RIP Christopher Tolkien

To mortal fields say farewell,
Middle-earth forsaking!
In Elvenhome a clear bell
in the high tower is shaking.
Here grass fades and leaves fall,
and sun and moon wither,
and we have heard the far call
that bids us journey thither.’

JRR Tolkien, The Last Ship

Christopher Tolkien, who died yesterday, was not a gamer, yet his influence upon the games I love is indelible.

If nothing else, his maps of Middle-earth provide an invaluable visual guide to his father’s creation. It is those maps that guided and inspired me as I began my first forays into world-building.

For many years I enjoyed playing MERP, Middle-earth Role Playing, a work that drew heavily on those maps and of the posthumously published work of JRR that Christopher edited for decades.

The game I’ve helped design, Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition, owes much to the Tolkiens, father and son. Its first edition was rife with references to Middle-earth, with hobbits, and Necromancers making rings of power.

D&D, in its early incarnations, drew little from Middle-earth. It had orcs, certainly, but its elves drew more from the works of Poul Anderson and the sword & sorcery tales Gygax loved.

But to many players – certainly those of my generation, the Second Wave – Middle-earth was our introduction to a fantasy world.

If my early attempts at map making were inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson, my subsequent efforts were inspired by Christopher Tolkien.

Rest in Peace.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Genderqueer people in the Middle Ages

One aspect of the diversity of medieval life we did not address in Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition concerns genderqueer people. This article is intended to correct that omission, in more detail than the core rulebook would have allowed.

The terminology we use for genderqueer people today is recent. The term transexual was coined in 1949, and transgender in 1963. Medieval Europeans lacked words to describe such experiences. For this reason, I’m using the term ‘genderqueer’ to encompass all aspects of transgender, genderfluid, cross-dressing and non-binary experiences; while the term genderqueer is also often used to denote sexual orientation, I will write a separate article on that. I intend no offence.

First, let’s be clear – genderqueer people have existed throughout human history. We’ve some evidence indicating ancient Akkadia may have recognised what would now call transmen, the salzikrum – the translation is debatable; it may mean ‘vowed woman’ (priestesses?) or ‘man-woman’ [1] . The Code of Hammurabi (sections 178 and 184) indicates they could inherit from their fathers, something other daughters could not. Depending on the translation you accept, this offers the possibility transmen were treated similarly to biological sons by the Akkadians.

Modern studies suggest around 0.3% to 0.6% of people identify as transgender [2]. We’ve no reason to doubt this is consistent through history – but also no direct evidence to support. We do know several cultures have recognised genderqueer people in past and present – Native American two-spirits, Indian hijra, and kathoey in the Phillipines.

But what about the medieval period? For a reasonable set of examples, I’ll have to break out of C&S’s core period (1000-1500AD), and look at the broader Middle Ages (c. 500-1500AD).

Cross dressing is the most visible form of genderqueer activity in the Middle Ages. There are several medieval tales of women disguising themselves as men. Often these are for very specific purposes – usually to take part in war or other forms of fighting. Agnes Hotot, in the 14th century, donned her father’s armour to take his place in a grudge joust, only revealing her sex when she had beaten her opponent. Fannu bint Omar disguised herself as a man during the siege of Marrakech in 1147. Other women, such as Isabel of Conches, donned armour, probably designed for men, without disguising their sex.

Of more interest to us are the women who passed as men for long periods.

“Brother Marinos is a woman.”

Going to his cell, they found him dead, and informed the superior, saying, “Brother Marinos has died.” … But as they were preparing to wash him, they discovered that he was a woman, and shrieking, they all began to cry in a loud voice, “Lord, have mercy.”
The superior, hearing their cries, asked them, “What troubles you so?” And they said, “Brother Marinos is a woman.”

The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary, Who Changed Her Name to Marinos [3]

The story of St Mary (or Brother Marinos) was widely circulated in the Middle Ages. The original Life, written in Greek, is undated, but is thought to have been written in Syria some time between the mid-6th and mid-7th centuries. It was later translated into several languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian and Arabic. The oldest surviving manuscript copies date from the 10th century.

According to the Life, Mary’s father Eugenios decided for foresake the secular world and join a monastery. Mary, his only child, cut her hair short, donned a monk’s habit, and joined him under the name Marinos. Marinos became well respected in the monastery, until he was accused of fathering a child on an innkeeper’s daughter. He accepted the accusation, and was cast out of the monastery, remaining at its gates for three years until the innkeeper brought the child to be raised by him and his former brothers pleaded with the abbot to let him return to the monastery. His sex being revealed after death, the monks realised he had been punished unjustly, but had accepted his punishment without complaint. Mary is revered as a saint, her commemoration being February 12, according to the Synaxarion of Constantinople. [4]

Nor was Marinos the only woman to live in a monastery as a man. “Transvestite nuns” seems to have been a popular genre of hagiography (saints’ lives) in Byzantium, with more than a dozen such lives published, including St Anastasia Patrika, who become an anchorite under the name Anastasios, St Matrona of Perge, whose life as the monk Bablyas ended when her pierced ears were noticed, and St Euphrosyne of Alexandria, who became the novice Smaragdos. [5]

We can’t say whether or not these disguised monks identified as men. All we can say is that they attempted to live as men, often for very long periods, which is very different from those women who disguised themselves temporarily. We must consider the possibility that some of them, at least, were what we would now consider to be transgender.

An intriguing archaeological discovery announced in December 2019 lends credence to these tales of disguised monks. Archaeologists discovered the remains of several women beneath the Byzantine chapel of St Athanasios at the monastery of Pantocrator, in an all-male monastic promontory at Mount Athos, which comprises around 2,500 monks in 20 monasteries. Since the community was founded in the 10th century, women were banned from setting foot on the promontory. The bones are still awaiting radiocarbon dating and an academic explanation.

Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc)

“That this woman is apostate, for the hair which God gave her for a veil she has had untimely cut off, and also, with the same design has rejected woman’s dress and imitated the costume of men.”

Article III of the doctrinal judgement on the Words and Deeds of Jeanne, commonly called The Maid [6]

Dr Gabrielle Bychowski, in a Public Medievalist blog post entitled Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages?, offers up the interesting idea that Joan of Arc may have been transgender (in modern terms), noting that although she identified as a maid, her words during her trial were very carefully chosen and cautious.

Noting that identifying Joan as transgender is especially controversial as her deeds are often held up as examples of what medieval women could do, Bychowski adds:

It is enough to say for now that Joan may not have had much liberty to speak candidly about gender and identity. The whole focus on the trial was trying to catch Joan making an unorthodox or heretical claim. Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it.

Eleanor Rykener – transwoman?

While we’ve so far looked at women presenting as men, the case of Eleanor Rykener may be a rare example of a medieval transwoman.

