Tabletop Review: Clockwork & Chivalry

Clockwork & Chivalry CB76100
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Games
Page Count: 194
Release Date: 09/16/2010
Cost: $34.99 softcover; $19.99 pdf
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

What is it?

An alternate history rpg setting combining the English Civil War, alchemical magic, and revolutionary Clockpunk.

I’m Sorry, What?

I hope at least one person reading that last sentence thought “At last- a game where I can play a Leveller Roundhead Pamphleteer!”. Clockwork & Chivalry has a great premise, but as a historical game it has to fight for an audience. History-based rpgs have a bad reputation among our group- with most players worrying about having to possess some arcane lore to play effectively. Even something like Call of Cthulhu’s light 1920’s backdrop gets regarded with suspicion. I imagine detailed knowledge of the English Civil War varies widely. A British audience has a leg up on the material- able to catch references and fill in gaps. But even if this covered the American Civil War many might be put off. That’s too bad- because the material and ideas presented here are very cool. They offer a campaign about building and sustaining communities and relationships in the face of a chaotic time.

The History of History

The English Civil Wars period in our world runs from about 1637 to 1649. It began with a clash between King and Parliament and rapidly expanded from there. After a series of massive upheavals, it ended with the execution of the King. Alexander Dumas actually features that execution in his sequel to The Three Musketeers; in Twenty Years After the Musketeers attempt to stop the beheading. The ECW period is an absolute mess. It has difficult to untangle power groups and factions, an explosion of religious and social thinking, and a major social revolution crushed under the bootheels of the victors. Clockwork & Chivalry’s authors, Ken Walton & Peter Cakebread, do an amazing job of reducing that complexity and crafting a playable fantasy setting from it.

In this world, the clash between Royalists and Parliamentarian forces come to a head at the Battle of Nasby. The Royalists represent the privilege of the nobility and the rights of the King. But they’re also dedicated to stability and turning back radical innovation, especially in the Church. In this world they bring to bear the forces of magic, in the form of alchemy. Against them stands the Parliament, also known as Roundheads, an amalgam of legalists, Puritans, religious minorities, social radicals and the like. They have harnessed the power of Clockwork devices and war-machines, crafted and managed by Mechanic Preachers. Both sides find themselves forced into alliances with old enemies. At Nasby, the horrific battle ends with the execution of the King and a sea change in the nature of society. Clockwork & Chivalry begins six months after those events. The players can work to make the world a better place or plunge it further into chaos.

The Book Itself

Clockwork and Chivalry takes up 194 pages in pdf format; it is also available in softcover. The layout’s simple and clean- two column for most of the rules sections with full page text for some of the historical documents. The authors do a good job of starting sections with key information in bulleted lists and the headings nicely break up what could be a seriously dense rule book. The illustrations have simple lines and work because they’re consistent for the first half of the book. They have an archaic feel- and remind me of first edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. There’s a strange split midway to public-domain images for later chapters that’s jarring. Overall it could use more illustrations- it lacks any images of the Clockworks themselves, for example. The book has an index, something which should always be pointed out and given credit in an rpg book.

Rules & Mechanics

Clockwork and Chivalry uses the Runequest II system from Mongoose Publishing- which echoes the old classic Basic Role Playing from Chaosium. You’ll need a copy of the RQ II corebook to play. C&C offers several changes from standard RQ II. Mostly this concerns minor aspects of character creation (Social Classes instead of Character Backgrounds for example). A greater change comes with the reworking of RQ II’s magic into a C&C’s Alchemy system. As well, the rules introduce some novel systems such as Clockwork constructs and devices. However, Mongoose has recently given up the Runequest license- which means they will discontinue publication in November. To make up for this, Cakebread and Walton will be releasing a new version of C&C using a new system called Renaissance,

Renaissance is the new D100 game system behind Clockwork & Chivalry 2nd Edition, and will form the bedrock of future fantasy and historical games from Cakebread & Walton. Built on OpenQuest and Mongoose RuneQuest I, and with added rules from Clockwork & Chivalry, the system features a fast and dirty new combat system which minimises book-keeping while still simulating the brutal age of black powder weapons.”

Characters

C&C opens with a note warning readers that many liberties having been taken with the history- some to accommodate the alternate fantasy setting and some to simplify the complex issues of the age. The introduction offers a solid but not overwhelming introduction to the background. That’s complemented by a narrative piece outlining the momentous Battle of Nasby which saw the first great clash of Alchemy vs. Clockwork. That devastation and the memory of it hangs over the setting. It serves as motivation for characters in the game. With some of the history laid out, the book moves to the nuts and bolts of playing.

The character creation chapter offers an extensive and dense set of choices. After generating the basics (attributes, characteristics, common skills), players build their Adventurers based on previous experiences. This consists of choices of Social Class, Profession and Faction. Notably, C&C removes skill restrictions, allowing adventurers to develop in any direction in play. Social Class obviously has a significant impact on the adventurer’s personality and restricts later choices of profession. The five different classes each offer different skill bonuses, advanced skills, and combat styles. As you’d expect these aren’t exactly balanced but if you’re playing a game like this that’s a secondary concern. Professions offer additional background, more skill bonuses and more advanced skills.

