Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bernard Cornwell The Pale Horseman

I've been enjoying Bernard Cornwell's tale of Wessex here and the second book in the series is well written, entertaining, and would make a great summer movie if they decided to go the high action route or an solid HBO series to take the place of Rome or Spartacus.

I'll be discussing some of the material from the book through quotes so if you'd like to avoid spoilers, read no further.

"In the winter, while I was mewed up in Werham as one of the hostages given to Guthrum, a new law had been passed in Wessex, a law which decreed that no man other than the royal bodyguards was to draw a weapon in the presence of the king."

The hero of the tale, Uhtred, is a Saxon who is more Dane than Saxon. His loyalties are often tested. He has friends on both sides of the conflict. His king, Alfred the Great, doesn't like him, but needs him. Alfred is able to play him like a fiddle though, thanks to things like the above, where Uthred breaks a law or falls into a law based trap. These things limit Uthred's options and make him more likely to do what Alfred wants.

In looking at motivations for characters in the game, if the GM and players discuss what their motivations will be ahead of time and that the 'theme' if you will, is that their patron is often well intentioned but a hard man, then they should be prepared to deal with those consequences. The GM needs to play it consistently though and allow that relationship to grow. Its okay to have a patron that doesn't necessarily appreciate everything that you do,  but one that blatantly ignores it or lies about it will not be served long.

""I hate him," he went on, "and now you owe me a favour, Uthred."

Just as Alfred plays Uthred like an instrument, there are those who don't like Alfred the Great who seek to ally themselves with Uthred just because of that. Actions have reactions no matter what the time period or setting. The social rules that are inherent to people generally push certain behaviors and if someone sees a person they don't like lording it over someone else, they tend to have sympathy or at least, see an opportunity to ally or use that person who also suffers under their shared nemesis.

"The tall man beside Odda the Younger was named Steapa. Steapa Snotor, men caleld him, or Steapa the Clever... he's dumb as an ox.'"

Here we have two names. The first has the Younger attached to it to distinguish family members. The second has an 'earned' name if you will. Its one of those ironic names like John the Big when talking about a short man. Nick names and descriptors can help flesh out characters and provide some clues as to their talents, or lack of talents.

"And they say more Danish ships arrive every day. They're in Lundene, they're in the Humber, they're in the Gewaesc." He scowled. "More ships, more men and Alfred's building churches!"

Priorities vary from person to person. In the series, Alfred is often described as being fill of piety almost to the point of ignoring the reality of the situations that surround him. But, and this is an important but, belief is a powerful factor in the human make up. Even today, in the year 2011, people who worship the same god will kill each other over the smaller differences their own brand of that religion follows. This isn't something limited to Muslim killing Muslim as Christians have proven throughout history and again recently. Belief is something men find worth dying for and worth killing for.

And the other but here? In a fantasy game, that might very well be a worth while pursuit. In many fantasy settings, like the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, despite the 'lack' of the deities direct interference in the world, almost everyone knows that they are real and indeed, in certain time lines of the Forgotten Realms, not worshipping a deity is a damning process. Faith and piety go a long way in a setting where the gods are real.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell Part 2!

I still had a few notes running around on my copy of the Last Kingdom so I'll be pulling a few more quotes from the book out. Anyone looking to avoid spoilers read no further.

"I like bowmen. They can kill at a great distance and, even if their arrows do not kill, they make an enemy nervous...It looks easy, and every child has a bow and some arrows, but a man's bow, a bow capable of killing a stag at a hundred paces, is a huge thing, carved from yew and needing immense strength to haul and the arrows fly wild unless a man has practiced constantly, and so we neve3r had more than a handful of archers."

I can't speak for other people's games, but traditionally, the people I've played D&D with, especially it seems 4th edition, couldn't get the simple thought of at least owning a few ranged weapons to try and keep some benefit to themselves when caught at range.

Bernard Conrwell has written enough about archers to provide any long time readers of his work with an appreciation of their skill and in traditional D&D, there is usually some nod to the skill of the bowman. Back in earlier editions, we had the archer and the archer ranger, and in 3rd edition, there was a default fighting style for rangers as is 4th edition.

