Pedantry & Pointlessness

The story is legendary: Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus penned Chivalry & Sorcery originally as a document named Chevalier, which they took to Gen Con intending to pitch it to TSR as a greatly improved take on Dungeons & Dragons. Ed Simbalist would later claim that they thought better of it after getting “very bad vibes” concerning Gary Gygax, after they witnessed Gary telling off a con volunteer. That may or may not be true, but in retrospect I can’t imagine that Ed or Wilf would have had much luck with their pitch anyway. If the idea was to publish Chevalier alongside Dungeons & Dragons, I think even early TSR knew better than to divide their customer base by publishing two competing generic fantasy RPGs, and if the idea was that it would replace D&D I think both Gary’s ego and the preferences of the D&D fanbase wouldn’t stand for it.

Either way, at the con they also ran into Scott Bizar, head honcho at Fantasy Games Unlimited. As I’ve noted in previous reviews of games from FGU’s back catalogue, Bizar’s business model was based on a mixture of selling his own game designs and publishing the work of individual authors whose manuscripts caught Bizar’s eye; this gave a wide distribution to games which wouldn’t have had the same reach had the authors self-published, whilst simultaneously allowing FGU to boast an extremely broad portfolio, with products ranging from oddities like Bunnies & Burrows to treatments of neglected but decidedly game-worthy genres like Bushido, Flashing Blades or Privateers & Gentlemen to significant hits like Villains & Vigilantes.

At the time, FGU hadn’t quite moved to focus on RPGs – I think, in fact, only Bunnies & Burrows had been put out by them in the RPG field – but the Chevalier manuscript was going begging and seemed to lend itself naturally to filling the “generic D&D-inspired fantasy RPG”-shaped hole in the FGU portfolio. Scott, Ed, and Wilf shook hands on it right there at the Con, and come 1977 Chivalry & Sorcery was unleashed on the market.

As Ed notes in that interview I linked earlier, FGU had a tendency to toss a game out there and then let it sink or swim, moving on to the new hotness unless a game’s original creators or some other parties were enthused enough to produce support material for it. Simbalist seems to take the position that Bizar was at fault here, but I think that both shows a misunderstanding of Bizar’s business model (which was largely based on people taking the initiative in creating material and then bringing it to him to publish, with games like Space Opera which were solicited specifically to meet a perceived need being very much the exception) and overestimates Chivalry & Sorcery‘s importance to FGU.

After all, whilst most FGU lines were core book-and-done affairs, or maybe had a small smattering of supplements, the true cash cow lines got a bunch of supplements for them – in particular, Villains & Vigilantes had a pretty extensive range of support out for it, to the point where there was a point in the 1980s when it was seriously contending with Champions and Marvel Superheroes for the “top superhero RPG” spot.

Why, then, would FGU step away from seriously concentrating on Chivalry & Sorcery after putting a bunch of energy into putting out a decent supplement line for its 1977 first edition, and then putting out an updated 2nd edition boxed set and a brace of updated supplements for it in 1983? Well, we can speculate a lot, and based on that interview Simbalist seems to have some long-lasting beef with Bizar, but I’d like to propose a simpler answer: Chivalry & Sorcery was, quite simply, an early fantasy heartbreaker, and one which doomed itself by its own decisions to have an extremely limited appeal – and by 1983, it had already become extremely dated.

In one of those “stopped clock is right twice a day” situations, the term “Fantasy Heartbreaker” was coined by Ron Edwards in this essay and is actually quite useful. Edwards uses it to refer to a very particular type of RPG: specifically, an RPG which is kidding itself that it is doing something which is extremely novel and interesting and unheard-of before, and that it is pushing forwards the bounds of game design, when in fact it shows very little evidence that the designer has much knowledge of RPG design principles aside from whichever edition of D&D they are most used to, and in extreme cases the game in question is very clearly just someone’s D&D house rules.

Now, you could argue that it’s much more forgivable to write a fantasy heartbreaker in 1977 than it is some four decades later – that the field was both much smaller then, there was less of a variety of games put out there, and that in those days when the Internet was a thing a few colleges had access to rather than something everyone carried around in their pocket it was took a bit more effort to keep up with new developments in the field.

