Mountjoy! Mountjoy! A look at Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne

This review is of the PDF version of Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game. Hard copies have not yet been released as the Kickstarter, that funded back in Aug of 2017, is still in the process of fulfilling. At the time of writing, the PDF is the only item released by Nocturnal Media and that was to backers only.

Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne

by Ruben in ‘t Groen
Published by Nocturnal Media 2018
Based on The King Arthur Pendragon roleplaying game created by Greg Stafford.
Illustrations by Matthew Ryan, Mark Secondwitz, and cover art by Jaime Garcia Mendoza.
PDF format – 463 pages

“Barons, my lords, whom shall we send of you
To Saragossa, the Saren king unto?”
“Myself”, quoth Roland, “may well this errand do.”
“That shall not”, Count Oliver let loose;
“You’re high of heart and stubborn of your mood,
You’d land yourself, I warrant, in some feud.
By the King’s leave this errand I will do,”
The King replies: “Be silent there, you too!
Nor this my bread that’s silver to the view,
He that names any of the Twelve Peers shall rue!”
The French say nothing: they stand abashed and mute.

–The Song of Roland, XVIII

In Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game players take on the role of knights at the birth of the feudal system under Charlemagne, Frankish King and later the  Holy Roman Emperor of Western Europe. Player characters first start as squires under the care of one of Charlemagne’s powerful vassals. In time they will become knights and gain glory through adventuring. Slowly rising to become powerful vassals themselves; owning their own land, building castles and developing their own lineage. With each great deed performed in gaining glory, puts the player characters closer to becoming a Paladin of Charlemagne. The game’s title “Paladin” pays homage to the twelve knights who served at Charlemagne’s personal command. They were known as Paladins and where the most trusted and closest knights of his inner circle. Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game is based on of “The King Arthur Pendragon Roleplaying Game” created by Greg Stafford. Those who are familiar with that game will find that Paladin uses the same game mechanics and is similar in style.

The rulebook has been separated into two books with a total of 19 chapters and four appendices. The first of the two books cover character creation and game mechanics while the second covers world setting. The first impression the reader gets is the artwork of the beautiful four-color cover by Jaime Garcia Mendoza. Great four-color and black and white illustrations pepper the pages throughout. Pages feature justified type in a two column grid. Color is used sparingly throughout the book; headlines/subhead in red, important information gets a muted yellow background, and black for body copy, all on clean white pages. The layout style of the book mimics that of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2, Nocturnal Media most recent version of the game. It’s a nice departure in style from Nocturnal Media past publications that used excessively wide margins, pushing the body copy into the gutter and detracting from the readability.

Character Creation

The first step for players is developing a character. Players can choose to play a male or female knight, something not unheard of in Charlemagne’s time. Those who wish to play a female knight will be pleasantly surprised. Two options are giving when creating a female knight. Option one is to create the character in the same way as its’ male counterpart. Making female knights equal to male knights. The second option is to use specific women’s tables within the character development process which focus more on female characteristics. Paladin, like Pendragon, takes the players through a very detailed process of fleshing out one’s character. Family characteristic, siblings, family motto and other personal information helps bring to life a rich and vibrate character. Paladin characters have five Attributes: Size, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution, and Appearance. To get the value of each stat use 2d6+3 for men and for women the dice will vary if using the alternative woman’s option. Those familiar with Pendragon will note the change in how attribute values get calculated. Throughout Paladin, readers should note the simple and subtle changes from Pendragon. It’s easy to forget and revert to Pendragon rules since so much of Paladin borrows from that system.

The main goal of Paladin is to amass Glory, which is the experience points of the system. This is achieved through heroic acts, gaining wealth, and other moments of note that the gamemaster deems worthy. Characters strive to gain as much glory as they can. Glory represents a person’s fame, status, and importance. A character’s starting glory is a percentage of their father’s glory. To figure out that glory Paladin digs deep in your character’s family history by using series of yearly charts detailing your father and grandfathers glorious deeds. Year by year a die roll is used to see what significant events transpired and how it shaped your family history. Glory is then passed from generation to generation. Ten percent of your grandfather’s glory carries over to your father, then ten percent of your father’s glory goes to the player’s character, giving him starting glory. Going through this process not only defines the player characters starting glory but it further builds upon the backstory.

