Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Pen and the Sword: Infernal Sorceress

"Quick as a weasel, but you'll die like the pig you are!" Don Filberto snarled when he saw what had happened and gathered himself for a more careful attack. He saw the twin daggers, feinted with his sword, then stepped back and and quickly drew his own to use as a main gauche. Now the match was highly weighted in his favor again, more to his liking. Not that he was a mediocre swordsman. On the contrary, the small Iberian aristocrat was indeed a master of the art. It was a matter of enjoyment. Don Filberto took great pleasure in watching his opponent die slowly. With a sword against two daggers, he would have had to be cautious, strike to kill or else risk being slain himself. Now with a pair of weapons himself, he could play the game he loved. "Come on then, you stinking pig! Let's see what you're made of."

Ferret wasn't goaded by anything his foe said. He knew all too well his chances were slim when facing a swordsman from a distance. He needed to get in close, but Don Filberto's main gauche made that near impossible now. If he managed to get past the threat defense of the long blade, then the left-hand one would be there to attack. Then again, he had seen the little man move. Don Filberto was graceful and fast. He could dance back, keep Ferret where he wanted him before his sword point.

The priest could recover at any moment - or Colonel de la Cabarro for that matter. Guardsmen might come in. Time was his worst foe, and Ferret knew that all too well. He could not fence with Don Filberto, hope that some obstacle in the cluttered office would throw the man off balance and expose him to attack thus. Ferret had to attack. "You are a nasty little mannikin, aren't you?" he said with derision. "You must have been the runt of the litter your bitch mother whelped!"

The words made Don Filberto seethe with fury. He was most sensitive of his barely-over-five-foot height, and any insult to his mother spelled death to the one speaking. The rage didn't make him inept, though, but actually gave him a deadly calmness now. It had been used against him before, and Don Filberto was a veteran who had been schooled well. He made no reply, and attacked.

- Infernal Sorceress, Gary Gygax

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Under the Microscope

Let it never be said I'm not willing to do my homework.

Lowell Francis at Age of Ravens posted video from a panel discussion at the inaugural ConTessa online gaming conventions. Titled Collaborative World Building and Gaming, the eighty-five minute video features three games designers - the Microscope dude, the Diaspora guy, the Psi*Run woman - along with Francis and his wife, Sherri Stewart, who moderates the panel. In his blogpost, Francis expands on a few of the comments made in the video. I admit, I skipped the last five minutes, but as they were winding down with questions from the con forum, I think I got the gist of what the panelists had to say.

To no great surprise, the panelists make an argument for collaborative world building - CWB hereafter - including their personal experiences, presumably gained from actual play, their different approaches to it in their games, and why they feel more traditional roleplaying games would benefit from CWB; Francis in particular seems to be most interested in this application, particularly in his blogpost. Among the arguments offered in the video and accompanying post - and this is by no means the complete list - are that CWB encourages player buy-in and investment in the campaign, reduces referee workload, fosters an environment of trust between the players and the referee, and may draw out reserved players and curb domineering players. More efficiently trapping mice and curing the common cold may have been in there is well, probably in those last five minutes that I skipped.

Now to be completely fair, their passion for CWB is no less than my own for sandbox, status quo game-worlds and the associated playstyle, a topic on which I bang away pretty relentlessly. I don't presume that what I like is, or should be, universal to all gamers; I absolutely understand why gamers enjoy linear adventures, frex, and, as a rule, I attempt to offer at least some explanation or examples of other playstyles and preferences.

The panelists actually get close to this just short of the one hour mark. There's mention that CWB may not be for all gamers: in discussing scene-framing, it's noted that some gamers find it challenging to switch back and forth between character and player perspectives, with Meguey Baker - Psi^Run woman - suggesting that some havent' cultivated the skill "or don't care." Right at one hour, Ben Robbins - Microscope dude - finally gets around to mentioning that, for gamers who want a "world of mystery," collaborative world building can spoil the game. He immediately moves on to suggest that it's simply a matter of players being "in on the joke," and that they can learn to, in his words, "participate in an informed and joyous fashion."

That's as close to the panelists get to addressing what is the biggest sticking point of collaborative world building for me, and perhaps for other gamers as well: as a player, I want to explore the game-world, not build it. The "world of mystery" isn't something I want to get past; it's one of the most important features of roleplaying games for me.

The panelists generally display little appreciation for, or interest in, why the "player/GM dyad" works for so many gamers and has for so long, and that's fine as far as it goes, of course. In Lowell Francis' blogpost, it goes rather beyond simply ignoring other positions to exaggerating a fringe argument, that referees who don't embrace collaborative world building may do so because they 'fear the players,' instead. Francis goes on to note that, yes, the players may end up making significant changes to what the referee is interested in running, but that's okay, because the referee can still add surprises, even when the swords-and-sorcery campaign he planned to run is morphed into a high fantasy romp through the players' input. After offering a number of benefits from CWB to the traditional referee, Francis concludes with a few "drawbacks": it nay require going outside the referee's "comfort zone," the game system may not actually support the suggestions made by the players, and that - presumably from their new-found investment - the players may want to play longer than the referee planned to run the campaign at the beginning. Some drawback, that last, huh?

The sad and somewhat frustrating thing about this whole exercise is that neither the panelists nor Francis' blogpost take note of the trumpeting African bull elephant in the room: the difference isn't between the players collaborating in world building or not - it's between collaborating in world building in-character or out-of-character. The characters in my Flashing Blades campaign may, per the rules of the game, rise to the highest ranks among the ministers and courtiers of France and the princes of the Church; they can control armies and ministries and bishoprics, accumulate vast wealth, own chateaus and estates. They can rival or literally supplant Richelieu or Mazarin or Colbert or Turenne.

