Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Swashbuckler's Sandbox, Part 4

In part 3, I described using a list of genre influences - an Appendix N - as a guide for creating encounters and non-player characters for a swashbuckling sandbox. Genre tropes in a sandbox may provide a measure of familiarity to players which in turn increases their confidence in their decisions pertaining to their characters, encouraging them to drive the action, which is the goal in a sandbox setting.

This may be perhaps the most obvious and least useful advice ever, but from reading blogs and intreweb forums, sometimes that which seems so obvious to me is a complete mystery to others, so I'm not taking anything for granted.

One of the fundamental differences between the sandbox settings most familiar to fantasy or science fiction gamers, is that the cape-and-sword sandbox less likely to be organized around places - the keep, the Caves of Chaos, and the Mound of the Lizard Men, for example, or Hefry, Ruie, and Forboldn in Regina subsector. Rather, the swashbuckler's sandbox is organized around people.

The non-player characters in the swashbuckler's sandbox form a web of relationships, a web which is in some ways analagous to a traditional dungeon. Think of each person as a 'room,' and the relationships between them as the 'corridors' by which they are connected.

To take that social-relationships-as-dungeon analogy a little further, the social world of the swashbuckler contains some of the hazards associated with old school dungeon crawls. Many of the relationships/'corridors' between characters are hidden behind 'secret doors,' for example, and must be discovered by the adventurers - in our Flashing Blades campaign, for example, one of the player characters' close allies is secretly connected to one of the princes of the blood, but the adventurers are unaware of this relationship at the moment. There are also 'chutes' which in the traditional dungeon drop players from upper levels to the more dangerous lower levels, and in the context of the swashbuckler's sandbox connect a less powerful npc to a more powerful one - in our campaign, the player characters found such a chute when one of them challenged a romantic rival to a duel and belatedly discovered that the rival's uncle is a lieutenant in the Cardinal's Guard.

A swashbuckler explores this web of relationships like a dungeoneer crawls through a lich's tomb, and for the same reasons - as the dungeoneer finds risks and rewards in the crypts of that dusty necropolis, it's the non-player characters populating a cape-and-sword game-world who provide danger, riches, and a chance at glory for the adventurers.

That said, I must allow for 'the piracy exception' - the sandbox for a pirates campaign may closely resemble that of more traditional roleplaying sandboxes, with pirates seeking out galleons and ports and lost temples to plunder in the style of their dungeoneering peers in a fantasy campaign.

The piracy exception aside, in the swashbuckler's sandbox non-player characters are the gateway to rewards and hazards - a jeweled ring is more likely to make its way into a swashbuckler's hand as a token of thanks from a grateful queen than it is from a locked chest guarded by a black pudding. Relationships with npcs are often rewards and hazards in and of themselves, particularly in games and campaigns where increased social status is one of the rewards offered to player characters. Non-player characters may offer an adventurer wealth, influence, sex, membership in an organization, and access to new skills - Lagardère seeking an introduction to the duc de Nevers in order to learn the botte de Nevers is a classic example - as well as danger, in the forms of duels, intrigue, manipulation, and loss of reputation.

To this end, the referee running a swashbuckler's sandbox should devote the same imagination and effort to creating engaging, challenging, mysterious non-player characters as other referees do a megadungeon or an alien world, and those non-player characters should be woven into a complex web of relationships, known and secret, for the adventurers to explore.

Once again, this is probably boilerplate to many - it gets covered in some manner in most referees' sections of game-books and in numerous articles in gaming rags and blog posts. Tips like, "Give each npc two secrets!" are as ubiquitous as rules for initiative or experience. So how is this different with respect to a swashbuckler's sandbox? With the possible exception of the some of the really extensive published city settings, the number and reach of the non-player characters in a cape-and-sword campaign are greater than that of more familiar settings. Consider the extent of the social network of a duke and peer who is a courtier to the king, a soldier in time of war and an extraordinary ambassador in peace, and the lord of a large estate. This one non-player character could have a web of immediate contacts, within a single degree of separation - family, servants, courtiers, and clients - comparable to all of the named npcs is the village of Hommlet and the keep on the Borderlands and then some, and many of those npcs may have considerable networks of their own . . .

Now, very few referees prepare anything other than a relatively small sandbox by attempting to detail every single person anymore than they describe every structure in a large city or every hovel in a marcher barony. What a sandbox referee does prepare are a few key locations in varying depth with the expection of improvising additional details as the need arises. The non-player characters in a swashbuckler's sandbox are handled the same way; to use an example from my campaign, I created a number of families in different parts of France who are given considerable detail - to continue to use the dungeon analogy offered earlier, these families can be thought of as 'levels' or 'sublevels' in the dungeon, and they in turn may be connected to other 'levels,' such as a gentleman's club, the King's Musketeers, or a bishop's curia.

