Chivalry & Sorcery—understanding skills and vocations

This is a follow-up to my previous post, which gave an overview of what you get with the Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition core rulebook.

I’m shifting out of the review mode I was kind of in for that post, because I’ve been figuring out exactly how the skill selection and vocation rules work in C&S and I wanted to share that learning. So for this post, I’m going to assume you have the core rulebook and can refer to it, and I’m going to (try to) guide you through these aspects of character generation and where to find the rules in the book.

The rules you need are spread over most of the early chapters: Core Game Mechanics, Character Generation, Vocations and Skills. You will also want to refer to Armaments, Armour and Shields in the Marketplace chapter if you’re selecting combat skills (and I assume you need to get into the Magick and Spells chapters if you’re selecting magickal skills, but I haven’t yet). It also helps to flick to the back and check out the blank character sheet (particularly page 1, which has the weapons, and page 3, which has skills and advancements, and if applicable page 5, which has magickal skills and spells).

My heartfelt thanks go to the designers, GMs and players on the Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition Group on Facebook for helping me figure this all out.

Understanding skills

Each of your character’s skills has the following features:

Difficulty Factor (DF)

Each skill has a DF, which determines the base unskilled and skilled chances of success, the minimum and maximum success chances after modifiers, and the experience cost of advancing the skill. The rules for what each DF means are on p33, and the DF of each individual skill is given in the Skills chapter (not forgetting the skills table on pages 147-148, which is labelled as part of the Vocations chapter)

Level

The degree of learning you have in the skill. You leave this blank (or leave the skill off your sheet) if you are Unskilled: some skills (tagged, at the start of the skill description text, TR for Training Required) are not usable at all by Unskilled characters; those that are usable Unskilled use a lower base chance of success. Above Unskilled, Level 0 indicates Basic competency and grants a higher base chance of success. Levels 1 and up each provide a small bonus to your chance of success. The function of skill level is largely explained in Core Game Mechanics on p32-34. Do not confuse your level in an individual skill with your overall experience level, explained on p41.

Base Chance of Success (BCS)

This is determined by the skill’s inherent difficulty (more difficult skills have a lower BCS) and by whether you’re unskilled or skilled in it (the unskilled BCS is generally 10%, that is ten percentage points, lower but where the skill is so difficult that this would reach 0 or less then it will be roughly half the skilled BCS). Skilled and Unskilled BCSs by skill difficulty are given on p33; skilled BCSs for each skill are also given in the skill descriptions.

Personal Success Factor (PSF)

This is a total of the following:

Skill level bonus = 3% per skill level, with level 0 (Basic) counting as 0%, 1 as 3%, etc. Stated on p32.

Attribute component—this is determined on the attribute table on page 33, which is nearly but not quite +/- 1% per point of attribute with zero adjustment at attribute 11. Most skills have two relevant attributes so this can stack up. Which attributes apply to each skill is given in the Skills chapter (p147-231)

Other PSF—common contributors to this include the +10% bonuses for Primary and Mastered skills (see below), the -10% penalty for Tertiary skills (see below), the +10% Knightly and Forester bonuses for relevant vocations on certain combat skills (p163-168), and the +10% gentlefolk bonus for Courtly Love and Leadership (p77). There may be others from special abilities, magic, fatigue, combat effects, etc, some of which I guess last long enough to record on your character sheet and some of which I think don’t.

There can be modifiers to the chance of success that aren’t part of your PSF. Some are situational modifiers determined by the GM (general rule p34). There’s a space on the blank character sheet for recording these so maybe some can be lasting modifiers applying to your character.

Total Success Chance (TSC)

This is the total of the BCS, PSF and other modifiers.

Minimum and maximum TSC

These are determined by difficulty (p33). Before making a skill check, if your TSC (counting all applicable adjustments for you and this check) is above the maximum, you reduce it to the maximum but convert the difference to a Crit Die bonus, and if your TSC is below the minimum you increase it to the minimum but convert the difference to a Crit Die penalty (the Crit Die is explained on pages 35-37: it is a separate d10 roll alongside the success/failure d100, and determines the degree of success or failure).

Selecting skills and the character generation process

This is where the rulebook gets rather disorganised and confusing I think. There are a number of sources of skills throughout character generation. I’m going to follow the order of character generation outlined on p51, because it seems overall a good order, but I’ll add references to the out-of-sequence pages you also need to consult at each step.

