Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wednesday Wyeth

Horror. Swashbuckling.

Solomon Kane.

Pinch-hitting for N.C. Wyeth this week is Jeffrey Catherine Jones' brooding Puritan.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mundane Horror

Horror in roleplaying games most often involves elements of the supernatural, from vampires and vengeful spirits to unkillable boogeymen and tentacled creatures from another dimension.

Relatively less common, in my experience, are mundane, non-supernatural horrors appropriate to modern or historical roleplaying games.

The serial killer
Serial killers are well-represented in both fact and fiction, from Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Báthory, the marquise de Brinvilliers, and Burke and Hare to Hannibal Lecktor, Sweeny Todd, and Norman Bates, but my impression is that this is less common in roleplaying games, perhaps because the squick factor is too high - dealing with a fantastic monster like a werewolf is less disturbing than a killer inspired by the likes of Ed Gein.

Other examples of the serial killer could include mad scientists, such as a vivisectionist, or cultists practicing ritual sacrifice, such as the Aztecs or the Celts - the latter could include those who practice cannibalism as part of ritual life, or even those driven to it in extremis.

Note that a serial killer isn't necessarily mentally ill.

The maneater
The stories of the beast of Gévaudan and the lions of Tsavo open up all sorts of interesting possibilities for encounters with animals which are both monstrous and mundane. They could be wild animals running amok, trained pets (as in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), or 'lost' species.

The megalomaniac
The megalomaniac suffers from a range of mental illnesses which manifest as feelings of omnipotence and delusions of grandeur. Mister Kurtz and the Phantom of the Opera are fictional examples of what I have in mind here.

The mountebank
The mountebank uses horror as a means of covering up his (usually criminal) activities. He is Cosgoode Creeps or Asa Shanks, posing as a ghost to scare off the nosy townsfolk or bilk his relatives out of their inheritance.

I have a few traces of horror in my cape-and-sword campaign, particularly around Auvergne, which I tend to think of as the 'scary Appalachia' of my game-world's France.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mundane Monsters

Wentyard felt his flesh crawl as he made his way through those dim chambers. The moonlight glinted down through vines tangled across the broken roofs, and shadows lay thick across his path. He reached the chamber where he had slept, and where the coals of the fire still glowed dully. He started across toward the outer door when a soft sound brought him whirling around. A cry was wrenched from his throat.

Out of the darkness of a corner rose a swaying shape; a great wedge-shaped head and an arched neck were outlined against the moonlight. In one brain-staggering instant the mystery of the ruins became clear to him; he knew what had watched him with lidless eyes as he lay sleeping, and what had glided away from his door as he awoke - he knew why the Indians would not come into the ruins or mount the cliffs above them. He was face to face with the devil of the deserted city, hungry at last - and that devil was a giant anaconda!

In that moment John Wentyard experienced such fear and loathing horror as ordinarily come to men only in foul nightmares. He could not run, and after that first scream his tongue seemed frozen to his palate. Only when the hideous head darted toward him did he break free from the paralysis that engulfed him and then it was too late.

He struck at it wildly and futilely, and in an instant it had him-lapped and wrapped about with coils which were like huge cables of cold, pliant steel. He shrieked again, fighting madly against the crushing constriction-he heard the rush of Vulmea's boots-- then the pirate's pistols crashed together and he heard plainly the thud of the bullets into the great snake's body. It jerked convulsively and whipped from about him, hurling him sprawling to the floor, and then it came at Vulmea like the rush of a hurricane through the grass, its forked tongue licking in and out in the moonlight, and the noise of its hissing filling the chamber.
Flashing Blades adventures are filled with conniving courtiers and deadly duelists, but as one would reasonably expect from a game set in 17th century France, there's something of a paucity of big scary creatures. A boar and a great stag, from "The Royal Hunt" in The Cardinal's Peril, are the only animals other than horses to receive any kind of combat stats at all.

But our real world contains many species of animals dangerous to people. REH's swashbucklers, frex, face 'monsters' such as the anaconda in "Black Vulmea's Vengeance," or the crocodiles and gorillas of Solomon Kane's adventures. For a campaign with no magical monsters, fierce animals offer a different sort of challenge for the adventurers, and, as REH alludes to in the excerpt quoted above, they can indeed seem like some otherworldly threat.

So here are a few creatures of the Caribbean for your Flashing Blades and High Seas campaigns. All animals in Flashing Blades take general damage as per the core rules.

Found in the swamps and jungles in the north of South America east of the Andes, the green anaconda is a constrictor snake with recorded lengths of more than twenty-five feet. Anacondas are typically found in or near water, which they use to support their bulk and as cover while hunting, submerging all but their nostrils below the surface.

An anaconda attacks by grabbing hold of its prey with its mouth, filled with a hundred small, back-slanting teeth, and crushing it in the coils of its body. In FB, an anaconda first bites with its mouth, striking on a roll of 1-7 on 1D20, causing one point of damage on a successful strike. On a successful bite, the snake may attempt to grapple with a Strength of equal to its hit points; roll on the hit location chart to determine which part of the character's body is grappled by the snake. A successful grapple causes two points of general damage, and continues to cause damage each round the grapple is maintained. If the snake grapples the head, treat it as a Choke attack.

On successive rounds, if the anaconda maintains its hold, it may attempt to grapple again, wrapping another coil of its body around the character. Each coil which successfully grapples causes two points of damage per round, so a character grappled three time by the anaconda takes six points of damage each round the grapple is maintained; each grapple must be broken individually, and characters not grappled by the snake may attempt to help the grappled character break free, using their combined Strength scores. A character with one arms grappled attempts to break a grapple at half-Strength; a character with both arms can only be saved by others.

