Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Retrospective: Flashing Blades

I often call Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) "the producer of the greatest RPGs I never played." That's not entirely accurate, of course, as I did play several of FGU's games back in the day, but I never played them very long, in part because their rules were often unnecessarily detailed and complex. Even so, FGU's games possessed a strange allure, in part, I think, because they always seemed so serious. While nowadays I laud lightheartedness and sing the praises of approaching our hobby with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as a younger man I was much given to fits of serious-mindedness when it came to roleplaying, sometimes to the chagrin of my friends who just wanted to explore a dungeon or fight some aliens on a distant planet. So, perhaps it's just as well that I never succeeded in refereeing Space Opera or Aftermath.

That said, I nevertheless get wistful for certain FGU games, as regular readers of this blog know. Recently, I was reminded of another one that I'd forgotten, possibly because it was published comparatively "late" (1984) and because it doesn't feel like a FGU game. At only 50 pages in length, Mark Pettigrew's Flashing Blades is a tight, focused little game of swashbuckling adventure in 17th century France. It is a "complete" RPG in the sense that its rulebook covers all the topics its designer felt were important to its subject matter, but it is not "complete" in the sense of "comprehensive," like so many of FGU's other games. Thus, you'll find extensive rules for dueling and social advancement, for example, but very little in the way of rules to support (let alone encourage) play outside of the streets and courts of Paris. That's not to say there's no allusions to a wider world -- quite the contrary -- but Flashing Blades is very much a game, in its own words, of "duels, brawls, heroic actions, indiscretions, gambling, wenching, carousing, and numerous other boisterous activities" and its rulebook reflects this.

Despite its different (and narrower) focus, Flashing Blades nevertheless follows the broad template laid down by Dungeons & Dragons a decade before its release. Characters have six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Wit, Charm, Luck), which are all generated by rolling 3D6 in order, though, if the scores total less than 54, a player is permitted to add the difference to the results of his rolls. There are also bonuses to physical attributes based on height and build (both of which are determined randomly). Though not called classes, there are four "backgrounds" from which to choose. Two are for commoners (Rogue and Soldier) and two are for those of higher status (Gentleman and Nobleman).

These backgrounds determine a character's likely starting skills, though it is possible for a character to learn skills from outside his background at greater cost. The non-combat skill system is quite simple, basically being a roll-under attribute check on 1D20, with ad hoc modifiers as assessed by the referee. Martial skills receive more detail, including determining how and where a character received his training, so that someone who learned to fight on the streets ("School of Hard Knocks") is distinct from someone who learned at a Fencing School. Characters are also encouraged to have advantages and secrets, the latter being the name in Flashing Blades for a disadvantage. The game suggests that the referee make frequent use of secrets as an impetus for adventure, as well as to be liberal in allowing players to make full use of their character's advantages.

Combat receives a great deal of attention, particularly sword combat, which only makes sense given the game's focus. Now, I have never actually had the opportunity to play Flashing Blades, so anyone who has can correct me if I am mistaken on this front, but it does not appear that the combat rules, though extensive, are difficult to grasp. Yes, there are a lot of potential modifiers and elements, especially once you consider movement, parries, and counter attacks, but the mechanics seem simple enough that I imagine, with practice, they should be fairly easy to employ at the table. Equal, if not greater, attention is given to social advancement. When not dueling or carousing, characters can try their hand at improving their lot in life as a soldier, courtier, clergyman, merchant, banker, and several other vocations.

Other than rules for experience and some basic historical and social information about 17th century France, these are all the topics Flashing Blades covers in its rulebook. As I said, it's a very focused game and doesn't stray much into topics beyond that focus. Indeed, it could reasonably argued that many even many topics within that focus aren't covered in any depth, such as many types of social interaction. In many ways, Flashing Blades is like a less "game-y" version of En Garde! but it's still very limited, demanding a lot of both players and referees if they play it for any length of time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does place Flashing Blades firmly into the do-it-yourself camp of RPGs and thus very much out of step with contemporary trends and tastes within the hobby.

26 comments:

  1. Combat worked well, and I liked how several of the Ability Scores figured into the PC's Hits.

    With the addition of the Caribbean supplement, FB! was a great game that we enjoyed well enough until the fickle tastes of the group and GM shifted around to something else.

