This is the England that ought to have been, rather than the history of the one in which I sit writing this review. This is the mediaeval England of legend, with Robin Hood scampering around Sherwood Forest, a Good King Richard off fighting the Infidel whilst Bad King John does his best to steal a kingdom, never mind everyone's hard-earned gold... this is an England in which excitement and adventure are to be found, but where drains don't smell and nobody worries about the Black Death!
The Introduction outlines this setting, the mediaeval England of stories, rooted firmly in the history of the 12th and 13th centuries but with an eye to the rise of the ideals of chivalry, to the world of ballad and folk-song, the sort of mediaeval England that you'd like to visit. Designed to be used in conjunction with Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying (BRP) ruleset, there's a handy list of what rules from that work will be of particular use when running this setting. Whilst there's a whole section about running adventures and campaigns at the end of this product, it's noted that Scenario Hooks are scattered throughout, to spawn ideas and help Game Masters come up with their own material, or players to develop their characters more fully. Next comes the historical timeline of the period, covering major events and many famous personalities. Perhaps the characters will participate in historical events... or perhaps they'll rewrite history!
The first chapter is all about Player Characters, ranging from the concepts and types of characters that might prove interesting to the minutae of actually creating them, based around the core BRP character generation process but with the appropriate spin for creating one suitable for this specific setting. There's an addition, you need to choose a Background - on offer are Norman, Saxon, Jewish, Welsh, Cornish, Scot, Irish, Marshman, Norse, Fairy, Moor, Saracen and Cleric; but you can develop your own in conjunction with the GM - and this can influence what skills and professions are more likely for your character. Wealth and social class are both important and intertwined. You can either track every last groat or abstract wealth depending on taste, but the aim is to provide a fairly realistic setting so people may prefer to maintain at least basic accounts for their characters. Next is a run-down on what your chosen Background will give you and on all the professions available, with a sidebar explain the role of the clergy (primarily Christian although Jewish and Muslim ones are covered) and the specific skills that a member of the clergy can acquire. Being part of the clergy is available via two routes, by choosing it as a Background, or deciding that a character from another Background has entered it as a profession. This allows for a lot of diversity, and reflects the importance that you want religion to play in your character's life and outlook. Given that this is a mediaeval rather than a fantasy setting, there are quite a few new professions introduced, and not all the BRP ones are available. Some interesting historical ones are included such as Knights Templar and moneychangers. Naturally, there are plenty supernatural optinons, the stance being that all the things - spells, demon summoning and the like - that your average mediaeval person believed do indeed work! And a particular delight, the wayte - a peculiar mix of minstrel and town guard which did exist in mediaeval England, hired by a community to both watch over and entertain them. Languages and skills are also covered in greater detail at this point... and they have the linkages straight, Welsh being close to Breton and even closer to Cornish, for example. The chapter ends with a note on female, Jewish and Muslim characters, explaining how they were restricted in many ways in the historical mediaeval world and how best to play them to good advantage, to have fun with them without losing all semblance of realism.
Next, a chapter on Religion and Magic. The main relgion in England at this time was Christianity, taking the form of Roman Catholicism. It wasn't just what you did on Sunday morning, it played a far greater role in day-to-day life - and indeed in the political landscape - and can be the source of many adventures and intrigues in your game. A Piety mechanism is introduced, which waxes and wanes according to a character's actions and can even allow the granting of miracles at times of need. It is even possible to become a saint (while still alive, it's not necessary to be dead in these times!). Relics and icons have great significance too, and mechanics for using them with Piety ratings are given. Divine magic, normally only available to ordained clergy (or equivalent for other faiths), functions by means of Blessings which are learned and cast, often with formal rituals. The number that can be known depends on the priest's individual Holiness (based on his actions and standing in the religion), the number that can be cast is based on Piety. Holiness can be increased by the taking of Vows - provided, that is, that the terms of the Vow are adhered to during the course of the game. This can lead to entertaining role-play, even dramatic tension. Pilgrimages were important in mediaeval days, and are here too, both as a means of increasing individual pilgrim's Piety and the wealth of those running pilgrimage sites! Magic, too, was widely believed in during the mediaeval period, and for game purposes is deemed to be real... even if frowned upon by established religions, especially Christianity. Along with the use of amulets and talismans, people may practise 'folk magic' as well as the regular sort of fantasy magic and sorcery - as described in the core BRP rulebook.
