Dashing Blades of Amber

Return to earlier times, when good King Oberon ruled over the growing trading port of Amber, and His Majesty's handpicked guard, the Royal Blades, kept the peace.

The premise of this setting was that Amber was a swashbuckling place back in the days before Corwin was born.  I am intentionally not worrying about continuity with the Amber books; think of this as a sort of historical fiction in the Amberverse, playing freely with the established history to tell a swashbuckling story.

There are two games scheduled for ACUS 2008:

Treacherous Waters (ACUS 2008, Slot 2)
A Dashing Blades of Amber Adventure.

King Oberon's fleet is ambushed on a diplomatic mission to a new world, and it is up the swashbuckling Royal Blades to save the day.

This game continues the tradition of having a session away from Amber proper.  As is vaguely implied from the two blurbs taken together, the ambush this game is centered around is the "disaster at Aramil" mentioned in the next game's blurb.

Dashing Blades of Amber (ACUS 2008, Slot 6)
Return to earlier times, when good King Oberon ruled over the growing trading port of Amber, and His Majesty's handpicked guard, the Royal Blades, kept the peace. The disaster that befell the fleet at Aramil must have roots in Amber. Can the King's men, paragons of honor and swashbuckling elan, find the traitors and bring them to justice?

This game is the second game in the serial arc of games centered on the Royal Blades.  The intent is for each game to stand alone, while the full arc tells the story of how Amber went from a glorious, bright, swashbuckling young kingdom to the backstabbing place we know and love from Corwin's chronicles.

History of Previous Games

These rules are inspired by Arref's Unearthly rules, with additional bits of inspiration from John Wick's Cats.  Arref also helped me out with many good suggestions.  I'd like to thank Joe Saul, Kris Fazzari, Brian Wells, and Mark Wizynajtys for help playtesting the system.

The game is diceless, like Amber, but the point scale is drastically reduced.  PCs will split 11 points between four attributes:
The levels for the attributes scale like this:
1 Royal Blade bare minimum.  Average to just below average for the normal citizen of Amber.  A Royal Blade would need a special reason to have a stat like this.
2 Royal Blade average.  Better than the average citizen of Amber.  Nothing special about your capabilities here, particularly, but nothing too embarrassing, either.
3 Royal Blade good.  Much better than the average citizen of Amber.
4 Royal Blade great.  Even among the shining stars of the Royal Blades, you stand out in this stat.
5+ Truly exceptional!

In addition, each PC gets at least two points to put into reputations.  These are things the PC is exceptionally good at.  They can range from simple things -- a one-point reputation in "brawling" would indicate that you are a better brawler than your straight Combat would suggest -- to more abstract things -- one point in "defending others" would mean that in any competition where you are defending someone else, your reputation would apply.  In general, each point of reputation will add one point to an attribute during a contest where the reputation comes into play.  In the case of ties, the more specific reputation will have a small edge.

Reputations can be more general as well.  For instance, for a one-point reputation, you could (like D'Artagnon) have a salve your mother gave you which helps heal wounds.  Or you could have many (low status) contacts out in Shadow, or one high-status contact/friend/ally in Amber.  Etc.  Please use your imagination.

Hooks: Any player who provides a good story hook for her hero -- perhaps a foe, a flaw, a flame, or a family member who needs protecting -- will receive one additional point of reputation.  This may only be added once per character, but may be done at any reasonable time which will allow the player and the GM to discuss it.  (Which is to say, don't try discovering you have an old enemy right in the middle of a battle you're losing.  Or heck, even a battle you're winning.)  In turn, the GM will try to work the hook into the plots and subplots of the game.

Negative Reputations:  You can also take up to two negative reputations, gaining an additional approximately equal positive reputation to offset it.  (In other words, you cannot choose "-1, vunerable to two-handed blue-tinged swords made in south Amber" to offset "+1, good in combat with every weapon".)  For instance, you might clarify the direction of your Physique by saying you had -1 in strength, but +1 in reflexes.

