Remember when I mentioned RPGs that are clearly inspired by a specific intellectual property, but that RPG doesn’t bear the specific license from the IP that inspired it? This time around we’re looking at Sword Chronicle Feudal Fantasy Roleplaying, which is an RPG looking to emulate the experiences of characters in a fantasy setting who engage in personal combat, warfare, intrigues, and the management of house resources.
Unlike some “IP Inspired” RPGs, Sword Chronicle is the game system that has been reverse-engineered from the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game. Similar to the reverse engineering Green Ronin did for Fantasy AGE, constructed from the bones of the Dragon Age Roleplaying game, this takes the core rules that formed the basis for the game and makes it a unique, stand-alone game.
The Tale of the Tome
Sword Chronicle Feudal Fantasy Roleplaying is a 208-page PDF. The cover is full color, and the interior is black, white, and blue throughout. The internal formatting is like other Green Ronin products, with clear, simple color-banded headers, simple footers, and shaded sidebars. The interior artwork includes many of the fantasy images that have appeared in other Green Ronin fantasy products over the years.
There is a four-page table of contents for the book, and a two-page example character sheet. I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a sheet for tracking House stats included in the book.
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying is 320 pages. Much of that extra page count involves setting information on Westeros, but there are a few other differences that are more directly related to the rule presentation.
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying includes a starting adventure, sample characters, player character archetypes, and a few more stat blocks for specific creatures from the history of Westeros. Sword Chronicle includes ancestries beyond human and the broad strokes of a customized setting. The Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying game also included several pages of collected reference tables at the end of the book as well.
I would have liked similar archetypes as example “fast play” characters. While some of the archetypes from ASOIF were specific to the setting, it would have only taken a few tweaks to convert them.
Welcome to Sword Chronicle and Chapter 1: Game Rules
The introduction of the game doesn’t do much of the standard “what is roleplaying,” but instead focuses on what may be different about this roleplaying game, compared to others that players may be familiar with.
The emphasis in this section is on the idea that the social structure is a bit less forgiving and egalitarian than what is assumed in other games. I would argue that this would be a great place for a safety sidebar to discuss the potential table problems with some of these assumptions, but there isn’t a pause in the introduction for this.
The next section of the book looks at the basics of how the game resolves tasks. Checks in the game are based on the character’s abilities. Characters may have a specialty related to an ability. So an ability might be ranked at 4, and a specialty might be ranked up to the total of the ability.
When rolling a test, characters roll all of the dice as a pool, and total the dice for the result. Specialties provide bonus dice. These don’t add to the number of dice in the dice pool, but the results on the bonus dice can be used to replace dice from the regular pool. Additionally, characters may gain a flat bonus number to add to their result from various circumstances (however, these are usually external to the character’s abilities, rather than native to the character).
Degrees of success are often relevant to how a check is resolved. Degrees of success are measured in multiples of five. Failure only amounts to failure or critical failure, but the success progression is more granular.
While many rolls make use of the levels of success, some rolls are simple “pass/fail” results. On the difficulty chart, there is also a column that shows the minimum skill needed to even have a chance to attempt the test.
I enjoy the mechanic of replacing dice, because I like dice mechanics where you can get a feel for improved odds without being able to easily analyze the chances of success. I feel like this tends to nudge characters towards attempting more actions. That said, I’m not always thrilled with the idea that there are established difficulties in the game beyond any chance for a character to attempt.
Chapter 2: Character Creation, Chapter 3: Abilities and Specialties, Chapter 4: Destiny and Qualities
I’m looking at Character Creation, Abilities and Specialties, and Destiny and Qualities together, as they are all elements of creating the character, in addition to defining what those options chosen in Character Creation do in the game.
Early in character creation, we are introduced to the ancestries available to players. This is a departure from the Song of Ice and Fire origin of the game rules, as a wider range of traditional fantasy ancestries are available. The individual entries don’t prescribe any game rules, except that each ancestry gets access to two benefits from their ancestry. If players wish to make a character of mixed ancestry, they can take a benefit from each of their ancestries. This reminds me of the modular approach to mixed ancestry in Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE system.
