The Swashbucklers Handbook: the Lost Appendices
by Phil Masters and Phil Brucato
To explain; it's an old story...
The Swashbucklers Handbook, but lately released from White Wolf, ran a little over planned length, and something had to go. Appendices II and III were the something. But we think that there's stuff still worth mentioning in there, so, well, here it is.
All of this material is, therefore, of course, copyright © White Wolf Game Studio, 2000.
Appendix II: Cours D'Intrigue So old people talk about Courts in the same way as they talk about everything else, and affirm that those which they remember from the past were far more excellent and full of outstanding men than those we know today... -- Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier
The Dark Fantastic world boasts many courts and palaces, any one of which might serve as a scene of intrigue and adventure. Take, for example, a few of the notorious hotbeds described below...
(Note: For details about many of this period's noted politicos, see The Sorcerers Crusade Companion, pps. 178-192.)
Tarnished Gold: The Italian City-States
Italy has been discussed at length elsewhere in this book (and in countless others, besides). No short notes can do justice to the web of politics, plotting, idealism and brutal ambition that entangles this land throughout the era. Even so, a few things are worth noting here.
Perhaps the archetypal Renaissance city-state, Florence is (arguably) the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance; it's also the scene of countless intrigues. Yet despite the trouble it causes, Florence and her citizens have long been proud of their political system. In 1293, the city adopted a constitution that required that its nine ruling "priors" should serve for only two months between elections, ensuring that the city had plenty of potential politicians and civil servants (but very little stability). The early division cut between the Guelphs (wealthy merchants, who favored the Pope), and the Ghibellines (feudal aristocrats, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor). When the Guelphs triumphed, they soon divided into "Blacks" (rich merchants) and "Whites" (lesser citizens). This victory also enabled the rise of great Florentine merchant families -- first the Bardi and the Peruzzi, and later the Medici.
The 14th century saw Florence wracked by both the Black Death and the unsuccessful "Ciompi Revolt." During the latter, lower-class cloth-workers attempted to create a more democratic system of government, but were put down by the older guilds. (An unsuccessful Craftmason project that failed to gain the support of other Daedalean Conventions, perhaps?) Slightly later, in the Sorcerers Crusade period, the city is dominated by the Medici and their like, and starts extending its territory in Italy. Fueled by increased commerce and flourishing academia, wealthy Florentines finance many of the Renaissance's most glorious achievements. In the late 1400s, the Medici are ejected for several years, and the city passes into the (brief) control of both the French army and the religious fanatic Savonarola. (See "The Seven Thunders" in the rulebook, pps. 43, 279.) In time, though, the Medici regain their old power, and even have some family members elected to the Papacy.
Or take, for contrast, the Sforza family, who started out as mercenary soldiers and gained control of Milan through marriage and military force. The Sforzas and other soldier-princes are by no means uncultured thugs; indeed, they include some of the greatest patrons of the artistic Renaissance, and some of them prove to be brilliant manipulator-politicians who turn the masses against the old aristocratic lords. Even so, the power of such men is often built on force, and occasionally dips into the rank tyranny so criticized in The Prince.
Not that cities ruled by elections are wonders of freedom. Perhaps the most twisted politics of the era rule Venice. Here, a nested system of councils elects the ruling doge, or duke, through a bizarrely complex system of ballots and choice by lot. By the mid-1400s, Venice has abandoned its earlier, more democratic system; now the city is dominated by a small group of ancient noble families, who appoint a secretive "Council of Ten" to guard their power. Posed on the cusp of the Christian and Muslim worlds, Venice and her territories become hubs of prosperity -- and breeding-grounds for plague and conflict. With her mix of grandeur, wealth, highly professional diplomatic service, and secret police (who often act on anonymous denunciations), this "Serene Republic" hosts courtly plots wherein glory and tradition form a thin shell over sinister and dangerous power-games.
Of course, for an alternate model of political power, there is Rome, where absolute power rests with the Pope in the Vatican -- albeit in conjunction with numerous clever, ambitious, and occasionally even high-minded cardinals and bishops. Actually, Rome begins the 15th century weakened by recent schisms, trying to exert her secular authority over the so-called "Papal States" without much success. However, a series of capable Popes rebuild the city, structurally and politically during the 1400s. Unfortunately, this line culminates in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. A true Renaissance prince and expert politician who also disgraces his office with incest, carnality and raw greed (among other sins), Alexander brings his ruthless family, the Borgias, into power. Between the iron hand of Alexander, the feminine wiles of his illegitimate daughter Lucrezia, and the ready steel of his "kinsman"/son Cesare, Rome dominates the Italian city-states in culture, power, and sheer excess until the early 1500s.
