Monday, July 30, 2012

The Seafaring Man With One Leg

Daddy Grognard reviews Long John Silver, a novel by Bjorn Larsson.

There are a couple spoilers, but nothing major. This is sitting in my Amazon queue, and I think I should probably get it this week, before we go on vacation.

One for the Pathfinder Fans

Obiri at Roll for Initiative has a post on the Duelist class in Pathfinder - fans of fantasy swashbucklers should take a look.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Zorro and Shadow and Green Hornet . . . Oh, My!

Sean B at Wine and Savages spotted the Comic Con announcement of a crossover comic featuring Zorro, the Green Hornet and Kato, the Spider, the Black Bat, and the Shadow from Dynamite Entertainment. The release says Masks will be out "later this year."

I'm a fan of Matt Wagner's earlier Zorro books from Dynamite, so this looks groovy.

Illo copyright Dynamite Entertainment. Included here under Fair Use.

Cinematic: Le Bossu

Phillipe de Broca's 1997 Le Bossu - released in the US as On Guard - is one of my favorite swashbucklers; Daniel Auteil, Vincent Perez, Fabrice Luchini, Marie Gillain, and Yann Collette are brilliant.

If I had to choose between this and the Lester Musketeers movies, I'd probably end up like the dog in the Roman poem.

DVR Alert

Monday, 30 July, is the last "Classic Adventure" Monday of the month on Turner Classics, and features a selection of 'fairy tale' adventures; my DVR is set to record The Golden Arrow, Sinbad the Sailor (with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and A Thousand and One Nights.

Also, coming up on Tuesday night's tribute to Leslie Howard is The Scarlet Pimpernel - not to be missed.

As always, check your local listings for times.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Field Test

During the course of our game today, the adventurers found themselves on the road, travelling from Turin to Milan, so I decided to give the event table I created a couple of months ago a try.

First, the adventurers were stranded for a few days at a Milanese inn when their horses took ill from some bad feed (26), then they were hit by a sharp snowstorm (66) which forced them to find shelter and cost them another travel day at least - and probably more as the roads turn to mud when the snow melts. The delay at the inn also resulted in one of the adventurers seducing the innkeeper's wife and a near-brawl with the woman's brothers.

The players realized that their characters are unlikely to be crossing the Alps on their way home to France after their mission to Milan is done.

So, event table actual play field test? Success!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Phoning It In Phriday

Yeah, I've just been absolutely hammered this week with contractors and insurance adjusters and baseball camp and dance recitals and science fair project data collection, and tomorrow our Flashing Blades campaign resumes after a three-month hiatus, so nothing new here 'til next week.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sightseeing at the Tour de France, Concluded

Thanks to our unanticipated bathroom remodel, my Tour-watching was oft-delayed, sometimes by days, so I really lost all sense of continuity to my screen-grabs. That said, I hope the beautiful scenery and architecture compensates for the lack of commentary.

The first mountain stages took the Tour through the Vosges and Jura into Switzerland.

Returning to France, the Tour completed its first individual time trial at the historic fortress city of Besançon in the Franche-Comté before heading into the Alps.

The beautiful abbey of la Grande Chartreuse in Dauphiny.

The Tour next cut across Languedoc in the south of France to the town of Foix and its ancient château.

The classic langue d'oc bastide, found on hilltops throughout the south of France.

The castle of Foix.

Frustrated by trying to squeeze in time to watch four to eight hours of coverage each night, once the Tour entered the Pyrenees I fast-forwarded through my recorded stages, focused more on attacks and stage victors than on scenery.

Some commentators on this year's Tour deemed it dull; the yellow jersey changed hands exactly once, and Team Sky ably defended it from Besançon all the way to Paris on the back of Bradley Wiggins. The only rider willing to attack Wiggins was the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, and basically his attacks went nowhere thanks to Wiggins and his super-domestique, Chris Froome.

But this Tour saw one of the peloton's most distinguished and affable riders, Thomas Voeckler, take two mountain stages and the polka-dot climber's jersey, adding to an already distinguished Tour palmares and giving the French something to really cheer about. It also saw the most stage victories by British riders and hte first British Tour champion, plus provided a glimpse of what to expect when the Olympic men's road and individual time trial rolls around in a couple of weeks.

But my favorite part of this year's Tour, aside from the beautiful images of France streaming through my screen, was the young riders who may contend in the future, like Thibaut Pinot, Peter Sagan, and Teejay Van Garderen, arriving on the scene with the flash and bang of a thunderbolt. It's great to see the next generation of cyclists on the sport's most prestigious stage.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Honor + Intrigue + Barbie

The title really says it all, courtesy of Rob at Vargold: The Wolf-Time.

And as another "nerd father of a young girl," I, too, bought the movie for my daughter as a gateway to swashbuckling adventures.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

DVR Alert

This was supposed to auto-post yesterday . . . grrrrr . . .