In a traditional sandbox, the adventurers are expected to utilize their wits and resources to learn more about the game-world and set goals for themselves to pursue. The players and their characters may hear rumors or legends, or find an old map or a strange atrifact, offering clues to where rewards may be found. The same is true in a swashbuckler's sandbox, but rather than the legend of the old moathouse overheard in the tavern, the rumors and such concern the non-player characters in the setting. For example, one of the families I rendered in some detail for my Flashing Blades sandbox is that of the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, a Savoyard nobleman who relocated his household to Paris in order to pursue closer ties to the French noblity. The player characters heard a rumor that the vicomtesse needed to fill a number of positions in her household - a tutor for her children, a fencing instructor for her sons, a banker to manage her finances, and so on - giving the adventurers an entrée into the lives of the Praz-de-Lys', their network of relationships in Paris, and the schemes in which various family members engage.

That last point bears noting - while specific cape-and-sword tropes may vary in different campaigns, one should be present in every swashbuckler's sandbox, and that is that the whole thing is awash in intrigue. "Give each npc two secrets!" should really only scratch the surface of the potential rivalries, dalliances, and alliances connecting the non-player characters. Political rivalries, ancient vendettas, and forbidden romance are the stuff of adventure in this game-world, and these agendas should permeate the relationships between npcs.

In addition to rumors for drawing the adventurers into the web of non-player characters who make up my sandbox, I also lean heavily on random encounters, many featuring named npcs, an idea borrowed from Chaosium's Thieves World box set and TSR's Boot Hill adventures. To borrow the dungeon analogy one last time, using named non-player characters in random encounters produces something like falling through the roof into a chamber of a lost shrine, the 'dungeon' presenting itself to the adventurers! The player characters in my campaign, for example, rescued the duchesse de Chevreuse and her lover, Lord Holland, from bravos in a Paris alley, then snuck the pair back into the Louvre, earning the powerful and dangerous noblewoman's gratitude - this was a random encounter generated as a disguised nobleman and a gang of thieves using the generic tables in the Flashing Blades core rules. Another random encounter - the aftermath of a murderous duel - earned one of the adventurers an enemy whom the players believe has tried twice now to assassinate their characters.

And that last touches on my final point, that the sandbox must react to the actions of the adventurers. The player characters' actions - and sometimes their failures to act - carry consequences. My simple rule is this: if the adventurers are winning, someone else is losing, and that someone may choose to do something about it. This is where the dungeon analogy breaks down a bit for me, for in these instances, the 'rooms' of the 'dungeon' may actually seek out the adventurers! Earning a friend may mean making that friend's enemies the adventurers' own as well, and if that holds true, then the enemies of their enemies may offer alliances as well. A swashbuckler's sandbox is marked by a dynamic tension as the adventurers tug, os simply brush against, the web of relationships they encounter in the game-world.

Swashbucklers may travel the world, but what defines their adventures are the people they meet and engage in their travels, and a swashbuckler's sandbox should emphasize this.

Wednesday Wyeth

Who are those guys?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Honor + Intrigue Errata Collection

There's a thread at Big Purple for reporting errata for Honor + Intrigue before the text goes out for the print version. Errata and other comments are requested by Friday, 2 March.

Anyone played this yet? Purchasing Te Deum pour un massacre last month blew my discretionary income budget, but I do want to pick up the .pdf at some point, despite the price. H+I is quite a bit more than I'm usually willing to spend on a .pdf - if it wasn't a cape-and-sword game, I wouldn't even give it another look - but at least it's not as ridiculous as the price point for All for One: Régime Diabolique.

Yeah, I can be rather frugal a cheap spiv when it comes to games.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Swashbuckling's Little Brown Book

On Thoul's Paradise, perdustin posted an introduction to "the other little brown book", En Garde! by Game Designers Workshop, the first cape-and-sword roleplaying game.

En Garde! started out as a set of rules for swashbuckling skirmishes, similar to Rapier and Dagger from FGU or Gloire from Rattrap Productions, but as a brief history of the game notes, "The players invented backgrounds to provide a reason for the duels. In short order they had individual characters in an ever more complex setting. The setting took over as the main focus of play . . . "

That setting was a Ruritania of the designers' invention, and not Musketeers-era France as perdustin suggests. That setting would strongly influence one of its successors, Flashing Blades, particularly the rules for soldier characters going on campaign and the existence of gentleman's clubs, an anachronism in the 17th century France setting of the FGU game.

I'm fascinated by the description of how the setting developed. Essentially the early players were as interested in the reasons why their characters were dueling, and they set about creating a milieu of carousing and courtship and soldiering around their characters to give them a motivation to cross swords. I've heard it suggested that En Garde! is more a skirmish game than a roleplaying game - the same criticism often leveled at Boot Hill - but I think that milieu proves otherwise. This was a social milieu rather than the more familiar dungeon/city/wilderness or subsector-full-of-star-systems settings adopted for other early roleplaying games.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of perdustin's posts on En Garde! which I feel I should mention is still in print.

Cinematic: The Duellists

Friday, February 24, 2012

Special Maneuvers, Redux: A Reply to Jeff Rients

"You are using Bonetti's defense against me, eh?"

"I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain."

"Naturally you must suspect me to attack with Capoferro."

"Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro, don't you?"

"Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa - which I have."

Yeah, Jeff Rients has the right of it, again.