After Alexander, any Pope would seem to be an improvement, even the worldly and corrupt Julius II, who holds the throne from 1503 to 1513, and who has the distinction of escaping Alexander's repeated attempts to have him killed. Although a sponsored of noted artists like Michelangelo and Raphael, Julius earns himself the nickname "the Warrior Pope" through his brutal (and often treacherous) methods of retaining Papal authority. Under his reign, the entire city of Venice is excommunicated, Jews are persecuted throughout Europe, and "indulgences" (essentially, "tickets of prayer") begin to assume the scandalous excesses that trigger Martin Luther's rebellion against the Papacy.
The 1494 invasion of Italy by France staggers the city-states; after founding the Renaissance, they will steadily decline in world affairs. Still, from the early 1400s to the mid-1500s, the fractured states remain the axis of the age. Art, manners, philosophy and intrigue all attain their greatest heights in Italy. Forever after, this tangled confederacy will shine with the captured fire of its Roman ancestry. The Sorcerers Crusade era marks the pinnacle of this achievement; for any courtier, magus or otherwise, Italy is the place to be, if only for a while.
Rising Fire: The Tudor Courts
The Sorcerers Crusade setting spans much of England's Tudor dynasty, which carries the nation from the Middle Ages to the High Renaissance -- at the cost of treachery, warfare, power-politics, and the deployment of countless spies and assassins.
As Chapter I describes, England begins this period torn by the Wars of the Roses; these conflicts end with the victory of Henry VII, who establishes a new dynasty with plenty of old enemies to worry about. Henry is a chilly, meticulous accountant-administrator. Although he's fully capable of ordering "necessary" deaths, Henry displays a certain sense of humor: When he captures the youthful figurehead of an enemy's plot -- a boy he could easily hang for treason -- the King puts the boy to work in his kitchen staff instead. In later days, it will be said that Henry VII was the last English ruler to leave his kingdom financially in the black.
The King's son, Henry VIII, while hardly incompetent, is hot-blooded, brutal, and stubbornly self-centered. Charismatic and handsome in his youth, the King eventually bloats himself with fat, disease and arrogance. When he should be running the government, this Henry disappears on hunting trips, and involves his country in pointless foreign wars. Henry's infamous six marriages reflect his sometimes impetuous judgement, diplomatic maneuvering, and mixed luck; when one of them ends in divorce, Henry finds himself in a political corner. Eventually, this "defender of the faith" (who often waged war on behalf of the Church) ends his previously cozy relationship with Rome and plunges England into the Protestant Reformation.
Originally an enemy of Luther and other Protestants, Henry unwittingly joins their ranks when he establishes the Church of England, then makes himself the head of it. Adding insult to Rome's injury, he confiscates Church property and distributes it among the lords who support his leadership. Catholics who refuse to bow to the King rather than the Pope are hunted down, imprisoned or executed. Predictably, the Church is not amused; secret agents are deployed in England; treaties are broken and rebellions are supported; alliances form between Scotland, Ireland and England's enemies; and Catholic nations like Spain array themselves against the British crown. For the next several centuries, the fire between the churches of England and Rome ignites a succession of religious purges, intrigues, and open wars. Four hundred years later, Henry's "great and secret business" will still provide the religious division that tears Ireland in two.
The story of Henry's heirs -- and the necessity of heirs that drives him to many of his political escapades -- demonstrates how even a fairly secure dynasty can be endangered by skewed fortune and succession law. Out of "need" for a son, he divorces one wife and beheads another. That son, Edward VI, proves sickly, and is only nine when he succeeds his father; predictably, Edward's six-year reign sees a lot of behind-the-scenes power games. When Edward dies, Henry's oldest daughter Mary is determined to restore Catholicism, to which she has remained faithful despite a real danger of death. She marries the powerful (and very Catholic) King Philip of Spain, and begins a zealous (and unsuccessful) attempt to reverse the English Reformation. Though not as murderous as some religious movements of the age, the Queen's personal crusade creates its share of martyrs, and earns her the nickname of "Bloody Mary."
