Flashing Blades Review

Flashing Blades
Introduction and Physical Product

Flashing Blades is one of those games that has entered legend and lore of the early days of roleplaying games, not the least being for the fact that the author was but sixteen when he wrote it. The game is historical fiction, set in 17th century France, an era of bland and dynamic Kings, scheming and evil Cardinals, the three musketeers, and "countless other swashbucklers, dandies, cavaliers, rogues, villains, highwaymen, and cutthroats".

Consisting of two books and a GMs screen in a box, the game is written in two-column justified sans-serif font (with hand-added accent marks), which is reasonably well-laid out, especially compared to many FGU games. There is a good table of contents in the main rulebook, especially considering that the game is a mere 49 pages, including references and title page! The black-and-white artwork (except for the colour box cover), by Bain Sidhe Studio, is typically contextually appropriate, evocative and shows quite good technique. The writing style is compact but also evocative. There are a couple of minor editing glitches and a couple of organizational issues (e.g. discovering modifications to abilities later in the book after they've been calculated). There are a number of boxed sections of text for examples.

Character Generation

Character generation is familiar to the era; Attributes are rolled on 3d6 in order for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Wit, Charm, and Luck. These are followed by 2d6 rolls to determine height (short, average, tall) and weight (thin, average, stocky). Some combinations of these provide further modifications to Strength and Dexterity. If the original rolls are below 54, the total can be increased to 54 according to the player's wishes. Hit Points and Encumbrance values both start off at a base of 10, but the former can be increased by Strength, Endurance, Luck, and Build and the latter by Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, and Build. Further in the rules there is the option of a character with base Attributes of 12 or more being a "Renaissance Man", which generates excellent bonuses to skill attempts etc - this is the "munchkin" option.

Character Background - effectively "class" - is from a selection of Rogue, Gentleman, Soldier, and Nobleman. Professions determine a relationship with skills. Characters begin with 10 skill points modified by Wits and Luck. Bonus skills which are only available to members of that profession at a much reduced 1 point cost (e.g., Captaincy for Soldiers, Etiquette for Nobles, Bargaining for Gentlemen, Stealth for Rogues), normal skills associated with the profession for 2 skill points, and skills from a different background cost 3 skill points. All skills have an associated attribute and basic skill use is on a d20 roll-under that attribute, with hand-waved modifiers, contested skills, and attribute rolls. Some 27 general skills are provided with a description of around one paragraph each. Multiple purchases of the Language skill are allowed providing an additional language per purchase. Whilst the range is good and appropriate, the skill descriptions are under-developed with no prescriptive in-game modifiers provided, for example.

In addition to the general skills, there are also martial skills with 7 provided, and the Duelling skill coming in five flavours that must be purchased separately according to style (Spanish, Italian, French, Cavalry, Old). Whilst two skills (Artillery and Gunner) function the same way as normal skills, the appropriate attribute is not defined - Wits has been presumed in both cases. Rather than being based on an Attribute martial skills have a base Expertise level (3 for untrained, 10 for duelling and archery skills, 8 for brawling, polearms, and firearms) modified Wit, Luck, Dexterity, and for melee weapons, Strength. Extra training may be undertaken or additional skill points spent to increase the expertise level. The actual martial skills acquired by starting characters is based on the character's Background, whether it was from a civilian martial training organization, fraternity, guild, or in the case of soldiers, a broader selection from the company they belonged to.

Adding a bit of character background flavour, characters may also choose an advantage and a secret from a short list. They also have the option of taking an advantage without a secret for 2 skill points, or just taking a secret for an additional 1 skill point. All characters begin with a randomly determined starting wealth and income, based on their background, with a modest equipment list provided. Soldiers will be pleased to discover that regimental arms and armour are provided. Finally, as appropriate, a character calculates their Social Rank, ranging form 1 to 20 (Rogues 2, Soldiers 3, Gentlemen 7, Noblemen 8).

Personal Combat

Combat occurs in 12-second turns with two actions per turn, recorded prior to resolution. The movement turn is resolved in order of Dexterity but with the highest Dexterity character having the option to move last (reverse Dexterity may have been quicker to resolve). Attack actions are resolved in accordance to weapon type, with missile weapons first, then polearms, swords, daggers etc, and finally unarmed attacks. Within each weapon type attacks are resolved in Dexterity order. Defense actions apply to all attacks directed to a character in a turn, which include various types of footwork, dodging, and parries. A character may also take a counter action which allows a riposte if an attack directed against them misses.

A character's expertise is cross-referenced on a table to generate a base d20 roll-under value. This base is modified by the weapon being used, the type of attack (lunge, thrust, slash, strike) or the defense applied (dodge, duck, sidestep, step back), along with a small set of modifiers. Notable in the system is the inclusion of the foil, which is a little anachronistic, although perhaps one could get away with suggesting a swap between the rapier statistics with foil, and the replacement of the rapier statistics with the épée de cour, or smallsword. Missile weapons have a simple base chance modified by weapon, range, mechanism, and a similar set of modifiers (e.g., brace and aiming). Parries and blocks are carried out as if they were attacks, with weapon modifiers, French-style bonuses (e.g., having a 'parrying hat'!). Weapon breakages are included in the parrying rules (heavier weapons break lighter ones with some regularity) as are improvised blocks (which chairs etc). A noted limitation is that the game does not include unarmed defensive blocks against weapons.