If you’re visiting Gen Con and dealing with FGU, however, you don’t actually have that excuse. Tunnels & Trolls got unleashed on the world at 1975’s Gen Con, which is the one where Simbalist and Backhaus originally ran into Bizar according to Simbalist’s recollections – Backhaus remembered it being the 1976 one, at which an even wider range of games would have been available. Traveller and Bunnies & Burrows both preceded Chivalry & SorceryBunnies coming out through FGU itself – and Simbalist and Backhaus were able to get Lee Gold, famed founder of the venerable Alaurms & Excursions RPG amateur press association, to write a Chivalry & Sorcery supplement, so it’s evident that they were keeping up with current discussion at the time.

In short, if anyone was in a position to have a wide overview of the diversity of RPG mechanics which had already arisen that early in the hobby’s lifetime, it was Simbalist and Backhaus. They were doing exactly what you would have needed to do to keep an eye on the wider world of the hobby during that era. As it stands, it is pretty transparently obvious to me (and this is rather backed up by both Backhaus and Simbalist in the sources I linked to earlier) that Chivalry & Sorcery was written as a D&D clone with some original ideas thrown in.

In fact, it’s very apparent from the tone of 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery (a copy of which I picked up out of curiosity after finding it at a very tempting price) that what motivated its creation was what Ron Edwards diagnoses, rather plausibly, as inspiring the creation of most Fantasy Heartbreakers – a burning urge to take D&D but “do it right this time”. What such designers (and, to an extent, Edwards himself) miss is that maybe, just maybe, D&D already “did it right”, for a given value of “it” – and that the “it” they want to deliver with their game might not be the new hotness which will displace D&D from its position as the “big tent” fantasy RPG which caters to a wide range of tastes so much as it represents a very specific, narrow taste which, precisely because of that specificity, cannot possibly appeal to even remotely as many people as D&D manages to do.

Which is not to say that that “it” is valueless. It’s that elusive “it” which makes a heartbreaker a true heartbreaker by Ron’s definition, rather than just derivative trash. The thing which is specifically heartbreaking about a heartbreaker is that there’s a kernel of an interesting idea in there, but it’s so buried under the mediocre D&D-isms that it’s suffocated, and the whole thing would be greatly improved if you stripped everything away except that kernel of a good idea and then rebuilt from the ground up putting that idea front and centre.

For Ron’s purposes those ideas tended to be system things, but there’s really nothing very interesting about Chivalry & Sorcery‘s system. The bit about Chivalry & Sorcery which is actually interesting – and to give Simbalist and Backhaus full credit, the original text does loudly and clearly communicate this idea – is its dedication to verisimilitude. The disaster of Chivalry & Sorcery is that it tries to achieve verisimilitude via an emphasis on rules-based realism over playability, and then doesn’t actually deliver on that realism in crucial ways.

To draw a distinction between “verisimilitude” and “rules-based realism”, I’d personally define “verisimilitude” as “the sense that the action of an RPG takes place within a real world, with the social structures and scope for exploration and interaction which that entails”. Contrary to enormous amounts of erroneous Internet rhetoric on the subject, you absolutely can accomplish a sense of verisimilitude without going with a heavy, complex rules system.

In fact, I would say that paradoxically it is actually easier to accomplish this with a light rules system: a rules-light system which is designed to give plausible-looking results without excessively precise detail can be accepted on that level, whereas a rules-heavy system which attempts to give a precise simulation of the physics of combat or the intricacies of a game world’s economy or whatever, precisely because it attempts to give more detailed results, is going to come under more scrutiny – and if those results aren’t true to life it’s going to be much more obvious. Mastering a rules-heavy, high complexity system because you are very keen on delivering a realistic experience is not something which every gamer necessarily wants to do, and nobody wants to put that level of effort into mastering a system aimed at realism if the end results are not actually realistic.

No, I’d say that rules are not the key to verisimilitude; for me, verisimilitude comes down to the attitude of the participants at the table. In a traditional RPG format, you need just two things to for verisimilitude to be in place: the referee needs to be willing to allow the PCs to engage with any particular part of the world their characters could plausibly interact with, and the players need to engage with that freedom. The classic model of an RPG campaign which doesn’t engage with verisimilitude is a game where the player characters are expected to explore whichever dungeon or other prewritten adventure the referee offers up for them, and any activities not directly relevant to that gameplay experience is a matter of downtime bookkeeping.