Its not that its impossible to have a skilled archer, it just seems in my experience that if that's not your specialty, few bother with it. Which has often been a mistake. A round or two of ranged fire against those who don't have it may not kill any of the targets but criticals are a wonderful thing and it beats waiting for the enemy to run out of ammunition on those times when the enemy has ranged weapons and your group doesn't.

"Kjartan and Sven had come to our valley with over a hundred men and now they attacked Ragnar by setting fire to the thatch of his hall."

There are a few other bits I could pull out about Kjartan and Sven. These two were not foes of Ragnar at the start, but due to circumstances, grew into them as time and tide changed their loyalties. They were men who waited and plotted.

In games based in a city, or those with larger ramifications than just what is in that dungeon, the ability to allow hostilities to grow allows the game to develop more character as the setting takes on more life.

In fantasy games, the opportunity for old grudges to flare are numerous. In Warhammer, elves and dwarves live far longer than humans. Throw in other inhumans like the undead, vampires and liches, and you can have grudges that go back personally, not clan based, for hundreds of years.

"They were pagans, some of the many English heretics left in the high hills, and they had no idea that the Danes were swarming over England. They lived far from any village, grunted prayers to Thor and Odin, and sheltered us for six weeks."

One of the things that can be difficult to bring forth in a role playing game, is the isolation of it all. With so much modern communication available to modern gamers, it can sometimes be hard to point out that we take too much of it for granted. That news travels fast is a modern thing.

When big things are happening in the campaign world, don't forget those isolated villages and hamlets. Don't forget to have those who have no idea whats going on in the world out there. And if occasionally some of those isolated places turn out to be like the Hills have Eyes, well then you've got another adventure on your hands already.

"There is one last thing," I said, and nodded at Brida who brought out the leather bag with its gold, jet, and silver. "It was your father's," I said,"and Kjartan never found it, and we did, and we have spent some of it, but what remains is yours." I pushed the bag toward him and made myself instantly poor.

Sometimes players are working on recovering items that aren't theirs in the first place. Sometimes they're doing this as part of the mission. Sometimes they're doing it because they've encountered the enemy before encountering the patron who would've hired them.

When the players have personal ties to the patrons, it might be easier to get them to do the 'right' thing. But when doing so, remember that there are often multiple ways to reward players. For example, 4th edition incorporated a quest mode into its xp factor when it first came out and this allowed the GM to provide a carrot to players looking for something more than just the opportunity to go into a dungeon and get killed. There are other benefits that don't rely on treasure, such as alliances and titles that have their use outside the killing floor.

"I suppose, if you are reading this, that you have learned your letters, which probably means that some damned monk of priest rapped your knuckles, cuffed you around the head, or worse."

One of the things that most role playing games embrace is literacy for everyone except the barbarian. But if you're not part of a wealthy house, one with access to books, where do you actually learn to read? Religion can play an important part in the upbringing of a community and here is another good example of such a service that can be provided to help explain why everyone in a setting can master their letters.

"Give me fifty men," I said, "and they will join my men and at dawn they will attack there." I pointed toward the ships. "We'll start by burning their ships."

The player characters are often a force to be feared in a game. As they rise in levels, their personal power borders on that of a full fledged super hero. When designing goals that you don't want to necessarily be a slaughter of low level opponents in a war field, provide them with solid targets that will damage the enemy more than merely the loss of men. The players have means and abilities well outside those of others in their rank and by providing them with goals that will test those abilities, you can stave off the potential boredom of wiping your way through hours of combat against minions.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell pits the Danes against King Alfred in the ninth century on British soil. Much like The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the focus of the story takes place through the eyes of a soldier.

The pacing of the book is well done. This is an element that can often be missing in a sandbox style campaign. If the players are not focused or do not have their own agendas, the GM should be sure to set up some conflict in the background that the players may interact with. This can prevent the burdensome "what do we do now" style that may come out with players new to a sandbox style environment.

Below I'll be discussing some of the book using specific quotes and seeing how they can fit into the game, or how they fit into gaming in general.

