Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – The Story So Far

Chivalry & Sorcery is a game whose early editions had some pretty significant issues, but also had some interesting ideas to mine, many of which were teased out somewhat better in the 2nd Edition of the game than the 1st. However, once Fantasy Games Unlimited largely lost interest in producing new material for it, it entered into a long period in the wilderness. After the rights to the game were retrieved from FGU, a 3rd Edition would be put out from Highlander Designs, which so far as I can make out was a company formed specifically for this purpose.

However, after putting out the core 3rd Edition rules in 1996 and a brace of supplements in 1997, Highlander Designs would go bankrupt, having perhaps both overestimated the market’s appetite for a high-crunch fantasy system in the mid-1990s and made the questionable decision to radically scale back the game’s emphasis on historical detail, thus undermining its major selling point.

Brittannia Game Designs stepped into the breach here; they’d previously been formed with the intent of producing third-party supplements for the game, but a deal was struck to allow them to pick up the rights. A 4th Edition followed in 1999-2000 (with Chivalry & Sorcery Light, a condensed version of the new edition, preceding the full-fat version, dubbed Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth), as would an extremely condensed version of the game, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence, released as a 4-page PDF. 2011 would see another Chivalry & Sorcery Essence released, this time expanding its page count to some 44 pages (though with the same 4-page system underlying it), but the general idea of providing a lighter version of the game persisted. All these iterations made at least some effort to start bringing back the sort of historical detail which the third edition had downplayed.

All of these brief flowerings did not amount to a whole lot in the long run, and Brittannia suffered from extensive periods of apparent inactivity. Still, a community of Chivalry & Sorcery fans still existed, evidence for which can be found in the existence of the various Red Book editions of the game. The first of these, released in 2000, was a free PDF of the game’s first edition, with the layout redone to be remotely sensible. (As a reminder: the original release of Chivalry & Sorcery 1st Edition would have spanned some 512 pages if printed conventionally, so FGU condensed it into a 128 page book by shrinking down the manuscript pages and printing them four to a page, with the result that the text is tiny to the point of being nearly unreadable.) This one was authorised; later recompiled versions of the Red Book, circulated within the fandom, included the texts of various supplements and were very much not authorised.

Now, however, Brittannia seem to have been able to crack the art of using Kickstarter to bankroll a revival of the game, having run two Kickstarters to fund various major new releases (the 5th Edition core rules and the Land of the Rising Sun supplement), with a clutch of supplements funded as stretch goals on each project. At the time of writing, they’re coming into the last stages of a third Kickstarter to produce a bestiary supplement.

On this latest Kickstarter, the stretch goals are not additional books but 3D printer templates to produce miniatures – a clever way to add a little bonus for people who enjoy that sort of thing without creating a substantial backlog of books yet to be written. Whilst producing further books has for the most part been well within Brittannia’s means, one stretch goal from their first Chivalry & Sorcery Kickstarter has been substantially delayed; Ars Bellica, the miniatures and mass combat rules, has had its production hampered by the pandemic putting a cramp on the production of various illustrative photos deemed necessary to get some of its concepts across. (That said, Ars Bellica is kind of a bonus anyway, since the stretch goal did not fund but Brittannica decided to go ahead with it anyway.)

That said, with Kickstarters stretch goals are the cherry on the top; so long as delivery of the core product pans out fine, you can forgive a lot otherwise. And Brittannia have actually been very good on that front, with both 5th Edition Chivalry & Sorcery and Land of the Rising Sun hitting my mailbox right when they were originally estimated to. This is especially impressive when Land of the Rising Sun was funded, printed, and distributed entirely within the pandemic. I’ve been glad to back the bestiary Kickstarter because I think I can be fairly confident of actually getting that bestiary.

So much for the reliability of delivery: what of the quality of product? Let’s take a look at the loot so far.


Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition

The big difference between the first two editions of Chivalry & Sorcery and latter-day editions is the Skillskape system. This provided a very welcome standardised method of resolving skill use in the system – in effect providing the game with an almost unified resolution mechanic. (The use of Influence to do stuff like obtain audiences with authority figures – a very significant aspect of gameplay – works on a different basis, but that actually feels appropriate. Skillskape is about you doing stuff with your own knowledge and expertise, whilst Influence is about accomplishing things through connections and social standing and is based more on your station in society and your reputation than your training.) Though a skill system had been introduced in 2nd Edition, Skillskape was a useful step in ironing out its rough edges and making it more consistent in use.

Skillskape is a somewhat complex system, but as with RoleMaster much of the complexity is shunted into character generation and advancement and so doesn’t slow down actual play. Your chance of success at a skill is based firstly on a baseline score that’s derived from how many ranks of expertise you have bought in the skill and how intrinsically difficult the skill is, and secondly on various bonuses or penalties based on your stats. Then you tack on situational modifiers and boom, you have your percentile chance of success.

When you roll, you roll 1D100 to do your success/failure roll, and another D10 which gives you a sort of magnitude – so, for instance, a 1 on that die indicates that you only barely succeeded or failed, whilst a 10 is more dramatic. (Some skills have variant tables for interpreting this roll in the context of particular applications, but this is how it works in general.) This does mean that about 1 in 10 rolls will be a critical success or failure of some sort, which strikes me as being too frequent, though at a level where if you’re running the sort of game where you only call for rolls infrequently that may be less of an issue.

Introducing the Skillskape system is really the major system revolution in Chivalry & Security post-2nd edition, and the emphasis in this 5th edition seems to be less about additional system changes and more about smoothing out the presentation and communicating the particular emphasis of the game on immersing oneself in medieval historical detail. Whereas this historical-fantasy style (with a strong emphasis on the historical) was a major feature of the game’s first two editions, the third edition from Highlander Designs is generally felt to have dialled back this aspect in favour of presenting a more generic fantasy system. The historical aspects of the game were dialled back in for the 4th edition of the game (Chivalry & Sorcery: the Rebirth) under Brittannia’s watch, and to my eyes 5th edition puts them back front and centre.

This I consider to be a smart move. Even back when Chivalry & Sorcery‘s second edition was having its last hurrah in the early 1980s, the market for fantasy RPGs was becoming increasingly cluttered, with D&D and its various imitators, RoleMaster, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest and various also-rans angling for the “generic fantasy” space. These days, with D&D experiencing a resurgence of popularity, other generic fantasy RPGs fighting over its scraps, and various systems being usable essentially for free, a fantasy RPG really needs to put its unique selling point front and centre to stand out from the crowd. Chivalry & Sorcery‘s extensive drawing on real history is its distinct schtick, dialling it up high is just plain sensible.

That isn’t to say that history is treated uncritically, mind. There’s a disclaimer at the front of the book saying that if your personal vision of medieval Europe is homogeneously white, this game isn’t for you, and the text lives up to that; there’s a good overview of what was going on in sub-Saharan Africa at the time and reasons to believe there were black people circulating in Europe at the time, as well as an understanding of how the prejudices of the era differed from the prejudices of more modern times.

There’s discussion of how gender roles were very much a Thing, but the game is happy to support PCs who are women going against social norms (or presenting a setting where said social norms don’t exist, if that is what your group wishes). The previously Christian-centric religion system has been expanded to include great detail on Islam and Judaism, with sections authored by designers of the respective backgrounds. (There’s even, in the general discussion of the religion rules, some references to Buddhism – laying groundwork for Land of the Rising Sun, which I shall discuss later.)

In short, whereas the oldest editions of the game often ran the risk of romanticising the medieval era or pandering to popular myths about it which aren’t true, this new edition of the game takes into account historical research and doesn’t blind itself to the less appealing aspects of the society portrayed, whilst still retaining a sense of why it can be entertaining to spend time playing characters existing in that culture.

I think that latter part is important. Whilst an argument could be made that RPGs based in wholly fictional settings have no need to import real-world prejudices, and there’s often a good reason for them not to do so because that undermines the escapist enjoyment of those games by people who have to deal with those prejudices in real life, at the same time people may find it artistically or intellectually satisfying (or simply cathartic) to play games which specifically deal with such things in order to address them through play.

