Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

When many of the local Borders Bookstores closed, I managed to purchase many a book for low prices. Among those was The Winter King, recommended to me from a reader based off of another Bernard Cornwell book I had read.

The Winter King tells a far different tale of Arthur that I'm used to, much like the Hawk of May, but does so in a well written fashion, in first person, as a sort of historical account of Arthur.  While many of the themes are present, the greatness of Arthur, how Arthur wishes for a kingdom where the normal people who live there are unafraid, it also brings in many differences, such as Mordred being the true heir to the kingdom Arthur is fighting for not due to his relationship with Arthur, but his relationship with Uther, who has disowned Arthur. There are other differences but I'll leave those to people who read the book.

Below I'll be pulling some quotes out of the novel so spoilers will follow. Any page references in this instance are from the trade paperback.

"I had once escaped from a druid's death-pit. All Owain's men, like soldiers everywhere, were mightily superstitious. Every omen was considered and debated; every many carried a hare's foot or a lightning stone; and every action was ritualized, so that no man would pull on a right boot before a left or sharpen a spear in his own shadow." pg. 126

Sounds silly in some ways, but it's still a part of many soldier's every day routines today. The need to ritualize things is the effort to control them. When making a warrior, a character that relies on martial power or is otherwise expected to be in the thick of it, how does he try to control his destiny? Does he have a lucky talisman that he rubs? Does he have a certain gesture he makes before combat?

"We have a change- Arthur leaned on the high rampart as he spoke- to make a Dumnonia in which we can serve our people. We can't give them happiness, and I don't know how to guarantee a good harvest that will make them rich, but I do know that we can make them safe, and a safe man, a man who knows that his children will grow without being taken for slaves and his daughter's bride price won't be ruined by a soldier's rape, is a man more likely to be happy than a man living under the threat of war." pg. 144

When it comes to character motivation, sometimes warriors are easy to do. After all, the lure of battle itself should be enough to stir the blood! In Dragonball Z, the entire series is essentially a one up fight. However, after many volumes and episodes, even Vegita is like, "Uh, yeah, you're stronger, let's move on. I'm going home to be with my Earthling wife."

So what comes next? Many people believe in a better world. Many people would like to live in a better world. But the worldly warrior? He's willing to fight and kill for that better world, even when he doesn't want to. Even when he regrets the loss of life. He has a cause and a purpose that is more than his own life, it is the betterment of his people.

"There was no news of Merlin." pg. 164

Through most of the first half of the book, Merlin is a known, but missing entity. His presence or lack of it, is a powerful thing with its own omens and meanings. The desire to know where Merlin is propels much internal character motivation.

In a game, while this could easily be applied to any high powered spellcaster, such as a druid, wizard, or cleric, because after all, each of these entities at higher levels is a potential campaign changer, it could just as easily be applied to a dragon. "None know for certain where the golden scaled dragon Anbrosis is but he has been missing for three years so far... your mission is to hunt down his whereabouts and see if he still supports the Jade Throne or if his support has gone another way."

...he who initiated me into Mithras's service. Mithras was a God the Romans had brought to Britain and He must have liked our climate for He still has power. He is a solders' God and no women can be initiated into His mysteries." pg. 193

... I dressed and then  was given the secret words of the cult that would allow me to identify my comrades in battle. If I found I was fighting a fellow Mithraist I was enjoined to kill him swiftly, with mercy, and if such a man became my prisoner I was to do him honour." pg. 194

Being a warrior, or rogue, does not necessarily mean cleaving only to the metal that one wields or the allies one has. In the 'dark times' that most fantasy campaigns take place in, especially in those with clerics who are actual spellcasters, the lure of the gods is strong and most warriors will at least follow a patron deity, if not worship the whole pantheon  depending on the circumstances.

In addition to swearing by such deities, these cults often have their own little codes of conduct, as given example by the two requirements here when fighting fellow cultist.

My men had all stayed on the mainland and I wished I had brought them to see the wonders of the city: the carved gates; the steep stone stairs that plunged up and down the granite island between the temples and shops; the balconies houses decorated with urns of flowers; the statues; and the springs that poured clean fresh water into carved marble troughs where anyone could dip a pail or stoop to drink. pg. 215

Making cities distinctive from each other can be difficult. It can be even made easier though, if you know the short term plans for a city. It's easy to make a city, like Myth Drannor, into a thing of wonder, if you know its going to fall. So would go Ynys Trebes and so its grandeur is expanded upon and seen from a fresh set of eyes, perhaps made more magnificent than it would be to those who already lived there.

"In this small place, my dear fellow, is stored the wisdom of our world, gathered from its ruins and held in trust." pg. 219

"I'm saying the fight is lost, but yes, you're oath-bound by Arthur to fight, and every moment that Ynys Trebes lives is a moment of light in a dark world. I'm trying to persuade Father to send his library to Britain, but I think he'd rather cut his own heart out first." pg. 224

Most fantasy settings try to paint a setting where literacy is not taken for granted and knowledge is rare, but most fantasy settings tend to fail at that by making literacy rates higher than some countries have today. The arts of magic, seen in many mage schools, are also places of learning and hold vast stores of knowledge. But if you can portray to the group how rare something actually is, then its perceived value goes up dramatically. Its unique nature becomes easier to place.

