Posted on December 28, 2019
The Elves Companion (affiliate link) for Chivalry & Sorcery was originally published for Chivalry & Sorcery 3rd Edition in 2000. Note that I am reviewing it with a view for its use with Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition.
The Elves Companion is available from DriveThruRPG as a scanned PDF from the printed original. Although the scan is very clear and the book is easily readable, it has not been OCR’d. This means you can’t keyword search the PDF nor copy and paste from it nor use other text manipulation tools. That said, the 58-page PDF is only $4, less than scans of old D&D modules (which are, generally, OCR’d). So this is far from a modern, hyper-functional PDF like the C&S 5th Edition PDF (previously reviewed here). As you’d expect given its age, the interior is all black and white, laid out much like Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth was laid out – which was very much how most non-WoD RPGs looked before Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. It does print out nicely and with much less ink than the lavish 5th Edition PDF though!
If you can get past these cosmetic and format issues, though, the content is rather worth it. These elves are not your typical D&D elves. The Elves Companion combines Celtic mythology with a sprinkling of other sources, and grounds the Elven Nation in the sort of concrete terms you expect to find in a roleplaying game sourcebook. The “assumed setting” of the Elves Companion is the same assumed setting as Chivalry & Sorcery itself – our own world during the medieval period. Marakush-specific material is also included – but as an appendix (and a sidebar on page 20). Elven society is presumed to exist on the fringes of human society in the medieval world – generally confined to deep forests, where the elves may actually be the source of legends like Robin Hood. Elves deal more easily with pagan human societies than with the humans of the Abrahamic religions. It can be challenging, at times, to imagine how elves could dwell even in the forests of medieval Western Europe, but I think this is caused by our modern perspective on the world as intrinsically observable and thus knowable. In the medieval world, “civilisation” was not ubiquitous – it was bounded by city walls, erected against a wild and hostile world, and the deep, dark forests were impenetrable and alien. If the peasants tell stories of elves in the forest, perhaps their tales are true?
The elves themselves are related to the faeries of Celtic mythology, but they are doomed by the Blight, a product of human progress at the expense of the Earth. Their bloodlines have become impure, leaving only a handful of increasingly inbred “True Elves” as their ultimate ruling class, who sit on top of a hierarchical society, rarely if ever seen by the the “Half Blood” (as distinct from half-elven) majority, the great unwashed of the Elven Nation. The Half Blood proletariat are supervised by the Noble Elves, who serve as the gentry and bourgeoisie of the Elven Nation, underneath the Pure Blood True Elves. Even the Half Bloods are higher than the Lost Bloods, the contemptible excommunicates who have committed such unthinkable crimes as breeding with humans (creating half-elves), or working for humans. This hierarchical elven society is profoundly different from the societies of the increasingly generic elves of modern D&D, and most other fantasy roleplaying games. Unlike the elves of many modern “high fantasy” settings, the elves of the Elves Companion feel genuinely non-human.
Although largely a sourcebook, and written for another edition at that, the rules in the Elves Companion seem generally compatible with Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition. Many of the character creation modifications in the Elves Companion, and elf-specific tables for social class, build, father’s vocation etc appear in the 5th edition book itself. The expanded rules and tables for elven longbows appear to be 5th edition compatible too. It is a little unclear to me whether the rules point for half-elves (p31) which appear in the Elves Companion still apply in 5th edition though – it seems that creating a half-elf in 5th edition is more or less the same as creating a human character, but the player selects the “Fey Blood” special ability/talent. The other “rules points” which appear throughout the Elves Companion seem largely 5th edition compatible. Most significantly, the Elves Companion adds the Wardens Mage Mode and Elven Mage Mode, which are referred to in the 5th edition PDF for elven characters but do not appear there. Appendix A contains new vocations, and unless I have overlooked a skill or two which has been revamped, these appear to be completely compatible with 5th edition. Appendix B contains a bestiary of creatures associated with the elves, and though the stats for these creatures are presented differently from the Bestiary chapter in the 5th edition PDF, the necessary stats seem present and I am fairly confident these creatures could easily be used in a 5th edition game. This concludes the “new rules” for 5th edition content in this sourcebook, although there is also Appendix C which adds rules for creating elven characters in Chivalry & Sorcery Light.
