Monday, July 25, 2011

Vampire Wars by Steven Savile

Onto some rambling now about the actual book as opposed to the evolution of the beasts in the Warhammer setting eh? Spoilers will follow so those who aren't interested in Steven Savile being spoiled for them, read no further.

There were monsters. Real monsters. he had grown numb to fear. A life of seclusion in the temple, of births and naming days, marriages and funeral rites, such mundane things they somehow combined to turn the monsters into lesser evils and eventually into nothing more than stories. He had forgotten that the stories were real.

One of the themes of many fantasy books is an old evil returning. Something that showcases the old adage about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it. And often, it is the shorter lived races, such as humans, that are the cause of this conflict. When you have races that can live for hundreds, if not thousands of years, if not in fact, effectively immortal, the burden of being the most populous race also seems to come with the tag of being the most ignorant. Try to switch things up every now and again. Have it be the elves who long for a return to their former glory. Have it be the dragons who decide that they've given humans long enough to get their act together and are unimpressed with them. Don't have it be humans being stupid doing stupid things unleash the great evil. More to a different venue to unleash it.

Would that it was otherwise, but I am not the law-maker. By accident of birth you came out... female. With no sons your father's line ends, and mine, as eldest surviving male begins. With your betrothed coming to such an... untimely end... well, that is just the way it is. You can't tamper with tradition, after all it becomes tradition for a reason.

The above statement may be true for the background characters. It may be true for the characters who've come before. But say in this instance the character being spoken to was a female player who was a character of no small power herself? Yeah, be prepared for players to do things that go against tradition and roll with it. If the characters are high charisma, good looking engines of social marvel in addition to being powerful figures in their own right, or at least have numerous friends who are powerful figures, their ability to directly impact a setting should be much higher than some traditional princess.

Isabella joined him at the broken window, linking her fingers with his, slick with her uncle's blood. But for the blood the gesture might have been mistaken for an intimate one. Instead it hinted at the darkness inside her: by taking his hand she was claiming him and the life he offered every bit as much as he was claiming her and the power her heritage represented.

Adventurers are a funny lot. I've mentioned it a few times, but in essence, many adventurers are like the main characters from the movie, "Hobo With a Shotgun.", dangerous, homeless wanderers out to set what they see wrongs to right. Individuals with few hesitations about using their physical power to effect the world about them, even if the higher social powers aren't too crazy about that.

But what happens if they marriage into politics? Into the higher social realms? Do they change their ways or use that as a stepping stone?

"The loss of anyone so young is a tragedy we can ill afford to bear. It was only a token, and it cost me nothing."
"Truly, but few would have taken the time to pay their respects to a stranger. It is the way of the world, I fear. We forget the suffering of others all too easily, especially those left behind."

By providing the players some set scenes, encounters where the things going on around them do not involve combat, you can see how they react to more mundane conditions. This allows you to customize further encounters more suited for their behaviors and attitudes. What do they do when they see a wedding? What do they do when they come across a funeral? What do they do when it's a holy day and celebration is full on? These events don't have to have thieves or strange events at them to see the stuff the characters are made of, they just need to present them opportunities to flex their roleplaying muscles should they chose to do so.

The pair had been in Leicheberg for a week. They had rented a small room in a seedy tavern off the central square called The Traitor's Head. The name more than suited the establishment. It was a den filled with iniquities galore making it the perfect place to gather rumors. People's lips loosened when they drank. They talked out of turn. Spilled secrets. Skellan was not about listening to the drunken ramblings of braggarts and the pillow talk of prostitutes.

One of the standards of most fantasy games is the bar as a place to gather information and to gain work. The above passage shows why even in a setting like Warhammer, where the streets run with rats and grime, the tavern is still a useful place of employment. While some struggle mightily against the tavern as a gathering ground for adventurers, don't be afraid to embrace it when its useful. When the players are in a new town and need to know what's going on. When the players are looking for a place to get out of the rain. When the players are looking to lay low in the seedier parts of town. These are opportunities for the tavern to shine with its host of myriad characters.

'Always...too late...' Fischer spat bitterly. He was trembling as the adrenaline fled from his body.
'Not always,' Skellan

The old one too punch relies on the setup that the players have done their absolute best to save someone, but have failed. And then the second punch is that even though they may have failed at what they thought they were doing, they have helped others, perhaps others not as fortunate, out. It sets up the down beat, and then follows it with an up beat.

The further north they travelled the worse the condition of the roads became.

It's a simple sentence, but it carriers weight. Roads and other public concerns, like waystations or road markers, are kept up by taxes. If the taxes are not being used to keep the roads in standard fare, what then are happening to the taxes?

There are more bits I'll quote later but that's a good start. Vampire Wars starts off with a viewpoint of normal characters who are striving to avenge an old wound done to their families by seeking that vengance but in doing so, move onto something far worse. If you're looking for some light popcorn reading about Vampires in the Old World, Vampire Wars is a good palce to start.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vampire Wars: The Von Carstein Trilogy by Steven Savile

As long as I can remember, Vampires have been part of the role playing game. Mind you, back in first edition they would level drain you instead of sucking your blood. TSR was quick to put out their own take on the classic version of the vampire through the old Ravenloft module that has spawned its own setting and various updates on the adventure. White Wolf has several brands of Vampire to investigate. The media loves Vampires and TV loves them through such shows as the Vampire Diaries and True Blood.

Warhammer has its own history with the vampire. I'm not real familiar with it mind you as I generally only toe dip into the tabletop side where much of the RPG side originated from. For example, one of the first books I  recall with Vampires in it isn't Vampire Counts, its Undead. Vampires were just another monster that could be added. Vampires seemed to go the White Wolf route with the first Vampire Counts book where  various bloodlines were introduced;  Lahmians, Von Carsteins, Blood Dragons, Strigoi, and Necrarchs. The latest batch focuses on the Von Carsteins but still allows variety.

So far I've blathered on quite a bit about Vampires and mentioned their evolution and current status in the Warhammer setting but what about the book Vampire Wars? Well, my copy has a price of $13.99 on the back and I picked it up at Half-Price for less than the cost of a single paperback. The book features three eras of Vampires from the Von Carstein line and does a fair job of showcasing the strengths of the vampires as well as how hard they can be to fight. For someone looking to see the Vampire as a military leader and vastly powerful spellcaster in the Warhammer setting, its a good read with a lot of potential for adventure ideas.

I'll point out some specifics but note that if you find a series in the Warhammer fiction line that looks good, its probably best to wait on the collections before plunking down the cash. At $13.99, it's a steal.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sharpe's Fury by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Fury continues the trend of Bernard Cornwell to throw Sharpe into all of the interesting parts of history that occur during this time. That in and of itself says a lot about characters and how they get to where they are going.