Swash Points
The universe is fundamentally more happy with a swashbuckler who has been behaving with the proper honor, nobility of character, and elan.  This is represented by Swash points, which are earned with good behavior and then spent to help the PC during the course of play.  Points can be earned by such things as:
What manner of man is Giacomo? Ha ha! I shall tell you what manner of man is he. He lives for a sigh, he dies for a kiss, he lusts for the laugh, ha! He never walks when he can leap! He never flees when he can fight! -- Hawkins

They can then be spent in several extremely useful ways:
On the other hand, if you commit a dishonorable act, your current Swash points instantly goes to -5.  While your Swash points are negative, the universe frowns on you, much as if you had bad stuff in the normal Amber rules.  Dishonorable acts include:
You don't know know me, son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed.  -- Mal

Suppose Porthos is fighting a skilled man in a small shack when D'Artagnon happens upon them. There are three basic choices possible here:
  • Announcing himself, D'Artagnon joins in the fight.  No Swash points are awarded or lost.
  • Announcing himself, D'Artagnon explains that if Porthos falls, the man will have to face D'Artagnon next.  Other than that he waits.  Here D'Artagnon and Porthos both get a Swash point (in Porthos's case for not requesting help).
  • Sneaking around back, D'Artagnon slips into the building and stabs the man in the back.  D'Artagnon instantly goes to -5 Swash because he acted dishonorably.  If Porthos had somehow suggested this course of action, or even realized what D'Artagnon was going to do and did nothing to prevent it, he too would go to -5 Swash.

Heroic Sacrifices and Extraordinary Measures
When things are really going bad, the true swashbuckler rises to her best.  If a PC loses a contest which will result in her incapacitation and/or death, she can spend two Swash points and make a Heroic Sacrifice.  The exact effects will depend on circumstance, but the basic idea is that she will win the current contest, but only by sealing her inevitable doom.  She will live long enough to have a chance to complete her current task, and then die.  Any additional Swash points used during this period will count double. 

 Valentine is trying to rescue the young heir to the throne. But on the way she is confronted by the notorious Black Duke, and they duel. Alas, the Duke is too skillful for her, and he stabs her. By all rights she should die here. But she invokes a Heroic Sacrifice, spending two Swash points, and against all odds she keeps on her feet, and strikes the startled Duke a mortal blow. Then she races on through the castle, defeating a couple of generic guards quickly, and grabbing the baby with the purple pimpernel. Fighting her way out, she delivers the heir into the arms of the queen -- and mission complete, dies in her lover's arms. No surprise there -- the surprise is how she managed to carry on so long with such terrible wounds.

If another PC comes upon the doomed hero, he can (as long as she agrees) take Extraordinary Measures to save her.  This requires he expend two Swash points.  The (previously) doomed hero permanently loses one point from her highest attribute other than Wit, and is out of action for the rest of the session.

Conflict Resolution
The normal method for conflict resolution, then, is this.  Figure out which attribute controls the contest.  Determine if there are any relevant reputations, and add them in.  Swash points may be spent to up the total if the PC wishes.  (Assuming the PC has some to spend, of course!)  This is done for both sides, and the totals are compared.  If they are different, the PC with the higher number always wins.  If there is a tie, compare reputations to see if one is markedly more specific than the other; if so, the more specific reptuation wins a very close fight.  Otherwise, the contest is a tie.

Cyrano and D'Artagnon are having a impromptu poetry competition at the local tavern. Poetry is clearly covered under Wit; Cyrano's Wit is 4, D'Artagnon's is 3. Furthermore, of course, Cyrano has a reputation as a poet, being the author of a number of plays and poems; let's say it's a reputation of 1, so now it is Cyrano 5, D'Artagnon 3. A clear victory for Cyrano -- unless D'Artagnon is willing to burn some Swash points. One point will bring it to 5 to 4, doing him no good at all. Two Swash points will make it a tie, 5 to 5. Cyrano still wins, because he has reputation specific to the field of competition, but it is a very close thing. If D'Artagnon goes whole hog and throws in three Swash points, then he actually wins the contest. Though this assumes Cyrano does not start spending Swash points himself, in which case the contest can spiral out of control!

(And what do Swash points represent in a poetry competition?  Good fortune shining on our hero.  Perhaps D'Artagnon just happens to know that the patrons at this tavern love a certain kind of ale, and he can work that into his creation to their hearty approval.  Or Roxane walks by the tavern in another man's arms, completely distracting Cyrano at a crucial moment.)

In general, contests happen over time, so a contestant does not need to spend Swash points right away, but has a brief chance to evaluate how things are going first.  Swash points spent go away when the contest is resolved.  If a conflict is built out of multiple contests (like a battle -- see below) then the Swash points only affect the specific contest in which they are spent.

Players are strongly encouraged to come up with clever in-game explanations for what the Swash point represents.  Style may not be absolutely necessary, but it is certainly smiled upon.  (The GM may not always allow your explanation, but the point will still count anyway.)

