Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Place That Never Was

Compared to fantasy and sci fi, historical roleplaying games are the poor relations of the tabletop hobby. A variety of reasons are trotted out to explain this disparity. The usual suspects include the indisputable fact that fantasy came first - regrettably, perhaps - and established a dominant niche among gamers. That the overwhelming majority of gamers want magic - and it's kissin' cousin, sufficiently advanced tech - seems inarguable; for example, the most commercially successful cape-and-sword roleplaying game published to date, 7th Sea, is billed as 'swashbuckling and sorcery.'

The idea of historical roleplaying itself tends to get knocked around in these discussions as well. Some simply find the idea of playing in our own past too dull, while others express concern about getting the history 'right,' often citing the prospect of a 'history expert' at the table sucking every last vestige of fun from the room by repeatedly telling everyone They're Doing It Wrong. A fictional game-world sidesteps this potential pitfall.

The possibility of using a fictional country set in the real world rarely seems to come up, which is a bit surprising considering how often this is used in the stories from which so many roleplaying games draw inspiration. A fictional region or country provides both the flexibility and originality of an imaginary game-world with the familiarity of the real one.

Anthony Hope set his famous swashbuckling saga - The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau, and The Heart of Princess Osra - in the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, a German-speaking, Roman Catholic monarchy vaguely located in the vicinity of Saxony and Bohemia. The stories of Ruritania were so successful that Hope's tales would spawn a genre - Ruritanian romances - all its own. A number of later authors would set stories in Mr Hope's Ruritania or use it as the origin for characters in their own works.

Ruritania has worked its way into the fields of law and political science, as a stand-in for real countries in discussing hypothetical cases.

I chose to set my Flashing Blades campaign in 17th century France, but I blended in fictional characters and places from cape-and-sword stories and other tales. In my campaign, Ruritania is part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the adventurers are about to find themselves challenged to a duel initiated by the graf von Hentzau, an Imperial cavalry commander. I've also incorporated James Branch Cabell's Poictesme as well as the modern French creation Groland.

One of my future projects on this blog will be developing a Ruritania of my own, in conjunction with the OSR swashbuckling game Backswords and Bucklers.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Off the Shelf: Chapbooks

Chapbooks are popular books printed on cheap paper, often a single sheet folded into a booklet of eight to twenty-four pages, and illustrated with woodcuts, typically reused from other publications. The subjects vary from religious texts to poetry to almanacs to chivalric romances. Many French chapbooks come from printers located in the city of Troyes, in the provice of Champagne, southeast of Paris.

Chapbooks are popular with all classes, but they are primarily written for peasants, tradesmen, and merchants. As such they may be found in many residences or carried, stuffed in pockets. Roll 1D6 for the number of chapbooks, then roll 1D20 for the individual titles. Duplicate rolls may be treated as additional copies of the same volume or re-rolled at the referee's discretion.

1. Le Roman du vaillant Chevalier Ogier le Danois gui fui un des douze pairs de France, lequel avec le secours du roy Charlemagne chassa les Païens hors de Rome et remit le Pape en son trône
2. Histoire des avantures heureuses et malheureuses de chevaliers, avec sa bourse et son chapeau. Enseignant comme un jeune homme se doit gouverner
3. Histoire de Jean de Paris, Roi de France
4. Histoire de Jean de Calais
5. La terrible et merveilleuse vie de Robert le Diable
6. Histoire de Richard sans Peur, Duc de Normandie, fils de Robert Le Diable, Qui par sa prudence fut Roi d’Angleterre, & fit de grandes conquêtes & vaillances
7. La vie du fameux Gargantuas, Le plus terrible geant qui ait jamais paru sur la terre
8. La vie joyeuse et recreative de Tiel-Ulespiegle
9. L’hystoire des deux nobles et très-vaillans chevaliers
10. L’opérateur des pauvres
11. Le grand calendrier et compost des bergers
12. La plaisante et triomphante histoire des hauts et cheualeureux faicts d’armes, du tres-puissant & tres-magnanime, & tres-victorieux Prince Meliadus, dit le Cheualier de la Croix, fils vnique de Maximian Empereur des Allemaignes
13. La complainte des argotiers
14. Prédictions et pronostications généralles
15. Les quinze effusions du sang de nostre sauveur
16. Le palais des curieux
17. Légende et vie chrestienne
18. La vie mort et passion et resurection de nostre sauveur Jésus-Christ
19. Recueil général des quaquets de l’accouchée
20. Predictions perpétuelles du nombre d’or ou cicle

