Circle of Hands by Ron Edwards

In this book, Ron created a thoroughly interesting setting. The mechanics seem simple and a bit random (in character generation), but that fits the less scripted times that he’s emulating.

The book covers four undifferentiated nations in a very local dark ages setting, with two sweeping magics running through the area and altering the world in their image. The four regions are very similar; there’s little coinage, a great deal of mistrust for outsiders (who, to be fair, are often raiders), a presumption that everyone you’ll encounter is culturally the same.

It’s a direct, honest culture. As players, you make a pair of Circle Knights who are among the new King(ish) of Rolke’s kitchen cabinet–and who are each familiar with both black and white magic. Most of the time you’re in villages; cities over a thousand people are rare and won’t often be visited by the knights on their ventures.

The magic system is strongly thematic, which is reinforced by the cultural implications of magic being introduced before character creation and spell lists. The culture and Ron’s presentation of it is excellent–if you’re looking for a way to play people who don’t feel like 20th century people in costume, this game gives both a complete setting and strong guidelines for conveying that culture. (As a closest analogue, think 9th century Germany or England.)

Playing it is trickier; I’d be interested, but I’d really want fellow players to have read a bit–or at least be willing to set all of their assumptions aside. Since so much gaming is fantasy gaming, there are a lot of assumptions to peel away.

So… mark me as interested, though probably not interested in running it quite yet. With a similarly invested group, I think it’d be interesting to experience in play. The website for Circle of Hands.

Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, and In Winter’s Shadow

One of my favorite trilogies– and my favorite retelling of Arthurian myth. This trilogy by Gillian Bradshaw is sympathetic and with characters understandable to modern readers.

Hawk of May centers on Gwalchmai, a version of Gawain, this time a son of Lot. He’s a compelling character, a weak warrior who finds a cause and his destiny. He’s the only really high magic character– everyone else scorns and disbelieves magic… in the daylight. The situation feels authentic, with numerous kingdoms in turmoil, striving and ignoring the looming threat nearby.

His mother, Morgawse, is half a goddess and completely consumed by darkness. Gwalchmai struggles with doubt (his own and others’), but finds a solid path. The relations between the brothers is very well written, and changes surprisingly as the story goes on.

Kingdom of Summer is trickier; while the viewpoint character changes (to Rhys ap Sion), the story focus really remains on Gwalchmai. Shifting the viewpoint allows us to see how extraordinary Gwalchmai is, particularly for his era and profession. Rhys is well motivated and clearly drawn, but he’s not the high magic hero of the first book.

In Winter’s Shadow was hard to enjoy the first time; I was unsympathetic to Gwynhwyfar and heaped the blame on her. Since she was the viewpoint character, I had a lot of problems enjoying the book. On rereading, I cut her a lot more slack and came to sympathize with her. Each time I fall a little more for her; her struggle is understated and her story starts late– the great efforts of her early years are short flashbacks, not lived.

Medraut is compelling, though his persuasion has to be chalked up as supernaturally effective and his motivation seems thin. Despite that, he’s an excellent foil, one on whom all of the characters can project their own darkness. Bedwyr becomes more contemptible to me, but I understand his pain and need for love.

The end is excellent; while you know everything is failing, you hope that some brightness can be saved and passed on. You’re rooting, even when all seems lost.