The Elves Companion concludes with two scenarios, one set in Marakush, and the other set in medieval Europe (in northern Scotland specifically). These are both brief scenarios (1.5 pages long each), intended for elven player characters, which makes sense given the book they appear in. Both present a hook in the form of a mission bestowed upon the party by a noble, and then barebones details of the journey and adventure which follows. Both seem serviceable and potential good starts for a longer elven campaign. In the scenario set in Scotland, I could see the potential to have human (or even dwarf) player characters join the elven party during the course of the adventure, although I am not sure I really see “mixed” parties working in the historical setting as well as they might in Marakush or other fantasy worlds.
In fact, after reading the Elves Companion, and seeing how “alien” elven characters are from a human perspective, I do wonder how well they would fit into a predominantly human adventuring party. Modern D&D simply assumes a mix of player character races is normal in an adventuring party, and if we are honesty we must concede that modern D&D doesn’t trouble itself terribly with helping us suspend disbelief as to how an extremely heterogeneous adventuring party could be formed or function. Most adventuring parties are hardly forged in response to apocalyptic circumstances like the Fellowship of the Ring in D&D – most typically, the characters are presumed to know each other beforehand and/or meet in a tavern. This hardly seems satisfying or consistent with the verisimilitude Chivalry & Sorcery strives for. Having read the source material in the Elves Companion, I find it difficult to believe that most elves would mix with humans to any considerable extent – only the Lost Bloods would seem to me to make an appropriate member of an adventuring party in the D&D mould. This isn’t a drawback or a problem from my perspective – frankly, one of the main appeals to me of Chivalry & Sorcery is a more grounded, believable fantasy world, and insofar as “adventuring parties” should even exist in such a world, they would be largely culturally and socially homogeneous. However, I know that many of my gaming friends have a strong aversion to homogeneity amongst player characters – they want to play a variety of different races in particular, and I am still not sure how I will facilitate that as a Chivalry & Sorcery Gamemaster.
At $4, the Elves Companion is an outstanding value purchase, even though it is a “flat” PDF constructed from a scan. If you are planning on running a Chivalry & Sorcery game in medieval Europe or Marakush, the Elves Companion is an essential purchase. If you are building your own world for Chivalry & Sorcery with your own “bespoke” elves, then it is still worth reading the chapters about character creation from the Elves Companion so that you can better understand the elven character generation rules in the main book, which will help you better understand how to customise them to achieve your design objectives. It has certainly given me a lot to think about in terms of my own world-building.
Posted on December 23, 2019
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.
Posted on December 18, 2019
Late last month the Old-School Essentials Kickstarter came through and I received my goodies. I backed for both the Rules Tome and the boxed set, along with the Advanced Fantasy expansion books, and I am really pleased I did. These are really gorgeous physical books:
Obviously, I was already familiar with Gavin Norman’s outstanding work with B/X Essentials and so in many ways this was a “sure bet” Kickstarter. B/X Essentials was already a really nicely done retroclone, with a modular design which makes it unique among “Basic D&D” retroclones. I knew Old-School Essentials would be at least that good – really I backed the Kickstarter to see how much of an improvement an offset print-run could be as compared to the B/X Essentials print-on-demand books.
The answer is: a huge improvement. These books are physically beautiful. They’re sturdy and attractive, and are so well-presented that they could be placed on the same shelf as the latest books from WotC and Paizo and look as if they deserved to be there, despite the fact that their presentation is of an entirely different style to the “big colour hardback book”. This is an OSR product which is truly worthy of mainstream distribution, and if we are honest, there are only a few OSR games which we can say that about, in terms of their physical presentation.
I hope Old-School Essentials finds that mainstream distribution and enjoys mainstream success as a result, beyond the usual OSR audience which is familiar with the online distribution channels. It’s modular nature also lends itself to a line of supplements – genre rules for different fantasy genres, alternate classes and races, and so on. While I think experienced players don’t mind tinkering with the rules from an all-in-one book like the Rules Tome, the smaller, modular books in the boxed set invite newer players to see the system as consisting of pieces which can be swapped in and swapped out. I don’t think I appreciated how clever this was when Gavin first did it with B/X Essentials but I certainly see it now.
As fond as I am of Labyrinth Lord, with this printing I think Old-School Essentials has superseded it and now stands as the superior “reference retroclone” for Basic D&D. I think its succinct, modern presentation makes it an easier sell to younger players familiar with 5e or Pathfinder, as well as a superior reference text for Grognards.
