Dueling Fops of Vindamere Review

I’m here today with a short, fast game called Dueling Fops of Vindamere. While this isn’t a one-page RPG by any means it is very straightforward and speedy, an especially unexpected quality because it’s written by Greg Stolze of Godlike and Unknown Armies fame. Unlike these two games the mechanics of Dueling Fops are simple but it does carry the characteristic Stolze approach of an incredibly open-ended gaming experience.

This game is very quick with seven established scenes and sometimes ending before you get to all of them. It’s intended to be dramatic and flashy so if you are taken out of the game it’s really possible to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Character

The book describes Dueling Fops as “a game of arrogant scions of the gentry bickering, bragging, degrading themselves, falling in love and seeking to balance conflicting loyalties.” Your fop is someone with a lot of time and money on their hands and also a deadly blade that they know how to use. In the fanciful city of Vindamere is sinking into social decay and the gentry’s parties and fencing schools are some of the only pillars of civilization remaining.

Your character will have two different stats, Foppish which describes how invested they are in the decadence of their society and Duelist which determines how much they use their courtly fencing blade. You start the game by rolling 1d6+2 for each of those to give your starting stats. Two more stats are derived from these two: Serious is how much you resist the foppishness of society and starts at ten minus your Foppish score, while Aristocrat is how much you work within the system instead of dueling and it starts at ten minus your Duelist. These reciprocal relationships extend into gameplay too so when you lose a point of Foppish (say) you automatically gain a point in Serious and vice versa; the sums of Foppish+Serious and Duelist+Aristocrat should each equal 10 at all times.

Interestingly, there is a definite exit for each character if one of your stats reaches 10 (and the corresponding stat reaches 0) and the exact nature depends on the stat. Reaching Foppish 10 means falling into dissolution and dying of drugs and venereal disease, Serious 10 means achieving enlightenment and removing yourself from this decadent society, Duelist 10 means you are disowned as you neglect your familial duties in favor of the sword, and Aristocrat 10 means you come to your senses (in the eyes of your family) and live up to expectations. In all of these cases your character becomes unplayable (and possibly deceased) and you either sit the rest of the game out and watch or you try to jump in with an NPC.

Specifically, you might continue on with one of your two Beloved, the character that all fops have for whom their foppish heart beats foppishly. They could be a child born out of marriage, an older or younger relative you’re close to, a protégé you are training, a lover and/or spouse, or just a good friend. Whoever they are, the Beloved character is around to support your character though they can continue your story if you’re taken out of the game. You can also lose your Beloveds and this can take the wind from your fop’s sails and take them out of the game a different way. This might happen if the Beloved dies or if one of the other fops seduces them away to their school, bed, or favorite tavern and the NPC becomes their Beloved instead. All’s fair in Duels and Fops, as they say.

Gameplay

You are the head of a school of swordplay in the city of Vindamere and you have to navigate the low-stakes high-drama world of being a Dueling Fop. There are seven different scenes to play out during the course of a game: Ye Midwinter Balle to start things off, two Random Scenes rolled later, Ye Spring Cotillionnne (sic) to bring everyone together again, two more Random Scenes, and finally Ye Alle-Valley Fencinge Championshippe where everything comes to a head and ends are met.

There are lots of different actions to try in these scenes but they all come down to the same mechanic: roll 1d10 and add a combination of two stats to try and beat 15. Obviously Foppish+Serious and Duelist+Aristocrat are going to be 10 every time so the other combinations are what you use to accomplish things. Foppish+Aristocrat is for social “hijinks” to either Seduce someone or Outshine a rival. Foppish+Duelist is for taking another socialite down a peg when you Humiliate or Brag to make them look worse. Serious+Aristocrat is all the work that the nobility is “supposed” to be doing instead of going to parties and fencing matches, specifically they Buy Stuff, Cope With Peasants or they Talk Sense to another noble who is still into those damn parties. Lastly, Serious+Duelist is the swordfighting stuff where you Train another swordfighter (like your Beloved) or end someone with a Mortal Strike. When you have player vs. player rolls, by the way, you handle these the same way so each character succeds or fails on their own merits (possibly ending with a draw where both succeed and each claim victory).

The game starts with Ye Midwinter Balle, the traditional cold-weather dance where things get kicked off. You randomly determine who catches your eye out of the Beloveds that people brought then take Balle-specific actions like Seduce Somebody or Take Mighty Draughts and Boast. There are a couple random scenes (more on those below) and then Ye Springe Cotillionnne hosted by the tyrant of Vindamere so you’re not supposed to fight. Instead all the Beloveds are there and they can take Cotillionnne-specific actions like Bring a Serious Matter to the Tyrant’s Attention, Outshine Your Rival, or Just Have Fun. After the Beloveds do their thing the instructor main characters either Pay Court to their loves in a romantic and measured way or Pitch Woo to someone in a lustful and smutty way. After a few more random scenes comes the final scene: Ye Alle-Valley Fencinge Championshippe where instructors and/or Beloveds compete. You can throw a match, fight honorably, or push hard and pull no punches to grab victory. After the first few matches you might even kill someone (or be killed) and then fight the final matches to see who wins overall. Then the story ends and you detail the rest of their story.

But let’s take a step back for those random scenes from before. There are a dozen so you can roll a d12 to pick the four you’re going to be using in a given game. The dozen scenes are…

  • Erotic Machinations is all about the fops’ dating lives where you either get people excited, badmouth someone else to steal a paramour yourself.
  • Grog-House Brawl is a good, old-fashioned barfight where some insult leads to violence and possibly injury or even death.
  • Triangular Romantic Interlude is a chance to tangle things up nicely where two people meet up somewhere and anyone with feelings for either of them also turns up and drama ensues.
  • Locked Room Mystery! is a murder mystery dinner in the middle of everything else where a lord is killed and you have to figure out who did it.
  • Political Unrest is a chance for the feudal fantasy of Vindamere to come out in a different way as the peasants start revolting.
  • Swords at Dawn! is a classic swordfight where two fops are dueling to the death over some slight.
  • Someone’s Debut Into Society is a glamorous debutante ball where a young woman is entering the marriage market and the field gets more complicated.
  • Elopement/Kidnap? is a scene where a Beloved or two disappears with another character (hopefully of their own free will but Vindamere’s a vicious place).
  • Faustian Bargain?!? is a magical scene with a warlock offering to whisk you away from all of this nonsense to live with them and magical fixes for their loved ones.
  • Angry Breakup is when love turns sour and things don’t end well, possibly in a sly way or possibly in an angry way that leaves an opening for someone else.
  • A Friendly Match Gets Out of Hand is a light sparring workout that takes a turn and might lead to some bad injury.
  • The Harrowing of Gambling Hall is an underground gambling hall where cheating can happen and fights can break out.

Conclusion

This game isn’t designed for just any kind of play. I was listening to an episode of the Ludonarrative Dissidents podcast which Greg Stolze co-hosts and he was pointing out that this is a game which you can’t play as a campaign. It’s designed for seven scenes which probably happen over a single session and then the characters’ stories are over. I think a gaming group that played only this would burn out on it, but that’s alright and also that’s not really the function of Dueling Fops. It’s a very focused game with a very focused type of story.

And it does that so well! This game runs itself and it creates fun and exciting stories without blinking. If this review sounded good to you then I absolutely think you should check it out. See you at the competitionnne, everyone!

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