Looking at some settings like the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, one might wonder how they can use all of the coolest elements of the setting while keeping it consistent. It only has to be consistent to the characters. If the GM wants to run a certain part of the campaign world and then move on to another, it's up to the GM to get the characters moving, not expect the characters to decide on their own where they're going.

The GM can do this through a few methods, depending on what type of campaign the players are enjoying. In a campaign that focuses on dungeons, the easiest way to move the party, is to inform them of a famous dungeon or a ancient dungeon just found where people are either being killed in mass droves as they descend downwards, or are coming out with vast treasure and vast losses making it a combination of meat grinder and Monty haul. Of course what's actually going on may be far different than what people are talking about. Rumors after all, need to be validated.

In campaigns that take the form of the players having a patron, this one's pretty easy. The patron needs the players to leave their regular unit or army and move onto a different location for a different McMuffin of the week.

In games that are player drive, using elements of the character's own previous adventurers or backgrounds, the GM should be able to devise something that ties into the new local he wants to use and something that's in the character's history. For example, if there are undead hunters in the group, rumor of an outbreak of zombies or ghouls, or perhaps hints of a weapon that destroys such entities, can be thrown into the campaign. Those players seeking lost relatives, can hear tales of slavers and other similar themes that lead them to the new local.

Another interesting point in the book though, is night fighting. I know that I'm a child of the city and man, I've been out all hours of the night and because of all the so called night pollution, barely realize that it's night. On the other hand, I've got relatives in Indiana and when I drive out that way, the night driving is a thing of terror resembling something out of Stephen King's The Mist where the only way you know you're still on the road is the splat of massive bugs against the windshield and the occasional dip in the road.

RPG's can negate this somewhat by having races that see in the dark or having torches, magical light and other options, but its up to the GM to note the unusual aspects of night fighting. In some games, if all of the party has night vision, the GM show showcase that potential terror by having them stumble across enemies that don't have it. The benefits of fighting opponents who are effectively blind should be massive and should give the players a leg up.

Also in terms of giving players a leg up, is having them be on an 'inside joke'. Here, one of the wealthy officers, who doesn't like Sharpe, mainly because Sharpe's humble origins, falls for what is essentially a gold digger high class prostitute who passes herself off as a high end woman suffering from the times due to the war. While Sharpe and others know who she is, the officer doesn't. It's a good laugh for the players and a potential piece of information that Sharpe can use at a latter date.

In terms of player ingenuity, doesn't punish them when they use the tools they have at this disposal. Shapre is asked to help another man deliver funds for the blackmail. Shapre takes the imitative and goes to the drop point well ahead of time to scout it out and make plans in case there is a double cross since the last person who went there wound up dead. Its a good tactic. Encourage the players to be smart. Allow them to get the drop of the villains when appropriate.

Another nice touch Cornwell brings, is the city of Cadiz itself in the first few paragraphs talking about the stink of sewage and the direction the wind blows. If you can introduce a city with a few words and enforce that imagery later, the players, even if they only spent a short time there, will come away with memories of that place and a method of distinguishing it.

One of the things that I enjoyed about the book, is outside the war, there are various missions that Sharpe needs to be involved with. One of them involves blackmail as well as the messy business of unfinished business. When NPC's take actions against the characters and those actions are hidden by happenstance, dont' be afraid to let the player's find out later, even if it's years later in the campaign, what has happened. Friendships can grown between those who've been wronged and finding out latter that a man you've trusted with your live has killed a woman you loved or a man you respected can cast new light on such an individual.

In terms of religion, Cornwell shows little mercy to any faction. Here, we have divisions between Protestants and Catholic, using that difference as reason why, for a religious man, it's okay to commit the bloodiest of murders and the breaking of one's word. In most fantasy campaigns, pantheons are used so the opportunity to use a division within a church isn't always available, but that doesn't mean the GM can't use such a schism or break. The Forgotten Realms used one in the Church of Lathander for example.

Despite the year, 1811, the medical field is still way behind current times. For example, Sharpe suffers a glancing blow to his skull and is told in no uncertain terms that "We know almost nothing about head wounds." In most fantasy games, healing is built into the system through magical means. Those few that don't however, often have some harsh penalties. When looking at trying to make a game realistic or grim and gritty, don't forget that players will only put up with so much of that before they make a new character.

Sharpe's Fury, despite having nothing to do with fantasy warfare, provides a wealth of inspiration ranging from character focus and intrigue, to revenge and utility. Well worth a look.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jade Man's Skin by Daniel Fox

Back in the days of first edition of Advanced Dungeon's and Dragons, I loved the idea of Oriental Adventures. The lure of the far east, of martial arts, of exotic looking armor, of weapons that were non-standard was a big influence on me.

But I was always stuck for ideas on how to run the thing. When Legend of the Five Rings came out, it provided a hell of a background and methodology for running such a setting but at the cost of being so heavily involved with the setting, that my attention soon wandered off as events and timeline advancements took it well past where I was comfortable with.

That's not a bash against such events. I'm not too fond of them when they happen to say the Forgotten Realms, and hated Greyhawk Wars, but in those settings, I was so at ease with that style of adventure, that it didn't take much effort on my part to ignore this, or change that. I was never quite so comfortable with L5R to do that without worrying about the 'purist', which I freely ignored for my FR games.

But one thing that would have helped me enjoy making such changes and making the setting fully my own, would be books like Jade Man's Skin by Daniel Fox, the sequel to Dragon in Chains. I'll be discussing some of my thoughts on the book but a quick summary for those who don't want spoilers? It's a fun filled  romp in fantasy ancient China that's well worth a read.

Now onwards!

The book has one thing in common though with L5R right off the bat. The importance of Jade. In this setting, Jade is something that long term exposure to, can make you superhuman. Indeed, Jade is the source of the Emperor's longevity. It's also being used so much here, that you get tired of seeing it. The cover is an powerful illustration of an animal encountered in the book, a jade tiger. In the book its described as massive. There is also a set of jade armor made. Its so heavy that only someone who is already super human can use it because of its weight. While its a great idea and a great visual, the use of jade after jade after jade, apparently all of it the same color, is well, boring. There is nothing that can make the exotic and the far away as boring as overdoing it.

Having said that though, the book provides a reason for things like jade armor, not being used before. The sheet weight of it. Does that strike anyone as familiar? As anyone who played older editions and had to deal with having a very high strength to use certain weapons? And why certain magical items like Gauntlets of Ogre Power and Girdle's of Giant Strength were so highly sought after?