Posted on September 22, 2019
I am not much of a mapper, but while trying to search for why there is an undescribed secret door on the eastern edge of the map of level 1 of the Palace of the Silver Princess in B1-9: In Search of Adventure (which I am running for my kids and their friends using my retroclone, First Five Fantasy Roleplaying), I came across some great fan-made maps of the dungeon by “Bogie-DJ” on DeviantArt:
The best part about these maps is not only are they gorgeous, but if you download the hi-res version via the link in the bottom right hand corner, they’re already perfect size for use in Roll20!
Posted on September 10, 2019
Note: I am basing this very heavily on a combination of rough estimates, Wikipedia, The Sealed Knot, and some helpful forum posts by other LotFP players.
As they soon plan to acquire a ship, my Lamentations of the Flame Princess group has raised questions about ship cannons. Although Rules & Magic includes rules for ships and ship combat, the latter only uses catapults and the like, not modern gunpowder weapons, and it would be faintly ridiculous in 1643 for my player characters to sail along in a galleon armed with catapults.
I have been asked how many cannons can the ship types in the Rules & Magic book carry, what types, how much do they cost, etc. The only real rules for cannons in Rules & Magic are the rules for “artillery” in the gunpowder appendix. Rather than provide a list of discrete types of artillery, artillery is an abstraction which scales up damage, size, and cost as you buy bigger and bigger pieces of artillery. That’s fine, but means that you can’t simply take a list of historical ship armaments and directly obtain the game stats for them.
For that matter, historical ship armaments, like other ship stats, were extraordinarily variable. There was no “standard” armament for a galleon or a frigate or any other ship type on the list in Rules & Magic. In the early modern era, warships were loaded with as many cannon as they could carry whilst remaining upright. In a few famous cases (e.g. the Vasa), warships were so overloaded that remaining upright proved impossible. With that as a disclaimer, we can still use historical ship armaments to get a vague idea of what a ship of each type could conceivably carry. We can also use the cargo capacity of a ship to estimate how many cannons and barrels of gunpowder it can carry, since a ship is essentially trading cargo space to carry weapons.
The problem is that LotFP uses an abstract encumbrance system for determining how much a person or a horse can carry, but ships carry cargo in tons. Rules & Magic specifies that each size category of artillery translates to 25 Encumbrance Points. Since my campaign is set in the English Civil War, what better resource to use than the Sealed Knot’s website to look at artillery size? Of these, the smallest two are too light to correspond to even the first size category of artillery in LotFP rules terms – since it takes 2 horses to comfortably pull the falcon, this is a good place to start as the “size category I” cannon. The LotFP forum posters probably came to a similar conclusion since “Falcon” is listed as the Size Category I cannon. The weight of a Falcon is estimated at 700lbs. An Imperial Ton is 2240lbs, so we could roughly say, therefore, that:
3 Size Categories of Artillery = 1 Ton of Cargo Space
Rules & Magic says that it takes one barrel of gunpowder per size category to shoot an artillery piece. This is a huge amount of gunpowder! In reality, the amount of powder used per shot depended on the weight of the shot, and the Sealed Knot has this at about 2/3rds the weight of the shot consumed in powder (other reading suggests that earlier on, a 1:1 ratio may have been used). A standard barrel of gunpowder (which didn’t really exist of course) in LotFP is 4 encumbrance points and gives 2500 measures of powder for musket fire. If I estimate the weight of a barrel of gunpowder by encumbrance points I would get approximately 110lbs, and if I estimate the amount of gunpowder contained by the number of shots, I get approximately 80lbs. These are completely uneducated estimates on my part as I have no direct experience with gunpowder, but broadly seems OK to me, although the barrels must be heavy. So, in terms of how much gunpowder a ship can carry:
20 barrels of gunpowder = 1 Ton of Cargo Space
And using the 3:2 ratio which is generally used:
1.5 Tons of Shot require 1 Ton of Powder
Armed with these three facts, players can estimate how many guns, powder, and shot their ship can carry. But what damage can they actually do? And for that matter, what ranges can the different cannon be used at? For this, I am modifying the final table given in this wonderful thread by the poster “Cutter” and adding how many “cannonballs” of ammunition for each of the cannons listed can fit into 1 ton of ship cargo space:
|Size||Type||DMG (SHP)||Short (‘)||Med (‘)||Long (‘)||Shot per Ton||Shots/barrel|
Finally, the artillery rules do not provide prices for shot – just the artillery piece itself and gunpowder (by the barrel). So, extrapolating based on the price of a bag of shot (interchangeable for all firearms in LotFP) and how many musket balls there are in a ton, an estimate price for a ton of shot is:
1 Ton of Shot = 650sp
(This means that, by weight, shot is nearly as expensive as cannon themselves – this might need to be revisited since it seems counterintuitive)
So, we can resolve the question of how many guns and how much ammunition a ship can carry based on the cargo capacity in Rules & Magic. How many could the ship mount for use in combat? I think there are two options here – one is simply to research historical examples of armaments for the specific ship type being used, and the other, to embrace the over-optimistic spirit of the age with respect to quantity of armaments and sea worthiness. Following the logic of the latter, the ship can mount for combat all the guns it can carry (after all, wooden ships can be reconfigured with a little carpentry), once ammunition, gunpowder, rations, water and other vital supplies are also accounted for from the maximum cargo capacity. If you want to put to see in a ship bristling with guns and filled with gunpowder and shot, but with no food and water, so be it. That sort of decision has its own consequences, of course.
