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Friday, 9 December 2011

Old School Distilled

Originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery was written as response to the medieval fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead its focus was medieval chivalry and roleplaying in a feudal society, though one that did not wholly ignore fantastic elements such as magic and non-human races. Since then, the game has gone through a number of editions, never quite losing its reputation for possessing complex rules, but now it has been out of print for almost a decade. Almost thirty-five years on from its original release, Brittannia Game Designs Ltd. is re-releasing Chivalry & Sorcery Essence, the revised introduction to the game.

Available as a forty-five page, 6.78 Mb PDF, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence comes with everything necessary to play. This includes rules for character generation, combat, and magic, equipment, skirmishes, a setting, and an introductory scenario. The rules themselves are supported with examples throughout.

Character creation in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence involves rolling dice to generate the numbers to assign to attributes, and then choosing a Social Class and a Vocation. A character’s Social Class provides some base skills, some skill points to spend on skills, one or more attribute bonuses, and some equipment and money. His Vocation will grant extra skills. The process is quick and easy, with the five Social Classes given – Serf, Freeman, Townsman, Guildsman, and Noble combining easily with the eight Vocations, Warrior, Forrester, Bandit, Thief, Friar/Priest/Shaman, Mage, Physician, and Mountebank to give the players plenty of choice. For example, Wilf of Gotham is a serf who had to fight for his lord in France. He was injured in battle and lost his right ear. The injury denied him the opportunity to loot the enemy and he has returned to England almost as penniless as when he left. Not wanting to return to the farm, he still knows that he has little choice but to continue serving his lord. Wilf is renowned for his prestigious strength.

Wilf of Gotham
Social Class: Serf Vocation: Warrior
Strength 20 Constitution 15 Agility 15
Intelligence 8 Wisdom 13 Discipline 13
Appearance 6 Bardic Voice 8 Piety 10
Body Points 35
Fatigue 35
Skills: Bargaining 1, Brawl 2, Craft (Carpentry) 1, Craft (Farming) 2, Detect 1, Dodge 2, Flail 2, Language (English) 1, Language (French) 1, Knife 1, Willpower 1
Equipment: Threshing flail, clothes he is wearing, and two days’ worth of food

Mechanically, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence relatively straightforward. To do anything, a character needs to roll under a target number with a twenty-sided die. The target is invariably the total of an appropriate attribute plus any suitable skills, bonus, or penalties. Higher rolls are better than lower ones, and a critical result is scored if a character rolls the target number exactly. The penalties are quite harsh though, running from -1 for even a “Very Simple” task up to -24 for a “Seemingly Impossible” task. These penalties are worse if a character does not have the required skill for a target and will vary according to how much it costs to buy a level in that skill. For example, if Wilf had to swim across a still pond on a warm day, a “Very Simple Action,” he would suffer a -2 penalty to his Constitution before he rolled against it. The Swim skill is cheap to buy though, a much harder task such as identifying even a relatively common poison for someone without the skill would face a -9 penalty.

Combat uses the basic mechanic, but adds a number of factors in. The number of attacks or Blows a character can make per round or minute is determined by the Weapon Class of his chosen weapon and his Agility. Lighter weapons are much faster. So for example, if Wilf attacked with a knife, he could attempt to stab his opponent five times in a minute because it is classed as a Light weapon. Wilf’s threshing flail is much heavier and thus much slower, so he can only make three Blows with it. Critical Successes with swung weapons or a defensive manoeuvre such as Dodge, weapon parry, or Shield use cause an opponent to be bashed backwards with the chance that he might fall over. Making a defensive manoeuvre requires the expenditure of a Fatigue point or the foregoing of the defender’s next Bash.

Damage inflicted is determined by the weapon type, half of a character’s Strength, and by how well he rolled. Both armour and shield reduce this damage, with any leftover being deducted from an opponent’s Fatigue and then his Body Points. Critical successes on an attack mean that the damage is deducted from the Body Points instead. For example, Wilf, facing a French knight in combat, must roll under his Strength plus Flail skill, plus a bonus from his Craft (Farming) skill, for a target of 23. He rolls 19, getting a Critical Success (target numbers over 20 grant better Critical Success ranges), whilst the knight chooses to try and get his small reinforced shield in the way of the farmer’s weapon and does so with an 11. Wilf inflicts a maximum damage on the knight, some 24 points! Fortunately, the knight’s shield and coate of plates armour stops 13 of that, but the remaining 11 points are deducted from his 30 Body Points. In addition, Wilf’s Critical Success inflicts extra damage which is not stopped by the armour, losing him another 8 points from his Body Points. Lastly, the knight was hit by a swung weapon on a Critical Success and must roll against his Agility to remain standing. On a result of a 16 he fails and is knocked to the ground, losing another horrible 10 points from his Fatigue. At this point, the knight is down, has lost half of his Body Points and a third of his Fatigue. The knight might not be out of the fight, but he is at a serious disadvantage!