"We followed the Roman road, crossing their great wall at the Tine, and still going south. The Romans, my father said, had been giants who built wondrous things, but they had gone back to Rome and the giants had died and now the only Romans left were priests, but the giants' roads were still there and, as we went south, more men joined us until a hoarde marched on the moors either side of the stony road's broken surface." pg 15

"We wandered through the house and I felt a wonder that we could no longer build like this...It was an unsettling thought, that somehow we were sliding back into the smoky dark and that never again would man make something so perfect as this small building." pg. 106

One of the things I occassionally get tired of is how most fantasy fiction and anime has the greatest accomplishments of the age done in the far past. Yet it is not without historical real world events. Here, the Romans might as well have been those giants of a bygone age so advanced was their techniques.  It's something mentioned a few times here and in Cornwell's other series about Arthur. It sets a standard for things and creates a golden age for modern people to strive for.

"You can't live somewhere," he told me, "if the people don't want you to be there. They can kill our cattle or poison our streams, and we would never know who did it. You either slaughter them all or learn to live with them." pg. 46

One of the problems that many fantasy games have in their thirst for ever new enemies and types of foes for players to encounter, is that their motives all too often fall into the former, 'slaughter them all'. What happens if the newcomers into a setting are indeed fierce warriors with their own abilities and strategies but are good neighbors who are not actively enslaving their people? Who are actually fair to their people? Rebellion at that point isn't necessarily going to come from the people but could be sparked by a charismatic leader.

The next time you think about having the orcs or hobgoblins on the march, have them form alliances with those in the territories, have them marry off their woman and men into the existing political structure.

Of course if all the game is for is beer and kills, that's not useful advice and lord knows there have been many a day when after working ten hours all I wanted to do was sit down and sling some dice and yell "20!"

"When he moved, you could hear the rings clinking. The rings could be used as money if there were no coins. I remember watching a Dane take off an arm ring and hack it to shreds with an ax, then offer a merchant scraps of the ring until the scales showed he had paid sufficient silver." pg. 54

One of the boring yet quick aspects of most role playing games, is that money is the same regardless of where you come from, where you're going, what you've unearthed. The dragon's coins that are hundreds of years old are the same weight and size and value as those freshly minted from the latest pretender king.

But they don't have to be. Or at least, don't have to seem to be. Adding something like merchants with scales allows you to put some seeming depth to the campaign but not necessarily something you have to enforce. It just brings out a little detail to things.

"It was late summer before Serpent-Breath was finished..." pg. 143

There are several characters here who have named weapons and of course, as this is a historical book, none of them have 'gaming' magic to them. There are rituals used in the making of Serpent-Breath mind you, things that in a game would probably bestow, or at least provide masterwork status, but having the players name their own weapons is never a bad thing to provide a touch of personalization to them. After all, if it was good enough for Fafrd and the Grey Mouser, two of sword and sorcerery's most well known and enjoyed characters with Cat's Claw, Scapel and Gray Wand, it's good enough for your players.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Watching Gun X Sword, a space opera style anime. Some interesting character designs, and while at times a little too 'cute' in its telling, has some solid action sequences and various characters ranging from heroes and anti-heroes to retired heroes coming out for that one last glorious battle.

Below I'll mention a specific line that's a hell of a spoiler for the series so beware if you'd rather not have it spoiled.

Ray, the 'anti-heroes' says to the villain, "Your dream of your life." The Claw as he's known, has been speaking about his dream through most of the later half of the series. The sacrifices and decesions that have been made in order to further acheive this vital dream. At the point of that dream becoming a reality, Ray, despite being heavily wounded, has him dead to rights apparently but the Claw isn't listening when Ray fires off a shot.

You see, the Claw bats the projectile away from himself but in so doing, destroys the machine that was supposed to make his dream a reality. The bullet had to go somewhere see. It wasn't destroyed, merely deflected by his saving of his own life. Had he allowed the bullet to kill him, the dream could have gone on. Having went for survival though, the villain loses.

This is something that I try to bring into the game when possible. Try to have what I've heard other's call 'an out'. Something that doesn't necessarily mean the death of each and every opponent, but does provide victory for the players.