"...when god made man He gave us a paradise in which to live, and it occurs to me that we have been losing that paradise, inch by inch, ever since. and soon, I think, it will be gone. Darkness descends.' He went silent for a while then sat up as his thoughts gave him a new energy. 'Just think of it,' he said, 'not a hundred years ago this land was peaceful. Men built great houses. We can't build like they did. I know Father has made a fine palace, but it's just broken pieces of old palaces cobbled together and patched with stone. We can't build like the Romans. We can't build as high, or as beautifully. We can't make roads, we can't make canals, we can't make aqueducts."... 'The Romans built whole cities...'places so vast... it would take a whole morning to walk from one side of the city to the other and all of your footsteps would fall on trimmed, dressed stone." pg. 227

What if the world really is ending? What if the world that the characters have come to inhabit, from the start, from the get go, is like the of the Dying Sun? That there are still miracles and still individuals of note, but as a society, or even as a species, that the bright star has passed and regardless of what happens on the morrow, or what treasures are reclaimed or what monsters slain, that it's all just a flickering torch holding back the darkness?

"I kill, I lust, I envy.' He was truly miserable, but then Galahad like Arthur, was a man who was for ever judging his own soul and finding it wanting and I never met such a man who was happy for long. pg. 228

Internal character conflict can be a powerful thing. Some games build elements within the game to stimulate this. Others rely on the GM and players hashing it out through actual game play. When characters are conflicted, they can be tempted. This doesn't necessarily have to be a monetary temptation, nor one of conquest, but rather, something that appeals to an inner need that may take the character out of the orbit of the rest of the party. A mage who searched for ultimate power who finds it probably isn't going to be travelling with the party for long. After all, he's got ultimate power, why would he travel with the party at this point? To do so, he would need to drop his ultimate power. What's a mage to do?

"take a bath... Stop staring at me...." these phrases come up a few times when other characters are talking about the narrator. They are catch phrases so to speak and while they are spoken to the character, and not by the character, such as more classic battle cries, it's an interesting way to describe characters. For example, if there is a wizard, perhaps every time he visit a guild, they give him  a pointy hat or every time he visits his mother she fixes him a certain dish that everyone anticipates.

Even you, Derfel Cadarn, do not need more enemies," Guinevere replied just as coldly, so I knew she would become my enemy if I blocked Lancelot's desires." pg. 281.

Character conflict in traditional Dungeons and Dragons often takes form through characters crawling through dungeons, killing things and taking their stuff.

But what if the character can't attack his foe directly? What if his foe is friends of the character's friends and to actually make that attack, even if not successful, winds up costing that character's allies?

"I hear you were in Ynys Trebes? pg. 315

Some battles and events are so large or epic or known, that just having been in one and surviving or having tales of it, will long shadow a character. Have the characters fought a siege? Have they lost a city to giants? Have they burned down a town that refused them tribute?

I was in Benoic. Agricola was right to hope that Merlin would come for an army without Druids was giving away an advantage to its enemy. pg. 338

One of the things that can be impossible to really work into the standard game settings that Dungeons and Dragons takes place in, is how magic would effect the setting. That line above though tends to work out a lot of it. Magic, or other unique entities or abilities, provide advantage against those who don't have them.

Galahad shook his head. 'He knows Arthur's an honest man.' he allowed, 'but Arthur's also an adventurer. he's landless, have you ever thought of that? He defends a reputation, not property. He holds the rank because of Mordred's age, not through his own birth. For Arthur to succeed he must be bolder than other men, but Tewdric doesn't want boldness right now. he wants security. He'll accept Gorfyddyd's offer.' He was silent for a while. 'Maybe our fate is to be wandering warriors,' he continued gloomily, 'deprived of land, and always being driven back towards the Western Sea by new enemies." pg. 370

One of the things that was fairly inherent in earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, was that characters could claim land, gather followers, and build legacies. 3rd and 4th edition moved so far away from this, that the real answer as to what 30th level character do hasn't really been answered, despite a few feeble attempts by WoTC in Scales of War and well, few if not other epic adventurers.

Previous editions didn't need 'epic' adventurers because there was already another type of end game build into it. Sure, if you wanted to keep fighting more and more powerful entities, it was possible. It was even easier to mix different power levels around because magic items and spells weren't quite so carefully balanced in the mix and lower level characters might have some fantastic magic items that they would NEVER have in standard 3rd and 4th edition games.

When thinking about higher level characters, think about how others see them. What do such characters do with their power and ability when they have no land or people to be loyal to?

The Winter King is a solid read if you're looking for dark ages action that is grimmer and more brutal than you can find in even the harshest D&D ficton line. Its characters have flaws but are often worth rooting for.