Sunday, January 22, 2012

Retrospective

I have this secret fantasy. It's 1967, and instead of Siege of Bodenburg, somebody puts a copy of Breitenfeld in Gary Gygax's hands, and rather than writing a medieval wargame, Mr Gygax would develop a set of English Civil War or Thirty Years War rules that Dave Arneson would tap to create the first roleplaying game, Sorcerers and Swashbucklers.

Hey, a humble pirate can dream.

Let's start with a little history of how things actually played out.

Cape-and-sword games fill a tiny niche in the tiny niche that is the roleplaying game hobby. One of the earliest roleplaying games in any genre, En Garde! was published in 1975 by Game Designers Workshop, featuring the adventurers of gentlemen swashbucklers dueling and carousing and trying to earn royal favor in a sort of Ruritania setting. A second edition of En Garde! followed in 1977, and then in 1978, Fantasy Games Unlimited released Rapier and Dagger, a skirmish game compatible with the fantasy roleplaying game Chivalry and Sorcery, providing the first set of 'swashbuckling and sorcery' roleplaying rules, twenty years before 7th Sea.

By 1979, roleplaying games began to really diversify away from their fantasy roots, and a number of cape-and-sword games followed, one on the next: Buccaneer (1979), Crimson Cutlass (1979) - perhaps best remembered for its use of Spanish tarot cards for action resolution - Skull and Crossbones (1980) - another Fantasy Games Unlimited offering - Pirates and Plunder (1982), Maelstrom (1984) - more properly an Elizabethan era historical game than a cape-and-sword game, but noteworthy for its attention to the period - and Flashing Blades (1984) - yet another FGU game.

With a supplement for pirates and ship-to-ship combat (High Seas), an 'adventure path' (An Ambassador's Tales), and two collections of short adventures (Parisian Adventures and The Cardinal's Peril), Flashing Blades set a watershed mark as the most extensively supported cape-and-sword roleplaying game until 7th Sea.

And then, after nearly a decade of slow but steady production, a hush fell. Over the next fifteen years only a handful of cape-and-sword games were released.

En Garde (1988) - a Swedish game unrelated to the GDW product - Crimson Cutlass second edition (1989), Lace and Steel (1989) - swashbucklers and sorcery crossed with romantic fantasy - Boucanier, (1992) - a French pirate game - Dzikie Pola (1997) - a Polish historical roleplaying game based on the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz - Lace and Steel second edition (1998), and Swashbuckler (1998) - the first new English-language cape-and-sword roleplaying game in nearly a decade. The big names in generic systems - GURPS and Rolemaster - released cape-and-sword supplements, while TSR produced a late Renaissance supplement, A Mighty Fortress, for 2e AD&D.

'Swashbuckling and sorcery' reached a crest when 7th Sea arrived in 1999, with more than a score of titles released during the game's six year run, primarily detailing the game's setting of Théah, a fantasy Restoration pastiche. A collectible card game and comic books set in Théah accompanied the roleplaying game, and a d20 version, marketed as Swashbuckling Adventures, was released near the end of the line.

After 7th Sea came a number of pirate games, capitalizing no doubt on the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: Bloode Island (1999), The Legacy of Zorro (2001) - also a movie tie-in - Bloode Island second edition (2002), Capitan Alatriste (2002) - a Spanish-language game based on the great novel series - Pirates: The Great Adventure Game (2003), Skull and Bones (2003), Bloode Island (2004) - again! now diceless! - Eric Flint's 1632 Resource Guide and Role Playing Game (2005) - based on the novel series - Privateers & Pirates (2005), Te Deum Pour Un Massacre (2005) - similar to Maelstrom, this is more of a 16th century period game, against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, than a cape-and-sword game - Gloire: Swashbuckling Adventure in the Age of Kings (2006) - a tabletop skirmish game, similar to 1e or 2e Boot Hill, with some roleplaying trappings - Pirates of the Spanish Main  (2007) and The Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane - the last two both using Savage Worlds rules - Maelstrom (2008) - re-released by a new publisher - and Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (2009). As far as generic games go, d20 Past, a supplement for d20 Modern, included a 'swashbuckling and sorcery' campaign model, and 3e D&D offered options for playing swashbuckling characters as well.

After a decade dominated by pirate games, 2010 brought All for One: Régime Diabolique, another entry in the 'swashbuckling and sorcery' using the Ubiquity rules and perhaps the first cape-and-sword roleplaying game since 7th Sea to receive extensive support in the form of supplements and adventures, many of them short .pdfs. And 2011 promises another cape-and-sword game, Honor + Intrigue, based on the rules for Barbarians of Lemuria.

Most of these games appeared and disappeared without leaving more than a ripple on the face of the hobby. A few retain a cult following. A couple have a reasonable fanbase among gamers.

The reasons why seem pretty straightforward. Roleplaying games often present a funhouse mirror image of popular culture, but with respect to both the western and cape-and-sword genres, the relative lack of popularity among gamers tracks pretty closely with their reception in the larger world of entertainment. Westerns and swashbucklers once enjoyed a popularity equal to that of horror today, but both genres were in decline around the same time that tabletop roleplaying games appeared, whereas the popularity of D&D in particular and roleplaying games generally contributed to an increased interest in fantasy and science fiction during tabletop roleplaying's peak of popularity.

Which makes the idea of changing the game in Gary Gygax's hand those many years ago all the more appealing.

7 comments:

  1. i have "rapier & dagger" by FGU- as for Flashing blades, i would love so much to try it (i hold in the greatest esteem anything FGU) but it will prove nigh impossible to convince my friends to try it, just because it is not fantasy...

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    1. A sad but all-too-common refrain.

      Maybe you could get them interested in Chivalry and Sorcery and mix in Rapier and Dagger? Go light on the magic and heavy on the swashbuckling?

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  2. You missed Twin Crowns, released in 2001, the d20 pirates setting with Broadsides, Pirates, & Charge, three supplements that completed the basic game... my personal favorite. You also missed Run out the Guns, also a very good supplement for more historical based Pirate games from Iron Crown Enterprises, first released in 1998. Word verification: Pinaplu, what happens to a pineapple when you shoot it off the tree with a Flintlock Pistol...

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    1. LOL!

      Thanks for mentioning these - I'll add 'em to the list: there're about three or four others that need to be added as well.

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  3. One of the interesting things the guys from the D&D Documentary knew about gaming history that I didn't is that in 1974, westerns were one of the most popular movie genres. This both makes sense of BOOT HILL, explains why after Braunstein and Blackmoor was Brown Stone, TX, reveals why our Harry Potter landscape is post-D&D, and suggests lots of alternate universes in which D&D had come out during Douglas Fairbanks' ascendancy.

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    1. If in one of those universes Magicians and Musketers was the first roleplaying game, I'd be a happy man!

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  4. Never cared for fantasy additions to my swashbuckling. Love the heck out of Flashing Blades and supplements thereto. Pirates of the Spanish Main looked fun but I do not like the Savage World system or the layout of the book. Boot Hill and Bushido are perennial favorites. And Pendragon, naturally.

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