The 10 Essentials Of A Swashbuckling Campaign

From Dariel R. A. Quiogue

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0153

A Brief Word From Johnn

Supplemental #12: Mapping Resources – Updated

The freebie mapping resources document has been updated with a couple dozen more links to online maps and reviews of three commercial software packages so you can learn a little more about them before making your purchase decision: Dreaming Merchant Dungeon Designer, Fractal Mapper, Campaign Cartographer 2 Pro.

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So, if you have a moment, please send a quick email with one of the numbers from the choices below.

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Sorry–not such a Brief Word this week. Now, on with the show!


Johnn Four
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The 10 Essentials Of A Swashbuckling Campaign

I was preparing my notes for a swashbuckling campaign I mean to set up for a PBEM and one of the first things I did was to ask myself, “What do I want in my game? How can I give it the swashbuckling feel of The Three Musketeers movies?” The result was a list of ten elements that together defined for me the feel of those movies and my enjoyment of them.

Here’s my list, along with some of the ideas that came up for each one. I’d like to share them with my fellow GMs out there, and if anybody has anything to add I could sure use the tips!

1. Swashbuckling Societies

All for one and one for all! Both for the purposes of the story and for the play of the game, it’s a good idea to start the characters off as belonging to some kind of tight- knit society that breeds swashbucklers. It has to be a society that requires and sharpens fighting skills, and promotes the spirit of the swashbuckling hero; the elan and flair, the sense of honor, the readiness to fight, and a camaraderie like what we see in The Three Musketeers.

These societies will typically exist for the purpose of fighting – either for something, or against something; thus military units, secret or rebel societies, and outlaw or pirate bands fighting a tyranny make good starting points.


  • An elite royal guards regiment, e.g. The King’s musketeers
  • The crew of a privateer/buccaneer ship
  • Officers of a regiment; up to the mid-19th century, officer’s commissions were typically bought, often by young gentlemen in search of adventure or fleeing some disgrace
  • Members of a secret society or movement
  • Members of a fencing/dueling school or society
  • Outlaws fighting tyranny
  • Old comrades-in-arms, gathered again for a final adventure

2. High Society Stuff

Swashbucklers typically come from the aristocracy, constantly interact with the aristocracy, and get embroiled in issues and struggles within the aristocracy.Swashbucklers are *meant* to go around saving queens and wooing countesses and confounding cardinals! Their employment and lifestyle typically requires them to hang around the courts of royalty and the high lords of the land, and to take missions for or against people in high places.

This is all part of the fun, too, because all this high society stuff means that the players get to roleplay their characters in challenging social encounters in very colorful settings.Ideas:

  • Swashbucklers are drawn mainly from the aristocracy
  • Swashbucklers are usually employed by the royalty/aristocracy
  • Sophistication required – in fashion, conversation, performing arts, etc.
  • High society occasions and functions – masques, balls, hunts, parlor games, etc.
  • Grandiose locations – palaces, castles, formal gardens, ballrooms, cathedrals
  • Roleplaying challenge! Accents, mannerisms, conveying the “feel” of the milieu
  • High society shenanigans – love affairs, power struggles, heirs and heiresses, family secrets, etc.

3. Secret Plots and Shadowy Villains

Swashbucklers need someone challenging to fight and the story requires a villain with enough oomph to spur the characters away from their wenches and wine cups and into the risks of heroic action.This means a villain who can threaten the heroes’ way of life and/or loved ones, or that which they are sworn to protect, like the person of the king or the freedom of their country. Thus, we need a villain capable of targeting those things and doing so in a grand way.

The villain we want is someone already firmly ensconced in power, giving him security and the ability to work his plots; and to get the flavor right, the villain must be a colorful character in his own right, one the players will find intriguing.A main villain is most effective when he is personally untouchable through most or all of the story, like a spider secure in a hidden web, while others do the dirty work for him.

Perhaps he is a trusted advisor of the King, a high prelate, or royal relative, with too much prestige and protection for the PCs to assail directly; perhaps they could even have reasons *not* to want to assail him directly. Only when he is finally unmasked, or his plots fully revealed, can the heroes try to bring him to justice.The villain should have some kind of Grand Plan to achieve his ultimate goal. Perhaps he wants the crown for himself or to serve an enemy nation by betraying the heroes’ country.

