I first saw Chronica Feudalis on RPGNow and, intrigued by the thumbnail, I read a bit more. I am a sucker for historical RPG’s (especially medieval) and so I bought the PDF there and then.
The PDF itself is a 132-page document, with colour covers and a B&W interior. The immediate thing you notice upon opening the book (or file) is the gorgeous art. The book is full of fantastic woodcut-style illustrations (by Miguel Santos) that combine well with the fonts used and overall layout to give a very evocative look. It should be noted that this is a purely historical game set in medieval England or Europe. There is no magic system (other than curses) and no supernatural creatures. These are easy to add, and indeed there are already several homebrew adaptations out there, but the game as written is straight history.
The medieval look also carries over into the style of the text. The conceit is that the game was written by a Medieval Monk, to help pass the time with his monastic Brothers, discovered in 2009 and tranlated. Thus much of the text is apparently written by the Cellarer of the 12th Century Abbey, with and for his Monkish friends.
When I first started reading this, it grated on me a little and made for uncomfortable reading, it seemed forced. However, after a couple of pages, it starts to flow, and before long you are drawn into the narrative that skilfully describes the rules through actual play examples. There are a few translators notes and in-jokes scattered throughout (apparently a medieval proponent of this type of game was David son of Arne….think about it!) which actually fit very well.
The other thing to note about this game is that it is of the Descriptive variety. I have nearly 30-years RPGing experience, and I think that this is the first time I have read a game of this type all the way through. My background is with D&D, Rolemaster, Harnmaster and many others, all of which are purely mechanistic games. If you want to climb, you roll under, over or in addition to your climb skill. You may be a natural climber, and have that as a special ability, but this just adds a flat bonus to your climb skill. However, games of this descriptive type are somewhat outside my field of experience, and it was an eye-opening read, as described below.
The book itself is split into several parts:
Character Creation [Create]
This chapter covers the creation of a character. You don’t have any stats, but you do have skills. These are represented by different dice types, with D4 being unskilled and D12 being a master. D20 is only for super-human characters. Interestingly though, your skills are not determined by a class or profession chosen by you. You come up with a concept, and then choose three mentors who have had a large influence on your life. So if you are a merchant, then you might choose your merchant father, a monk who was your school teacher and a soldier who was the captain of your fathers caravan guards. Each mentor has a set of skills that you will increase. So the merchant will boost your Decieve, Entice and Perform skills, the monk will boost your fitness, sense and will skills etc. There are only 24 skills in 4 categories, so this part of character creation is fairly simple.
Characters also have tools, determined by their mentors. The merchant above would receive a Cart and Mule from his father and other from the other two mentors. These tools are also ranked with a dice type (their use is described in the Play section).
One of the most descriptive parts of character creation are the three Aspects that each character has. There is a large list of sample aspects that can be chosen from, but each player is encouraged to think of their own. A character may have “Hard worker”, “Sea Legs” and “Leper”. These aspects can be positive or negative, and can be invoked or endured during play.
Each character can also list a background. These are areas that the character is skilled in, but are to be glossed over during actual play.
Lastly, each character receives 3 points of Ardor and 3 points of Vigor.
Game Mechanics [Play]
The basic mechanics that run Chronia are very simple, but may take some getting used to. If a character wants to run, he uses his Dash skill dice (say D8) and any appropriate tool that the player can justify, for example a pair of hard boots (D6). If the character also has an appropriate aspect (such as Super Fit), then that aspect dice can also be applied (D8). However, the character loses one point of Ardor to invoke an Aspect. This character would then roll D8 + D6 + D8 against a target number which could either be set by the GM or rolled randomly. Two successes are better than 1 success, and three are even better.
If a character has a negative Aspect, then it will reduce his dice pool, but will also add 1 to his Ardor total.
The descriptive nature of the game also extends to scenes and conditions. A scene may be Raining (D8). This may be a positive addition to a stalk attempt as the rain masks sounds, but will reduce climb rolls by making a wall more slippery.
This is a very neat mechanic, but probably requires a bit of practice.
All of the game rules are well described through the ongoing narrative of the monks game, and provide an easy explanation of what to actually expect.
The conflict mechanics are not only applied to combat, but also parley, hide/evade and chases. The aim of these is to reduce your opponents Vigor to 0, eliminating them from the contest. You can take injuries to avoid losing Vigor, but an injury will of course reduce your fighting ability.
What happens if you lose all of your Vigor depends on the stated intent of your opponent at the start of the conflict. If an opponent wants to merely rob you, you will just be knocked out. If they want to make sure you don’t recognise them, then you are probably in trouble. The mechanics encourage creative thinking, to apply tools, aspects and scene effects, and also encourage a descriptive style of play.
It is nice that there is only one real mechanic, although there are quite a few specific details and subtleties to remember.
There is only 17 pages of setting, most of it early medieval history and politics. There is also a sample 3-page social adventure, “The Banquet of Warwick Castle”. The author has himself stated that this is to help get the players into the right frame of mind rather than provide an exhaustive setting. I think that this is right for this style of game.
It is worth noting that this game is covered by an Open Game License, essentially allowing anyone to develop their own settings/games based on this work. This is a great idea, and should ensure a wealth of support material and genre conversions.
In summary, this game looks good and reads well, and is fantastic value for $10 (for the pdf). I understand that a print version is on the way. It is a slightly different proposition to what most gamers are used to, but it is well worth a try.