Friday, August 31, 2012

Unleash the Spanish Fury!

By way of Mitch Williamson at War and Game, I discovered Spanish Fury and Very Civile Actions!, a pair of sixteenth and seventeenth century wargames released by The Perfect Captain.

The Prefect Captain describes himself . . . er, itself, thus.
We are a small group of gamers with some big ideas! We like to play and design boardgames, miniatures rules, and campaign games for a host of periods. We have a yahoo group that supports our products. By the way, maybe we should mention that our goods are totally FREE!
Spanish Fury includes rules for land battles and skirmishes, sea battles, sieges, individual duels, and land and sea campaigns. In short, it promises "a complete games system, enabling players to enjoy the period in virtually every scale almost anywhere in Europe, from Portugal to Urals."

I downloaded the whole lot Thursday night, but I only had time to look at Actions!, the company-level skirmish module of Spanish Fury. The basic rules run about seventeen pages, and they are simple and clearly written - with some referencing, I felt I could play an intro scenario after a single read-through of the rules.

I'm really looking forward to digging into this. Actions!, in particular, looks like exactly what I want for use with my Flashing Blades campaign. I've been looking longingly at my Field of Glory: Renaissance books for awhile now, but Actions! is a great example of how sometimes less-is-more, ideal for running the sorts of quick'n'dirty scrapes in which the adventurers are most likely to find themselves in the course of the game. And as an added bonus, I think I could teach someone how to play in about ten minutes.

Now, there is a catch, as far as the whole "totally FREE!" thing goes. The Perfect Captain asks, in lieu of payment for their rules and counters, for a donation to charity.
Having established that, let me add the following. As gamers we like to spend our dough on stuff that helps us unwind and have a good time. Nothing wrong with that! But how about this. What if we took a portion of our hard-earned cash and gave it to someone who is going without? I think that would be pretty cool, don't you? We are NOT going to force anyone to donate to charity before they can download our games. We believe in the honour system.
They include a list of suggested charities, or donating money - and if you don't have that, a bit of time - to the charity of your choice. Mine is the restoration of a Hungarian castle, a project to protect a piece of history and provide sustainable jobs for the community.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

1e AD&D Monsters for Swashbuckling & Sorcery

So, as a coda to this little thought-experiment, I gave some thought to monsters in a swashbuckling & sorcery 1e AD&D campaign.

Given that I'm not much of a fantasy fan, my own predilection is for a humans-only campaign with very few monsters. While AD&D can certainly do such a campaign, it also rather misses one of the reasons for choosing Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. So, the question becomes, include everything or limit the selection, and if the latter, how much?

My own inclination is to limit the selection; even when I ran bog-standard pseudo-medieval D&D fantasy, I pretty severely limited the range of monsters found in the campaign world from what was available in the various monster manuals. That said, it is personal preference, not an attempt to define the genre by way of inclusion or exclusion from a selection of fantastic creatures. If you want your swashbucklers battling ankhegs and neo-otyughs, more power to you, but I'm going to take a different path.

When I think of swashbuckling & sorcery, what first comes to mind is Solomon Kane. The world of REH's Puritan swordsman is filled with degenerate men, some wielding foul magics and trafficking with foul spirits, others just plain fouled by their own corrupt natures, but it's also a world with 'real,' as opposed to metaphorical, monsters. 'Dark powers' abound, represented in AD&D terms by creatures such as demons, devils, dæmons, and other evil outer planar monsters. At low levels the adventurers might find themselves beset by imps or quasits bound to the service of a witch, frex, before graduating to more powerful fiends as they uncover sinister schemes and attract unwholesome attention as a result. Rakshasas and ogre magi - oni are perfect for this as well. Appendix D of the Dungeon Masters Guide is the ideal tool for generating unique fiends for my swashbuckling & sorcery campaign.

In fact, unique monsters, or rare groups with a limited geographic range, appeal to me. More on that in a moment.

In addition to demons et al., undead are another logical category of monstrous foes for swashbuckling & sorcery. The whole gamut of horrors may be found in the game-world, consorting with the most vile and debased among the living. Revenants and ju-ju zombies jump out at me - so to speak - as particularly fitting: the venegeful, unquiet spirit and the horrific servant of a dangerous spellcaster.

Lycanthropes fit the swashbuckling & sorcery setting well, again tapping that notion of curse-spawned corruption among men.

Now, the common theme in all of these monsters so far is that they are found in concert with humans. For me, swashbuckling & sorcery doesn't summon up an image of a world on the verge of being overrun by legions of umber hulks riding armored purple worms - rather, most monsters of the campaign exist in the shadowy corners of the world of men. This opens up another door, that of the wee folk - leprechauns, brownies, pixies, nixies, and the like - found on the fringe of human society.

The world of Solomon Kane is more than just the dusty roads, looming castles, and dark forests of Europe, but also includes the wider world as well. In my conception of the swashbuckling & sorcery campaign, I would make a distinction between monsters found in mostly 'civilised' lands, and those found in the hinterlands of terra incognita. Beyond the pale of 'civilisation' is where we find intelligent apes, sabretooth cats, giants snakes and scorpions, and dinosaurs - 'cause, y'know, PIRATES FIGHTING DINOSAURS! - as well as legendary monsters like the sphynx, the kraken, the lamia, the leucrotta, and so on. This is where the notion of unique - THE Kraken, rather than a kraken - or rare, geographically restricted creatures comes into its own. Rather than 'vampires,' frex, a single vampire with a number of servitor spawn in a forbidding castle, dwelling on its accursed state, or a kaiju-like dragon turtle which haunts a strait in some distant sea.

Finally, there are demihumans and humanoids. My personal inclination is not to include either one, but, again, that really flies in the face of the game - why bother with D&D at all, then? With respect to the latter, what few humanoids exist in my concept of the swashbuckling & sorvery game-world are found in those distant hinterlands, in steaming jungles or impassible mountains, not threatening the civilised lands of men.

That leaves demihumans, which also impacts playable races. In short, dwarves, halflings, elves, and half-orcs are shuffled off to the HUMDRUM-V while half-elves and gnomes get to ride in the FUN-V.

Why? First, gnomes are fun-loving, not terminally stodgy like dwarves and halflings - plus, Roger Moore once wrote in Dragon about playing a gnome names Cyragnome de Bergerac, so, that. I've always played gnomes not as 'tinkers' or that other Dragonlance crap, but as the playable wee folk race, similar to brownies and leprechauns. In my mind's eye I can picture a gnome duelist far more readily than a dwarf or halfling.

Elves become a monster in this campaign - my model is the evil Pharisees from Three Hearts and Three Lions, who, incidentally, also appear in Q1 - and half-elves are like changelings, the spawn of the evil elves and humans.

Half-orcs, if they exist at all, are an npc race out there in the hinterlands.

So there, a little monstrous brainstorming to wrap up 1e AD&D swashbuckling & sorcery. If I do end up running this in the future - Las Vegas is calling it 5:4 against at this point - I'll publish a more detailed list of monsters from my campaign.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Papers, Please

Under the heading, "Reality Makes the Best Fantasy," TristanJTarwater at Troll in the Corner reflects on identification and official documentation and wonders how such things may work in a roleplaying game setting.

Though I'm running a historical setting, many of the questions are pretty challenging for me to answer; I have a general notion of how many of these things are handled from my background reading, but I'm admittedly a bit short on details.