If you aren’t willing to engage with game scenarios that feature the issues marginalised people have tackled (or still tackle today), then that’s a whole category of story you are simply rejecting from your gaming table entirely. That’s fine – not every story has to be told at every table – but if the whole industry does this, then the industry is abdicating from addressing significant parts of marginalised peoples’ experiences, which is not how representation works.

Furthermore, if you are interested in a specifically historical game, rather than a game taking place in an invented setting, chances are it’s because you are interested in the history, and much of that history just stops making sense if you take out some of the prejudices involved. For instance, I’m currently involved in running Anarchy LRP, a LARP event based around the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 12th Century England. We’re including the gender politics of the time as a feature of the game because if you ditch them, a great deal of the history of the era just stops working, and because we specifically wanted players to be able to tell stories about women navigating this society.

This is the sort of thing which Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition really understands, and which enriches its presentation fo the material. Between this and offering the system in a simple, straightforward way, that was what this edition of the game really needed to do to win me over, and it’s greatly succeeded. I think there are parts where another editorial pass of the text would have helped (especially in the introductory section, which seems to have been written in a bit of a hurry), but even taking that into account this new edition of the game is worth a look. Even if you never intend to use the system as written, it’s a rich resource for gaming in the medieval period, and thankfully one which is willing to stand up and say that the all-white monolithic society that medieval Europe is often depicted as is a gross oversimplification.

Nightwalkers

Though the core 5th Edition rules include expanded details on rolling up lycanthrope and vampire characters, Nightwalkers expands on these and gives further details on how these work in Chivalry & Sorcery (it’s largely in line with the folklore, but for a broader range of lycanthrope types which show some D&D-isms).

Exactly why you would throw in a character type into a fantasy RPG which it would clearly be a headache to integrate into a standard party is another question, though I can see this being as good a resource for developing major vampire or werewoofle NPC as for PCs. Chivalry & Sorcery, hailing as it did from the 1970s, originated in a time when the idea of aiming to make a character who plays well with others was still kind of novel and you’d get stuff like Sir Fang, the vampire PC from Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign who ended up so overpowered that the Cleric class was invented in part to curtail him.

Werewolves, at least, have the advantage of being able to swan around in daylight; having a vampire in a mixed party would put a decided crimp on things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have this option if the player group had decided to play a campaign including a werewolf or vampire PC, it just seems like a strange thing to prioritise as a supplement. That said, the introduction says that the 4th edition elf and dwarf supplements are good to use with 5th edition as is, so maybe that’s why.

Goblins, Orcs & Trolls

Expanding on and further developing these character options, Goblins, Orcs & Trolls is very much a sequel to similar dwarf and elf-themed supplements from the 4th edition era, with pointers for using the species both in a modified version of medieval Europe and in the Dragon Reaches of Marakush setting that had been developed in previous editions of the game.

In fact, there’s multiple different approaches to handling such characters offered here, based on different interpretations of their niches; there’s the idea of them being demonic entities or creatures of fairy, which tends to put them outside the bounds of what you would regard as regular people, and then there’s the idea of them being more “naturalistic” creatures – as in they are just as much flesh and blood things as human beings, and have full personhood rather than being defined by a demonic or faerie nature, which is the way you are encouraged to portray them if you intend for them to be playable characters.

This prompts a discussion of some actually interesting medieval theology, in which clergy considered whether legendary peoples with monstrous characteristics like the dog-headed people who’d been occasionally reported qualified as humans and could be converted to Christianity. They came to the conclusion that the two important aspects to consider were rationality and mortality: any creature which was both rational and mortal was essentially human and could be treated as such.

