Friday, November 19, 2010

Adventure in the age of Napoleon

I am a big fan of both the Aubrey-Maturin novels and the Hornblower novels. These tales of naval adventure set in the Napoleonic era are great stories on their own, and have provided at least partial inspiration for such things as Star Trek and the Honor Harrington science fiction novels. While I never finished the series, I also enjoyed the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a fictional soldier in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars.

The Napoleonic period has provided the inspiration for numerous adventure stories over the years, and I've often thought about trying to run a roleplaying game set in the period, but despite running across a few systems that were either designed for doing so or could easily be adapted to it, I never really found one that I felt could do it justice, until now.

The problem with previous attempts is that they tended to be traditional simulationist RPGs. The games modeled combat well, but the genre of Napoleonic fiction isn't really about the combat, but about the characters. It can be fun to read about weathering the cape or engaging in a tense duel of sailing skills followed by the crash of broadsides, but actually rolling dice to simulate such things tends to be a rather dry experience in most cases.

Neil Gow seems to recognize this, because for the most part he has abandoned simulation in favor of storytelling. In his twin games Duty & Honour and Beat to Quarters he has adopted a system that is more similar to Fiasco than it is to Runequest. Most actions are resolved by either a single test or a short series of tests using standard playing cards. Win or lose, the players then get to narrate what actually happened based on the results of the test. The flip of the cards simply provide a framework around which to build the fiction.

That fiction starts with the building of characters. Players create a concept for their character, deciding what role they want to play in their regiment or aboard their ship, then they pick a nationality, religion and social station appropriate to their chosen role and concept. Finally they generate a number of life experiences that have defined their characters.

This step is similar to that found in games using the Fate system, but with an element of randomness. Card draws determine what kind of mechanical advancements the character gains from the experience, but it's up to the player to define the specifics and narrate the fiction surrounding the experience.

Midway through this step (after the players have generated their pre-recruitment life experiences) the group as a whole creates their regiment or ship. As part of this they define some of the NPC members of the regiment or ship, including their attitudes towards the players.

Then the players generate their post-recruitment life experiences. Once this is done the players have characters with a history that ties them into the setting and it's time to start the first mission.

Missions are what drive the game, and there are two types. The first is the military or naval mission. This mission is designed by the GM and usually takes the form of the official orders that the regiment or ship receives. The GM sets the reward for success and the consequence for failure, as well as the difficulty involved in completing the mission. The group as a whole seeks to accomplish this mission.

The other type of mission is the player mission. Each player designs their own mission that they will attempt to accomplish at the same time that the group works to complete the military or naval mission. Players set their own rewards and have a say in the difficulty level based on the reward they pick, but the GM still has a say on difficulty and determines the penalty for failure.

In our first game the naval mission was to carry orders from England to the Admiral in charge of the Mediterranean Fleet. The reward would be increased reputation with the Admiral, and failure would be a loss of a single naval reputation each player had, representing the shame incurred in being unable to complete such a mission. I decided that the party would need to successfully overcome four obstacles, called tests, on their way to accomplish the mission (the first part of determining difficulty), and that if they failed to overcome more than two tests along the way, that their entire mission would fail as the orders would have arrived too late to make a difference (this is the deadline, and is the other half of determining difficulty).

Each player then designed their own personal mission. As an example, one of the players decided that they wanted to increase their wealth through gambling. The reward of a wealth increase determined the number of obstacles that had to be overcome, in this case four. As GM, I then decided that any more than two failures would mean that the character had lost his stake money, and would result in a decrease in wealth.

None of the tests were determined ahead of time, although some of them could have been. Instead I simply made them up on the fly. They began by having problems with the weather, and while successfully overcoming them, they were forced to put into Gibraltar to restock on some necessary supplies. Unable to convince the supply clerks at Gibraltar to part with all that the ship needed, the ship was forced to head to the coast of Africa to seek the last of their supplies. They found their supplies, but then had to avoid a Barbary corsair on their way to deliver the orders to the Admiral.

The resulting story was satisfying all around and really seemed to capture the feel of the Napoleonic fiction I'm used to, even though I was playing with a group of players that largely hadn't experienced the genre aside from maybe watching the Master & Commander movie from a few years ago. I don't think that a more simulationist style game would have been able to do that.

I should also point out that fans of the game have already started doing hacks of the system for other genres, including other historical periods and science fiction. Like Fiasco, it appears to be a very hackable system.

If you're interested in the game there's basically three ways of getting it right now (that I'm aware of), the first is getting a pdf from If you want a hardcopy you have two choices. You can order direct from Omnihedron Games, but they are based in England. The other option is to get it through the Lulu print on demand service. For now those appear to be the only options, although I would love to see the game get wider distribution.


Michael said...

Have you read the Temeraire series? Napoleonic Era Alternate History (With Dragons). The description of this game makes me thing it is easily portable to replicate those novels.

Skye said...

Ha, poor guy, that's the first thing 2 of us said to him once we started looking at this system. "OMG HAVE YOU READ THE TEMERAIRE BOOKS? THIS SYSTEM COULD SO WORK FOR THOSE BOOKS OMG LET ME FOIST THEM OFF ON YOU THEY ARE SOOOOO GOOD!!"

No, he hasn't, and yes, it would be *awesome*. ;)

Fulminata said...

Ha, ha! What Skye said, Michael. I have not read the Temeraire series as I rarely read fiction these days, but it certainly sounds like it would be an easy hack.

Hacking it to represent almost any military based setting seems to be largely a matter of tweaking lists of backgrounds, skills and traits, plus altering the ship/regiment construction rules to match the setting. Probably not much more work than creating a Fiasco playset.

Speaking of Fiasco, I think this is worth taking a look at for anyone who enjoys that game.

Getting back to Temeraire, I just shake my cane at my group and tell them to get off my lawn, we are playing REAL Napoleonic era swashbuckling adventures!

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