Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Armies of Agincourt by Christopher Rothero

So after reading the fiction book Agincourt by Cornwell, I wanted some morei nformation. While I won't say I shouldn't have bothered, this is really more of a reflection of Cornwell's strength as a writer in relaying information than any failure of Christopher Rothero.

There are things that Christopher brings to the table that Cornwell did not. For example, a longer history of the rise of the longbow and its place in England's army. A comparission between some of the rulers and nobles between England and France, with France not coming out well.

And of course, illustrations. Christopher Rothero acts not only as scribe, but also as artist and does a fantastic job. If you're playing a Bretonian army in Warhammer, you could do with a worse reference. This guy is good. I thought for a moment it might have been a certain McBride, but nope, it's Rothero. He does a solid job of capturing the various soldiers and the different types of armor and weapons used at the time.

Some of the things I found ironic though, were the heavy handed way in which things worked then, which allowed the English to win, which if told in story form in a role playing game, might sound forced.

First off, the two kings. Henry V is at the top of his game here in terms of leadership of men. He's with them in the field, he's an able commander, he's vigourous and well respected. The enemy's leader? Well, he's not there. Indeed, he is Charles 'The Mad'. Those nobels that are there? They're so hungry for profit in capturing rich soldiers, that they put themselves at the head of the army.

They're so foolish, that they allow the much smaller and desperate force of English to set the battle. In a muddle field. A field of deep mud. While they are riding heavy horses.

Their advantage in numbers? Their strength of crossbowmen? Ah, push them to the side. There's glory to be gotten here.

What about the history of the longbow? A weapon that the English have used to devistating effect in the past and have won other major battles with it? Ah, that's history, don't worry about that.

But how do these fools get into these ranks? Same way they do today. It's not what you know, it's who you know. So you're a bit of an incompetent right? That's okay because you know people. Hey, those guys who work their way through the ranks and think they know what they're talking about? I tell you what, we're just going to ignore them, override their orders and overall diminish their contributions because hey, they don't know anyone.

Reading the battle of Agincourt with the extra details, with the various names of nobility attached to it, with the many mistakes that happened, looks like any huge 'bubble' that burst and everyone points to it afterwards and goes, "Hey, here is exactly what happened." It's just in this case the burster of the bubble was King Henry.

While to the modern eye, the second hand accounts present an easy to see series of events that could have been avoided in any number of areas, look around at things people are talking about, but not really doing anything about now. Think about gas at the station costing $5-$7 a gallon. Think about a housing bubble burst in China. Think about food inflation that easily outsrips commodity inflation. Think about the housing bubble that already burst, think about the various entitlement programs that can't be paid for with current revenues. There are 'dragons' all over the place that people don't want to face and they will come back and bite you in the face.

Now in a role playing game, it's important to note that the players are going to be 'meta' gaming in many cases. Sure, some of them may be going into the whole knightly orders or the various role playign aspects that go with it, but they would never be caught in the situation the French were. On times, you should allow them to face others though, who do fall into those patterns and to suffer under those same issues.

After all, why would the other nobles in the army listen to a bunch of adventuring peasants? Filthy tomb robbers!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Agincourt: Nicholas Hook

Hook held few things dear beyond his brother and whatever affection he felt for whichever girl was in his arms, yet archers were special. Archers were Hook's heroes. England, for Hook, was not protected by men in shining armor, mounted on trapper-decked horses, but by archers.

He had been warned not to walk the streets by himself, but the people of Soissons left him alone, perhaps scared of his height and size, or perhaps because they knew he was the one archer who prayed regularly and so tolerated him.

Remind me why you were outlawed, Hook?
"Because I hit a priest, sir John," Hook admitted.
"that priest?" Sir John asked, jerking a thumb toward the retreating horsemen.
"Yes, Sir John."
Sir John shook his head. "You did wrong, Hook, you did very wrong. You shouldn't have hit him."
"No, Sir John," Hook said humbly.
"You should have slit the goddamn bastard's putrid bowels open and ripped his heart out through his stinking arse," Sir John said, looking at Father christopher as if hoping his words might offten the priest, but Father christopher merely smiled.

I've picked a few quotes out of Agincourt to point out some of the bits about Nicholas Hook.

He is an archer.

He prays.

He is an outlaw in his home.

He has friends and allies as well as enemies and rivals.

These things keep him an interesting character and make him a good focal point for the novel.

While he starts off as a groundskeeper for one lord, one whose job is to eliminate poachers on his lords land, his failed attempted to assassinate an ancient family rival, as well as his direct assault against a murderous priest, make him an outlaw in his own land and he joins the military where his woodsmen skills and impressive physical strength allow him fairly quick advancement.

