Review: Chivalry & Sorcery Essence

The new Chivalry & Sorcery Essence PDF from Brittannia Game Designs is out. This is the first new set of C&S rules in years, and is the start of a line of products. BGD has been making C&S settings for some time, but I haven’t actually read any of those.

The book is cheap (currently $6 PDF, $10 print) and short, which I like. Of the 44 page book, the first 22 contain the main rules, the rest is setting and an adventure. There is an index, which is appreciated even in a short text. The art is mostly stock, neither authentic medieval art nor original, except a few pieces in the adventure and the mediocre cover art. The classic FGU version had much better art, but here you get $6 worth of design.

The rules use a single d20 instead of, as in the original, percentile and every polyhedral die. There’s a single task system, with only slight complications for critical hits and fumbles.

Character creation is fast and simple. The nine stats are rolled 1d20/2 + 5, a flat distribution, not a more realistic bell curve, and there’s no point buy system. You choose or are assigned a social class (no random chance?), and choose a vocation, which give you a number of skills with +1 to +2 bonuses, so not very significant compared to stats, though they will be easier to improve.

The vocations are Warrior, Forester, Bandit, Thief, Friar/Priest/Shaman, Mage, Physician, Mountebank. These are just a few free skill bonuses, there’s no hard classes, e.g. if you wanted a mystic Assassin, take a Thief and add Magic.

Very little explanation or use of stats is given, so except for STR, CON, and AGL, they’re useless except for specific skills.

Test Character:

Sir Cide von Karnaj
Gender: Male, Social Class: Noble, Vocation: Warrior
Strength (STR): 13               Body Points (BP): 30
Constitution (CON): 13         Fatigue (FAT): 26
Agility (AGL): 11 12
Intelligence (INT): 10
Wisdom (WIS): 10
Discipline (DIS): 12
Appearance (APP): 10
Bardic Voice (BV): 9
Piety (PTY): 6

Language: German (Spoken) (INT) +1
Willpower (DIS) +1
Sword (STR) +3
Ride Animal (Horse) (DIS)+1
Language: English (Spoken) (INT) +1
Spear (AGL) +2
Dodge (AGL) +1
Brawl (STR) +1
Archery (AGL) +1
Shield (AGL) +1
Tactics (INT) +1

Money: 20 shillings
Maille Armor  (8 DP)
Knight's Sword (WC H, Damage 6 + 7 = 13)
Spear, 1H (WC M, Damage 4 + 7 = 11)
Shield, Wooden, Small (6 DP)
Riding Horse

Combat is fast and abstract. You get a number of “blows” per 1-minute round depending on your AGL and weapon class; Sir Cide would get (12 / 5 =) 2 blows with sword or (12 / 4 =) 3 with spear.

The one serious editorial problem in the book is that actually doing damage is not explained in the combat section; instead there’s bits under weapons and armor in equipment, and also the explanation of Fatigue & Body Points in characters. There are examples, but they’re not complete, e.g. when the bandit hits Sir Andrew for 12 damage, it is stated to be “Body Points”, when the earlier rules say it should come first from his Fatigue.

Prayers and Shamanism are very simple, a die roll to succeed, with a -1 penalty per prayer previously made that day, and some Fatigue cost. Some of these prayers seem grossly overpowered, like the basic Mass which blesses every listener to add half the Friar’s Prayer skill level to all tasks done that day! I’d probably nerf that to just one task, lest Mass from a high priest make everyone unstoppable death machines. There’s only 10 common prayers and 8 shamanic prayers, but they cover more than enough spiritual magic for Arthurian games.

Magic is also a task roll to succeed, and each spell costs Fatigue. There are several options for powering up spells, at an increased Fatigue cost. The spell list has 27 spells, mostly the kind of glamours appropriate to Arthurian stories. Following that is an enchantment system where permanent sacrifice of Magic skill levels lets you embed a spell in an item; given the difficulty and cost, magic items are not common.

