Friday, September 28, 2012


Wargame rules often spend a fair number of paragraphs on who can see whom. Line of sight - usually abbreviated LoS - can be a part of everything from firing weapons to charging to a commander changing a unit's orders, so wargames treat it with some care. Fans of the original Squad Leader will remember the dot in the center of each hex used for determining whether a particular hex could be seen from another hex, or the determination of "hull down" for AFVs on ridgelines.

After wargames birthed roleplaying games, the need to determine when something was in view to the characters remained. OD&D, for instance, says that monsters are detected at a distance of 20-80 feet underground or 40-240 yards outdoors unless the party is surprised. It's interesting there's no consideration for individual character proficiency, and when such a differentiation appears, it's associated with classes and skills, not ability scores. Frex, the 1e AD&D Ranger, as a class ability, is more likely to surprise an opponent and less likely to be surprised in turn, while in Traveller, the Tactics and Leader skills and military experience favorably modify surprise for the adventurers.

Boot Hill retains a facing system more like that of the tabletop miniature skirmish game from which it was derived, with characters able to observe a 90-degree arc ahead of them and the ability to observe someone in concealment wholly at referee discretion. I soon added a house rule that a character could spend one movement point to 'look around,' which allowed the character to extend the observation axis by another 90-degrees to the left or right; in this way, a character could run but would be slowed by taking his attention off the direction in which he was moving, which seemed a fair trade-off. Again, the character's attributes played no particular role in determining what could be seen, and in BH, even the dice were removed as a factor, as opposed to D&D or Traveller.

It wasn't too many years before roleplaying games introduced rules for alertness, perception or observation, often associated with a character attribute and/or skill, and this soon became the norm; with some games, such as d20-based systems, a combination of attribute scores, skill points, and feats could produce 'Spot-monkeys' with superhuman powers of observation.

Though I think that later roleplaying games tend to make too big a deal out of things like Spot, Alertness, and so forth, treating all characters as equally perceptive is perhaps a bit too coarse-grained as well, appropriate to small units but not distinct individuals. Accordingly, for my Flashing Blades campaign, I use a blending of the two methods. The core rules make no mention of surprise or observation, but examples in the published adventures point to both the Wit and Luck attributes; in fact, it was this usage of Luck that led me to spell out that in my campaign, Luck is, "rather than a metaphysical force or quality, the insightfulness of the character: it's the ability to notice subtle clues or behaviors, to be in tune with one's surroundings" - a gambler, for which Luck is the associated attribute, isn't so much smiled upon by Fortune as he is able to pick up tells from his fellow gamblers, for example. As such, Luck is often used to represent the power of observation or perception in actual play.

As a modifier to an individual's Luck attribute, I also use the combined surprise and initiative rules for original, 'classic' Traveller - the skills Captaincy and Strategy replace Traveller's Leader and Tactics respectively, and service on a campaign gives the benefit of military experience. If the adventurers are surprised as a group, then individual Luck checks are made at a penalty of Luck/2 or Luck/3 at my discretion. For me this achieves the best of both worlds.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a Name?

Recently I was asked about how I come up with names for the many non-player characters in Le Ballet de l'Acier, my Flashing Blades campaign. It's an interesting question - to me, at any rate - with a somewhat involved answer.

First, in order to emulate many of the great cape-and-sword stories in which the protagonists are involved in the machinations of historical figures, I use a large number of real-life people in the campaign. Some, such as Cardinal Richelieu, the prince de Condé, and the duchesse de Chevreuse are well-known to history with extensive biographies, while others are lesser lights, such as the seigneur de Racan, a soldier, courtier, and playwright, or the comte de Souches, a minor Huguenot leader. A number of characters were developed from combing period genealogies, built up in some cases from just one or two lines - Pierre de Barral was an attorney for the Parlement de Dauphiné, but beyond his name and occupation, and the names of his family, I've found little more by way of biography.

In one case, I took a historical figure, the seigneur de Bléneau, and gave him a fictional title, making him the chevalier de Courtenay. The Courtenay family were the counts of Edessa in Outremer, and they lobbied the kings of France for generations afterward to be recognized as foreign princes by the French crown. Aside from knowing his name and lineage, I found nothing about Gaspard de Bléneau's life directly, but the Courtenay story interests me so much that I wanted him to be a significant non-player character, so I added a layer of fiction over the slim historical pickings.

(And how did I happen on the story of the Courtenays? From playing Avalon Hill's Kingmaker decades ago.)