Ships can carry and use as many guns as they can carry, provided they also have powder and shot, based on their cargo capacity:
- 3 Size Categories worth of artillery = 1 Ton of cargo space
- 20 barrels of gunpowder = 1 Ton of cargo space
- 20 barrels of gunpowder fires 1.5 Tons of shot; or
- 1 Ton of shot requires 13 1/3 barrels of gunpowder
- 1 Ton of shot = 650sp
- All other prices as per Rules & Magic
- Gun ranges (and shots per barrel and per ton) as per the table above
Posted on September 4, 2019
The original Miseries & Misfortunes was a zine which hacked B/X to adapt it to an early modern setting. I’m definitely into early modern Europe as a roleplaying setting – it’s part of the appeal of Lamentations of the Flame Princess to me. So when I saw a Kickstarter for a revised and expanded Miseries & Misfortunes set in 1648 France, I backed it pretty quickly. I then ignored most of the updates except those pertaining to shipping and delivery (as I generally do – I am much less interested in Kickstarter updates for projects than creators seem to think I am, unless of course the project starts running late or going off the rails, then I do appreciate the updates). I then travelled back home for my Summer vacation and a whole bunch of packages from Kickstarters backed across the last 3 years all landed at once, so although they probably arrived spaced out over 6 weeks, I received them all at once upon my return. I have been reading through these in the order it takes my fancy, I have only recently gotten to Miseries & Misfortunes.
What an absolute gem this revised version has proven to be! A 212 page paperback printed on quality paper which feels nice to touch, lavishly decorated with period engravings and nicely laid out with the right balance on most pages between white space and rich information. Perhaps more surprising to me, almost all of these pages are game materials – not information about the setting as I had half expected. A second book, entitled 1648, focussing on setting material, will be available in a few months. Until then, there are plenty of history books and online sources you can use to learn about France at this time. Besides, the real “value add” of this book to someone who knows the setting is how Miseries & Misfortunes skillfully adapts Basic Dungeons & Dragons into a game with truly comprehensive coverage of this historical setting. Anything I ever considered “gameable” about 17th Century France has been captured and distilled into simple, familiar OSR mechanics by Miseries & Misfortunes. The game covers romantic swashbuckling in the style of The Three Musketeers to rather grittier rough and tumble street fights in Paris during the Fronde to the nefarious supernatural conspiracies of the Affair of the Poisons to social combat fought out in the press and palace alike between the highest members of society.
An OSR game with a social combat system? Yes, and one which actually feels entirely mechanically consistent with the regular combat system at that. Likewise, the game includes rules for what is collectively called “magic” in classic Dungeons & Dragons but which is presented in a form which feels true to “magic” as practised in the 17th Century (with the arguable difference that in the game the magic might actually work). A new experience system is presented where each class (called lifepath in Miseries & Misfortunes) gains experience for achievements relevant to that lifepath, rather than killing things or collecting loot alone. These are notable differences to most OSR rule sets, but they are presented in a way which feels like a natural evolution from the original Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules. This is an OSR rules set which proves that you can build on the rules light foundations of the OSR to truly support another style of play altogether – not just to adapt essentially the same game to a new genre.
