Sunday, May 13, 2012

Duty Calls by Sandy Mitchell


Duty Calls by Sandy Mitchell is yet another book from the mighty dollar spinner rack at Half Price Books. Fortunately for me, its another winner. Like several books I've bought from the spinner rack though, this one takes place in the middle of a larger series. Unlike some series though, I didn't feel at a loss or that I was missing vital background or details.

Duty Calls uses first person for most of its tale through the viewpoint of Ciaphas Cain, a commissar with quite an interesting outlook for the grim future of 40K. There are a few breaks between chapters that help fill in the blanks though as these are told almost in a memoir style. Overall it works very effectively in providing a broader view of the setting and the events that take place there.

The book is well written in that it flows quickly, was easy to read, and easy to enjoy. It ends in a logical spot even though there are vast potential other bits that could be tackled and probably have been in the series. At this point though there was no Kindle version and the Black Library  ebooks tend to be higher than I enjoy paying for so I'll keep looking at the Half Price Books and its mighty dollar spinner rack.

In terms of gaming though, there were some things that nudged their way into my brain. Note, there will be specific spoilers for some parts of the book so if those aren't up your alley, read no further.

1. The five senses. Cain is a man whose aide is a man of intensely odorous smells and manners. This repetition helps enforce it. In doing so, the author brings up a great use of smell. The description for how the Tyranids move and how it sounds is another good example of the senses. When describing enemies or the landscape or the locals, don't forget that while the sights are important, the other senses can be just as useful in conveying mood and tone.  Is the floor even? Does the room stink of old meat? Is there the buzzing of insects? In terms of smell, sometimes it can be so powerful that people can taste it.

2. Repetition. Sandy Mitchell makes excellent use of variance in repetition on several factors including the smell of Cain's aide, as noted above. When trying to enforce something, the Dungeon Master's tools include repetition. It also serves as as reminder of the familiar when the reposition brings home the things the players enjoy.

3. Reputation. One of the most interesting things about Cain is that he's not quite the typical hero of such a story. He knows his weak points. He knows his issues. He does not claim to be brave or a leader, but because his history has placed him with a reputation, he has to maintain it in order to keep the benefits that it brings him including troops morale, trust, and cooperation. Everyone wants to keep on the good side of a competent and dangerous Commissar.

4. Allies. One of the interesting things that Sandy does here, is weaves the Inquisition of 40K into the more militant guard duty and makes it all fit. Cain's ally, or boss, or part time comrade or however you want to look at it, opens up different venues that Cain has to follow. This prevents all of the tale from being only about hunting down the bugs and makes it part investigative as well. In Role Playing Games, there are often organizations, factions, guilds, and other elements, that specialize in a venue of the setting that the players may not normally be involved in. Having some cross over with those organizations allow the Dungeon Master to pull the players in directions that they may not normally have went into. This is particularly useful if the game tends to have a narrow focus and you don't want the players to grow too bored or comfortable in their familiar environments.

5. Multi-Layered Issues: While Cain is doing his work for the Inquisition on one side, others in that faction are trying to assassinate him. While that is going on, the planet he is stationed on is under attack by Tyranids. While that is going on, the local population has to be watched because that are agents of Chaos within it and oh yeah, the Tyranids have GeneStealers and other methods of infiltrating the planet. Sandy brings all of these elements together in a manner that makes sense at the end with a villain whose presence has been felt, but not revealed until the end.  As a Game Master, trying to keep track of multiple elements can be challenging, but tools like Flow Charts can be helpful in determining which route the players take and what may happen if they take another path.

6. Bio-Mass: One of the things interesting to me about the Warhammer 40K setting is how they do the Tyranids. While they are a biological murder machine, they need bio-mass to keep creating more monsters to keep accumulating more bio-mass to.... yeah, it's pretty circular. One of the things about taking all that matter though, is that means there are generally no corpses left behind from such an attack. In a fantasy campaign, while I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to create fantasy equals of these monsters, if you already have something like the Undead, would you need to? When remote forts, towns, villages, and throps start winding up empty, the Undead would be an easy hook to explain it. All those who are killed become part of the enemy. The consequences of the battle don't necessarily stop with the cleaning of the weapons.

I enjoyed Duty Calls and hope that I can keep finding the gems in the old Half Price dollar rack as I work my way through the library.