At least several steps in his plan should have opportunities where the PCs might be able to interfere. Allowing the PCs or their allies to capture letters or overhear secret conversations will give clues as to the villain’s next move, allowing the heroes to attempt to frustrate it. It’s also possible to have the PCs stumble onto part of the plan, say by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The power of the villain will be mainly in the form of being a mover of people; he will need spies and informants, he will need bashers – like his own guards regiment – and he will need a way to keep these people loyal. Since the main villain does little or nothing directly, he will also need a capable lieutenant to do much of his skulduggery; this lieutenant can be built up to be one of the PCs’ main direct opponents, the guy they must fight and defeat at the climactic scene.


  • The best villain is a charming villain!
  • The villain must be too powerful/influential/secretive to attack directly at once
  • The villain must have a wealth of agents/henchmen to use
  • The villain has a grand plan to achieve his goal
  • The grand plan must personally/emotionally involve the pcs somehow
  • The villain’s activities harm or threaten the PCs’ friends, family or romantic interests

4. Carousing

The swashbuckler’s daily life, as presented to us by Dumas and other writers, is one of gay leisure. Drinking, wenching, gambling, and for the bardically inclined, composing and performing music or poetry, should all be high on the swashbuckler’s list of activities. This lends itself to some fun roleplaying – it’s always fun to roleplay being in a drunken revel, and the GM can use the occasion to get the PCs more involved with the other characters in their world.

It could also be fun to introduce the occasional complication here, especially if based on the PCs’ own actions; if they badmouth the Cardinal while drinking, a Cardinal’s guard drinking in the same tavern might start a bar fight, or if one tries to woo some lady he might end up getting challenged by a jealous rival or husband.


  • Swashbucklers are party animals! The wild life is the good life for these guys
  • Swashbucklers can be expected to know their wines/be connoisseurs; maybe a noble could challenge a PC to identify an obscure vintage or tell a genuine vintage from a fake at some point in the adventure
  • Setting idea: a favorite tavern where the PCs are all known by name and may even enjoy celebrity status
  • Drinking games, crazy bets and dares, bar brawls
  • Gambling for outrageous stakes
  • Getting into trouble with the law or with a powerful family, and escaping

5. Romance

Romance is yet another genre convention of the swashbuckling adventure. Heroes are supposed to do great things for love. Quite a bit of spice can be added by making the love interest a member of the high aristocracy or even royalty, bringing in rivals, and making the love interest a forbidden fruit – betrothed or married, about to enter a convent, belonging to a hostile family, belonging to a different social class or group, etc.

Or you could reverse the situation and have a political marriage hanging over a PC’s head and he or she must choose between the arranged marriage and the true love.Now this is one field the typical player does not venture into, so what I’m going to do in my campaign is give those who want to try the challenge the opportunity to create their own love interest NPCs, but I will require that there be some complication attached to their affair.

I have observed that my current troupe of players are most entertaining and entertained when their characters are emotionally involved and motivated, so I’ll make use of the roleplaying opportunities to get them bonded with some vital NPCs.


  • Make each player define 2-3 NPCs tied to his character somehow; one of which may be a love interest
  • A PC’s love interest could acquire information about the villain’s plans and become a vital pawn in the struggle
  • The PC is in rivalry with the villain or one of the villain’s chief henchmen

6. Comedy and Trickery

Among the many things that the great swashbuckling movies have in common is the number of good laughs we get out of them. The swashbuckling heroes, from Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood to Gene Kelly’s d’Artagnan to Antonio Banderas’ Zorro, all have a fine and pointed sense of humor. They also resort to trickery often to get into forbidden places, escape, or deal with attackers. All that goes to help create the lighthearted fun feel of the swashbuckling adventure, and I want to capture that for my game.

In my game, I will encourage players to deliver witty repartee and come up with humorous situations and lines of my own in order to lead by example. I plan to give rewards for coming up with ways to defeat opponents in combat by trickery instead of just dealing massive damage. I also plan to allow the players to invent, describe and use scene props that are appropriate to the location for their stuntsFor example, if one says there’s a big tapestry in the banquet hall that he plans to make fall over the charging guardsmen,

I’ll just assume there *is* such a tapestry and allow the player to make a roll for the action.


  • Swashbucklers enjoy a good laugh; so does the GM
  • Repartee is part of combat!
  • Swashbuckler humor is often irreverent and mocking, but never vulgar
  • Outwitting an opponent should work as well as or better than fighting him
  • Winning fights by humiliating or tripping up the enemy is to be encouraged
  • Entering forbidden places by disguise is a genre convention – GM should be lenient here
  • Ingenious tricks and scams should be rewarded
  • Tricks often require props; allow players to invent and describe plausible props for the scene, and use them
  • Chandeliers, banners, curtains and guy ropes are *always* strong enough to bear a man’s weight for at least one swing!