The nice thing though, is that like some of the old artifacts in the game, there is a potential price to pay. In this  case, the jade armor turns the emperor green, unto like jade itself. It is also difficult to remove. This reminds me of those quaint and weird little bits that some of the artifacts in the old edition could have in that you could gain vast power but it might cost you say, your humanity. There might be other costs, worse cost associated with it but that was part of the charm. I hate to bash 4e for this, but that game is so focused on the balance of magic items that most efforts at making quirky magic items or items with personality seem pale shadows of earlier editions.

When making unique items for your own campaign, try to give them something different. Try to give them something that's not standard. Try to give them something that works, perhaps better than promised, but has its own draw backs to it. If the draw backs are too high, the item goes unused. If the drawbacks aren't really drawbacks, then there's no point in including them. Some of the point build games used to be very specific in this, "A disadvantage that is not a disadvantage is not a disadvantage and worth no points." or something along those lines.

In terms of working themes into a game, one of the things that book starts off with is corruption. While a messenger is running along, he notes that several soldiers are abusing their position by taking items away from various merchants and family on the road in the name of the emperor. This is not an isolated problem to the realms or fiction, nor to the past. Corruption is an every day occurrence in the modern world and the weight can be costly.

Can you rely on the police if they're under the influence of drug cartels? Mexico seems to be having a lot of problems in that vein and the American movie industry has no shortage of corrupt cop movies. When corruption is present, trust is far and away. People forget things they saw. In some of these movies though, the people are more prone to work with outsiders and are more prone to possibly trusting them and allowing the outsiders to make real changes that couldnt' be made by internal forces. This is an opportunity for players who enjoy the role playing aspect, the challenge of convincing people who are scared for their lives, scared for their families, and scared for their own businesses, that they should trust the heroes.

Another aspect brought up is picking where you fight. One of the few things I think 4th edition tried to do well, that at least brought light to the subject, is making the environment more a part of the game. In previous editions, there might be a small bonus for holding the higher ground (+1 to hit!) but it rarely went beyond that.

Entertainment is far different in this old eras than modern entertainment. In one of the C. J. Sansom books, the author noted bear baiting. Here, Fox brings out fighting crickets. The differences in entertainment are as much a choice of the limits of technology as they are availability of resources. When not fighting for daily survival, what do people do to fill the time? For some like farmers that may be a foolish question as there is no spare time save perhaps to go to church and prepare for the better world that awaits in the next life. For those in the city and those who have the funding, what do they do?

And for those who have power, those who have responsibility, how do they react to it? Bernard Cornwell made no secret that some of the joy that the raiders took, including a Christian Priest, was that there was a savage joy in having no responsibilities to anyone other than yourself. Do such characters run away from their responsibilities when time allows? Do they seek to indulge themselves in their own past times?

And in terms of resources, how does an economy deal with dwindling supplies? Is there an acknowledgement that there is a problem? Is it covered up? Do those in charge send out seekers of new resources and supplies? Does the government prepare itself for when those supplies will run out? Or do they ignore it, pretend that its not a problem and that somehow, and someway, things will work themselves out on their own?

Fox also brings more of the setting's religion into the forefront this time around. A mother and her daughters were told to seek sanctuary at an old temple and now have taken to the temple as their own. And the goddess of that temple speaks through the mute, speaks through the damaged, speaks through those who would not speak on their own, including infants. How do the gods of the setting make contact with the world?

For those who are of noble blood or royalty or prestige, how do they declare it? Here, the Emperor's color is yellow, but a very specific, very pure yellow. Purple seems to be the color of royalty in the standard fantasy settings. The wearing of these colors, especially by those not empowered to do so, can be severer ranging from death and banishment to maiming. It is an obvious sign of challenge to wear the colors that are prohibited to any but the royal family.

On the other hand, it does make for a great method of impersonating members or even soldiers of such a family. After all, if the consequence for doing so is death, who would dare do it?

In terms of the creatures of the setting, what do they think about? How do they think? One part of running a campaign that can be hard to handle, is making non-humans different than humans. In this book, one of the character is tied into a dragon's mind. The view point of the dragon is so vast and different than whenever the link is active, the character feels threatened with drowning and being lost inside that mind.  If you can provide a different mind set to the monsters and provide them with reasons for that difference, you'll provide some interesting times to the players.

When creating NPCs, try to look past the surface. In the story here, the mother of the Emperor notes that she has been trying to poison a general who is advising the emperor falsely to no avail because the man is too well protected in court. It comes off like a not important remark, but it puts the older woman in a whole new light. It showcases a level of ruthlessness that a reader would never find otherwise despite her tough as nails demeanor.

If you're looking for ideas on your next Oriental Adventure's campaign, Jade Man's Skin is well worth al ook.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

Perhaps it's cheating having Netflix and some time to myself because I was able to watch the second movie, Ip Man 2. If you enjoy boxing movies, this one is right up your alley. See, while the first one cast those vile Japanese as the ultimate villains, when they are overcome and Ip Man has moved to Hong Kong, who's the foreign devil now? Why, the British of course!

In terms of casting a nemesis, there are a few ways to do it. Some of the most common involve creating someone who is equal to the character, built along similar lines as the character. For Ip Man, this often means fighting martial artist who are masters of their trade and craft. They may dress similar, may have similar builds and may have their own outlooks and attitudes that aren't that different from the main character.

In others, they go the exact opposite. For example, Superman, the alien, the man from tomorrow, the individual with incredible innate powers, has a normal human as his main enemy; Lex Luthor. While its obviously more complicated then that, as Lex uses high tech equipment and henchmen and other bits to make himself Superman's physical equal, the idea, that the native born, Earth first, Lex Luthor, could ever stand up to someone like Superman, is where the contrast comes in.

In a similar manner, when Twister, the world champion British Boxer is introduced here, he is an excellent study in contrast. The actor sports a massive build, impressive height, and a wild mane of hair. His outfit, that of the traditional boxer, showcases this musculature, while Ip Man and other martial artist, often wear lose fitting garb. There might also be an age difference going on here, but it's difficult for me to say. I mention this because Ip Man mentions his age as a factor in the decline of martial abilities.

In making foes for the characters, try to keep the differences, as well as the potential similarities in mind. The drow against the elves, the derro against the dwarves, the tielflings and the devas. The lists go on and on.

Another thing that struck me, was the quick use of rivals turned allies here. The first master to perhaps be able to challenge Ip Man, Hung Chun-nam, uses a different style but the two come together when they realize that their own differences are petty when compared to the threat against all Chinese Martial Arts from the British.

Does that sound familiar? How about Rocky IV? How about most of the heroes of Dragonball Z, who originally started off as enemies of Goku ranging from Vegeta to Piccolo to Yamcha to Tien Shinhan.