Or they can become pirates. Or knights. Or explorers. Or diplomats. They can change the game-world in any number of ways, large and small. But they do it in-character, in actual play, not out-of-game in accordance with a set of game designer's guidelines.

I understand that these particular panelists are preaching, and it's not incumbent on the minister to offer the devil's side of the argument, but honestly, I really wish that the panelists had recognized this and addressed it, because I think it would be a much more interesting discussion than the one I listened to.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

DVR Alert

Thursday, 27 June, TCM offers a pair of swashbucklers, both featuring the lovely, raven-haired Patricia Medina: Pirates of Tripoli, with Paul Henreid, and The Lady and the Bandit, with Louis Hayward.

I've never seen either of these (!) so I'm really looking forward to both.

Local listings &c.

Monday, June 24, 2013

This Never Happened . . . But It Should Have!

Click on the pic to visit Super-Team Family . . . The Lost Issues, and be prepared to lose hours of your day perusing the greatest comic teams-ups that never were.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Pen and the Sword: The Justice of the Duke

"The Lord of Camerino's fortunes do not wear so prosperous a look, eh?"

Malipiero's glance shunned the Duke's; his fingers toyed nervously with his grey beard.

"It was I," he said, "who made Gian Paolo afraid to come, to the end that he might send me. I did this that I might lay my services at your disposal, for at heart I have ever been your Excellency's most devoted. My only son is in your service."

"A traitor who yesterday sought to compass my assassination," Cesare informed him coldly. "It is well I wear a shirt of mail. This precious son of thine lies in my dungeons awaiting my pleasure."

"My God!" gasped Malipiero. His face was turned ashen, his limbs trembled under him.

"Hadst not heard of it? How poor are the Lord of Camerino's spies! It is the common talk of Fabriano. But thou knewest it was to be attempted, and what the price the Lord of Milan—yet another master of thine—was to have paid him. Thou damned, infernal traitor, darest so boldly bear me messages from Gian Paolo? Aye, that thou darest, knowing that as an ambassador thou'rt safe."

"My lord!" cried Malipiero in an anguish of terror, "I knew naught of such a plot."

"I think," said Cesare, "that I hate a liar almost more than an assassin; certainly as much." And he cracked the coriander-seed between his strong, white teeth.

"Highness," exclaimed the other, eagerly, "I have it in my power to make amends for what my son has done. I can rid you of this Lord of Camerino. Shall it be a deal between us? My son's life against the raising of this siege?"

Cesare shut his box with a snap and dropped it into his pocket.

"It was to make me some such proposal, I think, that thou didst request to speak with me alone. Possibly there was some other bargain in thy mind, some other price to ask for the treachery thou'rt proposing?"

Malipiero flung dissimulation to the winds. His avarice, which had made him a constant traitor to his every master had been his only stimulus to offer his foul services to Cesare Borgia. But now that he heard of the failure of that plot which he had hatched for gold, and which his only son seemed likely to pay for with his neck, the life of his boy was the only recompense he asked. He frankly said as much.

"I will not bargain with thee," was Cesare's contemptuous answer.

The distraught man dropped on his knees. With tears in his eyes he implored clemency and urged upon Cesare how much it imported that he should rejoin his army in the North.

"There is not in all Italy a knave with whom I would so scorn to deal as thou, Malipiero. Man, thou art so steeped in the mire of treachery that the very sight of thee offends me, and I think I have endured it long enough." "My lord," the other clamoured, "I can find you a way out of this as could no other man. Give me my son's life, and it shall be done—to-morrow. I will draw Gian Paolo away—back to Camerino. What are his men without him? Hirelings all, mercenaries every man of them. They would never stay to oppose your sally and deliver battle if Gian Paolo were not by to urge them."

Cesare was tempted. At all costs he must get out of Fabriano, and that soon, or he would suffer direly. Mistrust of Malipiero prompted his next question.

"What means hast thou to perform so much?"

At this suggestion that the Duke was inclined to treat with him, Malipiero rose. He shuffled a step nearer, licking his lips, his eyes screwed cunningly.

"Gian Paolo loves his throne of Camerino dearly — so dearly that he has risked all upon his throw against your Highness. But there is one thing he loves still more — his honour. Let it be whispered to him that the lady his wife —" He leered horribly. "You understand, Magnificent. He would leave his camp out yonder, and dash back to Camerino, where she bides in the palace your Excellency has left her, as fast as horse could bear him."

Cesare felt his soul revolt. The thing was vile, the fruit of a vile mind uttered by a vile mouth, and as he looked at the leering creature before him a sense of nausea took him. But his calm, inscrutable face showed naught of this; his beautiful, passionless eyes betrayed none of the repulsion with which they looked on the creature before him. Presently his lips parted in a smile, but what that smile portended Malipiero could not guess until he spoke.

"Possibly there is in Italy a viler thing than you. Probably there is not. Still, it is for me to use thee, not convert thee. Accomplish me this thing, since thou'rt sure 'tis to be done."

Malipiero drew a deep breath of relief. Insults were of no account to him so that he gained his end.

"Grant me my son's life, and I undertake that by to-night Gian Paolo shall be in the saddle."

"I make no bargain with thee," Cesare answered. "I'll not so smirch my hands. Do thou this thing, then look to me for payment."

"You will be merciful, Magnificent?"

"It is said by the few who do not malign me that I am ever just. Rest content; thou shalt find me so."