Anacondas move slowly on land (3 m normal move) but glide quickly through the water (6 m normal move), easily overtaking most swimming men. An anaconda has 15 + 1D6 hit points.

Jaguar and panther
The large cats of the New World, jaguars and panthers are found all around the shores of the Caribbean, from jungles and swamps to forests and scrub. They prey primarily on deer, capybara, and other medium-sized mammals, including feral goats and cattle loosed by sailors and colonists, ambushing their prey from cover such as shrubs or the branches of trees. Attacks on people, such as hunters or boucaniers, are rare but may be deadly when they occur.

Jaguars and panthers usually attack with their claws and bite. A jauguar or panther who successfully strikes on 1-9 on 1D20 with two claws will grapple a character with a Strength of fifteen. The cat will then attempt to bite the character's neck; a bite attack succeeds on a roll of 1-12 on 1D20. Claws and bites each cause two points of general damage; if a character is grappled, roll for the location of a bite attack, with a -2 modifier for each round the cat grapples the character, including the first. If the cat successfully bites the head and neck, the cat may make a Choke attack on successive rounds unless the grapple is broken. A character slain by a jauguar or panther will be dragged away by the cat and hidden under brush or forest litter, to be consumed later.

Jaguars and panthers are faster than humans (12 m normal move) and tend to chase characters who flee - 'run and you'll only die tired,' as I used to explain to park visitors. The big cats have ten + 1D6 hit points.

Alligator and crocodile
Alligators are found along the coast of North America while crocodiles are found on the islands of the Caribbean and along its Central and South American shores in swamps and jungles. They lurk underwater with only their eyes and snouts visible, waiting to strike prey that comes close to the water's edge.

Crocodilians attack with a powerful bite which strikes on 1-8 on 1D20, causing four points of damage; roll for hit location with a +6 modifier to the roll. On a successful bite, an alligator or crocodile attempts to grapple with a Strength equal to its hit points; if the grapple is successful, the crocodile will attempt to drag the character into the water and thrash him to death by rolling over and over, causing four points of general damage per round until the grapple is broken or the character dies.

Crocodilians are capable of extreme bursts of speed (12 m normal move) for a single round, but they lack the endurance to pursue (3 m normal move thereafter). They are powerful swimmers (9 m per round normal move), Alligators and crocodiles have 12 + 1 D6 hit points; their thick hide protects them from two points of damage from each attack.

Vipers are poisonous snakes found along the Caribbean shores; they include rattlesnakes and water moccasins in North America. Preying on small mammals, they rarely attack people unless they are surprised or disturbed.

A viper attacks with its bite, striking on a roll of 1-6 on 1D20. Roll for hit location with a + 6 modifier for snakes on the ground; arboreal vipers lurking in tree branches, however, roll for hit location with a - 3 modifier instead. A viper's bite is venemous; though it is not usually deadly, it can cause extensive tissue damage. The bite itself causes one point of damage; for 1D6 minutes following a bite, the character must make a check versus Endurance each round, suffering an additional point of damage from the venom for each failed check. If the character succeeds on two successive checks, then no more rolls are required for that wound, but if a character fails three checks in succession, then the bite causes permanent damage; any bite on a limb such as a hand or arm results in amputation - treat as Lose Hand/Lower Limb results - while a bite to the chest, flank, or head results in the permanent loss of one point of Endurance. A surgeon who immediately treats a snake bite allows an extra Endurance save each round, with no penalty for failure of the second check.

Vipers are slow (3 m normal move) but they are - 1 to hit due to their small size. They have only two hit points.

Anacondas, big cats, and crocodilians are opportunistic hunters and may occasionally attempt to take a character as prey. Most will not press an attack if injured, withdrawing if possible if they suffer more than half their hit points in damage rather than fighting to the death, unless they are cornered, starving, or defending their young.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Blogger's Pissing Me Off

Well, apparently it's All Meta Week here at RBE!

Back when the new interface was introduced in the spring, I tried it out and reverted to the familiar one, figuring they were still working on getting the bugs out, particularly since the implementation was pushed back. I didn't dislike the new interface aesthetically - yeah, it's incredibly bland and kinda ugly, but so what? I don't go to my blog dashboard to be visually stimulated.

But I expected at least the same level of functionality.

With the old interface, my post list page included a list of all my tags/labels, so I could click on one and bring up all the relevant posts. Now, that feature is gone. Tags show with individual posts, but there is no list or cloud of tags on my post page, meaning I will probably need to locate a widget instead, further cluttering up the main page.

I miss being able to view posts from my post list page as well. Remember the little arrow? Click it and the post becomes visible, with links in the page actually active? I used that a lot, as opposed to preview, which is slower to open and doesn't include live links.

And I can't remember exactly how they were positioned before, but in the first eight or nine months I managed to click the Publish button instead of the Save button exactly once, With the new interface, it's now happened three times already.

Early on on expanded my composition window to full size for my desktop monitor, but it's annoyingly large when viewed on my laptop, and I can't shrink it down again, on either computer - neither dragging the corner nor double-clicking it allow me to make the window smaller.

Finally, my reading list disappears more often. It happened a couple of times with the old interface, but now it happens more frequently, and for longer times - the other day my reading list was gone for more than four hours that I know of.

All of this pales in comparison to the ultimate sin, of hitting Publish and have a post disappear altogether into the ether, never to be seen again. Fortunately, it was a Cinematic post with nothing but a YouTube link and easy to replicate - if it was anything else, I'd probably've ended up on Google's doorstep with a torch and a pitchfork in my hands.