Experience points are gained for play and story, not killing things and looting the bodies. EP can be spent on skill points, learning new spells, or (at great cost) increasing stats oher than STR, CON, AGL. I don’t understand why combat stats are excepted, since in reality those are the easiest stats to improve with exercise, and I would just house rule that exception away.

The bestiary is minimal, 10 animals, 7 monsters, 8 humanoids, and 8 humans, with three “level up” packages for them. “The Bestiary for C&S Essence is only a fraction of the creatures and intelligent peoples available with the full rules, some of which, Elves, Orcs and Trolls to name but three are available to play as characters.”

The listed monsters are tough, a Ghoul has 49 Body, 32 Fatigue, while a Mountain Troll has 114 Body, 56 Fatigue, 15 DP armor, and magic. Stick to human foes or fight them in a group!

The included setting of Darken is very weird and cheesy, an evil kingdom ruled by a dragon goddess, populated with Orcs, Goblins, and Dark Elves. It’s as far from a traditional Chivalry & Sorcery setting as you can get, far more appropriate to high fantasy.

The adventure “The Serpent of Paun-I-Tawe”, is a bit of a mystery in an occupied border town. Not a good starting adventure, not particularly clear, but at least it’s not completely high fantasy.

Finally there is a couple pages of skirmish wargame rules for larger battles; this could be quite handy in a campaign.

There is a character sheet, but as it is an awkward landcape, 2 pages, I expect better fan-made portrait sheets to come out.

Ed Simbalist’s tone in the original FGU C&S was Arthurian/realistic 12th century France but with Elves, monsters, and rules and magick you couldn’t figure out how to use. He backed up that setting, and made up for the awful rules, with essays about verisimilitude and well-chosen art. (But also tacked in Hobbits from the Shire, so WTF, Ed?)

BGD’s version is nearly the same power level (heroic but lethal), but actually playable. But it lacks any of that setting material, and high fantasy junk like Darken is discouraging. Maybe BGD’s other setting books are less lame? I’m ill-inclined to find out. Rather, read Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”, T.H. White’s “Once and Future King”, and Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”, and you’ll have no need of their sourcebooks.

Rules: 4/5. Presentation: 2/5. Setting: 2/5.

For comparison, “Mr. Lizard” did a character creation walkthrough of the classic FGU C&S:
Part I,
Part II,
Part III.

Mark Rolls Dice

Hi, there. I’m Mark Damon Hughes, gamer and game designer.

You may know me from my old RPG site and reviews at kuoi, and there’s a ton of resources there. My old games: Phobos, DUDE, and GPA. My reviews, detailed and sometimes soul-crushing. Archives of various things. A billion links to obscure RPGs. All of these things will be kept there for now, I may move them over eventually, or not.

I’m going to be doing my new gaming blogging and writing from here. In very short order, I’ll have my next RPG up, and I’ll talk about that in a bit.

I’m also a big fan of old-school gaming. I started gaming with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by Eric J. Holmes, and I still think that’s a damn good game. I can’t stand the bloated rules and spurious logic of AD&D and later D&D 3E and 4E, but the original game has simple rules, player and DM freedom to do and create whatever they want, and a consistent tone of foolish/heroic/treacherous adventurers causing trouble, stealing, and clawing their way to the top or to an early grave.

Now when I want old-school fantasy gaming, I use Swords & Wizardry for swords & sorcery, Conan in Red Nails, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stalking the streets of Lankhmar, Elric of Melniboné cutting down foes like sheathes of wheat with Stormbringer.

For comedy or one-shots, I still use Tunnels & Trolls 5.5E with Ken’s house rules, or even just the condensed rules. Fast and simple and fun. Download the Free RPG Day 2007 book, “Goblin Lake” for a taste!

For fantasy horror, for H.P. Lovecraft and Solomon Kane and Clark Ashton Smith, with a heavy metal soundtrack, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) is amazing, it uses the rules and concepts of Basic D&D to make something radically different and terrifying.

I read, get ideas from, and sometimes review other games, new and old. Likely subjects soon are Dragon Warriors and Mongoose Runequest II.

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