Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sharpe's Escape by Bernard Cornwell

A few months ago a reader suggested a trilogy of books by Bernard Cornwell. At this time, Half-Price still hasn't had them, but I didn't think the last book I read by Cornwell was bad so I picked up another, at random, in the Sharpe's series.

The writing seems much smoother and more at play here. I don't know if that's because Bernard is more comfortable with Sharpe or if he feels more comfortable in this genre. Regardless, it made for a much easier read.

In terms of gaming though, one of the things that struck me about Sharpe is that he is an adventurer. Even though he is part of a military unit and has friends, allies, and rivals within that unit, he manages to extract himself from his unit enough that he is essentially on his own with his own foes and goals that just happen to line up with the military.

To me, is an age old lesson. Not only is it wherever you go, there you are, but wherever you go, you're still yourself. Sharpe, and many of the adventuring type, find themselves in these odd situations that only they can handle precisely because they can handle them. The loose skein of fate or destiny or karma doesn't necessarily have to be heavy handed but the fact that person Y can do X will always find himself in a place here X is called on.

Below I will be pulling specific quotes out of the book. This involves some spoilers. If you're a fan of the series and don't want to know anymore, read no further.

So let's look at some specific quotes;

"Slingsby has experience, Richard," Knowles said, "much more than I do."

"But you're a good officer and he's a jack-pudding. Who the hell is he anyway?"

"He's the Colonel's brother-in-law," Knowles explained. (page 31 hardcover ed.)

Sharpe has several enemies and rivals in this book. Slingsby is perhaps the least offensive physically, but the most dangerous politically. Being a brother in law to the colonel provides him with a lot of protection that doesn't necessarily translate into more men, better items, or even respect from the other troops. What it does translate into is a system that is as old as time itself where it is not what you know, but who you know.

When designing enemies and rivals for the party, remember that not everything is done in the heat of battle. There may be instances that political power outstrips temporal power and puts the players in a bin as to what they will actually do and what they can do.

"Cazadores?" Sharpe asked?

"Hunters. It's what the Portuguese call their skirmishers." (pg. 37)

For me, Cazadores is a tequila. Here however, its the name of a type of soldier. I've mentioned before that in Usagi Yojimbo, Stan does an excellent job of sprinkling the setting with specific language and information. Bernard Cornwell does the same. Giving the organizations and specifics of your setting unique naming conventions can be one of the quickest ways to strengthen the setting without changing a thing mechanically.

Another example would be;

"A feitor was an official storekeeper, appointed by the government to make certain there were sufficient rations for the Portuguese army." (pg 109.)

In terms of the patronage system though, that can show up in different ways as the below example illustrates:

"Young Iliffe shaping up well, is he?"

"He's an ensign, sir. If he survives a year he might have a chance of growing up."

"We were all ensigns once," Lawford said, "and mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, eh?"

"He's still a bloody small acorn," Sharpe said."

"But his father's a friend of mine, Sharpe. He farms a few acres near Benfleet and he wanted me to look after his son."

The situation with Iliffe is different than the one with Slingsby. Here Sharpe is being asked to do a personal favor, to look over the man because of family friends. Not quite the same as being in the family through marriage, but it is another case of social contracts, social obligations, being thrust on Sharpe due to his own entanglement with a larger organization.

If the players can take others under their wing, and do so successfully, they should be rewarded. This might be a social reward, such as the people knowing what a good job the characters are capable of doing, to some land, to some medals or some type of recognition. Perhaps they get the best pick of bounties or special licenses to do things others cannot.

On the other hand, failure should also have its consequences. This can range from being treated as 'bad people' or people who can't live up to their own standards, to being given the worst assignments.

In either case, these awards and penalties should only last briefly. The crowd is after all, often fickle.

"War is above the law, which is why it is so bad. War lets lose all the things which the law restrains."

"Like me," Sharpe said. (pg. 133)

Cornwell does not shy away from the horrors of war. He does not hesitate to mention the things soldiers due to a freshly occupied land. But the statement above, making war above the law? This has some interesting implications for a group of adventurers that are involved in a war time setting or who are involved in situations that are larger then themselves.

Who is going to know if a group of five or six people leave patrol duty to explore some old ruins? Who is going to notice a small patrol going off to take care of some personal business at a mad wizard's tower? The madness of war can provide a lot of freedom to those bold enough to seize it and lucky enough not to be caught outside of their bounds when the cats come calling.

"None has thought to check the high ground, but they should have known they were up against soldiers and soldiers always sought the high ground." (pg 182).

This is almost a classic case of "the more you know". If the party has some vague rumors or real bits of intelligence about what awaits them in the wilds or in a dungeon and don't follow up on it, then its out of the Game Master's hand. If the GM has devised specific tactics for his own version of 'Tucker's Kobolds' and the party won't follow up on it? Let the dice fall where they may.

"I can hear something," Harper spoke after a while. His voice came from the center of the cellar, from the floor."

"Where?" Sharpe asked.

"Put your ear on the stone, sir."

Sharpe stretched out and put his right ear against the floor. His hearing was not what it was. Too many years of muskets and rifles had dulled it, but he held his breath, listened hard, and heard the faintest hint of water running. "Water?"

"There's a stream down there," Harper said. (pg. 196)

Even when the players make bad decision, the GM has the ability, being the ruler and master of the setting, to allow the game to continue. In the case above, Sharpe and comrades have been captured in what is essentially a large dungeon cell. This should be their end. No way out. Only the inevitable storming of the basement by armed men.

But Sharpe is not a typical soldier and he endures and seeks and searches till not only are all options worn out, but he makes his own.

If the characters can show the same grit and determination, the GM should go along with it. This doesn't mean give them an easy way out. Indeed, the passage that Sharpe and allies take out is one of vermin and filth and does not lend itself well to the glamorous lifestyle, but it is a way out and they do escape. Failure should slow the characters down, not necessarily end the game.

"Didn't want to see the angel of death," Sharpe grumbled. The angel of death was the battalion doctor, a Scotsman whose ministrations were known as the last rites. (pg 225).

Little touches like this give the setting a more solid sense of realism. There is not specific special naming for the doctor, but imagery that is well known and familiar. In the Black Company, the doctor there was known as Croaker. Giving the characters names that they've earned, much as the series The First Law did for the northmen, can provide more flavor to the characters.

A few men tired to prevent the destruction. An officer attempted to pull two artillerymen off a woman and was kicked to the ground, then stabbed with a sword. A pious sergeant, offended at what went on in the Old Cathedral, was shot. (pg. 230)

As I mentioned upstream in this entry, war is hell. The interesting thing about a role playing game though, is that there may be certain assumptions that are turned over on their head. Imagine if the game here is D&D and the officers are the players and they are say, five to ten levels higher than the standard soldiers. Discipline would be kicked in mighty quick.

This is a field where most fantasy novels don't bother with, because the implications and realities are horrible enough on their own. But what would happen if a city was invaded by an army that had strict discipline and was able to back it? Much easier than say the opposite, where it's a monstrous force entering the city. While the rape and plunder may be down with inhuman opponents, the level of carnage would probably be much higher.

Sharpe's Escape provides the reader with a quick escape into a historical setting that's real focus, as in many of the stories I tend to enjoy, is on the characters. Their rivals, their friends, their enemies, and the complications that come with being in situations outside their direct control. If you enjoy military history, Sharpe's Escape provides some quick enjoyment.