Friday, December 7, 2012

Random Encounters: Backswords & Bucklers

Backswords & Bucklers is one of my favorite D&D variants to come out of the OSR. Beedo at Dreams in the Lich House posted a very good review from which I will quote liberally here.
The default classes are fighting man, scoundrel, and wise woman/cunning man. There are no spell-casting classes just yet (the wise class uses a bit of dowsing and herbalism to achieve some game effects). Equipment and money are Elizabethan. There are some tweaks to combat - missiles and firearms are very deadly, and there's a neat rule around zero hit points and dying that makes rapiers and puncture weapons deadlier that could be worth pulling into any D&D game as a house rule.

However, the strength of the two products is in providing a campaign framework and advice for running urban D&D style adventures in lieu of dungeon delves. Their term is "Tavern Trawling", and it's introduced in the first rules book but developed further in book 2. The idea is to build a tavern environment as the home base, replete with regulars, occasional visitors, and patrons, and use the urban landscape for missions that take the place of dungeon delves. It's very episodic and would feel quite a bit like a TV show in terms of ensemble cast and narrative structure. Characters hail from the lower echelon of society, and the missions, adventures, and fictional interludes are in the picaresque vein, more like the fiasco situations that spiral out of control in a Tarantino film than the grand moments of high fantasy.

Here's why I went bizonkers over these books and wanted to do an immediate review - the techniques presented for generating the taverns and patron situations are very toolboxy and could be used in a wide range of settings for brainstorming urban adventures. I could easily transplant the suggestions to any D&D game where there's the potential for city adventuring. I'll definitely return back to this product sometime after the Black City, when I work on that future low magic/horror themed sandbox. And for folks wanting to use the books to run their own Elizabethan urban crawl as is, there are like 12 scenarios in outline form and a full blown adventure ready to go. The ratio of value-to-cost is really high and I'd recommend checking it out.
I had the same reaction as Beedo - the tavern trawling tables, particularly the expanded tables in book 2, immediately caught my eye. While they are written for 16th century Elizabethan England, adapting them to 17th century Bourbon France is easy enough to do on the fly.

Five tables - Patron, Who They Represent, Type of Job Offered, Reward, and Complications - each consisting of twenty entries make up the Tavern Trawling system. Aside from a few suggestions appended to the entries, which I'll include where applicable below, the interpretation of the results is up to the referee. My five rolls are 1d20=1, 1d20=12, 1d20=20, 1d20=7, 1d20=19, producing the following results.
Table 1. Patron: Mysterious Stranger - "Cloaked, disguised"
Table 2. Who They Represent: Noble
Table 3. Type of Job Offered: Seduction - "Sexual, Political"
Table 4. Reward: Arms/Other Equipment - "I'll give you my father's pistol"
Table 5. Complications: No Complications
The absence of complications toward the player characters for a seduction for hire is a curious twist. From the set-up I'd expect some sort of blowback, so it suggests that the target is someone who won't - or can't - retaliate, t least not effectively.

Now my first thought - don't judge me here - is that the seduction is for sexual gratification: the noble is a cuckold fetishist. Indeed, the situation could open doors to a whole subculture within the French nobility, but while a cape-and-sword campaign which delves deeply in the alternative sexual lifestyles of Louis XIII's court could be fun for the right group of gamers, frankly we're not that group, and this is not that campaign, so I'm just gonna table that idea for the time being.

The notion that the seducee is the noble's spouse has some (admittedly tawdry) possibilities, however. Perhaps the noble believes his or her consort is being unfaithful and decides to 'test' the spouse's fidelity. One advantage of this scenario is it can be run for a variety of player character sexual identities - frex, a gay adventurer could be hired to seduce the male spouse of a noblewoman, exposing both his infidelity and his orientation. In fact, since one of the player characters in our campaign is gay and looking to kick up his heels a bit, this might be an interesting encounter for him.

As a general rule, I avoid creating encounters specifically aimed at a particular player character, preferring to focus on in-genre encounters applicable to whoever the adventurers happen to be. However, as the adventurers gain notoriety and build relationships in the game-world, it follows that they should be approached by others looking for their help. The way I handle this is to put player character-specific scenarios into my list of prepared random encounters, paired with a generic encounter - if the adventurer is present and the scenario fits the circumstances, then the player character-specific encounter takes place, otherwise I default to the generic encounter instead.