In 1395, in London, Eleanor Rykener was tried under her birth name of John Rykener on a charge of immorality. Eleanor’s gender was key to the case, which focused on whether sodomy had been committed. [7] I’ll note here that the 13th and 14th centuries were times of growing intolerance towards gay people.

Rykener was arrested in women’s clothing by city officials. One John Britby, a Yorkshireman arrested with her, told the examining officials he had “accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” Rykener agreed, and the pair were discovered in flagrante delicto, arrested and taken to prison.

Rykener said in her testimony that she had first been introduced to prostiution by one Anna, whore to Sir Thomas Blount, who taught her to service men “in the manner of a woman”. She was first dressed as a woman by one Elizabeth Bronderer, who introduced both her daughter Alice and Rykener to men. In Rykener’s case, Broderer ensured she met men in the dark.

Was Rykener a transwoman? It’s possible, even likely. In addition to her sex work, she also worked as an embroideress, so seems to have presented as a woman outside prostitution. But she also confessed to having sex with man while presenting as a man.

No verdict was recorded in the court case, which Bychowski notes was written up in Latin, avoiding the need for deciding a male or female pronoun for Rykener, which would have been required had it been recorded in English or French. Bychowski clearly believes this was a deliberate decision by the court to avoid settling the matter of Rykener’s gender. [8]

The Sound of Silence

King Evan and Queen Eufome with Silence, c.1275

The Old French poetical romance Silence exists only in one manuscript, dating from the 13th or 14th century, which was discovered in a chest in 1911. It was written by one Heldris of Cornuälle, an otherwise unknown poet.

The poem is Arthurian, and details the life of the titular Silence, daughter of Cador, Earl of Cornwall, who is raised as a boy to circumvent a law forbidding female inheritance. Silence does not initially realise he is a biological girl, and agrees to continue presenting as male when he does discover it at age 12, following a debate between Nature, Nurture and Reason – Reason convinces him he is better off as a man, though Silence himself remains conflicted.

As a man, Silence wins renown as both a knight, a military commander, and a jongleur. He rejects the advances of the adulterous Queen Eufome, whose regular lover is a man diasguised as a nun. The queen later persuades her husband to order Silence to capture the magician Merlin, who can only be trapped by “trick of woman”. Silence succeeds in the task, and Merlin reveals his biological sex. The queen and her cross-dressed lover are revealed and executed, and the king marries Silence, now presenting as a woman named Silentia.

Silence is unusual in medieval literature for its discussion of nature versus nurture, and its differentiation between biological sex and gender. Medieval French literature lecturer Sharon Kinoshita notes:

As Silence grows up, her successes in the forest and on the battlefield demonstrate that some of the “natural” differences between boys and girls derive from a conventional opposition between masculine and feminine practices. Privileging gender over sex does not prevent the text from treating masculinity as naturally superior to femininity. [9]

Nevertheless, despite Silence deciding it’s better to present as male, she is eventually revealed as female. Medieval society is patriarchal, even if women did run businesses and manage their own estates. Silence’s story is not a feminist overthrow of the patriarchy.

The narrative that unfolds invites two contrary conclusions. The first casts Silence as an oppositional text, focusing on how it renegotiates boundaries between sex and gender. The second, in contrast, emphasizes the way the text recontains the subversion it unleashes. Silence does not challenge socially constructed definitions of gender; she exploits them. In the end, Nature proves right and Nurture wrong, thanks to Merlin’s (un)timely intervention: biological “truth” will out… Silence’s stint as a jongleur – an interlude between her childhood exploits and her arrival at King Evan’s court – confirms Michele Perret’s observation that while men in medieval romance cross-dress to gain sexual access to women, women cross-dress to obtain male privileges like inheritance and travel. [10]

Pope Joan

Most historians believe the legend of Pope Joan is just that: a legend. Nevertheless, it was a legend widely believed in the Middle Ages that Johannes Anglicus, pope from 855-857, was a woman disguised as a man, her biological sex revealed when she gave birth.

Pope John VII, aka Pope Joan, from the Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493

According to the legend, Joan disguised herself as a man and took clerical orders. Through her talent and determination she became a secretary to the Curia, then a cardinal, then Pope. She was exposed after giving birth to a child and either stoned to death or stripped of her offices and confined, doing penance for many years; in this alternative legend her son became the Bishop of Ostia.

The legend of a female pope is first mentioned by the Dominican friar Jean de Mailly in the early 13th century, with the un-named pope in question said to have ruled in 1099, presumably following Pope Urban II, famous for preaching the First Crusade, who died on July 29, 1099. In fact, Urban II’s successor was Pashal II, who was elected on August 13, 1099.

The next mention of a female pope is by another Dominican friar, Stephen of Bourbon, and the fullest development of the legend is by Martin of Opava, who names her as John Angelicus, pope in the 9th century, and said she had taken to wearing men’s clothing in Athens as a girl, taken orders and ultmately became pope.

Despite a lack of historical evidence, the legend of a female pope gripped medieval imagination. Illustrations and woodcuts showed supposed incidents from Pope Joan’s life, and the idea of a Papess became a feature of tarot playing cards – it wasn’t until the Rider-Waite deck of 1910 that this card became known as the High Priestess.

The Papess, from the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck of 1451


The evidence for transgender people in medieval Europe is sparse and unclear. The lives of our genderqueer candidates were recorded by cisgender people. There were no linguistic terms to describe their experiences in a way we would consider clear.

As Bychowski notes in her conclusion:

For much of the public, the short answer to whether or not transgender people existed in the Middle Ages is sufficient to affirm or annoy their preexisting biases towards transgender people today. For those who deny that transgender is anything more than a post-modern lifestyle, any answer beyond “no” might be dismissed as a bias of a supposed “transgender agenda.” For those who affirm transgender as an essential part of human diversity, the answer “yes” is taken as obvious. [10]

While the evidence for transgender people in the Middle Ages cannot be considered conclusive nor compelling, it is clear that some people did step out of the roles expected of their biological sex by presenting as the opposite gender. It is their reasons for doing so that are unclear.

Medieval thought was dominated by theological considerations. The Bible presents sex as binary, and forbade cross-dressing.

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
Deuteronomy:22:5 (King James Version)

Despite this, both men and women did so, and Le Roman de Silence indicates that at least one poet demonstrated fledgling efforts to understand the difference between sex and gender.

The evidence allows the possibility of transgender people in the Middle Ages, even if theology did not.