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Pernicious Influence of The Princess Bride

Mandy Patinkin called it "The Wizard of Oz of our generation." Conceived as a fairy tale by William Goldman, TPB is a love story, a comedy, a fable, and a swashbuckler by turns. Modestly successful during its theatrical run, the movie became an icon following its release on video, allowing it to reach a wider audience that now stretches across generations.

It's a brilliant, timeless movie which is preceived as representative of the cape-and-sword genre rather than the loving satire of that genre it was intended to be.

TPB reached a broad audience at a time when cape-and-sword movies were few and far between. The last significantly successful swashbucklers in the US, Richard Lester's Musketeers movies, were thirteen years earlier, in 1974, and Stephen Herek's The Three Musketeers wouldn't premiere for another five years, so for many viewers, particularly younger viewers, TPB was their introduction to the genre. With its relatively mild violence and the chaste relationship between Westley and Buttercup, TPB likely reached its audience at a younger age than the Musketeers movies as well.

And as a result, the caricature became the reality.


Lemme 'splain.

Cape-and-sword books are often darker and grittier than movie swashbucklers. The Three Musketeers, in its English-language versions, was often sanitized for its audience. For example, to avoid impuning the Catholic Church, the comte de Rochefort, not the Cardinal, becomes the instigator of the plot against the Queen in Rowland Lee's 1935 movie, whereas Richelieu is a duke, not a prelate, in George Sidney's 1948 film - that's the one starirng Gene Kelly. D'Artagnan's escapades with Constance Bonacieux and Milady were whitewashed as well - even the Richard Lester movie, the most faithful to the book of any of the films in English, omits d'Artagnan disguising himself as the comte de Wardes to seduce Milady, though it does include the Gascon's seductions of the married Mme Bonacieux and Milady's maid, Kitty, as well as Milady herself.

Swashbuckling movies generally focus on fast-moving action and frequently slapstick humor and this was no less true of the many cape-and-sword films through the first half of the twentieth century. The action in TPB is an homage to the era of Errol Flynn. What was different is that the era of swashbukling movies wasn't so far removed from the time when cape-and-sword stories were more common on bookshelves as well. Swashbucklers fell out of style at the same time cinema became more frank in its depictions of both violence and sexuality, so the darker side of cape-and-sword stories familiar to an audience which read the books was lost on those whose primary exposure was through the movies.

By the time we reach TPB in 1987, neither cape-and-sword books nor movies are as ingrained in popular culture, and the exploits of Westley, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik and the rest shape the perceptions of what a swashbuckling tale should be for a generation with little exposure to the depth and breadth of the tales which the movie so affectionately satirizes.

Personally I find it impossible to imagine Prince Humperdink disguising himself as Westley to seduce Buttercup, or a drunken Inigo picking a fight with a villager just to watch him die, or Vizzini strangling Buttercup with a string of rosary beads, or Fezzik crushed under a castle portcullis.

But those are part of cape-and-sword tales, too, alongside the witty one-liners and flashy stunts. In swashbuckling stories, the heroes may die, insults may go unavenged, and the girl can end up dead on the floor of a convent.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Three Musketeers: The Animated Series

In 1968, Hanna-Barbera produced a Three Musketeers animated short series which aired as part of The Banana Splits show, along with an Arabian Nights cartoon and the live-action serial Danger Island.

Thanks to the miracle of the Intewebs, The Three Musketeers cartoons can be found online, in their entirety, at The Big Cartoon Database. Each runs about eight-and-a-half minutes and features the four Musketeers plus a young wannabe named Tooly in a variety of adventures.

They are surprisingly well-written, and I gleaned a number of ideas for my Flashing Blades campaign.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taking the Reins

Al at Beyond the Black Gate recently blogged about the player driven campaign.

The best groups I've played with or DM'd have not just been the games that were run the best, or offered the best adventures or settings, they were the games wherein the players were just as interested in developing the game as the DM. . . . It seems like having a way to briefly describe the players' role in the development of the best campaigns would be a good thing - just as important as providing a good setting, good adventures, and the best suited ruleset.

