Category Archives: Advice

Guest Post: Combat of the Thirty

Handling chivalry in RPGs is hard. Genre fiction loves chivalry and honor almost as much as it loves jaded pessimism – and it often shoves the two philosophies together in ways that seem to clash. The classic example is the paladin and the rogue. How’s a GM supposed to have both in the same party without one of them (usually the paladin) looking like a moron? A real-life incident from 1351 may help shed some light on how to walk this tightrope.

The Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) was a famously awful mess. Millions died, countless towns were burned (sometimes multiple times), and the whole affair settled remarkably little. Yet the leadership of both sides were ostensibly bound by the laws of chivalry, which theoretically ought to have limited the violence. It’s a great example of how honorable combat usually doesn’t hold up in the real world. Yet amid the blood and the grime, there was a bright spot: the Combat of the Thirty, an example of chivalry held up for centuries to come.

In 1351, an English castellan (lord of a castle) in Brittany was riding past a fortress occupied by Breton forces fighting for France. When he saw that no one inside the castle was going to come out and fight, the Englishman called up to the Bretons on the ramparts to ask if there was anyone inside who might want to joust with him “for the love of their ladies”. The joust he was proposing was no tournament game, but a deadly bout with steel-tipped lances!

The Bretons politely declined, but offered a counterproposal. “We will choose twenty or thirty of our companions in the garrison and we will go to an open field, and there we will fight as long as we can endure it; and let God give the victory to the better of us.” The two sides agreed on a date and time, then parted.

The day of the combat, both sides arrived with thirty men-at-arms. The fighters didn’t pair off or anything: it was just a giant scrum of two teams of thirty men trying to kill each other. They fought mounted and afoot, with swords, daggers, spears, and axes. The fighting lasted for hours. Over a dozen people died. The French side ultimately won, but literally all the combatants who survived were badly wounded.

The outcome had no impact on the broader course of the war. Indeed, it wasn’t intended to. This was sixty guys getting together to beat the stuffing out of each other for no other reason than the joy of combat and the glory they would earn for living up to a chivalric ideal.

And glory they did earn! In the context of the era, what these sixty combatants did was the pinnacle of chivalric achievement, made grander still by the backdrop of an incredibly un-chivalric war. More than twenty years later, a French historian recorded that one of the combatants still held a place of unique honor at the court of King Charles V specifically because of the knight’s participation in the Combat of the Thirty. Ironically, though King Charles may have valued chivalry highly, his successes in the Hundred Years’ War were arguably due to his unchivalrous pragmatism.

The central takeaway from the Combat of the Thirty is this: your campaign doesn’t have to be tonally consistent to be believable. Even in the midst of a hideously unchivalrous period in Western history, chivalrous acts still occurred. At your table, you can have your Jedi behave honorably and your bounty hunter be ruthlessly pragmatic and give both a decent shot at success.

The most fun campaigns support a diversity of PC worldviews. If you’re playing Song of Ice and Fire Roleplay, you can have an idealistic Brienne-type PC and a nihilistic Sandor Clegane-type PC in the same party without ever determining which one of them is ‘right’ about how the world works. Indeed, it’s more fun if you don’t. A campaign with a single underlying philosophy strikes only a single note. A campaign that strikes many notes doesn’t get old as quickly – and it has a little more tension too.

The Combat of the Thirty shows us that a campaign with only a single worldview isn’t realistic. And experience shows us it’s less fun.

For more RPG content grounded in real-world history and folklore, head over to the Molten Sulfur Blog, where Tristan publishes adventure hooks, adventure sites, and NPCs every Tuesday.

All quotes are from the Chroniques of the 14th-century historian Jean Froissart.

#RPGaDay 2019, let’s do this one more time! (Days 1 to 4)

You all know the drill by now. I drop off the face of the Earth for a year, and come August when the stars are right, I awaken from my slumber and crawl back to the blog to share my stories and ideas form RPG a Day. Now it is #RPGaDay2019, and I’ve been doing this since 2015. Here is the first post from #RPGaDay2015.

Back then I posted most days, but for the last three years, I’ve been doing video entries for RPG a Day. In recent years I began to do two posts for each day, one in Spanish for the Desde la Fosa YouTube channel, part of an RPG project here in Puerto Rico with a couple of friends, and the English videos I would post in my personal YouTube channel. I’ve always collected them here in the blog, and I plan to do it again this year.

For #RPGaDay2019, the creator Autocratik changed things around, and instead of phrases or questions each day. Instead, we have one-word prompts that give participants leeway on how they interpret the concept and their response. It’s been great and reading the posts and watching videos form participants I can tell the format has been a success.

What have I written about? Continue reading #RPGaDay 2019, let’s do this one more time! (Days 1 to 4)

Thinking about Adventures

Normally when I create adventures for my players I know everything what has happened before, I know the characters back stories, I know their style of play and what the players enjoy. I take all of these and roll them into an adventure that everyone will enjoy.

Over the past six months I have been writing a set of adventures each is published monthly and they link together to form one much larger adventure.

