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A cowardly war hero. A paragon of Victorian manhood; a lying adulterer who cheats at billiards. A bully. A murderer. An actor, willingly and unwillingly, in some of the biggest scams and schemes of the age. Harry Flashman, the hero of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman Papers, is all of these and more.
What collection of historical fiction would be complete without the Flashman Papers? The adventures detailed within have taken readers to every locale from the Little Big Horn to Cape Town, from the cricket fields of Lord's to Manchu China, and from the First Afghan War to the Boxer Rebellion. And always at the center of the action - usually gulping in terror and trying his damnedest to escape - is Flashy, V.C., whose reputation as the indomitable Hero of Kabul and the Hector of Afghanistan is dispelled before the readers' very eyes as the man himself tells the truth behind his glorious 'official' history.
Roleplayers who have enjoyed reading about Flashman's exploits may very well also have wondered about the feasibility of running a Flashman campaign, set alongside the events detailed in the series, with their characters encountering or even accompanying Flash Harry in their travels. In what follows, I will attempt to answer the central questions which must accompany such an endeavor:
Harry Paget Flashman (1822-1915) is the central character and narrator of the Flashman Papers. His life as a literary character began as one of Tom Brown's chief tormentors in Thomas Hughes' famous novel, Tom Brown's Schooldays. The last mention of Flashman in this book - in which his character as a bully, back-stabber, and coward is firmly established - is when he is expelled after being encountered, drunk, by one of the schoolmasters, and it is with this event that the first of the Flashman novels begins:
Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail. You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error. I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen. - Flashman, pg. 1
Sent home in disgrace, Flashy decides to ask his father to buy him a commission in the 11th Light Dragoons - on the grounds that they are a dashing outfit, perfectly suitable for a handsome young rake, but not likely to see service! So begins an unparalleled trip across the Victorian world; mostly through postings to the various British Imperial wars (India, the Crimea, Afghanistan, and so on), but also through various unofficial means (kidnap, desertion, and various other 'plans gone awry') to America, South Africa, China, and Borneo. As his reputation grows, poor Flashman is also unofficially drafted into the intrigue-rich diplomatic schemes of the British government, an environment which sees him taking on the roles of lawyer, spy, and even assassin on behalf of the Crown.
The series currently comprises ten volumes; each pays consummate detail to historical fact, often commenting on the happenings of the book through the use of footnotes and appendices. The volumes, with a brief outline of their contents, are listed in chronological order as follows:
As the events described above illustrate, Flashman has managed to stick his oar into most of the colossal and calamitous events of the Nineteenth Century, and his rather unique perspective on them makes him an ideal character for parties in a Victorian setting to encounter, given the way that the Flashman stories are cunningly woven around accepted history in the same way that historically-accurate Victorian RPG campaigns must be. However, getting the 'Hero of Kabul' to swing a saber alongside your heroes may be more difficult that it would be for other Victorian heroes:
As so often in the past, I was the victim of my own glorious and entirely unearned reputation - Flashy, the hero of Jallalabad, the last man out of the Kabul retreat and the first man into the Balaclava battery, the beau sabreaur of the Light Cavalry, Queen's Medal, Thanks of Parliament, darling of the mob, with a liver as yellow as yesterday's custard, if only they'd known it. - Flashman in the Great Game, pg. 39
Flashy's reticence to live the life of the adventurer takes two forms. Firstly, he avoids hazardous postings and positions wherever possible, usually by trying to wheedle his way into more comfortable duties. In Flashman at the Charge, he comes up with the following plan to avoid being called up to fight in the Crimean War:
So, I looked for a way out, and found a deuced clever one - I rejoined the Army. [But] the smart thing was, I didn't ask for a cavalry posting, or a staff mount, or anything risky of that nature; instead I applied for the Board of Ordnance, for which I knew I was better qualified than most of its members, inasmuch as I knew which end of a gun the ball came out of. - pg. 13
Secondly, if somehow coerced or tricked into participating in some potentially dangerous assignment - it often happens that Flashy manages to inadvertently connive himself closer to danger with all his maneuvering, or finds that his heroic reputation makes it impossible for him to fade into the background - he attempts to back out of the situation or simply turn tail and run:
With my sure instinct, I knew that the "service" I was being blackmailed into was sure to be unpleasant, and quite likely damned dangerous, but my queasy guts didn't interfere with my logical process... [it] was already in my mind that whatever lay ahead - a journey, initially, according to Rudi - some opportunity of escape must present itself. Unless you are actually locked up, escapes are not as difficult as many folks think ... - Royal Flash, pg. 99
That Flashy is a coward is beyond doubt. In his own words, after finding himself forced into a pistol duel:
I almost shouted at the horror of it, and lay there blubbering in the dark room; I would have got up and run, but my legs would not let me. - Flashman, pg. 47
Hardly an appropriate main character for the derring-do which is the stuff of most Victorian role-playing games! However, despite his pronounced aversion to heroics, Flashman can still be used very successfully as an NPC for your Victorian campaign. After all, the 'Hero of Kabul' is forever being posted into unpleasant situations like those that PCs seem to end up in. The characters could be thrown into the same dank cell as a bedraggled Flashman in any number of flyblown backwaters or European castles; the shock with which they reconcile their idea of him as a renowned war hero with his spineless and despondent true self would certainly make for some interesting interactions. On the other hand, Flashy has proven time and time again that he is capable of concealing his own cowardice very effectively:
I sprang to the bank, waved my cutlass again, and bawled, "Follow me!" They came tumbling out of the boat on my heels ... [I] advanced with them, of course, pausing only to encourage those in the rear with manly cries, until I reckoned there were about a score in front of me; then I lit out in pursuit of the vanguard, not leading from behind, exactly - more from the middle, really, which is the safest place to be unless you're up against civilized artillery. - Flashman's Lady, pg. 198
It is therefore possible that, with some elegant footwork from the GM, that the party might never even realize what an insufferable coward Flashman really is. What is more likely to give him away is his lack of martial talent. He is, after all, a consistently terrible shot; even his skill with a sword is mostly tavern-room brawling and dirty tricks:
... in desperation I tried the old Flashman triple pass - a sudden thrust at the face, a tremendous kick at his essentials, and a full-blooded downward cut. - Royal Flash, pg. 245
Such shortcomings may give the heroes good reason to suspect that he is less than he claims to be.
The most believable trick for getting Flashy into your campaign is to play on his two strongest motivations: greed and lust. An attractive female patron or party member, or the promise of a sizable reward, will secure Flashman's services without a moment's hesitation, especially if the journey or expedition looks like it will relieve him of his responsibilities in some other dangerous venture. This triple motivation is well illustrated in Flashman and the Dragon, where Flashman agrees to lead an opium-trading expedition up the Pearl River for three reasons: one, that he stands to earn over a thousand pounds for his efforts; two, that he is convinced that the hitherto unseduceable wife of the opium trader will be more amenable to his charms in her gratitude; and, three, that it will see him firmly out of the area before the multinational force under Sir Hope Grant arrive to fight a trade war against the Manchu rulers. As it turns out, Flashy soon becomes embroiled in a far more desperate series of adventures than he had imagined at the outset; but, by this time, he is committed to the expedition, trapped on all sides by hostile forces, and forced to take the dangerous assignments placed before him at his destination as a simple way out of the mess he has landed in.
Keeping Flashy put once he is embroiled in the adventure is a far simpler trick than getting him involved. Flashy's greed, lust or desire to protect his reputation can also be used here to some effectiveness, but simpler still is to keep the alternatives to participation - escape, delopement, or curling up into a fetal ball - more unpleasant or dangerous than the adventure itself:
Old dungeon-fighters like myself - and I've had a wealth of experience, from the vaults of Jotunberg, where I was sabre to sabre with Starnberg, to that Afghan prison where I let dear old Hudson take the strain - know that the thing to do on these occasions is find a nice dark corner and crawl into it. But out of sheer self-preservation I daren't - I knew that if I didn't take a hand Kutebar and Yakub would be dead inside a minute, and where would Cock Flashy be then, poor thing? - Flashman at the Charge, pg. 252
A far more exacting task is determining where to slot your group's adventures in in such a manner that they don't contradict the timeline established in the books. In one sense, this need not cause potential GMs too many gray hairs - by Flashy's own admission and as GM Fraser's notes reflect, the Papers are often self-contradictory or incomplete. Flashman's whereabouts from 1865 to 1876 are as yet undetailed, although 1876 does see him visiting the US from England (and ending up at the Battle of the Little Big Horn for good measure), and various references in other sections of the Papers place him everywhere from Paraguay to Italy during these years. Any of these gaps can safely be used to create whole new adventures for Flashman.
An easier route is to allow the party to take a hand in some of Flashy's existing adventures. The 'cast of thousands' who perennially appear to deliver Flashman from the various grisly dooms have all participated in adventures more than worthy of your groups time. Some of these adventures are as follows:
Of course, any attempts to use Flashy in your adventures will require some details of his strengths and weaknesses to enable you to challenge him with your own devious schemes and opponents. Flashy's own appraisals of his skills, as well as game statistics for a range of games which encompass a Victorian setting are provided below - although it would be a cruel GM indeed who turned the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Weird West, the Unseelie Court or the Netherworld loose on poor Flashman. Good luck!