[1] Rivkah Schärf Kluger, The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero (Daimon Verlag, 2015)

[2] Amnesty International report, The State Decides Who I Am: Lack of Legal Gender Rercongition for Transgender People in Europe (2014). (PDF)

[3] The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary is translated and published in Alice-Mary Talbot’s Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation (Dumbarton Oaks, 1996)

[4] Ibid, p 1-2

[5] Ibid, p2

[6] Pierre Champion, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc (Gothan House, 1932), full text at Internet History Books

[7] The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395, at the Internet History Sourcebook

[8] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

[9] Sharon Kinoshita, Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage, PMLA (The Journal of the Modern Language Association of America), Vol. 110, Issue 3 (May 1995), p 402

[10] Ibid, p402

[11] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

Posted in Gaming, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Diversity, historical accuracy and Chivalry & Sorcery

Common factoids (things that look like facts but aren’t) about the Middle Ages are that people of colour didn’t exist in medieval Europe, that women didn’t fight (or do much other than be wives or nuns), and that homosexuality was universally condemned.

The far right try to weaponise these factoids. They try to sell a narrative – they want their recruits, and innocent bystanders, to believe the medieval period was some sort of historical haven for straight white men. They object to the idea of North Africans or women fighters (probably less than 1% of the population of medieval England, though no demographics exist), yet have no problems routinely playing male knights (certainly less than 1% of the population of medieval England). Knights, however, are part of the modern mythology of the Middle Ages, and African pilgrims are not.

Presented with evidence to the contrary, gamers who’ve fallen victim to these lies often cry that there are no exceptions, or that exceptions are so rare that they shouldn’t be present in a game. After all, they say, if you want such characters, you can add them.

In Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve made sure we list historical examples of women fighters and look at women business owners. We look at evidence for and examples of Africans in medieval Europe. We mention medieval attitudes to homosexuality, and the gay scene of the 11th and 12th centuries.

After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if someone doesn’t want diverse characters in their games, they’re free to leave them out.

There are several reasons for this approach.

The first is historical accuracy. The medieval period was more diverse than people who gather their history from films and fictional TV shows realise. We want to undercut the factoids and get to the truth, to show those people who claim their prejudices are historically accurate that they are mistaken.

The Mediterranean and the Near East were trade and cultural crossroads since pre-history, and that continued right through the Middle Ages. The medieval period saw a widening and opening of trade and travel – the Genoese merchant Marco Polo travelled to China via the Silk Road in the late 13th century. The Morrocan qadi Ibn Battutah travelled through Africa, Arabia, India, Central Asia, China and parts of Europe in the early 14th century, and the Chinese admiral Zheng He led a series of voyages that took him as far as East Africa in the early 15th century. Beyond these high-profile expeditions, many more diplomatic and trade missions between cultures and countries took place. Archaeological evidence, including DNA and isotope analysis, confirms the presence of Africans in medieval England (and in earlier and later periods).

Martin Jan Mansen’s detailed map of medieval trade routes.

Numerous women fighters are recorded in medieval documents. They were exceptions, true, but they were there, and some of them seem to have had significant training. Agnes Hotot won a joust against her father’s rival in the 14th century, implying that either she was almost unbelievably lucky or had practised jousting. The 11th century Norman noblewoman Isabel of Conches routinely wore armour as she led her troops in battle against her rival Heloise; the monk-historian Orderic Vitalis praised her for her honour, charisma and boldness.

The woman fighter Walpurgis defeats the Priest in the 13th -century fighting manual Royal Armouries I.33

We’ve made sure to list these and other historical women fighters in the core rulebook, and to note the women who ran businesses and mercantile operations.

In this edition we’ve included Islam and Judaism as core religions alongside Christianity, those sections written by Muslim and Jewish writers (Omnia Al Desoukie and Michael Schemaille).

A second reason, related to the first, is to avoid erasure. Yes, we could have chosen not to mention people of colour, or gay people, and leave it to individual groups to do their own research. This is the approach taken in earlier editions of Chivalry & Sorcery, the first of which was published in 1977 and the most recent was published in 2000. That was pretty much the default approach back then, but frankly it isn’t good enough now.

Erasure operates insidiously. As Nisi Shawl and Chnthia Ward note in their excellent Writing the Other, the dominant paradigm of Western culture is white, straight and male. Unless we actively mention women, people of colour, and the gay experience, we default to the dominant paradigm. We’re asking people who want to step out of that paradigm to do extra work.

And that brings us to inclusion. We game in diverse groups, and we want our players to enjoy out game, to see themselves represented, to find a place for themselves within it. Gaming – including Chivalry & Sorcery – is for everyone.

Historical accuracy is double-edged, however. It would be hypocritical to acknowledge medieval diversity without acknowledging medieval prejudice. What’s more, it would he another form of erasure: erasing the victims.

As with medieval diversity, medieval prejudices may surprise people. There was little racial prejudice, but there was significant religious prejudice. Anti-semitism was rife, driven by blood libels and crusading fanaticism, and massacres and pogroms took place throughout the period. After the Third Lateran Council of 1179, homosexuality was no longer tolerated, and punishments became more severe as the Middle Ages progressed. And society remained deeply patriarchal.

Game groups are, of course, free to ignore these prejudices. We strongly advise those groups wishing to explore them, or even have them as a backdrop, to discuss it and make sure everyone is comfortable with including them. The free PDF Consent in Gaming, by Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain and published by Monte Cooke Games, is an excellent guide to such discussions and in-game techniques.

Further reading

John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980, revised editon 2015).

RI Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (first edition 1987, second edition 2006)

Bernard Hamilton, The Crusades and North-East Africa, in John & Morton (eds), Crusading and Warfare in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2014)

The Public Medievalist blog has an excellent series on Race and Racism in the Middle Ages and another on Gender, Sexism and the Middle Ages

Posted in Gaming, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

C&S 5th Edition: one designer’s notes

I really don’t need an excuse not to update this blog, as I can go years without posting.

But for what it’s worth, the last few months have been taken up with helping design and edit Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – a game I’ve loved since I first got a copy of the 2nd edition rules in the early 1980s.

C&S 5th Edition is my first major game design. I’ve had a couple of small pieces in supplements, and I edited the dark fantasy Black Void RPG (well worth getting your hands on, by the way).

But this is my first time to get a cover credit. The first time I feel I’ve earned the title ‘game designer’.

And for the game to be C&S, for my fellow designers to be friends I met through C&S more than 20 years ago, makes it all the more special.

I credit C&S with rather more than being a fun game. It helped nurture a passing interest in the past into a passion. It wasn’t my only influence – growing up in a village dating from the Middle Ages, with a fine Norman church remains of a 12th-century motte inside an ancient hill fort certainly played a part, as did frequent trips to observe archaeologists working at Coppergate in York.

But gamers have a bent for classifying and codifying. We want maps and systems and mechanics.

Ed Simbalist’s articles on medieval economics and agriculture in the C&S Sourcebook intrigued me. When I went to university to study economics that interest stayed with me, and I specialised as much as I could in the economic history of the medieval and early modern periods.

I needed to get a bit closer to the medieval fields, so once in full time employment I went back to study archaeology at night school, specialising in medieval villages and landscapes.

I learned enough, researched enough, to see the flaws in those articles of Ed’s – the yields too high for wheat, too low for barley, the difference between good and bad harvest too random.

