Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zorro

One of the rituals of growing up in California is the fourth grade mission project. Every fourth grader in California learns the history of the twenty-one missions built by the Spanish in Alta California. In our school, we each built a model of a mission - the building materials of choice were sugar cubes and popsicle sticks - and we went on a field trip to Mission San Fernando Rey de España, where we learned about life at the mission, or at least its material culture and subsistence practices - instruction on the forced conversions of the disease-ravaged indigenous Tongva by the Franciscans was notably absent in hindsight.

The missions are frequent tourist destinations, to break up long drives up and down the state. We visited Mission San Juan Capistrano on a camping trip to Mission Bay in San Diego, and Mission Santa Barbara on another camping trip to Morro Bay. Our church youth group visited Mission San Gabriel Archangel on an outing. It's a pretty common experience for anyone growing up near the California coast.

The missions are California's most significant architectural vestige of our colonial history, as a part of New Spain. Nearly all of them have been restored to one degree or another - in a land of wildfires, floods, and earthquakes, buildings made of mud bricks tend to be ephemeral. Adobes from the Spanish era in California are vanishingly rare.

Perhaps that's why I so strongly associate the missions with Zorro.

I saw Tyrone Power's The Mark of Zorro for the first time around the same time as our mission projects - either the autumn before or the autumn after - on a Saturday tee-vee matinee. Up to then, swashbucklers were musketeers in Paris or pirates in the Caribbean, but now here were dueling swordsmen right here in California! Even to a guero from the suburbs - unless you grew up here, you'll never really understand "Mexican Radio" - it was filled with names and places that were intimately, immediately familiar in a way that The Three Musketeers or Captain Blood couldn't be.

I eventually found The Curse of Capistrano in either my school or community library, but though Johnston McCulley wrote scores of Zoro stories, most were buried and largely forgotten in the magazines where they were first published. Still, Zorro remains my swashbuckler.

One of these days I'll show my kids The Mark of Zorro on dvd. They'll get to see two great movie swordsmen - Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone - in a classic duel, and hear all those names that were new and yet familiar to me.

But first I'll take them to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Y is for Yurt

The setting sun was casting its level rays across the steppe grass as the last of the beaters brought in their game on the back of pack horses. The game was piled by the shores of the lake where Khlit, the Cossack of the Curved Saber and Kha Khan of the Jun-gar Tatars, had ordered the night's encampment. Through the ranks of the hunters spurred a powerful man with a scarred face, who reined his horse to a halt before the kibitka of Khlit.

"Our outriders, lord," he cried to the Cossack, who was standing before his tent, "have come upon the one who says that he is from the Holy City. He wears the orange robe of a Chutuku lama, and his name is Dongkor Gelong."

Khlit raised his gray head and scanned the messenger keenly. Although his costume of furred coat with wide sash and horse-hide boots was similar to those of his companions, the Cossack was taller. His hard gray eyes were not aslant like those of the Tatars. He had taken off his heavy woolen cap and his gray hair hung to his powerful stooped shoulders. A veined hand tugged thoughtfully at his dropping white mustache. The deep lines of his browned face alone showed his age.
I discovered Khlit the Cossack about six years ago through the auspices of the tireless software at Amazon. I purchased Robert E Howard's The Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, and Recommended for Me was wolf of the Steppes, the first of four volumes collecting Harold Lamb's tales of the aged cossack.

As a boy I'd read Mr Lamb's Durandal, about the Crusader, Sir Hugh of Taranto, who joins the Golden Horde of Ghengis Khan. Since I was a boy I was fascinated by the tales of Sinbad and the Arabian Nights. The Silk Road was the pathway of my dreams, its cities - Khiva, Tashkent, Samarkand, Kashgar - their citadels. Even now there is nothing more exotic to me than the lands in the shadow of the Roof of the World.

But though I'd read, and loved, Durandal, I'd never heard of Khlit, the old warrior cast out of the Cossack sietch who wandered East, across Tartary, to Ming Dynasty China and Moghul India, and through those cities and along those paths which lay at the heart of my imagination.

Khlit is both a conventional and unconventional hero, a great swordsman and brilliant general, but clever first and foremost. Harold Lamb manages to tread the fine line between the furious action his pulp readers demanded and complex tales of intrigue and mystery in an artfully rendered ancient land.

I was inspired to run Flashing Blades after reading Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture," about the 1529 siege of Vienna by Suleiman the Great, from Lord of Samarcand. The stories of Khlit take place in the first decades of the 17th century, little more than a decade before the start of our campaign, and I've drawn inspiration both from the tales themselves and his amazingly evocative setting. There are rumors and legends in Le Ballet de l'Acier which may lure the adventurers east, to the Levant, to Persia and Tartary, and to the Roof of the World itself, in search of fortune and glory. Will our swashbuckling adventurers trade the palaces of Paris and Turin for a felt yurt or a dusty caravanserai, their Andalusians for shaggy Tatar ponies? Will their rapiers clash with Mongol sabres someday? That will be for the players to decide, of course - such is the nature of sandboxes - but among the tales of Khlit are those of his friend, the Afghan mansabdar Abdul Dost, and the English trader, Sir Ralph Weyand.

Swashbucklers on the Silk Road? That's got an helluva ring to it, doesn't it?

Cinematic: Royal Flash

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Xiphos

Courtesy of Knight's Edge, an online retailer of medieval arms and trinkets:

The xiphos is a sword that was used by the ancient Greeks. The sword featured a double-edged, leaf-shaped blade that was perfect for cutting, slashing and thrusting. Xiphos was a short and thus, single-handed sword. The sword was used as a secondary, close combat weapon and it was used when the primary weapon, the spear was discarded. The very early Xiphos swords were made of bronze. Similarly shaped swords were in existence throughout the Europe under various different names.
The description of the xiphos makes an intersting point - for millenia, swords were secondary weapons, for close combat. Spears and lances were the primary weapons of warriors, both on foot and on horseback.

The long straight stick with the pointy bit at the end would endure a dizzying array of variations, but it would remain the basic weapon until firearms dominated the battlefield in the latter half of the 17th century, and bayonets - pointy bits affixed to the end of the firearm - would carry on the tradition for at least another three centuries.

It's interesting that swords represent martial puissance more than spears. There are a slew of reasons why: swords were often restricted to certain social classes, particularly in the post-Roman world; they required additional training and skill to use effectively; they were much more expensive to produce and therefore dearer to the owner; swords could be more durable than spears and lances, and pass through generations. One sees swords in heraldry far more often than the spear or lance, reinforcing the notion that swords are exclusive relative to the common man's spear. In romances, the sword is the weapon most likely associated with a champion rather than his lance.

The sword captures the popular imagination, but it is the spear upon which empires were built.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for Wacky

And I've noticed the same phenomenon in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, the blogs with the quirky titles tend to have the quirky content. There are some very strange people out there…and some very funny ones too.

Really Bad Eggs Wacky.
So the 2012 A to Z Blogger Challenge winds down.

Early impression? I'm glad I tried this, and I doubt I'll do it again next year.

As of the time I write this, I've only managed to visit about a score of other blogs. April has been an insanely busy month - holidays, birthday parties, anniversary, vacation, baseball and football games, all on top of work and family routines - and it's been a challenge just keeping up with my own posts. Exploring other blogs has taken a back seat, unfortunately, but I do hope to visit many more, and offer a comment or three, in the coming months. Even just reading through that score or so, I'm left with an unmistakable impression: wow, there are a lot of authors out there.

