Chivalry & Sorcery: The Early Years

Back in the days of the Loyal Order of Chivalry & Sorcery mailing list I enjoyed swapping emails – both public and private – with C&S designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus and, at the last two Dudley Bug Ball game conventions in 2001 and 2002, of meeting, chatting and gaming with Ed and the new generation of C&S designers and publishers.

Both Wilf and Ed were very approachable and friendly but, having met him in the flesh, I felt I knew Ed a little better. Ed, being a teacher by profession, was particularly delighted when I told him his essays on medieval economics in the C&S Sourcebook had led me to study landscape archaeology at night school.

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition cover

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition (1977) cover

What I never really asked either of them about were those early years of gaming, and of Chivalry & Sorcery in particular. It’s understandable, I suppose, because C&S3 had not long since been published then, after the fall-out with Highlander, Britannia and Ed started working on C&S The Rebirth. We were looking forwards, not backwards.

I do recall Ed mentioning that the folks at Chaosium had invited him down to talk to them about his ideas of RPG design when they were working on RuneQuest. If I recall, he rather liked them though found

the West Coast scene and attitude rather different to the war gaming and fledgling roleplaying scene in Edmonton, Alberta. There was a distinct herbal waft around the Chaosium offices in those days, he told me and the group of Britannia staff and hangers-on one evening over brandy and cigars in his hotel room.

When people mention the tiny typeface in the original C&S, this is what they're talking about.

When people mention the tiny typeface in the original C&S, this is what they’re talking about.

Dom at space-opera.net did ask Ed about the early days in an interview he conducted in 2000. Ed described his introduction to RPGs thus: “Two students of mine came to me early in 1974 with a copy of D&D, asking me what to do with it. I borrowed the rules over the weekend and that’s how I became a Gamemaster. (Think I might have invented that term, by the way, for I was using it within a week of starting up a D&D campaign in 1974. I coined it because I found “Dungeon Master” to be offensive: it suggests a petulant, egotistical child with godlike pretensions who delights in pulling the wings off helpless flies caught in the “clever” traps he rigs by arbitrary application of “the rules.”) Anyway, that precipitated my entry into RPG and it soon became one of my favourite activities. Not to mention the occasion for my entry into RPG designing. Rules back then were very sketchy and crude, and one had to develop all sorts of “In House” rules and procedures to cover all the situations that the formal “rules” never anticipated. It didn’t take long for me to realise that D&D just didn’t have the potential to ever meet the needs that I and my players had, so I started writing my own rules. Everything naturally proceeded from there.”

Of the development of Chivalry & Sorcery, the best sources I can find are the introduction to the first edition of Chivalry & Sorcery, in which Ed and Wilf explain – just a moment while I put my reading glasses on; this text is rather small – “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. The solution was to develop and all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

That first edition of Chivalry & Sorcery did indeed attempt to be all-encompassing. It included a roleplaying game, a tabletop war game, and strategic considerations, all set against the backdrop of a fully functioning society. No game since has ever attempted to make all of that part of the core rules – even C&S second edition moved the war game into a source book. Rolemaster had a stab at it with its War Law supplement, and GURPS and Hero System have abstract mass combat and strategy rules in various supplements. But not in the core rules.

Ed told space-opera.net how C&S came to be published: “Wilf Backhaus and I went to GenCon in 1977 with our Chevalier RPG – admittedly a D&D clone in some respects but also containing all of the seeds that would soon spring forth as Chivalry & Sorcery, which I regard as a dramatic departure from the slash and hack approach to RPG that existed in those early days. Wilf and I were going to approach TSR to see if we could sell them Chevalier, but we had very bad vibes when we witnessed E. Gary Gygax chewing out some poor teen-aged convention volunteer who had managed to goof something up. So we just enjoyed the Con. Then we met Scott [Bizar, of Fantasy Games Unlimited]. He pointed out his Hyborean Age miniatures rules as something he’d written, and Wilf reached into his ubiquitous briefcase, remarking, ‘Well, we’ve written something, too.’ Scott was no dummy and saw the potential of Chevalier. He wrote out a letter of intent on the spot, and Chivalry & Sorcery was the result.”

Now, through Facebook, I’ve found someone who was part of Trevor Clarke’s playtest group and who has graciously agreed to share some of his memories – with the warning that it was a long time ago. At the time Lloyd Wiebe worked at the Edmonton games shop Little Wars.

Lloyd recalls: “I knew Wilf a lot better than Ed, but in the early days, I lived in the same house as Trevor Clarke and since I was a gamer, and he was a major playtest GM for the game, having pretty much contributed the entire Forester set of rules for the game, it was not uncommon for Wilf to drop over to the house in West Edmonton to check in on a Sunday game.

“I also was employed by a game/comics shop that existed in downtown Edmonton for a while, and my boss was heavily into miniatures, when the best place, and sometimes the only place to get them was from Britain. He’d make several trips a year, bringing back boxes of collectible figures. I ran the retail side, and saw pretty much every game that started up in the late 70s.

“Wilf was a lawyer, and while committed to gaming, his take on things was much more about what they could and couldn’t do with things like copyright materials and such. He and FGU and Ed were beginning to have some issues at that point, but we did manage to have both of them attend what I believe to be the first ever gaming convention at the Hilton in Edmonton. C&S was voted the best game lifetime award at the convention, although the convention was refused space by the Hilton group due to the number of room parties and their general stuffy attitudes.”

He went on to give his recollection of Trevor, Ed and Wilf: “As I recall, and remember, this is a lot of years ago… All three of them had been essentially burned out on D&D, but wanted a game that more realistically rendered combat, magic, and campaign battles.

“Trevor was an immigrant from Britain, where miniature battles were being fought for many, many generations already, and he wanted to ensure that those principals remained true to form.

“Wilf had a great appreciation for magic, partly as a result of a lot of exposure to Tolkien, and wanted a system that reflected different, customisable ‘schools’ of magic that could achieve the same ends, via different mediums, and he designed the rules so that that could impose a methodology on each player that would lend itself to gameplay.

“Ed was the Chivalry guy, and worked very hard on rules for the upper classes, the weapons and martial combat.

“In terms of gameplay though, the GM’s word was law. There was no give there. If in a session the GM ruled, then that rule applied. Later you could argue it, but not at the table during gaming. They were all about making the game fun but realistic, taking the hack and slash out of the dice and using roleplay to determine in game events if you could.”

Lloyd added: “After Little Wars, the gaming store, shut down, I pretty much fell out of gaming for more than a decade. Got back into it when a friend lured me to a game on the statement, ‘Lloyd, this is like the real version of C&S.’ Needless to say, my mantra from that point on was ‘Flowchart!’

“They had a set of rules, but they needed serious work, and the only reason to stay was to game with the people in the group, and in particular the GM… But I stayed in gaming from that point forward to today. Now I game mostly in Space or WFRP games. I run open gaming games at conventions when I attend.”

In memoriam:
Ed Simbalist, 1943-2005. Teacher, gamer, designer.
Wilf Backhaus, 1946-2009. Lawyer, gamer, designer.

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