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Friday, 18 December 2009

A Monk's Game

Let us begin with the conceit at the heart of Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe from Cellar Games LLC. It imagines itself to be the translation of a roleplaying game written and played in secret by a group of monks in Medieval Europe as a diversion from their hard work and their prayers. Their inspiration is in turn, the “late luminaries David, son of Arne, and Gary of Geneva” and “Vincent the Baker,” which does stretch the reader’s credulity just a little. Once you get past this anachronism, the book settles down and you do quite quickly accept the voice of the “Imaginer,” the supposed author and player of the game.

What you then find in Chronica Feudalis is a game set in the early medieval period of 11th and 12th century England and Europe. Essentially, the time of the first and second Crusades and of the first English civil war or Anarchy between Empress Maude and King Stephen, which along the difficulties of papal politics and the taking of Iberia from the Moors, provides plenty of scope for adventure. This is not Ars Magica though, and neither magic nor the supernatural appear in this game, although it is possible that a curse might prove very effective. This also means that any protagonists faced by the players will always be of a mundane nature. That said, Chronica Feudalis is published under an Open Gaming License, so someone else could create supplements detailing medieval magic, a medieval bestiary, or even the Cthulhu Mythos for the period. In the meantime, if the GM wants further information on the more fantastic aspects of the early medieval period, especially in England, then Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player’s Manual is a good starter.

Chronica Feudalis is game that wears its influences on its sleeve. The first influence shows in its “Step-Die” system, which like the Earth Dawn or Savage Worlds RPGs, rates each skill, aspect, or tool with a single die and the higher the die type, the better it is. So Perform (d8) is better than Perform (d6) and Riding Horse (d10) is a much better mount than Riding Horse (d8). Anything given a d6 rating represents the average while the maximum possible human rating in anything is d12. Anything with a rating of a d20 is extremely powerful.

The second is the concept of Aspects, which come from the FATE System as seen in Spirit of the Century. For a character, they might describe an ability, his status, or a belief, and in game can be “invoked” by his player to provide a bonus for a character, “endured” to impose a penalty on a current action, or “compelled” to influence his behaviour (for the benefit of the story). The currency when dealing with Aspects is Ardour, essentially the equivalent of FATE points, spent to “invoke,” and earned for “enduring” or being “compelled.” The environment around the characters can also have Aspects and these can be “invoked,” but they are instead called “Conditions.” More interestingly, a character can perform a “Manoeuvre” to impose a “Condition” not only upon his surroundings, but also upon another character or an NPC, in which case it acts as a penalty.

Beyond a name and background, a character in Chronica Feudalis is defined by five elements. The first of these are his Mentors, the learned individuals who taught him all he knows; skills, taught to him by those Mentors; aspects, personal descriptive factors or abilities that can be brought into the game; backgrounds, personal descriptive factors or abilities that while a part of the character, are usually not brought into the game; and tools, the equipment that the character is expected to have after studying with each mentor. To create the character, a player chooses three mentors, each of which will grant three skills. For example, a Courtier mentor provides Command, Deceive, and Entice, while a Hunter gives Aim, Hunt, and Hide. Each of these skills begins with a rating of d6, unless taught by another Mentor, in which case it goes up a step. A character starts with all other skills at a d4 and also receives three Aspects, three Backgrounds, and the tools listed under each Mentor.

So putting the creation process into practice, I shall take as my inspiration a certain Welsh Benedictine monk, known as an excellent herbalist and investigator. To model this I choose a Doctor, a Knight, and a Monk as his Mentors, giving him the skills Command, Heal, Will; Fitness, Ride, Strike; and Fitness, Sense, and Will respectively. All of these are rated at a d6, except for Fitness and Will, which are replicated and so they are rated at d8. I assign him some appropriate Aspects and use his Backgrounds to give him extra languages and a degree of status as a Benedictine Monk. Given this current status and calling, he does not receive all of the equipment appropriate to his Mentors, so no arms, armour, or a horse.