My best experiences with roleplaying games include players contributing to the development of the campaign as well, and thinking back on those campaigns, here's what stands out for me.

Setting and managing expectations: Proactive players rarely just happen. Many players expect a campaign to be prix fixe, and if you're serving à la carte, it's important to put it in their heads from the giddyup so they don't go hungry. Players should be encouraged to see themselves as more than mere consumers of a campaign, and in my experience this begins before character generation takes place.

Harness the rules: Some games make this very explicit - World Burning in Burning Empires comes to mind. The players are active participants in the process of creating the setting and the conflicts which arise from it, so at least some measure of campaign development is hard-coded into the rules. More traditional roleplaying games proceed from the assumption that the referee is responsible for creating the setting in which the game takes place and the conflicts which drive the action; in some systems, some player development of the campaign may take place through their characters, often through rules like GURPS' Advantages and Disadvantages or even through the 'stronghold-building' aspect of name-level 1e AD&D characters

In Flashing Blades, characters have Advantages and Secrets, some of which introduce conflict through established relationships, such as Sworn Enemy, Secret Loyalty, or Favor, while others create connections to institutions in the game-world, such as Member of an Order.

I should note that while I believe using the rules to establish initial connections to the setting may help, they are not a substitute for developing those connections through actual play.

Reinforce the genre: The game genre offers clues to what characters in the campaign are expected to do. For example, cape-and-sword suggests roguish characters who spend time carousing, wenching, gambling, and dueling. It also includes romance, intrigue, a struggle for honor, and advancing one's station in society.

In my experience, the memes conveyed by genre encourage the players' freedom to improvise by handing them a lever with which to move the setting in actual play.

Dangle carrots: The game's rewards system drives player choices.

Let me say that again.

The game's rewards system drives player choices. If a player wants her character to get better at swinging a sword, and the way to get better at swinging a sword is to engage in duels, then the player is more likely to pick fights.

If the game rewards in-character behaviors which serve to develop the campaign, then the players are more likely to pursue them. In Flashing Blades, for example, the career rules offer the adventurers the chance to improve their Social Rank, whereby they gain access to wealth and influence. As the campaign progresses, increased Social Ranks puts them in a position to exert meaningful changes to the setting in actual play.

Provide a dynamic world: In my experience, the more the game-world feels like a living place, the more the players and their characters will feel like they can effect change. The classic example of this is 'clearing the dungeon' - if the adventurers return to town after defeating the cultists in the ruined moat house and discover that there's no room at the inn because merchants are passing through again, and there's new construction to accomodate families moving to the area thanks to its safe reputation, then the players will feel the effects of change even if they didn't set out to cause those changes directly.

So that's how I do that.

Wednesday Wyeth

Prepare to be boarded.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Exile on TCM

Turner Classic Movies played The Exile tonight, and I happened to catch it right as it started. Set in the Netherlands during the fourteen-year exile of Charles Stuart, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. portrays the Merrie Monarch as a dashing rogue content to con and seduce stolid Dutch peasants until such time that all of England calls for his return. Roundhead assassins are on the prowl, and Charles conceals himself as a laborer on the farm of a blond Dutch tulip farmer and innkeeper, played by the lovely Rita Corday.

The movie concludes with the discovery of Charles' whereabouts and identity by the Roundhead Colonel Ingram. A chase ensues, first around the inn where Charles is discovered, and then in a windmill. The action is great, and while Junior is by no means the stuntman his father was, he does a credible job, up and down the vanes of the windmill dodging the assassins and then battling the sanctimonious Ingram inside the mill itself.

Rita Corday would go on to play a masked swordswoman herself in The Sword of Monte Cristo in 1951, four years after The Exile.

The Exile also features Latina bombshell Maria Montez. ¡Ayúdame!

For anyone not familiar with the story of King Charles II of England, I can recommend no better brief biography than this one. Make sure your sound is up first.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Off the Shelf: Fencing Manuals

From time to time adventurers may find themselves in libraries and other places where books can be found. Some players will want to know exactly what's on those shelves, so with that in mind, Off the Shelf consists of lists of book titles for the referee to use in rolling or choosing exactly what the adventurers find.