What I wanted to avoid was railroading. Although the first adventure had to come first as it introduced the story and the second installment was the most logical thing to do next and it was what the NPC mentor figure would desire. Beyond that all the other parts could be played in any order, or skipped entirely. They could be skipped entirely, spaced out with other adventures or played back to back. 

When I set out this seemed like a great idea but I am now five episodes in I have learned a few lessons.

Why be simple?

The target system is the new (beta) edition of Rolemaster. This game is due for release in 2019 but as with many ‘new’ games there will be very few adventures available for the game because all the effort has gone into creating the game, not supporting material. So, I also thought I would all the adventures backwardly compatible with both Rolemaster Classic and Rolemaster FRP so that the adventures are playable now.

As with most fantasy RPGs there is a definite European/medieval bias built into the game with castles, plate mail and heavy war horses abounding. Rolemaster’s default setting is Shadow World which varies between medieval and nearing renaissance periods but is still very eurocentric. 

So to be different I have set these adventures in a south east asian-esque setting with hints of buddhist temples, tangled jungle paths and commerce by river using canoes. Mountains are terraced with crops stepping down the valleys.

I wanted monks and ninjas. I wanted dragons and demons. What I didn’t want was just another ‘oriental adventure’. I have dodged Japan and I think I have landed somewhere in a fantasy Vietnam or possibly Cambodia. 

The result is that alongside creating adventures where I don’t the mix of characters, I don’t know their level, their play style or what they have already don’t, I also now have to create the entire world before them. 

One month I found myself having to include in the adventure some simple random tables to be able to create a random town with suitable name, industries and NPCs all in keeping with this minimalist setting. All that just to let the players walk about and meet people.

H, A and Relative Level

I don’t know if you know about ‘H’ when setting encounters. This is not my invention. I think I first encountered it while playing 7th Sea. The letter H represents the number of heroes in the party. Once you know that you can describe the number of foes encountered relative to H. For example 2H means twice as many foes as there are heroes. ½H means half as many and H+1 would mean one more foe than their are heroes.

The beauty of H is that I no longer need to know how many PCs are in the party. H replaces the number encountered dice roll, which I think is a good thing. The problem with number encountered/No. Appearing is that if the book says 2d8 Zombies (for example), 2 Zombies may be no challenge at all but 16 could be a TPK. When setting the value for H you can decide on the threat level while writing the adventure and know that it will remain true for all parties.

Meet A

‘A’ is my own invention, or if someone got their first then I arrived at A on my own. A represents the Average level of the PCs in the party. Rolemaster is a leveled game so this will always be relevant. In these adventures I don’t know if they are being played back to back so the players level will be fairly low or if they are being interspersed with other adventures so the characters have leveled up many more times.

I can use A to describe NPCs. ½A means the NPC is half the level of the party average, A+2 means that the NPC is two levels higher than the average. In the most recent adventure in the series there are lots of evil priests running around and most are A-2 but the high priestess is A+2.

Rolemaster comes with tables of stock NPCs at a wide range of levels so you can easily look up the number of hit points and the skill levels of an NPC of any profession at any level. A means you can vary the threat level regardless of the level of characters.

What’s in the box?

Relative level is another invention of mine. I broadly defined four levels, low, mid, high and very high. This describes the party’s level as a whole. Roughly speaking low is 1st to 5th level and each band is 5 levels wide.

The reason for this is all to do with monsters. When you open a crypt any number of Zombies is not going to worry a party made of 20th level characters. On the other extreme, the same crypt containing a single Vampire is a death sentence for any number of first level characters.

At the top of each adventure I have a small table where I have my four relative levels and I create a label for each role played by a foe. In the current adventure I have alongside servants, guards and priests I have set up a chase scene through the jungle. Rolemaster has five different types of genie from Jann at 2nd level, Jinn at 5th level right up to Marid at 20th level. I can now create a label called ‘hunter’ and use that label throughout the text and the GM knows that for his low level party the hunter is a 2nd level Jann type genie. For a very high level party the hunter would be a 20th level Marid.

Now my high priestess can release her genie to capture the characters with impunity. I don’t need to know anything about the party to set the challenge.

Making an Entrance

The final thing I have had to do is tell the GM what, if anything, needs to be in place when or before the adventure begins. If the characters need horses for a scene to work or have to be in a small river village then it is just common courtesy to warn the GM in advance. They can then work this into their game naturally.

Conclusion

This has been an interesting learning curve in avoiding railroading. In the past I have thought in terms of scenes vs locations. With scenes you end up creating far more scenes than you will ever need because some may never happen, they are depending on the players actions. With locations the characters can visit them in any sequence and they remain constant. No one is forced to visit location A before B before C. I kind of like scenes and tend to treat locations as just broad strokes and let the GM elaborate as their players act within the location.

Now I can describe an objective and the challenges the characters could face and everything else just wraps itself around the party.

I don’t know if these tools will work for your or your favourite game but I hope you find them useful.