I've received a number of interesting comments over the past few weeks. I imagine that to many, like Fiona Maddock quoted above, this all must seem rather strange. Roleplaying games are a niche hobby, and cape-and-sword roleplaying games are a tiny niche within that niche. A grown man writing about the finer points of pretending to be a pirate or musketeer must seem very wacky indeed.

One of the reasons I enjoy roleplaying games is that they are an avenue for me to scratch a creative itch in a distinctive, perhaps unique way. Writing a story holds little appeal for me - and acting in a play even less - but creating a vast web of characters linked by intrigue, and playing them out in real-time, with actions resolved by the rules of the game, hits me like an endorphin rush. Most of all, I like roleplaying games for the ways in which they are not like writing or performing. There's nothing else quite like it.

Wacky it may be, but my muse carries dice in her hand.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Unbuilt

For the July 2000 issue of Dragon magazine, Robin Laws wrote an article entitled "Swashbuckling Essentials," containing, ". . . twelve tips for the prospective swashbuckler," aimed at referees and players of Dungeons and Dragons specifically, and other games generally. Mr Laws' tips include such nuggets as "Panache Your Middle Name," "Chivalry to the Point of Idiocy," "Gentlemen Prefer Rapiers," and, "Armor is for the Weak."

Mr Laws then advises how to integrate these tips into the rules of the game. Here's a sample.
So when you're in a tight spot, when the bloodthirsty pirates have you cornered in the colonial governor's kitchen, look around for items that are waiting to help you. In swashbuckler mode, a found item almost always makes as effective a weapon as the cutlass in your scabbard or the dagger in your boot. Expect your [dungeon master] to assign you a big bonus for flinging a handy meat cleaver at the lead pirate. Expect an even bigger one for lifting a roasting boar from its spit and hurling it at him.
And another.
Wit is crucial component of your Charisma-based arsenal. It is not enough to defeat an opponent - you must prove yourself his master in the fine art of the cutting remark. Swashbuckling villains stand united in their reslolute lack of a sense of humor, especially regarding their own faults. Your DM should reward you for wittiness above and beyond the call of duty. For example, each time you successfully infuriate a foe with a cutting remark, your DM might reward you [experience points] equal to 10% of amount you'd get for defeating him outright.
Advice like Mr Laws' is pretty common for cape-and-sword roleplaying games, reflecting perhaps the most widely held perceptions of what swashbuckling adventure is all about. There's a lot to like here, particularly about the importance of romance and honor.

But "Swashbuckling Essentials" also falls into the familiar trap of failing to understand its sources, and as a result it ends up defining the genre as parody. He also gets some things flat wrong; for example, Mr Laws writes, "If your campaign draws inspiration from The Three Musketeers, don't expect to find treasure all over the place. . . . They get their equipment from the king's armory, their horses from his livery, and so on," whereas M. Dumas devotes whole chapters in his tale to the Musketeers figuring out how to pay for their equipment before going on campaign.

TV Tropes, that inestimable trove of "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations," includes a page on swashbuckling. Among the "devices and conventions" associated with the cape-and-sword genre is the Unbuilt Trope.

The Unbuilt Trope "is a work that seems like a Deconstruction but is actually the Trope Maker itself. This is often because later appearances of the trope have decayed compared to the original, defining appearance." As TV Tropes explains, this can happen for a number of reasons, from conscious choice to lack of understanding to just plain hackery by later writers. In fact, TV Tropes specifically calls out Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda as examples of the Unbuilt Trope in swashbuckling.

In the case of the cape-and-sword genre, I expect that the tropes decayed with the transition of swashbuckling stories to the medium of film. Many fans of the various movie versions of The Three Musketeers might be quite surprised by M Dumas' concise treatment of d'Artagnan's duels in his books. The Alatriste novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, written at the tail-end of the twentieth century, are in fact much closer in feel to the works by M Dumas and Mr Hope than they are Rafael Sabatini or Johnston McCulley.

Overemphasizing comically light-hearted action, as I feel Mr Laws does in "Swashbuckling Essentials," limits the range of experiences available through cape-and-sword roleplaying. Showering a player with bonuses that make using improvised weapons better than the sword is one way to encourage swashbuckling action; another is to make fights desperate enough that there is a pressing need for creative solutions, such that using an cleaver unbalanced for throwing to slow down a rush of attackers is preferable to relying on the sword alone, even if it entails a penalty to perform successfully.

When I set out to develop my own cape-and-sword campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier, I knew I wanted the action in actual play to feel more like the Musketeers and Alatriste novels. I hadn't heard of the Unbuilt Trope at the time; I just knew that I wanted a game that felt more like the Richard Lester Musketeers movies and less like The Crimson Pirate. Swashbuckling can be a dirty business as well as a funny one, and focusing on the latter at the expense of the former, as "Swashbuckling Essentials" does, would result in a much shallower roleplaying experience.

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for Tartuffe

Saturday night my wife took me to see Tartuffe at Cypress College for my birthday.

I've read Tartuffe, but I'd never seen it performed, and I really enjoyed it - the actors did a very good job at capturing the absurdity of the characters and their situation, and I'm always fascinated by the blocking of a performance in-the-round.

Molière may seem an unusual source of inspiration for cape-and-sword gaming, but I pulled a number of aspects from the play for my Flashing Blades campaign. The servants, Dorine and Laurent, play an active role in the affairs of their respective masters - Dorine outspokenly points out Tartuffe's hypocrisy to Orgon, and Laurent is every bit Tartuffe's co-conspirator throughout his deception. Servants in the 17th century enjoyed a close relationship with the families they served, and even though this is exaggerated for the sake of farce in Tartuffe, it does give clues about roleplaying lackeys and maids as non-player characters in cape-and-sword campaigns.

Tartuffe's ability to turn every challenge to his own advantage is an interesting character trait to roleplay. He is a master of language, of deflecting blame, even when he is caught red-handed in his schemes. His success is dependent on his complete deception of Orgon, of course. It almost strains credulity that Orgon could be fooled so thoroughly by someone like Tartuffe, yet I imagine most of us have seen, or even been part of, relationships in which trust is manipulated to selfish ends. Introducing relationships like this into a campaign may offer the adventurers a challenge that must be met with wit and guile rather than swords.

Last, no cape-and-sword campaign should skim on the person hiding behind the curtain, or under the table - the characters in Tartuffe repeatedly go to great lengths to insure than they are alone, and yet they are frequently spied upon nonetheless.

Farce is in many ways integral to cape-and-sword romances, and it's hard to go wrong drawing inspiration from one of the master farceurs of his generation.

Oh, and remember, support your local theatre.

S is for Serendipity

Serendipity is digging a hole to plant a tree and finding a chest of pirate silver. Serendipity is buying a used book and finding a near-mint Honus Wagner baseball card stuck between the pages.

As the Nineties wound down, and Wizards of the Coast was preparing to release the third(-ish) edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a manager named Ryan Dancey proposed that Whizbros release the new edition under an open gaming license.

We make more revenue and more profit from our core rulebooks than any other part of our product lines. In a sense, every other RPG product we sell other than the core rulebooks is a giant, self-financing marketing program to drive sales of those core books. At an extreme view, you could say that the core >book< of the PHB is the focus of all this activity, and in fact, the PHB is the #1 best selling, and most profitable RPG product Wizards of the Coast makes year in and year out. The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is. The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.
Ryan Dancey overcame objections from others at Whizbros, and 3e Dungeons and Dragons was released with an open license, allowing other developers to write original products using the core rules as set out in the system reference document, in accordance with the terms of the license.

