Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Merchants Partner by Michael Jecks

Michael Jecks, website here, does a series of medieval murder mysteries that feature one of the knights Templar. I'd finally gotten around to reading the first in the series, The Last Templar, and to be honest, wasn't that impressed.

It wasn't bad mind you, it just didn't jump up and say, Appendix N me bitch!" as some books are wont to do.

The second book in the series, The Merchant's Partner, read much better. Mind you, I can't tell you if that's because I was in a different frame of mind when I read it or if it's just better written or if it has a better cast of characters and plot. Regardless of the reasons, it resonated with me more.

The characters are continuing to know each other. The cast is growing. The background is coming more into focus. The murder mysteries themselves are involving more people in more direct fashions that provide the reader with more things to become involved with.

The intricacies of the historical period are more in play. Events that happened long ago still echo in the current time line. Things that people think are secret and hidden are in fact, known.

If you're looking for a taste of murder in a dark era, The Merchant's Partner is a solid book and convinced me to move onto the third book.

Below I'll be hitting some specifics and spoilers of the books so if you care not about such things, read on, otherwise read no further.

Now there are some similarities in the books. For one, life is tough in these dark times. When the crops fail, people die of starvation. I'm no fan of starvation rules that micro-manage the amount of effort it takes to keep track of characters in games like Dungeons and Dragons, but having such information be a known thing, having the characters know that people are dying of starvation, can be a campaign bit in and of itself.

Some settings, like Warhammer, have gods like Nurgle, a god of disease and rot. Other enemies, like Skaven, can sabotage the fields. Protecting your food source can be a vital part of any campaign or a brief adventurer's mission. In some famous movies, like, oh, Seven Samurai, the bandits are coming for the food! They need someone to stop them.

Another point of interest, was banditry. While I'm running the Kingmarker series from Paizo for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition now, the setting their in, the Stolen Kingdoms, is rifle with bandits. History, or at least this part of it, is also heavy with such issues.

When knights have no wars to fight in, they face the threat of starvation. Turning to banditry is one way to avoid such a fate. In many ways, this echoes what happened in Japan when the era of the Samurai was coming to an end and samurai found themselves as ronin. When you have a sword and you're good with it, continuing to use it, even against those they once fought for.

Another theme hitting the book again, and most murder mysteries, is red herrings and coincidence. Strangers appear and then things happen. Surely the arrival of these new characters is directly tied into these horrible happenings?

In some cases, it's directly true. In others, it's that the characters have some reason to be there and may have information tied to the happenings going on, but aren't directly responsible. In most forms of media, there is limited time to introduce slice of life bits to readers and viewers. In role playing games though, that's not necessarily true.

You can introduce individuals and characters that may not be seen or met again for many sessions. One of the nice things about having all six volumes of King Marker ahead of time, as opposed to the monthly fix, is that you can read the whole thing and set up different elements of the campaign ahead of time so that when players finally do get to see the whole thing at it's apex, they can go, "Man, I never would have thought three months ago this guy would be here!"

A third element that hits again this time around, is the search for motivation. One of my friends likes to quote the old movie All The President's Men, "Follow the money." While that's not always true, especially in a campaign setting where religious fever may provide real magical augmentation and the ability to summon demons and devils to enact your will, for the majority of people, money, power, and of course sex, are all common motivations and having a motivation that the players can find and work into the campaign, is a useful tool to have as a Game Master.

One part that the 'Templar Mysteries' really diverge from role playing games standard though, is that the investigative parts don't necessarily mean that there will be combat of a appropriate nature. There may be no grand melee in the capital of the city while the gods watch. Rather in these books, much like courtroom drama in bygone eras, the 'gotcha' is the reveal, the breakdown of the how and why, the final questioning of the murderers.

Be aware of those elements when you're working them into your campaign. Even in games like Call of Cthulhu where the focus is on investigation, there are often times where if the players get it, they may still have to blow up a mine shaft or perform some action that pits them against the mythos directly. In Dungeons and Dragons, while I can easily imagine a scenario where a paladin pulls a mask off of a noble and we discover that it's a drow, I can also see that scenario where the wizard casts dispel magic, the drow is revealed, and then the big fight happens. Not all elements work with all games.

When looking to get some inspiration for your campaigns, don't be afraid to look at 'historical' books as well as the standard fantasy fare. The writing might be different enough to force you to evaluate what you're doing in your campaign and more importantly, why you're doing it that way. If nothing else, you'll come away with a few genre appropriate names in most cases.