- "The Justice of the Duke," Rafael Sabatini

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Art of Persuasion

I've written about my approach to social skills and roleplaying, the significance of non-player character attributes, and a new npc attribute - Tractability - I introduced for my Flashing Blades campaign. In my last post, I discussed social skills in Flashing Blades, both how they are presented in the game and how they are used in my campaign. Now I want to turn to when I call for social skill rolls.

Deciding on when a die roll is called for or not is perhaps one of the most important decisions a referee is called upon to make in the course of actual play. Dexterity check to climb a rickety ladder? Endurance check to avoid the grippe after travelling through a cold, wet night? Roll for damage for a coup de grâce ? Many games attempt to answer questions like these through the rules, while others leave them to the discretion of the referee, but in my experience, even games which offer either a plethora of fiddly rules or simple, broad-stroke rules to cover as many circumstances as possible may still require adjudication by a human being in the many and varied circumstances which require their application in actual play. In games where the range of potential actions are as unconfined as human imagination, only human imagination can truly keep up, and in most traditional roleplaying games, it's the referee's role to take the players' input and make sense of it in the context of the game and the game-world.

In my experience, social skills may be particularly tricky in this regard. A player may have no idea how to parry-and-thrust with a rapier or jump from a window onto a horse's saddle, but virtually all of us believe we can put together a reasonable argument or tell a convincing lie, so turning to the dice can, for some gamers, feel very intrusive to what they consider to be 'common sense,' or 'immersion breaking.' I think this is where part of the disconnect with social skills occurs for quite a few gamers, both players and referees.

As referee, then, what I look for is what climbers call 'the crux move,' the most challenging part of the pitch. With respect to social skills, it's looking for the point at which a non-player character is asked to make an out-of-the-ordinary decision. Most roleplaying, including but not limited to in-character dialog, simply requires the referee to stand in the non-player character's shoes, to consider the situation from that character's perspective, perhaps influenced by a reaction roll. In the same way that walking up a flight of stairs doesn't require an Acrobatics check, most social interactions don't require more than a single die roll, for reaction, if any roll at all.

Social skills, then, come into play when a non-player character reaches a critical decision point, a gut check. For me, usually this means the character is asked to put something, personally or professionally, at risk: examples from my current campaign include dissuading a tavern keeper from calling the provost-martial's archers when a friend of the players' character smashed up the bar, learning details of the investigation of an attempted assassination from a prosecutor, or seducing a lady-in-waiting at the duke of Savoy's court. Roleplaying - how a player's character approaches the non-player character and frames the argument - determines which skill(s), if any, may be applied in resolving success or failure.

For the relatively simple examples above, applying the results of a skill check seems unlikely to be immersion-shattering even for gamers who don't care for social skill rolls, but what about more complex social interactions? Should it be possible, say, to convince King Louis XIV not to repeal the Edict of Nantes with a successful Charm check? At what point is too much hanging on a single die roll? Social skills should be robust enough to handle a courtship as well as a seduction, or to laying out a case for innocence versus a plea for mercy.

The "Duel of Wits" from The Burning Wheel is one example of a set of social skills designed to scale with this sort of scope and complexity, but for my Flashing Blades campaign, I drew inspiration from a different source, the rules for seduction in Victory Games' James Bond 007: Roleplaying In Her Majesty's Secret Service.

JB 007 breaks seduction down into a series of five evocatively named skill checks: 1. The Look, 2. Opening Line, 3. Witty Conversation, 4. Beginning Intimacies, 5. When and Where? Each skill check is increasingly difficult at determined by the Ease Factor, which is multiplied by the character's Primary Chance, which is equal to the character's skill plus the relevant attribute score; as a frame of reference, The Look is EF 10 whereas When and Where? is EF 4. What this rule does is divide a social interaction into discrete steps of increasing difficulty.

As a rule for handling one specific form of social interaction, the JB 007's five steps are fine as far as they go, but they don't do much to differentiate between the personality or individual inclinations of different non-player characters, one of the fundamental difficulties of using certain kinds of social skills, as noted previously. Fortunately, for my own campaign, I have a way around that: the Tractability score. Tractability represents how receptive to suggestion a non-player character may be, providing a modifier to social skill checks. It can also be used in more complex social interactions to determine the number of successful checks required to influence a non-player character as well.

Consider an example: a player character is caught issuing a challenge to a duel by the provost-martial and the player character attempts to convince the provost-martial to 'look the other way' over this violation of the royal edicts. Tractability is applied as a negative modifier to the attempt to persuade; if the two have crossed paths before, as referee I may apply a situational modifier as well, favorably or unfavorably, depending on a reaction roll or the outcome of previous attempts at using a social skills. Suppose that, rather than risk discovery by the provost-martial in the act, the player character wants to secure the provost-martial's agreement not to interfere with this 'affair between gentlemen' prior to the duel. If the provost-martial's Tractability is three, then the player character must succeed at three social skill checks; the Tractability modifier is reduced by one-half, rounded up. Should the player character be interrupted in the middle of the duel, blade drawn and bloodied, then the provost-martial's Tractability score may be doubled - it's more difficult to persuade the king's representative in the heat of the moment from discharging his official duties.

So when does a single skill check roll suffice, and when are a number of skill checks called for? My simple rubric is this: if a social skill is used in an attempt to influence a specific behavior immediately, then a single roll is required; if a social skill is used to influence a recurring behavior or to change a non-player character's attitude, then multiple skill checks will generally be required to succeed.

Failure of a single check is fairly straight-forward, of course; the referee need only assess the degree of failure to resolve the outcome. For a series of skill checks associated with a more complex social interaction, a single failure is only a delay, but consecutive failures means the character must start again with zero successes; three consecutive failures means the character has utterly botched the attempt, and in fact the non-player character's Tractability is now doubled with respect to all future attempts at social skill use by that character!