If the PCs can never eschew dungeon-crawling for a session to go lobby the mayor of the local town over some issue of interest to them (assuming that isn’t a planned encounter the referee intended), or if it never occurs to the players to do anything like that, then verisimilitude doesn’t exist – because there’s invisible walls, either imposed by the referee or self-imposed by the players, built up around the potential activities of the player characters which don’t exist for any in-setting reason but are simply there because either the referee or the general consensus at the table has decided that this would be the case.

It is this sort of verisimilitude which Chivalry & Sorcery yearns for; one thing the game constantly emphasises and reinforces is that none of the action takes place in a vacuum, but there is a wider world within the fiction and a society which player characters are expected to be a part of. The unspoken assumption is that Dungeons & Dragons at the time didn’t deliver this, but that’s clearly not the case if you listen to accounts of the Blackmoor or Greyhawk campaigns; it is true that D&D‘s initial presentation focused on wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling, but there are all sorts of implied setting details in there which the OSR pack had made a point of teasing out, and there was absolutely no bar to incorporating character actions outside of dungeoneering and wilderness hex-bashing into a campaign should you want to – it’s just that there wasn’t that much overt support for it either.

It is probably true, then, that during that muddled era when each group had to perform its own exegesis of the D&D rules to figure out just what the fuck they were supposed to be doing there were plenty of groups who just did dungeon-bashing and would look weirdly at you if you tried to have your character engage with society outside of the dungeon. At the same time, it’s equally clear to me that the early RPG community not only had a healthy appetite with games with a stronger sense of social context than D&D, but was actually quite good at delivering on that premise. According to Backhaus the major inspirations for Chivalry & Sorcery were Empire of the Petal Throne and En Garde, both of which delivered on this idea. In addition, Bunnies & Burrows strongly implied a bunch of stuff about rabbit society, Traveller managed to likewise have a strong implied setting, and shortly after Chivalry & Sorcery came out you had the emergence of RuneQuest, which was very much tied into the setting of Glorantha and went out of its way to find game mechanical incentives for players to invest in Gloranthan society (for instance, through the way in which training and spells were obtained from cults).

So to that extent, that search for verisimilitude and a sense of a wider world saw Chivalry & Sorcery have its finger on the pulse of cutting-edge RPG at the time, and Simbalist and Backhaus were working in a context where they had a bunch of excellent examples of how to do it and were clearly aware of a number of them. What went wrong? Well, that’s where the extreme focus on small details and rules-based realism comes in. Chivalry & Sorcery attempts to deliver on its promises of unprecedent completeness and realism largely by bombarding participants with massive, massive levels of excessive detail. Picking a broadly familiar setting to base their social assumptions on – medieval England and France circa 1170 – was in principle a sound choice, but in practice it degenerates into Simbalist and Backhaus going too far in showing off their research, effectively regurgitating encyclopedia articles on subjects like the ceremony of knighthood into the game text.

Whilst this was doubtlessly useful in terms of helping everyone get on the same page in an era when quick Wikipedia research wasn’t an option, it’s both dated badly in retrospect and establishes a daunting barrier to actually getting a game underway, especially considering that the book is both poorly organised and awkward to read. The manuscript as delivered by Simbalist and Backhaus was so massive that the 128 page 1st edition core book actually has the pages scaled down, so you get four normal-sized pages per page and all the text is absurdly tiny.

Then again, releasing a 512 page RPG system in 1977’s market would have been absolutely absurd. Nobody wrote RPGs which were that long back in those days; even 128 pages was pushing it. To my knowledge, the only significant RPG core rules out there at the time which hovered around the 128 page mark was Empire of the Petal Throne. (Technically, if you combined the booklets of the original Dungeons & Dragons set you’d get 112, and the original Traveller booklets ran to 144 pages – but remember that those came in cute little booklets, so if you transferred them to the form factor of a “standard” RPG you’re actually still looking at the 56-72 page range.) Even AD&D‘s core books, which were beginning to roll out at the time, would only come to 472 pages – and that includes the entire Monster Manual, and with all three books including what for the time was a lot of illustrations. (Note also how AD&D does include, particularly in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a lot of thought on social standing and the world the PCs exist in and the design of societies and the like.)

