The book launches straight in to an evocative and sensational description of the state of Europe in 1810, with most of it in Napoleon's hands save the Duke of Wellington's foothold in Portugal. After the brief obligatory note about what a role-playing game is, there is a more detailed and personal view from a retired General of the Scots Foot Guards, incongruously illustrated with a picture of Admiral Lord Nelson. A contrasting view comes from a French colonel, a cavalryman by the portrait.
Introduction and scene-setting done, attention turns to character creation. A character is described by Measures (his Guts, Discipline, Influence and Charm), Reputations, Skills, Experiences, Regiment, Traits and Wealth. The idea is that all characters in a game will come from the same regiment, and they'll define it as character creation progresses. The whole of character creation is built on developing the character's backstory, with such as his Measures, Reputations and Skills being based on what he's been up to even before the game begins. It all seems rather vague but can be a powerful tool to build a character with a rich history who is not just a creation for the purposes of the game but an individual in his own right. There are some interesting suggestions on how to get a good balance of ranks amongst your players: as ever with a military-based role-playing game you are looking for a way to allow all characters an equal chance of the spotlight while operating within what, in reality, is a very hierarchical system. There is a lot of detail here, and it is not something to be rushed but an integral part of the game itself. A few random elements are added with the use of playing cards, but mostly it relies on the collaborative use of the participants' imaginations.
Characters done, and with some splendid examples to give you ideas, we move on to task resolution. There are different levels, depending on how pivotal to the storyline success - or failure - will be. It may be obvious when a test is needed, but the GM can decide - along with a warning to NOT use one if a failure would create too much of a roadblock to the adventure. That's not to say that characters will always succeed at everything they do, often the fun comes in thinking your way around problems, but if you just cannot proceed without managing this task, it makes for better storytelling if it is, well, managed! First, state what you want to accomplish. Next, see what skills, traits and special equipment you have available to help... and any factors which may hinder, like being wounded or having to work in the dark. That gives you the total number of playing cards at your disposal. The GM then draws a card, which is the 'card of fate' that you have to draw against. If the cards you draw are neither the same suit or number, you fail; if it's the same card it's a perfect success and a joker can be used as any card you like! Successes and failures mount up until you've drawn the appropriate number of cards, then you find out what happened with whatever it was you were trying to do. Rules for damage and healing follow, with the interesting twist that combat isn't the only thing that can damage you - gambling may damage your wealth or dishonourable behaviour your reputation!
The next chapter looks at Wealth and Equipment. While a soldier gets issued most of his kit, they are great scavengers; while officers are expected to spend their own money to cut a fine appearance. To abstract things somewhat - who wants to have to account for every farthing? - a test may be made against your Wealth for any special item you wish to purchase, or of course more nefarious activities may be played out to, ahem, acquire the thing you're after!
Next comes the real meat and drink of the game: Missions and Challenges. Missions are set by the GM in the main, but can be character-led, and are the things that you do in order to tell the story of your character's life in the army (and oft-times, what else he does that he may even hope his regiment never hears about!). A simple mechanistic system is presented breaking down the mission into several challenges which must be overcome to accomplish that mission. Naturally, the players - let alone their characters - may not know what these are at the outset. Both the reward for success and the penalty for failure are also listed along with any deadline, such as if you fail four challenges you fail the whole thing. Now as well as the obvious - the military mission the whole group are engaged in - a character can have a personal mission of his own (maybe he's trying to attract the attention of a young lady, or break in a new horse), and he may also have a special promotion mission as well. While the characters may not know the precise challenges they'll have to face, a collaborative approach is suggested where the players and GM arrive at some idea of what they might be - rivals in love turning up at inopportune moments, a wagon of muskets getting into difficulty crossing a ravine or even a French raiding party showing up to harass the troops - which runs the risk of it becoming TOO mechanical, with little real role-playing and stories developing purely through out-of-character discussion and card drawings.
On to challenges, those pivotal events that mean success or failure. Combat is very abstracted, with an entire fight being resolved by one draw of the cards. While a combat will often be at least one of your mission challenges, it is what you do to get there and how you deal with the aftermath that is more interesting than the actual brawl itself. The number of cards you have to draw upon mostly depends on the weapon you are using, there are no specific combat skills although you can take appropriate traits if you really want to be a flashing blade or a deadly shot with a pistol. Well, that's a one-on-one brawl, but in military action it is often squad against squad or even larger numbers, so a separate set of rules for determining what happens in a skirmish are provided. Whoever is senior determines tactics and assigns tasks to everyone else, those tasks are resolved and that decides the result of the entire skirmish. Thus everyone has something to do but a mass battle does not take an entire evening to play out.
The matter of promotion is then addressed. Officers, of course, can purchase their way up the ranks, while everyone can hope to fill dead men's shoes or be promoted for some outstanding act of valour (remember, gallantry medals hadn't been invented yet so it's about the only reward available to a commander). While you can just play things as they come - especially for promotions for valour - you can use the mission system to see when a character is ready for promotion due to such things as number of military missions completed successfully (tenure), nominating an act you think ought to be noticed and completing a challenge to see if it has been, or amassing enough wealth to purchase the next rank. Of course, there needs to be a vacancy as well, and the whole thing can be quite drawn out.
Next comes a look at the sorts of missions suitable for the characters, and how to plan them. Normally this would be up to the GM, but this ruleset proposes a high level of out-of-character involvement for the players in the planning and design of missions. There are lots of different things to do, whether you stick with Wellington's campaigns or venture further afield. Then comes some ideas of running the game to effect, both as a collaboration and in terms of what the GM needs to do... and close the session with three cheers for the King! (Literally, if you so please. It all adds to the flavour.)
Things round off with some background to the life and times of the Napoleonic Age, especially as it relates to the military. Although this will give ideas, it's worth delving deeper, as with all historical games, whether you stick with novels and movies set in the appropriate period or actually get to grips with the history. There are also some pregenerated characters who'll make good NPCs, a bibliography, and appendices on the organisation of the British Army of the time, tactics, real regimental titles and even suitable names of the period.
Overall, this is a fascinating approach to a difficult setting - a real historical military game. It manages to find ways to create genuine role-playing opportunities, looks at how to involve everyone and doesn't get bogged down in lengthy combats. Missions run the risk of being a bit mechanistic, but with care the story and role-playing should win out. A truly original game!
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Reviewed: 26 May 2009