Posted on December 23, 2019
Review: Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition (PDF)
Chivalry & Sorcery was one of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games, created by Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus. Apparently the game evolved out of the desire by their playing groups to play what their characters did “between dungeons”, so to speak. These questions and many more were answered by Chivalry & Sorcery, which developed a reputation for complexity when it was first published in 1977, perhaps because it attempted to provide gameable rules and material for virtually every aspect of “medieval fantasy” life, not just adventuring. The reputation for complexity was probably assisted by the first edition making use of photo reduction to fit four pages of text onto each of its 128 physical pages – an extraordinarily dense rule book even today!
Completionist, not Complicated
A Kickstarter for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition launched 5 months ago, and at the time of writing, the complete PDF has been publicly released for sale and the book is with the physical printers. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter, then the PDF edition of C&S 5th edition carries a respectable price tag of $29.99. I think it’s worth it for this simple reason: Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition is the most complete, playable medieval fantasy roleplaying game you can buy today. The rules mechanics are not complicated (more on this below) but the rulebook is extremely large because the game is so complete.
Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition weighs in at 602 full-colour pages, in a single volume. This single volume is a rules tome and sourcebook in one. Although I backed for a printed copy and look forward to receiving it, based on the sheer size of this game I can see that the PDF is virtually a necessity. Fortunately, all the PDF bells and whistles have been used to best exploit the format – there is a complete electronic table of contents, extensive hyperlinks, and a quick access list of tables amongst other things so that you can quickly navigate the electronic book. The game’s 602 pages are divided thus:
- 7 pages of front matter, including a 5 page table of contents!
- 2 pages of introduction
- 21 pages about the medieval setting
- 19 pages of core game mechanics
- 68 pages of character generation
- 30 pages of vocations
- 83 pages of skills (covering every sort of medieval fantasy activity from the mundane to magick)
- 33 pages about the marketplace
- 3 pages of movement, travel, and time rules
- 20 pages of combat rules
- 109 pages of magick rules and spells
- 63 pages of religion rules (covering miracles, the equivalent of clerical magic from D&D although the term “equivalent” is really misrepresentative here) and source material on medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and miracles
- 16 pages of gamemaster rules and advice
- 15 pages about NPCs
- 40 pages of bestiary (I still haven’t compared this to my 3rd edition Bestiary yet)
- 10 pages of glossary/index
- 2 pages of Kickstarter backers
- 6 pages of character sheet
So with that much material, the question asks itself – is this game overly complicated? I’d say rather that it is complete. There are certainly a lot of rules, and in general they aim for a realistic feel rather than simplicity for simplicity’s sake. There are certainly not “more rules” than Pathfinder, though. Further, whereas Pathfinder features/suffers (depending on your taste) emergent complexity from the interaction of different rules in ways which are hard to envision before encountered in play, I don’t think that “emergent complexity” will be a major factor in play in Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition. Major disclaimer: I have not actually played C&S 5th edition yet, and this sort of complicated interaction of rules in unforeseen ways in play is, by its very nature, hard to detect just by reading through a PDF. I will have to update my review once I have played the game for a while.
Most importantly though, after reading this PDF, I do want to play this game. I want to adapt some of my favourite historical novels into a campaign concept for this game. I want to redesign a world for C&S which I built for D&D/Pathfinder years ago but abandoned when I decided I couldn’t make it work with the high fantasy superpower play style of modern versions of those game. As previously documented on this blog I want to run Westeros in C&S (although, less and less the more time I have to digest the end of the show – nothing to do with the rules). I want to explore Marakush and Anderia, published campaign settings for past editions of the game, and run some of the published adventures for previous editions as well. Who knows how many of these games I will actually get to run/play, but I certainly want to run/play them with Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition.
As mentioned elsewhere, I am also a fan of King Arthur Pendragon!, which I’ve used to run several campaigns over the last 17 years, including one of my current regular fortnightly games (for over two years and still going strong). I am of the opinion that Pendragon does what it sets out to do better than any other game – and that is to let you play as a knight from Malory’s version of the Arthurian saga. You can push this to other traditional interpretations of the same mythology too, but the further you move from that style of medieval mythic literature, the less ideally suited is Pendragon. But in Pendragon, players play knights. That’s (almost) it. 4th edition added magic users like Morgan le Fey, and it didn’t quite work. That’s not my opinion incidentally – that’s the opinion of the late, great Greg Stafford. In our own campaign, we had fun for a while focussed on courtly intrigues with the players taking the roles of the widows of their previous player knights, and that worked quite well for a while, but ultimately the format of the game (with its one session = one year and procedural Winter Phase) doesn’t lend itself as well to anything else as it lends itself to playing knights. Which is entirely as Mr. Stafford intended.
