Enough with the Awesome!

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Jan 142018

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!

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 Posted by at 11:03 am

The Joy of the Unknown

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Jan 062018


[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.

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 Posted by at 6:39 pm

Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Gold

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Dec 302017


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


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


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