Watch this bout between Valmont and Danceny from 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons:

“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988): Duel Scene and de Tourvel’s Death from August Martin on Vimeo.

(fun fact, Malkovich’s baseball slide at 1:40 was apparently his suggestion to fight coordinator William Hobbs)

The Vicomte at least turns up to the fight sober, unlike this scene from 1989’s Valmont.

In both versions Valmont and Danceny are probably evenly matched, Valmont having more experience but the Chevalier having youth, vigor and a lot of technical skill (as shown in Danceny’s bout with Gercourt in Valmont at about 1h00).

What’s interesting is how the positions are reversed between the films. Reeves’ Danceny attacks with uncontrolled and dogmatic fury while Malkovich’s Valmont has a calm and irritable aloofness. But in Valmont, Colin Firth’s character is the one to initiate the exchange, forward and angry while Henry Thomas’ Chevalier remains calm throughout, always giving ground until Valmont’s fury is spent before delivering a single, fatal thrust (we assume, as this happens off-camera).

The encounter in Valmont is more credible, both for length and position of the protagonists. Dangerous Liaisons’ duel looks dramatic with Reeves and Malkovich running all over the place, panting with exhaustion, etc. Note that the affair is not settled at first blood, which is probably period correct, as Amberger notes in The Secret History of the Sword:

in Central Europe the First Blood principle was held in low esteem — which meant a debilitating injury was required to terminate the duel.

What’s going through these characters’ minds?

Malkovich’s Valmont

malkovich valmont

Valmont does not want to kill Danceny. He has control of the fight throughout — he chooses when to retreat and when to advance, displaying great calmness, vigor and judgement, sparing Danceny when he could kill or wound him, non-verbally halting the duel to change swords, ignoring his opponent even when on his knees, and ultimately choosing to die.

To him the whole affair is a tragic waste of time. But, did he intend to die from the outset? It would seem so given that he is carrying around Merteuil’s letters, and he is psychologically hamstrung by the fallout from his affair with Tourvel; but it’s uncertain whether he decides to die out of despair, or because he must be punished, or just as an alternative to inevitably killing Danceny.

Reeves’ Danceny

reeves danceny

Danceny doesn’t know what he wants. All he knows is that he is unable to concede, and he lets this drive him throughout the exchange to one end or another.

After his temper has cooled Capaldi’s Azolan tells him “it’s all very well for you to feel sorry now”. While this seems a bit harsh given all we know of Valmont’s mind, still Danceny is an immature character who didn’t realise the stakes until too late.

Firth’s Valmont

firth valmont

Steinmetz notes in The Romance of Duelling “he who makes free with the bottle seldom rises with a steady hand”. Valmont’s judgement is fatally clouded by drink.

This Valmont is every bit as aggrieved as Danceny; while we can put his drinking the previous night down to fatalism, at the point of the duel he is practically enraged. Was there time enough for Valmont to think? Consciously or not, in the end he forces the same decision onto the Chevalier that Malkovich makes for Reeves.

Thomas’ Danceny

thomas danceny

Danceny would have been satisfied by an apology, and probably first blood if the opportunity had arisen. The earlier bout with Gercourt shows exactly how much control the Chevalier has with the sword; but the fury of Valmont’s advance probably left him with little option.

Probably. After all, the Chevalier doesn’t seem too cut up at Cecile’s wedding to Gercourt. Perhaps he’s a sociopath after all.

Plus, we know he could probably have Gercourt on a good day. Watch Dangerous Liaisons II: Doubly Dangerous and see Cecile and Danceny conspire to arrange a duel, dispense with Gercourt and live happily ever after.

DL duel

Afterword

Bonus! Spot the high octave:

octave 2

octave 1

Things are a little quiet on this blog because (a) the house is in chaos and (b) I’m finishing of a game called The Last Days Of Dorian Aquila.