This system can also be used to handle a player character and a non-player character, or two player characters, attempting to influence a third party, frex, two royal ministers attempting to persuade the king to adopt their respective courses of action, or two lawyers arguing a case before a magistrate. Both the player and the non-player character may attempt to score a success in their attempt to persuade, or they can attempt to rebut a point made by their rival, reducing the other's successes by one instead.

In actual play, I've found this approach to be robust and versatile, frex, dealing with the rakish King's Musketeer's serial attempts at seduction and courtship. The Tractability score shapes how social interactions are likely to unfold and makes each non-player character distinctive, at least to a point - for additional nuance, however, I added one more set of stats to non-player characters, which is the subject of the next post in this series.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Three-fer DVR Alert!

It's a good weekend for pirate movies. Saturday, 22 June, TCM airs Blackbeard the Pirate, with Robert Newton and Linda Darnell. I like Newton's complex portrayal of the infamous buccaneer.

On Sunday, 23 June, TCM shows The Pirate, with Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and the always entertaining Walter Slezak, and The Crimson Pirate, with Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, and Eva Bartok. Both are farces, and I admit I think I've only managed to sit all the way through the former once, but the latter is goofy fun, mostly for Lancaster's and Cravat's stunts.

On Monday, 24 June, TCM changes the theme from pirates to pretenders with The Prisoner of Zenda, the 1953 version with Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and the wonderfully sinister James Mason, the perfect villain.

Check local listings for times, as always.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Captain Blood Introspective

Jeff Black at Dark Dimension has a review and reaction to Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood: His Odyssey. I particularly appreciated his closing paragraph.
The book alternates between lighteartedness and some rather grim events, giving it a jarring, dichotomous feel. Also, major characters die "offstage" at times, making the demise of some of Blood's most persistent antagonists and faithful companions frustratingly anticlimactic. The ending of the book itself is oddly, and ambiguously, ominous, casting a shadow on what might have been a happy resolution. All of these things sound like I found them to be detriments, but I ended up finding them adding to the mystique of the book. There was something realistic about it all, with no character safe and some plot points left dangling, as often happens in real life. Sometimes life is messy and unresolved, and even Captain Blood cannot swashbuckle his way out of every grim situation...even ones he'd hoped for and found not as satisfying when he finally got his wish.
These qualities of a narrative are far too rare for my tastes. I like messy stories replete with ambiguity, rather than tidy conclusions, which, perversely enough, is a too-frequent characteristic of many of Mr Sabatini's other tales. I like stories which stand conventions about who lives and who dies on their head. In short, I like stories that don't feel like most stories.

It's also at the core of what I enjoy so much about sandbox campaigns and why I have so little interest in linear adventures. As Jeff notes, the events of Captain Blood resemble what "often happens in real life," and that's what I want out of my roleplaying game experiences. Indeed, I believe that this is one of the greatest strengths of roleplaying games.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Pen and the Sword: Pirate Latitudes

He turned to look around the room. This was Cazalla's quarters, richly furnished. A dark-haired girl was in the bed. She looked at him in terror, holding the sheets to her chin, as Hunter dashed through the room to the rear windows. He was halfway out the window when he heard her say, in English, "Who are you?"

Hunter paused, astonished. Her accent was crisp and aristocratic. "Who the hell are you?"

"I am Lady Sara Almont, late of London," she said. "I am being held prisoner here."

Hunter's mouth fell open.

"Well, get on your clothing, madam," he said.

At that moment, another glass window shattered, and Cazalla landed on the floor of the room, his sword in hand. He was gray and blackened from the powder explosion. The girl screamed.

"Dress, madam," Hunter said, as his blade engaged Cazalla's. He saw her hastily pulling on an elaborate white dress.

Cazalla panted as he fought. He had the desperation of fury and something else, perhaps fear.

"Englishman," he said, starting another taunt. Then Hunter flung his sword across the room. The blade pierced Cazalla in the throat. He coughed and sat backward, into the chair by his heavy ornate desk. He leaned forward, pulling at the blade, and in his posture, he seemed to be examining charts on the desk. Blood dripped onto the charts. Cazalla made a gurgling sound. Then he collapsed.

- Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton

Friday, June 14, 2013

Maelstrom Kickstarter

The venerable Maelstrom roleplaying game is, after nearly thirty years, getting a new edition. Called Maelstrom Domesday, the setting shifts from Tudor England to Norman England two decades after the Conquest. The rules are revamped to include a lifepath system and new options for magic, as well as a mini-setting.

The Kickstarter - what roleplaying game isn't funded by Kickstarter, these days? - already funded, and even better, it also reached its first stretch goal, a book of maps and floorplans by an amazing artist named Steve Luxton. If I didn't already want the new edition for its lifepath and alchemy rules, I'd back it for the stretch goal, which looks to be pure gaming gold.

My only reservation? I would much rather see Malestrom Cavaliers and Roundheads than Maelstrom '1066 and All That', but hopefully Graham Bottley can take a hint. I'd really love to see Graham's take on an ECW mini-setting like Strange Days in Nayland for the original game.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Social Skills in Flashing Blades

So far, I've written about my approach to social skills and roleplaying, the significance of non-player character attributes, and a new npc attribute - Tractability - I introduced for my Flashing Blades campaign. In this post, I'll introduce the social skills in Flashing Blades in a bit more detail, including how they are presented in the game and how they are used in my campaign.

By my reckoning, there are six non-martial skills which qualify as social skills in Flashing Blades' core rules.
This skill is the ability to haggle and deal to get what one wants. It has greatest effect when buying items in a common marketplace, where haggling is the way things are bought. It may be more difficult to use when buying items with a set price or making special deals. A character with Bargaining skill may get 10% off of the normal price when buying common goods (clothing, food, livestock, etc.).