Bloody Mary's five-year reign makes life horribly dangerous for the Protestant princess who will eventually become Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors. Surviving by manipulating appearances and people, Elizabeth ascends to the throne at 25. Soon, she demonstrates all the Tudor pride and stubbornness -- along with a genius for choosing advisers and putting on public displays that even impress wizards and artisans of all kinds. Under her auspices, England gains a world-class network of spies, second perhaps only to the Church itself. (Rome, after all, is Elizabeth's sworn enemy -- she is a Protestant, and the head of the English Church, at that.) True, the Queen can be indecisive; her courtiers sometimes trick her into signing documents, then act on them instantly before she realizes what she has done. When she knows her own mind, however, Elizabeth seems able to achieve anything. She flirts shamelessly (but regally) when it suits her, but tolerates no insults; she also uses her unmarried status as bait to every great family in Europe, but never actually marries. Alone, she consolidates enormous, undiluted power, and creates the near-mythical image of the "Virgin Queen."
Although she's financially cautious, Elizabeth makes a vast personal profit from projects such as Sir Francis Drake's voyages. With it, she follows her father's example and becomes a paragon of spectacle. The Queen's talent for display (and her courtiers' attempts to emulate it) make her reign something of a golden age for English culture. Despite plagues and protestations, Elizabeth favors theatre and the other arts; although she maintains a tight grip on the Anglican Church, the Queen also suspends the wholesale religious purges that made her father and sister so infamous. After courage, happenstance, and perhaps some other forms of luck demolish the Spanish fleet off the coast of England, Elizabeth rules a potent military power, as well.
Although it comes at the tail-end of the Sorcerers Crusade era, Queen Elizabeth's court is perhaps the most wondrous arena of this age. A visitor might encounter brilliant diplomats such as Burghley and his son Cecil, the deadly spy-master Walsingham, and shady adventurers such as Essex and Raleigh, to say nothing of poets such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Spenser, and mystics like John Dee. Considering that many of these individuals dabble in magick, that religion drives many of the political intrigues of the day, and that profits from world-wide exploration finance it all, Queen Elizabeth's court provides a fitting (if late) stage for an archetypal Sorcerers Crusade chronicle.
Glorious Formality: The Ivory Towers
The Awakened, too, have their courts and politics; the Order of Reason, for example, has placed its center of authority in two successive fortress-towers in France. Each of these White Towers provides a backdrop for all forms of scholarship, innovation and political maneuvering. Between the secret agendas of the various Conventions, the "public" politics between the Daedaleans and the French monarchs, the threat of rival mage factions, and the occasional intrusions provided by man-beasts and scheming vampires, these mighty Covenants are exciting places, indeed!
Although they follow many of the same rules and policies of mortal courts, the Ivory Towers differ from Sleeper courts in many ways -- not least in their mixture of peculiar formality, Enlightened inspiration, and blazing idealism. For while popes and princes seek worldly power, most Daedaleans actually strive to better humanity as a whole. These philosopher-scientists have major -- if currently polite -- disagreements about how to achieve this goal, and their fellowships include some of the shrewdest, most subtle leaders on Earth; still, most of them love order, and share a strong sense of propriety.
Etiquette and formality allow a diverse mixture of cultures and philosophies to function as a unit. Although members of the various Conventions tend to keep company with their own kind, the different groups all acknowledge a common hierarchy and protocol. Even so, many Daedaleans identify strongly with certain attitudes: Rough-and-tumble Artificers and Explorators enjoy a hearty camaraderie, while their conservative, even zealous compatriots among the Craftmasons and Gabrielites often frown on carousing and informality. Guildsmen take on the popinjay role, flitting from group to group on wings of flattery and charm; Cosians and Celestial Masters, in contrast, often seem remote, as if they're hiding something. As for the Ksirafai... well, who? The "razors" are little more than a myth, at least in the eyes of their comrades. In reality, these agents are the most accomplished courtiers of all, wearing a dozen masks while revealing little, if anything, about their true agendas.
At the lower ranks, Daedaleans often act like refined commoners; they know their place, but seem most anxious to improve upon it. At higher levels, Resplendents cultivate tighter manners and heightened protocols. At the top of the Order, members of the Inner Circle of the White Tower of Languedoc favor procedures and etiquette that verge on the mystical. When other Daedaleans visit, the guests follow these complex codes as well as outsiders might -- this is, after all, the seat of their Order! In contrast, the older devotees of the original White Tower of Yoassmy keep a rougher, more medieval code, but still retain a bit of pride in their formidable heritage. Although they recognize the authority and wisdom behind the newer stronghold, many of the officers of this revered fortress still enjoy pulling rank when their position allows it.
