Jan 142018
 

gameplay-awesome
In our gaming group, like so many gaming groups, we have a number of in-jokes. One of which involves the players turning to the GM just before the game starts and telling them to ‘bring the awesome’ followed by cries of ‘yes, entertain me!’ etc – with tongue firmly rammed into cheek, may I add. My oft-stated credo that the GM is a player too and that the state of the game is as much the responsibility of the players as it is the GM was borne from the highly egalitarian nature of my own home gaming environment. However, it is not always so – especially in the world of convention gaming, and this time of year convention gaming comes into mind a lot!

I am often concerned that there is a bleed between campaign play and convention play.  The analogy I usually use is that a convention game is like a blockbuster movie – short run time, quick bangs and scenes, pretty shallow character development and  a tasty conclusion at the end. Campaign play is more like a TV series – longer run time, deeper character development, established and changing background and more room for pacing the game.  I have been playing a lot of convention campaigns over the last few years; linked sessions that feel more like a TV mini-series rather than a movie or a serial.

Convention play almost demands a degree of performance from the GM that allows little chance of failure. Even with the hardest of lines in terms of player-GM balance of responsibility, there has to be an onus to provide some degree of value to the players in terms of a decent session. A decade into running convention games, I still sometimes feel it is a bit like an Olympics of Gaming (as Baz of the Smart Party calls it so often) where the GM is being weighed and measured by the players, to indeed, ‘bring the awesome’. I think this has become manifest in the tendency for people to enhance their sessions with ‘bling’ – jazzy character sheets, load of cool maps, models, handouts, posters … even hats! I quite like this and I have to admit I like to indulge the bling. I have had players using torches in the dark, a massive printed map of Tatooine for a Star Wars game, custom character sheets are a norm and video trailers for convention campaigns have become a tradition.

However, I have noticed that this is bleeding into my home gaming as well. In my Aetherguard game I made a load of character image cards to help with the slew of NPCs the game held. In our current Dresden Files Accelerated game I have indulged my inner artist and created a load of bespoke character sheets for the PCs and some of the NPCs too. Once again, I really enjoy this and I feel like its taking on a little of that shared responsibility from the GM.

amy-s

And then I discovered this new fangled Twitch stuff and people recording themselves playing games. Roleplaying games as entertainment is now a thing, apparently. Thousands of people tuning into Critical Role as a fandom movement? My eyebrows were raised and my mind immediately jumped to ‘Hey, should we…’

And then reality slapped me around the face hard. No, no we should not. Maybe in the midst of the bling, the maps, the sheets, the figures and all the rest of the paraphernalia, we have forgotten about the core purpose of these things – actually playing a roleplaying game with your friends. I worry that if we become so fixated on the extras, we forget the basics and thus the balance of the game is broken. I think it is crucial to remember that the extra bits are just that – extra – and they add to an already great game, but they will not turn a poor game into an average one. What that means in practice is a little bit of restraint. It is far more important to get the game right than the bling. Working with, and reflecting upon, those basics of good games mastery – good plot, solid NPCs, good characterisation, evocative descriptions, pacing and flow etc. – will contribute more to the game than a short movie about the backstory or a bespoke soundtrack.

That’s the attitude I have taken with my Symbaroum campaign at the moment; minimal bling and maximum thought and execution. The hardest part was the character sheets – I love a good character sheet with art and flourish. However, this time around the players have B&W print outs which they doodle all over themselves. Working documents not pieces of art.

Back to basics.

 Posted by at 11:03 am
Jan 062018
 

symbaroum-header

[Note: As well as posting about Duty & Honour development here, I’m also going to be writing about gaming matters in general.]

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.”
― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

In my home group, we have been playing through the introductory campaign – the Copper Crown – for Symbaroum, and having a very good time with it. This is the first time we have played the system and we have settled into it well enough but the real take away has been the joy that we have taken from playing a game, and a setting, within which we have almost no frame of reference. The monsters are wholly alien, the spells are totally unexpected, the abilities are still unpredictable and the setting throws up a real sense of mistrust and shifting alliances.

This has made me question some of the standard operations of game play that I have settled into over the years. One of the things that I have wholeheartedly adopted is the practice of shared world creation; players and GM riffing the world together prior to the game, developing the factions and major players involved. As a result, the game starts in a sort of setting in media res with the players and plots almost predefined. Now, I am not rejecting this as a whole, but it does give a very different game experience; a collective story-telling that is exploring a situation that has already been established. I am left wondering whether there is value in maybe scaling back some of the participation in favour of some mystery and wonder in terms of story?