His character has different takes such as hearing voices ranging from the lord above to various saints. He hears two saints in particular, the of Soissons. This makes him seem a little strange to others, but the advice given to him is generaly sound and he manages to thrive with it.

In terms of hearing the saints, one interesting thing that can be used for role playing games, is that it allows the GM to throw in some 'common' sense for players that may be new to the game and not sure how exactly things may play out.  Without having a 'pet' NPC around, the GM can provide some standard advice that would be useless to more experienced characters.

His love interest, a nun who also survived the sack of Soissons, has a French father who is a leader of the enemy. This foeman even takes a finger from the archer, but leaves him with enough fingers to use the bow in order to keep his daughter safe.

Despite that foeman though, his true enemies are the family rivals he has. In keeping with themes of family rivals, his own brother is well liked by many, but becomes involved in the difficulties with the families.

In the book Hook manages to wind through the setting and more importantly, grow. In some role playing games, the different encounters and dungeons may not require actual character growth. In many different dungeon crawls, there isn't really a need for characters to change or to note how their environments effect them. In a full fledged setting where cities and travel and other bits that involve actual characters as opposed to traps and monsters, the characters have opportunity to take in new data points and either use them to reinforce their current behaviors or to actually take into account this new information and change.

Nicholas Hook, while starting off as a fairly skilled character, nontheless, manages to grow in both his travels and experiences, as well as his expectations of how the world works. Those looking to model a new Warhammer character in say 2nd edition may wish to look at him for ideas on how a former road warden may have left his old life behind.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Agincourt: The Fall of Soissons

Soiossons is a town in France that the youngbowman Hook finds himself fighting to defend against the French in France.

When it falls, Hook eludes capture but has a prime vantage point to see how a captured city fares when it does not openly surrender.

Rape, pillage, burning, looting, and mutilation of the enemy troops.

There are no neutral sides in war. Or at least, that's what I took from this historical event. Your fellow countrymen may love you compared to their feelings against another country, but stand against them in war time and suffer the ravages that only the army can bring.

Something similiar happened in Bernard's other book, Sharpe's Escape when the town Sharpe is in comes under occuptation.

Depending on where the players are in such a situation, and what level they are, players have lots of options avilable to them. There may be some who take full advantage of the situation in the most morbid ways, but in a standard 'adventuring' group, smart adventurers should use this opportunity to seek out rare and potent items that they may need. In some instances, the players themselves may have set up the whole sacking of the city merely in order to move through it unmolested by the local laws, guilds, and other obsticles that may have stood in their way.

Higher level players that wind up on the losing side may have a better fate than the arhcers in Soissons though. One of the benefits of being an adventurer is often an amount of wealth that defies the standard station of such a character. On the other hand, some adventurers are so because they could afford all the tutoring and equipment necessary for such efforts.  In these instances, the players may be held hostage. Their captors may treat them fair or terrible but chances are their equipment and prized possessions will be stripped from them.

In such cases, it depends heavily on the players attitudes and opinions of such events. Those players who despise such incidents are probably better off dead and making new characters, perhaps even characters designed to save the others from their fate. Those that 'go' with the flow so to speak, may find themselves with some contacts among the enemy or with a new personal nemesis. Use the events of the game to influence future events of the game, like a series of dominos.

The fall of Soissons showcases brutality and for many, could be seen as a rallying point. In your own campaign, don't forget to include the horrific events that showcase the penalty for failure as well as the stakes when swords are drawn.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

One of the readers suggested I pick up a trilogy of books by Bernard Cornwell, the Warlord Chronicles. While I have not gotten to it yet, as Half Price Books stock changes continuously, I have read a few of Cornwell's books at this point.

Agincourt is a solid example of having a viewpoint character, an archer, going through a well known even in history and giving us an up close and personal experience. The main character, Nicholas Hook, is initially introduced as a scounrel type who has a few blessings to his name, including his ability with a bow.

In the reading, Bernard Cornwell goes through several steps of how the English Longbowmen go to work. He does an excellent job of describing the different bows, the importance of strength, the material used in crafting the arrows, the importance of the construction of the steelhead of the shaft, as well as the glues used to keep the feathers in place. He does so without being boring, unlike say this blog.

In doing so, he provides solid context for the reader. As described here, the longbow is a fierce and dangerous weapon. Crossbows in and of themselves have their use. Many times here they are described as often having a further shot range and terrible killing power. But the reload time compared to the longbow archer? No contest.