And is it wrong that I can quote that entirely from memory?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Something to Watch

Over at No Signal!, @arcadian writes about creating a Sinbad-inspired setting, a project I support whole-heartedly.

Since I was a boy, I've been fascinated by the tales of the Arabian Nights. I had a picture book that came with a vinyl record, and I would put on the record and follow along in the book as Scheherazade narrated Sinbad's adventures. When I got a little older, I received a copy of the Scribners' edition of The Arabian Nights, with plates by Maxfield Parrish. I saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad on a trip with a church group in 1974, and Sinbad the Sailor on Saturday afternoon television, and some years ago I discovered my favorite fantasy film - and one of my favorite movies, period - The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

When I think of the fantastic, that's still what comes to mind today - djinns and flying carpets and domed temples and flashing scimitars. From the time I started playing roleplaying games, my fantasy campaigns were washed in 'Oriental' color - my hobgoblins traded in their o-yoroi armor for abas and djellbas, allied with turbaned ogre magi.

Even now cities like Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Khiva summon a feeling of mystery and adventure for me. The stories of Khlit the Cossack, set on the steppes and deserts and mountains of central Asia by the great pulp author Harold Lamb are among my favorites, as are Robert E. Howard's 'Oriental' tales.

In fact, it was one of REH's stories that lead me to run Flashing Blades, "The Shadow of the Vulture," about the siege of Vienna in 1529. I remain fascinated by the meeting of East and West, and sprinkled throughout my setting are rumours and clues designed to pull the adventurers eastward, to Candia, to Jerusalem, to the Levant, possibly even as far east as the Roof of the World . . .

I'm looking forward to following @arcadian's "Marabia" as it develops.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

Pinch-hitting for N.C. Wyeth this week is Warren W. Baumgartner's swashbuckler in a seraglio.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Madame la Présidente

In Ancien Régime France, the title of présidente belonged to the presiding magistrates of the Parlements, the high court of Paris as well as the provinces which enjoyed the rights of their own courts, the pays d'états.

The office of présidente became venal bn the 17th century, making it effectively hereditary provided the owner paid a tax, the paulette, to the crown for the privilege.

As with most herditary titles, wives of the présidentes were addressed by their husbands' offices, thus the object of the vicomte de Valmont's passion in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is formally addressed as Madame la Présidente de Tourvel, or more simply, Madame la Présidente.

A Swashbuckler's Sandbox, Part 3

After a quick detour to cover a bit about how a sandbox setting works during actual play in part 2, now I want to get into how I run a sandbox cape-and-sword campaign.

First, compile an Appendix N for your sandbox which lays out the genre influences for the campaign.

Roleplaying games are traditionally composed from a farrago of sources and influences, and so are their settings, both explicit and implied. A discrete list of books, comic books, movies, artwork, and other media provides a focus for preparing elements of the sandbox which fit the genre. A sandbox which reflects its genre influences may provide the players an immediate familiarity with and an intuitive feel for the game-world.

The less familiar and more remote the genre influences, on the other hand, the more the players must learn about the sandbox before being confidant in acting on their understanding of the game-world. This is why clichés and archetypes abound in roleplaying games and other media - they paint a vivid picture in the imagination which short circuits the need for lengthy exposition. Increasing the ease with which players can choose a reasonable course of action for their characters helps facilitate sandbox play.

The significance of a sandbox's genre influences also holds for genre-mashups; if the mashup involves two immediately accessible genres - swashbucklers versus Cthulhoid horrors in Revolutionary France! - then the players may gain the same benefits of familiarity as a single genre. On the other hand, a burgeoning excess of hetergeneity may result in incongruity, an invidious sense of mission creep - I still hear players complain about the big setting reveal in 7th Sea, for example.

Now cape-and-sword genre tropes are far from universal - a subject I will get into at length in future posts - so choosing the sandbox's Appendix N helps narrow the field a bit. A setting appropriate to The Princess Bride may be may look very different from one appropriate to Captain Alatriste. The specific genre influences particular to a given sandbox help to give it a shape more readily recognizible to the players.

The Appendix N for my Flashing Blades campaign lists my main sources of inspiration. The story which first prompted me to run Flashing Blades was Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture," set at the 1529 siege of Vienna; I subsequently drew from - naturally - REH's pirate stories, "Swords of the Red Brotherhood" and "Black Vulmea's Vengeance," as well. The other sources that make up my Appendix N build on this.

Melodramas like The Prisoner of Zenda and Swordspoint are absent from my sandbox's Appendix N, though I really like both stories and their sequels. Comic movies like Swashbuckler and the unintentionally funny The Musketeer are missing as well, as most of the humor in the campaign is found, not deliberate or satirical.

Having a firm grasp of the genre and associated tropes gives me a framework on which to build the setting elements of my swashbuckling sandbox. The pulp tales and related sources which inspire my campaign contain rough, flawed anti-heroes and cruel, complex antagonists, and the non-player characters populating my sandbox reflect this - rock-jawed champions and mustache-twirling villains need not apply - as do their agendas, which mostly revolve around the pursuit of fortune and glory and the power that comes with both.