  • What kinds of official documents and identifications are required in the area? Are there ones for nationality? For work/certain professions/guilds? Ownership? What power and function do these documents hold?
In early 17th century France, with literacy restricted to a small portion of the population, personal documentation carried by the individual is minimal. The parish church or Huguenot temple is the repository of birth and death records for most people, and guilds, confraternities, colleges, companies, and other organisations keep their own records on membership status; under their royal charters the latter are also responsible for setting their own membership standards. Royal records are maintained for purposes of controlling payrolls, frex soldiers in companies, and royal offices and commissions are recorded and documents issued to the office-holder. Courts and magistrates produce vast quantities of documentation on their official duties. Merchants and bankers keep extensive records as well, including drafts replacing specie for trade. Genealogies and armorials are important records for tracking the status and relationships of the nobility. Records of land ownership may be kept by families, churches, and royal officials, and this is one of the reasons this is so litigious.

Passports are not required for most domestic travel, while for foreign travel they serve more like letters of introduction than identification; in a pinch, seals and signatures can be checked for veracity. They may limit where a person can travel.

  • Who makes these documents? Who has access to these documents? Where are they available to obtain?
Church records are maintained by the parish priest; one of the goals of the Tridentine reforms in France is to insure literacy among the clergy. Royal records are maintained by officers and courts, and local burghers - échevins, consuls, capitouls - maintain municipal records prepared by their clerks and officers. Guilds and similar organisations keep their own records in their halls or the parish church, maintained by their secretaries. Bankers and merchants keep their own records.

  • What makes these documents ‘official’? Is there a special seal on them? A signature? Are they printed on special material or in special ink? Who has these special seals and signatures and who is trusted to be able to tell genuine articles from originals?
Seals are used to identify documents and their creators; forging seals is a serious offense, comparable to forging coins. Important documents may have a row of seals attached by ribbons.

  • Is there a cost incurred for obtaining special documents? Or are they free for anyone eligible?
I've not come across this in my reading, and it hasn't come up in game as of yet; the adventurers have been issued passports but have not tried to obtain documents of other sorts - a bribe might be required if it seems appropriate, based on circumstances.

  • Is there a certain age one must be to obtain various types of identification or that require official documentation (working papers, ID, land ownership, etc)? How does one go about proving one’s age?
Birth records maintained by the parish provide proof of age, verified by a letter from the parish priest.

  • How are officials trained to recognize documents? What are surefire signs of forgeries?
Seals and signatures are the only telltale signs for most documents, and forgeries are certainly possible - there is no foolproof method of detecting such.

  • Are there checkpoints where documents/IDs are checked? Who is guarding these locations? What are they looking for/trying to keep out?
The maréchaussée are responsible for patrolling the roads and securing the borders, and they are concerned about controlling vagrancy, suppressing banditry, and protecting the integrity of the borders. Within in the cities, this falls to royal governors and the local burghers - imagine your local councilman also being a police officer, and you get an idea of what being a consul was like in this period.

  • What kinds are things are included on personal ID documents? Pictures? Physical characteristics?
Aside from seals and one's signature, personal identification is exceedingly rare.

Snapping the Suspenders of Disbelief

My son and daughter are playing Mario Kart on the Wii. The race track for this particular race is in orbit around the Earth. Suddenly my daughter pipes up, "How come they aren't wearing space helmets? If they're in space they need helmets to breathe."

Combustion engine vehicles racing on a track floating in the deep cold and searing radiation of space? No problem. No helmets? Boggle.

The threshold beyond which our willing suspension of disbelief is exceeded varies from person to person, but as BryanMD argues at IntWisCha, "reality playing games" facilitate immersion in actual play.

Strange as it may seem, the more a story, even one that takes place outside reality, is grounded in empirical data and supported by accepted facts, the faster we'll fall into it. A story's ability to mirror the reality we've already accepted is directly proportionate to our willingness to immerse ourselves in it. You can call it believability, or connection, or familiarity, but the bottom line is getting the audience to buy into the events and emotions that are woven into the tale you tell. . . . The more 'real' one can make their story seem, the more investment others will make into it. That mutual connection seems well worth a few laps around the internet.
I've written about using both an 'Appendix N' of source literature and historical research to facilitate that suspension of disbelief. A shared understanding of fictional tropes tapped to build a game-world may contribute to verisimilitude as much as its relationship to the real world.

One of the objections from gamers I read when the subject comes up is that concerns about verisimilitude may add to the referee's burden of preparation in exchange for very little actual play return. BryanMD disagrees, citing the example of James Cameron, at the suggestion of astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson, changing a starfield in Titanic to correspond to the actual stars visible from the ship at the time of the scene.

When I hear stories like those above, my instincts scream "NERD!" at the top of their psychological lungs. To hold a fictional film to such a rigid empirical standard seems dishonest, and carries the potential to damage one's enjoyment of the experience. Why would anyone inflict this intense scientific scrutiny on a leisure past time? These questions burn in my brain; and then I'm reminded of my own factoid fixation when it comes to RPGs.

Did it really matter in my fan fiction that the constellations my Half-elf Ranger was said to be looking at could actually be viewed from his geographical location on Earth? . . . Was it so important to discover which heavy metal, readily available in the late 19th century, had the highest density and therefore the highest relative weight by volume for use in a potion? . . . Can the need really exist to research the descendants of a dead Puritan preacher to find out if any of them actually ended up in England, or check Google Maps to find out if the London church my character attends is within walking distance of her family home near Picadilly Circus? . . . There are a myriad of other examples I could give, but all of them follow the same formula: "Do I really need to know ________ in order to have fun playing __________?" Curiously, all of them have the same conclusion: "Who cares? I looked it up anyway."
A few days ago I found myself reading about the battle of Alcácer Quibir as background for a Portuguese nobleman in Spanish service, an npc who, if he is spared in the course of actual play, may become an important figure in the Portuguese Restoration in 1641.

That's about fifteen in-game years in the future in our campaign, by the way.

It's really not hard to look at that and agree with those who see this level of detail, which is largely invisible to the players and may never even come up in play, as a waste of time. While this bit of background does help me to roleplay the character by helping me to understand his motivations, and perhaps increase the players' level of immersion in the events of the campaign, there's another underlying reason.

It's fun.

I like reading history, and like many people who enjoy history, I like daydreaming about what-ifs. Speculating how this seminal event in the history of his family and his kingdom may impact the mindset of a proud young soldier is a pleasant diversion in its own right, as well as contributing in some small but potentially significant way to the campaign. One of the joys of running a sandbox is placing something in the game-world with no concrete idea how it may come into play, and Don Carlos de Nivero is just such a feature of the campaign.

For a another look at suspension of disbelief, check out two posts by Nick at Troll in the Corner as well.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


It occurred to me: there's lots of talk about the vaunted sandbox campaign and its virtues. I'm a believer in giving players lots of plot hooks to follow and freedom of choice, etc. I do believe in the idea of the sandbox and all the "player agency" goodness that is supposed to come with it.

But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of talk on the RPG blogosphere about the consequences of player actions. There's a lot of talk about letting players do what they want, but I haven't read much in the way of follow-through when it comes to the repercussions of player actions.
So writes Drance at Once More Unto the Breach! In his search for consequences, he ends his post with a list of four questions.

  • What do you think of player agency/sandbox play and consequences?
In a post on swashbucklers' sandboxes last February, I wrote, "And that last touches on my final point, that the sandbox must react to the actions of the adventurers. The player characters' actions - and sometimes their failures to act - carry consequences. My simple rule is this: if the adventurers are winning, someone else is losing, and that someone may choose to do something about it. . . . Earning a friend may mean making that friend's enemies the adventurers' own as well, and if that holds true, then the enemies of their enemies may offer alliances as well. A swashbuckler's sandbox is marked by a dynamic tension as the adventurers tug, or simply brush against, the web of relationships they encounter in the game-world."

