Archives Fellow Travelers Voices of Reason Where am I? Making Fantasy a Reality The Guild Companion Please vote for us once every day by clicking here!

Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth

Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell, Copyright © 2001

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

Chivalry & Sorcery has moved continents and transferred to a new publisher, namely Brittannia Game Designs Ltd., since its original inception more than two decades ago. Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth (C&S:TR) is a complete rejuvenation of the original medieval role-playing game with a new cleaner presentation and more streamlined rules, yet still retaining the medieval flavor. C&S:TR comes as three books - "Core Rules", "Magicks & Miracles", and "Gamemasters Companion" - each is a soft-back volume of about 100 pages. This review will consider each in turn.

The Core Rules supply a quick introduction to role-playing before getting down to the serious business of character creation. The major choice here is between random generation and a points-based method. As soon as the nine personal attributes (including Bardic Voice and Piety) have been determined, the character's background now comes into play. As C&S:TR depicts real feudalism, parental social class will decide the initial skills of a character and channel characters into likely vocations.

C&S:TR has a talent and flaw system with a number of neat twists. Not all talents are equally available; some may only be gained through the luck of a dice roll. Likewise, if a character possesses a special ability then there's a 40% of an attendant flaw. More deviously, flaws may only be purchased (to recover character generation points) if and only if no talent has been chosen. The opportunities for munchkinism available in other systems where players can juggle (dis)abilities for maximum benefit are absent. All the usual advantages and disadvantages are present, with shapeshifting, speaking with animals, and fey blood being especially well-fleshed out.

Realistic issues such as character height, build, and weight determine such as factors as Body Points. Optional features such as the character's astrological birth sign and age conclude this part of the process.

Next the player must select the character's vocation - the Core Rules book describes various types of fighters, thieves and general adventurers while the priestly and magical careers can be found in Magicks & Miracles. One's vocation supplies a set of initial skills, which the character may learn during the pre-campaign apprenticeship, some at reduced cost. (There are easy to use guidelines for creating new vocations, which I'm very tempted to play with.) The character's age indicates the amount of starting experience possessed by the budding hero and this can be used to buy skills.

There are a whole slew of skills in a later chapter, many of which really support the feudal setting. Non-standard skills such as Conditioning and Endurance allow for modest increases in Body and Fatigue Points - experienced characters won't have unrealistic abilities to absorb huge amounts of damage unlike some other role-playing games. Wearing Armor is a skill, but characters need only learn some basic knowledge in each type.

C&S:TR's core game mechanics stress the importance of influence, based on a combination of attributes and social status, in easing one's way through medieval society. Other actions are resolved using the Skillskape system. A Difficulty Factor system controls how hard it is to learn skills as well as the basic chance of succeeding with or without some minimal knowledge and their minimum and maximum probabilities of success. (Characters can buy above the maxima, which will help them cope with adverse circumstances.) Skills have two associated attributes - their sum produces a dice modifier (read from a table).

Using Skillskape, a character's total success chance equals the sum of the skill's basic chance of success, the character's personal skill factor (skill ranks plus the attribute modifier), and any positive or negative modifiers. To succeed, simply roll the total success chance or less on d100 and simultaneously roll a d10 (the "crit" die) to discover the quality of the success or failure. (The Skills chapter includes tables of specific "crit" die results for interesting skills.) Resisted skills are more complex to administer owing to the interaction of defenders and attackers' skill components and will require careful study by the reader. Fortunately there are worked examples to straighten it all out.

There's a distinction between a character's total experience (already spent on skills) and accumulated experience (still available to spend). The former indicates the character's "level". Characters can buy many ranks in a single skill at once, but the cost rises extremely quickly if the character's "level" is significantly below the skill "level" desired. This subtle use of levels acts as a brake on characters seeking excessive depth in knowledge. Other than this, levels don't exist in C&S:TR. Hurray!

Combat has its own chapter and is definitely the most difficult section of the C&S:TR rules. In each round, characters generate their action points with whoever has the highest number acting first (and spending some action points). Once everyone has acted, whoever has the most remaining action points can act again, initiating a new sequence. The round ends whenever everyone has used up his or her action points.

