Sunday, May 20, 2012

Prince of the North by Harry Turtledove

One of the few good things about having a bad back is that it gives me time to catch up on the old reading. One of the bad things about it being material from Half Price Books, is that despite the awesome dollar deals on the spinner racks, sometimes that means reading books out of order.

In this instance, it's Prince of the North by Harry Turtledove. I'd already read King of the North and enjoyed it so when I saw this earlier book by the same author for the same setting in the same series, I picked it up. It's been sitting around for a little while but I managed to finally finish it off.

If you want some quick background on the publication process and a great cover gallery of the material in this series, check out this site.  Has a nice map of the setting and some of those older covers are great throw backs. Ditto for the various foreign editions.

I'll be discussing some material from the book below so if you wish to avoid spoilers read no further.

1. Time Flies. From Prince of the North to King of the North, there's a hefty chunk of time that has lapsed. From my reading here, from Prince of the North from the previous book, there has also been a fair heft of time that's moved by. In many instances of adventure paths by Paizo or Wizards of the Coast, there is little time to do anything but race against the clock. In some instances, you'll be hard pressed to come up with reasons how you have time for a mage say, to study his tomes or opportunity to spend hard earned coin. If possible, discuss the options of time lapses with the group.

When doing such though, you need to be aware of how its going to work out. Will characters advance in power, wealth, prestige? Is there a chance that they can die? Will they have children? Some of these elements should be discussed with the players ahead of time to see what they expect out of it. Doing so though allows you to bring in different elements that don't necessarily feel like monster of the week.

2. Repetition. Yeah, I've mentioned this one before but Harry Turtledove uses it to great effect here in several instances. By enforcing material mentioned before, it allows you to sticky items that might be useful for the players or to hammer in character traits that might be useful later on if those characters are replaced with imposter's.

3. Fallen Empires. Just as in King of the North, the main character here, Gerin the Fox, is trying to keep alive civilization in a land that doesn't really want it. He wants to arm the peasants against unleashed monsters but the other barons and nobles are worried about what happens when the monsters are gone. He wants to introduce literacy to all, but then the other nobles fear what happens when the peasants realize that their lot in life is not good. He wants to increase trade but the roads are all in ruin. Trade has fallen by the wayside. Inns are no longer as prosperous as they once were and the beaten paths are dangerous places for a few travelers as even villagers are hard hit by the times.

4. Fire is a bitch. In this pseudo bronze age-Roman style setting, when a lot of things are made of wood and a lot of crops are ripe, good old fire is a great weapon of war. Mind you its not necessarily something to use in casual combat as burning down a village may have some big repercussions down the road but in war time? Burn baby burn.

5. Cliche Works. The main thrust of the book is that there are monsters unleashed in the north that have broken through ancient barriers. They are unleashed by an earthquake that shatters those barriers as well as the temple that housed those barriers. To modern gamers, that's not really an original tale but as with other things, its more in the telling of the tale. Too much jaded longing for the new can take away from stories that are well told even if they're not bringing a lot to the table in terms of originality.

6. Throw The Characters a Bone. Fairly early in the story, Gerin's son is kidnapped. He can't find the boy and other events force the problem from him. However, instead of being butchered and fed to the dogs or abused and turning into some sick parody of himself, Gerin's son is returned to him hale and hearty no worse for the wear. In gaming though, you have to be careful about which buttons you push. For example, in some games, the players might decide to let everything else rot to rescue the child of their comrade. In some games, the players may not even be the ones who lost the child, but are instead, like the movie Spartan, hired to find the youth and return him. Dangerous consequences if they fail in such a heady mission. Rulers are not known for their mercy.

7. Setting Elements. Part of the problem with the North that Gerin inhabits, is that every night there are ghosts. These ghosts don't seem to do much but they do make it difficult to sleep outside. They are placated by blood and held at bay with fire. As Gerin moves about the land, they always have to have chickens or other animals for sacrifice and the size of the sacrifice determines how useful it was. The ghost never seem to make direct attacks, but they could easily ruin a night's sleep. For spellcasters that need a solid eight hours of sleep, that could be very problematic. For crueler Dungeon Masters, that may mean some penalties to hit and skill checks as the lack of sleep impedes the characters.

8. Continuity. Events from the previous books are mentioned here and events from that book still have consequences that haunt down this book and further on. Having ties to previous adventurers or nods to them when possible can provide the setting with more more elements of stability not necessarily in making it safe, but in making it real. Events that players have partaken of in past campaigns for example, may be references or known by the current group, even if they are not directly involved in those affairs.

Prince of the North is a good novel that manages to stand on its own but works better when read as part of the series.