I can’t remember quite how it started. I was never a fan of the Prince Valiant comic strip growing up. And, yeah, that’s back when newspapers were still a thing. Anyway, it was not my jam. Valiant seemed to go on endlessly with no beginning, middle, or end.
And then a couple of years ago when I was at the library, I came across Volume 1 of the big, beautiful reprints by Fantagraphics. I’d been thinking my son was old enough for a story with a little action, but nothing too intense. After awhile I found myself charmed by Hal Foster’s clear, simple story-telling, and his wonderful, sometimes brilliant, sense of composition. It also turns out when you have a chance to follow the story from the beginning it makes a lot more sense!
I took it home and Xander really enjoyed it. He was just old enough to appreciate seeing a teen chafe at the rules of home; Xander’s been chafing at our rules since he was old enough to talk. Through various interlibrary loans we worked our way through the first three volumes. Now we have some 600+ pages of Valiant behind us and we read more every day or two.
Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game
That’s a bit of a mouthful, but that’s the full name of Greg Stafford’s early fiction-first, rules-light design. Back in 1989 when it was originally published there was virtually nothing like it. I’ve heard it called the first story game, but I’ve never been able to confirm that. (And also, that requires a whole argument about what story game even means!)
On a whim I picked up a copy for my birthday. Later I got involved with an Indie Game Night at my FLGS, and I’d started to prep Valiant for a run there, when COVID-19 shut everything down. Once it became clear that my son was going to be home a lot during all this, I pondered playing more sophisticated games with him. My thought being that we were going to have soooo much time to fill this summer.
So, we upped our game and it’s worked out really well. If you tour my recent blog posts you’ll find an ongoing series about our Mecha Hack game. The fightin’ robot sessions have verged on being too intense for the boy, so I thought a game with lighter mechanics and stakes might really suit him.
So, we got out Prince Valiant, made characters, and got after it!
A Brief Look Under the (Small) Hood
Stafford obviously wanted a design with minimal mechanical weight to tell rollicking tales of derring-do.
There are only two stats for Prince Valiant: TSG—Brawn and Presence. Brawn covers everything physical. Lumping everything under Brawn makes me think of the Conan of the original Robert E. Howard stories, whose strength is only matched by his stunning speed and agility. The Presence stat covers everything else: perception, charisma, emotional intelligence, cunning, etc.
Beyond that there’s a list of skills to choose from, complete with some delightfully archaic spellings. For the most part they cover combat and the courtlie graces. Taking its cue from the Hal Foster comic, Prince Valiant has no magic system as such, just skills to manipulate and fool people. There are hints of real magical skills in some of the NPC write-ups (I’m looking at you, Morgan le Fay) but nothing that the PCs can buy. (Although, adding some woo-woo to your own campaign would’t be that difficult.)
To make checks or resolve conflicts you figure out what combination of stat and skill fits the current situation. If you’re out looking for game, for example, you’d use Presence + Hunting, but when it came time to bring it down you’d use Brawn + Hunting. Simple, flexible, utilitarian.
Another nice wrinkle in Prince Valiant is the lack of dice. The randomizer is a handful of coins. When you’ve determined your Stat + Skill pool, you “toss” that many coins, usually by shaking them up in your hand and slapping them down on the table. Heads are successes, tails are failures. (In the rules Stafford charmingly describes playing around the campfire with just the coins in your pockets.) Checks can be made against a target number, or can be opposed by another character’s coin pool.
And that’s basically it. You need a working knowledge of the Prince Valiant comic, or failing that, other rollicking stories of Arthurian adventure…
Since the rules are so light, there aren’t a lot of systems for you to fall back on. There are some example adventures and scenario crafting advice, but nothing that actually prompts, creates, or maintains story. So it helps to bring your story-gaming experience to the table here! Knowledge of things like scene framing, improv, fronts, etc., will help you immensely, but the lack of them shouldn’t dissuade you from giving this a whack.
At the end of the day, it’s just knights in shining armor!