The next chapter, entitled Magical Science, looks at education and scholarship in the mediaeval world. It was an exciting time in learning, with the foundation of the first universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, as well as similar establishments on the Continent. Science as we know it didn't really exist, but a lot of fun can be had with its precursor, alchemy. This melds magic and early scientific thought together, and can be used for the likes of making potions to mimic magical effects or for healing... or for more mundane substances such as soaps and perfumes! Islamic alchemists were particularly advanced. Another discipline that flourished at the time was astrology, the art of predicting the future by observing the heavens. There is plenty of detail - and a mechanism whereby Fate points can be used to make predictions come true, if you fancy that - provided to enable astrology to play as major a role in your games as it did in mediaeval life. If you do not want to stare at the stars, other means of divination are available - from reading palms to geomancy or gazing into a fire and seeing what patterns are made by the flames. More dubious individuals might be interested in the practice of demonology. As well as studying demons, demonologists can learn spells to summon, control and dismiss demons... if they dare! Others may choose to study medicine, which was slowly shaking off superstition especially with the influx of knowledge from the Arab world... but there are many who regard casting an astrological chart as an essential part of diagnosis.
Chapter 4 looks at Major Religions, beginning with the Catholic Church, a powerful influence in mediaeval times with temporal as well as spiritual power. Many monastic orders were wealthy landowners, and individual Churchmen served in important state positions alongside their religious roles. The concept of taking sanctuary in a church had legal effect, and excommunication was a real threat when the majority of people were Catholics and would shun the excommunicated in day-to-day life, never mind not permitting them to enter the church and receive the sacraments. Saints play a leading part in religious life, and devotees can receive specific blessings. Those who wish a religious life can enter one of the many orders, and the sight of monks and nuns is commonplace. More robust individuals may prefer a 'military order' such as the Hospitallers or the Templars, whose members are both monk and knight. There's a lot of background information to help you make such organisations part of the fabric of your game, although it's sometimes a little jumbled and patchy: for example we're told Cistertians wear white habits to distinguish themselves from Benedictines... but nowhere does it mention that Benedictines wear black! Naturally, as well as orthodox worshippers, there are many groups who have off-beat, if not heretical, beliefs and these can be the source of robust debate if not outright violence... for where there is heresy, there the Inquisition shall surely follow! Again, plenty of detail if you wish to have the Inquisition feature in your game (including a rather unhealthy interest in torture... there again, I've had players who likewise were rather too interested in that particular subject!). The section on Christianity ends with a discussion of the magic condoned by the Church - a crucifix is a potent talisman, for example - and the other magics that might be found in otherwise Christian communities. Islam and Judaism are covered in similar detail... but it must be remembered that mediaeval Christians were far less tolerant of those who followed other faiths than we are today. Provided you and your players separate any real beliefs from in-game ones, you should not have problems, but discretion is advised, remembering that the past should never be viewed in the light of contemporary prejudice and opinion. Including the full sweep of mediaeval faith will enrich your game greatly, however.
Next, Chapter 5 looks at Nobles, Knights and the Crown. These were powerful individuals, backed with the full might of the feudal system, whose personal ambitions affected the whole country. The feudal system in full flower is complex, with a liege lord as obligated to his vassals as they are to him. Knights are a separate class of specialist armoured and mounted warriors, taking service with nobles. Both knights and nobles were supposed to be chivalrous, but not all of them were. Of particular note is the tourney, a way in which knights could demonstrate their prowess without the need to actually go to war - and a fine spectacle for everybody else! Considerable detail is given, much adventure can be had should you chose to stage one in the course of your game. With property and inheritance so important to nobles, marriage is a matter to be entered into with due consideration... and likely not for love. However, the concept of courtly love flourishes as a separate entity from the formalities of marriage, and again both can provide for many adventures. Should you wish for such heights of intrigue and politics, plenty of details about Crown and court are provided: perhaps your game is set at court, or your characters have dealings with those who are there, or even aspire to become leading nobles themselves.
Continuing the discussion of the backdrop to this setting, the next chapter is The Land and People. This sweeps through a range of subjects from the climate to day-to-day local administration. Castles dot the landscape, with a mix of villages and bustling small towns. Interestingly, many towns major then are not as important now, although most still exist - a point of interest if you or your players know contemporary England well. There's a section on 'pastimes' to enable the characters to find ways of entertaining themselves, albeit often in bloodthirsty manner watching animals fight or hunting them for food or sport. Football is nothing like the game of today, more of a brawl with several hundred players that ends once the first goal is scored. Music abounds however for those who like more gentle pursuits and there's a run-down of common instruments of the time. For working life, however, the Guilds played a major role and so extensive information is given on their organisation and operation. Whilst Guilds stage Mystery plays, groups of Morris Men and mummers are also found performing. Many ancient folk customs survive, lepers are found roaming or clustered in lazar houses... and naturally marriage features large in everyday life. A selection of folk tales and legends provides ample resource for weaving this all together into a heady (if somewhat rose-tinted) representation of mediaeval life. For those seeking matters more strange, information is provided about faeries and elves... before the narrative returns to detailed accounts of life in villages, towns, castles, and monasteries. All you need to make 'Merrie England' come to life in your game.
