I fairly recently got a new game so here are some notes of my first impressions.
Chivalry & Sorcery, for those not familiar with it, is a venerable tabletop roleplaying game, first created in 1977 in response to Dungeons & Dragons, with the intent of bringing more historicity and realism to tabletop fantasy adventure. It remains pretty true to those roots: both in the sense that it is a game in the old school tradition, leaving the players to freeform much of the storytelling and characterisation, while devoting its rules to resolution mechanics for contested, risky or otherwise uncertain efforts to do things; and in that it is very firmly grounded in the historical, with character generation built around the structure of medieval society, emphasis on the world in which ‘adventures’ are embedded, medieval technology and a magick (note spelling) system, fantasy monsters and so on inspired to a considerable extent by medieval ideas. As far as reference points in my own game experience go, it is reminding me somewhat of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the d100 roll-under mechanics, and some of the philosophy of socially-embedded character generation) and Ars Magica (the medieval historicity) though, since C&S came first by about a decade, the flow of inspiration may be from it to them.
This historical-realistic approach has a lot in common with my own instincts and preferences in game design and play, so I invested in the hardcover core rulebook for the latest edition (5e, 2019, published by Brittannia Game Designs—note spelling) and I’ve picked up electronic copies of some of the supplements. I’ve been spending enough time with it that I will probably make a number of posts about it.
(Full disclosure: I’ve had some early exchanges with the C&S people about maybe pitching something to write for them. As I’m still getting my head round the system I haven’t got round to making a detailed pitch yet but I might do. The views in here are my own.)
This post is an overview of the core rulebook, and I’ve certainly got material for a post about choosing skills in the character building process. I might find more to say later. I’m not at this stage doing a full review, as I’ve only read part of the rulebook so far and haven’t played.
First impressions are very good. It’s a quality product with a hefty weight, high-end binding and a nice painting on the cover. Opening up, the paper and printing are good quality and the wall to wall graphic design is nicely balanced with very readable text and evocative, professional, colour illustrations. This is a book it will be a pleasure to spend time with. (Having done just that, my inner editor is picking up some typos and text structuring glitches, but they’re minor.)
The pdf version is clear, and the clickable contents page is a very handy way to navigate.
The overall page count is about 600 and it isn’t too padded out with graphics, so there is a lot of content. You get:
|Introduction (to TTRPGs, the medieval period, and C&S’s core mechanic)||3|
|The Medieval World||21|
|Core Game Mechanics||19|
|Character Generation Process||68|
|Vocations (classes or professions)||28|
|The Marketplace (gear, currency and medieval measurements)||33|
|Movement & Time (including campaign time, journeys and tactical play)||3|
|Religion (medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam)||63|
|Being a Gamemaster||17|
|The Campaign World (mapping, feudal society)||36|
|Glossary of Terms||1|
|List of Tables||2|
|Blank Character Sheet (for one character)||6|
*I think the index may have been auto-created based on the headings in the book. For example, if you look for Strength in the index, it gives one page number. Not the page for Attributes, or for any of the many uses for Strength in the basic rules; it is the heading ‘Strength’ in the Vampire monster description in the Bestiary chapter. So the index is less useful than it looks at first glance. If you have the pdf version the text is searchable and that may be better.
The Medieval World
This is a concise introduction to medieval society. It is good stuff as far as I can tell, being consistent with social history that I’ve read and giving a clear and fairly comprehensive overview at manageable length. It maybe slightly underplays the evolution of society between the sub-periods the game covers (Early Feudal, High Chivalric, Late Feudal and Waning Feudal), but it does mention and date some developments (and specific period differences are built into the crunchier parts of the book like the equipment lists and the social background tables).
It is unsurprisingly mainly based on Europe (and I think specifically England and nearby lands), but it also has a few pages on Africa and Africans in Europe. I very much applaud the intention not to be completely Eurocentric, but that balance seems a little wonky – it feels like there’s room to develop comparable material on western Asia (which had more links to medieval Europe than most of Africa did) and indeed on the differences between European regions. I know there are sourcebooks on other world regions in the pipeline – I think Japan is out now.