Turner Classic Movies continues its Classic Adventure in July series Monday tomorrow with a line-up of pirate movies, including Captain Kidd, Blackbeard the Pirate, The Master of Ballantrae, The Sea-Hawk, Treasure Island, and Captain Blood, along with a number of other maritime adventure movies.

Also, on Tuesday look for Captain Sindbad, starring the stunning Heidi Brühl.

As always, check your local listings for times.

Cinematic: Hamlet

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Six Months in a Leaky Boat

Six months on, and a little self-indulgent reflection is on the menu.

First, a few numbers. The blog passed 20,000 hits in the last week of June, or about what Playing D&D with Pornstars gets on a slow Wednesday, I imagine. Most posts get between twenty-five and forty views in the first twenty-four hours, and between forty-five and eighty in the first week, and all kidding about Zak's blog aside, I'm pleased that there seems to be a regular cadre of readers who are - hopefully - getting something out of the blog.

Even more satisfying are the over six hundred comments. I'm never happier than when a post produces a dialog.

April's A to Z blogging challenge brought in around half of the site's hundred-plus followers. The hosts of the challenge recommended following blogs with less than a hundred followers to pump up their totals, and a lot of the bloggers who joined during that time were writers, not gamers. I admit I didn't reciprocate in very many cases; my blog roll is up around the three hundred max limit already, so there simply isn't room to add more. That said, I don't see followers as a measure of the blog's success or lack-thereof in the same way that comments are.

The most-often viewed post is "Grumbler," undoubtedly due to its inclusion in a thread at In fact, links on message boards, specifically and theRPGsite, undoubtedly drive views of the blog, far, far more than the blog aggregator, RPGBA.

The experience of blogging reinforced something I already knew: I'm not a particularly good writer. Oh, I know how to turn a phrase, and I can, for the most part, organize my thoughts and present them, but getting the thoughts out of my head and onto the screen is an arduous struggle. I hoped that my alacrity with composition might improve a bit with trying to wite something every day, but it just hasn't happened; old habits not only die hard, they rise, ghoul-like, fastening their teeth and claws in me. As a result, I've pretty much settled into a routine of two substantive gaming commentary or content posts a week, two 'hey, take a look at this other thing that someone else is doing!' posts, and two 'features,' one of classic illustrators and one of swashbuckling videos.

Not too long ago, another gaming blogger posted that he doesn't like to simply post links to other blogs or websites. While I understand the impetus to add value by contributing additional commentary, I believe one of the most important functions the blogs provide is to share the many great gaming ideas floating around the intrewebs, so I'm happy to connect someone's else's work without adding a lot of blather to make it look like I'm working hard in bringing it to your attention.

One of the things about which I'm most proud on this site is "Cinematic," the weekly video clip featuring swashbuckling swordplay. When gamers talk about 'cinematic,' in my experience they're referring to over-the-top action. While that's certainly part of many cape-and-sword movies, I think it's important to recognize that movies like The Duellists and The Deluge also define 'cinematic' as well.

The one thing that's surprised me is that I still have stuff to write. When I first started this six months ago, I had about a dozen ideas for posts, and figured I'd wing it from there. As of this post, I have over twenty topics already in the queue in various states of completion, and easily another dozen broad topics outlined in my replacement notebook. Frex, once the endgame is series is done - probably next week, renovations permitting - I want to turn to the other end of the social spectrum with a look at swashbuckling rogues and criminal enterprise in the cape-and-sword game-world, build a Ruritania for Backswords and Bucklers, and list some swashbuckling furnishings, or, 'What can I do to the villain with the bed warmer the maid dropped when she fled the room?'

So, that's where things stand, six months on. I'd be remiss if I didn't end with a thank you to those who read regularly - or irregularly, for that matter - and especially for those of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback and questions are sincerely appreciated.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

Prep to Improvise

A recent thread at theRPGsite entitled, "[realization] I might be better off without prep," propmted a few responses around the blogosphere

I think of my prepration time as 'prepping to improvise.' I can't detail an entire game-world, or game-universe for some games, so I'll detail a few obvious locations then focus my preparation on what I need to know to differentiate the cultural and natural landscape the adventurers may discover in their travels. From this I can draw things like npc characterisations on the fly, and from there I'm simply reacting to whatever the adventurers do.

In my experience, successful improvisation comes from knowing the setting well, not in terms of where this city or that river is located, but how the inhabitants of this area differ from the inhabitants of another area, in their outlooks, lifestyles, and subsistence, then bringing that out in response to the actions of the adventurers.

This informs how I run my Flashing Blades campaign: how does the outlook of a noble with a small estate in Languedoc differ from one in Aunis? I don't need to know every valley of the Cévennes or beach of the île de Ré to create a (hopefully interesting and distinctive) characterisation of each.

I also prep random encounters in advance of actual play. For me random encounters are the 'living setting' - I spend time thinking about the origins of the encounter, identifying the motivations and methods of the antagonists, and so on.