This provides a handy lens for the inclusion of orcs and goblins in a medieval European setting. Through this interpretation, orcs and goblins that are presented like people are rational (you can talk to them and have a conversation and exchange of views) and mortal (they are just as subject to death as any human), so they can be as good or evil, or pious or impious as anyone else, whereas any version of them which are immortal (say, they’re demonic hordes who can be cut down in combat but do not conventionally age otherwise) or not rational (say, they’re animate reflections of the will of some Dark Lord rather than creatures which actually make their own choices and decisions for themselves) are no more human than demons, angels, or animals are.

Goblinoids and trolls get some expanded character options here, and there’s also adventures themed around them included, so the supplement offers a mix of player and referee-facing material; still, I feel like it’s not a book that’s likely to see much use unless you have goblin, orc, or troll player characters in your campaign, since few referees are going to want to stat up significant numbers of such NPCs with this level of granularity.

The Adventures: Creag Hill and Treason

The two adventure modules funded by the Kickstarter – Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams’ Creag Hill and Stephen Turner’s Treason, are respectively a historical adventure with fantasy elements set in 13th Century England and a more traditional fantasy adventure based in the Marakush setting. The printed versions I have received have numerous typos and formatting errors, which is unfortunate, and in general they seem to have had much less in the way of polish and love than the core book. They are nice to have as worked examples of Chivalry & Sorcery adventure presentation, but tend towards a simplistic combat focus which won’t suit all parties.

In addition, it feels like Creag Hill is either miscommunicating its ideas or was supposed to be set in a different era but then shifted to the 13th Century. In particular, one of the sites in the scenario is a 1st Century Roman temple which, though abandoned to the elements, remains in reasonably good nick because the Romans only left “comparatively recently”.

This is nonsense. The Romans abandoned Britain to its own devices in the early 5th Century AD. This means that by the time the early 13th Century rolls around, the Romans have been gone for 800 years – the better part of a millennium. In fact, they’ve been gone for around twice the time they were present in the country in the first place! The language here and the presence of the Temple – not molested, not overgrown, not ransacked for building materials – strongly suggests that actually, the adventure was originally designed for the early Saxon period, the sort of era that Wolves of God focuses on, with the Romans having been absent for at most a century or two, or perhaps as little as a few decades.

The module also assumes that significant numbers of pagans in the land are quite likely, which also makes an early Saxon setting for the adventure likely, since the Saxons were pagans when they came over and then were Christianised over the course of the 7th Century. An early to mid-7th Century setting for the adventure seems most plausible, in fact – a time when most of the ruling class could be expected to have converted, but significant pagan holdouts plausibly remain, and when the idea of the Romans having left “comparatively recently” holds much more weight.

My hunch, then, is that the adventure was originally written with the early Saxon period in mind – possibly even for something like Pendragon – and then punted forwards in time by over half a millennium so that it would better reflect a time period considered of peak interest for Chivalry & Sorcery purposes.

Land of the Rising Sun

This is the first entry in a new sub-line for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – note the different trade dress. Despite the line being new, however, the product has a long history – and one deeply intertwined with that of Chivalry & Sorcery, and with the hobby as a whole, despite having languished in obscurity for a good long while. The original version of Land of the Rising Sun was penned by Lee Gold, who was one of the first prominently active women in the hobby. As the mind behind the Alarums & Excursions Amateur Press Association, Gold was responsible for creating the first major pre-Internet forum for discussion of RPGs. (It’s still around today, in fact.)

Whereas these days RPG discourse unfolds in blogs and discussion forums and on social media, back in the mid-1970s if you wanted to air your ideas about RPGs to a wide reading audience, Alarums & Excursions was one of the few platforms where you can do it. As well as being the most successful RPG-themed APA, for most of the hobby’s earliest years it was the most prominent periodical in the field which was not owned and operated by a game publisher; furthermore, the APA funding model meant that there was much less need to keep advertisers sweet.

This meant that unlike Dragon, Different Worlds, Space Gamer, White Dwarf, and so on, Alarums & Excursions enjoyed genuine editorial independence – making it an important platform for dissident fans to push back against the excesses of publishers, such as when Dragon ran a notoriously sexist article about character classes for the “distaff gamer” and various outraged readers produced responses that ran in Alarums. Playing At the World goes into some detail about the crucial role played by Alarums in the early scene, and I think you can make a legitimate argument that Lee Gold was one of the most important figures in the early hobby thanks to the role Alarums played in shaping its primordial form.

