Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Nevers Thrust

"You know my first attack. My second makes you invincible. Attack me. Parry in septime, riposte, envelop in quatre, beat forearm! Take blade as you change arm - disarm. To the forehead!"

"You can't pierce the forehead."

"You can. Right here."
Many cape-and-sword roleplaying games offer players the opportunity to utilize special abilities or combat maneuvers as their characters gain experience. In 7th Sea, for example, Swordsmen characters study different schools of fencing which give access to Skills and Knacks as well as Techniques which are specific to Mastery of a particular school. Honor + Intrigue characters learn Dueling Styles, each of which includes a Final Secret. Combat skills in Swashbuckler - the roleplaying game by Jim Dietz, not the Yaquinto Publishing board game - build on one another, with Slash progressing to Backhand Slash to Two-Handed Slash and Jab to Thrust to Lunge, for example.

The exact benefit of specials and maneuvers in these games varies; for example, Mastery of the Lucani style in 7th Sea allows a character to make a combination attack using both a broadsword and a fist, while the Final Secret of H+I's Spanish Style is allows a free Parry on the expenditure of a Fortune Point. Learning different schools and styles allows access to different abilities with experience, which can then be used in combination during a fight.

Swashbuckler takes a slightly different tack. The rules posit two "very generalized" fighting styles, the jack of all trades and the specialist. The former is built by taking a wide variety of combat skills while the latter is focused on full progression through a few skills instead.

Inspired more by pure fencing simulation rules like Rapier and Dagger, Flashing Blades takes a somewhat different approach. FB includes various martial skills, including five dueling styles; the dueling styles confer skill in the weapons associated with that style and may offer a bonus to a particular type of martial attack or defense; for example, Italian Style dueling allows a character to use the longsword, rapier, and foil and confers a + 1 bonus to hit on a thrust or lunge and a + 1 parry bonus using an off-hand weapons like a dagger, main-gauche, baton, or buckler. FB also contains a variety of special attacks, such as entangling an opponent in a cloak, disarming, striking to subdue, or making an attack or parry while drawing a sword, as well as a variety of "dirty tricks," including tripping a lunging swordsman, throwing sand in his eyes, or kicking him in the junk! With the exception of Entangle, these special attacks or dirty tricks aren't tied to a particular style, however - they are open to any character to attempt.

This is one of the reasons that I opted for Flashing Blades when I decided to run a cape-and-sword campaign. I don't like roleplaying games which require an inordinate investment of character resources to perform fundamental tasks - the aforementioned Jab to Thrust to Lunge skill progression in Swashbuckler is a glaring example of this - and I strongly prefer rules that are intuitive, where the abstractions are couched in common sense language - 7th Sea's Raises make sense in the context of the rules but are too abstract, pulling me out of the action. Flashing Blades offers me both of these.

What it doesn't offer me is the Nevers thrust.

La botte de Nevers comes from Paul Féval's Le Bossu (The Hunchback), perhaps the second-most popular cape-and-sword novel in France after the Musketeers saga. The description of the Nevers thrust above comes from Phillipe de Broca's brilliant 1997 adaptation of the famous story, taught by Vincent Perez's duc de Nevers to Daniel Auteil's Lagardère. Lagardère pursues Nevers for the purpose of learning the attack which bears the duke's family name, and once in possession of it the swordsman declares he is now, "Immortal!"

I can actually get pretty close to replicating the Nevers thrust using the combat rules as written for Flashing Blades. The attack consists of a parry of a thrust, a strike to subdue on the sword arm as a counter, a disarm, and a thrust to the head. But that's only pretty close - per the rules as written, a disarm is a counter, not an attack, and can only be made following a successful parry, so the opponent must thrust not once but twice in succession.

The higher hurdle is the thrust to the head. Hit location in FB is chosen at the time of the attack, and resolved by 1D20 rolled twice on the hit location table - the result closest to the target is the result. As a result, it's possible to aim for the head and hit the left leg instead, though a more likely result is a wound on the right arm or chest if the head is missed.

In order to make the Nevers thrust work as described by monsieur le duc, then, I could allow a disarm as an attack rather than a counter and eliminate the roll for hit location, automatically allowing the thrust to find the head. That's not at all unreasonable, if the steps are executed successfully in sequence: parry a thrust, counter, disarm, thrust.

And voilà! My campaign has the Nevers thrust.

This also opens up an interesting house rule possibility for the players, to develop their own special maneuvers for their characters. As a ground rule, let's say this requires that the character is a Master or Master Superior to develop a special maneuver. The special maneuver is a sequence requiring a minimum of two combat rounds composed of some combination of fencing and brawling attacks, footwork, parries, special attacks, or dirty tricks, which must be performed in order successfully. If the special maneuver is performed successfully, then the character gets an additional die to roll for hit location per round required to complete the sequence; if any action in the sequence is not performed successfully - an attack is parried, for example - then they are simply resolved normally per the rules as written. A special maneuver is 'paid for' with an earned Expertise point, and at least two checkmarks for the Expertise point must come from actual duels, not sparring in the salle d'armes.

Let's see how this might look in practice. Vulmea's Surgical Strike consists of parrying an opponent's slash and countering with a vicious kick in the first round, followed by a handful of sand thrown in the eyes and a slash to the head in the second. (Of course it's not gentlemanly. Pirate, remember?) If the sequence of parry, brawling attack, dirty trick, and fencing attack is executed successfully, I get to roll four dice instead of two for hit location, improving my odds of splattering brains on the deck.

I like this. It engages the rules as written, preserving both the crunch and the flavor that led me to choose Flashing Blades in the first place, and it puts the players in charge of developing special maneuvers as simple or as complex as they want them to be like Swashbuckler, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach like 7th Sea's schools or H+I's styles.

But what about Bonetti's Defense? Can the same thing be done for defensive maneuvers as well? Sure - use a combination of parries, blocks, and footwork, and gain extra dice to roll for parries.

Can a special maneuver be taught? Sure, why not - what's a Master without students, after all? Let's say that a student must have an Expertise of at least 18 - Expert - in order to perform the maneuver and earns one less die than the Master who created the maneuver in the first place, so if anyone else successfully performs my Surgical Strike, they roll three dice for hit location, not four. This provides an additional incentive to develop one's own maneuvers.

I think Lagardère would be pleased.

Friday, March 30, 2012

More Pirate Skirmishings

If you're not following Hendybadger's blog, Tales of a Tabletop Skirmisher, then you missed more Legends of the High Seas action.

I'm looking forward to seeing ship combat, and I'm giving serious thought to picking this up with some of my birthday booty next month.

You Never Forget Your First

My father took me to see The Three Musketeers when I was nine years old.

It was the Richard Lester film, with Michael York, Oliver Reed, et al., still perhaps the most faithful movie version of the tale. During the first duel, in the convent amid the laundry drying on the lines, I was literally on the edge of my seat. I take my love of reading from both my parents, but my love of movies comes very much from my dad. He introduced me to The Adventures of Robin Hood, Quentin Durward, and The Crimson Pirate during Saturday afternoon matinees on our black-and-white Sears television. Seeing swashbucklers on the big screen - in Technicolor! - was utterly breathtaking.

We used to visit our local bookstore in downtown Montrose regularly - every other Friday, on mom's payday, I could purchase two Hardy Boys books, which I would usually end up finishing by Sunday night. Prowling the stacks one Friday evening, I spotted The Three Musketeers on the shelf. It was the Signet movie tie-in, an abridged version of the original tale, and my parents let me get it along with my bi-weekly Franklin W. Dixon fix. Up to that point, Treasure Island was my favorite story, but that abridged TTM soon sat on the shelf beside it. I read it again and again.

The following year, browsing the Revell and Monogram model kits at Michael's Toy Store in the Glendale Galleria, I discovered wargames - Tobruk, from Avalon Hill, was the first, and with each birthday and Christmas - and any payday I could wheedle a parent successfully - my collection of games, then metal miniatures, expanded.

And at the tail end of 1977, I was introduced to roleplaying games.

Like many gamers, I started with D&D and its pseudo-medieval fantasy of knights in chainmail and wizards in pointy hats. From my pervious incarnation as a tabletop warlord, the tactics the game rewarded seemed intuitive. I backed up my characters with men-at-arms wielding polearms effective against both charging horses and evil warriors in plate mail - yes, I'm one of those rare gamers who used the weapons versus armor class modifiers - and archers to harry magic-users. My tactical acumen would make William Marshall proud.