Fencing manuals are reference works for teaching the use of the sword and other weapons. The manuals are often extensively illustrated with engraved plates. Fencing manuals are most often found in fencing schools or in the private libraries of nobles. Roll 1D6 for the number of manuals, then roll 1D20 for the individual titles. Duplicate rolls may be treated as additional copies of the same volume or re-rolled at the referee's discretion.

1. L’Espée de Combat, ou l'Usage de la Tire des Armes by François Dancie

2. Scola overo Teatro by Nicoletto Giganti

3. Neuer Diskurs Kunst des Fechtens by Joachim Koppen

4. The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science by Joseph Swetnam

5. The Private Schoole of Defence by George Hale

6. Gran Simulacro by Ridolfo Capo Ferro

7. Discours de la theorie de la practique et de l’excellence des armes by André Desbourdes

8. Sienz e Practica d’Arme by Salvator Fabris

9. Trattato in materia de scherma by Marco Docciolini

10. Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver

11. Libro de las Grandeza de la Espada by Don Luis de Narvaez

12. Regole do molti cavagliereschi esserciti by Frederico Ghisliero

13. De veris principiis artis dimicatoiae tractatus brevis by Heinrich von Gunterrodt

14. Traicté contenant les secrets du premier livre sur l’espée seule, mère de toutes armes, qui sont espée dague, cappe, targue, bouclier, rondelle, l’espée deux mains & deux espées, avec ses pourtraictures, ayans les armes au poing por se deffendre & offencer à un mesme temps des coups qu’on peut tirer, tant en assillant qu’en deffendent, fort utile & profitable por adextrer la noblesse, & suposts de Mars: redigé par art, ordre & practique by Henry de Sainct Didier

15. Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’Arme, si da offesa come da difesa by Giacomo di Grassi

16. De libro que tratta dela philosiphia de las armas by Jeronimo De Carranza

17. Trattato di scientia d’arme, con un dialogo di filosofia by Camillo Agrippa

18. Descorso sopra I’arte della scherma by Camillo Palladini

19. Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens by Joachim Meyer

20. Opera Nova by Achile Marozzo

And now, when a Spanish swordsman says he "has studied his Agrippa," you know what's on his nightstand.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I have this secret fantasy. It's 1967, and instead of Siege of Bodenburg, somebody puts a copy of Breitenfeld in Gary Gygax's hands, and rather than writing a medieval wargame, Mr Gygax would develop a set of English Civil War or Thirty Years War rules that Dave Arneson would tap to create the first roleplaying game, Sorcerers and Swashbucklers.

Hey, a humble pirate can dream.

Let's start with a little history of how things actually played out.

Cape-and-sword games fill a tiny niche in the tiny niche that is the roleplaying game hobby. One of the earliest roleplaying games in any genre, En Garde! was published in 1975 by Game Designers Workshop, featuring the adventurers of gentlemen swashbucklers dueling and carousing and trying to earn royal favor in a sort of Ruritania setting. A second edition of En Garde! followed in 1977, and then in 1978, Fantasy Games Unlimited released Rapier and Dagger, a skirmish game compatible with the fantasy roleplaying game Chivalry and Sorcery, providing the first set of 'swashbuckling and sorcery' roleplaying rules, twenty years before 7th Sea.

By 1979, roleplaying games began to really diversify away from their fantasy roots, and a number of cape-and-sword games followed, one on the next: Buccaneer (1979), Crimson Cutlass (1979) - perhaps best remembered for its use of Spanish tarot cards for action resolution - Skull and Crossbones (1980) - another Fantasy Games Unlimited offering - Pirates and Plunder (1982), Maelstrom (1984) - more properly an Elizabethan era historical game than a cape-and-sword game, but noteworthy for its attention to the period - and Flashing Blades (1984) - yet another FGU game.

With a supplement for pirates and ship-to-ship combat (High Seas), an 'adventure path' (An Ambassador's Tales), and two collections of short adventures (Parisian Adventures and The Cardinal's Peril), Flashing Blades set a watershed mark as the most extensively supported cape-and-sword roleplaying game until 7th Sea.

