Aaah, “Napoleonics”. The Napoleonic era holds a special place in wargaming circles. After all, before wargaming became a hobby, it was a serious training and contingency planning exercise, which first took on a form broadly familiar to modern wargamers in the Kriegsspiel engaged in by the Prussian High Command during the Napoleonic era itself. Moreover, it is well-documented that before Dungeons & Dragons not only kicked off the roleplaying game genre but also injected a new enthusiasm for fantasy and science fiction into the wargame scene, the dominant form of wargaming was historically-based, with the American Civil War and the Napoleonic eras being the most popular eras. (One suspects as well that the American Civil War era is somewhat less popular outside of the United States itself.)
Either way, perhaps undeservedly Napoleonic wargames have gained the reputation of being a particularly dry or stuffy niche of the hobby – “grognard” as a term, after all, is a slang term originating from Napoleon’s forces themselves. But there’s no reason why that has to be the case – and the Napoleonic era, whilst it has been extensively mined in fiction (as in Sharpe and Hornblower and other such series) and wargaming, has hardly been touched when it comes to tabletop RPGs.
On the face of it, Neil Gow’s Duty and Honour is a slim, unpretentious, rules-light RPG of troopers in Wellington’s forces during the Napoleonic era – just the thing to help Napoleonic gaming shake its fuddy-duddy image. The game uses a playing card-based resolution system which is reasonably simple: each time a challenge is resolved, this involves the GM drawing a card from their personal card deck to be the Card of Fate. Then the player draws a number of cards from their own deck equal to their appropriate score with appropriate situational adjustments.
If they draw the Card of Fate, that’s a Perfect Success; if they draw a card with the same number as the Card of Fate, then that’s a Critical Success, if they draw a card in the same suit it’s a Success, and if they draw a card which is neither the sane number or suit it’s a Failure. Jokers are wild, which means that really there’s no point not taking them as a Perfect Success.
If there’s no active opposition to the Challenge then the player only needs to get some form of Success to get the result they want; if there’s an opposition, their opponent draws. If the opponent is another PC, they draw from their own deck, whereas if it’s an NPC they draw from the GM’s deck. Opposed checks work on the basis of comparing numbers of successes, from top-ranked successes down; if one party has more Perfect Successes than the other, then they win, if the Perfect Successes are tied then numbers of Critical Successes are compared, if the Critical Successes are tied then the number of vanilla Successes are are compared, and if they’re still equal then you redo the draw. Either way, once a Challenge is resolved then everyone reshuffles their decks.
Now, there’s two important ways in which this system is mildly biased towards players instead of NPCs, all else being equal. The first is that each player’s deck incorporates a Joker, whilst the GM’s deck has no Jokers. The second is that the Card of Fate is drawn from the GM’s deck and isn’t replaced. The upshot of this is that there’s two ways for the player to get a Perfect Success – either by drawing a Joker or by matching the Card of Fate – whereas the GM cannot draw a Perfect Success for an NPC, since the Card of Fate is already out from their deck and they have no Joker.
This is a slightly involved process, and Gow is sensible enough to recognise this; for instance, the rules have it that each combat is resolved in a single Challenge, rather than a sequence of Challenges standing in for each cut and thrust of a fight.
The character generation process allows you to produce a man of Wellington’s army from more or less any social background, at a range of different ranks (from private to captain), and offers nice support for generating your past experiences prior to and after joining the military, as well as allowing the players to come up with the stylings and traditions of their Regiment. (The assumption is that the PCs are all in the same Regiment, with the highest-ranking party member in charge of the others.)
Whilst high-ranking characters have more social access and authority, rank-and-file characters have the opportunity to get stuck in more during actual battle – this is obviously not much of a privilege in real life, but does allow for a share of the spotlight in gaming terms. Moreover, mission planning is expected to involve all the players equally, stepping out-of-character momentarily to map out the expected sequence of Challenges, rather than having the high-ranking characters decide how things will go, so it is fairer than it seems there.
