Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Death to the French!

When an RPG takes its characters to war, it is invariably as a group or unit capable of undertaking small unit actions, not of participating in the main battle. It allows the players to maintain some degree of control and independence over their characters and not be constantly subject to orders issued by NPCs (or rather the GM). There are a few exceptions to this rule, but what it usually means is that the player characters are cast as commandos, as members of the Special Forces, or something similar. Pick your war and the same set-up applies, whether it be the Vietnam War, World War II, or the Napoleonic War, which is the subject of Omihedron Games’ “Indie” RPG, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army.

Like its most obvious inspiration, the television series Sharpe – and the Bernard Cornwell books that is based upon, Duty and Honour casts the player characters as soldiers undertaking small and important missions on the edge of Duke of Wellington’s campaign against the French and the Spanish during the Peninsular War of 1810. While the game cannot escape the command structure and the need to give and take orders – it is a military game, after all – the small action nature of its set up allows for player led and directed missions, this being the game’s primary “Indie” element. Nevertheless, it does call for one player to be the officer and the others to be the NCOs and privates in an army that is not only at war, but which renowned for its harsh discipline regime.

Character generation in Duty and Honour is a mixture of the random and player choice, a slightly lengthy and complex process that produces a detailed soldier, complete with a little background, all ready to play. Each character is defined by what the game terms parameters, of which there are seven. These are Measures (Guts, Discipline, Influence, and Charm), more traditionally known as a character’s attributes; Reputations (loyalties and favours owed to Personalities and Institutions, such as the character’s regiment or his agent in London), Skills (which range from the expected Command and Soldiering to the more interesting Romance and Skulduggery), Experiences (events in the character’s life before and after joining the army that provide bonuses to his Measures, Reputations, Skills, and Wealth), Regiment (which all of the player characters have in common), Traits (the equivalent of advantages, including Educated, Is But A Scratch, Sir!, Chosen Man, Duellist, and Thief in the Night), and Wealth.

A player receives points to assign to the character’s Measures and Skills from his Social Class and his military training, plus ten free points to spend on Traits. The rest are determined by his Experiences, each one determined by drawing a card that will not only grant possible bonuses to the character’s Measures, Reputation, and Skills, but sometimes also an aspect of his background. For example, drawing a Heart Face card gives the character a favour, one owed by a senior figure associated with the Experience. In game terms, he gains +2 Personality Reputation: (senior figure), but the player also gets to describe how his character won the favour. In addition, cards are also drawn for the character’s Spoils, which add further benefits. There are two sets of tables, one for life before the army and one during. The GM sets the number of Experiences for his players, with seven or more indicating an iconic character, while four or more represents an experienced character.

The character below has a total of six Experiences, divided equally between civilian and military life. James is the son of a Scots officer, killed in battle, and a French mother. He is not wealthy and had little hope of gaining a commission, but gained the patronage of Colonel Willingham after rescuing her daughter who was astride a runaway horse. During his time in Spain he was part of a relief force sent to aid the siege of a French held town, arriving in time to not only strengthen the besieging forces, but also successfully lead the storming of the breach. Later he uncovered the activities of Spanish guerrillas loyal to Bonaparte and prevented the assassination of a major figure in the Spanish resistance.

Lieutenant James Ogilvie, 71st Highland Light Infantry
(Scottish, Catholic, Son of an Officer, Rifleman)
Guts 4 Discipline 4 Influence 4 Charm 4
Skills: Awareness 2, Command 3, Courtesy 2, Diplomacy 2, Engineering 0, First Aid 0, Gambling 1, Haggle 0, Intimidate 0, Intrigue 2, Maritime 0, Music 1, Quartermaster 1, Riding 3, Scavenge 2, Siege 1, Skulduggery 1, Soldiering 3, The Arts 0
Wealth: 2, fine charger (+1 Riding)
Reputations: Institutional Reputation (Officer’s Mess) 1, Institutional Reputation (71st Highland Light Infantry) 2, Institutional Reputation (Lisbon Black Market) 1, Institutional Reputation (Spanish Resistance) 3
Traits: Born for Battle, Crackshot, Fair of Face, Natural Rider, Second Language (French), Strong Swordarm, Student of War

The last thing that a player does – together with his fellow players – is create the details of their characters’ regiment. Actually the book suggests that this should be the fourth step, but it seems more logical to do it at the end of the process. The regiment in question can be one of the actual regiments that campaigned in the Peninsular War, or a fictitious one, but creating the members of its complement is a collaborative process between the players and the GM, as is creating the regiment’s honours and traditions.

The game itself is card driven, and both the GM and the players will need an ordinary deck of cards each. The game is played as a series of missions and skirmishes, each comprised of several challenges, a challenge being an opposed test between the GM and the characters involved. The intent and potential outcome for all those involved in a test is determined beforehand, and then each side draws cards equal to a pool created from the appropriate Measures, Skills, Reputations, Traits, Wealth, and equipment.