I'll have more to say about the book in the following days but wanted to give Agnicourt a quick thumbs up for those looking for some historical fiction about a well known even that has a character that most D&D players, especially those older school rogues, should be able to relate to.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Immortal Iron Fist

When I was a young man, I used to devour comics. My first RPG was actually the original yellow Marvel Super Heroes boxed set. Good times.

I recently purchased a digital subscription to the Marvel comics library. It's like some eight thousand comics. It's allowed me to read some old favorites without having to dig through a ton or boxes, as well as discover some newer favorites.

Among those newer titles, is the Immortal Iron Fist. Well, favorite in terms of what it means for RPGs at least.

Iron Fist is a low grade super hero who hails from another plane that masters the art of kung fu on a hidden city and uses his increidble power to fight evil.

But his people's culture... well, they're pretty ancient in some ways and this can easily be yanked for a Eastern flavored D&D game or one where you want to kick up the planes a bit. You see in Immortal Iron Fist #8, as expalined to young Danny, "K'un Lun is one of the seven capital cities of heaven. Each appearing on the mortal plane according to timetables charted amongst the stars. But once every eighty eight years, these apperances align in the Heavenly Convergence and we celebrate this with a mighty tournament."

"Sections of Each City join together creating the Heart of Heaven, a palace where our contests take place. Aspects of each city, as well as earth itself will be found there. It is unlike anywhere you have ever been , with rules and laws only unto itself."

It goes on for a bit but the cool factor is pretty strong there. Propechy, cosmic alignments, events that can only happen at certain conjunctjuors and all sorts of other solid stuff make the Immortal Iron Fist well worth looking at for someone who wanks to spice up the background of his monk character.

Taken to another area though, it could tie into different aspects of games like D&D 3rd edition with sorcerous blood lines, or even fighting schools. Getting people together to celebrate and beat on each other is a tradition that crosses many boundies after all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Sorcerers' tales

I'm a sucker for a collection of short stories. The Mammoth Book of Sorcerers' Tales, edited by Mike Ashley, has a huge selection of material in it. It's another one of my Half-Priced books scores.

One of the early stories, Villaggio Sogno, has a lot of unique flavor to it in the language the author, Richard A. Lupoff, uses. Gives it a nice feel. But it also brings up some interesting possibilities for a fantasy setting where literacy is the default...

Next to Three Voyages in Distant Lands Margherita found a copy of a book she already knew, Claudia Belluzzo's Tunes and Rhymes for Litle Ones. she had loved that book, with its colourful pictures of tiny animals, birds, tortoises, and bears. Each picture was accompanied by a little poem and a simple musical lesson. Margherita had played those meodies on a miniature child's flute - this was before she was old enough to play Aleco's silver flute - and the creatures in the book had danced to her tune. pg. 20

In a setting where magic is part of the standard, one of the many uses it would fill, would be educational. It might cost more, but the fantasy economics of most settings are so screwy, that they don't hold up to inspection, less alone close inspection.

The next time a wizard, sorcerer or bard is talking about their child hood, remind them of when they read Three Voyages in Distant Lands and how they enjoyed hearing the writer speak to them, literally, through the book, telling them how history went. Remind them of how the maps would point out places of interest and the things that happened there. The magical, in a setting where literacy is the standard, should replace the mundane.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Witch Killer by C. L. Werner

Witch Killer, while it stands as the third book in the omnibus Mathias Thulmann Witch Hunter, isn't necessarilty the close of the story started in the first book. Indeed, it almost seems like one of those old serial movies that keeps going and going and going.

C. L. Werner brings back most of the characters from previous books including Mathias, his loyal yet troubling henchman Streng,some loathsome ratmen, the necromancer, his new ally, the vampire Gregor, first introduced in book one, as well as more of the internal politics and signature setting material that indicates this is a Warhammer book and not a generic fantasy book.

1. The Never Ending Battle: As I mentioned, C. L. Werner brings a lot of the previous cast back, even when that previous casts interaction with the main characters here is minimal. On one hand, if you're writing a series that has to be kept open ended because you don't know what the next novel, indeed, if even there will be a
next novel, will bring, keeping things open and 'breezy' allows you to bring those fan favorite elements back at a later date.

This works well, to a point, in super hero comics. Superman, is noted as fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Comics are often fighting a battle for readership and utilizing old elements to appeal to older fans. Even game systems aren't above this, rehashing old names and ideas.

