Friday, March 30, 2012

You Never Forget Your First

My father took me to see The Three Musketeers when I was nine years old.

It was the Richard Lester film, with Michael York, Oliver Reed, et al., still perhaps the most faithful movie version of the tale. During the first duel, in the convent amid the laundry drying on the lines, I was literally on the edge of my seat. I take my love of reading from both my parents, but my love of movies comes very much from my dad. He introduced me to The Adventures of Robin Hood, Quentin Durward, and The Crimson Pirate during Saturday afternoon matinees on our black-and-white Sears television. Seeing swashbucklers on the big screen - in Technicolor! - was utterly breathtaking.

We used to visit our local bookstore in downtown Montrose regularly - every other Friday, on mom's payday, I could purchase two Hardy Boys books, which I would usually end up finishing by Sunday night. Prowling the stacks one Friday evening, I spotted The Three Musketeers on the shelf. It was the Signet movie tie-in, an abridged version of the original tale, and my parents let me get it along with my bi-weekly Franklin W. Dixon fix. Up to that point, Treasure Island was my favorite story, but that abridged TTM soon sat on the shelf beside it. I read it again and again.

The following year, browsing the Revell and Monogram model kits at Michael's Toy Store in the Glendale Galleria, I discovered wargames - Tobruk, from Avalon Hill, was the first, and with each birthday and Christmas - and any payday I could wheedle a parent successfully - my collection of games, then metal miniatures, expanded.

And at the tail end of 1977, I was introduced to roleplaying games.

Like many gamers, I started with D&D and its pseudo-medieval fantasy of knights in chainmail and wizards in pointy hats. From my pervious incarnation as a tabletop warlord, the tactics the game rewarded seemed intuitive. I backed up my characters with men-at-arms wielding polearms effective against both charging horses and evil warriors in plate mail - yes, I'm one of those rare gamers who used the weapons versus armor class modifiers - and archers to harry magic-users. My tactical acumen would make William Marshall proud.

I still enjoyed board games as well, of course, and in 1980 I found an unusual game, Swashbuckler. Whereas Avalon Hill had its 'bookcase games,' Yaquinto Publishing offered its own line of 'album games,' roughly the same size and shape as the cardboard slipcovers of vinyl LPs. Billed as "a game of Swordplay and Derring-Do," it offered me the chance to play the pirates and musketeers who captured my imagination as a young boy on the living room couch and in a darkened theatre with my dad.

Swashbuckler's fidelity to the genre remains remarkable to me. Sharing written orders like those of En Garde! the players choose not only to attack or parry with rapier or cutlass, but to kick, shove, throw a dagger or sword, flip a table, toss a chair, throw a mug of beer - and slip on the drink and get cut by the broken shards - yank a carpet, jump from a balcony or poop deck, swing on a chandelier or a rigging line, and wave a plumed hat in an opponent's face.

Players could choose cutlass-armed pirates or rapier-wielding musketeers for their characters in the game - my friend John and I played mostly musketeer games in the tavern half of the game-board, but perhaps our most epic games were the ones which began with a fight in the tavern and then spilled onto one of the pirate ships to claim a treasure chest or two.

The game includes rules for the players' swashbucklers to improve with experience, and we soon had our stables of characters. Mortality would claim them periodically, but one of my characters, a musketeer named André, came to outlast them all, surviving tavern brawls and boardings at sea, against rapier and cutlass and dagger and beer mug. André became nigh unstoppable - in fact, he never lost a fight in three years of dueling. His prowess legendary, I decided he needed his own character portrait, and I found the perfect picture for him, which I sketched freehand onto a custom character record, reversing the image to put the sword in his right hand where it belonged.

I took the image from the cover of my abridged paperback movie tie-in of The Three Musketeers.

I graduated high school in 1983, and John and I slowly drifted apart - I don't think I played Swashbuckler more than a couple of times after graduation. But I noticed a change in my roleplaying game tactics. I tended to use improvised weapons more often, tried to distract and befuddle my enemies rather than simply outmaneuver or overpower them. I ran a high Dexterity fighter in an AD&D game with a short sword in one hand and a spiked buckler in the other; my thieves nearly always had a dagger in their off-hands and fought from whatever high ground could be found. I became less William Marshall and more Percy Blakeney.

And in 1984, I saw a new roleplaying game, Flashing Blades, on the shelf at The Gamekeeper in the same mall were I discovered Tobruk.

My inner nine year-old remains thrilled to this day.


  1. The Richard Lester Musketeers is a thing of joy and I re-watch it regularly. George MacDonald Fraser wrote the screenplay and it's very faithful to the books - as well as having a superb cast.

    Fraser got me through my History A level. We were studying European History (1848, year of revolutions and so on). His Flashman books covered much the same period and I used them as source material. It worked too, I got an A.

    1. Mr Fraser's writing, Bill Hobbs fight choreography, and all the great performances make this the definitive movie version of the story for me.

      And I'm sure that Mr Fraser would be both tickled and appalled to know that you got through A levels thanks to Flashman.

  2. Great origin story. I just added Lester's TTM to our Netflix queue (it's available streaming).

  3. I love the Lester films completely and without reservation. I first saw them (in the theater) when I was twelve, and I don't exaggerate when I call them a life-changing experience. Apart from the impact on my gaming, they led me to a lifetime of fencing, first with foils and epees, later with reproduction rapiers and period techniques. In fact, my primary rapier bears a guard remarkably like those carried by the Musketeers in those films. Because, it's the sword I've wanted since I was twelve.

    1. I never got past the foil in the couple of fencing classes I took, but if my work schedule ever becomes more regular, I'm going to pick up the épée and work my way into some ARMA classes to learn to fight Florentine.

  4. I agree on the TTM. That's the best adaptation I've seen, and I really enjoy it and regularly recommend it to people.

    I'm sorry I never got to play Swashbuckler, too. It sounds awesome, and it would have fit right in, in those days when we'd play Car Wars or Man-to-Man every day after school.

    1. Unfortunately Swashbuckler tends to be pretty pricey on eBay or at Noble Knight, but if you ever find yourself with the extra scratch, I seriously doubt you'd be disappointed.

  5. That movie is why I started fencing in college, it's not my best style of swordplay, but I am passably good.

  6. Such a terrible shame that games and books go out of print....