But without those articles, would I even have cared? Somehow I doubt it. And certainly Ed, a teacher by profession, was delighted when I told him where his articles had led me.

This is the gift C&S – by which I really mean Ed and Wilf, Jan and Wes and their whole team – gave me.

It’s been a pleasure to be invited to work on the 5th Edition. It’s been a pleasure to contribute to it.

We’ve expanded the medieval background, and we’ve simplified the mechanics as much as we can while still keeping the flavour of the game.

In a couple of cases we’ve restored old rules which the 3rd edition passed over. Influence is back, its mechanics drawn from the model used in 1st and 2nd edition, updated to work with the Skillskape mechanics introduced in 3rd edition.

Skillskape itself has been revised, and somewhat simplified, at least in character generation. Instead of making skills easier to learn, vocational and mastered skills grant a flat bonus. We’ve ironed out the pesky exceptions to the Skillskape rules that caused me (and I think others) a few headaches.

Many of these changes to Skillskape began life as my own house rules, aimed at making C&S easier to play. I guess I was lucky chief designer Steve Turner was thinking the same way, and I had a ready-made set of changes to email to him.

A new way of handling the Crit Die makes it function more like an effect die. We haven’t moved C&S – the granddaddy of simulation games – quite as far as a narrative system, but I do have some ideas in that direction. Something for a future C&S Sourcebook perhaps.

Blows in combat, the mainstay of 1st and 2nd edition, return to the game as an optional rule to replace the Action Point system introduced in 4th edition.

The enrichment of the medieval background means more – and more accurate – character backgrounds, and a more detailed introduction to the medieval world, addressing some of the topics that have had significant new research in the 20 years since the 4th edition. Most of the expanded background and work on social classes comes from Francis Tiffany, not only a scholar and gentleman, but a talented portrait artist as well

We’ve been able to take advantage of research into medieval diversity to present evidence of North and sub-Saharan Africans in medieval Europe. We’ve looked at examples of women taking up arms.

We’ve expanded our coverage of religion beyond the Catholic Church to include Judaism and Islam in the core rulebook, these sections written by Jewish and Muslim writers.

And we’ve tackled the issue of medieval prejudices and persecution head on – and found some interesting facts along the way.

All of this is wrapped in a truly beautiful full-colour rulebook, lavishly illustrated by 4th edition artists Andrew Hepworth and Dave Bezzina, and new-to-C&S artist Gordon Napier, and designed by the talented Andy Cowley (also a longtime C&S fan).

It is, in my opinion, the best edition of C&S yet published – the best in mechanics, in historical background, and in presentation.

You can read what one of our Kickstarter backers thinks here: Andrew Marrington’s C&S 5th Edition review.

You can get a copy of the PDF file on DrivethruRPG.

Yes, there will be a hardback rulebook. The files are currently with the printer. Kickstarter backers should get their copies in February, with the rulebook going on retail sale in March.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition Kickstarter: Nightwalkers

The Kickstarter campaign for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition is well underway, and I’m proud to be associated with it. It achieved funding in less than 16 hours and, as I write, is on the way to unlocking its second stretch goal: the Nightwalkers Companion, by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams.

This is a supplement I really want to see come to fruition. Wiggy’s a great designer with a huge catalogue of top-notch, atmospheric settings and supplements, and he loves the horror genre – check out Triple Ace Games’ website for his recent work.

But does a horror supplement covering vampires and werewolves belong in the Chivalry & Sorcery line-up? Absolutely! Medieval folklore – and theology – is replete with examples of such creatures.

To use a line from Game of Thrones, the night is dark and full of terrors.

Let’s have a look at some of the medieval beliefs, and how they fitted into the medieval Christian worldview, for even the strictest historical game, which eschews the supernatural, must acknowledge that though these creatures did not exist medieval people thought they did, and made them part of their beliefs and behaviour.

I don’t know if Wiggy will follow medieval beliefs in his companion. The night may be dark and full of terrors, but Wiggy is creative and full of awesome ideas. If he goes his own way, I guarantee it will be a way that enhances your games – and mine.

Werewolves and Shapeshifters

About three years before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The term ‘werewolf’ derives from the Old English term for ‘man’ (wer) and wolf (wulf). There are many medieval legends of werewolves and other shapeshifters – from Norse berserks who became wolves by wearing a wolf-skin to the Norman garrulf, the Breton bisclavret (the subject of Marie de France’s Lai Bisclavret (PDF link), and the villagers of Ossory described by Gerald of Wales. Gervase of Tilbury matter of factly stated, “In England, we have often seen men transformed into wolves with the changing of the moon.”

Gervase stated that wounds inflicted on one of a werewolf’s forms would carry over to the other when it changed, thus providing a means to detect the creature.

There were several ways a person could change into a wolf, beyond the changing of the moon. The bisclavret, according to Marie, must spend three days a week in wolf form; before the change he hides his clothes, and is unable to change back if they are stolen. Other stories have people doffing their clothes and donning a wolf-skin, as with the berserks.

“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.”

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The natives of Ossory were unusual in that their change was mandated by a divine curse.

So how does a werewolf fit into the Christian worldview? Theologians of the day discussed the matter, focussing on one particular question: slaying a human was sinful, but slaying a wolf was not. Was slaying a man-wolf a sin?

They decided the answer depended on the reason why the person changed into a wolf.

If the transformation was the result of magic, then slaying the man-wolf was sinful. If the change was divine, it was acceptable.

The reason for this was that they believed magic could not change the essence of something, only its appearance. The creature might appear as a wolf, but its essence remained human, and so slaying it was a sin. But God could change the essence of a creature or thing, so a man divinely changed into a wolf became truly a wolf, and slaying it was lawful.

Nor are werewolves the only shapeshifters of the medieval period. The influential philosopher Boethius, writing c. 1120-1140, stated that eating certain kinds of food might change men into asses, swine or other animals; and Lai Yonec, also written by Marie de France, features a knight who transforms into a hawk – presumably, in this version, Michelle Pfeiffer turns into a stag.


In two of William of Newburgh’s stories the hauntings are accompanied or followed by the spread of disease, and in one of them the revenant actually sucks blood in the traditional vampiric way: ‘they wounded the lifeless corpse and immediately so much blood flowed from it that they realized it had sucked many people’s blood.’

Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225 (New Oxford History of England)

The word ‘vampire’ doesn’t appear in English until the 18th century (and wasn’t popularised until the 19th century by writers such as John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker).

Nevertheless, tales of bloodsuckers go back at least as far as we have written records. They occur in myths and legends from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and in folk tales through the Middle Ages.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often considered to originate with the 15th-century Romanian national hero Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, known as Dracula (son of the Dragon. The historical Dracula belongs to what Chivalry & Sorcery considers the Waning Feudal period, and his vampiric legend belongs later.