The ancestries listed in the book include:
Before addressing anything else about the character, the first attribute to be determined is Status. Depending on a character’s position in the house, there is a limit to their maximum Status. Some aspects of House creation may limit the number of positions in the house, so players may want to create their house first, but the rules allow for either option.
Characters determine their background, goal, motivation, virtue, and vice. While this is considered part of character creation, the character sheet doesn’t give a place to record this information.
Characters can be a wide range of ages in the game, as they are portraying different members of an established house. The younger a character, the more Destiny points they have, but the fewer points they have for buying abilities, and the lower the maximum ranks they can have. Older characters gain more character points, but their maximum abilities start to go down a little again.
The next step is to purchase specialties. All specialties are sub-categories of abilities. For example, long blades are a specialty listed under fighting. These are limited by the parent ability’s rating and provide bonus dice on rolls where the specialty would be at play.
Characters derive a combat defense and an intrigue defense score, which determine the difficulty of scoring a “hit” on an opponent in the relevant contest. Health is derived from Endurance, and serves the function you would assume in combat, as ablative points to offset injuries. Composure is derived from Will and provides ablative points to defray the effects of social contests.
After character creation, the book defines the various specialties, showing what specialties are associated with which abilities. In some cases, some specific sub-systems are noted for different specialties. For example, the rules for the time and effort to train an animal are listed under the “train” specialty under Animal Handling.
The Destiny and Qualities section details what you can do with Destiny points, and what Qualities do to modify a character. Destiny points can be spent for bonus dice, penalty dice assigned to opponents, additional lesser actions, and other specific game interactions. Destiny points can be burned (permanently used) to save a character from certain death, power certain powerful sorceries, or to gain a major clue or situational truth in the campaign.
Characters can invest Destiny points to gain new benefits if they would rather have more available to their character, although younger characters can’t avail themselves of this option. Older characters may need to take flaws, reflecting the decisions and forward march of time as it affects them.
Benefits might convey small cadres of troops, animal companions, the ability to work sorcery, or additional combat abilities. While some benefits are straightforward (like allied troops), others give a character additional decisions to make. For example, some combat benefits may allow a character to trade-in bonus dice for extra damage.
The “flaw” drawback is one subset of the overall Drawbacks section, and some drawbacks have some very specific rules around them, and can grant some significant penalties when the circumstances of the Drawback triggers.
Flaw is a general “catch-all” which causes a character to take -1 die on checks for an ability, with the character providing the reasoning for why this is true. One of the reasons I wanted to call out this ability is that several other Drawbacks interact with specific physical issues.
Some of these disabilities are very proscriptive of what a character can and cannot do, so much so that it very much dominates their story progression. I’m not thrilled with the level of specificity in Drawbacks like Eunuch, Impaired Sense, Mute, or Maimed.
I think it would have been better to let “flaw” cover more of this ground and let player’s define their own stories regarding various disabilities, rather than potentially visit a very narrow narrative that comments on the disability being portrayed.
Chapter 5: House and Lands
House and Realms details how you derive the statistics for your house’s domain. There are a series of random charts to determine the various ratings. The players then roll on an events table for each of these statistics, and the various events might provide modifiers to the base statistics. This effectively creates a “life path” for the house, providing some major events that have shaped the house’s history over time.
Characters can invest points from these statistics to determine holdings. For example, Defense can be invested to build fortifications, which modify the bonuses troops have when fighting within the house’s lands. Influence can be spent to generate more fortune for the house. Terrain expands the size of the house’s holdings. In this step characters can also determine the strength of their troops and how well equipped they are, as well as any vassal houses associated with the house.