For example, a randomly generated 'bandit' encounter becomes rebellious Huguenots in the Midi foraging for supplies for the duc de Rohan, or ragged, half-starved mercenaries returning from the Holy Roman Empire and resorting to brigandage in Picardy, or chauffeurs roaming the pays of Normandy looking for victims to capture and ransom. In this way there are no 'generic' random encounters; each is a reflection of the game-world where the adventurers are standing at the moment.

Flipping this around, at the table I tend to improvise consequences more often than content. Rarely do I have any idea where things will go in actual play, and that's the way I prefer it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

We Interrupt This Broadcast to Bring You This Special Bulletin

Due to the unanticipated renovation of our master bathroom following newly discovered water damage inside a wall - [expletive] the [expletive] [expletive] - I'm a bit off my usual composition pace this week, so the next installment in the Endgame series will probably get pushed back to Friday or Monday, and I don't think I'll be able to finish (an abbreviated) Sightseeing at the Tour until the actual TdF is done on Sunday.

So, there's that.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Strife of Interests

Over the past month I posted about the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

Earlier posts focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts and favors, clients, and strongholds. These are the tools the adventurers acquire or build as the campaign progresses toward the endgame.

Recently I started posting about the endgame from the referee's perspective, beginning with adventurous action and a model of social structure for the campaign endgame. Now I turn to the nature of political conflict.

Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. - Ambrose Bierce
At the end of the social-network-as-megadungeon post, I suggested that political factions represent a synergy of the personal and the philosophical, of the private and the public. While I'm sure most of us accept the notion that contemporary political figures are motivated by a mix of private gain and public service, it can be hard to grasp just how inseparable these two concepts are to a sixteenth- or seventeenth century mindset. In a cape-and-sword setting which draws from the real-world of the period, a career as a pork-product inspector or a court prosecutor a colonel of a regiment may be something that is not only a family tradition but an actual inheritable asset passed between generations.

There's a brief scene in the movie Vatel that encapsulates this for me. The prince de Condé treats King Louis XIV to a lavish visit to the prince's château de Chantilly. Condé is one of France's greatest generals, victor of the battle of Rocroi, but he is out-of-favor with the king, and the visit to Chantilly is to entice the king to give Condé command of the royal army for the impending war with the Dutch. Condé is deeply in debt and hopes to use the commission to restore his fortune as well as regain the king's favor, which leads to the following exchange.



"What exactly do you need to borrow so much money for?"

"The better to serve France, Your Majesty."
In the cape-and-sword endgame, the distinction between what is good for the actor and what is good for the state may blur to insignificance.

More broadly, there's a spectrum reaching from the most rank opportunist to the most ardent partisan. During times of political upheaval against the established order - the English Civil War, the French Revolution, &c - the influence of the true believers may become more pronounced, but political conflict rarely strays far from the "strife of interests."

So what are those interests?

Patronage and venality - the sale of political offices - has already been covered as part of building a clientele. Factions may be seen as politically-motivated clienteles; patronage is used as a means of extending the faction's influence and as a reward for loyal service. The higher in the hierarchies one goes, the fewer the positions available and the greater their influence, and more important their control to the various factions becomes. Patronage and clienteles may be used to secure control over a geographic area; a provincial governor, for example, may attempt to make city mayors (using the Flashing Blades position titles) clients while an ambitious mayor with his sights set on the governorship may do the same, or a bishop may replace the pastors of the parishes in his bishopric with loyal priests. Grands - the wealthiest and most influential nobles - will be particularly motivated to exercise control of both eccelesiastical and secular offices. Patronage may also be used to manage an important aspect of the economy; Cardinal Richelieu, aware that France was uniquely situated to control the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, but lacked both adequate tonnage of shipping and ports to service them, devoted himself to naval affairs for much of his tenure as minister of state, making himself master of navigation, buying up the various admiralties and the governorship of Brittany - France's most important maritime province - and putting a trusted client in charge of La Rochelle after the Huguenots' defeat, and establishing a chartered trading company. In addition to power, offices also bring with them revenue, particularly offices with opportunities for graft.

Finance - in particular taxation - is a constant preoccupation of . . . well, just about everyone. The tax exemption of the First and Second Estates - the Church and the nobility, respectively - is a source of constant complaints and petitions for redress from the bourgeoisie of the Third. The crown, on the other hand, needs to feed its ravenous maw a never-ending flow of specie, and devises all sorts of methods to extract more and more taxes from its overburdened populace. Popular figures promise tax relief while royal ministers search for new ways to exsanguinate a tuber. Financiers of the monarchy seek stability above all, to insure that the crown pays its bills on time and in full, guaranteeing their own wealth and standing as well as the possibility of upward social mobility.