Random encounters play a very important role in my sandboxes. They represent the living setting, a nexus between the travels and actions of the adventurers and in media res events which in some instances follow from the agendas of significant non-player characters in the campaign. Many of my random encounters feature named npcs for this reason; they provide an opportunity for the adventurers to meet and interact with these characters, to build a relationship - for better or worse - with the movers and shakers of the setting. From my Appendix N sources, I can draw ideas for the kinds of encounters representing the genre tropes in those stories. For example, the adventurers in my sandbox aren't likely to hear of a merchant looking to hire caravan guards, but they may be approached by a gambler or a moneylender looking for swordsmen to help recover a debt.

Now that gambler or moneylender will rarely exist in isolation, and in part 4 - part 4?! - I'll get into social relationships as a setting map in my swashbuckler's sandbox.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

DVR Alert

Tuesday, Turner Classic Movies is featuring three pirate movies back-to-back-to-back: The Pirate, starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland; The Spanish Main, starring Paul Henreid and Maureen O'Hara; and Captain Blood, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.

Sounds like a serviceable lineup for September 19th, actually.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Swashbuckler's Sandbox, Part 2

In part 1, I laid the groundwork for what I consider to be a sandbox playstyle. I'd planned on getting into how to work cape-and-sword tropes into a sandbox, but as I started writing it, I found I was introducing all sorts of other baggage regarding how sandboxes work in actual play, so I want play porter for a moment and clear those bags out of the way first.

There are a number of features common to sandbox settings, and, judging from the many discussions in which I've participated on various gaming forums over the years, it seems that every one of them comes with some misunderstandings attached.

First, a sandbox game-world is not tailored, to use the 3e D&D DMG parlance, to the adventurers. In the game-world, there are hazards and challenges that will be easy for the adventurers to handle, some that carry a measure of risk to the adventurers, and some which the adventurers are unlikely to overcome unless they are extremely clever and insanely lucky. Sandboxes include a wide range of degrees of difficulty in challenges, hazards, and encounters, and the adventurers may face them at any time, with or without warning - in fact, one of the important elements of game-play is gathering intelligence on the nature of hazards which exist in the game-world, to reduce the risk of an unexpected, overwhelming encounter.

Second, a sandbox typically contains a number of adventure sites - a ruined castle, a creepy abbey, a dark forest, a maze of caverns, a keep on the borderlands, and so on. Scattered throughout the game-world are clues - rumors picked up from travellers in taverns, books found in dusty libraries, a map found in a dead bandit's pocket, a murak painted on the wall of a monk's cell, et cetera - which point the adventurers in the direction of these locations. These locations typically receive more attention than other places in the game-world during the referee's prep, and are often intended to have an element of replayability about them - each supports multiple visits by the adventurers. Clues are enticements to the adventurers, tempting them with the means to achieve their goals, or even satisfying a goal itself.

Third, a sandbox offers the opportunity for the adventurers to explore at their own pace and in a direction of their choosing. Hexcrawls - exploration hex by hex across a map - are strongly associated with this, appearing early in the hobby in published settings like Blackmoor, the Wilderlands, and the Spinward Marches. This sometimes implies that sandboxes need to be extensive, but that isn't necessarily the case (qv, Keep on the Borderlands).

Fourth and last, a sandbox should be a dynamic game-world. The 3e D&D DMG associates the term "status quo" with sandbox adventuring, implying a sort of stasis state which is only broken by the presence of the adventurers. A sandbox, however, usually contains non-player characters with agendas they pursue independently of the adventurers, unless or until the adventurers choose to become involved or are swept up as a consequence of an npc agenda coming to fruition. In a well-run sandbox, there are also large-scale events which occur in the setting, such as wars, plagues, and so forth, which again exist independently of the adventurers.

Okay, with those trunks and valises stowed, now I can move on to the swashbuckling in part 3.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Swashbuckler's Sandbox, Part I

Once upon a time, there were no sandboxes.

There were only game-worlds, with ten-by-ten rooms to explore and orcs to kill and pies to take. An adventure was "a session of play" (1e AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, "The Campaign," p. 86) and a succession of such adventures made a campaign. Whatever the players and their characters did last Saturday night was 'the adventure.'

That simple time was surprisingly brief in the history of the roleplaying hobby, however. Modules, many originally drawn from tournament games offered at conventions, soon defined an adventure. Early modules were most often organized around a location - a cavern, a moat house, a pyramid on a cloud-shrouded world, an alien starship. Some modules included the machinations of the denizens of a location, giving these adventures the semblance of a plot.

As roleplaying games reached their first, and arguably highest, peak of popularity in the early Eighties, the significance of these machinations grew to the point where adventures were less about exploring a location and more about interacting with a series of events based on these machinations. These events increasingly took on the structure of fiction. Adventures were expected to have a actual plot, with rising and falling action, reveals and reversals, and a climax. Many were - and are - organized in terms of chapters, or acts and scenes.

The idea that an adventure was simply, 'last Saturday's game,' all but disappeared, from rule books, from published adventures, from advice articles in the various gaming rags, and, most importantly, from the expectations of gamers who never really knew any other way to play. Those expecations brought with them baggage concerning the nature of the player character and the experience of actual play, and that baggage would profoundly affect many design tenets.

