Le Ballet de l’Acier: August’s CoTM!

Today we are joined by Black Vulmea GM of the wonderfully flourished Le Ballet de l’Acier campaign. Today we talk swashbuckling and swordplay with zero mention of the six fingered man or Inigio Montoya. Let’s jump right in!

If you’d like, tell us a little bit about yourself beyond the realm of gaming.

I’m a native Californian, husband and father of two future roleplayers, and an avid cyclist and paddler. My gig as a critical-care paramedic pays the bills.

How long have you known your players and how many do you have? 

Our group game together in fits and starts beginning last November. Right now there are three regulars and two casuals in the group.

So where is your campaign set? 

The year is 1625 – Louis XIII is on the throne of France, Cardinal Richelieu is his recently-appointed first minister, and the Thirty Years War is ramping up.


So far the action focused on Paris, but after a duel gone bad, the adventurers were exiled by the king. They are travelling to Grenoble, to join a troop of mercenaries heading off to Italy to fight the Genoese and the Spanish.


The setting is really the whole world of the 17th century and the adventurers are free to go where they like. I want the players to enjoy the freedom to explore, and it’s my job to keep up with them wherever they go.

Is it historically accurate? If not, what differently have you done with the world? 

I’ve added many fictional non-player characters and a number of fictional locations and organizations and I’ve ‘fictionalized’ some historical figures, but to the extent practicable I’ve kept to the history of the period. Fortunately this is a time when the history is every bit as extraordinary as the stories made up about it!


One of the features of cape-and-sword genre fiction is that the characters and the events of the story are woven into the historical narrative; think of the Musketeers at La Rochelle or Captain Alatriste at the siege of Breda. I’ve tried to capture that same feel in the campaign, where the adventurers interact with historical figures and may participate in historical events.


However, because this is a roleplaying game, the adventurers are also free to change history if or when they can. The rules of Flashing Blades make it possible for the player characters to become marshals of France, bishops and cardinals, royal ministers, grandmasters of knightly orders, and so on over time, so they can genuinely aspire to the levers of power as the campaign progresses. At that point, we may head into alt.history, based on player choices; part of my preparation for the campaign is considering these sorts of what-ifs, such as, what happens if Cardinal Richelieu dies in 1627 at the hands of the adventurers?

Are you a history buff, or just for the sake of your campaign? 

I’m definitely a history buff. I started off as a tabletop miniatures wargamer before I was introduced to roleplaying games in 1977 – I’m a proud grognard! Like many gamers of my vintage, I was first introduced to roleplaying through D&D, but I quickly gravitated toward historical roleplaying games like Boot Hill and Flashing Blades and contemporary roleplaying games like Top Secret.

What inspires your game? (movies, music, other games, etc.) 

I’m a big fan of cape-and-sword genre fiction: Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Baroness Orczy, Anthony Hope, Paul Féval, Johnston McCulley, and most recently Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I enjoy other historical fiction as well, particularly Willa Cather, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Harold Lamb, John Buchan, and Robert E. Howard – my screen name on Obsidian Portal is a historical pirate character created by REH, and he wrote a number of ‘Oriental’ short stories as well as his better-known fantasy and Western works. Running a Flashing Blades game was directly inspired by one of REH’s stories. “The Shadow of the Vulture,” about the 1529 siege of Vienna by the Turks.


Swashbuckling movies are an influence as well. Richard Lester’s movies, with Bill Hobbs’ awesome fight choreography (he also choeographed the fight scenes in Rob Roy), are my favorite filmed version of the Musketeers saga and I’m a big fan of King Vidor’s The Marquis de Bardelys, based on the Rafael Sabatini story. My favorite swashbuckling film of all is Phillipe de Broca’s Le Bossu (The Hunchback) from 1997, starring Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Perez, and Fabrice Luchini – it’s everything a great swashbuckler should be.

What’s the most memorable thing you’ve had happen during Le Ballet de I’Acier? 

The adventurers captured two bravos after rescuing a duchess and her lover from an ambush. One of the bravos conned his way to escape, and the adventurers were considering how to deal with the other, wounded and unconscious. One of the players referred to taking him “halfway across the bridge” (and dropping him in the Seine River), and this quickly became our euphemism for killing someone in the game.


A couple of months later the player who coined the phrase was in Paris and took a picture of Pont-Neuf, “halfway across the bridge,” the spot where the conspirators met to decide the bravo’s fate.


It was also a real honor to have Mark Pettigrew, the designer of Flashing Blades, offer a very positive comment about the wiki and the campaign; he was kind enough to let me reprint it on the home page of the wiki.

Give us some GM’ing pearls of wisdom! 

I run a very ‘sandboxy’ style game: there are no plot points, no adventure path to follow. My advice to gamemasters is, let the players and their characters drive the action. Encourge the players to set goals for their characters; the campaign becomes about chasing those goals and the consequences which ensue. Present them with an interesting world to explore, full of rewards and perils; hint at what’s out there, then let the adventurers set the direction and the pace.


Making this work requires comfort with improvising during the game; a good gamemaster, in my opinion, should be like Verbal Kint. I rely a lot on random rolls both during planning and while running the game, and reacting to the unexpected twists of the dice helps me to sharpen my improvisation skills.

How well do your players take to using OP? Do you have any strategies for getting them to use the site more often? 

Most of the content on the wiki is written with the goal of being a useful tool for me while running the game. I’ve pretty much abandoned paper-and-pencil notes – the GM-only sections of my pages often contain as much or more than the visible sections, and I have a ‘shadow’ wiki of GM-only pages organizing my encounter notes, lists of names (so that every npc, including the women, don’t end up named “Jacques!”), and so on. The ability to cross-reference people, places, and encounters through page links is a huge benefit, and Obsidian Portal dramatically changed my experience running games at the table for the better.

The players enjoy the adventure logs, their character pages, and the Items pages with additional gear. One of the players commented how helpful the campaign background in the wiki was when he was creating his character. I link as many locations, concepts, organizations and non-player characters in the game through the adventure logs as I can, to serve as a gateway to the setting and a means of keeping them current on who’s who and what’s what in the campaign. I usually remind them to take a look at the adventure logs a day or two before we play, so that everyone remembers where we left off, and the feedback I receive suggests this is a useful feature of the site.

None of the players expressed an interest in adding their own content to the wiki so far, and I haven’t pressed them on it; if someone asks to publish a character journal or something, but right now I think the wiki’s greatest utility is collecting and organizing the large amount of information for running the game in a convenient, user-friendly way.

Well there it is guys, give Black Vulmea a big pat on the back next time you see him in the forums and be sure to nominate all of those campaigns you deem worthy of CoTM recognition in the forums. See you next month!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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