To expand on this a little, the "dynamic tension" I described drives the action in actual play. This is true to some degree in everything I run, but it's particulaly relevant to my current campaign in which 'hexcrawling' the game-world means encountering and exploring the relationships between characters, building and uncovering alliances and conducting and exposing intrigues in pursuit of goals, both personal and professional. Conflicts arise out of the interplay of personalities and pursuits, and a fair amount of my time and responsibility as referee is keeping track of these evolving relationships.

  • Do you have any examples of such cause and effect in your own gaming experiences?
Like most sandboxes, my present campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier (The Steel Ballet) for Flashing Blades, is driven by the decisions of the players and their characters. Like ripples in a pond encountering rocks and reeds, their actions are reflected back to them in increasingly complex patterns.

A random encounter with a pair of duelists by one of the adventurers produced both an unexpected potential ally and a bitter foe eager to cover up his dishonrable conduct; the players and their characters suspect that this duelist is behind two attempts on their lives, an ambush by bravos and a gift of poisoned wine. In fact, authorities in Grenoble are investigating the attempts on the adventurers' lives.

Another random encounter resulted in saving a duchess and her English lover from a gang of bravos; the duchess remembers her discrete saviors and may call upon them again in the future.

An attempt to court a lady-in-waiting resulted in a duel gone sideways, and the adventurers found themselves exiled from Paris after they were defended before the king by the captain-lieutenant of the King's Musketeers.

Exemplary service on campaign in Savoy earned the adventurers recognition, and with that recognition came offers to capture a castle from a Spanish-sympathiser in Dauphiny, join a company of mercenaries, and ransom a captured nobleman; they undertook the last, but came away empty-handed, and instead of riches and rewards (including the offer of a knighthood from the duke of Savoy!), the adventurers are about to find themselves peremptorily dismissed for their pains. The captive charged the adventurers with protecting his wife and family, however, and should the adventurers choose to take this on - or not - their decision will carry consequences they may not, or perhaps cannot, foresee at the moment.

And then there is the matter of Cardinal Richelieu's interest in them, and the fallout of two other duels, and lovers to be courted . . .

So yes, I have a few examples.

  • Have you ever roleplayed where you found yourself in a consequence-free environment?
A Traveller campaign, a merchant ship operating well beyond the Imperial border. Hijackers attempt to take the ship while departing from a backwater independent system with no space force of its own; in fact, the planetary laws end at the edge of the atmosphere.

So there is literally no legal entity with jurisdiction other than the crew.

Two of the crew want to immediately space the captured hijackers; one objects strenuously to what she considers murder. The conflict between the characters is in fact mirrored by the players, and a very genuine argument ensues.

Finally, it's decided to hold a trial, in which the hijackers are convicted and sentenced to death by vote of 3-1. A deadock would've resulted in acquittal; instead, the hijackers are placed in a drug-induced coma, then spaced.

  • Have I missed other blogs that talk about consequences stemming from player agency/sandbox play?
I can't think of other blog posts off-hand, but among some of the 'old-school' posters at forums like theRPGsite and Knights and Knaves Alehouse, it's pretty common advice to those who mistake 'status quo' for 'suspended animation.'

For more answers to these questions, check out Eric Treasure's response at The Dragon's Flagon as well.

Addendum: Jedediah at Book Scorpion's Lair posted a reply as well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Another Perspective on the Lightly Armored Fighter

Eric Treasure at The Dragon's Flagon discusses the lightly armed adventurer and the perceived need to make the maille-clad warrior and the swashbuckler 'equal' under the combat rules of many roleplaying games.

Indirectly, the question posed by the knight and the swashbuckler is, should characters in a roleplaying game be balanced to one another, and if so, to what degree? It's a question which generates a strong opinions, in my experience, regardless of the answer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


This time, it started with the Knights of Saint John.

When I decided I wanted to run Flashing Blades again, I created about a dozen characters, to re-familiarise myself with the system and start filling a stable of non-players characters, part of my preparation for running a sandbox-style setting. One of the characters was a nobleman with the Advantage Member of an Order, which made him a knight. The FB core rules provide for five orders of knighthood - three "noble orders" and two "royal orders" - but aside from evocative names like "Knights of the Holy City" and "Chevaliers de la Reine," the rules leaves the development of the orders to the Gamemaster.

"Knights of the Holy City" immediately caught my eye, and I imagined a French knight descended from a family of Crusaders, who once held titles and lands in Outremer but lost them when the Christian princes were driven back into the Mediterranean. Curious to see if Mark Pettigrew based the orders in the game on actual organisations, I typed "knights of the holy city" into teh Google, and learned that the Knights Beneficent of the Holy City is a modern Masonic order, without an Early Modern basis. Searching the names of the other FB orders revealed that they were similar creations specific to the game.

And in the process I came across the Holy Order of Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, warrior-monks founded in the 11th century who were still crusading in the 17th century against the Turks from their base on the island of Malta. This was perfect for the character I had in mind.

But that meant either (1) creating a fictional background for the "Knights of the Holy City" as an extant order of crusaders or (2) working the Knights of Saint John into the campaign. Either way, I wanted to learn more about knightly orders in the Early Modern era, so I dug into the history a bit for background - and in short order, I was reworking FB's rules pertaining to knighthood for my campaign, changing the progression of ranks, adding a new category of military orders and new offices within the orders, and replacing Mr. Pettigrew's fictional orders with period-appropriate historical orders.

And that's how my Flashing Blades campaign became my latest Frankengame.

Frankengaming is my heritage. My first experience with roleplaying games began with blue box Holmes D&D and the AD&D Monster Manual, followed by Metamorphosis Alpha. Soon after I picked up the supplements to the little brown books, then The Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy and The Arduin Grimoire, and began folding in rules from those as well. Thanks to random tables in the Wilderlands books which allowed the players to find things like laser pistols and derelict spaceships, and the fact that I loved the MA flowchart for figuring out technology, very quickly my campaign took on sci-fantasy elements, and when a hobgoblin joined the adventurers as a henchman, AG provided the stats and classes and levels he could achieve exploring alongside the party - it also provide the first 'tiefling,' a fighter with demon's blood, thanks to the random advantages tables.

The 1e AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide were late adds to my campaign. Around the same time that we transitioned from Holmes to 1e - with our hodgepodge of additional rules still glommed on - I discovered The Dragon, and more new material flowed into the campaign. A Pee Chee folder of mimeographed house rules accompanied my backpack of game books and magazines - later the magazines were replaced with photocopies in the Pee Chee made for me by my mom at work, when carrying the magazines themselves became too cumbersome. When I needed to wage a war, Divine Right was pressed into service as our wargame rules.

Frankengaming is in my DNA. Borrowed and repurposed rules, along with house rules, supplementing or replacing the original roleplaying game was something that the referees I knew did as a matter-of-course in creating 'their games.' It was an early tradition in the hobby - Empire of the Petal Throne and The Arduin Grimoire were simply OD&D hacks at their respective cores - that everyone with whom I played embraced. You played D&D, sure, but in Mike's campaign we started as 0-level characters using the rules from Dragon while in Tim's you could play a goblin brigand from Arduin.

Everyone's game was a Frankengame, stitched together with the catgut and piano wire of the referee's imagination.

Sometimes it was brilliant. Sometimes it really wasn't. Usually it was, at worst, playable.

I can completely understand why some gamers are turned off by the notion of Frankengames. I appreciate why some gamers place a premium on portability, the idea that the rules at one table would be the same at every other table.