The release of 3e D&D, the tabletop roleplaying industry's flagship product, included the marketing tagline, "Back to the Dungeon." There was a conscious effort to tap into the experiences of roots-gamers, such as how adventures and settings were discussed in the rule books. The 3e Dungeon Master's Guide includes a discussion of "status quo" motivations for adventurers, in which a feature of the game-world exists and the adventurers are free to explore it or not as they wish. The 3e DMG also offers an explicit distinction between "site-based" and "linear" adventures.

The intrewebs allowed roots-gamers to talk with one another as well as with with the larger population of gamers generally. Some roots-gamers never stopped playing the early games of the hobby while others - myself included - grew increasingly dissatisfied with contemporary roleplaying games. Through gaming forums and the burgeoning blogosphere we talked about how we approached running and playing roleplaying games, of save-or-die and wandering monsters and random treasures and hexcrawls and, perhaps most significantly, the promotion of player choice and the absence of linear adventures.

And that playstyle received a name.

Sandbox is co-opted from computer games, and depending on exactly which definition is used, it probably isn't the best fit to describe this playstyle, which incorporates elements of open worlds and nonlinear adventuring as well. Nonetheless, sandbox has come to describe a playstyle in which the players and their characters are presented with a game-world and given the freedom to explore it as they please, without the expectation of an unfolding plot prepared in advance by the referee or the goal of producing a traditionally structured story through play.

So while I'm not wild about the term sandbox, it's what we have.

Now that I hope we have some common ground on what I mean by sandbox, in part 2, I'll discuss how I threw swashbucklers into mine.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Off the Shelf: Military Manuals

Military manuals are used as reference books, particularly for siegecraft, mounting artillery, and the construction of fortifications. They may contain plates showing drills using the pike and musket or for cavalry. Many include extensive commentaries on the military tactics and strategy of the ancient world.

Military manuals may be found on the bookshelves of many nobles or in the quarters of soldiers. 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. Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen, Jacob de Geyn
2. De Re Militari, Vegetius
3. Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar
4. Taktika, Nikephoros Ouranos
5. Strategikon, Kekaumenos
6. Harengue militaires, et concions de princes, capitaines, embassadeurs, et autres manians tant la guerre que les affaires d’Estat, Françoys de Belle-Forest
7. De re et disciplina Militari aureus tractatus, Giulio Ferretti
8. Tratadi de re militari, Diego Salazar
9. Elogia militaria, Julius Roscinus Hortinus
10. Architettura militare, Antonio Lupicini
11. The triumphs of Nassau, or, a description and representation of all the victories both by land and sea, granted by God to the noble… Lords, the Estates Generall of the United Netherlands Provinces under the conduct and command of his excellencie, Prince Maurice of Nassau, Jan Janszoon Orlers
12. Della espugnatione, e difesa delle fortezza, Gabriello Busca
13. Della Architettura militare, Gabriello Busca
14. Nova inventione di fabricar Fortezza, Giovanni Battista Belici
15. Corona e palma militare d’artegliaria, Allessandro Capobianco
16. De’ discorsi de Guerra, Bernardino Rocca
17. Teorica et practica de fortificacion, Cristobal de Rojas
18. Le capitaine de Ierosme Cataneo contenant la manière de fortifier places, assaillir et deffendre, Girolamo Cataneo
19. The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres, Robert Barrett
20. Architecture et perspective des fortifications et artifices, Jacques Perret

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cinematic: The Count of Monte Cristo

If Interrupters Come

"But to you I leave my long, most flexible, ancient Castilian blade, which infidels dreaded if old songs be true. Merry and lithe it is, and its true temper singeth when it meets another blade as two friends singwhen met after many years. It is most subtle, nimble, and exultant, and what it will not win for you in the wars, that shall be won for you by your mandolin, for you have a way with it that goes well with the old airs of Spain. And choose, my son, rather a moonlight night when you sing under those curved balconies that I knew, ah me, so well; for there is much advantage in the moon. In the first place maidens see in the light of the moon, especially in the Spring, more romance than you might credit, for it adds for them a mystery to the darkness which the night has not when it is merely black. And if any statue should gleam on the grass near by, or if the magnolia be in blossom, or even the nightingale singing, or if anything be beautiful in the night, in any of these things also there is an advantage; for a maiden will attribute to her lover all manner of things that are not his at all, but are only outpouring from the hand of God. There is this advantage also in the moon, that, if interrupters come, the moonlight is better suited to the play of a blade than the mere darkness of night; indeed but the merry play of my sword in the moonlight was often a joy to see, it so flashed, so danced, so sparkled."

- Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Le Sexy

I tend to see roleplaying games as very functional items. For example, I tend to write all over my game books - highlighting passages, penciling in margin notes, even the odd sketch or diagram. I don't care for a lot of artwork unless it illustrates something relevant to the rules - stuff like fancy borders or 'iconic characters' is pretty much lost on me. I like the words to be spelled correctly, I like the grammar to be correct, and please, give me a bloody index. I'm a man of simple tastes.