Daedalean characters traveling to either White Tower, as petitioners, messengers, or aides should keep their eyes open. Once they arrive, these "pilgrims" should figure out which cabals share the visitors' objectives and ideals, ally with them, then work to remain on good terms with nearly everyone else, too. For while White Tower disputes rarely turn bloody (the Inner Circle frowns deeply upon violence within their Order), Daedaleans who annoy the wrong people tend to find themselves left out on a limb with hungry wolves below. The favors that the Order bestows can easily be taken away; allies, patrons and resources often disappear when some minor Resplendent steps out of line, and nasty rumors hint at secret "razors" who police the Order for dissention. Such agents are everywhere in and around the two White Towers; after all, when the security of this new and secret Order is involved, no precaution seems excessive.
(Note: For details of the White Tower of Languedoc, see Castles and Covenants, pps. 29-39.)
Affairs of Wizards: Doissetep and Horizon
If the Daedalean high councils seem hopelessly complex, the centers of Tradition power can be downright frightening. The old Hermetic stronghold of Doissetep, in particular, plays host to vicious intrigues; now that it's been moved to the Vadum of Forces, the Covenant occupies a location as lurid as its politics.
The Hermetics have been playing political games for centuries, and the new needs of their current alliance have not cured them of the habit. By the codes of their Order, these wizards view magick as an art to be refined through challenge, not a birthright to be enjoyed by just any backwoods sorcerer! Hence, they test themselves, one another, and their new "allies" endlessly, often with magickal duels, intellectual debates, and ruthless conspiracies. Complex codes of courtly formality, address and etiquette greet any newcomer who visits a Hermetic Covenant, and while few of these magi are actually malevolent, most seem so at first glance.
Most representatives of other Traditions are less formal, and display less tolerance for courtly games. Solificati tend to act much like their Hermetic brethren, but are usually more insular. Batini and Akashics are renowned for their refined manners, but loosen up considerably when they're among trusted friends. At the other end of the spectrum, many Verbena, Seers and Chakravanti seem frighteningly informal, almost savage in comparison with their regal comrades. Those in the middle -- the Dream-speakers, Choristers, and representatives from other sects -- follow their own codes of conduct; some seem terribly unapproachable, while others appear almost desperate for company. Unlike their Daedalean counterparts, these diverse mysticks pay little heed to common protocol. Although established manners exist, most Tradition wizards follow their own ways, rather than honoring a common compromise. Between the clashing cultures, ethics, practices and egos, it's a wonder the Council accomplishes anything at all.
Inexperienced characters should be extremely careful of elder wizards and their power-games. Many of the greatest wizards have prolonged their lives to incredible length, and have assembled formidable resources of all kinds. Insulting an Archmaster in Doissetep is tantamount to spitting on the feet of a king and wiping your ass with his robe. Even so, younger wizards are not exactly prohibited from joining the fun; indeed, Doissetep seethes with intrigues at all levels, from petty rivalries among apprentices and servants to long-standing enmities between wizards who nurse grudges for hundreds of years. At some level, any wizard, visitor or otherwise, can find plenty of trouble if she's inclined to do so.
Horizon, the Traditions' great project of the age, is a more hopeful place, mostly built on idealism rather than intrigue. Still, its council chambers echo with debates about the new (and often shaky) alliance of nine very different factions. A handful of small settlements surround the city-in-progress Concordia; beyond the walls of these nascent communities, the realm stretches out for many untamed miles, a wilderness of wild beasts and magical creatures. Within this vast land, anything can happen. A group of magi could be discussing Council policy one day, scrapping in Merekades' Tavern the next, and hunting dragons across the plains of Posht two days later.
Political conflicts within Horizon often revolve around long-term policy; in the shadows of Concordia, however, spies from other factions, renegade wizards, rebels, and self-serving magi keep life interesting. Filled as it is with representatives from many very different groups (some of them old, powerful, and set in their ways), Horizon remains a testing-ground for the integrity of the great alliance. From its inception, this titanic realm occupies a unique place in magickal politics. Rival to Doissetep, jewel of magicians, stronghold of the Traditions, and a fountain of astounding mystical power, Horizon becomes a dream, a paradise, a battlefield, refugee center, melting-pot, and ultimately the symbol of what magick -- wielded with compassion and strength -- can achieve.
