Saturday, March 10, 2012

Knights of Bretonnia: A Review

Bretonnia is a controversial Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay topic. Originally setup as a thinly veiled plagiarism of Dumas's France with decadent nobility, downtrodden/starving peasants and gun-totting musketeers the entire nation was wholly retconned in the wargames to an Arthurian setting, with chivalry, castles, knights and even a grail-totting Lady of the Lake.

Personally I don't mind the resultant change (I do like my knights as you can tell from some of my old RPG work), though I do hate such a clumsy large-scale retconning in an established world (a reason I do not read superhero comics, particularly DC and Marvel). There are even printed stories set in the old Bretonnia that are now no longer part of the established continuity, and a lot of the older Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay sourcebooks make mention of decadent Bretonnia and its uncaring king Charles de la TĂȘte d'Or. The new king is Louen Leoncour, a valiant warrior (probably more conveniently marketable in a wargame than a man with a wig telling people to eat cake).

The last Warhammer supplement I bought before my long RPG vacation was Knights of the Grail. I was pretty psyched when I bought it. I liked the dark Warhammer feel, and I also loved Arthurian games like Pendragon so this was a must-buy. What it turned out to be was a strange book, lacking any detail or direction (a problem with a lot of WFRP2e supplements, doubtless to avoid conflict with the wargame campaigns), seemingly portraying the knights as noble and valiant but also showing the peasants rising up against the nobility. There was also an annoyingly apologistic sexist attitude in the book, with women being 2nd class citizens and effectively barred from entry to most careers (like say knight) but every 2nd ed Bretonnian adventure featuring a pre-generated female character disguising herself as a man. It just bored me as a plothook and made me think of the stoning scene in Life of Brian. There was no real cohesion or indication as to what threats Bretonnia faced, other than internal bickering between peasants, nobility and women with fake beards.

So this was my motivation for reading Knights of Bretonnia and from that point of view I was not disappointed. The book is actually an omnibus of 2 novels, 1 short story and 2 novellas written to close out the sequence.

Knight Errant is the first title in the series. A knight errant is basically a young nobleman riding around Bretonnia looking for trouble. Basically imagine a young David Cameron on a horse 'righting wrongs' for the residents of Chipping Norton. Young Calard and his younger half-brother Bertelis, both sons of the ailing Castellan of Castle Garamont, end up riding with a force of knights to hunt down some orcs, expecting more wine and women than battle.

This is not the most cerebral of reads - it is unashamedly a hackfest of a Warhammer novel with the knights beating up some orcs, and only then realising the orcs were running away from a far superior force of beastmen. Along the way they face intrigue from their own rivals within the Bretonnian forces, as well as a small faction who want Calard dead so that Bertelis can inherit the castle. Which might include Bertelis's mother.

The other character we follow is Chlod, a wretched peasant outlaw who spends much of the book scheming against Calard and generally trying to stay alive. Something not very easy to do when you are a masterless peasant. The life of a peasant is horrible in Bretonnia, with practically anything other than digging your ditch and charging the enemy with a rusty spoon when your liege asks resulting in a sentence of death.

It's worth noting Chlod almost gets a free pass on this kind of behaviour. The nobles, including our heroes, clearly care little for the peasants in their charge - the knights have their men-at-arms toss the peasants off the battlements when they've died in battle, when they see a village that has been raided by beastmen they toss all the peasants in a mass grave and leave the survivors to cope on their own. The knights canter around on fine horses and expect their men-at-arms to keep pace, often not allowing them time to rest. Worshipping the state goddess the Lady of the Lake (Bretonnia's answer to Sigmar) is punishable by the death if you are a peasant. Peasant men-at-arms keep roughly 5% of their pay. And so on.