Families, from peasants to monarchs, are absorbed by succession. Planning for succession protects a family's wealth - including things like titles and offices owned - and may provide a pathway to increasing social status. Succession involves both marriage and inheritance. Though the virtue of romance is extolled by poets, most marriages have more in common with corporate mergers, right down to contractual obligations and assumed debts. Marriages between social peers maintain the status quo and build important alliances, but the ambitious family will look to nuptials as a means of advancing its position. For every family looking to improve its lot by marrying above its station, there is a family struggling to maintain its tenuous hold on the ladder of rank. The combination of an ambitious and increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie and a nobility scrambling to maintain its pomp leads to mésalliances; this is one of the subplots in Molière - aka Shakespeare in Love en Français - as the bourgeois Jourdain seeks to marry one of his daughters to the impoverished nobleman Dorante. Such mésalliances may also be used to secure political alliances as well; both cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin used their positions as ministers of state to arrange marriages for their nieces to nobles far above their rank - Richelieu even managed to marry one of his neices, Claire-Clémence de Maillé-Brézé, to a prince of the blood, le Grand Condé, which further rankled the grands who saw the country nobleman-turned-prelate as an arriviste.

In a society obsessed with social status, precedence is serious business. Street brawls and lawsuits alike could be prompted by a change in the order in which guilds were allowed to line up for processions on feast days, and King Louis XIII once broke up a fight between the prince de Condé and the comte de Soissons over who got to hold the king's napkin. Precedence is an expression of one's power and authority, a tangible cue of one's dignity, and as such it is the object of a great deal of jockeying for position, from members of a guild or confraternity to the household of the monarch. Petitions to the king to change orders of precedence can be expected to excite a general outcry.

Late Renaissance and Early Modern society is familiarly litigious, and the quest for justice in matters mundane and extraordinary involves layers of courts as well as the extra-judicial influence of the monarch. Lawsuits may involve everything from disputes over property and contracts to orders of precedence and the outcome of duels. Moreover both the crown and the Church maintain separate systems of justice, creating another source of conflict. Lawsuits and countersuits may take years to resolve, with several appeals possible, and expediting justice is a powerful boon.

Confessional allegiance dominates the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and there are few more bitterly contested political conflicts than those surrounding the profession of faith. Even where tolerance in matters of conscience is the official policy of the realm, living a life free from religious coercion is a challenge.

Finally, there is honor. Honor is a measure of integrity, and to impugn one's honor is to question one's integrity. In a society based on personal connections, like the patron-client relationship, honor is a commodity to be protected at all costs.

From these conflicts the political milieu of the game-world is constucted, which will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Let Me Tell You About My Character . . . Again

Following the death of my character, the chevalier de Saint-Sauvan, a few months back, I set about creating a new character for some ongoing Flashing Blades solo play.

Inspired by a number of recent threads at Big Purple on Honor + Intrigue, one of my GM's Day sale purchases, I want to see how La Planche would look in H+I.

H+I suggests beginning by envisioning the sort of character you'd like to play; since this is a conversion of an existing character, that's easy enough. First I need to define my character's Qualities. There are four Qualities - Might, Daring, Savvy, and Flair - and I have a total of four points to spread among them, with a maximum value of 3 in any one them. Looking at my rolled stats, it's clear that La Planche is fairly bright and reasonably personable, but pretty average physically, so I assign his points as Might 0, Daring 1, Savvy 2, and Flair 1. I have to admit, H+I's Qualities are much more 'swashbucklery-sounding' than Flashing Blades' Attributes. So far, so good.

Next I need to define La Planche's Combat Abilities. Once again I have four points to spend on Brawl, Melee, Ranged, and Defense. I can also buy-down to -1 in one area, so given La Planche's skill points invested in the rapier, I give him Brawl 1, Melee 2, Ranged -1, and Defense 2.

Now I select four Heroic Careers for La Plance; as before, I have four points to spend on the four careers as I wish. I know that La Planche wants to be an actor and a bravo, and that's about it. With H+I, I get to pick a little bit of a lifepath and background for La Planche based on the order of the careers selected. I pick Servant/Housekeeper 0, Thief/Soundrel/Vagabond 0, Duelist/Swordsman/Pugilist 2, and Artist/Composer/Performer 2; La Planche was a liveried servant in a bourgeois household but fell in with the wrong element, and after receiving instruction from a fencing master, he decided to put his wits to use in one of the few careers open to someone with his low background, the theatre. I'm a sketchy sort of background guy, so I'm okay with the lack of polish on that.

Moving on, I calculte his Lifeblood, which is ten plus his Might value, giving La Planche a Lifeblood of 10, and his Fortune, which is equal to his Flair + 3, giving him 4 Fortune points at the start. Fortune points appear to be something like action points, and may be earned and spent a variety of ways during the game. La Planche also gets a Composure score, 3 - the same for all characters - which measures a character's "self-discipline."

Next come Motivations. Playing to my character's Motivations allows me to (re)gain Fortune points. For simplicity's sake, since I am a Develop-in-Play guy, not a Develop-at-Start guy, I'll pick just one, Ambition. I'm going to gloss over the backstory for now, for the same reason.

Now I can choose Languages, at a level base on my character's Savvy; I give La Planche Basic knowledge of both French and Provençal. Unlike Flashing Blades, H+I assumes all characters are literate as well.

