences or could turn against them. Think of Elric and Stormbringer or Corum and his original hand and eye. Items that brought pain and death to those around the Prince even when he didn't wish it so. In that way, the Hounds also function. Great to have on your side, but something you have to watch at all times.
The book also brings up environment as the enemy. I've mentioned it before in other Stark books and I'll mention it again. The environment, while lacking a personal face, while being an enemy that can only be survived and truly beaten, is one that is worth looking at adding to the game. While some may cry out against the lack of personality, the GM has a lot of variety in how the environment can play a role in the campaign. For example, a youth tries to lead Stark to a sinking swirl of sand and lose Stark in the desert. While Stark avoids the trap, it does showcase that you have to watch out for those you think can cause you no physical harm. Sure, the boy couldn't kill Stark, but by using the environment to do his dirty work, the boy doesn't have to. He can get the environment itself to do it.
Use the environment's deadliness as a reason why the players may need guides. And if players act as they sometimes do with the lording and the superiority, have the guide abandon them and spread word to others not to hire on for the players. On the other hand, if they treat the guide with respect and listen to him, perhaps even save his life, have the guide insure that the party is never without a trustworthy scout.
The Hounds of Skaith has one last bit that's hard to use in the campaign. A timeline. Stark must move quickly in his efforts to secure passage off world for his foster father because the lords of the world are cutting off all contact with outsiders. Failure to act quickly means complete failure. If the party is dithering and not moving, spending too much time planning, too much time with intra-party bickering, or just too much time messing with the Gameboy and PSP, give them a time limit that something has to be done in. The biggest problem with a timeline though is the opportunity for failure if that timeline is passed.
If the timeline motivated the players and got them into the game, don't punish them for missing it. Provide them another opportunity to make up their failure but make it one they have to work for. This way the game keeps moving even as the palyers have to work for their goals.
When looking for ideas on both dune dwellers and the strength of one man's resolution, The Hounds of Skaith is a good book to have.