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.

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Sorcerously Resurrecting the Line

I swear that I didn’t know this was coming when I put out my more recent Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd Edition review, but there’s now a Kickstarter running for a 5th Edition of the game. The rightsholders, Brittannia Games, have been very quiet for some years, but it seems like they haven’t been lazy: rather, they’ve spent at least part of that long silence wisely making sure that they get all their ducks in a row for this Kickstarter (I am particularly reassured by the fact that Quickstart rules are already available and work on the main book layout seems to be at an advanced stage).

Particularly interesting for those interested in RPG history is this piece on Chaosium’s website, recounting the tale of an encounter between Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame and Chaosium as they were in the process of thrashing out RuneQuest – it’s interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of ideas there, since I’d identified already that both games were very interested in rooting player characters in a specific social context.

Now, as I noted in my earlier, more sceptical take on Chivalry & Sorcery, Brittannia Games is not a full-time endeavour on the part of its principle movers. However, they seem to be approaching the project in a decidedly sensible manner. The text of the book is said to be complete, and they show clear evidence that the layout process is ongoing; indeed, the fact that they’ve been able to produce the Quickstart rules so soon after beginning the campaign suggests that they’ve got their layout ideas more or less worked out and it’s just a matter of working through the material. The February 2020 date for fulfillment sounds entirely plausible on those grounds. On the balance, I have decided that it’s worth the risk of backing; we’ll see how this apparently definitive attempt to present the game comes out.

Chivalrously Giving It Another Chance

So I’ve previously made it clear that I consider 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery to have been a bit of a botch, and that the revisions which came with its second edition to be too little too late to save the game line. Whilst commercially speaking the game did end up going into the wilderness shortly after the publication of 2nd edition in 1983, and never quite recovered its former niche despite several attempts at reviving it, I’ve recently had a chance to give 2nd Edition a closer look and I feel inclined to be nicer to it than I was in my previous article.

The big differences between the two editions of the game are less to do with game mechanics and more to do with writing approach. 1977’s 1st edition of the game was a difficult read not just because of the absurdly shrunk-down text, but also because it was actually quite bad at explaining its fundamental assumptions of play. This isn’t wholly the fault of Wilf Backhaus and Ed Simbalist; back in 1977 the tabletop RPG market was only three years old, people hadn’t settled on a nomenclature yet, and Backhaus and Simbalist seemed to be coming from a gaming context which had a bunch of local quirks and features which they’d assumed everyone else would be able to follow because they didn’t appreciate just how few common assumptions and practices existed at the time. Indeed, they were writing at a time when the boundary between RPGs and wargames had not been very clearly enunciated at all, and 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery wanted to offer both type of game all in one book as part of its “grand campaign” concept.

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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.

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