Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dark Fire: A Historical with Punch!

I read historical from time to time. They provide a nice touch of what was and perhaps some potential elements for a role playing game based on such elements. A good one is a great stepping stone into another time. I saw Dark Fire on sale at Borders during one of their various fire sales and picked it up. Even though this is the sequel to Dissolution, I had no problem reading it from start to finish and pondered its evocative images of a time long gone by.

But how does that help a person running a RPG? Below I’ll be discussing Dark Fire, using quotes from the trade paper back by Penguin books.

“There was a pleasant breeze; we were too far from the City walls here for London smells to penetrate.” pg. 31

When describing the background, remember that there are five senses. Smell can be a powerful one. Sight is the standard. Hearing can be used to point out some unusual elements or some very standard ones when trying to reinforce how a particular place is. For example, the lull of the waves against the shore. Taste is one not often used because it’s often only thought of during eating. However, a thick mist that taste of sea salt… not so different but still telling.

“His face hardened. ‘And because you care too much for the fate of the Wentworth girl and, finally, you are too afraid of me to dare cross me.’ Pg. 63

“What’s that in your pocketA?” Barak asked as we rode up Bishopsgate.” (pg. 75

One of the ways to get to players that they are in a place that matters, that what they are doing matters, that where they are going matters, is to put effort into it by providing names to locations, events, and people. It definitely takes more time as a game master and can be frustrating when the player’s don’t bite, but at the very least, at least you’ll have those names if the players come around that way again. This is most often useful for places that the players will be again and again. It allows the players to get an idea of the size of their home, the types of people that live there, and what is currently going on.

Shardlake’s patron is none other than Cromwell who has charged him with finding an ancient formula for Greek Fire, also known as Dark Fire. The important thing though, is this isn’t a simple “here’s 50 gold to do the mission.” This is a patron of many passions whose good to his friends, but always a hard man. If the players have a leader that is a Non-Player Character, why do they work for him? What does he do? How well connected is he? Is he a man with a reputation that insist one should not cross him? With the alignments in 4e simplified, it’s probably a little easier to handle a patron like that then in previous editions where players were often assumed to be working for the ‘good’.

“You’ve killed Sam?’ Toky’s voice was a horrified croak. “You’ve killed Sam!” pg. 446

Toky and Sam are two mercenaries who have been a plague on Shardlake and his comrades, getting into the spots they need to long before them, killing those they need to talk to, and seeking to end the life of Shardlake and his comrade.

However, they do not come across as nameless brutes or thugs. While doing research on whose attempting to get in their way, the backgrounds of Toky and Sam and brushed up and they’re given a little more character.

When you can give the bad guys flavor and flair, don’t be afraid to do so. It’s far more interesting to fight Toky the former mercenary with the plague ravaged face than another level 6 brute.

“He took a shuddering breath. ‘Lord Cromwell has fallen!’ Pg. 482

One of the continuous criticisms of the Forgotten Realms, is the wide plethora of powerful characters. Here, the author takes a real world figure, one of great power, perhaps only second to the king, and show cases that even when the players are successful in their own mission, that it may not always be enough. With their patron fallen, Shardlake and his comrade have new venues to explore and new adversaries and allies to discover. If the campaign is getting stagnant, don’t be afraid to kill the NPC’s and leave the players to their own devices. They might surprise you.

“She shook her head. ‘Class is everything. I am a Vaughan. Once I would have been happy to know you, you are one of those fit to be raised up, as my husband was. But not now, given your past loyalties and who the new powers are in the land. And I will not be lowered to your status Matthew.” She shook her head again.” Pg. 489

For a game based, in theory, on a certain time period of history, it does a bad job in many aspects of capturing those elements. One of those, is in class status and social levels. Perhaps back in the day when Unearthed Arcana first rose as one of those original hard cover supplements and its random tables allowed you to roll on them, did the core game concern itself with those elements.

And in those elements, there are a lot of potential role playing opportunities. Class in and of itself, is often seen as a divine right. It’s often seen as a right of arms. It’s seen as a right of inheritance. It’s seen as a right of the noble blood.

The benefit of using class in this manner, is that most characters are completely unconcerned with class. Now mind you, if your game is heavily focused on social class and status and you’ve been running such games for a long time, you already know this. But it’s a potential gold mine of role playing for characters because when they don’t care about who you are, but rather, as most players do, what you can do, it upsets the existing standards greatly.

This can be a useful tool for launching various aspects of the campaign. It can also be one for showcasing personal failings. For example, despite Shardlake’s kind spirit, he has failed to notice that one of his own workers is half blind and that is the cause of the numerous failings we find the lawyer yelling about in terms of quality. Even Shardlake, the hero of the story, has his own flaws as he merely thought his man incompetent and lazy, not suffering.

Dark Fire is full of great descriptions and it comes through by using a wide cast of characters and having numerous plot lines in the air. It provides descriptions that often come to light latter and provides a twist at its ending that doesn’t cheat the reader. If you’re looking for something to inspire, C. J. Sansom’s Dark Fire might have what you need.