Boons and Flaws are next. My character gets one Boon, and may add up to two more Boons in exchange for two flaws. For La Planche, I pick Dueling Style (French Style) and Master of Disguise as Boons, and Illiterate as a Flaw.

The last step is equipment, which is assumed to be available appropriate to the character's station.

And . . . done.

I'm impressed by how well I'm able to make such a similar character for both systems. I'm not a fan at all of point-buy character generation, but H+I is simple and intuitive, and again, the results are uncannily similar. This suggests to me that, if faced with generating a character by point-buy, I can roll something else up first and then convert.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Social Megadungeon

Over the past month I posted about the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

Earlier posts focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts and favors, clients, and strongholds. These are the tools the adventurers acquire or build as the campaign progresses toward the endgame.

Recently I started posting about the endgame from the referee's perspective, beginning with the importance of action in the endgame. Now I want to turn to setting the stage for political adventures.

Awhile back, I drew the analogy of a cape-and-sword sandbox to fantasy roleplaying 'dungeons' in which the 'rooms' are people and the relationships between them 'corridors.' Much like a party of adventurers in The World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game™ searching for treasure and encountering monsters, swashbucklers navigate a web of allies, rivals, patrons, lovers, and so forth, gaining rewards and facing hazards in the process. There are secret doors and passages to discover and traps and puzzles to solve - betrayal by friends with divided loyalties, unknown allies working behind the scenes - as well in this human 'dungeon.'

With that in mind, the ambit of planning for a cape-and-sword campaign that will progress toward the endgame as described here is akin to creating a megadungeon or 'campaign dungeon,' those interminable deeps which are designed to sustain months or years of actual play. For the cape-and-sword campaign, the megadungeon is the political milieu of the game-world, composed not of stone-walled rooms and corridors but of factions and alliances.

For some dungeon masters, the prospect of building a megadungeon is daunting in its scope, so I think it's important to take a moment and discuss how megadungeons may be put together. First, megadungeons don't need to be 'finished' before actual play begins. It isn't necessary to draw and stock sixteen or nineteen or twenty-four levels with scores of rooms each, most of which may take the adventurers months or years to reach, at the start of the campaign.

That said, a megadungeon does require some forethought, because an important feature of megadungeons is verticality, the connections between levels. Winding stairways, gaping shafts, and plunging crevasses allow adventurers to descend into the underworld; moreover, traps like chutes and elevators may send the explorers deeper than they plan or are prepared to go.

So - with apologies to recovering Stephen R Covey survivors - whether designing a megadungeon or planning for politics and intrigue, begin with the end in mind. In setting out the political players of the cape-and-sword game-world, plan for verticality, connections between the 'levels' of local, regional, national and international actors in the political sphere. Here's how this looks in my campaign, set in 17th century France; though the names and titles may change elsewhere - the French province is similar to the English shire, frex - the basic princples remain the same.

Local politics focuses on the villages, small towns, and estates of the countryside. The major players here are the local lord, the parish pastor and curate, the churchwarden - the lay leader of the spiritual community - abbots and priors, ministers in Huguenot communities, merchants in the towns, the bailiff of the royal courts, and various inspectors and other officials. In port towns, ship captains - including pirates and smugglers - may be important politically as well. Note that by this time the influence of the local lord is primarily economic rather than juridical; with the exception of the provinces which Louis XIV would add along the frontier with the Empire, serfdom is largely abolished and local magistrates - sénéchaux and viguiers - are primarily ceremonial. Confraternities - lay religious fraternities - in the parish and guilds in the small towns are the most common organizations to which members of the this community belong, and participation may be limited to the local elites. One of the common goals of local elites - and a source of conflict between them - is to rise into positions of regional influence.

Regional actors include the magistrates and their courts, city and fortress governors and their garrisons, regimental commanders and their officers, martial magistrates, tax collectors, titled nobles, knights-commander, the bourgeoisie, municipal burghers - consuls, capitouls, échevins - fleet commanders, canons and their colleges, bishops and their curias, intendants - a special magistrate with a royal commission - and the provincial governors and their lieutenants. In Flashing Blades, gentlemen's clubs - an anachronism adopted from En Garde! - salons, and academies in the larger cities are an important social outlet for forming political connections, as are confraternities and guilds once again. For most this is the highest level of political power to which they can aspire as social rank begins to weed out aspirants, so perogatives are assiduously guarded. Factions organized around community elites may strive for control of city councils, bishoprics and governorships.

National political players are the grands - the wealthiest nobles - and Princes of the Blood - those with a claim to the throne should the king not produce an heir - court ministers, courtiers and councillors, generals and marshals, admirals, cardinals, and the wealthiest bankers. Many national actors have access to the king, and may influence the policies of the realm; those closest to the monarch will jealously endeavour to exclude as many others as possible from the royal presence. Factions tend to coalesce around court figures - the king, the queen, the dowager, the princes, and the minister of state - and along lines of political philosophical divides.