I still enjoyed board games as well, of course, and in 1980 I found an unusual game, Swashbuckler. Whereas Avalon Hill had its 'bookcase games,' Yaquinto Publishing offered its own line of 'album games,' roughly the same size and shape as the cardboard slipcovers of vinyl LPs. Billed as "a game of Swordplay and Derring-Do," it offered me the chance to play the pirates and musketeers who captured my imagination as a young boy on the living room couch and in a darkened theatre with my dad.

Swashbuckler's fidelity to the genre remains remarkable to me. Sharing written orders like those of En Garde! the players choose not only to attack or parry with rapier or cutlass, but to kick, shove, throw a dagger or sword, flip a table, toss a chair, throw a mug of beer - and slip on the drink and get cut by the broken shards - yank a carpet, jump from a balcony or poop deck, swing on a chandelier or a rigging line, and wave a plumed hat in an opponent's face.

Players could choose cutlass-armed pirates or rapier-wielding musketeers for their characters in the game - my friend John and I played mostly musketeer games in the tavern half of the game-board, but perhaps our most epic games were the ones which began with a fight in the tavern and then spilled onto one of the pirate ships to claim a treasure chest or two.

The game includes rules for the players' swashbucklers to improve with experience, and we soon had our stables of characters. Mortality would claim them periodically, but one of my characters, a musketeer named André, came to outlast them all, surviving tavern brawls and boardings at sea, against rapier and cutlass and dagger and beer mug. André became nigh unstoppable - in fact, he never lost a fight in three years of dueling. His prowess legendary, I decided he needed his own character portrait, and I found the perfect picture for him, which I sketched freehand onto a custom character record, reversing the image to put the sword in his right hand where it belonged.

I took the image from the cover of my abridged paperback movie tie-in of The Three Musketeers.

I graduated high school in 1983, and John and I slowly drifted apart - I don't think I played Swashbuckler more than a couple of times after graduation. But I noticed a change in my roleplaying game tactics. I tended to use improvised weapons more often, tried to distract and befuddle my enemies rather than simply outmaneuver or overpower them. I ran a high Dexterity fighter in an AD&D game with a short sword in one hand and a spiked buckler in the other; my thieves nearly always had a dagger in their off-hands and fought from whatever high ground could be found. I became less William Marshall and more Percy Blakeney.

And in 1984, I saw a new roleplaying game, Flashing Blades, on the shelf at The Gamekeeper in the same mall were I discovered Tobruk.

My inner nine year-old remains thrilled to this day.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Off the Shelf: Atlases

Atlases are typically compiled from maps produced by many different cartographers and feature lavishly decorated woodcuts depicting cities, coastlines, and other features as well as the relevant geography. They often run to many volumes; roll 1D6+5 for the number of actual books which comprise an atlas.

Atlases may be found on the bookshelves of many nobles and learned men such as clerics, magistrates, or professors, as well as in colleges, palaces, and abbeys. Roll 1D6 for the number of atlases, 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. The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, John Speed

2. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius

3. Speculum Orbis Terrae, Cornelis de Jode

4. Theatri Geographiae Veteris, Petrus Bertius

5. A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, John Speed

6. Geographia, Ptolemy, edition by Giacomo Gastaldi)

7. L'Isole piu Famose del Mondo, Tomaso Porcacchi Castilione

8. Cosmographie Universelle, Guillaume Le Testu

9. Atlas Novus, Willem and Joan Blaeu

10. Atlas Novus, Jan Janssonius

11. Caertboeck Vande Middel-landsche Zee, Willem Barentsz and Petrus Plancius

12. Enchuyser zeecaertboeck, Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer

13. Typi chorographici provinciarum Austriae, Wolfgang Lazius

14. Rudimenta Cosmographica, Johannes Honter

15. Brittania, William Camden

16. Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi'khtirāq al-āfāq, Muhammad al-Idrisi

17. Cosmographia, Sebastian Münster

18. Roteiro de todos os sinais, conhecimentos, fundos, baixos, alturas, e derrotas que há na costa do Brasil desde o Cabo de Santo Agostinho até ao estreito de Fernão de Magalhães, Luís Teixeira

19. Livro vniversal das navegasões feito em Lisboa por Ioão Teixeira Cosmographo de Sva Magestade, Anno 1643, João Teixeira Albernaz

20. Topographia Helvetiae, Matthäus Merian

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

This week's guest illustrator is Frank Frazetta. I wish Mr Frazetta painted more swashbucklers and fewer barbarians.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

DVR Alert

Coming up on TCM this Thursday, 29 March is The King's Thief, starring Ann Blyth, David Niven, and Edmund Purdom as an English lady trying to clear her father's name, the duke who accused him of treason, and the highwayman who holds the key to the truth, set against the backdrop of the the reign of Ye Olde Merrie Monarch.

The movie features a character by the name of Charity Fell, more of an eighteenth century name, but entertaining in that English way nonetheless.

Monday, March 26, 2012

O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

A design article by Mike Mearls on save-or-die rules in D&D stirred up discussion around the blogs and forums a few weeks back.

Save-or-die is one of those subjects which brings out ardent partisans for and against its inclusion in roleplaying games. Some gamers like the frisson of imminent danger that save-or-die brings to actual play. Others object to save-or-die for a variety of reasons, from attachment to their characters to the continuity of the adventure to the chore of making new characters in complex games to being sidelined during the game to the idea that death should only occur when it's suitably dramatic or when the player decides it's okay.

Another of the objections I read pretty routinely is that it encourages disposable characters. Why become invested in a character, goes the argument, if she can die on an unlucky roll?

Why, indeed?

For me, the answer is uncertainty. Maybe my character is Rob Roy, or maybe he's Alasdair MacGregor - I don't know which he may turn out to be at the outset, but either one is fun to play and harbors the same potential for success, whether or not that potential is realized in the campaign.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading Amanda's post at Drama, Dice, and Damsons on the end of her run as Maria in Twelfth Night. Amanda has this to say about the close of a show.
I won't miss it, but I will enjoy the memory.

The business of not missing a part or a play is important. I spent far too many years being devastated by the ends of shows and finally schooled myself to let go. This, I may add, was a huge improvement on the month- long grieving period I used to find myself indulging in. Now I can put it down at once, smile or wince at the memories and move on.
Amanda's perspective on a role and a show closely mirrors my own with respect to roleplaying games. I played a fighting man in an OD&D one-shot last March, and I was bummed when he got punked by a giant spider on a failed save against poison about an hour into the game. I liked Sir Guilbert de Roncevalles, le Dragon d'Aragonne; sure, he was a preening, arrogant git, but at the same time he was noble and courageous, and ultimately a bit foolhardy. For his short time in the gaming 'verse, he was fun to play, and I was sorry to lose him.

None of that prevented me from immediately taking over his squire, Jacques, as my new first-level character and playing on from there.

Being disappointed is fine; letting disappointment become a show-stopper, on the other hand, well, that can be a real problem.

I play my characters to the hilt, with the full expectation that any one of them can rise to greatness. And sometimes they achieve that greatness, and sometimes they get shot by a sneaky fusilier with a pistol, and it's all good. I smile, or wince, and reach for a blank character sheet.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

More on En Garde!

If you haven't been following perdustin's series at Thoul's Paradise on the first cape-and-sword tabletop roleplaying game, GDW's En Garde! here's a chance to catch up.

The Other Little Brown Book
The Fine Art of Pretending to Fence
The Importance of Status
Clubs and Bawdyhouses
No Friends for the Cardinal's Guard
The Vagaries of War and Fortune

If you've never heard of En Garde! and its approach to roleplaying - which includes some significant differences from the model presented by D&D - or simply want to learn more about the early history of roleplaying games, I strongly recommend giving these a look.

Cinematic: Dangerous Beauty

WARNING! This week's clip from Dangerous Beauty features profanity and nudity, so it's probably just as well that I can't embed it here, as I don't have the 'adult content' filter on.

So, with that out of the way, the duel of verse and steel between Catherine McCormack's Veronica and Oliver Platt's Maffeo, which begins at the one minute mark in the linked clip, is a personal favorite of mine.

Friday, March 23, 2012


I am a grognard.

Like many introduced to roleplaying games in the mid- to late Seventies, I was a wargamer first. I started with board-and-chit games - specifically Avalon Hill's 'Bookcase Games,' starting with Tobruk, and later Third Reich, Squad Leader, Panzer Blitz/Leader, and my favorite to this day, Kingmaker, along with several others - then added metal minis, first learning the 15mm Napoleonics house rules used at my local gaming shop, encased in plastic covers in three-ring binders chained the sandtable in the back of the shop.