But in a role playing game, you have to keep your direct audience in mind. How well are the adventurers going to link together and how closely will they be tied together. Paizo speeds out twelve modules a year in two adventure paths. In my early days of playing, anything purchased would rarely have any direct ties or lead ins to anything else purchased in terms of 'story'. There were exceptions but I didn't pick up one adventure or issue of Dungeon expecting that adventure to be continued next week so to say.

Know your audience. If they're getitng tired of the same cast of characters and the same subplots, move on. You as the GM are not writing a novel or a comic. Your ability to react to the players is immediate.

2. The henchman.  Once again, back in 'the day', many characters would have allies and henchmen who might be greater than the other rift raft out there, but not as awesome as the main character. Comics tended to do this by introducing younger versions of the heroes, Captain America and Bucky, Human Torch and Toro, Batman and Robin, Superman and Supergirl... but in novels, you had Elric and Moonglum, as well as Michael Moorcock's other Eternal Champions and the Eternal Companion.

The henchman had a unique set of rules tied into Charisma back in the day. Later editions have kind of gone away from that idea. One of the reasons why is probably character complexity. Another reason is that the literature that the game is based on tends to focus on characters as equals.

The nich thing about having 'lessers' around though, is you can use them to cast a nice contrast to the characters they follow. While Streng has no blessings of Sigmar upon him and no magical silver sword, he is a brute and a loyal ally. He is a quick thinker able to use his dishevelled looks to his own advantage. While Mathias is pious and tried and true and enjoys his work, Streng enjoys getting paid, enjoys getting the better of someone else, enjoys bringing pain to others... in many ways, the dark reflection of Mathias work given flesh and enjoyment in that work.

3. The Turnaround: I've mentioned before that failure should not necessarily be the end of the game. If the characters have to make a skill check to beat a monster and fail, perhaps that just results in them being captured by a trap. If they have to overcome a particular foe, perhaps they are held hostage in hopes of exchange for funds or future assistance. Part of this will depend on how much the characters want to fight against the dice and how much they want to go with the story. If the players are outmanned left right and sideways because of poor decesions they have made and you offer them the chance to surrender and they want to fight it out, take off the kid gloves and play the monsters as intelligently as possible.

This doesn't mean that opportunities for survival aren't there. For example, if the players are surrounded by ogres and trolls, perhaps the side that suffers the worst of the player's initial attack decides to help the players out and wipe out their enemies. After all, they can always take care of the players later right?

4. The Intelligent Magic Item: Game books are filled with intelligent magic items. Fiction abounds with them. Elric's black blade, Stormbringer, is probably one of the more famous. In the three books of Mathias Thulmann, Das Buch die Unholden, speaks not a word, but its actions make clear that it is alive in its own way, possessing its own malevolvent intelligence and purpose. One of the problems with 4th edition D&D, and to a lesser extent, 3rd edition, is that they are games with hard written rules. Without spelling everything out, there may be room open for different interpetations of how powers and abilities work. Run with those possibilities. Describe a sword of berserking as seaking to leap out of the blade, of rattling around in the scabbard. Describe a vorpal blade as always pulling to the neck of the opponent. Describe a weapon of unholy magic as emiting an atmosphere of toxic unholy energy.

These things don't need game stats. Atmosphere and feeling are there to cater and create just that, atmosphere and feeling. If you want to reward a player for doing the description and taking advantage of those things in specific skill checks, go for it. "Listen friend, the sword of berserking is about to shatter my scabbard so either you start talking or I feed you to it." might warrant a +2 bonus on bluff or intimidate but shouldn't be an excuse to give character access to abilities they don't have.

While Witch Killer is a good popcorn novel, it is the weakest of the three but still worthy of ideas to pillage.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Witch Finder by C. L. Werner

A brief synopsis: Many threads are woven together as new complications make life more than interesting for Mathias Thulmann and his hencman Streng. C. L. Werner throws politics, city adventuring, and other elements into a book that is distinctively Warhammer in nature.

For those who want to avoid spoilers, read no further.

1. City Life

Mathias and his comrade Streng return to Wurtbad in order to hunt down a book that was not found at the end of their previous adventure. In doing so, Mathias becomes involved with several churches of the city, including Morr, god of death, as well as the goddess of mercy. This does not count his involvement with the politics of his own witch hunter temple, those of the ruler of the city, or those of the lawmaker of the city.

In short, there are a lot of things going on here and it makes life more interesting for Mathias because no sooner has one ball hit the hand than the other one is in the air. This is part of the lure of the city for me. You can have several, if not outright dozens of things happening that may involve the character and may be things that they can become involved with.