But I am a Frankengamer, and while I understand these points of view, I cannot relate to them, and I do not share them.

My house rules for Le Ballet de l'Acier are hacked from the living flesh and dead tissue of a half-dozen games or fermented in the percolating vats of my own imagination. I took the reaction table and encounter distance determination rules directly from Traveller, in no small part because I know them by heart. My rules for persuasion are cobbled together from a combination of house rules created by another Flashing Blades gamemaster and Victory Games' James Bond 007 roleplaying game. Top Secret and an article from Dragon 93, "Short Hops and Big Drops," provided the basis for new rules for running, climbing, and jumping. Rules for horse quality were inspired by Boot Hill. The (Traveller-inspired) trade rules in High Seas - the piracy supplement for Flashing Blades - were replaced by an article from The Dragon 6, "Sea Trade in D&D Campaigns." Avalon Hill's Source of the Nile disaster cards inspired an events table for travelling the countryside. From Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay I took starting equipment, and now I'm about to modify that further with rules appropriated from Te Deum pour un massacre - the brilliant lifepath system from the latter may make it into my campaign in some form as well. Rules for feints, taunts and threats - which I created but never actually used in actual play - took their inspiration from d20, Savage Worlds, and 7th Sea.

And on top of all that I layered many of my original house rules as well, some mere tweaks, a few wholesale additions.

Some gamers look at Frankengames as proof that the underlying game is deficient or broken - clearly, they opine, if the game was any good in the first place, all of these house rules would never be needed. But the fact that a borrowed or invented rule may be a better fit for the referee's campaign doesn't mean the original rule is no good; I could play a satisfying straight-up, rules-as-written game of Flashing Blades.

The Frankengame impulse for me doesn't come from a need to fix that which is broken, particularly when much of what I'm changing or supplementing isn't really broken in the first place. It's integral to how I give my campaigns the spark of life, to make them distinctive, to personalize them, to ground the game-world in its imaginary reality. It's a sign of my commitment to the campaign, of my desire to provide the players with something they can't get anywhere else, because it simply doesn't exist anywhere else but at my table.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

Standing in for N.C. Wyeth this week is Walter Paget, with an illustration of James' and Henry's duel from RLS' The Master of Ballantrae.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Now with More Pictorial Adventure Log!

So apparently I linked Part 2 of Sean B's adventure log a week or so ago; over the past week Sean posted Part 1 and Part 3 as well.

You'll laugh, you'll cry . . .

DVR Alert

On Thursday, 23 August, Turner Classic Movies is screening The Three Musketeers and The Pirate as part of its tribute to Gene Kelly.

Then on Saturday, TCM honors Tyrone Power with a lineup which includes Captain from Castile but leaves off, unfortunately, The Mark of Zorro, Prince of Foxes, or The Black Swan.

Check your local listings for times.

Monday, August 20, 2012

1e AD&D Magic Items for Swashbuckling & Sorcery

What kind of magic items are appropriate to a swashbuckling & sorcery campaign, particularly given the kinds of character classes available?

Of the non-spellcasting classes, duelists, bandits, and mariners are all treated as fighters for purposes of magic items available, subject to the individual class restrictions for armor and weapons. The entertainer is treated as a thief but may not cast spells from scrolls.

Of the spellcasting classes, availability varies much more. The witch and the cloistered cleric are treated as a magic-users and clerics, respectively, for purposes of magic items, though the range of weapons and armor is limited for the cloistered cleric. The alchemist has a number of unique restrictions regarding magic items.

Taking a look at the magic items tables in the 1e AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, potions seem like a good fit for swashbuckling & sorcery campaign, particularly given the presence of the alchemist class. A potion of climbing and a philter of love seems like a potent combination for illicit romance.

Scroll use is as per the equivalent base class, with the exception of the entertainer, who cannot cast spells from scrolls like the thief, and the alchemist, who cannot use scrolls at all.

Rings are another good fit for swashbuckling & sorcery magic, and all of the classes may use rings not prescribed to a particular class (q.v., ring of wizardry).

Rods may resemble a fencing master's baton when carried by a duelist, while staves and wands are used by witches without restriction.

Among the many miscellaneous magic items available in the DMG, a few stand out as particularly appropriate for a swashbuckling & sorcery campaign. The alchemy jug and the beaker of plentiful potions will be highly prized by alchemists, while bracers of defense and cloaks of protection and displacement will be highly sought-after by the lightly-armored fighting classes as readily as the entertainer or spellcasters - but perhaps the code duello of the campaign world prohibits the wearing of magical items of defense during a duel? The broom of flying is a natural item in a campaign with witches.

The various helms, on the other hand, are likely less common - perhaps broad-brimmed hats receive enchantments instead? Javelins, nets, and tridents are rare except among seafarers.

In fact, whereas most of the other magic items can be used pretty much as written, magic weapons and armor are perhaps the most problematic without significant changes to the existing tables. Rather than short- and longswords or bastard swords, basket-hilted broadswords, rapiers (using stats from A Mighty Fortress for 2e AD&D), scimitars (as sabres and cutlasses), and even two-handed swords will make up the bulk of magical personal weaponry.

War hammers and polearms of all sorts, crossbows and bows, hand axes (particularly among mariners), and daggers remain, but maces and battle axes are rare or non-existant. Magical firearms and ammunition, again borrowed from A Mighty Fortress, might have a place in some swashbucking & sorcery campaigns as well.

Magical armor may be present but given that, with the exception of the mariner and the bandit, metal armor cannot be worn, it should likely be rare, with the aforementioned cloaks and rings of protection being more common.

In general, magic items in swashbuckling & sorcery should be selected based on genre appropriateness, and some unique, campaign-specific items - a magic fan which becomes a buckler, perhaps, or a magic cloak, which when wrapped around the forearm acts as a shield, or a mouchoir (scented handkerchief) which acts like a potion when inhaled - added.

Y'know, this could actually turn into a thing . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Game Master Emulation Lite

Dissatisfied with the Mythic Game Master Emulator - too fiddly and too slow - Spacejacking at Tiny Solitary Soldiers hacked together his own solo roleplaying game system and I gotta say, it ain't half-bad.

I personally haven't run into a problem with the GME either fiddly or cumbersome, but I think part of that comes from using the Flash version of the Fate Table - it works as fast as I can type the questions - so I can see why a more streamlined version appeals.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Letters to Isabel, Reprise

The plot thickens in Jedediah's latest 7th Sea update.

I really like Marcello's decision to impersonate Don Gabriel - very clever.

More importantly, I like that the characters have a plan more involved that, Come in hard, rapiers blazing. Intrigue is, to me, just as fundamental to cape-and-sword tales as dueling.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The 1e AD&D All-Dragon NPC Classes Swashbuckling & Sorcery Campaign

Years ago Jeff Rients wrote a post about proscriptive campaign creation - "drill[ing] down on campaign creation through deliberate acts of omission" - in which the usual game-books were limited, in order to focus the campaign. Old school D&D bloggers ran with the idea, suggesting campaigns which replaced core books with non-core monsters, deities, and classes and spells.

In re-reading the duelist class for 1e AD&D, I thought about what a swashbuckling campaign in which the duelist replaced the fighter might look like. That led me to check out other 'npc' classes in (The)Dragon, and, well, here we are: the All-Dragon NPC Classes Swashbuckling & Sorcery Campaign.

The 'core four' character classes of 1e AD&D are the fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief, so a 1e cape-and-sword campaign should include roughly those same roles in the party. The 'core four,' then, for the A-DNPCCS&SC . . . yeesh, that's the first and last time I type that . . . are the Duelist, the Alchemist, the Witch, and the Entertainer.

