Chivalry and Sorcery 3rd Edition, and Gamemaster's Handbook
Author: Ed Simbalist, Wilf Backhaus (3rd ed only) and G.W. Thompson
Company/Publisher: Highlander Designs
Cost: $19.95, $17.95
Page count: 201 and 156 (plus 10.5x24" colour map)
ISBN: Stock #5000 and #5100
Playtest Review by Nigel Clarke on 02/11/98. Genre tags: none
Firstly a disclaimer. I have been playing Chivalry and Sorcery since the late 1970's and my brother worked on parts of the first and second edition supplementary material.
IntroductionI'll start with a stark statement - Chivalry and Sorcery is a complex game system, one best avoided by neophyte RPGer's.
As Sandy implied in his earlier capsule review of this material this is a rules heavy game system with densely packed pages in a thick rulebook. Many players are going to find this intimidating, but those who want to play in a very 'realistic' pseudo-historical Medieval Fantasy game world will like the game system presented in this updated edition.
BackgroundChivalry and Sorcery was one of the first fantasy role-playing games to be published. It originally came out as a single perfect bound volume in 1977 and was noted for the depth of the game material and the game's devotion to 'realism' over ease of play. In 1983 a revamped 2nd Edition was printed as a 3 volume boxed set. This was heavily revised from the original 1st Edition with the 'magick' system made simpler, but it still made use of a lot of material in the style of P.E.I Bonewitz's Authentic Thuamaturgy.
The 2nd Edition introduced a skill based system to go along with the class based system inherited from other fantasy RPG's of the period. Characters could choose from a bunch of skills, including things like Courtly Dance and Cooking Food, with a percentage chance of successfully completing a task. A character's success at using a skill was dependant upon the level of the skill which was purchased with Experience Points.
Many of the features that first saw the light of day in Chivalry and Sorcery became almost standard in many RPG systems of the Eighties. However there remained the image of Chivalry and Sorcery as a very complex RPG and this generally gave it the status of niche game system played by fanatics for detail. However the depth of the material continued to attract people who mainly used the game material adapted for their own worlds and other game systems. After a spurt of publishing that produced a number of supplements and a couple of adventures for the updated 2nd Edition the publishers, Fantasy Games Unlimited, let the game languish.
The ReviewAt some time in the mid 90's the original authors were contacted by G.W. Thompson, a player and GM of Chivalry and Sorcery, who wanted to update and reissue the material for a new audience. Amongst the changes were two major amendments to the game systems, namely the use of the 'Crit Die' (tm) and the 'Skillscape' (tm) system.
The 'Crit Die' was an additional D10 that determined the critical success, or failure, of the player's die roll. Each die roll made for a character in combat or using skills requires the use of the 'Crit Die'. Results differ depending upon the task in hand, but range from critical successes causing extra damage in combat to critical failures resulting a blacksmith producing poor weapons with a large reduction to strike an opponent.
'Skillscape' is a development of the skills system in the 2nd edition and provides hundreds of different skills that can be learnt by a character. This system is similar to other later generation game systems that have moved away from the class based system originally used.
Chivalry and Sorcery uses Vocation for lifelong interests and activities such as a fighting man and Occupation for the current employment of a character. Skills are learnt or inherited based upon a combination of both of these labels. Player Characters can freely gather skills to suit their character's life experience and make of their character whatever they wish. New vocations are easily set up by the GM and the rule book includes an example of how a Mariner Vocation is designed.
Most characters start out with 2 to 4 skills based on their social class or parent's Vocation, another 15 or 20 skills according to their own chosen Vocation and a set of 5 Core Skills that covers language, perception and some physical skills. These skills are developed as part of gameplay and there is a heavy stress on improving and learning skills during downtime with a section of both the basic rules and the GM's Handbook devoted to campaign downtime.
Having calculated the PSF (Personal Success Factor) for all of a character's skills nothing needs to be recalculated until the PC gains enough experience points to raise their skills by a level. This is generally done as part of downtime with skills taking time to learn rather than being miraculously acquired with a change in experience level.
The most complex characters to play are users of magical forces. In line with its heritage 3rd edition Chivalry and Sorcery offers 13 different methods or groups of spells and 7 different modes or types of magic. As the magic users get most of their experience from studying and learning rather than adventuring most mage characters will only venture forth if a new spell is to be found or magical ingredients have to be acquired.
The GM's Handbook has a number of essays on being a GM taken from articles in out-of-print magazines and from the 2nd Edition. It discusses changes to the basic rules for magic 'lite' vs. magic 'heavy' worlds and covers a lot of material on the costs of building and maintaining castles and feudal fiefs. A section on setting up game worlds is included as are pieces on law and order and feudal justice. Chapters cover amending the character generation rules to allow PC's to use non feudal types such as Vikings and for PC's in the 'Dark Ages' or 'City States' like those in medieval Italy. An outline and map of the world of Tannoth is included as a sample game setting. This is based on geographical Europe modified to suit a fantasy campaign.
The GM's Handbook suffers, like the basic rulebook, from a poor choice of fonts and lack of layout skills by the editor. Some pages have as many as 5 different typefaces and that, with the cramped layout, makes reading the material a chore.
Having read and digested the changes over the previous edition, with which I am very familiar, I used the 3rd Edition for running some characters in my PBeM game set in the Welsh Marches of England in 1307AD. All the hard work is done when generating a character and working out their original skills so actually running a game is comparatively easy. Having all the PC's stats on a character sheet (one of which is provided for copying in the basic rules) makes running the game a case of checking for any modifier and rolling the three D10's used for every action requiring dice. The results are evaluated and the critical success or failure of the 'Crit Die' is noted. The outcome is communicated to the player and the next action taken. The major delay is looking up the effects of the huge range of skills which, due to the very number of options, can't easily be committed to memory by GM.
Combat requires the expenditure/allocation of Action Points to complete tasks. A character starts the turn with a number of these modified by a die roll and expends them to move or attack. The results of these actions occur in sequence based on the maximum number of AP's available. This means that someone with a lot of AP's will be able to move and strike an opponent before they can act. I didn't make much use of this system or the alternatives offered (2 choices in the basic rules and 1 in the GM's handbook) due to the nature of the testing. However it does seem reasonably straightforward, albeit slightly complex.
The layout of the basic rules was changed between first and second printings to eliminate some of the complaints about poor choices of typeface for the material and a very cramped layout. This re-editing of the basic rules delayed the release of the GM's Handbook and has had a knock-on effect on the rest of the product line. A GM's shield and sample adventure was released in August '97 and the Bestiary covering the creatures of the Chivalry and Sorcery world is being released in February '98. Further material based on a different game world is being issued by a UK game company Britannia Game Designs, the Dragon Reaches of Marakush also being due in February '98.
A recent post (Jan '98) to the Chivalry and Sorcery mailing list by Highlander Designs gave a schedule of releases that includes a revised 3rd edition basic rule book with amended art and minor revisions in the 2nd Q '98, a Knight's supplement for 2nd Q '98 and the Sorceror's Companion by mid year. These supplements expand on the basic rules and are designed to provide more in-depth material on the specific character types plus information on chivalric orders and secret societies of mages.
Summing up I'd say that the 3rd Edition material supplied in the basic rulebook and GM's Handbook was worth a 5 in substance, 4 in style, it's a Heroic game system, but only a 2 in presentation. Playability is low until the GM is familiar with the material, mainly due to the layout of the rulebook. Running an extended campaign requires some dedication on the part of the group - this isn't a game where you can get together for an hour, generate a few characters and play as so much depends on using campaign downtime for allowing the characters to develop.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)