This is a game about Dorian Aquila, minor courtier, hero of wars, rake, scoundrel, lover, master fencer. She is about to fight a lethal duel, and her opponent is easily her match with the blade; the outcome is uncertain. According to the Code Duello duels will be conducted forty-eight hours after the challenge is given, in the morning between the hours of 7 and 8 depending on the season. Dorian has received La Haine’s cartel and has two days to put her affairs in order. What will she do? Who will she make amends with? Will she solemnly prepare for a dignified end, or will she spend her last nights in a debauched frenzy? Play to find out.

The number of characters has been expanded from five to seven, just to give players a bit of choice. Also they now have real names and a slightly more ambiguous nature. But then characters are easy; just imagine an archetype then think of a whole lot of questions on how they insert themselves into the situation.

So far the hardest thing has been working out play itself. Clearly these characters need to interact, but how, and why, and most importantly, what is at stake? What is the currency for the game? Do we trade Drama Points for emotional concessions a la Hillfolk, or something else?

Anyway. Playtest hopefully in under 2 weeks.

The Characters

There are seven characters the players may choose from. Each character has

  • a shared history with Dorian;
  • a connection with one or more Spheres of activity and thought;
  • a series of questions that should be considered during play;
  • a perspective on Dorian’s character, based on their shared interests

Play consists of scenes in which one player will play their character, while another player will play their character’s impression of Dorian.

Ramiel Orlondo, Dorian’s Fencing Master

Ramiel has been Dorian’s fencing tutor for many years. She is dedicated utterly to her art, something that has cost her the trappings of a normal life.

Remy Aquila, Dorian’s Mother

Dorian’s mother has been a guiding hand through Dorian’s entire life. Her driving goal is to ensure the continuation of the name Aquila as a dominant political force, and make Dorian play her part.

Quinn Dashiel, Dorian’s Comrade-In-Arms

Quinn and Dorian served together when they were younger officers, and both were honoured as heroes in the war. Quinn now relives past glories and her days are one long debauch, punctuated by brawls and duels.

Soutine Aquila, Dorian’s Wife

Soutine and Dorian say they married for love, but nonetheless their union consolidated a massive block of political power. Soutine has dutifully born Dorian’s children, kept Dorian’s household.

Amedeo Aubrey, Dorian’s Patron

After the war the young Dorian emerged a celebrated yet naive hero. Amedeo’s patronage opened doors for Dorian, connecting her with friends at Court.

Presbyter Bohan Pei, Dorian’s Priest

The Presbyter wants nothing from Dorian other than to ask forgiveness and accept a loving and all-commanding God.

Marin Yves, Dorian’s Lover

Dorian and Marin’s affair is the worst kept secret at Court. And while lovers come and go, Dorian has never known love like this.

Dorian_Relationship Map

398 pages, man.

Last year I listed some things I like in 5e that I would adapt to Beyond the Wall. Very nice to see the D&D 5th edition SRD released under the OGL. But 398 pages… of those these are my highlights:

  • Unified advancement with a single Proficiency Bonus
  • Saving throws rolled into Attributes
  • Advantage/Disadvantage in the dice rolls
  • Monsters statted with 6 attributes

With the new SRD is that now D&D 5e is another OSR resource. I don’t think I’d ever go for the whole thing, it’s still way too crunchy for me… but it’s even easier to pick out the bits I like and blend them with Beyond the Wall and Whitehack.

But… 398 pages

(less keen on the level based spells, and I’d prefer just d6 for Hit Dice — using Dice Clocks, natch. Also I don’t see any roll-under mechanics for Attribute checks.)

Is this the same business move as the 3e OGL? At that time WotC wanted to grow the market with 3rd party supporting material and build the d20 brand. That’s got to be part of it… but the difference now is we have the OSR. People who want the official, corporate D&D will buy it. But this means there’s a lot of scope to claim that “old school” products are now “5e compatible”, which can only help build the 5e brand. Whatever the strategy, this is really nice to have.

But still… 398 pages.

In the summer of ’93 I discovered two new favourite things: Bowie and Moorcock.