I use Pendragon as an example deliberately and not just because of my own familiarity with it. It is a popular medieval fantasy game. If you want to play Arthurian knights inspired by the works of Sir Thomas Malory, you should go buy Pendragon and the Great Pendragon Campaign and possibly the other sourcebooks if you like and run it. But if you want more options, if you want a more… complete… medieval fantasy experience, then Chivalry & Sorcery provides. In fact, you don’t even need to play an adventurer character type for Chivalry & Sorcery to have you covered. It wouldn’t be to my personal taste, but you could run a C&S game as a medieval fantasy town simulator if you wanted. Every strata of medieval society is playable.
By default, combat in Chivalry & Sorcery is broken into 15 second rounds, during which time each character spends action points to take actions in action phases. Action points are gained each round and depend on a combination of your attribute scores and random chance. A character doesn’t take all their actions at once and then wait until the next round as in D&D, instead, they take one action (spending action points to do so) and then the next character takes an action, and so on. An optional rule “reorders” the action sequence after each action phase based on the action points remaining. This is certainly an option which I prefer on paper for the same reason as I prefer to re-roll initiative every round when playing OSR games – it makes combat feel more dynamic and chaotic. There is also an alternative combat system based on blows (or potential blows), which looks similar to the combat system in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence (although blows are calculated on a more detailed basis than in that game). In either system, there are a good variety of combat options available both for attack and defence which provide a “tactical” feel to combat. Armour and shields absorb damage rather than make you easier to hit, and injuries are suffered to specific body areas and can be permanently disabling. I would describe the combat as detailed, realistic, gritty, and deadly.
I am not an historian of our beloved hobby, but if Chivalry & Sorcery wasn’t the first game to have a social influence mechanic, it had to be among the first. These mechanics make a big return in Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition, with detailed rules for obtaining an audience, possibly through intermediaries, courtly love, and so on. I am itching to use these in play, but on paper (well, PDF) it reads straight-forward and logical.
Yes, that is the official spelling in Chivalry & Sorcery.
That aside, the magick system probably does more to establish the “flavour” of the fantasy elements in the game than any other rules sub-system. Magick is based on skills, so a magician (a magus, in C&S) selects a mode of magick, and is resisted by reality. A magus will improve their magickal skills only by practising magick, and continually learning and improving their craft will clearly be a major focus for a magus player character in play. Creating magick items will also be a bigger focus of the C&S magus than the D&D magic-user, partly because magick is physically draining in C&S rather than D&D so-called Vancian magic system. There are a variety of casting types (cantrip, ritual, hex, sorcery) depending on the spell, and some are more suited for casting “under pressure” than others.
Most particularly, magick has methods and modes. A magick user’s ability to cast different spells will be most impacted by their choice of mode and method. The different elements, arcane magick, command, divination, illusion, plants, summoning, transcendental, transmutation and wards are the magick methods – all spells belong to one of these, saving a handful of common spells. Conjuration, divination, enchantment, hex master, necromantic, power word, thaumaturgy, and elementalists are the modes of the magick user themselves. There are also “mage priest” modes: druidic, shamanic, and witchcraft. The spells are all of what most gamers would call the “low fantasy” type (I am not sure that the gaming community uses these terms “low” and “high” fantasy consistently with how they are used to describe fantasy literature but that’s a topic for another day).
Religious magic is different again – prayers can grant blessings and lead to miracles, all of which are consistent with the sorts of miracles one reads about in the lives of medieval saints. Priests can perform the Church’s sacraments and these are codified in game terms as well – the Holy Eucharist gives the faithful a 24 hour blessing, Matrimony gives the faithful couple a 7 day blessing. That should get them through the honeymoon. An organised religion like the medieval Catholic Church is assumed in the game mechanics here – as indeed, it would be in any truly “medieval” fantasy game, so central was the Catholic Church to medieval society. There are even optional rules for creating saints or demigods (the latter clearly intended for use in your own medieval fantasy worlds).
The rules for both magick and religion make Chivalry & Sorcery profoundly different to Dungeons & Dragons or other fantasy roleplaying games I have encountered.
A Model Kickstarter
Although not strictly about the product itself, as a backer I think it is worth saying that Brittannia Game Designs has run a model Kickstarter for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition. In just a few months we have a final PDF, with the print book under production – and along the way we had plenty of drafts and lots of communication as well. It is obvious that far more than 5 months of work has gone into 5th edition C&S – in fact, it is obvious that far more than 5 years of work has gone into this game. It has clearly been a labour of love for a very long time. It must have been pretty close to finished when Brittannia Game Designs launched the Kickstarter, because a complete draft PDF came out at the end of October, and now we have the final PDF before Christmas. I appreciate Kickstarters which make such fast and obvious progress towards final delivery!
Final Thoughts (for now)
Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition is a massive PDF, and the most “complete” medieval fantasy roleplaying game in my DriveThruRPG digital library. I am looking forward to receiving the hardcover book, and looking forward to running the game. When each of those things happens, I will post supplements to this review, and let you know if my views have changed or evolved.
Until then, however, this is a huge, immensely useful PDF of the latest reincarnation of a classic roleplaying game. It captures the flavour of medieval fantasy which I most enjoy in fantasy literature and which I want to run at my game table. It is a $29.99 PDF, but at over 600 pages that’s still excellent value.