The treatment of magic and chymistry is particularly appealing to me. Rather than merely present a list of 17th century “themed” spells but otherwise retaining the basic Vancian spellcasting system of Dungeons & Dragons, Miseries & Misfortunes provides a system based on grimoires, drawn from a vast library of real sacred, secret, and forbidden texts drawn from history, each covering different magical fields and topics. The equivalent of “divine spellcasting” draws on religious texts, and “arcane spellcasting” on decidedly less wholesome works. Using the system you will be able to make potions and poisons, summon demons, and cast spells, just like the shady characters of the Affair of the Poisons did. Many historical RPGs struggle with the topic of magic, but by treating it within the context of the belief frameworks of the age in which Miseries & Misfortunes is set, the magic system feels “native” to the historical period, rather than an intrusion from fantasy.
The inclusion of a social combat system in an OSR game may cause some eyebrows to rise, but for the feeling Miseries & Misfortunes is aiming to evoke, I am convinced such a system is totally necessary. Further, the system is both easy to understand and interesting – and will facilitate plenty of emergent storytelling in play. It combines with points-based systems to track Reputation and Wealth. I found the Wealth system a little complicated to understand at first reading – and required a little bit of flicking back and forth to see how the various parts of the system seemed to interact, but I think I understand it now. In practice, the Wealth system is less abstract than the wealth system and purchase mechanics found in d20 Modern and I think it will be smoother in play. An abstract system is probably necessary to preserve an historical feeling in rules-light game set in an era where coinage is still highly non-standard and confusing and where player characters can come from any stratus of society – from the lowest of the marginaux to royalty.
When I first backed this Kickstarter I did so hoping for a book which I could occasionally raid for resources for my Lamentation of the Flame Princess game. What I got was far more than that – this is a game I am absolutely going to run in its own right. What’s more, it is a descendant of dear old Basic Dungeons & Dragons which manages to feel completely distinct from all the other descendants of Basic Dungeons & Dragons on my shelves. This game is proof that you can still do new and exciting things with an OSR base, whether you’d call the end product “OSR” or not.
I got my copy via Kickstarter, but you can buy the PDF at the publisher’s website. I expect the game will become available again in print around the time 1648 is complete, at least I hope so. There has already been one additional print-run on a limited pre-order basis after the fulfillment of the initial Kickstarter and the publisher’s GenCon booth, so there may be further pre-order runs soon too. Keep your eyes out, because this gem is well worth it.
Posted on August 29, 2019
That the creators of Dungeons & Dragons and thus the initiators of our beloved hobby, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, had many differences of opinion about their respective contributions to the game and that there was significant bad blood between the two of them understates things considerably. Before many gamers were even born Gygax and Arneson had even contested these differences in court. The controversy is not new, it has been with us for decades. So why was a Kotaku article covering this all like it was a new revelation all over social media this week?
The latest piece, Dungeons & Deceptions: The First D&D Players Push Back on the Legend of Gary Gygax, is just the latest in a series of articles which are very negative about Gary Gygax written by Kotaku columnist Cecilia D’Anastasio. If it was taken by itself, I might think “Fine, a gaming website is revisiting an old controversy for its younger reader base”, but this is not the only article aimed at Gygax and his “legend”.
The first piece specifically about Gygax which I noticed in this series was entitled Graphic Novel About D&D’s Creator Is Enchanting, But Falls Into A Familiar Trap, and is a fairly benign review for the most part. Despite describing the graphic novel as “an enchanting history”, it seems to really bother the author. “And yet, perhaps Gygax has enjoyed enough time on D&D’s altar of hero worship.” the article declares. The article rails against the primacy of the Dungeon Master and asserts this diminishes the contributions of players, an argument which reminds me of my kids asking me “How come there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day but no Kid’s Day?”. The author’s argument placing the contributions of Players vs DMs is ultimately made by asserting that the existence of the D&D community content platform tells us to whom D&D’s legacy really belongs (uh, yeah, Wizards of the Coast but I suspect that’s not what the article’s author meant), and ends with the quip, without source or reference offered, that “It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.”
