The Flame Bearer
Saxon Tales Book 10
Written by Bernard Cornwell
$13.99 at Amazon (Hardcover)
The Saxon Tales, also known as The Last Kingdom Series, reaches its conclusion in a fast paced tale that I finished in a few hours of morning reading.
As with many books by Bernard Cornwell, he captures the period regarding plausible events, characters, and overall mood through the description of the people and places that our main viewpoint character, Uthred.
In this novel, seeds were sown so long ago, bear fruit as the main thrust of the tale is Uthred and his final battle against his cousin, also named Uthred.
If you enjoy books in this era of Viking savagery upon English shores, this will be a quick read.
But what can you pull from it for your games?
Religion Matters: Uthred is a pagan. He worships the gods of the Vikings. Most of those in England? The Saxons who themselves were once pagans? They worship the 'Nailed God'. The clashes between forces are not merely over land and titles but over religious strength and culture.
Stories Matter: The title of the book, The Flame Bearer, originates with one of Uthred's ancestors who came from across the sea and took over the castle that Uthred would, hundreds of years later, grows up in. The parallels between what has happened and what will happen, are clear and meant to inspire Uthred's men even as it demoralizes his enemies.
Languages Matter: Uthred is a man with friends all over the world and knowing a few languages helps him avoid situations he might not be able to otherwise. While some fantasy settings overcome this with 'Common Tongue', there are often options that are inherent in the game that players don't necessarily take advantage of. In the Forgotten Realms, for example, the Common in Kara-Tur is different than the common in Al-Qadim is different than the Common in the more common part of the realms. Old editions used to give special languages like alignment tongue as well as thieves cant among others. Players should never underestimate the power of having a unique or near unique style of communication including sign language.
On the other hand, the GM shouldn't hesitate to have NPC's have their own methods of communication. Drow have their own 'common' tongue and others from different planes may have their own manner of communication. Star Trek the Next Generation did a fantastic episode where the geist of merely trying to communicate lasted the whole episode.
Factions Matter: Uthred has made more than his fair share of enemies and allies through the ten books in the series. This sometimes involves his enemies coming together against him. The good news? Sometimes there are foes outside of that original circle who attack each other. Having factions that don't necessarily make their presence known every game session and every encounter make the world larger and more dangerous, more random than it normally is. Sometimes these elements should work in the players' favor and sometimes against them. The enemy of the enemy is not always your friend after all.
Time Moves On: Uthred has been fortunate to live through numerous enemies and unfortunate enough to watch allies and even dearly loved ones pass on. His religious upbringing gives him pause when a foe is about to die, to ensure that if a warrior, he dies with a weapon in his hand.
As time moves on, though, the world changes. If your campaigns consist of more than dungeon crawls, how is time moving on effecting the world? Uthred has children, one deceased, one married to a former enemy now an ally, and one about to be married to the daughter of an enemy.
England itself, once almost entirely overcome by the Danes, has struggled back from the brink of being overcome to being almost entirely run by the Saxons and uniting under one 'England' banner.
The players can be the center point of the campaign, but the world itself will continue to move on in ways outside their direct control, outside their direct influence. And they should want to be a part of that.
The Flame Bearer has a lot going for it and it is a fitting end to Uthred's sage. Now if only Benard will continue that with Uthred's son also named Uthred...