International actors in the political sphere include the monarchs themselves, their ministers of state, and the ambassadors who act in their name, as well as cardinals, the wealthiest investors, and occasionally generals sent abroad to serve under foreign commanders. More problematic international actors are the princes, as involving themselves with foreign crowns threatens the stability of France; when the prince de Condé fled France for the Spanish Netherlands with his new bride, to avoid the amorous attention - and intention - of King Henri IV, the scandal was exacerbated by an heir to the French crown within the grasp of the Habsburgs. Political actors at the international level are most strongly movitated by grand strategy, but even petty disputes over precedence or etiquette between monarchs may become the source of political intrigue and maneuvering.

So, in rough outline, these are the levels of our political megadungeon. As with an actual megadungeon, it's not necessary at first to detail all of the possible political machinations which exists throughout the kingdom, but as non-player characters and their intrigues are developed, at any level, it helps to have a sense of how the actors fit into the larger scheme, and to plan for chutes and elevators to trap the unwary - for example, an adventurer in my campaign challenged a romantic rival to a duel, unaware that the rival was the nephew of a lieutenant of the Cardinal's Guard. As previously discussed with respect to clientage, a political actor's reach may extend across all levels - offers of patronage, for example, typically flow from national actors to regional actors, for example - so verticality should be considered from the beginning.

The other aspect of megadungeon planning applicable to the cape-and-sword political sphere is the idea of theme levels. Some dungeon masters are content with randomly generated funhouses or 'mythic underworlds' in which magic can be used to explain and justify the results, but many others prefer to give their dungeons some history and at least a hint of a nod to ecology. Theme levels are organized around a unifying principle, something like the Fungi Caverns, where myconids and vegepygmies vie for control of the 'Shroom-Womb, a cave deep with compost funneled in from upper levels of the dungeon, where the myconids and vegepygmies worship an otyugh as their goddess and seek her favor.

In the cape-and-sword political sphere, the unifying elements are factions. As mentioned above, factions may be organised around individuals - powerful grands, prelates, members of the royal family - or along philosophical or religious lines. Taking my cues from the history of the period, there are four basic political alignments which may contribute to the development of factions. Devout Catholics, the dévots favor alliances with the Catholic monarchs of Europe in order to combat the Protestant heresy in France and abroad. Dévots encourage close relations with Spain, Austria, and the papacy and reject support for England, the United Provinces, and German and Scandanavian Protestants. In domestic affairs, the dévots support the continuance of the nobility’s traditional priveleges and oppose absolutism and the rise of the bureaucratic robe nobility associated with the centralization of royal power.

Their rivals are the bon Français (literally "good French"), or politicals, who consider themselves patriots of France on equal measure with being good Catholics. The bon Français believe that supporting the king should be the primary concern of his subjects and that the greatest threat to the security of the crown, and by extension France, comes from Habsburg Spain and Austria. The bon Français accept alliances with Protestant powers in the service of protecting the crown against those foreign powers seeking hegemony over France and Europe.

Many of the dévots are ultramontanists as well. Ultramontanism is the Roman Catholic belief or doctrine that Papal authority supercedes that of local temporal and spiritual authorities, such as princes and bishops. "Ultramontane" means "beyond the mountains," specifically the Alps, and the original usage referred to a pope elected from outside Italy, but in 17th century France it refers to those who believe the powers and perogatives of the Pope exceed those of the king or the prelates of the Church in France. Ultramontanists strongly resist the concept of the absolute monarchy and of the civil authority of the state over the persons and institutions of the Church.

Ultramontanism is in turn opposed by gallicanism. Gallicanism is the belief or doctrine that the royal and civil authorities of France hold power over the French Church comparable to that of the Pope in Rome. Unlike the Anglicans in England, Gallicans do not reject the authority of the Church over temporal and ecclesiastical affairs altogether, but rather emphasize the role of the bishops, and the monarch and the civil authorities, in managing the affairs of the Church in France. The role of the Papacy in Gallicanism is one of 'first among equals.'

Factions in my campaign, then, represent a mix of the personal and philosophical. Cardinalists - Cardinal Richelieu's faction - tend to be gallicanist and bon Français in their politics, and pursue an agenda which both enriches their prelate patron and earns them a share in his largesse, and advances their goals of a powerful French monarchy able to resist both the Habsburgs and the Church by turns.

Like first-level dungeoneers taking their first tentative steps into the underworld, swashbucklers early in their careers are unlikely to be more than occasional pawns moved by the political actors of the setting; as such, it's not necessary to detail their intrigues beyond where their interests intersect with the adventurers. But as the swashbucklers become political players in their own right, then the 'lower levels' of the megadungeon should be prepared to receive them, and planning should begin, in broad strokes, from the outset of the campaign. These broad strokes - knowing who the political players are, and how they may organize themselves - also make it easier for the referee to improvise should the need arise.