Gold would also be an early buyer of Chivalry & Sorcery, and would strike up a long-running correspondence with Ed Simbalist, co-designer of the game. In the late 1970s, Simbalist would ask Gold if she were willing to produce a version of Chivalry & Sorcery based around medieval Japan, a challenge she took up. Land of the Rising Sun would be published by Fantasy Games Unlimited as a standalone game using the Chivalry & Sorcery system, making Gold one of the first women to be credited with a lead design role on a tabletop RPG core rules set. (Supergame from the same year would be credited to Jay Hartlove and Aimée Karklyn, who’d marry by the time the game’s 1982 second edition came out.)

Land of the Rising Sun was also one of the first RPGs to tackle its particular subject matter, but not the first; it would be pipped to the post by Bushido, whose original release through Tyr Games came in 1979. Both games were notable for having fairly complex systems but also showing a decent amount of research into the subject matter, and though Tyr Games fell over very soon after Bushido was released, it was picked up for a 1980 rerelease by Phoenix Games which saw it gain wider distribution. In the end, it seems that Bushido won the race that time around. When Phoenix Press fell over, Fantasy Games Unlimited stepped in to snag the rights to Bushido and Aftermath!, which was penned by the same design team and had a closely related system.

1981 saw FGU rereleasing Bushido, and 1982 saw them putting out Valley of Mists, an adventure for it; they would never, so far as I can tell, put out any support material for Land of the Rising Sun. (They didn’t even update it to the 2nd Edition of the Chivalry & Sorcery system.) This might have had nothing to do with Bushido – FGU seem to have had a habit of tossing games out there on the market and then not putting much effort into securing support for them, unless the designers themselves or enthusiastic fans sent in product pitches and did the legwork of producing a support line themselves. Also, Gold was moving on to other game design projects – in 1983 FGU would put out her Lands of Adventure, a fantasy RPG intended for use with “culture packs” (two of which were packaged into the core box) which gave the setting-specific information and rules for particular historical eras or fictional worlds.

Still, there is a certain business sense in not proactively promoting two products which overlap so much that they basically compete against each other, so between that and the above factors, it’s probably no surprise that Land of the Rising Sun disappeared from sight. Now, however, with Bushido essentially moribund (Bob Charette and Paul Hume having been unable to extricate the rights from FGU), and with Chivalry & Sorcery‘s 5th Edition promoting a broader view of the medieval world than has been previously acknowledge, it seems to be a good time to revisit the product.

In fact, it’s evident if you read the introductions carefully that this new Land of the Rising Sun has been a long time coming in itself. Apparently, Lee Gold had turned her hand to revising, updating, and expanding the supplement already some time in the mid-1990s – in her introduction she notes that her additions and changes reflect both 15 more years of learning about Japan and 15 more years of thinking about RPGs. This would have been around the time when Highlander were gearing up to do their 3rd edition of the game, but for whatever reason the book was not released then. Thus, the rights to the revised book passed to Brittannia when they picked up the game; two editions later, they have now been able to address them, requiring further updating.

In her introduction to this version of Land of the Rising Sun – now reconfigured as a Chivalry & Sorcery supplement rather than a standalone game – Gold readily acknowledges that her presentation of Japanese society is inevitably going to be oversimplified, and admits that she only a third grade level of ability to actually read Japanese. Certainly, an issue with many early English-language RPG products to touch on this sort of cultural sphere – from Bushido to Land of the Rising Sun to Gygax’s Oriental Adventures to Avalon Hill’s Land of Ninja – is that they tend to involve Western game designers writing about Japan. Simbalist may well have thought of Gold as a potential designer for Land of the Rising Sun because she’d lived in Japan for a few months in 1975; other designers did not even have that level of direct experience.

