Roleplayer
Roleplayer #12, December 1988

GURPS Swashbucklers Designer's Article

by Steffan O'Sullivan

GURPS Swashbucklers is my second book for Steve Jackson Games, but the first one that I proposed to them. In fact, I proposed it before they asked me to write the GURPS Bestiary. My B.A. is in History, specifically the 17th century, so I've always had a love for this era. Swashbucklers is a natural for me in another way: I grew up watching Errol Flynn movies, reading Howard Pyle and Alexandre Dumas. I spent a lot of time, psychically, in this era.

I went about writing Swashbucklers in the most logical fashion I could: I read all the Swashbuckling novels I could find and watched all the movies available. This got me in the proper spirit, and was so much fun that I kept it up long after I should have gotten down to the more serious work. Hence, I missed a few deadlines.

I plunged back into the world of history, reading as many primary sources as I was able to locate, plus many modern works. This is a fascinating and complex era of history, and I quickly realized how little room I had to relate what was going on. I decided to oversimplify, trying to include as much pertinent information as I could without boggling anyone's mind. There is enough information provided so players will know how the average character would react to most situations. Of course, their characters will be above average, so no one is bound by any national prejudices, but it's nice to know how the NPCs will usually respond if your character says he is English or Spanish.

Ship combat was the next thing I tackled, and I wasted a few months trying to come up with a workable, short combat system. The wind factor is far too complex, however, and I opted for adapting GURPS Space's ship combat system, which was being developed at the same time. There are significant differences, especially when one considers that most PCs are likely to want to board the other ship as a primary objective, a subject not covered by Space. I did come up with a good idea for a ship-to-ship board game, but it is too expensive to market, alas. Someday I'll make a copy for myself and fine tune it, though. If anyone is interested in such a game, drop me a line.

Expanding the fencing rules was the next step. I felt this was necessary, as nearly everyone in this genre would have a fencing weapon as their major melee weapon. The current fencing rules are adequate for situations involving a wide variety of weapon types, but lack pizzazz if everyone is a fencer. This involved watching more movies, of course, since it's always been my belief that gaming has more in common with fiction than reality. There was a lot of head-butting in this area, as many of the SJ Games' editors considered themselves experts on fencing and wanted to put their two cents in. Then GURPS Basic Set (Third Edition) came out, which incorporated some of the fighting rules we'd come up with, so I had to rewrite that whole chapter. We've come up with a set of rules that makes fencing a more intricate and interesting combat system in Swashbucklers; I think you'll enjoy them.

Making up the rules for the Flashy Maneuvers was easy and fun. I've always liked the scene where the hero pulls the wall curtain down on the three unsuspecting guards and swings to safety on the chandelier. That's the spirit of true swashbuckling adventure, and I wanted to capture it for the book.

By then I had decided to make the main focus on Musketeers and Piracy. The Three Musketeers (a superb book!) is basically a spy story – in fact, the literary phrase "cloak and dagger" was first used in a review of this book! The world of the Musketeers is thoroughly enjoyable, but the world of piracy is a wild and chaotic place. Pirates were not the nicest people in the world – nor were they the worst, though. It was a brutal age, by our standards. I have tried to make piracy an enjoyable milieu to adventure in, calling more on the Captain Blood (heroic) type of pirate than the Blackbeard (villainous) type. Although I know many gamers who prefer to play bad guys, I've always preferred the opposite, myself, and hope I've provided situations for both types of players.

I read hundreds of books for this project. I work in a college library and have a high Research skill, so finding material wasn't a problem for me. Narrowing down what to include was the big problem. It is impossible to be complete, perfectly accurate and concise when talking about the 17th century, so I sacrificed completeness and perfect accuracy. Gamers who are interested in more detail can easily research this period on their own at any library. I wanted to make it so that no one had to look up anything beyond this book, though, which meant being succinct in my descriptions of the era. I hope I succeeded. I also wanted to supply a good background for any time traveler, as I know that GURPS Time Travel is being developed. I hope the book will also be a source of good ideas for Space GMs who might have the PCs explore a TL4 world.

The best way to get the feel for the era is to read the whole book. Parts of it are aimed at supplying historical and social background, while other parts are meant to supply the fictional swashbuckling atmosphere. You don't have to read it all, but I believe it will make gaming in the Swashbucklers genre more enjoyable.

The next step for me is to write some adventures, of course. I don't write solo adventures myself, but someone should. There are many eases of lone swashbucklers taking on whole armies for the cause of Right – have you ever heard of Zorro? I am considering writing multi-player adventures, and I hope some of you reading this are, too. In the meantime, FGU's Flashing Blades has four adventures published that convert easily to GURPS. They probably wouldn't mind selling the adventures to you, even if you didn't buy their boxed game. You can order them at your local hobby shop.

I hope you enjoy this book, and I hope you discover the joy of swashbuckling gaming, a milieu too long neglected.

(Back to Roleplayer #12 Table of Contents)


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