Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Endgame Endgame

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, which concludes today.

Over the past month I posted about 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.

Earlier posts 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.

Later posts approached the endgame from the referee's perspective, incorporating adventurous action, presenting a model of social structure, and describing the nature of political conflict.

Now it's time to tie it all together.

It's November and the king demands a spring offensive against the Spanish. The minister of war, Enfou, must choose a commander to lead the attack. At court, rumors suggest that Enfou will choose between the conte di Grognardo and the baron de Bauchery.

The conte di Grognardo is a veteran general, tough and irascible, but regarded as one of the best tactical thinkers in Europe. Grognardo is well-respected among many of the French officers, though he also raised a more than a few hackles for what some perceive as a lack of appropriate regard for social rank. Grognardo suffers from a lack of support among the courtiers as a result; his clientele is small and not well-placed outside of the royal army. Grognardo recently returned to France from Vienna; indeed, he commanded Imperial troops in Lombardy against the French, and whispered questions about the dévot general's loyalties abound.

It's said that Grognardo returned to France to seek a better marriage for his son than he could obtain at home in Monferrato; in fact, the count spurned the parade of daughters of poor nobles that the Emperor tried to foist upon him in exchange for his continuing service.

The baron de Bauchery governs a frontier province. The spring line of advance will cross the province, and the baron is positioning himself to command the army, reasoning that even if the offensive fails, he stands to gain from the money - and bribes - paid by the passage of the royal forces. De Bauchery is a wealthy libertine, 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know,' but he is well-connected at court nonetheless, particularly among the gallicans; it's well-known that he supplied the king with the monarch's last three mistresses, but only after sampling their wares himself first. The baron commanded a regiment previously, during which he was criticised for failing to press a rout, choosing to attack the enemy's baggage train instead and allowing the enemy troops to reform and withdraw in some semblance of good order. To secure command of the spring attack, de Bauchery pledges to raise a cavalry regiment at his own expense as well as commmit an additional regiment raised from the king's provincial subjects.

The baron holds an additional card; if he doesn't get the command, it's likely that the royal troops will suffer logistical problems - the baron has an extensive clientele in the province, and he could readily make obtaining supplies problematic for anyone else who commands the army.

De Bauchery's Achille's heels are the Jesuit prince-bishop who's bishopric is contiguous with the baron's provincial government - the prince-bishop despises de Bauchery, and his own clientele in the parishes is unassailable to the baron - and one of the province's three city governors, a nominal client who is believed to chafe under the baron's rule - he controls the province's only port, which could prove critical to keeping the royal army supplied, and he is likely to use this leverage to obtain concessions from the baron.

De Bauchery is also interested in marriage to a dowager marquise, the highest-ranking noble in his province; normally the king would never approve such a union, as it would create too powerful a powerbase for one of his nobles, but this may prove to be the leverage the baron seeks to gain the king's blessing on the marriage.

The choice of commanders lies with Enfou, though the king can override his minister's decision. While Enfou favors Grognardo for his tactical acumen, the fact that de Bauchery can raise two regiments of his own takes a considerable burden off the perpetually-depleted royal treasury, and the baron's selection also protects the supply lines as well.

In most of the published adventures of this sort, there would be some sort of contrived solution to the situation - de Bauchery is a Spanish agent and a traitor, and the adventurers must sneak into his castle to find the proof in his personal papers! - but this reduces the political endgame to yet another 'bughunt.' The endgame shouldn't offer easy answers.

In this scenario, there are advantages and risks associated with each choice; in a sandbox setting, do the adventurers help the acerbic but brilliant Grognardo or the connected but avaricious de Bauchery? How do their choices advance the character's own interests? What resources are available to them, and where do they apply them? Frex, what would it take to turn the port-governor on his patron, the baron, in order to protect the army's supply lines, and can they raise enough troops to offset de Bauchery's contributions? Or can they convince the king to allow de Bauchery's marriage to the marquise - and perhaps convince the reluctant marquise as well? Do they need to exert influence to keep the decision with Enfou, or do they need the king to override his minister of war in order to back their choice?

For the referee, this means fleshing out the npcs, giving them goals of their own that the adventurers may be able to help meet through their influence, patronage, or wealth - frex, perhaps one of the port-governor conditions is that his son, a monk, can become a member of the prince-bishop's curia, or the prince-bishop wants his nephew to be made a magistrate. This is perhaps where the analogy of the megadungeon needs to be stressed - no longer is it enough to present the adventurers with a roomful of orcs. The complexity, and the planning it requires, increases commensurate with the adventurers' positions and resources.

In addition to complexity, good political adventures involve ambiguity. Political choices and their consequences are rarely crystal-clear, except in hindsight; the less there is an obvious path for the player characters to follow, the better, and every choice carries risks. The expenditure of resources should never be a guarantee of success, and even if the adventurers succeed in their political goals, it's still possible for their political enterprise to fail; frex, the adventurers may secure the command for their candidate, but there's still the small matter of the spring campaign itself, and the outcome of the battle reflects on them, for better or worse.

And so I reach the end(game) of my endgame discussion. Thanks for reading along, and I hope this (1) makes some kind of sense, and (2) can be used in your campaigns.


  1. Thank you, this endgame series of posts has been well thought out, articulate and inspiring.

    I've played other systems that have a social element to them such as En Garde and Heroes of the Dark Ages but I'll give Flashing Blades a read.

    1. Thanks very much - I'm glad you found this helpful.