And of course no amount of feedback sent ever merits a reply from our Masters at Google.

I've read other bloggers complaints about Blogger, but honestly I never encountered much in the way of problems before the new interface was implemented. I'm generally not someone who objects to change for the sake of change - I like new and improved as much as the next guy or gal, but if you promise new and improved, you'd better friggin' deliver the on improved.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Everyone Talks About the Weather

Now someone's finally done something about it.

Friend of the blog Bren at RPG Net created a nifty weather table for use with his Honor + Intrigue campaign, set in 1623 France. Inspired by an old RuneQuest supplement, the table allows weather to change over the course of days based on the current conditions, something all good weather tables should do.

Check it out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


This past August, I submitted an application to the RPG Bloggers Network, a blog syndicator. Blog aggregators or syndicators offer an opportunity for bloggers and readers to find one another, and shortly after I launched Really Bad Eggs, I submitted an application to RPG Blog Alliance, which promptly added RBE to its blog roll.

But the RPG Bloggers Network requires that a blogger must show at least three months of active posting, on rpg topics, to be considered for syndication. It was actually eight months after launch that I submitted an application to RPG Bloggers Network, on 20 August 2012. I received an automated reply the same day.
Thank you for your message. We have received it and will get back to you as quick as we can.

Technical issues and problems experienced by existing members generally take priority, and we will respond to these issues as soon as possible.

If you are submitting a new application for membership, it may take a couple weeks before someone gets back to you depending on application backlog and other mitigating factors.

We use FogBugz to keep track of our incoming email. You can check the status of your message at the following URL:

You may want to save your case's tracking ticket: 898_hstelmbk1rfo50hm

Please reply to this message if there's anything else we can do for you.
Both the email and the website are clear on the "may take a couple of weeks" thing - since it's a safe bet that this is someone's hobby or sideline, I can totally understand turnaround taking some time. So I waited.

And waited.

Two weeks passed. Then a month. Then six weeks. Finally, on 17 October, nearly two months after submitting my application, I sent a follow-up email, asking for an update on the status of my application. By then I'd checked the RPG Bloggers Network site to see if RBE was added and I simply missed it, but no, none of my posts appeared in the blog queue.

And, once again, I waited.

Today, eight days later, still nothing at all in reply.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I'd pretty much forgotten about my application until a few weeks ago, when a post on theRPGsite regarding the delays of the "legendary" megadungeon Dwimmermount generated buzz around the blogosphere, and I was reminded of it again in a post by Eric Tenkar at Tenkar's Tavern listing Kickstarters he supported that didn't deliver.

Unfulfilled promises are a regrettable fact of life in what passes for the roleplaying game 'Industry,' and they are certainly not limited to the practitioner-publisher or dedicated hobbyist. At the same time, I think those who choose to offer a product or service to gamers take upon themselves the obligation to honor their commitments, in a timely fashion, or risk earning a reputation for failure and flakiness. Those who choose to put themselves and their work out there should not then claim, 'But I'm just a hobbyist!' as an excuse for a failure to deliver.

I've been approached about a half-dozen times now by different publishers with offers to contribute to or write supplements for different roleplaying games, and while I've been tempted a few times, I've said no in the end. Roleplaying games are my entertainment, and I don't want to turn my hobby into a business. I do this for fun, and saddling myself with deadlines and word counts has the potential to suck the fun out of it for me. I won't take the chance of disappointing others and tarnishing my own reputation in the process.

I admire those who take the plunge as publishers or website managers, but I respect those who deliver on their promises.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Faire

It's Book Faire week at my kids' school, and I met my son's class this morning to check out the selection with him - and to keep him from blowing his money on crap toys, the number of which seems to proliferate each year, unfortunately.

He picked out a book on baseball's greatest hitters, and another on snakes - complete with 3D glasses - and finally, You Wouldn't Want To be a Ninja Warrior! a book I pointed him toward knowing his love of Ninjago.

I'd never heard of the You Wouldn't Want to Be . . . series before, but in addition to the book on ninja warriors, I also purchased two other titles, You Wouldn't Want to Be a Samurai! and - this will surprise no one - You Wouldn't Want to Be a Pirate's Prisoner!

Pirate's Prisoner describes the fate of a Spanish treasure ship captain captured by pirates in 1716. The book opens with a description of the treasure and supplies aboard the captain's galleon, a map of the Caribbean, and a description of sailing in convoy for protection. After the ship is separated from the convoy, English pirates swoop in aboard a fast-moving sloop and capture the galleon. What follows describes the trials and tribulations inflicted on the Spanish captain as the pirates attempt to learn more about the treasure fleet's course. In the process the book covers everything from how ship's crews manage their food and water to the rules of piracy to what the various crew members on a ship are called and what they do - and it also describes, in clear-eyed detail, different tortures inflicted by the pirates on their prisoners, including flogging, keelhauling, and more, as well as the fate of the pirates once they are captured and brought to justice.

I'm impressed by this book for a couple of reasons. First, I like that it doesn't attempt to talk down to kids. The darkly comic illustrations manage to present the gravity of the Spanish captain's situation - and the reality of pirates' treatment of prisoners - without devolving into grotesque horror. Second, it's a remarkable resource on life at sea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

For gamers who want run or play in a historical roleplaying game campaign, children's books, particularly the study guides found in teachers' supplies stores, offer a great alternative to academic history texts or even popular history books. They present details of daily life in ways that many history books written for adult audiences don't; if you want to know the material culture of a medieval knight, or a Renaissance painter, or a wagon train scout, you could do far worse than finding a children's book on the Crusades or Michelangelo or Westward Expansion. Better still, they tend to be much more extensively illustrated than history written for adults. In short, children's books often have exactly the sorts of details which gamers want for running a historical campaign.