Second, I pulled scores of names from the many cape-and-sword tales and other fiction which inspire Flashing Blades and my campaign. The campaign blends history and fiction, and to that end I've added numerous characters from books and movies to the campaign. For example, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are members of the King's Musketeers, and they've befriended a young Gascon swordsman recently arrived in Paris; in fact, with only a couple of exceptions, all of the minor characters mentioned in passing by M. Dumas in The Three Musketeers appear in Le Ballet, such as La Coste, Ferusac, and Busigny. Characters from novels not set in the period are included as fictional ancestors or descendants; Achille de Châteaupers is a descendant of Phœbus de Châteaupers from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while the marquise de Merteuil and comte de Gercourt are ancestors to the characters from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses.

I also borrowed most of the characters from the adventures published for Flashing Blades during its short run, embellishing them from their descriptions in the FB 'canon.' The vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, from, "The Great Marksmanship Tourney," became a Sabaudian nobleman, while the chevalier de Didonne, from, "Monsieur Le Dorit's Secret," is a courtier to the historical chevalier de Vendôme, Grand Prior of the French langue of the Knights of Malta. These names can also be used for family members of the characters, such as the conte de Valbrandi, who resulted from combining the name of a character, Nicolo Brandi, from, "The Man Behind the Mask," with the historical Valbrandi family of Nice.

While history and fiction provide a cornucopia of names, neither is particularly generous with respect to common people of the period, so it's necessary to invent many names as well. For given names appropriate to the period, I comb through indices in history books and lists of saints, but my most useful source is the ever-helpful Academy of Saint Gabriel, which is affiliated with Society for Creative Anachronism. For family names, I borrow from the names of towns on period maps or borrow words from the appropriate language, courtesy of WordReference.

I enjoy inventing names, but I admit that I am prone to choosing whimsical names. This is something which seems to drive some gamers a little nuts, but I like characters with what some call 'silly' names. Fortunately for me, Flashing Blades includes many characters with whimsical or punning names, such as the duchess del Nozze and the baron de Gras - in Le Ballet, the latter is part of the house of Foix, of course. The campaign includes a character named for the 1975 National League Rookie of the Year, and my own character for solo play was named after thg 'urban forest.' Most of the names I choose with WordReference are, if not outright puns, self-referential, like the prostitute named for the swallow and her boyfriend, named for a tarot card.

Clearly I think about this way too much.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"In the Age of the Three Musketeers and Captain Alatriste!"

This month's RPG Blog Carnival topic is Running Games in Established Settings.
Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? (sic) Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on the matter.
My current campaign, like many others I've run before it, is set in the most accessible and heavily supported roleplaying game-world ever: our own. Entire libraries of books, movies, music and other media present this game-world in lavish, unequaled detail, unlocking its secrets, hinting at its mysteries.

One of the main advantages of using any established setting is that many of the players around the table may begin the campaign with some of familiarity with the game-world. This can be particularly relevant to sandbox settings as it reduces the effort asked of the players to get up to speed at the beginning of the campaign. Games set in the our own world may have the lowest barrier to entry of any established setting, despite the richness and complexity.

But real-world settings also offer another advantage, the interplay of fact and fiction. Campaigns set in the real-world, past or present, may also draw from popular fictional tropes, providing more avenues of familiarity for the players.

The tagline for my Obsidian Portal campaign wiki, frex, reads, "Swashbuckling Adventure in the Age of the Three Musketeers and Captain Alatriste!" Though I've gone to some lengths to get the history right, my game-world isn't strictly historical; it's a blending of the 17th century with the fictional universes of Alexandre Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Robert E. Howard, Rafael Sabatini. the baroness Orczy, and others. In the campaign so far, the adventurers fought a duel alongside Gil de Berault, from Stanley J. Weyman's Under the Red Robe, and were enlisted to seize a castle from an alleged Spanish spy by his half-brother, Marius de Condillac, from Rafael Sabatini's Saint Martin's Summer. Along similar lines, I've also pulled in many of the 'canon' characters from the Flashing Blades adventures, such as Beinvenu, the ambassador from The Ambassador's Tales, and the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, from, "The Great Marksmanship Tourney."

One of the challenges of blending fact and fiction is reconciling the historical record with the romances. Frex, M. Dumas based many of the characters of The Three Musketeers on historical figures, but he wasn't faithful to the historical timeline in doing so. The real-life Treville, for instance, didn't become captain-lieutenant of the King's Musketeers until more than a decade after the events of the first novel, but in order to take advantage of the players' familiarity with the tales, the fictional characters took precedence over their historical counterparts in my campaign.

Another challenge is deciding whether or not the actions of the players' characters can change the established setting. This is a particularly pertinent question when dealing with a campaign set in our own past; historical fiction, in particular cape-and-sword romances, may have the characters participating in historical events and interacting with historical figures, but is less likely to have them changing events in ways which significantly deviate from the record of the past. In many cases, the characters of the stories occupy the interstices of history.

