Thursday, August 23, 2012

Frankengame

This time, it started with the Knights of Saint John.

When I decided I wanted to run Flashing Blades again, I created about a dozen characters, to re-familiarise myself with the system and start filling a stable of non-players characters, part of my preparation for running a sandbox-style setting. One of the characters was a nobleman with the Advantage Member of an Order, which made him a knight. The FB core rules provide for five orders of knighthood - three "noble orders" and two "royal orders" - but aside from evocative names like "Knights of the Holy City" and "Chevaliers de la Reine," the rules leaves the development of the orders to the Gamemaster.

"Knights of the Holy City" immediately caught my eye, and I imagined a French knight descended from a family of Crusaders, who once held titles and lands in Outremer but lost them when the Christian princes were driven back into the Mediterranean. Curious to see if Mark Pettigrew based the orders in the game on actual organisations, I typed "knights of the holy city" into teh Google, and learned that the Knights Beneficent of the Holy City is a modern Masonic order, without an Early Modern basis. Searching the names of the other FB orders revealed that they were similar creations specific to the game.

And in the process I came across the Holy Order of Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, warrior-monks founded in the 11th century who were still crusading in the 17th century against the Turks from their base on the island of Malta. This was perfect for the character I had in mind.

But that meant either (1) creating a fictional background for the "Knights of the Holy City" as an extant order of crusaders or (2) working the Knights of Saint John into the campaign. Either way, I wanted to learn more about knightly orders in the Early Modern era, so I dug into the history a bit for background - and in short order, I was reworking FB's rules pertaining to knighthood for my campaign, changing the progression of ranks, adding a new category of military orders and new offices within the orders, and replacing Mr. Pettigrew's fictional orders with period-appropriate historical orders.

And that's how my Flashing Blades campaign became my latest Frankengame.

Frankengaming is my heritage. My first experience with roleplaying games began with blue box Holmes D&D and the AD&D Monster Manual, followed by Metamorphosis Alpha. Soon after I picked up the supplements to the little brown books, then The Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy and The Arduin Grimoire, and began folding in rules from those as well. Thanks to random tables in the Wilderlands books which allowed the players to find things like laser pistols and derelict spaceships, and the fact that I loved the MA flowchart for figuring out technology, very quickly my campaign took on sci-fantasy elements, and when a hobgoblin joined the adventurers as a henchman, AG provided the stats and classes and levels he could achieve exploring alongside the party - it also provide the first 'tiefling,' a fighter with demon's blood, thanks to the random advantages tables.

The 1e AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide were late adds to my campaign. Around the same time that we transitioned from Holmes to 1e - with our hodgepodge of additional rules still glommed on - I discovered The Dragon, and more new material flowed into the campaign. A Pee Chee folder of mimeographed house rules accompanied my backpack of game books and magazines - later the magazines were replaced with photocopies in the Pee Chee made for me by my mom at work, when carrying the magazines themselves became too cumbersome. When I needed to wage a war, Divine Right was pressed into service as our wargame rules.

Frankengaming is in my DNA. Borrowed and repurposed rules, along with house rules, supplementing or replacing the original roleplaying game was something that the referees I knew did as a matter-of-course in creating 'their games.' It was an early tradition in the hobby - Empire of the Petal Throne and The Arduin Grimoire were simply OD&D hacks at their respective cores - that everyone with whom I played embraced. You played D&D, sure, but in Mike's campaign we started as 0-level characters using the rules from Dragon while in Tim's you could play a goblin brigand from Arduin.

Everyone's game was a Frankengame, stitched together with the catgut and piano wire of the referee's imagination.

Sometimes it was brilliant. Sometimes it really wasn't. Usually it was, at worst, playable.

I can completely understand why some gamers are turned off by the notion of Frankengames. I appreciate why some gamers place a premium on portability, the idea that the rules at one table would be the same at every other table.

But I am a Frankengamer, and while I understand these points of view, I cannot relate to them, and I do not share them.

My house rules for Le Ballet de l'Acier are hacked from the living flesh and dead tissue of a half-dozen games or fermented in the percolating vats of my own imagination. I took the reaction table and encounter distance determination rules directly from Traveller, in no small part because I know them by heart. My rules for persuasion are cobbled together from a combination of house rules created by another Flashing Blades gamemaster and Victory Games' James Bond 007 roleplaying game. Top Secret and an article from Dragon 93, "Short Hops and Big Drops," provided the basis for new rules for running, climbing, and jumping. Rules for horse quality were inspired by Boot Hill. The (Traveller-inspired) trade rules in High Seas - the piracy supplement for Flashing Blades - were replaced by an article from The Dragon 6, "Sea Trade in D&D Campaigns." Avalon Hill's Source of the Nile disaster cards inspired an events table for travelling the countryside. From Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay I took starting equipment, and now I'm about to modify that further with rules appropriated from Te Deum pour un massacre - the brilliant lifepath system from the latter may make it into my campaign in some form as well. Rules for feints, taunts and threats - which I created but never actually used in actual play - took their inspiration from d20, Savage Worlds, and 7th Sea.

And on top of all that I layered many of my original house rules as well, some mere tweaks, a few wholesale additions.

