Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lawrence Watt-Evans The Sword of Bheleu

I have finished The Sword of Bheleu, a relic from the dark era known as the 80's or that specific time known as the early 80's. The books are still available in both print and in electronic format so those interested in some old fashioned sword and sorcery books might want to check them out. This volume at least, was well worth the read.

Below I'll be discussing some of the bits in the book that I enjoyed and how I might try and bring some of those elements to my game, as well as somethings that I would try to be aware of before bringing them to my game.

First, when looking at material like the Sword of Bheleu, it's important to keep in mind the different purposes between fiction and gaming material. Much like Elric and his famous sword, Stormbringer, or King Arthur and his blade, Excalibur, these characters and events are not written with anything resembling 'balance' or 'realism' in mind. There are ways and methods to overcome these individuals and they are not invincible, but the needs of fiction pit them against a few select enemies while a standard dungeon crawl might pit players against dozens who would be powerless against such might.

And if that's what your game is going for, a throw the game balance out the window thing, that's fine. Because in such situations, it often works both ways.

For example, Elric's sword, as awesome as it is, has a whole host of enemies that its ineffective against that Elric rarely meets. A player on the other hand with a soul sucking blade might find himself fighting a lot more constructs and elements and traps. Garth the Overman, finds he's got two choices in this book. The first is to accept that he is indeed the avatar of the god of destruction and will rain death on the world for thirty years, or give in to the King in Yellow. Neither one appeals to him, but he hopes he'll be able to work out something to his satisfaction with the King in Yellow. In a standard role playing game, if Garth decided to just keep on his marry way, he'd probably become an NPC.

Interestingly enough, I recently picked up a PDF copy of something called Fourthcore Alphabet. The whole idea of Fourthcore seems a bit supported in this in that there are high risks and high rewards that go beyond the standard balanced encounters and in many ways, remind me of the older editions of the game where one, at a fairly low to mid level, might encounter a weapon like Black Razor in an adventure as opposed to 3rd and 4th editions where most items are good in what they do, but rarely bring the awe to the game that earlier editions did. Game balance in this instance is great in terms of easily designing scenarios and encounters but terrible an encompassing some of the non-tangible elements of game play.

Another interesting thing Lawrence Watt-Evans does here, is provide the viewpoint of Garth's enemies, a council of mages. It's interesting because in previous adventures that have been recaptured here quickly, the council is catching up to events from an outsider's viewpoint. While some might be upset at what could be perceived as a waste of pages telling us things from a different perspective, I found it interesting and as a Game Master, a reminder that the world is not one big vast network where everyone knows everything that goes on.

In some instances, this should be a boon for players when they are at the center of events. If players see a king, baron, or other noble taken down and have first hand information on how things actually went down, they may be able to husband this information into deals behind the scenes latter. If they are actually the cause of some news, they may have a limited time to work things out before their adventurers become well known. While many campaign settings do have some magical means of communication, in default sword and sorcery settings, or settings like 4th edition's Points of Light, communication is dangerous and takes time. This should give the players time to engage in other acts.

Am I saying that players should be able to do anything they want with never fear of repercussion? No. But without things like telephones, the internet, or some other method of world wide communication and perhaps more importantly, visual recording, players would probably have a lot more leeway than the Game Master might initially think about. Even in a large fantasy city broken down by wards, the people in a rich ward might know nothing of the murder of the Beggar King in a lower ward by a group of vagrant adventurers.

Another break against common fantasy elements, is that Garth, as an overman, is of a created race, and while that creation happened thousands of years ago, the creator is known and it's essentially an established fact. Most games hem and haw about race creation, pointing out to the very roots of time and the gods involved with such things. Not so here. Its a change of pace from the standard methods of showcasing how ancient and vast a race is.

The Sword of Bheleu, while the third in the series, and doesn't end in a spot I'm happy with as a reader, is fairly self contained and easy to get into. Those looking for magic items with outrageous powers and an author not afraid to chop up his setting should check it out.