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  2. Has anyone ever tried to cross this with En Garde?

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  3. After I became enamored of Cyrano de Bergerac, this was a game I really wanted to play. Alas, I never got the chance.

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  4. I ran this game a few times for my high school gaming buddies, we always enjoyed it. It had some great supplements/adventures, and I think they (and the game) may still all be in print and available from FGU! Definitely an overlooked gem, probably my favorite FGU rpg next to Daredevils (and much more playable than that game).

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  5. I've been reading Flashing Blades and am putting together some ideas for a game/campaign. During my recent read-through, I was very impressed by the "ongoing campaign" elements in the game, and the tools it provides. Some of my thoughts on it can be found here.

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  6. Like all of the games still owned by FGU, it is still in print. It's a personal favorite. The combat system is extremely easy in practice, and the social advancement system is spectacular.

    If there were a magic system that someone had done all the work for (and that I liked at all, so probably something derived from RuneQuest or GURPS Voodoo), I'd be sorely tempted to use it as my go-to fantasy game system.

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  7. I believe it was actually originally written as an expansion to En Garde! but GDW declined to publish it. With a slight reformatting, it was offered to FGU as an RPG. But it still is extremely close to it's PBM roots.

    And yes, @anarchist, I know a number of people, myself included, who have added it back into En Garde!. [Not to mention that some of these games of "En Garde!" have been set in a post-apocalyptic Washington DC or in a future SF setting.]

    The really nice thing about Flashing Blades (and En Garde!) is that they offer a nice example of another path of advancement that players can take, in this case, the social milieu. Like level and wealth, a character's social level is another thing they can strive to increase.

    Used as is (with appropriate modifications for your campaign), it's useful for downtime resolution once the party has returned to civilisation). For example you cold classify the archetypical Wizards, Thieves, and Assassin's Guilds as a sort of "Club" and then have a guideline for the character's advancement in these guilds, including a nice measure of the favours* owed (and owing) in order to get the character into a position of authority. A character might be knighted by the king for services to the realm and enter an Order of Chivalry. Or a character gets ennobled, or granted an office. So what are the responsibilities of a Sheriff anyway?

    And even if you don't use it, it still gives you an excellent idea for the sort of things that can happen in the social background of the campaign, and how to integrate your players with it (rather than their being just a motley collection of wealthy and powerful vagabonds continually passing through the social landscape).

    Well worth looking at in this regard alone.

    And to cap it all off: "Musketeers!"

    Le besoin je dis plus de mes amis. Au cheval!

    [* Favour make an excellent social currency.]

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  8. I masterized several times Flashing Blades, never as a campaign, but always it was a prety good success. I esepecially remmeber a convention game with two teams ((muskeeters and cardinal's guards', for sure) and two DMs. It probably had an impact on my later games, like my 18th century Vampire campaign, then some of of my D&D campaigns, where the mood is more 16-18th century europa than strictly middle-age. Rapiers & sorcery!

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  9. This is one of my favourite games. Dripping with atmosphere and supported with a clutch of excellent adventure modules.

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  10. I don't know if FGU's stuff is still in print, but a lot of it is available in PDF format at http://www.fantasygamesunlimited.net/category/Flashing-Blades-6

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  11. VacuumJockey: Are those PDFs? The rest of the site has PDFs clearly labeled as such, with everything else being print copies.

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  12. Your comment "I often call Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) "the producer of the greatest RPGs I never played."" is so true for me as well though I actually did try most of the major ones. All of there games when you look at them are really, really good. I am not sure why they never got the traction (except for V&V perhaps) of others.

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  13. Flashing Blades has been for a while the go-to game for one shots in my gaming group, thanks to the engagin setting/system and the adventure modules that where produced for it. Parisian adventures is definitely a wonderful little jewel.

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  14. One of the most amazing things was that Mark Pettigrew was barely 18 years old when it was published.

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  15. still have my copy of Bushido, and a few others, which was my favorite of the FGU bunch during high school. it's also the only FGU game i got to run with any sort of regularity. good post, wish i had scored a copy of Flashing Blades.

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  16. I bought this game originally in the mid-1980s because of it's cover art by Matt Wagner, which struck me. I knew I'd never get a chance to actually play it and I didn't. (My friends weren't into anything so 'historical.') But reading the game book encouraged me to buy "The Three Musketeers" novel. And Matt Wagner later became one of my favorite comic book artists.