Roleplaying games slowly consumed more of my free time; my Starfleet Wars Terran squadron was given away around my sophmore year of high school after I started playing Traveller in 1979, for example. The exception was The Sword and the Flame, which I continued to play through high school, publishing a few issues of a 'zine my senior year for TSatF campaigns on the North-West Frontier; rather than falling by the wayside, my TSatF scenarios spun off a couple of 'Great Game' adventures using Boot Hill, with my 25mm Minifigs Punjab Irregulars serving double-duty with some 1:72 plastic Italeri or Atlantic Pathans.

Mashing up wargames and roleplaying games was pretty common, sometimes by design. GDW specifically integrated Traveller with Mayday, Snapshot, and Striker, of course, and I used the rules from TSR's Divine Right for resolving the clash of fantasy armies in my AD&D campaign.

Much has been written about the wargaming roots of roleplaying games. Personally I'm most often reminded of this history when discussions turn to combat in rpgs. After twelve years away from the hobby, I returned with 3e D&D, and I found myself a bit bumfuzzled by gamers who gushed about how 'tactical' 3e was, with its rules for flanking and attacks of opportunity and so forth.

I was puzzled by this for a couple of reasons. First, many, if not most, of the 'tactical' rules that 3e gamers prattled on about had their origins in AD&D. Second, and more bizarrely from my perspective, so much of what they talked about seemed to have more to do with Magic: The Gathering deck building and little if anything to do with tactics as I understand the word.

Coming into the hobby as a wargamer, I found the combat rules in games like AD&D to be simple and intuitive. Frex, nowhere does AD&D spell out the advantage of placing a rank of pikemen ahead of two ranks of heavy crossbowmen, and from my perspective it wasn't necessary for the rules to do so - the pikemen receive a to-hit and damage bonus for setting their pikes against a charge, and the ranks of crossbowmen alternate their fire, as expected from their 1/2 rate of fire, to maintain a steady barrage of bolts. The rules reward tactical thinking, provided you understand the tactics the rules are designed to reward.

But many gamers who came into the hobby after me were not wargamers. The implicit tactics of the rules were lost on them. Furthermore many learned the game through oral tradition rather than reading the rules in the first place, adding a further remove from the wargaming origins. I never realized until I started sharing experiences with other gamers on bulletin boards how exceptional my high school gaming group was: four of us rotated through the referee's chair, and we each poured through rulebooks like the DMG or Mayday, hunting for obscure rules to spring on one another during our turns behind the screen. The net effect was to give us an intimate familiarity with the rules - what the current jargon calls 'game mastery' - that many of our peers apparently never acquired.

To gamers who didn't grok the implied tactics, combat in early roleplaying games could seem sterile, as I learned from many fans of 3e on my return to gaming. But I noticed that after awhile, the 'tactics' of many roleplaying games came to resemble ordering from a Chinese menu, matching class ability from column A against supernatural ability from column B to get the free bowl of egg drop soup or a side of spring rolls. The real-world tactics that wargames attempt to model was increasingly replaced with dissociated mechanics which primarily reward game rules-knowledge.

Experience with wargames contributed to the differences between characters as well. One of the complaints leveled against early editions of the D&D, frex, is that there is nothing to distinguish two fighters of the same level, yet I never found this to be the case because different players chose to emphasize different tactics. Some players wanted their characters to fight like heavy infantry battling toe-to-toe to break the enemy's line, while others wanted theirs to perform more like skirmishers harassing and wearing down the enemy, and they would equip and play their characters accordingly, so even if they were more-or-less identical mechanically, their tactics and peformance in combat varied consistently during actual play.

Even now if you scratch my roleplayer surface you'll find the wargamer gleaming dully underneath. I can't play a game with automatic weapons without adding in rules for suppressing fire, and the fact that I frequently have to do so is a ridiculously common oversight on the part of game designers - I'm looking at you, d20 Modern. One of the reasons I chose Flashing Blades for my current campaign is that it has rules for throwing sand in an opponent's face and kicking him in the junk as well as trying to stick a rapier in his eye, and not Enhanced Mobility and Elaborate Parry. And I still like to mash up wargames and roleplaying games, like AK-47 Republic with Top Secret and Field of Glory with Flashing Blades - I need to set aside some portion of my disposable income toward building 2mm armies for FoG.

Now you kids get off my lawn, or I'll turn the hose on ya.

Prepare the Fleet

This looks fun.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tossing the Gauntlet

You've been challenged to a duel. Roll 1D20 for the form in which the invitation arrives.

1. A chorale issues the challenge in the form of a madrigal sung in quintal harmony.

2. The challenge is tattooed on a piece of cured human skin.

3. The challenge is printed on broadsides which are posted in every marketplace in the city.

4. A suckling pig is served at a court banquet with the challenge on a rolled sheet of vellum sticking out of the pig's arse.

5. The challenge is sewn into a silk ribbon plaited into your lover's hair.

6. The challenge is stuck to your front door using the broken hilt of a good friend's sword.

7. The challenge is spelled out in fireworks at a court gala.

8. The challenge is carved into the oak tree outside your lover's bedroom window.

9. The challenge is inserted into the dialogue of a commedia dell'arte performance.

10. A sword is delivered in a case with the challenge engraved into the blade.

11. A silk-and-velvet doublet arrives with the challenge embroidered into the fabric.

12. An old peasant slowly drives a mule-drawn charrette around the city, with the challenge painted on a dirty sheet draped over the side of the cart.

13. The challenge is printed as the dedication in a fencing manual.

14. The challenge arrives stamped into the surface of a cannonball.

15. A painting depicting you and your challenger dueling in a well-known location appears on the wall of your lover's salon.

16. The challenge is written in blood on the steps of your parish church.

17. The challenge is painted on a long banner hanging from a hot-air balloon.

18. A ruby-lipped courtesan in a passing carriage tosses you her scarlet silk glove, with the challenge on a slip of paper inside.

19. The challenger slaps you and demands satisfaction - sometimes the old ways are best, after all.

20. Roll twice - the challenger is taking no chances that the invitation may be missed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

For the Wednesday Wyeth, I usually just post a quick comment on what the picture says to me, but for this illustration, there's something very specific about it that I like: the man in the red coat is clearly peforming a parry in sixte.

Verisimilitude - "having the appearance of truth" - is something for which many gamers, particularly those with a world-building bent, strive. Verisimilitude is why I spend an hour researching the Imperial campaigns in 1620 as backstory for a fictional non-player character in my campaign. Verisimilitude is why I emailed a professor at Harvard University to get the correct translation from Occitan of a place shown on a 16th century map of Marseille.

Mr Wyeth went to the trouble to get the swordplay right for the picture. It's a masterful illustration without knowing that, of course, but, for me, it's even more impressive seeing the parry in sixte.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Level Appropriate

There's a discussion on the Obsidian Portal forum which asks the question, Should random encounters be level appropriate?

Many referees will tell you that part of what makes a sandbox a sandbox is that, in the words of the 3.5 D&D DMG, the player characters are forced "to adapt to [an] encounter rather than the other way around." Hazards in the sandbox reflect the verisimilitude of the game-world, not the relative power and abilities of the adventurers. Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog, with its hordes of guards and killer frogs, is a good example of the kind of hazard which may be found in a sandbox.

In a sandbox, player discretion is at a premium, because there is no guarantee that any given encounter or event won't have the potential to overwhelm their characters. Savvy adventurers use all of the means at their disposal to gather information on the game-world in order to prepare for, or avoid, hazards which are beyond their abilities.

The idea that encounters should be tailored to the abilities and skills of the player characters, on the other hand, has deep roots in the hobby as well. The random encounter tables of Appendix C of the 1e AD&D DMG, for example, suggest that the "[n]umber of creatures encountered should be appropriate to the strength of the encountering party."

In practice, most sandbox referees give a nod to verisimilitude while setting out the threats and challenges of their game-worlds. One common approach is to contrast settled, civilised - to some degree or other - regions with areas of howling wilderness. The adventurers may begin in the relatively benign civilized regions, or on a borderland shading into the wilderlands beyond, where threats are less likely to overwhelm well-played novice adventurers. It's not until the adventurers cross this frontier that the relative power level of the dangers of the setting begins to escalate significantly. This helps prevent snapping the players' suspenders of disbelief with respect to the game-world; a small village of simple tillers and crafters may be threatened by bandits or pirates or giant rats, but they are unlikely to have a mother dragon and her brood or a coven of werewolf-witches living next door, or a small planetary colony may be threatened by the indigenous xenofauna but not an alien battlefleet of megadreadnaughts, without some careful justification in the context of the setting. It also gives the beginning player characters a little breathing space to develop; the greatest dangers in the setting are mere rumors, or unknown altogether and waiting to be discovered, while the nascent adventurers sharpen their skills and their wits against more common.