Roleplaying games are different from stories, however. In sandbox settings in particular, the players are not constrained to follow a particular narrative by the referee, so the inevitable question is, 'Can my character change history?' In the case of Flashing Blades, where the rewards system is such that characters may, though their careers, reach positions of influence - bishop or cardinal, general and marshal, royal minister, master of a knightly order - which potentially allow them to alter the course of France, this is an especially pertinent question. With this in mind, I make clear on my campaign wiki that the answer is yes, they can change history by their decisions and actions. As such, part of my preparation for the campaign is considering what happens should such world-altering events come to pass. Frex, one of the most obvious and sweeping is, what happens if Cardinal Richelieu dies prematurely? Who is his likely successor, and what effect could the change have upon the future of France? There are few better ways to let the players know their characters are movers-and-shakers than allowing the 'metaplot' of the setting to change as a direct response of their choices.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

"Flint was cap'n; I was quartermaster, along of my timber leg. The same broadside I lost my leg, old Pew lost his deadlights. It was a master surgeon, him that ampytated me — out of college and all — Latin by the bucket, and what not; but he was hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle. That was Roberts' men, that was, and corned of changing names to their ships — Royal Fortune and so on. Now, what a ship was christened, so let her stay, I says. So it was with the Cassandra, as brought us all safe home from Malabar, after England took the Viceroy of the Indies; so it was with the old Walrus, Flint's old ship, as I've seen a-muck with the red blood and fit to sink with gold."

Now that's how you talk like a pirate!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Write Like a Pirate Day

T'morrow vve celebrayte thayt Moft Ancient and Revyr'd reval, Talke Lyke a Pyrate Day, butt todaye lett uf tayke a mom. too contemplayt ye manner, ftyl, &c bye whych ye moft lern'd Pyratef expreff thymfelfs bye vvaye of ye VVryttin VVerd.

Fome goode advife for thows moft Intrepyd Ryfereef who lycke to creayte propf fuch af lettyrf or othr. fimylr Documyntf af handowts for thyr playerf.

Qvod erat demonftrandum.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Swashbucklers of the Barbaric Frontier

M.P. at Barbaric Frontier has swashbuckler class for what appears to be a LotFP/S&W mash-up.

I like it - it keeps the basics of a D&Dish fighter while capturing both a bit of the archetype and avoiding some of the excesses of other attempts at swashbucklers for D&D.

I'd play one, if I rolled the right numbers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Short Break

I'm taking the week off to catch up on my wiki. Back on Sunday.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cinematic: Bardelys the Magnificent

Long thought to be lost, this MGM historical drama based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini was directed by King Vidor and stars John Gilbert. An incomplete print with French intertitles was recovered in France in 2006 by Lobster Films, Paris, and a reconstruction was completed in 2008. Missing footage has been bridged by stills, intertitles and footage from the original theatrical trailer. - Silent Era
Perhaps the greatest cape-and-sword movie you've never seen.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lazy Saturday Link Dump

FXR's Honor + Intrigue campaign, De cape et d'épée, is underway - check out the adventure logs, and if your French isn't up to the task, remember that Translate is your friend.

The campaign starts in the midst of a trip to the market, a duel interrupted, the king thrown from his horse . . . and the assassination of Concino Concini!

If you're on Obsidian Portal and you haven't added this campaign to your favourites . . . well, why the heck haven't you added it yet?!

Beedo recounts a Gencon seminar on historical roleplaying, which he summarises thus: "The overarching advice that came out of the seminar, a guide to solving all problems that arise when running a period game, is to use common sense, don't be an ass, and have a clear understanding what everyone at the table wants from the game." This is a topic I've thought about a bit, and I always like to read others' take on it.

Daystar Eld has a great piece on offering meaningful choices to the players and their characters. Hint: tough choices are good, and knowing they're tough choices is better.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Letters to Isabel, Redux

Marcello's impersonation takes a seductive turn in the latest actual play log of Jedediah's 7th Sea campaign.

I hope we're not heading down a path toward Fifty Shades of Don Gabriel.

And I get the feeling we'll be hearing more about the dangerous M. du Doré.

I appreciated the behind-baseball commentary, but I really like seeing the campaign through Marcello's eyes, at least as much of it as he's willing to share with Isabel.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

DVR Alert

On Sunday, 9 September, Turner Classic Movies will air the 1924 silent version of The Sea-Hawk, directed by Frank Lloyd. Unlike the later Errol Flynn feature, this version sticks much closer to the original Rafael Sabatini story, in which Sir Oliver Tressilian turns renegado, becoming Sakr-el-Bahr, the Algerian corsair.