There is a similar tale to tell when it comes to system, especially in more granular traditional games. We love to play D&D in our group, but we do also tend to devour it and the result is that we could be accused of being quite mechanistic in our approach. This, in turn, can take some of the wonder out of the game as we ‘know’ which are the better spells and feats, which are the optimal tactics and we have a fair idea what each monster ‘does’. In many ways this is why I prefer 13th Age, because the threats are simply more diverse and less predictable, but on the flip-side the variables that you have for a character are less. Again, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a symptom of rabid munchkinism on our part – rather, I think, quite a competitive streak in some of us and an almost academic level of reading and understanding of systems and settings.

What is required, of course, is a combination of trust and discipline. With regard to trust, I am reminded here of the rationale behind some of the earlier indie games designs; systems to regulate the actions of unruly God GMs by placing checks and balances in place. Transparency is one of the upshots of these design choices but transparency puts information in the hands of players that would better be experienced in the game, possibly? The realisation that Symbaroum has abilities that ignore armour, combined with some quite challenging levels of damage, was one of the more gratifying moments of the early games. A moment of true player based terror as their characters became truly mortal. However, trust is required in the way the GM applies these tools.

This is allowed by player discipline. The player might have the book but do they need to read and absorb every single part of it? Could some of it remain unread? Could we not memorise the minutae of every single spell and ability to keep some sort of mystique in place? And could we trust the GM that when stuff happens that you don’t understand, they are doing it within the confines of the game and not bending things to prosecute you? Yeah, of course it could but it takes restraint.

And sadly, the mystery does fade. Already, after a few sessions, I noticed our table reverting to form. One of the antagonists has an ability to ‘mind control’ a player. As I usually do, I openly tell the player they are mind controlled, what their objectives should be and let them get on with it. I mentioned that they could take one action per round and another player chirped in with ‘That’ll be Bend Will at Adept’ and just a little bit of the magic faded…

The entire experience of running Symbaroum has been excellent so far and I have learned a lot from it. It has made me question some of my basic learned assumptions around world-building and how you can actually get a sense of wonder and yes, horror, into a game. That’s been missing for me for many years and I’m thrilled.

 Posted by at 6:39 pm

Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Gold

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Dec 302017
 

sharpes-gold

Summary
Sharpe is charged by Wellington himself to travel into enemy territory and retrieve a massive stash of Spanish gold which will not be going to the Spanish government in Cadiz, but will rather be spent on something that will turn the war against the French. So off he trots with the ever-resourceful Lt. Knowles and the South Essex. He meets the religious exploring officer Mjr Kearsey, the Spanish partisans including El Catalico and the soon-to-be-pivotal Teresa Moreno, Polish lancers, the King’s German Legion, the return of Josefina (last seen in Eagle) and eventually blows up the Portuguese fortress city of Almeida – surviving by hiding in a brick oven. Seriously.

According to Cornwell, the last detail actually happened but it was a little too Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for my liking.

Note: In contrast to Sharpe’s EagleGold is by far and away my least favourite Sharpe story – the book is slow in places where it should be faster, has far too many deus ex machina for my taste and comes to a conclusion far too quickly. The TV version has virtually nothing to do with the book, except for the opening scene.

What’s in the Game?

Who are the Characters?: Sharpe and Harper, obviously… however this book does a little more to involve Lt. Knowles to an extent that he must be a central character. The other new character to be central to the story is, of course, Teresa Moreno aka La Aguja aka the Needle. Teresa, unsurprisingly considering how pivotal she is to some of the later stories, gets a lot of action in this story and is clearly written as a kick-ass killer.

What are the Missions?: There is one mission in this story – ‘Return the Gold to Wellington’ – and Sharpe carries this out with dogged determination, up to and including the destruction of an allied town and the death of 500 people in the process. There is also a personal mission of ‘Kill El Catalico‘  but very little else in the way of texture to the story.

The Death of Isaiah Tongue: Rifleman Tongue is one of my favourite Sharpe characters and it’s sad to see him die in this book. Whilst he doesn’t do much in the books he is presented as a complex creature – an alcoholic intellectual with a penchant for religion (I may be conflating the TV version a little here, just as the literary version of Tongue is conflated with Harris on TV.) He is also the character who gives an alternate view of Napoleon, seeing him as an enlightened revolutionary rather than an evil dictator.  Of all of the Chosen Men he is the most complex and he is clearly a player character!

Teresa!: Teresa is the quintessential role model for female characters in a standard game of Duty & Honour so it is curious to see her grow in this book. She palpably grows throughout the book, even undertaking sabre training with a German sergeant and has a number of moments where she saves the day. However, predictably, she ends up in bed with Sharpe although you do get the feeling this was her decision as much as his. Teresa disappears off into the mountains again at the end of the book as the implied leader of the partisans. She has a good arc!