Yes We Cain!

The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

So much for getting anything gaming-related done last night.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Breaking Balls

Last Friday, pitcher Barry Zito became an unlikely hero to the baseball fans of San Francisco when he pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings and saved the Giants' season in beating the Cardinals, staving off elimination in the National League Championship Series, and bringing the final two games of the series home to AT&T Park. Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young winner with the Oakland A's, came to the Giants in 2007 as the highest paid pitcher in baseball and promptly proved to be a bust, turning in end-of-the-rotation outings while drawing an ace pitcher's salary. This season saw him turn things around a bit, going 15-8, but even the regular season resurgence didn't really prepare anyone for his Game 5 gem.

In a league where most of the pitchers can hit the low to mid-nineties with their heaters, Zito beat a good-hitting Cardinals lineup with a fastball that never clocked over eighty-six miles per hour, and that only twice. What made it work was a remarkably sharp curveball that he consistently pitched for strikes. The beauty of Zito's curve, which travels in the low to mid-seventies, is that hitters have to adjust their timing to be ready for it, and when they do, an eighty-three mile-per-hour fastball suddenly looks rocket propelled by comparison.

I watched the game, and I honestly have to say it was one of the best pitching performances I've seen - including King Felix's perfecto earlier this season - in recent memory. He snapped off breaking ball after breaking ball that dropped through the zone, and when the Cards' hitters went after it, he shut them down with a high fastball. This is what it must've been like watching Sal Maglie pitch.

I was reminded of great curveballs by the cheese my players threw at me this weekend. After returning from Milan on their mission to located and perhaps ransom the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, they received word that the king's grace was granted to them and they were free to return to Paris, their exile ended. However, with rumors of the long-delayed English fleet on its way to the Mediterranean at last swirling around Turin, and their new commander dangling the prize of sacking Genoa before them when the ships arrived, they decided to blow off returning to France, to remain in Turin in anticipation of the spring campaign against the Genoese and the Spanish.

What the adventurers did not and could not know is that the English warships, soundly defeated by the Spanish during a raid on Cadiz, and that the French were pursuing a separate peace with Spain which culminated in the Treaty of Monçon in March 1626. There never was going to be a resumption of the campaign against Genoa.

And that's perhaps why I didn't expect the players to opt to stay in Turin. From our previous game-day, it sounded like they were ready for their characters to head back to Paris. I planted the rumors of the English fleet and the spring offensive more for reasons of historical interest - this is what was being discussed in the courts of Europe in December 1625 - but I didn't really expect them to bite.

And rather than following through on their plans to go home, they opted to stay for the fireworks instead.

Meanwhile, Riordan O'Neill, the King's Musketeer, has been carrying on an affair with a lady-in-waiting to the princess of Piedmont during his time in Savoy, and I got another curveball there - he was actively pursuing a way to marry his mistress, despite their differences in social standing, even to the point of hoping he would get her pregnant before she was married off to a Savoyard soldier.

And then, when his hopes were dashed, he made sure the break was clean by trying to seduce her maid.

Running a sandbox means being prepared to handle the breaking balls the players send my way. Instead of rushing back to Paris with the vicomte's coded message to 'PROTECT WIFE' in their minds, they decided to pursue fortune and glory and settled for a chimera instead.

In practical terms for me as the referee, this advances my timeline considerably. Rather than arriving in Paris in January, they will arrive in April. I need to consider how the passage of four months affects the machinations of different non-player characters and their complex web of intrigues. What happened to the vicomte's family in Paris, for example? The players' original determination to aid the vicomte disappeared when presented with the chance to fill their saddlebags with Genoese loot. Now the fates of the vicomte and vicomtesse may take a very different turn.

These sweeping 11-5 curveballs that buckle the knees are what make running a sandbox so much fun for me. I'm spending the next couple of weeks figuring out what happens now, how the social landscape of the game changes as a result of the players' and characters' choices.

I'l probably work on it tonight, with my laptop on my knees, as I watch the Giants battle the Cards in a win-or-go-home Game 7 to determine who goes to the World Series on Wednesday.

I hope Matt Cain's curveball is as sharp as Barry Zito's.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Points of Light in a Sea of Lights

I've written at length about the social aspects of the cape-and-sword sandbox, that the swashbucklers' game-world is less focused on setting locations than it is relationships between player and non-player charactes. However, a cape-and-sword campaign still takes place in a place - in fact, many swashbuckling campaigns are set in a world both alien and familiar. That world is our own, or more specicially, the world of our own past.

Now here's the thing: the real-world is big friggin' place. It's not a lonely penal colony in a backwater star system. It's not a keep on the borderlands, surrounded by a howling, monster-haunted wilderness. It's a world filled with people: their numbers are great, their settlements are many, their impact is profound, and their presence is all but inescapable.

So, the first thing a referee running a game in the real-world must consider is, how much of this do I really need to describe, anyway? The easy answer is, only those areas which are of particular relevance to the adventurers. One could, for example, play a campaign of roguish highwaymen and detail little beyond a forest and its roads and tracks, a few villages, a nearby town, and perhaps some ruins or a cavern as a hideout, with the assumption that the adventurers will remain within the edges of the sandbox by dint of social contract, campaign premise, or whatever.

But what happens when the edges of the sandbox are less distinct? How does the referee handle a setting which attempts to encompass a whole world, particularly our own?

