Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kalvan, Not the Hobbes-Kid, The Otherwhen-Guy

Thanks Wikimedia!

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is a great science fiction novel by the one and only H. Beam Piper. Yeah Piper. The guy who gave us Space Vikings (without which Traveler would be oh so much poorer). He also wrote about the Paratime Patrol and created a series of stories that explored the inner workings of a truly Trans-Temporal Civilization. One great example is his story Temple Trouble. That one short story would make a great RPG-scenario. The Paratime Patrol and its heroic efforts at preserving Civilization within a tangled maze of overlapping and inter-penetrating/Inter-dependent Alternate Histories is a lot of fun, very engrossing stuff. It is every bit an equal to Poul Andersons' Time Patrol , a good comparison of the parallel series can be found here.

Piper wrote the Little Fuzzy, Oomphel in the Sky, Omnilingual, and the wonderfully understated He Walked Around the Horses, which dealt with the extremely mysterious and as yet unexplained disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst -- you can get a copy of this story from Project Gutenberg. Piper also wrote some other great stories, including some of the better stories dealing with a Galactic-scale Federation and Empire ever written. But for now, we'll focus on Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.
Quick Synopsis/Summary:
Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is the story of Calvin Morrison, a Pennsylvania State Trooper who is suddenly transported to an alternate universe. That would be the 'Otherwhen' in the title. This new universe is a mostly medieval-style place where a greedy and spoiled bunch of priests have a monopoly on gunpowder. Yah gunpowder. This isn't just another Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This is a prime example of how one person can really, truly transform a setting, society or entire world through a little know how and some old fashioned hard work. 

The priesthood of Styphon are using their stranglehold on the supply of gunpowder to suppress the populace and to maintain their power base. Calvin, renamed a more medieval-like Kalvan, sets about manufacturing his own gunpowder, thus upsetting the proverbial apple-cart. He makes some serious enemies amongst the gunpowder-priests and nearly gets assassinated for his troubles. Oh and a princess takes a shine to him along the way. Oh and there's politics involved beyond just the priests--neighboring petty kingdoms are all too eager to squash this upstart Kalvan in order to prevent his heretical uprising from spreading to their lands and their populations like a fever that needs to be quarantined or cut out immediately.

It's a rip-roaring yarn of High Alternate History Adventure of the best sort, written by a master of the form in his prime. 

What's The Big Deal?
Simple--Piper wrote a great Fantasy story that challenged a lot of precious, preconceived notions like the utter BS that the introduction of gunpowder somehow destroys fantasy. It doesn't. Guns don't kill fantasy, poor planning and bad writing do. Early forms of gonnes and the introduction of gunpowder is more often than not terribly mishandled in most RPGs, but that is the fault of the designers, the writers, the GMs/DMs and hardly the fault of a bunch of inanimate objects. If it's handled right, gunpowder can work alongside the usual fantasy tropes. Piper shows you how to handle it in an extremely realistic, workable and intriguing manner that doesn't ruin anything, but instead adds tons of depth, really complicates the political aspects of a setting, and injects whole bunches of conflict and bucket-loads of opportunities for adventure.

Piper also manages to introduce the 'Displaced Character,' as a model for a type of Player-character, and gives us a whole new scheme for Alternate Universes, time travel and leads into some aspects of reincarnation while he's at it. In the same book. He certainly didn't stint on the ideas. Neither should anyone engaged in a pursuit like writing, or a hobby like role-playing that is founded upon the Imagination.

Some Handy Lord Kalvan Links
Piper's Books available at Project Gutenberg
From Time to Time, a comparison of Piper's Paratime to Anderson's Time Patrol
Xenite's Paratime FAQ
A rather good Review of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by Robert Wilfred Franson
A web-page collecting loads of Lord Kalvan Materials
Hostigos tribute site
Zarthani.net -- One of the most complete and well-done H. Beam Piper sites out there: Including a play report for folks wargaming with miniatures in Hostigos!
Great King's War -- A posthumous Sequel to Lord Kalvan
Uchronia for more info on even more sequels to Lord Kalvan
And apparently Lord Kalvan has a Facebook page...

Down Styphon!


  1. Never read the book but I recall that FGUI published a miniatures game for the setting called Down Styphon!

  2. I downloaded the epubs and checked out Zarthani.net ... lots of goodies here today! Thank you very much.

  3. @Roger the GS: I've been looking for a cheap/playable copy of Down Styphon! off and on for a few years now. I once knew a miniatures-gamer who was convinced that those FGU rules could be fleshed-out into a great RPG. He passed away a little while back, and wasn't able to ever get that to happen, but I would like to see if it is something that could be done in his memory, down the road. Probably as an unlicensed free fan-publication sort of thing.

    @retrorpg: Enjoy the Piper stories. He was a real storyteller. Be prepared for finding out where a lot of original ideas came from originally. It wasn't just Traveler that owed/owes Piper a huge debt.

  4. Down Styphon!

    There is so much I like about this book (even the secondary follow-up book is interesting). One is the juxtaposition of the familiar (the landscape of western Pennsylvania) with the strange (the Trans-Aryan cultures that migrated eastward from Asia an have evolved into an early Renaissance-like culture).

    But I like how the change that Kalvan brings is not just through the obvious (taking gunpowder out of the monopoly of the temple of Styphon--which btw is a campaign concept I borrowed for the Hill Cantons), but in the subtle distinctions of introducing new military doctrine (introducing smaller, flexible formations, light mobile field guns, combined arms, etc.) and political/cultural ones.

    I was so inspired by this book about five years back when I was only doing historical miniatures that I bought a bunch of sets of plastic English Civil War figures to try and replicate the battles in the book. Never finished that project sadly.

  5. @ckutalik: There is something just incredibly intriguing about the way that Piper set things up that just makes this book (and the sequels, I would suppose) beg to be developed for an RPG-setting. The old FGU miniatures rules are still out there, somewhere. And you're right--it's not the simple redistrivution of gunpowder away from the priestly monopoly that really gets things going, it is the revolution that Kalvan sparks by introducing mixed-arms, smaller units, lighter and more mobile artillery-units, new tactics...he becomes a radical Gustavus Adolphus or Napolean, at least in terms of his military acumen. Excellent stuff. I'd like very much to read more about how you used Piper's ideas for a spring-board for the Hill Cantons--that sounds like a great experiment. How has it worked out so far?

  6. A great alternate history, and really shows what you can do with a few out of time books. I think most geeks dream of something like this in their lives, escaping to somewhere/somewhen where your knowledges alone make you super.

  7. @Lasgunpacker: Knowledge is power.


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