IMG_3185

Previously I hadn’t really gone for glossy, commercial ToTP 80s Bowie, although Bowie the actor was interesting in Labyrinth (and perversely Absolute Beginners).

But Suffragette City was sampled in Carter’s Surfin’ USM, which was interesting. That year Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and especially Hunky Dory were on pretty constant rotation in the walkman. Also, Suede. Speaking of which, here’s a nice picture of David Bowie and Brett Anderson:

David and Brett

Anyway, I was listening to Quicksand and The Supermen and Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud and at the same time getting into Hawkmoon (in the big Millennium omnibus imprint) and reading about Granbretan’s masked armies and giant flamingo riders with flame lances over the Kamarg. Also, drinking short-dated beer from the Classic Deli and watching Orlando and Naked Lunch at the PPP. Speaking of which:

David and Bill

There was also Vampire, which became next year’s big campaign, through my finals year, where I laid the foundations for future gaming and friendships to this date. Some of those friends are no longer here. They are who I am thinking about right now, as well as all the friends I have made who are still here.

Anyway, David Bowie was there. I’m hanging onto the tapes.

This is inspired by three different systems:

This is how combat works in Carcosa:

  1. The hit dice are rolled when the combat starts, on both sides
  2. When damage is dealt, it comes off each die, starting with the highest
  3. If the monsters go down first the combat is won. If a PC’s hit dice go down before that, they’ve been reduced to 0 hp.

In Carcosa the dice shape is randomly determined (so you could be rolling d4 or d12). I prefer Necropraxis’ stabilised hit dice where the dice are d6 all the time.

pool 2

Dice Clocks

So, for a more general application, any time there’s a threat or obstacle, throw down a pool of dice representing that obstacle that the players have to knock down. The players also have their own pool of dice and if those get knocked out, they take the consequences.

Dice Clocks are progress bars. They make sense when

  • you want to track an extended action (making your way through a castle, picking a lock, ingratiating yourself to the locals) or note the change in a global state (alert state of the castle increasing, which will cause problems)
  • there’s something competing with the PCs (e.g. while the PCs are trying to stay hidden, they’re also trying to complete their mission in the shortest possible time)

It may make sense to have only the GM having a clock, or the players only having a clock.

pool

This would work a lot like the clocks in Blades in the Dark, with about as many permutations.

Examples:

  • When the PCs are infiltrating a castle, they have a collective pool for their stealth. Blow a stealth roll and the clock goes down; when they have no dice left, the castle is on alert.
  • When the party are trying to investigate a set of murders and stop the murderer before they strike again, they are trying to knock down the GM’s pool which represents how well the murderer is hidden. The GM rules that they roll once per night, and if they haven’t cleared the pool in three nights there will be another killing.
  • A PC is under cover at a party, trying to seduce a NPC. Both the GM and the player have a pool of dice, and if the GM’s pool goes down first then the PC succeeds; if the PC’s pool is knocked out, they get booted out of the party.

The stealth and combat examples are fairly narrowly defined. The others are a bit broader, abstract and freeform — e.g. the murder enquiry would traditionally be a constructed investigation with a trail of clues (Cthulhu, etc.) but in this case the players are rolling to get a clue, and the GM is making up the clues as a response to the dice results.

Using the dice like this mean that more than one kind of roll can be used to knock down the clock, if you want to play like that. Both stealth (dexterity) and misdirection (social) rolls could be used to avoid detection in an infiltration or heist. Just be clear on what skill rolls will affect what clocks.

Knocking the dice down

How do dice get knocked down?

  • By rolling a success. In a d20 system, if the PCs are “attacking” the GM’s dice pool, they knock out a number on the dice equal to the margin of their success (so a 17 vs a target of 12 knocks out 5 points on the GM’s dice).
  • By failing. If the PCs are rolling to keep their cover and they fail, their dice pool goes down by the margin of failure (e.g. rolling 8 vs. a target of 12 means they go down by 4).