Next, the source of conflicts which drive the political campaign.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sightseeing at the Tour de France

I follow two sports with something like religious intensity - baseball and cycling. I'm fortunate enough to catch a stage of the Tour of California each year, but of course the highlight of the season is the Tour de France. It's broadcast live on Outdoor Life Network Versus NBC Sports Channel, with the iconic Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin providing the commentary in English over the French television feed, starting at five am here in the Pacific time zone.

In the last few years, the French producers included more scenic shots during the coverage than in Tours past, and last year I got the bright idea to capture images from the broadcast, to create a library of visual resources on locales in France to use during my campaign. Scenic shots of the terrain for the different provinces and departments are actually pretty easy to find on the intrewebs, of course, but what I really liked from the coverage is architecture - I wanted to get a feel for the many different styles of châteaux and other country houses out there, to use in creating maps and floorplans.

This year I'm once again recording images from the Tour. Unfortunately I haven't had the time this year to write down the names of locations like I did before - I'll try to jot more of them down over the next couple of weeks if I can.

Stage 1 - Liège to Seraing, 198 km

After the prologue in Liège, the tour's first stage travelled through the Ardennes. This château was located near Seraing.

Stage 2 - Visé to Tournai, 207.5 km

Three more Belgian châteaux in another 'flat' stage through Wallonie which consisted of lots of rolling hills and a short, steep climb at the finish that was brutal for the true sprinters.

Stage3 - Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer, 197 km
Stage 4 - Abbeville to Rouen, 214.5 km

The Côte d'Albâtre - the Alabaster Coast - is the White Cliffs of Dover's French counterparts.

I love the dovecote in this one.

Stage 3 marked the Tour's first day in France, taking the riders through the Nord-Pas de Calais region to Boulogne, another hilly 'flat' stage.

Had the adventurers in my campaign not gotten themselves exiled from Paris, they might've ended up in Boulogne, escorting the new Queen of England to meet her husband.

Stage 4 carried the riders across Bas-Normandie along the left bank of the Seine to the port city of Rouen. Crashes were coming thick and fast in this stage, claiming many riders, and they wouldn't let up through the rest of the week.

Rouen was one of the gateway cities to New France in the 17th century - many Québécois can trace their origins to Normandie for this reason.

The pictures from these stages ended up jumbled together, unfortunately.

Stage 5 - Rouen to Saint-Quentin, 196.5 km

The Tour turned around and headed back toward Picardie and the royal city of Saint-Quentin, for centuries an important frontier fortress-city until Louis XIV pushed the border back.

Notice the change in building materials and style? More German influences appear as we move toward the old border with the Holy Roman Empire.

Stage 6 - Épernay to Metz, 207.5 km

I love this old fortified gate/bridge.

From Champagne to Lorraine, the Tour's last sprinter's stage of the first week featured another blizzard of big crashes, and what will probably be the last day in the yellow jersey by one of my favorite riders on the Tour, Fabian Cancellara, as the first mountain stage looms ahead and the GC riders can be expected to begin their race.

Unfortunately one of my other favorite riders, Ryder Hesjedal, the winnner of this year's Giro d'Italia and the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour, got caught up in a crash and finished over thirteen minutes behind the peloton, knocking him out of general classification contention for the Tour. I've followed Ryder's career since he was on the Rocky Mountain factory mountain bike team. Why Jonathan Vaughters had Ryder so far back is a mystery; basic Tour strategy, particularly in the first week, is to keep your GC rider as close to the front of the peloton as possible, to avoid exactly this situation. The received wisdom of the Tour proved prescient: you cannot win the Tour in the first week, but you can definitely lose it.

One week down, two to go, and three more stages before the Tour's first rest day. Check back next week for more photos.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Forget the DVR . . . Just Take the Day Off

On Monday, 9 July, Turner Classic Movies offers an epic marathon of swashbuckling adventure: Kidnapped, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, The Corsican Brothers, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Richard and the Crusaders, Scaramouche, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, Knights of the Round Table, Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

This is what sick mental health days are for.

As always, check your local cable listings for times.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Action Heroes

Recently I introduced a discussion of the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

So far the discussion focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts and favors, clients, and strongholds. These are the tools the adventurers acquire or build as the campaign progresses toward the endgame. Now it's time to look at this from the referee's seat at the end of the table.

In 2003, Atlas Games published Dynasties and Demagogues, "The Sourcebook of Politcial Intrigue," for d20 roleplaying games. Here's what the book has to say about "what political adventures are like."
Political adventures have fewer combats and more attempts to influence other characters than other fantasy adventures. Investigation is often crucial, since it's hard to protect yourself against a rival's plans unless you know what those plans are.