Horoscope (p52) and Birth Omens (p54)

When you determine your character’s birth sign, just note the two skill categories that are favoured by that sign. When you determine the aspect of your birth omens, note that you can select a total of two skills from these categories if you are well- or neutrally-aspected, but only one skill from one of the categories if you are poorly aspected. You will get these skills at level 2 (or +2 levels if you also have the same skill from another source) for free, and you gain Mastery* in them, granting +10 PSF%. I suggest you choose the specific one or two skills later, alongside skills from your vocation, unless you have a clear plan for the character’s class and vocation already (in which case you may not need this guide at all).

*Your horoscope skill/s are Mastered, whether or not they are also Vocational—I have confirmed with the authors via the Facebook group that this is the case, despite the placing of the sentence in brackets on p52.

Background 1—core skills (p43, 60)

This is where you start to get specific skills. All of the background skills I’m going to discuss over this and the next two sections count as at least secondary skills for purposes of ‘skill promotion’ (which I think is to do with gaining mastery—ref p120). If you later find them on your character’s Primary vocational skill list, they count as Primary (ref p119) and therefore gain a +10 PSF% bonus.

The default is that you have Basic Knowledge (level 0) in eight Core Skills: Alertness – Sight, Alertness – Sound, Stamina, Willpower, Faith, Own Language – Spoken, Local Geography, Dodge and Brawling (p43 gives this more complete list, whereas p60 mentions only two of these). These are all Background skills (p119)

If you have an Intellect Attribute of at least 12, you get the Accurate Counting Competency as an extra Background skill (p60—a Competency is a Skill that you don’t check against, and many Competencies including Accurate Counting are yes/no and you don’t take multiple levels). I did think that this level of Intellect seems a high prerequisite just for being able to reliably count without using your fingers , but you can also buy this competency later in character generation or in play if you feel it’s appropriate.

If your character is female, you may swap out Brawling for other skills (p60), but first you need to know your social class and perhaps your father’s specific occupation, so let’s cover those now.

Background 2—Social Class (p58-59)

You roll on the relevant table for your period to determine your broad social class. Something I mainly missed on my first flick-through was that each broad class grants bonuses:

ClassBonuses
Peasants* (p58)Gain one free level in each of the competencies Conditioning and Endurance
Increase two other (Background**) skills to level 1
Add +2 Strength (up to racial maximum) when you generate attributes.
Townsmen*** (p70)Increase five (Background**) skills to level 1
Add +3 Agility (up to racial maximum) when you generate attributes
Rich Townsmen and Cultural Elites (p72)Increase seven (Background**) skills to level 1
Gentle**** characters (p77)Gain +10 PSF% to the skills Courtly Love (from the High Chivalric period onwards) and Leadership
Also gain access to chivalric vocations, which lower classes cannot choose at initial creation (p121-125)
Bonuses from broad social class

* I don’t think the terminology is totally consistent, but Serfs and Freemen don’t otherwise have an entry on this table and correspond to what I would call peasants, so I assume they are what this means. See also the table headings on p66 (Serfs & Bound Peasants) and p67 (Free Peasants & Freemen) which link Serfs and Freemen from the master tables on p58-59 to Peasant terminology.
(Jews and Slaves are a bit separate in this class structure, but I think you can match them to equivalents in the main scale once you’ve established a specific occupation.)

** It doesn’t explicitly say that this upgrade is limited to Background skills, but since these rules are in the Background phase of generation I’m guessing that is the intention?

*** Excluding Rich Townsmen (p72)

**** I think Gentle in this context equates to the Chivalric class.

I think you can apply the skill upgrades after you’ve determined your specific Background skills.

Background 3—father’s specific occupation (p57, 60-81)

You also get level 0 in some skills from your specific background, depending on your father’s occupation. Some of these may be specified, others you may be able to choose. The commoner occupations tend to give just a few skills, sometimes of less-than-obvious use to a character who eschews the family trade for a life of adventure (for example, Sewing, Knitting & Embroidering). The chivalric classes in contrast all get a suite of knightly skills (or alternatively a suite of educated elite skills) and a number (varying by rank) of free-choice combat skills. Also chivalrics with high enough Intellect attribute are literate (threshold varying by rank, lower threshold for higher ranks).

