Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

The Lords of the North is the third book in the Saxon Tales written by Bernard Cornwell detailing how King Alfred's kingdom is crafted during the Danish invasions.

Like previous books, this one is told in first person with the teller, Uthred, being a pagan who worships Thor among the Christian nation making him outcast yet a valuable outcast.

I'll be discussing some general and specific points of the book below but let me start by saying that if you want some inspiration for a viking or late English based game, one mired deep in the grim that the entire series of the Saxon Tales is well worth a look.


Character Motivation: Uthred is pretty simple at this point of the game. He want his ancestral home back and he wants to take revenge on those who've done his adopted family wrong and he wants reputation and gold and wealth and power. Sounds a lot like an adventurer. Note that he doesn't have a single motivation here and other elements to his personality will come back to haunt him throughout the book but by knowing what the character wants, the GM can have a better idea of what the player is looking to get out of that particular character.

This depends a lot on the player though. I've had players who have diverse characters in theory, yet they all play the same. Doesn't matter if they're playing an elf wizard or a dwarf cleric, they all play them the same in terms of how they role play them. Others can play the same class and race and you'd never know it was the actual same player due to the various differences the player gives the characters. As a GM, put the effort where it'll be most rewarding.

Non-Player Motivation: Often the Game Master doesn't have all day and night to paint how he wants the NPCs of the setting to be seen. But sometimes he is able to get the gist of it across quickly enough and once the motivation of a character is known, don't be surprised if the players work on that nerve to either get their way, annoy the character, or if the NPC is an antagonist, to work against them.

The News: One of the things that can be hard to remember, is that in the dark ages and in the times of non-electric news, that news has to be taken by hand, by horse, by word of mouth. Organizations that are large, like a monolithic church, may have an advantage over other organizations in that because of their size, indeed, spanning multiple countries, they may be able to get information prior than others.

In some ways, the exchange of news is in and of itself, an event. When strangers come to town, they might be given free drink and meal in exchange for news of the outside world. In some cultures, the exchange of news is part of the social events and worthy of small events.

Naming: Uthred has a name for his blades, Wasp Sting for the smaller sword and Serpent Breath for his longsword. But he also names his horses, such as the horse Witnere, which means Tormentor. Names can provide a lot of color to the game and if you've got a book of Baby Names or access to the internet, aren't that hard to come up with. Putting together a list ahead of time provides you with some quick ways to personalize things.

This doesn't count the potential for earned or given names that go beyond the birth name. The naming can be based on physical traits, such as Sven the One-Eyed, or on traits like Tormentor.

Continuity: When the series started, Uthred's father was killed by clever planning on the Dane's side. Here, he comes across an old foe who has his father's helmet. Of course it's not a magical helmet, this being a historical, but it does has great significance to him. The feel of a campaign can be influenced hugely by having small things crop up in latter sessions.

Distinctive Features: Uthred earned a limp in the last book, but it wasn't one that slows him down. It's merely a distinctive feature. When providing details such as this, remember the game system. If you're playing Hero or GURPS, you might have some game penalties and game benefits, but in playing games like Dungeons and Dragons where there really are no mechanics for it, the GM should not start imposing penalties on the players when they come up with distinctive features because one of the first things that players will do is seek to cure them and remove that unique aspect about their character.

Superstition and Ritual: Soldiers generally have many superstition and perform little rituals to reassure themselves.  But this isn't limited to just soldiers. Sailors have their own list of do's and don'ts aboard the ship and their own belief system about what must be done to appease the sea. When dealing with different social circles, each one probably has their own rituals and habits that go into the make up of their meetings, or starting a project, or of going to war. They add small touches to the game but also add depth.

Conflict is Good: Many of Bernard Cornwell's books are focused at times of war. This is good because conflict provides opportunity. Conflict acts as a catalyst. In times of peace, what is a sword master supposed to do outside of be a trainer? But during war? When armies need to be raised, homes defended, and enemies taken? When the landscape can potentially change in a single battle? These times are the times when character's can thrive.

Life Happens: Not everything involving the world needs to involve the characters fighting goblins and orcs

Misinformation: Even as news spreads and the continuity of a campaign grows, remember that people, or at least men, have short memories and events attributed to one race may change as time moves on and that people will want to ascribe their own deeds alongside the greatest of the great in history. That those who were great builders in the past may be attributed to have super human powers or physical status to have achieved their wonders and advancements. In his historicals, Bernard tends to ascribe an almost alien level of ability to the Romans as the 'modern' people living in those ruins can't compete with the stone work and road work and general skill of the Roman's.

Bandit Kings: Depending on the location in the campaign, anyone can declare themselves a king. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it fall? In the same way, if you're in a winter wasteland or a highly contested land and no one can take it away, aren't you the king? This can lead to a land of a Thousand Kings or something similar. Many campaign settings, including the Forgotten Realms and the Warhammer FRPG, have areas that are meant to be Border Kingdoms.

Tradition and Ceremony: Weddings are often a huge part of a woman, or indeed, a man's life. These solemn events provide a cause for celebration. And yet, they often have a bigger hold in small ways than just the event itself. For example, Bernard Cornwell notes that women who have their hair free and not bound, are not married. In today's society, we have the wedding ring. Little things like that can provide a lot of depth to a setting.

Oaths and Oathbreakers: When a man's worth is only as good as his word, to be called an oathbreaker is not a good thing. In a land where they don't have digital cameras watching you try to sneak past the red light or electronic meters to time your parking, Kings had to rely on a man's word for his worth. Breaking such a thing though could be equal to committing career suicide as once broken, who would want you after that?

While much of Lords of the North repeats material found in earlier books, it is a repetition that moves the story forward. It is a story told quickly. It is a story that keeps the pages turning. Bernard Cornwell's take of 9th Century England moves quickly and provides a lot of color for those looking for dark age tales.