Because encounters in most sandboxes are created with an eye to setting context rather than tailored to the adventurers, the referee provides intelligence to the player characters, in the form of rumors and legends or library data, about the relative hazards, so that the players may make at least somewhat informed choices about what sort of dangers their characters may face as they travel about the game-world. Beginning adventurers may choose to spend their time initially checking out the rumor of goblins threatening Happy Valley rather than the legend of the lich-kraken in its seafloor lair at the bottom of the Swirling Vortex of Watery Doom.

By the placement of hazards in the game-world along a gradient between least dangerous and most dangerous, the referee shifts the burden of taking on challenges "appropriate to the strength" of the adventurers to the players. To create this gradient, the referee should have a decent grasp of just how dangerous a potential opponent can be. Most roleplaying games spell this out in some way; a few border on the fetishistic.

So what about settings where the greatest threats in the game-world are only loosely organized around geography, where the differences between civilisation and wilderness are less stark?

Aside from an active battlefield, Paris is arguably the most dangerous place to be in Le Ballet de l'Acier, my Flashing Blades campaign. The highest concentration of excellent swordsmen in France - the King's Musketeers, the Cardinal's Guards, the most reknowned fencing masters, the most notorious duelists - is situated there, for example. Yet Paris is also a natural starting point for new player characters in the campaign - indeed, for some player characters, such as those who begin the game as Musketeers, life in Paris is required. Paris is by no means the only dangerous city in Le Ballet, of course - Marseille or Rouen or Dijon may have fewer notable swordsmen, fewer bravos, and so on, but they are present in each.

Cities in roleplaying games often feature a mix of threats in close proximity to one another - consider the range of relative power and ability found among the denizens of the City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Waterdeep, or Ptolus. The urban environment may be very different from the countryside, without a gradient between civilised and wild or partitioning of hazards approximated by distance from the ingress of a classic dungeon. In my campaign, set in the more-or-less-real world of 1625, the countryside isn't significantly different from cities. Aside from natural hazards like fording a river or a storm at sea, the only 'monsters' of note are ravenous wolves, angry bulls and such - most of the threats come from people as well, with murderous bravos in a Parisian alley becoming larcenous highwaymen on Bourbonnais forest road.

Another feature of cities is a number of the more dangerous threats in the setting may be readily accessible to the adventurers. It's possible to walk straight up to Gil de Berault, the feared swordsman known as "The Black Death," at Zaton's club in my Paris - more importantly, it may earn an adventurer with the temerity to do so without warning or introduction a handspan of steel through the heart. With respect to the adventurers adapting to the challenges of the game-world, rather than the other way 'round, this is A Good Thing.

So, with respect to proximity, partitioning, and accessiblity of threats and hazards, much of my game-world shares attributes similar to those of large cities found in other traditional roleplaying game settings.

But if, in the interests of verisimilitude and offering the kind of environment associated with sandboxes, I also want some number of dangers and situations to be appropriate to the adventurers' relative strength, then I must figure out a way to partition encounters to achieve an effect similar to the gradient between civilisation and wildlands in more traditional settings.

In my earlier musings on creating a swashbucklers' sandbox, I compared the relationships between non-player characters in the game-world to the rooms of a dungeon, complete with connecting corridors, secret passages, and chutes to catch the unwary. Part of the enduring appeal of dungeons is the ease with which hazards can be partitioned - at its most basic, the dungeon contains threats appropriate to first-level characters on the first level, second-level characters on the second, and so on. The dungeon environment provides the opportunity for the adventurers to seek their own challenges and to decide - to some extent - to punch above or below their own weight.

In my campaign, immediate relationships are the rooms - antechambers - closest to the adventurers. Some of these relationships come from Flashing Blades' character generation, such as Advantages and Secrets like Contact, Secret Loyalty, or Favor, while others are associated with with the player characters' careers, such as the officers and men in a Soldier's company and regiment or the professors and classmates of a Gentleman student of divinity. However, these relationships are typically not defined by degree of relative combat or skill prowess, as with levels and hit dice, Challenge Rating, and so forth, but rather by FB Social Rank. Social Rank is a rough indicator of soft power - access and influence - in the game-world, but there's a weak correlation at best to the potential for personal mayhem a non-player character can inflict.

The situation becomes more complex as a direct result of how I referee. As noted, geographical distinctions mean little in the game-world, perhaps even less than in many traditional city settings, and random encounters in my campaign frequently feature named non-player characters - like tripping a teleportation trap, an adventurer can find himself face-to-face with a dangerous duelist with little warning. Moreover, as referee I keep a very light hand on the controls, so unexpected twists reach across both sides of the screen.

For all intents and purposes then, "level appropriate" encounters tailored to the player characters are exceedingly rare in Le Ballet, particularly for novice adventurers who haven't earned an actual play-inspired reputation in the game-world. The burden to adapt to encounters in the game-world rests squarely on the shoulders of the players.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cinematic: The Spanish Main

Non-Player Characters and Conventional Wisdom

Our Saint Patrick's game-day fittingly featured the Franco-Irish - Hiberno-French, really - King's Musketeer, Riordan O'Neill, in a five-against-five cavalry duel before the walls of the fortress city of Casale in Monferrato. It turned out to be a wild melee of flashing rapiers and sabers, blazing pistols, dropped and broken swords, chokeholds, and trampling by horses. In the end the French were victorious, killing three of the Imperial soldiers and capturing one, escaping under a hail of musket fire - in one round I rolled twenty-four twenty-siders for the musketeers' attacks - from Spanish troops on the far side of the Po River.

Riordan was the best swordsman on a field of good swordsmen, with no less than five masters among the ten combatants, and the Musketeer aquitted himself bravely and resourcefully, having two swords shattered during the duel - and stabbing a hulking Cossack in the throat with the broken end of one of them - rescuing two of his comrades who found themselves in dangerous straits, and single-handedly carrying the captured Neapolitan cuirassier from the field.

But it was perhaps the comte de Challons, Riordan's commander during the campaign in Savoy these last six months, who emerged from the duel "covered in glory," as Riordan's player eloquently put it. Shot three times with pistols, Challons nonetheless gravely wounded both the graf von Hentzau, the Imperial officer who issued the challenge to the comte and his men, and the cuirassier - both of whom were better swordsmen than Challons, in fact - and though both men would fight on for a time, this would prove decisive in the battle.

During the duel, our other player character, the physician and polymath Guillaume Sébastien, observed from a small rise overlooking the battlefield, guarded by three Monferini soldiers. Noticing that the sergeant in charge of the other two was eyeing him and his surgical case, Guillaume rashly decided to try to sneak out the dagger he concealed in it before the duel began. The sergeant spotted the doctor's attempt at sleight-of-hand and disarmed him instead, then, as the musketballs began to fly, the soldier turned and shot the doctor in the chest. The ball entered the armhole of the doctor's cuirass and would've ended a lesser man's life, but the sturdy Guillaume survived the shot; left for dead by the soldiers who then stole his instrument case and supplies, he was rescued after the battle by another Frenchman from inside Casale.

According to some, this makes me a lousy referee.

First, one of the player characters spent most of the duel on the sidelines, and his small part in the action of the day ended ignominiously, disarmed and then shot and left for dead.

And second, a non-player character was allowed to overshadow the contributions of a player character.

If I listened to the conventional wisdom, offered over and over from game designers and gamers, in game books, on blogs and on forums, this is one of the unpardonable sins of refereeing. It's the player characters who are the 'stars of the show,' they say, and non-player characters exist either as foils to be defeated or as support for the heroics of the adventurers.

The devil with that, says I.

I'll tell you why I think I get away with thumbing my nose at the conventional wisdom. First, I'm told by players that I do a good job running the non-player characters in the game-world. One gamer called it a rare gift, that my npcs were people he wanted to meet and get to know. I make a concerted effort to present non-player characters as individuals with talents and quirks and flaws and opinions and agendas, even when they are heavily archetypal, and who truly inhabit the game-world, fitting into the context of the setting. As a result, what I've found is, rather than seeing npcs as resources to be exploited or threats to be avoided, the adventurers are more likely to respond to them as real people in the game-world rather than metagame constructs. One of my greatest pleasures as a referee comes from the players' characters seeking out npcs for help or advice or even just to hang out together.