This system works with both roll-over and roll-under. If it’s roll-under the margins of success have the potential to be big and the margins of failure are limited by the maximum on the dice (20).

d20

Just as in AW and BitD the clocks can be knocked down by more than one kind of action, encouraging teamwork. If the team were working together in a heist, they might overcome the bank’s defences with a combination of subterfuge, stealth, technical know-how and even brute force. All qualifying actions count for knocking down the dice clock. Using the clocks like this injects a bit of narrative woo into the typical d20 style games, if you like that sort of thing.

When the clocks are rolled, the GM should (normally) be clear and up-front about what the GM’s dice mean, what the players’ dice pools — or collective dice pool — mean, and what actions will result in pools being under attack (e.g. for combat the only thing that can knock each side’s dice down are direct attacks).

Some permutations:

  1. Change the die shape.
  2. Only allow one die to be knocked out in one action…
  3. …except for certain types of actions by certain classes (e.g. the Fighter can knock out a second die if they have excess points)
  4. …or on a critical (knocks out two dice, whatever happens)
  5. Set all dice to 1

This system could eliminate separate damage rolls. Instead, use the margin between the target and the actual number rolled as the damage inflicted (so a roll of 15 vs AC 12 is 3 points of damage).

Between combats or stressful situations, hit dice come back. The rate of return depends on the GM, and healing rules. If all the dice come back it will be more cinematic. It makes sense if no dice come back (because it’s luck) or if all the dice come back (because it’s experience).

Hit Dice

HD are a combination of experience, capacity for fatigue, will to survive, and luck. They can go down without causing a problem until you hit zero.

Traditionally they’re just used to track personal (and physical) hurt. With a broader interpretation they’re the character’s safety net in any situation. Why not use Hit Dice in social situations, or infiltration, or magical duels, etc.? Doing so requires a couple of changes:

  1. If HD are a more general resource, how are wounds dealt? How do characters die?
  2. If you have a class-based system, how do you make sure the fighter can take more punishment in a fight than the magic-user — especially if you’re rolling the same shape dice for everyone?

Consequences

Going beyond death (or dismemberment) — the MC moves from Apocalypse World are good for some ideas about consequences when the dice clock goes down to zero:

  1. Deal Harm. I like the idea of applying damage directly to stats (i.e. the Classic Traveller way). Optionally, require some kind of saving throw to avoid permanent injury or death. This would mean healing spells work a bit differently.
  2. Announce “future badness” or make a mental note of some complication for later use.
  3. Shut off a course of action (e.g. stealthy action, seduction, research)
  4. Take something away (a skill, an item, magic, contacts) either temporarily or permanently.

Character Classes

How many dice for each character class? If this were combat only, you could start fighters with three dice, rogues with two and mages with only one.

Another way to do it: start everyone with a base number of hit dice (say two, increasing with level), but each class has extra dice in certain circumstances:

  • Fighters get 2 extra dice in combat, every time. So even if they’re down on their hit dice, they will start any new combat with two new dice right there. Other classes don’t get that.
  • Similarly Mages get 2 extra dice in psychic or magical combat, every time.
  • Rogues could get 2 extra dice for social situations. Or they could get a floating pool of one-use dice that other classes don’t have.

Permutations

In no particular order, here are some other permutations of dice clocks.

Pooling Hit Dice for a Global Clock

If teamwork is needed, the party can pool their dice together into one big pool, representing a common action (e.g. stealth). If this happens, make sure everyone who’s in the group rolls dice. Those characters who are bad at stealth actions should be a liability and knock everyone’s clock down.

More than one clock

If you have more than one threat clock, use two different colours of dice, obviously. This would work if the party were, say, fighting a whole bunch of goblins and one powerful sorcerer.

Two Colours

The Dice Horde

For combat the GM can roll one big pool of dice to represent a horde of monsters. Just decide how many attacks or actions that horde can take at one time.

Clock Priority and Interference

When the dice are rolled, highest numbers are knocked down first. So if you roll a 6, 4 and 3, the 6 needs to go down before you tackle the other two.