(Also, Brittannia have a line of products about a fictional fantasy setting for C&S with Tolkienesque races like elves, dwarves and trolls)
Core Game Mechanics
This introduces the Skillskape (note spelling again – maybe they’re being sponsored by the letter K, like an episode of Sesame Street?) system which resolves most actions in the game. It’s good to put it up front, because you need to understand how this mechanic works so you can operate all the quantitative levers in front of you during character creation.
The skill mechanic itself is pretty crunchy. Each skill has a Difficulty Factor, which determines your Base Chance of Success (which is different if you have no training at all, for those skills that allow untrained attempts) as well as the experience cost to acquire or get better at the skill. Your experience bonus, your personal Attribute modifiers and some other factors add up to a Personal Skill Factor which you add to your Base Chance of Success to determine your Total Chance of Success for the skill. This might in turn be modified by situational factors, and in any case is limited within a minimum and maximum overall chance of success, depending again on skill difficulty. You want to roll under your success chance on d100 to succeed. You also roll a Crit Die (another d10), which determines how well you succeed or how badly you fail, largely independently of either your success chance or the d100 roll to determine success or failure.
I’ll obviously have to see how it works in play but, although I generally get into detailed mechanics and numbers, this feels maybe a tiny bit elaborate to me on first reading. Each attempt involves 3 dice the same shape with distinct and interrelated meanings. And most actions are in fact interactions with a resisting roll or calculation being made for the target of your attempt. Minor social encounters may be resolved in one interaction, but (as with most games of this kind of pedigree) combat is handled at a much finer resolution and is likely to take a number of rounds, with characters I think often getting more than one action per round.
My other initial query is about the independent randomness of the crit die. There’s a table of success and failure degrees with descriptions like ‘a stunning display of outstanding skill’ or ‘sadly incompetent’ that I feel ought to depend on the skill of the person making the attempt. But the crit die seems to prevent a skilled character being confident of avoiding ignominious failures, as well as to enable a lucky beginner to perform like a star on occasion. I anticipate wanting to revise the narration of uncharacteristic results to blame external influences or obvious chance, rather than competence. Anyway, the proof of the game is in the playing and I haven’t, so I’ll leave it at that.
This section also covers social interactions, discussing roleplaying the status differentials and social conventions of the historical or historico-fantasy world as well as showing how to apply the core mechanic to persuasion attempts. The specific mechanics modifying social interactions are also heavily dependent on social status, which is rated as a score for each character. There is also an Honour score, which is awarded for knightly deeds and adds to social status for interaction purposes.
Character Generation Process
C&S character generation involves, as you might guess by now, detailed elaboration and a close concern with medieval society. The pivotal element of early character generation is determining your character’s father’s occupation, which can be anything from landless bondsman to high noble, via 400 or so options in between (you can download a flowchart from the company website or their Facebook group, helping you identify the right tables to consult for the successively finer gradations you need to determine). And whether your parentage is legitimate, your birth order, whether you are in your father’s favour, whether he and your mother are still alive and if not whether the survivor has remarried, and so on. Your father’s occupation determines your background skills and your social status. The class you’re born into also limits the vocations you can choose, and may give you bonuses to certain skills.
That’s not the end of it though. Character generation also includes your zodiacal sign, whether your birth was well-omened or ill, and whether you have special talents, flaws or a curse. All these things can have quite significant gameplay effects.
You can play as a male or female character. Although the rulebook outlines the patriarchy of medieval society and its limits on the roles and behaviour of women, treats male characters as the default at times, and gives options for female characters to trade the Brawling skill for more feminine accomplishments like Cooking and Sewing, it doesn’t enforce that trade and makes it possible for women characters to choose a full range of character creation options (at least as far as the rules are concerned—individual campaigns I guess are free to keep vocations like knighthood and priesthood male-only). To satisfy historical sticklers there’s a page detailing notable female warriors and leaders in history.
As befits a DnD-like game, you also generate personal attributes. The six DnD ability scores are there, plus six others. Three of them are calculated from some of the other nine. For each attribute, the raw score is sometimes used in itself, but also gives you a certain success chance for attribute rolls as well as a modifier for applicable skill rolls. You look these up on tables—there’s no simple formula.
