Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Retro Review: Swashbucklers

Made for the 3rd edition,
 but works pretty well with
the modern  4th edition with
little fuss.
So, I have alluded that I have bought a few books for furnishing and fueling a Tech Level 4 Pseudo-Dungeon Fantasy/Pseudo-Swashbuckling campaign. There is a small smattering of books in this category for the 4th edition, but in 3rd edition, we have this big beautiful beast of a book full of content. I am a relative neophyte to RPGs, so I didn't play GURPS in the 3rd edition, but from my rudimentary understanding that 3e material is easily portable to 4th edition, and from the very modest price tag, and because I had nothing else to read, I decided to try it anyway, and I think I'm happy with what I got. I am going to put this post in a "retro" review category to highlight that I am looking at this material from the lens of someone who is picking through the artifacts not for mechanical 3rd edition bits, but for the information that is more system agnostic, but this is a GURPS blog, so that content will of course be looked at anyways, just for kicks and/or giggles.


Table of Contents
This is a $7.99 128 page book. Take away the title page, table of contents, introduction, Bibliography, and index, and you are left with 122 pages of content, or six and a half cents each, so even though I don't want to dwell on cost versus value, you are essentially getting this book cheaper than it would cost to get it printed in black and white at an office store.
The book is split up into 7 chapters, and they are all organized in a reasonably sensible manner. I interject here that the book actually addresses two fairly similar settings, but with an important distinction. The first aspect is the Alexander Dumas style, Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo Paris Swashbuckling adventure waving through politics, high society and guns and swords; the other aspect is the seafaring, bilge swallowing, pirate filled adventure. So, to me, for some reason, I didn't immediately associate the word swashbuckler with Napoleonic France, but I consider that a pleasant bonus nonetheless, as I do enjoy that setting as well.
I do not know if this is an element of all books, but I feel like I prefer 4th edition's asides in highlighted boxes to the side bars in this book. Is that a peculiarity of 3rd edition? Or only this book? On the other hand, I enjoy the black and white illustrations which seem more topical and appropriately customized to the content in question in the book. That is, a lot of the black and white art in 4th edition books feels like it is off the shelf stock art or licensed art, but these illustrations, for example, showing off the dress style of the time period seem tailored (HAHA, a pun? Was it intended? I have pointed it out ironically, is this distracting?) to the discussion on fashion that is paired with it. Finally, the Bibliography has an entertaining selection of fiction - not sure about the rest, but not particularly interested in it either - and it is a nice extra feature all said.
This book can be most properly understood in the 4th edition with Basic Set - Characters, Martial Arts, and though a small section, you might want to rope in Mass Combat for its one chapter, and Low Tech might have more appropriate conversions of some of the listed equipment in the Combat chapter.


This chapter weaves in and out of giving character design advice and mechanical content of putting together a character sheet, two distinct but intertwined (I did it again!) concepts. Although the advantages, disadvantages, and skills are all in third edition vernacular, the advice that precedes them is useful and system agnostic, and the mechanical bits are similar enough to 4th edition that I didn't find myself reaching for the 3rd to 4th edition Rosetta Stone (found here)
One unfortunate, but interesting curiosity is the Job and Income table on p.16, which uses a lot of terminology I don't particularly understand, and I'm guessing are obsolete 3rd edition mechanics (PR = Prerequisite? LJ = Lose Job? -1i/-2i?) But some of it might be salvageable.
The chapter ends with some tables for translating GURPS bucks into coinage, which is interesting, but a detail, I unfortunately gloss over in my games as of yet because I don't know if I can handle the added complexity of exchange rates between nations yet, but it is another interesting brush to draw up a believable setting.
Overall, despite the reliance on GURPS 3e mechanics, almost all of this chapter is easily usable in 4e as well. The writing is enjoyable, and I would use this content in a 4e game confidently.


For the most part, the first large part of this chapter is mostly obsolete and tied to old 3e mechanics, but it makes for an amusing archeological read, and can be a bit inspirational. You probably want Martial Arts handy to convert the styles and maneuvers into 4e styles and techniques, or to see how different the balancing was two decades ago, though I think most of the styles are already converted in Martial Arts. Still, as I said, a few over-the-top cinematic "maneuvers" are interesting enough for me to consider playing with even using 4e rules, and they have flavorful French names to give mechanically intense battles a bit of a artistic flourish.
The options on p.32 in the section, Beyond the Sword give some interesting food for thought and are something that I am vigorously processing to see if I can apply them to my campaign, especially the rules for Fast-Talk and Sex Appeal During Battle. Finally, a lot of the equipment stats I didn't look at closely because the names mostly look like things that already exist in the Basic Set or Low Tech, but have completely different balances and metrics that could make them perform much different in a 4e campaign.
The mundane equipment in this chapter stands out a bit for not really having much to do with Combat, and this is probably one of the most OBE chapters in the book for 4e players, but I don't think it is completely without merit, and is worth a scan through, at least for the maneuvers.

The Paris Campaign

This is a very system agnostic chapter and so is mostly useful to anyone regardless of system. It is mostly a history and social studies lesson of 17th to very early 19th century France, and overall an enjoyable read. The map on p. 42 is a really nice bonus feature and helps designing campaigns around a pseudo-historical Paris. The chapter speaks to politics, expected behavior, laws, the kinds of things people do for fun, how people handled duels, and how the city might be organized and who would live and work where. It includes an who's who of important fictional and historical characters with character sheets for several of them, which might not be entirely useful as they are in a 3e format, but are easy enough to grasp anyway for a 4e player, and with tools for possible conversion in the earlier mentioned Rosetta Stone.
The section ends with a bit on Mass Combat that is really meant for both this section and the Pirate Campaign section. The stats include Troop Strength, but don't seem to include everything that would be needed for actual use in Mass Combat? Though, the Perspectives issue of Pyramid (#3/84) has some functions that can help extrapolate the rest of the data, or one could probably do so themselves.
Overall, besides the inadequate Mass Combat bit, this chapter is everything I could want in a summary of running adventures and campaigns in Alexander Dumas' Paris.In fact, as I said, I didn't even know this chapter was part of the book, so it's all gravy to me.