Skills gained by your father’s specific occupation are also Background skills (p60) and therefore count as Secondary skills for purposes of skill promotion (p119)

Feminine skills options

So, now you know your character’s social class and father’s occupation, if she’s a woman you can if you wish forego Brawling as a Background skill (you don’t have to, and if you do there’s nothing stopping you taking it later) and trade it for more feminine accomplishments: lower status women (‘below Wealthy Townsman’) can take two of Cooking, Sewing and Weaving; higher status women can take one of those and Etiquette (p60). Note that not all of the skill names here match the skills chapter (p147 onwards); in that, Cooking is Cooking, but Sewing is Sewing, Embroidery & Knitting, Weaving is Spinning & Weaving, and Etiquette is Courtly Manners.

(I’m just going to indulge myself in outlining possible interpretations for what ‘below Wealthy Townsman’ means. If you don’t care, skip to the next paragraph. Still here? Consult p58 for the overall social class table. The simplest interpretation would be to say that that table is in ascending order of class and so all Serfs/Bondsmen, all Freemen, and all Destitute, Poor and Average Townsmen/Citizens are ‘below Wealthy Townsman’, whereas Wealthy and Rich Townsmen and all Chivalrics are not. However, you could say that rural Freemen cover a similar range of status to Townsmen, and so Wealthy Freemen are not ‘below Wealthy Townsmen’. You could consult the occupations table for Wealthy Townsmen on p70 and see that the Social Status scores for these occupations are 14 and up, so anyone with a Social Status of 13 or less is ‘below Wealthy Townsman’. This would include all the obvious classes, except a tiny minority of Average Townsmen. It would also include a sizeable minority of Wealthy Freemen. Personally, I think I’m inclined to use a guideline that: any woman (or other character if the player and GM agree a story justification) may pick two of Cooking, Sewing Embroidery & Knitting, and Spinning & Weaving instead of Brawling, and if she has a social Status of 15+ she adds Courtly Manners to that list of alternative options. That creates an upper tier of mainly clean-handed urban elites, all chivalrics bar a few disgraced warriors, and a few other country folk who regularly mix with chivalrics.)

Like the unisex core skills, these feminine alternatives count as background skills. (ref p119)

Special Talents

I’m not covering all the stages of character generation in depth here, but I should just note that among the Special Talents (list on p88) are some that can be important for skills.

Born with an Aptitude for a Skill (p89) grants Mastery and three free levels in any Background or Primary skill.

Naturally Charismatic (p91) and Very Persuasive (p93) each affect a number of skill rolls.

Scholarship (p92) grants basic knowledge in 5 initial lore skills, and depending on Attributes may grant multiple free levels in some or all of the character’s initial lore skills. Available for 5 character points this is a very tempting option for anyone point-building a white-collar character (tip gained from the designers in the Facebook group)

Vocation

The next part of character generation that gives you skills is Vocation. This is the training you have had before your adventures begin, the day job you have between adventures, and to a large extent may be your role in the adventuring party. Although it has a separate chapter to Character Generation and isn’t listed in the 19 steps of character generation (list p51, headings to p114), vocation is a major element of character generation.

There are a number of points where C&S practice varies from GM to GM, even within the design team. Sometimes this divergence shows through in the rulebook as different people have written or edited different passages. One of them comes here. The managing writer uses the following rule, supported by the text on p119 (“Once play has commenced, any additional Primary Skills are learnt at Level 0.”):

Skills are generally Primary* skills for you if they are on the Primary skills menu for your Vocation. Otherwise they are generally Secondary skills. With a couple of exceptions, this applies regardless of whether you gain the skill at the background stage of character generation, this vocation stage, by purchase with experience or whatever, including during play. The exceptions, detailed below, include Tertiary skills (which are neither Primary nor Secondary) and combat skills for common warriors chosen as Secondary skills rather than Primary skills because of the vocation-specific Primary combat skills limit.

*Primary Skills are also known as Vocational Skills or Primary Vocational skills – the terms are meant to be interchangeable synonyms. Secondary and Tertiary skills are not Primary and therefore not Vocational, even if they are listed on the menu for your vocation and chosen as you consult the Vocations chapter.

You get to choose 10 free skills at the vocation stage, of which at least 6 must be Primary Vocational skills and up to 4 can be Secondary skills. Your skills from this vocation step of character generation, both Primary and Secondary, are boosted up to level 1 for free. (p119)

Primary skills are at +10 PSF%, which is a big boost and is why I’ve put quite a lot of effort into clarifying that background skills, skills bought with experience and so on do count as Primary, and gain this bonus, as long they are on your vocation’s Primary menu.