Now, since no specific instance, citation, hyperlink, or other evidence is provided for this statement, I am left to speculate. Certainly, Gygax fought to retain control over his IP. Gygax and Arneson fought over it in court. TSR was certainly diligent in protecting its IP against Gygax once he had been forced out of the company. If the author is arguing that Gygax was protective of the D&D IP I would certainly agree with her. But the article claims “It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source” and this just doesn’t make sense to me. Gygax didn’t own the 3e ruleset, the ruleset which was actually made open source with the OGL. Gygax was not part of Wizards of the Coast to fight against the ruleset being made open source. I don’t know what Gygax made of the OGL upon its first release, but I do know that he published a good number of OGL supplements and products, and that by 2002, he was giving interviews which praised the concept: “The D20 OGL is a very clever move too, as it provides support for the core system, brings in more players to it, and expands the fantasy base into other fantasy environments as well as into whole new genres.” I cannot therefore think of any basis for the Kotaku article to include this idea that Gygax fought against the OGL for any other reason except to conceptually drive a divide between the vast community of hobbyists and publishers who have produced OGL supplements for D&D and D&D-inspired games and one of the game’s co-creators, and to deny Gygax any of that part of the D&D “legacy”.
The second major piece in this sequence was an article principally about Gail Gygax, Fantasy’s Widow: The Fight over the Legacy of Dungeons & Dragons. This article isn’t really a hit piece, but it does reveal the rift between Gail Gygax and some of Gary Gygax’s children from his first marriage, and paints a pretty tragic picture of the current state of Gail Gygax’s world all around. The size and scope of the article makes it clear that some significant effort was expended in gathering the story. I am not arguing that the author went out of her way to make anybody look bad, but it seems to me that such a detailed article on what would generally be a pretty esoteric topic to most of Kotaku’s readership can only be the product of a fixation on the topic of Gary Gygax and his legacy.
Before this sequence of articles started, however, Gygax was also the target of Cecilia D’Anastasio’s ire in articles not specifically related to D&D. Her article The Struggle To Bring More Women Into Game Development, opens with the following paragraph:
Gary Gygax, biological determinist and creator of Dungeons & Dragons, once told a reporter for Icon magazine that “gaming in general is a male thing… Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.”https://kotaku.com/the-struggle-to-bring-more-women-into-game-development-1783683864
Gygax’s thinking certainly sounds sexist and outdated in the quotation (and indeed, this shouldn’t surprise us), but if you follow the link to the article from Icon magazine which the author provides, you find that the quotation has been selective so as to make Gygax appear worse. At least this statement, unlike the throwaway about Gygax fighting against the OGL, is supported with a link, albeit one which reveals the selective quoting. The full context from the 1998 interview is:
What about the strains of sex and violence throughout D&D? The fantasy women in the chain mail bikinis.http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=3964
GG: It’s the same in comic books and on the front of the lurid covers of the old pulp magazines. Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.
Note had D’Anastasio included the sentence deliberately omitted in the middle “It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women.”, it would make using Gygax’s name as a proxy for chauvinists in the game industry awkward:
The women who contributed to the new essay compilation Women in Game Development, out July 1st by CRC Press, heard Gygax’s sentiments echoed both in their heads and in game publishes’ (sic) conference rooms. Many felt first-hand the effects of big gaming companies pushing their games to boys, a marketing tactic popularized around the mid-80s. But despite all the Gary Gygaxes who told them No, get out, they did it, and they’re helping others do it, too.https://kotaku.com/the-struggle-to-bring-more-women-into-game-development-1783683864
And later on in the article, discussing that the female authors of the book found that “Myst, Monkey Island, Donkey Kong, and–against Gygax’s proclamation–Dungeons & Dragons, were not only fun ways to pass the time, but crucial parts of their identities.” (emphasis added), as if it is a given that Gygax wanted female players excluded from Dungeons & Dragons.
I am not going to argue that Gary Gygax was not sexist, or that early D&D was not “biological determinist” (e.g. restrictions by race and gender in AD&D 1e), but both Gygax and his editions of the game came from a sexist age. Making Gygax the sole example of a male chauvinist voice seeking to exclude women in the Kotaku article about the struggle to bring in more women game developers is just ridiculous – especially when you consider that we’re talking primarily about the video game industry, and that the struggle is real and right now, years after Gygax’s death, not in a distant past where Gygax may have been personally influential in the matter. The article reports that, with respect to women in game development: “Incessant sexual and emotional harassment, along with imbalanced wages and constant doubt over their skill eroded these women’s mental health…” This harassment and wage inequality is not the fault of Gary Gygax, a dead man from another industry, but the fault of living people in the video game development industry right now. Perhaps Kotaku doesn’t want to name names in the video game industry, and thus prefers to use Gygax as a boogeyman to stand in for the actual bad actors? That doesn’t seem very fair to me, either to Gary Gygax or the actual victims of this harassment.
