Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

When I was younger, I loved the whole concept of Oriental Adventurers for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I didn't really know how to use it or run it. A lot of the ideas seemed different than the standard dungeon crawling that normal AD&D used, but I liked the concepts of honor, one of the, if not the very first, appearance of non-weapon proficiencies, and of course, the variety of custom classes for the various settings.

I just didn't know what or how to run it despite seeing a lot of Kung Fu and Samurai movies.

When Legend of the Five Rings came out years latter, I'd suffer some similar problems, but not as bad. There was a lot more source material dedicated to L5R including a fiction line with some real stinkers and some real winners.

When the opportunity presents itself to buy some fantasy that fits into that mode of "inspired by but not necessarily directly tied to" some material of the Oriental Adventurers, I have no problem checking it out.

Dragon in Chains is an enjoyable read that has a large cast and brings with it numerous bits that might make for an excellent setting. Below I'll be pointing out some quotes from the book so beware of spoilers.

"Chains, especially. They were the Forge's fame, even far from the coast where no one cared about the dragon, no one spoke of her, perhaps no one believed in her at all. Chains made here carried anchors for the greatest ships of the empire; they defended harbors up and down the coast; they were traded far inland, along the broad slow rivers, to bring security to mines and mints, to docks and workyards, to prisons and to treasure-houses.

"People forgot, perhaps that they were only symbols; no one forgot that the best chains came from the Forge. Other ironsmiths had lost hands or tongues for claiming that their own were Forge work."

Without getting into any mystic or Far East symbols, without getting into any isolated habits or unique things, Fox brings a trait to the Forge, which is unique in that it makes chains to bind a dragon under the sea, but makes the fact that they sell the chains and that the chains are renown for their mundane worth, their utility in the 'real' world that everyone lives in every day, as opposed to their value in keeping a dragon bound under the sea.

By providing something that can be talked about, by providing some keystone element of the setting that could fit well, into almost any setting, the writer makes the world a little easier to understand. That quality and reputation of an item, serve a purpose. By sprinkling a few such places throughout the world, the GM not only gives the players a check list of whose who and whose the best, he provides details that may come in handy latter on in the game should the players chose to pursue any of those leads.

"Exposed, his body was knotted with muscle and twisted with scars, but more, all his skin was a mass of tattoos. Not the crude scars, images that half his crew favored, nor the intricate designs afforded by a few. They were brute block characters all over his chest and shoulders and belly and back, his thighs and buttocks and calves. Some of them Han could read, even in distant glances. They made words like traitor, renegade, exile. They spoke of disgrace, of banishment; they demanded his death and promised a price for his head if it were delivered to any of the Hidden City's gates, sent as a gift to the emperor.... Castration and tattoos together meant imperial punishment. Hand knew it; so did the soldiers. So did their surviving officers."

There are some crimes that perhaps require death, but due to the person's life or favors owned, that debt cannot be carried out, but some punishment is. Tattoos are a form of marking and while some use them to establish grace, positions of power or other ranks of respect with them, others are used as indicators of crime and criminal lifestyles. In the setting, what do tattoos mean? Are they like those found in Rifts Atlantis and possibly magical in nature, as other game systems including Dungeons and Dragons have taken to heart? Are they maps? Are they symbols?

"No. Well, he's likely the only jade-miner you ever will see. The clans don't leave the valleys. However careful they are, they're still exposed; the least of them is unusually strong, and they tend to live long and not have many children. They live in extended family groups, because individually they can't sustain a holding. Or protect it.

"Nor can they travel far from the source. Jade is addictive; they need to keep it close. Separate a miner from the stone and he'll sicken. All that strength and resilience is only borrowed, not possessed."

Here, Daniel Fox provides a rational for the Jade to belong to the emperor and only the emperor. It also serves to explain why the Emperors of the past lived so long and sired so few children. The Jade is actually a true power source for them giving them long life, strength, endurance and other physical traits like fast healing, and dense bones. For others to partake of the Emperor's gifts? A death sentence but those who mine it do so inadvertently so they have to stay there.

