Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Rifles

 Gaming Sharpe  Comments Off on Gaming Sharpe: Sharpe’s Rifles
Dec 122017



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.


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!

 Design  Comments Off on Entering Alt-History Mode!
Nov 282017



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?

 Review  Comments Off on What makes a good bad guy? And what doesn’t?
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


 Design, News  Comments Off on #designgoals
Jul 182017


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

 Design  Comments Off on So Many Ideas and Not One Iota of Clarity
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