There are other, non-Kotaku articles by D’Anastasio about Gary Gygax as well. This review of “Empire of Imagination” has a pretty disgusting comment about Gary Gygax’s wife: “The thoroughly male world of wargaming, a world that, as Witwer chuckles, evaded the understanding of Gygax’s wife (whom, as rumor has it, he chose for her resemblance to a fantasy pinup girl in skintight armor)” (again, emphasis mine), and was written in 2015. I am guessing Gail Gygax didn’t see that before she agreed to be interviewed for D’Anastasio’s 2019 article Fantasy’s Widow.
For what it’s worth, not everything D’Anastasio has written for Kotaku about D&D is a hit piece on Gary Gygax. Dungeons & Dragons Wouldn’t Be What It Is Today Without These Women is very worth reading if you’ve an interest in the creation of some of the most iconic products of the “golden age” of TSR. D’Anastasio has also written some pieces praising 5th edition and it’s obvious she’s a keen gamer, since she’s also the author of a mini-supplement on DMSGuild (that’s an affiliate link).
Also for what it’s worth, every gamer with an interest in the history of the hobby (which probably describes most of the OSR), knows that Gary Gygax was far from perfect. Stories abound of drug and alcohol abuse, abusive parenting, infidelity, bullying, and obviously, fights over intellectual property. Even as a gamer, there probably is no “definitive Gygax philosophy” since his view of the game he co-created and the games inspired by it changed dramatically over time, and his advice to players and Dungeon Masters ranged from advocating almost “rules anarchy” to insisting that he personally was the definitive authority on all rules and everything between. Gygax wasn’t perfect, but he was the co-creator of a game which founded a hobby which millions of people love, including D’Anastasio herself. Reducing him to a click-bait caricature is unfair, as is using him as a stand-in for the sins and attitudes of others. This campaign to turn Gygax’s legacy into something dirty is unfair.
Posted on August 25, 2019
My first post on this blog was about the 1991 Black Box Dungeons & Dragons starter set, which was my introduction to D&D and the roleplaying game hobby generally. I still believe this version of the game is an underappreciated classic. It covered dungeon crawling for levels 1 to 5. The box contained a rulebook, a DM’s screen which doubled as a folder for Dragon Cards (which restated the rules in single-page chunks for the most part), a large fold-out map of Zanzer Tem’s dungeon (adventure included with the Dragon Cards), and a huge set of fold-up paper miniatures for player characters, non-player characters, and monsters.
As previously discussed, I am running a D&D campaign for my kids and some of their friends, playing through the B1-9 super module. Although the Black Box version of the game had the “Thunder Rift” modules to accompany it, the same rules also work perfectly well for B1-9. Unfortunately, my old black D&D rulebook is nearly falling apart, and this classic is one of the few TSR-era titles which has not been made available on DriveThruRPG as PDF or print-on-demand. I wanted the kids to be able to have physical rulebooks they could hold and read both at and away from the game table, so I started looking to other options.
I love the Rules Cyclopedia but that is a cruelly large book to inflict on a 9 year old. It’s great it is available as print-on-demand from DriveThruRPG (you can pick it up via my affiliate link). Ultimately, my D&D campaign with the kids will progress to using the Rules Cyclopedia once their characters are high enough level, but a great introductory tome it is not.
Likewise, as much as I love Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials (or B/X Essentials as it still was when we started playing), both games present too much too soon for young beginners, in my view. The way Old School Essentials splits topic and contents across multiple books is convenient as a DM or as an experienced player, but I don’t multiple booklets is intuitive for young players. The main thing against these retroclones, though, was that both really strive to present B/X in a modern format, not the version of the rules as presented in the 1991 black box (which are subtly different from but closer to BECMI).
So, using Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials, I started to build my own retroclone, seeking specifically to provide a retroclone of the rulebook from my beloved 1991 black box. I wanted to make these rules available in print-on-demand so that players and DMs could have sturdy, gameable books, as opposed to my nearly falling apart original book, to play the version of D&D which introduced so many of us to the hobby. First Five Fantasy Roleplaying is the result.
This is a 64 A4 page rulebook which includes everything the black box book had, with a few bonus features including the monster you see depicted on the cover here, and an index (definitely a missing feature from the black box book).
