Category Archives: RPG

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.

First Look: Simple Fantasy Adventure

Retro-clones are all the rage nowadays but most of the games from that category are based on the grand-daddy of all RPGs: Dungeons & Dragons. Recently a few retro-clones of other games have appeared including Zweihänder which is heavily inspired by the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game.

Today I want to write about Simple Fantasy Adventure by my friend Audrey Grace Winter. It’s a modern simulacrum of LOR, Iron Crown Enterprise’s “Lord of the Rings Adventure Game” which was itself a simplified version of MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) which was based on Rolemaster. Since LOR was heavily steeped in Tolkien’s lore, Audrey decided to take out all the protected IP, and split the character archetypes into race and class which can be freely chosen by the players.

Simple Fantasy Adventure comes in the form of a very beautifully laid out, 18-paged, free PDF. Instead of the game it’s based on, it doesn’t come with its own setting, but is meant both as a modern recreation of this classic ruleset, as well as a simple generic system for use with your own world.

Character creation in SFA is a simple process of picking a race and a class. After that you get to distribute 6 points among your character’s Attribute (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Speed) and Skill Characteristics (Physical, Subterfuge, Arcana, Melee, Ranged, Defense, and Vitality) within some restrictions. For example you can’t put any points into Vitality and only two among the Attributee.

The available races are humans, elves, halflings and dwarves. Each race gets a bonus and a penalty to differentiate it from the other races. From their descriptions and abilities the races definitely have a Tolkienesque feel which is probably no surprise given the fact that SFA is a clone of LOR.

The available classes are fighters, rogues, rangers and mages. Classes provide bonuses to skills and determine a character’s starting Vitality points. If you have played LOR in the past you may have noticed that SFA deviates from LOR in a couple of aspects, but these changes were mostly made to keep the lawyers at bay. Mechanically SFA and LOR are pretty close, but SFA has definitely a clearer presentation.

SFA’s standard task resolution mechanic is pretty simple. The GM sets a target number (like 4 for routine tasks, 8 for moderate ones, or 18 for truly epic feats), the player rolls 2d6 and adds the relevant characteristic. If the result is equal or higher than the target number, the character succeeds. Simple, but efficient.

SFA’s lineage back to Rolemaster shows in its Combat Chart. When attacking you take the attackers attack skill (Melee or Ranged), roll 2d6 and look up the result on the chart. A number denotes the amount of damage caused by the attack, while C or C+ are critical hits. A critical (C) causes your roll result plus 10 damage, while a “double critical” (C+) causes twice the damage of a regular critical.

SFA includes a small number of magic spells and GMs are encouraged to create their own. Unlike D&D’s Vancian magic, mages in SFA can cast as often as they like, but each spell causes Drain which is damage. So a mage can easily knock themselves out by casting too many spells. The spells included are also not as flashy as in other games (like D&D for example). This fits very well with the feel of the game its based on.

Even though SFA is only 18 pages long, it is a complete game with all rules needed to play, including an extensive bestiary, a handful of pre-generated characters, and a list of common equipment.

The big question remains: is it worth your time? In my opinion it is. It’s a rules-light game, written with new players in mind, and with an undeniable charm. It’s also totally free and released under a Creative Commons license, so you are allowed to create your own material based of SFA as long as you share your work freely under the same license. Regardless whether you’re looking for just a simple game to try out or if you’re actually a fan of the game SFA is based on, I recommend you give it a closer look. You won’t be disappointed!

On the History of D&D

Today I read an interesting post on Kotaku, called Dungeons & Deceptions, about the role Dave Arneson had in the development of D&D. According to Rob Kuntz and others, the commonly told story that Gary Gygax was the main influence behind the roleplaying hobby is not the whole truth. In fact it has been Arneson who actually came up with what we now know as “role-playing”. The article gives a lot of interesting insights into the early days of the hobby and shines a light on some of the unsung heroes. The article also mentions the recently-released documentary “Secrets of Blackmoor” which tries to basically answer the same questions.

Dungeons & Deceptions is actually the third in a series of posts on Kotaku about the history of D&D. If you are interested in delving deeper into this mystery, you should check out these articles as well:

Aside from these articles I can also highly recommend checking out Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons which is probably the most comprehensive picture on the RPG hobby from the 1970s to the 2000s. In my opinion it’s a must-have for everyone interested in learning more about the people and stories behind our favorite games.