Sunday, March 18, 2012

The King of Thieves by Michael Jecks

When Borders Bookstore was closing, I purchased many a book that looked interesting. I didn't do it when the hordes were crowding and pushing one another for 20% off. I waited until the books were well and low priced at 60% or greater. Mind you, the selection wasn't at its peak but there was more then enough that I'm still reading those books when I find the time.

I'd never heard of Michael Jecks before. I'm also NOT an armchair historian. However, I do like a good historical and I find them easier to mine for role playing purposes since most of the games I play tend to be low tech, dark ages styling. Well, magic is usually a big element too but that's another thing I'd have to add as needed.

I'll be discussing some spoilers pulled out of the book so if you want no spoilers, read no further on Michael Jecks The King of Thieves.

Let's start with terminology. I love it when the author provides us some details. Like a Crophead being slang for a priest, or a harvester a cutpurse or a picker, a thief who takes everything from his victims or a planter, a thief that makes fake jewels. Great stuff. Adds to the atmosphere of the book right away.

Another thing I enjoy is learning about real characters that were... interesting so that I can steal, I mean, borrow them or their routines for my games. I hate to say it, but I was ignorant of Hug Despenser and that's a shame because after reading some on him in this novel and on good ole Wiki, I have to say, he's a hell of a bastard and looks like he would make a great rival noble enemy for characters, one whose protection from a higher source means that the outmaneuvering must take place in the courts and not on the field of battle where character often have an advantage.

Another character mentioned in this historical, is Charles Martel, a well known warrior with his own nick name. Adding such background elements to your own campaign, famous warriors, generals, saints, and other well known figures of history, can provide more depth to the setting as it gives, say, the martial characters in the game, something to strive for, to go beyond.

"and now the King was married to his third wife..." Not a particularly grand statement in all things but one that puts out there that people, everyone suffers. One of the problems I've heard players complain about with their loved ones or NPCs close to them, is that the Game Master is always messing with them so its easier not to have any close contacts. Well, remind them that life is indeed a contact sport and kings and queens suffer the disasters of disease and death in child birth and other ravages, that its okay for them too.

"But the instability which he had assisted was now growing alarming. Robert Sapy's deputy in Wales had been attacked... There had been a time... when no man would have dared to treat such an important man in such dreadful a manner, but that time was past. Now no one was safe."

Political unrest can be a powerful tool. But it might be only part of a problem. For example, if there is famine, is there is plaque, is there is banditry, then adding to that a King whose most favorite subject is widely hated? Yeah, that might cause some problems. On the other hand, it also sets the stages for players to shine. I've mentioned it before, but if you're playing a 'standard' styling of Dungeons and Dragons where players will be in combat, then you want there to be unrest in the land, you want political factions lining up to march to war, you want bandits for the players to fight, you want church and state taking shots at each others. The more conflict, the easier it is to get the players actively involved in it.

"A large sideboard stood at one wall and upon it were many silver plates and some goblets... Large tapestries covered the bare walls on two sides...the large goblet with gilding all around it."

A quick quote about the wealth of one man of the cloth. This type of wealth, these material things that are not coins, is mentioned several times. I myself am guilty to resorted to X amount of platinum, Y amount of gold, and Z amount of silver, but it can give the setting some contrast and character when you start throwing in physical art objects. In this case, one of the objects actually turns out to be a clue later on. The physical descriptions of combs, plates, goblets, utensils, tapestries, and other non-coin wealth can say a lot about the campaign.

Of course it doesn't hurt that at lower levels it can make it difficult for the players to simply pick it all up and leave.

"Let me put it like this: the King is now moving his prisoners from one castle to another."

In terms of those uprisings, well, there really weren't any prisons in those days. You did a crime, chances are you'd get the immediate punishment, like having your ear clipped or your lip split and then be sent on your merry way. Otherwise you went into the dungeon of a castle. Not good times. In the above case, the King's forces may not be up to the task of taking care of fomenting rebellion so he keeps the prisoners on the move to prevent them from being freed.

"It was hard when speaking to someone like this to remember that he was just a man like any other. Jean was intimidated by rank. He was too aware of his own lowly background."

IN today's 'modern' D&D, for some reason we still have kings and farmers but no slaves and a social system that tries its best to mime modern times so that rank and other non-tangible values are well, meaningless. When setting up your own campaign, talk with the players about their own expectations of what they assume the setting is going to be like. If everyone is on the same page, that's great, but if you're running a dark and gritty fantasy campaign with low magic and rank is everything, well, wandering adventurers may get a  welcome they'd rather not have.

"Just the atmosphere made Jean feel chilled as he entered the place. There were marks scrawled into the walls here, the despairing words of prisoners who knew that their time was almost over..."

Here's an idea for a map. Instead of finding one in a treasure lair on a piece of paper, what if it's actually a huge map on the wall. A dragon, beholder, or other fantastical creature would have no problem defacing a granite wall and it would give the players a little something different to remember as they try to copy down the map.

"Cardinal, if is your duty to uphold God's laws, surely."
"I have many duties. I have served four Popes now. They each were different men, but the main thing was, they were practical men."

Here's an interesting one. When looking at fantasy religions that actually have deities and miracles and divine powers in the game, how does one NOT serve correctly? In Eberron, well, the gods don't necessarily take an active interest. It's far more nebulous than say the Forgotten Realms where the gods have walked the earth and even had children. ON the other hand, the Forgotten Realms has had its share of heresy and its share of deities impersonating one another. Some churches, like that of Tempus, encourage active war fare as that is the god's portfolio. Others... you kind of have a hard time seeing them not be one large brother hood under that active god. Think about the role of religion, how heavy the god's hands are, are they any clerics who've actually lost spellcasting ability, or is spellcasting ability something only players can do? It changes setting assumptions quite quickly if it is.

"It was mere good fortune that he himself was not present in the Preceptory on that day, and thus evaded the arrest and subsequent punishment."

It's a comment about the fall of the Templars. In Dungeon Siege 3, it starts off with your organization being crushed. Some might think that heavy handed but organizations come and go all the time in history. The stalwart warrior against God's foes today, is the gold laden victim to be robbed tomorrow. If the players are part of a guild, it's always good to have a few real life organizations that were taken down in order to show case that, no, you as the Game Master are not being mean to them and that these things do happen and will they please man up about it.

"He killed my boy' the cook said...

Anyone ever see New Jack City? The heroes of the tale go about finding out how to take down a very bad man. They lose friends and allies and suffer great hardships and loses and at the end, the bad guy is going to walk away free as a bird when an old man pops out of the crowd and guns him down!

The same thing happens here where the heroes find out the clues and find the murderer and that murderer is killed by another minor character.

That doesn't work too bad in a movie or in a novel but I personally would NOT be happy as a player if the Game Master were to do that. "Great game guys. You spent weeks hunting down the murderer but it's the kings brother. He laughs as you'll never be able to prove it all but then old man Fellows whose daughter was killed steps up and stabs the King's brother right in the neck!" Ugh. If you want to write a story, there's no need to drag the players into it. Write the story. Give the players their moment of glory.

On the other hand if the players are getting restless with the current crop and don't want to do the whole law and order thing and you asked them if they'r ready to move on, yeah, it might be time to New Jack that NPC.

Michael Jecks does a great job of bringing history, and Paris, to live. He makes Paris a filthy city, but one that is teeming with life of all sorts. A strong read, I hope to find more Jecks on sale or for those ebooks to come down in price.