(Note: For details about these strongholds, see Castles and Covenants, pps. 91-113, The Book of Chantries (Mage Classics 1), and Horizon: Stronghold of Hope.)
Appendix III: Texts and Entertainments Go, go seek some otherwhere
Importune me no more
-- "Importune Me No More" (traditional song, attributed to Queen Elizabeth I)
The following references proved useful sources of factual information (and inspiration) in the creation of this book. Highly recommended sources have been marked with the usual asterisk(s).
* Bacon, Francis, The Essays -- A great humanist courtier reflects on life. If Machiavelli gives you the practical politics and Castiglione gives you the manners, Bacon can provide the philosophy.
* Castiglione, Baldesar, The Book of the Courtier -- The source of etiquette and philosophy for the cultured courtier. Damn near unreadable in some translations (due to Ye Olde English), but worth a look if you can find an edition written in modern English.
** Dumas, Alexandrè, The Three Musketeers -- Darker and far more complex than its many adaptations; one of the classical texts of swashbuckling.
* The Encyclopaedia Britannica -- Always the first place to go when searching out the historical basis for your game. Now available on CD-ROM, or through the Internet, of course, which saves on bookshelf space.
** Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods -- Renaissance history as the High Guild would have viewed it: as the product of trade and wealth. Fascinating stuff.
** Leon, Vicki, Uppity Women of Medieval Times and Uppity Women of the Renaissance -- Anyone who thinks that women just sat in men's shadows and minded their wimples during the Middle Ages needs to read these often-humorous biographical sketches of women who refused to stay "in their places." Cross-dressers, queens, pirates and patrons fill these books to overflowing, and offer fine examples to female players who refuse to be bound by the conventions of the era.
* Macaulay, David, Castle and Cathedral -- Although technically "children's books," these slim but helpful works offer step-by-step information about the design, planning, construction and use of the titular structures. Musts for Storytellers who want details about the literal homes of the rich and powerful.
** Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince -- Haven't you already read this? No? Then why on earth haven't you?
* Manchester, William, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance -- Yes, it's been mentioned before, but Manchester's personal accounts of historical events provides loads of inspiration, even for folks who normally avoid historical research.
Masters, Phil (compiler), GURPS Who's Who 1 and GURPS Who's Who 2 -- Well, I'm hardly going to deny my bias, but I'll mention these anyway. A large collection of historical figures, including monarchs, traders, courtiers and courtesans, written up from a gamer's point of view, complete with scenario ideas and possible secret histories; some are in-period for The Sorcerers Crusade, others could inspire game characters.
McNeill, Tom, The English Heritage Book of Castles -- Intended as a handbook for people looking around old castles, this book contains useful discussions of how these places were run as households, as well as stuff about the architecture and military history.
** O'Sullivan, Steffan, GURPS Swashbucklers -- A handy guide to gaming in the rapiers-and-chandeliers world of "classic" swashbuckling, focussing on the worlds of the pirates and buccaneers and of the Three Musketeers. The third edition, revised by Russell Godwin and Bryan J. Maloney, will tell you everything you're probably likely to need about real-history styles and techniques of fencing.
* Renaissance Magazine (Phantom Press Publications) -- A new and entertaining magazine covering medieval and Renaissance trivia, fashion, culture, and recreation groups. Although it's hard to find at newsstands, information, subscriptions and back issues are available at: www.RenaissanceMagazine.com.
* Rosenthal, Margaret F., The Honest Courtesan -- The rather academic, nonfiction study that inspired the movie also known as Dangerous Beauty.
Russell, Joycelyne G., Diplomats at Work: Three Renaissance Studies -- A rather densely academic study of Renaissance international politics. Even so, it features interesting information about the languages used in negotiations, and the importance of certain female figures in organizing conferences and treaties.
* Stephenson, Jay, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy -- A marvelous quick-and-dirty summary of human ideas. Contains separate chapters on Greek thought, medieval scholasticism, and Renaissance humanism.
Thrash, Christopher; MacLean, Jim; and Daniels, Steve, GURPS Traveller: Far Trader -- Seriously. It's probably the only roleplaying game sourcebook that provides a worthwhile guide to the practicalities of trade. The free traders of the Traveller universe obviously have at least that much in common with the High Guild...
* Time-Life Books, What Life Was Like in the Age of Chivalry (Medieval Europe AD 800-1500) -- Another exceptional resource from Time-Life Books, this work offers day-to-day details like cooking, games and courtship in the Middle Ages.