How do point comparisons factor in numbers?  Generally speaking, a hero with a one-point margin can hold off two people at the lower value.  Going back to the Cyrano versus D'Artagnon again, suppose it was a contest where reputation didn't enter into it -- perhaps planning a battle, which neither is particularly known for.  In that case, Cyrano has a 4 to 3 advantage.  The one point advantage means his plan will be about as good as the plan that D'Artagnon and another hero with Wit 3 would come up with working together.

Combat resolution can involve all four stats and a heavy dose of Swash.  Wit controls how the battle moves, and can be used to interrogate or confuse your opponent.  Endurance controls fatigue, which is how long you can fight -- normally ten hours of adventuring and/or ten rounds of combat for each point of endurance -- and health, how many major wounds you can take before being incapacitated -- one for each point of Endurance.  (Each facet of Endurance may be modified by reputation; in addition, Swash points can be spent to reduce fatigue on a one for one basis.)  Physique controls your ability to perform swashbuckling stunts.  And Combat controls your fighting skills (not counting what is controlled by the other attributes).

Normally, a round of combat starts with sizing up your effective Combat against your opponent's.  Then each side has a chance to take Wit, Physique, and Combat actions, in that order.  Each action has the potential to give a bonus (usually +1) to a later action, do damage to the loser, or even potentially take someone out of the fight.

Wit: There are two different forms of this, and you can try either but not both in a given round.  A Verbal Wit contest, depending on approach, can be used to get a +1 advantage in one of the following contests, OR to extract information from your opponent(s).   A Positional Wit contest, on the other hand, gives the winner control the movement of the fight for this round. Winning may yield a +1 advantage in one of the following contests, enable you to get where you need to be, or position your opponent where you want him to be.  You can always override the results of this contest by taking a major wound; if for some insane reason, both parties are willing to take a major wound, then it is a contest of Wit, with the winner taking a major wound and winning the positional Wit contest. (All-against-all. If you move very far, you may forfeit your Physique action.)

Physique: Each participant in a fight may try one Swashbuckling stunt based on Physique. If there is a target, this is a 1-on-1 contest of Physique. Depending on the sort of action, may be a +1 bonus to the Combat phase, or may actually do damage to your oponent.  For instance, you might try to through a cloak over your opponent's head, or yank a carpet out from under her.

Combat: This is straight-forward battle, swords clashing or fists flying. If  it is a clear win, the winner may inflict a major wound on the loser, or she may take a +1 bonus to her Wit or Physique action for the next round.  In armed combat, with a clear win of two or more points, the winner has the option of disarming her opponent rather than inflicting a wound, or may make a called (but non-fatal) wound.  If it is a tie, consider the reputations involved.  If person's reputation is markedly more specific than the other's, that person inflicts a minor wound on the other.  Minor wounds don't really affect the combat, but may be important if this is a duel to first blood, or something along those lines.  On the other hand, if reputations are more or less equal, a tie occurs, there is no wound inflected, and we go to the next round of combat. (All-against-all again.) Battle ends when one party wins the positional Wit contest and chooses to disengage, the heroes mutually agree to disengage, or one hero has finally taken major wounds equal to his effective Endurance, in which case he is incapacitated, and goes down unconscious -- if not treated, he will probably die.  If a hero is disarmed, the battle may continue -- a disarmed person suffers a penalty of -1 to Combat against an armed person.

Example: Suppose we have two generic things (Wit 1, Endurance 2, Physique 2, Combat 2) ambushing Cyrano (Wit 4, Endurance 2, Physique 2, Combat 3, Reputation +1 with a sword) in a tavern.  He has no sword handy, they suddenly surround him, swords drawn.  Because Cyrano is unarmed and they are armed, he will be at a -1 penalty in Combat until he manages to arm himself.

First round: Sizing up the situation, Cyrano's effective Combat is 2, and theirs (combined) is 3.  He has something to worry about here.  He attempts to take advantage of the crowded tavern to put chairs between him and his foes; he outmatches them 4 to 2 in Wit, and wins handily, giving himself a +1 bonus which he will apply to Combat -- they have trouble getting close enough to hit him.

He grabs a handy pitcher of beer and attempts to throw it, pitcher and all, into the face of one of the thugs.  This is a contest of Physique, and he is tied with the thug, 2 to 2, so Cyrano burns a Swash point to give himself a one point edge, succeeding in connecting with the thug's mug, dealing a major wound in the process.

