Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Real Life Intrudes

Sorry for the radio silence -- my parents were in a car accident last week, so I've been up here in LA since Thursday helping out. They both got pretty banged up (my mom, with a broken hand, got the worst of it), but it's nothing permanent.

The consequence of me being such a good son is that our scheduled "SotS" game didn't happen on Saturday, and there's a good chance that this week's swashbuckling playtest won't happen either, all of which means, well, not much to write about right now. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Swashbuckling: The Princess Bride Test

So I'm watching The Princess Bride on cable right now, and I can't help but see it in light of these swashbuckling rules. Even though the emphasis for this conversion is 17th-century French musketeers and the like, if a swashbuckling game can't do this movie, what good is it? Call it The Princess Bride Test. A couple scenes in particular stand out to me in mechanical terms.

First up: Inigo confronts Count Rugen. Neither has Advantage when it comes to Readiness rolls, although Rugen wins the roll and gets to go first. He jockeys for Advantage by running away, and obtains vitesse (a.k.a. spin) against Inigo on his Physique roll. This means that when Inigo rounds the corner after spending his turn dealing with that locked door (a Brawn roll that he gets Fezzik to help him with), Rugen's able to deal a pretty significant physical consequence to him with that thrown dagger (an Arms roll). If you've read the book (and if not, why haven't you read the book?), you'll know that this probably qualifies as a Grievous consequence: "Bleeding Out." Rugen is content to just watch him die, but Inigo refuses to make a concession, instead responding with his classic catchphrase. Rugen still has Advantage, and attacks again, tagging that consequence in the process; Inigo goes full defense, and only takes a Trifling consequence of "Arm Wounds." Determined to win Advantage, Inigo repeats his "Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya!" a few times in succession as part of his use of Presence to intimidate. Success! I'm sure he spends some Fate Points on this one, too. Once he has Advantage, his superior swordsmanship virtually guarantees him the win. Rugen, being an NPC (albeit an important one), can't survive a Grievous consequence, which is what Inigo gives him when he runs him through while politely requesting the return of his dead father, you son of a bitch.

Note that even though Rugen and Inigo spend a lot of time actually fencing after Inigo gets back on his feet, that's mere window dressing for the contest for Advantage. Up until he actually deals an injury, he's isn't using Arms. The idea is that Arms is only used for dealing consequences. Everything else is describing what you're doing, be it fencing or otherwise, in terms of some other skill.

Example the Second: Westley confronts Prince Humperdinck. Westley frames this as a mental conflict, using Presence (again) and maybe even Art, for being creative with that whole "To The Pain" thing. This one's interesting, because even though Humperdinck could escalate things from a mental conflict to a physical one, he doesn't. His response to Westley isn't to shove three feet of steel into his gut -- it's "I think you're bluffing."

Let me back up, though. Westley wins initiative and, in the process, Advantage. And because he wins intiative, he gets to control what kind of conflict it is (or at least what kind it'll start off as). He chooses mental, so he can freak Humperdinck out with a bunch of mind games. It's pretty much his only option, since he's still weak as a kitten from being mostly dead all day. When he calls Humperdinck a "warthog-faced buffoon," Humperdinck's reply of "That may be the first time in my life a man has dared insult me" indicates that he's probably taken a Trifling consequence of "Insulted."

Westley's player then tags this consequence for an unusual effect: Humperdinck won't escalate things to a physical conflict. As easy as it would be to impale Westley and be done with it, the player suggests, the prince's pride and curiosity preclude him from essentially admitting defeat in Westley's little challenge. The GM agrees. Of course, Humperdinck's no match for Westley in this conflict, even going full defense as he does (Humperdinck isn't especially proactive here -- he's all "Yes, yes, let's get on with it," leaving Westley to drive the conflict).

Westley carries on with some disturbing talk of Humperdinck losing his feet, hands, and eyes (but not his ears) as part of this bizarre "duel." (I'm not clear on how "To The Pain" works, anyway -- you lose body parts until you cry "Uncle"? Can't we just fight?) Like Rugen, he can't take a Grievous consequence, so when it comes time for him to defend against Westley's final salvo of words -- ending with his impossible-to-ignore "Drop! Your! Sword!" -- Humperdinck makes a concession rather than get Taken Out. "Fine," the GM says. "He stumbles backwards, horrified by the gruesome picture you've painted. You've intimidated him into submission, but you let him live so he can contemplate what a total coward he is." The player agrees, Westley collapses, and Humperdinck realizes he's been had.