  • The Duelist, from Dragon 73, replaces the Fighter in the A-DNP . . . uh, the campaign. As I noted yesterday, the bonuses to armor class are gone, and I have to weigh keeping the combat bonuses as written or eliminating them and allowing weapon specialisation instead.
  • The Alchemist, from Dragon 49, takes the place of the Cleric. Though far from a perfect fit, the Alchemist replaces some of the healing lost by removing the crusader Cleric. Len Lakofka's Alchemist kinda sucks at lower levels - nah, he really sucks at lower levels - but Tom Armstrong's Alchemist from Dragon 130 seems overpowered to me, particularly for this campaign. Anyone who wants to show me the error of my ways is welcome to do so. At least Mr Lakofka's Alchemist gains levels quickly, so the period of throwing flasks of oil and holy water and binding wounds is short.
  • The Witch, from Dragon 114, replaces the Magic-user. No brainer. One of the best non-player character classes published in Dragon, and wholly appropriate to swashbucklers'n'sorcery.
  • The Entertainer, from Dragon 69, takes the place of the Thief. Jugglers, acrobats, and troubadors ably replace the tomb-raiding thief in the swashbucklers'n'sorcery campaign. And yes, I considered the Jester.

Now that covers the core four, but there are some swashbuckling'n'sorcery archetypes that are missing, and in 1e AD&D, archetypal classes are king, so three more classes round out the campaign: the Bandit, the Mariner, and the Savant.

  • The Bandit, from Dragon 63, replaces the Ranger from the core rules, and fulfills the cape-and-sword highwayman archetype. Another no brainer. I love this class.
  • The Mariner, from Dragon 107, is another Fighter option to the Duelist, providing the pirate and sea-dog archetype. I'm not wild about this class - as with the Duelist, there's too much ocompensation for the lack of heavy armor with bonuses to armor class along with elaborate parrying rules which need toning down.
  • The Savant, from Dragon 140, replaces the oft-overlooked divination spells of the Cleric. The Savant is a strange sort of early attempt at a prestige class and would need a bit of reworking, but the class is good for the knowledgeable priest or scholar in the party.

So, the Duelist, the Bandit, the Mariner, the Alchemist, the Savant, the Witch, and the Entertainer. Holy crap . . . I could actually run this.

Or I suppose I could just run Backswords and Bucklers instead.

Addendum (8/20/12): Jonathan Thompson suggested the Cloistered Cleric, from Dragon 68, as one of the classes; I thought of this, but I couldn't find it in the DragonDex at first, but in going back again, I discovered it was under "Cleric," not "Character classes."

This means that 'core four' becomes the Duelist, the Cloistered Cleric, the Witch, and the Entertainer, with the 'sub-classes' of the Bandit, the Mariner, and the Alchemist; the Savant gets dropped. The Cloistered Cleric is a 'true' npc class and was written without an experience points table; the thief's experience progression seems reasonable to sub in.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lightly Armored Fighter

In the swashbuckling era, no swordsman worthy of the name would think of sullying the fine, graceful line of his body in motion with the use of anything so gauche as armor. Helmets and breatplates are for lowly guards and comically cowardly pirates, not gallant heroes or suave villains. Your DM should give you some free armor protection to compensate for the unforgiving treatment that D&D rules mete out to unarmored combatants.
So says Robin Laws, writing about "swashbuckling essentials" in Dragon magazine.

It is an article of faith - a received truth - among many gamers that the lightly armored Renaissance swordsman is the equal of the medieval knight by virtue of being quick on his feet and wielding a lighter blade. The lightly armored fighter archetype appears in fantasy literature as such, and to fail to represent this puts anyone who wants to play a swashbuckler in a world of plate mail and tower shields at an unfair disadvantage.

I'm guessing that an actual Renaissance or Early Modern warrior, in his leather buff coat and steel cuirass, his maille sleeves and epaulettes, his thigh-high cavalry boots and his steel helmet, would find the notion that he was a medieval knight's equal preposterous, for by virtue of the carbine slung around his neck and the pair of pistols carried in holsters draped from his saddle horn, he was the knight's master on the battlefield.

Armor didn't disappear from battlefields because swords got thinner or swordsmen more agile - armor disappeared because firearms rendered it ineffective.

But what about fencing techniques? Surely the great masters of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centries changed the nature of swords and swordplay? In fact, fashion, not fighting, dictated a change in blades, with swords growing thinner and shorter in response to the needs of courtiers, not soldiers, and the techniques of the swordmasters changed in response.

Well, so what, right? D&D's FANTASY, ain't it? Who cares what soldiers wore in the seventeenth century? After all, most fantasy worlds don't even have guns, so why can't a swashbuckler be just as good as a mail-clad warrior?

Fair enough. So how does D&D represent fighting skill? The ability to hit an opponent is tied to class and level, expressed, for example, on an attack matrix in 1e AD&D or basic attack bonus in 3.x D&D. As your character increases in level, so does her ability to hit things. So far, so good.

Defense is handed a bit differently. In 1e and 3e - and I'll keep referencing those two editions from here on out, as they are the ones with which I'm most familiar - a character's primary protection comes from armor, and thus we get to the "unforgiving treatment that D&D rules mete out to unarmored combatants," for which Robin Laws suggests the solution is "some free armor protection to compensate."

But armor isn't the only form of defense available to characters. First, characters can parry - in 1e, a parry subtracts the defender's Strength bonus to hit from the attacker's die roll, and in 3e, "fighting defensively" nets you a -4 on attacks but a +2 dodge bonus to armor class - or dodge - 3e feats and class ability which improve armor class. Second, characters get a bonus to their armor class - called defensive adjustement in 1e, Dexterity bonus in 3e - through having a high Dexterity ability score.

Defensive skill, however, is represented in D&D another way: hit points.

If I could go back in time and send a message to Gary Gygax as he was preparing the little brown books, it would be, 'Come up with a different names for hit points.' Intuitively most gamers associate hit points with the ability to withstand physical damage, and this association sowed untold confusion ever since. 1e defines hit points thus:

Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" whith warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection (emphasis added).
3e, in the SRD, is much more succinct: "Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one" (emphasis added again).

But Robin Laws isn't satisfied to allow hit points to be what hit points are: martial skill, the ability to turn aside a deadly blow. And unfortunately he's not the only one.

The original Duelist for 1e was written by Arthur Collins and published in May 1983 as a 'non-player character class' in Dragon 73. The class description includes some forgettable fluff, but the mechanics are what interest me. First, as one expects of the lightly armored fighter, the duelist is restricted to leather armor; somewhat surprisingly - and certainly comically for a character based on the swashbuckler - the duelist cannot use a shield. However, the role of hit points as combat skill - the presumed forte of the lightly armored fighter - is underscored by giving the character a d12 hit die. The author, Mr Collins, goes to some length to explain this design choice, writing, "Giving the duelist 12-sided hit dice is not intended to convey the impression that duelists are monstrous hulks . . ." and calling out the same passge in the 1e DMG quoted previously. Mr Collins concludes, "A 10th-level duelist will average more hit points than a 10th-level fighter, thus giving the former an appropriate edge in one-on-one combat; the duelist can outlast and wear out an opponent who is less skilful than he" (emphasis added once more).

To me, this is an adroit application of an elegant rule. Hit points were designed to emulate the give-and-take of swashbuckling swordplay from the very beginning, and the duelist takes that conceit and runs with it.

However, Mr Collins isn't content to stop there. Not only is the duelist given a higher hit die, representing his martial ability, he's also harder to hit, receiving "free armor protection" in the form of an armor class bonus every three levels; moreover, the duelist receives additional to-hit and damage bonuses as well, so that 10th-level fighter is at a further disadvantage against the 10th-level duelist.