I think the advice that many referees offer is that npc allies in particular should have little to say, so as not to unduly influence the players decision-making, is backwards. Non-player characters should have opinions, strong ones at times, and npcs should be able to disagree with the adventurers and one another - yes, npcs should interact with each other as well as the player chaacters, and no, this doesn't mean the referee need engage in a lengthy monologue while the players stare at their character sheets or stack dice and wish they were home playingAssassin's Creed instead. One of the prime skills a good referee should develop is the ability to put aside the omniscient view of the game master and put one's self in the mind of a non-player chaacter, to see the game-world from that character's perspective. This is the key to avoiding metagaming.

Second, I roll in the open, for everything. The players know that when an non-player character succeeds where they fail, it's right there on the table in front of them. At least one forum denizen I know dismisses this, observing that as the referee still makes up the stats for the non-player character which is ultimately more important than the dice rolls themselves. I can see how he comes by this opinion, particularly with respect to games with significant differences in relative power between player and non-player characters. With most of the games I play, the range between the novice and the master is more recognizably human, but even when I played games like Dungeons and Dragons, I avoided the perception of a world full of Mary Sues by presenting engaging, believable npcs who made sense in the context of the game-world.

Third, I have the good fortune - and the good sense - to play with gamers who have the emotional maturity and the patience to accept an ebb-and-flow of events in the course of the campaign. I believe this comes from having a stake in the campaign that goes beyond what happens to one's character at any given moment - it extends out-of-game to the other players and me as the referee, and in-game to the relationships between the adventurers and to the non-player characters in whom they're invested.

Today the doctor had a rough day, sidelined both by circumstance and by poor luck to be mostly an observer of the action. Nonetheless Guillaume's player remained engaged throughout the complex, three hour battle - by far our most epic to date - despite the mishaps of today's game. A few months ago, it was the doctor's day to shine, during the investigation of a disappearance - that same day found everything Riordan touched turning to lead, as a combination of bad rolls and poor choices conspired against him. The players exhibit the good grace to accept that sometimes their characters shine by virtue of their failures as well as their achievements. Gamers who take a short view, that every game day must offer an immediate payoff, seem to struggle with this. It's also why I think the campaign structure of traditional roleplaying games is an important part of what makes them work, that setbacks are an integral part of a larger experience.

So non-player characters may have their day in the sun as well in my campaign, and the players are pleased with their successes and failures rather than threatened by them, conventional wisdom be damned.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Phoning It In Phriday

I'm spending my free time today preparing for tomorrow's game day, including our biggest battle yet in the campaign, a five-on-five cavalry duel before the walls of Casale, with a company of Spanish musketeers looking on from across the river.

There will be blood . . .

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Honor + Intrigue Campaign Wiki at Obsidian Portal

There is a new wiki at Obsidian Portal, De Cape et d’Épée, for an Honor + Intrigue campaign. The campaign shows as "In Planning," and I'm really looking forward to following along once it gets rolling. The wiki includes a H+! character which is worth a look-see if you're curious about what an adventurer's stats look like.

The referee is un Québécois and the wiki is in French.

Also, note to self: request that H+I gets added to the games listings on OP.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Playing With History

Rayvn at Exchange of Realities posted about the problems and promises of real-world settings.

Ravyn writes first about the advantages a real-world setting brings to the table.

The first advantage to a real-world setting is that it comes pre-created. Instead of having to take the time to figure out all the geography, all the cultural details, and all the—well, everything—one can just take what exists and choose how to treat it and what to embellish.
Not only is the real-world as a setting "pre-created," it's an embarassment of riches, the most exhaustively detailed game-world ever conceived. Even better, many of the sourcebooks are freely accessible to anyone with an Intreweb connection and a library card - perfect for the budget-minded gamer.

The second is that a lot less requires explanation. People may not perfectly understand the concepts you’re playing with, but they’ve probably run into the basics in their everyday lives, and have a whole lot more to extrapolate from. This way, you don’t need to spend near as much time expositing; if your audience is already familiar with it, you won’t need to talk them through it. And hey, you’re pretty familiar with it as well; you won’t have to spend near as much time hitting the books to get the basics either.
This innate familiarity is a huge advantage, in my experience. Introducing a player to my Flashing Blades campaign can be as easy as, "Y'know The Three Musketeers? It's like that." If that conjures up an image of swordfights and wide-brimmed hats with big plumes and a scheming cardinal, then I have a functional foundation on which to build.

This familiarity extends to many areas of the game-world we may take for granted. Most gamers can probably come up with a French-sounding name for their characters without reading a list from a game book, for instance, and they know there's a New World and an Old without first consulting a gazetter. With respect to sandbox campaigns, this familiarity may give the players confidence in deciding on what they want their characters to do, without constantly consulting the referee on what is or isn't possible.

But Ravyn considers this familiarity a potential disadvantage as well.

On the other hand, since you’re not making up the details, and they are well-known, it’s a lot easier to get something wrong. (This, I admit, is why I’m a little leery around real-world settings.) Just because we live here doesn’t mean we know everything, nor even that our impressions of the world gibe with those of our audience—and that’s before we even get into politics.

Similarly, there’s a chance of people getting a bit pickier about suspension of disbelief once the real world is involved. We may not know how various species of fantasy creature work, but people? And physics? Those we know from.
For about as long as I've been a gamer, I've heard and read tales of woe about pedantic players 'correcting' the referee's interpretation of a place and period - in fact, I've encountered it first-hand on at least one occasion, an Iraq vet compelled to embellish everything the referee said in a modern military one-shot.

This is no less true for games in fictional game-worlds as well. There are no shortage of 'experts' on Traveller's Charted Space or D&D's Forgotten Realms, two published settings with decades of development spanning multiple editions of their respective games; in addition to numerous setting books, the Realms also boasts a library of novels featuring one of the iconic characters of contemporary fantasy. Personally, I've encountered Third Imperium canon-eers far more often than I have professors of History (Channel) in my own gaming over the years.

That said, I do think this concern gets blown out of proportion at times. In the first comment to a post by -C at Hack & Slash, Melan has this to say about fear of errors as a design philosophy.

I am really frustrated by a lot of game discussion on the net - particularly on RPGNet's d20/D&D forum - where posters assume that typical gamers will be acting in bad faith in situations that depend on human choice. There is, I don't know, a complete lack of generosity towards roleplayers, and some sort of almost paralysing fear about bad experiences.

As a conclusion to these assumptions, the discussion then shifts to how a game's rules should limit or outright prevent the potential for human error by limiting human choice; moreover, the experiences of posters who come from a different point of view are written off as atypical or downright wrong. I see these assumptions as damaging - used to argue against them for a few years, but I have mostly given up because I just ended up attacked over it.

So, yeah, sportmanship. A mutual commitment to group enjoyment. That's the point. That's the entire point, and I don't want to play in a game that doesn't give me that.
Melan's point is just as relevant to the question of using the real-world as a campaign setting: do we allow the possibility of pedantic players to spoil our gaming, or do we, right from the mother-lovin' giddyup, set an expectation of good sportsmanship from everyone around the table?

For my part, when running a historical campaign, I make very clear that I am not a historian and that my campaign may be influenced as much by historical fiction as it is by history itself. I'm always happy to discuss differences of opinion over interpretations at the table, whether they are of rules or history, and I may seek feedback on rulings from the table as well, but as the referee I am the final arbiter and my call is definitive, and in the spirit of sportsmanship I expect the players to accept it. If a player's uncomfortable with another human being in that role, then I wish him well in his future gaming in someone else's campaign.

Beyond setting expectations, referees running campaigns set in the real-world can make their lives easier a few ways. First, consider that most game-worlds sit not at one side or the other of a real-world-fictional-world divide, but rather fall somewhere on a gradient between the two. A Ruritania - a fictional country set in the real world - shades toward the fictional end of the spectrum, but may still incorporate many real-world elements and relationships. My 2e Boot Hill setting is 'The Territory,' located 'somewhere in the Southwest.' There are references to real-world places and events 'back in the States,' but that's as far as I go in attempting to fix The Territory in time and space. This gives me a great deal of freedom to create a fictional setting but still allows me to draw on the players' familiarity with both the historic West and the mythical West.

My Top Secret campaign, set against the backdrop of Cold War Africa, hews more closely toward the real-world end of the spectrum, but with significant fictional elements. The agents belong to real-world agencies, for example, but they are assigned to a fictional task force under the auspices of NATO. There are many references to real-world people, places, and events, such as the Bush War involving the SADF, UNITA, SWAPO, and the Angolan government and its Cuban advisors, but the agents' mission is related to the activities of a fictitious group inspired by a real-life organization. Actual play takes place in a real-world setting, but along its margins, offering more license to make up elements whole-cloth.