This latter example brings up something I've been thinking about lately, and that's the concept of conflict framing and escalation. More on that as it develops.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Swashbuckling: More Stuff About Fencing

So we sorta kinda playtested these swashbuckling rules for the first time last night. I say "sorta kinda" because all we really did was make characters, talk about new rules tweaks, and play out half of a duel between two Joel's fencing mistress and Sayler's fencing student to see how Advantage worked in play.

Andy had some concerns that the Advantage rules, as written, might draw out a combat unnecessarily, a point well-taken. In practice, I don't think this was the case, but it was also kinda hard to tell just how quickly or slowly things were going because we kept stopping to talk about it. Ultimately, Nat had a good point about the relative importance of "fun" over "fast" -- who cares if it's taking a while as long as it's creating an interesting narrative and people are having fun? This is especially valid in a swashbuckling game, where personal combat has such a focus. Sayler and Joel said it certainly had the back-and-forth feel of a duel, with each of them constantly jockeying for advantage (and Advantage) over the other, and there was a lot of thought-provoking discussion about it all.

BTW, the characters:
Andy's playing a would-have-been priest who dropped out of seminary and took up a sword
Joel's playing a fencing mistress, largely self-taught, with a unique weapon
Nat's playing a "Chamingly British" nobleman (in France!) with a title and not much else
Sayler's playing another former man of the cloth and novice swordsman
Tony's playing a high-ranking social combat monster who spreads rumors better than Twitter

It should be restated that the Advantage rules are only for one-on-one duels with NPCs of relative importance. E.g., if you bothered to name the NPC, Advantage should probably come into play. Fighting minions uses the usual FATE rules for combat. Moreover, nobody should really be ganging up on a Big Bad: Either every PC has his own Big Bad or group of minions to fight, or one fights while the rest contribute from the sidelines. Last night I compared that latter situation to the film version of The Three Musketeers starring Gene Kelly as D'Artagnan (it's no Scaramouche, but it's a lot of fun). There's a bit early on where he duels with a sargeant (or something) of the Cardinal's Guard -- and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis just watch, shouting out insults and les mots justes now and then. Mechanically speaking, they're using skills like Art, Presence, and Perception to create aspects on the sargeant, D'Artagnan, or the scene. So they're contributing to the combat, but they're letting someone else do the fighting. I mean, together, they could easily slaughter the guy, but that just isn't cricket. I don't know how (or if) I'd enforce that mechanically, though.

On a related note, I'm thinking about limiting aspects to one tag or invoke per scene. Invoke it once, and you can't invoke it again. This would encourage more aspect creation through maneuvers and declarations (and maybe assessments, depending on the nature of the conflict), which seems to fit the genre very well. It also makes the Three Musketeers' insult-generated aspects that much more important. I compare it to the Blue Raja throwing forks into the wall so Mr. Furious can climb it. If you think of every fork as an aspect, it's a pretty appropriate analogy. Right?

Anyway, here's some actul crunch.

I had the idea that disarms could happen normally, or by voluntarily taking "Disarmed" as a consequence once per scene. As a Trifling (Minor) consequence, it'd be relatively trivial to pick up your weapon again (a supplementary action, say). As a Moderate (Middling) consequence, it'd require a skill roll, like usual -- say, opposed Physique rolls between the two combatants as one tries to block the other's path. As a Severe (Grievous) consequence, it'd be something appropriately dire. At the very least, you aren't getting that weapon back anytime soon. Maybe it's broken, or drops into the ocean. Unlike the usual rules for consequences of that degree, though, it might not necessarily change your life forever. Or it might. I dunno.