Bledrus of Erdington
Mentors: Knight, Doctor, Monk
Skills: Command d6, Fitness d8, Heal d6, Ride d6, Sense d6, Strike d6, Will d8
Aspects: Curiously Observant (d8), Honourable Reputation (d8), Well-Travelled (d8)
Backgrounds: Speaks and Reads Latin, Speaks and Reads Welsh, Benedictine Monk
Tools: Surgeon’s Kit (d6), Bandages (d4), Habit (d6), Stylus & Ink (d6)

A character also has two other pools of points, Ardour and Vigour, both of which start at three and both of which change as the game is played. Ardour is used with Aspects, while Vigour represents a character’s ability to participate in physical or verbal conflicts and so affect the narrative.

To undertake an action, a character builds a dice pool using one his skills, an appropriate tool, and if he chooses to “invoke” it, an Aspect. The number of dice in the pool is limited by a character’s Vigour, so the dice pool can never be larger than three and will be further limited if Vigour is lost. Penalties against the action will remove a die from the pool. The basic target against which the dice pool is rolled is four, but can vary depending on the situation. If just one of dice comes up four or more, then the action is successful, but double or triple successes will give even better results.

Whether handling a chase, a fight, a parley, or sneaking around, the purpose of any conflict in Chronica Feudalis is to reduce the opponent’s Vigour and so achieve the aim or stakes set out before the conflict begins. It only takes a single success to reduce a character’s Vigour by one, but this can be avoided by attacked character taking an injury. Injuries are also inflicted when a character that has no Vigour left, is successfully attacked. The nature of the injury is set by the attacker, which might be a black eye in a brawl or bruised pride in an argument. Physical injuries are healed using the Heal skill, while the Empathy skill will heal damage inflicted upon a character’s mind or social status.

One issue that could be a problem with the game is the use of the “Manoeuvres” to inflict “Conditions” upon both player characters and NPCs. These can be very powerful in game terms, for example, I can see the “Disarm” Manoeuvre being used quite a lot as essentially without a weapon some characters and NPCs are going to be denied access to associated skills and Aspects. Interestingly, there is a whole thread devoted to problem of the “Disarm” Manoeuvre on RPG.net.

Given that the game falls within the “Indie” category, it is no surprise that players in Chronica Feudalis are expected to be more proactive than in standard RPGs. This is something that the rules actively encourage with the use of Aspects, just as they do with Evil Hat Production’s Spirit of the Century. A character has to use his Aspects to get both the most out of the game and to push the story forward, spending Ardour to “Invoke” them, while suffering their negative effects, either by being “Compelled” or “Endured” to gain more Ardour. One side effect of Chronica Feudalis limiting a character to just three Aspects is to actually make their use easier and less cumbersome than in other FATE powered games where remembering and applying as many as ten per player can get in the way of the game.

Chronica Feudalis is rounded out with a discussion of Europe of the time, focussing in particular upon the issues of the day – Papal politics and various crusades and heresies, and possible settings and adventures. This is followed by a detailed scenario outline set at a banquet held at Warwick Castle which will involve the player characters in the intrigues of the Anarchy. Lastly, the appendices list all of the NPCs for the scenario outline and the game’s Mentors, both with full stats, thus providing the GM with a ready supply of NPCs.

Physically, Chronica Feudalis is a neat little book, slightly illustrated using period style artwork. The writing is clear and the rules come with several extended examples. It is also pleasing to see a book of this size come with something as useful as an index.

What Chronica Feudalis does is straddle the divide between the “Indie” and the standard RPG, drawing the Aspect mechanics from the “Indie” side and the “Step-Die” mechanics from the other. The rules are light and easy, as is character generation, with a setting that has room enough for both GM and players to make Medieval Europe what they want. Whether that be a Medieval Murder Mystery (check out Simon Washbourne’s 1PG: Medieval Mysteries, Sleuthing in the Middle Ages for ideas), an exploration of the Robin Hood legend (Battlefield Press’ Sherwood: The Legend of Robin Hood for Savage Worlds is a good choice there), or going on a pilgrimage (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of course). Though it will be interesting to see what support the author (and others) provides in the future, Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe is a pleasingly straight and uncomplicated way to roleplay Medieval Europe.