You could use this rule to create interference. In the above example if the goblins’ dice are higher than the sorcerer’s, that means they’re getting in the way and the party must deal with them first before they can knock the sorcerer down.

Orderered

This could also be used for the party. Let’s say all the players put down a separate group of dice for each characters; even if the Fighter should be in the front line, if the Magic User has a higher Hit Die, then they might cop an attack first. Offset this by letting the fighter actively sacrifice their dice to protect the MU.

The Sacrifice

Sacrifice one of your own dice to protect someone (say, prevent a consequence landing on another character) or to do something cool (maybe even a narrative control mechanic). Bid your dice like poker chips.

The ability to sacrifice under certain conditions could be class-dependent (fighters to protect, rogues to do stunts, etc.)

Staged Events

If you have stages of effect (say, stages of alert in an infiltration) where at certain points something happens (the guard is doubled, the score is moved to the vault, etc.), represent with two different colours of dice in two pools. When all your orange dice get knocked down, that’s a stage 1 event. When the purple dice are gone too, that’s a stage 2 event.

This process probably doesn’t with the interference option, however — the pools are knocked down sequentially.

Dice in the open

By default, roll the dice on the table and let the players see them and decide how to handle them. Be clear about what those dice represent, e.g. how close the guards are to sounding the alarm, luck running out in a chamber full of traps with pressure pads, etc.

Hidden Dice

If you keep dice back it should be because there’s something the PCs haven’t seen yet that you want to keep track of. Roll that dice clock behind a GM’s screen or something.

Final Remarks

I’m not sure yet if this system has legs, or if it’s another fantasy heartbreaker. Certainly running OSR combat Carcosa style but with the stabilised hit dice has a couple of benefits: one, the dice on the table are a stake and something nice and tactile, and two, book-keeping is easier with low integers.

Appendix: Summaries

Provided for context in case the reader isn’t familiar with the various sources.

Carcosa’s Hit Dice

Carcosa handles Hit Dice like this:

  • at the start of any given combat, randomly determine your dice shape (d4 to d12)
  • then roll that many dice and leave them on the table
  • damage then comes off each die, starting with the highest
  • and at the end of combat lasting harm is counted in the number of dice you’re down.

The benefits of doing it this way are

  1. it frames the combat and puts something physical on the table, like Lace and Steel’s duelling minigame
  2. it reminds the players and GM that something is at stake right now
  3. it keeps lasting wounds between combat in low numbers, which is tidier.

Otherwise it doesn’t change much function-wise.

If you don’t care for the dice randomness this post (Necropraxis) suggests flattening this out to d6s for everyone.

Blades in the Dark’s Clocks

Blades in the Dark expands on Apocalypse World’s clocks for a wider range of situations including:

  • Danger (the clock advances as the situation gets more dangerous, the PCs are at greater risk of detection, etc.)
  • Races (two clocks ticking towards a common objective; use when it matters who gets there first)
  • Mission counters (time sensitive stuff)
  • Tug of War (one side advances the clock, the other winds it back)

And so on. Interesting that John Harper doesn’t use a personal clock to measure character damage, as is Apocalypse World’s way. Note also that Harper uses the clock as a variable count where zero represents the change of state, rather than having something happen at each segment per the advice in Baker’s book.

I love the concept of clocks, although I’ve never been satisfied with their explanation in AW, and while BitD’s kickstart gives a lot of options it doesn’t give enough examples of play. It’s not clear in either game whether the clocks are meant to be in view of the players — that would make sense, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of ramping up that tension if the players don’t feel it, and take steps to address it? But AW is clear that clocks are a prompt for the MC, not the players.

Hollowpoint’s Catch

Hollowpoint is all about the dice — the core of the game is a dice conflict where matched sets of d6 are used to attack each other’s dice pools. One of the mechanics is the Catch, which is a pool of dice that represent a mission objective (steal a thing, get some information, assassinate someone) which can only be knocked out by one skill.