Since the medieval English had no particular word for vampires, Bartlett uses the word ‘revenant’ to describe the walking dead of medieval legends – and as noted in the quote above, in one case the revenant did suck blood.

Similar to the Eastern European legends of vampires, revenants of English lore might arise through having lived a bad, un-Christian life.

Revenants in English lore were usually dispatched by exhuming their corpses, and either decapitating them, removing the heart or burning the remains – or any combination of those remedies. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, laid one to final rest by having its grave opened and a letter of absolution placed on its chest.

Medieval revenants were no cultivated, pale noblemen in cloaks and opera hats, nor Louisiana gentlemen in lace cuffs and frock coats. They arose from their graves at night, clad in their funeral shroud, to prowl the land and terrorise the living. Disease walked with them.

The 2009 discovery by archaeologists of a 16th-century ‘vampire burial’ in Venice was widely reported. The body in question was an elderly woman whose corpse had, after death, had a brick forced between its teeth. Several more ‘vampire burials’ have been discovered, including a 10-year-old boy in Umbria, near Rome, in the 5th century AD, and a man in Northamptonshire, England, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD.

William of Newburgh, attempting to make sense of the stories, ascribed the corpses’ rising to the work of Satan, but the disease they spread to the contaminated air they created.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dangerous Journeys: Mythus revisited

About three years ago I wrote a post about my love-hate relationship with Dangerous Journeys, the game Gary Gygax designed after leaving TSR.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of playing 12 sessions of a Dangerous Journeys game run by an expert in the system. Whereas I am something of a system hoarder, with hundreds of rulebooks supplements for scores of games, Lars has devoted himself to Dangerous Journeys for years.

The experience has confirmed my initial views that this is a highly playable system. I have learnt that it is also an atmospheric one, and highly enjoyable. Now, it is a truth in gaming that a good gamesmaster can make a badly designed game fun, and Lars is certainly a good gamesmaster.Mythus Cover

It is also true that Dangerous Journeys is not a user-friendly game; its organisation leaves much to be desired, and there are many special cases and exceptions to the core rules buried in paragraphs far from the chapters you’d expect. It is therefore a difficult game to learn.

Certainly, Lars’ first task was to introduce myself and the other players to the rules, advising us on abilities we’d find useful for our character concepts. It helped that he created a handy Excel character sheet to keep track of Mythus’ many subskills and heka (magic point) calculations. I covered character generation in some detail in the previous post, so I wont rehash it here.

While character generation remains complex, I really don’t mind that if it leads to evocative characters, and with my character I managed to find a very suitable set of skills to flesh out her background – as the daughter of an innkeeper I was delighted to find she could have a rating in commercial household management, and in appraising the quality of food and wine.

And Mythus proved to be much simpler in play. Percentile-based systems are intuitive, and although the difficulty levels are granular (moving from Hard to Difficult halves your effective skill), this is modified by using Joss (Hero Points) if you really need to succeed.

Joss proved to be one of the major features of the game. I haven’t played many systems with a hero point mechanic, so its importance eluded me on a simple read-through of the game.

You can spend Joss not only on yourself, but on behalf of other PCs, which helps encourage cooperative play. However, they don’t regenerate between sessions or adventures, but must be earned. This means you can quickly deplete your stock – several times we suggested using Joss to help a roll, only for Lars to ask us if we really thought it was worth it. He was right, of course – Joss can be such a game-changer that it is worth saving for the big encounters or the must-succeed attempts. One of the uses of Joss is in damage – before damage dice are rolled you can choose to have automatic minimum (useful if you’re about to take damage) or maximum (if you’re dishing it out). Lars was strict about enforcing the only-before-a-roll rule as well.

Since I’d run a few solo missions when other players couldn’t make sessions, I’d rapidly depleted my Joss pool, and later missions more than once heard me cry , “Can anybody Joss me?”

If absolutely necessary, you can burn unspent experience points as Joss. Obviously, it’s not a particularly good strategy – using them like this means they’re not available for boosting your character’s skills – but if it keeps your character alive it’s a good last resort.

The other major quirk of the system is the potency of magic. Like (A)D&D, Mythus classifies spells into 9 levels or grades based on their potency. It’s not uncommon for a heka-user to begin play with access to fourth- or fifth-grade spells – the equivalent of being a 7th-9th level spellcaster in D&D.

There are many kinds of magic too, and I quickly discovered our party spellcasters could act as force multipliers on my melee-only rapier-wielding street bravo – one of our most effective combat methods was to have my character rush in, boosted in speed and magic resistance by the spellcasters, to attack twice as fast, and with the judicious use of Joss when necessary. Since her Special Combat skill allowed her to target vulnerable parts of the body, she proved devastatingly effective in combat.

She picked up many injuries, though. Mythus doesn’t allow a parry unless you forgo an attack, and I quickly discovered I’d better forgo the idea of a renaissance rogue in light leather armour and supplement that with a helmet and some armoured boots. Even then, she relied on herbs or clerical healing after most fights. Fortunately, one of her contacts was a priest (none of the other PCs – sorry, Heroic Personas – were), so at least she had a healing source back at base.

The combat system, by the way, is moderately deadly – I’ve played worse, but an unlucky roll can hurt your character badly, and large-sized creatures such as ogres can easily kill in a single blow. That’s where I discovered failing to give my street bravo any missile weapons was a strategic error. However, she could make relatively short work of the goblins while our dweomercraefter dealt with the ogre by peppering it at a distance with magic.

And therein lies another feature of Mythus. Balance is not a primary consideration of the game. Dweomercraefters and priests have access to potent magic. Others may have buffs or protective charms, but the raw power of a specialist magic user is difficult for a sword to match. I know that bothers some people, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. So long as my character has an interesting story, I don’t need to be the baddest on the block. And it’s been fun roleplaying a street tough proud of her smarts and her sword skills watch the delicate flower magician take down a creature she’s too scared to go toe to toe with.

And it’s been Lars’ ability to make sure each character has something interesting to do – whether by his own design or by running with player ideas – that’s helped make this introduction to Mythus at the table such an enjoyable experience.

However, spellcasting is often a lengthy process, and a spellcaster will have to choose which spells to keep ready. Readying a spell doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as AD&D’s spell preparation – it can be done in minutes, rather than overnight – but the number of spells that can be prepared in advance is very limited. Spells quick enough to cast in combat may still take several rounds to cast, and are usually much more limited in power. And a sword will remain effective as long as its user.

Combat, the way, is primarily narrative. There’s none of the tactical movement found in games like Pathfinder or GURPS advanced combat, nor discussions of frontages like AD&D. Miniatures or tokens are not necessary.