(Edited to add: there is at least one other member of the design team who uses the opposite rule, that only the 6-10 skills chosen as Primary at this vocation stage of character creation count as Primary. You are encouraged to use your own judgement.)

Note that each warrior vocation has quite a few combat skills on its Primary menu, but has a limit on how many can be selected. (I think that the designers intend for this limit to apply across both Primary and Secondary Combat skills selected at the vocation stage, but the rulebook text isn’t totally clear; the alternative would be to apply the limit to Primary only and allow Secondary Combat skills beyond the limit.) Any remaining Primary skills must be from outside the Combat category. (Though note that some skills and competencies from other categories, especially Conditioning and Athletic, can be very useful in combat.)

Certain Vocations (Knights/Squires and Foresters) also give you a PSF bonus on certain skills. (p163)

And you can get Tertiary Skills, a number depending on your Intellect and Discipline attributes. These aren’t restricted to your background or vocational lists – you can choose anything unless your GM rules it out. These are initially at level 0, though they suffer -10% PSF so they are no better than and possibly worse than untrained skills in terms of success chance; but you can at least make a check on even TR skills. These are also not Primary skills, even if they’re on your Primary Vocational menu, and they’re not Secondary skills, so they’re not eligible for Mastery (see skill promotion below) There is, however, a prospect (not detailed in the rulebook but see skill promotion below) of converting a tertiary skill to secondary by regular use. And of course, there’s technically nothing to stop you taking a competency (in which PSF is irrelevant) here if you’re min-maxing rather than building for flavour.

Out of all your known Primary and Secondary (not tertiary) skills, you can now choose five that you have Mastered. You gain an additional free level in these skills, and +10% PSF (which both stack with the Primary +10 and any free levels from other sources if applicable).

You now additionally choose one or two skills (depending on birth aspect; see pages 52 and 54) from the favoured skill categories for your birth sign, in which you get a free level, plus additional Mastery (+10 PSF% and a second free level) giving you a total of 6-7 Mastered skills (up to 8 if Born with an Aptitude). I think these birth sign Masteries can be new skills you don’t otherwise have, or you can add the free levels and Mastery to a skill that you also get from another source. Note that as with other early skills, they count as Primary if they’re on your Vocational Primary list and Secondary otherwise.

The set of vocations in the core book covers several types and grades of medieval warrior, and semi-warriors like Foresters and Heralds, mainly from the European tradition. It also covers a few Thievish and a large number of Magickal vocations, and Physician representing the mundane white-collar sector. I think other vocations are or may become available in sourcebooks and supplements, and I’ve seen some mention of additional vocations being released to Patreon supporters.

But the core rulebook also gives the guidelines you need to create a custom character with a bespoke Vocation (a bit oddly placed in the middle of the vocations list, on pages 129-130, and headed Adventurer Vocations despite covering things as mundane and sedentary as Farmer and Innkeeper). This section seems fine for creating civilian NPCs but if you want to use it for balanced PCs or PC-equivalent NPCs you (as the GM or with the GM’s guidance and approval) may need to expand it to include a Primary skills menu  for the vocation, granting the +10 PSF% to appropriate background or purchased skills as well as the 6-10 Primary skills chosen in the Vocation phase.

Gaining skills with Experience

Like many skill-based games, Chivalry & Sorcery has a mechanism for advancing skills in play—by gaining and spending experience points you can add levels to your skills or add new skills at level 0 Basic Knowledge. Unlike some, it also uses this mechanic for the last phase of character creation, giving you a number of experience points based on your starting age and allowing you to further customise your build by spending them before play begins. Therefore, like vocation, this is a crucial step of character generation outside of the 19 steps in the Character Generation chapter.

The basic idea is that you can add a level to a skill for a price determined by the skill’s difficulty. Or you can add Basic Knowledge in a new skill for the same price. The process is detailed on pages 40-46 (with the price by difficulty in the chart on p33).

(This placement in the rulebook is somewhat confusing, since the experience-buy process isn’t part of how skills work in play and you don’t use it until after you’ve chosen all your free skills and free skill levels using the background and vocation rules on pages 51-146. Personally, I’d have made advancement a short chapter of its own, after the whole Vocations chapter, and placed this skill purchase mechanic in there along with skill promotion from p120 and changing vocations from p130, discussed below. The designers are aware that there’s scope in the next iteration of the rules to expand these rules a bit, so that might enhance this section too.)

