Saturday, July 2, 2011

Pale Horseman Round 3

Sorry for breaking up the book into multiple posts but time has only just recently opened up for me thanks to the July 4th holiday. The end of the month and end of the quarter has allowed me to quickly catch up on some reading including the other books in the Saxon series as well as some Sharpe books. Quite glad I gave Cornwell another shot after not being impressed with the Stonehenge book.

Below will be some quotes and my ramblings on how they might relate to gaming so if you'd rather avoid the spoilers, read no further.

"...he wanted me to think him defenceless... he ignored me. He just stared past my shoulder.... So I turned my back... and I saw that Cippanhamm was burning."

Here the young Uthred is battling the mighty Steapa. He is losing. Not badly but it seems inevitable. However circumstances outside either combatant's control come to the front of the action, Dane's invading Cippahnhamm and looting and burning.

If the scene is not living up to its potential or its dragging or something just seems off, don't be afraid to throw in some new combatants or events into the fray in order to juice up the scenario.

There are also times when the elements themselves come into play. For example, during a siege late in the book, a storm breaks out with thunder and lightning and thick rain covering the entire field turning dirt into mud and making bows and spears useless. Don't pause when adding some wild natural elements into the setting when it fits.

Other factors that I've mentioned also come into play here.

The wheel of fate for example, has its way with Alfred who is forced to retreat to a swamp. Alfred, known as Alfred the Great, suffered many serious setbacks. Depending on the nature of the game, don't be hesitant to let players lose occasionally. In more recent editions, the themes seem focused on 'yes' and focused on keeping the game moving forward. I have no problem with the latter and think that failure, in and of itself, doesn't necessarily mean the halt of the game. But the players have got to want to push through the bad times their characters endure instead of rolling up new characters.

Another bit is isolation. When Alfred loses his kingdom and retreats to the swamp, the people of the swamp are isolated from the rest of the world. They know little of what goes on outside of their home. This should be something that players who explore, find time and time again. Lost valleys and hidden cities where the natives speak some variant of the local tongue because travel is difficult, dangerous, and without huge cities and trade, not particularly worth it for most.

' taking sixteen coats of mail to the river's edge I had given the Danes an irresistible lure. And they snapped at it."

One thing that annoys me as a player, is when the habits and mentality of an enemy are well known and their behavior doesnt' vary much or their intelligent level isn't that high and then the GM, probably inspired by Tucker's Kobold's, decides that every goblin, orc, and other low level, low intelligent monster is suddenly John Rambo. There's a time and a place for such smack downs, but if it becomes every encounter with the creatures and it does so for no reason other than to enforce a smack down, that style of GMing might not be to every player's tune. The mood and establishment should have some consistency. If kobolds are weak little things barely able to string a rock against a stick to make a crude spear one session and the next are using plant based grenades and hit and run tactics, something is wrong.

"Wulfhere let us live."

Wulfhere spoke to Uthred before about how dangerous things would be when the Danes invaded. And by saving the Dane Ragnar, he insured his own life, and his own prosperity. This didn't come clear out of the blue. Readers of the Pale Horseman had hints of what Wulfhere would do if push came to shove.

By sprinkling little bits of motivation about various factors in an NPC's ethos around, the players might have a better idea of what to expect to terms of motivations and actions. By allowing the NPCs to speak with the players about religion, survival, home and hearth, the players gain an insight into the characters.

In the same vein though..

'Steapa was good to his mother,' the man said. 'He brought her money. She was no slave any more.'

Steapa is first depicted as a monstrous, unfeeling machine capable only of murder. Which he does quite well. But this little detail, about how he cared for his mother and raised her from slave status, provides more to the character than just sword and armor. Little details even on the most basic enemies can sometimes provide more depth to the campaign world than all the elaborate descriptions of weapons and armor.

'...Saint Vincent's Day had been the day when Iseult drew Alfred's son, the AEtheling Edward, through the earth. And somewhere, Iseult had told me, a child must die so that the king's heir, the Aetheling, could live."

female's blade, but it is something to think about when describing events in war and even in peace.

..I wanted to come with you.'


'Because I miss this life. God, I miss it! I loved being a warrior. All that irresponsibility! I relished it. Kill and make widows, frighten children. I was good at it, and I miss it. And I was always good at scouting. We'd see you Saxons blundering away like swine and you never knew we were watching you. Don't worry, I'm not going to talk Christ into you, whatever the king wants."

This section does two things for me as a reader.

First, it helps provide some motivation for player character's. Most of the time if you stop to think about it, being an adventurer, a wanderer, a landless man, seems madness. And the quest is to ever gain further gold and power to gain further gold and power. But when Pyrlig puts it like the above, you have to figure, why not eh?

The second, is that Pyrlig puts a different face on priests, especially Christian priests. Up to this point, most of them have been fairly insufferable from the main character's point of view, including Alfred. By putting Pyrlig into the setting and showcasing him as a warrior and a priest happy to have God on his side as opposed to forcing him onto everyone else, the author provides a wider spectrum of the religion and provides another viewpoint to it.

In the Forgotten Realms, what if there is a sect of Tempus Worshippers who relish fighting not for fighting, but for the peace it brings afterwards? They make themselves the best and most frightening enemies not to cause chaos, but to cure it. Putting a slant on things provides the setting with more variety that's not just stuck to the player's who've read a new issue of Dragon and want to play an Albino Drow with a black runeblade that's brand new and never been done before!

A third bit that comes through, is the individual in the army. While Uthred is part of an army, part of a huge army, he is the main character and it is often through his actions, and the actions of those close to him, that victory comes. This happens either though a quick trick or plot of his, or through the declaration of single combat where the heroes clash among the army deciding the fates of all those around them. In a role playing game, unless it's Warhammer Fantasy Battle and the GM is actually using the miniature game, the players should have some ability to influence things. The old 3.5 book, Heroes of Battle did a nice job introducing various things that players can do to influence combat one way or another and provide some sample missions worthy of player attention.