Friday, May 4, 2012

The Help

Servants sharing their masters' adventures are a fixture of many cape-and-sword tales. The Musketeers have their lackeys - Planchet, Grimaud, Bazin, and Mousqueton. Garnache, from Rafael Sabatini's Saint Martin's Summer, has Rabecque. Valmont, from Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses, has Azolan, and Bardelys, from Mr Sabatini's Bardelys the Magnificent, has Ganymede. And Íñigo, the narrator of the Alatriste saga, is the captain's mochilero during the campaign in Flanders in 1625.

Some cape-and-sword roleplaying games include the option of having a servant for a player character. Honor + Intrigue's Boons, for example, include the Trusted Companion, while Flashing Blades characters may take a Gentleman's Lackey (or Lady's Maid, for women swashbucklers) as an Advantage. Both games also offer the opportunity for players' characters to be servants - H+I characters may choose the Servant/Housekeeper career; FB characters simply take jobs as such, provided they have the requisite skills or attribute scores.

So while the cape-and-sword trope of the servant sidekick is covered in these games, what about servants who are not an extension of the player character? Servants are ubiquitous in the society of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and many characters who do not take a Trusted Companion or Gentleman's Lackey should arguably have servants as well, albeit not quite so loyal.

My curent house rule for my Flashing Blades campaign is that a player character has a number of servants equal to his Social Rank - 1D6; the cost of these servants is subsumed as part of the character's monthly expenses. These servants are associated with the character's place of residence and are typically unavailable for adventuring.

But I'm not wildly satisfied with this rule for a couple of reasons. First, various servants and their wages are listed in the aforementioned section on jobs for characters, and they're a poor fit for what the player characters are paying in monthly upkeep.

For example, here's what servants make, in livres (silver coins) per month, in Flashing Blades.

Job Pay
Laborer 4 £
Body Servant 10 £
Coachman 8 £
Cook 10 £
Herald 20 £

A player character with Social Rank 7 - the upper end of commoners in the setting - pays 21 £ each month for upkeep. Under my current house rule, that character could have as many as six servants; assuming two coachmen and four body servants, that's 56 £ worth of servants out of a budget of 21 £, which also covers housing and subsistence!

However, one of my assumptions is that the SR - 1D6 rule doesn't represent the player character's personal servants, but rather servants associated with the character's place of residence. The four body servants and two coachman available to the player character might represent valets, maids, and stablehands at an auberge or hôtel the character calls home, for example - their upkeep is spread among the various guests and residents, rather than borne by the player character alone. It's also why these servants aren't available for adventuring alongside the player character - a stablehand will keep your horse fed and brushed, and he might deliver a message for you across Paris, with a few extra sous for his trouble, but he won't be your equerry on campaign in Spain or drive your coach on a diplomatic mission to Venice.

So, with a little additional consideration, I think the house rule works tolerably well. On the other hand, if a player character wants a servant who will accompany him during his adventures, then the character needs to pay the servant's wages, out of his annual allowance - annuities, inheritance, sinecure, pension, or the like - or wages earned from a career or job, at the rates specified above.

The decision to keep a servant is then shuffled off to the player, but given their prevalence and significance in the historical setting of the campaign, should the game-world also incentivise keeping servants? For example, a servant, or better still a staff of servants, is both a sign, and an expectation, of status in the society of the game-world; remember that one of the first things d'Artagnan is urged to do once he has a little money in his pocket is hire a lackey, for a gentleman without a valet is scarcely a gentleman at all.

Flashing Blades hints at this in a different rule. Player characters with a noble title of baron or greater may visit court, but they must have a carriage and team to do so. Since a nobleman visiting court is unlikely to drive his own carriage, this suggests the character must pay for at least one coachman as a driver, and should probably hire a second as footman as well. That's one or two servants implied right there. It's a reasonable extension from this to say that a character at court must be attended by, at a bare minimum, one body servant as well; in fact, a more appropriate number might be equal to one-half of one's Social Rank, or risk penalties to reactions from other nobles at court.

Incentives in the game-world need not come attached to rules, however. Soft pressure in the form of snide or pitying comments from non-player characters on a player character's 'lack of means' may lead a player to choose to engage servants in order to present an appearance more appropriate to his character's station.

All of this assumes that a character does not own property - a townhouse, a villa, an estate, or a chateau - of his own. With property comes servants, per the rules in Flashing Blades, so the question of how many and what kinds of servants, and how they are supported, becomes more involved. I'll dive into this in part two.


  1. Good post! Ever since reading Musketeers, I've felt henchmen in rpgs ought to have more characters, like the lackeys do there.

    1. One of the interesting things about the lackeys in the Musketeers saga is that, like henchmen in AD&D, they go on to bigger things over time: Planchet becomes a Frondeur, Bazin becomes a canon, and so on.

  2. One of the problems I ran across in my previous, now moribund, FB campaign is that no one wanted to acquire servants or whatnot because they complained of being perpetually broke.

    I'm not sure if the players just didn't want to dive into the setting of 17th century Paris or if I failed to convey something.

    One of them likened their situation to "having a mortgage on a Far Trader".

    I can't help but think the way income and expenses work in FB, for whatever it offers in verisimilitude, presents an obstacle for some players, particularly with no clear way to increase their income.

    And I'm not sure if the total lack of interest in servants was a consequence of the sense of penury, the general lack of desire among the players to have servants, or something else.

  3. The analogy of starship mortgage probably isn't too far off; Mark Pettigrew said he was influenced by Traveller when designing Flashing Blades.

    It's also meant to represent the hardscrabble existence of a lot of literary swashbucklers, however - M Dumas devotes whole chapters to the Musketeers trying to kit out for the campaign at La Rochelle, Diogenes and his friends are dead-broke most of the time, and Alatriste turns to slaving to make money at one point.

    So I think it's a very self-conscious genre choice to make resources tight in FB.

    I think "Notes to the Gamemaster" (section 5.101, p. 39) is relevant here: "If the full rules are used, adventures ought to be mixed in at regular intervals (one or two per game year), and they ought to have more significance than die rolls for positions. Rewards for a successfully completed adventure may include promotion and increased Social Rank, as well as booty and experience." Annual allowances and salaries repesent only a portion of the adventurers income, with rewards for adventures filling it out - and those rewards can and should include blowing off rolls for promotion and just advancing the characters as fits the action.

    And of course, there's always the Wealth advantage and the option to borrow money from a banker and roll over the debt each year. Having creditors is perfectly appropriate for the period and the genre, after all.