Provosts: The book opens with an intervention by the provosts; the British military police. One of the riflemen is accused of stealing a chicken from a deserted village and is sentenced to death by hanging, as per Wellington’s standing orders. Naturally, Sharpe intervenes, but the provosts are a great tool to keep the greater excesses of the players in order if a game turns into murder hobo territory. This is especially pertinent considering…

Shades of Grey Justice: This book underlines, once again, the horrific terror that the French army laid upon the Spanish population. The massacre of Casatejada is detailed and horrific. It is presented as a counterpoint to the torture and execution of French soldiers by the partisans – with two of them being dragged behind wild horses over rocky ground until dead. The underlying message is that the British did not do this sort of thing (although, lets not for one moment suspect that they didn’t – history being written by the victors etc.) and if you want to keep to the spirit of the books, keeping this divide – either by choice or by example – is key.

Behind Enemy Lines: One thing that the book does very well is show just how difficult it is to operate behind enemy lines. The constant threat of French patrols makes movement difficult and the need for someone who can read the territory – the role played by Kearsey and Hagman – are critical. In game, this is a great test for Awareness and Scavenge.

Religion is Important: Another quirky little point that comes out in the books is the importance of religion as a motif in the stories. The Spanish are, of course, catholic whereas the majority of the British army would be protestant – except for the Irish contingent. Harper’s observation of catholic practices is a lovely little way to unlock El Catalico’s duplicity.

A War of Many Nations: We have already seen a lot of the French, British, Portuguese and Spanish in the books so far – in this book we are introduced to the Polish Lancers and the cavalry of the King’s German Legion. The lancers are presented as a clear and present threat to infantry but as totally inferior to the KGL. On the flip side, the Legion is presented as lethally efficient and effective and has some interesting vignettes in the form of Captain Lossow and Sergeant Helmut. The key here is not to fall into stereotyping here. Even Cornwell acknowledges that his portrayal so far of the Spanish is far from flattering.

So Many Injuries: Sharpe plays fast and loose with the healing rules in this book. He is battered and bruised, shot, pierced and slashed. There doesn’t seem to be a moment in the book when he isn’t injured in some manner. The new rules for healing, using Measures as points that can be spent to buy off wounds, would model this much better than the more brutal wound system in the older ruleset. He’s a tough one, Richard Sharpe!

 Posted by at 10:17 am

Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Havoc

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Dec 242017
 

sharpes-havoc

Summary
One of the later published Sharpe novels, Havoc lies between Sharpe’s Rifles and Sharpe’s Eagle. In the book, Sharpe and his riflemen continue their retreat from northern Spain and into Portugal,, becoming involved in the game of military chess that was Craddock’s retreat and Wellesley’s advance in Portugal. During that time they are tasked with interacting with the dastardly Lt. Colonel Christopher, rescuing the headstrong-yet-romantic Kate Savage and generally messing with the French. The book is a bit of a travelogue – involving a lot of looking for bridges and boats, walking through the rain and involves a number of decent, varied battles.

Having read Sharpe’s Eagle just before this, you can tell that Cornwell has expanded his writing but maybe not got an eye to continuity. General Hill, for example, has loads of interactions with Sharpe in Havoc but only just remembers him by reputation in Eagle. Similarly, the characters of Sharpe and Harper are far further into their bromance than they are in Eagle and Hagman is a more developed character (at last!)

What’s in the Game?

Who are the Characters?: Sharpe takes pride of place, as per usual, and Harper has precious little in the way of story. Daniel Hagman has his day in the sun, doing an impossible shot and exercising his peculiar medical skills to help heal his own injury. The real star of the piece, however, is Lt. Jorge Vincente, a Portuguese officer who was once a lawyer, wanted to be a priest and leads a company of educated men. His counter-point of honesty, honour and legal thinking was refreshing. Accompanying him is the sturdy Sgt. Macedo and there is a partisan called Lopes, the Schoolteacher, who gets barely any time. Sadly, I can’t see Kate Savage as a player character as she strikes me as a Macguffin in this story – something to be owned rather than someone with their own agency.

What are the Missions?:  It all starts so simply – ‘Rescue Kate Savage’ – and indeed, that stays through the entire story. However, there are a number of points where this is derailed due to the machinations of Christopher and there are some excellent set-pieces involving the battles on the hill fort and the seminary at Oporto. Sharpe gets a nice personal mission of ‘Get my telescope back’ and Jorge, of course, is in romantic pursuit of Kate Savage.

Whether the Weather Matters?: The weather plays a huge part in this book – just like the cold in Rifles. Here it is the rain that hampers everything and changes the way that engagements are handled. Torrential rain makes forced marches difficult, saps morale and most importantly makes firing a musket almost impossible, as the powder becomes damp in the pan. Normally I would roll my eyes at weather-related complications, but here it makes a lot of sense. Even fighting in torrential rain, on a slope, in the dark, becomes a really difficult proposition! Use the weather and the conditions to confound the players and reduce or change their options.