White Wolf (Brucato, Rosenberg and Woodcock), Tales of Magick: Dark Adventures -- This sourcebook for Mage: The Ascension has heaps of advice on running and playing in high adventure games -- much of it just as appropriate for games with swords as for those with guns.
* White Wolf (various authors), Crusade Lore -- This Sorcerers Crusade supplement features a host of useful information, including: a chapter about the night-folk (vampires and such) of the era; various setting descriptions (ship, tavern, manor house, and many others) complete with cutaway views; and two dozen character concepts (including Artist, Diplomat, Tavern-Keeper and Spy).
** White Wolf (various authors), The Sorcerers Crusade Companion -- While it's been mentioned several times before now, this core sourcebook is packed with helpful stuff for swashbuckling chronicles: a detailed look at life in the Renaissance, from food to clothing to trade; a chapter explaining the various religious groups; a chapter about foreign lands, including China and the Ottoman Empire; a chapter filled with Traits; and an Appendix that details fencing, healing herbs and poisons, and notable people of the era.
Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory -- The standard work on this entirely real Renaissance mental discipline, including its relationship to magic.
Stage and Screen
We've invoked Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) a lot in this book. He's a useful reference-point for any Sorcerers Crusade game; and for courtly plots, he's invaluable. You can read his plays, of course, but that's not the way they're meant to be experienced. Unfortunately, even if you're lucky in your access to live theater, it'll take you a while to work through the complete works. Fortunately, though, filmmakers can't resist the prestige Shakespeare's name brings, and some of them do a remarkably good job with the material.
Any "Shakespeare movie" is worth seeing -- even the out-of-period-costume versions, which often illuminate the central points about court life and politics better than period versions do. The recent "modern" presentation of Richard III, for example, strips the whole thing down to dark power politics, while the latest adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be viewed as a collision between an Artificer Covenant and some bumbling changelings. (Or you can just appreciate the weirdly effective casting.)
Some other good sources:
* The Adventures of Robin Hood -- The film that put the "swash" in "swashbuckling." Anachronistic and corny as hell, but worth watching if only for the kick-ass sword-work of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone.
Blackadder -- Catch the first two series whenever you can -- especially the second. More than just a great source for comedy games.
** Captain Blood -- Errol Flynn beats the living hell out of half the Caribbean as a doctor-turned-pirate in this, one of the all-time great swashbuckling films.
* Cutthroat Island -- Goofy but entertaining pirate flick, starring Geena Davis as a fetching swashbuckler who brooks no bullshit. Perhaps the closest thing to a roleplaying game scenario ever filmed (for better and worse). You can practically hear the dice roll!
** Dangerous Beauty (known as The Honest Courtesan in the U.K.) -- Okay, it's a bit of a bodice-ripper, it's a very long way from being a "true story," and yes it's been recommended in Sorcerers Crusade books before. Even so, this film features a nigh-perfect depiction of training in the subtler aspects of the Ars Cupiditae, complete with an illustration of why even subtlety can be dangerous. (Is it witchcraft or isn't it?)
** Dangerous Liaisons -- The tale of courtly backstabbing, decadence and disgrace. Although it takes place several centuries after the Dark Fantastic period, this film (and its relation Valmont) features all the tricks of the trade -- seduction, scandal, rumor-mongering, duels, even repentance. Classic.
** Elizabeth -- You want court intrigue? You want spies, assassins, politics, and most of all, atmosphere? This movie delivers. Probably the single best screen source for dark-and-subtle chronicles. Very World of Darkness!
Gormenghast (B.B.C. TV Production) -- Although the original (and utterly wonderful) trilogy by Mervyn Peake is not quite relevant to The Sorcerers Crusade, this recent TV adaptation is well worth a look for its imagery and design. Gormenghast could almost be a model for a decaying Awakened court, perhaps in some remote Horizon Realm... (Hint: Gormenghast was one of the original inspirations for the 20th-century state of Doissetep.)
The Horseman on the Roof -- Although this French film is wildly anachronistic and uneven in quality, it's an entertaining tale of two star-crossed (and culture-crossed) lovers who refuse to be separated by anything -- plague, war, class, even the threat of painful death.