Lars was using the more complex optional initiative system from the core Mythus rules. I’d dismissed this version as unnecessarily complex on a rules read-through, but found it better in play. He also used various rules from Journeys, the Mythus magazine, and the Mythus Masters Magazine, which circulated electronically. I found a few prior calculations – totalling character speed, weapon speed penalty and armour penalty beforehand, so the actually initiative roll boiled down to one dice roll and one modifier speeded and simplified the process greatly. The same could be said for the spellcasters, whose heka regeneration and ‘aperture’ (the amount of magic points you can spend in one go) is better calculated in advance. Tricks like this is where Lars’ experience made the game flow better, as there’s no real suggestion in the rules that one do the prior calculations, nor space on the official character sheet to record them.

To recap, key features I’ve found after 40-50 hours of play with Mythus:

1) Poor organisation means the game is difficult to master. Not only are relevant rules scattered around the core rulebooks, but a couple of important rules (such as readied castings, which allow a spellcaster to prepare spells in advance to reduce lengthy casting times) were missed from the book and published later in the game’s dedicated magazine.

2) It produces evocative characters, each capable in multiple areas. A sword-slinger, rogue or spellcaster will have a broad selection of secondary skills as well. Characters come with fairly detailed backgrounds – their quirks, social class, family history, contacts and so on. These factors encourage roleplaying.

3) The system rewards clever play. Combat is fast and fun, but deadly, and some time spent working out how to catch one’s enemies off guard is time well spent. Effective use of Joss is part of that clever play.

4) The game is brimming with atmosphere, not just in its mechanics (the many forms of magic, the various skills available), but in its default setting, Aerth. Goblins are not the simple low-level combatants of D&D, but a form of faerie, with supernatural powers.

Would I run Mythus? Yes, although I have no immediate plans to (I’m about 1/3 of the way through Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, and plan to run GURPS Traveller after that).

However, that’s after experiencing the game under someone who’s played it extensively, and seeing how it hangs together as a whole. For more than 20 years I’ve had the game sitting on my shelves, trying to make sense of it, only to be turned off by the poor organisation.

Would I recommend others do so? That very much depends on what you’re after in a game. Mythus is not a game to play for a session or two and set aside. It’s a roleplayer’s game, not a tactical battlemap game, and it rewards creative, story-driven campaign play.

If that sounds intriguing, then it may well be worthwhile to spend the time getting to grips with its complexities.

Put it this way: I can see why more than 20 years after it went out of print, Mythus’ fandom is (a) small and (b) dedicated. This is not a game for everyone, but it offers a great deal to those for whom it strikes a chord.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Basic Hex and Square Grids

Hex A2 1-Inch Horizontal

Update: Added one-inch square grids in European and US paper sizes.

One of my colleagues in the Gulf Roleplaying Community was looking for some hex grids to print out, so I made these basic ones for European and US paper sizes.

Each of the hexes is one inch (measured from side to side), suitable for use with 28mm minis at a scale of one inch = 5 feet or 1.5 metres, or for 15mm minis with a scale of one inch = 10 feet or 3 metres.

The A4 and US Letter grids are suitable for home printing (as is the A3/Tabloid if you have a suitable printer). Unless you have a plotter, you’re best taking the PDFs of the larger sizes to a commercial printer.

Pro Tip: If you have them laminated, you can draw on them with a wet erase marker and have a reusable battle map that’ll last for years.

Hex Grids (One Inch)

European sizes

US sizes

Square Grids (One Inch)

European Sizes

US Sizes

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Review: Dave Gross, Lord of Runes (Pathfinder Tales)

Lord of Runes is without question the best piece of tie-in fiction I’ve read. It’s an excellent fantasy novel in its own right.

Before I further explore why I think this, let me first address this: if I consider it so good why four stars, not five? Largely because I’m stingy with stars. With only five stars to choose from, that last star gets awarded only rarely. Four stars puts Lord of Runes, by my reckoning, alongside works such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Saga, Ray Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, Lieber’s first 6 Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser collections and the works of David Gemmell – novels I have read passionately, series I have followed, for many years. (What gets five stars? Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lieber’s novella Stardock.)

Dave Gross’s Pathfinder novels have consistently been good reads, among the best tie-ins I’ve read. Lord of Runes is better.

Gross has always had a deft touch with narrative and dialogue, but here it sparkles. Within the first two chapters, the city of Korvosa was alive in my mind. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue natural.

The plot, perhaps a little simpler than his earlier Pathfinder Tales novels, is yet more epic.

But what really lifts the book is the emotional content. Gross’s Pathfinder novels are buddy stories, and in this we get to see just how deep the bonds between protagonists Radovan and Count Varian Jeggare go – and how far they can be stretched.

The emotional undertones of the novel go beyond the protagonists, though. The supporting cast carry issues of their own – at one revelation, I found myself having to put the book down for a moment while I worked the lump from my throat and blinked a tear from my eye.

This is potent stuff.

It’s hard to give details of character development without revealing spoilers, but few of the main characters end this novel with the attitudes or beliefs with which they started it. Count Varian’s slow deterioration is particularly well handled, both in his first-person chapters and when we get to see him from Radovan’s point of view (it is a technique of Gross’s that in these books the first-person point of view is swapped between the protagonists).

There are treats in store for Pathfinder fans – the return of Pathfinder Eando Kline and (given the title it’s no real spoiler to say it) the rise of a Runelord. But I don’t think it necessary to know the game or its setting to appreciate the quality of writing and storytelling Gross achieves.

Tie-in fiction has a bad rep because there’s a lot of poorly written dross churned out, but there are a few gems out there. Lord of Runes is a diamond.

This review is based on the Kindle edition of Lord of Runes. I will be looking for a paper copy as well (perhaps two), because this is a book I intend to lend to friends – both to players in my Pathfinder games and to fans of fantasy fiction.

View on Goodreads

Posted in Gaming, Stuff | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

E-Z Dungeon: construction review

I’ve been papercrafting for a week or two
And I’ve spent all me money on craft knives and glue…

A simple dungeon layout

A simple dungeon layout

I’ve become increasingly involved with miniature-based roleplaying games, largely down to the amount of time I’ve been spending playing Pathfinder. It seems to be an ever-increasing obsession: from Pathfinder Pawns and hand-drawn maps, to flip-maps, to hand-painted minis…

A friend brought a rather impressive card-built village to the Gulf Roleplaying Community’s stand at the Middle East Film & Comic Con in April. Googling it later, I discovered Fat Dragon Games’ line of 3D, cardstock buildings, interiors and dungeons. I’ve had the idea of building a 3D dungeon in the back of my mind for a while.

Try telling non-gaming friends you’re planning to build a dungeon at home – the reactions range from puzzlement to horror to a sudden creepy interest.

The idea behind these is that you buy a PDF and print at home. The PDF’s are pretty cheap (the core dungeon set, E-Z Dungeons Deluxe, is $12). Of course, you also bear the cost of cardstock and ink (and glue, craft knives and, most significantly, time to build).

The advantage is that you can print as many of an individual item as you need.