Houses can roll for events every month, or once every three months, to see how their fortunes change. Characters can donate gold to raise the house’s wealth score, and they can donate glory to add a bonus to the fortune roll when it is made. Each month, the house can take an action, which includes such things as Managing Resources, Begin Projects, Wage War, or Host Tournament.
I like a lot of the more straightforward aspects of this system, like the fortune roll, and most of the actions the house can take. We’ll see in the Warfare chapter that the different holdings can get very fiddly when interacting with the benefits added to different troops in different situations.
Chapter 6: Sorcery
Sorcery in this game isn’t a flashy, quickly employed art. Sorceries usually take time to enact, and often involve an investiture of resources and, depending on the magnitude of the sorcery, either the spending or burning of a destiny point.
Sorcery is divided into Arts (the effects of the Sorcery), and Traditions (the process by which the effects are brought into being). The Art of Divination may be employed much differently by a sorcerer practicing Astrology than one practicing Diabolism, but the effect of the ability is the same.
Working a sorcery is a three-step process, with different skill tests for each phase, either with its own consequences or a penalty for later checks. The process involves Alignment, Invocation, and Unleashing. Being misaligned might mean a caster is injured, and improperly invoking the ritual might lead to a lesser effect in the unleashing phase, for example.
Chapter 7: Equipment
The Equipment chapter isn’t likely to be revelatory. There are stats for how much damage weapons inflict, how much armor contributes to the derived defenses for a character, and grades of equipment quality that might cause penalties or bonuses in certain situations. There are also a lot of in-depth tables about how many gold pieces various livestock and trade goods cost.
Chapter 8: Intrigue and Chapter 9: Combat
Intrigue and combat work in a similar manner, although determining initiative order depends on different abilities. Intrigues involve specific approaches measured against the disposition of a character to provide a bonus or penalty for that style of intrigue. If a character fails an intrigue, they are compelled to do what is being asked of them, but they can still act against that suggestion by taking stress, which causes them a -1 die penalty on their actions until they spend a destiny point or perform the action requested.
The combat rules include the exact distance that characters can move, and there are a ton of more granular rules governing things like polearm reach and specific interpersonal tactics, but the base resolution without these rules is fairly simple. If a character is reduced to 0 health, their fate is determined by the character that defeated them, unless that character is using a vicious weapon, which only allows for a defeated opponent to suffer death as a consequence.
Characters can take an Injury to reduce damage taken (a penalty of -1 for each Injury), or a wound for -1 dice to remove all damage taken. In addition, if your character would die, they can instead burn a destiny point to survive.
One of my favorite parts of the combat section is the battlefield qualities. Depending on how persistent they are, characters can either spend destiny points to avoid suffering the penalty they might impose, or they might spend destiny points to use a trait to their benefit. For example, in fog, a character might spend a destiny point to allow them to make a stealth check without finding cover. I love this way of adding extra details to a combat scene.
Chapter 10: Warfare
I’ll be honest, I was expecting the Warfare chapter to have more of a “zoomed out” way of resolving Warfare, especially since it’s one of the actions that a house can take. I assumed that would mean it can be resolved as, well, an action.
Instead, Warfare uses the same rules as interpersonal combat, but the statistics that a soldier would normally have, now apply to different size units. Movement becomes even more important than at the personal scale, and this section recommends using miniatures for resolution.
While it uses similar rules, warfare is effectively more granular in its resolution than personal scale combat. Units can become disorganized or routed. There are a limited number of commanders a side can have, and they have a limited number of commands they can issue. A unit can only follow a standing order or react to a new one given to them.
While characters can participate by acting as commanders, they may also operate at personal scale. If this happens, they play out up to ten rounds of actions as part of a single unit action, and they may do things like fighting an enemy commander and their bodyguards.
People will have their own taste for how granular they like their combat rules, but this feels a little bit too heavy for me. That’s not a judgment on the quality of the rules, just the degree to which various modifiers and procedures must be applied. It also feels odd to me that the most mechanically robust section of the rules is the large-scale warfare rules. The “weight” of rules often feels like it informs where the heart of the game lies, and if that’s true here, it means warfare should be more important than negotiations, political maneuvering, and small scale combat.