It's a shame that some game designers just don't know when to let off the gas. The duelist and his d12 hit die does exactly what one expects of the swashbuckling fighter, to skillfully land the killing blow when his opponent runs out of tricks of his own; adding an armor class bonus gilds the lily.

The 3e Duelist prestige class is another take on the lightly armored fighter. Feats and skills ramp up the notion of the 'wily' fighter - as opposed to what other kind of fighter, one wonders? are other types of fighters less skilled somehow? - with feats like Dodge, Mobility, and Weapon Finesse which are the prerequisites for the prestige class. The Duelist's class abilities pile on, adding an armor class bonus for Intelligence bonuses, a precisely located strike for extra damage, even the ability to deflect arrows; as with so much about 3e, it takes the archetype and turns it up to eleven. Note that I don't think this is objectively bad for any reason; I do think it reinforces a parody trope of swashbuckling, but at the end of the day, it's simply not my cuppa.

So where am I going with all this?

Last week, Beedo at Dreams in the Lich House posed the question, "For purposes of D&D, what's the difference between a Norman knight, a viking, a samurai, a Roman centurion? What if we throw a muskeeter in the mix, a Mongolian horse archer, and a Hospitaler?"

It's a great question. Beedo continues:
I love this question with regards to the fighter, because the convergence of technology and tactics has created great variations in the fighting men of world history, and the differences are so easy for us to visualize. The evolution of D&D from its original vision has involved a long line of add-ons and extensions to create mechanical differentiation among character classes - new classes and sub-classes, secondary skills, kits, feats, prestige classes, and so on.

It's a topical question for me - I'm thinking over what a game in an Oriental Adventures setting would look like using a BX style of rules, and I have a pretty good idea how I'd handle archetypes like the samurai, the bushi, the kensai, the warrior monk: you're all fighters. You wear different armor, use different weapons, but at the end of the day, you all get paid to slug it out with the other guy. My work here is done.
I couldn't agree more. one of the strengths of the fighter class is that it embraces so many archetypes.

I also have some pratical experience with this approach. As I noted in the comments to Beedo's post, many years ago I ran a 1e fighter with a high Dexterity. An ex-pit fighter who escaped the arena, he was all about quickness, from his 12" movement rate in leather armor to his weapons speed factor 3 short sword to win initiative ties - this is why you use speed factors, boys and girls - to his spiked buckler which could be used for both offense and defense to his d10 hit dice which made him a more skilled combatant.

But where does that leave the poor swashbuckler, the duelist with his sword and dagger and no armor in a game filled with deadly warriors in iron suits? Well, I imagine it leaves them lighter on their feet and more likely to take a hit, like their counterparts in Melee, as Fenway5 at Sword and Shield reminds us.

Look, I completely understand the impulse to impose some sort of rules-parity between the lightly armored swashbuckling fighter and the plate mail-clad knight in a fantasy campaign, but I don't share that impulse.

Unlike some fantasy fans, I think history is instructive on this point. Real-life duelists fought without armor at a time when armor was the norm on the battlefield. Why would a duelist forego armor in a fantasy setting? Because of social taboos associated with honor, or because wearing armor around town is an incitement to violence that the authorities won't countenance, or because climbing a trellis into your lover's window is too noisy in chain maille and a great helm. Let the adventurers climb out of their tin cans once in awhile - give all the fighters a reason to be lightly armored.

Just not when a dragon's bearing down on them.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Now THAT's an Adventure Log!

Sean B at Wine and Savages gets it done.

Bonus points for including a picture of Sophie Marceau, with bonus bonus points for a picture of her as d'Artagnan's daughter.

Cinematic: The Phantom of the Opera

The guard on the Phantom's sword is pretty bad-ass.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Dark Sail on the Horizon: Addendum

My Mediterranean-flavored derivation of the High Seas random maritime encounters table for Flashing Blades uses the phrase "nearest sea power" for several encounters.

Here's a guide to the "nearest sea power" in the Mediterranean of the early 17th century.

Location Nearest Sea Power
Alboran Sea Spain (1-5), Algiers (Barbary state) (6)
Baeleric Sea (includes Gulf of Lion) Spain (1-4), Barbary states (5), France (6)
Ligurian Sea France (1), Savoy (2-3), Genoa (4-6)
Tyrrhenian Sea Tuscany (1-2), Papal States (3), Spain (Naples) (4-6)
Adriatic Sea Venice (1-4), Ottoman Empire (5), Ragusa (6)
Ionian Sea Spain (Naples) (1-2), Venice (3-4), Ottoman Empire (5), Knights of Saint John (Malta) (6)
Aegean Sea Ottoman Empire (1-6)
Sea of Crete Ottoman Empire (1-3) Venice (4-6)
Libyan Sea (includes Gulf of Sidra) Barbary states (1-2), Ottoman Empire (3-5), Knights of Saint John (6)
Levantine Sea Ottoman Empire (1-6)

The Libyan Sea stretches along the coast of North Africa from Tunisia to Egypt; the Levantine Sea is the far eastern extent of the Mediterranean Sea from a line running roughly from Rhodes to Alexandria.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Dark Sail on the Horizon

High Seas, the piracy supplement to Flashing Blades, includes a random encounter table most applicable to the waters of the West Indies and Europe; however, it's poorly suited to the maritime activity of the Mediterranean. Accordingly, I made my own.

Encounters at Sea - Mediterranean

Roll (d6, d6) Encountered Ship(s)
11 A lightly armed French merchant tartane (Corsair)
12 A lightly armed patrol ship (Small Galley) belonging to the nearest sea power
13 A heavily armed Spanish Galleon
14 A heavily armed Pirate/Privateer Corsair
15 A lightly armed Barbary Small Warship
16 A heavily armed English defenceable ship (merchant Small Warship)
21 A Dutch convoy of two lightly armed Merchantmen and two heavily armed Small Warships
22 Two heavily armed Spanish Galleons
23 Two lightly armed Sallee Rover Corsairs
24 A heavily armed Knights of Saint John greatship (Large Warship)
25 A heavily armed Spanish Merchantman
26 A heavily armed Large Warship belonging to the nearest sea power searching for Pirates/Privateers
31 A lightly armed English pinnace (Corsair)
32 A heavily armed Ragusan argosy (Galleon)
33 A small Spanish fleet (1D6 Large Galleys plus a lightly armed Merchantmen)
34 A heavily armed Venetian Merchantman
35 A heavily armed Barbary Pirate (Small Warship)
36 Two lightly armed pinnaces (Corsairs) belonging to the nearest sea power
41 A heavily armed Ottoman Merchantman
42 A small French fleet (1D6+1 lightly armed Small Galleys)
43 Two lightly armed Genoese Merchantmen
44 A heavily armed Barbary Pirate Corsair (1-3)/Small Galley(4-6)
45 A lightly armed French Merchantman
46 A lightly armed Dutch Merchantman
51 A small Barbary fleet (1D6+1 Small Warships)
52 A heavily armed Venetian Large Galley
53 Two heavily armed patrol ships (Small Galleys) belonging to the nearest sea power
54 A lightly armed Greek tartana (Corsair)
55 A heavily armed Spanish or Ottoman Large Galley
56 An English convoy of two heavily armed defenceable ships (merchant Small Warships) escorted by two heavily armed Large Warships
61 A Barbary Fleet (2D6 heavily armed Small Warships)
62 An English Fleet (1D6 merchant Small Warships and 1D6 Large Warships)
63 Sallee Rovers Pirate Fleet (2D6 heavily armed Corsairs)
64 Spanish or Ottoman Galley Fleet (2D6 heavily armed Large Galleys)
65 A heavily armed Dutch Galleon
66 Spanish or Ottoman Treasure Fleet (1D6 heavily armed Galleons escorted by 1D6 heavily armed Large Warships)

