Gamist Elements in Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter

Recently I read Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, one of the most interesting Dungeons & Dragons novels I ever have absorbed. I call it a Dungeons & Dragons novel not because it contains oversized, fire breathing serpents, nor because it portrays sprawling, underground inhabitations of wealthy monsters—indeed, it contains neither of these—but because of its metaphysical system. Reviewer Judith Tarr identifies it in a tradition of “Fourth Age” Tolkienian fantasies—there are mere glimpses of Elves and Dwarves and rumors of Orcs within a mostly human-centric civilization—but, to me, the narrative is most interested in presenting a realistic martial milieu in which forces of magic originating from both the arcane and divine (or Essential and spiritual) sources are tactical components in conflict and warfare.

It’s this second that I want to explore with some depth. The first can be settled by pointing to other writers within the military fantasy tradition. Off the top of my head, two are Glen Cook and Steven Erikson, and only Erikson I have read with regularity. What’s striking to me with these novels—and this is true of Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, as well—is that sometimes a character “party” can be fairly diverse and be occupied with specific missions or quests, but mostly they are involved in military engagements, and usually their shared skills and identities are combat-oriented. In other words, there are few “balanced” parties composed of a Cleric, a Fighter, a Magic-user and a Thief (or their various sub-classes) but entire companies of these various classes individually pursuing their roles in the midst of a military campaign.

Or, in yet other words, these novels that are derived from the first game in the rpg hobby appear to cleave closer than D&D itself to its roots in war gaming. I expect that many a Rolemaster campaign does, as well, since, because of its skill system, parties might be composed wholly of one Profession but still allow for necessary variations within that Profession. The great resources of War Law and Castles & Ruins might provide for this kind of campaign, as well.

One effect that Sheepfarmer’s Daughter contains that I think would be worth exploring in an rpg campaign is the tight focus of a military recruit within the larger strategy of a military operation. I’m envisioning two games being explored at the table. The first would be along the lines of a traditional war game, players moving entire companies into engagements, and the second would comprise the true role playing component of individual endeavor, focusing on PCs within those various companies and the dramatic tales that arise from their actions. This, indeed, appears to be the structure of Steven Erikson’s and Ian Esslemont’s Malazan novels.

A component of Elizabeth Moon’s novel that is more traditional with how D&D has come to be played is its use of divine magic, specifically its use of holy symbols among the faithful. Moon’s perspective character Paksenarrion, Paks for short, appears to be being called to the office of Paladin. As such, she’s able to use holy symbols in a manner different from her fellow recruits. In fact, it may be that her fellow recruits can’t use holy symbols at all, but they wear them merely as dressings of their faiths and that they only believe that they might provide them with “luck.”

When Paks comes into possession of one, it does provide her with luck. She also uses it to Heal a character through laying on of hands. As some readers will remember, currently I’m a player in a 1e game, and I’ve been puzzled by the costs and uses of the two kinds of “holy symbols” in the equipment table. Should my Cleric purchase a wooden or metal one? What are the benefits—if any—of one over the other? My DM doesn’t seem to know or care. Obviously the wooden one is more liable to break, which, in his game, seems to be the only pragmatic consideration.

But the gamist in me wants more. Might the amount one spends on a symbol—the metal obviously is more expensive, and begemmed or artistically crafted would be more yet—confer a greater benefit, one awarded through this form of devotion and the personal “sacrifice” indicated in the expense? I also wonder if holy symbols might indeed confer a bit of “luck” for the casual worshipper, probably in the form of a bonus within certain situations, and have more powerful applications—or even be a requirement—in the hands of an established Cleric of the faith.

I notice that RM2 Character Law has no listing for a holy symbol in its equipment table. This and the removal of a Turn Undead ability for its clerical Professions is an interesting indication of what that game had become about in terms of the divine component in its role play. Maybe it should be reintroduced. Has anyone done so? How do Clerics and other divines function at your table?

2 Replies to “Gamist Elements in Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter”

  1. Regarding the turning of undead there is a spell list for that.

    I suspect that from a holy symbol point of view it was sacrificed on the altar of setting neutrality. One could quite easily take a bonus item as a background option and declare it to be your holy symbol.

    I once had a cleric with a daily item that had Calm 3 x day embedded in it. That was his holy symbol and it used to impress the other party members when the power of my god stopped monsters in their tracks.

    If you wanted to make holy symbols significant in your games you could insist that they are bought using background options.

  2. Perhaps having a more expensive, or fancier, holy symbol is a mere status symbol among the followers of that particular religion or sect. I’m thinking of real-world equivalents like millionaire televangelists, super-churches, and prosperity gospel. In D&D terms, is your god more impressed with you and inclined to help you ’cause you spent more gold on a holy symbol? That may depend on the god, I suppose. I think there are different factions among the worshipers of O’Ka – perhaps something to be explored.

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