A nice touch is that each PDF is layered. You can choose to add water stains, cobwebs and blood spatters to the dungeon walls. The ones I’ve printed have the water stains layer activated.

Printouts are clearly marked with score lines and cut lines. There are even guides for automatic cutters, if you have one of those (I don’t).

There’s a pretty good set of instructions included, with advice on optimal printing, preparing the items to cutting (scoring the card before bending is important), and the right types of glues to use (paper glue with the lowest moisture content you can find – UHU is great) and how to assemble the items. Members of Fat Dragon’s forums will also provide helpful advice on request – the papercrafting community seems small but very friendly.

As with any craft there’s something of a learning curve. Some items, such as walls, are fairly simple to build – they’re basically just boxes. Pillars aren’t hard to build, but involve some fairly complex cutting. Archways are a little more complex, and there are some items (such as the dungeon idol), that I’d rather not tackle until my skills improve – partly because I don’t need them right away.

Not that the skills needed are especially complex. You quickly learn which cuts and scores are important, how much glue to use and so on. Complex items come with their own instructions. The main thing that increasing experience builds is speed.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction - printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction – printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

There is some necessary equipment before you start building. A good craft knife, steel straight edge and glue are essential. A cutting board and a pair or sharp scissors are also extremely useful.

Cardstock is, of course, necessary, and foamcore is useful for making sturdy bases.

There are a couple of ways to approach construction. The default approach is to permanently build key elements of a dungeon (corridors, corners, rooms, etc), then fasten the foamcore bases together with cocktail sticks (aka toothpicks). Free floating elements such as walls that tie the permanent structures together are fastened with hair grips (aka bobby pins).

I elected to go for the second approach: build a foamcore base with holes cut in for over-length ‘E-Z lock’ columns to plug into. These provide an anchor to which you can attach walls and other items as needed, and unused holes are hidden by card ‘caps’. It seemed more versatile and easier to store the individual elements. I planned to build the dungeon a few rooms at a time, rebuilding it when the PCs moved to a new area.

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

However, though storage is indeed easy, it takes far longer than I expected to build the dungeon; when I’ve used it it’s been for big set-piece encounters, as my original plan of building and rebuilding would hold the game up too long. I wonder if the original method is not the best after all.

Making the foamcore base proved something of a chore. One of the Fat Dragon forum members recommended printing the floor tiles on full-page labels (such as shipping labels), and sticking those on the foamcore base. This worked like a charm, and avoided me having to mess around with spray adhesive. However, cutting 60 one-inch square holes in the base was a chore, even with a heavy duty X-ACTO knife.

(Although I’ve used the square floor tiles for my dungeon, a hex tile is provided – but the method I’m using here is really designed for the square tiles; with hexes you need to build the elements and glue them in permanently in place.)

The next issue was simply making enough walls and other elements. The first time I tried to assemble a few rooms I realised I was way short on walls – and with the game the following day, I spent all night making more.

These issues, however, are mine. I’m extremely impressed with the PDF set. It’s clear a lot of time and effort has gone into designing them, and the results are extremely attractive – and for a very affordable price.

Building a papercraft dungeon certainly isn’t for everyone. In the two weeks it took moe to make mine, I’ve gone though frustration and pleasure, but for me it’s been worth it.

And it isn’t over – I want another base board and a lot more elements (the PDFs include everything from ‘construction’ elements such as archways and stairs, to barrels, crates, tables, traps and treasure chests. Expansions include sarcophagi, various traps, a torture chamber (with paper guillotine, rack and iron maiden among other devices), sewers and more.

It’s going to be a long time before I consider this project finished. But, hey, I can just print out what I want to work on at any given time and I’m away.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists. Can you spot the card caps covering the unused holes? Seoni the Sorcerer (bottom, centre) is standing on one.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists.

After that, of course, there’s a village, the castle, the caves, the forest campsite, the science-fiction base, the modern city street… Fat Dragon have built up quite a catalogue. And I backed their wilderness terrain on Kickstarter.


Five stars out of five. An excellent product offering a great deal for a very low cost. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a low-cost alternative to commercially manufactured 3D terrain and you’re prepared to put the time in.

Posted in Gaming | 1 Comment

Review: Realm Works and Hero Lab

After a year of running Pathfinder Society games almost exclusively, I needed to scratch the itch for a longer campaign with a regular group.

With several regular PFS players feeling the same, I offered to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Demand for the game was satisfying, but nine players is a lot for Pathfinder, which can get very fiddly in its tactical details. It’s an awful lot for Rise of the Runelords, which is designed for 4 PCs. Scheduling issues brought the final number down to 7 players, which is still a lot and requires me to find ways to beef up each combat encounter.

But I was reluctant to turn away gamers who have become friends. A long-term campaign is a bonding experience.

I started looking at computerised assistance. Since I already had Hero Lab (which I’ve used primarily as a character generator) and Realm Works, I decided to put them into action. It’s the first time I’ve used Hero Lab as more than a character generator, and the first time I’ve used Realm Works in a live gaming environment.

Both programs are by Lone Wolf Development. Realm Works is designed so that it can call up Hero Lab when needed (though you don’t need Hero Lab to use it).

I don’t think I’ve had a game go as smoothly for a long, long time. Furthermore, I ended both sessions feeling fresh; usually, running off paper notes, I often feel exhausted by the end of a session.

Realm Works

Realm Works is a cloud-based campaign manager. It differs from a campaign blog, even a dedicated one such as Obsidian Portal, by being able to track a lot of information in a variety of ways, supported by automatic hyperlinking (a great time saver).

The realms list shows what realms I've been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I'm the GM for that realm.

The realms list shows what realms I’ve been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I’m the GM for that realm.

The experience was extraordinary. I ran the sessions entirely on my laptop, with a set of dice beside it for rolling as needed. Even though I had a stack of rulebooks (and the adventure path) within arms reach, I hardly needed any of them. In the first session, I touched a rulebook once, to check the procedure on a combat manoeuvre. In the second session, I didn’t touch one at all.

Nor did I have to spend time flipping through my own notes – they were all in Realm Works. The software automatically hyperlinks the names of any topics or articles I’ve put into it. That means if I mention, for instance, that a particular NPC is present I can quickly open up the article on that NPC in a separate tab, where I have a picture I can show to players, notes on their personality and background, and any roleplaying/acting notes I’ve made.


The GM's view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players. The notes in pale yellow are GM notes which players won't see at all.

The GM’s view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players.

Realm Works has a couple of options for keeping track of NPC stat blocks. First, you can link directly to a Hero Lab portfolio. Second, you can import a text file containing the stat block.

The advantage of a Hero Lab portfolio is that with the click of a button, you can import NPC stat blocks into a portfolio already open in Hero Lab. I can keep a portfolio containing PC stats open, and import enemies from Realm Works as needed.