* Joan of Arc -- This 1999 miniseries can be found on video and DVD, and stars LeeLee Sobieski in fine form as a young but powerful Joan. Vastly superior to Luc Besson's lame The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (released the same year, but worth seeing only for its cinematography and vision sequences), the miniseries features loads of courtly gamesmanship, some potent battle scenes, and many excellent examples of the power (and peril) of charisma in high places. On top of all that, the film takes place within the early days of the Sorcerers Crusade period, and shows just how difficult an accusation of witchcraft can be to refute.
The King's Mistress (aka, The King's Whore) -- Although it's really out of period and painfully slow, this Italian-American film boasts Timothy Dalton in especially good form as an obsessed monarch done in by the object of his affection (Valeria Golino).
Ladyhawke -- Yeah, it's silly and the soundtrack makes one's ears bleed. But if you can get past those indignities, this 80's fluff piece features Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer at their bodice-ripping best.
** The Lion in Winter (adapted from the play of the same name) -- Although it's set almost 300 years before the Sorcerers Crusade era, this witty bit of backstabbery shows why it often sucks to be the King. Featuring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn in two of their best roles, plus Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins and Nigel Terry at the dawn of their careers.
The Man in the Iron Mask -- Leo is lacking in a duel role as a king and his twin; he can't even pronounce D'Artagnan's name correctly! However, the rest of the cast, and a wonderfully morbid atmosphere, make this recent swashbuckler a good bet.
* The Mask of Zorro -- Way out of period for The Sorcerers Crusade; hence, it suffers badly from the basic late-period swashbuckler problem ("Why don't they just shoot him?"). Even so, it's a lot of fun, and includes a great depiction of an Ars Cupiditae apprenticeship, complete with a progression from mere combat ability to all-round social skills. (Not to mention Catherine Zeta-Jones as a model for sword-flashing heroines everywhere.)
* The Princess Bride -- This tongue-in-cheek classic is a bit fallow in the conspiracy department, but features one of the best sword-fights ever filmed.
* Revenge of the Musketeers (a.k.a. D'Artagnan's Daughter) -- Lame U.S. title aside, this unassuming little romp is lots of fun. Sophie Marceau kicks swashbuckling ass as, yes, the daughter of D'Artagnan, embroiled in a stew of coffee-smugglers, nun-sellers, code-crackers and aging, caffeinated musketeers. A must for female players who don't feel like seducing their way to adventure.
* Ridicule -- Another out-of-period film, but well worth seeing. A naïve young nobleman must petition the royal court for the funds to save his people. Such high stakes add a deadly sheen to the snake-pit politics of favor and betrayal that swirl around the court; for every insult and setback, innocent people die.
Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves -- Yes, Costner sucks; yes, the plot is utterly absurd; and gods yes, Bryan Adams should be burned alive for that stupid song. But hey, Prince boasts Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, and some halfway decent fight scenes. Worth a cheap rental price.
* Romeo and Juliet (Zefferelli version) -- Although it's a trifle hammy (okay, more than a trifle), this passionate love story contains one of cinema's all-time greatest fight scenes: the Tybalt/Mercutio/Romeo brawl, which escalates from playful sparring to mass murder, step-by-appalling-step. Classic.
* Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead -- Originally a play, more recently an excellent movie. Essentially a modernist commentary on Hamlet, the film can also be seen as the tragic story of a failed Awakening. The central characters find themselves able to stand outside the plot that's unfolding at court, and to observe and comment on it, but they fail to do anything with their Enlightenment, and thus suffer the consequences. Written by the great Tom Stoppard, who also co-authored Shakespeare in Love.
** Shakespeare in Love -- Besides its delirious ride through class-based intrigue and unsuppressable passion, this late-period classic proves that deadly stakes need not require grim presentation.
Swashbuckler -- While it's not exactly a good movie (and has the worst soundtrack this side of Ladyhawke), this campy pirate flick boasts several things that make it worth suffering through: James Earl Jones, Geoffrey Holder and Genevieve Bujold (plus Angelica Huston as the villain's silently demonic "familiar"); a few good brawls; and a surf-bathed sword-fight that clearly inspired a certain scene in The Mask of Zorro.
** The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers -- No, no, no, not that god-grindingly awful Disney thing starring Keifer Sutherland! This 1970s classic was shot as a single film, edited into (and released as) two, and provides one of the best examples of swashbuckling ever filmed. Out of period, and marred by excessive slapstick and atrocious post-dubbing, but highly recommended nonetheless.
Keep those blades sharp and those wits sharper!
All material copyright © White Wolf Game Studio, 2000.
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