Allied Villains Use Rank Again!: Christoper is one of the most annoying villains I can remember in the novels, but I think it would be hard to pull him off as such at the table. He is so blindingly obviously a traitor that the players will see it coming a mile off. The best way to handle this would be through obfuscation – you have to make sure that a number of allied characters are self-aggrandising, pompous, rank-pulling annoyances as well, so you simply cannot tell which one is the turncoat traitor and which is the upper class knob. Christopher uses his ability to give real orders to Sharpe an awful lot – this is a great mechanic in the game to reinforce that the players are in a military chain of command and they cannot just kill off a ranking officer on suspicion of foul play. Make them toe to line and the pay off will be so much better!

A Good Catchphrase: One of the most annoying aspects of Lt. Colonel Christoper (and there are many…) is his constant quoting of Hamlet – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – it’s a small thing but the condescending nature of it’s delivery as an intellectual brush-off of any argument is bound to have players biting the table in rage. Little nuances like this are character gold for a good villain.

Barbaric, rather than Honourable French: There is a tendency in some of the Sharpe books to make the French out to be quite honourable – not in Sharpe’s Havoc! They are brutal in the extreme, raping and pillaging, torturing and burning people alive. Any entire village is massacred in their wake and the event is described in a brutal fashion. Contrast this to the French officer at the bridge in Eagle and the difference is stark. When the French are in this light – full on bad guy – it does make any mercy null and void.

Representing the Locals: The Portuguese get a good run out in this novel, but they are treated reprehensibly and virtually every one gets killed. A fair few are given some character traits; the attractive Maria, the pious Father Josefa, the handy barber-cum-partisan Luis etc. Later in the book we see the use of vicious and motivated Portuguese peasants as they massacre the French wounded, and the mis-use of the same as the professional soldiers massacre the Portuguese Ordenanças – their militia. In a Peninsular campaign, I think it’s very important to not represent the Portuguese or the Spanish as hapless victims of French invasion; they were brave and resourceful and should be represented as such.

Set Piece Siege Battles: There are two excellent siege battles in this book, and they act as a fine example of the use of artillery and the ways to avoid it. The cameo by the French artillery officer, Pelletieu, is delightful as the dedicated and educated howitzer lieutenant. There are two ways you can handle these sieges – either as a skirmish challenge or as a military mission in their own right – a game within a game. They are such a part of the Sharpe flavour that they really do deserve time to breathe. The real meat of the characterisation lies between the sorties by the enemy, so I would be tempted to run them as a short mission.

Rifles vs Muskets: For the first time, the books hammer home the absolute superiority of the rifle over the musket at range. Massacres are executed in the story due to the range and accuracy of the rifle and this does beg the question – why wouldn’t all soldiers carry rifles? Well, the answer is in the text – its about loading time. Rifles simply take that much longer to load, they cannot, at the time, be used for the massed rank volleys that typify the British infantry. Consider this when every character wants a rifle – if you are not a rifle regiment, it would have to be a very special piece of equipment.

 Posted by at 1:50 am

Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Eagles

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Dec 172017
 

sharpes-eagle

Summary
Sharpe finds himself attached to the South Essex and their idiot Colonel Simmerson, flanked by his cronies Berry and Gibbons. Simmerson is desperate to prove himself and orders a suicidal mission which loses the regiment’s colours. Sharpe promises the fallen Major Lennox that he will balance the dishonour by capturing a French eagle. Along the way we have the classic ‘four shots a minute’ training scene, the mysterious Josefina, the raucous Hogan, a near rebellion amongst the South Essex after a firing squad, issues with Spanish allies, our first real sight of Wellington, and the battle of Talavera.

I think its important to note that Sharpe’s Eagle is one of my favourite Sharpe books but is also a pretty terrible book to draw game inspiration from – for reasons I will expand upon below.

What’s in the Game?

Who are the Characters?: Herein lies the problem – this book is very much about Sharpe. Whilst it introduces an army of secondary characters – Lawford, Hogan, Denny, Forrest – and Harper is, of course, ever-present, none of them really do anything of note as individuals. Only a couple of the riflemen are further developed, and then die. Unlike in Sharpe’s Rifles, the sole female character (Josefina) is an enigmatic trophy to be won, bedded, attacked and revenged.

What are the Missions?:  Quite complicated this one – the initial mission is clearly ‘Blow up the bridge at Valdelacasa’ which is then morphed into ‘Capture the French Eagle.’ However there are a myriad of personal missions that enter into the fray. Sharpe is clearly battling some sort of personal mission against Simmerson, is undertaking a promotion mission, and then a personal mission to gain revenge of Berry and Gibbons for their rape of Josefina. In game terms this was a great example of layering personal and military missions.

