There's a lot to this game, and I really like it a lot, so I'm breaking this overview up into a series of posts. I don't know how many there will finally be, but I'll try to get through them quickly.
|Hahaha! They got major book|
chains (and the Science Fiction
Book Club) to stock a book
with a penis on the cover!
OK, I'm going to mostly gloss over the first half of the book pretty quickly. The first six chapters lay out the vision of the designers, along with some useful notes on world design for a Dark Ages/Medieval setting. They provide some information on the fringes of Europe (especially Wales, Ireland, and Scotland) with enough to get a Referee looking in the right direction for further research, but the focus is on England, France, Germany, and Scandinavia, and maybe a little bit of the Slavic lands, Spain, Italy, and the Balkans, in the period from about 500CE to about 1500CE. It can be stretched to cover the Middle East and North Africa, but those are largely the limits of the game as written. With some more extensive modification, it could probably be made to cover other parts of the world as well. The advice given in the first six chapters also covers fantasy fiction, though it is clear that Melniboné and Hyboria are not intended as the focus of the game.
One chapter that is almost essential for understanding the design choices made is Chapter II "Myth, magic and religion", which goes into the rationale for magic and religion in the game. The ideas seem to parallel ideas that were current in the occult community in England at the time, but I don't know how much the authors were influenced by that, or how much was convergent thinking. There is one pair of sentences in that chapter which sets out the underlying magical theory of the game (all games with magic have an underlying magical theory, though it may not be explicit, or even coherent), and that sentence is spelled out in capital letters in order to emphasize it: "THEIR POWER COMES FROM YOUR BELIEF. THE GREATEST SOURCE OF MANA IS YOURSELF." I don't think that this game is the first to make use of the term "mana" to mean "magical power", but it is certainly the first place I encountered the term used in that sense. This is a precursor to the idea in Mage: The Ascension that reality is determined by belief paradigms, and as far as I can tell is the first place that such an idea appeared in gaming. Mage took the idea explicitly from Chaos Magicians, while Fantasy Wargaming was merely concurrent with them. Anyway, this sentence will become manifest in the rules in various ways, which we will examine as we come to them.
Skipping through all of that (interesting and useful as it may be, as both a directly valuable set of essays and as a document of how some gamers approached gaming at the time - some of the essays are very opinionated, and fun reading as a result), let us move on to the rules presented. First up, as in most games of the time, is the section on creating a character. It starts with a chart to determine the character's astrological sign. While labeled as "optional", astrology is pretty deeply woven into the game, and so should be recommended. This is done with a simple D12 roll, and results in a range of characteristic modifiers. The signs are not balanced, in the sense that there is a variation in the benefits provided, which can be quantified (I simply added up the modifiers, switching the signs on three of the characteristics which are negative qualities) as ranging from -5 (Gemini) to +4 (Sagittarius). There are 11 (!) rolled characteristics which can be modified by the astrological sign. They are: Physique, Agility, Endurance, Charisma, Greed, Selfishness, Lust, Bravery, Intelligence, Faith, and Social Class. Each of those characteristics is rolled on 3D6, modified by the astrological sign chart, and then the player rolls 2D6-7 for astrological aspecting, adding (or subtracting) those points to the characteristics within certain limits. In the rules, female characters are given significant penalties to reflect the patriarchal societies of Europe in the period covered. This can be easily ignored, or possibly altered if the Referee is ambitious and stupid enough to try to enforce penalties on female characters. Height is based on Physique, Weight on Endurance. Next comes the first figured characteristic, Leadership. This is by formula, adding three times Charisma, four times Social Class, Physique, Intelligence, and Bravery, and dividing the sum by 10. There's a bonus of half (round down) of the character's highest level, but all levels start at zero, so starting characters do not see it. All characters start at age 16 (unless given previous experience by the Referee).
Next comes the so-called "Bogey table". This is a chart which gives positive and negative attributes to a character. For instance, a character might have "Keen eyesight" or "Agoraphobia" from the chart. This is where some of the controversial aspects of the game reside. The chart includes "Jewish" (described as "You will be persecuted and shunned by all right-minded Christians", which description is also given to "Heretic" and "Atheist") and "Homosexuality". Homosexuality is listed in the negative side of things, but then so is "Homophobia". Meanwhile, "Bisexuality" is listed in the beneficial part of the table. The table is a hot mess, with largely pointless results (from a gaming standpoint, though perhaps not from a narrative one) like "Impotence" or "Green Fingers" ("Can make any plant grow") existing alongside "Clairvoyance", "Healing Hands", or various characteristic modifiers, with the exact same chance of each. Fun stuff!
After the "Bogey table", there's a section that might throw some gamers into a state of fear: Skills. The skill system here is very utilitarian, though, with only six skills listed (Riding, Swimming, Climbing, Tracking, Stealing, and Singing), and all of them rated as "yes", "no", or "well".
After skills, we learn about character levels. Every character has levels in all three areas of expertise: Combat/General Adventuring, Magic, and Religious. 1000XP in a category (XP are tracked separately for each, and go into the category appropriate to the source of the XP - so, winning a fight gives Combat/Adventuring XP, while casting a spell gives Magic XP) gives a level. At each level, the character gains a couple of points to apply to characteristics (and recall that level affects Leadership).
There's some complex discussion surrounding the Social Class characteristic, but I won't detail it here. Suffice it to say that it is an important characteristic, shaping the character in many ways, both overt and subtle. After that is an equipment list (the money system is complex, a synthesis of incompatible money systems from all over Europe, with Sovereigns, Marks, Ducats, Florins, Shillings, Groats, Pennies, and Farthings). And that's it for character creation. If you want to be a magician or holy person, you've got some more to do, but all of that is in the sections on Magic and Religion.
Next up: the action resolution mechanics, or "Role-playing rules".