A 'boom' followed the release of 3e D&D - here was an unprecedented opportunity to commercially publish supplements, settings, and adventures for the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game. As years passed, however, sales dropped and Whizbros decided it was time for a new edition of the game. This new edition, 4e D&D, would not be released under the open game license like the previous edition and half-edition, 3.5 D&D, however, but rather under a new license.

Meanwhile, the Open Game License remained in effect. It was still possible to publish materials for 3e D&D, and when many gamers expressed reservations about the early releases of 4e rules, one gaming publisher, Paizo, elected not to make the jump to the new edition, instead continuing support for their own house version of the 3.5 game, released under the OGL, called Pathfinder. This, arguably, drove an even deeper wedge between those who liked the new edition of D&D and those who wanted to stay with the current, third(-ish) iteration of the game.

But before 4e and Pathfinder arrived on the scene, there was another twist to the tale.

A segment of D&D gamers still played even earlier, out-of-print editions of D&D. Some were 3e and d20 gamers dissatisfied with the rules, while others simply never stopped playing the older games in the first place. These gamers still enjoyed the experience which playing original, basic, 1e and 2e D&D provide.

What they didn't have was a supply of new material.

Enter OSRIC.

Released in 2006, OSRIC - the Old School Reference and Index Compilation - was ". . . intended to reproduce underlying rules used in the late 1970s to early 1980s, granting publishers a common base for the creation of new "first edition-style" products." It allowed game desigers, for the first time in many years, to legally sell new adventures and other materials for out-of-print versions of D&D.

So while 3e and 4e battled for their share of the roleplaying pie, another branch of gamers appeared, growing at right angles to the 3e/4e axis. Dubbed the Old School Renaissance, these gamers-slash-designers produced not only new adventures et al for the older editions, but also new approaches to gaming using the early rules, from thirty-one flavors of D&D to games in different genres like the post-apocalyptic Mutant Future, sci-fi Stars Without Number, and wuxia Flying Swordsmen.

One of my favorite products to come out of the OSR is Backswords and Bucklers, "[i]nspired by works such as Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana and Sir Walter Scott’s Kennilworth," a game I plan to talk about in more detail in coming months.

When I think about the history of D&D over the past decade or so, I'm struck by how the saga of the OGL played out. By some measures Pathfinder came to outsell 4e D&D, something which I expect wasn't in the plan outlined by Ryan Dancey* more than a decade ago. I believe the rise of the OSR from the OGL was even more improbable, with roots-gamers enjoying new commercially published products for their favorite games and the exploration of new genres using old rules.

Serendipity can be a beautiful thing.

* According to Justin Alexander, that was, in fact, part of the plan from the start.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cinematic: The 13th Warrior

So this week's Cinematic installment from the great The 13th Warrior isn't exactly the sort of swashbuckling fare I usually feature, but there are three things about this clip that I really like.

First, Greg Michaels' broadsword and shield fight choreography is outstanding, feeling both dynamic and authentic.

Second, I love that the end of the duel includes Herger paying the wergild for Angus' death to the prince.

Last, I like that the purpose of this duel is to further a political end, 'diplomacy by other means.' This is one of the aspects of the novel Swordspoint that I particularly enjoy as well. Sandbox swashbucklers should look for ways to take advantage of this.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

R is for Recap

I've mentioned my Flashing Blades campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier - The Dance of Steel - a number of times in different posts, to highlight an example, but I haven't discussed it at any length.

The campaign began in in the chill winter February 1625, as a French soldier, Adrien Sannom, an ensign of pikemen in the Picardy Regiment, was sent to Paris to deliver dispatches for his colonel. Left to his own devices pending the return to his regiment, he wandred the fair and stopped a trio of gentlemen threatening an old man and his daughter then got into a scuffle at the theatre. Later he delivered a missive for another soldier to his mistress, and carried a message to the royal fortress at Vincennes and narrowly avoided freezing to death on the road back to Paris, then was nearly killed by an innkeeper who was beating his wife. Finally he returned to his regiment and was dispatched to forage for supplies for his company - and completely missed uncovering a Spanish plan for invading Picardy. (Life During Wartime, a one-shot at a Meetup)

The long winter showed little sign of easing in March 1625 when a sergeant of the King's Musketeers, Riordan O'Neill, visited the fair at Saint-Germain. He rescued an acrobat from three carousing fops then received an invitation to the theatre. Coming home from the theatre, he encountered the aftermath a duel, two gentlemen dying in an alley as one of the dead men's servants claimed that it was murder. The two duelists retire after marking Riordan well. (Gallant Madness)

At his earliest opportunity, Riordan O'Neill returned to the theatre at Saint-Germain, in the company of his friend Charles Duran, to ask out the actress-sister of the acrobat he rescued; the Musketeer was chagrined to discover that she is a prostitute. Chastened, he and Charles took up an invitation from another Musketeer to join him at a small tavern. They spotted a man and a woman in poor disguises about to be set upon by a gang of bravos - the trio defeated the bravos in a dark alley, capturing two, then learned that the two disguised nobles were the duchesse de Chevreuse and her English lover, Lord Holland. The duchesse charges them with sneaking her and Lord Holland back into the Louvre. (The Instruments of Darkness)

A plan is formulated, and Musketeer uniforms procured, to sneak the pair into the palace. Another friend, Charles Petit, an apothecary, is summoned to aid the injured Lord Holland, to rouse him enough to get him into the palace. While Riordan bribes one officer and bluffs another, one of the captured bravos convinces Petit to let him go, on the promise that he will give up the leader of the bravos who escaped earlier in the evening. After Riordan discovers the deception, the second prisoner is killed and dumped into the Seine, then the adventurers set off in search of the bravo leader. Staking out the tavern, they find the prostitute with whom the bravo was earlier seen, and attempt to bully her into giving up the bravo, but she refuses; later they tail her to a church, but they are put off by a priest before they can question her further. On returning to their lodgings at the Black Stork Inn, a mysterious man offers them thanks for aiding the duchesse, and delivers them a purse of gold francs and ring with a red stone. (No Hunting Like the Hunting of Man)

Charles Duran returns to his family in Dijon for a time, leaving Riordan O'Neill and Charles Petit to make good on the promised bribe to the officer at the Louvre, a German mercenary. Tracking him down, they discover that he's destroyed a tavern in a drunken rage, and they convince the cuckolded tavern owner to not summon the provost-marshal by paying for the damages themselves. March passed into April, and Charles Petit hears a rumor that a Savoyard noblewoman, the vicomtesse de Praz-de-Lys, is setting up household in Paris and looking for staff - a fencing master and tutors for her sons, a banker to handle the family finances, and so forth. Riordan and Charles present themselves for the positions of fencing master and tutor respectively, and are hired; Riordan takes the opportunity to flirt with the vicomtesse's layd in waiting. Returning to the Black Stork, Riordan is insulted by three men in the market of the Place Maubert; the three are waiting for a duelist, and mistake Riordan for the man's second. Once the duelist arrives, Riordan offers to be his second, and in the subsequent duel the three are killed. The duelist introduces himself Gil de Berault, and thanks him profusely, telling Riordan to look him up if ever he needs a second. They continue to work for the vicomtesse, and Riordan flirts with her lady-in-waiting. One day Riordan is summoned to the hôtel de Tréville; Tréville informs him that the duel upon which he happend back in March, on the way home from the theatre, involved a son of a Lorrainois count and two courtiers to the Queen-Mother. One of the courtiers is making inquiries, trying to learn Riordan's identity. and Tréville warns Riordan to be careful. Finally they meet Lorrainois count, who offers them his gratitude for delivering his son to a priest before he died. (A Thousand Friends)

