Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell

Fifth up in the series of the Saxon Tales, Bernard Cornwell continues to push Uthred on in ages and in character. The series continues to be told in first person, continues to be a quick read, and continues to be a solid source of inspiration for those looking for ideas on what a game where the Vikings are invading England during the 9th century would be like.

Below I'll be spouting out some random nonsense fired off from the reading. Note that I'll try to limit the reputation where previous books have already struck those nerves so this might be a short posting. Much of the series enforces previous books and continues on the themes already established. At this point, reading Uthred is like visiting an old friend.

History Lies: I've mentioned this before, but written history, the oral history of the short lived races, the history that gets passed down to those who come after? It's at best diluted by the viewpoint of those who've survived and how they interpret it. Those who are in favor are hailed as mighty warriors and leaders and those who are merely nightly wanderers, such as adventurers, might be lucky to be hailed as a foot note. In a setting like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk, dragons, undead, elves, and dwarves, all who live longer then men, might be able to provide different aspects of those histories that they share, but each will still be approaching it from their own perspective and their own take on it.

Home Matters: Even thought there are several characters in the series that share the same religion, that of Christianity, such as Finan, their own history, or their countries own history, has warped many of those elements so that while the broad picture is still there, the individual elements have mutated and changed from the whole cloth. Native myths and origins and spirits become saints and angels under the new cloth.

Kill Your Children: I've mentioned it before, that people die all the time. In book five, Uthred's wife and child die during childbirth. When NPC's die off of the mundane, it provides a solid grounding for the campaign setting. It reminds the player's that they're not in their nice clean and comfortable condo or that they don't have the luxury of ordering up a pizza. It's a tough world and if plague and pestilence doesn't get you, the orc and goblin raiders will.

Politics: When not dungeon delving and when dealing with the cities, it's all about the politics. For example, Haesten allows his wife and children to convert to Christianity so that he may gain King Alfred's trust. Uthred, due to his heretic ways and worshipping the pagan god Thor, is easy prey for a living Saint who speaks in tongues and prophecies but is feed them through his own master. Politics move the game in a manner that isn't effected necessarily by the might or menace of the characters, but how they socialize, how they interact, how they fit into the overall society.

The Enemy of My Enemy: It's an old saying but it bears repeating. While not always true, when the players overcome an adversary, but don't kill him, that adversary may have other foes and may be eager to sick the player's on them. After all, if the players could overcome him, why could they not overcome others and allow all to benefit?

Fire: I haven't mentioned it much, but fire is a hell of a thing in a dark age setting. Many buildings are made of wood and thatch and water isn't as portable and easy to gather as it is today. A society may have volunteers and friends and neighbors set up in case of fire and when it strikes, there will be a real free that a whole village may burn down.

Information is Golden: Even as organizations may dole out select information to one another, there will be those runners and guides and bards and spies that specialize in gathering information and sharing that information for a cost. Players need to act with caution when dealing with them because even as they are providing the players with information, they will be gathering their own information. GM's familiar with the old school of doing this can provide the interaction through the dreaded role playing, or having the spy ask tit for tat, or playing out a scene from Silence of the Lambs. Those with the newer editions can merely have the players roll against the spy in skill checks to see who gathers the information from who and what it costs. At the same time, players have to beware of simply gathering the information and killing the spies. After all, if the spies keep coming to the characters and dying off, even the most dim witted of them will pause before providing the players any information for fear of their own life.

Hostages: I've mentioned hostages before, but what of high ranked hostages? Such individuals will often come with their own tutors, with their own instructors, with their own honor guard. These individuals all have to be clothed, feed, and sheltered. Each one may have their own motivations for being there, and some of those motivations may not require them to actually be there to guard the prized hostage but to perhaps spy or steal.

Family: The one thing I've always hated about Dungeon Crawls and Adventure Paths, is that too little time is baked into them to allow for little else outside of the adventure itself. In an organic setting where travel and exploration and seeking shelter from the cold winter months can be expected to take time, the climate is slightly different. For example, UthredUthred, as Uthred has done with him. Other characters have family as well. It's one of the ways Uthred keeps getting into trouble. For you see, this Dane had a brother, and that Dane had a brother, and well, that Dane had a son. the intricate webs that family and relations can have on the campaign should not be underestimated.

The Burning Land continues the tale of Uthred and it continues to be a fast paced, enjoyable take on The Saxon Tales.