Anyway, if disarms work differently in this game than usual, I got to thinking about what other fencing maneuvers could be simulated.
  • Bind: A defense usable only in Melee -- spend shifts obtained on a Block vs. Brawn.
  • Dodge: Using Physique to defend. Nothing special.
  • Feint: Chicanery vs. Arms (or something); shifts obtained = +dF to next attack, with maximum +dF determined by Arms skill (something like Arms - 1).
  • Fleche: Arms modified by Physique, spend shifts to close distance from Ranged to Extended to Melee to Corps-a-corps (1 shift/pace, +1 shift for R to E, plus any other modifiers for crossing borders or barriers). If you don't have enough shifts to make that happen, you can take stress instead to complete the move (resulting in a consequence).
  • Footwork: Use Physique vs. Physique to increase or decrease pace by one.
  • Lunge: +1dF to your attack, +1dF to opponent's next attack.
  • Parry: Using Arms to defend. If your next action is an attack, +1dF to Arms.
  • Prise de Fer: An attack usable only in Melee -- spend shifts obtained on a Block with Arms (usually) vs. Brawn.
  • Punch: Fisticuffs, only when Corps-a-Corps.
  • Shove: Usable only when Corps-a-Corps. Brawn vs. Brawn (usually); success means pace becomes Melee. With vitesse (spin), it's Extended instead. Can't decrease pace.
Of course, I don't want to overburden gameplay with too much crunch, so I don't know if we'll actually end up using these. However, I invite you to try 'em out if you're so inclined.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Swashbuckling: Standing and Social Class

[Note: This is heavily inspired by Flashing Blades and the Size/Scale rules in "Spirit of the Sword" -- which are themselves adapted from the Weight Factor table in SotC. And thus, the circle is complete.]

[Note Too: Also, there's a reference here to Elan. This is known as Will in "Spirit of the Sword" and Chi in "Spirit of the Fist." They all work the same way: Spend a point of it before a roll to replace a Fudge die with a d6.]

One's place in society is a matter of no small importance in the swashbuckling genre. Here, it's represented through your Standing and Social Class (SC).

Standing is rated on the ladder like a skill, but one that's outside of a character's skill pyramid. In some circumstances, it can even be used as a skill, but for the most part it's an indicator of a character's standing in society. If you have someone with Fair (+2) Standing and someone with Mediocre (+0) Standing, you know right away the latter's in more or less a subservient position. Standing can also be used to modify other skill rolls, such as Rapport, or limit their effectiveness, such as with Connections. Social attacks are defended against with Standing, as well.

(Why outside the skill pyramid? Because Standing needs to be a fluid thing. Musketeers get promoted; nobles get disgraced. And I think all of that should be able to happen without having to shift a character's skill pyramid around.)

Standing starts at Mediocre (+0) by default. Right now, I'm thinking that a character could take a boon that increases his Standing by +1 (but that the only way to get this boon would be to take a specific kind of phase in character creation: Position). This would be the only way a starting character could increase his Standing. Of course, if you want to start with a lower Standing than Mediocre (+0), you're free to do so at no charge. As stated earlier, Standing can increase or decrease with promotions or demotions, and traveling to a foreign country can have a negative impact on a character's Standing as well.

Social Class limits the ways individuals of disparate Standing can interact in opposition. For every 2 points by which your target's SC is greater than yours, you must spend a point of Elan to inflict a social consequence on them even on an otherwise successful attack. For example, if a banker (SC 3) attempts to spread a scandalous rumor about the Count D'Arcy (SC 5), even if he obtains three shifts on his Connections roll he'll need to spend a point of Elan to deal the Middling social consequence his skill roll earned.

When making a Connections roll to gather information on an individual, SC limits the people with whom you actually have connections. Apply the absolute value of the difference between your SC and the target's as a penalty to your roll. This reflects the fact that it's harder to discover things about someone who's outside your normal social circles, whether higher or lower in station. For example, a mere infantryman (SC 2) trying to discover the name of a captain's mistress (SC 3) will have the difficulty of his Connections roll increased by +1, but that captain would have an equally hard time gathering information on the trooper. Yes, this does make it virtually impossible for the King of France to learn much of anything about a peasant -- but that's why he has people of lower Social Class in his employ. This strikes me as perfectly reasonable in a highly stratified society. (I know the old "Let them eat cake" incident is somewhat apocryphal, but the point is that it's believable. And this supports that sort of thing.)

Standing Example SC
Heavenly (+10)
The King 12
Glorious (+9)
The Queen, Princes 10
Illustrious (+8)
Grand Duke, Cardinals, Royal Ministers 8
Magnificent (+7)
Archduke, Royal Order Masters 7
Formidable (+6)
Dukes, Generals, Noble Order Masters 6
Superb (+5)
Counts, Archbishops 5
Great (+4)
Viscounts, Royal Officials, Magistrates 4
Good (+3)
Barons, Knights, Colonels 3
Fair (+2)
Captains, Bankers, Fencing Masters3
Average (+1)
Sergeants, Minor Officials, Wealthy Merchants
Mediocre (+0)
Troopers, Merchants, Priests2
Mean (-1)
Embarrassing (-2)
Shameful (-3)