Chapter 11: The Narrator
I’m not going to comment too much on the quality of Narrator advice in this section, as it pertains to using these rules for how they are intended. I will say that given that the book is portraying an often brutal feudal world, where slavery and indentured servitude are the norm, and it is commonplace for characters to be forced to act against their own best interests, I really would have liked a formalized discussion of safety and active safety tools, as well as some best practices for determining what is or isn’t off-limits in the campaign from the start.
There is also a section on “drifting” play assumptions, from playing characters without being attached to a house, to having each player portray separate representatives from different houses, with each player managing a different house. As earlier in the rules, this section also mentions using these rules for organizations other than feudal houses. I’ll admit, I’m interested in that option. When reading the rules, I was thinking as much about Joe Abercrombie’s books as George R.R. Martin’s. I’m envisioning how this all works when applied to mercenary companies, banks, or various settlements on the edges of a more traditional empire.
The problem is, this section mentions doing something like this, but doesn’t provide much actual guidance on how to do it.
There is also a selection of NPCs and creatures to be used in a game. NPCs are listed in three different tiers. Primary and secondary NPCs are expected to be built using similar rules to how player characters are built, while the NPCs that appear in this section are examples of tertiary characters, effectively “nameless” characters following orders.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of building villains using the same rules as player characters, especially when there are different tiers of point-buy involved as well as selecting flaws and benefits. I would much rather have had some examples of different archetypes of important house members with just enough blanks left on them to customize.
The Shattered Era
I was a little surprised at how short the example setting is. It totals 13 pages, and that includes a page that introduces a new ancestry native to the setting, and a summary page giving the statistics for example houses in the setting.
When I was thinking gritty epic fantasy that also involves large scale warfare and political maneuvering, I wasn’t expecting a setting that is effectively the remnant of a world that was once connected to other worlds via magical planet-spanning ships (think Spelljammer, not Star Trek). High magic is broken, so sorcery is more subtle. No more reaching other worlds, so the existing world is in flux.
There is also a new ancestry, the Kurgulan, which are . . . well, they are sort of like horses, but with fingers on their front limbs, so while they usually walk on all fours, they can manipulate tools and wield weapons.
This section ends with the statistics for houses from the setting, which I appreciate, because you can use these as a template for similar houses. This is especially useful given that opposing houses are also assumed to be generated by the Narrator, and it’s nice that, intentionally or not, there are some sample houses to start with, instead of creating other houses from the ground up.
The Field is Ours While players that like to play with lots of numbers may love the opportunity to build custom houses and characters, Narrators trying to do the same may have a bit of work on them to get a campaign up and running.
On its surface, intrigues could look like an attack on social hit points, but there is enough nuance to add context to those parts of the game, and I like the implementation. I also appreciate the way the game allows characters that “lose” intrigues to still have agency but suffer a consequence for that loss. Personal combat is flexible and manages to feel dangerous while providing options for the character to remain in play. I enjoy the aspects of House management that involve random events and resource conversions to show the progress of holdings and the ebb and flow of fortunes.
The mass combat rules are functional, but they feel even more detailed and granular than personal combat, and it seems odd that so much of the mechanical weight of the system is on mass combat, taking some of the focus away from individual characters. It is removed as an easily resolved option for House actions. The game includes other ancestries, but all the examples outside of the example setting section are heavily weighted to traditional medieval fantasy. In several places, the rules mention modeling other structures beyond feudal houses, such as religious orders or mercenary companies, but beyond saying that it’s possible, there isn’t much in the way of concrete examples.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
While players that like to play with lots of numbers may love the opportunity to build custom houses and characters, Narrators trying to do the same may have a bit of work on them to get a campaign up and running.
What are your favorite games that address intrigues and domain management? How do those games slide between the layers of the narrative, and do the different aspects of play feel balanced with one another? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!