I think this is a story just begging for a remake.

Check you local listings for times, as always - TCM lists it as 12:15 am on the East Coast, so it may actually appear on Saturday's schedule elsewhere in the US.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

Hot Babes

I love Frank Frazetta's women.

I love their generous, often muscular curves, their powerful sexuality, their gratuitous lack of clothing.

I also understand why some people find them to be objectional, objectified charicatures.

And I'm okay with that.

Four months ago, a Whizbros art director published a short essay on sexism in fantasy art and soliciting opinions on the future art direction of the brand. A couple of weeks ago, a poster at called for signatures on a petition to be sent to Whizbros, asking that D&D artwork be more inclusive with respect to women and people of color.

This week, a blogger, forum administrator - of a forum on which I post regularly, I should mention - game designer, and paid consultant for the development of 'D&D Next' decided to stir the pot, calling for a petition to Whizbros to include "hot babes" in their future artwork. Tweaking the progressive gaming community's noses, like his rants about "feminazis" and "political correctness," is this guy's signature style, and honestly, it should be taken with a grain fifty-pound bag of salt and seen for exactly the sort of childish taunting it is, because while this guy thrives on creating a dickish persona, he's really not an idiot.

That said, this blogger's screed speaks to those roleplaying gamers who feel put-upon when the things they like - such as stripper ninja artwork - are pointed out as problematic by others. I don't feel the need to recount their defensiveness here - they're easy enough to find for those who are interested - because their denials and false equivalences completely and utterly miss the point.

No one's telling them they can't like what they like.

All that's being asked is, could a wider range of images be offered so that other people can see what they like, also?

You want a picture of a naked witch summoning a demon? Sounds cool, but could we also have some pictures of women warriors dressed less like bikini models and more like Jeanne d'Arc, too? Does every paladin have to look like Saint George, or could we have more who look like Saint Maurice as well?

Is it really such a bad thing for gamers to want to see themselves in the artwork for roleplaying games?

And nothing about increasing the depth and breadth of represenation in game-art requires sacrificing the quality or originalty or excitement, of course.

I've thought about this subject quite a bit, actually, as there are problematic elements in cape-and-sword roleplaying games.

Running a campaign set in the early 17th century, I'm acutely conscious of the impact of discrimination associated with the period and neither do I soft-peddle it nor use it to severely - and ahistorically - limit player choices. I've read forum posts by gamers who believe that this does a disservice to women, LGBT, and gamers of color by putting them in a situation where the discrimination they feel in real life becomes part of the campaign. While I'm sympathetic to the argument, I accept that it's problematic for some gamers but integral to playing a historical roleplaying campaign for others. My response is to make clear from the outset what the campaign is like, so that anyone interested in playing can make an informed choice about whether or nor to participate.

The source literature which I try to emulate isn't always sensitive to the roles of women and others, either. Consider that d'Artagnan is a rapist and that the most important recurring female character in the Alatriste saga is a murderous racist.

And I do struggle to represent the diverse non-player characters in the game-world, as both period and contemporary artwork is short of swashbucklers of color and I'm not flush enough to commission the art myself for the campaign. But I do the best I can with what I can find.

So I accept that there are elements of my campaign which are problematic, and I acknowledge them as such, without feeling the need to dramatically change them to suit moral and ethical convictions, my own or anyone else's. There is sexism in the setting, but there are also powerful women who overcome, or at least work around, it. There is racism and intolerance, but 'Portuguese merchants' - Jews - and Moors and Turks are among those whom the adventurers may count as allies and rivals. I'm comfortable with the notion that adults can separate what happens in the game-world from the real one, that playing at intolerance doesn't reinforce it in our behavior and attitudes toward real-life human beings - and that to believe otherwise is to crawl down the Jack Chick rathole.

So bring on the naked, curvy Frazetta women, and the women in sensible armor, too - they're all hot babes to me.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Saga Concludes

Sean B at Wind and Savages concludes his pictorial history of his last campaign, bringing the saga of Vivienne de Malbec and Girolamo de Sangiovese to a hilarious close - seriously, I laughed out loud at the alchemist Dom Perignon and "poisoning" Rousanne.

Links to parts 1 through 3 can be found here. The whole thing is inspired, particularly the tongue-in-cheek names, which put some gamers teeth on edge but I love.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cinematic: Star Wars

The fight choreographer - who's also the man under the Vader mask - for this scene is a chap named Bob Anderson, who also choreographed Stephen Herek's The Three Musketeers - that's the Keifer Sutherland, Tim Curry, Rebecca DeMornay one, which for all its many faults has some decent swordplay.