AD&D was a massive undertaking, easily the most lavish production job a set of RPG books had received to date, and even after it came out it was still a fair few years before fat rulebooks became commonplace in the rest of the field. Chivalry & Sorcery can at least say it had a pioneering role in terms of the sheer amount of content it delivered in its core rulebook. However, there comes a point where sheer quantity can’t make up for a lack of quality. Despite the fact that Petal Throne had a bit of a reputation back in the day for being incomprehensible, I suspect that this was simply down to the market not being used to games with cultures that weren’t clearly European-derived; I’d actually say the original game does an excellent job of quickly communicating to the reader the aesthetic and overall atmosphere of M.A.R. Barker’s setting, and delivers its setting information in a reasonably sensible manner which helps get you up to speed and makes you confident in your ability to run the game. By comparison, Chivalry & Sorcery simply overwhelms the reader with a mass of information, delivered in a surprisingly disorganised fashion.

It would at least be something if the information weren’t utter nonsense. Whilst at some points Simbalist and Backhaus have clearly done some reasonably deep research, at other points their take on medieval history is pure romanticised nonsense, buying into the lies that medieval knights told about themselves to an extent rarely seen since the height of Victorian historical revisionism. (Indeed, given the mention of the Society for Creative Anachronism in the dedication I suspect that at points they didn’t bother to do the research and just parroted SCA bullshit.)

In addition, the version of medieval France presented here is this bizarre hodge-podge of features where they go aggressively for a high level of realism in some respects but in others they literally drop in dwarves, elves and honest to God hobbits (complete with references to hobbits having become rarer since the War of the Ring) without really making the effort to work out how their presence changes anything or where they come from and so on.

Likewise, despite the rules system supposedly being realistic, it just isn’t very innovative by the standards of 1970s RPG and wargame design – it’s just very fiddly and involved, attempting to work in all sorts of little factors which ultimately don’t add up to very much. In addition, its much-vaunted realism has some really severe weak spots. For instance, the rules advocate rolling your (highly D&D-influenced) core stats on 1D20 instead of 3D6, which means that an extreme result is just as likely as an average result – conversely, 3D6 would give a bell curve which is much closer to what you would expect in the general population.

It’s not that Chivalry & Sorcery is all bad. The fact that you get a functional mass combat system alongside the RPG system all in the same book makes it decent value. There’s also some interesting insights here into Backhaus and Simbalist’s personal vision of how a fantasy campaign might work; the idea seems to be that the campaign is a large communal resource, the sort of thing an entire local gaming club could engage in on whatever level they want, so if you just care about wargaming you can use the book to play out battles, or you could just engage with the roleplaying aspects, or you could blend the two and shift between mass combats and individual action as events demand.

Unfortunately, the above is not explained – at least, not at the beginning of the book, where it would be natural and sensible to explain the format of the game, and that seems to me to be a particular failure for a game emerging in the infancy of RPGs. It seems like the underlying assumption is that Chivalry & Sorcery would be picked up and used by individuals, home groups or clubs who are already very familiar with wargames and RPGs and use it as an all-in-one solution for their gaming needs.

This failure to explain the format of play also extends to a failure to communicate a clear idea as to what play is supposed to focus on. As DM David has pointed out, Chivalry & Sorcery puts a lot of energy into declaring what it isn’t or calling out certain features of D&D as being unrealistic. That would not be such a bad thing if it also presented a strong and distinctive model of play – a firm idea of what a typical session is likely to involve – to take the place of the D&D dungeoneering model. Instead, it seems to assume that there’ll still be a bunch of dungeon expeditions anyway, just in more realistic and less fantastical dungeons because old school megadungeons are too unrealistic. This runs into the problem that since the book has already put this very strong emphasis on realism, having games based around dungeon exploration seems incongruous because that sure as shit isn’t a realistic endeavour.

There might be something in the “grand campaign” concept – the closest I can to inferring the intended model of play here is that the game will be played by a club of people including a mix of wargamers and roleplayers and people interested in both types of play. There, the churning chaos thrown up by the wargamers’ activities can provide opportunities for roleplaying, and the alliances and rivalries established through the roleplaying can inspire the wargaming.

