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An interview with Mark Pettigrew

Flashing Blades

Between 1984 and 1985 Fantasy Games Unlimited published five products in the Flashing Blade line.

These products can be bought as pdfs from DriveThruRPG.com

Main box (1984)

Cardinal’s Peril (1985). Four adventures

Parisian Adventures (1985). Four Adventures.

Ambassador’s Tales (1985). Campaign book.

High Seas (1985). Flashing Blades in the Caribbean. Arrrr!

Mark Pettigrew designed the Flashing Blades RPG back in… well, before some of you were even born. He’s been invisible for years, at least to us gaming-oriented types. But we managed to hunt him down – and get an interview!

– First, could you tell us a bit about yourself? What are you doing these days?

– Let’s see, I’m 43 years old. I was born in Boston but I’ve lived most of my life in California. I’ve spent a lot of time abroad, especially in the Middle East and Africa. I have two great kids. I teach as a professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Queens College, City University of New York. I’ve just taken up indoor climbing. That about wraps it up.

– Flashing Blades is a very compact design – there’s a lot of information in just one thin book. Rules, sample scenario, campaign setting, systems for promotions and military campaigns… What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of compact books vs. the big, heavy manuals used by some games – for instance Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire?

“If a book maps out every square inch of a world, provides rules for every situation, leaves no nooks and crannies for your own inventions, then what’s the point?” – If a book maps out every square inch of a world, provides rules for every situation, leaves no nooks and crannies for your own inventions, then what’s the point? – Everything I say about RPGs now is bound to be informed by hindsight. I don’t think I had formed any philosophy of gaming back when I wrote Flashing Blades. Now, I would say that the more a game leaves to the players’ imaginations, the better. The rulebook should provide a framework and, ideally, the seeds of ideas for adventures and so on. I love books with lush illustrations because they create an atmosphere; but I hate it when they cram loads of information down my throat. The whole idea of role-playing is to use your imagination. If a book maps out every square inch of a world, provides rules for every situation, leaves no nooks and crannies for your own inventions, then what’s the point?

Looking back on it now, I think Flashing Blades was a bit too heavy on rules and die-rolling. It could have been even simpler, more streamlined. One of my inspirations was a little game from GDW called En Garde!, which was also set in a swashbuckling milieu. This was a truly innovative RPG: it had no Game Master, just a batch of tables and rules. That sounds like it wouldn’t keep anyone’s interest for long, but my friends and I loved it. It was a precursor to GDW’s original sci-fi game Traveller, by the way, and shared a lot of Traveller’s structural framework. Anyway, the only problem with En Garde! was that we all wanted to continue playing our characters in new situations, in conventional role-playing adventures. This was one of the reasons I started working on Flashing Blades. But if you want to take a look at an extremely minimalist RPG with incredible playability, En Garde! is the perfect example.

 – Flashing Blades has a lot of historical detail. Did you spend much time on research? Why this exact time period?

– I loved Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Robert Louis Stevenson as a teenager, and I was very serious about fencing at the time. I think Scaramouche was my favorite book for a few years. The time period seemed more approachable to me than the fantasy Middle Ages and science-fiction settings of so many other games. I could never really imagine what it would be like to be a Viking or serf (much less an elf or hobbit or space explorer), but life in 17th-century Paris didn’t feel that distant. By the 17th century urban life, civil institutions, and so on all seem vaguely familiar.

“I could never really imagine what it would be like to be a Viking or serf (much less an elf or hobbit or space explorer), but life in 17th-century Paris didn’t feel that distant.”I did read a few scholarly books on 17th-century France, but, frankly, I «improvised» a lot as well. I wanted to recreate a world of romantic adventure, not the real France of the 17th century, and I shamelessly stole ideas from every novel I read, every movie I saw. Also, at the time, my High School French was very poor. I’m a bit embarrassed looking over Flashing Blades now. I mangled French history and language pretty badly in some places.

Eventually, FGU had the game translated into French (as Les Trois Mousquetaires), and the translators generously corrected my worst mistakes. I recently unearthed some copies of the French edition and took a look at it. To be honest, it’s a much better game in French.