And then, after nearly a decade of slow but steady production, a hush fell. Over the next fifteen years only a handful of cape-and-sword games were released.

En Garde (1988) - a Swedish game unrelated to the GDW product - Crimson Cutlass second edition (1989), Lace and Steel (1989) - swashbucklers and sorcery crossed with romantic fantasy - Boucanier, (1992) - a French pirate game - Dzikie Pola (1997) - a Polish historical roleplaying game based on the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz - Lace and Steel second edition (1998), and Swashbuckler (1998) - the first new English-language cape-and-sword roleplaying game in nearly a decade. The big names in generic systems - GURPS and Rolemaster - released cape-and-sword supplements, while TSR produced a late Renaissance supplement, A Mighty Fortress, for 2e AD&D.

'Swashbuckling and sorcery' reached a crest when 7th Sea arrived in 1999, with more than a score of titles released during the game's six year run, primarily detailing the game's setting of Théah, a fantasy Restoration pastiche. A collectible card game and comic books set in Théah accompanied the roleplaying game, and a d20 version, marketed as Swashbuckling Adventures, was released near the end of the line.

After 7th Sea came a number of pirate games, capitalizing no doubt on the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: Bloode Island (1999), The Legacy of Zorro (2001) - also a movie tie-in - Bloode Island second edition (2002), Capitan Alatriste (2002) - a Spanish-language game based on the great novel series - Pirates: The Great Adventure Game (2003), Skull and Bones (2003), Bloode Island (2004) - again! now diceless! - Eric Flint's 1632 Resource Guide and Role Playing Game (2005) - based on the novel series - Privateers & Pirates (2005), Te Deum Pour Un Massacre (2005) - similar to Maelstrom, this is more of a 16th century period game, against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, than a cape-and-sword game - Gloire: Swashbuckling Adventure in the Age of Kings (2006) - a tabletop skirmish game, similar to 1e or 2e Boot Hill, with some roleplaying trappings - Pirates of the Spanish Main  (2007) and The Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane - the last two both using Savage Worlds rules - Maelstrom (2008) - re-released by a new publisher - and Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (2009). As far as generic games go, d20 Past, a supplement for d20 Modern, included a 'swashbuckling and sorcery' campaign model, and 3e D&D offered options for playing swashbuckling characters as well.

After a decade dominated by pirate games, 2010 brought All for One: Régime Diabolique, another entry in the 'swashbuckling and sorcery' using the Ubiquity rules and perhaps the first cape-and-sword roleplaying game since 7th Sea to receive extensive support in the form of supplements and adventures, many of them short .pdfs. And 2011 promises another cape-and-sword game, Honor + Intrigue, based on the rules for Barbarians of Lemuria.

Most of these games appeared and disappeared without leaving more than a ripple on the face of the hobby. A few retain a cult following. A couple have a reasonable fanbase among gamers.

The reasons why seem pretty straightforward. Roleplaying games often present a funhouse mirror image of popular culture, but with respect to both the western and cape-and-sword genres, the relative lack of popularity among gamers tracks pretty closely with their reception in the larger world of entertainment. Westerns and swashbucklers once enjoyed a popularity equal to that of horror today, but both genres were in decline around the same time that tabletop roleplaying games appeared, whereas the popularity of D&D in particular and roleplaying games generally contributed to an increased interest in fantasy and science fiction during tabletop roleplaying's peak of popularity.

Which makes the idea of changing the game in Gary Gygax's hand those many years ago all the more appealing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Day Late and a Peso Short

More like a few days late, actually - I claim a noob mulligan.

Zak has questions. I have answers.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

The ring of trollish regeneration - it allowed the character wearing it to regenerate but turned the character into a troll.

2. When was the last time you GMed?

Last month - our Flashing Blades campaign.

3. When was the last time you played?

Wednesday - also Flashing Blades.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

In the palace of the khan of Khiva lies Almace, the sword of the Archbishop Turpin. To return the legendary sword to France would earn the gratitude of both the king and the pope, but discovery in the city of Khiva means a horrible death to any infidel . . .

