charlemagne: by the cross and the sword


Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.

20 Responses to “charlemagne: by the cross and the sword”

  1. 1 Roger GS
    February 21, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Most of those historical settings would be exercises in frustration if played full-on rules as written. As with carving a monkey out of a peach pit the achievement is to show what can be done with an unlikely material (D&D). Other uses – appropriation of materials for a campaign in another world, a resource for dimension-hopping adventurers, basic information about a rich vein of legend and history that casts its shadow over fantasy today.

    Funny they mention the sorcerer Malagigi from Orlando Furioso in the blurb; a) he was a villain, not a hero and b) you apparently can’t even play him!

  2. February 21, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    It’s funny you make that analogy. I think a LOT of D&D play – basically, anything outside of Tolkien-flavored scalawags looting a dungeon – is kind of the same “monkey out of a peach pit” type of experience. Trying to do this with Dark Ages France isn’t a whole lot crazier than trying to put everyone on magic-powered galleons that fly through outer space.

    Is Malagigi always villainous? I know he was also called Maugris in some of the French legends. One of the campaign seeds is premised that the players are Maugris’s secret agents, running around the empire to take care of problems too tricky or dangerous for Charlemagne to know about, sort of an Uncanny D&D-Force. I know almost nothing about the Matter of France, though I did find some nice used books on the subject.

  3. 3 FredH
    February 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    It, ah, wasn’t the best album…

  4. February 21, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Like the monkey and the peach pit, I am just happy it exists at all. As an Amazon reviewer says, “He just does things in a very weird but rather enjoyable way.” I think I want that as my epitaph.

  5. February 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

    For me, the first rule of D&D is avoid combat if you can and get out of it quickly when you can’t. The first rule of playing a caster is to avoid casting spells whenever possible. They’re a limited resource after all. And I tend to go for non-combat-oriented spells anyway. The real fun is in the problem-solving and decision-making. So, for my style of play, those changes would work fine.

    Still, I’d have to agree that the HR series had a limited market because I haven’t known that many gamers who get excited about a historical setting in any case.

  6. February 22, 2013 at 2:42 am

    “I’d have to agree that the HR series had a limited market because I haven’t known that many gamers who get excited about a historical setting in any case.”

    Isn’t that odd, though? Once you really dig into the topic, the real Middle Ages were FAR more exotic, wonderfully detailed, and textured than anything in fantasy fiction, much less the fantasy-fiction pastiches of D&D. The thing that really brought this home to me was the “year and a day” rule: if you were a serf, you were property of your lord–but if you ran away, and evaded capture for 1 year and 1 day, legally you were a free man. That’s an absolutely wonderful bit of setting detail, you could use it in like 6 different ways for a great story, it suggests all kinds of other interesting stuff, and it’s something that really happened.

  7. February 22, 2013 at 3:16 am

    It might be because most gamers want the setting to just be a thin veneer. (In other words, most gamers don’t want to dig. ^_^) Much like you see in period movies these days. Though, for that matter, you see the same thing in Shakespeare or the Matter of Britain.

    Or perhaps it is because the implied setting of D&D is more apocalyptic or western than middle ages.

    Or perhaps it is because some of us mistakenly feel a historical setting requires a different approach than a fantasy setting.

  8. February 22, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Pendragon could be described as “It’s the RuneQuest you know and love! Minus the races, the cults, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool chaotic features! Doesn’t that sound fun?”. And indeed, it’s fun. I know KAP is different in a number of ways: it uses d20 and opposed rolls instead of d100, and Personality Traits and Passions are new. But really, the root of the system is the good old Basic RolePlay.

    What Pendragon does very well is focus. Everybody is a Fighter (a Knight, really), and the question is “what kind of knight are you?”. The mages included in 4th edition were removed in 5th edition and with good reason, IMHO.

    A D&D without races, clases, magic or monsters wouldn’t be D&D anymore, in my opinion, as Pendragon is not RQ. But could be a fun game, as Pendragon is.

  9. February 23, 2013 at 12:44 am

    The HRs had a limited audience, but it was big enough to justify publishing seven books. Setting material was in demand at that time, and the HRs offered good bang for your buck. I have no idea whether anyone ever ran one of those settings straight from the book, but I’d love to hear about if someone did.

  10. February 23, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Thanks for the perspective, Steve! I was on a panel with Mike Selinker and Ed Stark called “Edition Wars” but I think we disappointed audience members who came looking for blood in the water. Those guys who’d worked on many editions made it clear that at any given time TSR/WotC was basically just trying things that they thought were cool then looking to see which of ’em struck a chord in their audience. Understanding why things appeal to people is a fun game to play especially in hindsight but not the exactly same problem as finding those things in the first place.