In role playing games though, this can be a difficult feat not because its not something to look into, but rather, because unless you're playing something like a martial arts tournament, or something like a Super Hero setting, most fantasy combats don't stop until the death of one character or the other. This is another problem when trying to have recurring characters that are meant to challenge the players outside of the realm of politics and the social arena.

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster is well worth a viewing for those who enjoy the fight scenes.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

LP Man

I am way behind the times when it concerns movies, even action packed movies of the Kung Fu style that I so enjoy. For example, my friends have been telling me about LP Man for many moons. They've been telling me about it for so long that it already has a sequel.

In some ways, LP Man uses a lot of the old tricks that come up in many forms of media, including animation and super hero comics.

Showcasing the villain's strength is done through showcasing the villain defeat another opponent that has some establishment as a powerful figure. This one happens in anime like Dragon Ball Z all the time, but it also happens in comics. Usually in comics, some modifcation is made to another villain to bring them out of their C list status and people think, "wow, this guy is awesome now" but alas, it's all a trick to showcase how dreadful the person who takes out the C lister is.

In other aspects, it reminded me of the movie, Cinderella Man. Here, two champions of hand to hand combat, who are hailed for being some of the best, if not the best in their field, find out that regardless of personal strength, regardless of personal holdings, that the events of the world can bypass all of those benefits.

In the case of Cinderella Man, it's a fall of the stock markets that destroys all of his personal wealth. In LP Man's instance, it's an invasion of his home country by Japan. Both men discover that they have hidden reservers and that their value on family is important as they are forced to take jobs that pay for food and shelter. Something like this might be hard to acheive in a role playing session for a number of reasons.

First off, and this is all just in my experience of course, players don't often like to be tied down to the setting with a wife and children. Second off, players would rather take deseperate chances and gambles because  the characters can be replaced. If you have players who are interested in these fields though, in these tests and trials, don't be afraid to use them. After all, in GURPS and Hero, those DNPC (dependent NPC) are providing points to the player for a reason.

LP Man also provides some nice contrast in terms of the foes he faces. For instance, in the occupying army, the enemy general is fairly honorable. When he makes a promise, he delivers on it. He is also shown as being a formidable enemy. On the other hand, his aide is a perfect example of a scheming weasel who will stop at nothing to ensure that no disgrace hits the Rising Sun flags of Japan regardless of how vile or petty it is. On the other hand, there are divisions within the people of China itself. The northern people practice a different style of martial art and seek to proof their superiority. When that fails and the country is occupied, they then become bandits.

The ravages of war make strange bedfellows of your enemies. Those who you may simply have not gotten along with in the past, may become your staunchest allies or they may seek to use the upheaveal for their own benefit and bring about your downfall. It is often the doom of a people that regardless of the horror being inflected upon them, that they cannot pull together as a single people with a single purpose and overcome adversity. There will always be opportunist and cowards who seek only to augment their own forces or merely provide for their own survival.

LP Man packs in numerous action scenes and anyone playing a Monk in any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, should give it a view.

Sharpe's Prey By Bernard Cornwell

My apologies for yet another Bernard Cornwell book. I know they've got to be getting boring by now in some aspects. I only have a few more to ramble out and I'll be done with Bernard for a little while. I've got a few others, like Jade Man's Skin, Vampire Wars, and Revelation, all by different authors, to hit soon.

Neutral won't cut it. Denmark isn't part of the war between France and England but they have resources, in the form of a navy, that France wants and England can't allow to fall into enemy hands. As President George W Bush said, "You're either with us, or against us."  When the giants are clashing, trying to sit back on the side lines either to try and get the best deal out of the situation or an honest fear of becoming enrolled in the war, will not cut it.

In gaming campaigns, you might think, that doesn't necessarily have to happen. One of the best examples of thing in television would be Babylon 5 when Kosh, states something like, "Once the boulders roll, the peples cannot speak." as his people, the Vorlons, begin to destroy any planet or civilization that hosts the Vorlon enemy, the Shadows.

Even in the modern world outside my window, America invaded its ally Pakistan in order to get a mass murderer who was essentially hanging out outside one of their military schools. In other areas, American unmanned drones or other air strikes, are killing civilians. This collateral damage creates a lot of hatred for the countries inflicting it, but it doesn't stop it.

Another potential problem for players, may be that their own contacts and allies in a location are under threat of death. In this book, one of the inhabitants of Denmark has been an ally to England, providing information and intelligence. He will not leave Denmark and so, to England at least, he and his daughter, become dangerous to the safety of all of those other people that the spy has contact with. A spy that cannot act as a spy and is probably going to fall into enemy hands? Not long for this world.

These are not the acts of good people. These are prudent and coldly calculated thoughts. These issues may be things that players cannot find themselves doing but may see being done around them.

The Sharpe series continues with all of the hailing points of previous books in the series. We have Sharpe in need of a mission, in need of service. We have the typical beautiful woman who Sharpe will romance and know. We have the villain, a clever man whose proven his worth already by killing the man Sharpe is to replace on this misson. Like James Bond, the signature elements are there and Cornwell weaves them into quick and entertaining story.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Shape's Gold by Bernard Cornwell

I've quickly become a fan of Bernard Cornwell's material. It is easy to read and makes good popcorn fiction light yet satisfying, leaving the reader wanting more, and when we get it, devouring it eagerly. I haven't read many of Sharpe's books in the series but thanks to the destruction of Border's Book Store by modern science and market forces, I did manage to pick up a few of them on the cheap.

Sharpe's Gold stands as a great potential adventure for any Game Master that wants to rip it apart.

1. Sharpe: He's a rogue. Well, not really. He's a damn hell of a warrior who uses a sword that he's not supposed to and has an Irish ally that uses a seven barrel gun that he's not supposed to. But he gets the job done and gets the girl. These elements make him prime character material.  How many Dungeon Master's have seen the player who picks the Whip Sword or some other obscure weapon that looks cool? That's Shapre. Getting the girl? Well, we could look at various heroes who get the job done ranging from Conan to Bond, but that's also Sharpe.

2. The Gold is Gone. Regardless of how awesome the task or how mighty the reward, Sharpe is sure not to keep enough gold to do anything other than continue to serve. Why you might ask? What's the motivation if he doesn't? Sure, he receives acknowledgement on some occasions from those who are his 'superior' but the real thrill for Sharpe is in doing the job and having some reward for those who are with him. If he's got all the money and happiness he needs, why would he ever adventure again? The loves of his life are temporary either through his own transient nature or through their own untimely death. His riches go to fill the armies coffers, pay for his friend's expenses, or to win women some freedom.

3. The Action is Fast: Sharpe is not a patient man. Sharpe is not invincible. Shapre is often captured and thrown into prison or into a state that most players would blanch at. These failures only serve to hone Sharpe to an even more dangerous weapon whose vengeance is terrible to suffer yet entertaining to read.

