Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Eagles' Brood (Gaming Edition)

The Eagles' Brood
Written by Jack Whyte
Book 3 of the Camulod Chronicles
Price: $25.99 ($16.04 at Amazon)
Historical Fiction/Fantasy (Arthurian)
Pages: 623 (mass paperback)

Author Jack Whyte, author's website here, http://www.jackwhyte.com/ , has a lot of great bits in volume three of the Camulod Chronicles that anyone running a role playing game, ranging from Pendragon to Dungeons and Dragons and other games, can snag for their own campaigns.

Religion: Religion can be a tricky subject in role playing games that have a historical origin. However its important to note that even now, in 2016, people living today do not believe as people living one hundred years ago did.

Expand that out to hundreds of years ago, or thousands, or in a fantasy setting where the gods are real entities, and well, the subject of using religion in and of itself should be a no-brainer.

In The Eagles' Brood, there are two separate times that religion takes center point in a manner that should be incorporated into a RPG.

1. Funeral Celebration: When Merlyn's father, the son of one of the founders of the colony, of Camulod itself, is slain by assassins, the colony's morale is damaged. Merlyn is encouraged to set his father aflame, as the old tributes to Mithras, who was the Roman god of soldiers. This burning was like the bit in the Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, where the keeper of the crown calls for he and his son to be burned like the kings of old!

In doing this, Merlyn makes his father more than a leader, he makes him into a martyr. He makes him into a hero. He makes him into a legend.

This turns the funeral into one that was somber and of despair into one of joy and triumph. 

2. Religious Schism: The second scene, is when Merlyn decides to visit a gathering of priests who are set to debate religion, or at least, Christian religion itself. History is sadly full of wars waged in the name of the "right" religion. A lively debate is far easier to handle. 

In a fantasy game, this isn't as hard to do as it may seem. In the Forgotten Realms, the Sun God has two identities. During the Twilight War, written by Paul S Kemp, the religion is changing at the time. It is going from one face of the Sun God to a harsher face.

In other venues of a pantheon, there could be discussion if the gods even exist at all. While in some settings like Planescape or the Forgotten Realms, the evidence may be obvious, in others like Eberon, it may not be so obvious.

Even in deity rich settings like the Forgotten Realms, some gods like Ao, a god above gods, may not want mortal worshipers, even actively discouraging them by providing their clerics with no power and never answering prayers. 

But why use such a thing in the first place? What is it going to bring to the campaign?

If you've ever run a campaign, especially a fantasy one or a space opera one, there is an old stereotype about "the bar" as a place for all characters to be.

But what if all the characters meet at one of these events? What if there is a gathering to discuss apostates and heresy? What if certain factions are cast out of the clergy itself? Are any of the player's some odd class that might be effected? Have worshippers of the god Tempus declared that psioncis are anathema to their cause and all psionic using professions be slain on sight?

Or what if the characters are all effected in some manner, by the death of a great hero whose funeral has been declared a holiday through the city? While the background of meeting in a bar might still remain true, the background why the characters are there, can be a little more varied. One could be a grandson, proud of the sacrifices made by his grandmother. Another could be a student from a school founded by the deceased hero. Others might be drawn near to hear tales of this character's greatness and to draw strength and inspiration from it.

And as an adventure seed, perhaps others are not so pleased and decide to attack on this holiday, leaving the players the only ones in the vicinity to halt this blasphemy. 

To make it even more interesting, you can have the attack lead by another student, one who was not impressed by this "false" hero, one whose so upset that they died because it proves all of their teachings were in vain and that other methods, harsher methods, must be embraced. 

It also provides the Game Master with reasons why high powered or well placed individuals might be around. The players may have social reason to be within reach of the powerful and well placed and well, if your players are anything like mine have been, there will be many a tale from that in and of itself that could provide hours of amusement.

Another thing that you can add to the campaign setting to make it more unique, is a new "site" or a new monument to the fallen hero. Characters may recall the first time they came together as a group over that monument and spill a decanter of wine to the fallen hero. They may assemble together every year during this holiday to forgive and forget old trespasses. 

Religion has a myriad of uses in a campaign setting and the Game Master should be on the lookout for every opportunity to utilize them and make his own gaming easier. 

The Eagles' Brood

The Eagles' Brood
Written by Jack Whyte
Book 3 of the Camulod Chronicles
Price: $25.99 ($16.04 at Amazon)
Historical Fiction/Fantasy (Arthurian)
Pages: 623 (mass paperback)

The Eagle's Brood is Book Three in the Camulod Chronicles. The series reimagines the Arthurian mythos from well before King Arthur's time, indeed, even before Uther's time. The chronicle is focused in a historical manner with a few nods to things that 'could' be interpreted as 'magic' or 'mysticism' but happen all the time such as deja vu.