In keeping with one of the recurring tropes of cape-and-sword literature, in which swashbuckling characters participate in the history of the period, my Flashing Blades campaign is tightly woven into the real-world events and personalities of 17th century France. The game-world is populated with many of the historical figures of 1620s France, and the historical timeline forms the basis for activities with which the adventurers may become involved - for example, the player characters spent the past several months fighting in the First Genoese-Savoyard War.

My FB campaign cleaves closest to the historical real-world, but I still weave in fictional elements as well. There are Ruritanias - including Ruritania itself! - which are part of the game-world and many of the fictional characters from cape-and-sword literature appear alongside the many historical figures who appear in the campaign.

The second way a referee can make running a real-world campaign easier is put in the research. Now, the idea that preparation for a roleplaying game should involve studying!? is an anathema for many gamers, but some of those same gamers will have no problem using a small library of game-derived setting sourcebooks and adventures for their campaigns. This is understandable to some degree - published settings and adventures for roleplaying games tend to be 'ready to serve,' while researching either a historical period or the contemporary world means putting in the legwork myself.

That said, we live in a time of unprecedented access to recorded knowledge, from ordering obscure books online or via interlibrary loan to the vast amount of information that is a keyword search away on the Intrewebs, and this is where published settings and sourcebooks specifically for roleplaying games pale in comparison. The depth and breadth of the setting and sourcebooks released by gaming publishers can never begin to approach what's available through good ol' books and articles.

The more time I invest in researching the specifics of the game-world, the more I find that my campaigns tend to write themselves. Ideas for non-player characters and events in the game-world leap off the pages, and my ability to convincingly ad-lib on the fly improves, which is critical to a sandbox referee - I've joked that this could be subtitled, A Game Master's Guide to Swashbuckling Aventures.

Of course, one of the best resources available to referees running games set in the real-world may be the players at the table. Rather than waiting for someone to pipe up with, "But that's not right! What really happened was . . . ," utilize the areas of expertise the players bring to the campaign. Again, this is a collaborative effort, and most players would much rather help their referee reach higher than knock her feet out from under her.

So what do you research? The easiest guideline is, focus on what the adventurers are likely to encounter in the course of the campaign. For example, reading about diplomacy between Paris and Vienna in the years leading up to the Peace of Westphalia adds little to the campaign if the player characters are gamblers and bravos in the alleys of Venice or highwaymen and smugglers on the coast roads of Cornwall. A small investment in learning about the culture of a place and period may yield far more useful material for actual play than a survey of foreign policy.

Third and last, books and movies set in the real-world may play fast-and-loose with physics, and there's no reason why a roleplaying game cannot take the same license. Choose a game with an eye to suspension of disbelief. If you want a campaign that feels more like The Musketeer rather than The Duellists, then a game with rules for gritty fencing simulation will likely produce frustration over fun. I picked Flashing Blades for my cape-and-sword campaign because combat feels very much like Bill Hobbs' fight choreography for the Richard Lester Musketeers movies. This is the physics I want the rules to model for the game-world. If I wanted something more gonzo, then there are other options I could pursue.

I don't expect real-world settings to be to everyone's tastes or to fit every genre of roleplaying game, of course. I do think that some of the concerns gamers frequently express running or playing in a game set in the real-world, and it's an option worth exploring.

Monday, March 12, 2012

If You Rolled a Seventeen . . .

. . . on the Field of Honor table, here's a map for you.

With the added bonus of a catacomb underneath.

Take It On the Run

Nate at d20 Pirates has a great post detailing some hazards during chases, inspired in part, he explains, by the classic random city encounter tables in the 1e AD&D DMG. I fully intend to use these next time a chase situation develops in my campaign

If you're running a pirates campaign, or thinking about running one, or just like reading about pirates and roleplaying games, d20 Pirates has all kinds of fun stuff.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

This Field of Honor

You are challenged to a duel. Roll 1D20 to determine the actual location.

1. On a floating mill anchored in the middle of the Seine.

2. Amidst the crumbling ruins of an old church perched on the edge of an insanely high cliff.

3. In the shop and forge of a drunken smith filled with finished and unfinished swords.

4. Under the vaulted ceilings of a laird's castle armory.

5. Swinging from the bellropes of a cathedral campanile.

6. Leaping from balcony to balcony of a grand theatre on opening night.

7. Over the cracking ice of a frozen river - on skates.

8. Atop a runaway carriage hurtling down a forest road under a think canopy of low-hanging branches.

9. In a convert courtyard between washed linens hanging from a web of suspended ropes.

10. Between tubs filled with soapy water and various colors of dye in the palace laundry, surrounded by shrieking laundresses.

11. On a tilting yard high above the deck of a sinking galleon as fire licks at the magazine.

12. On a battle-scarred bastion as cannon and musketfire rages between the opposing armies.

13. During a party in the doge's garden as patricians bet on the outcome.

14. In the basket of a hot air balloon during a gale.

15. In a sappers' tunnel under a cemetery, with bones protruding from the ceiling, as a burning fuse races toward barrels of powder.

16. On the sands of an arena in the middle of a bullfight as the bull known as El Gancho de Cuerno charges into the ring to the cheers of the crowd.

17. By torchlight in a ring of menhirs on a lonely moor, as wolves howl in the distance.

18. On the wooden scaffolds and a rope-and-pulley elevator surrounding a tall church tower.

19. In a lighthouse as a storm rages and waves crash against the tower.

20. In an alchemist's basement laboratory, amid alembics filled with all manner of conconctions while powders sizzle in crucibles.

Friday, March 9, 2012

GMs Day Sale Haul

I am, by my own admission, a cheap spiv when it comes to roleplaying games, so I like that the GM's Day Sale at DriveThruRPG allows me to pick up a few titles each year at below-market rates.

This year's haul?

Bushido - Fantasy Games Unlimited's mytho-historic roleplaying game of fedual Japan. I'm working on a set of courtier rules for Flashing Blades and I want to see if Bushido has some ideas to steal emulate.

The Adventures of Sindbad - A QUAGS (Quick Ass Game System) hack of the Sinbad tales. I'm a sucker for anything Arabian Nights-ish.

Sanxesta - A setting book for the Suzerain game-setting compatible with The Free Musketeers. The cover blurb makes it sound something like The City from Swordspoint, so I decided to give it a look, for encounter and event ideas for my own campaign.

Honor + Intrigue - I immediately did a search for the word 'chandelier,' as one of the first things I want to know about a cape-and-sword game is how it handles a chandelier swing. Sure enough, it gets covered in the section on stunts, along with rules for how many "Pawns" and "Elites" can be taken out by a falling chandelier. Hrrm. Not the kind of stuff I typically look for from a roleplaying game, but then, I am a grognard with the innate mistrust of anything that sounds like it was published after about 1980 or so.* I must remember to keep an open mind as I read.

So, some new toys to break play with.

* Flashing Blades, which draws much of its inspiration from En Garde!, Crimson Cutlass, and Traveller, gets a pass on this.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fun With Blogger Captchas

The latest iteration of Blogger captchas is proving to a be great source of possible character names for my campaign. So far I have Rozcillys, Andel, Andincy, Olghas, Almandsi, Lyando, Hatchey, Paphi, Regedisto, and Nivero.

However, I draw the line at Etheala Meopube.

We Shall Doubtless Meet Some Adventure

"Master," said Morāno, "shall we have more adventures to-day?"

"I trust so," said Rodriguez, "We have far to go, and it will be dull journeying without them."

Morāno turned his eyes from his master's face and looked back to the plain. "There, master," he said, "where our road runs through a wood, will our adventure be there, think you? Or there, perhaps," and waved his hand widely farther.

"No, said Rodriguez, "we pass that in broad daylight."

"Is that not good for adventure?" said Morāno.

"The romances teach," said Rodriguez, "that twilight or night are better. The shade of deep woods are favourable, but there are no such woods on this plain. When we come to evening we shall doubtless meet some adventure, far over there." And he pointed to the grey rim of the plain where it started climbing towards hills.

- Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


After using the Mythic Game Master Emulator from my side of the screen for awhile, I decided to take it for a solo spin a couple of months ago.

I was playing around with a dice roller awhile back, and I asked it to spit out a set of character stats, 3d6 in order. I liked the stats, and turned them into a Flashing Blades character, Urbain de Foresta, a chevalier with a checkered family history and a penchant for games of chance and women of easy morals.

So with a character in hand, I fired up the flash-based version of the emulator to see how Monsieur de Foresta would do.