Charles Petit and Riordan O'Neill continue to work for the vicomtesse as April turns to May. One day she asks if they can assist in purchasing a horse for her eldest son, and with the boy and another friend, Bruno Faucon, Riordan's assistant, they set off for the Paris horse market. At the market Riordan spots one of the two courtiers, who introduces himself to Riordan. The courtier and another nobleman are arguing over the merits of two horses, and a race is arranged, with Riordan agreeing to ride on behalf of the nobleman. Riordan wins the race through the Cours-la-reine and is invited to a party to be held by the nobleman in May. Later Riordan, with Charles and Bruno in tow, seeks out the vicomtesse's lady-in-waiting and finds her Les Halles, the main market, in the company of a young soldier. She goads Riordan and the soldier into a duel, as Charles and Bruno try in vain to warn him off. Bruno tails the soldier, and discovers him entering the residence of the Cardinal Richelieu at Place Royale. Convinced that they will be ambushed by the Cardinal's Guards, Riordan casts a wide net for help, pulling in three of his friends among the Musketeers. Arriving at the Hôpital Saint-Louis, where the duel is to be held, Charles sneaks in and finds the Cardinal's Guards clearing out the vagrants congregated there. The adventurers decide to turn the tables on them, ambushing two of the Guards and capturing the guardsmen's horses, killing one of the Guards in the process. (Best-laid Schemes)

The Cardinal's Guards discover Riordan O'Neill, Charles Petit, and Bruno Faucon, along with three other King's Musketeers, in the process of stealing the guardsmen's horses, and the adventurers are forced to flee as musket fire rattles around them. They realize that if word reaches the king, they could be in trouble, so they set off for Tréville's, to ask him to intercede with His Most Christian Majesty, but Tréville isn't at his townhome, and the delay allows the Cardinal to reach the king first. One of the Musketeer officers finds a place for the adventurers to stay until Tréville returns; meanwhile the guardsmen's captured horses are turned loose in the Tuileries gardens to browse on the royal shrubbery. That night word arives that the king is furious, and the Musketeers are exiled from Paris. The barber-surgeon of the Musketeers, Guillaume Sébastien, who treated the injured after the fight with the guardsmen, decides to flee as well, as he is likely to be branded a co-conspirator by the vengeful Cardinal. Two of the Musketeers decide to head south, to Toulouse; the third accept an offer from the comte de Challons, a friend of Tréville's, to join his mercenary company heading off to the war in Savoy, and Riordan, Bruno, and Guillaume join him. (A Hard Place to Leave)

The trip to Grenoble, where Challons' company is forming, is brutal as the adventurer attempt to avoid agents of the Cardinal by travelling through the mountainous heart of Burgundy, where they encounter and kill an angry boar. Afraid they will wreck their horses, they decide to take to the river, and head south on barges to Vienne. Leaving the river, they take the road to Grenoble, and are ambushed by bravos in the middle of an empty waste. Taking refuge on a hilltop, a battle with pistols and swords ensues, and the bravos are routed. Arriving in Grenoble at last, the adventurers discover that the officer they were to meet is missing, along with thousands in borrowed silver. (Into the Wild)

Guillaume, Riordan, and Bruno investigate the disappearance, eventually discovering a hidden compartment in the officer's lodgings at a Grenoblois inn. The hidden compartment leads the local provost-marshal to identify the culprits, a Dutch banker and a Venetian fencing master, who flee the city. Riordan takes over the company in the officer's absence, but makes a poor showing of it. A case of Anjou wine arrives from Paris for Riordan, but it is laced with poison and the Musketeer is saved only by the ministrations of Guillame.(The Hands Will Solve)

After a brief period of training, the company, with Riordan O'Neill as cornet and Guillaume Sébastien as surgeon, with Bruno Faucon as a camp-follower, sets out for Savoy in June 1625, to join the French army fighting alongside the Savoyards against the Genoese and Spanish. Challons and his officers are invited to a party hosted by the principessa di Piemonte, the sister of King Louis XIII. At the party a Savoyard count with Spanish sympathies insults Riordan and Guillaume, but Riordan maintains his compsure. Later the adventurers are approache by a expatriot French nobleman, who tries to recruit them to seize his brother's castle in Dauphiny, claiming that the brother is responsible for death of the officer in Grenoble. The men are invited to dance with the princess' ladies, and only Riordan manages to pull off the steps successfully, earning him the admiration of his partner, from whom he asks for a favor to carry into battle. Challons carabiniers are put into action against Imperial cavalry, Albanian and Polish mercenaries, raiding behind the lines. Their first action is a defeat, as the Albanians manage to slip away; their second, against the Poles, is inconclusive. Finally, Challons' company manages to ambush the Poles in their encampment and scores a decisive victory, with Riordan taking the Polish banner in the process. (Let Him Who Loves His Country)

October turns to November as Riordan O'Neill and Guillame Sébastien travel to Turin with the comte de Challons, where Riordan is honored by the duke of Savoy for his meritorious conduct in during the summer campaign; during the ceremony, the expat nobleman once again approaches them about taking his brother's castle, and Challons invites Riordan to participate in a duel at Casale with the Imperial cavalry commander. Riordan celebrates by seducing a pair of tavern wenches and Guillame finds himself seduced in turn by a French marquise in Turin. The lady-in-waiting with whom Riordan flirted at the princess' party renews her acquaintance, focing Riordan and Guillame to figure out a way to slip her out of a church under the eyes of two guards assigned as her escorts. To distract the priest and guards, Guillaume, a Huguenot, claims to want to convert to Catholicism, and the priest declares it a miracle. The lady-in-waiting manages to sip away in her maid's cloak, and she and Riordan spend an afternoon riding together in the countryside. The next day, as Riordan prepares to leave with Challons for the duel at Casale, he is issued another challenge, by the officer he was supposed to duel in Paris months ago. That challenge is put off as the adventurers ride for Casale. (Darker Than the Swoon of Sin)

. The cavalry duel at Casale is a five-on-five affair held outside the walls of the city, as a company of Spanish musketeers watch from across the river. The surgeon, Guillaume Sébastien, is placed under guard by the Monferrini as the ten combatants meet on the field. Riordan O'Neill defeats two of the Imperials and captures a third as the French are victorious, escaping under a hail of musket fire from across the river. Guillame is shot and left for dead by the Monferrini sergeant, who steals his medical instruments. They retire to a town to find a surgeon to heal their wounds. (The Spur That Pricks)

What's next for our intrepid swashbucklers? The expat noble and the castle in Dauphiny still awaits, as does the duel with the French officer. There's Riordan's mistress and the lusty marquise waiting for Riordan and Guillaume's return to Turin. A diplomat is on his way to Monferrat with a proposed mission to Milan for the swashbucklers, along with word of a pardon and their return to Paris - or perhaps they will stay in Savoy when the campaign is renewed in the spring? And who set the bravos and the poisoned wine on them?

The future beckons.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Quixotic

Rodriguez wished that he could have had a less ambition than to win a castle in the wars, for in those glades and among those oaks he felt that happiness might be found under roofs of thatch. But having come by his ambition he would not desert it.