In setting up Le Ballet de l'Acier, my Flashing Blades campaign, I wrestled a bit with this. The 'core setting' for the campaign is 1625 France, a country encompassing tens of millions of hectares of land, millions of people, thousands of kilometers of navigable rivers, and on and on. My approach to running any sandbox setting is to 'prep to improvise,' to assemble in advance the tools I need during actual play to make stuff up in response to what the adventurers do, so that if the adventurers, say, set off for Nancy from Paris, I can maintain the verisimilitude of the setting and offer credible answers to reasonable questions which may arise - how does, say, a farm in Champagne differ from a farm in Provence? what wares might a merchant in Limousin be transporting compared to a merchant in Lyonnais? are common names in Brittany different from those in Gascony?

As you might guess from those examples, part of my preparation revolved around a basic unit of political division in ancien régime France, the province. Provinces feature prominently in the career rules for Flashing Blades, so it was important for me to know something about them. I gathered information on physical geography, population demographics, and economics, along with a bit of history. Focusing on the provinces allowed me to break down the whole of France in manageable chunks.

Even so, my treatment of the provinces in necessarily broad-brush. Looking at a period map, it's easy to see the geographic complexity of the countryside, with hundreds of villages and anything from a half-dozen to a score of sizable towns and cities. Even detailing the provinces left me with a very broad-brush treatment of France.

More importantly, cape-and-sword campaigns are less about tromping across fields and forests than they are engaging in intrigues, so I needed to pay close attention to the geographical milieu in which these intrigues take place, and that meant cities. Early on a made a list of five cities, which I then set out to develop in some depth. Paris was the first and most obvious choice - really, it would be pretty easy to run an entire swashbuckling campaign set in Paris if I was so inclined. The largest, most politically important city in France - still the seat of royal power in the time of my campaign - I spent the more time acquiring a feel for Paris than I did any other place in the campaign, learning about its palaces and gardens, churches and priories, markets and alleys, bridges and quays, colleges and courts, prisons and cemeteries. The core rules for Flashing Blades and the short-adventure collection Parisian Adventure both describe numerous landmarks around the city, as does GRUPS Swashbucklers and At Rapier's Point, the Rolemaster cape-and-sword supplement - beyond those I dug through histories and guidebooks to the city, a number of them written as far back as the eighteenth century, to develop my feel for the Early Modern life of the future City of Light. I've found that approaching a city like a tourist tends to clue me in on what is likely to be important to the adventurers in the course of the game, and to prepare accordingly, a trick I learned while running Traveller, where adventurers may travel to three different worlds in single game-day.

After Paris, I next considered another important aspect for swashbuckling games - what if the adventurers chose to turn pirate? That mean ports, so the next three cities on my list were Rouen, La Rochelle, and Marseille. Rouen in this period is the gateway to New France and, along with Saint-Malo, one of the most important trading centers with the rest of Europe and points beyond. La Rochelle is also a critical port city in this time, with extensive trade with the Protestant countries of northern Europe - England, the Provinces, Denmark, Sweden, and the Empire; should some or all of the adventurers be Huguenots, moreover, knowing details on the most important Protestant stronghold in France was essential. Marseille is the gateway to the Mediterranean, and particularly important give the southward tilt of my sandbox.

The last of the five cities on my list was Toulouse, the 'Paris of the south,' an important administrative center in Occitan-speaking France, a city with deep history and rich culture - if forced to choose just one city in which to run a cape-and-sword campaign, I'd pick Toulouse over Paris in a heartbeat.

So, these - Paris, Toulouse, Rouen, La Rochelle, and Marseille - became the campaign's 'points of light,' the geographic 'shiny objects' with which a sandbox setting is studded. For each city there are various webs of intrigue against which the adventurers may brush, through rumors and random encounters; a number of them reach across France to one another as well, such as the Toulousain vicomte de Bouvard, a royal courtier whom the adventurers met on a visit to the Paris horse market. Over the course of play, two more cities, Grenoble and Torino, in the duchy of Savoy, have received more detailed treatment as a direct result of the adventurers' actions, and long-term I'm considering fleshing out Bordeaux and Amiens as well, in anticipation of future events in the campaign, specifically France's entry into the Thirty Years War.

It would be very convenient for me to limit my sandbox to a city, or even a province, but it would also be limiting in ways that I wouldn't really enjoy, and it would deny the players the freedom I want to them to have as they approach the campaign. "Small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world" may make for an excellent setting for some games, but for my cape-and-sword campaign, the game-world is a sea of light with a few that burn a bit brighter than the rest.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tilting the Sandbox

My sandbox isn't on the level.

At it's simplest, a 'sandbox' setting is one in which the adventurers are free to explore without the metagame constraint of an overarching plot in which they are cast as the protagonists. There is no 'story' in which the adventurers participate; a description of such a campaign has more in common with biography or history, written in hindsight from the events of actual play, than a novella prepared by an author.

In theory, this means that the adventurers can decide to go anywhere, and do anything, and, while it may pose some logistical hurdles for the referee, this can be true in practice as well, naysayers notwithstanding.

But part of creating a sandbox is studding it with areas of interest designed specifically to catch the adventurers' eyes. In my Flashing Blades campaign, those "areas of interest" tend to be people and institutions - for example, a family - rather than places like a lost dwarf mine or an abandoned space station, as in more traditional fantasy or sci-fi sandboxes.