2. Plauge

What makes city life more interesting? Why, city life under the plague. C. L. Werner goes to town in a setting with a plague god, mad doctors and skaven and does with with a plague. The role of the priestess of mercy come clearer here, as they try to give succor and healing to those who need it, while those of Morr, the god of death, provide sanctity to the dead. This is a very real threat to the setting as the undead are not an unknown menace so making sure the dead stay at peace is indeed a vital part of the duties. Why they would not simply burn the bodies on the other hand...

Anyway, plague makes for some great elements in a setting. It can create mass change, depopulate whole regions, take out allies and enemies alike. However, the one thing that C. L. Werner does, as I've tried to do myself when running such situation, is avoid taking it out on the main characters. Mathias and Strength, despite being deep down in the plague ridden areas the most, are untouched by it. When you make the disease more about how its effecting the region around the characters, the effects on the character's shouldn't be some penalty to an ability score or the use of wealth to purchase a cure disease. It should be shops closing because the owners are dead. It should be the city being held in quarantine until things are cleared. It should be social breakdown as even those in the higher reaches of society fall victim to plague.

3. Signature Setting Elements

On one hand, the Warhammer setting is generic. Armored knights ride around using great weapons to cleave into the undead or trolls or goblins. Wizards engage themselves in the art of magic. Clerics tend to the flocks but really, they smash the heathens and often have the blessings of the god and a different type of magic. Could be D&D right?

On the other hand, Warhammer is one of the first, if not the first setting to codify ratmen as anything other than lycanthropes with their Skaven who worship the Horned God, use Warpstone, have strange technology powered by sorcerery as well as Rat Ogres and dozens of other unique elements about them.

While they do have pagan gods and cults, the Four Ruinous Powers that serve as the setting's Chaos Gods have their own chants such as "Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne", in addition to signature creatures of other sorts.

It is in these fields, even when describing the different types of vampires and their strengths and abilities, that C. L. Werner makes this a Warhammer novel and not some generic fantasy adventure. By playing off the vast material and the huge scope of the Warhammer setting, even as things change and the table top moves away from Vampires being several subbranches to other variants, and the Undead have moved from being a generic undead army to Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings to begin with, the fact that a setting has all of this information waiting to be used allows the setting to sing with its signature strengths.

And at the same time, remain all purpose enough to plunder from. A mad noble whose transformation into a thing of horror and chaos would fit well in most fantasy settings. A vampire sorcerer looking for his book of spells that were bound in his own skin? A mad doctor using magical elements to warp humanity about him? These elements could be applied to most fantasy settings, or indeed, even more modern or steam punk settings, with little difficulty.

In Privateer Press own setting, perhaps the mad doctor uses dragon blight instead of warpstone. Perhaps in the Forgotten Realms, it is a Shade who is a Shadovar seeking an ancient tome from the time of Nethril's prime.

The general ideas can be crafted into specific points for your own campaign if you're willing to put the polish into them.

4. Timing

Here, C. L. Werner may have pushed his luck. While I don't have any problem with the way things all came together in the end, the various threads, plots, characters, and events may be so crammed in a game, that the GM tries to resolve them in one big party.

If you are comfortable with this, if you can quickly change the scene, if you can quickly take action from one character to the next, to the next to the next with little pause between, then go for it.

If you cannot handle the quick pace of multiple elements coming together, if the issue of making multiple enemies from different factions come out, if the resolution of several plots might be more than you want to run, the goods news is you don't have to. Allow the players to try and set the tone and the pace and if necessary, throw a red herring or two at them in order to keep the pace of the game one you're comfortable with.

C. L. Werner provides a lot of material in the second book of Witch Hunter for the reader who wants a little variety.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Witch Hunter by C. L. Werner

It's been busy around here. At work we're moving almost a thousand parts from downstairs to the second floor and this requires someone to do the moves in the system while someone else physically does the moves. Thankfully I'm one of the few left who knows how to do the system stuff so the slave labor went to others. On the other hand, it means I've already started working on the weekends again so my reading, painting, gaming and most importantly, drinking, have all suffered.

Nontheless, I have managed to finish the first book in the Witch Hunter trilogy of Mathias Thulman by C. L. Werner. If you're looking for a good read that's set in the Warhammer setting and is loyal to the setting with some strong character archetypes, it fits the bill.

For gaming, I didn't write down as much this time for a few reasons, the first being that I lost my stupid transparent bookmarkers. Argh. Anyway, quotes are taken from the trade trilogy edition.