Now rushlights were lit in the great cottage and the window of the long room glowed yellow. A fountain fell in the stillness that he had not heard before. An early nightingale turned a tentative note. "The forest is fair, is it not?" said Miguel.

Rodriguez had no words to say. To turn into words the beauty that was now shining in his thoughts, reflected from the evening there, was no easier than for wood to reflect all that is seen in the mirror.

"You love the forest," he said at last.

"Master," said Miguel, "it is the only land in which we should live our days. There are cities and roads, but man is not meant for them. I know not, master, what God intends about us; but in cities we are against the intention at every step, while here, why, we drift along with it."

"I, too, would live here always," said Rodriguez.

"The house is yours," said Miguel. And Rodriguez answerd: "I go to-morrow to the wars."

- Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Pirates

This week's guest illustrator is Howard Pyle, the dean of pirate painters.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Other

A modest proposal to Wizards of the Coast: how about including a more diverse representation of ethnic background in your core product? You’re working on Dungeons & Dragons Next — some call it D&D Fifth Edition — and I think now would be a great time to welcome new players. A product where white wasn’t the default would be a welcome addition to the hobby. I’m not talking about niches like Oriental Adventures either; I mean in your main bread and butter books.
A short essay by Mordicai Knode at lit up tabletop roleplaying forums last week by suggesting that fantasy roleplaying game artwork should be more inclusive in its depiction of ethnicity. While many gamers expressed support for the suggestion, others decried what they consider forcing roleplaying games to pursue a "politically correct" agenda, with a few ignorant, hateful cranks pathetically descending into outright racism.

Sadly, this conversation isn't new among gamers. The perception, and even support for the perpetuation, of tabletop roleplaying games as a hobby by white guys for white guys runs deep, and as such extends into discussions of gender representation in roleplaying games as well.

I've thought long and hard about this with respect to historical roleplaying games in particular. The 17th century, in which my Flashing Blades campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier, is set, is anything but egalitarian - it's rife with religious, ethnic, and gender intolerance, rigid social stratification and vast wealth inequality, so in putting together a campaign, I have choices to make. I could flip the switch to full alt.history, and run a fanciful egalitarian campaign in which, say, women can join the King's Musketeers without raising more than a couple of scandalised eyebrows at court who tut-tut about how things were different back in their day.

I can also hew closer to the actual history, which means that potential prejudices abound. A few gamers have suggested that this is tantamount to endorsing racism, sexism, and intolerance - why bring all of this into what is supposed to be a leisure activity when it can leave women, gays, or persons of color feeling marginalised during play? Shouldn't roleplaying games be an opportunity to escape prejudice and social restraints?

While I'm sympathetic to this view, I find it problematic in that it presumes that all gamers want the same experience from playing roleplaying games. One of the reasons that players enjoy playing historical roleplaying games in particular is to capture the feel of the period in which the campaign is set - they want not just historical trappings but a chance to pretend to be a character in that time and place, including the historical mores. Prejudice and inequality are features, not bugs, in such a campaign. To leave out the mores of the period would diminish the experience.

But given that players do approach games with different expectations, I believe it should be made crystal clear that historical campaigns will hew closely to those mores, so that prospective players can make an informed choice about whether or not it's a game they want to play. In the players' guide section of my campaign wiki, I describe the role of history in the campaign, and touch upon prejudice and intolerance.

Finally, a note about ‘-isms.’ Part of the appeal of historical roleplaying for many gamers is exploring the past. Recapturing the experience of living in another era may include cultural values different from our own. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and in particular religious intolerance are prevalent in the Early Modern era, and as such they may be encountered in the course of the game.

It’s important to bear in mind, however, that exceptional individuals are a feature of every era, and an attempt to recreate the experience of history cannot overlook these figures. For example, women owned businesses and property, served in the armies and navies (sometimes disguised, sometimes openly), founded religious organizations, and ruled great states in the seventeenth century – a few even fought duels; using the idea of sexual discrimination against female characters to unduly limit their options would make
Le Ballet de l’Acier less historical, not more.

And though it shouldn’t need to be said, here it is anyway: while racism, sexism, and the rest may be encountered in-game, they will not be tolerated out-of-game; any player who cannot treat everyone else at the table with respect will be asked to leave the game.
I've found a tendency among gamers who take issue with including gender, ethnic, and religious prejudices in historical roleplaying games to assume a setting painted with a broad brush, but in my experience they miss the significance of exceptions to the prevailing mores of a period. If we accept that prejudice and intolerance are facts of life in an Early Modern setting like that of Le Ballet de l'Acier, then we must also account for exceptional individuals who overcame those limitations, such as Juan de Pareja, Hortense Mancini, and the chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont.

In fact, two of the player characters in my campaign can be numbered among those exceptions: a Jewish woman masquerading as a Catholic swordsman, and a gay physician and polymath.

I believe that women gamers, LGBT gamers, and gamers of color should be able to see their own reflections in the world around them, and there's no reason why this shouldn't extend even to something as trivial as roleplaying games. The muse behind the blog Sarah Darkmagic, Tracy Hurley, has a Kickstarter project, Prismatic Art Collection, aimed at facilitating just that.

Prismatic Art Collection is a free library of art representing heroes of all backgrounds. In geek culture, there are plenty of Lukes, but not enough Landos or Leias. We want to change that. We're raising funds to hire a diverse group of artists to create fantasy art depicting heroes of all backgrounds.
I'd like to see more Leias and Landos - and more Juans and Hortenses - in roleplaying games.

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Networked

When I decided I wanted to run a swashbuckling campaign, I went to a couple of gaming forums to ask for opinions on games.

Once I settled on Flashing Blades, I ordered .pdf copies of the rules.

To help me run the campaign, I created a wiki to manage my notes.

When I decided I was ready to run the campaign, I recruited players through a website and a Yahoo group and a local Meetup.

Once we settled down to playing, we organized our game-days by e-mail. When one of the players moved home to Scandanavia after finishing his post-doc, we began playing by both e-mail and Skype.

And after spending literally years thinking about this stuff, I decided to start a blog.

The intrewebs changed tabletop roleplaying games for the better, offering gamers unprecedented connectivity, from finding obscure games through eBay and online retailers to locating other players with like interests to sharing campaigns via wikis to playing by forum post, email, intreweb chat, Skype, and Google+ to creating and sharing new games, supplements, and adventures to simply building and maintaining the niche community of hobbyists who play these silly games.

I can even roll my dice online if I like.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Musketeers!

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

Brave Musketeers!

- My daughter, age 7

Yes, I posted this already a couple of months ago, but if a proud dad can't show off his daughter's poetry on his blog, then what's the intreweb for?

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Location

Quick, show of hands. Who thinks playing the Capitán Alatriste roleplaying game in a 16th century mansion sounds like fun?

