Wednesday, 21 June 2023


I vaguely recall Prince Valiant being a TV cartoon when I was growing up. I remember dismissing it pretty quickly, I forget why.

Occasionally I'd see the comic strip in a newspaper, but I didn't get how somebody could follow a story delivered in such tiny portions over weeks and months.

Then some thirty years later I was talking with Sean McCoy about Mythic Bastionland and he recommended checking out the old Prince Valiant comics.

As these comics started in 1937 I think I'm pretty late to the party on this one, but it turns out they're really good. I'll lead with a disclaimer that this comic has been heaped with praise over the last 80+ years, so there aren't many surprising insights here, but as this was a blind-spot for me I thought it was worth talking about.

The artwork is lush, dynamic, and detailed, the stories break-neck paced, characters are archetypal but still surprisingly captivating.

Val often wins the day through brute force and plot armour, but just as often has to resort to clever problem solving. He kludges together makeshift a shield from his clothes, a lasso from his belt, disguises to trick castle guards. When blocked by a horde of horsemen he scares their resting steeds into stampeding over their camp. When overrun by a siege he tricks the invaders into breaking through a false gate, leaving them trapped and bombarded by rocks. Real OSR stuff. 

He's always journeying somewhere far away or eagerly travelling back to Camelot. There are moments of adventure at each destination, and respite back at home, but they don't linger for long.

A significant detail is the lack of speech bubbles that you might assume from a comic. Instead you get a small piece of narration alongside each piece of art, which you can enjoy mostly free from text.

It's not super deep, of course, but there's a sort of driving pace and rich flavour to the whole thing that just keeps me excited to see what happens next.

Lots of similarities to how I like to run RPGs.

Parallel to this, I had the Prince Valiant Storytelling Game on my watchlist for a while, and finally managed to pick up a copy. Written by Greg Stafford, it's an interesting contrast to Pendragon.

Some points of note:

Characters divide 7 points between just two Abilities, Brawn and Presence, essentially physical-stuff and non-physical-stuff. With a maximum of 5 points in either, you're essentially choosing between four different profiles, and it gives the player a very immediate choice between two directions for their character, and gently nudges you toward having an outright weakness, as a score of 2 is considered "below average". Of course the game totally cheats when it comes to the knightly characters from the comic, making them above-average in both scores.

Skills are as you'd expect, adding to your Brawn or Presence score as appropriate in specific situations. They're a good evocative list, though, with things like breaking social skills into Courtesie, Glamourie, Fellowship, and Oratory. This is a fine line to walk, but here it feels appropriate.

It's essentially a die pool system, but you throw coins instead of dice, counting the heads as successes. I like the simplicity of this but hate the feel of it. Throwing a pile of coins feels innately less satisfying to me than rolling a handful of dice. I'd just use d6s and count 4+ as successes, no mechanical difference.

It's one of those games where the GM sets a difficulty level for the roll, typically 1-5 successes needed. Not a big fan of this, but it does state that most tasks should just use a target of 3 successes

There's a weird system where if you roll all successes then you get a complete success, giving you an extra success on the roll. I guess this is there to give a chance of underdogs seizing a surprise victory, but it has some odd effects. The example task given in the book is lifting a rock (no, really) requiring 3 successes and using Brawn. It states "If you had a Brawn of 2 or less you would have no hope of lifting the rock. If you had a Brawn of 5 you would have a good chance of throwing three or more heads, thus lifting the rock".

Well... it's not quite that simple. Throwing 2 coins gives a 25% chance of getting two heads, which would be a complete success, raising the number of successes to 3 and lifting the rock.

Throwing 3 coins only gives a 12.5% chance of getting the required 3 Successes, as getting just 2 doesn't trigger the complete success bonus as before, so you need to get all 3 naturally. Strangely the Brawn 2 character is more likely to succeed than the Brawn 3 character.

To deal with the above I'd be tempted to try an alternative die system to achieve the desired effect in another way. Roll the die pool as normal. 5s count as one success, 6s count as two. Same mean result from each die in the pool, but the distribution is slightly different.