Gun X Sword provides some slick character designs and a lot of one liners as well as some strange character behavior and the light heartedness of earlier episodes gets far heavier into the later part of the series. If you're looking for some ideas on giving characters motivations and alliances and family and how those things all tie into each other, Gun X Sword has it in spades.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

When I was younger, I loved the whole concept of Oriental Adventurers for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I didn't really know how to use it or run it. A lot of the ideas seemed different than the standard dungeon crawling that normal AD&D used, but I liked the concepts of honor, one of the, if not the very first, appearance of non-weapon proficiencies, and of course, the variety of custom classes for the various settings.

I just didn't know what or how to run it despite seeing a lot of Kung Fu and Samurai movies.

When Legend of the Five Rings came out years latter, I'd suffer some similar problems, but not as bad. There was a lot more source material dedicated to L5R including a fiction line with some real stinkers and some real winners.

When the opportunity presents itself to buy some fantasy that fits into that mode of "inspired by but not necessarily directly tied to" some material of the Oriental Adventurers, I have no problem checking it out.

Dragon in Chains is an enjoyable read that has a large cast and brings with it numerous bits that might make for an excellent setting. Below I'll be pointing out some quotes from the book so beware of spoilers.

"Chains, especially. They were the Forge's fame, even far from the coast where no one cared about the dragon, no one spoke of her, perhaps no one believed in her at all. Chains made here carried anchors for the greatest ships of the empire; they defended harbors up and down the coast; they were traded far inland, along the broad slow rivers, to bring security to mines and mints, to docks and workyards, to prisons and to treasure-houses.

"People forgot, perhaps that they were only symbols; no one forgot that the best chains came from the Forge. Other ironsmiths had lost hands or tongues for claiming that their own were Forge work."

Without getting into any mystic or Far East symbols, without getting into any isolated habits or unique things, Fox brings a trait to the Forge, which is unique in that it makes chains to bind a dragon under the sea, but makes the fact that they sell the chains and that the chains are renown for their mundane worth, their utility in the 'real' world that everyone lives in every day, as opposed to their value in keeping a dragon bound under the sea.

By providing something that can be talked about, by providing some keystone element of the setting that could fit well, into almost any setting, the writer makes the world a little easier to understand. That quality and reputation of an item, serve a purpose. By sprinkling a few such places throughout the world, the GM not only gives the players a check list of whose who and whose the best, he provides details that may come in handy latter on in the game should the players chose to pursue any of those leads.

"Exposed, his body was knotted with muscle and twisted with scars, but more, all his skin was a mass of tattoos. Not the crude scars, images that half his crew favored, nor the intricate designs afforded by a few. They were brute block characters all over his chest and shoulders and belly and back, his thighs and buttocks and calves. Some of them Han could read, even in distant glances. They made words like traitor, renegade, exile. They spoke of disgrace, of banishment; they demanded his death and promised a price for his head if it were delivered to any of the Hidden City's gates, sent as a gift to the emperor.... Castration and tattoos together meant imperial punishment. Hand knew it; so did the soldiers. So did their surviving officers."

There are some crimes that perhaps require death, but due to the person's life or favors owned, that debt cannot be carried out, but some punishment is. Tattoos are a form of marking and while some use them to establish grace, positions of power or other ranks of respect with them, others are used as indicators of crime and criminal lifestyles. In the setting, what do tattoos mean? Are they like those found in Rifts Atlantis and possibly magical in nature, as other game systems including Dungeons and Dragons have taken to heart? Are they maps? Are they symbols?

"No. Well, he's likely the only jade-miner you ever will see. The clans don't leave the valleys. However careful they are, they're still exposed; the least of them is unusually strong, and they tend to live long and not have many children. They live in extended family groups, because individually they can't sustain a holding. Or protect it.

"Nor can they travel far from the source. Jade is addictive; they need to keep it close. Separate a miner from the stone and he'll sicken. All that strength and resilience is only borrowed, not possessed."

Here, Daniel Fox provides a rational for the Jade to belong to the emperor and only the emperor. It also serves to explain why the Emperors of the past lived so long and sired so few children. The Jade is actually a true power source for them giving them long life, strength, endurance and other physical traits like fast healing, and dense bones. For others to partake of the Emperor's gifts? A death sentence but those who mine it do so inadvertently so they have to stay there.