7. Damsels in Distress

Tied to the romance angle is the genre convention of the damsel in distress. If a PC has a love interest or female ward of some sort like a younger sister, it is *guaranteed* that she will fall afoul of the villain somehow; the villain might desire her for himself, or maybe his lieutenant does, she might accidentally find out about his plans, or she might even be someone’s agent and be caught trying to frustrate the villain’s plans herself.

Whatever she might be, it is also guaranteed the villain plans something truly vile for her – but it’s a genre convention that whatever the villain has planned, it’s never so crude as immediate death. It may be an execution scheduled for some time in the near future, torture, sale into slavery, sacrifice (in a fantasy swashbuckling adventure), or as expendable bait in a Fiendish Death Trap(TM). The point is that the fun lies in seeing the hero make his rescue attempt.


  • A PC’s love interest could be used to bait a trap against him
  • The PC’s love interest is about to be forced into marriage with the villain; stop the ceremony!
  • The PC’s love interest has an exact, evil double who plans to eliminate and replace her
  • The damsel in distress may turn out to be a capable fencer/pistol shot/horsewoman and play a major part in her own rescue
  • The mysterious rescuer turns out to be a woman in disguise!

8. Daring Rescues and Escapes

Rescues and escapes make for great swashbuckling action scenes. Here, the fun and challenge should lie equally between combat and defeating other obstacles or hazards. Choosing a good location to stage the scene goes a long way toward setting this up.For example, why just let the PCs ride up to the enemy castle when you could have them try to rappel down a high cliff into the castle’s unguarded rear?

Or, why not prevent them from getting back down to the ground where their horses are waiting and challenge them to leap into their saddles from the third floor window? Pursuits over open ground aren’t half so much fun as a wild and crazy ride through a tangled forest, with trunks and branches suddenly rearing up in the way and plenty of opportunities for stunts and tricks to play on one’s enemies.

There are some players who really think like foxes when their characters are pursued and you could subtly encourage these to take over the party leadership for the duration of the scene where they will be most useful and entertaining.


  • There’s nothing like time pressure to raise the tension level!
  • Letting the players know the clock is ticking can be made a story bombshell. e.g. “The execution will be at noon on the fifteenth.” “But today is the fifteenth! And it’s already ten o’clock!”
  • Desperate rides through a gauntlet of enemy ambushes are a genre convention
  • Running interference for a comrade is a heroic action
  • For long pursuits or escapes on horseback, changing mounts is necessary; acquiring fresh mounts can be made part of the game – like trying to steal horses

9. Races Against Time

Time pressure is one of the best ways of bringing up the tension level. I usually associate this with travel and ambushes – the heroes have to get from Point A to Point B by a certain time, usually a quick benchmark like noon or midnight – and they’ll have to do so despite significant obstacles on the way.Some of these obstacles could include distance, the need to change horses, the need to find a ferry or ship that will leave immediately -perhaps in bad weather – and of course enemy interference.

There are two types of combat encounters that are highly appropriate here: the running fight and the holding ambush. A running fight can occur if the PCs are attacked by pursuers capable of moving as fast as themselves, and they are too pressed for time to stand and fight normally; the object of the enemy will be to stop the PCs by capturing or killing them. A holding ambush can be staged from behind a barrier or to form a barrier, to deny the PCs the means to reach their goal in time.

I’m thinking that for these situations, I can specify a maximum total number of combat rounds they can spend fighting without getting delayed.One heroic opportunity I could give a player, especially if the player’s character hasn’t been able to do much yet, is to make the “end run” alone to beat the deadline, while the rest of the PCs stay and fight. Even if the PC is not as capable as the others for the task, he or she might have something else that gives a better chance of success, like having the freshest horse for a long gallop.

Remember that the lighter a burden, the faster a horse can carry it, so a kid or girl character could be given bonuses for attempting a horseback end run that an adult male character would not have.