So, while the players have the freedom to explore the sandbox, in most traditional roleplaying games the game-world tends to reflect the aspirations and inclinations of the referee, at least initially. Perhaps the most important of the sandbox referee's responsibilities, then, is to create a world which offers interesting opportunities for the players' characters to pursue, a chance for them to set and work to achieve meaningful goals. To do so means either anticipating, to the extent practicable, what the players and their characters may want, asking them directly, or some blending of the two.

To meet the expectations of the players in my campaign, genre influences and the rules of the game guide many of my choices about what goes in the sandbox, but I also have the opportunity to shape the sandbox by my own choices of exactly what influences are used. For example, I was originally inspired to run a cape-and-sword campaign by REH's The Shadow of the Vulture, a short story set at the siege of Vienna in 1529. Now Shadow . . . is a fun historical romance short story, but it's also an Oriental tale as well, exploring the meeting, and the friction, of the Muslim East and the Christian West, and when I set out to create my campaign, I knew I wanted this to be an influence as well. I wanted not only musketeers and pirates but Janissaries and corsairs, Parisian alleys and Turkish seraglios.

And as a result, my sandbox tilts south.

In creating those people and organisations which serve as the 'shiny objects' of my sandbox game-world, I included many, such as the Montchèvre family, with connections to the south of France, to Italy, and to the Mediterranean. There are knights of crusading orders such as Saint John and Saint Stephen, Venetian investors, Greek merchants, French diplomats with Italian and Ottoman postings, and Spanish courtiers lurking in rumors and random encounters. Many of the non-player characters with whom the adventurers are already involved have connections to the Mediterranean as well - both the seigneur de Vaile and the chevalier de Courtenay, allies of the adventurers from their recent service in Savoy, are descended from crusaders, and each has secrets and relationships in which the adventurers may choose to become embroiled in time.

Now, this may seem like a lot more work than is necessary - why not just, say, start the characters in Marseille at the beginning of an adventure which takes them to Alexandria to rescue a Hungarian maiden from a sultan's harem? The easy answer is, this defeats my purpose in running a sandbox in which the players and their characters are free to explore. While I tilt the sandbox in a direction which interests me, I don't stand it on its edge. There is a whole world for them to explore, and if the players decided to take up the comte de Challons on his offer to go to the Empire to fight for the king of Denmark, then that's the way the campaign would go - I'm prepared to roll with their choices to trap furs in New France or raid the Spanish Main or pay a visit to the Swedish court if they are so inclined.

So, if it seems like the adventurers in Le Ballet de l'Acier meet a large number of Knights of Malta or Italian courtiers or Venetian bankers during the campaign, it's not a coincidence. It's also not, however, the only game in town.

Monday, October 15, 2012

DVR Alert

On Thursday, 18 October, Turner Classic Movies will show The Swordsman of Siena, starring Stewart Granger and the gorgeous Sylva Koscina.

I've read about the movie, but I've never seen it, so I'm really looking forward to this one.

Check you local listing for times, as always.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Club Life

En Garde! the 'little brown book' of cape-and-sword roleplaying games, began life as a set of tabletop miniature skirmish rules but soon took on roleplaying elements as the players wanted to know more about who their duelists were and why they were fighting, creating a social milieu for the characters.

One rules component of this milieu is gaining and losing status points. Status points represent a sort of social currency; they are essential to maintaining a character's social rank. Because the characters are swashbucklers, status points are gained and lost doing swashbuckler-y things: carousing, seducing mistresses, going to war, and so forth.

One of the means of acquiring status points is membership in a gentlemen's club. Clubs in EG are inspired by the London clubs, first established in the late 17th century and growing in number and popularity through the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as their appearance in cape-and-sword stories, such as Harold Young's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Gentlemen's clubs in En Garde! provide the players' character a place to gamble and seek feminine companionship, both of which offer status points; they also give the opportunity for toadying, which is gaining status points by hobnobbing with those of greater social status.

Like regiments and campaigns, offices and titles, EG's gentlemen's clubs were included in Flashing Blades; though they are arguably an anachronism in FB's default setting of 17th century France compared to EG's pastiche game-world, they are inspired by and emulate the genre, such as Zaton's cabaret in Stanley J. Weyman's Under the Red Robe. Unfortunately, FB's gentlemen's clubs don't really do very much else as presented: they offer a hierarchy of ranks with attendant social levels, a bit of income and the opportunity for graft, and a perq which may be awarded to other player characters or non-player characters. FB's Social Rank is tied closely to one's career and wealth, and it does not require a constant investment in status points, so one of the prime reasons for joining a club in EG is absent in FB. While a number of non-player characters are described as members of gentlemen's clubs, and clubs appear in rumors, none of the fifteen adventures published for Flashing Blades revolve around the activities of one or more of the clubs specifically. Clubs seem to exist primarily as a means for the gamemaster to introduce adventure hooks.

The incentives for joining a gentlemen's club in Flashing Blades seem too weak and poorly defined, lacking the discrete benefits offered to the adventurers in En Garde! So what should FB clubs offer?

As in EG, gentlemen's clubs in my Flashing Blades campaign are a place to carouse, gamble, and seek feminine companionship. Members of gentlemen's clubs may earn check marks in their Carousing skill - one check mark is earned for each year spent as a member of a club, which means if you eventually want to be a Master Superior in Carousing without killing your liver, a club membership is a good idea.

Gambling is another pastime associated with gentlemen's clubs in En Garde! and what little the published Flashing Blades rules and adventures say about clubs suggests this is intended to be the case in FB as well. Each club keeps a table limit, which may be exceeded only at the discretion of a manager or other officer, and gamblers are immediately forfeit membership if caught cheating other members or failing to make good on a bet - a caning from a manager may also be in order. A gambler who wins consistently, at the referee's discretion or on a roll of Luck/2 on 1D20, may be staked by the house, keeping thirty percent of his winnings with the balance going to the club - any gambler staked by the club who loses on two consecutive visits is considered to have gone cold and will no longer be staked until he returns to his winning ways.