In Sharpe's Gold, the mission Shapre is given is to retrieve Spanish gold.

In theory, it's to give to the Spanish government, but well, at the time of this book's writing, the little guy of France has managed to beat Spain so badly that there really isn't much of a government so what is all that gold for? None of Sharpe's business but by England he'll get it. So it starts off with much the same bravo that many an adventure has. Sharpe being told by his patron "hey, go get this."

The villains are not all obvious and indeed, are named men. This is a common theme through the Shapre books that his foes are greatly skilled, intelligent, and often, well connected men. This works well as we don't want Sharpe to face a bunch of weak willed fools to whet his blade on.

But here, the enemies are the sometimes the ones he's supposed to be giving the gold to. This provides a bit of contrast in that his 'official' yet unofficial orders are to get the gold, but to return it to his patron regardless of who steps in front of him.

In some instance, imagine a group of adventures that has the gold. They have enough to set themselves up as powerful agents in this fallen country. They have enough that should they choose to support one faction or another, that the person they provide the gold with, will become powerful in and of themselves, perhaps a robber baron or border prince. Here the fun is seeing what the players will do with the opportunity. In some ways, this element of the unknown is missing from most adventurers simply because most authors don't have the intestinal fortitude to give the players those options anymore. Part of it is probably related to the whole Adventure Path or Mega-Dungeon madness. If the players take option A, then the rest of the series is fairly useless so we don't want that to happen now eh?

Sacrifices have to be made. Sharpe isn't willing to forgo friends or country, but pretty much everything else is fit to be sacrificed in the name of completing the mission. This makes Sharpe a dangerous man and if most adventurer's don't follow that motto, well, I've been playing a very stranger version of Dungeons and Dragons for years where players are ready to wheel and deal to make sure that their own goals come into the light.

Sharpe's Gold is a short read and filled with beautiful women, swing swords, and a series of small victories and defeats that can inspire some serious gold hunting, regardless of the campaign.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell

Fifth up in the series of the Saxon Tales, Bernard Cornwell continues to push Uthred on in ages and in character. The series continues to be told in first person, continues to be a quick read, and continues to be a solid source of inspiration for those looking for ideas on what a game where the Vikings are invading England during the 9th century would be like.

Below I'll be spouting out some random nonsense fired off from the reading. Note that I'll try to limit the reputation where previous books have already struck those nerves so this might be a short posting. Much of the series enforces previous books and continues on the themes already established. At this point, reading Uthred is like visiting an old friend.

History Lies: I've mentioned this before, but written history, the oral history of the short lived races, the history that gets passed down to those who come after? It's at best diluted by the viewpoint of those who've survived and how they interpret it. Those who are in favor are hailed as mighty warriors and leaders and those who are merely nightly wanderers, such as adventurers, might be lucky to be hailed as a foot note. In a setting like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk, dragons, undead, elves, and dwarves, all who live longer then men, might be able to provide different aspects of those histories that they share, but each will still be approaching it from their own perspective and their own take on it.

Home Matters: Even thought there are several characters in the series that share the same religion, that of Christianity, such as Finan, their own history, or their countries own history, has warped many of those elements so that while the broad picture is still there, the individual elements have mutated and changed from the whole cloth. Native myths and origins and spirits become saints and angels under the new cloth.

Kill Your Children: I've mentioned it before, that people die all the time. In book five, Uthred's wife and child die during childbirth. When NPC's die off of the mundane, it provides a solid grounding for the campaign setting. It reminds the player's that they're not in their nice clean and comfortable condo or that they don't have the luxury of ordering up a pizza. It's a tough world and if plague and pestilence doesn't get you, the orc and goblin raiders will.

Politics: When not dungeon delving and when dealing with the cities, it's all about the politics. For example, Haesten allows his wife and children to convert to Christianity so that he may gain King Alfred's trust. Uthred, due to his heretic ways and worshipping the pagan god Thor, is easy prey for a living Saint who speaks in tongues and prophecies but is feed them through his own master. Politics move the game in a manner that isn't effected necessarily by the might or menace of the characters, but how they socialize, how they interact, how they fit into the overall society.

The Enemy of My Enemy: It's an old saying but it bears repeating. While not always true, when the players overcome an adversary, but don't kill him, that adversary may have other foes and may be eager to sick the player's on them. After all, if the players could overcome him, why could they not overcome others and allow all to benefit?

Fire: I haven't mentioned it much, but fire is a hell of a thing in a dark age setting. Many buildings are made of wood and thatch and water isn't as portable and easy to gather as it is today. A society may have volunteers and friends and neighbors set up in case of fire and when it strikes, there will be a real free that a whole village may burn down.

Information is Golden: Even as organizations may dole out select information to one another, there will be those runners and guides and bards and spies that specialize in gathering information and sharing that information for a cost. Players need to act with caution when dealing with them because even as they are providing the players with information, they will be gathering their own information. GM's familiar with the old school of doing this can provide the interaction through the dreaded role playing, or having the spy ask tit for tat, or playing out a scene from Silence of the Lambs. Those with the newer editions can merely have the players roll against the spy in skill checks to see who gathers the information from who and what it costs. At the same time, players have to beware of simply gathering the information and killing the spies. After all, if the spies keep coming to the characters and dying off, even the most dim witted of them will pause before providing the players any information for fear of their own life.

Hostages: I've mentioned hostages before, but what of high ranked hostages? Such individuals will often come with their own tutors, with their own instructors, with their own honor guard. These individuals all have to be clothed, feed, and sheltered. Each one may have their own motivations for being there, and some of those motivations may not require them to actually be there to guard the prized hostage but to perhaps spy or steal.

Family: The one thing I've always hated about Dungeon Crawls and Adventure Paths, is that too little time is baked into them to allow for little else outside of the adventure itself. In an organic setting where travel and exploration and seeking shelter from the cold winter months can be expected to take time, the climate is slightly different. For example, UthredUthred, as Uthred has done with him. Other characters have family as well. It's one of the ways Uthred keeps getting into trouble. For you see, this Dane had a brother, and that Dane had a brother, and well, that Dane had a son. the intricate webs that family and relations can have on the campaign should not be underestimated.

The Burning Land continues the tale of Uthred and it continues to be a fast paced, enjoyable take on The Saxon Tales.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

Sword Song is the 4th book in the Saxon Tales written by Bernard Cornwell. I don't know how, but originally when reading, I skipped past book three, Lords of the North and read this one. It didn't effect my enjoyment of it. I simply thought that the author had decided to move forward due to times of peace and went back and read book three latter.