Not Your Father’s Arthurian Milieu
My wife Deanna is my other partner in crime for these home games. And I knew that just knights in shining armor would bore her to tears. (Know your audience, folks!) Also, she’s very much the sidekick in our Mecha Hack game, and I thought we could center her character more here in Valiant.
I floated the idea of her playing the squire to Xander’s knight, but oh, did we come up with a twist! Deanna’s character is Lady Elyse. Before the events of the game, Elyse had a twin brother named Envil, a knight in training. Unfortunately her uncle, the devious Viscount Dulane, had Envil murdered; the body was never found, though, because the poor lad was pushed into the Rushing River. With Envil safely out of the way, the Viscount could force a marriage between Elyse and his horrible bastard son, Gorgas. The Viscount would be perfectly positioned to annex Elyse’s family’s land when her ailing father died.
Elyse refused to go out like that. With her mother’s help, she faked her own death by “fever,” and took over Envil’s identity! Envil had always been slight and sickly so she found his armor fit her perfectly; fitting into his life would prove to be another matter.
As the GM, this is all pure unadulterated win, as you’ll see when we proceed to Episode One. I took some big swings when we got the game on its feet and I didn’t miss.
Xander, who’s, you know, 7, was happy to go straight down the middle with his character. Sir Gareth Jewelwing is a Knight, strong in Arms and Battle, and filled with virtue. Character creation is not Xander’s favorite thing, so it fell to us to fill in around the edges. We gave Gareth some Glamourie, which is a Presence-based charm skill, Oratory, and Jousting (which I made sure to get into the game right away).
Xander did make up some interesting backstory for us. Gareth’s father was king of a small area, but has since abdicated. King Jewelwing took a volcanic eruption in his demesne as a sign that he should leave the throne. What he’s doing now we’ve yet to find out.
Sir Gareth is very much in on Envil/Elyse’s secret. He’s no fan of Viscount Dulane, having grown up in Castle Dulane with Gorgas as a constant companion. (He grew up hostage there to assure King Jewelwing’s loyalty.) He’s dedicated himself to helping Elyse find Envil’s killer.
Deanna really got into creating Elyse! Realizing that Xander would shoot for a standard sword and board knight, she started picking up skills to compliment Sir Gareth. Being raised as a Lady meant that she could easily justify taking Riding. Even though Elyse found it endlessly boring, all that needlepoint means that she has clever little hands, and therefore the Dexterity skill. In her new life she’s been drilling with the great medieval equalizer, the bow (so a level of Archery). Agility, Healing, and Courtesie round out her other skills.
A Tangled Web
We went a little more Game of Thrones than I meant to with the Elyse/Envil drama, but it’s rich material. And, as so often happens in a story heavy game, one strong choice at the beginning crystalizes everything else. For example, we knew right away that Viscount Dulane was a jerk willing to murder his own nephew for a modest territorial gain. (Hmmmm… unless there’s more going on?) Connecting Gorgas to both Elyse and Gareth works nicely. They both dislike him, but I’ll teach them to hate him. Or maybe pity him. (Play to find out!)
For the first time in one of our home games, I produced a Relationship Map, following Paul Beakley’s advice very closely as written up here. He recommends that the GM refer to the map early and often, talking as you draw the relationships. “Oh, so you also know Gorgas from your days as a ward, Gareth? Great, I’ll just connect you to Gorgas and Castle Dulane here. Now, how did you come to feel about him over all those years…?”
It was great fun to doodle in the seats of power in the various parts of the r-map. The geography is often a bit hazy in the Prince Valiant comic, so I feel like we’re honoring the source material by using this level of abstraction. My favorite bit is Winterguard, the seat of Elyse’s family. Xander gave us the name and we went from there. Cold in England means the mountains, and so the Castle sits astride a pass that leads into the North. Great potential here! Xander added that Elsye’s father, Baron Dulane, is wasting away after visiting a cave where, according to local lore, a White Dragon lurks.
In any case, the r-map is a living document, and I look forward to expanding it in play!
Stay tuned for Episode One. It’s already in the can, and I just need the time to write it up. I really enjoyed it, and I was quite relieved to win Xander over. But that, Dear Reader, is a story for another time…
Prince Valiant image by Hal Foster.