Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Prince Valiant Returns

Nocturnal Media plans to release a new, full-color edition of designer Greg Stafford’s Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game through a Kickstarter campaign. The news inspired my nostalgic memories of the game back when it was first published. I found a copy shortly after its release, immersed myself in its rich Arthurian legend and vivid artwork, and used it to satisfy my established gaming group and entertain a few casual gamers. It’s an oft-overlooked introductory game that uses basic yet elegant mechanics, offers a rich setting, and provides plenty of suggestions for novices. Although I’m on the fence about backing the Kickstarter edition, I heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a light roleplaying game with a legendary setting ideal for both experienced gamers and those seeking to explore the roleplaying game experience.

The original 128-page softcover rulebook looks pretty standard for games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a few outstanding innovations that still resonate today. After the “One Page Prince Valiant” rules – an almost scripted walk-through of a brief adventure using pre-generated knight characters – the book covers the usual territory: the obligatory “What Is A Storytelling Game?”; the basic game rules (including character creation, core mechanics, and the “Fame” section central to the game); a good guideline section discussing player goals and lots of useful storytelling tips; advanced game rules for experienced gamers to add greater depth to their experience; and a reference section covering the Prince Valiant setting and its major characters. As introductory game rulebooks go it’s fairly traditional, going into detail expounding about rules and specific situations even within the basic game chapter...and yet it all still works, at least in the hands of a seasoned gamemaster.

I found a lot of useful material both in the mechanics and setting. It’s clearly a skill-based system – not a class-and-level system – but with simplified and quite fluid function. Each character has just two stats, Brawn and Presence, with a handful of skills to select; skills can function under either core stat depending on circumstances, a nice touch to someone used to rigid lists of skills tied to particular attributes. Task resolution works on simple success/failure of a coin toss, with players using a number of coins equal to their relevant stat, skill, and other modifiers. The “Storytelling” chapter is among the best roleplaying game toolkits on the subject I’ve ever seen. For experienced gamers the “Advanced Character Creation” chapter expands on the main concept that all characters are knights. It allows for a host of diverse occupations and skills and addresses the pesky “female adventurers” issue the setting naturally invokes (more on that below...). The setting resources offered in “Background to the Game” seem brief but cover the core characters in both the Prince Valiant comic strips and the Arthurian legends. The book ends with a host of one-sheet adventures succinctly outlined with key story elements. I love one-sheet scenario materials like these, even if they seemed all the rage back in the late 1980s, because they provided a loose story structure in which the characters could act and grow. Throughout the entire rulebook Hal Foster’s amazing artwork in black-and-white enhances the pages, offering visual inspiration for settings, characters, and plots while bringing the Arthurian tradition to life at a personal, character level.

Was Prince Valiant: The Storyteller Game perfect? Looking over it now it seems oddly rules-heavy with extras for lots of specific fiddly bits not expected in an introductory game: a host of modifiers for various elements like fortifications, horses, locations, and weather; rules for mass combat; advanced character traits; and, despite a host of excellent artwork, some page spreads that seem like walls of text. I’d love to see a streamlined “quick-start” packet with core rules, pre-generated characters, some blank character cards, and a starter scenario or two, beyond the one-page, almost step-by-step instructions for running an adventure. Yet the game managed to introduce a different style of play from the hack-and-slash fare of the time; it clearly articulated storytelling aspects and such abstracts as “fame” as an experience concept.

A new edition of the game – even if primarily a reprint with full-color artwork – is better than hard-to-find original editions. Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game remains relevant as both an introduction to roleplaying games for beginners and a full experience for seasoned gamers seeking to adventure in the classic Arthurian tradition. It’s been out of print for years; the Kickstarter edition can help make it accessible to a new generation of gamers.

Although I’m glad to see this classic, introductory roleplaying game return in a hardcover, full-color format, I’m on the fence about backing the Kickstarter campaign for a personal copy. I already have a well-loved copy that’s seen actual play, something that inspired me in my drive to find and create more introductory, newcomer-friendly roleplaying game materials. I like full-color gamebooks, but I found (and still find) the crisp, black-and-white line art extremely inspiring without full-color enhancement.

I don’t recall exactly when I picked up my copy of Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, but it was shortly after its release, either in December of 1989 or 1990. I found it while browsing the shelves at a branch of The Compleat Strategist on the Rockefeller Center concourse (an amazing and no-doubt short-lived location) during a holiday excursion to Manhattan. I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Introductory games have always intrigued me both as a player and as one who’s always sought new ways to introduce newcomers into the gaming hobby. I studied Arthurian legends for a bit in college and always enjoyed any related media I could find.

I don’t remember when exactly I ran it in the three years between college and my stint at West End Games – whether it was before or after my very successful summer-long Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign – but it served as a fun introduction to gaming for a few outliers to our regular group as well as an entertaining diversion for my more experienced gamer friends. I recall running it for friends home from college for the holiday break. We tried using coins for task resolution, but quickly defaulted to using dice with results of 1-3 as tails and 4-6 as heads; tossing actual coins got very loud and troublesome as they scattered across the gaming table. I still have my game notes and the index cards we used for character sheets, including the player roster. It shows a wide diversity on several levels: a mix of male and female players; a range of characters, from the traditional knights to monks and hunters; and players who were die-hard gamers and those just getting involved in the hobby. The female gamers rose to the challenge of playing women in a very male-dominated setting. Some played female characters at home in the setting, but many chose to go “incognito” (per the aforementioned “Female Adventurers” suggestions in the rulebook), which led to some humorous situations as they tried to maintain their disguises as men. One of them even played a dual-role character, a lady-in-waiting who at times masqueraded as a male squire. I recall everyone seemed to have lots of fun in the few games I ran.

I still have some one-page notes on the scenarios I’d planned, though they borrowed liberally from elements in the rulebook’s one-sheet adventures. (My notes still include cues for soundtracks as background music to various scenes, something I was experimenting with at the time.) Most of the gamemaster characters were standard for the setting or taken directly out of the rulebook, but one I recall was an entertaining enigma. After having arrived at Camelot, the characters needed a guide to navigate the halls, corridors, chambers, and courtyards of the sprawling castle-city. Some also needed some guidance in identifying the various key players in the Arthurian settings. Marcus the Page was at their service – more to facilitate information and story lines – and he had a disturbing ability to pop out of the woodwork when most needed. The players took to summoning him at awkward times, a challenge for the gamemaster in finding a logical place for him to appear. He also disappeared on errands and seemed to have a magical ability to flit around the castle at will...to the point that the characters considered tying a thread to him just to see exactly where he’d gone.

Certainly Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game remains more accessible to casual gamers than the more rules-heavy King Arthur Pendragon (also from Chaosium and available as an add-on through the Kickstarter campaign). As someone who’s had a lifelong interest in medieval history and literature I own a copy, too, but alas, never found players willing to dive into its complexity. Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game stands as a good introduction for newcomers and a satisfying diversion into the Arthurian tradition for seasoned gamers. The Kickstarter campaign has already funded and is breaking through new levels; it ends around August 25, so if it has any interest for you, back it now. I’ll continue debating whether I want a new edition or can simply manage with my trusty original edition...the full-color, hardcover format tempts me with its siren song.


Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.