This skill represents the ability to determine if various officials may be easily bribed and to calculate the amount of money the bribe should be. Most minor officials (Provincial Sheriffs, Court Clerks, Village Mayors, etc.) may be bribed to overlook minor regulations, lack of proper documentation, etc., for 10 to 20 L (Livres). Officials of the Realm (Town Mayors, Court Secretaries, Provincial Tax Collectors, etc.) and Magistrates will be more difficult to bribe, and will not go for less than 50 L. Royal Officials and other high ranking bureaucrats are far more difficult to bribe, and will generally require some sort of special deal or settlement. Characters with Bribery skill have a better chance of bribing officials than those without, and less chance of being reported.

This skill is the ability to lead men in battle and other emergency situations. It is necessary to have Captaincy skill when leading any organized group. Characters with Captaincy skill will be skilled at taking command in emergency situations, giving effective orders, and controlling large groups of men. Captaincy is required for all officer ranks in the military.

This skill represents knowledge of the social graces. This includes bowing correctly, holding silverware properly, dancing, saying the right thing at the right times, etc. Characters with Etiquette skill may hide their rough edges when in distinguished company, and will be sure of behaving properly in the presence of high nobility and royalty. All characters without this skill must live in constant fear of making a social blunder (tripping their dancing partners, or eating dinner with their salad forks, for example).

This skill represents the ability to speak well publicly. Characters with Oratory skill may be able to persuade and convince others, talk their way out of tight situations, etc. Oratory skill may also be used to make Etiquette, Captaincy, and Magistracy more effective in certain situations.

This skill represents the ability to flatter, cozen, and tease the opposite sex into giving information, aid, or various other services. Characters with this skill are adept at courting and are rarely without affectionate companionship. . .
A couple of highlights: first, I like the synergy of Oratory with other social skills; it's the base skill of persuasion, but a character with both, say, Etiquette and Oratory may gain an advantage over another character with just one of the two skills. Second, I like that the Seduction skill is framed in terms of intelligence gathering, with the strong implication that seduction is simply 'intrigue by other means.' In my campaign, Captaincy tends to provide a benefit to attempts to intimidate or otherwise browbeat a non-player character.

Examples of FB's social skills are few in the published adventures for the game. Here are a couple of mentions of the skills as used 'by the book.'
When a Player-Character receives a decoration or field promotion, he may attempt to make a roll against his Luck[/2] or his Charm[/2] (player's choice, +4 to either roll for Etiquette skill). If this roll is successful, he is noticed by the King, and allowed to kiss the monarch's hand. - "The Great Marksmanship Tourney," Parisian Adventure

They could try to trick her out her bonbons somehow (by telling her they are not worthy of a Duchess, and offering to bring her a box of truly royal chocolates, perhaps). This would require a good idea from the players (as judged by the Gamemaster) and a successful roll on Charm (+2 for Oratory or Etiquette skill; +4 for both). - "Scavenger Hunt,"
Parisian Adventure
True to the general description of how the skill rules work in the game, social skills aren't opposed rolls, but rather rolls against the appropriate attribute as modified by possessing a skill. As described previously, my feeling is that this puts the character's attribute in the mode of defining non-player characters' personalities, eg, every character is as bribable as the player character's Wit score allows. To this end, adding the difference between the characters' Social Ranks, to reflect the important influence of class and rank on social interactions in the game-world, and the Tractability score, as a reflection of the npc's receptivity, ameliorate this without expanding opposed rolls beyond what are already suggested in the core rules.

In practice, this means using a social skill looks something like this.


That's a target number plus two to four - in my experience, usually just two or three - modifiers, which I find readily manageable in the heat of the action.

One of the referee's most important jobs in any roleplaying game is determining when a skill check is required, and this is perhaps especially true with respect to social interactions in the game: when does roleplaying lead to rolling a die? I'll dive into that topic next.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

DVR Alert

On Thursday, 13 June, Turner Classic Movies will show The Mark of Zorro, with Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, and Linda Darnell. Despite the heavy hitters at the top of the bill, J. Edward Bromberg and Gale Sondergaard, as Don Luis and Inez Quintero, manage to steal pretty much every scene they're in, as truly great character actors are wont to do; I particularly enjoy how Don Luis seems like a helpless incompetent in thrall to Capitan Pasquale, but later demonstrates his own capacity for manipulation and menace.

If I'm not mistaken, this is the fourth time that TCM aired The Mark of Zorro since the start of the year. You will not, of course, hear any complaints from me.

And Speaking of Miniatures . . .

Check out the latest creation, Don Pedro Monte, for TERCIO CREAT.IV.O's 1650 skirmish game - this guy's just begging to be a non-player character in my campaign.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bombshell Miniatures

"Bombshell Miniatures is a collection of of creators, artists and sculptors from various disciplines working together to bring exceptional miniature figures . . . featuring strong iconic female characters from various genres." A blend of cheesecake and girl power, the line features characters from the fantasy, steampunk, space opera, and other genres.

The line includes two swashbuckler-y figures - Mira the Inquisitor, a female Solomon Kane sort, and Meagan the Buccaneer, an 18th century-ish pirate captain - but I think that a model of a swashbuckling swordswoman, perhaps in the style of Dark Agnes or Red Sonya, would be a worthwhile addition to the collection.

Of the current figures, my two favorites are definitely deep sea diver Vivian Gale and Mongol warrior Wu Ling Shu - I could see the latter appearing somewhere in my game-world.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Pen and the Sword: The Isle of Pirate's Doom

"Listen! Was that a footfall?"

