Friday, February 6, 2009

Grapeshot and Grognards: The RPG

Okay, so that's not what I'd call it, even though I think that'd be a hilarious name...

I've been on another Napoleonic kick over the last week or so. I'm reading another one of Bernard Cornwell's eminently digestible Richard Sharpe books, a character and series I liken in many respects to a Napoleonic Conan.

It strikes me as intriguing that, despite all the fiction and film and television (Jack of All Trades, anyone?) out there regarding this long and wide-ranging conflict, I can only think of one RPG, that being GURPS Age of Napoleon, that deals with this war. I'm sure people have run campaigns set in the Napoleonic era using other universal systems such as BRP or Rolemaster or who knows what else, but off the top of my head, the GURPS supplement is the only one I can think of, and almost certainly the only one published by a professional RPG company (there might be an amateur free RPG out there - I've no clue).

I've long felt, especially after starting to read the Sharpe books and the Patrick O'Brien seafaring novels, that the Napoleonic Era offers limitless opportunities for gameplay. You can have combat-centric gaming, plot and intrigue, seafaring adventure, swashbuckling derring-do, and who knows - you could even throw a dash of the "weird" into the mix to keep it interesting. You could play the game for comedy a la Jack of All Trades, or extremely seriously, with characters regularly dying or being crippled and cycled out of play due to injuries and disease.

So with all that in mind, 1) does anyone out there know of any other Napoleonic Era RPGs, 2) are there any fans of the era out there who would find a campaign set in this conflict interesting, and 3) what do you think are some of the reasons this idea hasn't carried more weight behind it?

Questions and comments, as always, are appreciated.

7 comments:

Atom Kid said...

The only thing that comes to mind is Flintloque, but it's more of a war game. It's got all the fantasy races in it, but it's set in the Napoleonic war. One of the supplements is called Slaughterloo!

The Evil DM said...

I always thought a Jack of all Trades campaign would be really fun played lightly and for laughs with a system like Savage Worlds.

Thalendar said...

Being a big fan of Sharpe myself, and also of Horatio Hornblower, I have thought about using the Napoleonic era as a campaign setting before.

I think such setting has no mass appeal because it lacks the hack and slay aspect. Yes, there are many enemies to slay in this time, but you can't do it so morally easily like when you slay an evil orc or a member of an evil alien race.

Also, many of the battles of the time have been mass battles that are hard to depict in an rpg session. It's not easy to feel the horror of standing in a battle line facing the enemy guns when you know your character will probably survive the fight, just because he is a player character.

And perhaps the players have to get used to the twists in individual combat. Muskets are highly inaccurate, and you can fire them every 30 seconds or at most every 15 to 20 seconds if you are well trained. Rifles are more accurate, but if you want highest accuracy, it takes you up to a minute to load your weapon properly. Much time for the enemy to close the distance and attack with sword or bayonet. When small groups battle each other, you will likely end up with one or two rounds of firearms use, and then melee ensues. So perhaps this is too much like classical fantasy combat without all the magic and wondrous beasts.

I see the Napoleanic area as a great setting for "special forces" missions. Sharpe, while fighting in many big battles, often is on his own with a small band of men behind enemy lines. There are enough objectives to make a campaign interesting, like blowing up the enemies' powder supplies, kidnapping and questioning an enemy officer, gathering information while being in disguise, delivering messages to rebel troops, etc.

Chris said...

GURPS Goblins? No, seriously. It's setting is Regency London, exactly contemporaneous with the Napoleonic Wars.

I suppose part of the problem for Napoleonic role-play is that the military technology was not so far along from the (wildly flamboyant and much more Hollywoodized) 17th century, while conversely the societal milieu is perhaps a little too proto-modern for some tastes. There is still chivalry and romance, but it's 'Jane Austen chivalry'; not Rostand or Mallory.

Familiar, but in the wrong way to appeal to gamers who like contemporary settings; exotic, but in the wrong way to appeal to gamers who like flashing blade swashbucklering.

I imagine it comes down to a case of "Why be Hornblower when you can be Blackbeard? Why be Sharpe when you can be a Musketeer?"

Sean said...

Realm Antique and In Harms Way, two RPG's I've never played myself.

I have to agree with Chris' comments. Also, the military setting seems to limit campaign flexibility a bit, although it could make for an excellent one-off scenario.