In terms of pacing, action, characters, etc..., Bernard Cornwell continues the pace set by previous books in the series. Even as Uthred grows in age and as a character, his core remains the same. This is both good and bad and provides the readers with a hero is doesn't act heroic and often has his own best interest at heart but is bound by the vows and rules woven into the Danish society.

Much of the things that were brought to mind by previous books continue to do so in this book.

Player Motivation: Uthred is fairly selfish. While he often tries to do the right thing, he is often doing so because that's what he wants to do in the first place. There are several times though, when he could follow his heart in terms of leaving Alfred's service, but in the opportunity provided here, he would have to watch Father Pyrlig killed. And friendship is a huge motivation for Uthred. Players should insure that their characters have some bonds between each other and that betrayal is low on the list.

Atmosphere: Something that can be influenced regardless of the game system, a setting's atmosphere can relay a lot about how the players are supposed to have their character's act. In the times that Bernard Cornwell is writing about, slavery is just another harsh reality that the people have to deal with. Warriors are consumed with making reputation for themselves. Buildings are made of thatch and wood with those being of stone often older relics of the bygone Roman era. A cloud of doom hangs intent over most people because of the constant state of warfare.

Continuity: As the series progresses, things start to change. In order to defend his homeland, Alfred has fortresses build and employees levies of men to hold off the invaders until the professional armies can be summoned. This isn't something that springs up overnight, but is the logical result of having to deal with raiders for years and years and years.

Community: Many things make people come together. Sometimes it's religion, sometimes its simply proximity. But when communities flourish, then specialist can start to flourish. When people don't have to worry about fighting daily for mere survival, then bard and poets can start to flourish. Another example is an island called two-tree island, but there's only one tree there! Apparently that other tree died off some time ago but they're not going to rename the whole island right?

Spies: In an era where communication can be difficult, knowing what the other person is doing, especially in times of war, is vital. When dealing with this branch of historical fiction, it's not that bad. It's not like they're trying to sneak in the old devil whitey into darkest Africa as a spy. A similar benefit was had in WWI and WWII in that most of those Europeans look the same. But in a fantasy campaign where elves and orcs and halflings abound next to dragonborn and tielfling and goliaths? Magic and other forces might be called for.

Hostages: Not even talking about player's characters here, but rather, those that the character's value either due to bonds of friendship of mere utility. How will players react when their loved ones are held hostage? Will they pay and hope for the best? Arrange some type of stealth crew for a rescue mission?

Sword Song has a lot going on and does it in a quick pace. Those looking for Viking action could do far worse then read up on The Saxon Tales.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

The Lords of the North is the third book in the Saxon Tales written by Bernard Cornwell detailing how King Alfred's kingdom is crafted during the Danish invasions.

Like previous books, this one is told in first person with the teller, Uthred, being a pagan who worships Thor among the Christian nation making him outcast yet a valuable outcast.

I'll be discussing some general and specific points of the book below but let me start by saying that if you want some inspiration for a viking or late English based game, one mired deep in the grim that the entire series of the Saxon Tales is well worth a look.


Character Motivation: Uthred is pretty simple at this point of the game. He want his ancestral home back and he wants to take revenge on those who've done his adopted family wrong and he wants reputation and gold and wealth and power. Sounds a lot like an adventurer. Note that he doesn't have a single motivation here and other elements to his personality will come back to haunt him throughout the book but by knowing what the character wants, the GM can have a better idea of what the player is looking to get out of that particular character.

This depends a lot on the player though. I've had players who have diverse characters in theory, yet they all play the same. Doesn't matter if they're playing an elf wizard or a dwarf cleric, they all play them the same in terms of how they role play them. Others can play the same class and race and you'd never know it was the actual same player due to the various differences the player gives the characters. As a GM, put the effort where it'll be most rewarding.

Non-Player Motivation: Often the Game Master doesn't have all day and night to paint how he wants the NPCs of the setting to be seen. But sometimes he is able to get the gist of it across quickly enough and once the motivation of a character is known, don't be surprised if the players work on that nerve to either get their way, annoy the character, or if the NPC is an antagonist, to work against them.

The News: One of the things that can be hard to remember, is that in the dark ages and in the times of non-electric news, that news has to be taken by hand, by horse, by word of mouth. Organizations that are large, like a monolithic church, may have an advantage over other organizations in that because of their size, indeed, spanning multiple countries, they may be able to get information prior than others.

In some ways, the exchange of news is in and of itself, an event. When strangers come to town, they might be given free drink and meal in exchange for news of the outside world. In some cultures, the exchange of news is part of the social events and worthy of small events.

Naming: Uthred has a name for his blades, Wasp Sting for the smaller sword and Serpent Breath for his longsword. But he also names his horses, such as the horse Witnere, which means Tormentor. Names can provide a lot of color to the game and if you've got a book of Baby Names or access to the internet, aren't that hard to come up with. Putting together a list ahead of time provides you with some quick ways to personalize things.

This doesn't count the potential for earned or given names that go beyond the birth name. The naming can be based on physical traits, such as Sven the One-Eyed, or on traits like Tormentor.

Continuity: When the series started, Uthred's father was killed by clever planning on the Dane's side. Here, he comes across an old foe who has his father's helmet. Of course it's not a magical helmet, this being a historical, but it does has great significance to him. The feel of a campaign can be influenced hugely by having small things crop up in latter sessions.

Distinctive Features: Uthred earned a limp in the last book, but it wasn't one that slows him down. It's merely a distinctive feature. When providing details such as this, remember the game system. If you're playing Hero or GURPS, you might have some game penalties and game benefits, but in playing games like Dungeons and Dragons where there really are no mechanics for it, the GM should not start imposing penalties on the players when they come up with distinctive features because one of the first things that players will do is seek to cure them and remove that unique aspect about their character.

Superstition and Ritual: Soldiers generally have many superstition and perform little rituals to reassure themselves.  But this isn't limited to just soldiers. Sailors have their own list of do's and don'ts aboard the ship and their own belief system about what must be done to appease the sea. When dealing with different social circles, each one probably has their own rituals and habits that go into the make up of their meetings, or starting a project, or of going to war. They add small touches to the game but also add depth.

Conflict is Good: Many of Bernard Cornwell's books are focused at times of war. This is good because conflict provides opportunity. Conflict acts as a catalyst. In times of peace, what is a sword master supposed to do outside of be a trainer? But during war? When armies need to be raised, homes defended, and enemies taken? When the landscape can potentially change in a single battle? These times are the times when character's can thrive.

