Storytelling Patient Zero

Back when I reviewed the 1st Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, I took note of the various other RPGs cited in Mark Rein-Hagen’s afterword (only included in later printings). One game which was conspicuous by its absence from this list is Prince Valiant, a Chaosium RPG based on the Arthurian newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster. Emerging in 1989, not only does it proudly proclaim itself a “Story-Telling Game” on its front cover, but it also explicitly refers to the referee as a Storyteller, works in the idea of rotating the Storyteller position over the course of a game (which may be influenced by Ars Magica‘s ideas about troupe play), and has what is effectively a disguised die pool system.

To cover that latter point in brief: in principle, rolls in Prince Valiant are actually based on coin tosses – you add together stat and skill, toss an appropriate number of coins, and count heads as successes. This seems to have been a decision made in part to make the game approachable to non-gamers who might not have dice handy, but almost certainly have coins – but whilst tossing a bunch of coins in sequence is burdensome, you can roll much faster and get mathematically equivalent results simply by rolling a bunch of dice and, say, taking odds as successes and evens as failures, or rolls of over 50% of the maximum roll as successes (so 4-6 on a D6, or 3-4 of a D4, or 11-20 on a D20).

Now, the convenience there is that you could roll all dice of a different type, and since all the standard RPG dice types roll even numbers then you can get 50/50 probabilities out of them. (If rolling different dice types then doing odds = successes, evens = failures makes reading the results super quick because you don’t have to worry about the type of individual dice, just the number they are showing.) But if you took just D10s and took 6-10 as being a success, then you’ve basically arrived at the World of Darkness system with a static Difficulty number. For that matter, if you do it with D6s you end up coming close to the Shadowrun system, which debuted in the same year in what feels like a case of parallel evolution.

Now, it’s known that Vampire looked to Shadowrun primarily for its system, so the fact that Prince Valiant uses disguised dice pools by itself could be mere coincidence. But the combination of that and the idea of calling the referee the Storyteller means that the parallels seem like less of a coincidence – especially when you consider how both games used the “Storyteller” title and associated rhetoric as part of an effort to expand beyond the existing RPG audience.

White Wolf’s pretensions of rekindling an ancient oral tradition (as though tabletop RPGs hadn’t been a perfectly cromulent rekindling of said tradition for over a decade before White Wolf were a thing) are well-documented, as is the runaway success of the World of Darkness in general and Vampire in particular in capturing the imagination of entire subcultures who hadn’t yet crossed paths with the tabletop RPG hobby. Prince Valiant, meanwhile, presents itself as a “Story-Telling Game” on its cover rather than an RPG and uses coins instead of dice precisely because in designing it Greg Stafford was trying to produce something which was accessible to total beginners with no prior RPG experience.

That in itself was a pretty sound idea – after all, Prince Valiant as a newspaper comic had a level of name recognition extending well beyond the geekosphere. At the same time, however, perhaps in retrospect that name recognition worked against the game; familiarity breeds contempt, after all, and the newspaper comics are hardly bastions of cool at the best of times.

Equally, I am not so sure it’s quite as beginner-friendly as it could be. The coin toss system itself, great, absolutely fine. At the same time, we’re getting into the same sort of Arthurian territory as Pendragon, and as such Stafford (bless his Malory-reading heart) simply can’t help himself. Some of the Pendragon-inspired additions here are a big help – having all the PCs be knights give focus, using the pursuit of Fame as your XP mechanic is a great spur to character-appropriate behaviour. At the same time, once you’ve introduce a system as gloriously simple as the coin-toss mechanics, does it really make sense to clutter it up with stuff like a mass combat system? Stafford also goes off on one of his “historical accuracy”/”loyalty to source material” kicks and strongly discourages female adventurers who don’t take distinctly feminine roles, a thing which also tended to blight early editions of Pendragon; thankfully he got over it by Pendragon 5th edition, but it’s a shame that he didn’t sort it out much, much earlier.

Furthermore, though admittedly they are restricted to what’s referred to as the Advanced Game, the game’s ideas about shifting Storyteller responsibilities are perhaps both too offbeat for beginners and also too undeveloped to be especially satisfying. It more or less boils down to the regular GM being Chief Storyteller but being enabled to arbitrarily decide that someone else is going to be Storyteller for a particular scene. That plus the assumption that each person is going to laboriously write up their own repertoire of NPC characters to use as Storyteller, created along the same lines as the PCs, is really indicative of how early a game this is – whilst numerous storygames and narrative RPGs have worked in smooth mechanics for sharing narrative control, here the simple idea of sharing it was still new and fresh enough that nobody had really worked out sensible procedures for it.

Still, for all its flaws Prince Valiant is a nicely rules-light alternative to Pendragon, and on top of that is an overlooked but important bit of RPG bistory. As well as the only non-Runequest/Basic Roleplaying-based RPG that Chaosium ever published, it was also either a major unacknowledged influence on Vampire or set out the Storytelling agenda so clearly (even making passing references to old-timey oral storytelling traditions in the text!) that the parallels are downright uncanny. Nocturnal Media did a Kickstarter a while back for a new full-colour revision of the game, and despite the shocking and utterly unexpected death of Stewart Wieck throwing Nocturnal’s various Kickstarters off-schedule it seems to be making good progress. I don’t expect it to spark a full-blown Prince Valiant revival, but if it gets this neglected game into a few more hands then that’s all to the good.

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