The chevalier visited a Marseillais tavern to do some gambling. He was invited to play cards by a debauched marquis, and after cleaning the libertine's clock, found another man's rapier slapped across his coins. The tavern keeper told them to take it elsewhere, and the chevalier followed the bravo out of the tavern, after collecting the coin and one of the cheap trollops servicing fawning over the marquis.

Outside the chevalier found himself ambushed by the bravo, then attacked by the trollop he picked up in the tavern and another ruffian, one of the marquis' lackeys.

A three-on-one fight did not look good for the chevalier. The bravo was a better swordsman, so the chevalier would not be able to defend himself against the other two. The chevalier decided to try a trick, entangling the bravo in his cape, then running him through. In a flash the most dangerous of the three opponents was down, but the chevalier didn't count on the trollop, who managed to grapple him and try to choke the life out of him as the other guy bashed away at him with a bastinado. Unable to fight back due to the deathgrip of the trollop, he took a hard shot to the ribs.

Finally breaking free from the trollop and brandishing his sword, the lackey decided he'd had enough and ran away. The trollop, on the other hand? Again she tried to choke the chevalier, then when he broke free again, she aimed a vicious kick straight at his junk, then tried to tackle him! Unwilling to cut down a woman, but hemorraghing hit points from her relentless attacks, he smacked her twice with the flat of his sword, and she backed off at last, screechig insults at the chevalier.

The commotion attracted an audience, three cut purses with drawn daggers. The chavalier, weary and hurt from the attacks, decided to beat a retreat, but the cut purses followed, so he looked for a place to make a stand, finding a stairway where the thieves could only come at him one at a time. Faced with the prospect of fighting a swordsman by turns, the three slunk away in the darkness to find easier prey.

The chevalier made his way back to his lodgings, his winnings stuffed safely in his doublet.

I used a mix of rules, from the Flashing Blades core and some Traveller rules I ported over for my campaign, and the emulator, and I have to say, it was much more fun than I expected it to be. The emulator allows me to throw out ideas as they come up and kick back replies that often take the action in unexpected directions - that's perhaps the hardest thing to come by in solo play.

Frex, I never considered that the trollop the chevalier picked up for a roll in the hay was in league with the bravo and the lackey until the encounter began; I tossed the question to the emulator, and in short order she was kicking the chevalier's ass.

At one point the chevalier was about to lose what little coin that remained to him; at another his life came down to making a parry successfully as a rapier slashed at his head. The 'session' was exciting and funny by turns, and I found myself hanging on the die rolls to see what would happen next.

I've done the solo dungeon exploration thing with D&D and the solo merchant trader thing with Traveller, and I can say this was a notably different experience, fun in ways I didn't expect. After using the GME with my regular game, it proved to be a fascinating tool for solo play.

I kept a log as I played and wrote the whole thing up as an adventure log on my campaign wiki as well. I enjoyed the experience enough to try it a couple more times.

Nothing can replace the social aspect of gaming, the back and forth between the players and the referee. But I'm also acutely aware of the fact that that social time can be very hard to come by. A little fix of solo play now and again seems like a good way to keep the fire burning.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Another Historic Map Resource

The other day I wrote about the Carte de Cassini which I use as one of the campaign maps for my Flashing Blades campaign.

Today Paul at Quickly, Quietly, Carefully linked an absolutely amazing resource for any gamers running historical roleplaying games and anyone who feels joy at the sight of a map.

In about a minute I found an incredible map of Piedmont and Monferrato, where the action in our campaign is currently taking place.

Wow. I'm gonna have some serious fun with this.

No. Appearing 30-500

I originally intended to name this blog 'No. Appearing: 30-500.'

The piratical theme was determined by a recently discovered N.C. Wyeth painting I used for the banner and the handle I adopted a few years back for my Obsidian Portal account, Black Vulmea, after the Robert E. Howard buccaneer. I wanted the blog name to have an old school vibe, so I flipped to the entry for Men in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, to read what it said about Buccaneers.

And there was No. Appearing: 30-500.

I was honestly never a huge fan of any edition of D&D - I played it mostly because that was the game that most people played. That said, I enjoyed the process of making dungeons for the players and their characters to explore, which explains why I refereed far more than I played, and by all accounts I did at least an okay job of it.

My approach to creating a dungeon was heavily influenced by a couple of sources. First was the Temple of the Frog contained in the second OD&D supplement, Blackmoor. From the Temple of the Frog I gleaned the idea of the dungeon with a raison d'être, an active place with a purpose and functionality in the game-world beyond rooms with orcs and pies waiting for adventurers to arrive.

Second was Dave Trampier's "Wormy" cartoon, which inspired me to populate my dungeons with different monsters working together.

Third was the adventure The Lost Abbey of Calthonwey, which featured conflicting factions of monks and clerics locked in a timeless struggle with one another, as well as intra-factional power struggles, all of which clever adventurers could exploit.

The number appearing stat in the MM similarly inspired me in this vein. Number appearing "indicates a good average spread. This number is furnished as a guideline only, and it should be altered to suit the circumstances particular to any adventure as the need arises. It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of dungeon levels." Except that last part is exactly what I did: if I decided that a dungeon had goblins in it, then there might be forty to four hundred of the little buggers down there, with leaders and sub-chiefs and, if it was their lair, a chief and his bodyguards. What I didn't do was cram them all in one room, which seems to be the source of the admonition in the MM.

Within those goblins there would be factions. For every forty goblins there is a leader and four assistants - basically a platoon of goblins - and of course none of them liked each other, or trusted one another, so they were constantly trying to get the other guy's goblins to do the fighting while collecting more of the loot for themselves. One of the leaders might take to feeding his rivals' goblins to dire bear in a cavern near where his troops were positioned, while another might lure his rivals to a pit with ghouls in the bottom. And of course these platoon leaders were pawns in the bitter rivalry between the sub-chief and the chief of the tribe.

Number appearing suggests a living world to me.

This digression from discussing cape-and-sword roleplaying was inspired by Zak Smith's advice column the other day, which included the suggestion, "Life's too short for No. Appearing."

Now I'm willing to bet that Zak doesn't really care about number appearing except as it pertains to those who forget that it's "furnished as a guideline only, and it should be altered to suit the circumstances particular to any adventure as the need arises." Constraining yourself because 'the book sez so' is to miss part of what makes roleplaying games so insanely great.

So take your inspiration wherever you find it, but never fear altering it to suit.

And watch out for five hundred buccaneers on the horizon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Go see this.


Swashbuckling the Paizo Way

At What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse . . . , Lord Gwydion posts about adding swashbuckling action - ". . .like swinging from chandeliers, flipping their cloak over the opponent's head, throwing sand in their eyes, or . . . grapple/disarm/trip type stuff" - to classic D&D games using Combat Maneuvers from Pathfinder.

He was even kind and patient enough to explain it to a Pathfinder-illiterate like myself.

Cinematic: Romeo and Juliet

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Carte de Cassini

In a post at Built by Gods Long Forgotten describing a clever approach to designing a megadungeon, Lum includes a link to an interactive version of Giambattista Nolli's 1748 map of Rome.

I've loved maps and charts since I was a kid, pretending for hours that I was navigating my way across the Pacific Ocean or traversing central Asia along the Silk Road. I was a geography major at university and took every cartography course my department offered, and I made resource management maps in my days as a park ranger and resource ecologist, so stuff like this is a gentle caress of my nucleus accumbens.

I make extensive use of historic city maps for my Flashing Blades campaign, but my favorite campaign map by far is an interactive version of the Carte de Cassini.

The eponymous map was begun by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Cassini was invited to France by King Louis IV in 1669, where the astronomer became the first director of the Paris Observatory. Developing an interest in the planets, it was here that Cassini would discover the gap in the rings of Saturn which bears his name.

Shortly after his arrival, Cassini - who as a naturalized Frenchman adopted the name Jean-Domenique - began the first topographic survey of an entire country in the 1670s, carefully triangulating distances to produce an accurate map of the Sun King's realm. The project would succeed them both - Cassini's son and grandson would be required to see the surveying and mapping to completion in 1789, when the Carte de Cassini was published.

The map is an amazing record of its time, detailing the names and locations of villages, fortified cities, castles, commanderies of the Knights of Saint John, mills, roads, forests, rivers, marshes and on and on. Pairing it with the contemporary Google map of France allows me to examine land cover in greater detail - the number of features of the current French landscape that can be found in their near identical proportions on the Cassini map is astounding - as well as measure accurate distances between points.

