Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review - Bennett's Six Medieval Men and Women

Old School 'D&D' and games carrying on its spirit are really about characters. How they live. How they die. What principles make a brash wizard or a humble fighter go into the dark? Fortune? Glory? The challenge of fighting evil?

Given these questions, which each player and DM answers in their own way, a perennial 'discussion' bounces around the Internet about a character's 'endgame'. What happens when fortune and glory are earned by a character over a course of time?

H.S. Bennett's book, Six Medieval Men & Women, can offer DM's and players some simple and accessible ideas on fleshing out the active life of a hero or heroine and basic treatments for campaign life beyond the dungeon. The book casts a light on the following lives from history (linked below to their Wikipedia articles):
  1. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
  2. Sir John Fastolf
  3. Thomas Hoccleve
  4. Margaret Paston (Mrs. Paston doesn't have her own Wikipedia page, but the family letters do.)
  5. Margery Kempe
  6. Richard Bradwater (in an ironic twist, the only peasant written about in the book doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. Some things never change...)
It's fair to say that much of fantasy's symbolic language is drawn from medieval Europe, particularly the original World of Greyhawk setting materials and modules which I drone on and on about. From the Greyhawk/Gygaxian corner of fantasy worlds, the personages above and the lives they lead can be particularly inspirational. As the DM is the players true 'link' to the campaign world - not the dice - the way that historical characters interact with the world around them is particularly valuable and should be studied by everyone.

From the book's text on its subjects, a DM can take away much insight:
  • Humphrey's life gives insight into familial and political connections and the lives of royalty. While most adventurers don't necessarily hail from the 'upper class' strata of a game world, the rise and fall of a nobleman offers useful NPC background info. Humphrey's life suggests the value of characters building connections with the powerful, and his life offers more than a few 'slots' where adventurers 'outside the system' could gain prestige. As a member of the Order of the Garter, it ties in with chivalrous (or nefarious...) orders and how such pledges and allegiances both build stability but are rarely protection against the winds of political change. A peasant can, perhaps, rise above his station by exemplary deeds - a noble is always in the cross hairs of political intrigue and dare not ignore it.
  • Falstof's life is perhaps the most valuable insight into the 'endgame' mentioned above. What does a fighting man in the service of a lord do with his wealth? At no point in the book are there mentions of strongholds or dungeons to protect huge chests filled with gold. In medieval history, wealth was invested and Sir John spent most of the latter part of his life at a desk managing the wealth and property of his lifetime. It suggests that even for the most 'epic' warrior, the 'endgame' path is one of literacy, management, dealing with subordinates and paid specialists, visiting judges and hiring clerks. In short, everything that a battlefield is not. For those players not willing to 'settle down' or seeking the 'thrill of the hunt', Falstof's life offers plenty of reason to jump at the high level challenges of distant lands, other planes, or expeditions into the unknown. This chapter is a treasure trove for a DM's campaign, and new adventurers can find several opportunities in the service of an aging adventurer trying to keep his stronghold(s) alive and healthy.
  • Tom Hoccleve's life is perhaps the most antithetical to an adventurer's and yet closest to our own time period: he was a clerk. Note that, prior to the printing press, such clerks were important parts of the bureaucratic machinery of both Church and governments. Interacting with clerks to fetch or deliver documents could be a great 'pre-adventuring' career for player characters, and the bureaucratic background of a kingdom is overflowing with NPC's.
  • Margaret Paston's life, as expressed in the book, puts the role of wife in the spotlight during the time period in which she lived - a time of great turbulence in England. It is a revealing chapter - showing much more of the 'feminine half of history' that rarely enters into chronicles - and portrays a character of great competence and determination holding a family and their property in her care.
  • Margery Kempe's trials and tribulations will be a strike against the romantic image of adventuring clerics. She was a mystic and religious pilgrim, causing disruption in many places in her journeys, but keeping steadfast in her faith. She was married and bore fourteen children before being 'chosen' for a path of faith and pilgrimage, so she was not born into fanaticism. Her story and her sufferings along her strange and winding path is good fuel for campaigns that involve different faiths and service to gods. An adventurer without a weapon, and a traveller without a fixed destination, her gifts and the responses those gifts evoked are certainly great material.
  • Finally, Richard Bradwater's chapter gives us a tiny glimpse into a peasant 'hellraiser' and troublemaker. This chapter's value to a DM isn't just the glimpse - it is the description of the background of courts, grievances, and 'official' interaction between peasant and ruler that is of greatest value. If the 'endgame' of a character is to be discussed, then the institution and maintenance of justice and order through a regular 'court' structure is something worth paying attention to.
Those who can get their hands on this book will not suffer through a dry text - the chapters aren't very long and are taken from a series of lectures. A certain 'condensation' of life is presented and each chapter reads very smoothly and quickly.

Bennett's LibraryThing Link

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