Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell pits the Danes against King Alfred in the ninth century on British soil. Much like The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the focus of the story takes place through the eyes of a soldier.

The pacing of the book is well done. This is an element that can often be missing in a sandbox style campaign. If the players are not focused or do not have their own agendas, the GM should be sure to set up some conflict in the background that the players may interact with. This can prevent the burdensome "what do we do now" style that may come out with players new to a sandbox style environment.

Below I'll be discussing some of the book using specific quotes and seeing how they can fit into the game, or how they fit into gaming in general.

"We followed the Roman road, crossing their great wall at the Tine, and still going south. The Romans, my father said, had been giants who built wondrous things, but they had gone back to Rome and the giants had died and now the only Romans left were priests, but the giants' roads were still there and, as we went south, more men joined us until a hoarde marched on the moors either side of the stony road's broken surface." pg 15

"We wandered through the house and I felt a wonder that we could no longer build like this...It was an unsettling thought, that somehow we were sliding back into the smoky dark and that never again would man make something so perfect as this small building." pg. 106

One of the things I occassionally get tired of is how most fantasy fiction and anime has the greatest accomplishments of the age done in the far past. Yet it is not without historical real world events. Here, the Romans might as well have been those giants of a bygone age so advanced was their techniques.  It's something mentioned a few times here and in Cornwell's other series about Arthur. It sets a standard for things and creates a golden age for modern people to strive for.

"You can't live somewhere," he told me, "if the people don't want you to be there. They can kill our cattle or poison our streams, and we would never know who did it. You either slaughter them all or learn to live with them." pg. 46

One of the problems that many fantasy games have in their thirst for ever new enemies and types of foes for players to encounter, is that their motives all too often fall into the former, 'slaughter them all'. What happens if the newcomers into a setting are indeed fierce warriors with their own abilities and strategies but are good neighbors who are not actively enslaving their people? Who are actually fair to their people? Rebellion at that point isn't necessarily going to come from the people but could be sparked by a charismatic leader.

The next time you think about having the orcs or hobgoblins on the march, have them form alliances with those in the territories, have them marry off their woman and men into the existing political structure.

Of course if all the game is for is beer and kills, that's not useful advice and lord knows there have been many a day when after working ten hours all I wanted to do was sit down and sling some dice and yell "20!"

"When he moved, you could hear the rings clinking. The rings could be used as money if there were no coins. I remember watching a Dane take off an arm ring and hack it to shreds with an ax, then offer a merchant scraps of the ring until the scales showed he had paid sufficient silver." pg. 54

One of the boring yet quick aspects of most role playing games, is that money is the same regardless of where you come from, where you're going, what you've unearthed. The dragon's coins that are hundreds of years old are the same weight and size and value as those freshly minted from the latest pretender king.

But they don't have to be. Or at least, don't have to seem to be. Adding something like merchants with scales allows you to put some seeming depth to the campaign but not necessarily something you have to enforce. It just brings out a little detail to things.

"It was late summer before Serpent-Breath was finished..." pg. 143

There are several characters here who have named weapons and of course, as this is a historical book, none of them have 'gaming' magic to them. There are rituals used in the making of Serpent-Breath mind you, things that in a game would probably bestow, or at least provide masterwork status, but having the players name their own weapons is never a bad thing to provide a touch of personalization to them. After all, if it was good enough for Fafrd and the Grey Mouser, two of sword and sorcerery's most well known and enjoyed characters with Cat's Claw, Scapel and Gray Wand, it's good enough for your players.