So often it's like that, when the most vivid chapters end ... [and] in a moment you're at peace and dog-tired, with your back to a gun-wheel at Gwalior, or closing your eyes in a corner seat of the Deadwood Stage, or drinking tea contentedly with an old Khirghiz bandit in a serai on the Golden Road, or sitting alone with the President of the United States at the end of a great war, listening to him softly whistling "Dixie." - Flashman and the Dragon, pg. 287
Flashy's skills, in his own words:
On his natural talents:
... indeed, horsemanship and my trick of picking up foreign tongues have been the only things in which you could say I was born gifted, and very useful they have been.
On handling a cavalry lance:
...[but] a lance is something else again. Any fool can couch it and ride straight, but if you are to be any use at all you must be able to handle all nine feet of it so that you can pick a playing card off the ground with the point, or pink a running rabbit. I was determined to shine among the Company men, so I hired a native rissalder of the Bengal Cavalry to teach me; [those] lessons were to save my life once at least - so that was more well-spent money.
Flashman, pg. 77
On his skill with language:
I give the advice for what it is worth: if you want to learn a language properly, learn it in bed with a native girl - I'd have got more of the classics from an hour's wrestling with a Greek wench than I did in four years with Arnold.
Flashy the swordsman:
I'm not a sabre expert - a strong swordsman, rather than a good one, was how the master-at-arms in the 11th Hussars had described me - and if I have to use one I'd rather it wasn't in single combat, but in a melee, where you can hang about on the outskirts, roaring your heart out and waiting for an opponent with his back turned... [I] broke ground and let go with a regular roundhouse slash at him, like a dragoon full of drink. With the schlager, I learned later, you are supposed to employ only wrist cuts, but I was just an ignorant foreigner.
Royal Flash, pg. 130
Flashy and the Congreve Rocket Battery:
Putting up the frame was simple... [I've] never known my fingers so nimble as I tightened the screws and adjusted the half-pipes in their sockets...
Flashman at the Charge, pg. 301
Flashman and firearms:
...as the leader's horse sped past me, I gave it a barrel in the neck - in a melee you shoot at what you're sure to hit...
Flashman and the Redskins, pg. 125
... once, when a canoe came surging out of
the smoke, with a great yellow d___l in a quilted tunic spiked
helmet in the prow, brandishing a barbed lance, I took a steady
sight and missed him twice, but my third shot got him clean
Flashman's Lady, pg. 194
... I opened fire with the Adams... [knocked]
over two with five shots ...
Flashman and the Dragon, pg. 76
Flashy's Deadlands Statistics
|Cognition: 3d6, Knowledge: 3d6, Mien: 2d8, Smarts: 3d12, Spirit: 4d4|
|Deftness: 1d10, Nimbleness: 2d10, Quickness: 4d8, Strength: 4d10, Vigor: 3d8|
|Edges and Hindrances||Skills|
|Gift of the Gab (1)
Luck of the Irish (3)
Rank: English Officer (1)
The Stare (1)
Renown: Hero of Kabul (2)
Torture Methods (2)
Area Knowledge: England (2)
Area Knowledge: India (3)
Artillery: Congreve Rockets (2)
Arts: Singing (Ditties) (2)
Fighting: Lance (5)
Fighting: Saber (2)
Fighting: Brawling (3)
Horse Riding (6)
Languages: Assorted (1)
Shootin': Pistol (1)
Shootin': Rifle (1)
Sleight of Hand (4)
Tale Telling (2)
Throwing: Unbalanced (4)
Flashy's Castle Falkenstein Statistics
|GREAT:||Gambling, Stealth, Renown|
|GOOD:||Charisma, Comeliness, Social Graces|
Flashy's Call of Cthulhu Statistics
|STR: 16||DEX: 14||INT: 11||CON: 11||APP: 16||POW: 6|
|EDU: 10||SIZ: 15||SAN: 30||Idea: 55||Luck: 60*||Know: 50|
|Anthropology: 45||Hide: 65||Fist/Punch: 60|
|Bargain: 45||Other Languages** (Various): 10||Saber: 50|
|Conceal: 30||Persuade: 50||Lance: 75|
|Credit Rating: 35||Pilot Balloon: 10||Pistol: 30|
|Dodge: 38||Ride: 85||Rifle: 45|
|Fast Talk: 70||Spot Hidden: 65||Artillery (Rockets): 40%|
Modified to reflect Flashy's consistent, though mixed,
** - Flashy gains 1 point per day of immersion in a foreign language until he reaches 50%
Hit Points: 13
Flashy's Risus Statistics
|Clichés:||Dragoon (4), Natural Linguist (3), Coward (2), Plunger (1)|
Flashy's Forgotten Futures Statistics
|BODY: 3||MIND: 2||SOUL: 4|
|Skills:||Marksman 3, Military Arms 3, Stealth 4, Linguist 6, Riding 6, Brawling 3|