"I heard nothing; it must be your imagination conjuring up noises."

Still she insisted she heard something and was for hurrying out into the open as quickly as might be. I reached the floor a stride or so before her and turned to speak across my shoulder, when I saw her eyes go wide and her hand flew to her blade. I whirled to see three menacing shapes bulking among the column s- three men, smeared with mud and slime, with weapons gleaming in their hands.

As in a dream I saw the fierce burning eyes of John Gower, the beard of the giant Bellefonte, and the dark, saturnine countenance of La Costa. Then they were on us.

How they had kept their powder dry as they crossed that filthy swamp I know not, but even as I drew blade, La Costa fired and the ball struck my right arm, breaking the bone. The cutlass dropped from my numb fingers, but I stooped and, catching it up in my left hand, met Bellefonte's charge. The giant come on like a wild elephant, roaring, his cutlass whirling like a flame. But the desperate fury of a cornered and wounded lion was mine. And, crashing on his guard as a smith hammers an anvil, until the clash of our steel was an incessant clangor, I drove him across the room and beat him to his knees. But he partly parried the blow that felled him, so that my cutlass, glancing from his blade to his skull, turned in my hand and struck flat instead of edgewise, stunning and not killing. At that instant, La Costa clubbed a musket and laid my scalp open so that I fell and lay in my own blood.

- "The Isle of Pirate's Doom," Robert E. Howard

Saturday, June 8, 2013


On Wednesday I wrote about one of the pitfalls associated with using a player character's ability or skill score as the target number for social interactions, specifically that, if not treated with some forethought, the score comes to define the world. Seduce a marquise? Roll under Charm. Bluff a provost-martial? Roll under Charm. Persuade the king to go to war with Spain? Yeah, you get the idea.

In fact, this is one of the reasons some gamers say they don't like social skills - 'They don't make sense!' - and prefer to simply override them at will when the results don't 'fit.' They have a point with respect to the problem, but their solution - to set aside the rules when they feel like it - is, to me, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A better fix, for me, is to use smarter rules.

In Flashing Blades, the base value of a skill is the associated attribute score, which is then modified by possessing the skill, usually increasing the target number by + 1 to + 3, usually assigned at the gamemaster's discretion; frex, a character with a 12 Charm and the Etiquette skill might get a + 2 bonus, giving the player a target number of 14 to roll under on a d20 to impress a countess. Assigning ad hoc modifiers helps to alleviate some of the problems inherent in simply rolling under the attribute number, but I wanted something more holistic.

The first modifier I decided to use was the difference in Social Ranks between characters. This was something I started with Traveller, with the difference in Social Standings as a modifier to the reaction table roll, to better reflect social stratification in the Imperium. For FB, this was even more appropriate; characters with higher Social Ranks already expect to receive deference from their social inferiors, and this would be reflected in the modifiers assigned to social skill use as well.

I also wanted something more personal as well, to reflect a non-player character's individual nature, and for this I adapted a feature from another FB gamemaster's house rules for handling mistresses and courtship. In these house rules, which I discovered somewhere on the intrewebs and can no longer locate, each potential mistress was assigned a value of one to six; this number would be used in determining how loyal the potential mistress was to her lover or husband, should a player character attempt to seduce her away. I decided to expand this into a non-player character stat which reflected how amenable to suggestion that character might be. I called the new stat Tractability.

As with the loyalty rating on which it was based, Tractability is usually expressed by a number between one and six, making it a simple roll of a die to determine for randomly developed non-player characters; I did, however, leave myself the option for numbers greater than seven, for special cases. As with the BITS task system for Traveller, I wanted each score to have a verbal shorthand attached as well.

Rating Description
1 Mercurial
2 Impulsive
3 Flexible
4 Reserved
5 Unwavering
6 Intractable
7 + Inhuman

I made three - Flexible - the default value for most non-player characters. The Tractability score is used a couple of ways; as noted, it can be a modifier to the attribute-plus-skill target number for social skill rolls; it can also be used as a divisor, in keeping with a number of skill checks used in FB's published adventures, for a greater degree of difficulty; frex, Tractability 4 can be used as a - 4 penalty to a roll, or to divide the target number by four. The specific circumstances of using Tractability is the subject of the next post on social skills in Flashing Blades.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wednesday Wyeth

Social Skills and NPC Stats

On Monday, I introduced my approach to social skills in roleplaying games. Now, I'm pivoting to a related topic, that of non-player character stats, in particular ability scores and skills.

Some gamers don't like to bother with stats for npcs, for a number of reasons: too much work for too little return is a pretty common one - 'why should I spend all that time on a npc who may last only five minutes in the game?!' - though *waves hands furiously* comes up with some frequency as well - 'I just make something up in response to what the players do.'

I can definitely relate to the first: the event which lead to my personal 'old school renaissance' began with trying to prepare a supplement of generic non-player characters for d20 Modern - after looking at page after page of two-line characters stat blocs in a copy of 1001 Characters for Traveller, compared to what I was attempting to churn out for d20M, the less complex rules of earlier roleplaying games looked mighty good to me. In my experience, games which make non-player character stats simple to prep and manage in actual play are more likely to encourage often harried referees to actually use them rather than handwaving them.

I'm not fond of handwaving the rules of the game as a general rule. It's one thing to make a ruling based on a situation at hand, to apply or not apply a particular rule based on its applicability in the moment, or to improvise a target number when one isn't readily available; it's another thing altogether to consistently ignore the rules for an approximation of how an encounter with a non-player character 'should go.' As referee, I like to play the game, too, and if I'm just making stuff up that 'sounds right,' then I'm no longer actually participating in the same game as the players. The rules provide a more-or-less objective foundation to the game-world, and by holding myself to that foundation, it makes it easier for me to assume the role of neutral arbiter when the dice hit the tabletop.