In Dreadstar, there was a mineral that had no practical purpose. But it was mined in vast quantities. Dreadstar himself tried to figure out its purpose but while he never did, it was revealed to the reader's that it was a substance that The Twelve Gods required for their own strength.

Feng Shui where controlling the lines provides in game benefits, then the GM must be prepared for the players to try and game the system.

"She was a fish girl from a fishing village, though she had to pinch herself to remind herself of it sometimes."

In terms of origin, the humble origin is often used for the dreaded farm boy who turns out to be a noble's son or a god's son or something of that nature. Other times he's just a farm boy but by his own deeds and by the chance encounters he has, rises into something greater than his point of origin. Some players prefer the characters start off as a relatively blank slate and engage the world through play. Don't enfold them in their own history if they do so. Allow their character choices dictate where the game for them goes.

"But I want," he said, "I want," and for the first time there was a note of hesitation in his voice, a hint of self-doubt that he shrugged aside physically, a little shift of the shoulders, "I want that dragon revealed, and no other man could see her the way that you do, Guangli."

Dungeons and Dragons has rarely made the focus of the game its skill system. Indeed, I recall the first edition of the game had a chart you could roll on in the Dungeon Master's Guide, that would tell you your skills. Not what you could do with them, how much you could earn with them, etc... 4th edition tries to follow that idea in spirit but with the skill challenge system seems a little weighted down to actually do so with that light touch.

But if a character is to be more than just game mechanics, are they ways in which the things a character might do and enjoy can be part of the game? Are their works of art or other fields of skill, that a player can have his character bring to the game that will have meaning? In the Sword of Truth, the main character creates a massive set of statues that inspire rebellion in the people when they are broken down. Are there works that the players can create to do something similar?

"If Suo Lung should want to take Han with him when he leave the ship, we must forestall him if we can, slip away by ourselves. If not - well, I have a poison..."

People may have different sides to them then they first show. The person speaking here is a dedicated doctor who has saved dozens, if not hundreds of lives in a war torn setting. But he's also a practical man and knows that sometimes hard and harsh decisions have to be made. As the GM, most of the characters you'll run will probably be faceless minions or bold monsters. Rare will be the talking part. When you have it, and it is a recurring one, don't be afraid to make the characters more than just bit actors.

"You two, you're not even breathing hard! You go on, you,"

There's an old joke that goes, I don't have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you. If they players are ever forced to go on the lamb, as the GM you need to take advantage of that opportunity to dish out some real damage. Now I know that sounds strange as I'm often of the mind that you should give the players room to explore, to utilize background details, to provide depth to the world, but when the fight comes and they lose and they try to flee, unless the enemy has a very compelling reason NOT to, the players should be on the run.

And that means taking advantage of any slow movers there. Will the players stick together and risk another thrashing? Will the slower moving races get left behind? Will those who can use magic, such as fly, take to the skies, and if so, does that make them more of a solitary target or a free ride out of danger?

"And tried to kill Yu Shan, on the instant, without warning. It might have been shocking, to anyone not raised in the mountains. here it was common practice, clan manners."

No matter how superior one assumes their native culture is, that assumption that every other culture shares the same ideas and ideals and standards can prove quite fatal. In some instances, the mere act of trespass, regardless of intention, is enough to sign a death warrant. The mere act of being different, is enough to signal a release of the hounds. The settings that most fantasy games take place in, is often a dark and dangerous time where the illumination of kindness and courtesy, despite the widespread religions and the various good they espouse, often fail to meet with reality's demands. Players should not feel safe on the roads. They should not feel safe with strangers. They should not feel that the world looks upon them as they may look upon the world.

Walk softly and carry a big stick didn't become a common saying because no one was doing it or that it was a bad piece of advice.

Dragon in Chains provides a setting in turmoil that provides a lot of characters and situations that are immediately applicable to most fantasy role playing games. The Jade themes and other bits make it a nice addition to any gamer's library looking for some more Oriental Adventure style in his campaign.