In a political game, most challenges come from rivals and other non-player characters. Personal connections drive political games - the PCs must figure out what the other characters want and how to turn that information to their own advantage. They may be able to launch a counterplot that foils that rival's plans, or turn the rival into an ally by offering a mutually beneficial deal. Words accomplish a lot in political games.
As descriptions of the political milieu in a campaign, so far, so good. Then comes the qualifier.
That doesn't mean there's no action. Player characters often sneak into dangerous situations or fight their way out of them. Assassinations, duels, and other physical challenges settle many political disputes, so the PCs must be ready for anything.
Dynasties and Demagogues next offers a sample adventure, "Deception at Villa Zarios," intended to be read by both players and referees, to introduce some of the concepts which follow. Here's the adventure in outline form.
  • The adventurers are invited to breakfast and asked to take over the stewardship of the villa on behalf of its owner, Dona Carlotta.
  • The adventurers are ambushed by bandits. (Serio.)
  • The adventurers investigate the goings on at the villa, while dealing with a staff hostile to the newcomers, and may discover that the major-domo is cooking the books.
  • Don Miguel, Dona Carlotta's rival, offers to buy the villa at a below-market price, and if the adventurers refuse or can't convince Dona Carlotta, a druid comes and blights the vines.
  • Don Miguel's lackeys drive an owlbear into the vineyard, to create chaos.
  • Don Miguel attempts to burn the place down.
  • Should the adventurers save the vines, the workers, and the villa itself, they may expose the major-domo as working for Don Miguel and receive rewards from Dona Carlotta and the Queen's Investigator.
As Dynasties and Demagogues itself goes on to note, "Deception at Villa Zarios" makes a point of including a lot of "running, jumping and hitting things," to underscore that political adventures need not preclude adventurers from doing adventurous things.

Swashbucklers may be many things, but few would dispute that 'men and women of action' is one of the few truly universal tropes in the genre. Consider the career of Aramis, a guardsman in The Three Musketeers who becomes a priest and abbé who is involved with the Frondeurs and goes to England to rescue King Charles I from his executioners Twenty Years Later, and finally plans a coup d’état against the king in The Man in the Iron Mask before escaping to Spain and becoming its ambassador to France. Aramis and the other Musketeers enjoy vigorous careers even as they grow in stature and rank over the course of the saga.

This is true of the historical figures of the period as well. Consider Cosme de Valbelle, who engineered the elections of consuls in Marseille - twice serving the one year term himself - for a score of years and who died at sea in battle with the Spanish, lashed to the mast of his own galley, defending his city to the last. Cardinal Louis III de Guise commanded royal troops against the Huguenots in 1621, a short time after being arrested for challenging the duc de Nevers - a foreign prince and peer to the king, no less - to a duel. Provincial governors and royal magistrates led troops against rebellious subjects, and even town burghers could be expected to deal with lawbreakers and miscreants directly, blade and pistol in hand, backed by their own lackeys.

The cape-and-sword endgame doesn't preclude the adventurers from taking an active hand - and sword - in their affairs even after they enter into the political sphere of the game-world. In fact, the precedent is well established in both the literature and history of the period.

That said, "Deception at Villa Zarios" remains a disappointment as an introduction to political intrigue in roleplaying campaigns, not because of the emphasis on action, but rather because the politics and intrigue are wholly external to the players' characters. The adventurers are put upon by the political machinations of others but have no opportunity to engage in their own maneuvering, outside of some fairly standard mystery investigation. I'd like to say this is because "Deception at Villa Zarios" is intended as an introductory adventure, but this is true of all of the adventures outlined in the book, and of many other adventures and supplements as well - For the Love of Justice for Swashbuckler! shares this same problem - so this shouldn't be taken as a slight against Dynasties and Demagogues at all, but rather a common failing in which political intrigue is reduced to the familiar rescue/capture/steal the MacGuffin scenarios common to most other roleplaying games.

The endgame of the cape-and-sword campaign can - and, considering both genre tropes and historical examples, should - include 'sneaking in and fighting out again,' but the situations and events which motivate the adventurers should feature more subtle, more complex challenges than fight off the owlbear and put out the fire. I'll describe an approach to doing that next, beginning with the web of factions and actors in my campaign.

Unfortunately I probably won't have another installment completed until next week, as my wife and I are heading to Vegas - Vegas, baby! Vegas! - through the end of the week. While I am taking my laptop - yes, I know I'm a nerd, so please, spare me your derision - I don't expect to post much besides a couple of short posts already written, so I beg your pardon and your patience.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Golem Swashbucklers, Anyone?

Frankenstein's Legions + Anthony Hope's Ruritania = creepy cape-and-sword fun!

Of Corsairs and Conquistadors

Beyond the glittering palaces and perfumed nobles of Europe lies a far-flung frontier for swashbucklers to explore.

Nate at d20 Pirates continues to write about Mediterranean corsairs; unfortunately the posts aren't grouped by a tag, but they're easy enough to find using the post list on the blog. My favorite so far is a mini-gazetteer of the Med.

Meanwhile Bill at The Crown and the Ring is tossing around some ideas for a fantastic conquistadors setting; who doesn't love warriors dressed in jaguar skins carrying obsidian-edged swords?

Both bloggers include lots of historical tidbits and ideas for roleplaying along with their game stats, so even if I can't use the latter, I'm getting lots of good stuff from the former. Enjoy!