Moreover, most players become invested in their characters' abilities as expressed through the rules: trading attribute points, choosing skills, selecting equipment, and so on. Note that this is not the same thing as optimising a character; all of these choices can be made for reasons, such as fulfilling a particular character concept, that have nothing to do with how effective a particular character is with respect to task or conflict resolution in the game. In my opinion, this investment carries with it the reasonable expectation of that objective game-world against which those characters may be tested.

So, my personal preference is to have appropriate stats for non-player characters, and to this end I select games which skew toward the less complex end of the spectrum when it comes to character generation and creation. Note that a game doesn't have to have identical rules for generating or creating player and non-player characters - consider the difference between, say, a 1e D&D player character and a 0-level non-player character - only that they should be comparable in some way through the rules of the game. To make them easy to use in game, I like to create a stable of generic non-player character stat blocs in advance of play - generic barkeep, generic guard, generic bravo, generic gambler, and so on - often using a stripped down subset of the rules for player character creation, with unique characters generated in more-or-less the same way as player characters.

That means that, in the campaigns I run, each non-player character has a set of attributes and skills that relate to the rules for social interactions; as a function of that objective setting, I'm not inclined to simply make up a target number on the fly if there's some other recourse open to me. Now, there are a number of ways in which the rules for social skills can be used to manage social interactions, and in my experience, at least two of them are pretty problematic. Social interaction rules may be simple or complex. Perhaps the simplest is the reaction or loyalty roll, modified by an attribute score or a skill; the Charisma modifier in 1e AD&D or the Liaison skill in Traveller each come to mind as quintessential examples of this. Years of playing with reaction rolls convinces me that, if you use no other social interaction rules in a roleplaying game, then use these, along with morale checks for opponents - it's pretty near bomb-proof as far as rules go.

Another approach is to roll-against-attribute: frex, a roll under the character's Charm attribute score indicates success. This is one of those rules which can be somewhat problematic, however; in essence, the character's attribute score becomes the objective measure of difficulty in performing a task in the game-world. A rope is as difficult to run across as the character's Acrobatics score makes it; a maid in a countess' entourage is as difficult to seduce as one's Seduction score. Static target numbers, such as the DC's for the d20 Diplomacy score, are similarly flawed, a problem exacerbated in those games by feat and class ability bloat resulting in extremely high skill values.

One way to account for this is using objective measures of difficulty to apply as modifiers to an attribute or skill roll. When I ran Traveller, I used the BITS task system for skill check modifiers; I particularly like the correlation between the descriptor and the value of the modifier, as it helps to establish a common, replicable frame of reference for both the referee and the players.

My preferred approach is to manage social interactions through opposed rolls, stat versus stat, such as Charm versus Wit to bluff a guard. For me, it is perhaps the most intuitive method of handling social interactions through dice rolls, as it pits the relative strengths of the characters against one another.

In the rules and published adventures for Flashing Blades, the examples of skill use provide for both direct rolls against an attribute or skill value as well as opposed rolls. I decided to preserve this approach in my own campaign, but I also wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the simple roll-versus-attribute. Toward this end, I developed an additional non-player character stat - Tractability - which serves a similar function to the BITS task system for Traveller. How Tractability works is the subject of my next post.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Social Skills and Roleplaying

Okay, let's get this out of the way right from the giddyup: roleplaying is not 'talking in funny voices.' In-character dialog may be a component of roleplaying, but it is not roleplaying in-and-of-itself.

At its most basic, roleplaying answers the question, 'What will my character do now?' Referring to one's character in the third person all the time is no less roleplaying than speaking only in-character. The is no purity or superiority in the latter approach; I personally enjoy first-person, in-character dialog, both as a player and as a referee, but I don't think less of gamers who prefer the remove of, 'My guy says . . .'

With that in mind, we can dispense with the notion that social skills diminish roleplaying any more than any other skills do. The overwhelming majority of the roleplaying games out there include some sort of rules for social interaction, whether they are as basic as reaction and loyalty rolls in D&D or as involved as Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits. The notion of resolving social interaction through 'pure roleplay,' without some sort of recourse to the rules, is limited to a tiny handful of games, or to gamers who choose to ignore the rules in games which include them; in my experience, the latter are far more common than the former.

So why do some gamers have a nutty over social skills? In my experience, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, some gamers are of the opinion, 'I can't thrust a rapier or swing from a chandelier at the table, so I need rules and rolls for those, but I can just say what my character says, and I don't need rules for that!' That's certainly true: adjudication of non-player character reactions can be handled by the referee without recourse to a die roll or an attribute score, but once again, very few games actually leave social interaction solely to the referee's discretion. The norm is to include rules for resolution, whether those rules are rendered with a broad-brush or crafted in intricate detail.

Second, some games give social skills a bad name, though not always deservedly so. Tales of d20 'diplomancers' optimised to take advantage of the Diplomacy or Bluff or Intimidate skills, breaking entire campaigns by turning a social skill into a form of mind control, can be found in the many different corners where gamers gather, on- and off-line. Despite the fact that at least some of these stories come from misinterpreting the actual rules associated with the skills, they reinforce the predilections of those who prefer to remove or ignore most or all of the rules for social interactions, or more rarely to find those few games with no such rules at all.

