Friday, March 13, 2009

Duty and Honour: A review

A few months back, Omnihedron Games released Duty and Honour, a roleplaying game set during the Napoleonic Wars. The inspiration for the game is clear: the Sharpe novels and movies, the Matthew Hervey novels, and their naval analogues (Hornblower, Aubrey, &c.). The period is so rich with potential, I'm surprised that no other game has tried to capture the fiun and excitement of the source material. Well, there's GURPS Napoleonics, but the strength of GURPS is in creating games with a feel of gritty realism. To make GURPS work for swashbuckling, you would have to de-GURPS-ify it.

Anyhow, kudos to Omnihedron for giving Mr. Sharpe his place in the gaming pantheon. And Duty and Honour takes its place in the cutting edge of narrative-style role-playing games. Rather than fall back on level-based or point buy systems, the author, Neil Gow, has opted for a collaborative storytelling approach. Like in Spirit of the Century, players and gamemaster work together to craft the characters, their backgrounds, and the plot. For gamers who grew up in the wargaming/D+D tradition (like myself), this can seem odd and alien. It moves the roleplaying dynamic from an adversarial one to a co-operative one. The rewards one takes from a session of Duty and Honour are very different than those one would take from an old-school game: satisfaction with a good story rather than triumph in an accomplished goal. I can see purists on both sides of the divide claiming that theirs is the worthier approach, but, honsetly, both goals are worthy. Even the most hard-core wargamer might want to give Duty and Honour a look, just to see the potential of the tabletop gaming medium.

The mechanic of teh game is simple and elegant, and it reminds me of a drinking game called "Egyptian Rat Screw." The GM and the players each have a deck if cards. The GM flips over a target card, and the PC has a number of chances to score a success. If you match suit, it is a basic success, if you match number, it is a superior success, and if you match the specific card, it is a perfect success. Skills (like Courtesy and Skullduggery) provide the base number of cards flipped, but these can be modified by traits (like Family Connections or Disciplinarian) and Reputations (social connections, like with the Horse Guards or with the Contessa Villahermosa). The mechanic is quick, simple, decisive, yet open to narrative interpretation to keep the story moving along. Wargamers, who want to factor in modifiers for wind direction and last nights spoiled salt pork, will hate it. But the same mecanic works with all manner of situations, from storming the breach in the city wall to seducing the French colonel's beautiful (honestly, are there any ugly women in Sharpe's world?) wife to convincing your captain that your homicidal sergeant is a greater threat to the unit than the French hussars.

Unlike Spirit of the Century, where it seems like the GM has little power to force events, the GM in Duty and Honour has to take a more active role in adjudicating game actions. Players and GMs collaborate in establishing missions, which are basically the set pieces that will make up the story. Together, they establish the rewards for success and consequences for failure. Everything else is up to the GM, from establishing the difficulty of specific challenges the players must overcome to throwing in the plot wrinkles that will frustrate the characters and challenge the players. One challenge GMs must face is keeping all players engaged at the same time. The rules suggest a mix of ranks, from lowly privates to privileged captains. If one scene revolves around a masked ball, it can't all revolve around flirting with elegant ladies on the dance floor. The GM will have to find interesting things for the low-born characters to do at the same time.

One aspect of the rules that takes this situation into account are the skirmish rules, which come in simple and advanced forms. Again, wargamers will be disappointed, but there are enough period tropes represented ("Form Square!" "Deploy skirmishers!") to keep the history junkies happy. Officer characters are responsible for giving orders and keeping discipline, while the rank and file must succeed at their tasks in order to help the officer's command check. The back and forth dynamic works well. Everyone feels valuable, despite the disparity in rank. Getting tabletop enlisted men to show respect for their fellow gamer-officer, well, that's a different challenge altogether.

All of the wonderful cliches of the genre are represented: the homicidal sergeant, the scheming hussy, the feckless officer. Hopefully, there are enough Sharpe fans out there to make this game take off. A naval supplement is in the works which should reach those hardcore Aubrey fans. Certainly, there are a lot of similar periods (American War of Independence, American Civil War, Wars of the Colonial Empire) that would lend themselves to the spirit of the game with only slight changes to the rules.
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