At this point, players have defined their character’s physical attributes and background. The next step to is to look inside and develop their character’s drives and temperament. Paladin does this with the uses of Traits and Passions, which are the heart and soul of the game. The game uses twelve pairs of traits with each pair being diametrically opposed to each other. For example Energetic/Lazy, Forgiving/Vengeful, or Generous/Selfish. Each trait in the pair has an assigned number that when combined equals 20. The more dominant the trait, ie the higher the number, the less free will the player character has over his character’s actions. For example, a character with a Forgiving of 13 and a Vengeful of 7 is more likely to act mercifully toward a person who has wronged him. During play, a player or a gamemaster might call upon a trait to see how the character would deal with a certain situation. The use of Traits is not to take away from player’s agency but to help the player decide what their characters would do. One could call it a moral compass or a conscious.

Passions are different from traits as they are strong and personal emotions that player characters can use to expresses themselves during the game. Invoking a passion while in play can give a character a significant bonus with the proper roll. The use of passion is usually on top of another roll like a trait or combat. Each player character starts with four passions which they use; Honor, Love [Charlemagne], Love [Family], Love [God]. Additional passions are gained within gameplay. Players take warning when applying passions. Since passion represents a deep emotion a bad roll can cause a character to go into a period of melancholy or worse madness. Like traits, a higher number of a passion represents a stronger connection to it.

With the traits and passions values now set, it’s time to understand how the people around you feel about your character. Paladin does this with the use of Attitudes. Attitudes are NPC’s attitudes towards your character. It represents their willingness to aid or grant them a favor. There are six Attitudes which represent the people around you; Attitudes [Charlemagne], Attitudes [Lord], Attitudes [family], Attitudes [retinue], Attitudes [Church], and Attitude [commoners]. Their starting scores come from a specific trait of the player character. For example, a player knight wants to start a family he approaches his lord with a request to marry. A roll against your Attitudes [Lord] to see what the Lord thinks of you and your request. Like in Traits and Passions, higher base scores are mean that person or group is more favorable to you.

The last task in creating your character is to define your character skills. Skills are split into two broad categories–Combat skill and Ordinary skills. These are further divided into subcategories; Common Skills and Courtly Skills. A detailed description of each skill is featured as it relates to the setting of the game. Skill values are first established in character generation but later they improve through gameplay. In a later chapter of the book,  career paths are outlined. Career paths are knightly paths characters can aspire to. It lists the requirements, duties, and benefits in each rank of Knighthood; all the way up to Paladin. In addition, there are three career paths which follow faith and ideas paths; Chivalrous, Pious, and Romantic Knights. It’s something to keep in mind when creating or building upon your character while in play.

As you can see character building is a long and lengthy process. I would suggest to gamemasters to set up a Session: 0 for their group in which gamemasters can come together with their players and have a character building session. Gamemasters and players will find that Paladin, like Pendragon, requires a lot of work. First starting with character building and later in the “Winter Phase”; explained later. Paladin is not built as a one-shot system but for a long extended campaign for a gamemaster and players not afraid of the book-keeping that accompanies it.

Game Mechanics

Now that your character complete, it’s time to look at the game’s mechanics. Paladin has modeled their game mechanic off of Pendragons’. For those unfamiliar with that game’s mechanics will find a new love for those ostracized d20s that have historical rolled low. For in Paladin low rolls on a d20 is what you want in most cases. Rolling a 20 on a d20 in Paladin is a fumble. The d20 is the main die used in Paladin. When called upon to roll, a player is looking to roll under their target number which could be defined by an attribute, trait, or skill. That target number might also be modified with a plus or minus number based off of a multitude of adjustments listed within the game. The instances of modifiers within the game are staggering. There is a lot for the gamemaster to keep track off. Paladin does have charts to help but the amount of pluses or minuses the system uses is the clear influence of the hobbies origin in war games. The pluses and minuses are most prominent in the combat system. Target numbers can also be modified by evoking passions.

There are four levels of dice resolutions in Paladin: Success, Failure, Critical, and Fumble. Rolling under your target number is a Success roll, failure being the opposite of this. Rolling the exact number to the target number as defined is a Critical. Fumble is a 20 on the die roll unless the target number is 20 or above due to applied advantages. In those instances, the roll cannot fail no matter if the die rolls a 20. It’s always a success. Other game mechanics come into play when the target number is over 20. These levels of success are further complicated on opposed rolls. In these instances, the gamemaster uses the normal level of success for both parties and compares the results. In those instances, it comes down to who got closer to their target number without going over. A character who is successful in their roll but has failed to get closer to their target number has gotten a partial success. Partial success can mean a lot of different things to what the opposed roll represented. It’s up to the gamemaster in most situation to adjudicate the results or refer to the rulebook in some cases.

