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.


  1. I had never stopped to consider it, but of course you are right: the entire modern experience of swashbuckling is reliant on filmic representations that are comedic in tone. I think, for example, Pirates of the Caribbean fits in well with this thesis.

    1. One of the reasons I think the Richard Lester Musketeers movies are so respected is that they manage to tread the line between comedic swashbuckling and the inherently grittier feel of the source novel.

  2. Well Robin Laws isn't really about the "roleplaying experience" as you or I would define it I think. He's all about the literary art form of RPGs, ie their ability to tell stories. As a result, you're not going to get the depth that you would with a more world-emulative approach.


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