Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Retrospective: Chivalry & Sorcery (1977)

Normally, when I speak of Chivalry & Sorcery, I'm talking about boxed second edition of the game, which was released in 1983. That's the version of the game I vividly recall from having seen its many advertisements in the pages of Dragon. That's also the version that secretly intrigued me, since it's the one I actually saw on hobby stores shelves. I say "secretly," because many of the older guys I knew, the ones who initiated me into this weird hobby, were really down on C&S, seeing it as unnecessarily complex and too concerned over "realism." So, it was generally best not to admit to having an interest in such a game in their presence -- and I didn't.

The thing is, even though no one admitted to playing C&S, at least no one with whom I had any regular contact, it still got talked about a great deal, much like the Arduin Grimoires. Despised or not (in my neck of the woods), it nevertheless had a big intellectual "footprint." What I didn't understand at the time was that the Chivalry & Sorcery the older guys were talking about wasn't the edition I instinctively associated with the name, but the original one, published in 1977 -- the so-called "Red Book" pictured above. Since I didn't play it and was discouraged from doing so, I never looked into the matter until recently and simply assumed that the version of the game advertised in Dragon was the only one.

The Red Book is a 128-page softcover book whose contents are presented in very small typeface in two columns. As FGU editor Scott Bizar says in his introduction:
The sheer mass of these new rules has made it necessary to print in small type rather than in our usual format, but this saving in pages will cause substantial savings in the purchase price of the book.
Bizar also goes on to call C&S "the most complete rule booklet ever published" and "the length of a novel" in terms of word count. He's certainly not kidding and I think Bizar reveals something very important about the game with his words. You see, lots of people criticize Chivalry & Sorcery for making a fetish of "realism," but I think, if one were to look at it with an unbiased eye, the game's real focus is on "completeness." C&S tries very hard to provide everything a referee might need in running
an all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.
That block quote above is from the first page of the game itself, under a heading titled "Chivalry & Sorcery: The Grand Campaign." There, the authors lay out the origins of C&S as well as their vision for it. My feeling is that it's here that one can really come to understand what this RPG was all about. That section also explains that
Chivalry & Sorcery began innocently enough with a discussion about the vacuum that our characters seemed to be living in between dungeon and wilderness campaigns. In the Fantasy Wargames Society of the University of Alberta a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our characters.
Thus, authors Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus created a game that answered their own needs for an "all-encompassing campaign." C&S includes all the usual things you'd expect from a roleplaying game -- character generation, combat, etc. -- but it also has rules and discussions of social status and influence, costs of living, enfeoffment, castles, warfare, training, sieges, tournaments, and more. Whether it really qualifies as "the most complete rule booklet ever published" I leave to others to decide, but there's little question in my mind that Simbalist and Backhaus did create an extraordinarily broad and complete RPG, especially for the time period.

All that said, Chivalry & Sorcery is deserving of its reputation for complexity. Many of its rules, especially for combat, are quite complicated, moreso even, in my opinion, than Rolemaster, which is more "chart heavy" than complex. But I also think it's fair to say that the complexity of C&S reflects not only the mindset of its creators but the game's origins as well. Within a few years of the publication of OD&D, there were gamers who wanted more -- more realism, more complexity, more depth. And from those wants were born a wide variety of alternate approaches to fantasy roleplaying, some of which, I can't deny, I find very intriguing.  

C&S is one of those games.  God help me if the old guys I used to know ever find out.

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