The Joy of Colonel Simmerson : Simmerson is, absolutely, the best villain in the Sharpe books. His introduction in this book shows exactly how a ranking officer as an adversary should be handled. The regulations of the army and influence used to create mayhem for the characters. Add in a cabal of sycophants and a few no-win scenarios and you can very easily create a bad guy that the players will despise forever. The key to Simmerson’s vile personality is his combination of cowardice, arrogance and empowered stupidity, with a side salad of a real talent for survival. The aforementioned no-win situations add to the pain; ordering characters to do things they really do not want to do, knowing that they will have to overtly disobey orders and face the consequences can, when used sparsely but brutally, ratchet up the pressure on the characters. Don’t overdo it though – the game has to be fun!

Major Hogan, Master of Exposition : Ah, Major Hogan, what would we do without you? Hogan – an exploring officer (read: spy) and engineer – is Sharpe’s actual commanding officer and a great character. He also takes a crucial role as the giver of exposition. Need the tactical importance of a position explained? Hogan appears! Need an off-page incident explained to avoid an unnecessary investigation? Hogan appears! Need to nudge characters towards the next bit of the adventure? Deploy your own Hogan! Having a NPC that the characters trust who can easily point them towards things, or explain the implications of something – especially for players who have little understanding of the technicalities of military stuff – can be very useful.

The Great Battle Scene at the Bridge: The battle at the bridge at Valdelacasa is a classic example that I use in explaining some of the nuances of the Mission system, combined with the Skirmish Challenge rules. The Mission itself seems quite easy, but it all goes horribly wrong. The challenges are forced upon the riflemen by the inept decisions of their commanding officer; the rescue of the South Essex and the Spanish, treating with the French officer, capturing the cannon and then fighting for, and losing, the regimental colours. A number of these challenges within the mission also illustrate one of the nuances of the skirmish challenge rules; whilst the successes of the group add to the commander’s hand of cards, the commander can still lose the challenge if they fail their Command test. And boy, does Simmerson fail some Command tests!

A Smattering of History: One of the ways that you can make a game more ‘realistic’ is to add in a smattering of real life historical figures. In this book we see active appearances by Sir Arthur Wellesley and General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill, as well as a post-script appearance by Black Bob Crauford. Don’t go overboard with these, and don’t turn your game into a history lesson but a light smattering can give a rich underpinning to your fiction. Similarly, the off-screen threat of the French Marshals and an appearance by Joseph Bonaparte give the action a real place in history.

Why Josefina, Why?: No character annoys me more in this book than Josefina. She appears here and there, she has a spot of bother, and that’s all it takes for Sharpe to bed her, fall in love with her and then be fobbed off by her. I was never clear why she was there, but it all seemed just a little too gratuitous. NPCs need a little more agency than this – she is just a plot device here and not a particularly good one!

Foreshadowing Ahoy!: One thing I particularly liked in this book was a little bit of foreshadowing that was included. When Gibbons gets his comeuppance Sharpe finds a locket with a picture of a woman, one Jane Gibbons … the very distant future Mrs Sharpe. I like things like this – its good storytelling, in my opinion.

 Posted by at 9:03 pm

Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Rifles

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Dec 122017
 

sharpes-rifles

Introduction

It has been an age since I have read the core Sharpe books – the ones that focus on the Peninsular Campaign rather than the Indian adventures of Sharpe or the filler books that put him in strange situations such as the Battle of Copenhagen etc. Therefore, as part of my research for Duty & Honour v2.0 I have undertaken to have a re-read and to post some commentary on the game-related aspects of the books. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.

Summary

Quartermaster Lt. Richard Sharpe and his rag-tag company of Rifles are separated from the British Army during the retreat from Corunna. Sharpe must win the trust of the men and reach the British forces in the Peninsular, wherever they are! His mission is complicated by the involvement of a Spanish noble, Don Blas Vivar and his quest to unfurl the banner of St James, the tenacious Chasseur Colonel De I’Eclin and the audacious Louisa Parker.

What’s in the Game?

Who are the Characters?: A good starting point in any such analysis is working out just who the player characters are within the book. Obviously Sharpe is the central character and the other that undergoes the greatest character development is Patrick Harper. Beyond them, not many of the Chosen Men get a look-in, with only Hagman really being mentioned to any great extent. The other main characters are Don Blas Vivar, the Spanish noble and cavalry Major, and Louisa Parker, the daughter of two annoying Methodists who becomes embedded into the Rifles for the duration of the book.