Magic use in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence varies according to the type. Prayer and Shamanism both use the Piety attribute and the Prayer skill as the basis for the Target, with the actual Difficulty Factor being determined by the prayer being made. In addition, any Prayer attempt also costs a priest Fatigue which increases for each extra Prayer made. In general, Prayers are low and supportive in nature, such as Bless, Lay on Hands, or holding a Mass. Shamanistic prayers are not regarded as being civilised and let a shaman Converse with Spirit, Purify Blood to remove disease or poison, or Animate the Dead, for example.

Magic itself is more complex, each mage having a limited number of Spell Points with which to spend on spells that he knows. Actually casting a spell will cost him Fatigue – and even Body Points if he casts too many, modified by his Magic skill and his Spell Focus. This Spell Focus, a device such as a ring, staff, or wand, also allows a Mage to store fatigue for use in spell casting. In addition, extra Fatigue can be spent to enhance a spell’s range, duration, intensity, and the number of people affected. The mage also receives the longest list of spells, from which he must choose carefully. Further spells can be purchased with Experience Points.

Alternatively, a mage could use the Enchant spell to implant other spells into devices. This is expensive, not only in terms of the materials required – which can actually resist the enchantment attempt, but also in terms of the mage’s Magic Skill. The mage actually expends Magic Skill levels to carry out the enchantment.

Our sample mage is an itinerant book binder who travels from court to court repairing books. This enables him to look for interesting works, not only to read, but also to copy for their spells. He also works as a tutor and translator when his book binding are not required. He learned his magic from his first master with whom he travelled to Paris.

Richard le Lieur
Social Class: Guildsman Vocation: Mage
Strength 10 Constitution 10 Agility 11
Intelligence 18 Wisdom 10 Discipline 14
Appearance 10 Bardic Voice 8 Piety 6
Body Points 25
Fatigue 20
Spell Points 18 (9)
Spells Known: Charm, Light, Sense Magic, Strike
Skills: Craft (Book Binding) 2, Detect 2, Dodge 1, History 1, Language (English) 2, Language (French) 1, Language (Latin) 1, Lore (Astronomy) 1, Magic 2, Read/Write (English) 2, Read/Write (French) 1, Read/Write (Latin) 1, Sword 1, Willpower 1
Equipment: Suit of clothes, two shillings, a sword, book binding tools, and spell focus ring

The GM receives little advice in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence bar some suggestions as to alternative skill use. He does get though, a short bestiary and a set of ready-to-play heroes and villains, both of the latter with a set of adjustments to make any one of them more of a challenge. There is also a setting in the form of “Darken Expansion,” which is taken from the publisher’s The Dragon Reaches of Marakush campaign setting. The nation of Darken is ruled by the Great Queen Dragon Shugaloth, who is attempting to establish a feudocracy despite the temples devoted to her wanting to maintain a theocracy in her name. Shugaloth’s chancellor, the lich known as Ingravain funds the “The Queen’s Falconeers,” not to support a sport that she has no interest in, but as his personal spies and enforcers. Used to check the efforts of the temple, it is suggested that the player characters be members of this group.

Darken is also home to other races including Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Dark Elves. These are available as player character races. Two new Social Classes are available, the Darken Warrior, more slave and militia overseer than true warriors; and the Mystic, which combines elements of the Priest and the Mage Vocations. This is continued with the Shaman Vocation, which gives a character access to both prayers and spells.

Chivalry & Sorcery Essence also includes a scenario, “The Serpent Of Paun-I-Tawe,” which takes place in a village in a border region recently annexed by Darken. Its set up is that the player characters are forced to stop at the village due to bad weather and must find shelter either with the villagers who resent being occupied by Darkic soldiers or with the soldiers who prefer to be stationed elsewhere. Into this situation will enter a thief prepared to take advantage of the tensions between the soldiers and villagers.

The problem with the scenario is that it is entirely possible for the player characters to wander through unaware of what is really going on. Now this intentional, the idea being that the characters should be the stars of their own particular stories and that often, there will be events going on in which they are only marginally involved in, and never get to see the whole picture. Whilst this is laudable in a longer campaign, in a short scenario, especially in one designed to introduce and showcase the new edition of your RPG, this is a mistake. The GM needs to get his players involved in the scenario as quickly possible and then keep them involved. Otherwise the likely result is that the players will not have been involved enough to play again.

The other reason why this was the wrong scenario to include is that it has very few ties to setting background given in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. Had there been a scenario included that involved members of “The Queen’s Falconeers,” then the player characters would have had more of a drive to explore this or any other scenario.

Rounding out Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is a quick and dirty means of handling skirmish combat, plus a character sheet, a guide to character generation, and a sample character. Surprisingly for a supplement of this size, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence actually comes with an index!

Physically, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is nicely illustrated and generally well presented. It could have been slightly better organised though, as some of the elements of the game are explained before the rules for them. For example, how arms and armour work is explained before combat. It does need a closer edit too.

Putting aside the poor choice of scenario – and it should be made clear that it is not necessarily a bad scenario, but rather not a suitable for either an introductory product or the background given – there is much to like about Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. Neither the rules nor the mechanics suffer from the complexity that Chivalry & Sorcery is supposed to suffer from. They are instead a nicely balanced mix of simplicity and brutalism, with a magic system that firmly and successfully aims for low fantasy rather than high. Overall, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is a pleasing introduction to the game’s mechanics.