Life Happens: Not everything involving the world needs to involve the characters fighting goblins and orcs

Misinformation: Even as news spreads and the continuity of a campaign grows, remember that people, or at least men, have short memories and events attributed to one race may change as time moves on and that people will want to ascribe their own deeds alongside the greatest of the great in history. That those who were great builders in the past may be attributed to have super human powers or physical status to have achieved their wonders and advancements. In his historicals, Bernard tends to ascribe an almost alien level of ability to the Romans as the 'modern' people living in those ruins can't compete with the stone work and road work and general skill of the Roman's.

Bandit Kings: Depending on the location in the campaign, anyone can declare themselves a king. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it fall? In the same way, if you're in a winter wasteland or a highly contested land and no one can take it away, aren't you the king? This can lead to a land of a Thousand Kings or something similar. Many campaign settings, including the Forgotten Realms and the Warhammer FRPG, have areas that are meant to be Border Kingdoms.

Tradition and Ceremony: Weddings are often a huge part of a woman, or indeed, a man's life. These solemn events provide a cause for celebration. And yet, they often have a bigger hold in small ways than just the event itself. For example, Bernard Cornwell notes that women who have their hair free and not bound, are not married. In today's society, we have the wedding ring. Little things like that can provide a lot of depth to a setting.

Oaths and Oathbreakers: When a man's worth is only as good as his word, to be called an oathbreaker is not a good thing. In a land where they don't have digital cameras watching you try to sneak past the red light or electronic meters to time your parking, Kings had to rely on a man's word for his worth. Breaking such a thing though could be equal to committing career suicide as once broken, who would want you after that?

While much of Lords of the North repeats material found in earlier books, it is a repetition that moves the story forward. It is a story told quickly. It is a story that keeps the pages turning. Bernard Cornwell's take of 9th Century England moves quickly and provides a lot of color for those looking for dark age tales.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mongolian Death Worm

Lately, I've been more into miniatures than I have role playing. Not in terms of what I'd rather be doing mind you, but in terms of what I'm actually doing. The guys I game with have like ten people there and that's too many for me and the GM is very easy in terms of setting a table limit. While I don't hold that against him, ten people is too many players to have to compete with the GM's attention for and way too many people to make combat resemble anything like quick. And that isn't a knock at 4th edition.

When I used to play 2nd edition, one of the guys I played with, Dan Maxwel, put up a sign at Gamer's Paradise in the Century Mall that called for an adventure few could handle. He had a massive set up of drow, mind flayers and the actual dungeon itself build up. I played a few times but it took hours to get through a single round of combat due to the sheer number of enemies and players that were in it. A fun time but it resembled more of a board game than RPG.

So anyway, I'm at Games Plus and they're doing a buy three get one free thing on their discounted miniatures. I picked up some Mongolian Death Worms, two of them, and some other stuff. Even better because they were in the discount bin they were like $7.50 each as opposed to the new price of $14.00 Shakes hand at the invisible hand of inflation. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of metal here but man, $4.00 increase from the time Games Plus got them till now?

Anyway, I figure that I can knock the Mongolian Death Worms out pretty quick as hey, how hard can it be to paint a worm right? The worms are fairly large, easily seven to ten feet in length in the old 28mm heroic scale. The assembly wasn't bad but I was lazy and should have pinned instead of just applying green stuff and a ton of super glue at the join part.

They sprayed up well enough and I'm almost finished painting them.

But the funny thing was, for some reason, I wondered where they came up with the whole idea of Mongolian Death Worm. And hey, Wiki is your friend again on the Mongolian Death Worm subject. An animal that supposedly lives in the gobi desert that can spit acid and discharge electricity and has massive teeth to devour its prey with? Yup, snapped right up into the myths of D&D for me. And if you want some variants there, do an image search. Some great variants and images there.

Long live the unseen and unverified Mongolian Death Worm!

Pale Horseman Round 3

Sorry for breaking up the book into multiple posts but time has only just recently opened up for me thanks to the July 4th holiday. The end of the month and end of the quarter has allowed me to quickly catch up on some reading including the other books in the Saxon series as well as some Sharpe books. Quite glad I gave Cornwell another shot after not being impressed with the Stonehenge book.

Below will be some quotes and my ramblings on how they might relate to gaming so if you'd rather avoid the spoilers, read no further.

"...he wanted me to think him defenceless... he ignored me. He just stared past my shoulder.... So I turned my back... and I saw that Cippanhamm was burning."

Here the young Uthred is battling the mighty Steapa. He is losing. Not badly but it seems inevitable. However circumstances outside either combatant's control come to the front of the action, Dane's invading Cippahnhamm and looting and burning.

If the scene is not living up to its potential or its dragging or something just seems off, don't be afraid to throw in some new combatants or events into the fray in order to juice up the scenario.

There are also times when the elements themselves come into play. For example, during a siege late in the book, a storm breaks out with thunder and lightning and thick rain covering the entire field turning dirt into mud and making bows and spears useless. Don't pause when adding some wild natural elements into the setting when it fits.

Other factors that I've mentioned also come into play here.

The wheel of fate for example, has its way with Alfred who is forced to retreat to a swamp. Alfred, known as Alfred the Great, suffered many serious setbacks. Depending on the nature of the game, don't be hesitant to let players lose occasionally. In more recent editions, the themes seem focused on 'yes' and focused on keeping the game moving forward. I have no problem with the latter and think that failure, in and of itself, doesn't necessarily mean the halt of the game. But the players have got to want to push through the bad times their characters endure instead of rolling up new characters.

Another bit is isolation. When Alfred loses his kingdom and retreats to the swamp, the people of the swamp are isolated from the rest of the world. They know little of what goes on outside of their home. This should be something that players who explore, find time and time again. Lost valleys and hidden cities where the natives speak some variant of the local tongue because travel is difficult, dangerous, and without huge cities and trade, not particularly worth it for most.

' taking sixteen coats of mail to the river's edge I had given the Danes an irresistible lure. And they snapped at it."

One thing that annoys me as a player, is when the habits and mentality of an enemy are well known and their behavior doesnt' vary much or their intelligent level isn't that high and then the GM, probably inspired by Tucker's Kobold's, decides that every goblin, orc, and other low level, low intelligent monster is suddenly John Rambo. There's a time and a place for such smack downs, but if it becomes every encounter with the creatures and it does so for no reason other than to enforce a smack down, that style of GMing might not be to every player's tune. The mood and establishment should have some consistency. If kobolds are weak little things barely able to string a rock against a stick to make a crude spear one session and the next are using plant based grenades and hit and run tactics, something is wrong.

"Wulfhere let us live."

Wulfhere spoke to Uthred before about how dangerous things would be when the Danes invaded. And by saving the Dane Ragnar, he insured his own life, and his own prosperity. This didn't come clear out of the blue. Readers of the Pale Horseman had hints of what Wulfhere would do if push came to shove.