Which makes my latest game-purchase seem so amazingly decadent.

Last week I received a package from France - which excited a great deal of curiosity from the rest of the crew - containing Te Deum pour un massacre: le jeu de rôle des guerres de Religion, the roleplaying game of the 16th century French Wars of Religion, and all I got are two words.

Le sexy.

Te Deum for a Massacre refers to the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, during which thousands to tens of thousands of Huguenots - French Protestants - were cruelly murdered by Catholics in Paris and the rest of France with the tacit blessing of the king, Charles IX, and the connivance of the Queen-Mother, Catherine de' Medici and their allies, the Guise family. The massacre, which followed on the heels of the wedding of Henri de Navarre - who would become King Henri IV of France - and Marguerite de Valois, sister of the king, was not the beginning of the Wars of Religion, nor was it the end, but it is perhaps the most memorable event in the vast confessional bloodletting which gripped France in the 16th century.

Patrice Chéreau's 1994 movie La Reine Margot - released in the US as Queen Margot - luridly covers these events in all their blood-drenched horror. I have to imagine the movie came as something of a shock to American viewers expecting a romance - the French promotional posters featured a woman in a blood-soaked white dress, while the American video release depicted stars Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Perez, two of the most beautiful people in cinema, wrapped up together in a long red cloak.

So anyway, the game.

Te Deum comes in two volumes, hardbound, digest-sized, in a slipcase. Both the books and the slipcase have a leatherette covering with embossed designs and artwork, featuring two duelists on one volume and two nobles with a prelate on the other, with the cover text in gold ink. They look and feel like they should contain the collected works of Rabelais, not a roleplaying game. The parchment-colored pages are a bit busy for my tastes, with intricate borders all around, but the pen-and-ink illustrations scattered through the books are skillfully rendered and, on a quick skim, seem intended to capture the flavor and style of the period for a modern audience.

The first volume is devoted to society, geography, and history of the 16th century (société, géographie, chroniques) and the second covers rules, characters, and adventures (règles, personnages, scénarios).

Oh, and tucked between the books in the slipcover? A folio of character sheets and a BOOKMARK!

I haven't had the time to really dig into the books yet - je parle français un petit peu, and it's going to take a fair number of visits to WordReference to make sure I'm understanding everything I'm reading - but if the rules get the same attention as the presentation, it looks very promising indeed.

Even if they did leave out the bloody index.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Honor + Intrigue Imminent

Pre-orders of Honor + Intrigue, a new cape-and-sword roleplaying game based on Barbarians of Lemuria, are due to be released any day now, but in the meantime, you can make a character if you like.

I haven't ordered this yet - I just dropped an unhealthy chunk of discretionary income on another game - but I'm pretty sure I will at some point. In the meantime, if you get your pre-order, please let me know what you think in the comments.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sunday at the Movies

I spent Sunday afternoon taking apart a futon and clearing out our computer desk as we prepare to move our desktop computer from the spare bedroom - slated to become my son's room in a few months - into the master bedroom. Fortunately it turned out to be a good day for Errol Flynn movies - no, I don't watch the Super Bowl - with The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk on TCM.

Among gamers of a certain age, The Adventures of Robin Hood is akin to a sort of sacrament. It was Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone battling in Nottingham Castle that Gary Gygax wanted to emulate with the hit point rules in OD&D, to capture the back-and-forth of the duelists on the castle steps.

The Sea Hawk is less well-known. Peripherally drawn from the Rafael Sabatini novel of the same name, Errol Flynn plays Captain Thorpe, one of Queen Elizabeth's "Sea Hawks" and a thorn in the side of the Spanish. Thorpe believes the Spanish are preparing to attack England with a great Armada and sets out to expose and foil their plans. The movie concludes with a dramatically-lit duel in the throne room of Winchester Palace.

The Sea Hawk is a fun movie, but it's an even more fascinating book. Mr Sabatini's novel takes place after the Armada and features the exploits of an English sailor and an Algerian pirate. It's an engrossing portrait of the lives of the Barbary corsairs at the turn of the 17th century, of slaves captured in England and held in the banios of Algiers, of renegadoes - Europeans who engaged in piracy under the flags of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli - of 'turning Turk,' adopting the Muslim religion, and of the politics of ransom.

An earlier silent version was filmed in 1924, directed by Frank Lloyd; the Errol Flynn movie, filmed sixteen years later, used footage from the earlier film, including full-sized replica ships in action off Santa Catalina Island, just off the California coast (and not far from where the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels would be filmed some eighty years later). I've not seen the Lloyd version of The Sea Hawk, but it sounds like it was much closer to Mr Sabatini's tale.

I would love to see a remake of The Sea Hawk, one that hews closer to the Sabatini book. In addition to swashbuckling action among the galleys and corsairs of the Mediterranean, it's a remarkable tale about a largely forgotten period of contact and conflict between Christian Europe and Muslim Africa.

