Saturday, January 11, 2014

Stands A Shadow: The Heart of the World Book Two by Col Buchanan

After finishing the first book in the series, The Heart of the World, Farlander, I looked at Amazon and saw that in hardcover, the second book was ten dollars. Bam! Ordered and now read. The bad thing? This one came out in 2011, or at least is copy right 2011 and Col Buchanan's website, which is both cool and infuriating, has no information on the next one.

Stands a Shadow continues several threads from the previous book and introduces new ones. It stands in stark contrast to a lot of the 'rules' of writing when talking about introducing a gun in scene one to use it in scene ten because it moves the cast around a lot. In that venue, it actually reminds me of A Game of Thrones in that you may think, "Ah, here's the main character." and then, nope, sorry, that was not the protagonist you were looking for.

I don't know if that's everyone's thing but it makes a nice change of style. It breaks the rules. I think writers like George and Col Buchanan can get away with it though, because first and foremost, they are good writers.

In Stands A Shadow, we have the assassin Ash seeking revenge for the death of his pupil, Nico in the first volume. His order though, is forbidden from doing this as it makes the chances of the guild, the Roshun, being hired again lessened as it tarnishes the image of their professionalism. At this point, as he's an older man, I think the book quotes sixty, Ash is okay with this making him a piraha among his own people.

The author uses a few techniques to bring out more of Ash's backstory including dreams, delirum, and Ash speaking with a monk about the troubles he finds himself in. These work well to bring out different aspects of the character as each method reveals something in a way that the others don't. The dreams are more akin to memories, while the delirum brings forth unwanted and guilt laden memories.

But despite the heavy focus on characters in the novel, there is more going on. The empire of Mann, where the only virtue is strength, is seeking to end the resistance of the so called Free Ports. This invasion brings armies into clashes and brings a lot of action and new characters to the scenario like Bull, a man released from jail, an extremely dangerous man who killed a hero of the war and is now offered a pardon and the opportunity to engage his anger at the enemy of his people. He takes it with both hands.

Other characters from the previous book, like Che, also are featured here and find their loyalties tested in many ways that they might never have expected.

Stands A Shadow is fairly self contained. While the end does offer the potential for another book, it is more the potential of hope itself that it offers, of the journey not being over, thing things can get better. Still, when Col Buchanan does get that next book out, I'll be down for the next copy.

Stands A Shadow is available in hardcover from at least one vendor using Amazon Prime for under $8.00 here on in kindle format for $6.83 here. If you have not read the first book in the series, Farlander, I would highly recommend getting it in hardcover because Amazon has it for $2.92, under three dollars, in hardcover, and shipped from Amazon Prime, here.

Having said all of that, how might this be useful for role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or Rolemaster? Below I'll be discussing several specific bits from the book so there will be spoilers aplenty. Read no further if you wish to avoid them.

When I was reading this book, I kept thinking of Wizards of the Coast, Heroes of Battle. I kept thinking how that book would be a good resource to delve into after reading Stands A Shadow because of the war which has a large focus on the unexpected actions of characters and the armies that follow them, as opposed to just long grinds.

1.The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The army of Mann uses ships to transport its soldiers. In even the best of circumstances, crossing the world over a hostile terrain even in the largest ships, is a dangerous and challenging prospect. If you've seen Frank Miller's 300, there is a scene where the invading army loses ships to a storm. Something similar happens here. Despite the greater strength of numbers that the army of Mann brings with them, they still cannot control the weather or the elements. Remember random events in the campaign and how they may impact the overall campaign itself.

When looking at these elements, you should determine how big an impact they will have. Will they effect the whole army? For example, this book would have been pretty short had the entire army of Mann washed up on the shores dead and broken. Instead they lost a lot of their high powered weapons and their mounts and several people suffered injury including the Holy Matriarch suffering a broken arm.

2. Camp Followers: Where they are soldiers, there are those who will serve them. The book has Ash befriend a group of prostitutes after the ship's crash as he is seeking the warmth of their fire and scares off a group of soldiers who had intended not to pay. These camp followers are not the only ones though. There are also food sellers, carpenters, leather workers, and a whole host of other professionals whose survival comes from following the army. In some games like Games Workshop's Warhammer, at least in some editions, the players may even start off as a camp follower! Not ever character need be a camp follower though. For example, the young woman Curl is a battle doctor. Well, not quite, more like a nurse who stitches up the wounded and provides them with water and drugs to get them either back into the fight or out of it.

The camp followers can have many roles in the game. When the camp is not actively engaged in war, the soldiers need to do something. They will seek out different forms of entertainment and food and alcohol. This makes the camp itself like a moving city with all of the challenges of such a city.

For example, what if one of the food vendors is using the dead to supply his special brand of meat? This is a fairly common theme for a game like Warhammer for example.

What if the entertainers keep certain types of characters behind when the rest of the troop leave and devour them?

What if one of the prostitutes is a serial killer and picks out targets that won't be missed for weeks if ever as they were prime targets for desertion in the first place?

What if the players infiltrate the enemy camp and use the resources there to hinder the opposing force, or use it as cover to try and assassinate the enemy leadership or destroy key resources?

3. Characters change the game. Che is a 'diplomat' which is another code word for assassin. His doctrine into the religion of Mann is one that required him to undergo a change of personality to be trained as the Roshun assassin and then betray them. But it also requires him to be kept wide read and learn of the world. These elements make him a poor honest worshipper of the ways of Mann and while he does part of his duty, he also abandons the empire of Mann and saves the life of Ash while doing so. His actions bring further conflict to the empire of Mann, as well as resulting in more 'diplomats' being sent after him for his ways.

The world can be as big and vast as you want it, but the events around the players should be influenced and influence the characters in them. If the players take the fight to the enemy in the dead of night in a strategic movie to deprive the enemy of their leadership, can it work? If the enemy then decides to do the exact same thing against the players, will they be prepared?

4. Strong character opposition. While the army of Mann itself is powerful, I again find the head enemy, the Holy Matriarch of Mann, a physically weak character who while having a few moments more than she did in the previous book, still getting taken out almost as an after thought. This in turn leads to a huge event, civil war in the empire of Mann as multiple factions vie for the supreme rulership of the empire. The empire? Still a big bad overarching theme of do as thou will but the actual agents of this empire? So far both the Matriarch and her son have not proven to be that impressive. Mind you this goes in contradiction to how I feel about the heroes where I'm not necessarily expecting each one to be so skilled in dealing death as long as they have some character to bring to the story, but if the heroes are motivated to overcome these villains, if they have no problem doing so once they meet in the flesh, it feels a little demotivating.

5. Survival: On the other hand, if the game master doesn't provide some logical reason why the enemy isn't overwhelming the character, when appropriate, it can make the game seem off key. If the players are faced with overwhelming force, there needs to be a solid reason why the players haven't been overwhelmed. In the case of the book, part of this boils down to how the empire of Mann operates. The heroes of the Free Ports get a break when civil war breaks out in the empire, and this is something that's happened at least one time before as one of the generals notes it happened fifteen years ago. If you put up unbeatable opposition against the players, make sure they have an out.

6. New Characters: War brings out need. In this case, the need for bodies to press into the grinder of war. In so doing, new characters are introduced from dubious sources such as the mad house, the prisons, and the hospitals. If they can walk, they can fight. If in the course of the game the players lose a character or two, having a reliable way to introduce new characters is useful. This can range from a character from the opposition seeing the light, to someone seeking justice against the same foes the players are currently fighting against.

Stands A Shadow is a strong sequel to Farlander and well worth a read.