Monthly Archives: June 2013

The best of Appendix N: The Broken Sword

Among Dungeons & Dragons fans, Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions gets the most attention, as it contains Gary Gygax’s models for the paladin and the troll. But as a read, Three Hearts and Three Lions pales next to Anderson’s finest fantasy, The Broken Sword.

Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword 1971 edition

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword 1971 edition

With The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson writes a book inspired by the same Norse sagas that fired Tolkien’s imagination. But while a nostalgia for an idyllic past colors Tolkien’s work, The Broken Sword hews closer to the bleak reality of history. The heroes of The Broken Sword see murderous viking raids as an ordinary summer, and enslaving thralls as the prerogative of the strong. Here, the elves and other “good” faerie folk seem as dangerous and amoral as the trolls and goblins—all well suited for frightening a skald’s listeners around the fire. If you think the Feywild lacks menace and danger, then the The Broken Sword becomes required reading. Both gods and faerie bring doom to the mortal men unlucky enough to cross paths.

The story turns on a witch’s entirely-justified quest for revenge. No fairy tale plot of poison apples or spinning wheels, her plan relies on cunning and dark bargains. The story adds a changeling, an apocalyptic war between elves and trolls, forbidden love, and a demon-haunted runesword. The Broken Sword jams more passion and emotion in a slim volume than modern fantasies work into a fat trilogy. The tale’s villains earn nearly as much sympathy as the heroes. As the story hurtles forward, both heroes and villains call on ever more dangerous means to achieve their ends, knowing they draw closer to doom, but unwilling or unable to stop.

The book’s demonic runesword and growing sense of doom echo Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga because The Broken Sword provided half of Moorcock’s inspiration for Elric, and set the tone for Moorcock’s other fantasies. (The second half of Elric’s inspiration came from the notion of reversing Conan’s qualities, turning a mighty, barbarian warrior into a sickly, ultra-civilized sorcerer.)

Originally published in 1954, The Broken Sword quickly dropped out of print until 1971, when the success of the Lord of the Rings  opened the door for paperback reprints of other fantasies. For the 1971 printing, Anderson took the unusual step of revising the book. He drew on 16 years of additional writing experience to make it “more readable.” You can find an excellent account of the differences between the two editions in Broken In Two: Poul Anderson’s two versions of The Broken Sword.

I read the 1971 version about 20 years ago and recently read the 1954 original version. The original cuts closer to the flavor of the mythic sagas, complete with more ornate, more poetic language. Still, in 1985, I enjoyed the leaner prose of revision more than I would have enjoyed the original. I suspect that, like me, most modern readers will find the 1971 edition “more readable.”

The Broken Sword ranks with Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana as my two, favorite single-volume fantasy books.

A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

Some rare number of groups can stroll into a tavern populated with lovingly crafted and colorful characters, and then spontaneously mingle for a night of role playing. I personally have never seen this happen, but I know it’s possible, because these players constantly boast that they gamed for entire night without rolling a single die. (Sometimes I feel the same vibe of subtle snobbery that comes from the guy who never stops mentioning that he doesn’t even own a TV.)

In my experience, all players enter the inn and follow this procedure:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the lovingly crafted and colorful occupants of the inn, update your character sheet or sample the snacks.

  2. Enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as your character, who carries thousands of gold in loose change, pays a gold piece for a 1cp cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.

  3. If you play a dwarf, act out your character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as airline food and 7-Eleven provides to stand-up comics.)

  4. Look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.

  5. If no figure beckons, wait for the bar fight.

  6. If no bar fight erupts, look in puzzlement at the dungeon master while you wait for the adventure to begin. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. The bar scene fizzles because the players lack both of these essential ingredients.

In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

By objectives, I’m not thinking of the players’ long term goals for things like ending the Prince of Murder’s reign of blood or restoring your family’s honor. If your players boast great role-playing chops, then each character may hold a different long-term goal. I’m interested in the sort of immediate objectives the players can accomplish in the next encounter. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the troll that bars your way. Save the orphans from the creatures in the cellar.

The lack of one of these essential ingredients explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches:

  • After the outcome of a battle becomes obvious and the monsters cease to be a threatening obstacle.

  • Any scene where the players’ patron fills them in on backstory or congratulates them on their success.

  • When characters walk into a bar populated with lovingly crafted and colorful NPCs, but when the characters lack any objective that they can reach during their visit. (The goal of indulging your dwarf’s appetite for ale does not count, because no obstacle stands in her way—unless she is broke; that could be interesting.)

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.

Group scenes and mass confusion

In Dungeons & Dragons, the dungeon master assumes the role of every non-player character. As a DM, when I must portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. Certainly if I were better at voices—and better at sticking to a voice—the confusion would lessen.

Short of voice acting class, I avoid the problem by contriving to have the players interact with one non-player character at a time.

Undead Fred cookie cuttersIn your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones. As a DM, you have a tougher job than a TV writer, because when you speak in character, the players may not always recognize your character. Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view.

Now suppose you’re Mel Blanc and Jim Dale rolled into one awesome dungeon master. Great! Can I play at your table? Nonetheless, you still shouldn’t have more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

As a dungeon master, you must work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, you should resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. In “The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge,” I suggested splitting the party to force everyone to contribute to an interactive skill challenge. But even without a skill challenge, dividing the party always serves as a great way to encourage less-vocal party members to take the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them their separate ways.