Cinematic: The Mask of Zorro

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Revisiting a Place That Never Was

Last week I wrote about creating a fictional country set in the real world as campaign settings for cape-and-sword games. This would allow a referee to take advantage of the players' familiarity with the real world while not being bound to any particular historical country, giving the referee creative freedom and removing the fear of getting the history of a real place 'wrong.'

I then proceeded to make a rookie blogger mistake: I left one of the main ideas out of my post.

Rather than creating a new country from whole cloth or using an existing fictional setting, a referee could instead take advantage of a published fictional rpg setting and adapt that instead.

For example, the nations of Théah from 7th Sea are analogs to the real world countries of Restoration-era Europe. Vodacce, for example, is Théah's Italy. A referee could take one of the principalities of Vodacce and place it on the 16th or 17th century Italian peninsula as a setting for a swashbuckling game. Adapting one of the kingdoms of Eisen to the Holy Roman Empire, similar to Anthony Hope's Ruritania, is another option.

The nation guides for Théah provide details on locations, customs, politics, and so on, removing a creative burden from the referee. Campaign guides written for roleplaying games typically focus on information immediately relevant to the referee and the players, reducing the workload of adapting a fictional setting drawn from literature.

In fact, I like this idea enough to want to add a bit of 7th Sea to my Flashing Blades campaign. I've got a little reading to do.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Major Players

One of the oft-recurring elements in cape-and-sword stories is the relationship of the main characters to power and powerful individuals, often historical figures, in the setting. In The Three Musketeers romances, d'Artagnan is involved in the affair between the Queen-Consort and the Duke of Buckingham, then serves the Queen-Regent and her first minister, Cardinal Mazarin, during the Fronde, and finally is Captain of the Musketeers under Louis XIV. Gil de Berault is known to Cardinal Richelieu and tasked with acting as the Cardinal's spy against a Huguenot rebel in Under the Red Robe. Captain Alatriste, through his relationship with two courtiers of King Felipe IV, performs a variety of missions on behalf of the Spanish crown; he is also known to the Geneose general, Ambrogio Spinola, under whom Alatriste served on a number of campaigns. The Anglo-Dutch mercenary Percy Blake - ancestor of his namesake concealed behind the mask of the Scarlet Pimpernel - thwarts a plot to kill the Stadtholder, Maurice of Nassau, in The Laughing Cavalier.

The relationship of swashbucklers to persons of note carries into fictional settings as well, as in the relationship between distant cousins Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf V Elphburg of Ruritania.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Introducing this element in cape-and-sword roleplaying games can be pretty easy for the referee and the players. For example, it can addressed through character generation in some systems. In Flashing Blades, player characters make take Advantages and Secrets such as Contact, Favor, or Secret Loyalty, establishing a relationship between the adventurer and a notable figure from the beginning of the adventure or campaign. 7th Sea offers similar Advantages to the adventurers, such as Connections, Patron, and Membership, selected during character creation.

Relationships between the adventurers and powerful non-player characters can also develop in actual play, of course. In more linear, plot-driven adventures, these influential figures may engage the adventurers to perform a service, possibly through the relationships established in their Advantages, or more directly, such as a secret summons or perhaps to escape punishment for an offense like dueling in defiance of royal edicts or courting the wrong man's mistress. In a more player-driven, sandbox campaign, rumors may offer leads to powerful figures in the setting, or the players may attempt to build a connection, such as seeking an introduction, presenting gifts or bribes, and offering service in exchange for patronage.

In my Flashing Blades sandbox campaign, I've populated different random encounter lists with named non-player characters, to give the adventurers an opportunity to spontaneously meet and occasionally serve some of the most influential figures in early 17th century France. The adventurers, for example, rescued the duchesse de Chevreuse and her lover, Lord Holland, from an attack by bravos in a Parisian alley, they danced with the ladies-in-waiting of Cristina Maria, the princess of Piedmont, and one of them is about to be decorated by the duke of Savoy for his service on military campaign.

So establishing relationships to power isn't necessarily difficult. Managing them as the campaign goes on requires some care, however.

First, the adventurers may be tempted to treat the non-player character as at their beck-and-call. In my experience, this is often by no means deliberate; it can actually arise from smart play and it's often perfectly fitting for the adventurers to seek assistance. Following a duel-gone-bad involving the Cardinal's Guards in our campaign, the players quickly ran down the list of non-player characters their characters knew in order to get access to the King before the Cardinal did. However, access to power should ideally come at a cost. In the case of relationships created through Advantages during chargen, the rules of the game may provide reasonable limites on the kinds of assistance which can be expected from a powerful non-player character. For example, the Advantage Contact in Flashing Blades indicates that the Contact will, "aid the character in times of need," but adds the caveat that a Contact, "will help less often the higher their [social] rank." A character with the Favor Advantage runs the risk of retaliation if the favor asked is "too great." In these cases, the rules provide a check-and-balance on the benefit provided by the Advantage.