– Some educators are using role-playing games to teach procedures and facts in the classroom. What are your thoughts on that? Have you ever participated in role-playing for educational purposes? How could role-playing games be used to teach history, for example?

– I remember in the early ’80’s a story circulated about a kid who took D&D too seriously and started exploring the sewer near his house as if it were a dungeon. That always sounded like an urban legend to me, but it generated some debate over the dangers of role-playing, whether RPGs encouraged kids to lose touch with reality, and so on. Now we’ve got «Grand Theft Auto» and the debate over «dangerous youth-corrupting games» has moved into a new phase.

RPGs seem wonderfully educational to me. When I was a kid they certainly inspired me to read about all sorts of strange topics. They’re also social. Most video games are isolating, and even multi-player online games don’t have face-to-face interaction. Traditional RPGs are really exercises in cooperative storytelling, and I would think that they would lend themselves to all sorts of educational purposes.

The last game I started working on was not a RPG but was based on the same idea of cooperative play. The rough idea I had in mind was a conflict-resolution game in which players represent various imaginary nations and United Nations agencies. Each player would have randomly assigned goals for his or her faction, and would also have to deal with a randomly generated crisis of some sort. Ultimately, each player would try to fulfill his or her goals through a mixture of competition and cooperation, with the UN player(s) trying to help everyone achieve their goals without conflict. I experimented with a few prototypes of this game but was never able to work the kinks out. It was, I think, my only attempt at an educational game: a war game in which everybody wins if they make peace.

“Rules are really just an excuse to make up a good story.”– Compared to many other games of the period, especially those produced by FGU, Flashing Blades was easy to learn and play. Was this a design goal?
– Yes. Rules are really just an excuse to make up a good story. As a Game Master, I constantly cheated. I bent rules, lied about die rolls, threw out my original plans for endings, anything I had to do to keep things fun and exciting. I think this carried over into game design. As I said earlier, if anything Flashing Blades was too heavy on rules.

– The game had a high focus on court intrigue, exotic locations, colorful characters and cinematic play. What do you think influenced that?
– Well, again, «cinematic» because I was watching films like The Three Musketeers, The Prisoner of Zenda and Captain Blood, so there had to be carpets pulled out from under the boots of the Cardinal’s Guard, swinging chandeliers, etc., etc. And I was a fencer, and wanted very badly to capture what it felt like to fence, to be fighting and thinking furiously at the same time. (I don’t know whether I managed, but I tried.) Emphasis on court intrigue was part of the genre, and a great opportunity for real role-playing. As for exotic locations, I thought the biggest problem with the game was likely to be boredom with the setting: you can only dance across the rooftops of Paris, duel through the back streets of Paris, plod through the sewers of Paris, etc. for so long before things get dull. Eventually, you’ll need to take a vacation in the Caribbean to fight pirates.

– The Flashing Blades RPG was published by FGU in 1984. How did this come about? Did you contact them yourself?
– I sent the game to FGU myself, without knowing anyone there. I had tried my hand at writing other games before that, and although they had all been rejected, I had received some very friendly encouragement, especially from the folks at Flying Buffalo (most famous for Tunnels & Trolls). I think that in those days, everyone was an amateur. We were all gaming enthusiasts.

I don’t know where I found the nerve to write up a manuscript and send it out. I had a lot of support from my friends and family.

“I was 16 when I wrote the game, 18 when it was published.”– So you wrote one brilliant game, and then you totally disappeared from the role-playing business. Why?
– I’m flattered that anyone thinks Flashing Blades was brilliant. I’m glad someone enjoyed it. I did write a few supplements, scenarios and such for other games (especially M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne). I stopped writing game materials when I went to college, partly because I needed to budget my time for my studies, and partly because my friends all drifted to different parts of the country. The most enjoyable aspect of role-playing for me was spending time with my friends. I was never able to recreate that experience after High School.

I had a surreal experience at a gaming convention when I was 18 or 19. I met some fans of Empire of the Petal Throne who had read everything I had ever written for that system. They seemed very disappointed that I was so young and that I didn’t speak fluent Tsolyani (the language of the dominant empire on M.A.R. Barker’s imaginary world, Tekumel). I loved RPGs, but they were just a hobby to me. I had trouble relating to people whose lives revolved around them. That was my last convention.