I found during actual play, it helped me to teach the rules to the kids if they had copies of the rules as well. It definitely speeds up character creation and equipment list shopping if everyone has their own copy! However, I didn’t want the kids to reference monsters during play. My solution? I removed the monsters, treasure, and dungeon design sections from First Five Fantasy Roleplaying and produced the First Five Fantasy Roleplaying Player’s Guide. This is a 32 A4 page rulebook which has everything players need to play the game and learn the rules, but doesn’t include any of the material you’d rather keep secret during play as the referee. Since it is almost literally the first half of the full rulebook, I made it available as pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG.
I’ve been a little bit shy about promoting First Five Fantasy Roleplaying mostly because I made it first and foremost for my kids and their friends and our home game. I also know it stands on the shoulders of some pretty tall giants. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a new print version of the 1991 black box rules, I am pretty sure you’ll like First Five Fantasy Roleplaying.
Posted on July 22, 2019
Both my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign and my games of Basic D&D feature Chaos cults as adversaries for the player characters. Sometimes hidden in the shadows of respectable societies, sometimes open power centres in cities of wicked people, Chaos cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are great building blocks for world building. Although generally villains they can also be useful allies for more morally flexible parties.
Chaos Cults: Bubonica is the first of what I hope will be a series of zine-sized supplements for Basic D&D. The idea is that each booklet will feature a different Chaos god and different types of cults to that god which could be easily dropped into your game. Each booklet also incorporates some monsters, cleric spells, and an adventure locale.
I am working on two other Chaos Cults booklets which will hopefully be released in the next few months, and I hope more will follow.
Posted on June 10, 2019
It has been my observation that most Chivalry & Sorcery fans relish in the perceived complexity of the game. I am not sure the game is actually very complex, at least in its actual mechanics, although there are certainly a lot of topics covered in the rules and the presentation of the rules themselves could be more accessible (something I hope the upcoming 5th edition rectifies where appropriate). I think the legendary tiny font size of the 1st edition of the game, necessary to fit in what by the standards of the time was a truly exhaustively complete set of rules, created a certain reputation for the game and C&S purists wear that reputation like a badge of pride.
And more power to them, I say. I have a lot of respect for people who play AD&D 1e “rules as written” too, because despite my enormous affection for Gygaxian prose, I am still not entirely sure I understand what the rules are for some systems (overbearing immediately comes to mind). Still, one of the reasons I am generally an OSR gamer and one especially drawn to Basic D&D and systems inspired by Basic D&D is that I quite like the simple, easy to play and easy to tinker with mechanics. I certainly like not being drowned in hundreds of pages of rules like I am when I try to play Pathfinder. Perhaps this is why Chivalry & Sorcery Essence appeals to me. Plus, at least until the 5th edition Kickstarter, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is the only version of C&S you can currently buy in print (it is available as print-on-demand) unless you want to pay top dollar for a print copy of a previous edition of C&S proper.
Chivalry & Sorcery Essence shares the ability scores and the same basic concepts as Chivalry & Sorcery proper, but uses a different system, based around rolling under a success chance on a d20, rather than a d100. Of course the book does not have the exhaustive set of character options, equipment, or spells that Chivalry & Sorcery 4th Edition has, but it has a good selection and everything is simple enough that you can easily see how you could make or import your own. Simple enough that you can easily see how to tinker is a feature, not a limitation, to my taste.
The 44 page book includes all the rules you need to play, and an introductory scenario set in its own fantasy medieval campaign setting, Darken. Despite the rules being about the same size as the core of Basic D&D, there’s nevertheless a lot of options for character creation and advancement, a blow-based combat system which makes all your decisions count and is much more tactical and realistic-feeling than D&D, and even a mass combat system! There’s quite a lot to sink your teeth into even at the relatively small size.
There are a few “rough edges”. Some of the interior art is not high enough resolution for print – but most of it is very serviceable. The layout is also “serviceable”. This is a 2011 book, so it is unfair to judge it by the standards of some of the amazingly laid out OSR books of recent years. The game is designed to be played using a d20, but in some places a d10 is more appropriate (e.g. in character generation I’d rather roll a d10 than halving a d20 roll).
If you’re an OSR player who likes rules light systems but is intrigued by C&S I think you might enjoy Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. At the very least, it’s worth a look while you’re waiting to check out Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition!
You can buy Chivalry & Sorcery Essence here via my affiliate link in PDF and print-on-demand format. Some of the artwork in the print-on-demand version is a little low-resolution but it is still nice to have in hard copy, I think.