By sprinkling little bits of motivation about various factors in an NPC's ethos around, the players might have a better idea of what to expect to terms of motivations and actions. By allowing the NPCs to speak with the players about religion, survival, home and hearth, the players gain an insight into the characters.

In the same vein though..

'Steapa was good to his mother,' the man said. 'He brought her money. She was no slave any more.'

Steapa is first depicted as a monstrous, unfeeling machine capable only of murder. Which he does quite well. But this little detail, about how he cared for his mother and raised her from slave status, provides more to the character than just sword and armor. Little details even on the most basic enemies can sometimes provide more depth to the campaign world than all the elaborate descriptions of weapons and armor.

'...Saint Vincent's Day had been the day when Iseult drew Alfred's son, the AEtheling Edward, through the earth. And somewhere, Iseult had told me, a child must die so that the king's heir, the Aetheling, could live."

female's blade, but it is something to think about when describing events in war and even in peace.

..I wanted to come with you.'


'Because I miss this life. God, I miss it! I loved being a warrior. All that irresponsibility! I relished it. Kill and make widows, frighten children. I was good at it, and I miss it. And I was always good at scouting. We'd see you Saxons blundering away like swine and you never knew we were watching you. Don't worry, I'm not going to talk Christ into you, whatever the king wants."

This section does two things for me as a reader.

First, it helps provide some motivation for player character's. Most of the time if you stop to think about it, being an adventurer, a wanderer, a landless man, seems madness. And the quest is to ever gain further gold and power to gain further gold and power. But when Pyrlig puts it like the above, you have to figure, why not eh?

The second, is that Pyrlig puts a different face on priests, especially Christian priests. Up to this point, most of them have been fairly insufferable from the main character's point of view, including Alfred. By putting Pyrlig into the setting and showcasing him as a warrior and a priest happy to have God on his side as opposed to forcing him onto everyone else, the author provides a wider spectrum of the religion and provides another viewpoint to it.

In the Forgotten Realms, what if there is a sect of Tempus Worshippers who relish fighting not for fighting, but for the peace it brings afterwards? They make themselves the best and most frightening enemies not to cause chaos, but to cure it. Putting a slant on things provides the setting with more variety that's not just stuck to the player's who've read a new issue of Dragon and want to play an Albino Drow with a black runeblade that's brand new and never been done before!

A third bit that comes through, is the individual in the army. While Uthred is part of an army, part of a huge army, he is the main character and it is often through his actions, and the actions of those close to him, that victory comes. This happens either though a quick trick or plot of his, or through the declaration of single combat where the heroes clash among the army deciding the fates of all those around them. In a role playing game, unless it's Warhammer Fantasy Battle and the GM is actually using the miniature game, the players should have some ability to influence things. The old 3.5 book, Heroes of Battle did a nice job introducing various things that players can do to influence combat one way or another and provide some sample missions worthy of player attention.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Pale Horseman round 2!

Sorry for the lack of regular updates but work has been kicking my behind lately. This is something of a regular occurrence at the end of the month, but throw in the end of the quarter and it gets ugly.

Anyway, more quotes from Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales book, The Pale Horseman.

Spoilers below so read no further if you wish to avoid them.

"Leofric smiled. 'I don't need orders to go on a patrol, do I?"

Uthred and Leofrid are warriors of high caliber but in this age, they are also warriors who need funds to pay for their soldiers and to build further reputation. By 'going on patrol' as Leofric crouches the words here, he's actually going raiding. This is an old staple where the hero does something nominally against the rules but does do in order to pursue some private agenda.

If you can allow the players room to maneuver their own raids, even when they have their own patrons, and add those elements into the continuing chronicles of the campaign, then you give the players freedom and allow their actions to have meaning.

"The cows are there to kill us." Haesten warned us in his new and not very good English.
"The cows will kill us?" I asked in amusement.
"I have seen it before, lord. They put cows to bring us on land and then they attack."

Bait is a useful tool. It can be something that motivates adventurers on their way, something to lead them into a trap, or something not worth the risk. In the above case, the cows were not worth the risk. In old school games, I remember the traps might be a bit too obvious but the fun thing was that if the price was right, players would still try those potential traps because the bait was worth it. When setting up traps, they can come in all types of sizes and shapes. In the above example, animals are used, in old school games, it was often huge gems or obvious magic items, weapons or shields that radiated their power.

"The West Saxons are Christians,' he said, 'and it is our duty to support them, not because of a love for them, but because of our fellow love for Christ.'

One of the elements that crops up often in the series is the brotherhood that Christians enjoy among each other, even when they are from different countries and speak different languages. The pagans, worshipping most often a Viking or Norse Pantheon, have a difficult time of it when surrounding by the Christians in getting on with day to day living when not raiding and so many of them converge on Christianity while keeping some of their old pagan ways.

While the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are both host to different pantheons and multiple gods within those pantheons, the threat of open warfare between them is often depicted as slim to none. Those conflicts were in the old days and while individuals may bristle at others gods, the armies that used to march under those banners rarely do so anymore. More of a rivalry thing thing any true military strength.

This doesn't have to be that way for your own campaigns however. What if in the Forgotten Realms the Mulhorand pantheon takes on new life? What if Tyr brings in more of his kinsmen from the Norse Pantheon and viking raids not only become a reoccurring threat, but new gods are brought with them?

"I'm looking for allies,' he said.

While the players are out pitting their sword and spell skills against others, one of the ways to build the setting is to have them encounter other adventuring groups and not have these groups always be enemies. Having the players options to ally with other adventuring groups might allow them to pull off larger jobs that they would not have access to otherwise. It also sets up the potential for reoccurring characters.

"The gatekeeper demanded that we surrender our weapons, a thing I did with a bad grace, but no man, except the king's own household troops, could go armed in Alfred's presence."

In my experience, one of the hardest things to do, is separate the characters from their magical toys. If they are in a setting or area where its the law, it becomes fairly easy to do so. On the other hand, if every time they are disarmed, they are attacked, they will NOT go to areas that require them to be disarmed. Its a tool that can be used a few times and no more.

"Men cheered. They liked a fight to the death, and it was much better entertainment than listening to Alfred's harpist chant the psalms."

When Uthred is accused of various crimes, the truth of the matter is put to the sword. This is an option that the GM should be careful in allowing. Players are most often specialist in their field and depending on their class, may have options and abilities that would be hard to counter. On the other hand, sometimes its fun to throw the logic of a thing out the door and allow the players to prove their 'innoncent' through might.

Bernard Conrwell's Saxon Tales provide several great battle scenes, a view into a dark and dirty world where life is cheap, and one worth a look for those old school game masters and players looking for sword and sorcery inspiration.