  • Secret prisoners in hard-to-reach prisons!
  • Many castles really were used as prisons in their time
  • If captured, a PC should be able to expect either an opportunity to escape, a rescue, or an interesting/ informative encounter that advances the story
  • A good roleplayer could be given a chance to find a sympathetic NPC in almost any jail
  • Spectacular and dangerous escape routes – maybe a moonlight gallop along the edge of a cliff, or a hundred- foot dive into the sea
  • If PCs arrive too late to prevent an abduction, they could be given a chance to catch up with the kidnappers or discover where they are hiding the captive

10. Duels in Dramatic Locations

As with daring rescues and escapes, fight scenes benefit greatly from being staged in appropriately colorful and exciting locations. A location that possesses some form of inherent danger or challenge is much more interesting than one without. The hero is put in a situation where he spends as much time or attention trying to survive in this environment as he is fighting.

If the opponent is a sneaky cunning sort, a location where he can evade and hide with ease then attempt ambushes will be ideal; hedge mazes should be fun for this kind of fight. Add to this descriptions of interesting visuals, and perhaps some background movements and events, and you’ve added a lot of cinematic kick to your fight scene.The most typical location hazard is gravity; any fight location that is well elevated, open, and limited in area presents the possibility of a combatant being driven over its edge and taking a serious fall.

This area could be a spar in a sailing ship’s rigging, the rooftop of a chateau, the belfry of a cathedral, the lip of a half-raised drawbridge, etc. If you’re running the game in a steampunk milieu, you might stage a duel inside the engine works of a great vehicle or infernal device, where the combatants have to dodge moving machine parts and find each other behind random puffs of steam.Now, this is where the issue of what system to run the adventure in comes up.

The last thing a GM would want for this kind of adventure is to discourage the players from playing in proper swashbuckling style. If the system to be used puts too many punitive modifiers on the action, the players will not want their characters to attempt it, which puts paid to a lot of potentially dramatic and entertaining stunts. A system that is fast and loose and “friendly” to cinematic stunting, like Feng Shui, is probably going to be better for handling this game than modifier-heavy systems like GURPS or D&D.

Or if you want to use D&D anyway, you could make sure that the feats necessary are easily available.


  • The Big Duel with the main villain or his chief agent is the Big Moment in swashbuckling adventures!
  • The arena should be challenging or hazardous in itself, or laden with significance for the character

The arena should be picturesque:

  • The arena, whatever it is, is burning
  • On a narrow bridge, catwalk, or log
  • On a rooftop
  • In a church interior (remember Ladyhawke?)
  • On a crumbling ruined staircase (remember Highlander I?)
  • In the rigging of a sailing ship
  • Suspended from ropes
  • In a stream, preferably one with white water
  • On a grand staircase
  • In the throne room, under the eyes of the King himself
  • In/on the gondola of a balloon, or flying ship
  • On a wagon or coach being driven at full speed
  • On horseback, riding parallel down a cliffside trail – loser gets pushed off
  • On a lonely stretch of beach
  • In a formal garden’s maze
  • Atop a half-raised drawbridge
  • In a bell tower
  • In a cemetery; nice if the villain takes the fatal thrust over the grave of one of his own victims ….
  • Inside the guts of a great clockwork engine – watch out for that moving beam!


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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Encouraging Roleplaying Through Easy Encounters

From Rosemary Marcy

[Comment from Johnn: this is a response from the GM Mastery list about one GM’s problem of characters shooting first and asking questions later.]

…Sounds like a painful situation, my friend. Instead of trying more and more difficult foes (until the PCs are just banging their heads against the wall in frustration), try using encounters where the foes are far too EASY to defeat in combat.

Hear me out. Social situations can be extremely tricky and involve good roleplaying. If the NPCs involved in these situations are obviously combat-deficient, it may deter the player characters from using that solution at all. Of course, I don’t know if this works with your play style or your setting, but it could be a good idea.

Also, my advice is to be morally ambiguous. Good people can have disagreements among themselves just as easily as good people can have disagreements with evil people. If there are two factions, both of which have legitimate claims to something and neither force could automatically be seen as the enemy, it might shake things up.

Or, there’s the “lesser of two evils” approach. What if the PCs come across two destructive or cruel forces that oppose one another? What if they have to choose one side to take out first? They can’t take them both on at once. Will they let the evil wizard or the evil warlord take control of the country? What will the differences be? Make it clear that it’s probably going to be one or the other.