In my experience, there is no fictional roleplaying game map which can hold a candle to it. It is an incredible resource for running a campaign set in 17th or 18th century France, and, if cartophilia's your thing, it's just a kick in the ass to play with.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Using Mythic Game Master Emulator as a refereeing tool: two actual play examples

A brief note: Being that I have a whole month-and-a-half of blog posts under my belt, to celebrate Old Stuff Day I decided to dig something up I originally posted on Big Purple last year.

I like stochasticity in roleplaying games.

When I'm refereeing a game, I like being surprised and reacting to what's happening in the game at least as much as the players do. Toward this end, I lean on random rolls for many of the events and features of the games I run - random encounters, random reactions, random maps, random treasure, random npcs, random harlots.

Perhaps the most intriguing quarrel in my quiver these days is the Mythic Game Master Emulator. The GME is a collection of subsystems from the Mythic roleplaying game - a game that I think deserves a lot more attention than it gets - designed to facilitate no-preparation play, with or without a referee, with a group of players or solo.

The heart of the system is the Fate Chart, a cross-indexed table that is used in Mythic to resolve skill tests; it's also designed to provide weighted answers to yes-or-no questions, and it's this feature which is used to run the game, with either the player(s) or the referee interpreting the outcome. The GME also provides a random event system to add twists to the game, and I'm using this as well.

Here are two examples of how I'm using the GME in running our Flashing Blades campaign.

While travelling home to his lodgings after a night at the theatre, an adventurer stumbled upon the aftermath of a duel, and I wanted to gauge the reaction of the duelists to begin discovered by a stranger. I rolled for the reaction of one of the duelists, the chevalier de Didonne; as the better swordsman of the pair, I judged Didonne would be the one to initiate combat with the interloper. However, his reaction was positive - not friendly necessarily, but not at all hostile, either. In light of what I knew of Didonne's personality - arrogant, indifferent to others - I decided he simply didn't care that the duel was discovered.

After the game ended, I dug out my copy of the GME, to see what the duelists would do next, if anything. Here are the questions I posed, the odds I gave them, the result, and my interpretation.

Will Didonne seek out Riordan (the adventurer) to intimidate or silence him? (Unlikely.)
NO. I set the likelihood to 'Unlikely' based on the in-game reaction roll, and from the emulator result apparently Didonne really wasn't concerned about being discovered at the bloody scene - and knowing what I knew of the duel, I could understand why: he was the baron de Gras' second and the duel was initiated by the sieur de Gercourt, who was bleeding out on the ground, so he felt he could make a decent case for his own involvement, which coupled with the protection offered by his patron, the chevalier de Vendôme, and his own status as a knight of Saint John meant he was unlikely to face either social or legal complications from the duel.

But what about the baron?

Will the baron de Gras seek out Riordan to intimidate or silence him? (Unsure.)
EXCEPTIONAL YES. An 'exceptional' result is generated by the Fate Chart if the roll is in the upper or lower fifth of the range, so apparently the baron, a courtier and gentleman of the Queen-Mother's bedchamber (an honorary title - he's not bonking Marie de Medici) was very concerned about their discovery at the scene of the duel. Again, this fit well with the facts on the ground: Gras was secretly wearing armor, a mail shirt under his doublet and a secrete (metal skullcap) under his hat, which, while not uncommon among duelists, is still considered thoroughly dishonorable. His reputation is much at stake, for a number of reasons.

Will Gras try to kill Riordan if he gets the chance? (Likely.)
YES. The baron apparently wants no loose ends . . .

Are the baron's agents able to immediately locate Riordan? (Unlikely)
NO. Wanting to find someone, and actually finding them, are two different things. Riordan is a distinctive figure, tall and powerfully built, who works in the Louvre, but he wasn't wearing his Musketeer's tunic and Paris is a big damn city full of men (and a few women) with swords - setting the odds to Unlikely (as opposed to Very Unlikely or No Way) was probably generous to the baron. Still, the identity of the Musketeer remains unknown to the baron.

Will Gras recognize Riordan if he sees him again? (Unsure.)
YES. As I've described elsewhere, many of the named npcs in my campaign appear in random encounters, so there's a chance the baron and the Musketeer may yet run into one another once again.

So that's where things stood after December's game-night; flash forward to last month's game-night, and Riordan runs into the chevalier de Didonne (a random encounter at the Paris horse-market); this prompted a follow-up question.

Does Didonne report on Riordan's identity to the baron? (Unsure.)
YES. At last the baron knows who his quarry is . . .

The adventurers believed a duel was about to turn into an ambush by the Cardinal's Guards, and they decided to turn the tables on their ambushers. They concocted a complicated plan which required a lot of things to go right, and instead everything went south almost immediately. The result was a dead guardsman and eight stolen horses. Now they are potentially on the hook for dueling in defiance of royal edicts, horse theft, and murder - capital crimes all.

Immediately after they escaped, the adventurers returned to the hôtel of the musketeers' captain-lieutenant, Tréville, to report on the incident in the hopes that Tréville could smooth things over with the king.

This time I used a flash-based version of the emulator, and it immediately introduced a random event, a "negative alteration." I decided this meant that the Cardinal got to the king first. (Note: the change in format is an artifact of cutting-and-pasting from the flash site.)

Does The Cardinal convince The King that his guards were at the Hôpital St-Louis to arrest O'Neill for dueling? (Likely.)
YES. This is a lie, by the way - they were there because a nephew of a lieutenant of the Cardinal’s Guard challenged one of the adventurers to a duel, and the lieutenant wanted to make sure his sister’s son didn’t get killed.

Is The King inclined to punish the adventurers and musketeers? (Very likely.)
YES. Tréville's task is now more difficult, which means I’ll push the odds against him.

Do the musketeers convince Tréville to intercede with The King on their behalf? (Unsure.)
EXCEPTIONAL YES. Tréville believes that the Cardinal's Guards planned an ambush and has his Musketeers’ backs to the last!

Is The King angry with Tréville? (Likely.)
YES. Again, this pushes the odds out of Tréville’s favor.

Will The King permit Tréville an audience anyway? (Unlikely.)
YES. Despite the odds against, Tréville is able to use his relationship with the king to plead his case.

Does Tréville convince The King that the Cardinal's Guards planned to ambush the musketeers and adventurers, rather than arrest them? (Very Unlikely – the odds are steadily stacking up against the adventurers now.)
NO. The king is still inclined to believe Cardinal Richelieu’s lie.

Does Tréville convince The King to be lenient in punishing the musketeers and adventurers for the guardsman's death? (No Way.)
YES Against steep odds (No Way means there was only a 15% chance of a yes answer), Tréville made a persuasive argument here, and this is where my knowledge of the setting comes into play. How do I get from an angry king to a merciful king, especially Louis 'the Just' (who could be anything but . . .)?

First, Louis wants to save face with the Cardinal, not punish his Musketeers, and Tréville gives him the means to do so: any punishment meted out to the Musketeers must also be meted out to the lieutenant’s nephew, who was party to the duel that started the whole thing. This allows the king to put the Cardinal back on his heels. Second, duelists frequently received pardons, either from a magistrate specifically or from the Church as part of a general amnesty on criminals.

So, assuming the adventurers didn't do anything to dig this hole deeper - no guarantees of that, of course - they faced a six-month banishment from Paris until they could receive a letter of remission or some other form of pardon. Through a friend of Tréville's, they headed for Grenoble to join a company of gentlemen soldiers going to war in Italy.

Will The Cardinal pursue retribution for the death of the guardsman? (Has to Be)
YES. I think it’s significant that the answer is not an ‘exceptional yes’ - clearly the Cardinal will attempt to make the adventurers' lives miserable at some point, but it's not a priority for him, more something to pursue when the opportunity arises.

Now, I know the question some of you are thinking: why bother?

As I said at the outset, the stochasticity of roleplaying games is, for me, one of their main selling points. It's one of the features that I believe makes them distinct from novels and short stories, movies, television shows, and other like media. I like that the unexpected hangs on every die roll, that preconceptions about characters and plots in other media need not apply.

I like not knowing exactly what happens next, on either side of the screen, and increasing random elements in the game adds to that for me. What the GME does is add a discrete system for introducing and managing stochasticity with some interesting switchs and buttons to manipulate - on the surface, it's really no different than saying, 'Okay, roll a six sider: odd means no, even means yes,' but features like the Chaos factor, which is cross-factored with the Odds and changes the range of values for each answer, add another layer of twists to the outcomes. Instead of trying to guess the odds, I simply decide the likelihood of a given outcome and reference the table; the odds are calculated for me, making it fast and efficient to use in actual play.