Using this system the Brawn 2 Knight has an 8.3% chance of lifting the rock while the Brawn 3 Knight has 20%. Seems a bit more like what you'd expect. Certain tasks are harder with this system, others easier, but I think it all works out alright.

Weapons, armour, and shields all simply add to the number of dice/coins you throw in combat, but armour also subtracts it's value from situations where it would be a hinderance. Nice and simple for a game that isn't really about the specifics of how a sword is different than an axe. If you've got Brawn 4, the Battle Skill at 2, a sword (1) and medium armour (2) then you're totalling those up to roll 9 dice in this fight.

Combat and other opposed rolls see characters comparing the number of successes rolled. The loser discards coins from their pool equal to the difference in successes rolled, then the combat continues until one side has lost all of their coins. Mass battles use a similar system with a few little extras. It's fast, swingy, and gives ample opportunity for retreat or surrender instead of fighting to the bitter end.

Fame is the goal of every Knight, and you earn it mainly through succeeding at stuff. More Fame boosts your skills and there are some nice touches where it can be compared with other characters to see if they should defer to you socially, if you get a bonus to Presence around them, or even if a particularly high presence is likely to cause would-be attackers to think twice before engaging you.

The Advanced Rules section is a mixed bag. There are extra skills, some of which eat into the areas covered by the core list. Alternative character types are fun, opening up from the standard knights to allow Vikings, monks, hunters, and other such options.

Also in this section is the Traits system, where your character might be noted as Foul-Tongued, Reckless, Melancholic, Lustful, or others from a pretty thorough list. This is kept secret from other players, but you can sneakily show it to the GM right before you do something dramatic linked to your trait. Let's say our Reckless knight charges into a battle they cannot possibly win. If the GM approves, you get some more Fame points. It's touching on the same ground as traits and passions in Pendragon and I actually quite like this method. I might change my mind after seeing it in play, but it feels nicely implemented to me.

There are a bunch of mini-scenarios called episodes in the back of the book, and I picked up a supplement containing even more. They're somewhat linear, but short enough that they probably avoid feeling too much like a railroad. I can see them being fun if strung together across a more open ongoing game.

Overall it's an interesting read and a valiant attempt to create an RPG that focuses on pace and accessibility over rigorous detail.

Unfortunately this game is pretty hard to get hold of. I was lucky enough to get a second hand copy at a very reasonable price. If it sounds at all interesting to you then I'd recommend grabbing a copy if you spot one.


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  1. I haven't looked at the game, but is there a rule that says if your ability is lower than the difficulty, then you have no chance to succeed, even if you could get a special success? That would explain the rock example weirdness.

    On the other hand, Savage Worlds has had a very similar statistical wonkiness from its first iteration, so sometimes these things happen.

    1. No, the Complete Success rule even states that "this gives characters a chance to succeed at tasks with a higher difficulty than their skill level" or similar.

      Yeah it doesn't break the game or anything, it's just one of those weird things.

  2. ... Is the show any good?

    1. My memory is that it was poor, but I think I was a bit old for it.

  3. My grandfather was a huge fan of Hal Foster so I bought him the Fantagraphics reprint collections and the artwork is just stunning. Glad to see someone else appreciate them!

  4. Speaking of extremely rule-light systems... are you familiar with Tiny Dungeon?

    1. I recognise the name but don't think I've read it. Would you recommend it?

    2. Quite the opposite, actually.
      Tiny Dungeons looked like a runaway success, and I lean more and more towards rule light games, so I decided to try to invest a bit of money when they made a Bundle of Holding.

      I wasn't particularly interested in the original game, tbh (which is minimalistic D&D, basically) but seeing that they were producing tons of stuff for SciFi, Horror, Post-Apocalypse, Superheroes etc... I thought that I could maybe cherrypick rules from the various books and tailor it to my own preference.

      So I opted for the package that had the Superhero game as main item, and a few minor supplements (including "Tiny Gunslingers").

      And this is my opinion of it:

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