Sometimes it beggars my belief how rotten the noble characters are to peasants (especially Bertelis) and why the peasants do not rise up (though I believe there is some mention of peasant rebellions and how they typically fail, and one short story, Glory's Grave or Freedom's Hope does tell the tale of a settlement mentioned in Knights of the Grail that has declared itself a republic). Given the lack of gunpowder in Bretonnia all the peasants would need to do is somehow steal some guns from the Empire or Marienburg and they would have a sizable tactical advantage if they dug in against the nobility in some foresty or hilly terrain. Of course that relies on them getting enough cash to obtain such items...

Sadly some of the above violates the "show, do not tell" rule. The most prominent example in Knight Errant of this is that we are briefly given the backstory of a man-at-arms in the final parts of the novel - about how he was groomed by his peasant father to be a man-at-arms, how he passed the stringent physical checks (unlike the other deformed peasants), how he had to pay for his equipment and expenses and was left with a pittance, and how hard is life was. It felt a bit preachy, that perhaps such a character should have been introduced more subtly if he had appeared earlier in the narrative. He is also killed off a mere heartbeat later, reminding me of a similar character in the last episode of Stephen Moffat's Jekyll.

Errant does however portray Calard as just one lance in a sea of similar Knight Errants (albeit one from whom the plot is more personal). He is often shadowing higher-ranking superiors, such as his trainer Gunther, his commander Baron Montcadas, the Imperial ambassador Dieter Weschler (a character I felt the novels probably could do without), the Grail Knight Reolus and his own sister who at childhood was taken away by the Fay to be a Grail Damsel, a sorceress. I often call this 'Harry Potter syndrome' where the lead character is subservient to, and often bailed out by, more powerful characters and rarely gets a chance to prove himself. It ends with some all-too predictable revelations that you could guess from the prelude about Calard's bloodline, as well as the promise that his life (and avoiding assassination by his own kin) is not going to get any easier.

Knight of the Realm is a more solid affair with witchery, devilry, demon-impregnation and Norse raiders being the threats in the second book. Calard is now a drunkard, plagued by visions. Former drunkard Bertelis is now obsessively trying to master the sword. The novel deals with their various plights and gives them a reasonable amount of development, along with a large protracted siege of a city. The Norse want the knights to surrender a demon-child they impregnated Elisabet, one of the characters from the first book with. The resolution for this is particularly mind-boggling. The Norse propose a one-on-one match between their Jarl and Grail Knight Reolus. Grail Knight Reolus loses and Calard gives the Norse their demon-kid, vowing vengeance as he does so (and not losing his head in the process of posturing). The Norse all naff off in their longships, vowing to come back when the child comes of age and kill everyone. I personally didn't buy that. The Jarl seemed like an honourable-evil chappie, but the rest of the force were bloodthirsty beserkers. The Bretonnians were helpless!

The novel continued to derail at the end with the 'murderous family' plotline petering out. Calard and Bertelis have a major falling out over a maiden Bertelis accidentally killed (fair enough). Calard then catches and deals with the man who has been sending assassins after him, and turning his own kin against him... between the last chapter and the epilogue. This beggared belief for me, as this was one of the more interesting plots of the novels and could have been held in reserve for a later story.

The novels end here and we are left with short tales of Calard as he renounces his title and seeks to become a grail knight to replace his fallen mentor Reolus. He also takes with him Chlod, who has been bumbling around in and out of trouble for most of the two novels. The first short story, Eternal Rest, is a reasonably interesting and solid affair involving the pair of them encountering a wyvern and the knight who seeks to kill it.

The first novella, Questing Knight, sees Calard return home after 5 years to find his home in ruins, and all within dead. His old rival Maloric is now married to his sweetheart. At first he accueses Malorc but it turns out the trail leads to the cursed Duchy of Mousillon. Overall things are fine again until the climax. It's clear Reynolds probably needed a largish novel to wrap things up to my satisfaction. The start of this novella sees a lot of the established cast killed off in a relatively meaningless way, stripping away a lot of interesting potential for Calard's development.