The Pirate Campaign

What the previous chapter did for Paris, this chapter does for 17th to 18th century piracy. It has a good introductory section on the history of piracy on top of that to start off the chapter. As to not sound like a broken record, this chapter is basically everything the Paris chapter is, without the section on Mass Combat, so just like that chapter, it's solidly helpful and an enjoyable read.


This chapter is a big history lesson on everything that is happening everywhere else. By everywhere else, of course, I mean mostly Europe, America, and Africa though. It spans from 1560-1725, and goes into enough depth to give a GM or player substantial grounding in the reality of the time, without being overwhelming. Well, that is, if you enjoy reading non-fiction history in a very approachable, accessible tone. This section has next to 0 (though not 0) mechanical inclination, so it is, again, very pliable in a number of settings, or consumable in of itself.
I especially enjoy the Everyday Life and Religion sections as they do a lot to add some characterization and flavor to a game and the book does a good job of presenting it in a usable way. The chapter ends with an at-a-glance, but very comprehensive chronology of events, important rulers, and noteworthy people.
Probably the most eminently system agnostic chapter of the entire book and useful in almost any context. Enjoyable, and very easy to read.

Sailing Ships

This is a comprehensive chapter on mechanics for ships in the swashbuckling era, "design, supply, and steer[ing]" are covered. I don't even think it's that bad, but to be fair, I didn't give it as much of a critical look as other sections because I didn't think I'd need the material. The rules given for designing a ship are not especially complicated, and the logistics of running the ship are explained in a straightforward manner, some of the attributes of a ship seem like abstract, and hyper specialized concepts for this sub-system, and I personally would have appreciated a more generic system that extends the rules I'm already familiar with to ships. That said, the ship combat system does remind me of Mass Combat, so at a glance, it's not too much more difficult to learn, but I don't think it is unreasonable to say that a more homogeneous system could have been preferable.
However, wedged between the combat system and the construction system is a hidden gem of content detailing living conditions and daily life of sailors at sea, and giving ideas for filling in the lulls that often accompany long distance travel.
I'd personally reinvent the wheel on the combat system and try to make it closer to the Mass Combat system here, which it's already pretty close at a glance. There is a lot of interesting tidbits and ideas here and there throughout the chapter, but I prefer keeping those, and throwing out the convoluted mechanical bits. Perhaps my opinion would be a bit different if I wanted to play a game of sophisticated ship to ship combat, but as is, it seems a bit unnecessary.
Enjoyable arrangement
of the original story with
a Sci-Fi/Sci-Fantasy twist.


This short chapter goes over a few adventure seeds, ideas to splice genres, like adding magic or space piracy, (Incidentally, I did enjoy the Sci-Fi anime presentation of Le Comte de Monte Cristo.) The chapter also gives a very abstract but decent food-for-thought adventure that could go on for several sessions if enacted. The adventure seeds for the genre crossovers are all stimulating and helpful for generating unique ideas.
Good mechanic content,
but not as much historical
The only thing disappointing about this chapter is I wish it were slightly longer, but what is here is gold. The side bar format is a bit distracting and difficult to parse because of how long it is, so it might have made more sense to just arrange the main chapter content before the sidebars, but that is the only issue I have, and it's a small one at the most.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

This is by all means, still, a useful resource. It doesn't actually particularly need updating, but in case you do prefer something a bit more 4th edition, I found that the Supporting Cast: Age of Sail Pirate Crew does a good job of filling in a couple of the parts that are too entrenched in antiquated terminology (not the profession table though, unfortunately.) For 4th edition players and GMs, I'd recommend this book if Supporting Cast: Age of Sail Pirate Crew did not have enough depth, or if you want a swashbucklery campaign that is more in line with the musketeers. This is the first retro book I've reviewed on this blog, and it is the longest book I've reviewed. I had a lot of downtime, and was ahead of schedule, so why not? I mean, I could have reviewed a different huge book like Low-Tech or Martial Arts, but those are such staples, I really don't have anything controversial or novel to say about them. It's like writing a tech article, "Should Your Computer have RAM? Find out after the break!" This one on the other hand has a lot of good and a lot of bad, so I think a review has a bit more application.


  1. Sidebars were part of the standard design style of GURPS from 1st to 3rd Editions. In general, I kind of prefer them as they do not interrupt the flow of the main text the way the boxes do in 4th. As a practical matter, they caused a lot of problems, as content had to be made to fit the available column inches, one way or another.

    I never used the job tables enough to remember the terminology off the top of my head. LJ is indeed Lost Job; -i is probably lost income.

    1. Ah, thanks for the insight! Yeah, I was thinking it would mean lost income, but some critical failure results were like -1i/2i, is that -1i over 2i? doesn't that just reduce to -1/2? Does it mean two possible results? Results for consecutive critical failures?

    2. That means that if you roll a natural 18 you use the second result, but if your skill is low enough that a 16 or 17 is a critfail, use the first result. The number is the number of months worth of income lost.

  2. Thanks for the review! I fence smallsword, and have considered doing a Martial Arts game based around opposing fencing styles in around this time period. Might have to check it out!

    1. Keep in mind, a lot of the styles are pretty much OBE by 4th edition Martial Arts, that said, if you don't have 4th edition Martial Arts, it's pretty easy to make the styles compatible with the 4e system anyway.


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