Attackers make their attack roll (total success chance or less plus a crit die roll). If their opponent's defense fails, damage is inflicted. If the defense is successful, the attack is absorbed. If the attack fails, but the defense succeeds, the defender gains a temporary advantage.

Defenses can be passive or active. Passive defenses do not consume action points or fatigue, but merely reduce the attacker's chances of success. Active defenses include shield blocks, weapon parries, and dodges. Success here gives the opportunity for a retributive shield bash or weapon riposte. Parries can allow certain kinds of damage to sneak through; likewise armor and shields can and will suffer damage in battle.

Damage inflicted by a successful attack depends on the character's weapon, strength, and the result of the "crit" die. Critical successes can remove Body and Fatigue Points.

C&S:TR combat is sufficiently versatile to simulate brawling peasants and armor-clad knights with equal gusto. It's easy to see which rules are needed to recreate scenes from Ivanhoe or La Morte d'Arthur, say, but making them all second nature to run is a different matter. Fortunately most of the combat options are just that - options, so the obvious solution is to use the core mechanics first and gradually add in extra possibilities. This is one chapter where a full worked example would have been really helpful.

There are a few other short chapters in this volume that I have not mentioned such as the Marketplace, which gives essential equipment lists as well as real historical treasures such as bolts of cloth and colorful dyes, or the realistic movement rates to be found in "Movement & Time". All of these are interesting and well researched.

Volume 2 of C&S:TR is "Magick and Miracles" which covers the "uncanny". Priests invoke the "uncanny" to request its aid; magicians command the "uncanny" to do their bidding.

Eight vocations for mages are introduced. Each magic user vocation has a distinct mode (casting style) and differing levels of access to the various methods (schools of magic). Thus a conjuror brews her potions in a magical cauldron in order to cast spells while an enchanter uses music and song. Priest-Mages such as Druids, Shamans, and Witches mix magic and "miracles". The Priestly vocations are directly modeled on medieval Christianity and include itinerant Friars, cloistered Monastics, and ordained clergy. These vocations rely on Acts of Faith (including the seven Christian sacraments) for their "uncanny" powers. Equivalent rituals are suggested for Druids.

New skills are provided for mages and priest-mages. Characters must learn magical lores and gain some understanding of its laws. So what? Each of these "laws" allows casters a special effect or bonus to some of their spells, so these subtle touches have practical benefits as well as adding flavor to the system. The "metaphysics" of magic such as ley lines, the spirit world, and interactions with both are consistently explained in a separate chapter.

There are extensive rules for magic from enchanting materials (to remove their resistance) to spell research. Spell must be learned, researched, or made up on the spot. Spell use in terms of casting and targeting is, like combat, somewhat complex. However there are fewer optional rules to worry about! The Word of Guard (effectively distinct counter-spells which interrupt incoming magic) enables gamers to recreate the stylized magical duels of legend and high fantasy where casters live or die by their ability to counter opposing magic.

There's a very large chapter on spells (with promises of more on the company website). All spells have a magick resistance (the higher this is, the harder the spell is to learn), a fatigue cost, and casting time. Powerful spells take time and lots of it. Basic element magic is perhaps one of the most interesting ideas here. By stringing together spells (such as Detach, Slow, etc.) new effects can be created - to make this explicit, the composition of specific spells are given in terms of their constituents. All the traditional battle magic effects are available and many more classical spells. Ever wanted to run a "Sleeping Beauty" plotline? Just employ "Sleep into the Ages". Want flesh golems? Your mage needs "The Great Work". Want to travel the legendary astral gates? Use "The Shining Paths". Prefer a mystical approach to magic? Use transcendental magic to enable your adept to achieve true enlightenment. ...Simply a great selection of spells!