Some gamers look at Frankengames as proof that the underlying game is deficient or broken - clearly, they opine, if the game was any good in the first place, all of these house rules would never be needed. But the fact that a borrowed or invented rule may be a better fit for the referee's campaign doesn't mean the original rule is no good; I could play a satisfying straight-up, rules-as-written game of Flashing Blades.

The Frankengame impulse for me doesn't come from a need to fix that which is broken, particularly when much of what I'm changing or supplementing isn't really broken in the first place. It's integral to how I give my campaigns the spark of life, to make them distinctive, to personalize them, to ground the game-world in its imaginary reality. It's a sign of my commitment to the campaign, of my desire to provide the players with something they can't get anywhere else, because it simply doesn't exist anywhere else but at my table.

12 comments:

  1. Mike, thanks for this post.
    I started gaming more recently, about 20 years ago (more or less), and the atmosphere in which I matured as a gamer was one that was hostile to Frankengaming.

    There was a sense that not playing the RAW was somehow "naughty"...but without the frisson that being naughty in other areas of life brought. Not playing RAW invited acrimonious arguments and ended friendships because we were immature punks doing our best imitation of adults.

    As I returned to gaming in the mid-2000s I learned of the Early Days of the hobby and realized that I was interested in playing that way.

    Having done so for several years now I'm still trying to get comfortable with Frankengaming. I love what you've done with Le Ballet and pray that I can, someday, create a game with even a fraction of the depth and complexity.

    But even knowing how the magic is made, I'm still leery of not playing RAW. It's a personal issue but I think it may be at the heart of why I struggle with so many elements of FB. Mark Pettigrew deliberately left those lacuna because, coming from that same formative period, he expected everyone else would do the same: fill in the blanks based on their experience.

    I think I need to take a deep breath, create a couple dozen characters this weekend, and start putting together what will either be called Steel Wrist, Velvet Glove or Sentiment du Fer.

    Thank you, again, for the work you put into these posts. I really appreciate them.

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    1. You're very welcome, Chris - thanks for all your comments.

      Oh, and while I like the sound of Sentiment du Fer, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't've gone with a French name for my campaign - I think it's confusing to prospective players.

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    2. Then I shall stick with an English name until my command of French or Italian is sufficient that I can run a game in those languages.

      Speaking of running a game, would you please shoot me an email or a PM through the Alehouse? I have a question I'd like to ask you.

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  2. Most older games are very short when compared to modern 500-page hardcover monstrosities because they expected the GM and players to fill in gaps to suit their particular game and preferences. I've never felt that having everything codified was a great idea. More often I find it leads to lawyer-speak, interpretations, and abuses. Plus wasted time at the table trying to find the right page. It's why I won't play HERO System past 4th edition. I think any good game is going to have the stamp if its Gm and players.

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  3. I also started with the Holmes Blue Box D&D. Back then, there was definitely more of a DIY feel about the hobby. Even the module that came with the blue box (Mike Carr's B1 In Search of the Unknown) was "unfinished" and specifically required the DM to fill in the blanks.

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    1. That's a great point - the same was true of Boot Hill and Top Secret as well.

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    2. That threw me about Top Secret when I was younger and first encountered it.

      One of the guys in my gaming group gave me a copy of At Rapier's Point last night. I should be ready to begin Frankengaming my FB game starting this weekend.
      :D

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    3. Is At Rapier's Point good? If so, why? I have seen it for sale online and thought about getting it.

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    4. I've now had a chance to flip through it a couple of times, courtesy a copy given to me by one of my players who is encouraging me to revive the FB game.

      It's an excellent sourcebook for the period, especially when paired with the 2e AD&D historical book A Mighty Fortress.

      I'm really pleased with the the fact that both sourcebooks, which date from the same era (early 1990s), focus on historical or literary inspired games, rather than the fantastic/supernatural that's at the heart of, for example, AfO:RD.

      ARP fills out details of the people and events of the period and also provides a better overview of Paris than I've found in the FB books. It also details London and gives a fly-over summary of the rest of the world during the time period.

      It contains an excellent "Appendix N" with both literary and "video cassette" resources. And there's another bibliography that serves to disclose where the authors compiled some of their information about the period from.

      It is prepared for the Rolemaster rules but I've found the stat blocks and rules discussions unobtrusive. The art has a crude, woodcut look with distorted proportions and lots of foreshortening, and several pieces get used repeatedly which makes the book feel a bit "stitched together".

      There are some typos that create howlers, like Anne Boleyn being Henry VII's executed wife. Most can be dealt with if you have a passing familiarity with the era, do some corroborating research, or want to go for an Alt-Hist game.

      I would recommend it as a resource for the period regardless of what rules-system you're running.

      I'm sure there are more flaws I'll find as my familiarity with it grows but, as of now, I'm excited by the amount of time and effort this can save me.

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  4. Mike-
    Awesome post! I went from your Frankengaming to running a "broken" system- Palladium... I think it is why I play it so calmly, just fitting in house rules into the cracks. I run the system pretty straight up, but there are a lot of cracks, and I just quickly come up with putty rules on the fly, and the players don't even see the cracks- so thanks!

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  5. You may find are club of some interest regarding the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John

    http://www.the1595.com/our-practice-sword.shtml

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