Brian Murphy said...

I agree that this time period is bursting with RPG possibilities. But I think the reason why you haven't seen much in the way of dedicated RPGs on the Napoleonic era is the difficulty of trying to model its reality in a game.

What it comes down are people are used to D&D mechanics, where death is infrequent and is typically the result of a lengthy attrition. If you're going to play an honest Napoleonic game modeled after the Sharpe series, for instance, you have to make the mechanics suitably deadly (i.e., you do not want to be shot by a musket, less a cannonball). These types of games for whatever reason have never had the appeal of D&D. I suspect it's because they're not thought of as "heroic" (though I would debate the use of that term for near-unkillable PCs with the recourse of Raise Dead).

Badelaire said...

Thalender:

"Yes, there are many enemies to slay in this time, but you can't do it so morally easily like when you slay an evil orc or a member of an evil alien race."

Yes and no. Sharpe certainly shows little compassion for the French, although he will cut a defeated foe a break if he sees they are honestly "out of the fight" (I remember one moment where a very young French officer attempts to duel with him, totally out of his league, and Sharpe takes some pity on him and I believe just knocks his saber away, rather than killing him).

However, the Spanish and Portuguese partisans are absolutely ruthless and would view the invading French in precisely the same way a bunch of D&D adventurers would view an invasion of marauding orcs or goblins (Napoleon wasn't named the 'Corsican Ogre' for nothin'!). Players who took the role of partisans in a campaign would be very in character inflicting "extreme prejudice" on any French they came across, morals be damned.

So I'd say that under the right sort of campaign and with the right kinds of characters, modern moral quandries could be kept to a minimum.

"Sharpe, while fighting in many big battles, often is on his own with a small band of men behind enemy lines."

This is exactly why I think such a campaign could work. Yes, you have the mass battles as the backdrops, but almost all the book's main plots deal with much more immediate, small-scale challenges that boil down to Sharpe, Harper, and a handful of compatriots saving the day over on the sidelines.

Chris:
"I imagine it comes down to a case of "Why be Hornblower when you can be Blackbeard? Why be Sharpe when you can be a Musketeer?""

This is a good point. Thing is, there is a LOT of interest in the Napoleonic era - it's the "American Civil War" of Europe - among wargaming and history circles, but it gets almost no RPG attention. I guess it is true - people see the mass battles and the indiscriminate nature of the weapons and just figure what's the point if your character takes a canister of grapeshot in the first round of combat?

But to my mind, that's why a lot of Napoleonic-era fiction is a good thing to read as inspirational material. It shows that a lot of cool stuff can go down even in an age of gunlines and artillery and grapeshot. Even more so if you play less in the battlefield, and more in the realm of intrigue and espionage.

Sean:
"I have to agree with Chris' comments. Also, the military setting seems to limit campaign flexibility a bit, although it could make for an excellent one-off scenario."

This is true, and it is why if/when I ran something like this, I would go to great pains to offer adventures that stayed off the "big battlefields". There is a LOT that can happen in such a setting - I mean, it's essentially World War Zero, a conflict that in one way or another involved Europe, Asia, North and South America, and almost every ocean on Earth. That's a lot of room for adventures of all kinds - from the Americas to India to the East Indies, to the High Seas, and on and on.

Brian:
"What it comes down are people are used to D&D mechanics, where death is infrequent and is typically the result of a lengthy attrition. If you're going to play an honest Napoleonic game modeled after the Sharpe series, for instance, you have to make the mechanics suitably deadly (i.e., you do not want to be shot by a musket, less a cannonball)."

True, but at the same point, you don't want to be shot full of arrows, or stabbed in the guts with a longsword, or struck by a bolt of lightning, or punched in the face by a 20' tall giant, either. D&D gets off the Reality Hook because, well...it's D&D. But there are many many other popular RPGs out there that can handle gunfire and the like, and there are others that treat these sorts of things in just as an abstract manner as D&D (White Wolf Games and Savage Worlds come to mind).

But I do know what you mean. For some reason in D&D, it's perfectly fine to abstract away someone hitting you with a massive battle ax, but when it comes to a gun, we feel the need to make all the rules "realistic".

I've been considering working on just such a project - a Napoleonic RPG of some sort - and I'm going to see how to address this issue.

Regardless though, thanks for all the great comments - keep 'em coming!