Character Knowledge Default

While on a wagon, the witch hunter, his hencman, and others are taken to a ruin of Slyvania. For those who are familiar with the Warhammer setting, this is a vampire kingdom plagued by the undead. Mathias, the start of the series, knows what it is.

Sometimes GMs are so intent on focusing on making everything new and wonderful and unique for the players, that they forget some of them are experienced old hands or more importantly, that their characters are and common knowledge and lore, even uncommon bits of information, may already be in their possession. When possible, allow the players to take the lead in sharing that information with the other players so that it showcases the breath and depth of those characters. Not everyone is a farmer that can only shoot big rats with impressive accuracy. Some are already seasoned knights.

Resource Management

During their encounters with ghouls in the ruins of the dead, one of the characters Mathias has met, a dwarf, reveals that he has explosives in the wagon they've left behind. Not explicitly mentioned earlier, it reminded me of a game I played, which I believe is Trail of Cthulhu, where you can make resource rolls to see if you have specific equipment need to overcome challenges as they crop up. Instead of following all recommended guidelines in the game in terms of magic items and abilities, think about allowing the players to pull out extras in exchange for giving up parcel drops. It will add a lot more random elements and creativity to the game then allowing them to pay for bonus fortune cards.

Signature Items

Mathias has a slver blade blessed by the highest source of religious power in the land. This blade serves him well in many instances. However, he didn't get it from an ancient tome. He didn't travel the planes to prevent someone else from getting it. He didn't pull it from a stone. It's part and parcel of his job essentially. Not every weapon has to be Stormbringer or Caliburn to be potent. Sometimes having friends in the right places and times can make all the difference.

Change it Up

If there was an annoyance with reading the first book, it was that every time Mathias spoke, the author described it as silky. Pay attention to how you talk and how you describe things. If you find yourself going over and over the same material time and time again, get a thesaurus. Try out different catch phrases. Watch different movies. Do something to shake yourself out of repeating yourself over and over again.

Family Matters

In the first novel, Mathias is charged with finding out about varous murders in a land ruled by a retired Witch Hunter. C. L. Werner introduces the retired witch hunter, his wife, two sons, and the history of witch hunting that spans some odd five hundred years. The characters in the faimly are different and unique in their ways and this helps the exploration of Mathias into the history complelling and drives the reader forward. If the GM can showcase that the settings are populated by people, he can try to engage the characters with these people for both good and bad consquences. The more rich and diverse the cast of NPCs are, the larger their list of contacts are, the more the characters will feel that they are engaging a real setting as opposed to a point and click event.

C. L. Werner does a good job of brining Mathias to life and those looking to expand their lore of Witch Hunters in the Warhammer setting should pick up the omnibus.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Witch Hunter by C. L. Werner

Started reading the old Witch Hunter. The prose style is easy to read and the Warhammer world is well described here. The book falls under my 'popcorn' reading. Below are some quotes taken from the first short story in the book so beware of spoilers for those who detest such things.

On The Use of Holidays:

"The Festival of Wilhelmsag brought many travellers to Kleinsdorf... Gustav again sipped at his wine, silently toasting Wilhelm Hoess and the minotaur lord which had been kind enough to let itself and its horde of Chaos spawn by slaughtered in the streets of Kleinsdorf two centures passed." (pg 18 of the Witch Hunter Omnibus)

With the recent passing of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course New Year, I've mentioned a few times that creating holidays, holy dates, and festivity days can be an important part of world building. One thing I didn't hit on, which C. L. Werner does here, is that the scope of the holidays do not have to be all emcompassing. In the dark and standard fantasy settings most D&D style games takep lace in, a lone village that defends itself from an advancing army is going to celebrate that victory.

In terms of connecting it to the campaign, make it not an army of goblins or orcs, but an army of invaders from a nearby neighboring lord that wanted the resources of the land. Beaten back, every year those intruders have to hear of the victory dances and celebrations held one town over. Perhaps they eventually decide to do something about it...

Where Ever You Go, There You Are

"It was Gerhardt Knauf...He was afraid you had come.. seeking him." (pg. 28).

I've mentioned it before, but adventure, action, or events, happen where the characters are because of who the characters are. When a Witch Hunter comes into town, those not prepared for it may panic and do things that normally they'd be more cool-headed and avoid. Same thing for bounty hunters or press gangs or military come recruiting.

Whatever the players make and how they interact with the world, they may be known by things as simple as their garb, choice of weapons, or holy symbols. And when you need to kick start an adventure, just decide that someone where they're going doesn't particularly like that.