Each of the 30+ professions gets a rich and substantive discussion of role, worldview and options. The authors use this section to really lay out what the world of C&C looks like. Among the entries, they offer boxed historical tidbits as well. The game has a fantastic mix- making choosing between an Alchemist, a Camp Follower, a Lord or a Mercenary more difficult than you’d think. An equally difficult decision for the players lies in factions- which aren’t treated in the character creation section, but in the following one. Players gain additional benefits from these and then finish up with the last touches (free points, connections, contacts, etc).

This 44 page chapter ends with a section that might have been better placed earlier. Reading the rules, I kept wondering what a campaign would look like. The background suggested a harsh choice between Royalist or Roundhead. The professions descriptions also suggested a game where the players would be deep in one side or battling the other. Would campaigns be purely military or espionage? At the end of the chapter, the authors suggest a mixed group from both sides- and published adventures will assume that. They make an interesting case. The setting has suffered massive devastation- something players don’t want to see happen again, regardless of faction and interest. That desire, combined with the trumping bonds of community and friendship, ought to keep the players aligned and on the same track. RQ II offers mechanics and benefits based on community which can help keep this in line. Historically, the divisions between the various factions were fluid. That’s an interesting idea- but a GM will have to carefully judge their table. Having the seeds for inter-party strife built into the game so early could present a problem for some groups.

Factions

Much of that conflict arises from adventurers’ membership in factions- a topic covered in chapter two. The English Civil War presents a difficult time to map out- with groups arrayed and aligned based on very different issues- some social, some political, some religious. The authors do an excellent job of offering accessible options in this. They provide background without overwhelming with the minutiae. Instead each faction- along with the various bonuses- gets a nice clear set of precepts to follow. Adventurers also possess Righteousness Points (RP) measuring their passion for their faction. Players may attempt to debate NPCs to change their RP, they may gain or lose RP based on actions, or have that change based on adventure results. It weirdly reminds me of Sanity from Call of Cthulhu, with consequences for high and low ratings. From Anabaptists to Laudians, Clubmen to the Invisible College, C&C presents 17 factions over the 32 pages of this chapter, each with an explanation of their philosophy as well as a sample NPC from that faction.

Alchemy vs. Clockwork

After a chapter of miscellany- covering everything from new skills, to black powder weapons, to illness to creatures of the realm, we get to magic. As mentioned earlier, the C&C system differs in many ways from standard RQ II. Alchemy requires certain arts and practices- and instead of having personal Magic Points to power their spells, alchemists must use points stored in a Philosopher’s Stone. They must also learn skills of different elemental casting types and run the risk of spell fumbles. The material is pretty evocative- taking a more generic system and adding enough constraints and details to make it feel different. The common RQ II spells get broken into the four elements, and the book adds seventeen more to that. The chapter also offers rules for elemental summoning, familiars and spell creation.

The obvious counterpart to magic follows next, with the chapter on Clockwork in the game. After a fairly light history and discussion of the concept, the chapter lays out rules for the creation of Clockwork devices. Characters with the necessary skills can create new ones. The mechanics and factors have some depth but aren’t off-putting. A casual player could come up with something and figure out the stats and costs. They might have a harder time actually assembling it- given the Construction Mishaps and Industrial Injuries tables (“Lose 1D4+1 digits from either hand (roll randomly for hand and fingers.)”). Clockworks also require winding, resulting in the development of Winding Stations across the countryside. The chapter does a great job of combining the rules and colorful details like this. Several kinds of Clockwork are presented: Iron Horses, Leviathan war machines, Striding Suits, Bible Page Turners and the like. I especially like this section- it has a great deal of flavor but gives players an open-ended system to work with.

Last Details

The densest section, presenting the history and philosophy of the period in detail follows. The authors trace the conflict back to the Reformation and give quick biographies of the main players in the events (living and dead). The chapter also goes over a number of other setting details: fashion, philosophy, economics, and places of note, for example. They throw a lot of material at the reader here, walking a difficult line here. On the one hand you want a product which appeals to a wide audience- perhaps those RQ II players interested in a novel setting or RPG players lured by the cool concept of Clockwork. On the other hand, you want to appeal to gamers coming to the setting for the historical connection. I think C&C does a pretty good job of maintaining that balance, but more often than not errs on the side of the history buff. The book ends with a sixteen page starting adventure and a surprisingly brief list of recommended reading.

Overall

I’m a fan of historical games and enjoyed reading Clockwork & Chivalry. That being said, I think the likelihood of getting to table for my history-adverse players will be pretty low. You can sell it based on Clockwork and Magic, but eventually the players will come up against the historical details they’ll need to have a handle on. You could ignore or hand wave that away, but I think you’d lose a great deal of what makes this setting interesting. You don’t have to know the history to play this game, but you probably do to run it. And having a grasp on the period will definitely make any gameplay experience deeper and richer.

Clockwork and Chivalry is a well-crafted, readable and interesting alternate historical setting, but presents some challenges to players not versed in the history.

Portability

C&C isn’t particularly dense with rules. The setting could be fairly easily ported over to another light system (Savage Worlds, FATE, GURPS). The main work necessary would be retooling the benefits from the background options, fitting alchemy into the magic system, and seeing how the Clockwork rules fit with any item creation system the game has. If you like the setting, but have a favored system, consider picking this up. In the other direction, some of the ideas- particularly alchemy and Clockwork could be borrowed for other campaigns or genres. The rules aren’t particularly deep so you would just be lifting the basic concepts. A great deal of the material is related to the specifics of the setting, so if you’re less interested in that, you might take a pass.

For more information you can check out the Clockwork & Chivalry website here.

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