Because Jack Whyte is always moving the series forward, The Eagles' Brood introduces a new point of view character and it is no less than Caius Merlyn Britannicus or simply Merlyn. This version of Merlyn is unlike any I can actively recall. He's no seer. No prophet. No magi-. No wild druid.

This Caius Merlyn Britannicus is a soldier, a leader, and a strategist. In this, he is joined by his cousin, Uther Pendragon. The two are the heirs of the growing colony, Camulod. They strive to keep all that is best from the old Roman Republic alive while adapting to their homeland.

As they do this, they find enemies about them including Lot, a king to the south whose ambitions include taking over Camulod and indeed, all lands.

Jack Whyte does a fantastic job of detailing out the ruin of the island as more and more traces of civilization fade. Without roads and with what crumbling infrastructure remains falling under constant attack by Saxon raids, civilization itself, or at least civilization in the cities, begins to fall apart.

Even as that happens, Uther and others craft and create their own weapons. Uther discovers stirrups for riding a horse. As I've read a few stories dealing with the Arthurian mythos, this bit struck in in particular until I did some cross references. Ben Bova did something similar with Orion, a time traveller who also helped King Arthur.

Uther on the other hand, invents the flail. This turns out to be a widely used killing weapon capable of smashing skulls and destroying breastplates as if they weren't there. The early day weapons and revisions to counter the new weapons plays out well in the novel.

This first person telling of Arthurian myth in a historical fashion is different than say, Bernard Cornwell and his own first person telling in the Warlord Chronicles.

For me, the Warlord Chronicles was all about the strategy. All about the terror and exultation of being in the shield wall.

And it's not that Jack Whyte doesn't have several combat scenes within his tale, but rather, they serve to move the story forward to the next character moments. The characters and their fates are what keeps the series moving forward.

I was a little worried by book two what I took as numerous useless passages but here the story movies quick and the character beats are solid. At the end I was left wanting to pick up the next chronicle ot find out "what happens now!".

If you're looking for an Arthurian version that tries to stick with the historical as opposed to the fantastic, The Eagles' Brood should be on your reading list.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Singing Sword by Jack Whyte (Appendix N Edition)

The Singing Sword
Written by Jack Whyte
Published by Tor
$17.99 paperback ($12.93 Amazon)
560 pages (mass market paperback version)

When looking at things to take as inspiration from a novel, sometimes there are things we already know. Thing's we've already used. But things we haven't used in a long time. Game 'tricks' and 'tips' are like a muscle, when a specific technique isn't used in a while, it fades.

With that in mind:

Letters: Caius Britannicus son is a military son whose off fighting in various parts of the world. He writers his father several times. This allows the reader to get a taste of who leaders are in different parts of the world, what actions of importance are happening, and acts as potential foreshadowing to things that may happens in Caius' part of the world.

When looking at your own game, do the characters know people from other parts of the world that would think enough of them to send them letters? Many games, like Call of Cthulhu, make extensive use of the written word to relay vital information to the players. The author K. J. Parker makes good use of letters as communication in his novel, The Folding Knife.

But how can you use it in a game like Dungeons and Dragons say?

Look at it from a traditional class perspective:

Warriors: Those who are in a guild, might tell the players of new enemies that they have fought. They might send word of new weapons they have discovered. They might talk of new fortresses being built. 

Clerics: Might make mention old religious icons or texts found. Might mention the rise of an opposing religion. Might mention a prophet of their own religion that has been seen all about the world and tell the players to keep an eye out for him.

Wizards: Might speak of planar disruptions. Might talk about new spells that have been discovered. If the players are very friendly, might even include new spells. Not every spell needs to be torn from a crypt and if the players have invested the time and energy to cultivate good relations with others, those relations should also have a pay out.

Rogues: Might relate if a guild war has broken out. Might speak of a new "sheriff" in town. Might speak of a wagon full of riches that are moving into the player's area and the rogues will share this information... for a price!

Historians: Not all "classes" need to of an adventuring type. The players are often looking for lost legends and lore and historians can provide that. Try to give each historian it's own feel and flavor to insure that the characters can tell them apart in letters. Maybe one always sends missives that are stained with mustard and foodstuffs while another sends only immaculately clean and pressed letters with perfect writing.

Military: I've mentioned the military before because as an organization, it has a lot of utility. But one theme I failed to mention, is stuck behind enemy lines.

Being stuck behind enemy lines is a trope It's such a trope, that there are actually movies with it as the title. 

