Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Action Heroes

Author's note: By request, I am re-running my posts on the cape-and-sword endgame. Originally posted over several weeks, I'm re-posting them as a single series over the next several days.

Recently I introduced a discussion of the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

So far the discussion focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts and favors, clients, and strongholds. These are the tools the adventurers acquire or build as the campaign progresses toward the endgame. Now it's time to look at this from the referee's seat at the end of the table.

In 2003, Atlas Games published Dynasties and Demagogues, "The Sourcebook of Politcial Intrigue," for d20 roleplaying games. Here's what the book has to say about "what political adventures are like."
Political adventures have fewer combats and more attempts to influence other characters than other fantasy adventures. Investigation is often crucial, since it's hard to protect yourself against a rival's plans unless you know what those plans are.

In a political game, most challenges come from rivals and other non-player characters. Personal connections drive political games - the PCs must figure out what the other characters want and how to turn that information to their own advantage. They may be able to launch a counterplot that foils that rival's plans, or turn the rival into an ally by offering a mutually beneficial deal. Words accomplish a lot in political games.
As descriptions of the political milieu in a campaign, so far, so good. Then comes the qualifier.
That doesn't mean there's no action. Player characters often sneak into dangerous situations or fight their way out of them. Assassinations, duels, and other physical challenges settle many political disputes, so the PCs must be ready for anything.
Dynasties and Demagogues next offers a sample adventure, "Deception at Villa Zarios," intended to be read by both players and referees, to introduce some of the concepts which follow. Here's the adventure in outline form.
  • The adventurers are invited to breakfast and asked to take over the stewardship of the villa on behalf of its owner, Dona Carlotta.
  • The adventurers are ambushed by bandits. (Serio.)
  • The adventurers investigate the goings on at the villa, while dealing with a staff hostile to the newcomers, and may discover that the major-domo is cooking the books.
  • Don Miguel, Dona Carlotta's rival, offers to buy the villa at a below-market price, and if the adventurers refuse or can't convince Dona Carlotta, a druid comes and blights the vines.
  • Don Miguel's lackeys drive an owlbear into the vineyard, to create chaos.
  • Don Miguel attempts to burn the place down.
  • Should the adventurers save the vines, the workers, and the villa itself, they may expose the major-domo as working for Don Miguel and receive rewards from Dona Carlotta and the Queen's Investigator.
As Dynasties and Demagogues itself goes on to note, "Deception at Villa Zarios" makes a point of including a lot of "running, jumping and hitting things," to underscore that political adventures need not preclude adventurers from doing adventurous things.

Swashbucklers may be many things, but few would dispute that 'men and women of action' is one of the few truly universal tropes in the genre. Consider the career of Aramis, a guardsman in The Three Musketeers who becomes a priest and abbé who is involved with the Frondeurs and goes to England to rescue King Charles I from his executioners Twenty Years Later, and finally plans a coup d’état against the king in The Man in the Iron Mask before escaping to Spain and becoming its ambassador to France. Aramis and the other Musketeers enjoy vigorous careers even as they grow in stature and rank over the course of the saga.

This is true of the historical figures of the period as well. Consider Cosme de Valbelle, who engineered the elections of consuls in Marseille - twice serving the one year term himself - for a score of years and who died at sea in battle with the Spanish, lashed to the mast of his own galley, defending his city to the last. Cardinal Louis III de Guise commanded royal troops against the Huguenots in 1621, a short time after being arrested for challenging the duc de Nevers - a foreign prince and peer to the king, no less - to a duel. Provincial governors and royal magistrates led troops against rebellious subjects, and even town burghers could be expected to deal with lawbreakers and miscreants directly, blade and pistol in hand, backed by their own lackeys.

The cape-and-sword endgame doesn't preclude the adventurers from taking an active hand - and sword - in their affairs even after they enter into the political sphere of the game-world. In fact, the precedent is well established in both the literature and history of the period.

That said, "Deception at Villa Zarios" remains a disappointment as an introduction to political intrigue in roleplaying campaigns, not because of the emphasis on action, but rather because the politics and intrigue are wholly external to the players' characters. The adventurers are put upon by the political machinations of others but have no opportunity to engage in their own maneuvering, outside of some fairly standard mystery investigation. I'd like to say this is because "Deception at Villa Zarios" is intended as an introductory adventure, but this is true of all of the adventures outlined in the book, and of many other adventures and supplements as well - For the Love of Justice for Swashbuckler! shares this same problem - so this shouldn't be taken as a slight against Dynasties and Demagogues at all, but rather a common failing in which political intrigue is reduced to the familiar rescue/capture/steal the MacGuffin scenarios common to most other roleplaying games.

The endgame of the cape-and-sword campaign can - and, considering both genre tropes and historical examples, should - include 'sneaking in and fighting out again,' but the situations and events which motivate the adventurers should feature more subtle, more complex challenges than fight off the owlbear and put out the fire. I'll describe an approach to doing that next, beginning with the web of factions and actors in my campaign.

Unfortunately I probably won't have another installment completed until next week, as my wife and I are heading to Vegas - Vegas, baby! Vegas! - through the end of the week. While I am taking my laptop - yes, I know I'm a nerd, so please, spare me your derision - I don't expect to post much besides a couple of short posts already written, so I beg your pardon and your patience.

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