Chapter 7 is entitled Further Afield. There may be a lot to do in England, but the adventurous often found reason to travel abroad - perhaps for trade or a diplomatic mission, on a pilgrimmage or on Crusade. So this chapter serves as a gazetteer of the lands across Europe and over to the Holy Land, replete with adventure ideas for those who go there. You might want to hunt down Alephtar Games's Stupor Mundi, which covers this period from the standpoint of the Holy Roman Empire, if you want adventures in Europe to be a major part of your campaign.
This leads neatly on to the next chapter, The Crusades. Even if your characters don't want to take the cross themselves, the Crusades will feature large in the background, the backdrop of events that shape the entire setting. There's plenty of detail here, useful if the characters decide to get embroiled in intrigue or are travelling anywhere near where the Crusaders were. The Albigensian Crusade is picked out as being particularly suitable as the basis for a campaign, particularly if you enjoy moral dilemmas in your game. Lovers of intrigue may also relish the complex relationships between the different Crusader Orders, which can make a good career choice for the ambitious knight, especially one without a noble family to provide him with ready-made lands.
For those of a mechantile bent, Chapter 8: Trading and Adventuring supplies other routes to excitement and success. After a survey of the money in use at the time, there's a look at what was the very beginnings of the international banking system. Merchant leagues and trading ships are also important. This section continues with all the financial details you might want, from the appropriate wages for many trades to the cost of just about everything characters might require and details of travel: routes, timings, costs, etc. Things may not go smoothly, so you can find out how much your weapons will cost as well as how much harm they will do, and details of the equipment and tactics of various types of combatant. Ther e is also material about injuries and diseases, and about what law and order there is, at least, where the rule of law rather than noble whim and brute force hold sway.
If things do not go well, refer to Chapter 9: The Afterlife. As most everybody was religious, it's also important to know what was believed even if you are not intending to brawl... and you may not get a choice, even if disease does not get you first. Christianity has the most detailed accounts, but Judaism and Islam also have clear ideas about what fate awaits the devout - and not so devout - after death. There are some notes on how to use these to effect in your game... it may even be possible to visit before you're dead!
Chapter 10: Creatures begins with 'normal' creatures, especially that most useful animal, the horse - no less than three different types of warhorse as well as ordinary riding ones. A selection of Powers, not available in core Basic Roleplaying, are presented as an introduction to an array of legendary and faerie beasts, which might be able to, for example, become invisible or breathe flame. Most of these are quite malevolent, especially the faerie ones. There are also undead, water creatures, and the beasties commonly found in wilderness areas; as well as creatures from Jewish and Islamic folklore.
If that doesn't provide enough opposition, move on to Chapter 11: Angels and Demons. Centred on traditional Catholic beliefs, there is a vast hierarchy of different types of angels before you even get round to looking at the demons. Jewish belief is different, yet just as complex. Islam also believes in angels, but regards their organisational structure as unimportant. It's up to the Game Master which, if any, interpretation of the Otherworld is correct... or perhaps they all exist. There is an equally impressive array of demons who may turn up to tempt the faithful to sin (handled mechanically as a contest against Piety) as well as in response to the attempts of demonologists to summon them. There are literally pages and pages of them, reflecting their importance to the mediaeval mind. Islam also offers plenty, categorised by their powers rather than the elaborate hierarchy of the Christian ones.
Hopefully more pleasant to meet (at least in some cases) are the subjects of Chapter 12: Character Gallery. Here, notable individuals from history are discussed, and provided with relevant game stats should you include them as NPCs for your characters to meet and interact with. There is also a useful collection of 'sample characters' to provide quick generic NPCs, or as the basis for developing more rounded individual ones.
Next comes an extensive and wide-ranging discussion on Campaigns. There is a wide range of options, depending on the stories that the group wishes to tell together. There are opportunities to get embroiled in warfare or banditry, go on Crusade or engage in civil war, pitting baron against baron. Or characters may work for a county's Sheriff, or the Church, or be travelling entertainers or merchants... the possibilities are endless. There's a fairly detailed discussion on life and laws in the forest (for all those heading off Robin Hood style for the Greenwood!), and a well-developed location - the hamlet of Whitlingthorpe - complete with notable inhabitants and a story-arc involving the life and times of the village, all ready for you to weave into your adventures. There are even several complete scenarios to get you off to a flying start.
This work fair makes me want to grab my dice and round up a few friends: it's a period that I like anyway, and this book puts a straightforward system to underpin it all ensuring a workable and enjoyable game. Those who enjoy mediaeval history will be able to slot in what they know, as will those who enjoy fiction set in this period. Overall an excellent setting, I can hardly wait to finish the review before scampering off to write some adventures for it!
Return to Merrie England page.
Reviewed: 5 January 2011