But there are all manner of scenarios to think about. There's the short term stuck behind enemy lines where the players have to fight their way out.

There's the short term where they have to sneak their way out.

But what about the long term? What if the players are part of a military group on an island where the natives destroy the military encampments and burn the boats and it's going to take at least a year for the player's reinforcements to get there?

What happens when the player's "friendly" alliance shows up? With they think the players have gotten too chummy with the natives? Will the players have to fight former friends and allies? 

The Singing Sword is filled with great ideas ranging from "The Lady of the Lack" being an ingot of Skystone metal that "gives" the sword Excalibur to the forging of bloodlines to save the ideas of civilization itself. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Singing Sword by Jack Whyte

The Singing Sword
Written by Jack Whyte
Published by Tor
$17.99 paperback ($12.93 Amazon)
560 pages (mass market paperback version)

The Singing Sword is book two in the Camulod  Chronicles, following immediately after the events of The Skystone. Told in first person by Pubius Varrus who with his good friend and brother in law, Caius Britannicus, the duo continue to advance their dream of creating "The Colony" which will retain the best and truest essence of all that was good of Rome, even as Rome continues its slow slide into oblivion.

The biggest problem with the Singing Sword is Jack's editor. There are whole swathes of the book that could have been cut with little effect to the flow or function of the remainder of the story. Pages are spent on Pubius' lust for a woman who torments him with her "wicked ways" that leads into a bit where the Colony then decides they must deliberately strive for greater community. The whole striving for greater community could have been handled without the whole "torment" section.

Jack Whyte could have taken those pages to discuss how the Colony fared when their stores were burned by someone seeking vengeance against them for example.

When looking at most modern movies, the "main" bad guy shows up in one movie. This is usually because once that villain is introduced and his role done, he's no longer needed. Another villain can be brought in. Sadly, Jack no new menace here. Instead Jack brings back the villain from last book without change. As that villain came from a huge family, the author could have introduced a relative of said villain, a relative, whose whole family already hates Britannicus as established in the previous book. A feud going back generations even.

The good new is that Jack's writing is easy to power through in situation that might not be of interest to the reader. The first person narration allows the action to move quickly and after a few eye rolling incidents, I found things progressing in the actual story and plot.

Pubius and his people strive to usher in the future age of Arthur. They are allies of the Celts and marriages take place that strength the bonds of the former Romans, now calling themselves Britons, and the Celts. The Empire of Rome continues its crumbling. The Celts are slowly, very slowly, starting to use yew longbows of great pull, a direct nod to the future importance of the longbow to Britain.

The nature of warfare begins to change. Caius instructs Pubius and his allies to adopt to it by breeding horses, stronger, heavier, capable of carrying more weight. This is paving the way for the era of the mounted horseman and his specialized weapons.

These parts are well told fit in well with the epic feel that is proper for a "Camelot" chronicle.

If you're a fan of the myths of King Arthur and want to see Jack's ideas of what the "Lady of the Lake" and how Excalibur itself is forged, The Singing Sword is solid. Just be prepared to plow through some of the dross to get to the gold.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Skystone by Jack Whyte: Appendix N Edition

Book One in the Camulod Chronicles
Written by Jack Whyte
Historical Fiction
I’ve already done my book review of the SkyStone, so now I’m going to talk about what I would think about in my own campaigns in relation to the book itself. Note this will include spoilers in the book.

1.       The Military: The viewpoint character, Publius Varrus, is former military. While he didn’t take an “arrow to the knee” as so popular in internet memes, he did suffer a wound that left him with a limp and unfit for military service.

But his time in the military did provide him with skills. It did provide him with access to a powerful organization. It did provide him with numerous contacts and friends.

When looking at your own campaigns, what role is the military playing in your campaign? Is it active? Is it at peak efficiency? Do they have new technologies? Are they known for their discipline? Are they known for a certain weapon style or fighting style?

Whose in the military? Varrus’ best friend, Caius Britannicus, is the soldier’s soldier in that there is nothing he asks of his men that he himself does not know how to do. When looking at your version of the military, whose running it? Are all branches run the same?

2.       Two Sides: In the SkyStone, Rome is at a dangerous time. There are those like Caius who represented what is finest in Rome. There are those who represent what Rome is now. Rome is seen by many as a parasite, a country unable to feed itself so it keeps conquest high on its list of priorities. The people suffer but the elite are wealthy beyond measure. Corruption runs rampant but in the “country” like say, Britain, life is cleaner somehow.