The Little Touches

"the grimoire of a centuries-dead Bretonnian witch;p the abhorred Ninth Canticle of Tzeentch, its mad author's name lost to the ages;" (pg. 29)

I hate coming up with names for libraries but the players are always asking what the titles of the books are. Try to keep a list of book names and other useful references nearby so that when they go seeking out knowledge or come across that lich's library, you've got some space covered. And then whatever the players don't inquire about on the list, move it to a new list.

Keep The Action Moving

"The monster crashed into Thulmann sending both man and fiend plumeeting down the stairs." (pg 33)

Authors have to keep the reader's attention on the page. Despite complaints or critcism, R A Salvator has managed to keep Drizzt on the market for decades and one of the things his fans clamor about are the fight scenes. While the fight against this pink horror isn't so long, it does involve a lot of movement from room to room in the manor. Let the monster take a few attacks of opportunity as it bodily hurls the character down the stars. Let the monster take some damage from landing under the character if they make an agility test to put it on the bottom. Keep the action dynamic.

Player Restraint

"If we meet again I may not be so restrained." (pg 37)

Mathias has the opportunity to take out an enemy, but it is one driven by lose of love, not greed, chaos, or any of the other potential reasons a witch hunter might strike someone dead. Well, at least a righteous witch hunter.

Recently, Dragon magazine on the DDI, had an article basically about cripplining and maming your enemies instead of killing them. In the above instance, Mathias has not done that but he has won. think about asking the playersi f they are going for a 'fatal' blow. Allow the damage and other factors to be calculated normally but if the enemy goes down, ask them if they're out for blood. Sometimes their response may surprise you.

C. L. Werner keeps the action moving and provides the little touches that tell you this isn't the Forgotten Realms, it's the world of Warhammer.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sharpe's Escape by Bernard Cornwell

A few months ago a reader suggested a trilogy of books by Bernard Cornwell. At this time, Half-Price still hasn't had them, but I didn't think the last book I read by Cornwell was bad so I picked up another, at random, in the Sharpe's series.

The writing seems much smoother and more at play here. I don't know if that's because Bernard is more comfortable with Sharpe or if he feels more comfortable in this genre. Regardless, it made for a much easier read.

In terms of gaming though, one of the things that struck me about Sharpe is that he is an adventurer. Even though he is part of a military unit and has friends, allies, and rivals within that unit, he manages to extract himself from his unit enough that he is essentially on his own with his own foes and goals that just happen to line up with the military.

To me, is an age old lesson. Not only is it wherever you go, there you are, but wherever you go, you're still yourself. Sharpe, and many of the adventuring type, find themselves in these odd situations that only they can handle precisely because they can handle them. The loose skein of fate or destiny or karma doesn't necessarily have to be heavy handed but the fact that person Y can do X will always find himself in a place here X is called on.

Below I will be pulling specific quotes out of the book. This involves some spoilers. If you're a fan of the series and don't want to know anymore, read no further.

So let's look at some specific quotes;

"Slingsby has experience, Richard," Knowles said, "much more than I do."

"But you're a good officer and he's a jack-pudding. Who the hell is he anyway?"

"He's the Colonel's brother-in-law," Knowles explained. (page 31 hardcover ed.)

Sharpe has several enemies and rivals in this book. Slingsby is perhaps the least offensive physically, but the most dangerous politically. Being a brother in law to the colonel provides him with a lot of protection that doesn't necessarily translate into more men, better items, or even respect from the other troops. What it does translate into is a system that is as old as time itself where it is not what you know, but who you know.

When designing enemies and rivals for the party, remember that not everything is done in the heat of battle. There may be instances that political power outstrips temporal power and puts the players in a bin as to what they will actually do and what they can do.

"Cazadores?" Sharpe asked?

"Hunters. It's what the Portuguese call their skirmishers." (pg. 37)

For me, Cazadores is a tequila. Here however, its the name of a type of soldier. I've mentioned before that in Usagi Yojimbo, Stan does an excellent job of sprinkling the setting with specific language and information. Bernard Cornwell does the same. Giving the organizations and specifics of your setting unique naming conventions can be one of the quickest ways to strengthen the setting without changing a thing mechanically.

Another example would be;

"A feitor was an official storekeeper, appointed by the government to make certain there were sufficient rations for the Portuguese army." (pg 109.)

In terms of the patronage system though, that can show up in different ways as the below example illustrates:

"Young Iliffe shaping up well, is he?"

"He's an ensign, sir. If he survives a year he might have a chance of growing up."

"We were all ensigns once," Lawford said, "and mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, eh?"

"He's still a bloody small acorn," Sharpe said."