The +1 and -1 to Cyrano's Combat cancel out, leaving him with his base Combat of 3, which is tied with their combined Combat.  Cyrano could spend a swash point here to win, but he cooses not to, and the Combat phase of the round ends in a draw.

Second round: Again, Cyrano's effective Combat is 2, theirs 3.  He decides to try to dash across the room and vault over the bat.  This is a contest of Wit.  (Vaulting would be controlled by Physique, but it isn't a contest against them.)  He spends a Swash point -- before he looks! -- so that the bar owner has hidden a handy sword behind the bar for self-defense.  Cyrano takes it, and he can use it in the next round of combat.

Because he has taken a major move this round, he cannot initiate a contest of Physique.  Without the additional combat bonus gained from in the previous round's Positional Wit contest, Cyrano loses the Combat phase in this round, and is wounded, presumably as he is running towards the bar.

Third round: With a sword in his hand, Cyrano's effective Combat is 4, while theirs is still 3.  He tries to maneuver them into an awkward corner, another contest of Wit he easily wins, giving himself a +1 bonus to Physique.  Grabbing another handy tankard with his left hand, he wins the contest of Physique (2 + 1 vs 2) and smashes it over the head of the one he injured before, dealing the second major injury and knocking him unconscious.  Meanwhile in Combat, Cyrano spends a point of Swash to win 5 to 3, and because it is a 2-point victory, he can disarm the thug who is still standing.  Panicked, the thug flees into the night.

This example highlights one strong principle of Dashing Blades -- if you have enough Swash points, you can defeat anyone.  (Except possibly a person with more Swash points!)  What would happen if Cyrano did not have Swash points available?

Example:  Consider the above example again, but without Swash points.  Cyrano will win every contest of Wit -- he can get himself a +1 on one of the other contests, move the battle around, or even run away unscathed if he wants.  Physique is a 1-to-1 comparison, so he is tied with either of his opponents, and can win if he applies the +1 here.  In Combat, he is down 3 to 2, so he needs the +1 to tie.

The end result is that if nothing else changes, he can either inflict damage usage Physique and take a wound in Combat, or he can tie in both Physique and Combat.  The first approach will lead to him going down; the second is a perpetual draw.

If he can figure out how to get a sword, that will all change... other than that, the best he can do is run away.

Surprise: If one hero surprises another to start combat, and the other has time to react, instead of a contest of Wits to determine the field of battle, it is a contest of the Reflex aspect of Physique.  If the other does not have time to react -- for instance, if an attack will hit before the hero even knows it is coming -- then the attacker can inflict a free major wound.

Fighting Several Opponents at Once: If you are facing multiple opponents and win a round of combat, you get to choose which of the opponents takes the wound.

Recovering: A good night's sleep will restore fatigue to full.  Spending a Swash point will eliminate one Endurance point's worth of fatigue as well.  Medical treatment and a good night's sleep will restore one point's worth of health, erasing the practical effects of a major wound.  If, as mentioned above, you do manage to survive a Heroic Sacrifice due to someone's Extraordinary Measures, you take weeks to recover, and are out of play until the end of the game session.

Setting (very much under construction)
There is more than one world out there, and the skilled know how to sail from one to another on the invisible paths that connect the worlds. There are six kingdoms of interest to our story, on five different worlds; kingdoms that trade along those sea-paths and search for new ones, sometimes working together, sometimes squabbling.  Of those, Amber is not the biggest kingdom, but it is currently the fastest growing, as it gets many ambitious immigrants from the other kingdoms.  

One of the secrets of Amber's success is they have been remarkably successful at finding new paths between worlds.  No one knows the source of their ability for sure; but it is carefully guarded; when a ship sails with their mysterious, highly guarded apparatus for finding paths, there is always a member of the royal family there to protect and use it, either King Oberon or one of his three sons.

The Six Kingdoms

Capitol Ruler Language Gunpowder Magic
Dun Mórdha Heart's Ease High Queen Minerva Thari yes yes
Anglesey Thari yes yes
Tambudze Tambudze Queen Beatrice Thari (*) no yes
Cheng Ho (no capitol) (Chinese) yes no
Stang (Czar) (German) no no
Amber Amber King Oberon Thari no no

(*) Thari is "the language of Men" in Tambudze, used for trade and day-to-day living.  Muula is the formal language of their oral history; Dr'aala is the language of evil curses.
You've probably read about Amber somewhere else.  The geography is pretty similiar to what you know.  But there are some differences, of which these are the highlights.

