Review: Hereward of the Fens: The Battle of Ely and Involment of Peterborough and Ely Monasteries

Hereward of the Fens: The Battle of Ely and Involment of Peterborough and Ely Monasteries
Hereward of the Fens: The Battle of Ely and Involment of Peterborough and Ely Monasteries by Trevor A. Bevis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a Fen boy myself (the area of land around Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire in the UK that used to be boggy marshland before draining with islands scattered around) the name of Hereward the Wake has always been in the background somewhere; the Saxon rebel that held back William the Conqueror, resisting his taking of that area post 1066. Spurred on my Pendragon rpg campaign I’m putting together based in the Fens (replacing King William with King Arthur, anachronistic, but in the fine tradition of mixing things up in Arthurian legend) I picked up a cheap copy of this short book on Amazon, and have been dipping into it occasionally for inspiration and guidance.

Yesterday I finally sat down and read it from cover to cover as a piece of literature rather than as a textbook. What a fantastic story! Move over Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake is the real hero in these lands with the original band of bandits. Cast from his home, returning to find it taken, he wreaks revenge on the ‘Frenchmen’ (Normans) in a courageous manner, holding back the might of William as well as completing deeds of great daring in Ireland and Flanders. This contains it all; love, courage, conflict, tragedy and a larger than life hero. The dramatic climax is Hereward’s defence of the marsh surrounded Ely from William where he repels him twice before he is betrayed and beaten, complete with disguised visitations upon the Normans (again I wonder who the real Robin Hood is…) For those who have read Malory’s Mort D’Arthur, the style will be familiar, and worthy of reading alongside the feats of these other heroes of Britain, the Knights of the Round Table. Why he is not the legend that these other characters are is a mystery to me.

The body of Trevor Bevis’ book is a translation of the ‘De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis’ (The Exploits of Hereward the Saxon) as written by 12th Century monastry scholars, preceded by his own notes on Hereward and closed with a chapter on Conflict in the Isle of Ely.

The version I read is the 8th reprint of the 1982 edition. I see that it has been updated since then. Worth picking up a copy if you are interested in the history and legend of our land. I’ve awarded it 4 stars rather than 5 simply because the I think the notes around the central story could be better introduced so that the work becomes a more unified rather than a set of notes with De Gestis included.

Move over Robin – Hereward is my hero now!

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Review: King Arthur Pendragon

King Arthur Pendragon (Pendragon 5th Edition)King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just realised that I had failed to add this classic to my Goodreads.com bookshelf. It is without doubt my favourite rpg. Full stop (or for my American friends, ‘Period’).

At its heart is a simple rpg system. Roll a d20, aim to roll under or equal to a target number (your skill etc.). If you manage this you succeed. If you roll equal to your score, that is a critical success. If the roll is opposed (eg. in situations where two characters are competing against each other) the higher succeeding roll wins (unless one is a critical, ie. exactly equal to the target number) as this is a higher rated success.

What makes this game so special, however, is the way it marries the system to the genre the game is set in: Arthurian legend (primarily Marlory’s take on it). Its introduction of Character Traits and Passions brings personality to the fore and reinforces and encourages playing in a style that accords with the source material. Love, honour, glory and even fits of madness are the heart of the game, rather than combat or spell lists.

The Fifth edition is more streamlined than the somewhat bloated fourth edition, and along with the Great Pendragon Campaign provides in my humble opinion, a perfect example of great game design.

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Pulpy Madness

In need of fast inspiration! Tomorrow night I am running a games set in the world of The Day After Ragnarak, but rather than running it with its default system (Savage Worlds) I am using FATE, specifically of the Dresden Files RPG variety. This will be my first game using FATE, either as a player or as a GM. Having offered to run it a week or so back, but with not so much response, I thought we would end up board gaming and so put it to one side to focus on prepping some Pendragon scenarios I’m writing for a Fenland Sourcebook (a personal project, not one that’s been commissioned!) Then, yesterday, all of a sudden, it’s game on. Two days to plan the game, learn the system and produce the character sheets and other handouts. Serves me right!

Quite nervous about running it now. Instinctively I like what FATE is trying to do. I love the concept of aspects and what reads as a fairly free and flexible system, but I’ve never seen it in action and so I’ve no idea what it will turn out to be like in practice. As for finishing the plans on time, this suddenly seems to be a good time to put some GM Prep-lite plans in place as previously mentioned.

Making GM-Prepping Easier

Just read an interesting article on prepping for GMing roleplaying sessions: Prep-Lite Manifesto- The Template
I know that I try and prep too much and can veer towards the railroady if not careful. Might try following this template for my next session – particularly useful as I’m using FATE/DFRPG which lends itself to this with its aspects.
Have recently also been using 3×5″ index cards a lot in prepping and running games, specifically for NPCs although I may extend that to locations too. Before a session I prepare one for each major NPC – a name at the top, and a few introductory lines describing them, bullet points really. As the game goes on, I write down facts that are discovered (or improvised as played), and encourage players to write their PCs interactions with them on the cards too. This helps keep track of these aspects, and allows me to grow and develop them as NPCs in and between sessions. I also make a few more generic NPC cards too – for example a set of standard knights in Pendragon. These characters, I’m discovering, have a habit of coming to life and developing surprising roles as we play.
As a preacher, this concept of a template is an interesting one too, is there something in this idea that can help me make my sermon prep more effective too, focussing on the important and leaving the unimportant to one side etc. I’ll come back to that sometime!

The Year that Lasts Forever

Had a great night last night with my regular Pendragon Group. Theoretically we meet every fortnight for a couple of hours on a Monday evening, in reality its more like 3 times every couple of months – a far cry from those heady gaming weekends of my youth where we played for every minute the day gave us! It remains great fun. The only catch is that some of the scenarios which are supposed to last but one game session (Pendragon has one year per session in theory) last a span of some months, and the current one is no exception. We started on May 17th, and we’re still going. You can read the account here if you’re interested. Some finish the Great Pendragon Campaign in a couple of years. Us? It will be a decade at least until we’re done!

So what keeps me gaming? I guess there are many answers. On one level gathering together with a group of friends is of itself a good thing, and the game encourages us to meet. I also love creating a new world, an emerging story that is shared by us – if you read the write ups they will seem no doubt dry and stilted, but when we read them, they take us back to a living breathing world. Of late I’ve been trying to find ways in which this act of generation is more shared, the players not just responding to a world I’ve made. I’ve been experimenting with allowing them to decide more what they are going to do, where they want to take the sessions. I’m also using more random tables and the like to generate new ideas – not wholesale situations, but little seeds we can then riff off and grow as fits our story. A bit Old School perhaps, but just because its old, doesn’t mean it’s no good!