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

Struggle to keep in peals of maniacal laughter.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

Whatever's lying around the table, which is why I make sure there're vegetables.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

Only when I'm doing it right.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

Fighting a bravo, a lackey, and a trollop over my character's gambling winnings. My character managed to down the bravo with a dirty trick, then proceeded to nearly have his ass kicked by the trollop.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

I think my players take my setting a tad more seriously than I do. I like subtle whimsy, like the Swiss guard who only speaks German yet seems to understand every language spoken around him.

10. What do you do with goblins?

Goblins are Jawas.

Only they'll steal your baby out of its crib instead of your droid from the shed.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

Aside from my entire setting, which is 17th century Europe? The last thing I added to my campaign was stats for petards - the Renaissance version of the shaped-charge - and foussages - the Renaissance version of the improvised explosive device.

Clearly I feel a need to yell, 'BOOM!' coming on.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

One of the adventurers, a King's Musketeer, was trying to get some play from a Genoese lady-in-waiting, but he found her flirting with an officer from another regiment. She started egging the two characters into a duel. The other two players were giving the Musketeer's player a metric buttload of grief - 'She's so playing you. Don't be a fool." -  in and out of character. It sounded just like a bunch of friends at a bar on a Saturday night.

I should mention that the resulting duel ended with the adventurers exiled from Paris.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

The Nocturnals sourcebook for Mutants and Masterminds, just 'cause it's so cool.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

Living? Dan Brereton. Deceased? N.C Wyeth. Honorable mention? Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

One of the adventurers in our game is among the best swordsmen in France. I have only a handful of non-player characters in the setting who can hang with him in a duel.

But the first time a bravo pulled a pistol on him, the player's eyes widened and he sat back in his chair. His character may be Heaven's gift to fencing, but he ain't bullet-proof.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

Vault of the Drow - it's Dark Shadows crossed with Kingmaker. I love the politics of Erelhei-Cinlu, so the drow were constantly trying to manipulate the adventurers into helping them destroy their rivals.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

I want to backpack or paddle to some remote patch of wilderness and bust out a roleplaying game around the campfire, then pack or paddle a little further the next day and do it again.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

A few days ago I was thinking about an Arthurian horror game using Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

Clark Ashton Smith is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of swashbuckling adventure, but for my campaign I drew inspiration from the Averoigne stories for the remote province of Auvergne. I wanted the Auvergne of my setting to be like Appalachia, a place out of time with the rest of France, more medieval than modern, inhospitable and disturbing.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?

My ideal player is The Brain: 'Gee, Brain, whaddya wanna do tonight?" "The same thing we do every night, Pinky - try to take over the world!'

The adventure is what you do. So go do something. Preferably something cool.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?

What real life experiences haven't I used in game? My campaigns tend to be full of descriptions of places I've been, people I've known, and things I've done.

Perhaps the mose prevalent experiences are those I've racked up from years of backpacking, paddling, caving, and scuba diving. I've been fortunate enough to live, work, and play in some really beautiful, natural places, so I can draw from a lot of memories when describing the landscapes of my settings.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

A time-space distortion device that would give our whole group more free time to play.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

My kids. Right now 'the role game' is something Daddy does with his friends, and it involves the book with the Musketeers on the cover and the bag of cool dice.

Teach your children well, they say.

Now Bring Me That Horizon

So what's all this, then?

I'm a grognard who likes cape-and-sword, swashbuckling tabletop roleplaying games.

So that's what I'm going to blog about.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bona Fides

In the fall of 1977, my best friend introduced me to a new game called Dungeons and Dragons. It came in a blue box with a picture of a red dragon on a mound of treasure and two adventurers, a warrior in armor with a bow and a wizard in a pointy hat waving a wand. I was a pretty avid wargamer - board-and-chit, particularly Kingmaker and Third Reich, and metal minis on the sandtable at a local hobby shop - and model builder for a number of years, but this was something new. Instead of a detached commander moving units across a game board on our dining table, I was a fighting man, exploring a labyrinth with a sword and a shield and an empty backpack waiting to be filled with gold and jewels, perhaps from that very same dragon's hoard I saw on the box.

And that's how my fascination with roleplaying games began.