There is, however, a significant problem with steering this encounter toward our gay character - he's closeted to protect his reputation, and an attempt by the noblewoman to expose not only her husbands infidelity but his orientation risks exposing the player character, and per the conditions established by the tavern trawling tables, there should be no complications for the player characters arising directly from the encounter.

So rather than make this specific to one player character, I'll make it generic. In fact,the mysterious stranger will make the offer to the adventurer with a reputation as a womaniser - the Don Juan Secret - or the highest Charm score among the player characters.

The mysterious stranger who quietly offers to buy the adventurers' drinks gives his name as Enfou - an obvious alias - comes straight to the point: he seeks a man of discretion to seduce another man's wife, Madame de Malvoir. Enfou hints that revenge is the motivation, but the reality is more complex.

The husband, the sieur de Malvoir, is a magistrate in the Cour de Comptes in Paris, formerly a procureur in the Parlement de Bourgogne. He married the daughter - twenty years his junior - of a wealthy bourgeois burgher, from whom he received a generous dowry, but the marriage contract stipulated that Malvoir was excluded from inheriting the burgher's fortune, a codicil to protect the family's wealth for the burgher's heir. However, the sudden and unexpected death of both father and son meant the family fortune passed to Madame de Malvoir, exclusive of her marriage. His first path of recourse is the courts, to get the marriage contract revised, but the burgher was clever and thorough, and a family lawyer is making this difficult, therefore Malvoir wants to pursue another play. The magistrate has long suspected his wife of infidelity, and now he hopes to take advantage of her unfaithfulness. By proving adultery, Malvoir can get his wife sentenced to a convent and take control of her finances. He is a nasty piece of work, proud and cruel.

Lonely and humiliated by her cold, avaricious husband, the vivacious Madame de Malvoir is indeed an adulterer, but she is discrete and discriminating and through the loyalty of her servants she has avoided being compromised in her dalliances. She fears Malvoir, with good reason, and she resists allowing him to take control of her inheritance, conspiring with a lawyer and family friend from her youth to protect her assets. She's a sweet kid, and shrewd, like her father.

Enfou assures the seducer that his safety is in no way at risk and asks only that evidence of the seduction be left on the sheets, which will be collected by the maids in the morning - in fact, Malvoir plans to burst in on the couple in flagrante delicto. In exchange for this service, the seducer will receive a gift of a flintlock arquebus, chased in silver, made by the king's personal gunsmith, Marin de Bourgeoys.

Per the randomly-rolled guidelines, the situation should no have complications for the player chaacters - Malvoir will honor the bargain struck by Enfou, as he is interested in the fortune, not the adultery. But if I (role)play my cards right, the players and their characters may feel some sympathy for Madame de Malvoir's situation, and perhaps a little sense of responsibility for her fate.

And if they don't, they get a nice shiny hunting piece - provided they can pull off the seduction of Madame de Malvoir.

Tomorrow Monday, the swashbuckling adventure scenario generator for Robots & Rapiers.


  1. I've never seen this game. Will definitely check it out. Could we actually be seeing a Renaissance Renaissance in gaming?

    ...and must they all be entitled with a two-word alliteration separated by an ampersand? ;-)

    1. Between Backswords & Bucklers and the retur of Maelstrom, that's a couple of very good options for Renaissance gaming right there - both would benefit from some Sea Dog expansions, though.

      Maybe they could call it Pirates & Plunder?

  2. I'd never heard of B&B--thanks. This gave me an idea for how to make firearms work in the Pirates Sandbox I'm working on!

    1. You're welcome - thanks for including a link to your post, good stuff there.

  3. 76 Patrons for Traveller works well for this, too; I've never had any trouble converting the situations from a sci fi setting to Louis XIII/XIV France for Flashing Blades, 19th Century America for Boot Hill, the Abassid Caliphate for Sindbad fantasy adventure, or anywhere and anytime else so far.