All of this takes preparation time, of course. I’m usually a seat-of-the-pants GM, so that’s necessitated a change in style for me. I spent three weeks getting Sandpoint background and the Swallowtail scenes into Realm Works, using a mix of story and world topics, storyboard and mechanics. The cloud allowed me to input data on my desktop and run from the laptop, without faffing around creating Dropbox folders for my notes.

As an added bonus, inputting all the information about Sandpoint NPCs really made me think about how to put their stories on the table.

Realm Works has the facility to release information to players on a paragraph by paragraph basis. This requires players to have their own version of Realm Works, which will set them back up to $10. That’s the price of a couple of large coffees at the coffee shop where we usually play Pathfinder Society – not too onerous. We agreed before starting the campaign that players would invest in their own copy of the software, so several clubbed together to get a pack of licences, which brings the price down to as little as $6 each.

What having the player edition means is that when I release paragraphs of information, players can read it at home. I wrote some speeches for the opening of the Swallowtail Festival that contain a fair bit of background information on Sandpoint. Players didn’t need to worry about writing them down or trying to remember details from week to week – I click a button, and they have access to it.


What the players see: these are the locations in Sandpoint they’ve visited or heard about. Clicking a pin will take them to whatever information they’ve found out about the location.

The GM's view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

The GM’s view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

It also helps me write a synopsis of each session since the software records the time I release each paragraph. The synopsis is the minimum information I think the players need to remember between sessions – with the automated hyperlinking, anything I write leads them to more information if they want it.

For the GM, Realm Works is a little pricier – $50 for the software and 6 months of cloud storage, with a recurring fee for continued cloud storage ($40 a year).

Hero Lab

Hero Lab is a character manager, with a tactical console that allows you to run combats. I thought at first I would use it merely to roll initiatives (even with my magnetic combat pad, rolling and organising initiative order for up to 20 combatants would be tough). I ended up using it to run combats entirely.

Not all my players have Hero Lab, but several do. Those with it emailed me their character portfolios. Those without emailed me their character sheet, allowing me to input their character in Hero Lab.

I’ve used Hero Lab for more than a year as nothing but a character creator. I wasn’t familiar with the capabilities of its tactical console, but I have been amazed at how effectively it works.

Rolling initiative for all combatants and organising them in initiative order with one click is a major time saver with a large combat. I can also input damage taken (or healed), and select a number of conditions (mounted, prone, blinded – the full gamut of Pathfinder conditions). The console automatically adjusts stats to account for conditions. This doesn’t always substitute for knowing the rules. For example, a prone character will have their AC reduced by 4, which is fine for melee combat, but it takes the GM to know that Prone condition actually increases AC by 4 against ranged attacks. This information is contained in Hero Lab’s description of the Prone status but isn’t automatically applied in the software.

A number of conditions are applied automatically – before a character has moved in combat, they will automatically have the Flat-footed condition. A character reduced to 0 HP or lower will automatically gain the Dead/Dying condition. Their turn will still come up in combat, which reminds me to make stabilization rolls for downed enemies (and, yes, once a character is stable, Hero Lab records that condition as well).

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The software even keeps track of spell use and consumables. If someone’s loosed one of their 20 arrows, I knock one off and they now only have 19 available. If someone casts a spell, I mark it used.

There’s even a ‘night’s rest’ button which resets all daily abilities back to full. This has to be clicked for each character individually.

Batch damage, healing or conditions from an area effect isn’t handled at all. It must be applied to each combatant individually. It would be nice to have a ‘multiple select’ button which allows the GM to put conditions or damage (or a night’s rest) on several characters at the same time.

Outside combat, the tactical console gives a brief summary of characters’ important stats – their Perception score, Sense Motive and other skills I may need to know without asking players. I can click a character to bring up its full portfolio, which gives me the full rules on their spells, for instance. No more hunting up the details of a spell or condition in the rulebook.

The tactical console's non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

The tactical console’s non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

Hero Lab can be an expensive proposition if you want to go beyond the core rules. The main software (with the core rulebook data) costs $30. Each supplement must be bought separately at prices ranging from $10 for one of the Ultimate books or a bestiary, to $5 for several of the Player Companion or Campaign Setting volumes. It’s unlikely you’ll want to buy everything at once, and spread out over a number of months the cost it isn’t so bad.

Integration with the tabletop

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

We still use battle maps and markers (miniatures, pawns, paper minis, etc.) for combat. My biggest issue with this is not a failure of the software: it’s remembering which mini is Goblin #7. That would be an issue whether using software or dead trees to run the game. I need to get some little stickers to number the minis or pawns.

Players bring their printed (or electronic) character sheets with them for reference in the game, but we agreed the copy in my portfolio is the ‘master copy’.

Even with the electronic aids, we’ve agreed on a number of steps to help us cope with the large number of players. First is that I don’t award XP. Characters will level up when the story demands. That cuts down the record keeping.

We’ve agreed to keep the number of PC pets down to a minimum. Familiars are allowed, but generally used for their non-combat benefits. When it’s a key class feature (such as the druid’s animal companion), it will be allowed in combat. At the moment, mounts are used as transport, not in combat.

I use real physical dice, rather than Hero Lab’s built in dice roller. It isn’t just personal preference; it’s quicker to grab a d20 and roll it than to use the built-in dice roller.

I don’t feel secure enough with the software to run without my printed rules and adventure path to hand. I haven’t used them, really, but they’re a backup in case the tech fails us.

Although we’re using Realm Works as a between-game reference for players, it does have the ability to display items in-game as well. Players are already offering to loan me portable projectors to use this functionality; I want to get a little more familiar with the software before I take this step.


Letting the software carry the burden of reference and tracking allows me to concentrate on presentation and interaction with the players. Even if I need to figure out how to do something technical with the software, there’s a net gain in interaction time because I’m not hunting for notes.

The amount of advance prep leaves me much more familiar with the material.

The cloud allows me to prep whenever I have a network connection. Realm Works won’t run on my smartphone, but I keep the rulebooks and adventure path PDFs on my phone so I can read them when out and about. If necessary I can make notes and memos on Evernote, which syncs to my desktop and laptop.


We’re reliant on all the technical aspects working smoothly. Before our second session, a mandatory Realm Works update took time to download and install; there was a Hero Lab update at the same time. Those, combined with a bandwidth issue (either on my wireless network, my ISP or on Lone Wolf’s servers), delayed the start of our game by 90 minutes. Since we’re all friends, we got our socialising done, but it was a longer delay than I wanted.

Sessions last longer than my laptop battery, which means I need to be close to a power outlet.

There is a short learning curve with both Realm Works and Hero Lab. It’s not major, but it’s there. As I become more familiar with them, I expect things to go more smoothly.


I’m impressed with the set-up. Extremely impressed. It’s had a significant and very positive impact on my game. It’s an extra cash investment, of course, but it’s not ridiculous unless you’re on a tight budget.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , , | 4 Comments