What are the Missions?: The main Military Mission in this book would appear to be ‘Rejoin the British Army’ and this acts as a backdrop for the more interesting personal missions; Sharpe’s ‘Gain the Respect of the Rifles’, Harper’s ‘Avoid Becoming a Sergeant’,  Blas Vivar’s ‘Unfurl the Banner of St James at All Costs’ and Louisa’s ‘Escape the Life of a Methodist Daughter’. There is almost certainly a secondary Military Mission towards the end of the book, of ‘Take and then Defend Santiago de Compostela

Lets Look at Louisa?: The character of Louisa Parker appears at first glance to be that most typical of Sharpe characters – a woman who Sharpe falls for, beds and is then cast aside. However, Louisa has a lot more agency than that and it is a shame that her adventures tend to be glossed over in the story. She constantly gets into the midst of the battle, carries out a daring spy mission into the French occupation of Santiago de Compostela and even stands in the midst of the Rifle’s last stand and refuses to stand down and run. She has a complex, rebellious personality and her demand that she not become the next Mrs Bullford, but would rather convert to Catholicism to join Don Blas on his adventures is a wonderful moment in the book. The shame for this character is that it does not give us a model for a recurring female character – but it does show how a female PC could easily become highly involved without having to be a soldier.

Iconic Items of Interest: For those that know what is to come, this book naturally has a plethora of details when it comes to establishing the Richard Sharpe character. Did you know he is the son of a whore from the London Rookeries? Its only mentioned once or twice per chapter! Moreover the quintessential Sharpe ‘items of interest’ are introduced here; the heavy straight ‘butchering’ sword that he uses is given to him by the dying Captain Murray, his French officer’s boots are stripped from the corpse of De I’Eclin and of course, we see the first mention of the telescope given to him by Sir Arthur Wellesley. Having these signature items makes the character unique and gaining them in the actual books adds weight to their presence later in the series.

The Three Rules: In the creation of your company/regiment in Duty & Honour you are invited to create some traditions and history that give some common ownership of the entity within the group. For the Rifles, these are obvious in their different uniform and alternative weaponry – rifle and sword bayonet. However, for Sharpe’s Rifles, his insistence on his three rules of soldiering – fight like bastards, steal only when starving and get drunk only with his permission – are an excellent example of devolving this down to a company level.

Religion and Spirituality: If there is one aspect of the story that I would possibly shy away from in-game it is the complex nature of Blas Vivar’s belief system. There is a mixture here of Catholicism and almost animism at points. On the one hand you have his belief that the unfurling of the banner of St. James will act as a rallying cry for the Spanish people (akin to the legends of King Arthur and Charlemagne) and the execution of traitors using a garrote under the watchful eye of a priest chanting in Latin. On the other hand, he is constantly concerned about the nature of water spirits and such in the local area and blames a number of happenings on their anger. This is one of those areas where I, personally, simply know too little about the subject matter to make a judgement on the validity of the content and in these cases, I tend to choose to avoid until I can read further.

 Posted by at 9:32 am

Entering Alt-History Mode!

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Nov 282017
 

alt-history

 

One of the features of the new version of Duty and Honour that I am the most thrilled about is the potential to finally create a game that can keep fans of historical adventures in the Peninsular happy, while offering material for those that want to have an alternative take on the themes of the game. As I have noted elsewhere, this has been a bone of contention for ten years now – and it is something that was top of my list to address during this new edition.

I have had some commentary on this issue in the past where people have wondered why people cannot just make the changes on their own accord? So, if you want to have female redcoats in Wellington’s Army, then just do it. And of course, that’s absolutely right. However, there is something more important going on here. As I now see it, it isn’t about simply ‘hacking’ a game to suit your tastes, it is buying into a game where the writer actively supports alternative and inclusive viewpoints; even in a game set in such a historically non-inclusive setting.

I remember, with some horror, the naivety that lead me to believe that producing a Zulu War version of Duty & Honour would have been a good thing! After all I love Zulu so what could go wrong. Oh Neil, you sweet summer child. Everything could go wrong. Whilst the one playtest I ran was fine it left me with a stark realisation that somethings shouldn’t be made into a rip-roaring heroic game, and the invasion and slaughter of an indigenous people on a threadbare military pretence was one of them.

The Napoleonic Wars were a time of great heroics but also of horrific social divides and injustices, of slavery and oppression, of subjugation of women and of people of colour. As much as the battle against Napoleon is generally seen as a ‘good thing’ it was done against the backdrop of rampant British imperialism and the start of the burgeoning British Empire, with all the issues that came with it.

There has to be a way that people can enjoy their Bernard Cornwell-inspired heroics without being forced to play with the other problematic issues as well? So how will I try to do it?

Well, my intention is to have, ala Nights Black Agents, a number of sidebar suggestions and comments about changes that could be made in a ‘alternative fiction’ mode of the game. I intend to get some contributors to suggest drifts for the setting that could be adopted to address some of the issues. I still want the game to be a historical one at its core – and to stick to what it is good at – but I want to include, by design, options and support for those people that would prefer to have all of the adventure and heroics of Duty and Honour but with a more inclusive setting than our real life history can provide. I understand and support anyone with this preference, and so will the game – openly and proudly.

 Posted by at 12:18 pm

What makes a good bad guy? And what doesn’t?