Brittannia Game Designs have addressed this by taking on the services of Yuki Ishida and Kana Onishi as cultural editors and consultants, and really this is an object lesson on why the idea of a cultural consultant is just a sensible idea. When you are designing a product based on a particular culture, getting the input of people for whom this material is part of their heritage and who are fluent with it in a way that someone born and raised outside that culture can’t be just seems like a no-brainer: even if you don’t care about the cultural sensitivity aspects of things (personally, I do care), it’s got to give you a deeper perspective on the material and throw up important corrections or issues to expand on which will result in a better product.

As with the core Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition rules, Land of the Rising Sun pays attention to how society changes over the timespan it chooses to deal with. In this case, the book offers a range of eras to play in spanning from the final stages of the conquest of Japan (in which the settlers that current Japanese culture identifies with subjugated the indigenous Ainu) to the period immediately before the establishment of significant trading and diplomatic links with the Portuguese.

This spans around 850-1500 CE, which is fairly similar to the span of time catered to by the core rules, which is immediately useful for crossover games. Each era gets its own writeup and notes on important features of the time – like what cultural concepts exist (“Are there ninja yet?”), where the balance of power lies between the Emperor, the Shogun, and local magnates, and so on. From here, what we get is essentially a patch – a substitute set of vocations, lifepath tables, rules for religious characters (with both Buddhism and Shinto represented), and so on.

This may well end up being a bit unwieldy to actually implement in play, unless you have already played enough baseline Chivalry & Sorcery to become very fluent with the system. However, as with the core book, the extent of research on display here is impressive – and thanks to it getting a pass by not one but two cultural editors, it feels like you can rely on it more than many other RPG sourcebooks on similar subject matter. This makes it a potentially very useful source for anyone running an RPG inspired by this span of Japanese history, though the somewhat dry text and no-frills layout may make it a bit of a slog.

10 thoughts on “Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – The Story So Far

  1. Colin Speirs

    Lee also wrote “Lands of Adventure”, published by FGU which had Classical/Mythical Greece and “Merrie England” (IIRC about 12th C)

    One wee point on “Chivalry and Sorcery Essence” and “name confusion”

    The 2011 version is the same system, bar a tweak or two and, is referred to as version 1.1. It has more material from a campaign I played with the original C&S Essence and some art, but the core is the same as the 4 page ruleset I did in 2000.

    Both have been rendered obsolete by C&S 5e QuickStart, so Essence will be parting company from C&S, up to a point.

  2. the.barwickian

    An excellent overview of the history and current state of the game.

    One correction – the Ars Bellica stretch goal is not greatly delayed; it wasn’t funded. All stretch goals from the C&S 5 kickstarter are fulfilled.

    We will produce Ars Bellica anyway – and, yes, the plans to produce it outside of the KS package have been delayed because we couldn’t get minis and photographer together under UK lockdown rules.

    1. I knew that was the case but thought the distinction between a stretch goal which wasn’t funded but you said “never mind, we’ll make it anyway” and one which funded wasn’t especially significant. I’ll update the article to reflect that though.

      1. the.barwickian

        It’s only important in that we’re quite proud of our Kickstarter fulfillment record (and we have had a couple of backers not realising it wasn’t funded).

        The delayed stretch goal from the KS was Goblins, Orcs & Trolls (or GOaT as we affectionately call it); Wiggy had planned to write it as a follow-up to his Elves, Dwarves and Nightwalkers books, but as you may know he suffered a stroke before starting it, so we ended up creating it from scratch, which took several months. But it’s out now.

        I have to say, I’ve been reading your blog for some time; I know your previous posts on the early editions of C&S, and I’m delighted both that the new edition pleases you and that you grok our approach.

      2. Ah! I see the issue. Personally I don’t get annoyed about stretch goal delays unless it’s a Kickstarter where the stretch goal got built into the core product, so a delay to it delays everything. (You are very sensible for avoiding that pitfall!)

        Glad you enjoyed my coverage; as odd a duck as Chivalry & Sorcery is, I don’t think there’s really a tack someone could take with it that’s much superior to what 5th edition seems to be mostly succeeding at.

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