At the time I started, Dr. Holmes' basic set and the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual were TSR's flagship products. The brown box was still around, and we used the supplements as well as related books like The Arduin Grimoire. We were still months away from the release of the AD&D Players Handbook and about a year-and-a-half from the Dungeon Masters Guide. In the realm of fantasy roleplaying games, D&D's competitors were Tunnels and Trolls and Chivalry and Sorcery, but the early hobby was already expanding beyond the fantastic realm to science fiction with Metamorphosis Alpha and Traveller, with its striking black box and the plaintive mayday of the Free Trader Beowulf. In the corners of the hobby were a variety of smaller titles, one of which - Bunnies and Burrows, based on Richard Adams' brilliant novel, Watership Down - I would play often in those early years.

And that was pretty much that. Gamma World and RuneQuest wouldn't appear until the following year. Boot Hill was a tabletop miniatures game; it wouldn't be repackaged as a roleplaying game for another two years.  Melee was a skirmish game as well; Wizards was about six months off, and The Fantasy Trip nearly three years away, along with Bushido, Rolemaster, Top Secret, Space Opera, and a host of others.

En Garde! had been around for a year or two when I started playing and buying tabletop roleplaying games. I remember thumbing through it at The War Club, a hobby store in La Cañada near where I grew up in the foothills of southern California. I was intrigued by the idea of roleplaying a swashbuckling swordsman in the vein of d'Artagnan, but part of the appeal of roleplaying games for me was miniature models, and while The War Club stocked Napoleonics and medieval knights and dragons and monsters and starships and spacemen, I couldn't find a single plumed cavalier on the glass shelves in their display cases, so the slim, digest-sized En Garde! went back on the rack.

Fantasy roleplaying games were quickly eclipsed for me by other genres. Boot Hill, Top Secret, and especially Traveller were my favorites, followed in the early Eighties by Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, Chill, and Flashing Blades. Like everyone else, I played AD&D because, well, everyone played AD&D, but what I enjoyed most was trading on the Spinward Main, or raiding the floating island of Dr. No, or prowling the darkened streets of Mad Mesa. I was never a big fantasy literature fan - through my parents I was introduced to science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein, and from prowling the sci fi section in our local bookstore I read Professor Tolkien's works, some story collections by Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and Gordon Dickson's The Dragon and the George. A family friend introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs by giving me a half-dozen of his first edition copies of Tanar of Pellucidar and John Carter of Mars novels. Through my dad I picked up an interest in men's adventure - Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Clive Cussler - and Westerns - Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey. When I was about six or seven, I bought a copy of Treasure Island at a garage sale for a nickel, which turned me on to Robert Louis Stevenson, and in sixth grade I did a book report on The Three Musketeers, from an abridged edition released with the classic Richard Lester movies. Fantasy doesn't resonate with me in the same way as science fiction and historical fiction, and my taste in roleplaying games reflects this.

Toward the end of the Eighties I played MegaTraveller, Marvel Super Heroes, and a little Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, but by 1989 I was done with roleplaying games. Work and school and the woman who would become my wife took up most of my time, but the truth is, I simply lost interest. Most of my original gaming books - many of them first editions - were destroyed in a flood a few years later. If I could have back a moment in time, it would've been moving my boxes of game books into storage in my parents' loft.

For twelve years I rarely gave tabletop roleplaying games a thought - I missed all of 2e AD&D, all of T:NE, all of World of Darkness - until I moved to Fullerton and (re-)discovered The Game Castle. In 2001 I picked up 3e D&D and started playing again, with a group at Cal State Fullerton. As before, I played D&D because, well, everyone played D&D, but the release of d20 Modern and Mutants and Masterminds opened up opportunities for me to move into the genres I really wanted to play. Around 2005 I had the wild idea of releasing a supplement of stock d20 Modern non-player characters, inspired by 1001 Characters for Traveller. I found a copy of 1001 Characters on eBay, to use as a reference, and flipping through the pages I was struck by how simple and efficient character stat blocks are in Traveller compared to d20 games. It was only a week or two later that I ordered the reprint books from Far Future, and my personal 'old school renaissance' was under way.

In 2008 I picked up an anthology of Robert E. Howard's 'Oriental' stories, historical fiction set in the Near East. One of the stories, "The Shadow of the Vulture," set at the siege of Vienna in 1529, inspired me to track down the Fantasy Games Unlimited cape-and-sword roleplaying game, Flashing Blades, and since 2010 I've been running a campaign set in 1625 France.

But enough about me.