The problem is that this is rooted in a gaming model which was far from universal even back in the day; sure, some folks like Gygax and Arneson had campaigns with large numbers of participants, but with individual gaming communities having to figure out how to do this RPG shit for themselves a range of different models emerged (with our current “one GM and 3-6 players” model eventually becoming the dominant one). Chivalry & Sorcery seems to have been written under the unexamined assumption that everyone’s local gaming scene was organised in a manner similar to Backhaus and Simbalist’s, and that wasn’t the case at the time and is likely even less true now.

If there’s any fun to be found in Chivalry & Sorcery‘s overall attitude and approach, I’d say that it boils down to embracing the historicity of it all, and the prospect of using the game as part of an immersive visit to another time period. There’s a certain aspect of this to later games like Maelstrom and Ars Magica, and indeed just as it was an aspect of the Society for Creative Anachronism’s proto-LARPing it’s also an aspect in some current LARPs (like Anarchy, which I co-organise and write for). Similarly, the Harn setting’s emphasis on realistic social structures and ecology lends itself to this, and you can even see something similar in Pendragon‘s adherence to the styles and social norms of Le Morte d’Arthur and in its downtime system. (Though Pendragon is very adventure-oriented, the occasional session spent drilling deep on the ins and outs of life on the PCs’ manors – and the drama arising from that – can greatly enrich the game.)

Then again, the very dry, wargamey approach to the rules design tends to rob historical and quasi-historical interactions of a lot of their flavour; knights romancing ladies (who the game seems to assume are NPCs to be wooed rather than characters to be played) must make rolls on some derived stats with clunky acronyms to see how they do. It compares poorly to the treatment of, say, the Passion system in Pendragon, in which such interactions do have their game mechanical aspects but the game mechanics are designed to add flavour and encourage drama rather than just yielding some numerical result.

The thing which Ars Magica and (I like to think) Anarchy both have which Chivalry & Sorcery doesn’t have is strong reasons for a diverse range of player characters to come together for the purposes of the action covered in the game. In Anarchy the characters are all living through the Stephen-vs.-Matilda civil war and our main events are based around significant moments during it when a range of characters could have come together. In Ars Magica, of course, you have the player characters’ Covenant be the centrepiece of play, with the various Mage, Companion, and Grog PCs all having their places in the social structure of the Covenant.

In Chivalry & Sorcery you don’t have such a strong concept bringing the player characters together, and since characters are rolled utterly randomly you could well have PCs ranging from the lowliest beggar to the land to the unchallenged and sovereign Queen. “Why is this group of people having an adventure together?” is left wholly as an exercise for the referee to figure out. Admittedly, this is a flaw in Dungeons & Dragons as it existed at the time (though the assumed common interest in raiding dungeons and getting rich was a big help), but on the other hand Empire of the Petal Throne – supposedly one of the inspirations here – had a really good unifying party concept. The baseline assumption seems to be that if you aren’t operating at the Grand Campaign level of trying to simulate an entire medieval society, you’re doing dungeoneering exactly like D&D, despite the fact that your PC group is probably entirely unsuited to doing this (as opposed to in D&D, where player characters all have a clear contribution to make to dungeon expeditions).

Of course, at the time it was less assumed that each player in an RPG would play only one PC at a time. Chivalry & Sorcery seems to run on the basis that, much like in Greyhawk or Blackmoor, people would have a bunch of player characters under their control. Under such circumstances, the arbitrariness and unfairness of the character generation process is way less of an issue – if today’s adventure is for a group of nobles and you don’t have an appropriate PC, you can just toss dice until you arrive at a character who’s more suited to today’s action, and beneficially by doing so you flesh out the social ranks of the campaign as part of that process. Again, the direction in which RPGs have evolved and solidified their format since the 1970s has worked against Chivalry & Sorcery.

There’s the rub: whilst the deficiencies of Chivalry & Sorcery are increasingly stark due to the passage of time – and, indeed, might have been less of a hindrance had the hobby developed in a different direction (with large local clubs tinkering about in shared worlds to a common ruleset like Chivalry & Sorcery becoming the norm). The 1st edition was, for 1977, still a remarkably complete offering, and made a useful contribution to the ongoing development of RPGs in general by emphasising the importance of having a coherent setting for the characters to exist in between adventures – thereby enriching and adding context to those adventures – as well as the potential to be gained from the idea of characters being rooted in a society which can approve or disapprove of their actions and kick back accordingly, rather than having them be rootless drifters with no connections to anyone.

