By Rabid Wombat
Glen Cook is one of those writers that has a bit of a cult following. Some read everything that he has ever written, others barely know he exists. He is best known for his Black Company series, which has found a niche with active military and veterans. The series was supported by a d20 sourcebook published by Green Ronin.
The Black Company is the name of a veteran mercenary outfit in Cook’s unnamed world, and the center of the novels. The books are written in the form of histories and diary entries. Life is cheap, generally harsh, and pretty much devoid of sweetness and light. The Company is comprised of hard cases and borderline sociopaths, and they are the protagonists. The books tell the story of their last campaigns in the northern part of the world, and the journey south to find their roots. As an example of gray and black morality there is precious little good in the world, and most of the time good takes it on the chin. An important part of the narrative is determining which of the factions the Company deals with are the least evil. The series is saved from relentless grim darkness by a warped sense of humor and a sense of determination by some of the main characters to at least try to do the right thing by basic decency.
Magic is much more free form than in many other settings, but not nearly as democratic. Low level practitioners are little more than hucksters with a couple of supernatural tricks up their sleeves, but the term “quadratic wizard” definitely applies to the serious powers that be – which is first presented as a living demigod known simply as the Dominator, and his slightly less powerful Lady. The Company has a few lesser wizards who’s magic is individualized and rely on their brains more than their magical brawn.
Green Ronin(the current publisher of the RPG based on George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”) published the d20 setting for The Black Company about ten years ago, and I think they did an excellent job within the constraints of the system. It’s either out of print now or they no longer have the license for the IP, but you can still find copies online. Presented in the sourcebook are all the rules that you would need to run the setting: magic, alternate classes, rules for unit engagements and more. I’ve never used the rules for anything larger than squad based combats, but small unit skirmishes didn’t seem to languish in a sea of never ending dice rolling.
Have you ever wanted to run a non-magical ranger variant? The rules are there. Have you ever wanted to run a sphere based magic system? It takes some work, but your imagination can let things go wild. Instead of races, players pick a starting occupation which opens up specific skills and abilities (The playtesting for D&D “Next” is using a similar occupation concept, along with the familiar race and class), allowing customization in an all human setting. One of the best concepts is expanded non magical master crafting rules, allowing you to create weapons and armor to give an additional edge without suddenly feeling like every town has a mage foundry in it. The ambush and sudden damage rules contribute to a more lethal combat system for high HP characters – yes, even that mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks are a legitimate threat.
If you are only going to read one novel to get a feel for the series, I would recommend either the first book, the self titled Black Company, or the stand alone novel The Silver Spike (which deals with characters from the “Books of the North” but not the Black Company proper). Cook’s writing style keeps the pages turning, and you can decide for yourself in short order if this is for you. After reading the book, you really owe it to yourself to find the d20 rulebook and start coming up with nicknames.
Good News Everyone! Just before posting, I came across this article from about a year ago. Mr. Cook is at work on two new Black Company novels: one taking place during the original trilogy, the second picking up the story after “Soldiers Live”.