"But his father's a friend of mine, Sharpe. He farms a few acres near Benfleet and he wanted me to look after his son."

The situation with Iliffe is different than the one with Slingsby. Here Sharpe is being asked to do a personal favor, to look over the man because of family friends. Not quite the same as being in the family through marriage, but it is another case of social contracts, social obligations, being thrust on Sharpe due to his own entanglement with a larger organization.

If the players can take others under their wing, and do so successfully, they should be rewarded. This might be a social reward, such as the people knowing what a good job the characters are capable of doing, to some land, to some medals or some type of recognition. Perhaps they get the best pick of bounties or special licenses to do things others cannot.

On the other hand, failure should also have its consequences. This can range from being treated as 'bad people' or people who can't live up to their own standards, to being given the worst assignments.

In either case, these awards and penalties should only last briefly. The crowd is after all, often fickle.

"War is above the law, which is why it is so bad. War lets lose all the things which the law restrains."

"Like me," Sharpe said. (pg. 133)

Cornwell does not shy away from the horrors of war. He does not hesitate to mention the things soldiers due to a freshly occupied land. But the statement above, making war above the law? This has some interesting implications for a group of adventurers that are involved in a war time setting or who are involved in situations that are larger then themselves.

Who is going to know if a group of five or six people leave patrol duty to explore some old ruins? Who is going to notice a small patrol going off to take care of some personal business at a mad wizard's tower? The madness of war can provide a lot of freedom to those bold enough to seize it and lucky enough not to be caught outside of their bounds when the cats come calling.

"None has thought to check the high ground, but they should have known they were up against soldiers and soldiers always sought the high ground." (pg 182).

This is almost a classic case of "the more you know". If the party has some vague rumors or real bits of intelligence about what awaits them in the wilds or in a dungeon and don't follow up on it, then its out of the Game Master's hand. If the GM has devised specific tactics for his own version of 'Tucker's Kobolds' and the party won't follow up on it? Let the dice fall where they may.

"I can hear something," Harper spoke after a while. His voice came from the center of the cellar, from the floor."

"Where?" Sharpe asked.

"Put your ear on the stone, sir."

Sharpe stretched out and put his right ear against the floor. His hearing was not what it was. Too many years of muskets and rifles had dulled it, but he held his breath, listened hard, and heard the faintest hint of water running. "Water?"

"There's a stream down there," Harper said. (pg. 196)

Even when the players make bad decision, the GM has the ability, being the ruler and master of the setting, to allow the game to continue. In the case above, Sharpe and comrades have been captured in what is essentially a large dungeon cell. This should be their end. No way out. Only the inevitable storming of the basement by armed men.

But Sharpe is not a typical soldier and he endures and seeks and searches till not only are all options worn out, but he makes his own.

If the characters can show the same grit and determination, the GM should go along with it. This doesn't mean give them an easy way out. Indeed, the passage that Sharpe and allies take out is one of vermin and filth and does not lend itself well to the glamorous lifestyle, but it is a way out and they do escape. Failure should slow the characters down, not necessarily end the game.

"Didn't want to see the angel of death," Sharpe grumbled. The angel of death was the battalion doctor, a Scotsman whose ministrations were known as the last rites. (pg 225).

Little touches like this give the setting a more solid sense of realism. There is not specific special naming for the doctor, but imagery that is well known and familiar. In the Black Company, the doctor there was known as Croaker. Giving the characters names that they've earned, much as the series The First Law did for the northmen, can provide more flavor to the characters.

A few men tired to prevent the destruction. An officer attempted to pull two artillerymen off a woman and was kicked to the ground, then stabbed with a sword. A pious sergeant, offended at what went on in the Old Cathedral, was shot. (pg. 230)

As I mentioned upstream in this entry, war is hell. The interesting thing about a role playing game though, is that there may be certain assumptions that are turned over on their head. Imagine if the game here is D&D and the officers are the players and they are say, five to ten levels higher than the standard soldiers. Discipline would be kicked in mighty quick.

This is a field where most fantasy novels don't bother with, because the implications and realities are horrible enough on their own. But what would happen if a city was invaded by an army that had strict discipline and was able to back it? Much easier than say the opposite, where it's a monstrous force entering the city. While the rape and plunder may be down with inhuman opponents, the level of carnage would probably be much higher.

Sharpe's Escape provides the reader with a quick escape into a historical setting that's real focus, as in many of the stories I tend to enjoy, is on the characters. Their rivals, their friends, their enemies, and the complications that come with being in situations outside their direct control. If you enjoy military history, Sharpe's Escape provides some quick enjoyment.