Notes -
  • "Knights" refers to the galleys and roundships of the Knights of Saint John (Malta) (1-4) or Knights of San Stefano (Tuscany) (5-6)
  • English and Ragusan ships always have reinforced hulls (+ 5 Hull Hit Points)
  • Dutch ships always have reinforced masts and superior quality sail canvas and ropes (+5 Rigging Hit Points) and are close-hauled and fitted with superior rudders (+ 1 Handling)
  • Spanish ships always carry the maximum number of marines possible
  • "Spanish" include Neapolitan ships
  • "Pirate/Privateer" encounters consist of European pirates (1-3), perhaps wold-be renegadoes on their way to join the Barbary corsairs, or privateers (4-6) employed by one of the Mediterranean sea powers (1-4) or the Knights of Saint John (5-6)
  • Ottoman Warships and Galleons carry the maximum number of cannons royal allowed
  • "Barbary" referes to the corsair fleets of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli
  • "Sallee Rovers" referes to the pirate fleet of the Republic of Salé along the cost of modern Morocco
  • Greek ships may be Ottoman (1-3) or Venetian (4-6)
  • "Spanish or Ottoman" is a special case - if the encounter takes place west of Sicily, the encountered ships are Spanish, and if the encounter takes place east of Sicily, the encountered ships are Ottoman
  • "Treasure Fleet" refers to either Spanish ships carrying specie to Genoa or Naples or Ottoman ships carrying tribute from Alexandria to Constantinople

Savage Musketeers

Courtesy of Tim Knight at HeroPress, All for One: Régime Diabolique is coming to Savage Worlds.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

DVR Alert

If you like your swordplay served with a side of wasabi, Thursday, 9 August, is Turner Classic Movies' tribute to Toshiro Mifune, including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Samurai I, II, and III.

Check your local local listings for times, as always.

Wednesday Wyeth

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Letters to Isabel

Jedediah at Book Scorpion's Lair has another post on his 7th Sea campaign up, and that Marcello is a nasty piece of work.

This is a campaign after my own heart.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Awhile back I drew the analogy between social relations in a cape-and-sword campaign and the dungeon and even megadungeon of the old school fantasy roleplaying game. Like the rooms of a dungeon, the non-player characters of the social milieu hold rewards, secrets, and dangers for the adventurers to discover.

Traditionally the referee is responsible for creating this social milieu. My own preference is to create a sandbox, status quo social setting. Another approach is to tailor the events of the campaign to the player characters, typically after character generation is completed.

There are some distinct advantages to the tailored approach. Adventurers may begin the game with built-in conflicts - frex, the Sworn Vengeance and Secret Loyalty Secrets in Flashing Blades - to pursue. It is efficient for the referee, reducing the scope of planning compared to many staus quo settings. It also provides the players with the opportunity to make meaningful choices for their characters; they drive the action, similar to the way characters in a more sandbox setting do. Finally, campaign events and situations tailored to the player characters avoid a potentially frustrating 'hunt for the (plot) hook.'

In a sandbox setting, on the other hand, challenges may not be as narrowly focused on the player characters as they are in more tailored campaigns. Conflicts tend to arise as a consequence of the adventurers' actions, rather than being introduced through the metagame. Player characters must proactively seek out challenges and adventures in the sandbox, such as listening for rumors or seeking out the sources of legends.

For this to succeed, one of the tricks the sandbox referee must perform is creating a setting which the players want to engage. Usually this is folded into the pitch for the game - you're heroes exploring lost ruins for treasure! you're space merchants trading among the stars! - and when the rubber meets the road, the referee's sandbox should live up to that promise, so that the adventurers can seek out those treasure-filled ruins or new markets for Terran widgets. Developing a cape-and-sword campaign sandbox means creating a social milieu which reflects players' expectations about the genre.

My approach to sandbox creation involves building the setting from behind a veil of ignorance - that is, with no foreknowledge of who the actual player characters will be - leaning heavily on those genre tropes to develop situations which invite the player characters to engage.

So what does this look like in practice? Meet the Montchèvres, a 'dungeon' in my Flashing Blades campaign.

In the spring of 1625, the family of Gaston de Montchèvre, vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, takes up residence in a rented Parisian townhouse. Like many of the Savoyard nobility, the vicomte is a soldier, commanding a company of chevaux-legers (light cavalry) in the ducal army. He served with distinction during the war against the Spanish in the 1610s, earning the notice of the constable of France, and with the constable's introduction, the vicomte travelled to Paris in 1618 where he was received at the court of King Louis XIII; the vicomte's marksmanship and falconry during a hunt at Fontainebleau brought Praz-de-Lys to the notice of the king himself.

As with many of the provincial nobility from the Alpine regions of Savoy, the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys is aligned with the French faction at the ducal court in Torino, opposed to the influence of Spain in northern Italy. Inspired by the marriage of the prince of Carignan, the duke of Savoy's youngest legitimate son, to the sister of the comte de Soissons, a French prince of the blood, the vicomte decided to pursue a French marriage for his own daughter and a military career in the royal army for his eldest son and heir.

The vicomte's plans are also designed to thwart the machinations of a close rival, his wife. Daughter of a Piedmontese cadet branch of a family of Genoese counts, Lucrezia di Ventimiglia was a pious and dutiful child who's one act of youthful rebellion - a whirlwind affair with a dashing cavalryman - resulted in a pregnancy and a marriage for which neither family was prepared. The viscontessa di Prato-di-Giglio - she refuses to use the French title - has ardent Spanish sympathies, and the vicomte used the move to forestall the viscontessa's schemes to marry their daughter to a pro-Spanish nobleman. She views the French, and in particular their tolerance of heretics at home and alliance with heretics against Catholic princes abroad, as an anathema.

The vicomte's plan is risky. His estate in Chiablese is modest, and his finances are critically overextended supporting another household in Paris along with his commitments at home in Savoy. The vicomte is eager for ducal and royal favor, to add lustre to his family name, and, in this, the campaign against Genoa is an important opportunity for the cavalry commander as well, to perhaps gain entry into the order of SS Maurizio i Lazarro or even the Annunziata and a pension, or to augment Catherine's dowry with booty won in battle. The vicomte already achieved an important part of his plan, obtaining a place for his daughter as a lady in the court of the princesse de Carignan.

The viscontessa is, of course, looking for ways to subvert her husband's alliances with the French. Mindful of her responsibilities, the viscontessa is nonetheless pursuing her own ambitions for her children; if she can't prevent a French marriage for her daughter and French service for her oldest son, she is determined that her youngest boy will find an appropriate place in the Church - preferably as part of a Spanish cardinal's curia in Rome - and to that end she's reaching out to the court of the Spanish ambassador in Paris for help.

Catherine de Montchèvre, the convent-educated daughter of Gaston and Lucrezia, is fully aware of the struggle between her father and mother over her future and that of her brothers. Behind a mask of ambivalence she schemes, manipulating her parents' mutual antipathy to her own ends. François de Montchèvre, the vicomte's heir, has few thoughts for anything other than swords and horses, while the youngest, Pierre, still clings to his mother's skirts, terrified of his father.

In addition to the family members themselves, the Montchèvre family includes a variety of servants - a lady-in-waiting to the viscontessa, a priest-confessor, maids, valets, and guards.