It does resolve Bertelis's fate. Bertelis had taken up with a knight he had met in a tourney at the beginning of Knight of the Realm. This knight turned out to be the reincarnated vampire duke of Mousillon, who was five years ago visiting random tourneys and is only now raising an army of undead (all for these actions and the generous timescale are never explained). This means the shock reveal is that Bertelis was behind the razing of Garamont. Sadly he is reduced from a complex character, torn between conflicting family loyalties, to a chuckle-head vampire minion who Calard dispatches with help from a rogue knight in the climax of the novella. Chlod is given a little bit of development as well, as we learned earlier in the sequence he was from Mousillon. However Calard just ups and leaves Mousillon, the evil duke and its army at the end of the novella, having a vision from the author sorry... the lady of the lake.

To say that Questing Knight felt rushed is an understatement. I would like to have seen this developed into a novel with Castle Garamont still standing (at least for a while) and more intrigue. This is the last we ever see of Malorc, Calard's old rival, who was an interesting foil for Calard, being a knight of equal standing and despite his prejudices and hatred willing to fight alongside Calard.

Grail Knight sees Calard having ditched Chlod and gone solo, leaving them to go warn Bretonnia there is an undead army coming over the hill while he deals with this story's maguffin. This involves him tooling around wood elf country and eventually helping them. There's enough tedious misunderstandings between the elves and the human which make the elves look like douches (yes, the knight swam into a river, bound your wounds and took you to a cave - obviously your elven superiority says you should steal his sword and try to kill him). Eventually it is revealed that he is being guided by his sister to find and participate in some sort of elven-forest-god rebirth ceremony (I must admit a lot of the high-level wood elf pantheon stuff that goes on in this story went over my head). They are so happy with that they can ride out and help the Bretonnian's fight the Duke of Mousillon. Oh, and Calard finds and drinks from the Grail, making him a Grail Knight. Sadly this dorsn't feel particularly integral to the story.

There is a suitably epic ending to the fight in which Calard, now infused with powers from drinking the grail, kills the vampire Duke, saves the king and the day. There is even an additional epilogue where many years in the future he prepares to face off against the returning Nords and their demon child. This gives us a brief mention of the fates of our supporting characters, but it is very brief. For example we do not really find out what happened to Chlod other than he "did better than anyone expected". We find more concrete information about Dieter the Imperial Ambassador's fate and he hasn't appeared for 3 stories!

Again I feel these two novellas could have made a more interesting conclusion if they had been a longer novel, particularly if the second novella did not feel so divorced from the previous one at times. By the end of the book I did care about Calard, Bertelis, Elisabet, Chlod, Montcadas and even Malorc. I did not really care about xenophobic wood elves introduced at the 11th hour.

In terms of learning more about Bretonnia this story fills in a lot of gaps missing from the sourcebook. We learn how downtrodden the peasantry are (and some reasons why they don't or can't rebel), we learn the Norse are the primary Chaos threat to the nation and we also learn the nobility themselves have their fair share of corrupted bloodlines and interesting interpretations of what chivalry and honour are.

There's little discussion as to the nature of the Grail in either these novels or the Bretonnia sourcebooks. The sourcebook outright states the Fay and the Lady of the Lake are elves. This perhaps means the Grail itself is an elvish artifact, or at least an artifact they have appropriated. The society of Bretonnia is kept deliberately stagnant (resembling feudal England and France while other societies have a renaissance feel to them). There is clearly something pretty interesting going on in this area - the grail has an uncomfortably cultish and brainwashing effect on those who come in contact with it. For example I was chilled by one of Calard's first remarks about how on drinking from the grail his life, like his sister's is "no longer his own". I was also intrigued by Grail Damsels, though I would rather take a more down-to-earth approach to them in the setting as they are meant to be quite common in the cities of Bretonnia. I would imagine a rather bitchy coven of these powerful women would make an interesting tale!

Overall, a good relaxing read, but sadly some story-threads are just dropped in the cycle. I suspect this might appeal more to a younger readership who prefer sieges, elves and pixies over solid intrigue, treachery and character development. There is quite a lot of interesting stuff to be done with Bretonnia though.

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