Where the game drops the ball badly is in its unthinking regurgitation of prejudices – both the historical national and religious prejudices of the era and, perhaps more gallingly, the glib sexism of much of the fictional source material. Perhaps the most stark example of this lies on pages 92-93 of my edition. This offers three distasteful little essays on this subject, which I list here from least offensive to most:
- There’s discussion of the French, in which it notes that there’s a range of different ways you can portray them in the game, from completely demonising them to making them bumbling fools to actually treating them like well-rounded human beings not so unlike us all along. In other words, you have one simplistic, jingoistic, hyper-nationalistic, far-right pantomime, you have a slightly different simplistic, jingoistic, hyper-nationalistic, far-right pantomime, and then you have the option which allows you to have something resembling an actually interesting roleplaying interaction with the French as opposed to indulging in bigoted hyper-patriotic masturbation.
- There’s a discussion of social class which more or less swallows the social mores of the time, entirely uncritically. If this is meant sarcastically or all in good fun, there’s little indication of it.
- Finally, there’s a discussion of women, which directly says that those who are not mere window dressing will fall into three basic types: the “helpless lady”, the “deceptive hussy”, and the “spirited lover”. It reiterates that player characters in Duty and Honour are supposed to be male and literally says that all significant women should fall into one of those three stereotypical categories.
Let’s put that last one in context. Gow mandates a sexist view of the world which takes the sexual politics of the worst Napoleonic adventure fiction and advocates that the referee replicate it at the gaming table, delegating an entire gender of NPCs to an incredibly limiting range of roles and massively shrinking and contracting the roleplaying possibilities of the game as a result. It goes well beyond what is necessary for the genre in question; I admit that Napoleonic-era historical novels are not my forte, but I am 99% sure that whilst the worst of them may well be this sexist, the best of them surely have a much richer view of women (treating them as actual human beings for one thing), and shouldn’t it be those that the game is imitating rather than the dross?
Compare this to Pendragon, which whilst it may have had some sexist aspects in earlier editions as a result of an attempt to be true to the genre it was following, at the same time as of its definitive 5th edition it not only suggests that playing a woman who is a knight is viable, but provides active support for it, giving examples both of individual women and orders of women who could provide inspiration for such characters. Duty and Honour is being more regressive even than the earliest editions of Pendragon, not even conceding the possibility of playing a woman who has joined the army in disguise.
On top of that, though, within a page of doing this, Gow advocates considering various different ways of depicting the French military foes (specifically, of course, the men) of the PCs, ranging from cardboard villains to fully-rounded characters. That’s the really shocking thing about taking this in context: Duty and Honour is more well-rounded and even-handed in its (extremely biased) treatment of the French than it is in its treatment of women.
Naturally, when Gow thanks his playtesters at the end of the book, it is a list of male names he is giving a tip of the hat to.
(In case you were wondering, by the way, so far as I can tell there is no indication in the book that same-sex attraction even exists, no matter how turgid and energetic its treatment of heterosexuality is.)
It would be one thing for Gow to limit PCs to men by default, for the sake of keeping the game reasonably historical, or instituting a rule along the lines of “OK, one person in the party being a woman in disguise is fair enough, but multiple PCs begins to stretch suspension of disbelief a little too much”. That would be fair enough, especially if accompanied by a note along the lines of “Of course, if you want to go ahistorical and have women soldiers serving openly go right ahead, it’s your campaign”. But the restrictions Gow places on female character types goes far, far above and beyond what is necessary for historical verisimilitude, and isn’t necessary for mimicing the fictional genre he’s dealing with, save for the most sloppy and disposable examples of it.
It’s a disgustingly regressive attitude which puts me off the entire exercise. Perhaps there’s scope for a Napoleonic RPG which doesn’t give every impression of being written by a grumpy, grognardy, “no girls allowed in the clubhouse” asshole, but Duty and Honour isn’t it.