Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons


Jerry Stratton, January 6, 2008

Rubens Tournament: Rubens Tournament on Tournaments

I’m reading Richard Barber and Juliet Barker’s Tournaments and ran across this great idea for a Gods & Monsters adventure in a feudal fantasy world:

The tournament, in its strictest sense, was a mêlée fought out over several miles of open countryside encompassing rivers, woods, vineyards and farm buildings—all of which provided useful opportunities for ambush and sortie. The boundaries were unmarked in the early days, though the field was vaguely designated by reference to two towns: tournaments were thus proclaimed ‘between Gournai and Ressons’, for example, or ‘between Anet and Sorel’. The only formal limits were certain specially designated areas which were fenced off as refuges where knights could rest or rearm in safety during the combat.

Several companies of knights took part, under the leadership of the same lords whom they followed and served in warfare, and often as many as two hundred knights participated on each side. At this early period there were no rules to distinguish the tournament from real battle: there were no foul strokes or prohibited tactics and, even if there had been, there was no-one to supervise or enforce them. It was thus quite common for several knights to band together to attack a single tourneyer: there were instances of tourneyers being attacked despite the fact that they had lost vital parts of their armour in the skirmishes and occasions on which any weapon to hand was used—including bows and arrows and crossbows. The only concessions to the sporting nature of the combat were the provision of refuges and the sine qua non that the object of the game was to capture and ransom the opposing knights, not to kill them.

Often in tournaments, a vanquished knight gave up their horse and sometimes equipment to the knight who defeated them. In the heydey of this style of tournament, a skilled knight could make a decent living going from tournament to tournament.

In an RPG, the in-world rules might specify ransom amounts, perhaps 100 monetary units for every ransomable (read: captured and not dead) opponent, with perhaps a special prize, worth several thousand monetary units, for the group who captures the most opponents. Such a tournament could be opened up to more than knights in a fantasy world, providing opportunities for “strike teams” (adventuring groups) to gain honor and experience.

The ransoms are expected to be paid by the captured individuals; depending on the finances of the area, there might also be an entrance fee to officially join the tournament.

In such a free-for-all there will, of course, be opportunity for the clever Adventure Guide to toss some intrigues and mysteries into the mix. It’s easy enough to cover up murder in such an environment, and sometimes even rebellion or invasion! There’s an old Second City skit where Bill Murray asks Chinese premier Deng Xiao-Ping if China will be attending the Moscow olympics; the premier responds that “we plan on sending five hundred million members of our rifle team”. In a tournament, where sports teams look just like armies, hiding an invasion under cover of tournament attendance is a real possibility.

If the “characters role-playing while the player role-play the characters” aspect appeals to you, you might mash together some later aspects of the tournament by assigning each group a role taken from the history of the area: the saracens, the elves, the ancient king’s retinue, etc. The characters would be expected to act the part of their role both in encounters with other teams and in encounters with locals.

In more controlled environments and with richer patrons, the prizes might take the form of specially-made precious items, such as a ring. One joust patron made a tree of gold leaves for their jousting tournament. Each knight who unhorsed their opponent won one of the leaves. Another tournament may have awarded talking parrots to the winners. When choosing themed prizes, nothing is too outlandish.

Who jousted?

As they grew in popularity, jousts and tournaments began to be held as celebrations. Any event that needed celebration—a marriage, a birth, an ascension to power, a victory in war—might have, as part of the official celebrations, a tournament held in its honor.

In feudal societies, tournaments were often held by the local rulers; in civil societies, tournaments might be held by an important personage or by the city itself. In the latter case, it would be the townspeople who took part in the tournament.

Tournaments could inspire civic pride. At one tournament, a skilled jouster was set free from prison during an Italian joust, because the local authority wanted a local to win.

Tournaments remained dangerous even as they became spectacles. While the design of the weapons and armor used in tournaments changed over time to provide more of a show, they still involved hurtling at speed against an opponent with a large, if blunt, spear.

At some point in this evolution, a tournament or joust would become a contest rather than a conflict. While Fighting Art would still apply if desired, a participant might choose Athletic Art instead if they have the appropriate skill.

Even from the start the pas-d’armes were highly stylized, and tournaments became more so as time went on. A poet might be called on to script a narrative for the tournament, and each knight might take on a specific role. There seems little limit to the costuming. In a tournament for a French prince seeking Elizabeth I’s hand in marriage, two of the knights were dressed as an armored Adam and Eve “both wearing armor decorated with apples and fruit”.

Tournaments began as little different than real combat. But as jousts began to be fought for the sake of jousting, its rules and form began to diverge from live combat. When this happened, the tools of the joust specialized. Armor was designed that was solely useful for jousting, and weapons as well. Where it was a spectator sport, shields and lances were designed to shatter; this provided a more impressive show.

Armor, also, became ostentatious. It could be painted with symbols and flags, and hung with banners (as could horses). Even bells, not something likely to be worn in real battle, were added to armor.

In the race for more effective weapons and armor, some such innovations needed to be banned, such as spiking a horse’s armor so that brushes against opposing horses would wound the opposing horse.

One of the strangest innovations may have been the frog-mouthed helm, which greatly protected the eyes at the crucial moment—but also left the jouster blind at that same moment. The frog-mouthed helm probably became feasible when jousts gained the “tilt or barrier which divided the opponents. A trained horse would then be able to keep to its path without endangering its rider by veering into the other combatant.”

What about the book?

The book is fairly dense; it took me months to finish reading it. The names and places fly by in every paragraph, and if the subject matter itself weren’t interesting I never would have finished it. On the plus side, it has very nice reproductions of contemporary paintings, some in full color and some full two-page spreads.

They quote from snippets of contemporary reports throughout the book, but continually caution about the dearth of such sources compared to how often tournaments must have occurred. For example, describing the Windsor Park tournament where the warriors wore bells on their armor, they write “the chance survival of this particular record of purchases suggests that combats of this type were not uncommon; there is nothing in the wording to suggest that it was either a unique or innovatory occasion.”

If you’re interested in adding some serious tournaments to your game, this is a great source of ideas. From the kinds of intrigues that go on, to the gradual ritualization of the sport, to its place in the social lives of its participants in spectators, there are great ideas for games here. I’ve added a large arena in Fork mainly because I read this book.

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