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Swashbucklers & Firearms

by Bruce Heard

Here's an approach to debate for the Savage Coast.

The idea is that the Savage Coast is emerging more and more as a setting for swashbucklers -- picture Cyrano de Bergerac, Zorro, Three Musketeers, Three Amigos, Sea Hawk, Capt Blood, Princess Bride, etc. as inspirational material. Two elements come out that have an substantial impact on the setting -- fancy sword play and firearms.

Most settings are inspired from fantasy-medieval backgrounds. Savage Coast instead seems to be pulling toward the late Renaissance, early 1600's. As a result, how does one go about to alter the setting so PCs naturally choose armor and weapons that correspond to that era?


Historically, warriors have progressively abandoned armor because of the appearance of firearms. To support that, it would be possible to implement *optional* rules on armor efficiency to favor firearms. For example, firearms would have a +4 bonus to hit rolls against all plate mail or plate armor, a +2 to hit against all other metal armor, and no bonus at all against other armor or unarmored targets. Furthermore, it could be ruled that armor weighing 30 lbs or more negate both high Dexterity bonuses and the use of special fencing passes (see later in this post). Fencing moves should be limited to melee weapons of 5 lbs or less (use some common sense here). Nope, can't sign your name on someone's forehead with that two-handed dragonslayer. Nope

This would naturally push warriors toward light-armored, fast-moving combat patterns to better respond to firearms and fencers armed with rapiers. Rogues would have a much better time in that setting than elsewhere too. Wizards wouldn't be affected all that much. Priest PCs would probably have problems with all this although I would allow priests to use any firearm, (and small firearms for wizards). Rules on firearms could be modified as well to make them more attractive in general, despite their tendency to misfire.

Secret Passes

These are special combat moves taught by a master swordsman. They complement rather than replace what's already available in the rules for weapon specialization or combat proficiencies. Any PC (warrior, rogue, wizard, and priest) could have learned some secret fighting pass from a master. The idea is to favor (but not limit) the rapier as the weapon of choice for most characters. Here are some general ideas.

A character may have a basic skill with a weapon, or even weapon specialty without necessarily knowing a secret pass. The latter requires teaching from a master. Picture the secret pass almost like a wizard's spell. A character would need to find such a master and convince him/her to teach some new skills. The character needs to accumulate a month-worth of training with the master at a fee, and then make an Intelligence check. If the check succeeds, the character gains the master's "secret pass". If the check fails, the character cannot study with this master until he/she gains a new level of experience. A character can use a secret pass depending on the hit score rolled in combat:

For rapiers: an unmodified hit roll of 18 or better
For any other sword: an unmodified hit roll of 19 or better
For any other melee weapon: an unmodified hit roll of 20 or better

Experience levels would not affect these scores. (Should magic plusses do though? This could become a problem.)

The secret passes are listed in a chart (see later in this post), in order of rarity. When a student makes an Intelligence check to acquire a secret pass from a master, roll on that table. If the same secret pass is acquired, either roll again (and accept the next result, regardless), or improve by 1 the hit roll needed to use the secret pass (17 for a rapier, 18 for another sword, etc). This way, a character could learn several different combat moves *or* improve a single one.

Secret passes are just that -- secret. One does not want to use them in public for fear that another swordsman might see it and try to copy it. Generally, a swordsman would use such moves in combats to death. In order to "steal" someone else's secret pass, one first needs to be skilled with the weapon that was observed. Then, the character needs to make an Intelligence check to understand the move. If it succeeds, the character must spend the equivalent of a month in self-training, trying to duplicate the move. The character then must make another Intelligence check (with a -4 penalty this time) to see if he/she can really master the move. If either Intelligence checks fail, the character cannot copy that secret pass for the moment. The character can start self-training all over again when reaching the next experience level, and attempt to succeed the Intelligence check (at -3 this time). The attempt gets easier each time.

The effect of a secret pass is always in addition to normal damage from the swordsman's attack. It can only be used against human, demi-human, or humanoid foes up to 8' tall, or creatures using weapons (DM call otherwise). In general, each secret pass requires a special condition (using a small buckler shield, a main-gauche in addition to a sword, a cloak, the presence of a piece of furniture or a rope, etc). The secret pass also implies that the swordsman ends up in a specific spot and in a specific position *after* using the secret pass (possibly exposing the swordsman in some fashion). These conditions would be detailed at another time.

Here are some ideas for secret passes:

01-50 Roll for Basic Passes
51-85 Roll for Difficult Passes (extra -1 penalty to Intelligence check to learn)
86-98 Roll for Master Strokes (extra -2 penalty to Intelligence check to learn)
99-00 The Death Move (extra -3 penalty to Intelligence check to learn)

Basic Passes

01-20 Cut: swordsman can cut any single non-living object within reach (pouch, rope, candle, feather, etc).
21-40 Disabling wound to the sword-bearing arm: foe fights at -2 to hit until damage is healed (effect is cumulative with each secret pass)
41-60 Disabling wound to the other arm: foe's AC suffers 2 point penalty; (effect is cumulative with each secret pass)
61-80 Disabling wound to a leg: foe suffers a -2 penalty to Initiative Rolls; (effect is cumulative with each secret pass)
81-00 Thrust: swordsman rolls for *extra* damage equal to the weapon's basic unmodified damage +4.

Difficult Passes

01-10 Mark: swordsman carves a personal mark into the foe's forehead or clothing. Scar requires regeneration to erase.
11-20 Display: swordsman's spectacular skill requires NPC foe to succeed a Morale Check or flee.
21-30 Cloak: swordsman can swirl a cloak to confuse the foe or entangle the foe's weapon. Automatically causes the foe to miss the following melee attack.
31-40 Punch: foe must succeed a Constitution check at -4 penalty or be stunned.
41-50 Throw: foe must succeed a Dexterity check at -4 penalty or drop to the floor.
51-60 Push: foe must succeed a Strength check at -4 penalty or take 1d4+2 steps away from the swordsman.
61-70 Disarm: foe must succeed a Strength check at -4 penalty or drop main weapon.
71-80 Whirl: swordsman seems to play with the foe's weapon, showing that the foe cannot seem to even touch the swordsman's blade. This is equivalent to a magical taunt spell.
81-90 Break: swordsman may break the foe's weapon (save vs. crushing blow) as long as it weighs less than 10 lbs. Requires the use of a main-gauche or secondary weapon.
91-00 Surround: swordsman skillfully steps around a foe blocking the way (including through a doorway) and automatically gains initiative on the next round with the weapon in hand.

Master Strokes

01-25 Recover: swordsman temporarily "heals" 2d4+2 points of damage lasting until the round after the battle; cumulative with each secret pass. (Remember? "My name is Inigo Montoya. Ten years ago you killed my father. Prepare to die!")
26-50 Sudden counterattack: Subtract unmodified hit roll from 21. Result indicates how many extra attacks the swordsman can roll (applied immediately before any other action). Maximum 3 extra attacks.
51-75 Counterspin: swordsman deflects or dodges foe's next attack which then automatically hits someone else (the foe itself if no one else is present)
76-00 Blind: swordsman gouges out one of the foe's eyes. -2 to all attacks, initiative rolls, and AC rating until eye is magically regenerated. If both eyes are gouged out, the foe suffers a -4 to all the above.

The Death Move: swordsman inflicts as many hit points as he/she has to the foe (save for half-damage).