With respect to adjudicating relationships between influential npcs and the adventurers which arise from actual play, it's important to remember that powerful non-player characters are powerful within the setting for a reason. They may hold important positions, command clients and servants, and control considerable wealth. The most basic guideline for roleplaying this relationship is quid pro quo - what are the adventurers prepared to give up in exchange for power exerted on their behalf? Imbalances in power relationships tend to drive the action in my games - put simply, if the adventurers are winning, then someone somewhere is losing, creating a dynamic balancing of assistance and influence. The adventurers should rarely get something for nothing in their interactions with the elite figures of the campaign. This doesn't mean that non-player characters should not act generously toward the adventurers, but such generosity should carry at least some expectation of reciprocity.

Second, the rules for social interactions in the game need to be considered carefully. It's not difficult to see how a player who optimizes a 'Face' character might be tempted to reduce an important figure in the game to a lapdog through incautious refereeing. Referees must be familiar with the ins-and-outs of how these skills work in their games, and what the characters can actually expect to accomplish from their use. For example, in d20 games there are limitations on when and how the Diplomacy skill can be used, such as requiring at least a full minute to make a pitch and allowing opposed rolls in negotiations and pleadings. I use opposed rolls, for example, when an adventurer is attempting to persuade an underling to perform an act on the adventurer's behalf, such as convincing a guard or a clerk to ignore their master's orders - the opposed roll is between the more powerful non-player character's skill and the adventurer's, rather than against a static DC.

In my Flashing Blades campaign, I use the difference in Social Rank betweeen player and non-player characters as a modifier to skill checks involving Etiquette, Oratory, or Captaincy, as well as opposed rolls with a patron's Social Rank and skill standing in for that of a client or créature like a lackey.

Game with magic make this particularly dicey - pun intended - and the referee should carefully consider what defensive magics a powerful and influential figure in the setting is likely to routinely employ to ward against enchantment magic.

None of this should be taken as a recommendation to swing the nerf-hammer at the first sign of the adventurers gaining an upper hand. Few things suck harder as a player than discovering that using the skills and abilities you developed over the course of the game are constantly blunted by the referee. Rather, it's another reminder that powerful npcs should be treated as powerful, not push-overs. Consider the results of successful skill checks in light of the quid pro quo outlined above - how can a non-player character who loses an opposed skill check give the players the reaction they've earned in actual play while gaining something for themselves in the exchange?

Third, the referee needs to be prepared to answer the question, what happens if the adventurers off an important, powerful non-player character? Some referees may choose to give influential, particularly historical, non-player characters some sort of story immunity to insure that historical or setting continuity is maintained. A 7th Sea game master, for example, could rule that the Empereur cannot be killed by the adventurers, though he may be inconvenienced; should the adventurers succeed in an attack on that curled and perfumed royal head, they could discover that they only defeated a look-alike standing in for his imperial majesty.

Others - myself included - prefer to let the dice fall where they may. For my campaign, I've considered what happens should Cardinal Richelieu, for example, or King Louis XIII die unexpectedly in the course of actual play. Part of my campaign preparation involves the possibility of spinning off into alt.history, particularly given that the career rules of Flashing Blades give the adventurers the opportunity to rise to positions of great power and responsibility themselves in the course of a campaign, potentially supplanting Mazarin or Turenne or Colbert.

In my experience, creating and building these relationships between the player characters and important non-player characters is fundamental to emulating the cape-and-sword genre. Players who enjoy swashbuckling tales are likely to find even a passing encounter with a famous character memorable, but the relationships they build and exploit with powerful non-player characters are the stuff that may drive an entire campaign.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Fight! Fight! Musketeers!
Peel off the crooks' ears!
Fight with your swords!
Give to the poor!

Brave Musketeers!

- My daughter, age 7

Okay, so how could I not post this?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Sword Master

Captains Navarre and and Marquet battling with Zweihänders in the cathedral of Aquila. Rob Roy with his claymore facing Archie Cunningham with his smallsword in a castle armory. D'Artagnan and Rochefort dueling by lantern-light in a wood near Calais. Arthur shattering Excalibur on Lancelot's armor.

You may not know his name, but if you're reading this, you almost surely know his work.

And you may even know his face, too.

The seemingly-drunk assassin who challenges Porthos, the one who fights with two swords, in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers? That's William Hobbs, one of the greatest fight choreographers in the world.

Mr Hobbs was an actor and fight choreographer - he would coin the term 'fight director' when co-founding the Society of British Fight Directors in 1969 - at the Old Vic as part of Laurence Oilivier's National Theatre, but it's his work arranging duels with lances, pistols, maces, and all manner of swords in dozens of movies and scores of stage productions that makes him a stage fighting icon.

The fight choreography of movies contributes to the combat systems one finds in roleplaying games - for example, how many feats and class abilities are based on the wire-fu of Yuen Woo Ping? - as game designers try to capture the on-screen action and replicate it through rules and probabilities. One of the appeals for me of Flashing Blades is that combat takes on the manic, brawling feel of the Richard Lester Musketeers movies by which Mark Pettigrew was clearly influenced. With rules for throwing sand in an opponent's eyes, punching him in the face - and kicking him in the junk - Flashing Blades recreates Mr Hobb's choreography both in my mind's eye and in the choices I make as a player and referee. I think that's an important feature of great cape-and-sword roleplaying games.

Here's a too-brief sample of Mr Hobb's choreography.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012