Rules for courting a mistress may be found in the short adventure "Scavenger Hunt" in Parisian Adventure and a set of courtship house rules developed by (I think) Matthijs Krijger, owner of the Flashing Blades Yahoo group, used to be available on the intrewebs, but I've been using a kuldged-together house-ruled version of the seduction rules from Victory Games' James Bond 007: Role-Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service for my campaign to date. Aside from using a certain notorious random encounter table to flesh out the descriptions of the clubs for my campaign, I haven't done anything special as far as locating potential mistresses other than simple random encounters. A full set of courtship rules is on my plate as a future project, however, and the role of gentlemen's clubs in meeting courtesans and the like will be folded into that.

So, on one level, this carries forward the activities of the gentlemen's clubs in En Garde! to Flashing Blades, but it's a very literal translation, devoid of nuance, in that it misses the mark as carousing, gambling, and courting are a means of maintaining one's social status in the game-world, not just entertainments for the adventurers to pursue. The way to make clubs meaningful in FB, then, is to give them a social function.

The rules for Contacts and Favors provide a useful means of integrating gentlemen's clubs into the larger social world of the characters. First, a club acts as a Contact on which a member may call. As an effective Contact of the player character, a member receives "aid" from the club "a reliable source . . . of game-world information, including rumors." Given the broad membership of a gentlemen's club, this should encompass more than a regular Contact, at the referee's discretion. The member may ask club members to exert influence of an "informal" nature on his behalf, at a Social Rank equal to that of the club's minimum requirement for membership.

Members may also request a Favor from the club. A Favor will be granted at the level of the minimum Social Rank required for membership; such a Favor is received once per year. A member may also ask for a Favor from one of the club officers - secretary, treasurer, or club chief - once; to receive a Favor from an officer, at the officer's Social Rank, the member must roll under his own Social Rank on 1D20, with the difference between the officer's SR and the member's SR as a modifier.

A Contact and an anually renewable - albeit relatively low Social Rank - Favor provides a social benefit to being in a club, and it reinforces the idea that club members are mutually supportive of one aother.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stupid Dice Tricks

I have mixed feelings about novelty randomisers.

Novelty randomisers aren't new to roleplaying games - Crimson Cutlass , for example, used Tarot cards as a randomiser in 1979 - but I'm guessing most gamers are familiar with more recent examples such as Deadlands' playing cards and poker chips or Dread's Jenga tower. Once in awhile a would-be game designer at Big Purple pops up with an idea for some other means of generating random outcomes - my impression is usually that it's less about the outcome and more about the novelty, a grab for attention.

And yet, I think, Hmmm, swashbucklers dueling in a burning building, or a ship drifting toward a dangerous reef - the Jenga tower would be perfect for modeling that!

Perhaps that explains my fascination with LEGO dice.

We picked up the LEGO board game Pirate Plank on a trip to LEGOLAND last year - the image at right is the buildable die from that game. In Pirate Plank, the goal is to avoid walking the plank. During the game, you roll the (initially blank) die - you can either add a color tile matching that of one of the other players' pieces, or, if color tiles are already on the face, you may move an opponent's piece a number of spaces equal to the number of matching color tiles. The skull-and-crossbones face allows you to either move one of your opponents' pieces one space forward or your own piece two spaces back. Each turn then presents a choice of move your opponent now or build up as many colors on the die face as you can and move your opponent's piece further later in the game. My son - who picks up game strategy incredibly quickly - and I play this one quite often.

The LEGO die frames just call out to me for a roleplaying game application - and I'm not the only one, apparently. In that thread I noted that the LEGO die makes a useful condition track - each tile could represent something like a successful skill check, frex.

I considered adding the LEGO die to the Flashing Blades dueling system - each round in which you successfully hit an opponent without being hit in return allows you to roll the die and either add a tile or use the number of tiles of your color as a bonus to an attack or parry in the next round. I was reminded of this by the Honor + Intrigue Advantage track earlier this year.

One of the great things about the LEGO die as a condition track is that once a tile is added to the frame, it stays there until it's removed, so it allows a condition to be tracked over long periods of time without note-keeping - and it can't be bumped off the track when a character sheet gets jostled. With this in mind, I looked at ways to use the LEGO die with the homebrew courtier minigame rules I'm picking away at. One possible application is tiles on the the LEGO die representing the circle of the King's closest courtiers - each time the adventurers either gain one of the courtiers as a Contact or gains a Favor from one of these courtiers, or even potentially takes over one of those positions, the color changes to that of the character. Anytime the adventurers attempt to sway the King to their course of action, the die is rolled, and the difference between the number of the adventurers' tiles and that of the other courtiers becomes a bonus or penalty to the die roll. This allows me to track the extent of the characters' influence at court over a long period of time.

While both of these applications - and another half-dozen or so floating around in the corners of my mind - appeal to me, I'm also acutely aware that I have a solution in my hand while searching for problems to fix with it, which is really kind of an ass-backwards way to do things - novelty for novelty's sake. It's why I haven't actually unveiled any of my own stupid dice tricks just yet.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Gospel of komradebob

"Old Skool GMs: We know when it's okay to turn off the targetting computer and trust our feelings." - The Gospel of komradebob

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tour des Coeurs

I used to play a lot of Hearts with friends and co-workers. One night I was flipping through the notepad with which we kept score, comparing point totals from different games, and I noticed that one person who won one night might've had the highest point total another, or scored just a few more points than the winner in a third. When I looked more closely at not just the scores, but the differences in point totals, it reminded me of pro cycling, with a rider's performance reflected in how many seconds he is behind the leader.