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Sep 032017
 

As I immerse myself in the source material for the revised version of Duty and Honour, I was thrilled to see that Series 4 of Turn: Washington’s Spies had appeared on Amazon. Turn, the story of the Culper Ring during the American Revolutionary War is a great show and shows what could be done with the game in a different arena. It also happens to have within it the character that I consider to be one of the most despicable – and therefore, best – villains on TV at the moment: John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe is an absolute piece of work – as happy torturing a man and literally rubbing salt into his wounds, as he is swanning around with the officers and ladies. As he has risen to power within the series, he has had command of the Queen’s Rangers and is now working to root out the spies that have thwarted him throughout the series.

What adds to Simcoe’s mystique is that he is both exceptionally competent and yet stumblingly vulnerable. He has bested a number of major characters in one-to-one combat and in the field of battle. He has a keen mind and insight and knows how to work a room to get what he wants. And yet … he also seems to suffer from the disdain of his superiors, fails in his relationships with women and almost always makes the wrong decision for the right reasons – leading to reprimand. This only feeds his smouldering anger and disgruntlement and leads to yet more desperation and depravity on his part.

There are, however, two major downsides to the character. The first is that the actual Capt. Simcoe was, by all accounts, a very different man. This is always the risk that comes when you use a historical character in a gaming setting. History is subjective with major characters and events being seen very differently by folks on both sides, so some care should be taken to show homage to the characters but not to saddle a real person with a terrible story they don’t deserve. The second downside is, I think, one of perception rather than intent, although it does inform us of some interesting possibilities to avoid when creating NPCs. Simcoe speaks with a shrill, high-pitched very English accent – an voice that sounds a little like the stereotypical representation of an effete gay man. The trope of gay=villain could be at play here, which is something I’m going to watch out for more in the future.

I highly recommend Turn to everyone who can get to see it (I only know of it on Amazon Prime in the U.K.) as it is an excellent source of inspiration for period adventure and it is definitely a period I am considering for a new Duty and Honour setting guide!

 Posted by at 8:36 am

#designgoals

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Jul 182017
 

#designgoals

Ten years ago, I started the process of writing Duty & Honour. It was a very different time and if truth be told, I was a very different person. Gaming, in the intervening years, has also developed … or at least, what I want from gaming has developed. As I turn my eye to revitalising Duty & Honour, I am mindful of why I wrote the game in the first place and what I want to do with the new version.

teresa1Goal #1: Inclusivity

If there was one thing that Duty & Honour was infamous for, it was page 92. That’s the page about women. At the time, with my head firmly in historical simulation mode, I felt full justified in writing and publishing a game that was accurate to the time period in terms of representation. Whilst I accepted that there were some women masquerading as men in the Peninsular, and some women on board ships of the navy, they were by far and away the exception. So mostly, games of Duty & Honour, played by the rules, had no women.

Times change. I was stopped at a convention and royally chastised by a woman for my stance. I have had conversations around the subject with numerous people over the years. I have come to understand how issues like this affect people and how, really, they are quite minor in the wider scheme of things. So, I have looked for a solution that manages both sides of the equation – how do I create a game which is true to the history and the fiction that inspired it, but also appeals to a wider fanbase by being inclusive?

Well, the answer lay in the strangest place: Night’s Black Agents.

In Pelgrane Press’s game of modern vampire hunters, the spy genre is modified by different modes of game: Dust (techno-thriller), Mirror (paranoid double crossing) etc. These simple setting conventions allow you to swerve your game as you wish with the aid of the game. It’s a great idea so I’m going to steal it. Duty & Honour will have two modes: Historical and Fictional. In the former, the game set-up is as it is in the history books. In the latter, the shackles are officially off. Women redcoats? Absolutely. Women as the Captains of His Majesty’s fleet? Sure, why not. Josephine, Empress of France? Great idea!

Goal #2: Expanding the scope of the game – the social game

Another side of Georgian life that I have realised is very important to the stories that we tell about the characters of that time is the time they spend away from the battlefield. My favourite episode of Sharpe is Sharpe’s Regiment and I have written recently about how enamoured I am with the crossover potential of series such as Poldark. Having a home front aspect for the game also opens more potential for intrigue, romance and rivalry and that’s where great stories lie.

I’ll admit that this factors in more for the more mobile characters within a game of Beat to Quarters than it does the soldiers in the field of Duty & Honour, but as I will inevitably roll over any changes made here into a revised version of the seafaring game, the infrastructure needs to be in place now.

So how is that going to work? Well, I have a few ideas. In the first instance, Reputations are going to be made a little more granular, with renown, rivalries and loyalties being the words on the sheet now. In the second instance, missions will also be a little more granular with new mission ‘types’ being added, such as romance missions. Lastly I will be playing around with a new structure completely of ‘intrigues’ – ongoing mission-style objectives that plot years long games of cat-and-mouse between two people or institutions (such as a regiment or a ship). Beyond that, there will be a section in the book about handling the home side of things and possibly something about relationship triangles and love rivals etc.