Y'know, this is one of the reasons I'd like to run a Zorro campaign - he is California's iconic swashbuckler, after all - but even so, it's not like there's a ton of 18th century adobes converted to country inns 'round here, and I think we'd probably make a bit of a scene trying to play at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

L is for Lackey

And Rodriguez remembered all those passes and feints that he had had from his father, and which Sevastiani, a master of arms in Madrid, had taught in his father's youth: and some were famous and some were little known. And all these passes, as he tried them one by one, his unknown antagonist parried. And for a moment Rodriguez feared that Morāno would see those passes in which he trusted foiled by that unknown sword, and then he reflected that Morāno knew nothing of the craft of the rapier, and with more content at that thought he parried thrusts that were strange to him. But something told Morāno that in this fight the stranger was master and that along that pale-blue, moonlit, unknown sword lurked a sure death for Rodriguez. He moved from his place of vantage and was soon lost in large shadows; while the rapiers played and blade rippled on blade with a sound as thought Death were gently sharpening his scythe in the dark. And now Rodriguez was giving ground, now his antagonist pressed him; thrusts that he believed invincible had failed; now he parried wearily and had at once to parry again; the unknown pressed on, was upon him, was scattering his weakening parries; drew back his rapier for a deadlier pass, learned in a secret school, in a hut on mountains he knew, and practised surely; and fell in a heap upon Rodriguez' feet, struck full on the back of the head by Morāno's frying-pan.

- Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany

L is for Lighthouse

7th Sea? Yeah, it's like that.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for KIA

I come to bury the chevalier de Saint-Sauvan, not to praise him.

According to the designers the Mythic Game Master Emulator is intended to facilitate gamemaster-less play. My previous experience with the Emulator was as a tool for refereeing my Flashing Blades campaign, but I was curious to see how the Emulator worked for solo play.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results, enough to go back and repeat the expeience a few more times with my character, Urbain de Foresta, the chevalier de Saint-Sauvan.

Unfortunately the dissolute gambler met his end at the hands of a Marseillais bravo named La Gautier. There was bad blood between Foresta and La Gautier, after Foresta defeated La Gautier by flipping his cape over the bravo's head and running him through, leaving La Gautier for dead in the street not far from a tavern known as Lo Diable - the Devil.

But La Gautier survived Foresta's thrust, and - as subsequently determined by the Emulator - sought out the chevalier to take his revenge. Last Thursday I had a few free hours, and as Foresta made his way to a tavern seeking a game of chance and some feminine companionship, he encountered La Gautier once again.

This time no trick could save him and La Gautier, the better swordsman, left the hapless nobleman bloody and dying on the cobbles.

If roleplaying games can be said to have loss conditions, it's hard to argue that this is one of the biggest losses a player can suffer. While I accept death may come to my characters in the course of playing the game, it's rare that there isn't some measure of disappointment attached to the experience. Foresta wasn't a terribly likeable character - a fop, with all that that entails - but he was fun to play and I saw some interesting adventures in his future, if he was spared.

But by the roll of the dice, that wasn't meant to be.

So I lay the poor chevalier to rest, his future abruptly cut short, his potential unrealized. Such is the life of a gambler and rake in 1625 Marseille, and such is the fate of a player character when the dice don't break his way.

I'm not ready to give up on the solo gaming thing, however, so I hit up a dice roller for a new set of character stats, and thus was Peyrot La Planca, an occasional actor and would-be bravo, born in the chevalier's stead.

Many roleplaying games have rules which allow characters to cheat death in any number of ways, but those games hold little appeal for me. If anything can be said to be real in a game which takes place almost wholly in the imagination, it's the roll of the dice.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for Imagineering

In Disney's California Adventure amusement park, there is an attraction called Walt Disney Imagineering Blue Sky Cellar. The attraction provides ". . . a rare preview of upcoming magic through the eyes of Walt Disney Imagineers at Disney California Adventure Park," through illustrations, models, maquettes, and video interviews with the people who create the rides and other attractions of the Disneyland Resort.

One example of the Imagineering process describes planning a restaurant in California Adventure.

This is where the designers begin. With the backstory. For a restaurant.

Living in southern California means easy access to lots of amusement parks. We purchased annual passes for Disneyland for the last three years, and this year we also bought passes for Universal Studios Hollywood. Both California Adventure and Universal Studios offer river-raft attractions: Grizzly River Run at Disney and Jurassic Park - The Ride at Universal.

GRR (grr . . . like a bear, get it?) simulates a river-rafting trip in northern California; Jurassic Park simulates an attraction in, well, Jurassic Park. Both rides attempt to create a believable environment for visitors, and both attractions offer an thrill ride where the riders are assumed to get soaked to some degree - in fact, both rides go out of their way to make sure you get wet.

After riding both rides numerous times, I've noticed a distinct difference between the two attractions with respect to that last feature. On Jurassic Park, the ride begins with a trip through a dripping rainforest canopy, then passes along an Isla Nubar river; along the way, water squirts from behind bushes or from the mouths of the fringed dinosaurs to get the riders wet. After the final plunge, water mortars shoot a spray of water into the air as the raft reaches the bottom of the drop, pretty much guaranteeing a soaking.

On GRR, however, the riders are sprayed by leaking pipes in an old mill, by a waterfall inside a cave, and by a leaking log flume. There are no water cannons at the bottom of the plunge on GRR; instead you find yourself carried into the path of a geyser which jets water over the raft.

Now here's the thing: in addition to creating an environment and telling a story, both rides do their best to soak their riders, but GRR takes that a step further by making the soaking a natural extension of the ride environment and the story instead of simply adding squirting jets and water cannons to the experience.

Both rides deliver the watery thrills you expect them to, but the Disney attraction seamlessly integrates those thrills with the imaginary environment.

I think about gaming quite often when I'm at Disneyland; I never fail to be blown away by the attraction designers' ability to pull me into the environment.

And where do they begin? With the backstory. Even for something as mundane as a burger joint and a pizza parlor.

I agree with the notion that, all else being equal, a '"pretty" dungeon' - an adventure site which possesses a backstory and an a mix of design aesthetics - is better than one without.

I know some gamers couldn't care less; they're in it for the action, and aesthetics and (most especially) backstory may not enter into that for them. This is where the "all else being equal" enters into the equation; like GRR and Jurassic Park riders want to get wet, roleplaying game players want an environment which lends itself to action. "Pretty" dungeons can't just be pretty - they need to offer that action as well.

I put together a description of a tavern for my Flashing Blades game. The backstory is that the "Sail-Needle" was once a sail loft before being converted into a tavern. The structure has high ceilings, reflecting its earlier use in manufacturing sails for the galleys and roundships of Marseille.

So what, right?

Because those ceilings are so high, the tavern has two large chandeliers to provide light for the guests. This provides the opportunity for a classic staple of cape-and-sword adventure, the chandelier swing, not only from a single chandelier, but rather a pair of them. In this example, the backstory plays directly into creating an environment conducive to action appropriate to the swahbuckling genre.

For some gamers, perhaps many gamers, things like aesthetics and backstory, the stuff that makes an adventure location "pretty," may make little difference, but, in my experience, for the gamers who appreciate them, putting in the effort to make the environment meaningful really enhances the experience of playing the game.

Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for Honor

Swashbucklers may be may be daredevil duelists and dashing romantics. They may be hard-bitten men and troubled souls. They may be wizened veterans or callow youths. They may be all of these things in the course of their lifetimes, and more.

But perhaps the most important characteristic common to swashbucklers is a personal code of honor.

