Sunday, March 25, 2012

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell


The first book in the Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell, Harlequin is another look at one of England's greatest weapons, an archer and his adventurers.

Without going into too much detail, if you like adventure based historicals, this one has plenty of it and is a meaty tome. It took me a few days of reading between the overtime and the dreaded real world, but I was pleased by how well the book worked out and how open it leaves itself to the sequels.

Now on for some specific mentions so those who want no real spoilers so read no further!

One of the things I've usually enjoyed about Bernard Cornwell's material, is that it doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life in these dark times. For example, families are huge in theory, but so many people die of so many mundane issues that in practical terms, they are boasting a few members aside from those lucky ones. One discussion talks about the plague. Another talks about how a simple cut from a farming implement becomes infected and the person dies. The state of doctors is terrible so wounds that might not be fatal in our time are essentially a death sentence here.

The other thing I enjoy, is how comfortable Bernard seems to be in describing everyday things like the red herrings that the English eat, or how archers are fairly limited to England because of the time and training it takes to master the bow. How things like cannons are starting to roll out here but aren't at their peak yet.

There is the occasional interjection of the idea of chivalry in terms of trying to gain honor in combat. Often it meets with the brutal realities of having to win in combat as opposed to showcase combat prowess.

In terms of character development, Cornwell does a few interesting things that are worth noting for Game Masters who have players engaged in more than only dungeon crawls. For example, Sir Simon is a powerful knight of great skill and ability for the English. He is a noble born. Thomas on the other hand, is low born and an archer and a bit of a wild card. The two do not mix and through various bits and pieces, the two become enemies that seek to kill one another to the point that Thomas is hung and Sir Simon defects from the English to the French.

By having Sir Simon be noble born, it prevents Thomas from just decking him out in the street, although it does not prevent him from trying other methods. But by being noble born, there are certain expectations of status put upon Sir Simon and his own actions make him enemies enough that he is banished. By providing characters with enemies whose role isn't only on the battlefield, the Game Master is able to push them in ways that a sword in the face can't necessarily cure, or at least, can't cure right at the time it happens.

Another useful reminder, is the background about the characters. With a climactic battle at Crecy, which is the start of the Hundred Years War, Bernard Cornwell makes sure that his characters are going to be in the thick of things. There will be wars, and opportunity due to the chaos of war. In the manga Berserk, it is this chaos, this turmoil, that allows the Band of the Hawk to rise to nobility. The same can happen in any role playing game.

When I think about the various event changing novels that Wizards of the Coast often threw out on the Forgotten Realms, as a fan of the setting I often though, "Man, another epic tale eh?" and not in a good way. As someone who looks around at modern history these days and sees things like the Arab Spring and other world changing events, the pace of history stops for no man. Indeed, the real problem with those game changing novels from Wizards of the Coast isn't that they changed the setting, it's that they often went to a near status quot at the end.

Imagine if you take the bits from the Threat from the Deep where the oceans and seas become more dangerous, and add in the threats from the Nehtril Shadow Wizards, and add in the reclusion of the Elves, and add in the dragons rampaging across the realms, and add in Thay becoming an undead nation with negative energy all over the lands and Sembia becoming a Thrall state to Nethril and and and... It may sound like a lot, but when you think about everything that is going on all the time, isn't there some sense in a setting as large as the Forgotten Realms having multiple crisis points going on all the time?

Part of this though, is how the Forgotten Realms works. In Harlequin, the English think they have God's blessing. The French also believe this. As do other countries. And yet, the 'heroes' of this tale are murderers, they are rapists, and they are thieves. In short, they are complex. Thomas watches his father killed and eventually allies himself to the ally of the man who killed his father because that man too has been betrayed. A woman Thomas loves uses him during her time of need and moves on but tries to keep him close like a chess piece. Various priest speak of old threats and heresies even while being part of war and partaking of those benefits and plunder.

And the problem is that the Forgotten Realms novels tend to work in a manner familiar to the game system so the paladins are usually good and trustworthy, the clerics god fearing folk, and most of the people with views and outlooks that encapsulate the best of what we currently think we are. In short, it can be damn boring at times.

The one problem I can see happening with players who read this book, is they're going to wonder why the long bow is so lame in whatever game system you're playing. As described here and in other works and through the victory at major battles, the longbow should be a killing weapon almost unequalled in any game. It should far surpass the crossbow and even any early guns introduced in terms of killing power.

But then there's that training issue. If the longbow becomes an ultimate weapon, what are all the players going to make to maximize their character's damage output? Yeah, that one is pretty much a no-brainer. It's game balance on a generic and bland scale but its necessary in some forms.

If you're looking for some high action reading with character based plot and motivations, The Harlequin will provide much fodder for the imagination of both player and Game Master.