– You were pretty young back then – in your late teens, right? Was it common for designers to get their games published at such an early age?
– I have no idea. It’s true, I was 16 when I wrote the game, 18 when it was published. I had the impression that most designers were older than I was.

– Four supplements were released in one year. That’s a pretty high rate of publication! What was that like? (And is there any unpublished material for Flashing Blades lying around somewhere?)
– Once I had a market for my stuff, I really enjoyed writing more supplements. Most of that material was generated for my friends in our gaming sessions. As far as I know, all of it got published. It’s a great feeling, when you’re 16 or 17, to know that someone wants to publish what you write, no matter what it is. It gave me loads of confidence in college.

– What was it like working with FGU?
– I never met the people working there. We communicated entirely by mail. I don’t think they realized that I was a kid, at least at first. I tried to write my letters in a very professional style, though now, I think I must have sounded ridiculous. As far as I recall, the folks at FGU offered me good advice for rewrites and were very supportive.

– Last time I checked, the game was still available through FGU’s web shop. Do they own the rights to the game, and pay you royalties, or how does that work?
– I have no idea. I haven’t seen any royalties in about 20 years. FGU was really struggling to get by in those days. The gaming industry wasn’t really an industry back then, just a bunch of role-players writing and publishing their own stuff. FGU put out some slick, nicely packaged games, but a lot of gaming materials were poorly printed on cheap paper. I was surprised to make any profit at all.

“I loved RPGs, but they were just a hobby to me. I had trouble relating to people whose lives revolved around them.”– You’re not playing RPGs these days. What did you enjoy most about gaming back then? What games did you play, and in what sort of environment – close friends, gaming clubs, conventions etc?
– As I mentioned earlier, the context of gaming for me was always getting together with a group of friends, usually on weekends, usually at my house. I did spend some time at the local game store, which was also a venue for RPGs on the weekends, and I went to a few conventions. But mostly, it was just a small circle of friends. We could have played cards or watched TV just as easily, I suppose. Our favorite games were Empire of the Petal Throne, and Chaosium’s Worlds of Wonder and Call of Cthulhu. I had a taste for exotic, highly atmospheric games, which I guess I passed on to the others. We also experimented with our own designs. Most of these tended to be weird an unplayable (e.g. a RPG in which players control competing, evolving hive-minds on an alien planet–not an idea destined for success)

***

After the main interview, we asked the members of the Flashing Blades mailing list whether there was anything they wanted to ask Mark. Here are their questions – and his answers.

– Many see you as an idol, shaping their RPG lives with Flashing Blades. Some write online supplements or adventures for Flashing Blades. Do you still follow what happens online with Flashing Blades? And if so, what would be the possibilities to obtain a ‘Mark Pettigrew approved’ stamp to those works that are in line with your vision? What kind of advice can you provide?
– I really feel uncomfortable with the word «idol.» I can’t even get my kids to listen to me. I’m the last person who should be idolized.

I am pleased and flattered to learn that so many people enjoyed, and still enjoy, Flashing Blades. I had no idea they had formed an online community until I was contacted for this article, so, no, I haven’t been following it.

“As far as my seal of approval goes, why would anyone need that?” As far as my seal of approval goes, why would anyone need that? One person from the online group recently contacted me and told me a little about his campaign and I was amazed by his dedication and inventiveness. Frankly, it sounded to me as if he and his players were far more sophisticated (and historically informed) than my game. I think Flashing Blades just served as a springboard for him to explore his own ideas, and that’s all it should be expected to do. Once you buy the game, it’s yours to do with as you like.

– There’s also an active online community for Flashing Blades (flashing_blades@yahoogroups.com). You are cordially invited to join, of course; but until then, do you have any words of wisdom for them?
– Thanks for the invitation. I don’t know if I have any wisdom to offer. My fear is that someone will ask me about the cardinal Mazarin’s middle name or how to load a flintlock musket, and then be disappointed when I don’t know. (Actually, it’s «Raimondo,» and the trick is to keep your powder dry and use plenty of wadding.)

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