Unfortunately, subsequent games delivered on these ideas much better, stealing Chivalry & Sorcery‘s thunder, and Chivalry & Sorcery has persistently failed to catch up. To illustrate that, it’s worth breaking down the edition history of Chivalry & Sorcery. The 1st edition was cutting edge in 1977; it was something of an experiment, and as such some of its failings can be given because you can’t push the envelope without risking the occasional slip-up. I can absolutely understand why a play community would quickly develop around it, enough to prompt a healthy support line to come out through FGU and to justify the creation of a 2nd edition.

In that interview with Simbalist I linked earlier, he talks about being distracted by working on the Space Opera RPG, preventing him from working on a supplement line for the 2nd edition – but Space Opera came out in 1981 and 2nd edition Chivalry & Sorcery emerged in 1983, so I think he’s conflating the two development processes there. Contrary to his claims of FGU failing to support the 2nd edition, they actually seem to have gone all in on it; they gave it the rare honour of putting it out in a boxed set, which contained a set of booklets coming to some 200 pages in total in an actually readable font size, and did indeed put out a clutch of supplements for it in 1983 – but stopped after that.

Going from a core set of some 500-odd pages shrunk down to present 4 per page to a core set of 200 pages in a sensibly-sized font required more than just some layout improvements; substantial amounts of material from 1st Edition disappeared from the 2nd Edition core. This is largely accomplished by more coherently focusing on the roleplaying aspects of the game, carving out the mass combat stuff to be dealt with in supplements, and generally stepping back from the “Grand Campaign” concept in favour of a more traditional “one GM, a set of players, each with a single PC” set of assumptions. This clearly made it much more approachable, and I imagine the ranks of the Chivalry & Sorcery community managed to get some new recruits during this time as a result of the boxed set offering a complete-in-one-product high-complexity RPG at an affordable price.

At the same time, of course, emphasising the traditional RPG format over the Grand Campaign means that the parts of the game which sit incongruously with that format become even more incongruous. The system did get some mild updates to help with this, in particular a point-buy character creation system replacing random rolls for your primary stats, which would have been a big help in producing characters who are broadly social peers with each other, but the fundamental contradiction between the game’s desire to portray all manner of inhabitants of medieval society on one hand and, on the other, the fact that only a minority of those make sense as PCs for an adventuring party remains – as does the lack of a distinctive model for adventure.

However, the major downfall of 2nd Edition wasn’t so much the changes which were or were not made to the game as it was the changes which had come about in the rest of the market. Let’s take stock of what’s happened between 1977 and 1983 just in the specific realm of fantasy RPGs, ignoring the wide range of other developments that took place in RPG design during this time:

