Sunday, August 14, 2011

Revelation by C. J. Sansom

C. J. Sansom's lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, continues his tour with the authorities of his time in this novel by the author of Winter in Madrid and Sovereign. This time around, the author pits Matthew's keen mind against a serial killer. It's an interesting twist of how things can be worked in an different setting, and while most fantasy games have a lot of elements of magic to them, there are a few bits that might prove of use to someone attempting to run an adventure with murder mystery elements to it.

The first, is a wide cast of characters. Sansom isn't afraid to throw characters into the mix and then murder them off. I've heard it said before that GM's must be ready to murder their children. This is a truism that needs to be followed. While some of the characters you create may have some untold stories, keep those stories in mind and transfer them over and let the characters wonder what's going on as some of their favorites die off.

The next thing, is keep the plot moving. If the character run up against some walls or issues or, well, let's be honest, just stink at investigating, throw them a bone or two. Perhaps the villain isn't as clever as he though and leaves some evidence out to torture the players with just how smart he thinks he is? Perhaps someone the players have helped in the past has seen something and wishes to provide some assistance in compensation for the player's aid in the past?

Another factor to keep in mind, is bodies rot. In the novel, the villain leaves the windows open during winter so that the cold air will slow down the rot. In a game where blasts of ice might not be that hard to summon up, or even where magical means of completely destroying a body might be applicable, players may not discover murder has been done in a timely fashion or at all unless they use their own divination magics.

For the old school gamers, remember poisons are bad. In most old school games, if you fail a saving throw versus poison, you're dead. On the other hand, an interesting thing used here, is a poison that provide not death, but a pleasant feeling so that when the corpses are found, they seem to be in a state of bliss. Poisons and drugs can do more than kill, then can alter perception, alter reality, and without some type of anti-venom or cure-all, there isn't much that can be done outside of making a save and noting that the poison didn't enter the old blood stream.

Another aspect of the book that takes place is omens and con men. A few big fish wash up on shore from the Thames and people claim that they are Leviathan. Of course as soon as some religious significance is attached to the fish, the snake oil sellers are out selling various unguents, oils, and potions that they claim are made from the fish with various abilities to heal, cure, and do other things. Small incidents can help showcase the reality of the setting so to speak, and provide players with some interaction with the background that isn't necessarily of the violent nature. GMs feeling generous might even allow the players to make some knowledge or skill checks to see if any of the snake oil is real or might have properties that the seller's are unaware of. Its okay to let the players occasionally cheat a con man out of something he doesn't know he has.

For campaign seeds, it can be difficult to provide advice that means anything unless its specific to a campaign. For example, one of the characters here, Guy, is a doctor. He is reading a book that focuses on medicine in a whole new way. A manner that proves older books, books that have been used for decades if not longer, are false. While the same fervor is not attached to them as might be a religious text, old ideas can be hard to change. But if none of the people in the group are interested in medicine, its a moot point. It's a possible background element you might be able to introduce.

The same is true of false teeth. Here doctors are buying people's teeth for the creation of false teeth, apparently a fad that was popular in France during this time that made its way among the English. Little elements that provide a touch of, in this case, strangeness.

Having said all of that though, when you're running a game, it's not the same thing as reading a book at all. The players may simply be smarter then you or may get lucky. In a novel, the author can keep the audience and the hero guessing for quite a while. In a role playing game, the players may just stumble onto the main villain in the first act.

Go with it. Few things are more annoying than having the players do this as it's happened to me. It happens in written modules all the time. While I love the concept of the Witch Fire trilogy for the Iron Kingdoms Game, originally just for fantasy d20 in many ways, I don't think I ever saw a group have a hard time figuring out what was going on in the mystery portion of the game. Just run with it. Keep the rest of the stuff, characters, encounters, details, and other important bits, for another game or another sesson.

C. J. Sansom provides a wide cast of characters and events to keep the story going and someone looking for how an investigation might have happened during this darker days should pick up a copy of Revelation today.