The Miracles chapter begins with an excellent theological treatment for the game, distinguishing between "God" and "the gods", and explaining faith and the Acts of Faith. Characters can believe in multiple creeds and this effects how they can invoke the "uncanny". There are rules for religious rituals and observances, both for impact on the believer and the ability of a congregation or a community to empower its preacher with their prayers. Guidelines explain how to simulate medieval beliefs and plausible "fantastic" extensions to these. For instance, extraordinary fortuitous occurrences will be construed by the superstitious (that's nearly everyone in the feudal setting) as "real" miracles, with even non-believers having a chance of being converted as a consequence of proximity to such experiences. This is an incredibly skilful, detailed and sensitive handling of Christianity in the Middle Ages. If, like me, you've been running fantasy campaigns in a Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious backdrop, this chapter approaches perfection in its treatment of such matters.

The volume closes with another Marketplace chapter with the focus on herbs, gems, magical materials and so forth.

The third and final book of C&S:TR is the "Gamemasters Companion". The first chapter covers the traditional concerns of novice gamemasters and the dichotomy between judge and storyteller referees. If you're an experienced gamemaster, you won't learn anything new in this part. However there are some interesting and distinctive twists in the experience award guidelines. Combats may be avoidable or unavoidable. Foes can be slain, vanquished, or murdered. A character's vocation determines the multipliers to be applied to combat-related experience. Thus priests gain little for avoidable combats whereas assassins benefit most from murdering their opponents. Mayhem is therefore rewarded and penalized as appropriate to a character's expected outlook on life.

The next chapter considers the feudal setting providing strongly researched material on life and death, crime and punishment, medieval beliefs and incomes. There's a worked example of how to create a kingdom and a fief supported by actual evidence from the Domesday Book (William the Conqueror's census and valuation of England).

Focus then shifts back to game issues with a chapter on NPCs which includes typical statistics and skills for each vocation, making the creation of "high-level" characters relatively painless. This is followed by a section on character generation for classic non-human races such as Dwarves, Elves, Goblinoids, Trolls, Vampires and Werecreatures, with each racial group having distinct vocations, social classes and starting skills, which is exactly how it should be. They are, after all, not human beings. The Dwarven and Elven material is extracted from the previously published Dwarves Companion and Elves Companion - it is relatively free of Tolkien's influence. The Trolls possess their own racial spells, bringing them into much closer alignment with the Scandinavian traditions. There's an opportunity here for devious GMs to mine epics such as Beowulf for very deadly plots.

After a chapter of miscellaneous optional rules including a selection of exotic drugs and poisons with suitably antique Latin names, the last major portion of "Gamemasters Companion" is the Bestiary. The emphasis here is on the statistics and capabilities of the monsters - there are no illustrations and extremely few textual physical descriptions of the monsters. (The chapter is however a much shortened version of the already published Creature Bestiary for C&S and I expect that's where such details can be located.) Fortunately most of the creatures are staples of historical and fantasy literature, so this is less problematic than it might seem at first. The range is broad including ordinary animals, giant beasts, hostile non-human races, dragons, demons (with all seven Deadly Sins having diabolical avatars), the fey (from both Seelie and Unseelie Courts) and elementals. The last are the gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders of the Rosicrucian mythos. (The reader may recognize these creatures from their appearance as minor magical beings in Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels. Their origins are much older - Alexander Pope employed them in his mock epic The Rape of the Lock at the start of the eighteenth century.)

The remainder of "Gamemasters Companion" is completed by a final Marketplace chapter (covering tools, accommodation, and buildings), as well as various indexes and character sheets.

In conclusion, the major weakness of Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth is the localized complexity of combat and magic. More examples would have helped here and the gamemaster will need to work through these rules before letting any players loose on them. There are also a significant number of typos in the text (which isn't surprising when you discover that the husband-and-wife team who run Brittannia Game Designs Ltd. had to do most of their work on this project after midnight owing to their day jobs and young children) but none are critical to the authors' intended meaning. The major strengths of Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth are in its close attention to detail, excellent medieval background material, the thorough and flavorful approaches to social status and magic, and delicately balanced handling of religion. Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth is simply the best fantasy role-playing system for gamers who wish to recreate the Middle Ages and experience history as it should have been.

Editor's Note

Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth is published by Brittannia Game Designs Ltd. Their contact details are:
Email: marakush@aol.com
Web: http://www.britgamedesigns.co.uk

Where am I? Archives Voices of Reason Fellow Travelers Vote for us on the RPG 100 Sponsored by Mimic Media & Data Systems