And thus was born the Tour des Coeurs.

Each game of Hearts became a 'stage' in a race, with five or seven stages making up a 'tour' - later I added a 'grand tour' of twenty stages. Instead of tracking overall points, we tracked margins between racers - the leader's score for the stage was zero, and everyone else subtracted the leader's score from their own to determine how many seconds back they were on the stage. These margins would be added together after each stage to determine the overall leader of the tour.

What was interesting about it is that the strategy changed. Sure, everyone wanted to rack up stages wins - winning individual games of Hearts - but it was possible to take the overall tour lead without ever winning a stage by finishing with the smallest margin after each game. How points were dealt in a hand could be affected by the overall score; instead of simply dumping the queen of spades or a handful of hearts, giving them to a particular player - 'putting time into a rider' - became a goal to take or keep the overall lead. For the grand tour I introduced time bonuses for the first three places in each stage, so, frex, a first place finish also subtracted an additional twelve seconds - points - from the total.

The overall winner won the yellow jersey, while the winner of the most stages in the tour got the green jersey - usually the prizes were dinner and a beer, respectively.

The Tour des Coeurs proved to be a remarkable simulation, and soon a few narrative conventions took hold. Taking the queen of spades meant a rider 'went off the road' or 'slipped a chain'; taking a lot of points in a turn meant the rider 'cracked on a climb.' Shooting the moon was an 'attack,' and a player whose score was significantly lower than everyone else's in a game was 'off the front.'

Of course, all of these narratives arose post hoc - the ability to plan an attack at a particular point in the 'race' was limited, with no way to work with a team mate or make an alliance on the road to work together 'til the finish sprint to keep away from the peloton, as pro racers may do. There was none of the strategy and tactics which are the most exciting part of bike racing, except in hindsight.

Put another way, while the results told an interesting story of a bike race, the experience of playing it didn't feel like participating in a bike race.

Now let me tell you how I feel about story games.

Actually, I think I just did.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Great Expectations

This past week Ravyn at Exchange of Realities published a pair of posts on the subject of failure, specifically rules for handling alternatives to outright failure and creating opportunities for failure to be mitigated.
How in blazes is anyone supposed to screw up and then find an oblique way around it when all these failures seem so unrecoverable? When screwing up means going back to the blasted chargen, do not pass go, do not collect any of the local currency—things disappearing forever, things being broken past repair, and nine times out of ten they’re the things that really matter because the GM is fond of gut-punching? So will I fall and not get up?

I rather like the idea of being able to fail in a controlled environment and remember how to Plans B through Z back to something slightly better than the status quo. Second chances. They’re pretty awesome.
It's a subject which generates some heat among gamers, particularly when death is on the line. I've written a couple of times about this already - in short, I disagree with the notion that death is among the 'least interesting' consequences a character can face. If my character can't chance the fate of Vaughn Bodé's Captain of the Guard (warning! NSFW!) - part I | part II | part III - then I'm playing the wrong game. Even so, I do expect other consequences of failure as well, which I'll explore in a another post.

But there was something else which jumped out at me from Ravyn's post.
There’s a lot I like in a character. Justified confidence. The ability to snark anything. Who doesn’t? But my favorites are the ones who fail. The ones who completely screw things up, sometimes repeatedly, and who in the wake of their sequential screw-ups look around, shake their heads, mutter something about how they got to this point, and then get up and start fixing things. The ones whose first plan isn’t quite what’s needed, so they back off, regroup, and come up with another plan. And then another. Who will turn any situation into a plan, and when it fails, just move on to the next letter. Into the next alphabet. Start pulling plan designations from the syllabaries. There are a lot of writing systems out there to name plans after, and these people, as long as they keep surviving their failures, keep learning who they can and can’t trust, who they can stay with and who they need to flee from as fast as is humanly necessary, which solutions work and which don’t and which will probably get everyone they love killed in the process (hopefully they didn’t get that one by experience; that’s depressing)….
Wow. That's a pretty extensive list of expectations to lay at the foot stool of (1) the referee, (2) the other players, and (3) the game, with the belief that all three should work seamlessly together to satisfy them.
Then I find that the tough part is playing them.
Yeah, I would kinda imagine so.

To be perfectly honest, my gut reaction is, 'Fer cris' sake, just write a friggin' story an' be done with it,' but I know it's not really as simple as that. That subset of roleplaying games which explicitly strive to inculcate aspects of collaborative storytelling do have a game element to them which affects play in ways that, frex, online text-based roleplaying generally doesn't. There are twists and turns generated by the rules and randomizers, limitations on the character's power to change the direction of the story, and so forth. These games can provide the 'space to fail' for which Ravyn is looking, in the interest of a compelling narrative.

Proponents of such games often insist that roleplaying games with an emphasis on producing a satisfying narrative are really no different from other more traditional roleplaying games. Perhaps that's true - I haven't enough personal experience with them to say.

But even if the games themselves, viewed from lofty perch of the the cameras aboard the Goodyear blimp Spirit of America, are of a kind, I think the expectations of the players who gravitate to games which, frex, offer conflict resolution over task resolution, say, may be profoundly different. Expecting to play Wesley in my campaign can produce severe cognitive dissonance when you discover that you can end up like Count Rugen instead, and that that's a feature, not a bug.