Although C&S is not generally a level-based system, there is a mechanic for disincentivising highly min/maxed builds where one or a few skills are extremely advanced on an otherwise mediocre character. You track how much experience you have ever spent, separately from the balance of what you have been awarded but not yet spent (for me, the terminology is a little odd here—spent experience is Total Experience and unspent experience is Accumulated Experience), and that determines your character level, and if you try to advance any skill to a level much higher than your character level it costs extra. (The book says that skills cost extra if you advance them beyond your level at all, but since the formula is that you multiply the cost by the difference between the level you’re advancing the skill to and your character level, if you’re only superadvancing the skill by 1 extra level then the resulting multiplier of 1 leaves the adjusted cost equal to normal cost, so only if you go 2 levels over is there actually an impact.)

Experience is gained during play, but also you get an amount (depending on the character’s starting age and birth aspect, p114) during character creation and you can spend it to advance or gain skills before starting play. I don’t think the book spells it out for people coming from a system in which characters start play at the zero point of level advancement, but I clarified with the authors that experience you spend during character creation counts towards your experience level. This does mean that the order in which you gain skill levels during this part of character creation matters: if you have much more than 5000 exp to spend and wish to buy level 3 or higher in one or more skills you should leave these purchases to last so that you reach experience level 2, ideally by buying levels 0-2 in other skills, and buying skill level 3 comes down to normal price.

(There is a line on p41 about experience level determining how much experience a character can earn during downtime between adventures, but I haven’t so far found any details of this…)

Skill Promotion and other post-creation advancement

As I’ve said, the experience-buy method of gaining skills and skill levels continues during play and I think is your main source of extra skill levels. Note that as well as the +3 PSF% per level bonus, skill level drives some other mechanics—the two I have found so far are a damage bonus (p282) and qualification to teach another character (p45).

There is also a process, described on p120 in the Vocation chapter, of promoting skills to Mastery post-creation. You gain the +10 PSF% of Mastery, but no free level (unlike when selecting skills for Mastery in character creation). Primary and Secondary skills are eligible for Mastery, which I now think includes skills bought entirely with experience, but definitely doesn’t include Tertiary skills. You can master one additional skill every certain number of levels, with the certain number determined by your scores in two Attributes determined by your Vocation. (I have clarified that the experience level you may gain during character creation counts towards this.) At character creation and every time you master a new skill thereafter, you need to designate which skill you’re going to work on mastering next. (As a GM I would allow players to change their minds, but they would then have to start the level count anew with their next level gain.)

You can change Vocation. The process is described on p130, weirdly in the middle of detailing the various vocations. You lose your Primary +10 PSF% on any skills that are not Primary for the new vocation, but you gain it on any skills you have that are Primary for the new vocation. You also gain 3 new skills off the new vocation’s Primary menu at level 1 and counting as Primary. So you may make a net loss or gain of Primary +10 bonuses, and from an optimization point of view it would pay to plan a change of Vocation carefully, and ideally to lay some groundwork by buying skills with exp first.

(I’m already considering whether it would be better to preserve your number of Primary skills but swap old Primaries for skills from the new Vocation’s menu, just shifting the +10 across. Coming from AD&D and modern D&D, I observ that the C&S rules as written reflect a concept akin to the AD&D dual-classing that was open to humans, rather than the AD&D demi-human multi-classing or 21st-century D&D multi-classing. If you preserve existing Primary skills except for discretionary trading of old Primaries for new Primaries one for one, that might enable something more like multi-classing where the character going forward uses a combined skillset rather than abandoning the old one.)

There is a line that says Tertiary skills might be promoted to Secondary, which I guess would then make them eligible for Mastery. The rulebook doesn’t say how this might happen anywhere, but the game authors have suggested online that it might be integrated with the promotion to Mastery mechanic. That could be generalised to a skill promotion per relevant number of levels, and each promotion could move one skill one place on the track Tertiary-Secondary-Mastered-Primary (or maybe Primary-Mastered). Each step on that track is worth 10 PSF%.

So, I hope that’s useful for anyone who’s coming into C&S character generation via the rulebook. Let me know in the comments what your experience is. And if you’re a veteran or even a designer of the game, let me know if my explanations match the way you handle it!

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