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5 Encounter Tips

From Adam Flynn

  1. Visualize the encounter space. Picture clearly the area in which an encounter will occur. Pick 5-7 short descriptors to capture the essential detail, but don’t bog down in describing every piece of furniture unless it’s important. Try to identify areas of cover, hiding spots, escape routes, or situations that need special rules (climbing, uneven ground, flying, etc.).
  2. Know the Enemy and their plans. What is the purpose and level of preparation the enemy has? Have they set traps and claimed the defensible high ground or are they unawares? Identify 3-5 reactions the enemy is likely to have, such as pulling an alarm switch or grabbing a special item from a cupboard. Think tactically, but avoid omniscience.
  3. Know how committed the enemy is. Make yourself a two-axis (like alignment) range. One axis is neutral – blind hate. The other is coward – foolhardy courage. Place your enemy in both the ranges and use it to identify how committed they are to engaging the PCs or holding the encounter area. Will they flee at the first serious losses or fight to the death. And if they flee, where will they regroup?
  4. Multiple solutions. Unless the encounter space is a blank 10 x 10 room with 1 door, there are bound to be multiple ways of handling whatever problem the PCs encounter. Think of three of the most obvious and try to be flexible enough to handle the ones you won’t think of.Be aware of the PCs’ capabilities (spells, items, skills, abilities) and imagine what ways they might apply them to overcome the encounter.Don’t be resistant to a new solution unless there is a good reason for it not to work. If it’s logical and well- considered, why shouldn’t it succeed?
  5. Know your exit strategy. If the PCs’ fail what happens? Do they automatically die from the trap or are they rendered unconscious and dragged to the dungeons. Do the foes that flee regroup and make a surprise assault if the PCs rest here or do they wait in ambush elsewhere? Think 1 minute, 20 minutes, an hour, and a day into the future and decide if the situation in the area will change in that time.
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Token Storage

From Christian T.

For those of you who collect tokens (i.e. from Dungeon Magazine, Adventure Game, others) and want a handy storage solution, try a standard film canister. My entire, 100-plus token collection fits in one canister.

Drawback: no bulky tokens. Works for a goblin army, though.

Bonus: You can label them on the top with wipe off marker and then wipe it off when you change what’s inside.

[Comment from Johnn: Now you’ve got me thinking Christian. I bet toilet paper tubes would work too. And Christmas wrapping paper tubes cut down to size! Now, I wonder what would fit my square counters?]
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Give NPCs Moods

From Johnn Four

[Here’s a tip that didn’t make the final cut for my NPC Essentials book so I thought I’d post it here for your use.]

You can achieve additional character depth by assigning NPCs moods. Moods can change from encounter to encounter, which makes this technique a great way to keep recurring NPCs fresh and interesting.

Assign each NPC:

  • A base mood
  • A tendency mood

A base mood is where the NPC starts at the beginning of the encounter. Perhaps the NPC is having a bad day and there’s a dark cloud hanging over his head, or maybe the NPC has just won a contest and is exuberant.

A tendency is how the NPC typically reacts and adjusts their mood to others. Some people are optimists and always look for the positive things in life. Their tendency is to adjust their moods towards the positive in most situations. Others are pessimists who thrive on negativity, and their tendency will be to adjust moods towards the negative side. Some are neutral because they are unflappable, or they hide their emotions, or they focus on just facts and logic when possible.

When the PCs enter the scene, greet them with the NPC in his default mood, then adjust the NPC’s mood according to the player characters’ actions, modified by the NPCs’ tendency.

For example, Corbin the innkeep is normally jovial, though a pessimist, but he’s just been given a large tip so he’s even friendlier when the PCs arrive. However, Corbin raises the prices for the PCs’ drinks, thinking them easy marks, and the characters get upset. In the face of the group’s accusations, Corbin’s mood darkens dramatically because of his negative tendency and he becomes quite angry instead of apologetic.

The key benefit of using tendencies is to help NPCs react according to their own personalities and not solely according to PC actions. If every NPC reacts the same way to the same degree then your campaign loses some of its believability. Having independent reactions for each NPC will help them gain the respect and interest of the player characters.

A fast way to notate NPC moods is with a pair of arrows. The first arrow indicates the NPC’s default mood, the second the tendency mood.

  • Up means good
  • Down means bad
  • Short means minor
  • Long means major

Thus, an NPC with a default mood of “pleasant” would have a short up-arrow. An NPC with a short fuse and a bad temper would have a long down-arrow tendency.

You can add further complexity to your notations by using diagonal arrows, numbers, different symbols, etc. Work out a system that makes planning and GMing NPC moods fast and easy for you.