Combat in Paladin is different from most games. Tactical movement and facings aren’t used in combat. The combat system moves very quickly and is quite deadly. It’s also a challenge for gamemasters to run. Paladin uses many advantages and disadvantages in the form of pluses and minuses to attack and defense rolls based upon certain attributes, weapon choices, whether a person is on a horse, or even the current weather. There is a lot for a gamemaster to keep track of but luckily combat is a quick affair. A chart is available for the gamemaster but with player adding their own bonuses upon their rolls it makes keeping track a little difficult. The character’s or horse’s statistics set the value when determining weapon damage, not by the type of weapon in most instances. Armor worn by defending characters can absorb part of the damage taken. Special rules are available to simulate the armor weakening. Overall the combat section of Paladin is really heavy on rules. There are a lot of different factors at play. A list of circumstances in the rulebook aid the gamemaster in adjudicating and modify the target roll when needed.

At times during the game characters will find themselves just a small cog in a larger war machine. In these instances, Paladin has rules for Mass Combat. Just like one-to-one melee, there are different factors that can give pluses and minuses to the players’ roll. The one thing with mass combat that players may not like, is their actions may not have any influence on the overall battle. In these instances, the gamemaster must remind the players the goal of the game about gaining glory and not directing the overall narrative. In mass combat situations, the outcome of the battle follows historical or literary accounts. The player’s goal is to shine as brightly as they can on the battlefield and gain as much glory they can without getting killed.

Magic exists in the world of Charlemagne but it isn’t the high fantasy magic found in other roleplaying games. Magic is the unexplainable and to be used by the gamemaster as a tool to introduce or move the plot along; the hand of God. Players can use this divine magic through prayer; calling for divine empowerment or protection. Player characters must pray to God to ask for favors. If their prayers are heard, i.e. passions and dice rolls are successful, a holy blessing is bestowed upon them. The blessing can be an advantage to a situation or a plus to their die roll. Player characters may also pray for the empowerment or protection of others in the same way with the same results benefiting the person they prayed for. The length of time a character chooses to pray, increase the chance their prayers will be answered. Other factors that can come into play to increase a character’s success in their prayer being heard. Praying on special holy days, in a holy place, or possessing a relic all increase a player’s character chance of being heard by God.

The last part of Paladin’s game mechanic is called the Winter Phase. In Paladin, each play session is compromised one year of adventuring. There will be adventures that take more than one session to complete or the gamemaster might choose to extend an adventure over several session but in most part, one session is one year in Paladin. Meaning one significant event takes place in that year, be it a large battle or fulling a duty bestowed upon by the character’s lord. The other time of the year is taken up by courtly attendance, overland travel, and what is known as the Winter Phase.

Winter Phase is the time after the campaigning season has ended and the lord and his vassals return to their lands and wait out the winter. In that time crops are harvested, knights hone their skills, engage in amorous pursuits, and gossip. It is also the time when the gamemaster and players take care of the year’s bookkeeping. Income is tallied for any character who owns a manor or an estate, improvement checks are made against traits and passions, aging rolls are made if needed, and survival checks are made against the player’s horses and children to name a few. Also at this time if a player was unable to attend a session a solo adventure can be run or in turn, a series of checks can be made to bring the player up to speed with the other players. This part of the game can be difficult for some players and gamemaster to get through for it’s very tedious and dry.

Paladin’s game mechanics are very robust. A gamemaster has a lot to remember as far as when to add or subtract modifiers to a die roll. Although Paladin does take steps to ease this burden it is still a lot to keep track off. On top of that, the gamemaster, as well as the players, need to keep track of glory earned so it can be tallied up at the end of the session in the Winter Phase. If your gaming group is not one for taking notes during play the burden then falls upon the gamemaster to have kept a record of each instance of glory achieved. The player’s character sheet does have space for players to write in their achievements but if your players lack the discipline they will lose out on a big part of the game, for the goal of the game is the accumulation of glory.

Book II

The second half of Paladin, Book II, covers the game’s setting. Since Paladin is based on the era of Charlemagne. Book II begins with a detailed history of Frankish Society. It covers feudalism, the various social classes of the time, land ownership and fiefs, religion and the church, tournament, travel, daily life, and just about anything a gamemaster will need to run a game set in the time of Charlemagne. In essence, it’s a giant history lesson. Hopefully, you paid attention in your high school history class. If you did, you could skim through this section to pick up the tidbits that your high school history teacher neglected to mention. If you skipped class or didn’t pay attention settle in because you’re in for a highly detailed information dump. Even those familiar with European history during this period will most likely discover something new, for this section is not only a history lesson it’s very specific to Frankish Society. Topics like judicial courts, fin’amor, courtship, marriage, swearing, superstitions, and so much more are covered in this chapter. As with the game mechanics, a lot of rules are covered that a gamemaster must know to run a convincing game.