When looking at your own settings, are there places that have two sides to them? Most fantasy cities have a wealthy section and a poverty stricken section. This includes fantasy cities like Waterdeep as well as Mithril, the City of the Golem, from the Scarred Lands campaign. In the latter, Mithril, the city is run by paladins. They cannot eliminate poverty. There are paladins who are so involved in their “holy” and “righteous” aspects, that they  consider themselves above things in the lower wards.

3.       Trade: Towards the end of the Skystone, a wealthy duo find that they are finished not because of anything they have done wrong, but because the country is unable to safeguard the waterways. All of their ships suffer raids and capture from pirates. The land routes don’t fare much better.
While not often touched on in most campaigns, trade is an artery of the world. Without trade, how do things get done? Does famine happen? Do certain types of weapons go out of style as the expertise to make them is no longer known?

If you’re trying to incorporate such elements, have the players enjoy something from outside of the normal reach. It could be an exotic fruit at the market. “Ah, these mangos sure do hit the spot eh?”

And then as the campaign moves on, those mangos are nowhere to be found.

Now players being players, hey, they’ll often try to jump right in and fix things. And if you want to run your campaign around the characters selling their services as  caravan guards or military strength on boat escort duty, there have been many adventurers that start that way.

It gives the Game Master a great opportunity to create characters. For example, maybe someone on the  caravan is a traitor? They’ve already sold out the location and known stops of the caravan. Perhaps one of the player’s lost his character in a previous fight and this allows the Game Master to easily allow a new character from a variety of sources.

4.       Making Your Own Legends: While Excalibur is not forged in the SkyStone, the hunt for the SkyStone itself takes place over the course of years. Given that the next book is the Singing Sword, one can only imagine that the main character, Varrus, is going to forge Excalibur in that book.

One of the fun things about the old Forgotten Realms novel, The Crystal Shard, is that the dwarf fighter in the book, makes a magical hammer, Aegis Fang, that he gives to Wulfgar as a token of his respect and fatherly love.

Often players and non-player characters move around the game board hunting down old items. Centuries old, millennia old, eons old. So ancient it came from  beyond the creation of the universe.

Don’t hesitate to allow the players to make their mark on the campaign in other ways. Having them make a brand new item with it’s own legends and lore, the gathering of the components, the gathering of the knowledge required to forge the item, the places that have to be visited, the people that must be spoken to, those things can add a lot of depth to a campaign and in the end, give it a new legend that future players and characters will come to know as opposed to “hunt down this 10,000 year old sword.”

The SkyStone is brimming with ideas if you want to apply them to your own  campaign.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Skystone By Jack Whyte (Book Review Edition)

Written by Jack Whyte
Book One in the Camulod Chronicles

Still experimenting with format of these blog posts. Trying to keep the reviews separate from thoughts on how I’d use the material in a game. Any opinions on that? Keep them separate? Bring them back together?

The King Arthur mythology is well tended. It’s had numerous books, comics, and even movies done about it. Some of these are classic. For example, Excalibur with a young Patrick Steward and a fantastic soundtrack.

Despite the age of the myths, despite numerous classic books like the Quest for the Holy Grail and modern books, such as Bernard Cornwell's own fist person telling through the Warlord Chronicles, there’s still room for others to plant their vision.

In the Skystone, the first book of the Camulod Chronicles, we’re introduced Pubius Varrus. He is our first person narrator for the tale of the Skystone. 

Varrus is a bit of a Mary Sue. He does face adversity. He does face loss. But when the chips are done, he always comes through smelling of a rose. 

He often finds himself in situations where no, he should be dead, but nonetheless, comes out on top. As a main character though, his flaws, such as his injured leg, help make up for the overwhelming good fortune he has.

Unlike some books on Arthur, this one takes place well before Arthur, or even Uther is introduced to the reader. This is a tale that takes place when Britain is a land still under the control of the Roman Empire but that control, over a number of years, slips and begins to vanish away.

Jack Whyte takes his time in the slow descent of Rome. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are signs and portents of it everywhere. Some people looking at things in America now might draw some parallels to how things work in Jack’s Rome. For example, discipline in the Roman army is down. They used to dig trenches prior to setting up for an overnight stay on the road for defensibility purposes.

That in and of itself may seem small, but coup it with soldiers not being treated right by Rome in the first place. In tandem with the Roman empire accepting people of various nationalities that aren’t Roman but who leave after service, bringing those skill sets with them. When people in other countries have been under assault for years by the Empire, their children killed, their resources drained. There are some parallels if one chooses to look for them with modern America.

By the end of the tale, Varrus and his good friend Caius Britannicus, have started to forge their own colony for the former Romans who are of long standing British birth. They have their own plan and their own method.