As noted above, rumors are an important part of sandbox settings, and in this case, one of the rumors - the one which drew in the adventurers - was that a Savoyard family recently arrived in Paris was seeking to fill positions in the household - tutors both ecclesiastical and secular, a fencing master, a horse master, a banker to manage finances, a lawyer, a steward, a physician, and an apothecary, as well as more menial jobs such as servants and coachmen. The rumor went on to note that the family was paying better-than-normal wages.

Anyone familiar with Flashing Blades will likely notice that most of those positions relate to careers and jobs which may be pursued by player characters. This presents a number of points of attachment for the adventurers, as does the Montchèvres' connections to other parts of the social setting, such as Catherine's connection at court, Lucrezia's connection to the Spanish ambassador, and Gaston's connection to the constable and the king. The Montchèvres also appear in a number of random encounters around Paris, providing another nexus to the family for the adventurers.

The intrigues of the Montchèvres as described here only scratch the surface, as the players and their characters discovered over our last two game days. In our campaign, the adventurers did indeed accept service with the family, and when one of the player characters attempted to seduce the viscontessa's lady-in-waiting, a duel involving the Cardinal's Guards followed, and the adventurers were exiled from Paris. They took service with a company of mercenaries heading for the wars in Savoy . . .

. . . which is where things take an interesting twist.

Since I hadn't planned for player characters to go to Turin, I generated some random encounters as ideas for events going on around the ducal court; a combination of the tables in the core rules for Flashing Blades, the Mythic Game Master Emulator, and Rory's Story Cubes turned the encounter, "The King/Queen/or Prince, with 2D6 Guards, 1D6 Ministers or Attendants, and 1D6 sycophants (a possible Patron)," plus the Patronage result, "The Patron wishes to have a message taken to someone in a dangerous position (a prisoner in the Bastille, perhaps, or a soldier on the front)," into an attempt to ransom the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys from his Spanish captors!

What made this particularly fun for me as the referee is that the capture of the vicomte by the Spanish was something I wrote about a year before the campaign even began, before I had any players, before a single character was created. Had the adventurers been in the service of the viscontessa and not been exiled from Paris, they would've heard of the vicomte's capture. Instead, through a wholly unplanned chain of events not contemplated at the start of the campaign, they found themselves trying to free the vicomte from the sinister Don Alvaro de Salamanca just this past weekend.

There is a lot to be said for tailor-made campaigns, but I don't think I could find it as satisfying as the serendipitous twists and turns of a campaign written from behind the veil of ignorance and refereed with the random dials turned to eleven.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Endgame Endgame

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.

Later posts approached the endgame from the referee's perspective, incorporating adventurous action, presenting a model of social structure, and describing the nature of political conflict.

Now it's time to tie it all together.

It's November and the king demands a spring offensive against the Spanish. The minister of war, Enfou, must choose a commander to lead the attack. At court, rumors suggest that Enfou will choose between the conte di Grognardo and the baron de Bauchery.

The conte di Grognardo is a veteran general, tough and irascible, but regarded as one of the best tactical thinkers in Europe. Grognardo is well-respected among many of the French officers, though he also raised a more than a few hackles for what some perceive as a lack of appropriate regard for social rank. Grognardo suffers from a lack of support among the courtiers as a result; his clientele is small and not well-placed outside of the royal army. Grognardo recently returned to France from Vienna; indeed, he commanded Imperial troops in Lombardy against the French, and whispered questions about the dévot general's loyalties abound.

It's said that Grognardo returned to France to seek a better marriage for his son than he could obtain at home in Monferrato; in fact, the count spurned the parade of daughters of poor nobles that the Emperor tried to foist upon him in exchange for his continuing service.

The baron de Bauchery governs a frontier province. The spring line of advance will cross the province, and the baron is positioning himself to command the army, reasoning that even if the offensive fails, he stands to gain from the money - and bribes - paid by the passage of the royal forces. De Bauchery is a wealthy libertine, 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know,' but he is well-connected at court nonetheless, particularly among the gallicans; it's well-known that he supplied the king with the monarch's last three mistresses, but only after sampling their wares himself first. The baron commanded a regiment previously, during which he was criticised for failing to press a rout, choosing to attack the enemy's baggage train instead and allowing the enemy troops to reform and withdraw in some semblance of good order. To secure command of the spring attack, de Bauchery pledges to raise a cavalry regiment at his own expense as well as commmit an additional regiment raised from the king's provincial subjects.

The baron holds an additional card; if he doesn't get the command, it's likely that the royal troops will suffer logistical problems - the baron has an extensive clientele in the province, and he could readily make obtaining supplies problematic for anyone else who commands the army.

De Bauchery's Achille's heels are the Jesuit prince-bishop who's bishopric is contiguous with the baron's provincial government - the prince-bishop despises de Bauchery, and his own clientele in the parishes is unassailable to the baron - and one of the province's three city governors, a nominal client who is believed to chafe under the baron's rule - he controls the province's only port, which could prove critical to keeping the royal army supplied, and he is likely to use this leverage to obtain concessions from the baron.

De Bauchery is also interested in marriage to a dowager marquise, the highest-ranking noble in his province; normally the king would never approve such a union, as it would create too powerful a powerbase for one of his nobles, but this may prove to be the leverage the baron seeks to gain the king's blessing on the marriage.

The choice of commanders lies with Enfou, though the king can override his minister's decision. While Enfou favors Grognardo for his tactical acumen, the fact that de Bauchery can raise two regiments of his own takes a considerable burden off the perpetually-depleted royal treasury, and the baron's selection also protects the supply lines as well.

In most of the published adventures of this sort, there would be some sort of contrived solution to the situation - de Bauchery is a Spanish agent and a traitor, and the adventurers must sneak into his castle to find the proof in his personal papers! - but this reduces the political endgame to yet another 'bughunt.' The endgame shouldn't offer easy answers.

In this scenario, there are advantages and risks associated with each choice; in a sandbox setting, do the adventurers help the acerbic but brilliant Grognardo or the connected but avaricious de Bauchery? How do their choices advance the character's own interests? What resources are available to them, and where do they apply them? Frex, what would it take to turn the port-governor on his patron, the baron, in order to protect the army's supply lines, and can they raise enough troops to offset de Bauchery's contributions? Or can they convince the king to allow de Bauchery's marriage to the marquise - and perhaps convince the reluctant marquise as well? Do they need to exert influence to keep the decision with Enfou, or do they need the king to override his minister of war in order to back their choice?

For the referee, this means fleshing out the npcs, giving them goals of their own that the adventurers may be able to help meet through their influence, patronage, or wealth - frex, perhaps one of the port-governor conditions is that his son, a monk, can become a member of the prince-bishop's curia, or the prince-bishop wants his nephew to be made a magistrate. This is perhaps where the analogy of the megadungeon needs to be stressed - no longer is it enough to present the adventurers with a roomful of orcs. The complexity, and the planning it requires, increases commensurate with the adventurers' positions and resources.

In addition to complexity, good political adventures involve ambiguity. Political choices and their consequences are rarely crystal-clear, except in hindsight; the less there is an obvious path for the player characters to follow, the better, and every choice carries risks. The expenditure of resources should never be a guarantee of success, and even if the adventurers succeed in their political goals, it's still possible for their political enterprise to fail; frex, the adventurers may secure the command for their candidate, but there's still the small matter of the spring campaign itself, and the outcome of the battle reflects on them, for better or worse.

And so I reach the end(game) of my endgame discussion. Thanks for reading along, and I hope this (1) makes some kind of sense, and (2) can be used in your campaigns.