Third, as noted right at the beginning, gamers conflating roleplaying with in-character dialog - the 'amateur thespians' - express the opinion that social skills 'inhibit roleplaying!' by 'reducing social interaction to the roll of a die.' I think that's bollocks. Consider the following.
Example 1: "Ahead of you, on a curve in the stream, is a stone bridge. A carriage is overturned at the far end of the bridge, creating a barricade blocking passage to the road beyond. Behind the carriage you see the tips of a dozen pikes above an equal number of gleaming morions. To the right, across the stream, just inside the tree line, is a hastily-built stone revetment, and behind it the light through the trees glints off the barrels of a half-dozen arquebuses. Because of the curve in the stream, the revetment is at right angles to the bridge, giving the arquebusiers a clear field of fire across the open ground approaching the span."

"Uh . . . I roll for Tactics."

Example 2: "The king's minister, Enfou, pulls you aside as dancers swirl to the musicians huddled in one corner of the ballroom. 'The king is desperate,' he says. 'The baron de Bauchery can raise enough mercenaries to defend the frontier, but he refuses to do so unless he the king promises him Princess Pinkflower's hand in marriage. Meanwhile the conte di Grognardo is the best commander we have, but he refuses to serve under de Bauchery, and he wants the princess' hand for his son.'"

"Uh . . . I roll for Diplomacy."
Here's the thing: social skills are used to resolve your attempts to accomplish a task. They don't do your roleplaying for you.

In the first example, you, the player, need to decide how the adventurers are going to get past the soldiers holding the bridge, and in the second you need to figure out how you're going to resolve the conflict between the courtiers in time to get the soldiers to the front. Your character's social skills resolve how well you accomplish what you set out to do.

Moreover, social skills are not charm spells. A non-player character made Helpful through the Diplomacy skill in d20 may be willing to take considerable risks on behalf of your highly persuasive character, but that doesn't make the npc a thrall. The npc will still look after his interests and pursue his agenda while offering assistance to the adventurers.

I've used rolls for social interactions in every game I've ever played, from the aforementioned Charisma-adjusted reaction rolls and loyalty scores for henchmen and hirelings in AD&D to the Contact rules in Top Secret to the social skills of d20 and now Flashing Blades, and in my experience they neither inhibit in-character dialog nor do they result in the players substituting skill rolls for actually having to figure out how to best use those skills to get what they want.

Now, if a game's social skills are being called into play, it follows that the stats of both player and non-player characters come into play. Next up, a quick look at stats for non-player characters.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Pen and the Sword: The Shadow of the Vulture

Gottfried was already on his way to the embrasures. He too had heard before the terrible soul-shaking shout of the charging Janizaries. Suleyman meant to waste no time on the city that barred him from helpless Europe. He meant to crush its frail walls in one storm. The bashi-bazouki, the irregulars, died like flies to screen the main advance, and over heaps of their dead, the Janizaries thundered against Vienna. In the teeth of cannonade and musket volley they surged on, crossing the moats on scaling-ladders laid across, bridge-like. Whole ranks went down as the Austrian guns roared, but now the attackers were under the walls and the cumbrous balls whirred over their heads, to work havoc in the rear ranks.

The Spanish matchlock men, firing almost straight down, took ghastly toll, but now the ladders gripped the walls, and the chanting madmen surged upward. Arrows whistled, striking down the defenders. Behind them the Turkish field-pieces boomed, careless of injury to friend as well as foe. Gottfried, standing at an embrasure, was overthrown by a sudden terrific impact. A ball had smashed the merlon, braining half a dozen defenders.

Gottfried rose, half-stunned, out of the debris of masonry and huddled corpses. He looked down into an uprushing waste of snarling, impassioned faces, where eyes glared like mad dogs' and blades glittered like sunbeams on water. Bracing his feet wide, he heaved up his great sword and lashed down. His jaw jutted out, his mustache bristled. The five-foot blade caved in steel caps and skulls, lashing through uplifted bucklers and iron shoulder-pieces. Men fell from the ladders, their nerveless fingers slipping from the bloody rungs.

But they swarmed through the breach on either side of him. A terrible cry announced that the Turks had a foothold on the wall. But no man dared leave his post to go to the threatened point. To the dazed defenders it seemed that Vienna was ringed by a glittering, tossing sea that roared higher and higher about the doomed walls.

Stepping back to avoid being hemmed in, Gottfried grunted and lashed right and left. His eyes were no longer cloudy; they blazed like blue balefire. Three Janizaries were down at his feet; his broadsword clanged in a forest of slashing scimitars. A blade splintered on his basinet, filling his eyes with fire-shot blackness. Staggering, he struck back and felt his great blade crunch home. Blood jetted over his hands and he tore his sword clear. Then with a yell and a rush someone was at his side and he heard the quick splintering of mail beneath the madly flailing strokes of a saber that flashed like silver lightning before his clearing sight.

It was Red Sonya who had come to his aid, and her onslaught was no less terrible than that of a she-panther. Her strokes followed each other too quickly for the eye to follow; her blade was a blur of white fire, and men went down like ripe grain before the reaper. With a deep roar Gottfried strode to her side, bloody and terrible, swinging his great blade. Forced irresistibly back, the Moslems wavered on the edge of the wall, then leaped for the ladders or fell screaming through empty space.

Oaths flowed in a steady stream from Sonya's red lips and she laughed wildly as her saber sang home and blood spurted along the edge. The last Turk on the battlement screamed and parried wildly as she pressed him; then dropping his scimitar, his clutching hands closed desperately on her dripping blade. With a groan he swayed on the edge, blood gushing from his horribly cut fingers.

"Hell to you, dog-soul!" she laughed. "The devil can stir your broth for you!"

With a twist and a wrench she tore away her saber, severing the wretch's fingers; with a moaning cry he pitched backward and fell headlong.

- "The Shadow of the Vulture," Robert E. Howard