And more importantly, they have access to the fabled Skystone!

Jack Whyte puts a little too much description and detail into his writing but the good news is that it flows quickly. In terms of writing style, it’s not an “as it happens” 1st person. It’s an “as it happened” first person. The author is alive and well. We might fear something bad is going to happen to Varrus, but we know he’s not going to die. An editor who wanted to reduce this novel could probably have lopped out 50 pages without doing it any harm as it would still weigh in over 400 pages.

With such rich details and interesting characters, Jack Whyte has hooked me for at least the next two books as I already own the third and will shortly hunt down the second.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Vagabond: Gaming Edition Version

Welcome to Vagabond Gaming edition! I debated including some ideas on how I’d use Vagabond in my previous post but decided I wanted that to just sit as its own post as a review of the book. Any opinions on that or is it better to just keep review and inspiration ideas all together? Sound off in the comments!

Note, a lot of what I pull from most sources, isn’t necessarily for dungeon crawl games. It’s not that I have anything against such games, far from it. It’s also some advice that you may have read before. Perhaps even here on this very blog!

But when reading books, most don’t involve dungeons at all. Most involve characters and locations and when you enjoy a book and can bring the elements of the book you enjoy to the table? That’s a win.

Names: “As well as Hellgiver and Widowmaker, thee was Stone-Hurler, Crusher, Gravedigger, Stonewhip, Spiteful, Destroyer and Hand of God.” In the book these are the names given to siege weapons but damn, don’t they sound powerful? They give each siege weapon their own identity outside of siege weapons one through nine.

Names can also be descriptive in terms of the person they belong to. Beggar for example. “…but Beggar was an enormous man, a shambling giant with a face so bearded that his nose and eyes alone could be see through the tangled, crusted hair beneath the brim of the rusted iron cap that served as a helmet.”

Languages: I appreciate that almost every fantasy and science fiction setting includes a “common” tongue or a “trade” language. But it the real world that’s such nonsense eh? Even if you give players a “trade” tongue, keep an eye out for how you can use other languages in your game. At this point in England’s history, the French language is seen as a “noble” language. Latin is a “scholar” language. English itself may be a common tongue but it’s the vulgar one if so.

Give ethnicities their own languages and have them use it to communicate amongst themselves in front of the players. Give one culture historical reasons why it doesn’t like speaking another culture’s languages.

Holidays: There are numerous named days for various saints. These peppering of saints’ names throughout the book act in a few manners, but one of them is to tell the passage of time.  Other holidays may be very localized. For example, in Thomas’ old village, they used to drown rats on ships at high tide from boats weighed down with stones and those rats that sought escape, it would be similar to the old Simpson’s “Snake Whacking Day”. Hey, there was no television back in those days!

Freedom of Choice and Consequences From Freedom of Choice: I’m sure there’s a better way to say this so sound off in the comments if you have one.
At the start of Vagabond, Thomas is on a mission to retrieve information on the Grail from an elderly priest. He decides instead that he’s going to hang around and fight and sends his lover and friend to get that information. 

By not choosing to go, Thomas unintentionally gets his lover and friend killed. See, in a “living” setting, the bad guys are doing things too.

The villains of the campaign, especially one that’s not a dungeon crawl, should never be sitting around sighing that their bored waiting for the hero to come and kill them. They should be doing their own things and these things should be on a set schedule that can change as the setting changes.

For example, if Thomas has gone, the book would have taken a much different turn as Thomas would lose half his motivation for the rest of the book and might actually be done in about a third of the pages!

In your own campaigns, are there situations that require the players to be in two places at once? If they don’t go to both, what happens? A lot of the older adventurers set up adventures with rumor wheels but often, nothing happened regardless of which order the players took the challenges.

If you have time, don’t do that. Update the rumors. Change things up. Make sure the players know that the world is not waiting on them to do things.

Destroy Your Village: The small village Thomas comes from is an overgrown ruin. It was destroyed in a raid. Animals have taken over. How many times has a traditional Dungeons and Dragons campaign started in a small village that couldn’t handle a wild owlbear much less a powerful foe? When the players leave the village and if they ever return, have it destroyed. Showcase the power of something like a dragon or wizard who were something for something the characters were rumored to have left there in the past.

Places changes. People change. Settings change. Sink Waterdeep and think about how that changes the power structure in the north. Do the sea elves and merfolk take over the drowned ruins? Do aquatic dragons guard the still shielded libraries? Modern ruins are much more relevant to characters than ancient ones because there is a personal connection to them.

Vagabond has a lot going for it. If you’re one of those who picks up on different bits when you’re reading, it’s well worth the read.