Damage is based on a hit location roll and a base value according to weapon and attack type as a light wound, with bonus damage from high strength. If an attack lands from less than half the needed to hit roll a serious wound occurs with an extra d6 of damage. Armour protects against damage, however it is not clear how it works against grenades which are directed against general hit points. Hit locations have static and proportional hit point damage thresholds (e.g., 4 points to the chest stuns, 1/2 damage knocks out, more than 1/2 damage kills). The damage system would be better if it was more proportional and provided a greater range for unconsciousness. Finally there is a handy list of optional rules for Fatigue (a simple minus per threshold of Endurance, modified by encumbrance, wounds etc), fumbles according to weapon type, and a variety of dirty fighting ('vicious kick' - you can work than one out) and special attacks (e.g., entangle). Naturally enough there is also a system for recovery, but this can leave scars, broken bones and the like.

Position and Experience

Social rank has an enormous influence on play, not the least being access to power, connections, and a focus on position provides a campaign impetus. Across various professions, descriptions of rank and position are provided and the process by which one can acquire promotions, which is typically by either a bit of luck (roll for opening and promotion) or by buying oneself a promotion. Characters from different backgrounds can begin at variant professional positions (e.g., Soldiers start at the rank of Sargent, all others start at Trooper). Many of the professions have rivalry within their groups. For example, in the military (e.g., the Cardinal's Guards vs the King's Musketeers). Where appropriate each position is given a one paragraph description of requirements, role, remuneration, and responsibilities. The professions thus described include the military, the clergy, the royal bureaucracy, clubs and orders, banking, nobility, and fencing schools.

Most of these positions require several months dedication per annum, and various rules are offered to describe how these intrascenario events are played out. Thus there is a campaign timetable and mass combat system which, true to the best versions of such things for character RPGs, answers the important questions of "who won the battle?" and "what happened to the character?" (which comes with a superb example), along with financial investment rules for international and domestic commerce and property investments.

Naturally enough in a game system where there is an implicit suggestion that the campaigns run over many years, aging of characters is an issue. Characters begin to age at 40 with a gradual reduction in attributes and derived statistics which increase in chance. Eventually the character will, regardless of luck, will die. The system is designed so that oldest possible age is 110. Before that of course characters have the opportunity to improve in general skills, martial skills, attributes, and hit points. In an adventure characters may gain a check from extensive or difficult use, with the number of checks required for improvements increasing as the bonuses increase. Skills may be increased by +1 or +2 in base ability or expertise (Master and Master Superior levels). Characters may also gain experience check through practise as well.

Setting, Other Material, and Adventures

An compact yet extensive appendix provides a weapon glossary, life and culture of 17th century France, a map of Paris and the regions of France, religion, military and courts, a historical and political overview of Europe, a religious map of the same (which makes some rather erroneous suggestion of an Anglican Ireland and a conflation of all Orthodox faiths as Greek Orthodox etc, along with a timeline of events, and biographies of several major personalities, along with a selection of recommended reading. Based on the immediate review of the religious map there is probably some more errors in the detail, but its seems mostly right. The opportunity is taken here to also describe the cardstock GM material; it is a reprint of several of the major tables from the game, mainly the combat tables (as is the norm) along with a single-page character sheet.

Included with the set is a booklet of adventures, which consists of a generic tavern setting, Tavern Brevage Noir, which is covered in two pages, a five page but multi-session adventure, The Man Behind The Mask, and a slightly shorter adventure, Monsieur Le Droit's Secret. In addition there are a couple of pages of random encounter tables for urban and rural settings, along with random results from the requests for patronage. To give the briefest summary so not to give anything away, the tavern setting is rough with their speciality drink described as "one part rum, two parts brandy, and one part undrinkable". Rough tavern are provided for fencing loot, carousing, gambling, and brawling. The first adventure allows characters from a diverse background to meet and work together under a mysterious patron, an international journey, a number of physical conflicts, and an extraordinary artifact. The second adventure, in contrast, involves high society intrigue, secret societies, bureaucracy, and political intrigue. Both are rather enjoyable and capture the style of the setting very well.

Evaluation

Flashing Blades is, simply put, a great game. It is well-designed system, a little like a combination of early RuneQuest and The Fantasy Trip. It manages to provide a good, if overly abbreviated, skill system, an evocative and elaborate personal combat system, the opportunity to build an extensive character history, and all with sufficient background material, a detailed but limited setting, and several sessions set up ready to play - and all of this in a remarkable 65 pages. Unsurprisingly, it is looked upon with significant approval, and - most fortunate of all - the author is quite happy for others to contribute to its ongoing development.

"FGU already agrees that I own the rights to Flashing Blades. I'm even receiving (very small) royalties checks again, after a 20-some year hiatus. I think I mentioned this before, but again, all of you are free to write, publish, etc. whatever you want for FB without worrying about copyright. I'm happy that people are still enjoying the game."

Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .8 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .8 (readability) + .4 (product) = 4.2
Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + 1.0 (text) + .7 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.7

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