The Forge The Internet Home for Independent Role-Playing Games
About the Forge | Articles | Reviews | Forums

Author: Jim Dietz
Cost: $18
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 1999-09-01

RPGs in the "Have at you!" genre have been with us a long time. There is simply nothing like the 1800s adventure fiction set in the 1600s, and RPG design has twisted, struggled, turned, and sweated to try to capture that distinctive flair during play. Not counting some wargame-ish early ones (one of them called Swashbucker), the history includes:
  • Flashing Blades in the very early 80s, with one of the most incredible research, detail, and insight into a historical period in all of RPGs to date - but the system, typical of FGU, was nearly unplayable
  • a GURPS supplement called "Swashbuckers," which like all of its ilk is a fine encyclopedia with little direct relevance to actual role-playing
  • a gorgeous and well-researched 2nd Edition AD&D supplement called "A Mighty Fortress," practically a Master's thesis on 17th century Europe
  • Lace & Steel from Australia (recently re-released, in fact, from Pharos Press), set in a fantasy version of the period, which introduced a novel card-based, match-and-show system into duelling
  • Castle Falkenstein, set in Victorian adventure fiction and fantasy, which also used a match-and-show card system using regular playing cards
  • and probably some more I don't know about, or am forgetting for some reason.
The latest is Swashbucker, an RPG written and owned by Jim Dietz, published through his own gaming company Jolly Roger. Dietz should be recognized as a real self-made man in gaming, in that he is a one-man company that writes games for JR or another company to publish, publishes games written by others, and even acts as an agent if necessary for self-publishers. If you have commercial ambitions of starting your own gaming company, his is the example to follow.

So, on to this new Swashbucker. Its primary feature is the duelling system, which offers another approach to match-and-show, streamlining it into a very modern cinematic dice method. Basically, you pick a number of combat maneuvers to define your duelling style. During play, each round, maneuvers are chosen secretly, then shown simultaneously. A table of matched-maneuvers assigns a modifier to the player's roll of d20, which is compared to the GM's d20; higher wins, and if the winning maneuver does damage, one opponent is hit.

We discovered that the damage system is quite innovative as well, and without wasting space on details, suffice to say that one must take fighting very seriously - a character can be put down quite fast, occasionally. Although in principle I like this idea, which makes combat chancy and dramatic, the possibility, however slim, of instant total collapse may be a bit harsh for some players. In fact, at one point during play I weenied out and permitted one PC, who should have been put out of the fight at the first exchange, to continue for a round or two before decreeing that he faint.

The real treat for combat, though, is that a given maneuver only has a limited number of possible subsequent maneuvers - so real duelling becomes a matter of designing and carrying out effective combinations. It moves fast (one roll-match per pair of combatants) and each round logically sets up the next. It is way more cinematic and exciting than any of the card-based systems. My players absolutely loved the fight scenes in our game, which had a wild, free-wheeling, desperate, exciting feel; best of all, they took all of fifteen minutes of real time and in retrospect they look choreographed by experts.

As a whole RPG, however, Swashbucker is a mix of absolutely excellent material and not-too-good material, with very little in between. The good stuff includes some real innovations. For example, the PC has four scores (Bravery, Chivalry, Romance, Physique), and each is assigned a die type (d6, d8, d10, d20). Skills are rated by level units, each one a d6 - so one might have Bluff 2 and a d10 for Bravery, so to Bluff someone, you roll your d10 and 2d6, compared to the very simple difficulty chart. In other words, the character has no actual set scores - just mechanics for doing things. It's very, very clean and sensible, and notice that three out of four of the scores are interactive rather than physical.

Character creation also includes building the PC's duelling style with maneuvers, and there's all sorts of leeway to favor various modes of fencing. One might be a parry-master with a deadly riposte, or a master of all the simple moves, or a brawling hack-and-slasher. The combat system itself plays superbly, as mentioned above, but one of the most interesting things about the game is that one's expertise in fighting is not directly affected by any of the other scores. That's right: no mini-maxing, you can't buy some DEX score way up and the Fencing skill too.

The experience system also shows plenty of care. It permits a lot of quick increase and a subsequent plateau, and it includes an interesting Reputation mechanic that can be used for many interaction rolls.

Using the terms from Everway, what Swashbucker really offers is proof that Fortune, as an event-resolution method, is far from exhausted in original RPG design. Yes, it's great that Karma is now used more openly (Amber, Everway) and Drama is finally being formally included (Puppetland, Theatrix), but good old Fortune need not be thrown out entirely when designing an innovative way to role-play.

Swashbuckler is not without flaws, which may arise from the fact that it's a combat-duelling system with a minimal RPG wrapped around it. Although much of that RPG material is quite good (especially the resolution system), the text is very rushed and vague. It could well have used another solid round of playtesting by people who had to go only by the written rules. I am pretty experienced at deciphering RPG mechanics from rulebooks, and Swashbucker combat defeated me; I had to write to the author, and I would argue that the real explanation of how to run combat is simply not present in the text and examples.

I don't know for sure, but it seems to me as if the system may have begun strictly as a Gamist enterprise, that is, a combat-only pocket-style game for two players. That would explain the rushed, add-on feel to the text, and certain elements seem not-too-successfully converted from such an approach, e.g., using Player One and Player Two in some of the explanations, as opposed to GM and player; or the punch-out cards in the middle, which serve no direct purpose during play.

And oddly for me, I actually would like to see a little more Simulationism in the game, at least in terms of background and the non-duelling combat effects. Partly this is because I had to wing all combat events of a certain type on the fly. These included acts like bopping someone from behind, combat between different elevations, and basically anything besides face-to-face duelling. Movement and the next-day effects of damage are pretty iffy too, although I don't mind GMing that with arbitrary common sense.

As it stands, Swashbucker's priority is solid Narrativism: get a story told. However, this is where the book falls a bit flat. Its recommended approach is clear, that heroes are squeaky-clean good guys who fight evil kings and save kids - and bears no resemblance at all to any of the actual heroes of the genre like Captain Blood or D'Artagnan. It's more like a modern Disney version of them.

In actual play, I used Flashing Blades and "A Mighty Fortress" for background instead, including handouts, maps, characters, and more. I set up an elaborate murder mystery underlying on The Day of Dupes (a political event in 1630 Paris) in the traditional Dumas style. But all the mechanics were Swashbucker, and aside from the above comments, it went extremely well. Combat works, the Reputation mechanic works, the skill system works, the experience system works. Considering how original all of them are, it's pretty impressive. My final recommendation: by all means buy Swashbucker (reduce that pricey $18 by visiting Uncle Jed's Game Shed), play it, and enjoy - but, mon Dieu, for RPG background material worthy of the genre, get your hands on "A Mighty Fortress," GURPS Swashbuckers, or if you're really lucky, Flashing Blades. Be sure to watch the three superb mid-70s Musketeers movies and the old Captain Blood and Seahawk movies, and go ahead and read the books by Dumas, Hope, and Sabatini, as well as associated websites. Then, armed with Swashbucker mechanics, you can make the most of it.

The Forge moderated by Ron Edwards and administrated by Vincent Baker.
All articles, reviews, and posts on this site are copyright their designated author.