Success is measured by all those involved against the Card of Fate. This is a single card drawn from the GM’s deck, which can be matched in varying ways to achieve different successes. If any of the cards drawn are of the same Suit as the Card of Fate, this counts as a Success; if any are the same number, the card counts as a Critical Success; and if one card is an exact match, it counts as a Perfect Success. Cards that do not match the Card of Fate in terms of either suit or number do not count, but any Joker drawn can count as any type of success. A test’s victor is the player who has drawn, in descending order, the most number of Perfect Successes, the most number of Critical Successes, or the most number of Successes. Of course, because the GM has drawn the Card of Fate from his deck and because his deck has no Jokers, it is impossible for him to score any Perfect Successes, so stacking the game slightly in the players’ favour. After every test, the participant’s deck is reshuffled, except that of the GM, which again slightly favours the players.

While the test is the game’s core mechanic, its core structure is the Challenge, an event or problem that when resolved that will have a dramatic impact upon the game. Essentially, a Challenge packages and explains the reason for a test, but usually, Challenges are collected into Missions, which are primarily military in nature, for example, having to find evidence of a French spy or make contact with the Spanish Resistance. Most players will share this Military Mission, but alongside it, each will often have their own Personal Mission, such as seducing Lady Ellingham or selling some loot on the black market in Lisbon. The players need to complete most of the Challenges within a Mission to successfully complete it.

Interestingly, although the GM can assign a Mission, it is his players who decide how it is resolved, being expected to set each Challenge during a Military Planning session. Personal Missions are determined by the players, who are expected to take the opportunity to add them as and when. This aspect of the game pushes it towards being an “Indie” game, in which the narrative input from the players is as important as the input from the GM. Of course, a Mission Generator would make a solid addition to the game, perhaps in a future supplement?

Personal combat uses the same mechanics, but combat beyond the simple melee is slightly more complex. Rather than having the player characters involved in a mass battle on the scale of Waterloo, Duty and Honour keeps its scale relatively small and in keeping with both the action adventure nature of its genre and the game’s focus upon the characters. Thus skirmishes are limited to just fifty participants, with every player character expected to have a role and the officer character having the responsibility of deciding the aim of, and the tactical orders for, the skirmish. He also gets to assign the men under his command extra cards equal to his Discipline Measure. Of course, getting wounded in a Napoleonic Era battle is dangerous, as is receiving medical treatment, and the game reflects this.

For the player unaware of the Napoleonic Wars or who has neither read the Sharpe novels nor seen the television series, the author provides detail aplenty. Whether that includes small details such as the stereotype for your nationality or faith, the point of view from both a French and an English officer, and a good overview of the British Army and the British abroad during the period, it is enough to get a game going. Beyond that, Duty and Honour provides a short bibliography, with the author’s recommendations discussed. Also included are rules for running a campaign based around a cavalry unit, making possible a game based on the Matthew Hervey novels of Allan Mallinson. Similarly, the mechanics in Duty and Honour are flexible enough to use for games set in earlier period, such as in the campaign in India during the establishment of the Raj or even during the American Revolutionary Wars. All that the GM has to do is provide the history.

For the GM, there is plenty of advice on running a Duty and Honour game, and he is also supported with several examples of play, and numerous NPCs, some of which can be used as player characters or allies, while others will be definitely opposed to the player characters. The background also provides a good overview of the setting, but the GM will probably have to conduct a little research if he wants to add extra detail.

Physically, Duty and Honour is reasonably well laid out with plenty of space that makes it an easy read. It needs another edit true, but the book is an engaging read and the artwork is decent enough. The author also adds a degree of verisimilitude by including several period documents.

One obvious issue with Duty and Honour is that it does not allow for female characters, or rather female player characters, because it categorises women as helpless ladies, deceptive hussies, and spirited lovers, and then, only as NPCs. In the game’s defence, its genre is a mixture of the action adventure and the bodice ripper, and more significantly, there were not a lot of female soldiers serving in Wellington’s army. While the 1809 Miscellany does include rules for creating Spanish female characters, it would be useful to have some guidelines for creating female characters as they do appear in more significant roles in the genre, for example, in the Sharpe books. A more obvious detraction from the game is the lack of negative Traits, essentially something with which to balance the positive ones that every character receives. Again, the publisher plans to address part of this issue with a free supplement that can be downloaded from its website, which will cover Reputations in more detail, including negative ones.

Duty and Honour already has its own supplement in the form of the 1809 Miscellany, which bring together several different articles and three scenarios, and a sequel in the form of Beat to Quarters, which aims to do for Hornblower what Duty and Honour does for Richard Sharpe. Personally, I cannot wait to see Beat to Quarters, as I am very fond of the Age of Sail genre.

One of the genres that I have wanted a good RPG for is the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and while there have been one or two decent attempts, this is the first game to really do the setting justice. While there might not actually be an RPG based on Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army is that RPG in spirit, as it lets the players do everything that Sharpe can, but still very much make their tales of daring do all their own.