Chivalry & Sorcery: 4th edition ('rebirth')
Chivalry & Sorcery: 4th edition ('rebirth') Capsule Review by LarsDangly on 26/10/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A well-organized and well-crafted re-write of a classic. You can never go home again, but this is a playable and satisfying update of the game
Product: Chivalry & Sorcery: 4th edition ('rebirth')
Author: Simpalist, Turner and Whalley
Company/Publisher: Brittania Games
Cost: ca. $40
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by LarsDangly on 26/10/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical
Chivalry and Sorcery, 'the rebirth' is the 4th edition of the classic and notoriously inscrutible mideval simulationist role playing game first written by Simbalist and Bachhous and published by Fantasy Games Unlimited 25 years ago. The original was a second-generation role playing game that came hot on the heels of original D D and was a contemporary of the first editions of several other games (Traveller, 1st edition Runequest) that are fond memories to old fossils like myself and history to the rest of you.
It is impossible to appreciate 'the rebirth' without understanding what the first edition of this game was like: The font was almost illegible, the writing hard to follow, and core information about a given topic could be spread throughout the book. The rules were rich-teeming really-with unique mechanics, an obsessive attention to detail and 'complete-ism'. Magic, in particular, required many readings and years of experience to run well-I won't say 'correctly' because I doubt any two groups interpreted them in quite the same way. However, the end result was one of the truely great games because the writers had a vision of what they were after and the game succeeded in catching the players up in that vision. Simbalist et al. were trying to produce a fantasy role-playing game that was concretely rooted in the society, economy, technology and legend of europe's middle ages and they really did it (mostly). They were also looking over their shoulders at D D and trying to improve on the fluffy mechanics of combat, magic and character development in the more popular game. They did a great job at this too. In fact, if you actually know how the combat system works it still seems fresh and satisfying compared to many modern games. A substantial weakness is that the first edition used D D as the default for treating thieves and other skill-oriented characters and for dreaming up monsters. For example, the designers felt obliged to include stats for gnolls, orcs and kobolds. Whatever.
Flash forward 25 years. Two revisions of the original have come and gone, both without drawing the interest of this reviewer (for historians, the second edition was apparently a 'cleaned up' version of the first and the third was extensively re-written, different from but including elements found in the fourth). The lead author has joined forces with a new cast and prepared a three-volume version of this game, complete with revised presentation, mechanics, background info, etc. How does it stack up?
The presentation: The old book had it's charms (I am a proud owner of a near mint, first print run copy of the old red book), but was a real chore to read. The new copy is crisply presented, clearly written, generally well organized and indexed and includes a few nice line drawings in its interior. The cover art of one of the volumes and of the DM's screen is very nice; that for the other two volumes are in the same style but I find them cheesy and uninspired. I keep these at the bottom of the stack. There are few things I would change; an example is the separation of rules for inheritence, starting money and character background. This is a small thing, but it should have occurred to the authors that these are related subjects.
Character creation: Always a strength of the system, this has been improved by the 'skillscape' system, vocations, and streamlining. I will not get bogged down in the details; briefly, one has a wide variety of interesting primary stats, your social background is a big part of who you are, and your vocation-what you do with yourself all day-controls the sorts of skills at which you are good. The mechanic for figuring out how good you are at things is most like 'Dragonquest'.
Character advancement: A weakness of the original, it used to be similar in most important respects to D D: modular advancement in level by accumulating experience points for all sorts of silly things. Now you accumulate experience points, mostly for good reasons and at a quick rate, and you spend them on improving your abilities at skills or in learning new skills. Levels keep track of how experienced you are overall and come into play in determining your rate of improvement at skills, but is otherwise unimportant. The system of skill advancement by experience point expenditure is most like-remarkably like, really-Dragonquest.
Combat: I liked the old combat system, but it involved alot of tables, which drive me mad now that I'm old and impatient. The new one is a gem. It has an action-point system, crits, parries, bashes, hit locations, armor protects against wounds but slows you down, and there are lots of other crunchy little bits. People have fatigue as well as physical hit points, and getting tired out is a big part of combat for people in heavy armor. All combat systems should be given a simple litmus test: Do trained people in heavy armor sitting on horses totally outclass unarmored people skittering about on the ground? If not, it is irredemably unrealistic. In this game, heavily armed knights rule and everyone else drools. It is great. I've tweeked the system a bit for my own games, but only because that is what I do; you will enjoy playing it as is. For comparison, this combat system is most like, get ready for it, first edition Dragonquest. I hate to beat a dead horse, but it really is true: all the signature elements of this combat system are better than but similar to old Dragonquest. I don't know or care why these games are so much alike, but there it is.
Magic: The old system was hard, almost impenitrable, but amazingly fun to play once you figured it out. It was richly textured, bizzare, contained strange, dark spells, and felt real. The new version is based on the old and is far easier to understand and run, but it has lost something of its flavor. It can be fixed, but only by putting out a supplement that re-inserts the black magic and other off-color goodies. Are you listening ed? I hope so. Magicians learn 'modes' of magic that are sort of like traditions-bodies of teaching about what magic is and how you do it. They also learn 'methods'-ways of re-creating particular types of spells. There are lots of spells; most of them are familiar from other games. If you knew the original game, you were wish more of the odd spells had been caried over.
Religion: Clerics are christians (gasp!), even if you pretend they aren't. It is bizzare how few games have attempted to recreate environments like those in heroic legends from european cultures, which are the basis of most fantasy games and are steeped in christianity and related mysticism. Ars Magica does it, Pendragon does it, and C&S did it first and well, if not best. All characters have measures of their Piety and the strength of their faith; lots of people can pray and hope to be helped. Religous experiences can transform your character. It is all good. Some parts are a little too over-engineered, but I like it.
Background: One of the things that has been diluted in the translation is the pages and pages and pages of background information on mideval society, places, technology, etc. This was everywhere in the first edition and has been squeezed out by clear explanations of rules. It is still C&S and has to be the game of choice for role playing mideval europe (outside of the Arthur legends, which can also be played well with Pendragon). But, it needs shoring up with a good expansion supplement to put all those juicy bits back in. Are you listening Ed? I am using Ars Magica's supplement on Mythic Europe as my core campaign background and I suggest you do the same until something better appears. Any C&S designer with blood in his veins should take that as a challenge to one-up the new comer.
Summary: If you dislike rules-intensive, idiosynchratic games, this is not for you. If you liked old C&S, buy and play this; you will enjoy it even more. If you have always wanted to role play a proper mideval setting, race out to get this, tear out the pages about elves and orcs (they are still there but there aren't many of them), beg the company to put some of the old black magic and history into the supplements, and start rolling the dice!