    I still have several FGU games that I never played, including this one, as well as "Psi World." But I did play "Aftermath!" and "Villains & Vigilantes" back in the day.

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  17. @Faoladh: I may have been too hasty, because I think that you're right about that. Most of their stuff is available in print and some of it in PDF, not the other way around.

    Going to their site is like stepping into a time machine; as far as I can see their products are the same as those advertised in the Dragon 25 years ago - timeless indeed :). One wonders if TSR would still be around if their success had been more moderate?

    James, you should interview Jeff and Jack and hear what they're up to, and how they've managed to keep FGU alive for so long. That AICN interview needs to be expanded upon!

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  18. Er, upon re-reading that AICN interview I realize that the original FGU did actually go under, but rose from the flames like a phoenix.

    I still think you should interview them if you get the chance. :)

    AICN interview: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/48121

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  19. Hi James, great post, and a wonderful Blog. I have been enjoying your posts for a while. Back in the day (late 1980s and early 1990s) my local gaming group (in Hull, UK) played "En Garde" a lot, and I recall we dabbled with Flashing Blades for a couple of one-shots. The things we loved about En Garde - the clubs, the toadying, the Mistresses, the very brief campaigning rules, setting up a club newspaper - were awesome, but a few of us wanted a bit more crunch with the fencing rules.

    We therefore gave Flashing Blades a try. The extra depth of setting in Flashing Blades and the combat rules added something, but somehow the additional bits we got with Flashing Blades didn’t make the setting any better than it had been with En Garde's more focused entertainment (which seemed to hit all the spots we were looking for). I don’t think we tried Flashing Blades again, although En Garde does still get a run out (every three or four years!).

    By contrast, we played Bushido a lot more, mainly through lack of an alternative at that time (until L5R came out). Again, I really like and enjoy the Blog – keep it up!

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  20. God I love this game. And to think I only got to play it about six years ago. There's a session report from 2005 or three in the Roll Dice and Kick Ass blog here:

    http://jmcl63.blogspot.com/2005/09/adventures-of-felix-mephisto-gentleman.html

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  21. James, you should interview Jeff and Jack and hear what they're up to, and how they've managed to keep FGU alive for so long. That AICN interview needs to be expanded upon!

    Actually, it's Scott Bizar who runs FGU, as he did in the past. Jeff and Jack have their own company, Monkey House Games, and, as I understand it, there's a continuing legal battle over the rights to Villains & Vigilantes, with both sides claiming ownership and publishing their own version of the game.

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  22. This brings back good memories. An extended Flashing Blades campaign was one of the highlights of my college gaming career.

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  23. An absolutely magnificent game - the scenarios are models of brevity, but all the better for it. I think they rival Walter Jon Williams Cyberpunk scenarios for sheer amount of punch in a small package.

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  24. So many useful ideas both in the game and, especially, in the adventures.

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  25. can't comment on the flashing blades system as I've never played it .
    Yes space opera was overly complex , as was Middle Earth RPG,
    Perhaps the simplest was Judge Dredd  RPG (loads of FUN specialy allowing the players to play citizens (PERPS) lots of poetic licence required !,
    Of course Rune Quest and Call of Cathulu are classics and always worth playing and taking STATs from one to the other is simple (Great for horse Operas and time travel adventures ETC) but perhaps the most versatile system in My opinion is --  --  GURPS , Yes ,Generic universal Role Playing Systems has the ability to allow all styles of game (fast and loose  or more involved, If You wished ) Drokk  Shift work Sucks , I really miss all those wonderful hours of Escapism  ,Both running or playing .Keep the Fantasies Alive.

     Dick .  Aka,  Elric the bear slayer , Judge Westwood ,  Joat Puddel  , Scroatum the faithful retainer, (Don't Ask), Etc Etc  Etc .

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  26. I also still have my copy of Bushido way of the warrior, excellent game and the system was fast once You get to grips with it , I used to allow players to use proportions of  Ki to be used as bonuses on critical roles until they had used up all their available points within that "game day"
    ie if their character slept then Ki was regenerated at 1pt per hour slept up to their max .

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