The following chapter highlights the surrounding territories of the Frankish Heartland. Depending on what kind of game the gamemaster wishes to run, a world-spanning campaign taking the player characters through the Frankish Heartland or a more centralized game where the game is more focused on a specific area, this chapter has the gamemaster covered. Once again the author provides a highly detailed description of each of the territories. Highlighting in great detail the way of life, fortifications, places and people of interest that the gamemaster can utilize for their games.

This next chapter is by far the most important in book II for it outlines the timeline for which the gamemaster can build his campaign upon. Starting in the year 768, yearly events are listed along with detailed information highlighting key events for that year. These events are drawn from medieval literary sources, medieval historical romance in French verse known as chansons de geste, and history. Events cover the rise of Charlemagne until his death in 814. Within the entries, the author has made notations when historical events align with the medieval literary character’s storylines. The purpose is to help the gamemaster, see how the two have been merged. From this timeline, a gamemaster can build his campaign so the player characters can take part in the rise and fall of Charlemagne.

Further chapters offer non-player characters, foreign cultures, and opponents and creatures the gamemaster will utilize throughout the campaign. Each section like the other previous to them are highly detail and meticulously organized so each one can be referenced easily within gameplay.

The final chapter begins with creating your own realistic campaign in the era of Charlemagne. The author provides a few different ideas and directions for a gamemaster to build upon. A campaign can be as simple as following the timeline given earlier or taking your knights on a worldwide tour of the realms. Traveling from place to place–to watch and participate in world-shaping events as they occur. Another option is creating a more centralized game where the players do very little travel and deal with local issues. The downside to this type of campaign is some major events in Charlemagne’s reign are missed due to their occurrence in another part of the realm. Gamemasters are given the option of setting up the players as knights within the court of Charlemagne. Getting a front row seat to the action and the chance to romance one of Charlemagne’s daughters. The final suggestion, being the most difficult to pull off, would be to charge the player’s knights with quests. This option would be the most work for the gamemaster. Story arcs and plots would need to be created and blended into the setting along with world events that are taking place. The book gives further assistance on creating quests and adventure if the gamemaster chooses to take that route.

For the gamemaster who doesn’t have the free time to build elaborate adventures, Paladin provides a series of adventures and adventure seeds to utilize. Two full adventures and handful of short adventures mixed in with one-off encounters are given as well as a solo adventure. As per the Kickstarter, a secondary book is in production which is nothing but adventures for the game. That second book has not been released in PDF or in print at the time of this article.

Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game finishes with four appendices. The first appendix features a Frankish name generator for the player who is having trouble coming up with a period-appropriate name. Period names for men and women are given. The list serves double duty. First, as a source of names for character creation and second, as a source of names for NPCs. The second appendix covers the literature and historical references used. The third appendix is family trees of the dominate houses of the era which provide a quick and easy reference to understand who is related to who, for there is a lot of people to keep track of. The final appendix ends with six pre-generated characters for Paladin and a blank character sheet for the players to photocopy and use.

My take on Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game is that it’s not a starter game for someone who is not already familiar with role-playing games. The game’s mechanics are unique to the source from which it’s derived from. Those familiar with Pendragon will have the easiest of transitions except for the new setting and a few mechanical differences. Those new to either roleplaying games, Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne or King Arthur Pendragon will have to absorb a lot of material. Though once absorbed, gamemasters and players alike will discover how engrossing this game can be. Keep in mind that the game also requires both the gamemaster and the players to partake in a good amount of bookkeeping.

For those a little hesitant to invest their money and time into this system I would suggest listening to an actual play recording of the game first. The Esoteric Order of Roleplayers Podcast, which can be found through iTunes or podbean, is currently running through the system. They provide a good quality audio recording as well as explain some of the rules. Alternatively, one could also listen to a Pendragon Actual Play to get a feel for how the system generally works. There are several to be found online. If you are a lover of history and of the chivalrous knights of Charlemagne then you will love Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne roleplaying game.

~ Stephen Pennisi

Follow Stephen on Twitter at @DadsAngry 

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