‘Never submit quietly to the slightest indignity, except it proceed from the cardinal or the king. It is by his courage — mark this well — it is by his courage alone, that a gentleman makes his way nowadays. Whoever hesitates one moment, lets perhaps that chance escape him, which fortune, for that moment alone, has offered him.’
— Alexandre Dumas,
The Three Musketeers

He took his place without a word. I read in his drawn white face that he had made his mind up to the worst, and his courage so won my admiration that I would gladfully and thankfully have set one of the lookers-on — any of the lookers-on — in his place; but that could not be. So I thought of Zaton’s closed to me, of Pombal’s insult, of the sneers and slights I had long kept at sword point; and, pressing him suddenly in a heat of affected anger, I thrust strongly over his guard, which had grown feeble, and ran him through the chest.
— Stanley Weyman,
Under the Red Robe

Alatriste shook his head thoughtfully, then looked at his sword and his dagger. “We are what we are,” he thought. “My reputation is all, and I have no other.”
— Arturo Pérez-Reverte,
The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet
To the swashbuckler it is better to risk death than dishonor. One’s reputation is, in the end, all one truly possesses — power and fortunes come and go, but honor can only be given away, never taken.

That sense of honor should not be confused with behaving honorably. A swashbuckler need not be a paragon of virtue — in fact they may be quite the opposite. Diego Alatriste is a hired assassin. Percy Blakeney accepts money to kindnap a burgher’s daughter, then swindles the burgher into paying Blakeney to ‘rescue’ her. D’Artagnan date-rapes Milady de Winter by posing as the comte de Wardes and sneaking into her bedroom under cover of darkness. To satisfy a bet, the marquis de Bardelys assumes the identity of a dead man in order to trick the daughter of the vicomte de Lavedan into marrying him. A swashbuckler’s deeds may define him as hero or villain, but his honor demands that he accept his due no matter what, without equivocation.

Maintaining one’s reputation and preserving one’s honor may lead a swashbuckler down several paths. For example, some may choose to fight anyone and everyone who offers them cause, however slight; this is the classic duelist. Others may emphasize courtesy and etiquette to avoid giving or taking offense, minimizing slights and reserving the sword as the final recourse for the most grave slanders.

Players in cape-and-sword roleplaying game campaigns may choose to give some thought to how their characters express their honor before the campaign begins, but even if they don't, how the player characters conduct themselves in actual play will reflect a de facto personal code by which others may take the character's measure.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Giants

If the San Francisco Giants win their remaining games, they will finish the season 161-1.

¡Viva los Gigantes!

Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for Field of Honor

Once again, you are challenged to a duel. Roll 1D20 to determine the actual location where the duel takes place.

1. On a coral reef at low tide while sharks cicle in the nearby lagoon.

2. Amid the vine-choked ruins of a lost temple deep in the jungle, while drums throb in the distance.

3. Atop a galley's ram as it protrudes from the side of a galleon while cannons blast overhead.

4. In the candlelit crypt beneath an ancient abbey.

5. In the middle of a court ballet during a masquerade ball.

6. On a swaying rope bridge suspended above a rushing torent.

7. Inside a church campanile as the bells peal for a requiem mass.

8. Atop a clocktower as shafts of lightning from an approaching thunderstorm illuminate the sky.

9. Hanging from the creaking sails of a slowly spinning windmill.

10. Aboard a wildly-rocking gondola drifting on the Grand Canal.

11. In the twisting alleys of a tall garden hedge-maze.

12. While racing around the Piazza del Campo during the Palio di Siena, using horsewhips and daggers.

13. Amid the canvas shrouds of a sailmaker's loft.

14. In a lantern-lit mine tunnel where gaping shafts nearby lay concealed by shadows.

15. Amid the silk carpets and satin cushions of a Turkish seraglio as the sultan's concubines make bets or throw fruit at the duelists.

16. In a dusty caravanserai, between the resting camels and their yelling, jeering drivers.

17. On the slippery, crackling ice bridge over a yawning glacial crevasse.

18. Between sulphurous hot springs and bubbling mudpots as a steaming geyser rumbles menacingly.

19. Over a half-dissected corpse in an operating theatre in the middle of a crowded surgical lecture.

20. In a tavern crowded with drunken revelers - hey, they can't all be exotic.

E is for Encounter

At Howling Tower, Steve Winter is laying out an excellent series of posts on random encounters. In his most recent post, he describes ways to improve random encounters, such as preparing encounters in advance of their actual use and making an encounter an event. I've used these same techniques for years in the campaigns I run, and I'm going to talk about this more in the future, but in the meantime, read Steve's posts.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Exegesis

Roleplaying gamers have a sometimes contentious relationship with the rules of our games.

The rules for a roleplaying game may only number a handful of paragraphs, or run to literally thousands of pages across scores of books. Gamers refer to games as 'light' or 'heavy' depending on their perceived complexity. We draw distinctions between 'crunch' - the rules that determine how actions are resolved - and 'fluff - the descriptive text of the game and the game-world.

Even with all of this attention to the rules, roleplaying games, particularly complex games with many pages of rules, frequently require judgement calls in how the rules are applied. For example, the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons offered players the opportunity to play a magically awakened (intelligent) animal as a character. Years ago, I posed a question based on the idea of playing a knight's awakened warhorse. What happens if the warhouse character tries to climb a sheer cliff? Is the action resolved by rolling a Climb skill check for the hourse as with any other character? Does the horse suffer a penalty to climbing because of his equine body? Or is it simply impossible for the horse to climb a cliff at all?

The answer, according to the rules, was all of the above.

The precursor to roleplaying games was the wargame, and since the 19th century wargames often included a referee or umpire, a neutral third party whose role is to determine the success or failure of moves made by the players and resolve conflicts that arise from the application of the rules to the players' moves. This concept was adopted for roleplaying games very early in their history, of a referee or judge or game master - or more fancifully Dungeon Master, Administrator, Watcher, or Hollyhock God - as, among other things, the final arbiter of questions that arose from the rules.

This is not the only solution to the often-fractious question of WHO DECIDES? in roleplaying games. Early games like En Garde! and Boot Hill could be played without a referee, relying on consensus among the players over questions that arose during the game; later games expanded on this consensus approach by adding specific rules about how consensus would be acheived, or, if interpretation of the rules was vested in an individual, how that person's judgement could be reviewed and overridden.

But the traditional method, of a referee or game master as final arbiter, remains the most common.

So referees necessarily become familiar with the rules.

I found myself poring over the rules of Flashing Blades following our last game-day, for a hole I discovered in the rules some time ago came up in play. In FB, characters in combat may take two normal actions or one long action each turn; for example, a character might choose to thrust and parry (two normal actions) or lunge (one long action). If a character is stunned, then in the following round the character loses one normal action and may not take a long action.

With me so far?

So during our last game-day, one of the non-player characters in a duel was stunned by an attack - I determined in the following round that his one action would be to parry the likely attacks from the player character. The player, seeing the opportunity to take advantage of the stun, decided to attack and counter; a counter is akin to a riposte, turning a parry into an attack.

Except there was no attack for the player to counter, so per the rules this was a wasted action. According to the rules, the only way to get two fencing attacks per round is to attack and counter, regardless if an opponent is stunned or not. Despite the fact that the non-player character was stunned, the player's character could not gain an advantage.

As the referee for the game, my ruling at the time was to let the rules as-written stand, with the promise that I would revisit the subject. Sitting down with the rules, I searched to discern the intent behind the rule as-written. Was this really a hole, or was I just failing to understand the design intent? What aspect of fencing was this intended to simulate? How could I explain this in terms of what the characters would experience in the game-world?

The big question in my mind, is, does allowing a second attack against a stunned opponnent confer too much of an advantage? For example, a character can fire two pistols in a round, so two fencing attacks didn't seem unreasonable when limited to stunned opponents. A character can parry more than one attack in a round with the parry action, and it takes two stuns to make a character helpless in the following round.