In Dreadstar, there was a mineral that had no practical purpose. But it was mined in vast quantities. Dreadstar himself tried to figure out its purpose but while he never did, it was revealed to the reader's that it was a substance that The Twelve Gods required for their own strength.

Feng Shui where controlling the lines provides in game benefits, then the GM must be prepared for the players to try and game the system.

"She was a fish girl from a fishing village, though she had to pinch herself to remind herself of it sometimes."

In terms of origin, the humble origin is often used for the dreaded farm boy who turns out to be a noble's son or a god's son or something of that nature. Other times he's just a farm boy but by his own deeds and by the chance encounters he has, rises into something greater than his point of origin. Some players prefer the characters start off as a relatively blank slate and engage the world through play. Don't enfold them in their own history if they do so. Allow their character choices dictate where the game for them goes.

"But I want," he said, "I want," and for the first time there was a note of hesitation in his voice, a hint of self-doubt that he shrugged aside physically, a little shift of the shoulders, "I want that dragon revealed, and no other man could see her the way that you do, Guangli."

Dungeons and Dragons has rarely made the focus of the game its skill system. Indeed, I recall the first edition of the game had a chart you could roll on in the Dungeon Master's Guide, that would tell you your skills. Not what you could do with them, how much you could earn with them, etc... 4th edition tries to follow that idea in spirit but with the skill challenge system seems a little weighted down to actually do so with that light touch.

But if a character is to be more than just game mechanics, are they ways in which the things a character might do and enjoy can be part of the game? Are their works of art or other fields of skill, that a player can have his character bring to the game that will have meaning? In the Sword of Truth, the main character creates a massive set of statues that inspire rebellion in the people when they are broken down. Are there works that the players can create to do something similar?

"If Suo Lung should want to take Han with him when he leave the ship, we must forestall him if we can, slip away by ourselves. If not - well, I have a poison..."

People may have different sides to them then they first show. The person speaking here is a dedicated doctor who has saved dozens, if not hundreds of lives in a war torn setting. But he's also a practical man and knows that sometimes hard and harsh decisions have to be made. As the GM, most of the characters you'll run will probably be faceless minions or bold monsters. Rare will be the talking part. When you have it, and it is a recurring one, don't be afraid to make the characters more than just bit actors.

"You two, you're not even breathing hard! You go on, you,"

There's an old joke that goes, I don't have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you. If they players are ever forced to go on the lamb, as the GM you need to take advantage of that opportunity to dish out some real damage. Now I know that sounds strange as I'm often of the mind that you should give the players room to explore, to utilize background details, to provide depth to the world, but when the fight comes and they lose and they try to flee, unless the enemy has a very compelling reason NOT to, the players should be on the run.

And that means taking advantage of any slow movers there. Will the players stick together and risk another thrashing? Will the slower moving races get left behind? Will those who can use magic, such as fly, take to the skies, and if so, does that make them more of a solitary target or a free ride out of danger?

"And tried to kill Yu Shan, on the instant, without warning. It might have been shocking, to anyone not raised in the mountains. here it was common practice, clan manners."

No matter how superior one assumes their native culture is, that assumption that every other culture shares the same ideas and ideals and standards can prove quite fatal. In some instances, the mere act of trespass, regardless of intention, is enough to sign a death warrant. The mere act of being different, is enough to signal a release of the hounds. The settings that most fantasy games take place in, is often a dark and dangerous time where the illumination of kindness and courtesy, despite the widespread religions and the various good they espouse, often fail to meet with reality's demands. Players should not feel safe on the roads. They should not feel safe with strangers. They should not feel that the world looks upon them as they may look upon the world.

Walk softly and carry a big stick didn't become a common saying because no one was doing it or that it was a bad piece of advice.

Dragon in Chains provides a setting in turmoil that provides a lot of characters and situations that are immediately applicable to most fantasy role playing games. The Jade themes and other bits make it a nice addition to any gamer's library looking for some more Oriental Adventure style in his campaign.