  • RuneQuest has come out and really nailed the “one book RPG depicting a distinctive society” thing, with rules systems which really neatly tied characters into those societies and proved effective at encouraging players to engage with them. (Plus, despite still having clear D&D DNA here and there, RuneQuest has a vastly less “wargame-y” air about it than any preceding RPG.) Revolutionarily, it offers a universal resolution mechanism – any action in the game is going to be based off a skill or (where no skill applies) a stat, and you roll percentage dice to see if you succeed or fail based on your percentage score in the skill or the stat times 5. (Traveller had incorporated a skill system but had applied it inconsistently, with different target numbers for all manner of tasks and no clearly delineated system for setting target numbers on the fly.) By contrast, 2nd Edition Chivalry & Sorcery still didn’t have a universal resolution system, or even a skill system outside of percentage-based thief abilities (a clear lift from D&D).
  • The full Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system has come out, and its final core component – 1979’s Dungeon Master’s Guide – includes a plethora of information on constructing the society your characters exist in and generally encourages Dungeon Masters to put some thought into it, thereby plugging the hole which Simbalist and Backhaus had noted in D&D and which Chivalry & Sorcery had been designed to fill. In addition the most famed versions of the D&D Basic Set – the Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, and Frank Mentzer editions – all came out in this time period and each was a huger hit than the last, consolidating D&D‘s position as the big beast of the fantasy RPG niche. TSR’s increasing production values (and, indeed, those of lesser players like Chaosium) increasingly left FGU’s rather humbler offerings in the shade.
  • Rolemaster became the new hotness in the “high realism”/”high complexity” RPG design space; not only does it offer a point-based character generation system with more flexibility and nuance than 2nd Edition Chivalry & Sorcery brought to the table, but is also quite successful at front-loading its complexity (much of it is to do with character generation) and at focusing its realism on bits which are generally exciting (such as the famed critical hit tables). (Point buy character generation was also a feature of The Fantasy Trip, which was much simpler than either Rolemaster or Chivalry & Sorcery).
  • Stormbringer would apply the idea of randomly assigned social status rooted in a particular setting’s social system to a world which happened to be very popular at the time (the Young Kingdoms setting of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stuff), but in a context where a rabble of strange bedfellows strolling about and adventuring at least reflects the source material.
  • Other games such as Bruce Galloway’s Fantasy Wargaming or Dennis Sustare’s Swordbearer came out giving their own spin on the same “highly authentic medieval world” concept as Chivalry & SorceryFantasy Wargaming is infamously a bit of a mess, but Swordbearer‘s reputation has held up a little better over the years; I’ve never read it myself but apparently it’s built around a solid skill system (again putting it ahead of Chivalry & Sorcery on that front) and enjoys a very flavourful magic system. Indeed, after largely losing interest in producing new Chivalry & Sorcery material FGU would put out a 2nd edition of Swordbearer in 1985.
  • Lastly, in the same year as 2nd Edition Chivalry & Sorcery came out Lee Gold would put out her own Lands of Adventure RPG through FGU – as a significant contributor to the 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery supplement line the loss of her contributions to that line might have exacerbated the dip in support for the game, since you’d expect her to concentrate on promoting her own game over writing for someone else’s at this stage. Also, fans of highly detailed settings were treated both to a reprint of Empire of the Petal Throne and the emergence of M.A.R. Barker’s new Tekumel-based RPG Swords & Glory via Gamescience, and the Palladium Fantasy RPG came out, offering anyone who really wanted someone’s take on “D&D done right” an alternative which, regardless of what you think about what the Palladium game lines became, at the very least managed to show far more flair and personality and enthusiasm for its own material than the crushingly dry style of Chivalry & Sorcery offered. (It also had a universal skill system!)

Set against offerings from the 1970s, 2nd Edition Chivalry & Sorcery might impress, but it didn’t come out in the 1970s – it came out in a market where it was competing for attention with all of the above RPGs and a great swathe of lesser games whose reputations have now been forgotten. Next to RuneQuest or Rolemaster or The Fantasy Trip, the Fantasy Heartbreaker status of Chivalry & Sorcery becomes appallingly evident, its novel contributions having been improved upon and rendered redundant by its competitors. One suspects that the real reason that the 2nd edition support line didn’t extend beyond 1983 was that the market simply moved on.

Occasional attempts at reviving the game’s fortunes have come and gone, and whilst communities of die-hards do exist here and there, one suspects that they stick with the game simply through familiarity and affection for something they are familiar with, rather than because of an objective assessment of its better qualities. A short-lived 3rd edition came out in 1996, but fared poorly. For one thing, in the intervening years a bunch of superior solutions for historical or quasi-historical games playing on similar themes had come out – Ars MagicaPendragon and Harnmaster all spring to mind as games which put a big emphasis on evoking a believable medieval or quasi-medieval society and deliver on that unique selling point perfectly well in their own respective ways.

However, it’s evident from contemporary reviews that there were deeper issues at work too. The fact that the Usenet discussion there gets derailed into angry shouting about which game originated which concept says it all: Chivalry & Sorcery might have been an early statement of some of these concepts, but later games came along and did them so much better (not least because they were liberated from a D&D-mimicing foundation) that the older editions of Chivalry & Sorcery were rendered redundant, and the new 3rd edition simply didn’t innovate enough to catch up with the times. Its major contribution was, at last, a universal skill-based resolution system, along with a brace of ideas for character customisation which other games had already done more convincingly. Above all, the most consistent point which seems to come up is that the core book suffered from horrible layout and readability and organisation issues – a callback to 1st Edition which perhaps wasn’t so welcome. An attempt to put out a light version of the game as an easier onramp proved to be too little too late.