Putting all of this together, it makes sense that a character can attack a stunned character twice, and thus another house rule - a rule specific to our campaign - gets added to the lexicon.

Years ago I listend to a rabbi explaining midrash, the interpretation of Torah, to understand the motivations and meaning behind the stories told in the sacred texts, and I was struck by the secular similarity to referees interpreting the sometimes Byzantine rules of tabletop roleplaying games. Specifically, midrash reminded me of that example of that horse trying to get up the cliff, where three different answers found in the rules were all correct, subject to the referee making the interpretation. In one campaign, the horse is able to surge up the cliff, sparks flying from its hooves, while in another, a horse would be forced to find another way around like a horse that we would expect in our own mudane world.

It may seem like having multiple interpretations of the same text is a failure on the part of the system, and their are many games who argue exactly that when asked. But each of those answers gives the campaign played by the referee and the players a distinctive feel, in the same way that rabbis have written different midrashim to understand the implications of a particular passage of Torah.

Exegesis is the search for the truth of a text, but referees may arrive at multiple truths from the text of the game's rules.

And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Doubloons

Out there is a fortune, waiting to be had.

For A to Z bloggers visiting Really Bad Eggs, Wednesday Wyeth in my weekly showcase of art by N.C. Wyeth and other illustrators. Click on the art tab to see other works in the series.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Challenge

"A vile song, señor, and a vile tune with it," said a voice quite close.

However much the words hurt his pride in his mandolin Rodriguez recognised in the voice the hidalgo's accent and knew that it was an equal that now approached him in the moonlight round a corner of the house with the balcony; and he knew that the request he courteously made would be as courteously granted.

"Señor," he said, "I pray you to permit me to lean my mandolin against the wall securely before we speak of my song."

"Most surely, señor," the stranger replied, "for their is no fault with the mandolin."

"Señor," Rodriguez said, "I thank you profoundly." And he bowed to the gallant, whom he now perceived to be young, a youth tall and lithe like himself, one whom we might have chosen for these chronicles had we not found Rodriguez.

Then Rodriguez stepped back a short way and placed his kerchief upon the ground; and upon this he put his mandolin and leaned it against the wall. When the mandolin was safe from dust or accident he approached the stranger and drew his sword.

"Señor," he said, "we will now discuss music."

- Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany

For more on swashbuckling challenges, check out Tossing the Gauntlet.

Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Buckler

The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held shield for deflecting and punching blows. It was usually round and made of metal but occasionally of hardened leather or layers of wood. Bucklers were typically round and frequently between 8 to 16 inches in diameter, but octagonal, square, and trapezoidal versions were also known.

The versatility of the sword and buckler as a method of fighting can be said to lay in its simplicity. As a two-weapon combination, it is simultaneously defensive and offensive. It offered some protection against missile weapons and was convenient for facing heavier weapons such as polearms and axes. Yet, its small size made it agile and quick. Combined with a good shearing sword or tapering cut-and-thrust blade, it could deflect attacks, strike blows of its own, and yet still allow the user’s own sword to cut around in any direction. Another advantage of metal bucklers was that unlike wooden shields, the point of an opponent’s weapon would not get stuck in the face of the buckler nor would the edge of a blade damage the rim (although, when this occurred it could be used to the shield man’s advantage). In many of the historical images of sword and buckler combat the familiar fighting postures found in longsword fencing manuals can be easily discerned, such as the wards of: high, middle, low, back, and hanging.
As described in an informative essay published by the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts, the buckler was introduced in the 13th century and remained popular with both soldiers and swordsmen for around three hundred years before finally falling into disuse in the 17th century.

The practice of striking one's buckler with a sword as a means of issuing a challenge or as a distraction, like stamping one's foot on the piste, while fighting gives us the word swashbuckler.

Thomas Fuller in his 1662, The History of the Worthies of England (Everyman Edition) described “swashblucker” as coming from the action of “swashing and making a noise on the buckler.” Apparently they would strike on their own bucklers with their swords during fighting. Similarly, Baret’s Alvearie of 1573 mentioned “to swash or to make a noise with swordes against tergats” while Ben Johnson in his early 17th century play, Staple of News, included the line, “I do confess a swashing blow”. Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet also has the Capulet serving man Gregory make his “swashing blow” (i.e., a wide cut). John Florio also mentions, “A bravo, a swashbuckler, one that for money and good cheere will follow any man to defend him; but if any danger come, he runs away the first, and leaves him in the lurch.” And yet, in 1602 William Bass wrote a religious study that metaphorically referred faith to the confidence found in the “Sword & Buckler” as “The Serving Man’s Defence.”
As the rapier replaced earlier swords, so did the dagger and main-gauche replace the buckler, though rapier and buckler continues to appear in fencing manuals of the 17th century.

Characters in the Flashing Blades roleplaying game trained in the Italian and French fencing styles may carry bucklers as an off-hand parrying weapon. One of the advantages of the buckler in the FB fencing rules is that it's stronger than most blades, increasing the chance of breaking an opponent's sword. One of the characters in our campaign likes to carry a buckler as well as a swordbreaker.

The rules in Flashing Blades are intended to facilitate playing over a fairly lengthy period, covering the reigns of kings Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV. This involves some necessary abstractions, of course, some of which I've addressed through house rules to capture more of the feel of the 1620s, when our campaign is set.

One of the abstractions in the game is that fighting styles and weapons remain consistent between 1589 and 1715. For my campaign, however, I want to capture the changes which occurred over the 17th century - rapiers and off-hand weapons should slowly be supplanted by the single smallsword as the weapon of choice among gentilhommes. Indeed, fighting with a buckler in the grand age of the swashbuckler should become increasingly rare.

I can handle this ebb and flow of time and fashion in the campaign a couple of ways. Frex, I can introduce house rules which change the styles and weapons available to the characters - after about 1650, a new fencing style, the 'smallsword' or 'court' style, with an emphasis on point-work - thrusts and lunges - will become available to the characters. As far as the existing fencing styles go, I could also simply say they're no longer available, but that's a bit too heavy-handed for me - rather they will simply fade into disuse among the non-player characters in the setting, making them an anachronism by the latter years of the Sun King's reign.

The buckler-wielding King's Musketeer in our campaign will start to experience this soon. His buckler brands him as a 'low' fighter, a barodeur, particularly among gentlemen, and they may comment upon it, dismissively perhaps - at their own peril, of course, for if Riordan O'Neill takes offense, they may well find themselves getting a first-hand demonstration of the buckler in action!

I prefer this to simply ruling weapons like bucklers or fencing styles out of the campaign. It gives the players the opportunity to make interesting choice about their characters, of finding their place in the game-world. Perhaps Riordan's player will embrace the image of a street-tough, or maybe he will conform to the social mores of the period and stop carrying the buckler. Either way, we both learn something about the character in actual play.

The referee controls the setting in a roleplaying game, but that control stops at the player's characters. Giving the players intriguing choices, and resolving the consequences of those choices in a way consistent with the game-world, is the referee's role.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Animation

Welcome, A to Z Bloggers, to Really Bad Eggs, my thinking-aloud blog about cape-and-sword tabletop roleplaying games. Sunday's regular feature is Cinematic, a clip highlighting movie swordplay.

April Fool's Day seems ideal for Daffy Duck as the swashbuckling Scarlet Pumpernickel, something of a cross between Zorro and Percy Blakeney. Familiar characters and zany ending aside, it's not a bad little genre tale.