179b9093ab2eac687c4ad0657e3fab3cGoal #3: Expanding the scope of the game – other fronts

Yes, you’ll be able to play the bloody French! Maybe not immediately, straight from the get-go, but I hear your strange and deviant cries and I understand that there are a few people who take pleasure from losing… And yes, you’ll be able to very easily make the game about the American Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. How about the British army in India? Sounds good? Yeah, I agree.

How am I going to do it then? Well, that’s the question!

I think that the best way forward with this is to create a solid set of base rules and then supplement them with specific targeted expansions for a particular theatre or time period.

Now, I can already hear long-time players of the game saying, ‘But yes, Neil, you said this before – what about Vive Le Empereur!?’ And yes, that still plays on my mind a little as it was promised but never happened. How will I ensure that doesn’t happen again?

Well, one thing I have learned is that there is a load of people out there that love these sorts of games and know their stuff. So, I’ll be looking out to recruit some (paid) conspirators to do the leg work on the research regarding the different areas – especially the American ones. More bodies, less pressure and therefore more output.

Goal #4: Updating the Game System

At the time, back in 2007, I was proud of the Duty & Honour game system. The card-flopping mechanic worked exactly as I wanted it and every time I see the tension build as cards are overturned at the table, I smile a little inside. The Mission system worked as well and now there are loads of games that have the ‘win four before you lose three’ style extended resolution, and the Beat to Quarters ship-to-ship combat system has quite a few fans.

However, some of it was, frankly, poor.

Measures have little or no purpose expect as a descriptor. Reputations were woolly and in many cases required some linguistic acrobatics to apply. Promotion missions were strange. Lots of places to make improvements.

Moreover, as I saw the game played I saw many many missions being won 4-0. Hands of 7-13 cards were the absolute norm, making success virtually guaranteed. Reputations compounded this – the higher the reputation, the more likely you would win, the less likely you would suffer an injury to the reputation and therefore be able to succeed. Challenges should be … well, a challenge!

With this in mind, I am looking to ratchet things down a little. The main change is that Measures and Reputations will become points that can be spent to gain more cards – a finite resource during each Military Mission. These points will ‘regenerate’ at the end of a Military Mission. You will be able to tax your reputations- pushing that relationship for a couple of extra cards – but if you do so, they will only regenerate when you complete a Mission to do so.

To accompany this, I intend to balance out the skills and traits available to ensure that players have a good chance of success, but not steamrolling challenges as happens now. Which leads nicely onto character creation! My aim here is options, options and options. Not just in increased options of backgrounds etc. but also in terms of the way that you create a character. The plan is to offer up three different models: quick-start pre-gens that can be individualised and ready in a few minutes, a system like the current one but with fixed skill allocations (i.e. you choose this option and get +1 to skill A and +1 to measure B), and a totally freeform system that simply gives a certain number of points to allocate across the piece. There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure this works.

Nothing here is locked down in stone but this is my starting point.

Goal #5: The Beautiful Game

In the original game, I did everything except the art, which was done as the first ever gaming gig of the talented Mr Frain. I even created the logo!

For this new revision I want to create something lovely. There’s room here to add the details and the advice that a decade of reflection and research can add. There are resources that could be added to make thing easier for both players and GMs. And there are peripherals that could easily be added to the game – especially those Duty & Honour playing cards!

All of this, inevitably, raises the spectre of Kickstarter but that in and of itself has issues in terms of fulfilment and operations that I am going to have to get some advice about from people who have more experience in the thing.

Regardless, I want the game this time around to look professional and to have real added value.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm

So Many Ideas and Not One Iota of Clarity

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Jun 262017
 

Welcome to my mind.

I’m currently looking at five weeks off work with utter horror and almost anxiety. I have to do SOMETHING during that time and my mind inevitably turns to games design. The problem is – hilariously for those that know my recent struggles with zero inspiration – I have LOADS of embryonic ideas. Too many! Want to read about some of them?

  • Hey, why not update Duty & Honour and Beat to Quarters?
  • Whilst your doing that, why not expand the system to include more social, home based adventures ala Poldark?
  • Why not ditch all of that and finish the BtQ-in-Space thing you started years ago. You even have a name for it: Pulsars and Privateers.
  • How about that ‘The War’ thing where you do the Crimean War in Near Space as a series of Lady Blackbird-esque adventures?
  • What about a nice simple fantasy system where characters are built with cards so everything is all swappable. You like cards, remember?
  • Blood Rose, a throw away comment about a single-shot PbtA game of desperate and decaying bad people in their final days before The Fall, is burning in my breast.
  • That Harlem Heroes/Inferno anthology has ignited my thoughts about a Future Sports game.

Settling down on one thing to do in five weeks of free time is going to prove … difficult!

 Posted by at 10:40 am