Having determined attributes, these feed into the determination of height, weight, lifting/carrying capacity, a second Strength measure that takes your size into account, body points, fatigue points and action points. It is, like the rest of the system, crunchy. I like this part—I like physical capabilities to be closely related to physical size and shape.
Finally, you determine your age (which affects experience points available to purchase additional skill advancement made in your extended backstory) and cosmetic and roleplaying features like personality, appearance, dress and so on. There is of course a short briefing on the evolution of fashions and hairstyles for men and women in the European middle ages.
Character generation can be either point-buy or random, and either one can be tuned to a Historic, Heroic or Mythical power level. The random option also has normal and Lion Heart modes, according to how favourable a die rolling method you use for attributes.
The random rolling feels very old-school, in a game like this where there are so many variables about each character and they interact a great deal. It is possible to randomly roll a character that happens to suit a vocation you can choose, but it also seems quite likely to randomly roll one with a haphazard collection of strengths, weaknesses and closed-off options that don’t cohere to make a character who’s particularly effective at any one role. Maybe that’s part of the realism. Maybe a lot of us might admit in certain moods that if we’re ideally suited to any vocation in life it probably wasn’t one that was open to us as we entered adulthood.
The point-buy option might tempt those who like to design effective characters. It certainly looks like it’s meant to accommodate that, and structure trade-offs between strengths and weaknesses. And if the campaign features a good mix of social interactions, environmental challenges and deeds of arms in a variety of situations then there’s an incentive to build well-rounded characters rather than min-maxed one-tricksters. However, the game’s designers, in online discussions, are clear that they don’t claim to guarantee a set of characters who are balanced against each other. The medieval world is not a place of equality and the initial social class role is a big determiner. Also, I think I have already spotted one or two power-building tactics that aren’t ruled out but aren’t really in the spirit of the character-building process, like taking a Body point boost as a ‘hobby skill’.
I think the thing about Chivalry and Sorcery is that it is a game for certain kinds of players and GMs. GMs are expected to make judgements and make things work, without relying too much on safeguards built into the system. Players are expected to be more interested in creating and playing an interesting character in a medieval society than in constructing an optimized monster slayer. Both are expected to be willing to put a fair bit of thought into their gaming. If that’s you, then Chivalry and Sorcery is well worth considering.
(Actually, one flag on my recommendation of the game—its historical realism extends to the presence of slavery as an aspect of European society in specific parts of the period/continent, which I think is a no-go topic for some. You can easily enough omit this from your own campaign, but just so you know that the rulebook spends a few pages outlining the historical role of enslaved people in certain medieval societies and the Mediterranean traffic that took some of these people from the Crimea, the Balkans and Africa.)
(Edit: I’ve spotted another content warning. Like many detailed, gritty, character-focused games, C&S has a Flaws, Deficiencies and Defects section. Given that a lot of the items in this section are about psychological traits, some of which we might nowadays understand as linked to mental health or neurodiversity, and a few about the character’s senses, to use the language of ‘flaws’, ‘deficiencies’ or ‘defects’ about them may strike some modern readers as objectionably ableist. You can ignore this section or you can reframe it in different terms in your own mind and at-table discussions, but that language is there in the book.)
The next two sections are Vocation and Skills, and I have a number of specific points about these that I think deserve space. I have also reached a fair length for one post already, so I’ll probably just stop here for now. I’ll make the next post about Vocations and Skills, and it will be less review-style and more aimed at sharing my learning on how the character generation rules work, because it takes some figuring out. After that, when I have properly read more of the rules and/or actually played a game, I may do one or more follow-up posts.
Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chivalry_%26_Sorcery
Publishers’ website https://britgamedesigns.wpcomstaging.com/
Facebook group, where several of the game authors are active https://www.facebook.com/groups/733081920490563
A forum discussion thread with someone else covering some of the same stuff I’m talking about here. And more, I think. There’s a lot of it, which I mostly haven’t read. https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/where-i-read-create-a-character-for-chivalry-sorcery-5e.866178/