  11. February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Steve! We ran it last night! As straight from the book as I could. I’ll blog about it later.

  12. February 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Cool. I look forward to reading how it went.

  13. 13 David Sullivan
    February 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I’ve been toying with this same idea for a month or two, except using the Crusades book. I think if I did use one of these settings, the rule about extending spell casting time would go right out the window. Just too restricting.

    Also working on a solution on how to deal with demi-humans in the campaign and the idea that I’ve almost decided on is to ban them entirely. At least for PC classes. This is where the ACKS PC comes in handy because I can just tell players, “Oh, you wanted to play a Dwarven Fury? Well, feel free to make a custom one, as long as he’s human.”

    The interesting thing I’ve noted about these books is how much is straight up history. I think half of the Crusades book I could have gotten from Wikipedia.

  14. February 25, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    David, it’s easy to forget how much value there used to be in a simple compiliation of general info interesting to gamers. At Gary Con I think it was Darlene who talked about how far she had to drive to get to the university library where they had one picture of a unicorn. In ’94 I remember how exciting it was to be playing Ars Magica and have whole Internet mailing lists and archives worth of history to draw on; I’d had .bitnet since ’88 but that was the first time that the net was directly relevant to my gaming.

  15. February 25, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    It’s easy to forget how much the world of information has changed in the 20 years since these HRs were published.

  16. February 26, 2013 at 1:48 am

    Yeah. In devising regional maps for the Charlemagne game, I’m looking up ALL KINDS of crazy stuff about local towns on Wikipedia, and the availability of so much information is simply awe-inspiring.

    I’m torn on the spell-use thing. The effect it has on play is absolutely fundamental: this is a story about KNIGHTS and their tag-alongs. You can play a tag-along if you want, but no one is forcing it on you. This, in turn, changes the kinds of things that challenge the players. In normal D&D, a pack of wolves is merely a speed bump if your Mage is carrying a “sleep” spell, but under the extended casting time rule you pretty much have to fight the damn things. You can’t count on “haste” or “fire ball” to ramp up the party’s offensive capabilities around the 30,000 XP mark. You also can’t undo a nasty spell-like effect via “dispel magic” in the midst of battle. In other words, a ton of consequences flow from this change. Eyeballing it, I’d guess it cuts the party’s effective level by about 33%–so your 9th level guys in Charlemagne’s France would be about as effective as a 6th level party in traditional campaigns.

    This is further compounded by HR2 “Charlemagne’s Paladins” recommending the Bard as a Wizard-substitute. This is not a bad idea, and fits the genre. But Bards don’t get a single fourth level spell until 160,000 XP. In comparison, a Mage would have had access for the past 100,000 experience points–likely at least 30-40 sessions of play. In comparison, the Mage at 160,000 XP is conjuring elementals, cloudkilling peasants, using feeblemind to cripple rivals, or teleporting all over the place.

  17. 17 David Sullivan
    February 27, 2013 at 2:31 am

    James, are you finding that the level of available information is making things easier or harder for you? There’s so much stuff out there on the Crusades that it’s almost paralyzing me when I try to sit down and build my campaign.

    Tavis, I was going to argue with you but you’re exactly right. Back in ’92, the only thing I used the Internet for was to get baseball box scores emailed to me so I didn’t have to buy the newspaper every day to keep my roto team updated.

  18. February 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    You know, it’s funny. I’m at the early stage where I’m like, “Montpellier didn’t exist in 778? Really?! Get out of town! Literally!” and “Who is this Waifer of Aquitaine dude, and is he related to wafer cookies?”

    I haven’t reached the level of knowledge where I’m like, “Uh… This couldn’t have happened, because this dude did this over here 20 years ago.” (This is how I am about playing Marvel Comics games, where my obsession with continuity is this huge mental block.) (Yes: I feel more restrained by comic book history, than real world history.)

    Once upon a time, back in 2007 or so, I did toy with doing a 3.5e game set during the Fourth Crusade. Gibbon has some pretty good material on it — Scythian werewolf mercenaries, chambers full of mummies, etc. I could easily see a bunch of PC’s as doing an urbancrawl through Byzantium looking for crypts, dungeons, and palaces to loot, bitterly resented by the local populace, with the Turks, Mongols (!) and Assassins (!!) closing in.

  19. 19 Fred Herman
    February 27, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    >Scythian werewolf mercenaries

    Wait, WHAT?

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2013

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