The collapse of the 3rd Edition project saw Simbalist and Backhaus part ways. Backhaus, in that communication with Places To Go, People To Be I linked way back (here it is again for ease of reference), mentions a divergence in their tastes, Backhaus preferring simpler systems whilst Simbalist still enjoyed his complexity. Both of them are now dead, alas, but before their deaths each would kick off a different fork. For his part, Backhaus would be involved in a PDF release of the original 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery, with a slightly spruced-up layout and larger text to make it actually readable; this kicked off the so-called “Red Book” strand, which other hands taking the file and adding increasing amounts of old 1st and 2nd edition material to it as time went by and making it fatter and fatter, the various editions of the “Red Book” after the initial official release being very naughty unauthorised fan efforts.

The more widely known fork, associated with Simbalist, was developed in conjunction with the (weirdly misspelled) Brittannia Game Designs, which so far as I can tell is a UK-based a husband-and-wife small press outfit. They put out Chivalry & Sorcery: the Rebirth in 2000, along with some support, but it didn’t seem to make much of a splash at all, and since then progress on a rumoured 5th Edition seems to be outright glacial.

To offer some insight as to why that may be the case, we can jump to an apparently-unrelated matter: Stygian Fox’s troubled Distant Realms Kickstarter, whose core product remains stubbornly unreleased despite the fact that Kickstarters of theirs begun after it funded have been wholly delivered in the intervening time. Stephanie McAlea, the head honcho at Stygian Fox, for whatever reason seems to be unable to dedicate further time to the project, and Brittannia’s Steve Turner has stepped in on a purely voluntary basis in order to help with the logistics to get it to completion. In doing so, he’s at least been providing the backers with progress updates, but in one of these he dropped a mention that his day job is running an accountancy business, Brittannia presumably being a hobby endeavour he and Sue do on the side.

It feels unlikely that, even if 5th edition ever actually saw the light of day, the Turners will ever be able to expend that much time on supporting and propagating Chivalry & Sorcery; nor does there seem to be anyone keen enough on the concept to hold their feet to the fire over the delays. The circulation of the Red Book editions suggests a vestigial community still remains, but there seems to be minimal if any discussion of the game happening (particularly considering its former prominence), and the nature of the Red Book releases – compiling material which is largely four decades old – marks it as a nostalgia project perhaps largely or even exclusively of interest to people who already have a strong emotional investment in Chivalry & Sorcery; between that and their bootleg nature they can hardly be very capable of bringing new people into the game.

No, in short I have to assess Chivalry & Sorcery as a bit of a dinosaur. Some ancient animals retain a great deal of life; modern crocodiles and alligators, after all, aren’t that much different from ancestors of theirs who preceded the dinosaurs, much as white box D&D is still aped by a range of OSR games and an energetic associated scene to this day. Chivalry & Sorcery, however, is one of those links in the evolutionary chain which was a necessary transitional step between one approach and another, but once the new approaches it suggested had yielded mature games catering specifically to them the need for Chivalry & Sorcery itself to exist was lost. The gap in D&D which it tried to fill has already been filled in; the carefully researched treatments of history and mythology it advocated have been accomplished to a far higher degree of success. There is simply no reason to play Chivalry & Sorcery unless you are specifically nostalgic for Chivalry & Sorcery; otherwise, anything in particular you might want to do with it, you can do with a different game more smoothly and easily (and with a more active community discussing it at that).

8 thoughts on “Pedantry & Pointlessness

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  4. Alan Barclay

    I was a teenager in the University of Alberta club where C&S was developed. I once owned a copy of Chevalier. I recall it was pretty much just elaborations of dnd.
    Society. For creative anachronism was strongly represented and Bakhaus later became the local SCA king.

    In the club, if one rolled a noble character, one was assigned a holding and expected to participate in politics. Being 16 I didn’t get this and my character was manipulated and killed by a Gm who ran a gm pc with us who betrayed my character for a bounty. It was my first pc death and quite upsetting.

    1. Thanks for the story! It sounds similar to something I occasionally see in LARP – the player who tries their hand at playing a politically astute character, but because the player themselves hasn’t developed the requisite skills they end up being less of a master manipulator than a “master manipulatee”, ripe for manipulation by more experienced operators.

      Except it sounds much less fair in your case, because you got the character as the result of a random roll, not because you specifically chose to get involved in that aspect of the game. Can’t have been very fun for you.

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