Thursday, October 6, 2011

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I love the cover of this book. It's a simple piece that would work fantastic as a miniature with a character in apparently some type of light armor with a nice fancy hilted sword with a hooded cloak where the cap is moving. Dynamic but static.

In terms of the book, it's got a lot of grit going for it but I'm a little undecided if I like it or not. the main character is a little too competent either through blind stupid luck or through bad assery that makes me think this kid could bitch slap Elminster and while that would be amusing, it just rubs me wrong in some ways.

In terms of spoilers, they'll be coming below because I'm going to talk about intangibles as they relate to setting the tone of a campaign.

Prince of Thorns isn't heroic. It's not even friendly. the character isn't even an anti-hero. But how could you do this in a role playing game? How could you model having 'brothers', a group of murderous bandits, working with the Prince, a player, and showcase the tone you're trying to set?

First off, let's discuss the brothers. By being part of a bandit group, Mark Lawrence has provided the main character with a group of characters he can easily kill off and most people aren't going to care or blink an eye. This almost harkens back to older editions of Dungeons and Dragons with hirelings. "You there peasant, take this mighty one silver and take up arms against yon ogre for a further single piece of gold!" Of course morale was a game factor too in the day eh?

But in terms of showcasing a setting, you can crib the following without having to resort to game mechanics.

1. Life is worthless. The main character is almost assassinated by an enemy from one of the Hundred Kindgoms that make up the setting and his father, instead of taking vengeance against the murderer or his wife and his youngest son, makes peace through concessions from the enemy king.

2. Life is worthless. Kill some of the 'brothers' or bandits, or hirelings in standard tasks or fights. For example, in the book, while the characters are climbing a mountain, one of them falls to his death. Another character suffers a cut from a farming implement and dies as a result of infection.

3. Life is worthless. Introduce a whole new race of creatures and entities that the players interact with a bit and have a few of those new found humanoids join the player characters. Then destroy the rest of the race while the players continue their trials and journeys.

4. Life is worthless. Have the players use every means at this disposal to win, even if that win results in mass overkill and the destruction of hundreds of people. Some may argue that the method used in the book needs rules when Jorg, the Prince of Thorns, destroys another kingdom. They may note that it is science that destroys it! Humbug. In Eberon and the Forgotten Realms we've got numerous scars and blisters on the land that are the direct result of magical armagedon. Rules only matter when destroying a kingdom if you want them to matter.

5. Life is worthless: In having the players use every means at this disposal, push them against the boundaries of the standard fantasy tropes. This is done twice in the novel. The first time, Jorg kills a man so skilled with the blade that this knight is able to out fence Jorg's champion, who himself is a master duelist. Jorg however has no problem provoking the knight, running into a guard, snatching a crossbow and putting one through the blademan's skull. This is allowable because Jorg is the King's son and the king is impressed with this show of ruthlessness. In another venue, Jorg is in a knightly tournament and goes for the kill on numerous knights. Because Jorg not only survives in that arena but takes out the king of that realm, he is able to avoid repercussions from it.

6. Life is worthless. Have the 'brothers', the brigands that you've been so eager to kill off in the most minor of fashions to showcase how fragile life is, ready to turn on the players if they're not always at the peak of the game. It's not just that life is worthless for them, it's worthless for the players if those slip and showcase mercy or weakness. Have some of the 'named' brothers challenge the players after a particularly tough battle or when a loved one dies as an opportunity for the player to man up or be put down.

By focusing on the things you want the campaign to convey, regardless of the game you're running, you can do a far better job than if you sat around making up rules for diseases that lice may be carrying or what the chances of players catching infections from having sex with villager's unwilling daughters. Focus on the mood. Focus on the atmosphere. Focus on the tone.