Thursday, July 14, 2011

Game Findings: Swashbuckler

With most of my recent gaming caught up in playing other people's work and playtesting ground to wish dust, I'm left with precious little design work to write about. But that doesn't mean I haven't been learning this whole time. So, for a little bit, I'll be musing about the things I've learned by playing some other titles.

First up, Swashbuckler, by Jolly Roger Games. This was something I really wanted to try as soon as I read about it. The setting is more or less real world Europe, and the core system is pretty spare. Roll some dice, add them up, look for a target number, and you succeed if your total exceeds the difficulty. One thing about this I thought was pretty clever is that attributes are measured with different sized dice, ranging from d6 to d20, while skills are pools of d6s. Since rolling a 1 on your attribute die constitutes a funble, this strikes me as a clever way of differentiating talent and training and making them distinct and equally important.

Since this was a game played with FLux rules, I made the characters, and I made them with experience already spent. I think I spent experience in a way not intended by the game though, since the players all had skills so advanced that they regularly blasted past most target numbers with ease. This had them wanting to raise. Alas, there is no raise mechanic, and I didn't cobble one together for them.

So if you don't spend xp on skills, what do you spend them on? Fighting tecniques. See, combat in Swashbuckler has nothing to do with your stats or skills. Combat is its own independent system. You have a number of techniques available to you, and at the start of combat you select which one you're using. You compare your chosen maneuver against the one your opponent is using, which gives you a modifier. You then apply this modifier to a straight d20 roll, and the higher roll wins. The next exchange, however, you can only use certain techniques, ones the last technique allows. For example, after you lunge, you might only be able to perform a hasty parry, even though you know the maneuvers "shoulder ram" and "hack" as well. Thus your techniques form a web, with some leading to others.

It's neat in concept, and it's pretty cool in application too. I found that what happened was that players first jumped to what they thought was the best technique, but after a few fights they began watching the opponent to determine what kind of style he used, and tried to pick their way through their own fight webs to choose techniques that would give them the best advantage. I'm sure that's exactly what the game intended, and my players had a lot of fun with it.

Combat's very fast, with damage being the margin of victory over your opponent, and wound checks working as a simplified version of 7th Sea's own mechanic (as soon as you fail a wound check, you're down). This makes for fragile characters, but I think it works with the combat system, which is geared more toward not getting hit with the right use of techniques than it is about weathering repeated blows. That strikes me as true to the genre as well. You don't see many swashbuckling films where a fencer powers through receiving thrust after slash after lunge. It's more about desperate, last minute parries, so my hat's off to Jolly Roger Games for getting the genre down in mechanics.

Any hitches? Well, a few.

The combat system is AWESOME when it's one-on-one. One of my players got into a duel with an arrogant musketeer and we went back and forth through multile exchanges that were exciting and beautifully choreographed for us by the rules. It turned tense as they both struck home several times and were woozy and exhausted, either one about to drop when the next blade cut flesh. Everyone agreed it was a fantastic way to run a fight.

This back and forth falls apart very quickly when you're trying to run multiple combattants at once however. It was true both when you have a single opponent fighting multiple foes and when you have multiple one-on-one fights going on. In both cases the fact you need to shift focus from one pair to another means that natural rhythm that develops in one-on-one fighting is lost, and the whole thing becomes just another combat. I'd almost suggest that this become a separate duelling mechanic used to handle duels of honor and use a more abstracted ruleset similar to attribute and skill use for broader combats, since it's a real pitty how much magic the combat system loses when you can't focus in on two fighters exclusively.

The other complaint, though I suspect this will be a common one in many games, is that there's no raise mechanic. Ever since being introduced to raising, my players have become hardcore addicts of the rule, in whatever incarnation it may take. They crave the ability to set their own stakes and reach for the stars in ways that aren't exclusively the call of a high die roll. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with too many games that provide this. Hell, a lot of my own games don't even do this, and I love the concept as much as they do. I don't count that as any failing of the game though; it's a taste thing only.

All in all, Swashbuckler proved to be a fantastic sidebar in our campaign, and I think everyone enjoyed it. That said, given how the combat system really seems to need to be constrained to two individuals to shine, I thnk playing this as an extended one shot worked best for us. I'd want to flesh this out and create a combat system that better handled larger fights (perhaps something like 7th Sea's system, where your techniques aren't tied to a web and can be used in place of basic attacks). It's a fun game though, and not pricey either. Recommended.

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