The Royal Family:
Citizens of the Kingdom
The initial inhabitants of Amber are a mysterious group, fairly small in number.  While not inclined to talk much on the subject, the surviving members sometimes mention how, when they were young, Oberon freed them from a far distant world and brought them here to settle down in peace.  

The first wave of immigrants was three generations ago, when Oberon established the trade route with Dun Mórdha.  Sailors were brought with good salaries and the promise of exotic destinations; fishermen tired of their trade were brought with the promise of cheap, rich land and good jobs.  All these Islanders soon brought their wives.  They appear to be of the same racial stock as the initial inhabitants, as well as the king.  They brought their great knowledge of the sea, a will to work hard at whatever task was before them, and spritely songs and dances.

Not long after that came the next group, from Anglesey, again of the same racial stock, but a slightly different culture, and frequently bitter rivals of the Islanders who came before them.  By the present day they make up a 45% of the population of the city.

Things of Mystery in Amber
Magic, as such, is very limited in Amber.  However, there are a few apparently mystical things which are part of the fabric of the kingdom.

The Unicorn: Symbol of the royal family, a white unicorn which has been known to appear occasionally in the kingdom, often at moments of great import.

The Jewel of Judgment: King Oberon frequently wears this large red ruby with strange patterns in it.  Using its power, he can tell when he is being lied to, and vows sworn in its ruby glow have an extra potency, with terrible consequences if they are broken.  It is also rumored that he can use it to raise the dead and control the weather.

Rebma: Rebma is the mysterious undersea kingdom which seems to oddly mirror Amber.  Because there is no way to get there other than swimming through a good bit of water, contact between the two kingdoms is very rare, and trade very limited.

Tir-na Nog'th: When the moon is visible in the night sky above Amber, the mysterious ghostly city of Tir-na Nog'th floats untethered over the sea by Mount Kolvir, to the north of Amber.  It too hints at a reflection of Amber, albeit perhaps of Ambers that might have been or might yet be.  Every time it appears it is slightly different; at times rather more than slightly.  It is said that King Oberon once flew there, but he has never told anyone what he saw there.

Trump: Members of the royal family are able to communicate with each other at great distances -- even reaching to other worlds -- using a set of magical playing cards each carries with him.  It is also said that they can travel from one person to another using them.

Lifespans: King Oberon has been on the throne for at least one hundred years, yet he appears to be in his mid-forties.  His sons range in age from 82 to 43, yet they appear to be somewhere around 30, or, in young Benedict's case, 25.  Queen Cymnea, meanwhile, has been Oberon's wife for 88 years, yet appears to be 50 at the oldest.  While the effects are not quite so pronounced in the general population, everyone seems to be healthier and live longer in Amber, and there have been shockingly few deaths from old age in the kingdom so far.

The Royal Blades
The Royal Blades have a variety of duties related to keeping the kingdom of Amber running smoothly.  In times of peace, they patrol the kingdom, helping the local constables keep the peace, act as bodyguards for the royal family, and perform special missions for king and country.  In times of  war, they are the king's elite forces at the front.  While they are no longer exclusively handpicked by the king, he still takes an active interest in their recruitment.   Every Blade is personally sworn in by the king using the Jewel of Judgment, making a binding vow to faithfully serve king and country.

Blades are generally between 20 and 40 years old.  Both genders are well-represented in the guard, as are all the various ethnic groups found in Amber, and people of all classes.  A noble soul is more important that noble birth.

The captain, Eric Lundigan, is a youngish 64 years old.  Due to injuries, he is mostly deskbound these days, though he does occasionally step out into the field when the need is great.  The exact story has not been told, but rumor has it he was hurt saving the King.  He is the fourth captain the guard has had since Oberon decided he no longer was needed to run the organization's day-to-day operations.  (Other than Oberon, only one captain has survived to retire.)

If we cared about money, we'd have higher paying jobs.  -- Sir Martin of the Blades

Benedict's Lancers
Twenty-one years ago, Benedict got permission to form his own guard, the Lancers.  As the name suggests, originally they were a mounted unit, but as they have taken an active role in affairs of the city, today you will see them more often on foot.  Filling much the same day-to-day function in the city as the Blades, the two groups are friendly rivals.  Of course, every Blade is confident that the Blades are superior to the Lancers -- and are glad to have any chance to prove it.  Their leader is young but brilliant Kay Hunter.