Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sheepfarmer's Daughter: The Military Setup

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Book One of the Deed of Paksenarrion, is in many ways a typical ‘farmer’ story. A character of humble origins goes out into the world and from a small point of knowledge, gains a greater understanding of how things work in the ‘real world’.

Note when I say famer, I don’t necessarily mean an actual farmer. For example, in the White Company, the scholarly monk of the series, despite having a plethora of book learning, discovers that the world outside his monastery walls isn’t quite the way it is depicted in the books.

Foreigners also fit into this category. While they may have a larger body of experience to draw on, their overall knowledge base of the current campaign is limited. One movie example of this would be Tom Cruise’s character in the film, the Last Samurai. He comes in with a body of knowledge. He is not ignorant to the ways of war. But in the ways of the Samurai?

This type of character is useful in a fantasy campaign for several reasons. The first is that it allows the Game Master to directly set the scene. If the player is one who has read sourcebooks and fictional material about the setting, all of that becomes “merely rumors.” After all, what does someone trapped on the farm truly know about how life on the outside is?

Outside of showcasing the growth of character, Sheepfarmer’s Daugher also has a great framing reference in the military mercenary company that Paks is a part of.

In many campaigns, there may be questions as to why all of the players are gathered. What links to they have to one another to keep loyal to each other? What method can the Game Master use to move the campaign forward.

A military campaign is an easy framing reference in that it allows the players to know each other right off the bat. It provides them with a common background. It gives them leadership and possibly other tangible benefits such as rivalries with other companies, that may be friendly or deadly series.

In Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, the companies tend to be broken up into the more honorable north companies and the more bandit like southern companies. A background element like this provides its own hook. In a fresh starting campaign with new players that are new to role playing, the Game Master can use an honorable company to provide mentors to explain how things work in the campaign.

Optionally, if only some of the players are new, the Game Master can allow those who are old hands to actually take the role of the mentors. Give them a few levels and abilities that the new recruits must train to match up with. But reduce their experience gained. In 3.5, this is self handled by the methodology of experience where lower level characters gain more than higher level characters.

The point isn’t to let the old hands lord over the new players, it is to allow the old hands an advantage in ability to showcase the world and setting and how the rules work, not to beat the newbies over the head with their power.

In addition, these mentors can act as a source of information for how things work in the ‘meta’ setting. For example, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter includes information on how the soldiers march, how they train, how they form rank and file, which weapons they use, and how they work in the world. Because the main character who is learning all of this is originally sheltered from such information, it allows the author to make large information ‘dumps’ to the reader without coming out on a sidebar or other aspect that can feel forced.

The other thing I’d like to mention about Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is that it is fairly internally consistent. The characters are aware that magic exists in the world. When they encounter it, they strive to overcome it. They don’t act like it’s the first time such magic has ever been used in the setting before. Some authors play with the readers in trying to keep magic mysterious by having things that would be obvious to characters who actually lived in the setting have no idea on how to react, or even about the existence of magic despite the fact that some of them may use it in the form of potions or magical weapons.

Lastly, in the novel, Pak’s is saved by ‘luck’ several times. This is an indication in the novel that there are higher powers looking out for the character. There are often numerous bits of advise for GMs in terms of ‘cheating’, allowing the characters to survive something that should have killed them. In many ways, this is one of the reasons why the GM screen is around. Not to cheat and punish the players. After all, the GM controls the whole of the world. It’s easier enough to throw an ancient red dragon at a group of first level characters.

Published in 1990, the DMGR1 Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide for AD&D 2nd edition notes on page 44, “Still, instead of killing the characters outright, he could throw something else at them, something equally deadly, but which will give them a chance to survive – if they’re clever.”

The real trick in doing this though is to never let the players know. If they feel that every time they are going to get into a potentially fatal situation the GM is going to save them, there is no fear of death and perhaps even a smugness about it. Always give the players the feeling that things could get much worse far too quickly for their liking.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter can provide the reader with a good framing reference for a campaign but also allows the reader to see a bigger picture and this can be used as a tool to help move players outside of the military campaign once they’ve gotten the hang of it.