Chivalry & Sorcery: The First D100 System?

There is a quality to Rolemaster that encourages me to read about actual history, to research real weapon and armor use and fighting styles, to consider types of fortifications and siege engines and tactics, to explore large scale military deployment, naval warfare, resource management, battlefield maneuvers that encompass horse and various kinds of troops. If I’m occupied with a version of traditional D&D… not so much. In this latter case I’m more interested in the weird, wondrous and sometimes “gonzo” elements at play in its preferred fantasy milieu. The nuts and bolts of “real” probabilities are a less considered texture in its usual background.

Informed by my light reading about the origins of our hobby, I’d suggest that some early companies might likewise have recognized a liminal space between the quality of the inspirations informing early D&D (according to Gary Gygax’s Appendix N) and some of the more “realistic” considerations in determining mechanical probabilities for narrative resolution in rpgs. They consequently wrote into this space. As just a few examples, I submit Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Chivalry & Sorcery, Chaosium’s Runequest, and (later) our own beloved Rolemaster and Columbia Games’s Harn campaign setting and rules system Harnmaster. 

I admittedly cherrypick these examples for two reasons: unlike some other crunchy game systems (such as GURPS and the Hero System) they are specific to fantasy roleplaying, and they appear to recognize the granular benefits of expanding the d20 core mechanic of the Original Games into a d100. Both aspects of these games should be of interest to RM gamers as points of comparison and perhaps innovations from which we might steal for our own homebrewed systems.

So I’m joining Peter R in an exploration of competing d100 systems. Perhaps my survey will contain a more historical emphasis, as I journey back to 1977 to begin with Chivalry & Sorcery.

Well, maybe I’m not doing precisely that, because I’m choosing to read the 2000 edition of C&S, which is subtitled “The Rebirth.” The editors of this version, in their introduction, state that these rules have been streamlined and expanded, so I expect that, as a modern gamer, there might be more for me to learn here than in its inception—though reading original editions always is interesting from the perspective of them being artifacts of antiquity. Also, all three volumes (and more!) of the core game are entirely free on DriveThruRPG. Can’t beat that!

In Designers & Dragons: The 1970s, Shannon Appelcline claims that C&S’s creators hoped to sell the prototype-version of their product, called Chevalier, as an “advanced” form of Dungeons & Dragons. They planned to meet with Gary Gygax at GenCon.

However after watching Gary Gygax chew out a staff member, Simbalist decided that he didn’t like the “vibe” of TSR, and so he left without mentioning his game, and promptly ran into Scott Bizar, who proved to be interested in the game himself. After Backhaus and Simbalist spent about four months stripping D&D from the manuscript, Bizar published it as the first of FGU’s three big-name RPGs, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977). It was one of the first roleplaying books ever published as a single trade paperback, rather than as a hardcover or in a box.

But perhaps even more interesting to us as RM gamers is Appelcline’s description of C&S. It was complicated and “realistic”: “The game provided a very thorough simulation of medieval feudalism and the economics that underlay it.”*

I can’t resist quoting from Appelcline again. He contextualizes C&S so well.

Finally, C&S fairly dramatically took RPGs out of the dungeons when few others were doing so. This resulted in the need for actual plots, and allowed C&S gamemasters to tell real stories when most other gamemasters were still running glorified miniatures games. Of course, many of those plots involved raiding “places of mysteries,” hideouts, castles, and other locations that were dungeons in all but name.

I already have read with interest volume one, the Core Rules of Chivalry & Sorcery’s Rebirth. I intend to go back to the beginning of this book, which involves character creation, and explain and model the process to the best of my ability. Some features of the system are exciting, others puzzling, but I think they provide unique perspectives on my current d100 gaming. The next part in this series should appear soon.

*”Though Simbalist would later acknowledge that it wasn’t necessarily a simulation of real feudalism, the product felt truthful (and thorough) enough that it was nonetheless widely accepted as such.” Appelcline.