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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